The Sabbat called Samhain is, no doubt, the most important, thought least understood, of the ancient Celtic festivals. It marks the end of the third and final harvest, it is a day to commune with and honor and remember the dead, and it is a celebration of the eternal cycle of rebirth. The most popular thought around the source of the Samhain Sabbat’s name is from the Irish Gaelic word “samhraidhreadh”, which literally means “the summer’s end”. The ancient Celts called the Land of the Dead “the Summerland” and, to them, this holiday divided the year into two seasons, Winter and Summer. Samhain marked the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter, with the day after Samhain being the official day of the Celtic New Year-so it is a time for both beginnings and endings. It is a time of coming to terms with death-something many of us find very difficult. This may not be a physical death of the body, but of other things, which we have lost during the year-relationships, a job, material wealth. Samhain takes places during the astrological sign of Scorpio, which is ruled by the element of water. Water transforms and changes-it washes away pain and sadness and Samhain is a good time to let go of past hurts and wrongs. Often, when people die, we have unfinished business with them, things we wish we had said and others we wish we would rather not have said. One way of communing with our departed loved ones is to write a letter which can then be sent to the Otherworld by being burned in the Samhain fire. This is also a good time to tend the graves of our relatives if we can. Samhain is a time of endings, a time of transition and change and a time to look to the future.
Originally, Samhain was the “day” of a “year and a day” of the old Celtic calendar. Because of this, Samhain is a day that is not really a day, a time that is not a time, because it is really outside the year. This is why divination is so common on this night. It is also a good night for scrying, and for contacting spirit guides and our ancestors. It is important to remember that most Pagans consider the disturbance of the dead immoral and, at Samhain, only voluntary communications are expected and hoped for. The presence of the departed is never commanded. The spirits of the dead are, however, invited to attend the Sabbat ritual and be present in the circle. This is often done by a Spiral Dance or procession. In entering the labyrinth of death on Samhain night, women also enter Cerridwen’s cauldron of rebirth.
Samhain is known to most people as Halloween-a contraction of the words “Hallowed Evening”. It retains much of the original form and meaning it had long ago in Celtic lands, despite the efforts of the Church to turn it into an observance of feasting and prayer for their vast pantheon of saints. The Church began by calling it Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael, but the old Samhain holiday proved too potent a drawing card for one lone saint to combat! So, it was renamed the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve, which precedes All Saints’ Day. But, even after all this effort, so much Samhain lore and practice remained within the popular culture that the Church finally diabolized Paganism, its deities and Samhain into a night boiling with evil spirits. When they did this, they began a successful campaign of fear among Christians concerning Samhain. Unfortunately, the idea of Samhain being a night of unleashed evil took hold in the collective mind, and now all manner of mayhem and violence occurs around Samhain, though these terrors have absolutely nothing to do with the original meaning of the Pagan holiday. The Pagan Samhain is not, and never was, associated with evil or negativity. It has always been a time to reaffirm our belief in the oneness of all spirits and in our firm resolution that physical death is not the final act of existence. Though death is very much a part of Samhain’s symbolism, this Sabbat also celebrates the triumph of life over death.
The idea that evil spirits walk the earth at Samhain is a misinterpretation of the Pagan belief that the veil of consciousness which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead is at its thinnest on this night. Samhain night exists “between the worlds” and this is also the reason that Samhain is one of the best nights to see fairies-Samhain night is when the Sidhe or fairy mounds open. To the ancient Celts, the Fairy world was a real place, a magickal Otherworld or time outside of time, made up of a race of gifted people. All Celts have Fairy blood, even today. Everything we take part in on Samhain appeals to a sense of mystery and magick. Albert Einstein once wrote: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of all true art and science.” Witches have always known this to be true, for it is only when we see the world as a mysterious, awe-inspiring and magickal place that we will be curious about what makes it tick. At Samhain, enchantment lights the fire of science with a beautiful glow of wonder and surprise for on this night there is truly magick in the air.
Samhain is a farewell celebration-it is a time to look back over the year and review all that has happened. At this time you should remember and enjoy the memories of the good times that made you smile and laugh, as well as remember and store the lessons learned from those times that brought forth tears of sadness or disappointment. It is a time to go within and a time to come to know your self. Samhain is a time to celebrate the growth you have realized over this last cycle and wave goodbye to all that was in preparation for all that will be. Often at Samhain, groups perform the Spiral Dance, symbolizing the movement from death to rebirth.
