Halloween's Celtic Roots - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Halloween's Celtic Roots October 27, 2006

Exploring how the past and present mix in the night of costumes and jack o' lanterns.

(Courtesy Jenny Butler)

Beyond costume parties and trick-or-treating, the origins of Halloween can be traced to the Celtic New Year. The Romans, the Christian Church and, ultimately, commercialized society revised and reinvented this holiday, but inside the modern traditions traces of Halloween's ancient past remain. Jenny Butler, a Ph.D. student of Béaloideas/Folklore at the University College Cork in Ireland, will be speaking about Pagan and Celtic traditions at the International Conference on Halloween, held at Glasgow Caledonian University on October 31. ARCHAEOLOGY asked Butler to explain the Celtic roots of Halloween and how relics of the past are understood today.

What is Samhain and how does it relate to Halloween? Samhain is the ancient Celtic feast of the dead that is thought to have marked the start of winter. Because the Celts are believed to have measured time by nights rather than by days, as we do today, Samhain was the festival that marked the "New Year" for the Celtic peoples. The word Samhain is derived from the Old Irish language for the time of this festival and is still used in modern Irish to refer to the month of November. The word might be a linguistic inversion of the Irish-language term samhradh (summer) so that Samhain means "summer's end." Halloween or "All Hallow's Eve" is the night of October 31 and is the eve of All Saint's Day in the Christian tradition. Both feast days are connected with the dead and take place on the same calendar date and the modern Halloween can be seen to be a scene of merging of different cultural elements, some ancient, some pre-modern, some contemporary.

What kind of rituals did Samhain involve? Samhain traditionally involved rituals of divination, because of the idea that this was a liminal time when the "veil" between the human world and the otherworld became thin. With the perceived breaking down of barriers between the human and spirit realms, communication was thought to become possible between the living and the dead. People may also have believed that they would be privy to supernatural aid or otherworldly knowledge at this time. Other rituals may have been symbolically to do with the juxtaposition of life and death. Some divinatory rituals have survived in form of games of "snap-apple" and "bobbing for apples."

What was the significance of lighting bonfires? There are many reasons why bonfires might be lit. One practical one is for warmth--the end of October is a cold, dark time. Around a fire is a traditional setting for storytelling sessions and the light and heat from a large fire add to the festive atmosphere. There's an Irish custom that it is good luck to jump the flames of a bonfire. There have been suggestions that the ancient practice of lighting fires on the hills of Ireland was to do with symbolically mirroring the light and color of the sun in the sky in a ritual that perhaps was part of a sun-worshiping religion.

In Neo-Paganism, the magical element of fire is connected with strength and passion, inspiration and spiritual illumination. Fires may be lit as part of a ritual designed to draw on this magical fire-energy. Some believe that the fire is purifying and thus may be used to cast away negativity in an area before a ritual begins.

There is some influence on the Irish Halloween from the English Bonfire Night in the U.K. Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 is a time when large fires are lit (in which effigies of "the Guy" in memory of the 1605 Gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament). Fireworks displays are now part of Halloween here in Ireland so there is a possible connection between these events.

The more macabre significance of the fire as a way of disposing of heretics in medieval times also comes into play in regard to the imagery of Halloween and associations between fire and witchcraft.

You've written about sacred sites. Are there any sites that were significant for the celebration of Samhain? Can you describe these sites and what took place there? An example of an ancient site that was associated with the observance of the feast of Samhain was the Hill of Ward or "Tlachtga," located near Athboy in the modern county of Meath. It is 116 meters (380 feet) high with a prehistoric ringfort on the top. There are legends that druids gathered there to light huge fires as a signal that festivities should commence. There is evidence that great fires were lit on this hill in pre-Christian times, perhaps in order to mark the beginning of winter. The Hill of Tara, one of the most well known of Irish heritage sites, was also a significant Samhain site in ancient times and there have been references in medieval manuscripts to Feis Teamhrach or a feast of Tara which was said to be held three days before and three days after Samhain. It is important to remember that, since we can only base our judgments on scant archaeological evidence and mythological sources, it is difficult to say with certainty what rituals occurred at ancient sites at Samhain but we do know the sites were important to the people in some way and had a religious significance.


Modern Pagans conduct a garden ritual. (Courtesy Jenny Butler) [LARGER IMAGE]

What is Neo-Paganism, and how does it relate to Celtic tradition? How are sacred sites utilized by practicing Pagans? Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term for a range of modern-day "earth-based" spiritual paths. The different Neo-Pagan "paths" can vary widely in terms of belief and practices. Witchcraft is one form of Pagan spirituality (though it should be noted that not all Witches are Pagans and other non-Pagan groups self-identify as "Witches" too). Pagan Witchcraft itself encompasses many different paths, one of which is the mystery religion of Wicca. There is also Hereditary Witchcraft (believed to be passed on through generations of a family) and there can be solitary forms of Witchcraft (where the practitioner practices alone rather than as part of a coven or other group). There is of course some eclecticism and other forms of modern magical traditions that are outside of those groupings.

The term "Pagan" stems from the Latin word paganus meaning "country-dweller" and this is where the moniker "earth-based" or "nature-based" comes in. Many Pagans dislike the prefix "neo" as they feel it belittles a perceived connection to ancient pre-Christian Paganism and the worship of the "Old Gods." My use of the term "Neo-Pagan" is simply for ease of description and to clearly distinguish between modern-day practitioners and the pre-Christian practices.

There are Pagan groups in Ireland who follow a Celtic-based tradition, usually meaning that they venerate deities from Celtic and Irish mythological pantheons exclusively or follow the Celtic structure of the ritual year, celebrating their festivals on dates which correspond to the annual seasonal transitions marked by festivals that the ancestral peoples of this land celebrated. The word "Celtic" can mean different things to different people and one of the things I'm looking at in my examination of Pagan culture is the contexts in which the word "Celtic" is used and what this means in terms of identity as Irish Pagans or Pagans living in a Celtic land.

