Since ancient times, the spiritual meaning of Halloween (or as it was originally known, Samhain) has been to celebrate the beginning of winter and the onset of darker and colder days that this season brings. It marks the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. Halloween asks us to go inwards, face our shadow and to be still with ourselves. The light and cheer of summer has ended and now is the time to recoup and restore our energy for the dark months ahead until the return of sunnier and warmer days.
Today, Halloween or All Hallows Day (also known as Hallowtide and Hallowmas), as it was originally known, is a festival that is enjoyed by both the young and the old. It is a time when conventions relax a little and children and adults alike can dress up and be anyone or anything that they want to be. It is a time when we are given the chance to delve into the realm of our subconscious and act out our fears and nightmares.
The common themes of Halloween such as death, dissolution and the supernatural, have been carried through the ages despite the changes to the way we have celebrated this time of year. These themes call upon something darker within us: the shadow aspect of ourselves. Halloween invites us to honour the duality of the natural world where we must acknowledge the dark (the unknown, regeneration, stillness, receptive energy) just as much as the light (the known, life, action, outward-directed energy).
So let’s find out how this period of the year has been celebrated in times past and delve into the spiritual meaning and significance of its celebration.
Samhain: The Celtic Origins of Halloween
To understand where Halloween originated from we must go back all the way to Ancient Gaelic Ireland where Halloween was originally celebrated as the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The literal meaning of Samhain is ‘summer’s end’ and was celebrated as the final end of the lighter summer days as well as the welcoming of the darker half of the year and the winter months that were to follow. It was a time of preparation for the winter where communities would ensure that they had enough food for the cold months ahead. Food was gathered and animals were slaughtered in order to preserve food-stuffs for the lean winter months.
The slaughtering of animals was a particularly important part of Samhain and is representative of the very themes of death and completion that this festival celebrated. It was also very important to the Gaels as they were a pastoral community and the meat from the slaughtered animals (which they would dry out to preserve it) would help them survive over the winter.
Nicholas Rogers sums up the preparation of the festival quite nicely when he says:
“The feast of Samhain was the occasion of stock-taking and in-gathering, of reorganizing communities for the winter months, including the preparation for itinerant warriors and shamans.”
The Spiritual Meaning of Halloween and Samhain
What I find most fascinating about Samhain, however, is the spiritual aspect of it. It was originally celebrated between the 31st October and 1st November and, like the festival of Beltane that was celebrated on the 1st May (the opposite end of the year to Samhain), it was believed the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest during this time, meaning that spirits and fairies could cross into our world with ease. As such, measures were taken to protect against such spirits and this was done by lighting bonfires which were thought to have protective and cleansing powers. Food and drink were also left out in an attempt to appease them.
The intense spiritual and supernatural nature of Samhain also becomes apparent when we look at many of the legends and mythological tales that refer to the feast. Many of the legendary kings were slain at this time and many were approached by fairies and deities as well. In addition, many important events in Irish mythology happen either during or at the beginning of Samhain and the importance the Gaels put on Samhain is further illustrated by the fact that many Neolithic tomb passages are aligned to the sunrise on this festival.
The Dark Side of Samhain
There is, however, a darker and quite disturbing side to Samhain where it is possible that sacrifices took place as part of Druid rituals. It is very most likely that animal sacrifices were carried out but it is contended whether actual human sacrifices took place.
There are a few references to human sacrifice in early Irish literature and some later records but academics are undecided on whether this type of sacrifice took place for certain. Rogers explains that “First-born sacrifices are mentioned in a poem in the Dindschenchas, which records that children were sacrificed each Samhain to the idol Cromm Cruiach [the lord of the mound] at Mag Slecht in County Cavan.”
Cromm Cruiach means ‘Head of the Mound’ or ‘Head of the stack of corn’. It was said that this gruesome deity was an incredibly important idol of worship for “Until Patrick’s advent, he was the god of every folk that colonized Ireland. To him, they used to offer the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions of every clan”. He also seems to be particularly associated with Samhain as an early High King Tigernmas is said to have died with three-quarters of his army on the eve of Samhain from worshipping this figure. This gives us some insight into the eeriness that presided over this time of year and is a quality that has been carried over into modern-day Halloween.
Despite this dark side to Samhain, the festival nevertheless remained a time to celebrate and be merry for the Celts. Ronald Hutton explains in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain that the festivities included “meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting”. It was particularly a time for both reflecting about the year that had gone by but also looking to the year ahead. It was also a period where Celts would look to their ancestors for guidance and those who had crossed to the other side were remembered. The themes of death, darkness remembrance and festivity that Samhain represented were subsequently carried over to All Saints Day which later was celebrated on the same day as Samhain.
From Celtic Festival to Religious Remembrance Day (All Saints Day)
In 835 All Saints Day (also known as Hallowmas and Hallowtide) became formally instituted by Emperor Louis the Pious and eventually came to take over the celebrations of Samhain in the British Isles. Originally it was celebrated on different days of different months around Europe but it subsequently came to take the place of Samhain by being celebrated on the 31st October and 1st November. It is possible that this date was chosen in order to assimilate the festivities of Samhain into this new Christian holiday but this cannot be known for sure.
