This week you are going to read a good deal of neopagan invention about the ancient origins of their festival Samhain. I want to be clear that I have nothing against the invention of a new earth-based religion or creating new mythology. I do wish that they had not appropriated Gaelic names for their holidays. It caused a great deal of confusion, especially as many historians who had a pagan agenda tended to really grasp at straws.
To begin with, historically October 31st is not Samhain. Oíche Shamhna is the proper Irish name for the holiday. Oidhche Shamhna is the proper Scottish Gaelic. Both roughly translate to the eve’ of Samhain. Samhain is the name for November in the Irish calendar and translates to “summer’s end.”
The name Allhollowtide was first used in 1471 to refer to the triduum  which includes Hallowe’en, The Feast of All Saints and All Soul’s Day. It’s root words are hallow (saint) and tide (season).
It is really quite the mishmash of cultures that inform Gaelic belief. You can see that in their early medicine as well. According to one 19th century historian the Irish, “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.”
Some indigenous practices were erroneously labeled “Celtic” originated when various Celtic tribes migrated to Ireland and their language and cultural practices merged with the indigenous inhabitants. This unique culture later spread to the Isle of Man and Scotland assimilating the Picts and other indigenous cultures in those areas. Gaelic cultures were eventually assimilated by the early Irish Catholic church which had also assimilated many Roman Pagan traditions.
Thanks to modern genetics projects, we know all these indigenous gene pools persisted and an archeological boom in the early 2000’s has shone a light on the vibrant culture that existed in Ireland thousands of years before the Celtic migration.
The following is only a short list of the cultures whose beliefs and practices contributed to the modern Gaelic folk practices surrounding Allhallowtide. I left out the Vikings, the Anglo Saxons, and the Normans because my area of expertise is the Gaels, but rest assured they brought some practices to the mix as well.
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 Sandel settlement was established over 9000 years ago near the River Bann in northern Ulster. The Ceide fields in Western Ireland are close to 6000 years old. There is a great body of archeological data that indicates that these indigenous inhabitants began farming in Ireland during the Neolithic period (3900-1700 BCE). This was an active and prosperous culture into the Late Bronze Age (1200 BC – 1150 BCE), known for trading their goldwork and building amazing architectural works such those at Newgrange and Knowth.
Thanks to modern genome projects, we 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. This pre-Celtic Bronze age genome persists strongly in Ireland to this day, leading 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 propose that the quarterly agricultural seasons we recognize as being “Celtic” were more likely practices of this earlier indigenous culture as they are unique to Ireland. Unlike the continental Celts, they recognize four seasons with quarterly festivals based on seasonal changes rather than the two-season lunar calendar of the continental Celts. But these quarterly festivals were also held in England and Wales.
Creideamh sí or the belief in the aes sídhe as nature spirits may also be a remnant of this society’s agricultural focus and consequently why the actions of the good folk often concern themselves with the farming 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 moved 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.
We are sure of little about how the Celts, insular or continental, lived their lives. It has been established that they observed a light half and a dark half of the year, and it is believed they celebrated the transition from the light half of the year to the dark half with a festival called Trinouxtion Samonii (Three Days at the End of Summer) the details of which are unknown.
In 1901 John Rhys proposed that the Celts started their calendar year at the beginning of the winter, saying this festival may have been akin to our modern New Year. That idea has gone wild, yet the Gaulish Coligny Calender found in 2nd century France is inconclusive about that.
It’s generally accepted that the Christian triduum replaced an older festival of the dead, observed by the Gaulish Celts. Celebrating the dead at this time seems practical as surely there would have been many deaths during the time the families had been separated and they were moving into the winter season which was historically deadly. The idea of liminal boundaries during the transition from one season to another is common in many cultures.
The Tuatha de Dannan are generally accepted as being the Celtic pantheon of Ireland although it should be pointed out that there are very few depictions of god-like beings in pre-Roman Celtic art. According to the monastic fairytale Lebor Gabála (Book of Invasions) the last group that settled Ireland (Mileasians) forced the Tuatha de Danaan to live in underground cairns and mounds and they became known as aes sídhe or daoine sídhe. (It was recently taught to me by an Irish linguist that the word sídhe describes simply refers to the mounds and should not be used by itself to refer to the good folk. Daoine sìth is the proper Scottish Gaelic.)
In medieval Irish manuscripts the activity of the aes sídhe is most notable on the eves of Lá Bealtaine and Oíche Shamhna. So, it seems possible that this is a remnant of Celtic beliefs.
Roman cultural practices spread across their empire and beyond its borders due to trade. Some scholars even argue that the Irish pantheon is simply the Roman pantheon given regionally appropriate names and stories as occurred in other areas.