Irish Neo-Pagans view many sites on the landscape as sacred and travel to them in order to practice rituals. Some sites, such as Tara, are used by various different Pagan groups. Other sites may be particularly favored by a certain group. In Pagan discourse, connections are made between their own practices at these sacred sites and that of pre-Christian peoples. Some neo-pagans believe that contemporary Paganism has some sort of basis in the distant past and there are those who claim to feel a special energy at these sites. Megalithic monuments, such as stone circles, are used by Pagans for ritual gatherings. Activities at these sites may involve "raising energy" for the purpose of earth healing, meditating, or the veneration of a spirit or deity connected with that particular site or location.

How is Samhain celebrated in Ireland? Traditionally, Samhain was celebrated with feasting and guising. It was customary to eat certain meals at this time, such as colcannon (a mixture of mashed potato, cabbage, and red onion). Another food associated with this festival is fruitcake or bairin breac (barmbrack) which had items in it that were used for foretelling the future--a pea (or rag) meant poverty, a bean meant wealth, a religious medal meant the finder may enter a convent or seminary, a ring meant marriage, and a stick meant that the person who received this in their slice of cake would be beaten by the marriage partner. Nowadays, a barmbrack can be bought in the supermarket but doesn't usually contain all of the above-listed items--many cakes only contain a ring. This change in the objects placed into the brack may reflect a change in attitudes; societal norms have changed and the stick that foretells a future of being beaten by a partner may no longer be acceptable in the modern mindset!

One theory on the origins of guising and dressing as ghosts may be in the notion that the dead are returning on this night and the change of appearance may protect the human from being recognized by the returning spirits of the dead. The sense of things being topsy-turvy and inverted may have given rise to people having fun and using an opportunity to change their appearance into something they are not ordinarily. Today, children dress up in various different costumes, some inspired by the latest films, characters from fantasy stories, and other areas of popular culture. Children trick-or-treat in Ireland nowadays but this tradition may have come back to Ireland from America. In pre-modern Ireland, it was known that Samhain was a time when people could play practical jokes and hoaxes, being a liminal time when such activity would be acceptable, but the custom of going door-to-door threatening to play pranks if candy and other treats are not received seems to be a later development. There seem to be many more organized children's Halloween parties these days and a fear of allowing small children out at night might be a factor in this. Irish society, as with society generally, has changed in major ways since the time of small communities where locals knew each other's children and would look out for them, into a very diversified and in many ways more dangerous society where children need to be accompanied by adults (thus lessoning the leeway to do tricks on niggardly people who don't deliver the goods!). The private Halloween parties of today tend to move towards fancy dress. We can still see similarities in the games played at Halloween and those of an older time--snap-apple, bobbing for apples, and dares are still very prominent at parties.


In olden-day Ireland, jack-o'lanterns would be made by hollowing out a turnip or sugar beet and carving bits out to represent facial features and would then be lit from a candle placed in the inside. The dual idea behind this may have been to at once light the way for the souls of the dead ancestors who are returning to visit the human world and to frighten off any supernatural forces that might be about on this night. Today in Ireland, people carve faces on pumpkins, which are again an American import.

What do you think of the American version of Halloween? Personally, I have never had the pleasure of celebrating Halloween in America, nor have I conducted any research there or carried out a comparative analysis. From what I can glean from media sources and elsewhere, it would seem that Halloween is rather a lavish event in some parts of the U.S., with efforts made to organize large parties, decorate houses with symbols associated with Halloween--this would suggest maybe more of a commercial aspect to Halloween in America as compared with Ireland.

I would add that some of the common activities of the American Halloween might be reinterpretations of older Irish traditions. I think it would be interesting to research the mish-mash of cultural traditions that can be found in the American celebrations of Halloween. It would be fascinating to unravel the different strands and origins of customs and examine those new customs that have sprung up!

Why do you think the international conference on Halloween is important, and what message do you want to convey? What do you expect to learn? I think the conference is important in that it provides a forum for analysis of a festival that is under-researched. It gives academics from various disciplines and different geographical locations an opportunity to join together and discuss the event in a comparative way. I think the kind of discourse a conference of this kind can generate can give us valuable insights into the nature of Halloween and understand better the origin and development of this event through time.

Why did you begin studying Folklore, and can you describe your current research interests? Since an early age, I've been drawn to the supernatural and paranormal phenomena. That interest, combined with an interest in mythology and storytelling, led me to the academic discipline of folklore. When introduced to the academic subject matter, I saw that it encompassed so much more than what I had expected and I quickly became immersed. I find the study of culture fascinating and I like learning about different kinds of people and how they express themselves.

My current research for my Ph.D. deals with various aspects of Neo-Pagan culture, and my dissertation has the working title "Neo-Paganism in Ireland: Worldview and Ritual Practices." My work examines many different aspects of contemporary Pagan culture from an ethnographic perspective; some of the main areas I'm focusing on are: belief-systems, magical worldview, environmental activism, rites of passage, festival celebrations, ritual dress, Neo-Pagan art, and the use of the Irish language and Irish and Celtic mythology in ritual. This is a relatively new research field and since little ethnographic work has been done in this area, I feel that Irish Paganism is a valuable movement to document.

My other research interests include the New Age and New Religious Movements (NRMs) more generally. I have a strong interest in folk magic, charms, and folk medicine. I'm also fascinated by subcultures, alternative movements, and the outlook of these groups and the relationship they have with mainstream society (the Gothic movement for example). I find it interesting to analyze the identity-construction process of different groups of people, so that's fairly open-ended in terms of future research possibilities!