Samhain

“7 more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween” … So goes the maddening ear worm of a song from the 80’s John Carpenter horror film Halloween 3. That was the first full horror film I saw when I was younger (excluding Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller, which is a mini movie in its own right) and it left me with a life long love of both horror movies and Halloween. The movie’s villain, Conal Cochrane, explains to his helpless victims that all of his machinations are to honour the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the precursor to our modern-day Halloween. Samhain is a focus of the early Halloween films, also being a key plot point in Halloween 2, where Donald Pleasance mispronounces the word on three separate occasions! Cochran may be more villainous but at least he pronounces Samhain properly as “Sowen”! With just a week to go, what are the key components of Samhain we need for our festival tales?

Well, the first thing to note is that although Samhain and Halloween have many of the same constituent elements, those elements are treated very differently. Halloween, particularly in America, is a party night; a night for scares, trick or treating and horror movies. Samhain is a far more reflective festival. While Halloween has children dressed up as ghosts and zombies, and the TV channels rerun George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, those observing Samhain will be honouring the dead in a very different way. At Samhain, druids and pagans remember those who have passed rather than have them lumbering around the streets eating brains. Ancestors are incredibly important to the beliefs of many pagan faiths and Samhain gives an opportunity to remember those now the underworld. Altars honouring the dead are a particular beautiful way of showing our love and remembrance. It’s also a great time to begin working with our distant ancestors, not just those generations who immediately precede us. Last year I was lucky enough to visit the Pentre Ifan burial mound in Pembrokeshire at Samhain and it was an incredible experience. Visiting ancient burial mounds and sites honours the ancient ancestors and helps to put our actions into the context of their lives. Interestingly, we continue this sense of honouring the ancestors at this time of year in Western culture today, with Remembrance Sunday falling a few weeks into November.

If you want to honour a different kind of ancestor, Samhain is also a good time to focus on our relationship with animals. Traditionally, Samhain marked the third of the three harvests, with the grain harvest at Lughnasadh, the fruit harvest at Alban Elfed and the animal harvest at Samhain. As such, it was a time to slaughter the animals who will not survive the winter so that they can be eaten by the community on the dark, cold days to come. The word ‘Bonfire’ derives from the bone fires the ancestors made to burn away the waste material left after the slaughtering process. Again, interestingly, bonfires continue to mark this time of the year in British culture through the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th.

One of the reasons why animals were killed at Samhain, rather than just the practicalities of them not surviving winter and the need to feed the community, was the Wild Hunt. Depending on where in the country the tale is told, the Wild Hunt could be led by a number of Hunter Warrior Gods, such as Gwyn Ap Nudd in England or Nuada in Ireland. On the night of the hunt, the spirits of those who have died in the previous year, including the animals, are rounded up and driven into Annwn, or the underworld. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it ensures all souls go to the underworld with the opportunity of rebirth, and the more malevolent spirits are herded away from the mortal world. As such, Samhain is considered to be a night when the walls between the mortal and spirit worlds are thin, rather like Walpurgisnacht at the end of April, heightening our ability to communicate with the dead.

In much the same was as the Wild Hunt ensures that spirits are escorted into the underworld, nature seems to be going underground at this time of year. Creatures begin storing ford to help them survive the winter months, in some cases they prepare for hibernation. The leaves fall from the trees, are eaten by the tiny creatures of the forest floor and become nutrients to help things grow in the spring. While nature may be disappearing from the apparent world, much is stored below ground, out of sight, ready to reappear, perhaps in a different form, when the sun returns. Yes, this really is the start of winter, clearly illustrated in the meaning of the word Samhain: ‘Summer’s End’.

The arrival of the winter marks the arrival of the Callieach. She is the third aspect of the triple goddess, the old woman or crone, who appears in many Halloween stories as a witch. The Callieach rules the winter months and will be rejuvenated in the spring into her “maiden” form. She is a great figure to research and explore further in your writing at this time of year. Her arrival changes the world in very profound ways and that sense of transition is an excellent focus for writing.

Of course, in many ways it seems churlish to ignore our modern Halloween celebrations in our writing as so many of the aspects people love about it are rooted in Samhain. Personally, Halloween is my favourite time of year. I love it so much that I have travelled to the states for several Halloween holidays to see how it’s done properly! American Halloweens are a totally different experience from those in the UK; the holiday is celebrated in much greater style and infuses all aspects of life. If you are a Halloween fan and have never spent one in America, I urge you to do it as soon as possible! Even our modern-day carved pumpkins have their roots in the ancient carved turnips used in Ireland, but American traditions have turned them into icons of a very different festival. From the spooky tales of Washington Irving to movies such as Halloween and Hocus Pocus, mixing our traditions from Halloween and Samhain is a perfect way to make magic with our writing at this time of the year!

Photograph by Karin Brown at Imbolc Photography (https://brownkcd.wixsite.com/imbolc)

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