Samhain is one of the Greater Sabbats of the Witches’ calendar and in the Northern Hemisphere is celebrated on the night of 31st October (in the Southern Hemisphere the equivalent Sabbat is Beltane 30th April). Samhain is the third and last of three autumnal harvests, the first was at Lammas (1st August) when in tribute to the waning Sun, the “Corn King” was sacrificed and his spirit returned to the ground for its period of rest. The second harvest was at Mabon (22nd September), when as the Sun grew weaker; the “Lord of the Harvest” was sacrificed and waits to be reborn in the New Year of the Goddess.
Now as we complete the third and final harvest, Samhain marks the change from summer into winter. Traditionally it is time to bring in the animals from their summer grazing and to stock up their winter feed supplies. A cull would be made and animals slaughtered, and the meat preserved to provide food for winter. As the animals died so the people could survive, so too does the “King of the Hunt” die in a final act of sacrifice. As the summer sunlight fades and the darkness of winter approaches, we celebrate the “Feast of the Dead”, a farewell tribute to the Sun God. While the Goddess mourns his death, she also begins her own descent into the underworld, there to search for him again.
Samhain means “Summer’s end”, and is known by many different names: November Eve, All Hallows Eve, Hallowmas, Feast of Apples, Night of Spirits, Halloween and the Feast of the Dead. In the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Samhain is also known as “Oíche Shamhna”, in Scotland “Oidhche Shamhna” and in Wales “Nos Calan Gaeaf”. Depending on where you come from, Samhain also has many pronunciations, like in Ireland it is pronounced “sow-in”, in Scotland “sav-en” and in Wales “sow-een”.
Samhain is one of the most popular and widespread pagan festivals in the Celtic calendar and is traditionally regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. In modern times it is a night of fun and celebration, of glowing Jack O’Lanterns, trick or treating and dressing up in costumes as Wicked Witches. It is also a night for divination, for attending séances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. For the occult-minded, it is a night of power, when the veil between the unseen world and ours is at its thinnest, a night when the spirits of the departed are free to roam.
When Christianity arrived in the British Isles they tried to eradicate popular pagan practices by replacing them with their own customs, and so Samhain, as celebrated on the night of 31st October, was renamed “All Hallows Eve”, which later became shortened to “Halloween”. The following day 1st November was named “All Saint’s Day”, on which day they would celebrate the spirits of Heaven and pray for those they sent to Hell. On the eve of All Saint’s Day (All Hallows Eve), they developed the custom of banging pots and pans together so the lost souls in Hell would know they were not forgotten.
Down through the ages, Samhain has always been considered an auspicious time for divination, for contacting ancestors and other departed souls. It was customary therefore to place lights along roadways to help guide spirits out for the dark and to leave open a door or window with a candle or other light burning to lead them back from whence they had left. This was the beginning of the ever popular Jack O’Lantern custom of today, in which lights or candles are placed in pumpkins so the wind will not extinguish them. These are now used to decorate homes and to frighten off mischievous souls who may have lost their way.
Another old custom was to leave out food offerings on their doorsteps, a welcome invitation to the spirits of family members, ancestors, friends, pets and other loved ones to cross the threshold of their home and revisit. After all the hard work of collecting in the harvest, it was also a time for family reunions, when in the warmth and dimly lit smoky rooms of the home, wood and peat for the fire was stacked up high by the hearth, and members of the family all came together to celebrate a winter feast. During the feast bards re-told stories about those long gone, traditional songs would be sung, poetry recited and dances performed in honour of the ancestors.
Bonfires played a large part in the festival of Samhain. On the night of Samhain, each household would extinguish their hearth-fires and then wait for the druids to light the village bonfire, symbolising a new light for the New Year. Most often two fires would be lit side by side, and during the evening’s celebrations, villagers would light torches from the common flame and re-light their own hearth fires. Later, they would parade and dance around the village and lead their animals between the fires in a ritual act of purification.
In Scotland, a child born on the night of Samhain was considered to be gifted with “an dà shealladh” (the Two Sights), which is more commonly known today as “second sight” or the ability of clairvoyance. At Samhain however, it was common for many people to practice the art of divination, females, in particular, would seek to identify future husbands, and determine if the marriage would succeed or fail. Methods differed widely, but seasonal foods such as apples and nuts from the harvest were frequently used. An apple could be peeled in one long strip and tossed over the shoulder to determine the initial letter of a future spouse’s name. Nuts would be placed on a heated hearth and their movements closely watched; if the nuts stayed together so would the couple, but if they rolled apart the marriage would fail.
Candles also play an important part in Samhain celebrations and are often used to decorate the home creating the right mood for the occasion with their hypnotic glow. Ever since the fire was discovered, the naked flame has been regarded as sacred, and in ancient times lighted touches were used to invoke the Goddess and Gods. Similarly today the naked flame of lighted candles are used to aid divination, to commune with deities and more particularly at this time, to connect with ancestors and other departed souls.
