Thursday, October 29, 2009

Theme Thursday - Samhain, the Original Halloween

Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen) was the Celtic New Year, signifying the end of the growing season and the "death" of the earth until it would be reborn in the Spring. Death as a natural part of the cycle of life is the central theme of Samhain and is at the root of all the symbolism in the holiday. The celebration of Samhain was such a major part of culture in the British Isles and parts of northern Europe that the Church appropriated and "Christianized" it, thus creating All Hallows Eve, which with the passage of time became "Halloween". With the reemergence of ecologically inclined earth-based spirituality, Samhain has been gradually coming back to some importance. And yes, I'm one of those people who celebrates Samhain rather than Halloween.

As I said above, Samhain is all about the recognition of death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Seasonally, it represents the "death" of the earth. The final harvest of the last of the crops - mostly gourds and root crops like beets and turnips - took place now. Many of the fruits set to dry to last the Winter - raisins and sultanas from grapes, figs, prunes from plums, etc. - are ready now, and many baked goods that use these are baked, like barmbrack (Irish: Báirín Breac), which is a Halloween staple in Ireland, where symbolic objects like pennies and rings are baked in the bread for children to find as prizes. Livestock is also slaughtered now to provide meat for the Winter and to thin out the herd so that it, too, can survive the "dead" months.

Another aspect of the death theme of Samhain is the belief that the border between the physical and spiritual worlds is at its weakest now. This has both positive and negative aspects. The negative aspect is the possibility that spirits with evil intent can roam the world of the living at will and spread panic. The tradition of carving gourds (although it was originally turnips that were hollowed out and carved) with diabolical faces and lit from within by candles came from this; the intent was to scare off the evil spirits.

The positive aspect of this weakened border is the possibility of communication with loved ones who have passed on. Seances are often held during Samhain, and tributes to those who have passed during the preceding year. The most beloved of these tributes is the Dumb Feast or Dumb Supper, where the table is set for both the living and the dead, with pictures and personal objects of the deceased placed at their place at the table, and the favorite foods of the deceased served at the meal. The meal is eaten in silence, which is only broken at the end of the meal when a toast is made to the deceased and stories from their lives told. The meal starts out solemnly and ends up in joy.

I love Samhain, possibly because I also love Autumn and Samhain is the very essence of an autumnal celebration. You all know my fascination with cemeteries and stonecarving, and it's usually around Samhain that I do a lot of visiting and taking pictures in Newport's historic boneyards. All in all, it's a lovely season for me, and a nostalgic one, too.

The colonial era Easton family cemetery in Autumn

Ah, now we come to the videos. One of my "traditions" this time of year is to listen to Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, an orchestral tone poem describing Death pulling out his fiddle on All Souls Night (Halloween) and leading the dead in a dance that lasts until the rooster crows, when the dead sadly go back to their graves after a lovely evening of fun. I found this great video on YouTube, a PBS animation from the 1980s illustrating the music. It's great!

I also tend to listen to the music of Loreena McKennitt this time of year; there's just something so autumnal both about her music and about her personality. And being the autumnal type that I am, I gravitated to her the first time I heard her music! She's written what I think is one of the best Samhain songs ever, "All Souls Night" from the 1991 CD The Visit. This video of the song comes from her 2006 concert at the Alhambra in Spain.

As an added treat today, another song from that concert in the Alhambra. It has nothing to do with Samhain, I just like it. It's her song "Santiago", and in this live version she and the band just cut loose! She dances around with her accordion and kicks up her heels, and fiddler Hugh Marsh plays like a man possessed. So you can leave my party to go visit the other Theme Thursday parties dancing. Enjoy!

Photos & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger
PS - I just uploaded my latest offering to my storefront: On a Cold Winter's Night - Images of Yule, a photographic celebration of the Winter Solstice holidays. Please check it out! And while you're there, check out the calendars I've put together as well. Thanks!


  1. Happy Samhain, Roy!

    Lovely tombstone pics. And I enjoyed the Mckennitt.

  2. This reminds me of El dia de los muertos, which is also celebrated now. We are actually participating in it at the college this year, and many of my community members do as well, since my town has a large and active hispanic population.

    I've always loved fall. I need to find out more about Samhain... I might need to put it into a novel series I am writing. I would fit spectacularly...

  3. The most cultural Halloween/Samhain post I have encountered today!

    Happy Halloween!

