What is Samhain? Our Wonderful Holiday Explained?


Bonfire life for samhain on a beach

Hello my Lovelies and welcome to WiccaNow. I hope you are having a blessed day today! I’d like to talk a bit more about one of our most important Wiccan holidays, Samhain. I covered the Wheel of the Year and the basics of our 8 main Wiccan Sabbats in a previous post along with detailed posts on Imbolc and Ostara. I also wrote posts on Imbolc symbols and Imbolc altars as well as a post detailing my favourite Ostara recipes. Today let’s delve into and really explore our wonderfully potent day of power, Samhain.

The History of Samhain

Samhain was actually an ancient Celtic tradition. The Celts saw Samhain as the most important of the four-yearly fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh) they celebrated. Samhain is the mid-point between the Autumn equinox and the Winter solstice.

In order to celebrate this festival, the ancient Celts would let the fires in their homes die out while they brought in the harvest. You can imagine that this was quite an ask, it would have already been pretty cold and miserable so to let your fire burn out was having faith in the gods that you wouldn’t freeze.

fire samhain
Yip, this is too cold! I wouldn’t want to put my fire out either.

When the harvest had been gathered, the Druid Priests would light a large communal fire using a wheel that caused friction and created heat and sparks. Using the wheel to light the fire was considered to be a representation of the sun. After the fire had been lit, ritual sacrifices would occur, often of cattle, and then every member of the community would light a torch and reignite their hearth fires with the communal flame.

Celtic druids preparing for ritual sacrifice after lighting the fire at samhain
Ancient Celtic Druids preparing to sacrifice a bull as part of the Samhain celebrations after they have lit the communal fires.

Research into this festival suggests that Samhain was a mandatory celebration that required the community to show themselves to their local chieftains or kings. The celebrations would typically last 3 days and nights (what a party) with some research suggesting these days were filled with excessive drinking and feasting. Not attending was seen as an act punishable by the gods. If you committed a crime during this festival or used a weapon against someone, it was potentially punishable by death.

Who is the God of Samhain? Traditional Creatures of Samhain

Samhain is traditionally one of the days of the year when the veils to other realms are much thinner. This allowed communication with the dead and was thought to let in otherworldly creatures. Due to this, the Celts would leave offerings in their fields in order to appease any Faeries that might breach the veil to our world.

magic forest fairy GIF
Trust me, this is not the type of Faery that the Celts were trying to appease.

The Celts would also dress up in various costumes (animal or monster) in order to confuse any Faeries that might break through the veil. This was known as “mummering”. They believed that they were less likely to be kidnapped by said faeries this way. You can see where the association with modern-day Halloween comes from right? 

Charles Freger Wilder man series mummer
While this is a current-day photo, these costumes are based on traditional Celtic Mummers costumes which were worn at Samhain to scare off any malevolent spirits looking to kidnap you. Image from Charles Freger from his Wilder Mann series.

There are some specific beings who are associated with Samhain. These are:

Pukah

This group of beings is an interesting one. The Celts would leave offerings in their fields for the Pukah, hoping to appease them as they were thought of as very mischievous. When Samhain arrived, whatever harvest was left on the field was seen as a tribute to the Pukah. After Samhain, it was seen as tainted and inedible. Some farmers would even leave a small patch of produce unharvested as an intentional tribute.

There are many conflicting stories about them, with some stories relating them as harmful, malevolent creatures and others suggesting they were helpful and kind. The English version, the very mischievous “Puck” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a derivative of the Pukah.

Celtic Pukah and Puck from A Midsommers Night Dream
The Celts thought of the Pukah as looking like the left image. The right is an imagining of Puck from “A Midsummers Night Dream”. The similarities are certainly clear to me!

Pukah are shape changers and often take the form of a black male goat. They can also look human, but will then often have some form of animal feature, like a tail. They have the capacity for human language. Whatever form they happen to take, they will almost always have dark fur.

goat GIF
I feel like the Pukah were maybe a little less dorky looking than this guy.

One of their favourite pastimes seems to be taking the shape of a horse and enticing people to ride them. They then take the human rider on a wild chase through the dark, before ultimately taking them back to where they started. Some people also suggest that they are vampire-like creatures filled with bloodlust who like to hunt and devour humans. I prefer to think of them a cheeky but kind nature spirits who like to frighten of confuse humans but are ultimately benevolent.

