Ever wonder why we dress up as scary things, bob for apples or light bonfires and call it Halloween? These customs amongst others are all borne from an ancient Irish pagan festival called Samhain. Samhain (celebrated on the night of October 31st – November 1st) is one of the four traditional Celtic festivals but some believe it was actually celebrated in Ireland long before the Celts arrived. The festival marks the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of preparations for winter. Cattle were brought to lower pastures and the weaker animals unlikely to survive the cold were slaughtered and stored along with corn, fruit and berries.
Samhain was an important time in Irish mythology and literature. Many of the adventures of Fionn MacCumhaill and his band of warriors took place at Samhain, as did the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley which saw Cuchulain single-handedly defend Ulster from the armies of Connaught. It was when important political gatherings were held, where chieftains met, debts were settled and arrangements made. Tradition holds that all the fires in the country were extinguished for a short time when oiche shamhna (Samhain night) set in, making this the darkest night of the year. The fires were then re-lit, marking the start of a new year.
But there was another aspect to the festival, something more sinister. It was the time of the year when the veil between our world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing malicious entities to pass through and cause havoc. The spirits (and faeries in later Christian times) of this world also became visible and were more inclined to interact with their human neighbours. To combat this people took to disguising themselves in order to ward off or confuse evil beings.
It seems to have had some religious connotations and was a time of ritual. A feast in honour of the dead took place, often lasting up to a week. Massive bonfires were lit and people would bring the bones of slaughtered animals to the flames. People made sacrifices of food and animals in a purification ritual and to ensure good favour with the gods. There may also have been human sacrifices. There is a legend of a High King, Tigernmas, who worshipped the god Crom Cruach. He had a nasty habit of sacrificing infants to this god. It is said he and 4000 followers mysteriously died (mass suicide?) while worshipping on the plain of Magh Sléght on the night of Samhain.
Irish folk knowledge often focussed on foretelling the future and people would practice divination in various methods. One such way is quite familiar to us today: apple bobbing. Bob for an apple in a container of water. When it is caught in the teeth, peel the skin carefully into one long strip. Chant a chant, toss the strip over your shoulder and it will form the first initial of your future spouse or true love on the ground.
Although these and many other customs have made their way into modern secular celebration of Halloween (which is something of a merger of the traditions of Samhain and the Christian All Hallows Eve), it is still celebrated as a religious feast by Celtic Reconstructionists, Neopagans and Wiccans, albeit without the human sacrifice. Next time you find yourself dressed up as Batman or Little Bo Peep at a Halloween party, spare a thought for the poor folk who were anxious about evil spirits and surviving the winter.