Explaining Samhain and Halloween

31st of October is a special time of the year in Ireland. You may be tricked into thinking that this is because of all the dressing-up and carved pumpkins, but in fact, Halloween night in Ireland goes back much further than modern-day spooky shenanigans. Halloween as it is now does not originate in Ireland, but it had a predecessor in pre-Christian Celtic culture.

Samhain (pronounced ‘sow:win’) is one of the four liminal festivities of the year, occurring on the night between the last day of October and first day of November (hence the Irish name for this month, ‘Mí na Samhna’ ‘month of Samhain’) and marking the beginning of winter. As many traditional festivities around the world, Samhain was connected to the annual cycle of cattle breeding and preparation for the cold season.

According to ancient texts, Samhain was used to measure age and therefore price of cattle, because the beginning of winter was high time for selling and slaughtering the livestock. No wonder that in medieval Irish tales a lot of feasts and celebrations are said to have happened on Samhain, and many key events are connected to this night. Samhain rituals might have taken place at the Hill of Tara, the coronation place of the high kings of Ireland. The Mound of the Hostages, located right next to it, is constructed in such way that only on Samhain (1st of November) and Imbolc (1st of February) the rising sun illuminates the passage inside the mound. What was the symbolical purpose of such structure – we can only guess. But perhaps, the rays of the rising sun served as a pathway for the departing summer on Samhain and the coming spring on Imbolc.

Either way, in romanticized perception of Irish pagan traditions, Samhain is deemed to be a night when one can come in contact with the dead and get a glimpse of the magical realm. The mounds serve as the entrance to the world inhabited by slua sí (the fairy folk), and many folkloric tales will tell you how precarious it is to walk out there at night, especially around Samhain when the border between our realm and the fairy world is thinner than ever. The door to the otherworld is open.

You know where I am going with this, right?

Of course, you can join a Halloween bash somewhere in the city, or even go to Oireachtas na Samhna, the biggest Irish-speaking event of the year. Or, get yourself some warm clothes and go lurking around the magical fairy mounds in the dark.

Either way, make sure to celebrate Halloween, or Samhain, with a blast, because after this – winter is coming.

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