A Brief History of Samhain: When (and Where) Did Halloween’s Celtic Predecessor Get Its Start?

image created with Craiyon using the prompt "samhain mythology"

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As I explored in my previous article, “What Is Samhain?”, the October 31st/November 1st festival was ancient Ireland’s pagan New Year celebration.

Samhain (“summer’s end”) marked the conclusion of one pastoral year and the commencement of the next. As an ancient Celt, you would have been keenly aware that the days were noticeably shorter during the Samhain season, as if the sun itself were in retreat.

The world was darker.

The harvest, over.

Samhain was a liminal time. A time when worries spread and imaginations ran wild. 

So the ancient Celts did what any sensible people would do in the face of encroaching darkness: 

They shined a light.

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

As the powers of growth were in danger and in eclipse in winter, men thought it necessary to assist them. As a magical aid the Samhain bonfire was chief…

source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)

These “powers”, the forces of nature, really, “came to be associated with Samhain as demoniac beings,” noted MacCulloch.

Hence, Samhain was a time when “[w]itches, evil-intentioned fairies, and the dead were particularly active,” including “the ‘malignant bird flocks’ which blighted crops and killed animals, the samhanach which steals children, and Mongfind the banshee, to whom ‘women and the rabble’ make petitions on Samhain eve,” (source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911).

Spooky stuff.

And while it’s clear why Samhain—and later, Halloween—became associated with death and demons and ill-intentioned fairies, what’s less clear is when and where Samhain originated in the first place.

The Origins of Samhain

While the term “Samhain” is used to describe the October 31st/November 1st Celtic harvest festival as it occurred in pre-Christian Ireland, the roots of said festival undoubtedly date back not only to much earlier, but also back to the European continent.

We know this for two reasons:

1. Archaeological & Historical Evidence

Archaeological evidence—including the Coligny calendar, dated to the 2nd century CE—suggests that the Celts of ancient Gaul (roughly modern-day France) celebrated their new year at the end of summer (source: Histoire du calendrier gaulois by Joseph Monard).

Calendrier de Coligny: Overview of the re-assembled tablet found in Coligny, France
Calendrier de Coligny: Overview of the re-assembled tablet found in Coligny, France
Samonios on the Coligny calendar

The first month of the Gaulish new year was called “Samonios” in the Gaulish language, derived from the root “samo-“, meaning summer, leading some scholars to believe that the Irish Samhain evolved from this Gaulish Samonios.

Medieval manuscripts, meanwhile, tell us that the Gaels—Goidelic-speaking Celts—came to Ireland via Galicia, which, for those unfamiliar, is in the Northwest of the Iberian peninsula. These were the famed, quasi-legendary Milesians, who, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, invaded Ireland in 1700 BCE.

"The Coming of the Sons of Miled", illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911
“The Coming of the Sons of Miled”, illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911

More conservative estimates place the arrival of Ireland’s first Celts closer to 1000 BCE, 500 BCE, or even as late as 100 BCE. At the other end of the spectrum, some have argued the first Celts arrived in Ireland as early as 3500 BCE or even 5000 BCE.

Here’s what we know for sure, according to archaeologist Holly Burton:

“By the 5th century A.D., the beginning of Irish historical records, all of Ireland was Celtic speaking.”

source: “The Arrival of the Celts in Ireland” Expedition Magazine 21.3 (1979)

2. Samhain’s Spread

Regardless of when, precisely, the Gaels introduced Samhain—or at least the name for Samhain—to Ireland, the festival went on to become one of if not the most important holidays on the island.

Turns out, this wasn’t an isolated incident. 

Just about every territory settled by—or at least heavily influenced by—the ancient continental Celts would come to celebrate a version of the same holiday on October 31st/November 1st. Those territories include the Gaelic-speaking Celtic countries (Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man) as well as the Brittonic-speaking Celtic countries (Wales, Cornwall, Brittany).

Britain & Ireland in the early–mid 1st millennium AD, before the founding of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Red (right): Celtic Britons. Blue (top right): Picts. Green (left): Gaels.
Britain & Ireland in the early–mid 1st millennium AD, before the founding of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Red (right): Celtic Britons. Blue (top right): Picts. Green (left): Gaels.