Samhain marks the time of the Goddess in the third of her triple aspect-the beloved and wise old Crone. Unfortunately, the Crone Goddess has been an object of fear and revulsion in modern society, and this was definitely NOT the way our Pagan ancestors viewed her. The Crone was always revered as a woman of power whose vast stores of wisdom came with her age and the life-long practice of her many skills. She had compassion without the illusion or sentiment of youth. All knowledge of the Maiden and Mother lived within her. She is darkness and winter and is associated with wisdom, divination, prophecy, endings, old age, rest and secrets. Her color is black, and her symbols are crow’s feathers, bones, spirals, broomsticks and dark colored stones. The crone is both the destroyer and the healer, the grandmother and the eternal womb of rebirth. Her cauldron is a deep part of the Samhain tradition, representing the great cosmic womb in which all things are conceived, grow and are born.
The cauldron became a popular tool among witches because, unlike many Pagan ritual tools, it was an everyday object, needed for household chores such as cooking, washing and cleaning and could not be held up in the courts as evidence of witchcraft.
Among the goblins, ballerinas and clowns of children’s Halloween costumes, the Crone is represented by the inevitable Halloween Hag. Her much maligned figure (witches DO NOT have green faces!) is linked to the earliest aspects of religion and almost every part of her costume has symbolic meaning.
The word “hag”, from the Greek “hagia”, originally meant “holy one”, as in “hagios”, sacred. Most likely, this was derived from the ancient Egyptian root word “heg”, intelligence. Hekat, meaning “vessel of female wisdom”, is the name of one of the oldest Egyptian Goddesses, and was derived from “heg”, as was the name of Hecate, the oldest Greek version of the tri-form Goddess.
Now to her costume, beginning with her hat. The traditional Witch’s hat is a tall, pointed cone with a flaring brim. This type of hat was in vogue during medieval times. It is usually stated that only after this time were Witches depicted wearing this type of hat, in order to portray them as being outdated and out of fashion. It has also been said that, in the Middle Ages, there was a monk named Dunce who discovered that a tall, cone-shaped hat like the one worn by wizards, increased mental activity-so the dunce cap was invented not o humiliate children, but to help them. Now, Witches were wise-it is possible they could have used this design to strengthen their energies and added the flared brim as a way of sending out the energy to do their will in any direction. The traditional Witch’s hat, stereotypical as it may be, also symbolizes the cone of power raised within a magick circle.
Beneath the brim of the hat, there usually protrudes a long and warted nose. It is believed that the earlobes and the tip of the nose continue to grow throughout life, so a long nose symbolizes great age and the wisdom that comes with it, just as the elongated ears of the Buddha do. Remember that wisdom and age are attribute of the Crone, the aspect of the Goddess honored at this time of year. As for the warts, they are a reminder that the wise old women known as Witches were also healers and one of the things they were adept at healing were warts. If the idea of healing warts seems trivial, it is important to remember that some warts are cancerous.
The black clothing of the Halloween Witch does not represent the “powers of darkness” as followers of Christian religion would have people believe, but the moon in its waning phase. This aspect of the moon represents the Crone guise of the Triple Goddess. Also, our ancestors would dress in black when they went to their coven meetings, so as not to be seen in the shadows of night.
Another symbolic object is the besom or broomstick. Once made of the herb “broom”, and now made of varying woods, the most traditional besom is a brush of birch bound by willow to a shaft of ash. Like the cauldron, the besom was an everyday household object and could not be held up as a sign of witchcraft in the courts. This fact elevated their prominence as magickal tools, often taking the place of wands and staves. Because of this association, it is not surprising that they quickly became objects of protection. Besoms were placed near the hearth and door to protect the opening to the home. A besom is often used at the beginning of a circle to sweep away any negativity that has been brought and keep any from entering into the sacred space. The besom style brooms, structured differently in shape from the flat ones sold today, are round on the end and have a smaller sweeping surface.
At Samhain, we are bombarded with images of the demonized Crone riding her broom across the moon to the spirit realms. The idea that Witches could fly on broomsticks is likely a misunderstanding of astral projection.
Astral projection is the art of sending out one’s consciousness at will to a location away from the physical body. Not everyone is as adept at this as they would like to be and it takes a lot of effort, more than most people are willing to give. Certain herbal potions can aid the process. Flying ointment was once used-a mixture of dangerous herbs,
toad secretion and soot. Today, flying ointments are still made to facilitate this state, but without the baneful ingredients. The ointments are rubbed on the body, especially around the arms. A popular ointment is made from mugwort, lavender and sage in abase of unscented lotion.
