Mystical illustration of the Celtic world and where various Samhain rituals took place in.

Samhain: The Celtic Genesis of Halloween and Its Total Influence in Europe

Do you know the true story of Halloween? The flames, spirits, dances, tributes, and lastly, mythology? Worry no further because this week we will uncover the deep-rooted beginnings of this remarkable holiday that many celebrate today. To add, we will get to explore ancient legend and tradition which provide greater understanding of this anticipated annual event. In sum, we identify Samhain.

A Celtic Holiday

Universal Celtic Symbol representing Celtic Culture in Western Europe. Where Samhain plays a large role in the civilizations culture
Universal Celtic Symbol representing Celtic Culture in Western Europe. Where Samhain plays a large role in the civilizations culture. Image Source:(whenthesoulawakens.org)

The foundation of Samhain (SAH-vin) goes back to the Neolithic era. There have been tombs discovered in Western Europe that show relation to the event through carvings. Most of Western Europe at one point in history was predominately Celtic, so this tradition is very ancient and notable. Samhain became renowned for its acknowledgment of the year end along with the coming of winter and long nights.

For the Celts, this was a time of reflection and tribute as many prepared for change. The event takes place between the thirty-first of October and the first of November. It is believed, at this time of the year, the spirit portal was at its thinnest, which promoted festivity. Followed by ancestors or various other spirits crossing over to the mortal world to visit or mingle with the living. In essence, Samhain became a significant event for the Celts in Western Europe.

Traditions of Samhain

Ancient Celts celebrating Samhain in an eerie illustration.
Ancient Celts celebrating Samhain in an eerie illustration. Image Source: (nocookie.net)

Moreover, some traditions that by celebrated in Samhain vary by region but follow the same objective. For example, the lighting of fires in a gathered setting and encouragement of citing prayers or wishes for wellness. Another interesting tradition of Samhain in ancient times was that it was a mandatory event. Meaning that those who did not participate in the event became punished by failing to pay tribute to the gods.

Besides this consequence, there was also retribution by receiving a death sentence if a crime became committed during the festival. Furthermore, another tradition of Samhain was the notorious act of dressing up. This was crucial for participation because it helped ward off wicked spirits from harming humans. Remember at this time, humans’ role was to provide food offerings for graves, so protection from otherworldly beings became important. Most Celts would dress as mythical monsters and animals, which emulated survival.

More Ancient Traditions

Original carved turnips illustration from Samhain dating back over two thousand years.
Original carved turnips illustration from Samhain dating back over two thousand years. Image Source: (netdna-ssl.com)

Apart from dressing up, lighting bonfires, and paying tribute to ancestors, the Celts also celebrated Samhain by collecting harvest. This time of the year in the Celtic calendar became known as the end of summer. With the dark half of the year marking a new era, the Celts got motivated to pursue self-preservation. As mentioned before, this becomes essential for survival in winter as the climate proves itself challenging for natural resources.

In Samhain, people would gather all their crops and hold a large feast to celebrate the end of another year. Aside from this action taking place, another was also carving turnips. The practice of carving turnips with disturbing expressions was beneficial in Samhain because it also aided with keeping away evil. This was the very predecessor of the modern Jack O Lantern. One of the main objectives of Samhain was being able to celebrate in safety without any disturbance.

Mythology of Samhain

Visualization of hero Fionn in his epic battle against spirit Aillen in Samhain
Visualization of hero Fionn in his epic battle against spirit Aillen in Samhain. Image Source:(wikimedia.org)

Next comes the gripping mythology and folklore of Samhain. As Samhain is mainly known for its celebration of the afterlife, there are also its mythological flairs. To illustrate, one of the most prominent stories that take place in this event is titled “The Adventures of Nera”. The tale centers around protagonist Nera who encounters fairies and a corpse. Along with that, he steps up to a challenge that lands him in the spirit world.

All in all, the story ends with a surprising twist that continues to motivate people every Samhain. Another famous story is “Fionn Mac Cumhaill” where hero Fionn overcomes the wicked spirit Aillen with a magical spear. These actions earn him the role of a leader over the Fianna (Warrior Tribe). Indeed, these tales are entertaining and promote ancient traditional beliefs. In short, there are a vast number of exciting epics to discover from Samhain.

Superstitions of Samhain

The Samhain practice of “Dumb Supper” in an Irish home in modern times.
The Samhain practice of “Dumb Supper” in an Irish home in modern times. Image Source: (pinimg.com)

In addition, there are also several disturbing superstitions that play a large role in the holiday. For example, it is cautioned that if you hear footsteps behind you, don’t look back because a spirit is following. The next is Samhain becoming a recommended time to commune with long-lost relatives. The spirit energy is at its peak and the dead are highlighted in Samhain, so performing seances are encouraged.