Celtic Pukah in horse form after having taken a man for a wild ride
Pukah in its black horse form having just taken an unwitting traveller for wild ride through the darkness. Because you were always brought back to the place you started in, it would seem the Pukah were more of a nuisance than something to really fear.

The Dullahan

A group of beings, sometimes seen as imps or else as men carrying their own heads. These creatures rode around on flaming horses and were thought to be an omen of death for anyone who saw them. To be fair, maybe people were just scared to death after seeing them, I certainly wouldn’t be very happy if I came across a group of head-carrying horsemen late at night… 

A celtic Dullahan with man hiding from the headless horseman
A man hiding from a Dullahan. Is death looking for this explorer?

The Faery Host

These aren’t your cheeky, mischievous garden sprites. The Faery Host is the reason people would dress up. They were a group of hunters who would haunt Samhain celebrations and kidnap people if they could. The Slaugh are similar, coming from the west and entering people’s homes in order to steal their souls. They are the Faeries who have run wild and have no loyalty or mercy. They are more feared than death itself. Death is seen as a natural part of life, but to have your soul stolen means the cycle can’t continue. Only a little bit spooky…

the faery host or slaugh harvesting a human soul
The Slaugh trying to harvest a soul. This host is seen as the most repellent and vile part of the Faerie realm.

The Lady Wyn/The Goddess Cerridwen

This Lady, also known as Lady Gwyn, is not very well known at all. She appears dressed all in white, sometimes headless and sometimes not. She will often be accompanied by a black pig. This Black Pig was thought of as another incarnation of the Devil. The Lady in White is seen as both an evil spirit looking to lure any lost revellers to their doom but also as a benign lost soul.

She is sometimes thought to be the Goddess Cerridwen, who has been associated with the Threefold Goddess. Cerridwen is the Goddess in her Crone aspect. She is a Goddess of change and rebirth and transformation. The Goddess is the owner of a magical cauldron, in which she brews a potion which imbues knowledge and inspiration to anyone who drinks from it. Many women who have strong feminist leanings in their religious practices worship her.

“When Cerridwen calls your name, know that the need for change is upon you; transformation is at hand. It is time to examine what circumstances in your life no longer serve you. Something must die so that something new and better can be born. Forging these fires of transformation will bring true inspiration into your life. As the Dark Goddess Cerridwen pursues her version of justice with ceaseless energy so can you breathe in the power of the Divine Feminine She offers, planting your seeds of change and pursuing their growth with a ceaseless energy of your own.”

 Judith Shaw of Feminism and Religion
cerridwen with her black pig against a pink background for samhain
The Goddess Cerridwen also thought of as The Lady Wyn or the Woman in White. She tends to her magical potion for a year and a day in order for it to reach full potency

Samhain for Wiccans

Samhain was adopted by Pagans and Wiccans and is usually celebrated from sundown on the 31st of October to sundown on the 1st of November in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere celebrates on the 30th of April to the 1st of May. Samhain is seen as a time when the barriers between the physical world are thin, meaning that communication with the spirit world is more easily possible.

Samhain is the last of the harvest festivals and the start of the dark Winter ½ of the year. The Horned God is at his most diminished and the Triple Goddess is in her Crone aspect. Samhain is regarded as the Wiccan New Year. It is a time to honour the Crone and her buried lover, who will rise again in the Spring to restart the cycle of life and death, bareness and abundance. 

The triple goddess in all 3 of her aspects
Samhain pays tribute to the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess. Honouring her wisdom and closeness to death. She is the perfect Goddess to help facilitate communication with our Ancestors while the veil between worlds is thin

How We Celebrate Samhain

Divinations are often performed on this Sabbat in order to contact those on the other side. We like to celebrate outside with a bonfire, although this differs for everyone. It’s cold, bonfires are fun, and they are traditional, so if you are allowed to have one where you live, it’s a super nice way to celebrate. Rituals that we perform are very varied. I like to focus my energies on letting go of bad energy and habits. As fire is a purifier, many people like to symbolically give their bad habits and energies to the fire to be transformed into positive habits and good energy. 

