Posted by: christinelaennec | October 31, 2010

Oidhche Shamhna

Skull and crossbones on the gate of St. Peter's Cemetery, King Street, Aberdeen. "Non sibi sed cunctis" means "not for oneself but for others". I can't quite work out how this is meant to relate to a graveyard - a few possibilities suggest themselves!

Tonight is Oidhche Shamhna, pronounced something like OY-cha-HOW-na (ch as in loch, or as in ich in German).  I have at least one regular reader who is pagan, and I thought it might be of interest to write a bit about Samhain, the start of the ancient Celtic pagan year.  Oidhche means “eve” so Oidhche Shamhna means “Samhain eve,” the night before the festival of Samhain.

The Celtic year was divided into four parts:  1st November to 1st February was Samhain; 1st February to 1st May was Imbolc, 1st May to 1st August was Beltane, and 1st August to 1st November was Lunasadh.  The Irish mythical hero Cù Chulainn was told that if he wanted to wed Emer, he would have to go without sleep “from Samhain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc until Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Bron Trogain [another name for Lunasadh], earth’s sorrowing in autumn.” (Quoted in Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles:  Their Nature and Legacy, p. 176.)

Samhain, the 1st of November, was the most important festival of the Celtic year.  Hutton says that “Tribal assemblies were held then, rulers and warriors conferred and laws were made.  It was also the time at which humans were most susceptible to divine and supernatural interference.” (p. 177)  In her book Celtic Myths, Miranda Jane Green writes:  “Samhain … is a dangerous time, a kind of limbo where the barriers between the real and supernatural worlds are temporarily dissolved, and where humans and spirits can penetrate each other’s space, thus upsetting the normal balance.” (p. 74)

I’ve always been very interested in how the early Christian church took pagan beliefs and sometimes only slightly modified or displaced them.  Near where Michael’s mother’s family comes from in Ireland there is a holy well, which is just below a rock where the chieftains gathered long before Christianity.  The well pre-dates Christianity, but became a Christian healing well rather than a pagan healing well.  The function is the same, in my view.  Similarly, some of the pagan festivals were transmogrified into Christian festivals.  Imbolc, for example, became St. Brigid’s Day, when a rush cross was made, blessed and hung in the kitchen.  (See this post by Diary of a Country Wife on the Irish tradition she grew up with.)   Samhain became All Souls’ Day.  This has been celebrated mostly (but not only) by the Catholic church, as a day to remember and pray for the souls of the dead.  In Mexico they go all out on Dia de las Muertos, and celebrate the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead.  I’ve heard that families go for picnics on the graves of their departed loved ones.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I’ve been interested to watch American Hallowe’en celebrations take hold in the time I’ve been in Scotland.  Traditionally, Scottish children went “guising” (short for disguising).  My friends who were raised in Gaelic-speaking areas have told me how magical Oidhche Shamhna was:  children were free to roam, completely disguised, and often truly unrecognisable by the adults of the village.  In Scotland, traditional “guisers” must perform a song or recite a poem before they are given sweets.  In the last year or two, people have begun to use the phrase “trick-or-treat” here, but children here are still expected to perform – tell a joke or sing a song – before they get their treat.

I really like the idea that tomorrow is the start of a new year.  It’s a recognition of a deep change – the start of another cycle in nature.  However you celebrate it, I hope you enjoy your Oidhche Shamhna!



  1. Very interesting.
    We also have an all-saints-day, but it is officially celebrated as a memorial of those dead at sea, which makes perfect sense in an island country full of seamen 🙂
    I think businesses here want us to adopt Halloween, but it hasn’t really caught on. Maybe because we celebrate the “guising” on the eve of the fast in February.

  2. Just back from my travels (more on blog tomorrow) and thought I just look in. Interesting story and in Germany we also have all saints day on the 1 November.
    Have you got frosty weather yet? Very cold here.
    Love Heike x

  3. Dear Dorit and Heike,
    Thanks very much for your comments, I’m glad you find this sort of thing interesting. I’m really fascinated by customs and traditions. Dorit, I’d love to see/read about Faroese “guising”. Is it a bit like Mardi Gras/carnaval? Also, it’s interesting that in the Faroes, All Saints’ Day is specifically to remember those lost at sea. Heike, not only have we had a few frosts, but we had snow on the 20th of October!

  4. You explain it so well and even I had to read something I didn’t know !!
    Here in Netherlands there are a few who celebrates halloween but it is mostly about scaring the kids with ghost,bad witches etc. There are only a few who celebrates Samhain (such as us).

    • Dear Carin,
      Thanks, I’m so glad you liked this post! I’ve always been deeply interested in different faiths, and in particular those that have a profound respect for the Earth / the Great Spirit / Goddess (etc.) and her wisdom. It’s humbling to reflect that human beings have been coping with pretty much the same things over thousands of years, and that something in this beautiful (and sometimes cruel) world has spoken to them and comforted them. When you think about it, even with climate change, it’s pretty amazing that the planets stay in their courses, and the sun comes up every day, and the seasons continue their pattern. Some people say it’s just a machine that runs, with no consciousness, but I don’t agree.

  5. happy new year Christine,

    keep posting….


  6. OMG, thanks for that, and don’t forget – “Because I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me — The carriage held but just ourselvesAnd immortality..”.

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