This ensures that wisdom or a lost message becomes retrieved by living successors of the deceased. Similarly, certain animals were believed to be associated with bad omens, such as owls and cats. Spiders also became subject to ancestor worship as it came to light how encountering meant a deceased relative was nearby. The last superstition is the “Dumb Supper”, when the Celts leave their windows and doors open on Samhain night. The purpose is to allow spirits of dead relatives to come inside, feast, and keep in touch with familiar matters.

Monsters of Samhain

Illustration of Sluagh spirits that pose a threat to Celts celebrating Samhain.
Illustration of Sluagh spirits that pose a threat to Celts celebrating Samhain. Image Source:(wp.com)

Likewise comes the many beholding monster figures from Samhain. Although the Celts became focused on catching up with deceased relatives and celebrating the harvest, they also manifested several threatening figures. To illustrate, there is the idol of Pukah, who is a shape-shifting creature that collects offerings from the festival. The next would be The Lady Gwyn. She is described as headless and wearing white clothing. The more alarming factor about her character is that she becomes known for chasing those who wander at night!

Plus, she is not alone as she has her black pet pig alongside the feat. Equally important, there is also the Faery Host (Supernatural gang of hunters) who haunts Samhain by abducting people. Likewise, a similar figure is the Sluagh, which comes to people’s homes and steals souls. In all, most of these monsters’ agendas are typically aimed at more harm than good. Nonetheless, they provide a thrill to Samhain.

Samhain evolution through the ages

A charming and beautiful painting of Samhain celebrated in medieval times.
A charming and beautiful painting of Samhain celebrated in medieval times. Image Source: (oldenwilde.org)

Furthermore, Samhains image begins to evolve by the dawn of medieval times. During this exciting period, many villagers would practice the event in more intimate settings like home. These bonfires became more commonplace near rural areas throughout western Europe to promote preventing harm from supernatural forces. Besides this, superstition flourished throughout the continent only bringing further fear and action.

Another change to Samhain that occurred in the Middle Ages was different Celtic regions in Europe creating games and activities. Although Samhain is believed to find its roots in the British Isles, other neighboring regions sharing Celtic heritage followed suit. In Scotland and Ireland, the carving of turnips became commonplace as these precursors strived for sealed evasion of wicked forces. Furthermore, with that custom created in those territories, Scottish and Irish migrants took their traditions with them to the Americas. This soon became practiced with pumpkins which many recognize now as a staple to Halloween reputation.

Beyond Ireland

The Celtic nations in the western most fringes of the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Where Samhain is equally celebrated.
The Celtic nations in the western most fringes of the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Image Source: (bp.blogspot.com)

When many imagine Samhain or the Celtic world, the first thought to come to one’s mind is Ireland. Although Ireland is part of the Celtic nations and plays a large role in Samhain, other regions are celebrating. As we reach further into the genesis of Samhain and its root in creating Halloween, we discover several differing aspects. Followed by becoming more aware of the large and thriving Celtic culture that persists to this day in Western Europe.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, there exist a magical and ancient world full of surprises and obscure beauty. The celebration in other Celtic areas of Europe provides a better understanding of how this ancient holiday influences modern regions. To also the role they play in the formation of modern Halloween. Altogether, comes appreciation and experience.

Gallaecia

Intriguing example of a Queimada event taking place in Galicia, Spain. A real Samhain treat.
Intriguing example of a Queimada event taking place in Galicia, Spain. Image source: (discovergalicia.es)

To begin, in southwestern Europe we visit our first region in Gallaecia. Located in modern-day Northwestern Spain and Northern Portugal, this territory retains strong connections to its Celtic roots. Historically, this location became notorious for its reputation of being the “Land of the Witches (Terra de Meigas)”. Furthermore, Samhain celebrations that take place in this territory are consuming flaming “Queimadas” while reciting ancient Celtic chants and spells. This practice takes place in coastal areas like A Coruña for instance.

It is an amusing, mythical, and overall fun event to participate in because it emulates ancient tradition. Another Celtic tradition of Samhain that takes place here is people dressing up with a chestnut necklace and de rigueur mask. This is a sight to behold because they walk around town with lit candles peacefully through the night promoting mysticism. In all, the region of Gallaecia becomes a great addition and example of showing how Samhain reaches beyond Ireland.

