Samhain, the 31st of October, now Halloween, is the Celtic cross-quarter day lying midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
Samhain has always been one of the most sinister dates of the calendar. It marked the final passing of summer and the arrival of the trials of winter: blizzards, famine, deathly cold. It was the time when the Earth Goddess changes from her Mother aspect to her more feared Crone aspect. Many – man and beast – would not survive to see the next spring.
Samhain had two aspects. It was the time when livestock – those old and weak and unlikely to survive the winter hardships – were slaughtered, and the meat stored to feed the community through the coming months. And secondly, after the sun was set, when darkness crept across the land, the shadows began to stir. Samhain night was a night when the veils between worlds grew thin. It was a night when creatures from the otherworld could cross to our world, a night when the faerie walked the lonely countryside, and a night when, if great care was not taken, a man could find himself transported to another realm of existence, never to find his way home. Samhain was not a night to wander.
The night wanderers were unwelcome. They drained the milk from cows' udders, terrorised animals so they broke their confines and bolted, curdled milk and stole food. To repel their attentions, wards were placed around houses and settlements to frighten them away. This is the origin of the custom of carved pumpkins and the other pomp which comes with Halloween.
It is not just the Celts who linked this date with the nearing of other worlds. The 1st November is All Souls' Day in Catholic tradition, the day when the dead are remembered. In Mexico the 2nd of November is the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, the day when the dead return to earth. Ancestors are remembered and offerings made, both from respect and fear of vengeance if the spirits find themselves neglected.
So remember, if you see something moving in the lonely shadows, the sense of an insubstantial being flitting unseen behind you, don't look back, and walk just that little bit faster.
Happy Samhain everyone.