Samhain is the Gaelic word for “Summer’s End”. It is pronounced “SOW-in” in Irish Gaelic, “SHAW-vin” in Scots Gaelic, and “Pumpkin Spice” in American. 😀 I stole that joke.
Like English uses H to change the sounds of C and S, Gaelic uses the letter H to turn M into the V sound. M and V are more similar than you might have realized. That is a little Gaelic language tip for you; I did not get much further in my study of that language.
Samhain is the ancient holiday halfway between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, around the first of November. This is when in Ireland, cattle were brought back down from their mountainous summer grazing fields to the valley fields. Newgrange and other paleolithic Irish monuments mark these astronomical events.
Thanks to Irish immigrants, Samhain became the basis for what we Americans call “Halloween”, a contraction for All Hallow’s Eve. Halloween is the evening before All Saints Day. Halloween is also known as All Souls Night, when we remember our own, ordinary, not-sainted folk. Simply, it is a festival to honor those who have gone before.
Ancestor worship pre-dates the worship of deities. From what I can understand, as Stone Age people, we humans did not fear death or miss our dead relatives the way we do now. Instead, we stayed in touch with their spirits and memories.
Usually, ancestor worship itself was conducted by the oldest living relatives in the family. Those who were closer to crossing over to become ancestors themselves, and who had known the older generations were deemed best for communicating with those spirits. It became their sole occupation. Priesthood must have been a really nice retirement plan!
Modern Pagans often hold unrelated loved ones, such as teachers or even celebrities, as emotional ancestors. Those who inspire us to become better people have also fed our growth as spiritual beings. They “parent” us this way.
Who are your unrelated ancestors? Among mine are the authors Anne McCaffrey and Jane Austen, singer Karen Carpenter and my high school choir teacher, Cheryl Patchen. McCaffrey taught me keep writing and singing in spite of neglect or abuse, and that adopted family can be the best family. Austen taught me to follow my better nature rather than give in to impulse. Carpenter warned me to keep fighting mental illness. Patchen believed in me.
Did you have neighbors growing up who helped raise you? Have you thought about the word “raise”? Good people lift each other up, and as my friend Carolsue says, we live in a world with good people.
Wiccans honor our dead at Samhain. We believe at this time of year, it is easier to converse with our ancestors. The “veil” between our world and theirs is thin at this time, and also at Beltaine, the opposite holiday from Samhain.
One way to remember them is to offer their names to the Samhain bonfire. You can speak their names to the fire, or write them on paper to burn. I usually do both, reading the name aloud and then burning the paper.
Samhain is also the third or fourth harvest festival of the year; it is the Blood Harvest. I am going to let those words hang for a moment… This is the hunting season for well-fed wildlife, or time to harvest your fattened livestock. Their bones went into the Samhain bonfire, bone + fire. This is the time of frost, when (before climate change) the weather would reliably get colder. Meat stayed good longer in a cold larder, or it was cured with salt or smoke. Then it should keep your family fed thru harsh winter months. They did not have things like Spam.
And of course, it is the time of pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, young wine from Lughnasadh’s pressing, the last of those flavorful peppers, apples and plums. There is still time to plant winter greens to keep your family more healthy during winter.
Another way to honor the dead is the Dumb Supper. “Dumb” means “not speaking”. As you enjoy your marvelous harvests in a Samhain feast, set one plate full of your dinner with a burning candle to draw those spirits who love you. Some Wiccans eat this meal in silence (dumb), to listen for their visitors’ words from the other side.
Many Wiccans include a pomegranate in their Samhain feast to honor the marriage of Persephone and Hades. Do not believe those silly English scholars who mistranslated the old Greek myths: Persephone was NOT kidnapped. Plucking a crocus was essentially knocking on Hades’ door. She was NOT tricked into marrying; offering an unmarried woman a pomegranate was the same today as kneeling and offering her a ring. Her mother’s opinion of the match was another story.
A much-loved Samhain activity is to spend time looking thru family photo albums. Perhaps dust the picture frames if you keep family portraits. Tell stories of your elders’ (hopefully funny ones as well as any other), talk about your family’s history and traditions. We are settling into the darkest time of the year, which is a great time to rest and tell stories.
Samhain is our New Year festival, as well. We chase out and confuse bad spirits by wearing masks and set skulls and bones outside our doors to warn them away. The Irish extinguish their hearth fires, then meet at the village bonfire and take home its coals to restart their hearth for the new year. The old has passed, the new are coming back soon: at the Sun’s rebirth occurs at Yule.
Since it is a new year, you might scry or read your tarot cards to gain insight for the coming year. You might converse with your ancestors by visiting your relatives’ graveyards, or simply stand outside on your porch to await their coming to see you, just as you would wait for the living who have texted to say they are are on their way.
If you choose to scry, keep in mind that all news is not good. Be prepared to receive messages of any sort. Christians interpret hearing bad news as the “Devil’s words” and view our holiday with anxiety. Bless their hearts. Wiccan faith says to accept the whole cycle of life as it comes. When you receive messages, do your best to handle the news.
And this is one reason that Wiccans set circles of protection when we scry. We need to filter out those spirits who might mean harm, or who are just full of mischief. Think of all the people you know in life. They do not change their nature when they die.
Samhain New Year is an excellent time to purge your home of unwanted or unused items, or items with some painful connection. It might be a valuable item, but if it only brings you sorrow, purge it. Purge yourself of sorrows too, using that burning ritual I mentioned earlier. Write your sorrow on paper and add it to the Samhain fire. That catharsis is magnificent.
Walking a labyrinth is another Samhain tradition. The labyrinth reminds us that life is full of twists, turns, doubling back, rushing forward, and then doing it all over again with fresh perspective.
Think of all the feelings you get when you work thru any problem! They can all be there in the labyrinth. Interest in a new thing, satisfaction in that first turning back to see where you were before. Frustration of going back and forth when you thought you were done. Confusion when you are not sure if you are following the right color on the floor. Joy of sailing forward thru a long loop, and then anxiety as you see yet another turn ahead. Relief when you reach the center. Exhaustion when you realize you are about to go thru all of that again – or maybe you love seeing it all go by again and laugh at the places you were stuck or frustrated before.
You might outline a labyrinth in your own yard, using cornmeal or flour, bricks, masking tape or ribbon. To use a bag of cornmeal or flour for this, cut a pouring spout from the top fold and use the flour to trace the design. Non-toxic, needs no clean up. The Cretan labyrinth + is a simple and most ancient design. Or, quite simply, or you can mark out a spiral using a garden hose.
Samhain is a time of immense power and change. In this season, it behooves us to connect with our past and weigh our needs and desires. Take time to appreciate where you came from, the good and the bad together. Take time to evaluate where you are and appreciate your own wealth.