Samhain and Halloween: About as Closely Related as a Toy Poodle and a Wolf

An_Arch_Druid_in_His_Judicial_HabitMany people confuse Samhain and Halloween. Michael Tortorello sets them straight in the New York Times:

How will you be celebrating Samhain this year? What’s that? You say you won’t be observing the high Druid holiday of the ancient Celts? With all due respect, you’re probably wrong and you probably will.

“Samhain is Halloween; Halloween is Samhain,” said Ellen Evert Hopman, 61, an author, herbalist and Druid priestess and scholar. Irish monks, by most accounts, co-opted the earthy ritual and recast it with strait-laced saints. But the bones of the holiday wouldn’t stay buried.

The first historical record of Samhain, an engraved bronze calendar found in Coligny, France, dates to the first century B.C. The Druids of the British Isles went to ground a few centuries later, after the Romans rode in on chariots and “trashed the place,” Ms. Hopman said. All the same, she said: “There have been people celebrating Samhain in Europe for thousands of years. It never ended. Now it’s coming back with a vengeance, as more and more people turn back to the old ways to honor the Earth.”

The holiday may share its DNA with Halloween, but the two are about as closely related as a toy poodle and a wolf. Where modern Halloween is mercantile, Samhain is magical; where Halloween is juvenile, Samhain is adult. Or try this: You celebrate Halloween by nibbling on candy; you celebrate Samhain by pouring whiskey over a bonfire.

That’s the bottle service this Friday night, when CedarLight Grove celebrates in its parsonage and prayer garden. This house of worship is a clapboard fourplex on a residential street in northeastern Baltimore. Out in the yard, the Druids will circle around their World Tree, a green ash that connects the underworld, the heavens and the mortal realm. The officiants will make offerings at the “well” (here, an enamel bowl: the last thing the yard needs is a mosquito pond). And they will recite bardic tales around the fire.

The service, which is open to the public, will invoke a pantheon of deities with names like the Morrigan (the corpse-picking queen of the battlefield) and the Dagda (her erstwhile mate, the all-father). For their religious garments, the Druids are shooting for a Southern steampunk look, inspired by the band Delta Rae…

[continues in the New York Times]

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  • Matt Staggs

    I love this kind of thing, but just about everything we know about the druids and their religion come from a scant handful of notes written by their Roman conquerors. The rest has been pretty much been “best guesses” and fill in the blanks by revivalists and archaeologists. Still cool stuff, though. I plan on watching “The Wicker Man”.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      I sometimes think that this was the ancients’ way of combining some of the most exciting features of tradition with DIY culture: commit nothing to writing, transmit knowledge orally, develop experiences and relationships, not abstractions.

      Everyone knows that a great deal of the specific mechanics will be lost, reinterpreted or changed in this type of transmission process, but the real point isn’t about the mechanics–it’s about a vibrant experience, which is best preserved by “living in the moment”.

      There are things better than ancient writings.

      • Matt Staggs

        That’s a really good way to interpret that. I have nothing at all against pagan revivalism, personally: It’s new skin on old bones.

        • Eric_D_Read

          “New skin on old bones.”
          That’s an awesome way to describe it.

    • emperorreagan

      One year we burned a wicker man just after dark at the site of the first Catholic mass in the colonies. That was probably the best Samhain I’ve ever had.

      • Liam_McGonagle

        That sounds bloody awesome. I’ll be cogitatin’ on a scene like that as I drift off tonight, for sure.

        I’m assuming it was ‘sans caitiffs’, though. That wouldn’t have been halal, even if it would have captured the historical spirit of the thing better.

        • emperorreagan

          Yeah, we bowed to Sharia law on that front and didn’t seek a human sacrifice.

          • Frater Isla

            Tourists.

    • oneironauticus

      “I plan on watching “The Wicker Man”.”

      I do hope you meant the original…Christopher Lee, not Nicholas Cage, please…

      • Matt Staggs

        The “remake” doesn’t exist in my world.

        • Calypso_1

          shouldn’t exist in any other world.

  • Schizo Stroller

    Given the veracity of the ‘mercantile’ behemoth, and this tale of a nice garden party. And as much as I may find alternative beliefs fascinating and despise the homogenisation of the market due to it’s parasitic nature on these said beliefs, but sorry but which one is the toy poodle and which one the wolf?

  • I_abide

    I found the choice of religious attire to be interesting. It’s probably just my narrow minded view of things but dressing up like Papa Shango doesn’t scream solemn ancient ceremony.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      Me neither.

  • InfvoCuernos

    I’d just like to point out that the Romans didn’t ride through Britain on chariots, although the Britons did.

  • James Phillip Schmitt

    so is this the origin of pouring out a 40 oz. for all our dead homies?

    • Eric_D_Read

      Actually the idea behind it is not that far off.

      • Matt Staggs

        Yeah, sharing libations with the dead isn’t an uncommon tradition across cultures, but I think it plays a big part in several Africa-based religions.

  • Phyll Lappone

    I doubt the druids were pouring whiskey over a fire considering it wasn’t invented until the 15th century, over a thousand years after the druids were wiped out.

  • bobbiethejean

    Actually, toy poodles and wolves are over 99% genetically similar. :P So maybe another analogy would be better. Point still taken nonetheless.

    • Matt Staggs

      I thought the same thing.

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