Rites, ritual and renewal: the religious significance of Halloween

As harvest season draws to a close and nights creep ever closer into the day, crowds gather for a festival of spirits. During the Iron Age British Isles, some two-thousand years ago, summer goes to rest and stock is taken for the bitter Winter months ahead. Bonfires blaze, smoke envelops the robed figures gathered around. Their hands clasp together in prayer for renewed fields, plentiful rain and bountiful crops. They pray for protection from disease and for the blessing of healthy livestock. Patiently they wait for the sun to be born again, to emerge from its numb, earthly slumber. Forces of darkness pervade the deep hills and wizened countryside, dragging decay behind them. Spirits cascade across the fields in a supernatural frenzy. Dejected, wandering souls. Unhappy ancestors burning in the suspended, searing coldness of the night.

This is how we picture Samhain, pronounced ‘Sow-an’ (Gaelic origin in Ireland), the ancient Celtic origin of Halloween, or Nos Galan Gaeaf (Brythonic origin in Britain). It was an agricultural festival, in which dark, demonic forces were believed to spill out from ‘sidh’ – the ancient barrows and mounds of the countryside (Rogers, 2002). It constituted the most important of four seasonal turning points on the Celtic calendar, signalling the end of the light half of the year, and beginning of the dark half.

A subjection of the natural environment and its peoples to a transition from life to death, it was believed that many mythic heroes perished on Samhain. Thus, its special significance was endowed in pre-Christian communities as a festival of emotional and agricultural regeneration.

The archaeological record suggests that the celebrations can be traced as far back as six-thousand years ago. Ancient monuments, such as the hill of Tara, reveal the desire of ancient Celts to construct spaces in which ritual could be used as a powerful tool to connect human and spirit worlds. Remains of ancient bonfires, feasts and animal bones have been discovered at ‘The Mound of Hostages’, the oldest megalithic structure at Tara, indicating its use for mass seasonal gatherings at Samhain.

The profane, worldly stones of the construction were imbued with a sacred, ethereal quality upon Samhain as the monument was used as a spiritual gateway, or a threshold. This liminal space was believed to exist in a kind of no-man’s land – a limbo between the living and the dead. This serves as an example of how ancient people sought to link their everyday material world with a believed Otherworld. The many acts performed at Samhain, such as animal sacrifices, dancing, drinking, socialising, donning costumes and engaging in prayer and meditation, relate earthly behaviours and objects with otherworldly spirits. Celts left out offerings of food and drink to wandering night-time spirits or on the graves of ancestors, forging a connection between the tangible food and invisible, intangible ghosts.

Could we view this deference to spirits as a kind of religious fanaticism? Did these ancient people genuinely believe in the presence of otherworldly spirits? Or should we take a more philosophical standpoint that this behaviour was merely a desire to be a part of something greater than oneself? Yet, casting doubt on the existence of these spirits is an undeniable product of modernity. With only half of British students reporting having a religion or belief, it is easy for us to stamp a kind of paternalistic superiority on the issue, held back by the conception that we have become a secular and technological society, and know better than to believe in fictional phantoms and spirits. This dismisses the spiritual and emotional importance of these beliefs. For example, although an individual may not have received a vision of an ancestor despite claiming to, or perhaps a lack of rain during the week of Samhain was due to weather patterns rather than an evil spirit – these events occurred spiritually to that individual. Perhaps their belief that their ancestor made themselves known strengthened their faith and acted as emotional consolidation. Alternatively, cognitive dissonance could arise from this, a psychological discomfort caused by the conflict in the mind between the true knowledge that spirits were likely fiction and behaviour suggested they were possessed by a very real fear of them.

Samhain was an emotional experience influenced heavily by changes in lived, physical environments. The coming of longer and darker nights in ancient agrarian communities was undeniably a life of mental and physical hardship. We are now aware of how Autumn and Winter can impact our mental health, through disorders such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which one in twenty adults are affected by. Fewer hours of sunlight lead to lower melatonin levels during the day and perpetuation of insomnia and depression. These heightened bodily responses may help explain the fearful and macabre quality of Samhain, as it signalled a transitional period away from summer. Liminal spaces and times situated this transition. For example, events in Celtic Mythology often occur on shorelines, or at dusk or dawn, where people felt suspended in time, no longer bound by the rules of the physical world.

Samhain relates to the wicked and sublime and ideas of sorrow and salvation. Most importantly, it is tied deeply to emotion and a desire to connect to others to distract from fear of individual mortality. Is not the reason why we have festivals to create a shared experience? Samhain took our human desire for a greater purpose and turned it into a celebration of a successful harvest in the face of the upcoming hard Winter. Winter brought with it coldness, hardship and death. Samhain symbolises the belief of our ancestors that if demonic spirits existed at this dark time of year, we could overcome them. This humanist perspective favours the hope and optimism these people felt in reaffirming our attempts to ward off spirits. A romanticised picture you may say, but in the face of the mass commercialism of current Halloween celebrations this is a welcome image.

Current Halloween traditions and symbols can be traced back thousands of years. Apple bobbing was originally a courting ritual taking place during the Festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, which blended with Samhain upon the Roman conquest of the British Isles in 43AD. Ancient peoples believed young men and women were able to predict their future relationships based on the game. Bats as a macabre symbol and popular Halloween costume or and decoration originates from the large bonfires Celts lit, which attracted insects and in turn attracted bats. This led to sightings of bats becoming interlinked with the festival and the superstition that bats were the harbingers of death..

Ultimately, Samhain was a complex and varied religious festival. It served both as a reminder of human strength in the face of hardship and mortality, and as spiritual and emotional fulfillment. The fusion of the ethereal plain with the human realm created liminal spaces in which worldly behaviours and objects were endowed with otherworldly significance. We still see this in our celebrations of Halloween today. Happy Samhain!

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

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