The Origin of Halloween: Samhain, the Celtic Festival of Darkness and Mystical Light

30 Oct

Author: Jo Hedesan

Celebrated at the beginning of November, the Celtic Festival of Samhain marked the coming of the winter months, with their dimming light and heightening darkness. The root of the word “Samhain” comes from “samhradh”, meaning “summer” in Irish Gaelic. While the exact etymology has not been confirmed by scholars, in Celtic tradition, “Samhain” corresponds to “end of summer” (a combination of samh “summer” and fuin “ending, concealment”). Samhain and Beltanne (May Day) stood in opposition as the beginning of the season of winter and summer, respectively, but Samhain was a much more prominent festival and may have marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year as Frazer has pointed out.

Samhain was, consequently, a festival of deepening darkness and budding light. It was a meeting place between two opposites – the winter and the summer, the dark and the light, death and life. As such, the festival contained both aspects of existence – although the darkness, increasing at this time, was more profuse and substantial.

In its ‘dark’ aspect, Samhain marked a period of destruction and chaos. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this was the ritual killing of the Irish kings of Tara. According to Dalton’s evidence and interpretation, the kings that had behaved unsuitably or unpiously in office would be killed on the day of Samhain. Ritual killing was also effected against animals: Samhain was the season when the cattle that would not be kept through the winter were slaughtered.

On Samhain, the forces of darkness or chaos returned to rule. According to Irish mythology, 1st of November marked the day that the demonic Fomorian race oppressed the people of Nemed. According to another legend, the divine Aillen the Burner puts everyone to sleep at Samhain and burns the palace of the Irish kings at Tara. During the festival, bands of men, women and children dressed in masks and costumes embodied the havoc-causing divinities and inflicted their own terror and chaos on the neighbourhood. As Dalton points out, the tyrannical Irish king Conn Cetcathachwas killed by fifty warriors dressed as women. The habit of cross-dressing was popular in various parts of the Celtic world as expressions of the breakdown of rules on Samhain.

Samhain was also a time when the dead came back to roam the earth. This happened because the normal order no longer applied, and hence the boundaries of the otherworld were broken. Freed from the rules that clearly separate one world from the next, the dead returned to visit the living. They were welcomed at ritual feasts where, as Kondratiev has noted, they were “actually” present. It was this custom of honoring the dead that made the Catholic Church adopt the date of 1st and 2nd of November as the Day of the Saints and Day of the Departed.

If Samhain was a dreaded time when rules were broken and demons roamed the earth, it was also a time when light was re-born. Samhain, as Frazer has observed, was not a festival of the sun: the sun is in retreat in autumn. Instead, Samhain marked the birth of a mystical light – a light that may originate in the first ray of sun at dawn or the first lunar ray after the new moon. In Ireland, a bonfire was started on the royal hill of Tara accompanying, perhaps, the coronation of a new king after the killing of the old one. The custom of lighting fires on Samhain was also pervasive in Scotland and Wales. In line with this new light, Samhain was also a time when the forces of good eventually prevailed: the demon Fomorians were destroyed, Aillen the Burner was slain. Divination was also pervasive as a practical translation of the ‘light in the darkness’ motif: the diviner would try to shed a dim light into the dark future.

This combination of darkness and light, fear and hope, order and chaos gave Samhain its particular coloring of a merry time of misbehaving. It was a festival where rules were briefly abolished and tension – whether communal, social, political or even psychological – could be released. It was also a time when new order was born – hence the competitions and games of worth that were practiced during this period. Figures of power were abolished and others replaced them; rules were destroyed and recreated.

It is perhaps of interest to see what has remained of this festival time in today’s Halloween customs.

  • The symbolic kindling of fires in the lit pumpkin;
  • Games of worth in the popular ‘bobbing for apples’ – a water ordeal.
  • The havoc wreaked by deities and the dead in modern movies like Halloween, Scream, Dracula and vampire stories, American Werewolf in London and other horror classics;
  • The identification of the living with deities and the dead in Halloween trick-or-treating and costume-wearing
  • The sacral fear surrounding the Samhain celebration survives in urban legends of ‘razors hidden in apples’ to harm children.
  • The tradition of Samhain feasts in Halloween parties, trick-or-treating and Halloween candy;
  • Mischief survives in the mild “tricks” played on those that do not propitiate the costumed revelers
  • Abolition of traditional hierarchy is still present in the ascendance of children over adults during the Halloween season.

Perhaps more investigations should be carried out in this aspect, yet what is certain is that Samhain has evolved into Halloween in subtle, but yet powerful ways, maintaining in the process its fundamental character of an out-of-the-ordinary time when rules become more relaxed and identities more fluid behind the mask. It is unfortunate that its spiritual core has taken second place to ‘ordered chaos’, yet the enduring power of the Samhain is witnessed by its innovative ways to survive and adapt in the modern world.

