What Is Samhain? (Definition and Etymology)

image created with Craiyon using the prompt "ancient Celtic Samhain"

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Is it just me, or has there been a huge push in recent years around what I’m calling, for lack of a better phrase, “Samhain awareness”?

Yes, the rise of Irish mythology in popular culture is one factor, of which Samhain is no doubt a beneficiary. But more than that, I think it’s safe to say there’s been a push, especially in the past few years, toward properly recognizing and crediting and celebrating the cultural origins of the art and music—and festivals—many of us know and love today.

Granted, not everybody’s gonna get it right. (You know the saying: the road to Tech Duinn is paved with good intentions.)

For example, in 2018, there was an uproar—at least among Irish, Scottish, and neopagan online communities—around the repeated mispronunciation of “Samhain” on the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

And in case you’re wondering, no, it’s not pronounced “Sam-hane”. I’ve got another post where I explain how to pronounce Samhain correctly. (Spoiler alert: There are a few different ways, including “Sow-wen,” “Sau-ihn,”, and “Sow-unn,”, but I digress…)

Now, if you’re a long-time reader of IrishMyths.com—and/or a student of mythological studies, druidism, paganism, Wicca, etc.—there’s a strong chance you already have a sufficient understanding of what Samhain is all about.

But for the sake of thoroughness, and for the sake of my own edification, I’ve challenged myself to define Samhain, placing a premium on conciseness.


Samhain, Defined:

Samhain (also: Samain) was a pastoral/harvest festival celebrated—under various names—across the Celtic world on the evening of October 31st and into November 1st with ceremonial fires and other rituals. An important—if not the most important—holiday on the Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the midway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, making it one of four Celtic cross-quarter days (the other three being Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa). 

As noted by historian Peter Berresford Ellis, the “Feis na Samhain”, or the festival of Samhain, was also a Celtic New Year celebration, marking “the end of one pastoral year and the commencement of the next.” Ellis also describes Samhain as “an intensely spiritual time for it was the period when the Otherworld became visible to mankind and when spiritual forces were let loose on the human world” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).

Professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight expands on this notion of the Otherworld becoming visible in her definition of Samhain, noting that on Samhain, “the veil that separated this world from the world of the Others (An Sidhe) grew thin.”

This thinning of the membrane between worlds meant that ghosts and fairies and all manner of otherworldly creatures could cross over on Samhain and wreak havoc. To quote Osborne-McKnight:

On this night, of all nights, our ancestors believed that the souls of the dead could return and the Little People could come through the doorway. The Little People could be…unpredictable. Among their number were those who cared for human beings, married them, dealt fairly with them. But there were equally as many who might try to kill humans, steal their children and replace them with changeling babies, or trick them into the world of the Sidhe, in which time did not pass the same way it passes on earth. A human tricked into the world of the Sidhe might believe the he had been among them for three days, only to return to earth to discover that 300 years had passed and everyone he was was long dead.

source: The Story We Carry in our Bones (2015)

Yeah…not ideal. So what did the ancient Irish do on Samhain to protect against such supernatural shenanigans? Welp, as I explain in my article on the Celtic origins of Halloween, they basically came up with shenanigans of their own.

Or as Osborne-McKnight puts it:

Samhain was a dangerous time in the Celtic mind and numerous rituals evolved as protection. Our ancestors might have left out food and drink as a gift for the Others or worn masks to frighten them away. Skulls with candles in them might have been hung in trees either to invite these spirits of the dead or to scare off the Sidhe.

source: The Story We Carry in our Bones (2015)
Riders of the Sidhe (1911), painting by John Duncan
Riders of the Sidhe (1911), painting by John Duncan

It’s easy to see how such rituals would lay the groundwork for the modern holiday of Halloween. Granted, there was one stepping stone in-between:

Christianization.

As Ellis notes:

Christianity took this pagan festival over as a harvest festival. The feast became St. Martin’s Mass (Martinmas). The festival also became All Saints’ Day or All-Hallows and the evening prior was Hallowe’en, still celebrated as the night when spirits and ghosts set out to wreak vengeance on the living and when evil marches unbridled across the world.