During the persecution, the presence of a toad in a person’s home was considered evidence that the person served Satan, because toads were thought to be witches’ familiars. In fact, people kept these animals as pets, because, when you live in a house with floors covered with straw, they are excellent for keeping bugs and fleas away. Also, it is believed that a toad’s secretion was one of the ingredients in Flying Ointment, used to aid astral travel.
The other two animals, owls and bats, are also nocturnal. This, therefore, associated them with the Moon and with magick and witchcraft. Owls are associated with the Greek Goddess, Athena, the Goddess of War, but also the Goddess of Wisdom. Owls are considered symbols of wisdom and messengers from the spirit world. For this reason, an owl’s wing feather makes a perfect quill pen, especially for keeping a Book of Shadows. Owls are also sacred to Hecate and screech their loudest in November and then are silent until February. They are messengers of Hecate and she has given them the gift of prophecy.
Animals that are part of modern day Halloween decorations are indeed special to Witches-these are cats, toads, bats and owls. Because of their nocturnal habits, cats became associated with witchcraft and, along with frogs and toads became known as witches’ familiars. Witches were believed to be able to assume the form of a cat and it was believed that they were able to do so only nine times in their lifetime. The cat, with its uncanny ability to sense the presence of the deceased, became associated with Samhain and the season of Spirit. This is especially true of black cats, whose color is the symbol of the Crone. Because of their association with witchcraft during the persecutions, these lovable and loyal animals were often tortured and burned or drowned along with their human companions. So we hang up cut out cardboard cats at Samhain and let their staring eyes remind us to open up our own intuitive eyes to the spirits of those that gather around us on this night and let them be a symbol too of
“never again the burning times”.
The humble Autumn gourd known as the pumpkin has become the most prevalent symbol of Samhain, mostly due to the practice of carving them into jack-o-lanterns. The jack-o-lantern is at least 2000 years old. The first were made in Ireland and were simple faces carved into turnips which could easily be carried if one needed to travel by night. They were designed to frighten away any evil spirits who might be following deceased loved ones and blocking their way into the Land of the Dead and also to protect the living. Faces, rather than other designs, were not chosen at random to be carved into jack-o-lanterns. The ancient Celts considered the head the most sacred part of the body-it was not only seen as the center of learning, but also as the seat of the immortal soul. The candle inside the jack-o-lantern represents not only the element of fire, but also the white light of pure spirit. Spirits, ghosts and fairies often appear to us as sparks of white light.
Not all of the strange faces seen at Samhain belong to the jack-o-lantern. Children and adults are often seen wearing bizarre clothing and masks. Masks are one of the oldest body adornments known; they have been used ritually in all cultures of the world to invoke animal or totem energies, to aid magick, to raise power, to imitate deities and to make a spiritual connection with the deity or nature spirit represented by the mask. The first known mask dates from the Paleolithic period and is represented in a cave drawing in France.
Some people claim that wearing a mask on Samhain was a ploy to scare away fairies and other mischievous spirits, but it has overtones of being a custom from a much later period-perhaps one that grew up around the Burning Times. During these times, in addition to black clothing, a mask would protect the identity of a witch going to his/her coven. It had also had the added benefit of frightening away any inquisitor who might happen upon a lone figure in the night woods.
With October comes the last of the apple harvest and apples are very much a part of Samhain lore. Apples are associated with both love and death. They are also used in healing; one method for healing warts was to cut an apple in half horizontally to reveal a five-pointed star, the pentagram. The wart was rubbed with both halves, the halves put back together and buried. As the apple decomposed, the warts disappeared. In Celtic myth, the land of Avalon, the Summerland where the spirits of the dead dwell, is a fair island where lovely apple trees grow and bear fruit year round. It is here that Morgaine brought King Arthur. Hera, the Greek Goddess had a magickal apple orchard and it was believed that apples were the fruit of immortality and rebirth. In the story of Demeter and Persephone, when it was time for Persephone to leave the Underworld and be reunited with her mother, Hades made her eat the seeds of a pomegranate to ensure she would return for part of the year. The pomegranate and
the apple look very much alike and the first syllable of its name suggest a link between the two. The Latin name for apple is “pomum”. While the apple represents rebirth, the pomegranate is symbolic of death.
