Samhain (pron. Sow-win or Sow-ayn), All Hallows Eve, Halloween Stones: Black Tourmaline, Labradorite, Obsidian, Amethyst, Fluorite, Smoky Quartz Sign: Scorpio Tarot Card: Death (
XIII) Incense/Herbs: Frankinsence, Myrrh, Thyme, Bay, Rosemary, Cinnamon, nutmeg
Pegged as potentially the most important date on the Witches calendar, Samhain acts as a Pagan new year - celebrating the death of the old year and the birth of the next one. The veil that separates our world and the spirit realm is said to become wafer thin and allow the souls of those that have left this plane to wander the earth for one night and sometimes even reconnect with the loved ones they have left behind. There are myriad different celebrations on the 31st of October and 1st of November from all over the world but I have chosen to concentrate my research on the traditions and recorded folklore of the U.K. It seems fitting, given that I write this from chilly Scotland - to imagine these rituals and superstitions taking place over a wilder version of the landscape around me. In an age where you can access an idea of the magickal practices of anywhere in the world at the click of a mousepad, it feels important to pay extra attention to the craft, wisdom and lore of the land that made you. Just sayin'. The name Samhain, seems to have been brought to the Scottish Highlands by the Irish in the middle ages and was typically celebrated on the 1st of November, with a documented tradition of killing the lame or weak animals from the herd in order to lessen the drain on resources during the winter months. Interestingly, the word for November in Anglo-Saxon is Blod Month (or Blood Month) and it is believed that this is to signify the spilling of the blood of those animals, not just to feed the village and strengthen the herd, but as sacrifice to the Gods in exchange for a less treacherous winter. Wales also celebrated Nos Calan Gaea (Winter's Eve) on the 31st of October and Nos Calan Garaf (The First Day of Winter) on November the 1st and some of their traditions were some of my favourites, more about them later. Sadly, there seems to be very little evidence to suggest that Samhain was specifically a fire festival originally - this was more of an assumption made by academics of the 1700s based on the idea that so many other ancient festivals had been 'Christianized' - that the fires on All Souls Day, a time when followers of Christian faith would commune with dead loved ones- probably derived from a 'Celtic' festival of the same date. However, when we are not plagued by...a plague...Scotland and certainly Edinburgh, has a thriving Samhuin Fire Festival culture and many celebrate with a bonfire (or Bone Fire - the ritual burning of...hopefully...animal bones to ward off evil) and dancing to burn away the last of the year. Throwing wormwood, heather and flax onto the fire is said to bring good fortune to the thrower. Placing soot from the Samhain fire in your shoes is said to bring you luck all year - maybe make sure it's cooled off first!
So now, for some amazing traditions and beliefs held by some of our ancestors. Many of these folkloric celebrations were on the way out of common practice when they were recorded, but there seems to be plenty to sink our teeth into anyway! In the Shetland Isles, it was thought that at Hallowmas, the Trows (trolls) would come out of hiding and terrorize the livestock unless certain words were spoken or sung to keep them at bay. In the North Wales tradition, each family would build a fire and place a white pebble in the centre of the fire to represent themselves. The fire would burn down over night and any pebble found missing in the morning, would signify the death of the owner of that pebble in the coming year. In Perthshire and Moray, walking clockwise around the home carrying a lit torch was said to guard your house from fairies. My favourite finding, is a recorded tradition from Anglesey - whereby children would sprint home from the communal bonfire chanting: 'The Tail-less Black Sow take the hindermost!' Menfolk from the village would hide in the darkness along their path home and make angry pig noises from the trees to spur them on (probably with half a mind to get children home quickly and safely in the dark so their parents could party hard in peace). The Tail-Less Black Sow really captures the imagination too, there's at least an art piece in there, if not an early Tim Burton animation...
Divination has always been a large part of Samhain/ Halloween - as a professional Tarot reader, I can tell you, it is definitely my busy season! The tradition of looking at the year that had just passed, and then looking ahead to the future make a lot more sense when you think of this time as the Pagan new year. Historically, it also seems to be the time when the layperson would have fun reading their own fortune without the assistance of a soothsayer or the like. Similarly to the North Wales fire tradition, other parts of Wales and Scotland held the lore of placing those white stones around the bonfire and divining from the marks left on the stone by the flame. A foot print on your stone was surely a bad omen of sorts. Pyromancy, Scrying, Tarot, Bibliomancy, whatever works for you - Samhain night (and week), the coming of winter; is truly an excellent time to take a witchy look at what lies ahead. You can also use this time for some manifestation work. One pleasant ritual idea from modern witch lore, is to stand in front of a mirror after sunset on the night of Samhain and make a secret wish, then let your mind produce a visualization of that wish becoming reality. How will your reflection you look, feel, be - when that wish comes true?
This is a time to remember and pay tribute to the dead and the death of all natural things. One- more modern custom , is to set a place at the dinner table for those that have passed and enjoy a silent feast together. A slightly older tradition is to leave the food offering outside your door, or place the food on your altar overnight to pay tribute and bury the offering in the morning. One tradition that feels appropriate for the year we are leaving behind, is that of burying an apple in the ground with the intention of nourishing the souls of all of those that have passed throughout the year. Talking to the deceased on Halloween night would be enough, filling them in on your year, your hopes and fears - it's just to acknowledge and pay tribute to the essence of the people we have loved and lost.
You didn't think I could write about a date on the Pagan calendar without mentioning food did you?? SO. MANY. APPLES. Got to love that abundant, seasonal and magickal fruit. Soul Cakes are a more Christian edition to proceedings, but have their roots in some intriguing tradition - poor children were said to roam door to door in their village (circa late 1600s) with 'spiced cakebreads and sundry wines' as offerings to their friends and neighbours. Sometimes a rhyme would be chanted as they did this: A soule cake, a soule cake, have mercy on all Christian soules for a soule cake.'
Suggesting an exchange of cake for peace or merciful treatment of their souls. As a brief aside, I remember that around this time of year, my mother baked scones (almost the exact same recipe as soul cakes) and took a huge pile of them with a bottle of whisky to a traveller family that had stopped for a few weeks in a lay-by near our home. I would have been a young teenager, but I remember the horses grazing by the side of the road and the look of surprise from the man that opened the beautifully painted wooden door. I was curious as to what made her present these strangers with the offering and she didn't seem certain. We settled on it being a random act of kindness, but with my mother's rural and I would say superstitious upbringing being facilitated heavily by her grandmother, I have an inkling that this was the internalization of an energetic trade-off she had witnessed as a child that is very much in keeping with the soul cake tradition. Anyway, I digress...Pumpkin is a modern addition to Samhain proceedings, but the spices are definitely ingrained in tradition i.e. cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger etc. Mulled wine and all of its ingredients serve as a pretty cool way to ingest protection herbs and spices AND get some colour in your cheeks! Peas, potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash and veggie or meaty sausages are all suggested fare for this time. Anything stodgy and nutritious, anything that boosts your immune system is good too - think - 'helping you to survive winter'. Cider, apple juice (it's those apples again) and moonshine (eek) are all welcome additions to the Samhain table. Word to the wise - this is the one Pagan festival where the baking of bread is not encouraged, it is said that the ghosts will eat it for you (which is also a really great excuse to eat a LOT of bread and blame ghosts). You are much safer with booze and apples.
Whatever you end up doing this Samhain, I hope the spirits are kind to you and that any mirror wishes you make come true in the year ahead. Good luck out there and be well.