Samhain – The Celtic New Year and Festival of the Dead.

By | 2017-10-14T20:26:15+00:00 October 13th, 2017|Irish Knowledge|0 Comments

Samhain is the Celtic Festival of the Dead now known to us as Halloween. The only night of the year that the dead return to the realm of the living and the life of our Ancient Ancestors became intertwined in shadows, fire, and blood.

What was Samhain?

Samhain is the Celtic New Year and was celebrated throughout the lands of the Celts. Samhain is a Celtic Festival born in Ireland and has become extremely popular throughout the world and is now more commonly known as Halloween. Samhain is still celebrated by modern Pagans.

It was a sacred Festival for the Ancient Irish as the days became shorter and darkness fell over the land, they knew light would come with the rising of the next sun.

Samhain was the time when the lines between the living and the dead became blurred. As the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead weakened, they were given a chance to worship and respect our Ancestors.

The Celts would have left out offerings to their dead. However, the darker side of Samhain was troubling to the Celts because as our ancestors visited, it also meant that evil and demonic spirits could also cross into the land of the living.

Where is the birthplace of Samhain?

The Hill of Ward in County Meath is believed to be the birthplace of Samhain; it was also known as the Hill of Tlachtga. Tlachtga is the name of a Druidess in Celtic Mythology; the legend says that she gave birth on the Hill of Ward to triplets.

There have been Archaeological digs on the Hill of Ward that has found the evidence of massive fires that would have once burned brightly on the Hill and would have been seen for miles around. The Hill of Ward is situated in the heart of a Celtic ritual landscape that is also home to some of Ireland’s most ancient and sacred ancient sites, such as Newgrange, Knowth and The Hill of Tara.

This Ring Fort has a 360-degree view of this magnificent ritual landscape and its ancient monumentality. The Celebration and rituals of Samhain are mentioned within Irish Mythology.

Samhain was associated with the Celtic God Corm Crunch. The Annals of the Four Masters makes reference to child and human sacrifice on Samhain. It is thought that the famous Irish Bog bodies may, in fact, be the remains of Kings who were ritually sacrificed using the threefold death, which involved wounding, burning and drowning as with the King Diarmait Mac Cerbail.

There is the countless association with Samhain in Irish mythology. It is deeply rooted in Celtic and Gaelic traditions and was celebrated by all members of ancient sociality in Ireland.



It is said that the Druids of Ireland would gather at the Hill of Ward to light the sacred fires of Samhain. As the first fire was lit, all other fires would be lit from the original flame. The bonfires were meant to keep people safe from harm, they symbolized the Sun and signaled the unset of winter. The Bonfires are still a major part of Halloween celebrations today.

When and where was Samhain celebrated?

Celebrated from the 31st of October until sunset on the 1st of November. It is important to remember that the Celtic day began at sunset. Samhain is one of the four main Celtic festivals that occur throughout the year; others include Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnassadh.

Samhain was originally celebrated in the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, and Isle of Man and in Wales it was known as Calan Gaeaf.

Samhain is Full of Celtic Pagan ritual practices and ancient belief systems that are traced back to amazing ancient locations in Ireland. It is associated with ancient sites throughout the country were people gathered to celebrate the coming of the New Year.

These ancient peoples had a vast understanding of the season and were very intune with nature and the impact it had on their lives. The coming of winter was a time of celebration and feat within Celtic society.

It was a time to give thanks for the crops and harvests from the summer months but also a time of fear as during ancient harsh winters many people died. It was also a time when cattle and other livestock were slaughtered to provide for the long winter month ahead.

Samhain rituals.

The rituals of Samhain are not completely dissimilar to that of Bealtaine where ritual bonfires were lit as part of a wider ritual belief system. During Samhain the veil between the living and the dead was at its weakest and spirits of the departed both good and bad could pass into the world of the living, these included Aos Si (Fairies).

These spirits had to be satisfied to make sure that people and animals survived the long winter. Offerings of food and drinks were left outside homes. The ancestors were also foremost on peoples minds as they returned to the land of the living, people often left places empty at tables for departed relatives.

People often dressed up their children as evil spirits to confuse any that may have crossed over They hope that these evil spirits would think that the children were also evil spirits and they would not be dragged back to the land of the dead.

It was also the time when trade and warfare stopped in Celtic Society.

Samhain was the festival of the dead. Ancestors were honored in Celtic Society, but demons and evil spirits were feared. During Samhain, it was also common to mark the door of your home with the blood of a slaughtered animal. Children were dressed as demons to confuse evil spirits. The tradition of giving and sharing food on Halloween also finds its root in Samhain.

To ward off and confuse unwanted visitors the Celts would have lit bonfires and dressed up as scary creatures to disguise themselves, hoping that evil spirits would not recognize them as living, hoping they would not be dragged into the realm of the dead!

As we light candles, carve lanterns, bob for apples and get ready for Trick or Treating, remember our ancient beliefs and be careful, our ancestors feared this time of year for very good reasons. Always dress up at Samhain to ward off any unwanted visitors from the realm of the dead!

About the Author:

Sinead is the head of our Historical and Cultural research team. Sinead studied Archaeology with modular Anthropology, and has Post Graduate qualifications in Heritage Management, including History, Museum Management and Religious Studies.

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