Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sing Me A Song of Samhain: The Ancient Roots of Halloween

By Outlander Central

In honor of the Festival of Samhain and the Worldwide Launch of Outlander Central, we wanted to give you a wee history of some of the myths and lore  to which Diana Gabaldon introduced us in Outlander (or Cross Stitch, for those of you across the pond).  We hope ye enjoy it…maybe it’ll even inspire some of ye to dance naked under the full moon! (But, to quote Aunt Jet from Practical Magic, “The nudity is entirely optional”!)

The holiday that we know today as Halloween, began thousands of years ago as Samhain (pronounced Sow-en, derived from the ancient Celtic word for Summer’s end).  It marks the end of the third and final harvest, it is a day to remember, and commune with, the dead, and it is a celebration of the eternal cycle of reincarnation. 

In European traditions, Samhain is the night when the old God dies, and the Crone Goddess mourns him for the next six weeks, until Yule, the shortest day of the year, when we begin again to move from winter into spring and the renewal of life.  The popular image of the old hag, or witch, stirring her cauldron on Halloween comes from the Celtic traditional lore that all souls return to her cauldron of life, death and rebirth to await reincarnation. It is believed in many cultures, not just among pagans and wiccans, that the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest on Samhain, and as such, it is the ideal day to summon the spirits of those who have gone before us. (Think Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations)

In ancient times, the Crone was revered as the village wise woman; a woman whose age and wisdom made her an extremely powerful figure, but also one who was a wee bit feared.  Over time, as Christianity became the established religion, the practices of the old wise women and healers were branded as evil and thought to be forms of devil worship.  The women were accused as witches, and many thousands perished at the stake.  As we saw in Outlander, Geillis and Claire felt the full brunt of people’s fear and superstition because of their knowledge of herbal remedies and the healing arts. (see our Interview with the Outlander Herbalist Claire MacKay on our Behind the Scenes page for a further discussion of the perils of being an herbalist/healer in the 18th Century!).

Traditionally, bonfires (or balefires) were lighted at sundown on Oct 30th all over Scotland, Ireland,  England and Wales by the people of the local clans and villages to begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain.  The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and offer sacrifices to the Celtic deities as a means of offering the Gods and Goddesses their share of the year’s bounty. The balefires also represented a cleansing of the old year in order to prepare for the coming new year.

Thanks to Outlander Deutschland for this amazing video. Poem by Robert Burns 

During the celebration, the Celts often donned masks and costumes as they danced around the balefire. Many of these dances represented traditionl stories, played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of the Wheel of Life. The costumes were worn for three primary reasons:

The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that people's souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.

Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared, as it was believed that they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits and escape their trickery or evil intentions.

The third reason that costumes were worn was as a means of honoring the Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. The people would adorn themselves in costume as a way of giving thanks to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year, and to ask for their favor during the harsh winter months that were approaching and in coming new year.

In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that the thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

So now ye know a wee bit about the origins of some of the Halloween traditions ye know and love; the witches, haunting ghosts, and the wearing of costumes all have their roots in the ancient festival of Samhain.

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