A Sampling of the Herblore of Samhain
There are many names for the transition between October and November. The Celts called it Samhain, which means ‘Summer’s End’ and it is the last of the three harvests that began at Lammastide. It was now that animals were killed and meats preserved for winter use to ensure the clan's survival. It was, and is, the festival of the Dead. Dumb Suppers were silently eaten with the beloved departed, while divination was fruitful on this spirit night when the veil between the Dead and Living thinned. The Wild Hunt rides in chaos over the land and the dead roam freely, can't you hear them today on the wind?
We light bonfires to drive away darkness and prayers said for the dead. The Hidden Company draws near and some cast two circles, one for the living and one for the dead during their rites. Halloween, with May Eve and Midsummer's Eve, is one of the three 'spirit nights' of the year when the veil between the worlds is thin, allowing for this unearthly conference. The Dark of the year that we sit in now is a time for planning, rest and contemplation. It ends at the Yuletide when the Old Woman and the Horned One begin the year anew. Look into the shadows now, without fear and learn from the Dark Ones. Do not fear the Dark.
In Wales it was called calan gaef or the 'first day of winter', while Halloween was nos calan gaef or 'winter's night'. Despite the Wiccan persistence in treating Samhain as the Celtic New Year, there is little evidence to support this idea. In fact this idea is more likely to have developed in the romanticization of the Celts that happened in the late 19th century.
To the Anglo-Saxons, early November was the time when surplus cattle, sheep, and pigs were slaughtered and the meat salted to see the tribe through the winter months. Writing in the 8th century the Venerable Bede said that the pagan Saxons called November Blodmonath or blood month. In a religious sense, it was when the blot was performed, the pre-winter sacrifice of animals to the Gods in the hope that the weather would not be bad and not too many of the clans group would die before Spring of Winter illnesses.
To our Celtic, Saxon and Norse ancestors Samhain was a festival for the dead. It was a special time when summer gave way to winter and supernatural forces were believed to be on the loose. The early Christian Church decided to move the Festival of All Saints from May 13 to November 1 in 835 CE. A century later, November 2 was declared All Souls Day when it was the Christian custom to pray for the souls of the dead in Limbo. These Church festivals may have influenced the folk customs of All Saint's Eve or Halloween, however, it is more probable that much of the older pagan customs were remembered in these folk customs. Sometimes the Church preserved the very things that it attempted to stamp out.
The apple was considered a symbol of immortality. Interestingly, it's also seen as a food for the dead, which is why Samhain is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Apples. In Celtic myth, an apple branch bearing grown fruit, flowers, and unopened buds was a magical key to the land of the Underworld. Allantide apples. Peel the apple, keeping the peel in one long piece. When the peel comes off, drop it on the floor. The letter it forms is the first initial of your true love's name. Wait until midnight and cut an apple into nine pieces. Take the pieces into a dark room with a mirror (either hanging on the wall or a hand-held one will do). At midnight, begin eating the pieces of apple while looking into the mirror. When you get to the ninth piece, throw it over your shoulder. The face of your lover should appear in the mirror.
The completion of the fall harvest was considered to be the start of the winter season by many early cultures, even though they were well aware of the motions of the sun, including the winter solstice, by which we in modern times mark the beginning of winter. In the Celtic dialect spoken in Cornwall, this annual autumn celebration was known as Kalan Gwav, which translates as first day of winter. At some point after Christianity came to Britain, Kalan Gwav melded with the All Hallows’ observances. But as the use of the Cornish language diminished, this celebration came to be associated with an obscure Cornish saint, St. Allan, and was known in English as Allantide, "tide" being an arcane suffix meaning a season or a period of time.
Since apples were strongly associated with love and marriage, it was believed they had the power to reveal their prospective spouse to those who had not yet married. Young Cornish men and women approaching marriageable age would often sleep with the "Allan" apple they had been given under their pillow, or under their bed, on the night of the day they received their apple. They did so in the hope of dreaming of their future wife or husband. In some districts, it was believed that this dream of future love would only come true if the dreamer ate their apple on the following day.
