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From a Wiccan/Neopagan perspective

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Witch hat Many Neopagans, including Wiccans, and modern-day Druids trace their annual seasonal days of celebration back to Celtic times in Europe. They celebrate the most important of their four major Sabbats, called Samhain, on or near OCT-31 each year.

Modern misconceptions about Samhain/Halloween:

Fundamentalist Christians and most other evangelical Christians believe that the Bible is free of error (i.e. inerrant). Many also believe that when followers of non-Christian religions worship their Gods and Goddesses, they are in fact worshipping either Satan or some of his demons. This belief is based on clear, unambiguous passages from the Bible.

Thus, many of them view all non-Christian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam as well as Wicca and other Neopagan religions, etc.) as forms of Satanism.  During the 1980's and early 1990's. many equating Neopagan religions with their view of Satanism as perpetrators of Satanic Ritual Abuse, Many fundamentalists assumed that Wiccans, Druids, etc. perform the most hideous and obscene criminal acts at Halloween. These beliefs were profoundly hurtful, untrue, and are not often seen among other Christian groups. Fortunately, such abuse largely dissipated by 1995 when it was found that organized Satanic and other ritual abuse was a hoax: no hard evidence has ever been found that it has existed.

According to a leading authority on Paleopagan Druidism, Isaac Bonewits, 1 much propaganda about Halloween can be traced back to "books written by Fundamentalist [Christian] preachers over a century ago", especially "Two Babylons or the Papal Worship," written by Alexander Hislop in 1873.

The following are believed to be accurate:

bulletNeopagan religions are modern faith traditions which are reconstructed, in part, from the beliefs and practices of ancient aboriginal faiths, typically from Europe.
bulletReligious Satanism is a completely separate group of faith groups, with an opposing code of ethics, concepts of deity, and ritual practices that are unrelated to that of Neopagans. 
bullet Neither Satanists, nor Neopagans nor anyone else in North America engage in religiously motivated human sacrifice. Wiccans have been known to sacrifice a peach or apple, but nothing higher than fruit on the evolutionary scale.
bullet Samhain is neither a Celtic god of the dead, or the major Sun god. Celtic history does mention an obscure hero by that name who was unrelated to death. In Gaelic, "sam" means summer; "fuin" means "end." So, "Samhain" means "end of the warm season." "Samhain" is pronounced as if it were written "Sowen."

Another Celtic deity that is sometimes mentioned in Christian literature is the sun God "Muck-Olla". He didn't exist either in Celtic times. He seems to be a non-Druidic "boogey-man" from Yorkshire, England. Celtic sun Gods were named "Lugh", "Lleu" or "Llew."
bulletAncient Druids were not bloodthirsty killers of humans. All of the stories of human sacrifices by Druids are traceable to a single passage in one of Julius Caesar's books. And that passage is probably simply a centuries-old example of wartime propaganda.
bullet The ancient Celts did not carve pumpkins, as none existed in Europe during Celtic times.

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Celtic celebration of Samhain in ancient times:

Samhain is sometimes pronounced "sah-van", although many Neopagans pronounce it as "sow-in" (where "ow" rhymes with "cow"). Samhain is Irish Gaelic for the month of November. Samhuin is Scottish Gaelic for All Hallows, NOV-1.

A language expert has commented that the "mh" in Samhain and Samhuin "would originally have been pronounced like an "m" made without quite closing your mouth." At the present time, the original pronunciation is still heard. Some tighten it to a "v" sound (typical in the south) or loosen it to a "w" sound (typical in the west and, especially, the north). In "Samhain" the "w" pronunciation would be most common." 10

In ancient times, Samhain formed the dividing day between years. It was a time that was neither in this year or the next. Bonfires were lit - often on the tops of hills. Samhain was:

bullet Seen as the beginning of the cold season. It is balanced by the corresponding seasonal day of celebration called Beltain (or Bealtaine, Beltaine, etc) which signals the start of summer, 6 months later. Both of these are fire festivals. The ancient Celts probably held them exactly mid-way between an equinox (when day and night were equal) and the following solstice (when the nighttime was shortest or longest). In ancient times, Samhain would probably have been centered between the Fall equinox and the Winter solstice, and celebrated about NOV-5 to NOV-7.