  1. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online. Accessed 29 October 2008.
  2. Frazer, J.G. (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. London : Macmillan
  3. Dalton, G.F. (1970). The Ritual Killing of the Irish Kings. Folklore 81(1), pp.1-22
  4. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online. Accessed 29 October 2008.
  5. Walsh, M.J. (1947). Notes on Fire-Lighting Ceremonies I. Folklore 58(2), pp. 277-284.
  6. Wikipedia. (2008). Samhain. Online. Accessed 30 October 2008
  7. Dalton, G.F. (1970). The Ritual Killing of the Irish Kings. Folklore 81(1), pp.1-22.
  8. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online. Accessed 29 October 2008.
  9. Frazer, J.G. (1922). The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. London : Macmillan.
  10. Kondratiev, A. (1997). Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal. Online. Accessed 29 October 2008.
  11. Best, J. & Horiuchi, G.T. The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends. Social Problems, 32(5), pp. 488-499.
  12. Dell Clark, C. (2005). Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation and American Halloween. Ethos 33(2), pp.180-205.

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About the Author

Jo Hedesan is currently studying a MA in Western Esotericism at University of Exeter. She is a member of the European Society for the Study of Esotericism (ESSWE) and American Association for Study of Esotericism (ASE). She has published several journal articles and has presented papers at scholarly conferences on the topic of esotericism and history. She is writing a blog on esoteric topics and research at


Magnificent You! Learning About Your Three Selves

27 Oct

Author: Pamela Turner

One reason I like Huna so much, is that it offers such a beautiful understanding of our psycho-spiritual nature. Long, long before Freud discovered his subconscious mind, Huna knew exactly what it was, how to communicate with it, how to program it, how to get it to do your bidding. Huna also understood that there is a Higher Self as well, something modern psychology is just starting to grasp. Huna has its roots in the oldest spiritual traditions known on Earth. Huna means ‘secret’. Thousands of years ago, as the wise elders saw that this wisdom was in danger of being lost, they ‘hid’ the Huna code in the Hawaiian language as Hawaii was a very remote and isolated region. Today, Huna is no longer secret and we can benefit from its love, wisdon and power. It belongs to the Earth and is very pure since it was untouched by dogma and error for thousands of years.

So, let’s take a look at the amazing human according to one of the most ancient teachings of the planet. According to Huna, every human is made up of three selves: a subconscious self, a conscious self and a Higher Self.

The subconscious, or unconscious, exerts a powerful influence on your life. It is in charge of your bodily functions, your emotions, all of your memories from this life and others, holds your instincts, beliefs, programming, habits, intuition, and psychic abilities. It controls your perceptions and decides, out of all the millions of bits of information is receives on a constant basis, which ones are presented to your conscious awareness. How powerful is that? Your subconscious is constantly communicating with your conscious mind through hunches, dreams, intuition, imagination, feelings, symbols, sensations and slips of the tongue, but our society has not put a high value on this type of communication so we often ignore or dismiss it.

The conscious self is the thinking, rational part of you. We are all very familiar with it. It is the logical, thinking mind that analyzes and figures things out. But, another function of the conscious mind, which is often neglected, is to give direction to the subconscious. Your subconscious looks to your conscious mind for direction. Another great talent of the conscious mind is to imagine, to bring in ideas and energy and translate them into action in the physical world. Amazing.

Your Higher Self is your spiritual Self, infinite, all-knowing, all-loving, connected to everything and everyone everywhere, ready to guide you and closer than your own breath. Because of free will, your Higher Self will not interfere in your life unless you ask. Then, you will be supported fully with an abundanceof ideas, energy, synchronicities and knowledge to carry out any desire. The biggest problem we have here is with our conscious mind, the part of us we are habitually identified with, not asking, or asking then doubting, trying to do it with our ego self and getting in the way. I learned once that prayer is when you ask, meditation is when you listen, but we are always giving our Higher Self a busy signal.

You are all this. All this magnificence in you! Look in the mirror and realize this truth. Look at each other – your family, the homeless person on the street, the boss who drives you crazy, the rich, the poor, the old, the children. This is who we are – hugely magnificent! Imagine what your life would be like if you, all three selves of you, worked in harmony! You can learn more at

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About the Author

Master Practitioner of Neurolinguistic Programming and a Certified Hypnotherapist, Pamela Turner, M.Ed, C.Ht. is dedicated to making both ancient and modern tools and techniques for healing and growth available to everyone in an easy-to-use way that’s meaningful to modern life.

She’s had the honor to work with some amazing teachers, including a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston specializing in mind/body healing while completing her master’s degree in counseling psychology in 1991. She founded Begin Within ( to help as many people as possible find the Love, Wisdom and Power within them.