Halloween and Samhain: Eves of Transformation

In a lecture about Halloween back in 1981, the mythologist Joseph Campbell remarked that this holiday “gives us a chance to exercise our imagination – to bring out . . . some of the structuring forms that underlie our spiritual life and which we may forget in our daily work.” As an example, he noted that the Halloween costume “talks to and evokes something deeply inside which is more permanent, which is archetypal, which is more eternal within us than the secular character that we represent in the world” (Campbell, Lecture). These comments reflect the influence of Carl Jung on Campbell’s thought. The psychology and mythology underlying Halloween indeed hold the potential for personal transformation. As it happens, a precursor to Halloween, the pre-Christian Celtic Samhain festival, likewise appears to have been a festival of transformation. So in order to appreciate what Halloween can mean for us it is helpful to look back at Samhain (the Celtic new year, pronounced sow-in), as well as the Catholic Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day – October 31-November 2).

Samhain as a Festival of Transformation

Getting to the bottom of Samhain can be tricky. In particular, we often hear that it was a festival about dead ancestors, partly to honor them but also to protect against them; also that it was to protect against “evil spirits.” While this might be true in part, actually there is no evidence for it, as is now recognized in the scholarly community (Hutton, p. 370; MacLeod, p. 174). Rather, that notion appears to be an anachronism, attributing to Samhain the later concepts behind All Souls’ Day (Rogers, p. 19). The actual idea behind pre-Christian Samhain appears to pertain to the living (Hutton, pp. 366, 370). Specifically, Samhain was meant to utilize the occasion of the new year to achieve the regeneration of individuals, their kings, and society, through interaction with the powers and beings of the Otherworld (Markale, p. 118). It was a festival of transformation, realized through myths and rituals concerning the Otherworld. Indeed, the action in most of the key Celtic myths took place on Samhain (Rogers, p. 20; Markale 1999, p. 165).

            The Otherworld

In order to understand Samhain, it is important understand Celts’ conception of the Otherworld. In the Celtic understanding, there were two realms of reality: (a) the surface world of the living, and (b) everything else, called the Otherworld. The Otherworld was just under surface of earth, on magical islands, bottoms of lakes, in the sea, and in far-away places on earth. It was close, not in the sky (“heaven”) (Monaghan, p. 371). There the normal order of the universe was suspended and somewhat dissolved, as in primordial, mythic time. It is this nullification of ordinary space and time which enables interaction between the two worlds (Markale 1999, p. 165). There were portals in and out of the Otherworld, especially the sidhe (fairy mounds). These were open on Samhain and Beltane, making the Otherworld and its beings accessible then.

The beings of the Otherworld were mostly former humans (whom that Gaels had replaced on the surface world as a result of a battle), but now supernatural and immortal. These beings, called the Tuatha Dé Danann (“people of [the goddess] Danu,” also known as faeries), looked like people, and had the same virtues and vices as regular humans (Markale 2000, p. 71). They were mostly helpful, not “evil spirits,” although some of them resented the Gaels who had conquered them (Markale 2000, p. 68). Generally, they watched over the surface world and endeavored to keep it balanced and harmonious, intervening when necessary to achieve this (Markale 2000, p. 36). For this reason they were often called the “Good People.” The grotesque supernatural figures that that came to symbolize Halloween emerged later as a result of rank superstition and Christian demonization of the Good People.

With this background, we can examine what were the three main rituals at pre-Christian Samhain (Markale 2000, pp. 19-31, 48):

  • The communal bonfire – fire as transformational agent
  • Feast – eating transformational food
  • Drinking to intoxication – transforming consciousness

               The Communal Bonfire

On Samhain evening, in Ireland all existing fires (including at home) were extinguished, and new ones lit. This marked the end of summer and the old year, and the beginning of the new. Of these fires, the communal bonfire was the most important, especially at the Samhain celebrations of kings, attended by prominent Druids and poets.

In light of the nature of the Otherworld described above, any notion that the bonfire was primarily aimed at scaring away evil spirits is anachronistic. Rather, the fire was considered an agent of transformation. We can see this from the fact that Samhain was the new year and therefore considering New Year’s mythology, from the mythology of fire in general, and from the Celtic myths concerning fire in particular.

