Tag Archives: Samhuinn


It’s a bit cold out for a bonfire but the hearth is lit and my family is together…

The name Allhollowtide was first used in 1471 to refer to the triduum  [1] which includes Hallowe’en, The Feast of All Saints and All Soul’s Day.  It’s root words are hallow (saint) and tide (season). I’ve been celebrating this three-day holiday for as long as I can remember.

It is part of the folk practices of  Irish and Scottish people, most of whom “adhered with great pertinacity to the customs of the good old times, when it was difficult to say how much of our religion was Christian and how much Pagan.”[2]

Many practices observed on this church-sanctioned holy festival are thought to be older pagan customs associated with honouring the dead. There is an older Gaulish name for these three nights,  Trinouxtion Samonii  (Three Days at the End of Summer) which implies that the Gauls observed the three day festival prior to the Christian festival.

So while, I would love to give the Irish credit for inventing this festival, it is important to point out that you can’t look at folk practices in any country and attribute them to any one culture and there is no such thing as a widely observed festival of Samhain.  Most regional celebrations date back to the Catholic triduum.

Even amongst the Gaels, there are  many regional differences in the way the holy days were celebrated.  I have seen six or seven versions of the saucer game, I mention below and at least five version of snap-apple.  Leaving food out  for the dead, is a long-standing Gaelic custom as are Hallowe’en parties that involved playing at the wake amusements usually reserved for funerals.

Also, just because something was folk practice in Ireland doesn’t mean it was “Celtic” because the Celts were not the first Irish culture.  The following is only a short list of the cultures whose beliefs and practices contributed to the modern folk practices surrounding Allhallowtide.  I left out the Vikings and the Anglo Saxons because my area of expertise is the Gaels.

The Indigenous Irish

We know that as early as 7000 BCE the early nomads of Ireland had begun to form semi-permanent settlements building sturdy huts with internal hearths.   The Mount Sandal settlement  near the River Bann in northern Ulster has been excavated and inventoried extensively.  The Ceide fields in Western Ireland are close to 6000 years old.  This was an  active and prosperous culture into the Late Bronze Age,  known for  trading their goldwork and building amazing architectural works such those at  Newgrange and Knowth.

We know know that these people seemed to have come to Ireland in waves of immigration from Northern Spain, the Russian Steppes and even the Middle East. The fact that pre-Celtic genetic pools persist to this day leads researchers to believe that the Celts came to Ireland first for trade and then as small groups of immigrants and economic refugees who skirmished and intermarried with native inhabitants.

Historians such as Kevin Danaher insist that the agricultural holidays we celebrate as being “Celtic” were likely practices of this earlier culture as they are unique to the Gaels.  Specifically they are fire festivals based on an agricultural/solar calendar rather than the lunar calendar of the continental Celts.

For example, we  know that Samhain was when the women and children would bring the family’s livestock down from the summer grazing pastures known as buailes (booleys), where they had been since Lá Beltaine, to be secured close to home in their byre (barns)We know this because it persisted far into the Christian era.

It’s possible that celebrating the dead at this time seemed practical as surely there would have been many deaths during the time the families had been separated. But they were also moving into the winter season which was historically deadly.

Creideamh sí or the belief in the Fae as nature spirits may also be a remnant of this culture and consequently why the actions of the Fae concern themselves with the agricultural practices of the people.

The Picts in Scotland

In 297 CE Roman historians recorded that the Scotti (Irish) and the Picts coordinated a uniform attack on Hadrian’s wall, but it wasn’t until sometime around 490 CE that the Dál Riata move the seat of their government from Ireland to Scotland.

Colum Cille left Ireland to  set up his monastery on Iona until around 563 CE and after that Scotti expansion into Scotland was spread by missionaries from Iona. Eventually, due to increasing pressure from the Viking and Anglo Saxons invasions, the Scotti and the Picts merged into a single unified kingdom under Cináed mac Ailp’n in 844CE.

Pictish culture was assimilated and their language lost — except in a few place names in Scotland, but it is at least possible that regional differences between Scottish and Irish celebrations may have something to do with Pictish contributions.

The Celts

We are sure of  little about how the Celts, insular or continental, lived their lives.  Most scholars make educated guesses based on persistent folk practices, archaeological findings and a few manuscripts written by biased sources ie… Catholic priests and Romans.   For centuries, though those doing the guessing didn’t think twice about the native culture’s beliefs, because there was this idea that the Celts had wiped them out.