Bobbing for apples, a popular Halloween party game, evolved from the idea of capturing the spirit of the dormant Goddess. To capture the fruit sacred to her was to ensure her continued presence and good will even though she would be in mourning for her consort until Yule. Because Samhain is the celebration of the final harvest, it was considered unwise to eat any fruit or grain that had been left unharvested after this time.
Another part of the final harvest is the nut harvest. Of all the types of nuts, the one most closely associated with Samhain, witchcraft and magick is the hazelnut. The hazel tree has long been sacred to the Celts and is symbolic of wisdom, secret knowledge and divination. It is the tree for which the ninth month of the Celtic tree calendar is named and so the number nine is closely linked in magick to the hazel nut.
The number nine is also the number of the Crone (three is the Virgin or Maiden and six is the Mother). The hazel nut is also used in divining. Samhain is a good time to look for a magic wand. If you can find a hazel branch, so much the better. Hazel wood is a traditional wood for making wands and the most popular; it has strong magickal powers and represents all knowing wisdom.
Acorns also have a variety of uses at Samhain. Witches sometimes offer acorns as gifts and, during the Burning Times, giving someone and acorn was a secret means of telling them you were a Witch. In addition to empowering magick, acorns are symbols of protection, fertility, growth, and friendship. Acorns are the ‘fruit’ of the oak tree, which is also a tree the Celts consider sacred.
The full moon this month is called the Blood Moon-so named because, as well as being the harvest of nuts and apples, Samhain is also the harvest of flesh. In ancient times, animals with the best chances of surviving the winter were rounded up and put in stockades. The rest were slaughtered and, what was not eaten at the Samhain feast was saved-either dried, cured or smoked for use during the winter months when fruit and vegetables were unavailable. Unlike today, the killing and eating of an animal was by no means a senseless and cruel act. The ancient Celts regarded animal life as sacred and needed animal to ensure their own survival during the harsh winters.
Before or just after Samhain is a good time to crush and store the Midsummer herbs which have been drying in your home. Take a white cloth and untie the herbs from their hanging place and place them on the cloth. This will protect their energies. With a mortar and pestle or other heavy tool, grind the herbs one at a time into fine pieces. Place them in well-marked storage containers and store them in a dark place for later use.
Herbs of Samhain:
- Acorn: fertility, abundance, growth
- Oak: longevity, strength, protection
- Apple: rebirth, immortality
- Hazel: wisdom, inspiration, divining
- Nightshade: protection POISONOUS-NOT FOR INTERNAL USE!
- Pumpkin: honoring the spirits of the dead
- Rosemary: remembrance, protection, purification
- Sage: wisdom, manifestation of wishes, purification
- Turnip: protection of home
Samhain is also a time to remember the World War II holocaust in Europe and the Burning Times of the 13th to 17th centuries. During the Burning Times, anywhere from several hundred thousand to nine million people, mostly women, were tortured and executed by burning, hanging, drowning, or stoning. This drove the Goddess religion deeply underground and decimated healing knowledge and women’s culture. In Italy, hundreds of women walked into the sea to drown, rather than allow the Inquisition to jail and burn them. For many of us on the Wiccan path, it would be desirable to contact any of those sisters and brothers who may have lost their lives due to their beliefs, although something tells me that the majority of them are alive today. Many women have past-life recalls of these times and many of us were probably incarnate back then. It has often been asked “How many of those accused were actually Witches?” Answers vary from “None, they were probably all good Christians.” To “A few misguided souls who ‘thought’ they were witches.” To “The majority were practicing some form of the Craft.”
In North America, the most impressive display of Witch solidarity is seen at the festivities for Samhain. Every year, more than three thousand Witches from around the world come to Salem, Massachusetts, to take part in the candlelight vigil from Gallows Hill. The year 1992 marked the 300th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials, in which 19 people were hanged and one man pressed to death with stones. Samhain then becomes and understanding and affirmation of women’s herstory and personal pasts and a deep honoring of those who have gone before.
Mexico, a land thoroughly immersed in patriarchal religion, maintains many ties to its Pagan past. The day after Samhain, they celebrate El Dia de Muerte, the Day of the Dead. This is a time to honor one’s ancestors with drinking and feasting and to toast the personification of Death, who was once believed to take this day as his one day off for the year. Businesses and schools close on El Dia de Muerte and picnics are packed and taken to graveyards where families, dressed in colorful costumes, sit near their relatives’ markers and share their feast with them. Individuals dressed as Death dance among them and festive mariachi music is played nearby. There are skeleton cookies, skulls made of sugar and all kinds of decorations relating to mortality. Chocolate is traditionally served on this day to wish the dead a sweet return to life in their next incarnation.