In Ireland, of course, the October 31st/November 1st holiday is Samhain. In Scotland, it’s Samhuinn. And in the Isle of Man, the folk name for the festival is Hop-tu-Naa. However, it’s properly called “Oie Houney” in the native Manx.

This Manx term, Oie Houney, may correspond to the Irish “oidhche Samhain” (a.k.a. “Oíche Shamhna”). Here’s how MacCulloch explains the origin of the phrase:

“The Celtic year was not at first regulated by the solstices and equinoxes, but by some method connected with agriculture or with the seasons. Later, the year was a lunar one, and there is some evidence of attempts at synchronising solar and lunar time. But time was mainly measured by the moon, while in all calculations night preceded day. Thus oidhche Samhain was the night preceding Samhain (November 1st), not the following night. The usage survives in our “sennight” and “fortnight.”

source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)

According to an oral history interview conducted by Culture Vannin, it’s likely that Hop-tu-Naa/Oie Houney—the Manx version of Samhain—is the oldest unbroken tradition in the Isle of Man’s history.

Now, on the Brythonic-/Brittonic-speaking side of the Celtic language house, the October 31st/November 1st festival is referred to not as “summer’s end”, but as the “calends of winter”—“calends” begin a fancy word for “the first day of.”

Thus, in Wales, the Samhain-equivalent festival is called Calan Gaeaf; in Cornwall, it’s Kalan Gwav; and in Brittany, it’s Kalan Goañv.

Despite this difference in naming convention—”summer’s end” vs. “winter’s beginning”—the Britons celebrated their October 31st/November 1st festivals much in the same manner as the Gaels. Death was the central theme. Ceremonial fires were lit to guard against the coming darkness of winter. Adult beverages were consumed.

The universality of the Samhain holiday across the Celtic world suggests a common continental progenitor. Literally every one of the so-called “six Celtic nations” celebrates some variation of it. As does Galicia, the “seventh Celtic nation,” where Samhain has been translated into the Galician language (a.k.a. Gallego) as “Samaín” and is celebrated in conjunction with Magosto, the chestnut-roasting festival.

And yes, you better believe those chestnuts are roasted over an open fire.

Roasted chestnut of All Saints' Day, a likely origin for the chestnut basis of this holiday
Roasted chestnut of All Saints’ Day, a likely origin for the chestnut basis of this holiday

Samhain’s Christianization

The ubiquity of Samhain and its equivalent Celtic death holidays in Atlantic Europe no doubt caught the attention of the Catholic Church. So much so that in 835 CE, Pope Gregory III decided to “reschedule” a Christian holiday, All Saints’ Day, so that it coincided with Samhain.

Up until that point, All Saints’ Day—known variously as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints, Feast of All Hallows, and Solemnity of All Saints—was held in May.  First celebrated in 609 CE, it was originally intended to honor the Virgin Mary and Christian martyrs. But when Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1st, he also expanded the holiday to include the commemoration of all saints. 

This was an obvious attempt by the Church to harness—and redirect—some of that thinking-about-dead-people energy Samhain had already generated. 

“So, Celts, you’ve got a holiday that’s all about dead people and spirits? Well, we’ve got a whole roster of really cool dead people you can pray to. And boy have I got a spirit for you: the Holy Spirit!

That’s what I imagine the Church’s “ditch Samhain for All Saints’ Day” marketing campaign would be like today.

But I digress…

It’s easy to look back and say that Christianization was effective. After all, Halloween—All Hallows’ Eve—is now the dominant holiday in the Western world, not Samhain. 

But upon further reflection, it’s clear that Halloween has become so secularized as to have lost most if not all of its Christian underpinnings. And I’d argue what we’re left with, modern Halloween, has much more in common with Celtic Samhain than a Christian feast. 

Snap-Apple Night (1833), painted by Daniel Maclise, shows people playing divination games on 31 October in Ireland

Indeed, nearly every Halloween tradition—including apple-bobbing, pumpkin-carving, decorating with black and orange, trick-or-treating, giving out candy, and dressing up in costumes—stems from Samhain and the imaginations of the ancient Celts.

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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