Thursday, October 8, 2009

Word Thursday - Samhain and Paganism

As I mentioned in my other blog - Sidetracked Charley - my dreams and thoughts are turning to Halloween or Samhain which is the Wiccan new year.

Samhain is a cross-quarter sabbath; a night when the veil between this world and the next is the thinnest. It is a time to honor those who've died during the old year just leaving, as well as all ancestral spirits.

It has often interested me that regardless of our basic beliefs there are certain nexus in the calendar about which all festivals seem to cluster. One is of course Christmas, a Christian holy day. Chanukah is always close. And the Islamic New Year. But this time of shortened days and long nights was originally a Roman festival. And it is of course connected to the winter solstice which is honored by many pagan beliefs including the Druids.

"Paganism" refers to a range of spiritual paths. These are generally Neopagan religions based on the deities, symbols, practices, seasonal days of celebration and other surviving components of ancient religions, which had been long suppressed. Pagan can also mean anyone that does not believe in your religion. Some believe that in the early Roman Empire, "paganus" came to mean "civilian" as opposed to "military." Christians often called themselves "miles Christi" (Soldiers of Christ). The non-Christians became "pagani" -- non-soldiers or civilians. No denigration would be implied. See the website Religious Tolerance for further discussion.

Halloween, which came from the Celtic culture, and All-Souls, the Catholic holy day, and Samhain, a witches' sabbath, all cluster around October 31st. I find this one particularly significant because there is no astronomical event like the winter solstice to mark this day as special. It is often seen as the dividing line between autumn and winter as well as when the line between the living and the dead is the thinnest.

I find my dreams become particular prophetic at this time. And my thoughts turn naturally to those who are no longer in life with me.


Catfish Tales said...

I thought this language tidbit may be of interest you. If not, my apologies. ;¬D
But did you know that the word 'samhain' (saw-ayn) is the Gaelic 'November'. Oiche Shamhna is actually hallowe'ed eve. If you forgive the fact that this stupid new laptop keyboard of mine has swallowed up accent symbols, I'll take you on a brief Celtic semantic walk that I hope may bring you more pleasure than pendantic irritation....

'Samh' is the word for restive or relaxed state.
'Samhan' is actually one stage further, meaning to nap or be in an unconscious state.
'Samhlaigh' is to visualise. And so on and so forth.

Going along with your 'night of the thinnest veil', you can see how this word exchange came about, this 'All Hollows Eve', or 'Samhain evening' (oiche), when autumn harvest days cool into darker nights with the last of the produce brought in and the ground raked over and covered to begin its slumber.

It's the last night of celebration, when spirits dance before being lain to rest.
Cool, eh?

There are many Celtic Halloween stories playing on this theme, and you'll find several in Yeats' fairtales. But I have one about an apothocary I want to post for my Halloween story, that is, if I can find it. :)

Catfish Tales said...

Oops, I mean 'pedantic'!

Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

I read pedantic. And I did find that a fascinating "language lesson." The origin of words and phrases has often been an "obsession" of mine. Much can be revealed by where the words come from.

Your comment was a great addition to this Word Thursday.

Bee's Blog said...

This is fascinating. I am delighted to know that the word 'pagan' is not associated with anything of a derogatory nature.

Interesting that your dreams 'peak' at this time. Mine too. And I am particularly interested in the fact that the beginning of November no matter what one's belief, seem to centre around the departed. The 1st is all Saints and the 2nd (my husband's birthday) is All Souls. In this country families go to the graves of their loved ones, clean up and as evening falls, light candles on the graves. Every cemetery is lit up. I'm not very fond of cemeteries actually and try to avoid them if possible.

I like Catfish's contribution too. Most enlightening.