We know that the Goidelic Celts (Gaels)  celebrated the transition from the light half of the year to the dark half with a festival known in Old Irish as samna or summer’s end, which eventually came to be called Samhain (Irish), Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) and Sauin (Manx).

It is believed that the Gaels started their calendar year at the beginning of the winter, so this festival was a celebration akin to our modern New Year.   Among their beliefs seemed to be that those who dwelled in the Otherworld (the Fae and the spirit of the dead) were more easily able to travel to the mortal world at summer’s end.

Historian Christian Roy writes that insular and continental Celts alike would leave barec an anaon (bread of the souls) for the dead [3] which is kind of in keeping with Kuno Meyer’s translation of an Irish manuscript (MS Rawlinson B 5  12 -16th Century transcription of an Old Irish manuscript) as to how summer’s end was celebrated in pre-Christian times.[4]

Carna, cuirm, cnoimes, cadla,            Meat, ale, nut-mast, tripe
it e ada na samna,                              These are the dues of summer’s end.
tendar ar cnuc co n-grinde,                A bonfire on a hill, pleasantly
blathach, brechtan urimme               Buttermilk, a roll of fresh butter.

If you are the type to research this sort of thing, you might note that Kuno’s translation is a less fanciful translation than you might read other places. Other translations mention that the last line are the offerings suited to the day, but that is not the literal meaning of the words.

The most controversy seems to be over the word grinde.  I have seen n-grinde translated as merriment. I have also seen it translated to “with a company” as well, but I doubt that translation.  In this context, it was usually written as grinni or grinne referring to an army or group of soldiers. For example, grinni Gaedel means fighting men of the Gaelic.

N-grinde, could simply refer to using faggots [5] to start the bonfire as that was a medieval word used to refer to bundles of twigs bound together to use as firewood and you see this phrase in the Sanas Cormiac. This would be my guess as I am a keep it simple kind of person, but I usually defer to Meyer. No one knows and anyone who translates something without offering you alternative possibilities is cherry picking their favorite.

The Romans

We also can’t forget that Roman cultural practices spread across their empire. Today’s Hallowe’en incorporates remnants of Roman traditions surrounding festivals of the dead Lemuralia and Parentalia.  That’s pretty common. Many  pagan  year end customs jumped to the Scottish New Year’s celebration Hogmanay.

Lemuralia is significant as it was a festival during which the Romans held rituals meant to exorcise unfriendly ghosts from their home. Roman custom on this day included making a salted flour known as mola salsa as on offering to the dead. Parentalia was a holiday when the Romans would offer other sacrifices at the graves of their ancestors including flower-garlands and wine soaked bread.

The festival Feroniae held November 13th  in honor of the goddess Feronia was associated with the harvest and abundance. Romans would offer up the first fruits of the harvest to her during this festival, which may account for importance of apples and nuts to the modern festival.

The Catholic Church

Finally, we must consider that these are Catholic holy days and the church had a tremendous influence on Gaelic folk practice. An old Irish adage tells us bhí an creideamh ina chuid de dhlúth agus d’inneach na beatha which means “faith was woven into the warp and weft of life” and I believe that. Even though my Granddad left the Catholic Church before my Mom was born (he was pissed off at a priest for denying his sister Last Rites) there was a good deal of Catholic tradition in my upbringing.

Rue Sprinkler for Protection  Did you know that rue is mentioned as a tithing herb in the new testament?

Also, as someone whose spirituality is very much wrapped up in honoring my ancestors, I feel like my ancestors would want me to respect their beliefs and appreciate their customs.

Finally,  I will get to the topic of this post.  The following are the three days that make up the triduum and some of the pisreóga (magical beliefs) about each day, although that is fairly difficult at this point because the days are a bit mixed up in modern folklore. I rely pretty heavily on what I have read in the  Schools’ Collection for sorting it out, but  by the 1930’s information was convoluted, so in that case I look for older journal articles.

I found a few references to the idea that  “the souls in Purgatory were released from twelve o’clock Hallow Eve night till midnight All Souls Day” but most people seemed to believe that  Oíche  Shamhna belonged to the Fae and the ancestors held sway over All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.

Oíche Shamhna – All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en

All Hallow’s Eve is the vigil of All Hallow’s Day.  A vigil is what it is called when people observe a period of wakefulness for ritual purposes including the advent of a feast day.   The word is derived from the Italian term vigilia and translates roughly to eve.

In Irish folklore this night is also called Púca night  and it is believed that the púca or “pookies” as they were sometimes called, poisons the blackberries and other haws that remains on the vine on this night, so that it can’t be eaten after that.

