Samhain 2015 for Celebrating the Old Ways in New Times
This article is cheating. I admit it.
I was looking over last year’s article to ensure I did not write close to the same thing this year, and I stumbled upon the file for the talk and ritual I gave at our Samhain last year. It was conveniently and entirely different from last year’s article.
Of course, memories came flooding back. Each Sabbat and gathering is packed with good memories with loved ones. Samhain, the time for honoring the dead, is a good time to connect with the living as well. In pre-Christian times, it was a time of communal work and celebration of a good final harvest and bringing the herds in for winter. It was also a time to give thanks, and ask the powers that be for protection from sickness, starvation, and death in the cold months.
I reworked my talk into an article. That is the cheating! The article discusses some history, as well as ancient practices, and then the ritual we used to honor the Sidhe has been reworked and is given at the end.
A LITTLE HISTORY AND WHY THEY HAD SAMHAIN
Samhain originally comes from Ireland and was celebrated as the beginning of winter. It dates from times when the folk were dependent upon herds. May 1, Beltaine, was of course when the herds were brought out to Summer fields, and Samhain was when they were brought in for the winter. It was also the cold part of the year. People got sicker and were more likely to die. So, people would be doing rituals for protection at Samhain.
They also believed that the dead had more access to the world of the living at that time. They not only honored the dead, but also did things to ward off spirits that were not so nice. Bad spirits could bring disease and death of livestock or people.
Back before refrigeration, insulation, electricity, and preservatives, all of this was a very big deal. The people believed very strongly that the spirits, gods, and the ancestors directly influenced what happened to the living. They could bring suffering and sickness, or bestow life, health, wealth and blessings. It was very important that all the proper taboos were observed and honor was paid to the gods, the dead and the spirits. All the proper workings and rituals had to be observed so everybody made it through the cold winter. And of course it was at the end of final harvest, so there was eating, drinking, feasting, and revelry!
We know what neo-Pagans do now, but we rely on the writings of people like the monks to let us know what the pre-Christian Pagans did. Some of the writings depict things we’d never do in modern times.
One god who was honored Samhain time was Crom Cruach- who favored human sacrifice. At the historical plain in what is now in Ulster, called Magh Slecht ( maw shlaykht), an image of Crom Stood, and that is where some Samhain rites were said to begin. At Magh Slecht, there are monuments dating back to before 4000 BC and there are 80 known monuments on the site. It became the center for worship of Crom, and devotees were said to prostrate themselves to Crom by kneeling and putting their foreheads on the ground. Thus, the name Mag Slecht means, “The plain of prostrations”. The monuments still there include not only Christian sites, but also artificial islands, burial sites, stone circles, and even a couple of castles. According to the monks, St, Patrick struck down the statue of Crom, ended the worship of him, and founded a church there. It is said when he struck the statue down, a ring of stones encircling the statue sank into the ground. Interestingly, it is said the Killycluggin Stone is the one St. Patrick struck down. Others say the stones around the Killycluggin Stone were actually the image of Crom. There is of course, an amazing looking replica placed where the original was excavated in 1921, as well as remainders of the stone circle. The original Killycluggin Stone is now in the County Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff. An online source at
has beautiful photos and a little more about Crom and the stone.
Other sites where Samhain was celebrated was The Hill of Ward in Ireland. It was an Iron Age ringfort where a lot of things happened, and its massive Samhain gatherings were to light the winter fires, which took place in Medieval times. Its structures date from 200 AD. It is said the god Lugh was honored on Samhain on the Hill of Ward. The Hill of Tara was also a site where Samhain gatherings occurred. It is 12 miles away from the Hill of Ward, and when fires are lit atop the hills, the fires can be seen all the way 12 miles away at one another. I lucked into an awesome You Tube Video the University of Dublin created called “The First Halloween”. You have to see it!
Another site watched was a cave where the dead were said to emerge. It’s called Oweynagat, The Cave of Cats. It is part of a complex of sites known as Rathcroghan that has burial sites, and was used for huge ritual gatherings. It complex is estimated to be 6,000 years old. The cave itself is just part of that. It was specifically the door to the other world guarded by Queen Maeve who was said to transform into the Morrigan. She held off the beasts from beyond to protect humanity. It was said she was born and also died at the entryway. She is said to emerge in her chariot every Samhain pulled by a one legged chestnut horse. Inscribed in Ogham on the lintel above the door is “Hellmouth Door of Ireland”. They also call it the cave of cats because it is said a three headed long fanged cat guards the door. I watched a video of somebody brave enough to enter. It’s a small cave where many have entered and finally, some workmen started installing electricity, and a portion collapsed to form a dead end. If you’re like me you think maybe the dead do not want people snooping around in there. It was not a place you wanted to be when those creatures emerged.
