Yesterday I was in the supermarket shopping for ingredients to make spiced apples. It’s a large hangar in South East London which could happily accommodate several small aircraft – arguably more useful than the hordes of shoppers unthinkingly purchasing useless goods for the weekend. Being late October there’s a respectable Hallowe’en section [the fresh pumpkins get thrown away on 1st November] comprising all kinds of artifacts from ghost to cat trinkets and plastic scythes. As I made my way to the tills to purchase my ingredients I caught sight of an abhorrently corpulent mother buying armfuls of Hallowe’en materials, deadened face, deadened appearance, going through the motions of purchase at the shop’s behest. One of the things she was buying was a witch’s broom – probably for her daughter.
It occurred to me in that moment that there was a strong likelihood she had no idea why the broom was associated with Hallowe’en. Yes, witches have brooms, but the reason for such eludes many. I’m sure if this lady knew the reason for the link she’d cancel her purchase on the spot. But such ignorance is deliciously widespread in our Western society: she probably had no clue about this in the same way that most families have no idea why they put trees in their houses at Christmas. We know it looks attractive – and it’s part of the season – but we don’t know how the symbolism got there.
More dangerously, many don’t care. It’s likely that a good portion of the Heathen Harvest readership is aware of the reasons behind such things, but I’m also sure there is a large portion who aren’t. All the major festivals of the year, from Hallowe’en to Christmas and Easter – have Pagan roots. Some people may not think they’re Pagan and mentioning their root is irrelevant, but if you celebrate any of these dates, you are ostensibly celebrating a Pagan ritual. All the Christians did was roll these Pagan celebrations into their own religion several hundred years later.
Of course, the fact that the Christians did this raises its own questions, but the purpose of this article is not to address such things in depth [though it may be more appropriate to do so at Yule]. Moreover, the purpose is to break open the hard crust of ignorance that has been formed around Samhain and Hallowe’en and to make the unknowing realise why they are celebrating this event, drawing home the importance of Samhain’s mythology and folklore, which many might think is unrelated to them, but which we carry out routines through every year. This is our history, our ancestry and part of what makes us. We should learn of it, respect it and be proud.
Samhain is primarily a celebration of harvest. The Pagans focus around three major harvest festivals in the year: Lammas the corn harvest in August, Mabon the fruit and vegetable harvest in September and Samhain, the nut and berry harvest at the end of October. Samhain is therefore a celebration of the third and final harvest of the year before the Winter proper sets in. The word Samhain is Gaelic [pronounced Sawin] and is part of Celtic tradition that has come to form part of the worldwide Pagan banner, the word itself actually meaning ‘November’ or ‘November day’ even though the true etymology stretches back as far as Sanskrit.
As with many Pagan festivals, a lot of the mythology and importance gets integrated from different parts of the world. To the Celts, 1st November was an important time of year because it was the time when the cattle that had been grazing in the pastures all summer were led back to the farmhouses and slaughtered for their meat to be preserved over Winter. The bones of the cattle were burned in bonfires which became something of a related ritual additionally.
Samhain is highly associated with death. All the crop is in, the cattle are slaughtered, plants die, leaves fall. It is the end of the land cycle of birth and growth, now we are entering into a period of widespread demise. Everything about this time of year signifies a downturn in life and an upturn in death – even the light is dying as the evenings draw in ever closer and the daylight shrinks away. Samhain is the beginning of the Dark Half of the year which lasts six months all through to Walpurgisnacht on the 30th April, after which the Light Half of the year commences at the Beltane festival on 1st May. It was seen as a time when the door to the Celtic Otherworld was most open, allowing spirits of all kinds to cross the boundary into the physical realm. It is customary on Samhain night to set an extra place at the dinner table for those ancestors who may return during the evening to visit us: in fact, honouring our ancestry is a major part of Samhain in general. Seeing as it is a time for concentrating on the dead and reflecting in the darkness, discussing our lineage and paying homage to those who bore us is vital. It is because of the link with death and darkness that the colour black is so closely associated with this time of year, as well as orange which represents the vitality within death and the colours of Autumn. Black or orange candles should be lit on Samhain in reference to this, as well as to the fact that black candles are used as a tool of protection and banishment in candle magick whereas orange is used for fertility and stimulation. Black is associated with looking back, whereas orange is related to looking forward.