Bonfire for Samhain
There is nothing better for Samhain than a bonfire. I like to write all my negative thoughts and bad habits onto scraps of paper and feed them to the flames

Many people still choose to follow the old ways and will leave food and drink out for the spirits. The idea is that we can share a meal with our ancestors or appease any spirits that might wish us ill. Often respects are paid to ancestors and elders, or even pets if you feel like it. The spirits of those who have passed are invited to join in the celebrations, and as the veils between the worlds are thinner they are more likely to be able to come through. This symbolic dinner is often referred to as a dumb dinner

The Dumb Dinner

It used to be traditional to make a large dinner. Throwback to the Ancient Celts and their 3 days of feasting? Ancestors were called to share food. Families would set the table with extra seats and plates filled with the same food they were eating. They would sit and eat, and update the spirits on what had happened throughout the year. Children would play games specifically thought to entertain the deceased. Once all the food had been consumed the spirits would be free to leave.

The windows and doors to houses were however left open that night so that the dead could come back in if they wanted. Cakes would also sometimes be left for them to consume if they came back.

Dinner table set with extra places for samhain dumb dinner
Set as many extra places as you like, so that you can invite Ancestors who have passed to the other side for dinner

Traditional Samhain foods or foods to make for your own Dumb Dinner

Because Samhain is a very old tradition, there aren’t really that many records of very traditional Celtic foods that were left out for the spirits. However, there are new traditional foods that we make for our Samhain celebrations.

These foods include:

Soul Cakes

Where these originally came from is quite vague, however, they have been known to be good for everything from leaving out to appease marauding spirits to being baked in order to feed beggars. They are closely associated with autumn celebrations.

Because their history is so vague, the recipes for them are also extremely versatile. You have license to do whatever you like with them. They can be whatever shape and size you like and range from biscuity and dry to cakey and soft. Often they will include dried fruit (a tribute to the harvest season and it’s bounty) and will also often have a little spice, like nutmeg or if you are feeling particularly lavish sometimes a little saffron. 
Here is a recipe I like to use:

Recipe for Samhain Soul Cakes

Recipe and image by Karen from Lavender and Lovage.

Ingredients
  • 175g butter (6ozs)
  • 175g caster sugar (6ozs)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 450g plain flour (1lb)
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • 100g currants (4 ozs)
  • a little milk to mix
Method

1: Pre-heat oven to 180C/375F/Gas mark 5.

2: Cream the butter and sugar together and then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.

3: Stir in the currants and add enough milk to make a soft dough, similar to scones.

4: Roll the dough out and cut out little cakes with a biscuit cutter. Mark each cake with a cross and then place them on a greased and/or lined baking sheet.

5: Bake the cakes for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

6: Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight tin for up to 5 days.

Samhain Soul Cakes
Delicious Soul Cakes in front of the bonfire are a very nice touch. You could also make Damper with currents over the actual fire if you felt like it. Slightly smokey and also very delicious. Image via Lavender and Lovage.

Barmbrack

This is another baked delight which has Celtic roots and is now often baked around Samhain. A loaf of sweetened, dried fruit-filled yeasted bread was baked and often trinkets would be baked into the loaf. These trinkets are seen as a form of fortune-telling, whatever charm you might receive in your slice of bread is a prediction of what will come in the next year. Trinkets that can be included are open to interpretation.

Common charms which used to be included were rings for marriage and coins for wealth. A Pea indicated you wouldn’t marry that year. A piece of cloth signalled falling on hard times or bad luck and a small stick signalled an unhappy marriage or dispute.

If you decide to bake a Barmbrack, an Irish Soda Bread recipe can be easily adapted by filling it with dried fruit and candied lemon or orange peel. If you decide to include trinkets, make sure that they are very, very clean!

Buttermilk Barmbrack bread with common trinkets beside it
Not only is this a fun tradition, but it is also very delicious! If you don’t like the idea of the old style of trinkets, the emphasis on marriage always bothers me personally, include some of your own ideas. It’s all about what they mean to you, you don’t have to follow conventional thinking if you don’t want to!

Mulled Wine

Drinking a delicious cup of mulled wine if one of the nicest things you can do for yourself on a cold day when you are celebrating in front of a bonfire! If you have the equipment for it you can even keep a big pot of wine warm over your fire. There is nothing better to warm you up than this delicious spiced and fruity wine. Mulled wine is centuries old, and has probably been keeping Samhain revellers warm since it was first introduced.

mulled wine for samhain with pumpkins in the background
This is just the best when sitting in front of a fire when it’s chilly outside during Samhain celebrations

Plants associated with Samhain

There are some plants that we like to associate with Samhain. You can use these in your rituals or else just lay some of them on you Alter.

