Phantasy Friday: Samhain; Night of the Witch, Day of the Dead

For practicing witches, Samhain is a time for taking inventory of life and getting rid of weaknesses and what is no longer desired. A time of bonfires, the names of those passed on written on flash paper, offered to the flames in mourning or memory. A time of the altar draped in symbolic black, with white glittered sticks representative of frost and autumn leaves laid respectfully before the God symbol (Yes, God is in Wicca), a time of celebrating the harvest with blessed cakes and wine.

In other faiths, burial places are mown, cleaned and whitewashed in a yearly celebratory ritual. Some merely leave flowers or other tokens to show respect or appease the dead upon completion of the task; others long-burning candles, lit to flutter against the darkness, a field of glittering points of light illuming the night. Still other cultures make it a day of family frivolity, eating picnics from spread cloths among the newly beautified graves.

I’ve put together a quick compilation of other events and practices attached to Samhain and it’s celebrations. Hope you lovers of the paranormal find some useful tidbit to apply to your writing!

Samhain and the Wild Hunt
Samhain is the night of the Wild Hunt, when furious ghosts of the restless dead ride the sky on phantom horses with a pack of spectral hounds, shrieking and making wild noises. Nothing has been able to inspire terror like descriptions of flying black hounds and hell-fire hooved horses with hideous eyes. In the medieval versions, witches joined the phantoms, the ghostly train led by pagan goddesses-turned-devils (by Christianity), including Diana, Holda, Herodias, Hecate and Berchta.

A Cornish version of the Wild Hunt, Devil’s Dandy Dogs, is the most diabolical of ghostly packs, hunting the countryside for human souls. The Sluagh, or the Host, is a band of the unforgiven dead of the Highland fairy folk. Diana’s train punished the lazy and wicked but were generous on occasion: if a peasant left out food for them, they ate it and magically replenished it before they left.

A bit skeptical about the Wild Hunt? You may want to take into account that in the English countryside it was reported flying over the terrain as late as the 1940’s.

Samhain is a time when the Cowan may celebrate with the Witch.
The word Cowan is an old Scottish term for a mason who has learned the trade without serving an apprenticeship, and refers to a person who has not been initiated into the Craft. While Cowans may not attend circles, or Esbats, the regular meeting of covens where magical work is performed, they may be invited to seasonal festivals, Samhain, or All Hallows Eve, being one of them.

Crossroads and Samhain
Since antiquity, the junction of roads have carried magical significance. From the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, goddess of the crossroads, who had animals sacrificed to her there on Samhain to encourage her blessing; to Ireland and Wales, where it was traditional on Samhain, the Druidic New Year, to sit at a crossroads and listen for the howling wind, which prophesied the year to come.

Samhain and Fairy Rings
A Fairy Ring is a circle of natural mushroom fungus growth on grass and turf. Inedible –and animals tend to shun the circles– the mushrooms have reddish, buff or tawny caps. Here it’s said fairies and witches meet to dance in the night. In Britain, fairy rings are known as Hag Tracks, supposedly created by the dancing feet of witches.

Superstition attached to fairy rings says to stand in one on a full moon and make a wish, and that wish will come true. If one wishes to see and hear fairies, fairies being beyond the awareness of the five senses, one can run around a fairy ring nine times under a full moon and gain that ability.

However — it’s dangerous to do so on Samhain and Beltane (May Eve), the two major festivals of fairies. Fairies may take offense and carry the mortal off to Fairyland.

The Cailleach Bheur of the Highlands
On Samhain it’s said the Cailleach Bheur of the Highlands, a lean blue-faced hag, a supernatural remnant of the Celtic goddess of winter, is reborn — and returns to stone on Beltane’s Eve, April 30th.

Bells and Samhain
Bells share a connection between witch and Church. Both ring bells to drive away evil, the resonance of bells purported to carry such purity that nothing untoward can remain in its presence. In early history, Church bells were rung on Samhain night to drive away evil or any demons that may be hanging around Church entrances, as well as to prevent witches flying over villages or towns. It was believed the vibrations of pealing church bells would upset witches’ balance, causing them to fall from their brooms or the backs of demons they rode upon.

Witches also believe there is power in sound, and ring small bells during ceremonies to increase power. Larger bells are struck, rung or caused to ‘sing’ to dispel negative energy. Cleansing of any site where magic is worked is necessary to ensure ‘an it harm none’.

