Samhain, Celtic New Year, the day between the Worlds. The Druid year starts with Samhain, in the fall of the year, just as the Druid reckoning of days begins each day at night fall. This marks the end of the harvest season. Any fruit not gathered in by Samhain Eve must be left in the fields to feed the birds and wild animals, or the Sidhe, as one would have it. According to Françoise Le Roux, whose article, “Studies on the Celtic Feast Days” has been translated out of the French by one of our subscribers, Jeanne Elizabeth, Samhain may be derived from Sam Fuin, Weakening or End of Summer. Other competing derivations from Sam Rad or Samhna are by no means disproven. Samh-rad, summer or Samhrach, quiet.
Like New Year’s Celebrations everywhere, Samhain festivities fall into two sequential phases; one that signifies a return to Chaos, e.g. disposal of old goods, expelling of evil, reversal of usual habits of behavior, parties, suspension of taboos, and the return of the dead, all on Samhain night; and a second which signifies re-birth of the Cosmos and creation anew, e.g. lighting of new fires, beginning of a new season, inauguration of new ceremonies, reaffirmation of the existing order and installation of new leaders. This will be enacted at the Dawn Service Samhain morning, in the Reformed Druid tradition. The newly elected Arch Druid, Preceptor, and Server enact the first service of the new year; the Third Order Druids change their ceremonial ribbons to new, white ones, and winter begins.
Welsh Folk Customs for Pagans
at Nos Galan Gaeaf (Eve of Samhain)
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1984
By Tom Cross
1. Before the Eve of Samhain, gather pieces of bread, cakes or pancakes. This is to be called in Welsh hen solod or hel bwyd cennad ymeirw, or collecting food for the dead and the food is soul cakes. This food is to be given to those who have passed on.
In Celtic folk belief, Samhain or Calan Gaeaf is the time when the dead are close to this world and it was believed that on the eve of Samhain, when the Otherworld was closer, the dead came back to earth. This is the time when we can look back at those who have died and reflect on the ones that we miss and remember them and honour them. One of the ways we can do this, is by the archaic rite of feeding the dead which was practiced by the ancient Indo-European ancestors and still practiced in other cultures today.
2. At the Samhain bonfire, or coelcerth, as it is called in Welsh, which is lit at night on the eve of Samhain, the soul cakes which have been gathered may at this time be eaten by those celebrating and a portion of each piece is to be thrown into the fire as an offering not only to the deities but also for the dead.
3. When the food has been placed in the fire, a eulogy for the dead may be recited and other charms or prayers uttered in commemoration of those who have died. Also, the gods and the spirits of the dead may be asked for help in the coming season or for the year. As an example thanks may be given to one’s parents or relatives who have died. They will be listening!
4. The fire should then be circumambulated three times each time ending on the west side. Some ecstatic Celtic music could be played. This should end this ceremony and each person should be ready to go home. Staying behind could be for those looking for the dead, or as in Welsh folk belief, the tailless black sow or Ladi Wen (white Lady) who haunts the eve of Samhain. It is speculated that the Ladi Wen represents the old year.
A rhyme from Caernarvaonshire for Nos Galan Gaeaf:
Gwen y gwnei a dy holl deulu,
Hyn a gei di genni leni.
(Pronounced: Gwen uh gwnaye ah duh hollh dye-lee
Huhn ah gaye dee ggennee lenee)
Mayest thou bless thy whole family,
This is what I give thee this year.
Samhain Essay: Samhain Customs
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1985
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, the break between the years, is one of the four major High Days of the Druid calendar. Throughout the Celtic lands, Samhain was the Great Gathering. Wars ceased, and representative Druids, Bards, Ovates, Kings, and Equites met at sacred sites, on the Plain of Murtheme or with Conobar at Emain Macha in Ireland, or at Carnac in France. Similar convocations almost certainly met in Britain and Scotland, and perhaps in the Shetlands and the Orkneys as well.