The other divination game which involved suspended apples had become popular in the area of Penzance around the turn of the nineteenth century. It was still played there during the Regency at Allantide. Two strips of wood, each between eighteen to twenty inches long and about an inch to an inch and a half wide, were nailed together to form a simple cross. Four candles were placed on the top of each arm of the cross. This candle-laden wooden cross was suspended from the ceiling, usually in the kitchen of the home.
Then, an Allan apple was hung by a short string from each arm of the cross. In many households, as with bobbing apples, marriageable maidens would have placed their mark on one of the apples before it was suspended from the cross. When it came time to play the game, the candles were lit and the boys gathered beneath this Allantide "chandelier." Each boy took turns jumping up to try to catch an apple in his mouth. Boys who were too slow or missed the apple and hit one of the arms of the cross were likely to get a blob of hot wax in the face for their efforts.
+The Last Sheaf of Grain+
The last sheaf of rye is left to the Roggenwulf, or Rye wolf, during the winter’s cold. In Germany when wind blows the tall gass or corn the “Grass wolf” or “Corn wolf” is among the blades. Many final harvest ceremonies involved the final harvest of grain:
“Crying the Neck” in England and Wales:
"In those days the whole of the reaping had to be done either with the hook or scythe. The harvest, in consequence, often lasted for many weeks. When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice.....,
"I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un!"
The rest would then shout,
"What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?"
and the reply would be:
"A neck! A neck! A neck!"
Everyone then joined in shouting:
"Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So”
(calling the farmer by name.)"
+Hazelnuts and Chestnuts+
This is an old Scots and Northern English name for Halloween, the night of 31 October, otherwise called The Oracle of the Nuts. As the chill of autumn pervaded their homes, people would sit around their fires, eating newly harvested hazelnuts or chestnuts. Several fortune-telling customs grew up that involved throwing nuts into the fire, hence these names for the night.
A young man might give each nut the name of a possible sweetheart and watch to see which burned the brightest in the flames. This is evoked in John Gay’s poem, The Spell:
Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name:
This with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That in a flame of brightest colour blazed;
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ’twas thy nut that did so brightly glow!
Robert Burns recorded several related customs about this day, one of which was a fortune-telling game for a young couple in which two nuts were put in the fire. Their future was predicted depending on whether the nuts burned quietly together or jumped apart. An elaborated description appeared in an American publication of 1912, Games for Hallow-e’en, by Mary E. Blain: “A maid and youth each places a chestnut to roast on the fire, side by side. If one hisses and steams, it indicates a fretful temper in the owner of the chestnut; if both chestnuts equally misbehave it augurs strife. If one or both pop away, it means separation; but if both burn to ashes tranquilly side by side, a long life of undisturbed happiness will be their lot.”
Filberts are the European variety of hazelnuts, and in some parts of England, they were used for divination purposes around Samhain night. In fact, for a while the practice was so popular that Halloween was sometimes referred to as Nut Crack Night. Filberts were placed in a pan over a fire and roasted. As they heated up, they would pop open. Young women watched the filberts carefully, because it was believed that if they popped enough to jump out of the pan, romantic success was guaranteed.
In some areas of Europe, the nuts were not roasted, but instead were ground into flour, which was then baked into special cakes and dessert breads. These were eaten before bed, and were said to give the sleeper some very prophetic dreams. In a few regions, the flour was blended with butter and sugar to create Soul Cakes for All Soul's Night. If a young lady peels an apple without breaking the peel; then throws it over her back; it will land in the shape of the initial of the person she will marry? This old wives tale originated in the British Isles-where it was supposed to be performed on Halloween. The traditions of trick or treating and dressing up in costumes also came from the British Isles.
However you celebrate Samhain, remember that the land you live on is alive with Spirits all the time, not just tonight. Ask them what they want, just as we ask each other what we need to feel fulfilled in relationship, and feed the Hungry Ghosts.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween : From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2002.
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