What is the history behind the Celtic festival of Samhain and what does it have to do with Halloween?

Historian Mark Williams explores the history of Samhain, from its Celtic heritage to its association with modern Halloween…

A man goes into a village at night on the eve of Samhain

There seems to be a primal need in human beings to gather and celebrate at the beginning of winter, as the nights draw in and cold and darkness take over.

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Contemporary British culture offers both Halloween on 31 October and Bonfire Night on the 5 November; the latter is a celebration of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but the urge to make merry in the face of winter is much older. In Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, it generated the festival of Samhain.

What is Samhain and why is it celebrated?

In the modern Irish language, Samhain is simply the word for the month of November; it is pronounced like the English word ‘sound’ without the final D.

But in earlier times it referred to one of the four great festivals of the traditional Gaelic year, celebrated on 1 November (though festivities spanned a few days either side) and so corresponding closely in date to our Halloween.

It marked the beginning of the winter season, and in the landlocked midlands of Ireland it would often have coincided with the first frosts. We do not know exactly how it was celebrated, but gatherings of tribal groups, feasting, and the lighting of bonfires almost certainly played a part.

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What are the origins of Samhain?

The Irish intelligentsia of the Middle Ages understood the word to derive from sam-fhuinn, ‘summer’s end’, and it was a rich time, when food was abundant.

Early Ireland was a pastoral society, and at Samhain the harvest had been gathered in and grazing animals could be brought down from the uplands for shelter over winter. Pigs would be slaughtered and the meat salted to last over the months of darkness.

In one of medieval Ireland’s most beautiful sagas, The Wooing of Emer (perhaps from around AD 800), Samhain is described as the time “when summer goes to its rest” and that at this time the people of Ulster used to hold a great assembly. The celebration would last for the three nights before Samhain, then the night of Samhain itself, and then the three nights after.

This is not necessarily what early medieval Irish did themselves – the author is imagining the Ireland of centuries before – but it must have struck the audience of the tale as plausible. The celebration of Samhain therefore likely goes back to the Iron Age.

Was Samhain the Celtic New Year?

It is often said that Samhain was the ‘Celtic New Year’, and this has become one of many recycled ‘facts’ about Celtic culture which turn out to have shaky foundations.

Certainly there is no evidence from any early Irish text that Samhain was considered the beginning of the year. In one place Julius Caesar does remark that the Celtic Gauls – not the Irish, of whom he knew nothing – believe themselves to be descended from the god of the underworld, and so reckon time by nights rather than by days. This seems to have generated the generalised idea that the Celtic year, like the Celtic day, should begin in darkness.

What’s the link between Samhain and Halloween?

Is there any real connection between the end of summer festival of the ancient Irish and our Halloween? There are suggestive points of contact, but tracing a direct link is difficult. The most obvious quality of our Halloween is its spookiness: it is strongly associated with witches and the dead.

In early Irish literature Samhain does seem to have been the major point in the year at which supernatural events occur, and this is in striking contrast to Welsh tradition, in which the classic time for supernatural happenings to take place is May Day, at the beginning of summer.

Examples are very numerous, but it seems that the otherworld was felt to be particularly close and accessible at Samhain. The otherworld is a distinctive feature of Celtic literature: a realm adjacent to or somehow inside our own, where time often seems to pass differently and which is inhabited by people much like ourselves but immortal.

One medieval Irish text tells us that ‘common people’ made offerings at Samhain to a fairy-woman named Mongfhind, whose name means ‘Fair Hair’. Survivals of a pre-Christian religious customs in medieval Ireland are much less common than people often suppose, but this is a likely candidate.

One early saga stands out for its uncanny atmosphere and what it suggests about Samhain. In The Adventure of Nera (perhaps composed around AD 800), the hero Nera encounters a kind of zombie at Samhain, an animated corpse hanging on the gallows. He finds his way twice into the otherworld, and learns its denizens are planning to destroy his community in our world. He brings back springtime flowers and herbs from the otherworld to his people, convincing them that he really has been ‘out of time’ and beyond the ordinary world, and so that the supernatural threat is real.

How has Christianity influenced Samhain?

Strikingly, there is no evidence in early Irish tradition that Samhain was associated with the dead. That seems to come from the Christian liturgical calendar, when from the ninth century AD All Saints’ Day, the feast associated with the saints and martyrs, was fixed on 1 November, having previously been May.

As a result the next day, 2 November, came to be associated with the souls of the ordinary faithful departed, so that All Souls’ Day followed All Saints’ Day.

This development was nothing to do with Samhain, Ireland, or the Celts; but certainly in Ireland it came to influence the folklore of Samhain, which was handed down to modernity.

The Christian feast and the traditional Gaelic one blended inextricably, with traditions such as hollowing out turnips and putting lights in them emerging from the 19th century. Disguises were worn, and masked ‘guisers’ went from house to house. With massive Irish emigration to the United States in response to the Irish famine, these customs infiltrated American culture. Exported back to Europe, they helped to shape the festival of Halloween as we now know it.

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Mark Williams is Associate Professor of Global Medieval Literature at the University of Oxford, specialising in Celtic languages and the medieval literature of Ireland and Wales. He is the author of The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Thames & Hudson, 2021)