Samhain 31st October (or Halloween)
To the Celts November 1 was Samhain, meaning Summer's End. In Wales it was called calan gaef or the first day of winter, while Halloween was nos calan gaef or winter's night. Despite the Wiccan persistence in treating Samhain as the Celtic New Year, there is little evidence to support this idea. In fact this idea is more likely to have developed in the romanticisation of the Celts that happened in the late 19th century.
To our Anglo-Saxon ancestors early November was the time when surplus cattle, sheep, and pigs were slaughtered and the meat salted to see the tribe through the winter months. Writing in the 8th century the Venerable Bede said that the pagan Saxons called November Blodmonath or blood month. In a religious sense it was when the blot was performed - the pre-winter sacrifice of animals to the Gods in the hope that the weather would not be bad and not too many of the tribe would die before spring.
To our Celtic, Saxon and Norse ancestors Samhain was a festival for the dead. It was a special time when summer gave way to winter and supernatural forces were believed to be on the loose. The early Christian Church decided to move the Festival of All Saints from May 13 to November 1 in 835CE. A century later November 2 was made All Souls day when it was the Christian custom to pray for the souls of the dead in Limbo. These Church festivals may have influenced the folk customs of All Saint's Eve or Halloween, however, it is more probable to our minds that much of the older pagan customs were remembered in these folk customs.
Halloween, with May Eve and Midsummer's Eve, was one of the three 'spirit nights' of the year when the veil between the worlds was thin. In the old days it was when people gathered round the open fire and frightened each other with ghost stories, tell legends and divine the future. A door or window was left open for the dead to enter and a special meal, known as the Dumb Supper, was prepared and left out for them.
Outside in the countryside all hell had broken loose as the spirits of the underworld roamed abroad scaring travellers. The Wild Hunt led by the King and Queen of Elfhame rode the sky, along with the witches on broomsticks on their way to the Grand Sabbat presided over by the Devil. Churchyards, crossroads and stiles were crowded with the dead and their whispers 'buzzed like bees'. The Dark Goddess could be encountered in the dark country lanes by anyone daft enough to be out on Winter's Night.
Halloween bonfires were lit at dusk in some areas and prayers said for the dead. The purpose of the fires was to scare away the powers of darkness with light. As the days grew shorter the sun was sinking in the sky and it was believed the dark powers were in the ascendant. In Christian times witches became associated with the 'evil' powers and the cry went up 'Burn the Witch' as more peat or wood was thrown on the fire.
In recent years the modern secular celebration of Halloween, a commercial travesty, has become combined with Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November. The burning of effigies whether of Guido Fawkes or an unpopular political figure may be a remnant of memories of human sacrifice at the start of winter.
In Celtic mythology the abode of the dead was either underground, under water, in a hollow hill, or on an island in the western ocean 'beyond the setting sun' or rather these were the entrances to the underworld, the liminal places where contact could be made with the ancestral dead. It is interesting to note that in the Iron Age, Glastonbury Tor was an island surrounded by marsh and sea and was thought to be hollow and an entrance to the underworld. It was the dwelling of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Welsh version of the leader of the Wild Hunt.
In some traditions two circles are cast at Halloween, one for the living and one for the dead. Using a circle or the act of circling to make contact with or enter the spirit world has always been a prominent feature of ritual and folk magick. It is a ritual act associated with nocturnal visits, usually at midnight or on the full moon to prehistoric burial mounds, crossroads, ancient standing stones or churchyards built on pagan sites. Once there, if you are brave, you may dance or walk three, seven or nine times widdershins, backwards, or forwards or deosil around the hallowed ground. This magickal action prompts visions of the future or a manifestation of the Horned God, or 'a Lady on a white horse', or spirits who are guardians of the treasure, faeries or long dead pagan priests who will reveal secret knowledge.
The act of circling or casting the circle is a ritual metaphor for gaining access to the Otherworld, crossing the boundaries between the worlds, and making contact with supernatural forces or beings. This is a special time when the Hidden Company draw near and can be felt outside the circle. They are the spirits of witches who have gone to the Otherworld and now return to act as spirit guides to the living.
This Dark season of the year which starts at Samhain is a time for planning, consolidation and peaceful contemplation. It culminates at Winter Solstice or Yule, when we should take a spiritual rest before the Wheel of the Year turns anew and the 'stag and the old woman' welcome in the New Year, so that the cycle can begin again.
In the process of contemplation followed by rebirth the archetype of the Wild Hunter is important because if we can face him who carries much of our shadow and allows dark wisdom within to teach us then we can go quietly into the underworld in the winter months. By confronting our natural fear of death and the dark inherited by from our ancestors and overcome our Christian conditioning that darkness equals evil, we can discover what the Dark God and Goddess have to teach us. This is our time to undergo our own personal underworld initiation and our own quest for the vision of the grail granted to those who are worthy in heart and spirit. It is the vision of the Grail that is the gift of the Dark Lady and it is into her realm that we must descend to gain that sight at her hands.
However you choose to celebrate, may you remember those who have gone before you, honour them, wish them well and ask for their guidance. May the Dark Lord and Lady give you the vision and may you find your underworld initiation.
© Traditional Witch 2006