The word Samhain may be derived, according to Francois LeRoux, from “sam fuim” meaning “weakening or end of summer,” though competing derivations from “sam rad” and “La samhna,” “rest” and “reunion” must also be considered. The LeRoux derivation concurs with the traditional date near the first of November, reflecting the Celtic division of the year into two long seasons, Summer and Winter, analogized to day and night. And as the Celtic calendar reckoned the night before the day, with each date beginning at sunset, the new-year began with Samhain, or sundown Samhain eve. It marked the end of the harvest. Anything still ungathered in the fields was left to the wild birds and the Pucas, Wood Sprites.
The rites and rituals have been lost, and we must piece together fragments from oral traditions, from 10th, 11th, and 12th century manuscripts of Irish law and commentaries, old customs and descriptions found in the Cuchulain and Find(h) epics. We gave a rendering of one such description of a Samhain ceremony from the old Irish in last Samhain’s Missal-Any.
One of our subscribers, Jeanne Elizabeth, has translated some of LeRoux’s work on the social and historical significance of the holiday, from her articles in the French journal “Ogam.” As far as I can find, these essays have not been available in English.
Samhain, LeRoux emphasizes, was first of all a universal observance, required, on pain of exile, of every member of the community. It was called the holiday of obligation.
“Samhain is first of all a holiday of obligation, an approximate expression when it is applied to an ancient holiday, but practical, in order to express the restrained tone and universality. Such a holiday, was celebrated with dignity: An assembly was held by the Ulates each year, that is to say, three days before Samhain and three days after, and the High Day of Samhain itself. It was the time when the Ulates were in the plain of Murtheme, and they held the assembly of Samhain each year. There was nothing in the worlds that was not done by them at this time to enhance the games, gatherings, reunions, pomp and magnificence, with costly goods and banquets, and it is from there that came the (custom of) the three days of Samhain in all Ireland.
‘Conchobar himself served them at the holiday of Samhain, because of the reunion of a great crowd. It was necessary to nourish the great multitude, as all those of the Ulates who did not come to Emain on the night of Samhain and the three days after Samhain, lost their reason, and their sepulchral mounds were prepared, each one’s tomb and his headstone set the following morning. There were great provisions at Conchobar’s the three days before and three days after Samhain that marked the feast at his palace.’
So runs the stanza from the Birth of Conchobar. At these gatherings, kings were chosen or reaffirmed. Debts and quarrels were settled and laws for the coming year enacted. It was a sacred and magical time, and the corridor to the Other World, to the Ancestors and the Gods, was open, and communications, and even goods and people, or at least their souls, could pass between our world and the Other. The Sidhe Mounds were said to open, and horses or children who had been lost, spirited off by the Sidhe, or other denizens of the Other World, could return or be brought back. But likewise the Deities and ancestors could exact reprisal for offenses against them, or demand changes and send signs confirming or denying victory or prosperity. Kings who had broken their “Guise,” ritual taboos, or warriors who had made unjust war, were in particular danger of being struck dead or carried off at this time.
A typical Samhain tale is found in the Echtra Nerai epic:
On the eve of Samhain Ailill and Medhbh, king and queen of Connacht, offer the prize of his choice to whomsoever succeeds in putting a withe around the foot of either of two captives who had been hanged the previous day. Nera alone accepts the challenge. He goes to the gallows but he only succeeds in fixing the withe after the corpse has instructed him. The corpse then complains of thirst and Nera carries him on his back to a dwelling in which he finds water. Having replaced him on the gallows, he returns to the royal court of Cruachain only to find it in flames and the severed heads of its people near by. As the attacking warriors move off, Nera follows them into the Cave of Cruachain, a famous gateway to the otherworld. Once inside the sídh he is discovered but is permitted to remain. He takes a wife from among the women of the sídh and from her he learns that his vision of the destruction of the court of Cruachain was but a premonition: it will come true next Samhain, however, unless the sídhe is ravaged before then. He sets out to bring warning to his own people, carrying with him fruits of summer–wild garlic and primrose and golden fern–to prove whence he had come, and he finds his friends still seated around the cauldron as he had left them, though much had befallen him in the meantime. When Samhain returns, the Connacht warriors invade and plunder the sídh and carry off the three great treasures of Ireland. But Nera remains behind with his family in the sídh and there he will stay until Doomsday.