Mayhap this Samhain will come your invitation, and you’ll witness witches dancing deosil (pronounced jestle, clockwise) in a circle of blessing around a bonfire, blue and red flames leaping high against the black curtain of night. Stumble across sacred symbols scribed in the earth by a silver, sharp-tipped athame. Know the honeyed taste of blessed cakes washed down by the heady flavor of blessed white wine. Smell sweet incense and breathe the bite of sage, the smudge of protection, healing and blessing. Hear the bells, the delicate handheld tinkling intermingled with the bold brass and iron strikes of Crone and Church.

I left out touch, you say? Oh, no. I merely left it til last. Here’s hoping you don’t feel the cold wash of terror that precedes the raking claws of the sweeping, night-bound Wild Hunt as it boils across the sky this Samhain. May you never cringe from the burning, slashing, soul-searing green glow that radiates from the hideous eyes of the Wild Hunt’s thundering horses and baying packs.

I know; they’re the Old Gods, and rarely considered now beyond the historical significance of a scholar’s page. But they sustained our peoples’ ancestors for centuries. That alone should earn them a small tug of the forelock and a whispered prayer of respect on their night; Samhain.

Halloween is upon us, folks! Happy Haunting!

~Runere~

Visit Runere at www.RunereMcLain.com or friend her on Facebook at Runere McLain. Follow her on Twitter@RunereMcLain

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16 Responses

  1. Love your blog!! In the Northern Traditions, Odin leads the Wild Hunt (and a band of the Undead) during the winter months.

  2. And thank you Halloween Evie for the like! Headed to check out your blog now!

  3. Cool info! Got my mind spinning with ideas!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Karin Shah
    BLOOD AND KISSES Available now!
    http://www.soulmatepublishing.com
    http://KarinShah.wordpress.com

  4. Thanks for posting this. I’d been working on a story idea with the Sluagh. (I discovered them in an art book I bought.) And while it remains unfinished, I have a YA story with the Cailleach Bheur. But I hardly hear anyone talk about her or the Sluagh, so it’s nice to see someone mention them. 🙂

    • Old Celtic roots, Pamela, as in oooold Celtic roots. lol My grandmother sang to me in Gaelic, and Lord and Lady, I miss that. Traced family back to Clan MacLaine of Loch Buie, Scotland!

      Please keep me posted on the WIP about the Cailleach Bheur! The Slaugh as well. I’d love to know when they’re available!

      Happy Samhain!

  5. As usual, you blind me with your brilliance. What a wonderful, fully fleshed out post. I love all the factoids you shared here. Such a great tradition is Samhain. Enjoy!

    • Why, thank you, Jillian! (And I think the other half of that first line you’re looking for is “baffle them with bullsh*t”. LOL) And congrats again the the latest two publications! Proud of you, woman.

      Glad you found this informative. If it gets the creative juices flowing in even one person it has done its job. Samhain is one of my favorite times of the year and there is SO much history available for writing inspiration. Have yourself a great Halloween!

  6. Runere, this is fascinating. Thank you! And I always feel like, even though these are the Old Gods, they have never really gone away. All our major modern holidays are on or around the dates they felt were sacred, even if the average person doesn’t realize it. We still celebrate the spirit of their holidays.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Casey. Appreciate it when people comment. Gets a little lonely when y’all don’t! LOL

      And you’re right about holidays. Most religions ‘absorb’ customs they can’t overcome, so the Feast days already celebrated were easier to take over than abolish. And quite a few of the Old Ways are still around.

      Hope there’s lots of candy in your Halloween. (With 14 grandkids, it’s a given for me. Hey, I have to test a few pieces, you know! laughing)

  7. Hey, Runere. Checking in late. LOVE your post. So much new and interesting information. Thank you so much for sharing. Rita Bay

    • Thanks, Rita! (I’ve always been in awe of your knowledge of history — interesting history, not the stodgy stuff we typically get! It’s why I’ve never missed your Monday Moonday posts!)

      And I can’t wait for your new cover and release date!

      You and yours have a safe and happy Halloween!

  8. Oh how tempting that sounds…I have a mushroom ring in the lawn this year, and some days, “whisked off to fairyland” sounds like a nice break. 😀
    Happy Samhain all.

    Frances

    • LOL Whisked off to anywhere else sounds good at times, doesn’t it? Sigh (Have to admit to wondering about the inside of a Fairy Mound, myself. Seems like a great place for a story!)

      Thanks for stopping by, Frances. Happy Samhain!

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