Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals are held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany), both Celtic branches are roughly as old as each other.
Samhain is believed to have Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the time of Samhain. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Bealtaine, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them. Like Bealtaine, Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the “Celtic New Year”, and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.
In the 9th century AD, the Western Christian church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Gaelic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century. Since the later 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Samhain at the other end of the year (about 1 May).
The Gaulish month name SAMONIOS “pertaining to Summer” on the Coligny calendar is likely related to the word Samhain. A festival of some kind may have been held during the ‘three nights of Samonios. The Gaulish calendar seems to have split the year into two-halves: the first beginning with the month SAMON[IOS] and the second beginning with the month GIAMONIOS, which is related to the word for winter, PIE *g’hei-men- (Latin hiems, Latvian ziema, Lithuanian žiema, Slavic zima, Greek kheimon, Hittite gimmanza), cf. Old Irish gem-adaig (‘winter’s night’). Samonios may represent the beginning of the summer season and Giamonios (the seventh month) the beginning of the winter season. The lunations marking the middle of each half-year may also have been marked by festivals.
Samain or Samuin was a festival marking the beginning of winter in Gaelic Ireland. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Bealtaine (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Samhain and Bealtaine, at the witherward side of the year from each other, are thought to have been the most important. Sir James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion that 1 May and 1 November are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen. It is at the beginning of summer that cattle are driven to the upland summer pastures and the beginning of winter that they are led back. Thus, Frazer suggests that halving the year at 1 May and 1 November dates from a time when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent on their herds. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the times of Samhain and Imbolc. These include the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) at the Hill of Tara, and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh. In medieval Ireland the festival marked the end of the season for trade and warfare and was a time for tribal gatherings. These gatherings are a popular setting for early Irish tales.
Irish mythology was originally a spoken tradition, but much of it was eventually written down in the Middle Ages by Christian monks. These tales may shed some light on what Samhain meant and how it was marked in ancient Ireland. Irish mythology tells us that Samhain was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year, and the 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days”. The tales say it was marked by great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank alcohol, and held contests.
According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Bealtaine) was a time when the ‘doorways’ to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world; but while Bealtaine was a summer festival for the living, Samhain “was essentially a festival for the dead”. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain”. It tells us that the High King of Ireland hosted a great gathering at Tara each Samhain. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. In a similar tale, one Samhain the Otherworld being Cúldubh comes out of the burial mound on Slievenamon and snatches a roast pig. Fionn kills Cúldubh with a spear throw as he re-enters the mound. Fionn’s thumb is caught between the door and the post as it shuts, and he puts it in his mouth to ease the pain. As his thumb had been inside the Otherworld, Fionn is bestowed with great wisdom. This may refer to gaining knowledge from the ancestors. Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Elders’) tells how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock. When Cas Corach plays his harp, they take on human form, and the fianna warrior Caílte then slays them with a spear.
Some tales may suggest that offerings or sacrifices were made at Samhain. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (or ‘Book of Invasions’), each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two-thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians. The Fomorians seem to represent the harmful or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought. This tribute paid by Nemed’s people may represent a “sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter, when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant”. According to the later Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters—which were written by Christian monks—Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with a god or idol called Crom Cruach. The texts claim that a first-born child would be sacrificed at the stone idol of Crom Cruach in Magh Slécht. They say that King Tigernmas, and three-fourths of his people, died while worshiping Crom Cruach there one Samhain.
The legendary kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae each die on Samhain, which involves wounding, burning and drowning, and of which they are forewarned. In the tale Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (‘The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel’), king Conaire Mór also meets his death on Samhain after breaking his geasa (prohibitions or taboos). He is warned of his impending doom by three undead horsemen who are messengers of Donn, god of the dead. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn tells how each Samhain the men of Ireland went to woo a beautiful maiden who lives in the fairy mound on Brí Eile (Croghan Hill). It says that each year someone would be killed “to mark the occasion”, by persons unknown. These tales recall human sacrifice, and several ancient Irish bog bodies (such as Old Croghan Man) appear to have been kings who were ritually killed, some of them around the time of Samhain.
In the Echtra Neraí (‘The Adventure of Nera’), King Ailill of Connacht sets his retinue a test of bravery on Samhain night. He offers a prize to whoever can make it to a gallows and tie a band around a hanged man’s ankle. Each challenger is thwarted by demons and runs back to the king’s hall in fear. However, Nera succeeds, and the dead man then asks for a drink. Nera carries him on his back and they stop at three houses. They enter the third, where the dead man drinks and spits it on the householders, killing them. Returning, Nera sees a fairy host burning the king’s hall and slaughtering those inside. He follows the host through a portal into the Otherworld. Nera learns that what he saw was only a vision of what will happen the next Samhain unless something is done. He is able to return to the hall and warns the king.
The tale Aided Chrimthainn maic Fidaig (‘The Killing of Crimthann mac Fidaig’) tells how Mongfind kills her brother, king Crimthann of Munster, so that one of her sons might become king. Mongfind offers Crimthann a poisoned drink at a feast, but he asks her to drink from it first. Having no other choice but to drink the poison, she dies on Samhain eve. The Middle Irish writer notes that Samhain is also called Féile Moingfhinne (the Festival of Mongfind or Mongfhionn), and that “women and the rabble make petitions to her” at Samhain.
Many other events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. The invasion of Ulster that makes up the main action of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’) begins on Samhain. As cattle-raiding typically was a summer activity, the invasion during this off-season surprised the Ulstermen. The Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh also begins on Samhain. The Morrígan and The Dagda meet and have sex before the battle against the Fomorians; in this way the Morrígan acts as a sovereignty figure and gives the victory to the Dagda’s people, the Tuatha Dé Danann. In Aislinge Óengusa (‘The Dream of Óengus’) it is when he and his bride-to-be switch from bird to human form, and in Tochmarc Étaíne (‘The Wooing of Étaín’) it is the day on which Óengus claims the kingship of Brú na Bóinne.
Several sites in Ireland are especially linked to Samhain. Each Samhain a host of otherworldly beings was said to emerge from Oweynagat (“cave of the cats”), at Rathcroghan in County Roscommon. The Hill of Ward (or Tlachtga) in County Meath is thought to have been the site of a great Samhain gathering and bonfire; the Iron Age ringfort is said to have been where the goddess or druid Tlachtga gave birth to triplets and later died. The only historic reference to pagan religious rites is in the work of Geoffrey Keating. No religious rites are mentioned because, centuries after Christianization, the writers had no record of them. Samhain may not have been particularly associated with the supernatural and gatherings of royalty and warriors on Samhain may simply have been an ideal setting for such tales, in the same way that many Arthurian tales are set at courtly gatherings at Christmas or Pentecost.