by Gabrielle Diana Laney
Samhain (pronounced sow-en) is the Celtic word for the time of year known as Halloween, Hallowmas, The Day of the Dead or All Souls Night, and is traditionally celebrated on October 31. It was marked in the ancient world by the rising and setting of the small star group, Pleiades. This time of year was so important to the ancient peoples of Ireland that they built a megalithic mound at the Hill of Tara to mark its observance. The hills inner chamber is illuminated by the sunrise only on two days of the year, on Samhain and its opposite day, which was called Beltain.
There are great legends associated with this Neolithic mound. The oldest of these appear in the very earliest Irish prose stories which belong to a group known as the Mythological cycle. These stories tell of the Tuatha Dé Danann, early Irish gods, disguised as a supernatural race of wizards and magicians, who descended from the sky. They were referred to as The Lords of Light or faery races and inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Celts.
According to the legend on Samhain the Tuatha Dé Danann arrive from the air and cast a darkness over the sun for three days. They bring four talismans, one of which is the Great Fál or the Stone of Knowledge. Ancient lore tells that this stone was one of four stones positioned in the cardinal directions on Tara.
In ancient Celtic Ireland the year was divided in half, the bright half known as Samh, summer and the dark half known as Gamh, winter. The bright half began in early May on the feast of Beltain of the Suns fire and the dark half commenced on early November on the feast of Samhain which probably means summers end.
The Celts inherited extensive knowledge about the solar and lunar movements from their neolithic predecessors in Europe. The bronze Coligny Calendar, found near Lyon, France, was more accurate than the one used by the Romans. Scholars have found it remarkable that these feasts correspond closely to the solar alignments of the megalithic mounds, where Samhain, the Celtic New Year was the greatest feast marking the culmination of the Harvest Festivals.
Samhain was a time when the veil between the worlds, those seen and unseen were thin, and when the riding of the faery host or wild hunt took place. It was the time also for the feast of the ancestors, a special time for remembering and honoring the departed loved ones, and a solemn time set aside for contemplating the mystery of life and death. Huge bonfires were lit not only to mark the new year, but to warm the souls of the departed.
Samhain marked the beginning of the barren winter, which was believed to be under the influence of the Cailleach or the Crone Goddess. She is portrayed as an old woman wearing black. Perhaps this is where our version of a witch wearing black and roaming the night on Halloween comes from.
Now a childrens holiday, elements of this fire festival were incorporated into the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve, the night preceding All Saints (Hallows) Day. Until recent times in some parts of Europe, it was believed that on this night ghosts of the dead flew abroad; and the bonfires were built to ward off malevolent spirits.
More and more people are learning of the original tradition associated with Halloween and the accompanying the fun of Trick or Treat with the contemplation of the deeper aspects of this mysterious and enigmatic holiday.