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29 Oct 2013
All Soul’s Day – All Saints and Martyrs Day – Samhain – All Hallows
Among the Ancient Celtic people who lived in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the North of England, the year was divided into two seasons: winter from November to April, and summer from May to October. New Year’s Day was the 1st of November and it was celebrated as the Feast of Samhain. The day before, 31st October, was therefore the Eve of Samhain, or New Year’s Eve, and was kept as a kind of harvest festival marking the end of summer.
Our Pagan ancestors regarded the day before Halloween, as a time when the occult powers were extremely dangerous, especially the sinister influences of the Dark Gods of Winter who now emerged from their summer hibernation to terrorise humankind. These long-forgotten gods ruled the dark period of the year when the Sun was weak, the Earth barren, the trees leafless and the cold and famine had begun to creep over the land. At Halloween the dead were believed to emerge from their lonely graves and attempt to revisit their old homes, knocking on doors and windows to draw attention to their presence and hoping to toast their toes before the hearth fire.
The Ancient Celtic Races also followed a Lunar Year, as opposed to a Solar year, which we currently use. The Lunar Year has 13 Full Moons, or 13 months, and as a Full Moon occurs every 28 days: 13 x 28 = 364 days. So there was a day missing. This day became the in-between day, neither in the Old year nor in the New Year. A day veiled in mystery and shrouded with superstition. Some believed that those that had gone before, could return on this day and share their knowledge. Some in fact were invited back, by ritual and ceremony.
During the festival, fires would be lit which would burn all through winter. Surplus animals which couldn’t be fed during the winter were slaughtered and everyone joined in a great feast. Prior to the coming of Christianity the Pagans carried out barbaric sacrifices at Samhain to secure themselves from the menaces of the evil spirits. In Ireland for example, first borns, both human and animal, were sacrificed to the God Crom Cruaich, an idol made of Silver and Gold.
Another ancient method was employed to protect farm cattle against disease. The beasts were driven through the dying embers of hilltop fires which were lit especially at Halloween. Young men and women would leap through the flames to ensure good health and fertility. This custom survived in out-of-the-way corners of the Highlands and in the Isle-of-Man as late as the 18th century.
But this was also a special time in the year, when the supernatural world broke into the natural world in special ways, which meant that we could communicate with those loved ones, who had gone before us. The Veil between this World and the next was at its thinnest…
The traditional belief that Halloween is a night of strange hauntings has never become extinct although the terrors are far less intense than in the past. On this dreaded night, only a man or woman with nerves of steel would dare to venture into the churchyard where gruesome ghosts were believed to lurk threateningly behind each gravestone.
This night is now a time for magic of a happier type (although it still has a touch of the weird about it) – we still echo the ancient terror of the returning dead, in the decorations and costumes; the pumpkin hollowed out like a skull, plastic spiders dangling from the ceiling, children trick or treating in monster, witch or ghost outfits!
No tradition ever becomes extinct in the British Isles; such is the undying passion for ancient Magic among the people.