Samhain, pre-Christian festival, but it's not what you think
I will bring a little light to shine on the very little that we do actually know of the ancient holiday Samhain, (pronounced sow-in).
Most people think today is merely Halloween. That is fine. I am totally cool with that. It is my favorite holiday (always has been) and we do pumpkins and dress up and give out candy.
But there is so much disinformation about this holiday it's ridiculous.
This is what we actually, factually know about earliest Samhain:
It was a particularly numinous and dangerous time, requiring protective measures against supernatural forces.
We do not know what the Iron Age Celts believed, much less the Neolithic cultures. We don't.
“Thus, there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time of a major pagan festival which was celebrated, at the very least, in all those parts of the British Isles which had a pastoral economy. At most, it may have been general among the ‘Celtic’ peoples. There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it opened the year, but it was certainly a time when supernatural forces were especially to be guarded against or propitiated; activities which took different forms in different regions. Its importance was only reinforced by the imposition upon it of a Christian festival which became primarily one of the dead, and it is to the development of that festival that this book must turn.” --Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun – the Ritual Year in Britain
This paragraph basically summarizes it better than I could possibly do. I could sit here and re-type the 10 pages of the Samhain chapter in the book, to convince those not wanting to be convinced of the facts. But that’s a pointless endeavor in itself because it is damned hard to convince people who really don’t want to be convinced. As is shown throughout even the history of the study of Samhain and other pagan festivals, is that people will just invent the facts they need to suit their beliefs and can continue to do so merely by the fact that we know so little about it.
People aren’t going to like the fact that there is no evidence of it being the start of the “Celtic Year” at all. That’s been so long trudged through the yarn of what has been invented about the holiday that it is going to really be difficult for people to accept it. Hutton is the first scholar to attend to these subjects with the rigour it deserves. What he uncovers with the scrutiny he affords the subject is that previous “scholars” were not at all careful with their assignations. They left out pertinent information, glossed over inconvenient facts that did not align with their intended outcome and/or just plain invented connection where there wasn’t any when shone the light of scholastic exfoliation.
The entire volume of Stations of the Sun – the Ritual Year in Britain in fact tears down most of what was previously understood. Instead of relying on centuries’ old shoddy scholarship he’s decided to bring attention back and find the truth. Which happens to be that we don’t know very much about the ancient origins of these holidays.
There is a kernel in me that would love for all the mystical hullabaloo to be right, of course.
But it is enough for me to know that the oldest thing we know about this holiday (and that it is indeed, a fact that we can rely on) is that this night of October 31 is the most liminal night of the year, to be warded against Faerie and witches and the puca and troll – all of these things done differently depending on region, all different ways. It is also enough for me to know that the rest is left to the vagaries of time. We will never truly know beyond what’s filtered down to us in folklore, dipped into the mire that is Christianity and shone through with the light of the modern era and commercialization.
But I’m ok with that. That kernel of whats-it inside me knows that where mystery lies is where the good stuff is, in the end.