Chrysanthemum

These gorgeous flowers are often thought of as protective flowers which is a nice thing to have around when the veils are thin and you are communicating with spirits. They bloom around Samhain, and what is really lovely about them is that they are seen as a representation of the sun, and by association with fire meaning they are a perfect centrepiece for your alter or dinner table. Marigolds are also a good alternative if you can’t find Chrysanthemums

orange Chrysanthemum for samhain
You can see why these gorgeous flowers are associated with the sun and fire right?

Apple Blossoms, Apples, and Apple Branches

This one makes sense, doesn’t it? Apples are the ultimate fruit of Autumn. Harvests are finishing around Samhain and in the past, many farming communities thought that a good apple crop was an indication of the favour of the gods. Some Wiccan practitioners will harvest some apple blossoms during the spring, and dry and store them for use in rituals later in the year.

Apples have long been associated with love spells. An old wives charm used to be to use a knife to peel an apple in a continuous length (harder than you would think) and then throwing the apple peel behind you. Whatever letter the apple peel formed was the initial of the person you would marry.  

Apples were also thought of as a symbol of immortality, along with being a food for the dead. Samhain is sometimes even referred to as The Feast of Apples. Ancient Celts believed that if you ever came across an apple branch which simultaneously had unopened buds, blossoms, small fruit and fully formed fruit, then you had found the key to the Underworld. Place apples at each place setting at your dumb dinner in order to incorporate them into your Samhain celebration.

apple blossom and branch full of apples
So pretty right? Imagine finding a branch with both of these on it simultaneously. The apple branch would be a wonderful addition to any Samhain table and

Rosemary

Because Samhain is all about honouring ancestors, rosemary is a really nice herb to incorporate into your celebration. It is the herb of remembrance and is lovely when burned in your bonfire. You can also lay it on your altar or use it in spells. Many cultures consider it, along with sage, as a protective herb which keeps out malevolent spirits. 

5 Rosemary stems
I just love the smell of Rosemary. If you are lucky and have a garden where you have a Rosemary bush, pick some for your celebration and throw it in the bonfire throughout the night

Pumpkins and the rest of the Pumpkin family

These we’ve all seen when they are associated with Halloween right? This is actually rooted in old ways of thinking, where the pumpkin family was thought to increase psychic awareness. Protection symbols were carved into hollowed-out pumpkins and then lit with a candle and placed in windows and doorways to drive away any spirits who were out to cause harm. Now we know where the Jack O Lantern comes from!

celtic protection symbols carved into pumpkins for samhain
So gorgeous! If you have a group of people celebrating Samhain with you it’s always a fun thing to carve these together. I often try to save the carved out insides to make a celebratory soup

Rowan Trees

Rowan branches and berries are another way to ward off ill-intentioned spirits. While the berries are associated with good health, if a bush is planted on or near a grave it was meant to prevent the dead from rising. Because the veils between the worlds are thin on Samhain, many people would hang branches full of berries on their doorways or at their windows.

If you are thinking about communing with spirits, keep a branch around. They are super pretty and I really like the feeling of protection that I get from them. Interestingly, when you cut the berries neatly in ½, a pattern which looks like a pentagram is revealed. This pattern is also on the base of the berry.

rowan tree branch and berries
Do you notice the pentagram at the base of the berries?

Samhain’s connection to Halloween

The question of whether Samhain and Halloween are the same thing comes up very often! Samhain morphed into Halloween when Christian missionaries come and tried to change the celebrations and religions of the Celtic people. Trying to wipe out pagan rituals, the missionaries were issued with edicts to try to pervert peoples original customs into Christian worship.

Pope Gregory the First, in 601AD, told missionaries that if people worshipped a tree, they should just consecrate the tree and allow people to keep worshipping it instead of cutting it down. This spread Christianity rather effectively and started wiping out peoples beliefs in the old ways. Druids, who had long been the holy men of the old religion were branded as evil and were driven out. Anyone who followed the old ways was branded a witch and punished, if not killed. 

