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Samhain- a Pagan Honoring of the Ancestors, and Death

Samhain Altar

Ancient faith was influenced by the natural world. Originating in ancient Europe as a Celtic Fire festival, the Pagan holiday of Samhain marks the end of the harvest season, heralds the beginning of winter-the dark half of the year, and honors death. Samhain, (pronounced SAH-win, or SOW-in) is also the Gaelic name for the month of November, the literal translation being‘summer’s end’.

Being largely a pastoral people, the Celts observed the season of Samhain as the time when the earth was dying. The crops had already been harvested and stored; the fields lay barren, and now cattle and sheep had to be moved from remote areas to closer pastures and secured for the winter months. Those who kept livestock would assess the stored bounty of the two prior harvests, of field and orchard in order to determine how many animals could be adequately fed through the winter. Those not able to be cared for were butchered, which would help to feed the family during the dark days ahead.  It is partially due to this practice that Samhain is sometimes referred to as the ‘blood harvest.’

Cultures across the world embrace holidays with themes of death; Los Dias de los Muertos, of Mexico; the Buddhist Festival of the Dead in Japan, which is called Obon, or just Bon,  the Hindu festival of Gaijatra, and the Christian celebration of All Souls are but a few. Like them, Samhain’s celebrations also embrace a theme of death.

Unlike the vibrant and enthusiastic rites of spring and summer, this is a time specifically carved out of the Wheel of the Year, to acknowledge death and loss, to experience grief, and for venerating the Ancestors and honoring departed spirits. Many Pagans will dedicate a home altar to this ritual, with photographs, food offerings and other tokens of remembrance.

For Pagans, death is not a thing to be feared but is part of the Wheel of Life. Death is the ultimate Rite of Passage, the final act that we complete as human beings. Old age is valued for its wisdom, and dying is accepted as natural; as a form of transformation.  Death is the great equalizer that puts everything else into perspective.

The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the spirits of the dead were able to mingle with the living. The echoes of this ancient tradition can be seen in popular Halloween celebrations today. Contemporary Pagans still accept that as the life force of our hemisphere wanes, the veils between this world and the other worlds are at their thinnest and our memories, connections and abilities to communicate with our Beloved Dead are heightened.  Death also symbolizes other endings, therefore Samhain is not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, jobs, and other significant life transitions.

Samhain is generally celebrated by Pagans personally from sunset on October 31 until sunset on November 1, a date which is approximately halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It is most often celebrated in community, as a festival or as a community event on the weekend closest to that date.  Many Pagans consider Samhain to be their New Year, as it used to mark the old Celtic New Year. It is perhaps the most important and significant of annual celebrations.

This year, the Earth Traditions Pagan community will gather to honor our Beloved Dead with a “Dumb Supper;” a meal served and consumed in total silence. Each bite will be taken in the name of our loved ones. We will place an empty chair at the head of our tables, and bring offerings of food for those Ancestors who might wish to join us. We will sing and dance; call the litany of names of our deceased, and share our stories with one another drawing comfort from the telling.

We will draw strength and healing from our deeply-held spiritual belief that life continues beyond death, that birth and death and re-birth all occur within the same threshold, and that we as humans are not an anomaly residing outside of the Great Mystery but rather that we follow the natural cycles of life-the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the turning of the seasons, and our very breath.

Good Samhain to you and yours. May the blood of your ancestors flow through your veins, like a river over the landscape of memory. May you hear your Beloved Dead as they whisper their wisdom in your ear and leave you with the gift of hope.

We will call their names at Samhain. What is remembered lives.

Angie Buchanan is a Pagan Minister with Earth Traditions, a Pagan church in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, and an emeritus of the Board of Trustees for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.


October 30th, 2013 at 4:00 pm

What People Talk about Before They Die

By Kerry Egan
From CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work. I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

“I talk to the patients,” I told him.

“You talk to patients? And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?” he asked.

I had never considered the question before. “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor’s voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”

“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor’s packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

“And I asked her, ‘What exactly do you do as a chaplain?’ And she replied, ‘Well, I talk to people about their families.’” He paused for effect. “And that was this student’s understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person’s spiritual life went! Talking about other people’s families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student. The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying – in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question – What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

Click here to read the full article

February 13th, 2012 at 10:48 am

A Holiday Tradition that Just Won’t Die

By Gary Laderman
from Religion Dispatches

It’s that time of year again. Shoppers are looking for gifts, It’s a Wonderful Life is starting its endless loop on television, families are making plans to come together for the traditions that mark the season, and the pervasive awareness that another year has passed is creeping into our collective consciousness.

For as long as I can remember, the buildup to the New Year in holiday media coverage has included one particularly poignant element that now, as I come ever closer to 50 years old, haunts me more than arouses curiosity—the rollout of the year’s important deaths.

The lists this year are noting the deaths of Joe Frazier, Steve Jobs, Amy Winehouse, Bubba Smith, Andy Rooney, Clarence Clemons, