The Irish Origin of Halloween: What is Samhain?
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Jo, who literally wrote the book on Druids in the pagan world of Ireland, a place she considers a portal to the fairy world, explains how the origins of Halloween evolved from Samhain.
Episode Summary: the Origin of Halloween
Have you ever wondered why we bob for apples and trick-or-treat? Where did our Halloween traditions originate? Samhain, the ancient Pagan Irish sowing festival, just happened to fall at the end of the month that is now October. This holiday is the original source of many of our Halloween traditions. But unlike the frolicking and spooky merriment we celebrate with today in the US, Samhain was a dark and sinister time of year in ancient Ireland. At this time when the veil is thinnest, the Puka may carry you off into the marsh, The Wild Hunt may send a Death Coach for you, or the Banshee might portend your doom. What better way to trick real malicious spirits away than dressing your children up like fake spirits?
About the Guest: Jo Kerrigan
Jo Kerrigan is the author of several books on Irish folklore. In this episode, she’s mainly referencing her newest publication, Old Ways, Old Secrets: Pagan Ireland: Myth * Landscape * Tradition. She mentioned some of her previous works as well. Brehon Laws: The Ancient Wisdom of Ireland, Stories from the Sea: Legends, adventures and tragedies of Ireland’s coast, and Follow the Old Road: Discover the Ireland of Yesteryear. She’s working on another book about Fairy Forts, to be released soon. Find all of Jo’s past and future publications at obrien.ie/jo-kerrigan.
We don’t call them “fairies” in Ireland
The modern term “fairy” often invokes a mental image of a flitting winged pixie, scattering sparkly dust like ectoplasm, and cutely getting all jealous over Peter Pan. In the US, when we try to discuss the supernatural race with the slightly more respectful term, we use Fae Folk. This term is not respectful enough for the Irish, however.
The terms Jo advised us to use when speaking about the Fae in Ireland include The Good Folk, The Gentry, or even just Themselves. Perhaps because there are still people in Ireland who purport to have terrible bad luck after angering the Fae, these interplanar creatures are seen as godlike nobles to be feared and avoided. While some of the most famous fairies of folklore are cute and diminutive, the Irish know that’s not how fairies actually look like.
Never forget: Tinkerbell did try to murder Wendy by proxy, and almost succeeded.
Can fairies be evil?
Why are fairies dangerous in Irish folklore?
Fairies are a supernatural race of humanoid creatures primarily from Celtic and Germanic folklore. Some fairies are benevolent, such as those in the Seelie Court, and even marry into human families intentionally. But some are as wicked and evil as they come, referred to as of the Unseelie Court.
Beautiful, tall, and magical, fairies are also quite mischievous. Folk lore tells of fairies carrying off human babies and replacing them with changeling look-alikes, much like cuckoo birds. Adult humans who enter fairy rings may become trapped.
Scary facts about fairies
This Halloween, why not eschew Hollywood monsters and instead tell fairy tales about these original terrifying creatures of the season?
- The Púca, a mischievous dark goat-horse sídhe cryptid, might carry your husband off into the bog if he stays out too late drinking. This might be related to the mysterious condition “dizziness of the marsh” that Jo warned us of.
- The Wild Hunt may decide you’re as good as a stag, and hunt you through the forest.
- If you spot the Death Coach on the horizon, quickly open every door and window. If you act fast enough, it might drive on through, missing your house entirely. Woe be unto those who don’t spot it in time.
- The Banshee is like a lonely Valkyrie, her mourning wails heard only by those who are about to die, and only within certain Irish families, at that. And she only wails in the countryside, apparently; in more refined city areas, she might just knock on your door three times. Don’t open the door, if you want your family to live.
- Elementals, while not fairies technically, are the evilest spirits to haunt County Clare.
How do you protect yourself from fairies?
What are fairies afraid of? Not much that we humans have control over, unfortunately. It’s far better to avoid The Good Folk than to try to fight them. It may be harder to avoid the Fae in the first place on Halloween or Samhain, so it’s good to know what to do to defend yourself. Since fairies follow the laws of nature, there may be some hope in the forest.
For example, should you encounter The Wild Hunt, Jo recommends hugging a tree. Specifically, find an apple or rowan tree, press your back to it, and reach back to hold it in your arms behind you. Be sure to also hold back your dog. Then, be very, very quiet and still, so as not to annoy the hunters, lest they decide to hunt you.
If you do get taken by fairies, whatever you do, don’t eat anything in the Fae realm. Like Persephone, just a few little bites might be enough to trap you there.
