Samhain The Original Halloween

Here is an updated version of a post I wrote around this time last year, explaining the origins of Halloween.

For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st.

Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb. 

The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to lower winter pastures where they would be safer from starving predators; the weakest and least likely to survive the winter would be slaughtered for their meat, and so began the task of meat preservation.

Firewood or turf would be collected and stacked up to keep the home hearths burning, homes shored up against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for the bounty of Summer they had been given, rejoicing at the completion of all their hard work and preparation, and a time to welcome in the new year.

The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.

As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the golden fiery orb of the sun slipped beyond the horizon and darkness took hold, huge communal bonfires were lit. Torches would be dipped into the sacred fire and carefully carried home to rekindle the hearth fires, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.

It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.

It would seem that the traditions of Samhain in Ireland were very resistant to Christian influence. In the C9th, the Catholic church felt the need to move their celebration of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st, followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, perhaps as a way of gaining control over this popular pagan festivity. Eventually, all three celebrations merged into Halloween as we know it today.

Although the early Irish did not have a God of the Dead as such, Donn of the Milesians became known as Lord of the Dead, and was associated with this role. It was said that after their passing, the dead walked the earth until they heard Donn’s call on his horn at Samhain.

They would then collect at his palace at Teach Duinne, from there moving on to their eternal home in the Otherworld beyond the ninth wave. The church, however, claimed these were the souls of the damned waiting to join the God of the Dead in Hell.

It is not surprising then, that this time of year came to be feared by the ordinary people. Rather than being the friendly souls of deceased ancestors, these Otherworldly visitors began to be seen as creatures of evil out to cause havoc and destruction. They had to be bribed with offerings of food and gifts, and kept at bay with superstition and ritual.

So it was that people began to disguise themselves by dressing in scary costumes in the hope of frightening off any creepy ghouls or evil monsters intent on mischief. Dressed up in these costumes, people went door to door collecting food, and so the tradition of Trick or Treat was born.

Lantern carving was another way of keeping away misfortune. Turnips were hollowed out and carved with fearsome faces, after which a lighted candle would be dropped inside. The lanterns would then be placed in the home’s windows.

An Irish folk tale claims that after tricking the devil into not taking his soul, a man called Stingy Jack was refused entry into both Heaven and Hell upon his death. The devil tossed him a burning ember to use for a light, which Jack placed in a hollowed out turnip, and so he was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. This is how the Jack O’Lantern came into being. (Ed Mooney has a written a really cool version of this legend on his blog.)

There are many tales in Irish mythology which are recorded as taking place at Samhain; the Tuatha de Denann fought the Second Battle of Moytura at Samhain, whereas they fought the First Battle at Beltaine; Lugh Lamhfhada joined the court of Nuada at Samhain; Fionn mac Cumhall fought fiery Aillen of the Sidhe at Tara at Samhain;  the Cattle Raid of Cooley was said to have taken place at Samhain; the idol Crom Cruach was said to have been worshipped at Samhain, and there is a very interesting story about how King Tigernmas and three quarters of his men were killed during their devotions to Crom Cruach at Samhain. (If you wish, you can read my post about it here, Magh Slecht | Site of Human sacrifice or Holy Massacre?)

Incidentally, Halloween must be the only time of year when we actually encourage our children to take sweets from strangers, something far more potentially sinister in my view, than the visit of the spirits of our ancient forebears.

Enjoy the weekend’s freaky festivities everyone… Happy Halloween and a Super, Safe Samhain to you all!

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67 Comments on “Samhain The Original Halloween

  1. Pingback: Hallo-was bitte? von Anne Zandt – Nornennetz

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  3. Hi Ali… (I am commenting exactly one year after your reply to the upper comment above mine! o_O
    It is so interesting to learn about Samhain (even its pronunciation which I would have never got right of you hadn´t told me, by the way!) — two things that caught my attention as I was reading your post:
    -The cyclical element which has a festive corolary here.
    -The God of Deads, i.e Donn of the Milesians and the fact that according to the traditional belief (I am quoting you): “at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin… and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again”… And also as you say in your post about Donn: that “it was believed that after their deaths, the dead continued to walk in the land of the living as ‘shades’ until they heard the sound of Donn’s horn at Samhain”.
    It is interesting to know that this juxtaposition of domains might have a convergence in a particular moment of the year: Samhain.
    I wanted to ask you if this celebration could have entailed a sort of “tribute to the dead”, as some sources state that many Christian Halloween traditions originated from the Gaelic festival Samhain itself… And if you agree with that statement (that Halloweeen is a sort of Christianized version of Shamhain).
    Sending all my best wishes!. Aquileana 😀


  4. Pingback: Halloween or Samhain? | aliisaacstoryteller

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  7. As I was reading about people lighting torches from the bonfire and taking them home to re-light their own hearths, I was thinking how it must have also represented the connectivity of the community and created strong bonds – an “all our homes share the same fire” kind of thing.

    Great post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Promoting that community makes a lot of sense at a time of year when they were moving into dearth and darkness.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes. I agree. The darkness definitely makes you lean towards the home and each other more, even now. Its just after 4pm and its so dark already like twilight. I have to go out this evening, but I’d rather be at home. Thats what happens to me in the winter time lol! 😁 I should hibernate!


  8. There’s very little to no evidence of this:

    “It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.”

    The idea of the veil being thin is a rather modern one and can be trace to James Frazier (he of “The Golden Bough”). It’s likely he made this association because of All Saints/All Souls Day(s).