All Saints Day was a day of remembering Saints, those who had been martyred and those who had passed on. Good Christians would pray for those souls who had recently departed and might not yet have reached heaven. The Saints and Martyrs of the Catholic faith were also honoured. Families would visit graves and light candles for family members that had passed on and towards the end of the 15th century, the baking and sharing of soul cakes became a common custom. Many believe that trick-or-treating originated from this custom of ‘Souling’ where the poor (often children) would go and visit homes where soul cakes would be given to them in exchange for praying for their departed loved ones. Additionally, verses, songs, and rhymes were also performed in order to earn soul cakes.
All Saints Day was an important affair. Church bells would ring, extra candles were purchased for ecclesiastical processions and some would wear mourning clothes. Like Samhain, there was also a merry aspect to All Saints Day where towards the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Early Modern Period, some churches in London would organise elaborate entertainments. Ronald Hutton explains that in 1539 St Mary Woolnoth paid five maidens wearing garlands in their hair to play harps by lamplight. Not only this, he elaborates that during the 1470s each mayor of Bristol was expected to entertain the whole council along with other citizens and gentry to “fires and their drinkings with spiced cakebread and sundry wines”.
However, despite this merriment, Hallowtide possessed the same foreboding and superstitious feeling that had presided over Samhain. Bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and there are references made by one observer in the 16th century to some farmers circling their fields with a burning wisp of straw at the end of a pitchfork to protect the coming crop from “noxious weeds”.
From Hallowtide to Hallowe’en
Superstitions and certain traditions survived up until the 19th century. In Cambridgeshire Fens, for example, households would place food on the doorstep to appease witches that might approach the house and salt was also placed in the keyholes as a protective measure.
Some of the more modern traditions of Halloween start to become popular around this time as well such as guising and the playing of pranks by youths. In County Waterford in Ireland, it was known as ‘Mischief Night’ and pranksters would carve out the inside of a turnip and place a candle insight it which would illuminate a horrifying carved out face. This became the perfect illumination to aide these youths in carrying out pranks and creating a climate of fear amongst the community on the eve of Hallowtide.
By the 20th century, these traditions were widely carried out in Scotland, England and Wales. A common rhyme amongst Scottish prankers was:
“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the boys are marchin’,
We are the guisers at the door,
If ye dinna let us in,
We will bash yer windies in,
An ye’ll never see the guisers anymore”
During the 19th century, America experienced a massive influx of Irish immigration. With them, they brought the traditions of Halloween which eventually became assimilated into American culture. Turnips were traded for the more readily available Pumpkins and guising, pranking and souling evolved into trick-or-treating. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century, after the Second World War, that Halloween became hugely popular and the holiday that we all celebrate today.
Samhain and Halloween’s Spiritual Symbols
Drawing upon the Celtic origins of this festival, Samhain (or the original Halloween you could say) is still celebrated widely amongst neo-pagans and even by those, like myself, who are spiritually interested. To us, Halloween represents another turn of the wheel (Wheel of the Year) and is a time to face our shadow selves.
At this time of year, we look to the symbol of the Crone – the spiritual symbol that presides over Halloween or Samhain and is commonly presented as an elderly wise woman who is no longer fertile but has accumulated all the wisdom of her days. She represents the underworld and the completion of a cycle.
At the beginning of the year in Imbolc we witnessed nature in her maiden aspect of blossom and buds. And then in Beltane we witnessed nature in her mother aspect brimming with life, fruit, and fertility. However, at Samhain, nature is no longer fertile as life is put on hold and all of nature is shedding its life and greenery. Yet, nature is wise; it is storing its energy for warmer and brighter days so that it may spring forward with blossom and fruit once again.
Samhain, All Saints Day and Halloween’s Spiritual Meaning
As we can see, Halloween still possesses many of the same characteristics of the Ancient Celtic festival of Samhain as well as All Saints Day. It seems that there is something intrinsically spiritual, as well as supernatural, about the 31st October where despite the changing social and political situation of the ages, the same themes of death, completion, and superstition have stuck. Perhaps, as the Gaels believed, some boundary between our world and the spirit world is lifted during this time and is perhaps why superstitions have lasted throughout the ages.
It is my belief, however, that Halloween’s real magic lies not only in its cathartic practices of play and dressing up but in some of the ancient perceptions of this time that were celebrated during Samhain. What I really enjoy about this time of year is observing the transition into the darker days of winter, watching the leaves fall from the trees and see summer fall into a long sleepy slumber. We find ourselves on the threshold before winter, yet to experience the real darkness that this season will bring and at a point where the veil is thin enough to reach out and touch whatever might exist on the other side. To me, this is where the magic lies and during Halloween, this is the part of it that I will be embracing.