Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Samhain! Happy All Hollow's Eve!

Hallowe'en is upon us, and for many it is simply a time to hand out candy and recover from whatever holiday parties they attended this past weekend. I wonder how many folks will think about where this tradition came from. Most likely, if you aren't in some Christian sect that forbids the celebration of Halloween, your associations with this day don't progress much further than a love for bite-sized candy bars. But the truth is that the origins of Halloween probably pre-date just about any other holiday that you celebrate (if you aren't Jewish).

To explore the origins of the festival we celebrate on October 31, you need to start with the Celtic Pagans of the region we now know as Ireland. They celebrated a day called Samhain on the full moon closest to November 1st every year. This was the offiicial end of the Harvest season, and time for the people of antiquity to store food for the winter. They would slaughter enough animals to provide sufficient provisions for months. There was always some confusion about how much food was needed, and the ancient druids would seek advice from the spirit world. This time of year was considered propitious for contact between the spiritual and earthly realms. The Celts would engage in divination, make sacrifices to ancestral spirits, and build huge bonfires to ward off the evil ones. If all went well, they could hope for a smooth transition through the difficult part of the yearly cycle.

An interesting role was played by a faerie creature called the "puca" (accent on the "a"). This was a shape-shifter that often appeared as a goat, an eagle or a black horse, with yellow glowing eyes. It would waylay travelers and call to people in their homes, and then snatch them up for a ride on its back. Often the farmers would leave a small portion of the crop in the fields to appease this creature. While this may sound ridiculous to the modern mind, it has left its residue on Celtic culture. Halloween is stil referred to as "Pooky Night" in some parts of Ireland.

When the Romans successfully subjugated the Celts, they merged Samhain with two of their traditional festivals- one of which honored "Pomona", the goddess of fruit trees. This is where the associations with abundance and apples were formed. Since Samhain was a time to prepare for months of scarcity and discomfort, it didn't encourage the sort of indulgence we associate with the harvest festivals of today. This influnce was only incorporated from the Roman traditions.

As Catholicism later gained wide currency, Samhain was confounded with All Saint's Day, and the resulting phenomena gained it's skeleton and skull components. Hallowmas was a time to remember with reverence the lives of the departed saints of Christendom. The reliquaries that venerated the corporeality of the saints lent themselves naturally to the imagery of mortality. It's not altogether clear whether or not the Church was consciously co-opting the pagan observation of Samhain. But whether intentional or not... these historical factors, along with the pervasive influences of commercialism in modern society, form the holiday we now observe as Halloween.

Despite its convoluted and ambiguous beginnings, Halloween seems to be growing in popularity. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the kick-off to the holiday buying season. A large majority of the US population participates in some type of Halloween-related activity. Outdoor decorations become larger and gaudier every year. While some conservative Christian groups bemoan its "satanic" influences, most everybody else sees it as harmless, kitschy fun. Even the Mormons have "trunk-or-treating"- whereupon they decorate the back ends of their automobiles, drive to the church parking lot, and share treats and fellowship. And if it's good enough for the Mormons... well, then...


Blogger Rob said...

Actually, the date of Halloween was based on when the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) were at the Culmination -- i.e. overhead at midnight, visible at sunset and sunrise, and in the sky all night.

Due to changes in the direction the Earth's axis points, Culmination now occurs in November. This is the same phenomenon thing that led to the cult of Mithras.

The Pleiades are of great importance to humanity; the world over, they are known as the Seven Sisters, though only 6 stars (or 9 or more) were ever visible to the naked eye during human history -- never seven! Apparently, seven is such an important number that most societies explain why there are actually only 6 stars.

Like the Great Bear, this is a named constellation the world over, indicating it was named over 13,000 years ago, before the migration to the Americas.

Almost all archaeoastronomical observatories have alignments for the Pleiades, including Stonehenge and the Cahokia Mounds Wooodhenge.

The "full moon" stuff was a later addition by someone who didn't know any better.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


What you say could well be true. You certainly seem to have as much authority as any of the myriad of posters that posit conflicting speculations about this. Either way, we aren't talking about the date of Halloween, but speculating on the date of Samhain.

Anyways... thanks for posting your take... I appreciate it.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Halloween was based on the date of Samhain. I used them interchangably, which I shouldn't have.

This month's SciAm goes into greater depth on the constellations. You might find it interesting.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Cool. Thanks again. I'll try to check it out.

5:43 PM  

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