Those who go out on this night might encounter the fairies at a variety of activities including fishing in lakes, singing and dancing in the hills, or stealing children and leaving changelings in exchange.    “Jack O Lantern” was a fairy/spirit whose goal was to lure people to their doom in the bogs.

It was considered important to be respectful of the Sidhe this evening, but  people would also take measures to protect themselves.  They would sprinkle salt or holy water on children and animals.  They would carry black-handled knives or some other bit of iron in their pockets.

I have to admit that we have been using the same Parshall for several years now because my daughter spun the dark gray yarn herself and I am loathe to use different ones.

In some areas people would weave the Parshall and hang it in the window against bad fortune in the coming year and to ward off evil spirits.  (These directions are a little different than the ones I grew up with in that I used yarn and 7-inch sticks to make ours.  I’ve also seen these called Ojo de Dios by Spanish Catholics, but I am not sure if they are made at the same time of the year.)

For what it’s worth, there is no mention of turnip lanterns being used as wards that I could find.  That’s a practice that seems to have taken hold in the US–probably because pumpkins are much easier to carve than rutabaga.

Guisers were youth who would dress in costumes and go door-to-door begging for apples, nuts and other treats. Sometimes they would sing songs or act out plays, in return. After they had collected the goodies for their festivities, the village would have a grand Hallowe’en Party.

One game commonly played at these parties was snap-apple during which they would hang cross stick with apple at one point and a lighted candle at the other, twirl the stick and try to catch the apple, not the candle, in the mouth. I have read examples of people replacing the candle flame with soap or an old potato, and this seems safer.  I have also seen the game explained as just hanging apples on cords from the ceiling.  In the game, “Ducking in the Water” young people would also take a go at retrieving apples or silver coins from a large tub of water with their mouths.

Divination pisreóga were a big part of this evening. A common practice was that of melting lead into a bowl of water and interpreting the shapes to tell the future.

In some Gaelic regions báirín breac a bread flavoured with whiskey, orange zest and spices  would be baked up with various trinkets tucked inside that would divine your future.  In other areas these trinkets would be tucked in your champ or colcannon.

Ring – Early Marriage
Dried Pea- Poverty
Dried Bean – Wealth
Thimble- Spinsterhood
Button – Bachelorhood
Religious medals – Priesthood or Nun

In another pisreóga “three saucers are put on the table, and clean water in one, clay in another and a ring in the third. Then a blindfold is put on a person’s eyes and he walks towards the table. If he puts his hand into the saucer with the clay, that person will be dead before the next Hallow Eve. If he puts his hand into the saucer with the ring, he will be married before the next Hallow Eve.”  If the hand went into the water it signified a long journey in that person’s future.

My favorite is one in which a person would leave an ivy leaf in a glass of water all night long and if it was still fresh in the morning, the person could be assured they would be alive on next Hallow’s Eve.

The night was also called oídhche na, h-aimléise, (the night of mischief or con) Young men of the village liked to carouse this night after the parties and cause mischief of one sort or another, perhaps challenging one another with elaborate dares or pranking people who had denied them goodies for their parties.

The tricksters capitalized on the fear of Otherwordly visitors.  Sometimes they would dress in costumes.  Other times they carved rutabagas into  lanterns with frightening faces and use them to scare people.  The take away here is that jack-o-lanterns and costumes probably arose as pranks and not wards,  as if the aes sídhe would be fooled by silly human costumes and props.

Turnip (Rutabaga to Americans) lanterns at the National Museum of Ireland, Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo

November 1st – Alholowmesse, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints, All Soul’s Eve 

The first “all-saints” was celebrated on what would have been the final day of the Roman festival Lemuralia on the 13th of May by Pope Boniface IV in 610 CE.  He consecrated the Pantheon to the Mary, mother of Jesus and all known martyrs.

Over 200 years later, Pope Gregory III started observing the holy day on November 1st and extended it to “All Saints” and not just martyrs.  This is probably when the Roman customs jumped their timeline.

In 835 CE, Pope Gregory the IV exerted his influence over Emperor Louis the Pious compelling him to introduce the Feast of All Saints to the Franks on November 1st, to the overshadow Trinouxtion Samonii  and heathen rituals held at that time of the year.

The evening of All Saint’s Day becomes the vigil of All Soul’s Day.   While there isn’t consensus as to when the ancestors leave their graves,  traditionally this is the night that the dead are likely to visit their ancestral homes. Some Irish lit candles in windows  to guide the souls of the dead back to their graves. This is one account of how All Soul’s Night was celebrated in the early 20th century in parts of Ireland.

