Spent sunflowers rustle in unison with the bleached cornstalks outside the window. Their bony stems and withered leaves mimic the stark silhouettes of trees rapidly losing their vestments of red, yellow and brown. Autumn passes away in the skittering leaves that fly just out of reach, like so many summer days.
Oidche Shamhna, “the night of Samhain,” approaches. The fire that lights the night on October 31 crackles brilliantly with disorder signaling harvest’s end, the end of autumn and the end of the Celtic year. As the bonfire leaps skyward, it rends the boundaries between worlds and years, stirring the souls of the dead and those yet living. When the great bonfire finally sees ashes on November 1, the new Celtic year, the winter and the season of Death have arrived.
The festival of Samhain is the origin of our contemporary “Halloween.” Too potent to be banished by time and Christianity, remnants of the original celebration remain. These “remnants” echo of still-living traditions powerful enough to open a door to the Otherworld.
Tradition without essence is meaningless, at best, empty sentimentality. The black cats, grinning pumpkins and trick-or-treats of Halloween satisfy little except a sweet tooth and possibly the temporary atmospheric appreciation of a moonlit, windy night. However, coupled with the archaic remains of the Samhain festival, these simple conventions become compelling indeed.
Marking the end of the year, Samhain heralds the disintegration of the old order and the calends of the new. Let us look at some traditions that honour the arrival of the Otherworldly host such as divinations, feasting, masquerades and the use of harvest symbols.
The harvest that began at Lughnasadh (first harvest) is seconded at Mabon , the autumnal equinox, and finds its fruition in the third and final harvest at Samhain. Fruits and nuts are the last gifts of nature to be gathered. Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit-bearing trees holds the apple as her symbol. At the horizontal centre of the apple is a five-pointed star, sacred to the Goddess. Mythologies the world over are replete with sacred fruits and precious apples, often located in otherworldly groves or gardens such as Avalon, Tir na nOg or the Garden of Eden.
Divinations at Samhain reflect the need to discern the germ of new beginnings from the whirling debris of dissolution at year-end. Both apples and nuts find an enduring role of love and fertility in these traditions. Halloween is also known as “Nutcrack Night,” for the hazel and walnuts that are placed on a fire or stove to foretell the fidelity of lovers. Hazel nuts and water are particularly divinatory, harking back to the Well of Connla, where the nine hazel trees of wisdom drop their nuts into the murmuring waters.
The predominant colour of Samhain is black. Black is the winter, the moldering leaves, the rich underworld womb to which seeds of plants and ideas close their eyes for the winter. Black is the waning moon, the magnificent darkness of the crone of wisdom, the Cailleach (Old Woman), the bone-rattling Baba Yaga(fearsome witch of Russian folklore) and our Halloween “witch.” Long sacred to the moon goddess and the world of spirit, cats find their natural place alongside the Cailleach, as well as the owl, a bird of wisdom.
Carved pumpkins are a delightful Halloween tradition, brought to the United States by 18th century Irish immigrants. The pumpkin made a good substitute for carved turnip lanterns and introduced the Jack’o'lantern to the new world.
The Feile na Marbh (“fayluh nuh morv”) is the origin of our trick-or-treat tradition. As the veil between worlds thins, all manner of spirits walk abroad on Samhain, including those of loved ones passed on. An empty chair by the fire, porridge and tobacco were left along with a candle in the window to guide the hungry ghosts home for comfort and to seek their blessing in the coming year. Spirits who found their homes less than inviting were inclined to withhold their blessing and misfortune often befell those so uncivil.
The wearing of masque and costume on Samhain is to deceive wandering spirits, lest they recognize and call you to the Otherworld before your time. Wearing masques and dressing as an animal is also very old magic for assimilating the strength and spirit of a revered creature. The carrying of noisemakers fractures the ordinary drone of this world and opens a space for Otherworldly messages to break through.
A very old aspect of Samhain is sortilege, the act of deciding something by casting lots. While the burning ““Wicker Man” tales are probably not fact-based, it is likely that sacrifice by lot was performed throughout the ancient world. The sacrifice of a king or other designee imitated nature and dedicated life energy in a time of seasonal decline. The modern interpretation of this custom is the baking of cakes, Colcannon (mashed potatoes, cabbage with either ham or bacon) or Barmbrack (Irish spicy fruit bread) with tokens within to select a festive “Lord of Misrule” or otherwise divine the future by the type of token found inside.
By enlivening the human senses through divination, disguise, propitiation, sound and imagery, a temenos is created, a divine common ground, wherein the ordinary and the universal exist as one. In the death of days and outlived ways of being comes renewal and the living promise of rebirth in even the darkest seasons of mortal life.
This Halloween, light a candle, tell a story, embrace the beautiful chaos of Samhain – the rattling leaves are speaking to you. Blessed Be, Happy New Year.