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Many of us take it for granted that Halloween, which originated with the Celtic holiday of Samhain, has been secularized to the point that people of various religious (and non-religious) backgrounds get together to celebrate it each and every year.
But as I (and many others) recently witnessed in Nathan Fielder’s series “The Rehearsal”, there is still a lot of misinformation out there about the origins of Halloween—and the origins of Samhain in particular.
Apparently, there are certain religious organizations whose members believe that Samhain originated as a Satanic holiday. Tangental to this belief is the idea that Samhain was named after a pagan god, Sam Hain, an Irish god of death.
Of course, these beliefs conflict with the historical and archaeological evidence.
First and foremost, we know who the Irish gods of death are. (“Sam Hain” isn’t one of them.)
Second, most academics agree on the etymology of Samhain: it means “Summer’s End”. It’s not the name of a person, it’s the name of a day. But not just a day. A Celtic cross-quarter day. A day equidistant between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain was the Celtic New Year—the end of one pastoral year and the start of the next.
In modern Irish, the entire month of November is now known as Samhain, a tribute to the important cultural festival that took place on the evening of October 31st into November 1st.
This calendrical tribute is especially fitting given that the Irish word Samhain potentially shares the Celtic root “samo-”, meaning summer, with the Gaulish “Samonios“, the first month of the Gaulish new year.
All this to say: Samhain is not, and never was, the name of some Satanic death deity.
So why do so many people think that it is?
Blame It All on Charles Vallancey
General Charles Vallancey came to Ireland in the late 1760s to assist with a British military survey. Little did he know at the time that Ireland would become his adopted homeland (much in the vein of St. Patrick), and for the next several decades Vallancey would dedicate himself to documenting the island’s many stories and traditions.
As a documentarian and antiquarian, it can be argued that Vallancey’s contributions to preserving Irish folklore and mythology were invaluable. At one point he even came into possession of the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacáin)—a medieval Irish manuscript written between 1397 and 1418—which he donated to the Royal Irish Academy.
But for all of his good intentions, Vallancey suffered from an overactive imagination. And that is perhaps putting it lightly.
According to the Quarterly Review, Vallancey “wrote more nonsense than any man of his time.”
Irish antiquarian George Petrie described Vallancey’s reasonings as “rambling,” his style as “obscure,” and his hypotheses as being “of a visionary nature.”
Finally, the Edinburgh Review offered the following summary of Vallancey’s academic output:
To expose the continual error of his theory will not cure his inveterate disease. It can only excite hopes of preventing infection by showing that he has reduced that kind of writing to absurdity, and raised a warning monument to all antiquaries and philologians that may succeed him.source: Alfred Webb’s A Compendium of Irish Biography (1878)
So, what exactly did Vallancey write to earn such scorn?
Welp, in his 1786 book, A Vindication of the Ancient History of Ireland, he argued that the Irish people originated in Armenia, and that Irish god Nuada of the Silver Hand, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was actually that same person as the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, founder of the religious movement Zoroastrianism.
In that same book, Vallancey nonchalantly—and without evidence—described a god from Irish mythology by the name of “Saman”:
The Irish deity Saman was supposed to be the judge of departed souls; at his direction they were condemned to be punished…source: A Vindication of the Ancient History of Ireland (1786)
Vallancey equated this (alleged) Irish death deity “Saman” with Asuman of Persian mythology, referring to both as “the Angel of death.”
One can see how a Satan-fearing Christian might come to conflate Vallancey’s Samhain the god with Samhain the Celtic festival, assigning the god’s devilish reputation to his eponymous day.
But by all accounts, Vallancey’s god of Samhain was a pure fabrication. There is no description of such a character to be found anywhere in medieval Irish literature.
That being said, the literature does mention a character by the name of Samhain, who may or may not have been a god.
Will the Real (Mythical) Samhain Please Stand Up?
In his A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987), historian Peter Berresford Ellis gives the following brief biography of a god named Samhain:
Brother of Cian and Goibhniu who was looking after Cian’s magical cow, Glas Gaibhnenn, when Balor of the Evil Eye, disguised as a little red-haired boy, tricked him into parting with it. He was obviously one of the gods but his role does not seem clearly defined although one of the four major Celtic feasts appears to have been named after him.
The story of the god Samhain, it turns out, is really just the setup to a well-known Irish myth, the story of Cian and Ethlinn (a.k.a. Ethniu), which sees Cian journey to Tory Island, home of the Fomorians, to recover his cow. In the process he ends up getting intimate with Balor’s daughter, Ethlinn, jumpstarting a familial line that would include the likes of Lugh, Irish sun-god and god of many talents, and Cú Chulainn, arguably Ireland’s greatest champion.
Samhain’s role in these proceedings is minimal. It’s a bit part. And his character doesn’t even appear in every telling of the story. To quote pagan author and educator Patti Wigington:
Although Samain (alternately, Sawen or Mac Samthainn) appears in a few versions of the story, depending on who translated it and when, he does not appear in all of them. Regardless, even in the ones that do include him, he is a very obscure and minor character, and certainly not a deity. In fact, most lists of Celtic language variants don’t mention him at all. He’s just not that important–he’s a guy who lost his brother’s magical cow, not the “lord of the dead.”source: Learn Religions
Wigington also notes that Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion, a compendium of Welsh myths, is one of the few sources that adds “Samaín” as a third brother to Goibniu and Cian, giving him the role of a (not very good) sheep-watcher.
Weirdly, I wasn’t able to find this reference in the version of Guest’s translation I looked at. I did find the Welsh equivalent of the Cian and Ethlinn story—”Kilhwch and Olwen”—but apart, perhaps, from a single mention of the name “Siawn” (nestled amongst a long list of other names), Samhain does not feature in the story at all.
He is an elusive fellow, this Samhain. And exceptionally ambiguous, his divine status ranging from “certainly not a deity” (according to Wigington) to “obviously one of the gods” (according to Ellis).
Divinity aside, it’s widely agreed upon that the Samhain of Irish mythology is a poorly defined character—we simply do not know much about him. So the suggestion that Samhain, the festival, one of the most important holidays on the Celtic calendar, was named after this dude seems almost laughable.
Surely, it was the other way around: There was probably some medieval scribe, perhaps inspired by the season he was writing in, who added the character as a gag. Need someone to blame for losing the main character’s prized cattle? Make the culprit an incarnation of “summer’s end”, the great turning point from days of sunshine and growth to days of darkness and death.
But hey, that’s just a theory—hopefully one that isn’t nonsense. And I pray my reasonings weren’t too rambling and my style not too obscure.
Want to learn the rest of the Samhain story? Check out…
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.