It is not strange that skeletons are shown as depicting death-the bones are the part of the body that last the longest after death, especially the skull. Europe has long regarded the skeleton as a symbol of death, like the Carnival figure of the Macabre.
As we have heard earlier, the ancient Celts considered the head the most sacred part of the body. Perhaps these are reasons why we associate a skeleton with death and something to be feared. In alchemy, the skull stood for the process of putrefaction, so it is drawn with an X of bones on containers of poison as a sign of warning.
But let’s look at this more positively. Pagans know that, long after we have made our journey to the Summerland, our body’s skeleton will remain as proof that we walked on this earth as a physical being in a previous incarnation. Our skeleton is the framework of our body-the outline. It supports our muscles, organs, and all other parts of the body. Witness what happens to some older women when their bones start to go brittle or soften-they become bent over or crippled. Therefore, our skeleton becomes a representation of life, the basic foundation of that life and a reminder that our previous forms will remain through many incarnations.
Time of Hag, Time of Crone
Time of Blood, Time of Bone
Hecate offers cold embrace
Specter, wraith and banshee pace
Wait for Hallow’s Eve to fly
Wait ’til deepest dark to scry
This night the veil is very thin
Life goes out and death comes in
Open wide to all the fear
Trust that from the darkness here
Life and light will rise again
Death goes out and Life comes in.
Goddesses of Samhain:
Cerridwen, Hecate, Kali, Baba Yaga, Cailleach, Hel, Befana, Pele, Sheila na Gig, Demeter, Persephone, Hathor, Morgaine, Oya, Innana, Copper Woman, and Spider Grandmother.
If you wish to contact the spirit of a deceased relative on Samhain and are not sure how to proceed, it is suggested that you simply cast a circle, sit in it alone and begin to focus your mind on the one whom you wish to contact. If you like, you may have some object with you to help you project or focus your energy, such as a crystal, a wand or an amulet. Also, have one solitary candle lit, to guide your loved one’s way.
Align yourself so that you are facing the direction of the Land of the Dead according to you tradition. Usually, this is the West or North. If you have no preconceptions, you can face the direction from which you feel your relative will most easily come to you. Close your eyes and allow your mind to slow down. Enter a meditative state while still concentrating on the face and form of your loved one.
After some time has passed, visualize a beam of white-gold light streaming down in front of you just outside your circle. See this as the light reflected from the opening of the veil between your world and theirs. Shortly after this, you may feel a distinct presence in the room with you. You can open your eyes or keep them closed.
Don’t be surprised if you can’t actually see your relative or hear them speak. It is rare that someone is physically gifted enough to hear or see someone from another realm of existence on the physical plane when first learning this art.
When you feel your loved one is present, you may speak to him or her either out loud or in your mind. Tell them they are missed and loved. Then sit quietly for a moment and try to feel a response.
Spirit energy never remains long on the earthly plane and soon you will feel the presence fading. Allow it to go unhindered.
When you are sure it is gone, visualize the white-gold light disappearing, thereby shutting down a portal that could drag in other, unwanted entities later.
Close your circle and place the candle near a window to guide your relative along their way.
Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish. Charms were added and stirred into it. Each of them had a prophetic meaning which predicted what the New Year held for the person who received it in their portion. Typical charms would be a ring, a tiny doll, a coin, etc.
4 cups mashed potatoes
2 1/2 cups chopped cooked cabbage
3/4 cup onion, chopped very fine and sauteed
1 cup mashed turnips
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup evaporated milk or cream
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
Place all ingredients, except the cabbage, in a large pan and cook over low heat while mixing them together. Turn the heat to medium and add the cabbage. The mixture will take on a pale green cast. Keep stirring occasionally until well mixed and heated through.
Jack-o-lanterns that have stood in the window sill or porch even for just a few nights are usually quite moldy and ready for the compost heap. But what to do with all the fleshy pieces you have scooped out (besides pumpkin pie!)?
For a delicious and simple soup, peel the outer skin from the pieces of pumpkin and boil until very tender (about 30 minutes). Mash with a potato masher or run through a food processor. Saute 1 chopped onion for every cup of pumpkin. Add the mashed pumpkin, 11/2 cups milk, 1/2 tsp. each of salt and pepper, and 1/4 tsp. curry powder. Serve hot with a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg.