October 5, 2014

Samhain: A Harvest Tradition

Samhain table - photo by  Denise Grustein
The Gaels, or Goidels are a branch of Celctic culture and language that established numerous traditions and practices that are still observed today by the Irish, Scottish, Manx, Wiccans, and Celtic Neopagans.  Among these religious holidays is Samhain, a seasonal festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter, or 'darker half' of the year.   Samhain comes from the Gaelic word 'samain' or summer and 'ruin,' the end.  This translates literally to Summer's End.  Early Celtic culottes believed the year was divided in half.  Thus, Samhain also marked the end of the light half, and the beginning of the dark half.
            At sunset on Samhain Eve, clans or local villages begin ceremonies by igniting a large bonfire.  Everyone would gather around the fire and present sacrifices to the Celtic Gods and Goddesses.  These sacrifices primarily consisted of animals and crops, in order to give back to the deities who made their success possible.   This fire also represented a rebirth, in which it is custom to clean out the old year and welcome in the new.  During this celebration, Celts wore beautiful costumes and danced to to stories that commemorate the cycles of life in death in their natural cycles.
            The costumes were constructed with three principles in mind.  The first was to honor those who have died and were allowed to rise.  They believed that each year on Samhain, souls were set free from the land of the dead.  Those who were punished, were released and sent to their new incarnations.  However, not all souls were respected and welcome.  Some spirits were feared, and people believed they would destroy cops and reek havoc on livestock.  Which leads to the second reason, which was to hide from this evil spirits and escape their harm.  Lastly,  it was to honor the Gods and Goddeses of the harvest, flocks, and fields. 
            This time was a spiritual high for followers, and opened the doors for many varieties of divination.  From fortune-telling to communications with the dead, Celts looked for direction and solice during the 'darker half' of the year.   By leaving food and beverage outside their doors, they appeased the roaming spirits that may harm the family.  Numerous other events have been said to occur, such as the reading of tea leaves and painting images on wood.  Many believe this to be the first precursor to Tarot Cards.
            At the end of the festival when the sun came to the horizon once more, Celts would each take a torch or ember from the bonfire when they returned home.  This flame, would become the beginning of a hearth that would burn for several months.  The fire was said to protect the family from tragedy and trouble and if the flame were to go out, the family would be plunged into darkness.   Along with Samhain, come three other celebrations that celebrate seasonal changes.  Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh are all seasonal festivals that serve much of the same purpose.  To give thanks and give back.