Today’s Hallowe’en incorporates remnants of Roman traditions surrounding festivals of the dead Lemuralia and Parentalia. Roman pagan year end customs also 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 blend of coarsely ground emmer flour and salt 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 held 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 modern celebrations.
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.”
It is true that you can take the catholic out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the catholic. Even though my Granddad left long before my Mom was born (he was angry at his parish for denying his sister Last Rites) there was a good deal of Catholic tradition in my upbringing.
What Do We Really Know the Ancient Celebration?
Unfortunately, there have been a sizable number of early twentieth century scholars who participated in too much conjecture, so we will likely never know the truth of the matter. The educated guesses they made were based on persistent folk practices, archaeological findings, and monastic manuscripts which they considered to be fact. For centuries, those doing the guessing didn’t think twice about the native culture’s beliefs. Their theories based on the idea that the Celts wiped out the native population, which we now know to be false.
In medieval Old Irish tales, they frequently mention holding feasts marking what they called samna or summer’s end, which eventually came to be called Samhain (Irish), Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) and Sauin (Manx). Historian Christian Roy writes that insular and continental Celts alike would leave barec an anaon (bread of the souls) for the dead  but the only actual documentation of the summer’s end celebration is from monastic manuscripts. Kuno Meyer’s translation of one of these (MS Rawlinson B 5 12 -16th Century) gives us some clues as to how summer’s end was celebrated in pre-Christian times.
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  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.
Because the practice persisted far into the Christian era, we know that summer’s end 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). You might read that the cattle were driven between two bonfires at this time, but the only documentation of such a ritual is found in the 10th Century Sanas Chormaic and it is said to have happen at Lá Beltaine.
The following are the three days that make up the triduum and some of the pisreóga (superstitions or magical beliefs) about each day that stuck with it through the 20th century. I will say that at this point 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 it’s important to point out that these were collected in the 1930’s after a wave of romantic nationalism had swept Irish literature and history.
That research has shown that there many regional differences in the way these days are celebrated, but there are some common themes. I have seen six or seven versions of the saucer game I mention below and at least five version of snap-apple. Hallowe’en parties that involved playing at the wake amusements usually reserved for funerals are a long-standing tradition as is leaving food out for the dead on All Souls.
I found several 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 traditions seem to support the idea 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, poison the blackberries and other haws that remains on the vine on this night, so that the berries 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 aes sidhe this evening, and 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.
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.)
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 colcannon, or crowdie.
- Ring – Early Marriage
- Dried Pea- Poverty
- Dried Bean – Wealth
- Wishbone- Heart’s Desire
- Thimble- Spinsterhood
- Button – Bachelorhood
- Religious medals – Priesthood or Nun
It should be noted that this is not a uniquely Gaelic practice. In England, the matriarch of the house would mix her wedding ring into a mash of nine sorts and whomever found it would be the next to marry.
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, 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 takeaway here is that jack-o-lanterns and costumes arose as pranks and not wards, as if the aes sídhe would be fooled by silly human costumes and props.
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 when 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 is observed as 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. 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 Morts – Día de los Muertos
All Souls Day is the most recent addition to the triduum. Ostensibly All Soul’s Day and Día de los Muertos are the same holy day to the church with different names and both 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.
It was established some 160 years (ca. 995 CE) after All Saints Day. 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.” 
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 graveyards, blessing the graves. 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 and spiced ale, which they called “souling.”
Día de los Muertos is the Spanish name for the feast day, 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 undoubtedly been incorporated into the holiday, but practices from the Old World including taking food to the graves of your ancestors, persist.
It’s said that colonizing Spanish missionaries did such an effective job of assimilating indigenous holidays in the Americas 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.
Many cultures have special confections they make for these festivals; a tradition that probably branching out from the Roman mola salsa. 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.
Aside from clearing up a few misconceptions about Gaelic history I saw on the Internet, I hope that this little essay helped to illustrate that there is time honored practice of taking this time to honor the ancestors in cultures throughout the world.
 Any three-day celebration is known in the Catholic Church as a triduum.  Wilde, William Robert. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin, Ireland: James McGlashan, 1852.  Roy, Christian. a. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.  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  http://www.dil.ie/search?q=grinde  Holms, Douglas. “All Souls’ Day.” The Irish Monthly 38, no. 449 (1910): 609–612.  Lucier, V. A. “‘Offrenda’ on All-Souls’ Day in Mexico.” The Journal of American Folklore 10, no. 37 (1897): 106–7.  Muir, Edward Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: UK, University of Cambridge Press. (2005) p. 78  Espinosa, Aurelio M. “All-Souls Day at Zuñi, Acoma, and Laguna.” The Journal of American Folklore 31, no. 122 (1918): 550–52.