Nera remains behind as exchange for the treasures, or as reprisal for the plundering. This illuminates one side and meaning of Celtic sacrifice, and may also echo the more ancient ideas of the death of divine victims, priests married to Goddesses, or who assumed a God’s identity. The Nerthus traditions of Germanic society are a close parallel. The priest who tended Nerthus’ wagon during its annual summer journey through the countryside was sent to join Her at the end of the ritual pilgrimage. The bodies of some of these male attendants, found with Her wagons in Danish bogs show, according to Prof. P.V. Glob, slight muscular development and hands that had never done rough work. These were not slaves. Neither were they prisoners of war, i.e. warriors, nor criminals, the two most common groups used for sacrificial purposes.
Nera could be a memory of a cultural parallel. He (1.) accepts a magical or magic-laden challenge, more the stuff of a Druid, 1st function/caste, than a warrior; (2.) he sees a vision and prophesizes; (3.) he is married to a supernal being; (4.) he leaves the mortal world, forever, to join her and serve as recompense for the treasures gained by mortals, his kinsmen.
In modern N.R.D.N.A. celebrations of the holiday, vigils are in order, and vision-quests prayers for guidance in major life-changes are in order. It is a time to tie up loose ends and settle debts, to, as Jim Duran said, “get straight with your ancestors,” deceased relatives and departed friends. If you are keeping an all night vigil, leaving out a plate of food or a remembrance for the spirits or departed friends is one way.
Samhain Essay: The Other World
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1986
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, Celtic New Years, the Day-between the Worlds…The Druidic year stars on Samhain, in the fall of the year, just as the Druidic day begins with the going down of the Sun. Samhain marks the end of the harvest which began at Lughnasadh. All fruit not gathered in by Samhain Eve must be left in the fields to feed the birds, the wild animals, and the Sidhi. The Pukas, mischievous spirits, will come for it, to steal its nourishing essence and leave the husk, or to despoil it, if it is not to their liking. Their mythic descendents swarm out in the form of myriad “Trick-or-Treaters.”
Like New Years’ celebration all over the world, Samhain festivities fall into two sequential phases: one that signifies the return to Chaos, and involves the disposal of old goods, potlatches, parties, suspension of taboos, return of the dead, and the mixing of the two Worlds, in Past and Future; and a second whose theme is the rebirth of Order and Cosmos, of creating anew, of preparations, and of the rites of Samhain Morning. (As we are not an official, organized Grove, here in Orinda, but a gathering of Solitary Third Order Druids, First Orders, and friends, the election that would ordinarily be held for officers in an R.D.N.A. Grove will not need to be held. Isn’t it a relief!?)
The beliefs involving the return of the dead on Samhain Night are based on the Pan-European traditions of Samhain as the time when the Other World is closest to this one, and when, therefore, doors, passages, may open between the two. In Celtic myths these gateways were usually located at the Sidhi Mounds, the megalithic tombs of the Celts’ Pre-Indo-European predecessors. But ways were also said to exist through sacred lakes and springs, and through caves in the crags. These doorways admitted passage in both directions. On special days, mortal heroes or heroines crossed to the Other World on quests, adventures or to obtain prophetic knowledge. Throughout Eurasia, the dead, who exist beyond time, are believed to know the future as well as everything that has happened in the past. Dead ancestors could help a favored descendent with this knowledge, or send health and prosperity, but first the petitioner must be in perfect estate, having broken no Geas, nor taboo, nor have incurred the censor of any Deity or Sidhi. In addition, the seeker must be in the good graces of the ancestor whose help is needed. Health or disease were from the ancestors in the Celtic Cosmos; to live well one had to be on good terms with the dead and with one’s past. The past becomes present again on Samhain, between the years. All oblations and funeral rites due the ancestors must have been offered, and all debts of this World paid, if the traveler is to step lightly between the Worlds. If all was not in perfect order, the quester might become trapped or the ancestors could send disease and misfortune when the passage opened. Or the wronged dead could pass into this World, and walk in the time between the years, seeking revenge.
