Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Samhain

According to my calendar, today is the Pagan/Wiccan holiday known as "Samhain" (pronounced SOW-in, SAH-vin, or SAM-hayne). It is generally celebrated on October 31st, but some traditions prefer November 1st.

According to Wikipedia, Samhain is the word for November in the Gaelic languages and was used for a month in the ancient Celtic calendar. According to another website, Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means "summer's end."

The ancient Celts divided the year into 2 seasons: the light and the dark. The New Year was celebrated on November 1st, marking the end of the "season of the sun" and the beginning of "the season of darkness and cold."

At the end of the day on October 31, cooking fires in homes would be extinguished. The Druids (Celtic priests) would meet in the hilltop in the dark oak forest (oak trees were considered sacred) and light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals. In the morning, the Druids would give an ember from their fires to each family to take home to start their new cooking fires, which would also keep the homes warm and free from evil spirits. The festival would last for 3 days. Many people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals. This festival would become the first Halloween.

Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter. The word 'bonfire', or 'bonefire' is a direct translation of the Gaelic tine cnámh. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires as well.

Samhain was a significant time for divination. Divination customs and games frequently featured apples and nuts from the recent harvest. Children would also chase crows and divine things from the direction the birds flew. Stones were marked with peoples names and thrown into the fire, then retrieved in the morning and used to foretell the person's fortune for the coming year. In Scotland, a child born at Samhain was said to be gifted with "second sight" or clairvoyance.

According to Celtic lore, Samhain is a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and world of the dead become thinner, at times even fading away completely, allowing spirits and other supernatural entities to pass between worlds to socialize with humans. Some customs included leaving food on altars or burying it for wandering spirits, lighting candles to guide the spirits of ancestors home, and extra chairs set at the table. Turnips were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits. People dressed in white (like ghosts), wore disguises made of straw, or dressed as the opposite gender in order to fool the spirits.

Samhain is observed by Neopagans in various ways, some with elaborate rituals to honor the dead and deities associated with the dead in their particular tradition. Some celebrate as close as possible to the Ancient Celts. Some observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources.

In Wicca, Samhain is one of the eight annual holidays ('Sabbats'). It is considered by most Wiccans as a celebration of death and of the dead, and often involves paying respect to ancestors and loved ones who have died. In some rituals spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities.


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