New Acropolis Articles

The Celtic Origins of Halloween

by Fran├žoise Soria
A few weeks after the colorful festivals of autumn and a few weeks before the deepest night of the year comes Halloween, a joyful yet eerie time. Halloween is still celebrated world-wide as All Hallows, Hallowe'en or All Saints Day (1st of November). Halloween is a time of ghosts, demons, jack-o'-lanterns, witches, rattling bones, frightening stories and tricks; a time for enjoying the generous fruits of Nature: nuts, apples, pumpkins, corn, etc. Homes are adorned with huge carved pumpkins that illumine the night; friends and relatives gather to celebrate and children break the coldness of the coming winter, harvesting "treats or tricks".

Even though they have lost much of their meaning, traditional festivals still remind us of the existence of a "time" beyond the ordinary and profane: a time of magic and sacredness. Halloween is one of these special doors of the year, a festival rich in meaning since it is the direct descendant of one of the most important days in the Celtic calendar: SAMHAIN.

The Celtic Calendar

The Celtic year was divided by both solar and lunar festivals. The solar festivals marked the Sun's path: at its zenith on the Summer solstice, at its nadir on the Winter solstice, and at the two median points on the equinoxes. The Lunar festivals, called Fire Festivals, were the most important in the Celtic calendar. They were, to a certain extent, related to agricultural events, and celebrated on the full moon. Hence the 4 cross-quarter days were "in-between" times, whose exact day of celebration was determined by where the full moon fell within that month. Samhain and Beltain were the two major festivals since they divided the year into Winter and Summer, the dark and the light seasons.

The four lunar festivals were:
Samhain: October 31st - This was the Celtic New Year, the most important festival of the wheel.
Imbolc/Oimelc: February 1st - The "Candle festival", marking the middle of winter.
Beltain: May 1st - The "Flower Festival", marking the first day of Celtic Summer.
Lugnassadh: August 1st - The "Grain festival", marking the middle of Summer.

To the Celts, sacred landscapes (groves, stones, caves, mountains, springs...) as well as sacred times marked special "access points" to the Otherworld, the non-physical realm they considered as real and tangible as the physical. The Druids, priests and sages of the Celts, were the ones who held the keys of these special doors: "The Celtic culture has already been referred to as the 'Twilight Peoples' by writers too numerous to list. And why should such a term be so fitting? Because clearly, both the race and its priests revered the in-between 'flux states' of the world, thinking them a direct doorway -an emanation from the ghostly realms of the Spirit... Even their choices of celebration days within the natural calendrical year, were those 'in-between' times -the cross-quarter days- which were the points of greatest inequality or imbalance... The Druids knew that such "uneven times" were more prone to produce consciousness alteration (i.e. Otherworld access) than the "balanced times" of the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, paired with their divisors" (1).

To better understand this concept of "balance in imbalance", let's stress that the Celts viewed Life as a dynamic spiral expressed through the constant pulse of Nature, where Life springs from Death, Light from darkness... The triptych "Life-Death-Rebirth", cornerstone of the Celtic view of the world, is represented in the Triscale, a symbol that expresses "ideally the motion of cycles within the world of form -unfolding ever-outward- growing, always returning again to the same point, yet on a slightly higher level...rebirth" (1).

The Otherworld and the Underworld

As Samhain was the beginning of the Celtic year, it closed a cycle and opened a new one. At this moment of the year, the veil between the visible and the invisible worlds grew most thin, allowing both realms to communicate. The boundaries between the living and the dead, the ancestors, the gods, the heroes... faded away, as did the borders between past, present and future. The non-physical realm was at the same time celestial and terrestrial, referred to as the Otherworld and the Underworld.

The Otherworld is related to Eternity and best evoked by Caitlin Matthews: "Perhaps more than any other people, the Celts have always cherished the country of their true home -the Otherworld. It is the source of their wisdom, the place of their gods, the dimension in which poets and wanderers are most at home. Whoever has visited the Otherworld becomes more than mortal... The realms of the Otherworld are of the ever-living, where everything is possible, where great deeds are accomplished...".

Hence, the Otherworld is the dwelling place of the Heroes, the Blessed ones whose qualities made them superior. It is AVALON, the "Apple-isle", a paradise across the sea, where the gods and heroes feed on apples of immortality.

A more chtonic aspect of the invisible realm is the "Underworld", quite distinct from the Otherworld. This element of the Celtic cosmology -rooted in older native beliefs- was not conceived of as a hell or place of punishment. It was the well of the primal forces of Life, before and after creation; the place where that which was not yet encountered that which was not anymore. It is the realm of the ancestors, exemplified by the ever turning wheel, "the mill in which the gods of the underworld reside, in which the dead are remade, and initiates reborn" (2).

