Samhain or Winter Nights is the third and final harvest festival of the year.
Final Harvest & Winter Preparations
Halfway between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, we conclude one of Mother Earth's most colorful seasons. Nature enchants us with beautiful scenes as leaves turn into hues of orange and red. Nights, now longer than days since the Autumn Equinox, continue to grow longer, and days continue to grow shorter. The season gradually grows colder. Having been beaten back by Thor as spring approached, the frost giants have renewed their annual march across the landscape, bringing winter with them.
Harvesting for the year is finally completed. For our ancestors, this was the time of year for storing food and other preparations for the coming winter. This included culling herds, choosing those who could be expected to survive the coming winter from those who couldn’t. Animals were slaughtered as meat was prepared to be stored. Annual feasts, festivals and sacrifices were held to go along with this yearly activity.
Visiting Spirits Cross Into Our World
A harvest custom among Germanic peoples was the “hallowing of the sheaf”. The last sheaf would be left in the field as an offering to Odin. The Germanic custom of leaving the last sheaf for Odin evolved into our modern custom of leaving out a treat for another beloved individual whose annual visit is joyfully anticipated to occur during the next major holiday, now a little less than two months away.
Samhain or Winter Nights is six months from May Eve. While May Eve was celebrated as one of the three nights of the year (the other being Midsummer Eve) when the veil between the worlds or realms is thin, Samhain or Winter Nights has come to be the most celebrated as the time when spirits from the Otherworlds cross into ours and visit us. Both Germanic and Celtic peoples have traditions going back into prehistory of welcoming, or warding against, spirits, and of honoring departed ancestors, during this time of year.
Germanic Winter Nights
On the Norse calendar this holiday is known as Vetur Naetur, or, in English, Winter Nights. It was one of the major holidays of the year for blots or rituals, including what was called Vetranattablot or Winter Nights Blot or Sacrifice. A large animal was ritually sacrificed, then cooked and consumed during a celebratory communal feast.
In Scandinavia this holiday was celebrated in mid-October. In Iceland this holiday was celebrated for the period between October 11 and October 18. In Western Europe, and in the areas of the British Isles settled by the Saxons, this holiday was celebrated on or near the October 31 date the Celts celebrated their similar holiday. This date is more aligned with the energies of the Wheel of the Year. I like to celebrate both Winter Nights and Samhain, so similar in purpose, the same time.
Honoring Ancestral & Other Spirits
Ancestral spirits were venerated. Homage was paid to those who had passed from this world since the previous Winter Nights.
As part of the Winter Nights celebration our ancestors held what was called a Disablot, or Rite for the Disir. A dis is a spirit of a female ancestor who watches over individuals in her family line. Some may sense the presence of a dis as a guiding or protective spirit who always seems to be with them.
The Alfablot, or Rite for the Elves, was also held. The Germanic peoples recognized that there are spirit beings who share our world, and who dwell in mountains, mounds, trees or forests, (sometimes called land wights) and in lakes or rivers (sometimes called water wights).This is the time of the year when elves and other wights or spirits now more actively wander the earth. Some are friendly while others may be less benign. Offerings would be left out for these wandering spirits.
Winter’s Maternal Crone
The Germanic Goddess Holda is associated with the winter months. A holiday known as Winter Nights before it was called “Halloween” is a good time to honor Holda.
Revered as the wise Crone, she was lovingly called Mother Holda. Holda is a Goddess of domestic crafts, such as weaving, spinning, cooking, and child care. She is known to value and to reward industriousness, one of the Nine Noble Virtues outlined by Odin in the Havamal. She was especially beloved as a protector of the spirits of children who died in infancy, who she took with her to be cared for in the afterlife. In the lore of some areas Holda drove a wagon across the stormy winter sky during the Wild Hunt. In time the lore portrayed her as flying across winter night skies on a distaff, which is a tool used in spinning.
Those imposing an alien creed found it difficult to repress lingering devotion to Holda. So Xtian propagandists misrepresented and demonized her. Worship of Holda was vilified as “evil”. Even healing and herbal arts were also portrayed as somehow evil.