As I wrote in an earlier post, New Year’s mythology and ritual is typically about transformation and renewal (e.g., Babylon). Both gods (e.g., Marduk) and humans (especially kings) go through this process on New Year’s. Generally, fire is a purging agent, eliminating the old and making way for, or creating, the new. Fire (“sulfur”) plays this role in alchemy too. In Celtic thinking, unlike in ancient Greece, fire was not one of four primary elements, but was an agent for transforming the other three (earth, air, water), which is to say it can transform us as well. Celtic myths about fire occurring on Samhain illustrate this.

One such example is known as The Intoxication of the Ulstermen, in which the hero Cuchulain (a proxy for his king) and his companions are at a feast on Samhain hosted by their enemies, the king and queen of Connaught. After they are filled with food and inebriated with drink, they are imprisoned in an iron house, and a fire is started around it with the intention of roasting them alive. Cuchulain’s companions blame him for their plight. But Cuchulain executes a powerful jump and breaks the structure, which enables them to escape. After that Connaught’s king is apologetic and hosts them at another feast in a wooden house, at which, challenged by his companions, Cuchulain executes yet another jump known as “the leap of the salmon,” in which he breaks through the roof of the house, proving that he is now better than ever. The lesson is clear: Cuchulain has emerged from the trial by fire in supreme shape and trusted by his men.

In another similar myth, a large, red-haired man and his wife, both from the Otherworld, arrive in King Matholwch’s kingdom of Ireland and begin to commit various offenses. To get rid of them, the King’s vassalscastt them inside an iron house that they had built, and fires are set around it to incinerate them. When it got too hot, the red-haired man gave the house a blow with his shoulder, casting it aside, he and his wife survived the ordeal. He learned his lesson about his bad behavior from the trial by fire, and was now gracious to the King, presenting him with a magic cauldron from the Otherworld which he had brought with him on his journey, which restores to life the dead that are placed within it. Which brings us to the feast . . . .                                                                                      

            Feasting on Transformational Food

At the Samhain feast the featured dish was pork (Markale 2000, p. 25). Why? Because pigs were associated with immortality. They lived in the Otherworld too, and were eaten by gods and the Tuatha to retain their immortality. This is reflected in myths about the Dagda and Manannán mac Lir, king of the Tuatha. Each had pigs which they would kill and serve to their guests at dinner, but the next morning the pigs were alive and well again. Thus, eating them was thought to put one in touch with the Otherworld, and would help one gain immortality (in the afterlife). The food was transformational.

Further, the pork was not roasted on fire but simmered (braised) in a cauldron. Cauldrons were important in Celtic mythology, as evidenced by the many Celtic cauldrons unearthed by archaeologists. They were thought to be magical: They gave supernatural knowledge and perception, revived the dead, and provided for people. Thus, the Dagda had a magic cauldron which satisfied everyone, forever filled with good things like a horn of plenty (Monaghan, p. 79). In the Tale of Talesin, the protagonist Gwion acquired supernatural knowledge from tasting 3 drops of a potion boiled in a cauldron, and also gained the power of transforming himself, called “shape-shifting” (Monaghan, pp. 438-39). And in the tales Branwen Daughter of Llyr, Peredur, and others, cauldrons revive the dead. Such renewal by a cauldron is apparently portrayed on the famous Gundestrup Cauldron (see illustration).

Gundestrup-cauldron-warriors and cauldron

Plate E of the Gundestrup Cauldron (ca. 1st century CE). On the bottom row, potentially in the underworld, is a series of dead or debilitated warriors proceeding toward a god and a cauldron on the left. The god dips them into the cauldron and they emerge not only alive, but promoted as horsemen. Between the rows is a horizontal tree with its roots at the cauldron, symbolizing life. One horseman (2nd from right) has a boar image on his helmet, and the 3 carnyx horns on the right also feature boars’ heads, perhaps alluding to immortality. So we have the pigs discussed above in relation to the feast. A dog, for the Celts symbolizing the promise of future life (dog images were common in Celtic graves), appears under the cauldron and thus serves as a threshold.