The different worlds -visible and invisible- are not separated: there are bridges. Many gifts pass between mortals and the Otherworld folk: the power of healing, the power to sing, to make music or create poetry. The faery mounds, or sidhes, are the homes of the Otherworld beings, still known in every Celtic country as the Little people: the brownies, the elves, the fairies, the corrigans, the goblins, the gnomes, etc.

The "outer" Samhain

Samhain inaugurated the Celtic year, but also the beginning of the season of cold, dearth and darkness. At Samhain, beasts were rounded up and brought into stockades for wintering over, excess livestock was slaughtered since they could not be kept alive during the hard months of cold and dearth of grain (the herds would be driven out at Beltain). The slaughter took on a ritual and sacrificial aspect.

As the cold was intensifying, bonfires were lit. Their purpose was double: encourage the Sun as the Life-giver (sympathetic magic), and draw upon the elemental quality of fire, as an agent of purification. As at Beltain bonfires, people jumped over them and cattle were driven through them; it was a way of getting rid of evil influences, but also of ridding the cattle of parasites.

Samhain was also a time of truce, with no fighting, violence or divorce allowed. The Irish Fianna hunted and engaged in warfare from Beltain to Samhain, in the warm months, and lived out of the country from Samhain to Beltain.

At this moment of the year, accounts were closed, debts collected and contracts made.

As the boundaries between the realms faded away, it was the perfect time for divination and the reading of omens, such as placing two nuts in the fire for lovers -burning steadily denoted constancy, popping was inconstancy. It was a time for storytelling, poetry, singing and playing tricks, evoking the ancestors and the glorious deeds of the heroes. Let's note that to the Celts, magic was not about "weird" or "occult" practices. It was only the invisible made visible; the tree seen in the seed. Needless to say, the Druids were the experts of this art and science, the ones who had a perfect knowledge and control of the complex forces of Nature.

The "Inner" Samhain

Everything is twofold; everything bears an outer reality and embodies an inner dimension. This is also true for festivals. Beyond the common customs, festivals carried a very profound meaning. Their role was to allow the human being to evolve in a healthy way, that's to say integrating and harmonizing all the components of his nature. There are seasons to sow and seasons to harvest; seasons to shed forms and seasons to expand; seasons to die and seasons to spring again. The very same laws rule human consciousness. There are seasons for introspection and seasons for action; seasons to initiate projects and seasons to reap the fruits; seasons to "die" and seasons to be reborn. Ignoring these cycles of the human Psyche produces sickness -not only physical-, fragmented personalities, weariness, tiredness and dullness, so characteristic of our modern societies, which have broken the link to Nature and to the Sacredness of Life.

We can't understand Halloween/Samhain without taking this aspect into consideration. There is an "exoteric" -outer- Samhain and an "esoteric" -inner- Samhain. The former was expressed through customs, practices (as described above) but also through fears and superstitions. Samhain came to be considered as a "dangerous time for mortals as fairies would take them and witches and evil powers were abroad and required propitiation". The latter was experienced at deeper levels by the ones who had prepared themselves. "The festival night is honored by the Druids above all others...because it is during this time that the veil separating this world from the Otherworld grows most thin, a time requiring careful control to overcome the fear it generates... The common-folk know much of this fear, but little of what is needed to master it". (1) Let's try then to draw some of the deeper meanings of Samhain.

Samhain celebrated the beginning of the year, opening a new cycle and closing another one. Hence it is a time of Death and Rebirth, that's to say RE-CREATION. The old forms need to dissolve and to be reorganized in a different way to allow a new and more complex order to be created. This phase of reorganization is the necessary CHAOS preceding COSMOS (Order), the twilight preceding the day. Hence this aspect of Samhain, which makes this festival a Celtic equivalent of the Roman Saturnalia. Samhain was also a time of reversal of normal order, symbolized by such tricks as blocking up chimneys, leading off cattle, throwing cabbage to notable people... This "chaos" aspect allowed to externalize more irrational and darker sides of human nature, which are the primal forces that need to be integrated and transcended in order to allow a natural progression towards higher planes of consciousness.

In winter, Samhain inaugurates the cold season. Nature is dying. Or so we perceive. In fact, death strikes only the visible world; the invisible keeps alive, as the re-awakening of Nature will prove at Spring. As the "outer forms" fall down, the existence of the inner realm becomes more obvious. The cold season is a propitious time to relate to that which is essential; a time for introspection and for shedding layers of superfluous aspects, a time to regroup the multiple facets of our personalities and experience Unity. (The analogy with the rounding up of the cattle and the slaughtering of the excess livestock is quite powerful!)