On “All Souls Night” the Irish people keep up the custom of lighting candles on all the windows to guide the souls on their way.

It is believed that the souls visit their old homes on earth. Anyone does not go out on the night, for fear that he might meet any of the dead on his way.

It is counted unlucky. Everybody is present for the family rosary, and the all the souls ear earnestly prayed for. The head of the house leaves the door opened, a fine fire is put on the hearth.

There is a bucket of fresh spring water, and a plentiful supply of food is placed in the kitchen. This is done in order that the souls may find warmth and comfort in their old homes.

About mid-night the head of the house gets up again and waves a white cloth after the souls, bidding them farewell, and asking them to come back again next year.

All Souls Day- Jour Des MortsDía de los Muertos

The Feast of All Souls is the most recent addition to the triduum.  It was established some 160 years (ca. 995 CE) after All Saints Day.[6]  The church determined to eclipse the heathen festivals of old, declared November 2nd a day that one could “to have a mass said for the repose of a loved soul gone before.”[7]

To make it a little more compelling, Saint Odilo also introduced the idea of Purgatory at that time, so people were more motivated to pray for the souls of their ancestors be released from torment.

This feast was celebrated on November 2nd across Western Europe, but as Catholicism has waned, so have the celebrations.  It is called jour des morts in France and at one time French priests would lead processions around brightly decorated grave yards, blessing the graves.[8] In Portugal, Spain and Italy it was more common for people to take food to the graves of their ancestors.

In the UK, Soul cakes were  given out to people on All Soul’s Day in return for prayers for the souls of the giver and their family, and young people would go from household to household begging for the cakes, which they called “souling.”

In Spanish the name of the festival is Día de los Muertos  and it is celebrated throughout Latin America.  In Mexico, many Aztec practices from two older feasts called Hueymiccaihuitl and Miccailhuitontli (traditionally held in August) have been incorporated into the holiday, but practices from the Old World including taking food to the graves of your ancestors, persist.

(As an aside, Spanish missionaries did such an effective job of shifting the dates in the New World that in the early 20th century ethnographers reported that the Zuñi tribe in the Southwest observed the ceremony on the first of November, right down to the making the sign of the cross and offering up prayers to the dead in Andalusian Spanish, fully believing that it was their traditional practice.[9])

Many cultures have special confections they make for these festivals. I already mentioned báirín breac and soul cakes.  In Portugal, they have Pão-por-Deus. In Italy there are honey and nut cakes called pabassine. In some parts of Spain, the people eat almond paste confections shaped like bones and filled with cream filling “marrow” called huesos de santos (saints bones) and buñuelos– a pastry which was  probably borrowed from the Jewish culture – resembling the bimuelos they make for Hanukkah. In Mexico they bake sweet breads called panes de muerto that have  small skeleton baked into each one.

Ostensibly Día de los Muertos and All Soul’s Day are the same holy day to the church with different names and have been observed for a very long time now.  Of course like their names,  some practices diverge due to regional differences and assimilation of local customs.

Aside from clearing up a few misconceptions about Gaelic customs I saw on the Internet, I hope that this little essay helped to illustrate that there is a rich cultural tradition of honoring the ancestors in many places.



[1] Any three-day celebration is known in the Catholic Church as a triduum.

[2] Wilde, William Robert. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin, Ireland: James McGlashan, 1852.

[3] Roy, Christian. Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

[4] Meyer, Kuno. Hibernica Minora, Being a Fragment of an Old-Irish Treatise on the Psalter with Translation, Notes and Glossary and an Appendix Containing Extracts Hitherto Unpublished from MS. Rawlinson, B. 512 in the Bodleian Library Edited by Kuno Meyer, with a Facsimile. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894

[5] http://www.dil.ie/search?q=grinde

[6] Holms, Douglas. “All Souls’ Day.” The Irish Monthly 38, no. 449 (1910): 609–612.

[7] Lucier, V. A. “‘Offrenda’ on All-Souls’ Day in Mexico.” The Journal of American Folklore 10, no. 37 (1897): 106–7.

[8] Muir, Edward Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: UK, University of Cambridge Press. (2005) p. 78

[9] Espinosa, Aurelio M. “All-Souls Day at Zuñi, Acoma, and Laguna.” The Journal of American Folklore 31, no. 122 (1918): 550–52.