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The Pagan Roots of Halloween

I want to delve into the roots and meanings of Samhain (aka “Halloween”) which is possibly the most beloved and yet misunderstood of all the Pagan Sabbats.   To begin – Sabbats are celebrations within the Wheel of the Year, in which each festival is honored with a seasonal ritual.  The Wheel of the Year is the cycle of the seasons; witches/pagans align themselves with this seasonal cycle.  The Pagan/Wiccan Year traditionally starts at Samhain, which was the Celtic New Year.  To the Celts, Samhain signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the dark half of the year.  In Wicca, Samhain is the time when the veil separating the worlds is at its most transparent, and we honor our beloved dead.  Because there is a sense that Samhain represents “time outside of time” as the old year ends and the new one begins, it is also viewed as an ideal time for divinination/prophecy.  Historically, this Sabbat dates back roughly to 6,000 BCE – way back to Paleopagan practices of dividing the year into a light half and a dark half,  marked by the grazing of domestic animals in open land then bringing the herds/flocks to safe haven as the days got shorter and darker.  It is also when animals were slaughtered and meat prepared for winter storage (along with the last harvest) to provide for the long lean cold months ahead.  So Death certainly permeates more than one aspect of Samhain.

But when did this turn ugly and evil?  It began when the early Celtic pagans welcomed Christianity in to their lands (as they welcomed the beliefs of other people) but the early Church had problems with the Celts as they did not willingly give up their holidays or folk practices.  St. Patrick led the systematic murder of the Druids, but the ensuing patriarchal religion forced down the throats of the people did not go down easily – the Celts practiced equality between the sexes.  And while nearly every single ancient world religion honored both men and women and allowed both to hold high station within the respective hierarchy – Christianity absolutely did not.  Christianity began as a male-dominated religion taken from the Roman practices of the day.  Clearly Christ did not support male domination (we see this in both His teachings and His actions) but his followers had different ideas and twisted Christ’s teachings.  This explains why there is no “Book of Mary Magdalen” in the Bible … we have every reason to believe that she was either Christ’s closest confident or wife (or both) her presence and importance in his life would upsurp the patriarchal aspect of the new religion.

The denigration of women began with the Roman Empire and was accepted by the early Christians.  A Roman father could kill any of his children and had complete rule over his home.  Later, during the Dark Ages, the church sought to eradicate Pagans and wise women (who were the midwives, healers – from which the word “Wicce” or Wise One is derived) so it could amass power and property.  It taught that women had no souls, helpless to fight their wanton desires, were wholly responsible for man’s descent from grace due to their trickery in Eden … and were not important.  Bear in mind that up until the 1300s healers (wise women) and diviners were used by the church and nobles alike.  However, once you have made a group of people inhuman, then you remove the guilt of murder – a theme sadly repeated throughout history, most notably in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust.  The Celtic women were the stronghold of the family environment and the Celts were free-thinking people – and the church was NOT into “free thinking”.  Since anything that did not  follow church doctrine was “evil” and Samhain was the primary festival of the Celts – the church determined that Samhain was evil and the association between witches and Halloween was thus born.

During the 15th and 17th Century, the persecution of innocent people through torture and execution was condoned and sanctioned by the church.  By the time the religious fanatics were through, the female population had dipped to an alarming rate and almost no wise women or healers survived.  While the early church would have been delighted to have destroyed Samhain, they were forced to accept it in a restructured form (All Hallows Eve) sanctioning the long-standing custom of remembering the dead to meet the needs of the social structure of the time.

It wasn’t until 1736 that Witchcraft ceased to be a crime punishable by death in England and Scotland.  In 1952 England repealed the last of the Witchcraft laws – meaning it was no longer a crime to practice the religion of Witchcraft in that country.  Halloween made its debut in the upper crust of American society in the early 1870s.   Viewed as a quaint English custom, the Victorian focus was placed on entertaining games, parties and (believe it or not) communicating with the dead.  By 1910, the new American holiday of Halloween was focused on children – so divination fell by the wayside.  In the mid to late 1990s certain radical Christian groups declared the holiday Satanic – and the amusing fallout is that these fanatics campaigned to put the “harvest” back in Halloween and urged their followers to practice harvest-like celebrations rather than the American Halloween.  So in an ironic twist, fundamentalist Christians managed to bring Samhain full circle … as it began as a harvest festival, it returned this Sabbat to its proper pagan roots!

For myself and most of the Pagans/Witches I know, Samhain is a quiet introspective celebration.  Certainly, decorating our homes, providing treats to visiting children, carving pumpkins … all add a festive nuance to the our personal celebrations.  In addition, we may spend time preparing an ancestor altar and prayerfully ask for their blessing and support throughout the upcoming year.  Later in the night (after visitors and trick-or-treating children have departed) scrying or other forms of divination, offerings left in ritual on outdoor altars, gathering around a roaring bonfire (or smouldering cauldron or fireplace)  –  I leave it to each of you to follow your hearts in the celebration of this most sacred and mysterious of the holy Sabbats.   For more information, please read Silver Ravenwolf’s “Halloween” and Edain McCoy’s “Celtic Women’s Spirituality” two books I borrowed from in writing the above.

Laura Lenhard