To our ancestor’s winter was a time of famine and hardship, more so for the old and feeble when many failed to survive the following winter months. Samhain at the start of the winter season and the beginning of the Celtic New Year was, therefore, a poignant time to honour those who had died before them. To pagans and witches alike Samhain is a celebration in honour of our ancestors, much as they honoured us in the days before we were born. As the wheel of life continues to turn so will they honour us again, for time will come when we too cross the divide and take up our own place beside them.
In more recent times the association of death with Samhain has been maligned to include the assumption of evil, and today is often portrayed as a night when malignant forces combine to create all manner of baneful harm. Such could not be further from the truth, for while it may be possible for negative forces to cross the divide, it is not in any way a night of evil or hostile intent. Even though the holiday has changed over the years, its intent is still clear – it is a celebration of respect for the dead and of a new beginning to come. It is a holiday that commemorates both life and death and recognizes the need to exist in harmony with the past, present and future.
A Samhain Ritual
The altar should be set with a black cloth, a smoldering cauldron, black votives at the corners or at direction altars, with a single white taper at the center. Adorn the central altar and direction altars with arrangements of dark dried flowers, reeds, and grasses. A figure of the goddess as crone should be present. (This can easily be made from a black scarf or cloth.) Wear a dark robe with a hood. If a loved one or beloved pet has made the transition to the Summerland during the year, you may choose to include a small photograph on the altar. Near the cauldron, have a bowl with a few short sturdy twigs and dried leaves.
Grounding and Centering:
Focus on your altar and the meaning of this season with these words:
“Within the cycle of life, there comes a time when the light is dim and energy has retracted. It is a time to honor our dead and those in their declining years. It is a time to look forward to the life that grows ever out of death.”
Cast the Circle deosil with athame or wand extended, repeating this chant:
“Crone and sage, crone and sage,
Wisdom is the gift of age.
Hoof and Horn, Hoof and Horn,
All that dies shall be reborn.”
After returning to the altar, invoke the spirits of the directions, lighting the black votive on the direction altar or on that corner of your main altar with these words:
“Spirit of East I do invite
To join my circle in dark of night.
Your Air now brings me winds so chill.
My rushing life becomes quite still.
My thoughts and words in somber quest
Invoke you now with all the rest.
Spirit of South I need your light.
I need your warmth on this dark night.
I beg you, make the shadows go.
I seek creative passion so.
Be with me on this night so black
With fire and heat which now I lack.
Spirit of West, of water clear
Please join me; bring your presence near.
I need your insight as I strive
To reckon death, then be alive.
I need your feelings deep and strong
To move me like a sacred song.
Spirit of North, of sacred Earth
Be here through death and through rebirth.
Nurture me in this awesome task
Here in the dark, is what I ask.
As darkness deep within is found,
Please join me on your hallowed ground.
Goddess, Crone of the dying light, of the death of the year,
Be with me as I honor the close of a cycle.
Bless me with your wisdom as the end draws near.
I request your presence and your reassurance
That the end is but another beginning;
That as the light goes, yet it will come again;
That death brings with it the promise of life to come.
Guide me that I might know your gift for my loved ones,
That they will rest and be reborn, refreshed and renewed.
I am now in that place,
In that sacred space between the worlds.
I am where my ancestors have gone.
I am where my loved ones watch me.
I am in a world beyond time
Where the goddess guides me
Where I am one with the world
Where I open my heart and mind
Where I love and learn.
Honoring those who have gone on to the Summerland:
If you have a photograph on your altar, hold it close, or hold in your heart a loved one who has made the final transition. If you have no one in your life who has made this transition, honor the many lives wasted in war and crime. Say these words:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there. I did not die.”
(“I Am Not There” – This poem or elegy has been attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye 1932).
Samhain marks the New Year. You have looked back at losses of the past. Now look ahead. As you look to the New Year, you must look within. Take a twig from the bowl and holding it in your hands focus on a strength you have which you would take with you into the New Year. Say these words as you drop the twig into the cauldron:
“I am strong and empowered by my ______. As this twig adds power to the flames I know my ______ adds to the strength of those I touch.”
Take a dry leaf from the bowl, and holding it in your hands, focus on something of yourself you would leave behind with the passing year. Say these words as you drop the leaf into the cauldron:
“Be gone from me, ______. I have no use for you in my life. As this leaf turns to ash in the flame, so _______ burns and is gone.”
Light the white candle while focusing on an attribute or skill you wish for yourself in the coming year. Look into the flame as you say these words:
“My wish is for ______. I know a wish alone will not bring this to me. I am empowering myself here and now to take steps in the new year to create for myself this ______.
I face the New Year with joy and love,
Things to keep, to acquire, to be free of.
To insure that the magick will come true,
I will help it happen in all that I do.”
Opening the Circle:
“Thank you Goddess Crone for your presence here.
I ask you always to be near.
On this night and in this hour
I have felt your magick power.
I thank directions spirits all
For coming with my opening call.
You are of the goddess; go with her now.
My thanks for your presence during my vow.
Thanks for her sweet breath which is air,
And thanks for the fire, her spirit fair,
Thanks water which fills her place of birth,
And thanks for her body, our sacred Earth.
I go forth from this sacred space
Into the New Year
Empowered to be more
Than I have been.