The Origin of Halloween: Samhain, the Celtic Festival of Darkness and Mystical Light

Alfablot at boulder without flash
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Celebrated at the beginning of November, the Celtic Festival of Samhain marked the coming of the winter months, with their dimming light and heightening darkness. The root of the word “Samhain” comes from “samhradh”, meaning “summer” in Irish Gaelic. While the exact etymology has not been confirmed by scholars, in Celtic tradition, “Samhain” corresponds to “end of summer” (a combination of samh “summer” and fuin “ending, concealment”).  Samhain and Beltanne (May Day) stood in opposition as the beginning of the season of winter and summer, respectively, but Samhain was a much more prominent festival and may have marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year as Frazer has pointed out.

Samhain was, consequently, a festival of deepening darkness and budding light. It was a meeting place between two opposites – the winter and the summer, the dark and the light, death and life. As such, the festival contained both aspects of existence – although the darkness, increasing at this time, was more profuse and substantial.

In its ‘dark’ aspect, Samhain marked a period of destruction and chaos. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this was the ritual killing of the Irish kings of Tara. According to Dalton’s evidence and interpretation, the kings that had behaved unsuitably or unpiously in office would be killed on the day of Samhain. Ritual killing was also effected against animals: Samhain was the season when the cattle that would not be kept through the winter were slaughtered.

On Samhain, the forces of darkness or chaos returned to rule. According to Irish mythology, 1st of November marked the day that the demonic Fomorian race oppressed the people of Nemed. According to another legend, the divine Aillen the Burner puts everyone to sleep at Samhain and burns the palace of the Irish kings at Tara. During the festival, bands of men, women and children dressed in masks and costumes embodied the havoc-causing divinities and inflicted their own terror and chaos on the neighbourhood. As Dalton points out, the tyrannical Irish king Conn Cetcathachwas killed by fifty warriors dressed as women. The habit of cross-dressing was popular in various parts of the Celtic world as expressions of the breakdown of rules on Samhain.

Samhain was also a time when the dead came back to roam the earth. This happened because the normal order no longer applied, and hence the boundaries of the otherworld were broken. Freed from the rules that clearly separate one world from the next, the dead returned to visit the living. They were welcomed at ritual feasts where, as Kondratiev has noted, they were “actually” present. It was this custom of honoring the dead that made the Catholic Church adopt the date of 1st and 2nd of November as the Day of the Saints and Day of the Departed.

If Samhain was a dreaded time when rules were broken and demons roamed the earth, it was also a time when light was re-born. Samhain, as Frazer has observed, was not a festival of the sun: the sun is in retreat in autumn. Instead, Samhain marked the birth of a mystical light – a light that may originate in the first ray of sun at dawn or the first lunar ray after the new moon. In Ireland, a bonfire was started on the royal hill of Tara accompanying, perhaps, the coronation of a new king after the killing of the old one. The custom of lighting fires on Samhain was also pervasive in Scotland and Wales. In line with this new light, Samhain was also a time when the forces of good eventually prevailed: the demon Fomorians were destroyed, Aillen the Burner was slain. Divination was also pervasive as a practical translation of the ‘light in the darkness’ motif: the diviner would try to shed a dim light into the dark future.

This combination of darkness and light, fear and hope, order and chaos gave Samhain its particular coloring of a merry time of misbehaving. It was a festival where rules were briefly abolished and tension – whether communal, social, political or even psychological – could be released. It was also a time when new order was born – hence the competitions and games of worth that were practiced during this period. Figures of power were abolished and others replaced them; rules were destroyed and recreated.
It is perhaps of interest to see what has remained of this festival time in today’s Halloween customs.

  • The symbolic kindling of fires in the lit pumpkin;
  • Games of worth in the popular ‘bobbing for apples’ – a water ordeal.
  • The havoc wreaked by deities and the dead in modern movies like Halloween, Scream, Dracula and vampire stories, American Werewolf in London and other horror classics;
  • The identification of the living with deities and the dead in Halloween trick-or-treating and costume-wearing
  • The sacral fear surrounding the Samhain celebration survives in urban legends of ‘razors hidden in apples’ to harm children.
  • The tradition of Samhain feasts in Halloween parties, trick-or-treating and Halloween candy;
  • Mischief survives in the mild “tricks” played on those that do not propitiate the costumed revelers
  • Abolition of traditional hierarchy is still present in the ascendance of children over adults during the Halloween season.

Perhaps more investigations should be carried out in this aspect, yet what is certain is that Samhain has evolved into Halloween in subtle, but yet powerful ways, maintaining in the process its fundamental character of an out-of-the-ordinary time when rules become more relaxed and identities more fluid behind the mask. It is unfortunate that its spiritual core has taken second place to ‘ordered chaos’, yet the enduring power of the Samhain is witnessed by its innovative ways to survive and adapt in the modern world.

  1. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online. Accessed 29 October 2008.
  2. Frazer, J.G. (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. London : Macmillan
  3. Dalton, G.F. (1970). The Ritual Killing of the Irish Kings. Folklore 81(1), pp.1-22
  4. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online.  Accessed 29 October 2008.
  5. Walsh, M.J. (1947). Notes on Fire-Lighting Ceremonies I. Folklore 58(2), pp. 277-284.
  6. Wikipedia. (2008). Samhain. Online. Accessed 30 October 2008
  7. Dalton, G.F. (1970). The Ritual Killing of the Irish Kings. Folklore 81(1), pp.1-22.
  8. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online.  Accessed 29 October 2008.
  9. Frazer, J.G. (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. London : Macmillan.
  10. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online.  Accessed 29 October 2008.
  11. Best, J. & Horiuchi, G.T. The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends. Social Problems, 32(5), pp. 488-499.
  12. Dell Clark, C. (2005). Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation and American Halloween. Ethos 33(2), pp.180-205.

About the Author

Jo Hedesan is currently studying a MA in Western Esotericism at University of Exeter. She is a member of the European Society for the Study of Esotericism (ESSWE) and American Association for Study of Esotericism (ASE). She has published several journal articles and has presented papers at scholarly conferences on the topic of esotericism and history. She is writing a blog on esoteric topics and research at