By Isabellla @TheWandCarver
Or, in English, Samhain blessings to all. I am feeling my Scottish roots deeply this year as I have spent the better part of the last three weeks working through that genealogical branch in my family tree. I had always grown up believing the prevalence of Scottish ancestry grew through my maternal grandfather’s lineage but as it happens, the Scots brightly adorn both halves of my family tree – and for many, many generations to boot! Then, let us have a Scottish little Samhain!
What about Halloween?
Most of us know the word Halloween is a version of Hallow’s Eve. But are you aware that Halloween originally has Scottish beginnings? The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, or summer’s end. Summer represented the living world [along with Spring, it is the light half of the year] and the dark half of the year begins 31st October. It was – and is still – believed that spirits of the dead roamed about freely on this night and it was believed that children must be dressed to conceal their youth from these dark entities. What better way to do this than to dress up like the so-called evil spirits themselves so they could blend in?
On this night of merry-making and scary acts [more from children than evil entities!] the way from house to house would invariably be lit by little neep lanterns. What is a neep lantern, you ask? Well… you know the vegetable as a swede in England or a turnip in Ireland and if you’re in France, it would be called rutabaga. Neeps were, and are, carved out and a candle placed inside just the same as is a pumpkin in America. Personally, I think the neep lanterns are much scarier looking! I love them! A jack-o’-lantern [or jack o’lantern, US spelling] is a carved pumpkin, turnip, or other root vegetable lantern, commonly associated with the Halloween holiday. Its name comes from the reported phenomenon of strange lights flickering over peat bogs, called will-o’-the-wisps [England] or jack-o’-lanterns [Ireland]. Jack-o’-lanterns carved from pumpkins are a yearly Halloween tradition that went to the United States with Irish immigrants.
For all the “guising” that went on in Scotland through a few centuries, the American “Halloween” as is now known in the UK did not latch on fully until the last couple or so decades. Long before Halloween, in Scotland children and adults would go “doukin’ for apples”. I’m sure that will cause a lot of laughter from across the pond, but the word “douk” as it happens means “to plunge, to dip, to bathe”. Of course, most of you probably use the word as it is described from the urban dictionary. Not so nice a connotation indeed! Still, the practise arose most likely from the fact that the ancient Celts held apples as sacred.
Samhain and the protection of fire
Returning to Samhain, large bonfires were an integral part not only of celebrations but also that of protection and were lit in each village to ward off any evil spirits. All home hearth fires would be extinguished then re-lit from the flames of the great bonfire. Sometimes, two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people—sometimes with their livestock—would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. The bones of slaughtered cattle were said to have been cast upon bonfires.
The bonfires were used in divination rituals, although not all divination involved fire. In 18th century Ochtertyre, Scotland a ring of stones—one for each person—was laid round the fire, perhaps on a layer of ash. Everyone then ran round it with a torch, “exulting”. In the morning, the stones were examined and if any was mislaid it was said that the person it represented would not live out the year.
Samhain was mainly seen as a liminal time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the aos sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’ [the little folk], could more easily come into our world. Many scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the aos sí needed to be mollified to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink would be left outside for the aos sí, and portions of the crops might be left in the ground for them.
The dead were also honoured at Samhain. The beginning of winter may have been seen as the most fitting time to do so, as it was a time of ‘dying’ in nature. The souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world. It is the very night I use most for hedge walking and visitation with my ancestors and to honour them. The result of which is always gratifying. I hope they feel the same.
Halloween celebrations names in other countries and areas include:
Wales – Calan Gaeaf
Isle of Man – Hop-tu-Naa
Cornwall – Allantide
No matter how you celebrate Samhain this year, please do so safely and responsibly. Many thanks for reading and warmest blessings to all whom this way wander x Beannachdan na Samhna dha na h-uile!