Samhain in Ireland
No, it’s not ok to pronounce it Sam-Hane…
“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole” ― C.G. Jung
In Irish (Gaeilge), it’s pronounced Sow-wen, with sow as in female pig. It’s a word that has a huge cultural and historical foundation as well as a place in modern spoken Irish language as the calendar word for the month of November.
You don’t get to just take someone else’s heritage and language and change the pronunciation because it’s ‘how you’ve always said it’. Don’t do that.
Out of all the Pagan festivals, this one is most specificially rooted in Irish traditions, and is perhaps the most bastardised by modern culture around ‘Halloween’… so forgive my grumpiness? As Pagans, we can do better. So let’s start by saying it right.
(Unless you’re Scottish; they got their own pronunciation stuff going on.)
Samhain time, for me, runs Dark Moon to Dark Moon. As most of you will know by now, the Goddess I work for is kinda dark. Known for it like. We see lots of quotes and comments around at this time of year about facing the darkness, and coming through it to the light, and I get that. I do. Some of that is due to the turning of summer to winter of course, but there’s also a whole pile of crap about living in the light only, and that’s not right.
Why is darkness a bad thing?
I live in the darkness. This is where the real magic happens, the formative creation.
Can the light catch that first push from inside the seed? The first unseen growth always happens in the darkness – the plan is formed, the form is set, the energy is gathered.
Samhain, in Irish lore, is the shifting time from summer into winter, from light to dark. Historically, it’s the time of year that outside active summer work and chores change to inside passive winter work, planning and preparing.
Sam and Gam are the 2 words in old Irish which denote summer and winter – the original seasonal shift going back to days when the hunter gatherer people of Ireland changed from summer to winter camps as part of their annual tribal cycles. Before industry, before agriculture, before settlement… our ancestors were between their seasonal worlds at this time of the year.
That time of change can be dangerous. While we move, before things settle into their new patterns, we can lose our way. Change is especially difficult for the vulnerable in a tribe – old comforts and security lost, new spaces bring new dangers, seen and unseen. The old, the young, the sick and the weak, all at risk as we shift and move towards settling down again.
And when we are moving from light towards darkness? Respect is due and care should be taken, for human form is somewhat fragile in body and mind. Between times, between places, is the boundary. The liminal space that holds stronger magic.
Magic is change, and change is inherent in between.
So Samhain, from the oldest times in Ireland, is a dangerous, magical time. When we moved to agriculture, tough decisions had to be made with supplies set to dwindle during the winter, on what animals would live and what would die. Perhaps even for the people, in lean years the best rations had to be set aside for the strongest to survive, so facing the dark year could mean facing your death.
Thoughts still turn to death in earnest at this festival, with our subconscious and even ancestral memories influencing our conscious minds. This naturally brings about memories of those who have ready passed through to the Otherworld from this one.
Many homes in Ireland still lay the ‘dumb supper’ – the placement of one full meal on Samhain night (that is, the 31st), at the family’s table. This usually consisted of a dinner in the evening, with an empty chair available, for any passing spirits who might drop in. The windows and doors are left unlocked all night (by those who deem it safe to do so, now).
These customs are given as a sign of welcome for the ancestors that are about at this time of year. The extra meal is left outside when the family has finished their meal. None of the living may consume the food meant for the dead; it was said that they would be barred from partaking of it after their own death if they were greedy enough to touch it while living.
The theme of honouring the dead, and aiding them in any way possible, is very prominent – maybe because of the significant reminder that as we are coming into the time of death, it may be us who pass on before too long. There may have been an element of hedging our bets, so to speak, by being polite and utterly respectful to the dead spirits, and the spirits of death, at this time.
For your own practice this year, why not take the time between the dark moon just before Samhain, to the dark moon after (you can find your local phases of the moon here) and set up an altar to your ancestors – either physical bloodlines or spiritual/community? Those elders and ancients who have made an impact on your life, who you would like to honour at this time when they are close enough to more easily commune with.
Will your ancestor altar be indoors or outdoors? What will you put on your altar – pictures, memorabilia, items that remind your senses of that person? How will you observe a practice at the altar each day – what will you say or do before it?
If you are making offerings, think about things that involve a little work or sacrifice on your part, not just cheap wine from the shops that has no relevance to them or meaning for you.
An offering can be a physical item that you place by the altar in observance and respect, or it can be an act you perform – volunteering at a charity relevant to them for example – or work you do that they would appreciate, that honours their spirit.
Why not post about your altar or offering ideas and descriptions in the comments, and share your seasonal observances with the community for Samhain time? We’d love to hear from you!