    It is true that that ancient pagans who celebrated Samhain feared supernatural forces on that night, but there’s very little to suggest that fear was influenced by a thin veil between the worlds.


    • Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by and sharing your views. I agree, there is very little evidence and proof. It’s all rather hazy, and what we do have is tainted by the beliefs and misunderstandings of those who observed and recorded it, rather than from the individuals themselves. I am a storyteller, and I am just passing on the stories as they are; I’m not trying to prove or disprove whether the events and characters portrayed in Irish mythology actually existed or not; that’s up to the individual to decide. Not everything in this world is black and white, and it would be a very sad place indeed if there was no mystery, and all we trusted was that we can see and touch. There is little proof or evidence behind most religions, just stories, and yet many people have great faith, and believe their lives enriched by it. Who are we to criticise that because there is little proof or evidence, in our eyes, to support their faith. I love and enjoy the myths and old stories just as they are, and am passing them on here to others who might not have heard of them, in the hope that other people will love them just as much s I do, so that they are not forgotten. They don’t have to be factual to be enjoyed. The story of the veil between the physical world and the magical realm exists in many of the old stories, and is believed to be thin in places, or at certain times or events. I don’t see anything modern in that. Thanks for commenting, and all the best to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A great insight into Halloween, Ali. Have you any idea where the games we only play on Halloween, such as bobbing apples, came from? I was wondering if these games came from the same celebrations our agent ancestors participated in?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Hugh! I’m not sure about the games, but I’m sure they go way back! I’m sure they did. I believe all sorts of shenanigans went on around the fires, such as juggling with burning sticks, leaping the flames, sporting contests, storytelling and singing and such like.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s taken me a while to get here but it was worth the wait. This end of summer ending of things is so interesting. Do you remember the old song sung to ladybirds? ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home, your house is on fire and your children gone?’ Sounds cruel but at this time of year the stubble, the old dried hops etc would have been burnt and they were the homes for ladybirds being warm and musty. And since the Lady bird is named after Mary – our lady – for her red cloak and seven spots representing the seven trials it makes sense they wanted to save her. Heard that today on a programme about beetles, as you do.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Excellent Ali. Out of interest does the Irish school curriculum touch on such pre-Christian customs, or are they just ignored in favour of the Bible? I suspect the latter, which would be sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Roy! Not really. In fairness, senior school teaches all religions, including a bit about ancient pagan beliefs. But it has always amazed me that our largest and most popular monument, Newgrange, is an hour down the road, and Tara is even closer, Loughcrew practically on our doorstep, and yet both local schools have not taken the pupils to any of them on field trips. I guess it doesnt feature on the sylabus. And doesnt matter to the majority of the community. Shame. Imagine if an interest was fostered in these kids from a school age…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Oooh learnt so much, like how to pronounce sau-win! Definitely said it as it looked before 😳

    Interesting about jack o lantern had no idea there was a story behind that. Forced to roam the land forever? What like the nephilim… Lol love pattern spotting!

    And ur so funny about kids taking sweets ur exactly right. Now I’ll never let him trick or treat!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never let mine do it. Mind you, they hated me for it lol! I used to have parties for them at the time everyone else was out trick or treating, or take them to movies or soft play centres. I just never liked it.


  13. Great post, Ali. When I was young we didn’t refer to it as Trick or Treat. We went out guising – and no way did you get your bag filled with goodies until you’d performed your party piece, either a song or recite a poem. Our ‘treats’ for a good performance were nuts, fruit, toffee apples, and, to my mind best of all, was homemade tablet (fudge). I remember my dad carving a turnip lantern for me. When I tried to do it myself as an adult I found out what hard work it is scooping out the inside of a turnip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mary! I’d be useless with a turnip… carving a pumpkin is hard enough for me! We always lived abroad when I was a kid, so never celebrated Halloween. When I was a teen in UK, nobody bothered with Halloween, because a few days later it was Bonfire Night, a celebration of Guy Fawkes, and that was a MUCH bigger celebration, and still is. I loved it, and missed it when I moved to Ireland. I soon learned Ireland has its own many compensations! Happy Halloween to you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, there is. Its just that people recognise it in different ways and by different names. Unfortunately, this has always led to ignorance and prejudice, as each one thought their own the only true way. Why cant people understand that? Will we ever achieve acceptance I wonder?

      Liked by 1 person

  14. So intersting.
    I find it fascinating that in spite of the Church every effort to terminate all ‘pagan’ beliefs, most of them have survied to this days 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true! In the area that I live in, I found out that people still worshipped one of the old Goddesses into the 19th, until the local Catholic priest ‘disposed’ of the stone head which represented her cult. I’m sure that didnt stop things, however! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are so many rites that still survive here in Italy too. Some of them are disguised so well into Christian looks that even people performing them probably don’t realise they are still ‘pagan’ practices.
        It’s so fascinating 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I find it so interesting how the early Christians attempted to usurp the “pagan” holidays and rituals. What a conglomeration we ended up with. I love the celebrations of the equinoxes and solstices with fire. It seems fitting 🙂 Thanks for the history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are very welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yes it is interesting how that happened. The Christians were very good at converting people by adopting their local deities and customs. It seemed to work really well. Where it didnt, they had to resort to fear, slander, even violence, and St Patrick was always present in these cases… take Crom Cruach for example. But they were just echoing exactly what the Romans did. They were also very good at assimilating people and their beliefs into their society… or should that read ‘army’? 😏

      Liked by 1 person

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