Pope Gregory the First
The Pope who tried to snuff out Samhain and Ancient Celtic religion

How Samhain traditions survived

The old ideas about Samhain never quite died out completely, so the church tried to “bless” the day so to say by naming it something else and claiming it as their own. November 2nd was named All Souls Day and was a day where the living prayed for the souls of the dead. 

All Souls day started being called All Saints Day, which was also known as All Hallows. Many people would celebrate the evening before this holy day, on what became known as All Hallows Eve. From there I’m sure you can see where the name Halloween came from…

Dance Halloween GIF by jjjjjohn
Halloween is celebrated all around the world these days.

The two celebrations still have many similarities and some of the same practise. We talked earlier about how people would dress up for Samhain in order to confuse malevolent spirits, and how cakes are put out in order to appease these spirits. Halloween is now much more of an Americanised day which is all about candy, but originally All Hallows Day way brought over by Irish immigrants who settled in America. 

iris celebration of samhain
A traditional Irish celebration of Samhain. They brought the traditions to America where they turned into what we know as Halloween today

Other celebrations similar to Samhain

Mexican people also celebrate Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on the 31st of October. Japan also has a festival called The Obon Festival which takes place over 3 days in August. Candles are lit and floated on water to light the way for Ancestors to visit. Alters with food and small gifts are set up, and homes are thoroughly cleaned so as to be inviting for visiting spirits.

I think that whatever you want to call your festival, at the end of the day it’s a celebration of the passing of time and seasons and respecting all the people who have paved the way before us. Given how many cultures celebrate their past on or around these days, I believe that there is no question about the closeness of our spiritual guides and the thinness of the veil between the worlds on these days.

Día de Los Muerto celebrations
Día de Los Muerto celebrations hold similarities to Samhain. Both honour the dead and invite Ancestors to join us at the table to celebrate

How to pronounce Samhain

This is a question that often comes up and is a little hard to answer due to the many opinions about it! I say “Sow-inn” which is the Irish pronunciation (say the “ow” part like the “ow” in “cow”) but other people like to use the Gaelic of “Sow-een”. You could also use “ Sah-ween”. You might be tempted to pronounce it like it’s spelt, more like “Sam-hane” but this has no basis as the word itself has Irish or Gaelic origins. It means “Summers End” which is why it’s such a fitting and lovely name for this powerful celebration.

How to pronounce Samhain

What are your favourite ways to celebrate Samhain? Will you be building a bonfire this year? Unfortunately, I am in Berlin and this is a little tricky for me this year, but that won’t stop me from making a delicious feast and thinking about all the people who have gone before me. I most definitely will be baking soul cakes and maybe spending some time on my roof drinking a glass or two of mulled wine and trying to see the stars so I feel some connection to nature in this bustling beauty of a city.

Two locations to celebrate Samhain. Mountains and lakes with bonfire or berlin rooftop
My ideal location for celebrating Samhain on the left and where I will most probably be celebrating Samhain on the right. Not that I’m complaining, I love city life at the moment and there is beauty and nature all around my rooftop anyway, just in different forms to the rawness of a mountainous lake and a bonfire
I’ll leave you with a prayer to your ancestors, for guidance and protection

Ancestors within me
Wild and free
Guide and protect me
For eternity
Blessed Ancestors hear me this night
Grant me your love and healing light 
So mote it be

Until next time my loves,

Blessed Be

Amaria Pollux xx

Shop Our Favourite Samhain Products

Disclaimer: We recommend products we love and use ourselves, but please note that if you purchase any of these products, Amazon may pay us a small commission.

  • This book covers the 8 sabbats in the Wheel of the Year in detail, it’s wonderful if you are a beginner just starting on your journey into Wicca. Click here to check it out https://amzn.to/2uXpqYD
  • Samhain – a beginner’s guide to this potent sabbat. There is a whole series of these books, one for each Sabbat. Great if you’re just starting into Wicca and want a comprehensive guide to the holidays that isn’t too daunting. Click to check it out on Amazon https://amzn.to/2ucWmvZ
the spells deck
This super pretty deck of spells gives you 78 different spells and rituals to choose from, many of which would be great around Samhain. Click here to buy https://amzn.to/2uOE04Q

Amaria Pollux

Amaria is a herb and nature-loving magical explorer who always tries to look on the bright side. If she's not cooking up a storm, you'll find her snuggled up on the couch with her self-satisfied cat and a magical book learning everything she can about Wicca.

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