The concept of going to the Other World for help from disease or to secure prophetic knowledge is found in several different European Samhain traditions, as well as among the Celts, is probably cognate with, descended from the Other World journeys of the Paleolithic Eurasian shamans. Similar, but more complex and complete traditions and epics have been preserved among the Siberian shamanic religions. There, going to the Other World(s) and returning to one’s mortal body are usually the privilege of the clergy, i.e. initiate shamans. But in Europe, on Samhain, the Other World is very close, in Celtic verse, just a mist apart. On this night, there is no treacherous journey through intermediate kingdoms or being states. Tonight a mortal, albeit a hero or a heroine, could make the leap.
R.D.N.A members hold all night vigils, beginning with a bonfire at dusk when the first of the two Samhain services is held. All opened bottles of spirits must be finished by dawn, and there will be, then, no more fermented spirits in the Grove chalice until Beltaine. Plates of food and offerings should be set out, just beyond the firelight, for the souls of friends who have died in the past year. They may be invited to join the festivities.
At dawn the second Samhain service is held. All remaining liquor is sacrificed in the fire, and the Third Order Druids exchange their red ribbons and ornaments for the white of the Season of Sleep. There is pure water in the Chalice. The new year has begun.
In preparation, all debts should be paid, or arrangements for them brought into harmony. All rites due to the dead, and the past, should have been performed, and all obligations to the living brought current. Then enter the Time-Between-the-Worlds “without burden, without geas, without malice.” Pleasant journeys!
Samhain Essay: Celtic Feast Days
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1987
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, Celtic New Year, the day between the Worlds. The Druid year starts with Samhain in the fall of the year, just as the Druid reckoning of days begins each day at the fall of night. This high day marks the end of the harvest season. Any fruit not gathered in by Samhain Eve must be left in the fields to feed the birds and the wild animals, or the Sidhe, as one would have it. According to Françoise Le Roux, whose article, “Studies on the Celtic Feast Days” has been translated from the French by one of our subscribers, Jeanne Elizabeth, Samhain may he derived from Sam Fuin, meaning weakening or end of summer. Other competing derivations from Sam Rad or Samhra are by no means disproven, such as Samh-rad, summer, or Samhrach, quiet, still.
Like New Years, Samhain’s celebrations everywhere, Samhain’s festivities fall into two sequential phases: one that signifies a return to Chaos, to wit: the disposal of old goods, expelling of evil, reversal of usual habits of behavior, parties, suspension of taboos, and the return of the dead to this world of the living, all of which occur on Samhain night; and a second phase which signifies rebirth of the Cosmos and creation anew, to wit: the lighting of new fires, the beginning of a new season, inauguration of new ceremonies, re-affirmation of the existing order, and installation of new leaders. This phase is enacted Samhain morning, and is symbolized in the RDNA tradition in the Samhain Dawn service, Service The newly elected Archdruid, in Preceptor, and Server enact the first service of the new year; All Third order Druids change their ceremonial ribbons to new white ones, and winter begins.
Samhain Essay: Gatherings
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1988
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, a major High Day in the Druid calendar, is the day between the years. The Druid year starts with Samhain in the autumn just as the Celtic day begins at sundown, The Classic writers of antiquity held that it was a Druid teaching that cold and darkness and difficulty precede warmth and light and benefit.
In old Druid times, Samhain was the occasion of great gatherings in Ireland and Gaul, and probably in Scotland and Britain as well, though there no records of them survived.
The Druids, Bards, and Ovates (Ollafhs) and the political leaders from all parts of Ireland assembled at Tara. In Gaul similar gatherings were held, which sent and received emissaries to and from Scotland and Alba (England.) Representatives of the Tuatha, the husbandmen, from the four provinces of Ireland assembled at Tara Hall well before Samhain. There, after ritual purifications, such as running or leaping the bonefires, and the offering of sacrifices, the chieftains and Druids retired indoors, into the Great Hall,. They remained “under roof” all Samhain. Day, the belief being that on this day the forces of Propriety and Order were gathered indoors, and the forces of Chaos were afoot outside. Inside participants took up their traditional stations around the High King: Those of Ulster, representing the warrior caste, to his left; those of Munster, representing Bards, Prophets, and artists to his right; those of Connaught, representing the Druidic (clerical) caste at his back; and facing him, Lennster, representing the Tuatha, “the people,” crafts and husbandmen. In this order the Great Counsel of the year was held.*
Reflections are held in R.D.N.A. Groves, and a night vigil is held mark the new year. In the morning, the Third Order Druids exchange their red ceremonial ribbons for white, and offer a second sacrifice to the Dawn.