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

Ellis goes on to describe the ceremonial Samhain fires lit by the ancient druids, from which all hearth fires had to be lit.

In Ireland, as in the other Celtic countries, the fires were extinguished and could only be rekindled from a ceremonial fire lit by the druids at Samhain on Tlachtga (now the Hill of Ward).

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

FYI: Samhain bonfires continue to be staples of modern Samhain celebrations, i.e. those conducted by neopagans, neo-druids, Wiccans, and the like.

The custom of Samhain fires is also closely linked to the modern Halloween tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns. Indeed, it’s likely the ancient Irish transported embers from the Samhain fires to their own hearths in hollowed-out turnips. (Pumpkins, being native to the Americas, would not be used for making jack-o’-lanterns until the 19th century).

photo of a carved turnip jack-o'-lantern
“Jack-O-Lantern” by photographer IrishFireside, Flickr (Creative Commons). The jack-o’-lantern pictured dates from 1903 and was carved at Baile na Finne, Co. Donegal. It now resides at the Irish Museum of Country Life. (info source:@irarchaeology)

The Etymology of Samhain

According to author and librarian Ruth Edna Kelley, the reason Samhain and, by extension, Halloween, are so closely associated with death and evil and fire has everything to do with the changing of the seasons and, specifically, the “suffering” of the sun.

On November first was Samhain (“summer’s end”)…The year was over, and the sun’s life of a year was done. The Celts thought that at this time the sun fell a victim for six months to the powers of winter darkness…

From the idea that the sun suffered from his enemies on this day grew the association of Samhain with death.

source: The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)

Kelley also reveals to us in the above quotation the meaning of the word Samhain—or at least a popular interpretation of it: “summer’s end.”

Author Clement A. Miles reiterates the “summer’s end” etymology of Samhain, while also offering an alternative:

The Celtic year…appears to have begun in November with the feast of Samhain—a name that may mean either “summer-end” or “assembly.”

source: Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912)

If accurate, the “assembly” interpretation may hearken back to Samhain’s origins as a harvest festival. Rather than being a morbid affair, perhaps those first Samhains were about people coming together and sharing their recently harvested crops, feasting and festing not only in celebration of the dead, but in celebration of the persistence of life.

To quote Scottish scholar and folklore researcher J.A. MacCulloch:

The great commemoration of the dead was held on Samhain eve, a festival intended to aid the dying powers of vegetation, whose life, however, was still manifested in evergreen shrubs, in the mistletoe, in the sheaf of corn from last harvest—the abode of the corn-spirit…

[On] Samhain, beginning the Celtic year…The powers of blight were beginning their ascendancy, yet the future triumph of the powers of growth was not forgotten. Probably Samhain had gathered up into itself other feasts occurring earlier or later. Thus it bears traces of being a harvest festival, the ritual of the earlier harvest feast [Lugnasad] being transferred to the winter feast, as the Celts found themselves in lands where harvest is not gathered before late autumn…

Samhain may thus be regarded as, in origin, an old pastoral and agricultural festival, which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight.

source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)

There is one final etymological interpretation of “Samhain” that bears mentioning, courtesy of PronounceItRight.com (which, yes, was a resource I used for my “How to Pronounce Samhain” article).

The website makes clear that the “origin of the word Samhain is not entirely known,” (which I think is a statement we can all agree with) before presenting the following hypothesis:

Samhain is originally believed to derive from the union of the words sam, meaning “summer” and fuin meaning “fun”.

This one seems hard to swallow. Northwestern Europe, the land where Samhain originated, is not the ideal locale for having “summer fun” at the end of October.

But perhaps that’s because Samhain is rooted in a much older Celtic holiday, one that began in ancient Gaul.

That’s a topic I’ll explore in more detail in my next post, “A Brief History of Samhain.”


Want to learn the rest of the Samhain story? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…


More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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