Samhain was a time when the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest. The Celts believed that upon death, everyone went to a beautiful place free of hunger, pain and disease. It was called "Tir nan Og", sometimes translated as "Summerland". They had no concept of Heaven and Hell like that seen in Christianity and Islam. Many believed that two separate and nearly identical worlds existed. When a person on Earth died, they were transferred to the "ghostworld"; when they were born on Earth, they had been transferred from the ghostworld to Earth. "The pagan idea used to be that crucial joints between the seasons opened cracks in the fabric of space-time, allowing contact between the ghostworld and the mortal one." 2

The Celts celebrated rituals at this time to make contact with their ancestors who had died before them. This contact was not at all made in an atmosphere of dread, fearing some retribution from the dead. Rather it was done in a spirit of expectation, in the hopes of obtaining guidance from those in the next world. It was believed that:

"The spirits of dead friends sought the warmth of the Samhain fire and communion with their living kin." 3

bullet Samhain was considered a time when the veil between the present and the future was at its most transparent. Rituals were performed to foretell future events, through various methods of divination. The Celts believed that the future could be predicted most effectively at this time.
bulletA time when the herds of domesticated animals were brought down from their summer pasture and culled for the winter. The Celts slaughtered their weak animals that could not be expected to survive the winter. They reduced the size of the herds to match the available food supply.
bulletA time of uninhibited feasting.
bulletA time of increasing nervousness as the days continued to shorten and as winter approached. There were often questions whether the food would last until the next harvest.

After the arrival of the Gregorian calendar, Pagans are believed to have moved Samhain back about a week to OCT-31.

Neopagan celebration of Samhain in modern times:

Most modern day Wiccans and Druids have attempted to reconstruct Celtic beliefs, rituals, and other practices as accurately as possible,. A Wiccan, or other Neopagan, may celebrate the Sabbat alone, as a solitary practitioner. Or they might gather with others in a coven, which typically might include 6 or more adults. A typical celebration of Samhain might involve:

bullet Scheduling the celebration to a day near October 31. Wiccans often avoid Halloween, to avoid interruptions from "trick or treaters."
bulletDecorating their altar with autumn flowers, pine-cones, small pumpkins, decorative gourds, etc.
bullet A ritual purification of each participant; they often take a solitary bath.
bulletCasting (creating) a sacred circle within which their ceremonies are conducted. The circle is usually marked with four candles of various colors aligned at the four cardinal directions. The purpose of the circle is to confine the Wiccans' healing powers within it. It is not created to provide protection against demonic powers as some Cowans (non-Wiccans) have suggested.
bulletPerforming rituals of divination to predict the future. This may involve tarot cards, runes, I Ching, etc.
bulletPerforming rituals to contact loved ones who have died. ''There is a recognition of our close ties with our ancestors and a recognition that the veils between the worlds are thin at this time of year." 9 They do not perform sťances, as do Spiritualists. They do not summon or order back the dead. "They do, however, believe that, if the dead themselves wish it, they will return at the Sabbat to share in the love and celebration of the occasion." 4
bulletConsecrating and sharing cakes and wine (or perhaps muffins and cider).
bullet Banishing (a.k.a. closing or grounding) the circle.

In past years, because of the fear of attacks from misinformed Cowans, these rituals had been rarely performed in public. However, in recent years, an increasing number of Neopagans have been coming out of the (broom) closet and performing public rituals for all to enjoy.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Isaac Bonewits, "The Real Origins of Halloween, V. 1.3". See: http://www.neopagan.net/. A magnificent essay.
  2. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets", Harper & Row (1983), Page 371-372
  3. Janet & Steward Farrar, "Eight Sabbats for Witches", Phoenix Publishing, Custer WA, Pages 121 to 136
  4. Raymond Buckland, "The Tree, The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft", Samuel Weiser, York Beach ME, (1974), Pages 59 to 61
  5. Cecylyina, "A Witch's Thoughts on Halloween". See: http://www.geocities.com/
  6. Kerr Cuhulain, "Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca", Horned Owl Publishing, Victoria BC, (1992)
  7. Jennifer Lynne Gilbert has an essay describing Samhain names, holiday foods, activities, etc. at: http://members.bellatlantic.net/
  8. Rowan Moonstone, "The Origins of Halloween" at: http://www.geocities.com/
  9. Statement by Cat Chapin-Bishop. Included in: Eric Goldscheider, "Air, spirit, fire, water, earth, nature, death, rebirth, Paganism: Living room altars, ancestral foods are key in pagan homes," Boston Globe, at: http://www.boston.com/
  10. Personal E-mail, receive 2006-FEB-23

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Copyright 1997 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1997-OCT-13
Latest update: 2018-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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