You can find the footage I am talking about at YouTube. Type in Oweynagat, cave of the cats, Rathcroghan. A journey into mother earth. Mike Croghan is the one who made this video.
Scientifically speaking, very little excavation has been done on the whole complex, but they have used radar surveys, which show a lot of similarities between Rathcroghan and the Hill of Tara complex.
At these ancient sites, there was not just sacrifice on Samhain. Of course, bonfires were lit on the hills to drive out or burn up unwanted influences, as well as having two bonfires people and livestock walked between to bless them. People took flames from these fires back to their homes and lit new fires from them.
THE SIDHE AND THE DEAD
As for the honoring of the dead, it was originally the Sidhe who were honored. People left food and drink for them, sometimes leaving a portion of crops in the fields for them. If the people had to walk outside , they would turn their clothes inside out or carried salt or iron to keep the Sidhe from harming them.
The dead were welcomed into the home by setting a place for them at the table. They were honored and kept happy, because if they were upset, or wanted to come for revenge, little could be done. The Sidhe, in particular, were those creatures who you did not want to offend. Nowadays, many Neo Pagans like to decorate with fairies and dress in pretty costumes with gossamer wings, many of whom look similar to Tinkerbell. A lot of people think of the Sidhe as sweet, pretty, little earth folk who are charming and enchanting and sprinkle pixie glitter and whatnot, and that is not the way things are at all. To this day, the people of Irelend go out of their way to not piss off the Sidhe.
Some believe they are the descendants of the Tuatha De Danann- or children of the goddess Danu and when the Milesians defeated them, they went to live in the mounds. Historically, the Milesians are actually an ethnic group of people said to have come from Iberia, and settled the Island. And it is historically accepted by some that the Tuatha de Dannan were the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland. They were said to go live in the mounds, which have been proven to be ancient burial sites. According to the lore, as the children of Danu were forgotten about, they shrunk in stature. Some Xtians believe they are fallen angels. Some believe they are spirits that go about their lives just like everybody else. Many believe that we live in parallel worlds with the Sidhe and our world comes in contact with theirs at times and boundaries have to be respected. Money is thrown in wells for them, great care is taken to build roads AROUND sites said to be theirs, food and drink is left for them. If people believed the Sidhe had blessed them or done work for them, gifts of a bowl of cream or new clothes was left for them. Baked goods, apples, and berries were also left for them.
The Sidhe could smile upon you, but they could also harm you. They may not only kill you or your livestock, but they could take you home with them. The belief was that the fairy mounds were completely open at Samhain time. It was a big worry that you might be carried off. If you wound up there, you might find your way back…eventually- but the Sidhe’s time is not our time. What would seem like moments in their time can be decades in our time.
A tale is told of a man who was perhaps the greatest fiddler alive. The Sidhe liked him- a lot- and so they took him with them- and he was seen sometime after his disappearance- looking horribly exhausted, filthy, starved, and a look of horror about him- and his arms seemed to be playing the instrument all on their own, detached from his body.
Encounters with the Sidhe did not always go this way, but there was a chance they could, So it was very important if to stay in or close to home if not at ritual come Samhain time if at all possible, but if you had to leave home, you could do things like- leave gifts, of course, wear your clothes inside out and carry iron, or salt to ward them off.
You could also disguise yourself. Costumes started from people disguising themselves to confuse or ward off the supernatural creatures- you might get carried off to the other world if they were not disguised well. It further developed into mumming, or going from door to door costumed as part of the festivities, which is still observed all over Britain to this day. Sometimes, it was done in costume to collect things for the celebration from each household, and sometimes it was done for fun.
FUN AND PRANKS
Alcohol was used to celebrate since the time of the ancient Irish, in more recent times, they did so as well. Fueled by booze, the pranks could get pretty wild. For example- folks would throw rotten fruit or veggies around houses, throw bags of flour all over people, or make noises outside their houses.
The Sidhe could also play pranks on people. They might do something as mild as put thorns in your bed or like those horrid creatures from the Otherworld, they could wreak damage on property of livestock. They might even swap their kid for yours.
Maybe it was the Sidhe and the dead that got us started doing tricks and pranks Samhain time, but folks sometimes, to this day go too far-
Like in 2012, a 17 and 18 year old were arrested for throwing an egg in a 71 year old woman’s face who thought she was answering the door for trick or treaters.
In 2010, two women were arrested for a prank. They wrapped a mannequin in a “bloody sheet” and dropped it off on the highway and waited at the top of a hill with binoculars to see how many people they could scare.