  4. Loved reading about Samhain, I just read a book about Ireland by Edward Rutherford and Samhain figured prominiently in it. Happy TT and Happy Samhain, thanks for sharing.

  5. Happy Samhain. A very informative post and I love the musical selection.

  6. nicely done roy. happy samhain...the mckennitt was rather lovely as well! happy tt!

  7. Informative post (with great photos, as always). There was even stuff in there that a know-it-all like myself didn't know. ;-)

    Reminds me of a pagan character in my notes somewhere, a guy named "Sam Haynes." (But I've always known the real pronunciation of "Samhain.")

  8. This is an absolutely gorgeous post. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. I have always loved the "original" Halloween, and keep it in mind every year. It speaks to me, I can tell you! The Mckennitt piece is wonderful.

    Thank you for a great post!

  9. Love your post on Samhain...and I always enjoy looking at photos of beautiful.

  10. I guess living in a pacific nation where the weather is always temperate and the produce less seasonal, these traditions go unmarked. I often think it strange that all the celebrations and holidays have a Northern bent. I mean sending someone a Christmas card with snow on it down here is just silly! Blessed were the map makers because they only knew about half the world! So THAT's what a dumb supper is! (Have to come back on the weekend to listen to the vids)

  11. I, too, celebrate Samhain. I was not aware of the Dumb Feast but loved the idea. We kind of do that at Thanksgiving. We set out photos and mementos of those how have crossed over. They are still a part of the family celebration.

    The energy of the tombstone photo is electric.

  12. Baino, it's interesting that you bring the seasonal aspect up. As a matter of fact pagans who live in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate the "opposite" sabbat from the one we celebrate here in the North. So while we're celebrating Samhain, they're celebrating Beltane (which we celebrate on May 1), and when we're celebrating the the Winter Solstice holiday of Yule (appropriated by Christianity as Christmas), our southern brothers and sisters are celebrating Litha/Midsummer. So we don't have the confusion that Christians would get in other parts of the world because they've so separated their holiday from it's seasonal roots.

  13. Thanks, everybody! Samhain and Yule (Christmas) are my favorite holidays, just as Fall and Winter are my favorite seasons, so I get all warm and fuzzy this time of year. Heh, heh!

  14. I have never even heard of Samhain! So, you have taught me something new today! Beautiful story...and perfect for the theme thursday! I love autumn, too!

  15. Love love love the colours of the foliage in the top tombstone shot. It's as if nature is celebrating in a way too, getting all dressed up for the event. Not a fan of the eve, but I am a celebrator of All Saints Day on the 1st as we light candles at my home and remember the dead. Thanks for stopping by, btw, so glad that you posted the Macabre!

  16. I am unfamiliar with this history and tradition and it fascinates me. Thank you. I tend to think of witches and Pilgrims and Salem and things like that This is much more interesting The Gold Puppy post from today discusses the closeness of the spiritual/dead world with the living during this time of year I spook easily so I stay with the lighter aspects. Really nice post Roy.

  17. great post!!!

    oh YES to all you wrote.

    tunes are great offerings! loreena in concert is a magical event, we had the good fortune of attending a couple of her concerts.

    I'm desperately looking for the venue of this year's day of the dead celebration here in cleveland.

    I do love love how thin the veil is this time of year.

    blessed be sweet roy!

  18. Roy I so enjoyed this post. You are a teacher in addition to being an artist, scholar and a gentleman! Bravo!

  19. Samhain is widely celebrated in my locality with fancy dress ceremonies, bonfires and music. Your explanation of your personal spirituality is interesting, but sadly even Samhain is becoming commercial now!

    I really enjoyed the Loreena McKennitt.

  20. Loved the post....and the history. Being part Irish, we read everything we can on Samhain. It's such a fun time of the year! Loved your shot of the cemetery...the colors and shading are perfect. I think it's one of your best cemetery shots to date. Great music as always.... (I'm finally starting to feel better--no way was the Swine going to keep me from Halloween!)

  21. happy samhain roy.

    samhain does seem to be more widely appreciated and celebrated now - tho Cinnamon could be sadly right.

    Great vids. I've enjoyed this

  22. Yes Happy Samhain, Roy!
    I like the idea about the barrier being at it's weakest at the moment. I must confess I hadnt heard of Samhain before. Autumn is by far the richest & most interesting Season.
    Hey! I just looked out the window & it's a full Moon too!!!