As Halloween approaches, people are gearing up to celebrate the spooky, spooky, and haunted. The festivities revolve around the dead, who some believe may mingle with the living on Halloween night.
Scholars have often noted that these modern celebrations have their origins in Samhain, which is celebrated by ancient Celtic cultures. In contemporary Irish Gaelic, Halloween is still known as Oíche Shamhna, or Eve of Samhain.
In ninth-century Irish literature, Samhain, midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, is repeatedly mentioned as an integral part of Celtic culture. It was one of the four seasonal turning points of the Celtic calendar, and perhaps the most important. It signaled the end of the light half of the year, associated with life, and the beginning of the dark half, associated with the dead.
Archaeological records suggest that Samhain commemorations date back to the Neolithic period, with some dating as far back as 6,000 years ago. Neolithic Ireland had no towns or cities, but people crafted huge architectural monuments, which served as seasonal gathering places and housed the remains of society’s elites.
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These megalithic (“big stone” in Greek) sites sometimes hosted large numbers of people, gathered for brief periods around specific calendar dates. Archaeological records reveal evidence of mass feasting but little or no evidence of domestic use. If people lived year-round on these sites, they would have been a privileged few.
Data from animal bones can reveal approximate times of the feasts, and additional data comes from the monuments themselves. Monuments are not only located at key locations in the landscape, but are also celestially aligned to allow the sun or moon to shine directly into the center of the monument on a particular day.
These sites connect the landscape to the cosmos, creating a lived calendar, written in stone. The UNESCO World Heritage monument of Newgrange, for example, is constructed so that a ray of sunlight shines on the innermost chamber precisely at the winter solstice.
Less than 30 miles away is the Hill of Tara, another massive megalithic site. The Hostage Mound, the oldest existing megalithic structure in Tara, is aligned with Samhain. Tara is known as the traditional spiritual and political capital of Ireland, and here too archaeologists have found evidence of seasonal mass gatherings, with remnants of feasts and large bonfires.
According to ancient Irish literature, as well as traditional folklore collected in the 19th century, Samhain was a time when people came together, under the command of peace, to feast, tell stories, make social and political demands, engage in important sacred rituals. and, perhaps most importantly, to commune with the dead.
The pre-Christian realm of the dead was called the afterlife. The Otherworld was not somewhere far away, but rather overlapped the world of the living. Irish beliefs about the afterlife were detailed and complex. It’s full of magic, sorcery, talking with the dead and seeing the future. It was traditionally believed that the dead continued to see the living, even though the living could only see them occasionally. The most significant occasion would be at Samhain itself, when the lines between the Netherworld of the dead and the realm of the living were weakened.
One can encounter the dead at megalithic sites. These sites are known in Irish Gaelic as sí sites, the word ‘sí’ meaning mound spirits. This word is often translated into English as “fairies”, which loses a lot of meaning. The “fairies” in Ireland are spirits deeply linked to the realm of the dead, to the burial mounds and especially to Samhain.
The connection can be seen in the figure of the banshee – or bean sí, in Irish – an important mythological figure in Irish folklore, said to be heard moaning in grief just before the death of a family member. With “bean” simply meaning “woman”, the banshee is a female spirit of the mounds and a ruler of the realm of the dead.
The sí spirits are not only spirits of the dead but constitute a particular aristocracy, which welcomes the dead with feasting, gaiety and eternal youth, often on megalithic sites. In Irish lore, they are powerful and dangerous, capable of giving great gifts or inflicting great damage. They once ruled Ireland, according to folklore, and now they rule the world of the dead.
The Otherworld is still here, but it’s at the start of the dark half of the year, on Samhain night – now Halloween – when the dead are at their most powerful.
As the light of summer fades, the ancient holiday of Halloween arrives to celebrate the blending of the dead with the world of the living, as it has done for thousands of years.
Thompson is a professor of anthropology at USC Dornsife. He wrote it for The Conversation and Los Angeles Times.
Irish beliefs about the afterlife were detailed and complex. It’s full of magic, sorcery, talking with the dead and seeing the future.