Halloween is nearly upon us and millions of kids and their parents are getting costumes ready. Some will know the ancient Celtic roots of the candy filled fun night, many won’t. In Celtic Ireland nearly 2,000 years ago, Samhain was celebrated as it divides the year from summer to winter. At Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. This day falls between two days Oíche Shamhna (October 31) and Lá na Marbh (November 2). Oíche Shamhna is Halloween and Lá na Marbh, is the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, when those who have passed away are remembered. It marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year as the winter draws near.
Samhain is a time to honour the family’s ancestors and those that had passed. These spirits were honoured and invited into the family home while the harmful spirits were kept away. Folks wore costumes and masked themselves as the harmful spirits to avoid any harm. The bones of the family livestock were cast into communal fires and bonfires and food played a great role in the festivities. Food was prepared for the living and the dead, the dead’s portion was shared with those who didn’t have as much. The celebrations went long into the night and offerings of food and gifts were left out for the fairies and wee folk. Participants celebrated with huge bonfires to light the way into the season of the dark.
In Ireland, there are two hills in the Boyne Valley that are associated with Samhain, Tlachtga and Tara. Tlachtga was the location of the Great Fire Festival which begun on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). The entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara is aligned with the rising sun around Samhain. The Mound of the Hostages is 4,500 to 5000 years old, suggesting that Samhain was celebrated long before the first Celts arrived in Ireland.
Archaeological investigation of Tlachtga has revealed evidence of intense burning on the hill which has been dated from the mid first millennium AD, this confirms folklore stories of the hill as a setting for the Samhain fires. The festival of fire ceremony at Tlachtga was revived a few years back, and all are welcome to attend. Participants assemble in the nearby town of Athboy at around 7pm on the 31st of October. From there, the gathering proceeds to the Hill of Ward bearing lighted torches and candles, and on reaching the site, great fires are lit and the festival associated pageantry begins.
There are Samhain Festivals all over Ireland and the UK from Tara to Loughcrew and Rath Lugh celebrations are being prepared and everyone is welcomed to honour the ancestors and step over the threshold to the new year. You can find a list of these celebrations here if you wish to attend.
The Yellow Book of Lecan, is a medieval book of tales, that reported people referred to Samhain as the “Feast of Mongfind,” a legendary witch-queen who married the King of Tara in old Ireland and was central to ancient Samhain celebrations, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary writes.
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