Seeing as Samhain was associated with the interference and transgression of evil spirits from one spirit world to the next, it was Irish and Scottish custom to dress up as spirits in a process known as “guising” [from the word 'disguise'] as a means of warding off other spirits. Of course, dressing up as spirits can easily encourage playing tricks and pranks, and it’s clear to see how doing one led to the other, in what is now known as trick or treating, the history of which dates as far back as the 18th century, likely merging with the English tradition of giving soul cakes to the poor on All Saints Day or the custom of going house to house collecting food and fuel for Samhain evening. Of course one of the most prevalent icons of the time of year is pumpkin carving, which is mostly thought of as being an American tradition. Far from it: the carving of pumpkins at this time of year came from the carving of turnip lanterns in 19th century Ireland and Scotland, most likely used to light peoples’ way on Samhain night and bearing grotesque faces to protect the carrier from evil spirits. As for another edible Samhain symbol, the apple, its inclusion comes about through the belief of the apple being a sacred fruit and representative of life and immortality to the Celts, apples being buried at Samhain to give food to souls waiting to be reborn.
As for the witches we spoke of, they have a long history of being associated with the time of year, primarily because of ritual gatherings at Samhain and Walpurgisnacht, the cauldron used as a symbol of the witches’ control over life and death, the cauldron shape alluding to sexuality which is such a prevalent feature of this dark festival. The black cat has always been related to the supernatural as well, a thought process which goes back to Ancient Egypt. Cats wonder at night and black cats can conceal themselves in the shadows so they were seen as the diabolical supernatural servants of evil and were even slaughtered because of it.
Samhain is a time of heightened sexual awareness and activity. The act of sex itself is extremely emotional and powerful – the seed and fruit of human beings connecting with the seed and fruit of the harvest, the power and energy raised by sex being seen as a portal through which the dead are able to return. Sexuality is intrinsically linked to witchcraft with sex magick being used for deific worship and ushering in a spiritual and mystical connection. A far more sexualised use of the witches’ broom would be for masturbation: the witches would use a Mandrake flying ‘ointment’ on the broomstick which they would then rub on their genitals for absorption. The birch and willow brooms were ‘ridden’ by witches through fields, the jumping height signifying how high the crop would grow the following year, the hallucinogens in the ointment giving the belief of real flight. Once again, we see everything returning to the harvest.
Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, Samhain was celebrated widely by the Celts. Christians did all they could to wipe out celebration of the event but in the 7th Century, missionaries such as Pope Gregory saw the advantage of contorting the focus. He let people worship the objects they wished to so that their resolve remained intact, but he gave the worship a Christian spin so they effectively became devotees to the new religion. This tactic was massively successful in spreading Christianity and weakening the old religions, redefining the old meanings for new benefit. Seeing as All Saint’s Day traditionally falls on the 1st November, Samhain was rolled into All Hallows’ Eve and was seen as a highly spiritual time where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest as the evil spirits fled before Saint’s Day.
With Samhain only a few days away and with the spiritual power of this event increasing, it is time to not only celebrate this intense and fascinating occasion, but also to inform ourselves further as to the history and the importance of it. The folklore of our ancestors created and defined belief systems, societies and ways of living, and the old ways are still with us now hundreds of years later. The grip of large corporations – like that of Christianity – has allowed us to literally buy into this event without consciousness, but the real reason and respect for this occasion should never be lost. This Samhain take the time to honour the evening, the rituals, the history, the mythology and your own individual ancestry. Its personal implications and applications are more than most realise.
Written/photography by Lysander
Listen to the Heathen Harvest Samhainwork album