The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Samhain (pron: 'sow-Ain) is the winter season of the ancient Celts. The name is also used for one of the sabbats in the Neo-Pagan wheel of the year.


According to the Celtic calendar, the year was divided into two halves, the dark half, consisting of Samhain (winter), Imbolc (spring), and the light half, consisting of Beltane (summer), and Lughnasadh (autumn). The Celtic year began in November, with Samhain. The Celts were influenced principally by the lunar and stellar cycles which governed the agricultural year - beginning and ending in autumn when the crops have been harvested and the soil is prepared for the winter. Pronunciation differs radically between different groups of Celtic language speakers. The word "Samhain" is probably derived from the Gaelic word "samhraidhreadh", or "summer's end". Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain are still today the names of the months of May, August and November in the Irish language. Similarly, Lùnasdal and Samhain are the modern Scots Gaelic names for August and November.

Samhain Eve, in Irish and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Shamhna, is one of the principal festivals of the Celtic calendar, and is thought to fall on or around the 31st of October. It represents the final harvest. In modern Ireland and Scotland, the name by which Halloween is known in the Gaelic language is still "Oíche/Oidhche Shamhna".

Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. Even into Christian times, villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames, cattle having a prominent place in the pre-Christian Gaelic world. Though a folk etymology derives the English word "bonfire" from these "bone fires," the Gaelic has no such parallel. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together.

Like most Celtic festivals, Samhain was celebrated on a number of levels. Materially, it was the time for gathering food for the long winter months ahead and bringing people and livestock into their winter quarters. To be alone or lost at this dangerous time was to expose oneself and one's spirit to the perils of imminent winter. In the modern age the importance of this part of the festival has diminished for most people, but from the point of view of a tribal people for whom a bad season meant facing a long winter of famine through which many would not survive to the spring, it was paramount.

Samhain was also a time for contemplation. Death was never very far away, yet to die was not the tragedy it is in modern times. Of signal importance to the Celtic people was to die with honour and to live in the memory of the tribe and be honoured at the great Feast of the Dead (in Ireland and Scotland, this would have been the Féile na Marbh ) which took place on Samhain Eve.

This was the most magical time of the year; Samhain was the day which did not exist. During the night the great shield of Scathach was lowered, allowing the barriers between the worlds to fade and the forces of chaos to invade the realms of order, the material world conjoining with the world of the dead. At this time the spirits of the dead and those yet to be born walked amongst the living. The dead could return to the places where they had lived and food and entertainment were provided in their honour. In this way the tribes were at one with its past, present and future. This aspect of the festival was never totally subdued by Christianity.

From an astrological perspective, the setting of Pleiades, the winter stars, heralds the supremacy of night over day and the start of the dark half of the year that is ruled by the realms of the moon.

In the three days preceding Samhain, the Sun God Lugh, maimed at Lughnassadh (August 1), dies by the hand of his Tánaiste (counterpart or heir), the Lord of Misrule. Lugh traverses the boundaries of the worlds on the first day of Samhain. His Tanist is a miser and, though shining brightly in the winter skies, he gives no warmth and does not temper the breath of the Crone, Cailleach Bheare , the north wind. In this may be discerned the ageless battle between the light and dark and the cyclic nature of life and the seasons.

In parts of western Brittany Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou. Kornigou are cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his "cuckold" horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld.

When the Romans made contact with the Celts, they identified Samhain with their own feast of the dead, the Lemuria, which, however, was observed in the days leading up to May 13. The Christians subverted the recognition of Samhain to honor the saints, as All Saint's Day on November 1st and named October 31 as All Hallow's Eve. Significantly the feast was removed from May to November. This latter became a secular holiday by the name of Halloween.

Although using different nomenclatures, all of these festivals and feasts are celebrating the accessibility, veneration, awe, and respect of the dead.


Samhain is one of the eight solar holidays or sabbats of Neopaganism. It is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on October 31 or November 1 and in the southern hemisphere on May 1.

The holiday, with Beltane, is one of the most popular among Neopagans, and public Samhain rituals invariably attract large gatherings. It is the last of the harvest festivals (after Lammas and Mabon); in some traditions it symbolizes the death of the old god.

Among the sabbats, it is preceded by Mabon and followed by Yule.

See also Wheel of the Year.

Pronunciation: (usually) Sown (rhymes with clown) or SOW-in (ow rhymes with plough). In Scots Gaelic, it is pronounced sah-VEEN.


Last updated: 05-13-2005 00:10:16
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04