Are Samhain and Halloween the same thing?
Samhain is a fall festival representing the start of the new year in Ancient Ireland. The original festival revolved around the time of year when seeds were traditionally planted, but the modern one occurs on Halloween. Given the relatively mild winter weather in Ireland, Jo informs us that Irish folk wisdom suggests planting seeds at the end of the harvest. That way, the seeds have time to get comfortable in the still warm earth, and a little more time to think about becoming a plant.
But there’s more to this Pagan holiday than just sowing seeds. At Samhain, the veil between this world and the next is thinnest. Spirits may visit, usually to the detriment of the living. During this time, tradition states you should honor your deceased relatives. Folks who aren’t careful may get trapped on the wrong side of the veil.
You can probably already see that Samhain has more in common with Day of the Dead, which purportedly originated from the European All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and was reclaimed as a semi-secular Aztec-Mexican tradition only in the past century. While the word Halloween has etymological origins in All Hallows’ Eve, the US has since mutated this sacred day of ancestor worship into something nearly unrecognizably commercial, as we do.
When is Samhain 2023?
Every year, Samhain begins at nightfall on October 31st, and lasts until sunset on November 1. Before our modern Western calendar, the ancient Irish people would’ve celebrated on the date halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.
What to do on Samhain
Several of our modern Halloween activities originated in Samhain festivities. This year, instead of dressing up as a slutty pirate and getting wasted again, try one of the following.
- Bake a barmbrack. Even this Samhain cake is scary, as the guests discover hidden trinkets within with their delicate teeth bones. Like the baby in a New Orleans Mardi Gras king cake, these surprises tell your future in the coming year. The guest who finds the bean will gain wealth, but find the pea and you’ll be poorer by year’s end. She who finds the ring will soon be wed, but the rag finder (yes, there’s a rag inside this cake) is destined to be an old maid. Oddest of all, finding the stick portends that you’ll commit domestic violence.
- Trick or treat, but with the intent of convincing wandering ghosts not to haunt your home. Lost spirits are looking for a place to stay, is your house available? Quick, dress your children in ghost costumes. That way, the ghosts will say “Oh, wait, there are already spirits here, guess I’ll keep looking.”
- Play Slap Apple. This is a version of bobbing for apples where you’re less likely to drown or snorkel up a stranger’s backwash, but more likely to lose a tooth. Tie a string to the stem of an apple, then tie the other end of the string to the rafters in the attic. Swing the apple at your brother. If he can catch the apple in his mouth, he wins, and gets good luck for the year. But if he gets a black eye, you win, but your brother’s suffering is its own reward.
- Set a pile of raw hazelnuts (in the shell) very near to the fire. Play a betting game about which ones will explode, letting the direction the shrapnel flies determine your fate in the coming year.
- Use a paring knife to peel an entire apple in one go. The apple paring should fall into the shape of your future first love’s initial.
- Place a candle to either side of a mirror, and light them at midnight. Stare into the mirror as you comb your hair. If you stare hard enough, a face will appear, gazing over your shoulder. You can only hope that’s the face of your future spouse, and not the Hat Man, here to eat your soul.
Or, just draw a jack-o-lantern using our very own tutorial!
References for further reading
Here’s more info on some of the topics we discussed in this episode that don’t have to do with the origin of Halloween.
- The Well of Lunatics, in the valley of Gleann na nGealt.
- Women as priests in early Christianity back when the religion took Ireland in the 5th century.
- Fairy forts and why they’re still considered sacred.
- Fairy Paths in the Gaelic tradition, and more on the Lace School, which is built on a Fairy Path.
- The Leap Castle Elemental, and more about how to visit Leap Castle and take a ghost tour there.
Other Irish content
We’ve done several episodes featuring guests from Ireland. Here are a few episodes to get you into the Samhain spirit.
- Irish Ghost Stories and Premonitions of Death
- Exploding Ghosts and Buckets of Blood: Interview with This Paranormal Life
- The Ghosts of Ballylough House
- Three of the Most Haunted Libraries in the World
- Article: The Mummies of St. Michan’s
Samhain: the Original Halloween
Were you aware of the link between Samhain and the origin of Halloween? How do your family Halloween traditions keep the original spirit of Samhain alive? Any Druids in your family rowan tree? Submit your story about to be the next guest on Homespun Haints. And don’t forget to curtsey to the new moon.
One thing Samhain and Halloween will always have in common is they’re both going to be spooky days!