Brittany

Traditional Breton Dress displayed during Samhain celebration in Northwestern French region of Brittany
Traditional Breton Dress displayed during Samhain celebration in Northwestern French region of Brittany. Image Source: (franceserv.com)

Next comes the intriguing land of Brittany. Located in Northwestern France, Brittany also becomes another prime Celtic nation that emulates Samhain in style. During this time of the year, Bretons celebrate by baking renowned delicacies like “Kornigou”. It is a cake molded into the image of a horned god that returns to the spirit world during Samhain.

Based on Breton mythology, this custom in Samhain becomes widely celebrated.  This region in France is also noteworthy because modern-day Bretons are believed to be descended from ancient Britons. The Britons of Great Britain migrated to this region of France when the Anglo Saxons began dominating their former territories. With these actions, the Britons brought their culture and customs to this land, thus creating Brittany. On balance, Brittany becomes another prime example of following Samhain and its ancient traditions.

Cornwall

Wicked apple game illustration from Cornwall’s Samhain tradition
Wicked apple game illustration from Cornwall’s Samhain tradition. Image source:(pinimg.com)

Our next region in western Europe comes to Cornwall. For those that are not familiar with the location of this Celtic nation, Cornwall roots itself in southwestern England. In Cornwall, Samhain becomes also known as Nos Calan Gwaf. Followed by the festival being recognized by “Allantide”.

I know it may seem confusing with so many names, but above all, they follow the same purpose of Samhain. The harvest and tribute to the dead are predominate here too. During Allantide, Cornish Celts searched for wisdom and insight from fortune tellers as spiritual energy is believed to thrive. Moreover, another large significance to Cornish Celts in Samhain was the use of apples. They play a large role in the Allantide because it served for both superstitious and romantic purposes. For example, if children did not rest with an apple under their pillow, they gained fear over experiencing bad luck.

Bonus Cornish Samhain traditions

Aside from the romantic and superstitious purposes the apple played in Cornish Samhain, there are also a few more factors considered. One became the practice of a game that requires nailing pieces of wood shaped like a cross on a ceiling. From there, players placed four candles on end parts. The last surprising twist of this game was putting an apple on this burning cross and having players eat.

The player who ate the apple the quickest would spare themselves from getting burning wax onto their face. Although Cornish Samhain traditions vary slightly from the Irish version, this is what makes these unique cultures’ versions fascinating.

Wales/Isle of Man

Nice example of Isle of Man’s turnip carving competition during Samhain.
Nice example of Isle of Man’s turnip carving competition during Samhain. Image Source: (culturevannin.im)

Our last Celtic region comes to Wales and the Isle of Man. These territories are also within the United Kingdom. During Samhain, Welsh Celts took the celebration a bit more violent than its other Atlantic cousins. For example, Welsh men liked to toss burning wood at each other in violent challenges. Along with setting off fireworks. They are quite enthusiastic when it comes to emulating ancient traditions.

On the other hand, the Isle of Man calls their version of Samhain Hop-tu-Naa. The Isle of Man is more jubilant in contrast to Wales’s approach as inhabitants traditionally sing with beautifully carved turnips. There are local competitions held in the Isle of man that promote inhabitants to create the most visually presenting turnip. More than anything the Samhain tradition is greatly valued in this region. It continues to serve as one of the eldest unbroken traditions in the Isle of Man.

Significance of Samhain: The Celtic Genesis to Halloween

Mystical illustration of the Celtic world and where various Samhain rituals took place in.
Mystical illustration of the Celtic world and where various Samhain rituals took place in. Image Souce: (pinimg.com)

In conclusion, from ancient practices, beliefs, and unique variations across Atlantic Europe, the Celtic spirit persists! Samhain is more than just what it appears to be for many. This is a time to gather, reflect, and celebrate life because, in truth, time is unforgiving. There is beauty in tradition and magic!

Samhain is one of those celebrations that perfectly reflects that because it has evolved into modern-day Halloween. Furthermore, the holiday is a global success and one of the most recognized symbols of Celtic culture. For this reason, the influence will thrive and continue to teach others in hope of reaching enlightenment to a charismatic society.

 

Works Cited

Blackwood, Sarah (Dubstar) Stars. 1996

Cedron, Rosa (Luar Na Lubre) Uah Lua (Folla Do Visco). 2005

McKennitt, Loreena Mummers’ Dance. 1997

Happy Halloween! In Galicia, Spain ‘Samhain’ Means Fright Night – Tripatini

Nicevenn: Goddess of Samhain | The Broom Closet (wordpress.com)

What Is Allantide? Cornish Halloween & Its Traditions | Cake Blog (joincake.com)

Hop-tu-Naa – Wikipedia

Samhain Folklore, Superstitions and Legends (learnreligions.com)

Samhain – Traditions, Halloween, Wicca – HISTORY

 

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