Samhain: Remembering Our Ancestors

Halloween is at hand; this most-awaited celebration (including by myself) where scary beings are the order of the day. Funny and pleasant moments spent with family and friends, enjoying the very natural atmosphere this season provides us, along with the creepy and spine-chilling tales we tell each other by the fire and with the lights turn off. Well, I must say, with the exception of Yuletide, this is certainly my favorite time of the year. But this isn’t, definitely, Samhain (as it has been named): the far older traditional festivity of our ancestors.

I know I have written about Samhain a few times before. Well, in fact, every year I write about it, and I think I have given the reason why before – I do love this time of the year.But I think it is always important to remember the origins of festivities and the importance those had to our ancestors; it is a way to honor them by remembering the spirit of this season, and in fact, this season literally belongs to them. Samhain, and every other similar European-Pagan celebration, marks the ending of the harvest season and the beginning of winter; not winter as we know it today, but the beginning of darkness, as in the days are shorter and the nights are longer.

This celebration has pre-christian roots. Its celebrations began at sunset on the thirty first (31st) of October, to the sunset of the first (1st) of November. It is one of the four most important seasonal celebrations of the year. Literally, the essence of this celebration marks the beginning of winter.

This time of the year was when the cattle could no longer graze on the green pastures,summer was waning (note that Autumn wasn’t known to be a season and there was only Spring, Summer and Winter) and farm animals were slaughtered and the surpluses of the harvest were stored for the coming of winter. Storing food for winter was the key for survival. Nowadays we do not give much importance to that and that is why part of the spirit of this season was forgotten. Samhain was also a liminal time when the spirits or fairies could easily cross into our world. Take note that when I speak of fairies I’m not referring to the little shiny creatures with wings, but to the term for all kinds of spirits, just like in the Scandinavian tradition, that Elves aren’t only the good-looking handsome beings with pointy ears, it also includes all kinds of spiritual beings (mostly benevolent). Most of this spiritual beings may be the remnants of older pagan deities and spirits of nature, as such, people used to leave offerings of food and drink out in the fields for them. This, of course, was because people wanted to maintain the bonds of friendship with the spirits and the gods, and avoid all kinds of mischiefs from them. Also, it was a way to ensure that the spirits of nature were appeased and winter wouldn’t be so harsh on mortals.

These practices during Samhain are very evident in our modern celebration of Halloween. However, most of these supernatural elements in this celebration now have a wicked or/and an evil aspect, due to their condemnation by the medieval church. To put on a costume was another part of the festival and involved people going door-to-door in disguise to recite verses in exchange for food – Halloween trick or treating recalls this tradition.

However, nowadays there isn’t an important aspect of Samhain reflected on our Halloween. This aspect is obviously the honouring of out ancestors. As mentioned before, if the spirits of nature and deities can come through the tin veil, so the dead can as well, for they also belong to the otherworldly activities. People used to held feasts and invited their deceased ancestors to attend those same feasts. This was in fact the true reason this celebration was held, with roots in our prehistoric past. As you might know, Agriculture is as “recent” as 5000 years ago (in some “countries” – the farthest away from the middle-east the earlier to our era it gets). There are archaeological evidences that this celebration was held before the invention of agriculture. In ancient times, Samhain wasn’t the celebration of a season and the ending of the harvest, because there wasn’t any harvest to be celebrated.

The Coligny calendar (a Celtic time keeping plaque found in France and probably dating to the late 2nd century AD) with celtic words but written in Roman alphabet, is assumed to reflect a far older indigenous tradition of this celebration. The year (as with the Gaelic Celtic year) was divided into two with the division from summer to winter occurring at Samon[ios], which may have given rise to the word ‘Samhain’. It seems there was a three-night festival at this time (Iron Age people recorded times by nights not days), called the trinux[tion] samo[nii] – the three nights of Samhain. What people did at this time of year is hard to discern from the archaeological evidences.

Now, I think it might be relevant what I will transcribe from Mike Williams:

” (…) from the Bronze Age, and possibly long before, people observed the movement of the stars and an embossed disc from Nebra in Germany seems to reflect the celestial skies at the start of winter. The disc shows the moon (…) and a star constellation that looks very similar to the Pleiades. Given its prominence, the Pleiades certainly had considerable meaning to the people using the disc.(…)

” In Western astrology, the Pleiades is associated with mourning the dead (…) as with all stars, the Pleiades has shifted its position over the years. During the Iron Age, the Pleiades rose to its apex in the winter skies during trinuxtion samonii, or the three nights of Samhain. (…) Iron Age people mourned and remembered their dead at this time, then it may have given rise to the association between the Pleiades and mourning the dead. The Nebra disc shows the importance of the constellation to prehistoric people and it may have even been the marker people sought to begin their festivities. There is even folk tradition that Druids celebrated Samhain when the Pleiades were at their apex at midnight. Mourning and remembering the dead may have been the focus of the Samahin festival during the Iron Age. ”

Unfortunately, Halloween forgot all about honouring our ancestors, and we seem to enjoy more what it has become. However, during the IX (9th) century, the roman catholic church changed their “All Saints’ Day” to the 1st of November. It became the day for remembering the dead, the ancestors. It might seem strange to you to notice that the church, who so fervently fought against pagans in order to make people forget and forsake their ancestral traditions and impose and implement their believes, kept this element of Samhain. In truth, it was a very cunning “marketing” weapon to “collect” more worshipers of the new faith into their flock. The church knew it was a very important celebration and people sticked to it, and it would be very hard to lead them astray from their important ancestral celebrations so rooted in their hearts, so the church just included it in the new faith and both parts were “happy” with it. Recognizing and adopting Samhain as a christian celebration was a way to appease the mood of the pagans and turn them into allies.

Never forget your roots, your origins. You will certainly have time to remember your ancestors this Halloween. Enjoy the feasts, the celebrations, trick or treat and all that stuff, but don’t forget your ancestors and honour them as best you may.

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