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The Celtic origins of Halloween transcend fear.

Halloween is the ancient Celtic New Year, originally called Samhain (pronounced Saw'-vwin). We first come across the name on a first-century B.C. Gaulish calendar engraved on bronze tablets, discovered in 1897 in Coligny, France. The first month was Samonios, meaning "summer's end." Samhain began the "dark half" of the year on Nov. 1, with the light half beginning on May 1.


Why should the year begin in darkness? In The Conquest of Gaul Caesar said Celtic Gauls claimed descent from Father Dis, a god of death, darkness and the underworld. Consequently, each day began at night. The year begins with darkness because all things do; just as the baby forms in the mother's womb, the new day begins in midnight's darkness.

Illuminating darkness

This brings us to a big difference between traditional Celtic and modern Western cultures. Celtic tradition doesn't experience darkness as automatically evil or frightening. It can be the fertile dark as well as the chaotic dark--and these aren't so far apart. Many traditions such as the Sumerian, Egyptian and Cherokee see the pre-creation state as a watery, chaotic, unformed darkness from which all opposites, including life and death, emerge. Ancient myths associate Samhain with both poles.

The Morrigan and Dagda, Mother and Father deities, mate on Samhain in the Old Irish myth, Cath Maige Tuired, or The Battle of Moytura, linking Samhain with fertility. On the other hand, Samhain also was a time of death. Most human deaths happened during the winter months because cold and food shortages made the very old, young or sickly vulnerable. And livestock that couldn't be fed over the winter had to be slaughtered, always an ambivalent process. Yet this also meant it was a time of feasting. The agricultural year was over, the produce stored, mead and ale fermented.

Samhain/Halloween is the ultimate "best of times/worst of times" festival.

Necessary evils

Samhain also is a time when chaos and order vie for supremacy, according to the Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, edited and translated by Elizabeth Gray. At Samhain eons ago, the Tuatha De Danann, forces of generosity, light and order, battled the Fomoire, forces of chaos. The latter's ruler, Bres, was a bad king, and Lugh, the Tuatha De Danann war leader, prepared to slay him after vanquishing the foes. Bres begged for mercy and Lugh granted it in exchange for the secrets of cultivating the land because the Formoire also controlled the land's fertility. Lugh recognized that they were needed, but that their power must be controlled or it could manifest in evil ways. For example, physical death may be a necessary part of natural cycles, but murder isn't.

Folk traditions gave chaos--personified by teenagers--freer reign than normal on Halloween night, hoping to keep it at bay the rest of the year. Scottish and Irish youths once engaged in elaborate pranks, the forerunners of trick-or-treating, such as disassembling a sleeping farmer's plough and reassembling it, complete with horse, in his sitting room. Pelting houses with kale roots was a minor pastime and goats might be lowered down chimneys, as folklorist F. Marian McNeill noted in her encyclopaedic, four-volume study (1957-68) of the Scottish ritual year, The Silver Bough.

Bridging worlds

Because everything was in flux and the veil between this world and the Otherworld was believed to be thin, Samhain was a good time to foretell the future. People consulted dead ancestors through divination and during shamanic spirit journeys. To be sure the ancestors knew all the family news and retained a helpful interest in their descendents, some families would picnic in the cemetery at Halloween or leave a "mute feast" on the table for the spirits and ancestors at night.

Indeed, the word for the Otherworld in Old Irish is Sid (pronounced shee-thuh), which also means "peace," an antithesis of fear. The fact that people's ancestors were dead, but never completely "gone," gave Celts confidence in the immortality of their own souls, making Halloween in part a comforting time.

Of course, Halloween precedes the Catholic festivals of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2, when people honor departed saints and relatives, respectively. The Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, featuring vibrant "death in life" images of skeletons in daily activities, culminate on Nov. 2. All things ghoulish remain popular as costumes, decorations, and settings for Halloween as well.


Fearful symmetries

Celtic tradition tells us that part of the process of entering spiritual awareness is drawing our attention away from fear. This idea comes less from ancient Gaelic manuscripts than from the Gaelic language itself. Scottish Gaelic doesn't identify the self with emotions as English does. In English you can't say you feel a thing without implicitly identifying it with your essential self. "I am John." "I am afraid." It's the same structure. By contrast, in Gaelic you say, Tha an t-eagal orm, literally, "A fear is upon me," rather than, "I am afraid." One way of conquering fear is to think of it as separate from your essential nature. You are not your fears; you are much more than that.

At Samhain, people sometimes made effigies of what they wanted to banish in the coming year, like fear or disease, and burned them. This Celtic festival acknowledges that the changes we encounter in life as the wheel of the year turns can be scary; hence, we have assorted "spooky" Samhain traditions. By concretizing unknown scary change into an effigy to be burned, or making it comical like the often funny little Mexican Day of the Dead figures, we make it manageable.

There's a childlike element of play at work at Samhain and Halloween. The holiday gives us the chance to look at our fears and fantasies, to dress up like them, and realize they aren't so scary after all. Every good film director knows that the thing you can't quite make out is much scarier than the thing you see head on--however gory or spooky it looks. Play and humor strip away another level of menace.

Children have a knack for this. One day my toddler looked at the back cover of a magazine featuring a lurid image of a zombie from the Evil Dead movies. She asked what it was. Not sure what to say, I replied, "Oh, that's one of the evil dead." This delighted her. She ran around our garden with a trowel pursuing the "Evee dead! Evee dead!"

Of course bravery is important as well as humor. In the Harry Potter novels (whose subject matter also is a draw at Halloween), Gryffindor house is the "first" house at Hogwarts school because its quality is bravery. As I noted in my book on the deeper layers of spiritual meaning in the novels, The Seeker's Guide to Harry Potter (O Books, 2008), bravery is the |vital virtue, the one that enables us to practice all others. It's been said that fear is an acronym for "false evidence appearing real." The next time you find yourself frightened by specters, at Samhain or any other time, remind yourself that these fearful projections are about as real as a child's Halloween mask or those evee dead.

Traditionally, the ancient Celts only feared that "the sky should fall and the sea burst its bounds," as warriors told Alexander the Great. So long as the natural order prevailed, there was nothing to be afraid of. Because they believed in reincarnation, they considered death to be "the middle of a long life." As a modern Wiccan chant goes, "Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again."

Whatever we believe about life and death, Samhain teaches us to face both with courage, imagination and a sense of humor. Now, where's that trowel?

Geo Athena Trevarthen is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at University of Edinburgh, where she completed a groundbreaking Ph.D. on shamanism in Celtic cultures. Results are to be published later this year as part of the Hungarian Academy's Bibliotheca Shamanistica series. She also has published numerous articles on Celtic themes and spiritual experience. Trevarthen organized and edited the proceedings of the Traditional Cosmology Society's "Interactions with the Sacred Conference," held in Edinburgh in 2009, that will be in the forthcoming issue of Cosmos, the Society's journal. She has also written for film and television. Trevarthen was raised in a Scottish and Irish shamanic tradition by her mother and grandmother and acts as a spiritual mentor and life coach as well as an academic. She also earned a master's degree in Celtic studies, specializing in Old Irish literature, from University of Edinburgh, a master's degree in communications from American University, and a bachelor of fine arts from Corcoran College of Art + Design. Go online to her website,, to find links to a forthcoming documentary on her book, The Seeker's Guide to Harry Potter, referenced in the above article, as well as other documentaries she has been featured in and information on courses and other work. Email her at

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Author:Trevarthen, Geo Athena
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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