As the visible is dying, the contact with the invisible -the Eternal Spirit- is easier. Hence Samhain is the celebration of the Life which never dies. It's the time to harvest the fruits in the visible, and to keep the seeds (the invisible essence) to initiate a new cycle. The celebration of the never dying spirit is expressed in many ways at Samhain: Apples and nuts are associated with Samhain and Halloween, as symbols of Eternity and hidden Wisdom. The Apple is the fruit of the Otherworld growing in Avalon. When cut crosswise, the apple displays 5 seeds embedded within a five-branch star, symbol of the Welsh Sow Goddess Cerridwen (the Morrigu) and of the spiritual quintessence ("fifth essence"). The apple then came to be known as the "fruit of the Gods". Apples and nuts are also found on the "silver branch" carried by the poets, or fili, since poets draw their inspiration from the everfertile Otherworld. Another reminder of Eternity at the door of the dark season was the mistletoe. The sacred mistletoe grows upon the oak, drawing its life-force from the essence of the King of the trees. "At Samhain, a sheaf of corn, a branch of evergreen or mistletoe symbolically carried on the dying powers of vegetation. Carrying or decorating with evergreens demonstrates that life has not died" (3).

Fire was another important element of Samhain also related to Spirit as the Eternal source of Life. The hearth had to be swept clean and a fire kept burning...

Because of its Death-Life double aspect, Samhain was under the influence of Goddesses as The Cailleach, Cerridwen (the Morrighan) and Dana. These are key elements in the understanding of the symbolism of Samhain, but also of Halloween, since these deities are the very ancestors of our modern ugly witch! As Caitlin Matthews explains: "One of the oldest deities, perhaps a truly native goddess of Britain and Ireland who was incorporated into the Celtic tradition is the Cailleach or the Old One... About her are found fragmentary stories concerning the control of the weather and the formation of mountain ranges. She is the Mountain Mother of native tradition who has submerged in Celtic story, occasionally appearing as a helper or a hinderer of the hero. Like the British Cerridwen, she guards a cauldron into which the heroes are thrust to be healed and hardened. She sometimes appears in the aspect of the Dark Woman of Knowledge, disguised as an ugly young woman who nevertheless possesses great wisdom. The fragmentary myths which remain embedded in Celtic folklore speak of her pursuit of the Hero, who is often her own son. By harrying the hero, she forces him to grow and develop wisdom... The Morrighan draws directly on the Cailleach's character... As territorial ancestress of the land, she proclaims the peace, but she does not cease prophesying, going on to foretell a world in which the natural order is overtaken by unnatural disaster. Her prophetic voice echoes long down to our own times, for the Cailleach is both the giver and the taker of life and she outlives the ending of the world by renewing it within herself" (2).

The witch (which derives from the Saxon word 'wica', the wise one) allows growth in wisdom by putting human beings in the face of their fears, limitations and demons. Hence her role in INITIATION: by making the "dragons" come out -catharsis effect- they give way to the heroic fight leading from one level of consciousness to another. Growing in wisdom is dying to a degree of ignorance and being reborn to a higher level of freedom.

These deities related at the same time to Death and Life (renewal) show how rich was the Celtic view of Life and the World, as the Celts knew to welcome and integrate the "night-forces", along with the "day-forces". Today's witches (that we display at Halloween) have become the image of exclusively 'evil' and negative aspects. We have forgotten that they also are the messengers of wisdom! A paradoxical marriage difficult to grasp by the dualistic modern mind!

If there is a Halloween symbol that conveys much of the meaning of Samhain, it is the pumpkin. Because of its rounded shape that evokes the sun and the apples, the pumpkin represents eternal life. The multitude of seeds it embodies makes it a symbol of the perpetuation of life through the many cycles in the visible world. On Halloween, we hollow huge pumpkins, carve faces on them and put candles inside (a tradition borrowed from Scottish and Irish people who used to carve huge turnips). To the Celts, the head is the seat, thus the symbol of the Spiritual powers. With the lit candle, the head of jack-o'-lantern represents the immortal spirit that overcomes darkness and chaos. The orange color, so characteristic of Halloween, is a good reminder of the paradoxical union between the Earth (red) and the Sky (yellow); the chtonic forces and the spiritual forces. Finally, the hollowing of the pumpkin is a reminiscence of the magic cauldron of the Cailleach, which contains the primal forces of metamorphosis.

Halloween is much more than ghostly or horror stories or movies. It is an invitation to the heroic journey towards Eternity.

New Acropolis Toronto, April 1998

Bibliography :

1. The 21 Lessons of Merlyn, Douglas Monroe, Llewellyn Publications, 1997- 418pp
2. The Celtic Tradition, Caitlin Matthews, Element Books Limited, 1995 - 112pp
3. The Dictionary of Festivals, J.C. Cooper, Thorsons, 1990 - 230pp