You’ve certainly heard that current Heathens and adherents of the ancient Norse customs observe Halloween as a significant holiday, but under the original name of Samhain. This is just partially correct.
The conclusion of the harvest period at the end of October and the beginning of November was undoubtedly a significant moment for Norse pagans. The days are getting shorter and colder at this time of year. The shift was highlighted by the Alfablot event, which we mentioned in our previous blog article. However, this is not the same as Samhain, an ancient Gaelic holiday celebrated on the same day.
Many outsiders lump all current Pagans, or Neopagans, together and characterize them as celebrating Sabbats on solstices, equinoxes, and seasonal shifts throughout the year. This, however, grossly oversimplifies Neopaganism, which is an umbrella word encompassing a variety of religious systems, including Norse Heathenry, Celtic Polytheism, and Wicca, a modern belief system that draws on components of many previous faiths.
So, to be clear, Halloween was an important festival in the Viking calendar, known as the Alfablot. However, while it occurs on the same day as Samhain, it is not the same.
So, what is Samhain and how is it different from the Alfablot? Let us investigate.
Harvest Festival in Gaelic
In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, Samhain was a major feast day. It was held on 1 November every year, which meant that the celebration began in the evening on 31 October because the Celtic day began at sunset. Celebrations often lasted around a week surrounding the specific holiday.
While Samhain was most closely identified with the Irish, other Celtic cultures held comparable festivities around the same time of year. It was known as Calan Gaeal in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall, and Kalan Goanv in Brittany.
As previously stated, the celebration that takes place around the same time in the Viking world is known as Alfablot, or the Elf Sacrifice. This celebration lasted many days, from October 28 to November 2.
Origins in Antiquity
While all recorded evidence for Samhain dates from the Christian era, there is strong evidence that Samhain was an old Celtic holiday. Several Irish Neolithic passage tombs are aligned with the rising sun on Samhain, suggesting that the day was already established as significant in prehistoric times. This time of year is known as Samoni in the Gaulish Coligny Calendar from the first century BCE.
The oldest written mention of Samhain dates back to the 9th century, when Ireland had already been Christianized. This implies that the texts depict a blend of ancient Pagan practices with Christian overlays and influences. When it comes to the traditions surrounding Alfablot, we face similar challenges because all of the surviving information comes from Christian authors witnessing shifting behaviors.
There is evidence that the ancient Pagan holiday of Samhain was related with the god Chrom Cruach, who appears to have been both a sun and a fertility deity. He is a wise god shrouded in mists who takes “firstborn” offerings in exchange for plentiful crops.
Most offerings to Chrom Cruach were presumably first harvests, but there is some indication that he also received human sacrifices, generally of the first and most important in the society rather than the firstborn. Several Irish bog graves are thought to symbolize the ritual sacrifice of kings or other significant people, presumably interred around the time of Samhain.
Meanwhile, Freyr was the main deity worshiped during Alfablot because he was thought to have power over the elves, the Alfar. He’s also a fertility god. This is just the beginning of the striking parallels between Samhain and Alfablot.
By the ninth century, Samhain had evolved into a feast and celebration. Communities would get together in big gatherings to eat, drink, and have fun. This meant that Samhain had political significance as well, since it was a time for leaders to ratify and approve regulations and laws, as well as reinforce relationships with neighbors and allies.
Mumming or guising, the origin of trick-or-treating, was practiced with the community gathering. In exchange for food, people would dress themselves in masked costumes and move from place to place dancing and delivering poetry. Because of the traditions surrounding hospitality and welcoming guests, denying these passersby food could bring bad luck and possibly a trick from the disappointed players.
This is not the same as Alfablot, a private family event conducted by the ladies of the home. Instead, the Vikings had their biggest communal gathering celebrations in August. Passing passengers were turned away, according to accounts, and the typical pleasantries of hospitality were neglected. Accepting a stranger into the family at this time may incur Odin’s wrath. This is most likely the most significant distinction between Samhain and Alfablot.
The Day of the Dead
Both Samhain and Alfablot were regarded days for honoring ancestors and other underworld spirits. The curtain between the realms was thought to be at its thinnest at Samhain, as well as Beltane on May 1. Ghosts, fairies, and spirits may travel between realms and would wield more power during the dark months.
There are many legends in Irish literature about departed ancestors coming to see their houses during Samhain. More harmful beings can also travel between realms, murdering cattle and destroying dwellings if they so want. The same themes may be found in Norse literature, with souls from Valhalla and other underworlds returning to meet the living.
Both the Samhain and Alfablot rites were held near burial mounds, which were thought to be doorways to the other world. To placate the spirits, protective bonfires were constructed and sacrifices were performed. When individuals went home in the Gaelic custom, they would take a spark from the ritual blaze to light their own hearth and set out an extra dish for the revered ancestors.
Because of the thin veil that existed between the worlds, Samhain was also an ideal time for divination rituals. Because of their acceptance in current Halloween celebrations, most of the remaining Celtic divination traditions have become party tricks.
Games like bobbing for apples can show if a person plans to marry or have children in the next several months. While posing a question, people would peel an apple in a single continuous string. They’d then toss the peel over a shoulder, and the form of the peel may reveal the answer. Two hazelnuts were named after a person and their heart’s desire before being roasted over an open fire. If the hazelnuts leapt away from the flames, it was a bad omen for the match. But if the two broiled calmly next to one other, it was a favorable omen.
It is uncertain whether divination was part of the Alfablot, although it makes likely that people would seek direction from the educated ancestors. Volva were Viking witches who were regarded seeresses and remained potent after death. Odin summoned a Volva from the dead to tell him the entire narrative of creation and the Ragnarok prophesy. Divination in the household at this period might have involved rune stones.
Samhain and Wicca
While many current Heathens and adherents of the ancient Norse traditions will observe the Alfablot festivities, many modern pagans and witchcraft practitioners associate with Samhain. Some evidence suggests that Samhain has always been linked with witches. The Hill of Ward, which is Tlachtga’s burial mound, was one of the main places in Ireland where Samhain bonfires were kindled and rites were performed.
Tlachtga was the Arch Druid Mug Ruith’s daughter, and she journeyed with him, learning his secrets and becoming an excellent sorceress. Her burial mound appears to have been regarded as a particularly powerful gateway to the underworld.
But which custom will you follow on October 31? Will you be worshiping the Norse Elves (commonly confused with revered ancestors) or bringing sacrifices to Chrom Cruach? Or are you all about dressing up in your favorite costume and going trick-or-treating?