Maybe in the days of yore, you could blame a prank on the Sidhe or spirits- but nowadays, I don’t think the police are going to buy that.
Samhain was also a good time to do divination. Since the otherworld was much more active in this world, the realities shifted, messages would be clearer. They did not do “readings” the way we do. They sometimes used food. An apple was peeled, and the peel thrown over the shoulder to see if it would reveal the first letter of the person’s future spouses name. Eggs whites were dropped in water to see if it would reveal the number of children a couple would have. They sometimes had each person present put a rock representing themselves in a ring together. Everybody would run around the stones and in the morning if any stone was mislaid it was supposed to show who would not survive the winter.
TODAY AS OPPOSED TO THEN
For us Neo-Pagans, we do Sabbat. Usually an evening ritual and gathering. But in days past, the festivities might last a week from first bringing the cattle in, to blessing them and getting them situated- down to slaughtering the last of the meat- especially the animals they felt would not make it through the winter and then having the feast prepared- which might last for more than one day.
So from its humble beginnings – in Ireland thousands of years ago, we now have people all over the world celebrate this blessed time of year when the living and the dead commune and when we prepare for the ice and snow and dark and cold.
We may celebrate differently today and for perhaps different reasons but this ancient occasion is what brought us all together tonight.
…One other thing about the Sidhe- it is really not polite to talk about them, and I have talked about them a whole lot, haven’t I? It is a good thing the ritual honors them!
In Honor of the Sidhe
This ritual comprised the closing for our Samhain in 2014 and I am sharing it here. The ritual is a good one to do with anybody, including kids and people who have no formal training in ritual. They do their reading, and give their offering. Simple.
Gather things for four offerings. Food, drink, coins, and incense.
Do not cast circle, as your people will stand in a circle and that will comprise your circle. You do not want a closed circle for this out of respect for the Sidhe and so they may come and go as they see fit. Plus, when you leave your offerings, each person needs to be able to move around to place things wherever they deem fit. That might just be a distance from where you are standing to do ritual. Plus, you do not want to banish.
Do not set up an altar. You just need your papers with the readings written on them, and your offerings. It is really best to do this outside in your garden or in nature. You can have garden torches if you like, or outside lights if available. Then again, if you are in a deep forest, or if the stars and moon are not bright enough, you can always let people have their own flashlight or candle to illuminate. But if you cannot be outdoors for this rite, just turn off the lights and light enough candles to see by.
You can have three people to give offerings of drink, food, and money and you can offer the incense at the beginning. Ideally, you want to leave the offerings out in nature for the Sidhe to accept without being watched. You can split up the readings for your group. You can also do all the parts yourself if you are doing Solitary ritual.
You certainly can have people stand facing the appropriate directions when they give their offerings, but you really don’t have to. Wiccan use of the four directions comes out of traditions that came later on in Pagan practice. While the purpose of this is to honor the Sidhe, not to necessarily stick with any given dogma, if you prefer, you certainly can do things “by the book” as they say, moving only clockwise, and standing facing in the traditional Wiccan directions.
If history, lore, and science are believed, some of us, perhaps all of us in this very room are the descendants of the Sidhe. Some writings say they were the first inhabitants of Mother Ireland. The ones originally responsible for the very fact we have Samhain. If all this is to be believed, they walk among us morseo this time of year, and more than that their blood flows in our veins. It is because of them that we are alive today. And because of us, they are alive today.
It is them who we will honor and ask for blessings in this rite.
(Light the incense, and put it in the center of your group of people.)
Hail to the Sidhe.
Beautiful and Terrible.
Small, and Great.
Seen and Unseen.
Hail to you Fathers of Fathers.
Mothers of Mothers.
Guardians of the Otherworld.
(Put the drink in the center)
You can heal or you can harm.
You can grant life or death.
Accept our gifts and respect
As we enter the cold, dark months.
(Put the food in the center)
Spare us and our loved ones another winter
That we may make it to the Summer.
Increase our wealth and give us good health.
Help us to pass this winter in good company
And to create good memories
Accept our gifts and our respect.
(Put the money in the center)
Smile upon us, give us safe passage home this night
And this season.
(Now those offering gifts will gather up gifts, and with all attendees, take the things and place them where the Sidhe can find them.
Come back together.)
(Have all join hands.)
The Sidhe have been gifted and honored, and now, may your gods and guides bless you. May the ancestors be ever present all of your days. May the Sidhe smile upon you, and may we all see one another soon.
Merry Have We Met,
Merry Shall We Part,
and Merry Shall We Meet Again.