In time Holda was considered to be a Goddess of witches. The weaving or spinning of material into cloth came to be viewed as symbolizing the weaving or spinning of spells. The loving matronly Crone who took care of the spirits of those who died in infancy, was portrayed as an ugly old woman or “witch” who took the lives of “unbaptized” infants. The distaff upon which she was said to ride while flying across the winter night sky morphed into a broom. This is the origin of our “Halloween witch”.
Originally the term “crone” referred to an elderly priestess. In some areas, the word was used to refer to one aspect of the Triple Goddess “maiden-mother-crone”. The Crone Goddess ruled over autumn harvests and cared for the spirits of some of the dead. The term “hag” comes from the Greek “hagia” which means a holy woman. The word “crone” was twisted from describing a wise woman into a term used to misrepresent an older woman as someone who is mean and ugly. The term “hag” was perverted from referring to someone wise, good, and beautiful, in spirit if not in body, into a word some came to misuse to describe a woman as being ugly and evil. The process of destroying a belief system begins with vilification of it, making it into something vile and evil, dark and to be avoided, even punished if necessary. Such tactics of mind and spirit control are alive and well today.
Goddesses of Witchcraft & Magick
For Heathens or Asatruar, on Winter Nights, as on May Eve, a Goddess associated with witches and magick who may also be honored is Gullveig. Gullveig is also named Heid (“Bright One”). A verse in Voluspa tells us that Gullveig enchants those she visits with spells, enlightens with prophecies, and is a favorite of witches or “wicked women” (i.e. "crones").
The Goddess Freya is renowned as a practitioner of magick and seidh. Fulfilling a role similar to Freya for those following the Celtic tradition is the Goddess Morrigan, who according to lore works magic as well as being a great battle Goddess. The Celtic Goddess Cerredwen, with her cauldron of knowledge and transformation, is also a Goddess of magick. Her son, Taliesen, has been identified with the wizard Merlin. Hecate is a Goddess of magick for those practicing a revived Hellenic religion as well as for modern Wiccans.
The Celtic version of this holiday, Samhain, is celebrated on October 31. Samhain is Gaelic for “summer’s end”. The Celts divided the year into summer and winter, or the “light half” and the “dark half”. The colors orange and black were used to represent the light and dark halves of the year. To the Celts, night came before day and darkness before light. Samhain, as the beginning of winter, is the Celtic New Year.
As with Beltane and Midsummer, Samhain was celebrated as a fire festival. Fire festivals were held to cleanse the earth in anticipation of visits by faeries and other spirits. The Druids held the annual Great Fire Festival at the Mound of Tlachtga near Tara. Tlachtga has been called Ireland’s Stonehenge, and was named for the Goddess Tlachtga. The Mound of Hostages, near Tara, is aligned with the sunrise the morning after Samhain.
Festivals for Visiting Spirits & Feasts for the Dead
Animals were slaughtered as sacrifices for the annual Feast or Festival of the Dead. Honored places were set with food for departed kindred.
Food was left out on doorsteps for wandering spirits. Not all visiting spirits were friendly. In some areas children began dressing in costumes to ward away malevolent spirits. The custom of leaving out food for visiting spirits evolved into giving food items, as offerings in their name, to children in costumes disguised as various spirits.
Reclaim Our Holiday
"Halloween" comes from a shortening of the name "All Hallows Eve". Catholic officials were unable to repress the annual celebrations of Samhain and Winter Nights, so they came up with another name to distort the real meaning of this holiday. They wouldn't be the last to appoint themselves "thought police", try to repress that which conflicted with their world view, and then, failing that, proceed to distort what they objected to into something they considered to be more "politically correct”.
Xtian funnymentalists bewail the growing popularity of what they call "the Pagan holiday" of "Halloween”. We, as Pagans, should reclaim this our holiday. We may now celebrate it according to its real meaning and purpose. This includes honoring our own Deities, other spirit beings or powers, and our ancestors. As Pagans, we should rejoice in the growing popularity of this holiday as a manifestation of the Pagan revival, even if most who do celebrate it don't yet understand that their inner spirits may be responding to the call of the Gods and Goddesses of our ancestors "to come home”.
Thanks again to Rowana with editing this edition of our e-newsletter. We are seriously considering moving this to another forum rather than e-mail e-newsletters. Any suggestions let me know. Also, again, if you have your own invocations, poetry, prose, notices or other information you would like to share with fellow readers, please e-mail them.