*For the High King, it was “face the people day.” No wonder the holiday became associated with dread. From Professor James Duran’s seminar, “The Druids,” Berkeley, 1985.
Samhain Essay: Paying Respects
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1989
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, Celtic New Year, the Day Between the Worlds, the Druid year starts on Samhain, The sun is half way between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season. All fruit and grain not gathered in by Samhain Eve must be left in the fields to feed the birds and wild animals, the flocks of Cernnunos, and its vegetable life essence, its “spirit” becomes the property of “The Little People,” the Sidhi, and feeds them. (Is our word, ‘fairy,” derived from “fear an sidhi,” meaning in proto-Gaelic “a person of the Sidhi,” one of the little people?) Sidhi is pronounced in Gaelic as English “shee.,” A Banshee, the spirit that gives prophecies and mourns for the dead, means literally “a woman of the Sidhi.” Another folk tradition, probably from old Druid times, holds that “Pukas,” mischievous spirits, will come out on Samhain night and steal the nourishing essence of any food crops left in the fields, or, if it is not to their liking, will despoil it. Their mythic descendents swarm out in the form of hordes of trick-or-treaters and disguised, costumed revelers.
This is the night when the Other World, the world of the dead, the future souls, and of the ancestors, comes the closest to our world and “dimension hopping” is the easiest. It is time to honor dead ancestors, and remember old friends. This was “the day of the dead” long before the Christian era. The dead were thought by the ancient Celts to have a wider and truer perspective on things than we mortals do, and to be able to advise their descendents and friends, They know all history, are aware of all forces and causes, and can intuit the future better than we. Pay your respects at graves or memorials, ask questions of departed friends, ancestors, or mentors. Leave out food offerings for them at your Samhain Eve celebrations and vigils. Get out old photographs. Review the past, this pre-Samhain week, and pay old debts, spiritual or emotional. Find lost belongings, make amends. Then celebrate.
Samhain Essay: Vigiling
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1990
By Emmon Bodfish
Samhain, Druid New Year’s, occurs when the Sun is half way between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. The Druid year begins in the autumn, just as the Druid day begins at twilight with the going down of the Sun and runs until the next evening. Julius Caesar called this the “custom of reckoning by nights rather than by days,” or dawnings, and considered it a strange custom, one that set the Druids apart from any of the other peoples he encountered in the Ancient World. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season. Any food not gathered in by Samhain Eve was left in the fields to feed the birds and wild animals, or the Sidhe, the spirit-folk.
Like New Year’s Celebrations everywhere, Samhain festivities fall into two sequential phases the first signifying a return to chaos, e.g. the disposal of old goods, expelling of evil, repayment of debts, completion of contracts, endings, then parties, dancing, fire-leaping and the suspension of taboos; on Samhain night, the first half of “the Day-Between-the-Worlds,” this World and the Other are very close. Spirits of the dead may return, and messages can pass very easily from our world to the Other world and back. Spells are more easily broken and banished at this time Cernunnos rules, and His followers, the Suibhnes, forest hermits and prophecizers, the mystical branch of the Druid caste, try their skills at (shaman-like) journeying to the Other World or other parts of this one.
With Samhain dawn, the second phase of the New Year’s celebration begins: the establishing of the new order. New, “clean” fire is kindled by friction, traditional summer trappings are exchanged for traditional winter trappings. The traditional Samhain ceremonies and rituals are enacted. Winter begins.
The R.D.NA. Samhain celebration reflects these two phases. It begins on Samhain Eve with a sunset service with the summer season chants and ritual. Then an all-night vigil is held and the altar fire is kept burning. Members bring food and jollity, and all already-opened bottles of liquor and wine belonging to members must be finished or sacrificed before dawn. No alcohol is found in the chalice or consumed in the Grove during the winter half of the year, the Season of Sleep.