            Drinking to Intoxication

As I mentioned in a recent post on the mythology of wine, in ancient times, when how fermentation and intoxication worked was not understood, people thought that these phenomena were magical, that supernatural forces were at work. People thought that by becoming intoxicated they were getting in contact with and uniting with the divine. Gods were thought to drink intoxicating drinks. Mead was the drink of Celtic gods, and so was the most common beverage at Samhain. Naturally, the action of all Celtic myths featuring intoxication took place on Samhain (Monaghan, p. 407). For example, in The Intoxication of the Ulstermen discussed above, Cuchulain and his warriors went to their place of transformation only because they were drunk (they were supposed to go see a friendly king).

Christian Aspects of Transformation on this Occasion

The Catholic festivals of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and the liturgy on the evening of October 31 (All Saints’ Eve) were focused on the fate of dead souls rather than on the living. Nevertheless, these holidays were tied to the doctrine of the Communion of saints. This consists of the spiritual union of all members of the Christian church, living and dead (including in Purgatory), headed by Christ. The notion goes back to St. Paul, who said that in Christ Christians form a single body (Rom 12:4-13; 1 Cor 12). One enters the Communion when one is baptized. For our purposes, this doctrine is important because it breaks down barriers between earth and the supernatural realm (as Celts did, especially on Samhain), and implies a connection between the living and the dead. This too is transformative.

Celebrating Halloween as Transformative

At this point we can consider the psychological dimensions of Halloween that Joseph Campbell was pointing out, because they can make the holiday transformative.

The symbols of Halloween relate to realms beyond our everyday conscious life and world. In fact, they emerge from our unconscious, which is the realm of what feels sacred and holy. Ultimately, our psyche refuses to erect a permanent barrier between the profane and the sacred, between our world and the Otherworld (that of the unconscious). The unconscious will catch up with us sooner or later. The symbols and rituals of Halloween are a result of this process.

So on Halloween we should not only let this process take its course, but proactively facilitate it. Campbell liked to call this kind of approach being “transparent to the transcendent” (Campbell 2004, p. xvii). Our other holidays have become domesticated and institutionalized, whereas Halloween allows us freedom and creativity. Halloween is the only remaining major American holiday in which people, young and old, can celebrate by taking on alternative roles that exercise their imagination and potential for creative expression and fantasy. It is cathartic. It therefore can serve important mythological, creative, and psychological purposes.

Halloween helps enable people to act out their sublimated fantasies. It can help children come to terms with frightening images and characters in dreams, and likewise can help adults deal with nightmares (by confronting and making friends with nightmare characters). In our constrained lives, the rebellious, transgressive aspect of Halloween can be liberating. And it can help us deal with death. Although mocking death can be a willful defense against the unacceptable, merely making it visible is still one path to coming to terms with it, like with nightmare images. The Otherworld beings were once helpful, and we can make it so again. It’s not so hard, because they are already inside us. The veils are thinner than we realize. We can utilize Halloween to open them.

(Note: The above essay is based on parts of the chapter on Halloween in my book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae.)

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Bibliography and Sources Cited

Campbell, Joseph. “Trick or Treat,” lecture delivered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 25, 1981, available at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/31/joseph-campbell-on-the-roots-of-halloween.html (cited as “Lecture”).

———. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, California: New World Library (2004).

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). See Chapters 35-37 about Samhain, Allhallowtide, and Halloween.

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Hamlyn Publishing (1970). Classic work by a leading authority, with many illustrations.

Markale, Jean. 1999. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International (1999).

———. The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions (2000). Speculative but insightful.

MacLeod, Sharon. Celtic Myth and Religion. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company (2012).                                                                                                                 

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books (2008). Excellent resource with annotations for further research.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications (1990). Reprint of 1917 book that still reads well.

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4 Responses to Halloween and Samhain: Eves of Transformation

  1. jeanraffa says:

    Thank you for the wonderful, well-researched article. I didn’t know any of this from a Celtic perspective and am very glad to. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lori Mongillo says:

    I love the information here. It’s a different perspective than what I normally see in the Pagan community. I am a Progressive Pagan. I totally appreciate the symbolism and psychological references. I will incorporate some of what I’ve found in your article to the ritual aspect of out Pagan gathering. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.


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