For country folk, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when herds of cattle and sheep were led down from their summer pastures to the shelter of their stables. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be securely stored or tied down against the coming storms. Some animals were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvests must be gathered in and properly stored before the wintry blasts in November destroyed them. Wood for winter fires was stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyful time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come.
It is said that the gods drew near the Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered in thanksgiving for the harvest. Bonfires played a large part in the Samhain celebrations, and personal prayers and wishes were cast into the fires. Samhain fires continued to blaze throughout the centuries until the first World War, and in some areas, are still customary. Ashes from the fires were spread over the fields to protect them during the months of winter, lending fertility to the soil as well.
Divination at Samhain:
If a child were born on Samhain, he was said to possess "Two Sights", known also as the gift of "second sight" or clairvoyance. During Samhain, the veil between the worlds is thin and divination abounds. "Bobbing for Apples" remains a customary activity, and the apple retrieved may be used in the following activity:
Before the stroke of midnight, sit in front of a mirror in a room lit only by one candle or the moon. Go into the silence and ask a question. Cut the apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror, eat eight of the apple pieces while focusing on your question. Throw the ninth piece of apple over your left shoulder and turn your head to look over the same shoulder. You will see an image or symbol in the mirror that will give you the answer to your question. (While looking in the mirror, let your focus "soften" and allow the patterns made by the moon or candle shadows suggest symbols or forms.)
Purpose and Customs:
Samhain is a time to remember and honor the dead, prepare "spirit plates", carve jack-o-lanterns (turnips were originally used instead of pumpkins) and keep them lit through the night to guide departed loved ones on their journey, contact departed spirits, release or banish bad habits, and focus on preparing to rest until the time of new beginnings.
Incenses and Oils:
Sandalwood, Benzoin, Sweetgrass, Copal, Myrrh, Mastic Resin, Wormwood, Sage, Mugwort
Herbs and Flowers:
Almond, Apple leaf, Bay leaf, Calendula, Cinnamon, Cloves, Garlic, Ginger, Hazelnut, Hemlock, Mums, Mugwort (an aid for divination), Mullein seeds, Nettle, Passionflower, Pumpkin seeds, Rosemary, Rue, Sage, Sunflower petals, Sunflower seeds, Tarragon, Wild Ginseng, and Wormwood.
Colors and Candles:
Orange, Black, Red, Silver, Gold, White.
Gems and Stones:
Bloodstone, Onyx, Jet, Smoky Quartz, Black Obsidian.
Symbols and Decorations:
Apples, Besoms, Cornstalks, Colored Leaves, Bats, Black Cats, Pumpkins and Gourds, Fall Flowers, Scarecrows, Scythes, Bones, Oak Leaves, Acorns, Crows, Cauldron, Bonfires.
Food and Drink:
Traditional celebrations include recipes with apples, cider, pumpkins, squashes, nuts, pork roast or loin, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, sweet breads and cakes.
Rituals and Magic:
Divination, Candle Magic, Astral Projection, Exploring Past Lives, Reflection and Mirror Spells, Clearing Obstacles, Manifesting Transformations, Visualization, Honoring or Consulting Ancestors, Gaining an Understanding of Death and Rebirth, Entering the Underworld, Exploring Past Lives, Bonfire Magic. Samhain is perfect for making a new Besom since this is the time of year when we sweep away the negative "dust" and "obstacles" we've accumulated in our lives and habits. Once you've crafted your new Besom, you'll want to Consecrate it and prepare it for Magical use.
Inspired by her Native American roots and Bradbury lineage, Polly Taskey is a writer and grandmother in the northern USA. She shares her wisdom and pagan interests through Pagan by Design and The Moonlit Grove.