Last year, my daughter decided to dress as the legendary Celtic leader Boudicca for Halloween, and she asked if that meant she was celebrating Samhain rather than Halloween. I wondered if Samhain really dated back to Boudicca’s last stand against the Romans in CE 43. Much of what we “know” about this pagan holiday comes from Christian writers in medieval Ireland. I assumed they were writing about pagan customs they witnessed. I thought it was possible that Samhain traditions might have started a century or two after the Romans gave up on their attempt to control the Celts.
But it turns out the medieval writers were just guessing about festivities from the very ancient past, a history that goes back far before the Roman attempts to conquer the Celts. In fact, the festival of Samhain very likely predates Celtic society altogether.
Being a history nut, I can’t just celebrate Halloween without looking more closely at the origins. The name of our modern holiday is Christian, celebrating the victory of life over death and the saints (hallowed individuals) who came before us. But that festival was timed to coincide with a holiday that pagans were already celebrating, so let’s explore Samhain history a bit.
No One Can Be Quite Sure How the Celts Celebrated Samhain
We have a lot of written material discussing ancient Celtic celebrations, including Samhain. Unfortunately, it was all written centuries after these celebrations occurred. Medieval historians took guesses at the significance and practices of Samhain based on what they knew about ancient Greek and Roman society as well as pagan traditions of the Scandinavians, who they were unfortunately very familiar with due to the frequent Viking raids on their monasteries.
Writers imagined Samhain as a time of gathering and feasting as well as a time of terror of the darkness and interaction with the dead or demons. This would be similar to the Roman celebrations of Lemuria or the Scandinavian festival of Álfblót. But there are no eyewitness accounts of actual Celtic celebrations of Samhain.
Ireland Before the Celts
Scholars debate whether a Celtic race conquered the native population of Ireland or simply spread their language through trading routes. Either way, Celts don’t appear on the island until about 500 BCE and there is evidence that Samhain was celebrated far earlier than that.
During the later part of the Stone Age, people in Ireland created a series of stone tombs, temples and monuments which are still being excavated today. The most famous of these is Newgrange, a one-acre mound concealing a passage tomb with a chamber aligned to light up with the sunrise on the winter solstice. Built in about 3,200 BCE, it is older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge. While this temple complex is aligned with the winter solstice, archaeological evidence shows that other Stone Age tombs and temples in Ireland were aligned to light up on Samhain, which is a cross-quarter day. Cross-quarter days mark the halfway point between solstice and equinox.
At the time of Samhain, cultures who live their life according to the cycle of the sun realized they were heading into the darkest days of the year. While they might hope for a return of longer days and warmth, many may have believed that they needed to appease some form of deity in order to make that happen. But like the medieval Irish historians, we can only guess how they marked the day and what they may have felt the need to do to keep the evil spirits at bay. In any case, the Celts may have appropriated and changed the ancient culture’s celebration of the day in the same way Christians would later impose All Saint’s Day onto Samhain to create All Hallow’s Eve.
Whether you view Samhain and Halloween as evil pagan holidays to be shunned or a time of the year of celebrate the Christian confidence of life over death and/or to embrace silly fantasies, marking this time of year is an ancient concept that is part of our shared cultures . It remains relevant today because we all still need to adapt to the decreasing amount of sunlight in our days. Choosing to ignore it won’t make it go away.
Happy Halloween/Cross-Quarter Day/Samhain!
The image in the photo makes me think of a society worshiping the sun. However, the “rays” are actually snakes because this is an image of a gorgon, and comes from the Roman Temple in Bath, England. While it’s not Irish and has nothing to do with Samhain or the sun, it does, however, represent a combination of Celtic and Roman culture and in that way, is reminiscent of our thoughts about the holiday we celebrate tonight. (Photo by Christie Kelley during our recent research trip to England)
Some of the information in this article comes from:
If you like tales about unexplained events that may or may not be the effects of the supernatural realm, you might enjoy my story Bride of Belznickel.