What in the Samhain? A brief history of Halloween’s sacrificial (alleged) heyday.

I like to imagine that Halloween is how the Warlock Conal Cochran puts it in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. As he tells the protagonist—a rather beer- and cigarette-infused Tom Atkins:

“…you don’t really know much about Halloween, do you? You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy.

“It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf. Halloween, the festival of Samhain. The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children…”

If you would like, follow this link and go right to 22:12 (it should be around there already) and reread the previous passage while listening to that part of the soundtrack—the atmosphere is everything.

Anyway, Halloween has become one of my favorite holidays because I love the fall so much. And, who couldn’t? Hayrides, mugs of hot chocolate, and decapitations—it just tickles me in the best way!

But, the annual day where I dress like an asshole and drink too much beer while my wife—who is my better half and probably wearing a more expensive costume—scrubs my vomit off the bathroom floor wasn’t always about who could dress as a sluttier version of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Back 2,000 years ago, it was referred to by the Celts as Samhain (pronounced sow-in) (aka Samhainn and Samhuinn) in Gaelic Ireland, and it was a new year’s celebration that may have stood for “summer’s end.” The grand celebration rang in the dark, cold months and wished a fond farewell to the summer (what we refer to in Michigan as the “Time of the Culling” [not really but we should]). It was also a good time to bring in the animals from pasture and gather the necessary resources for the arduous winters.

Samhain (2).JPG

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” by George Cruikshank

Ole Conal Cochran wasn’t too far off though when he said that the Celts thought the “barriers would be down … between the real and the unreal,” which doesn’t sound as scary in modern times when movies like The Grudge (2004) and Hereditary (2018) exist, but I imagine if you were a Celt living 2,000 years ago, the thought of a long-dead relative joining you by the fire would be quite frightening. Hell, I see my dad every day and it scares the shit out of me—and he’s still alive.

Regardless, the Druids and Celtic priests used this time of thinness between worlds to make prognostications about the coming cold, perhaps to allay the fears of the common folk who were busy trying to run their dead relatives out of their homesteads. They also lit huge bonfires, wore costumes, and tried to tell each other’s fortunes (which sounds like one of my ex-girlfriends! har har). They also drank, feasted, and played games.

There are much older stories that state that the Celts were at some point put in the position to sacrifice some of their children, grain, and cattle to the Fomorians of Irish Mythology (a monstrous race of hostile ne’er-do-wells), but such stories are steeped in myth, and it seems many historians interpret the Fomorians as symbolic of nature and its destructive forces; also, people of olden times were way more superstitious than they are today (then again, I tried to host a Ouija Board event at my housewarming party and was met with horror and revulsion for even dreaming up such an macabre idea. Apparently The Milton Bradley Company has discovered the secret to talking to the dead and don’t mind selling it at a reasonable retail price. Oh well).

The sacrificial allegations don’t end there, however, as Julius Ceasar himself alleged that the barbaric tradition was happening just outside the borders of Rome (typical politician).

Ceasar wrote that, “They (Gauls) believe, in effect, that, unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind.”

He continued:

“Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.”

In “The Fearsome Wicker Man: An Eerie Way Druids Committed Human Sacrifice” author Wu Mingren states that in Greek Philosopher Strabo’s Geography it is explained that the Celts created massive figures composed of straw and wood to use for sacrifices.

“Unlike Ceasar, however, Strabo records that ‘cattle and wild animals and all sorts of human beings’ were thrown into this colossus, and then burnt,” Mingren writes. “Strabo also asserts that the ‘wicker man’ was just one method of human sacrifice …” and the druids would also, “shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples.”

Take this as hearsay, though, as Ceasar must have heard this from a guy who heard it from a guy, because he had never actually seen such a thing, and historical speculation exists because it’s not like we can up and interview a long-dead Celt, and even if we could bring Ceasar back, he would probably have a tummy ache from all the stabbings.

Wicker Man

Wicker Man (1973)

As far as the Celts go, the Romans eventually conquered these dipshits, and adopted the Celtic celebration into both Feralia and Pomona—the former was a day of the dead and the latter was to celebrate apples…don’t ask me, the Romans were weird. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and I have a potato on the front of my pants because I thought it would be funny to go as a “Dick-tater” for Halloween.

But, you know what? Samhain actually sounds kind of neat, and maybe this year I will light a big bonfire and dress in a freaky costume (a goat mask and horns sounds Samhain-appropriate), and try to tell my wife’s future. And as I bring in my idiot Shih Tzu for the evening, I will look out over my freezing yard and into the blackness of the night sky and I will know that I’ve done all I could to prepare for the winter.

Just, hopefully my dead relatives don’t show up to say hello, otherwise I might have to go setup an enormous wicker effigy in the backyard and set one ablaze for old time’s sake.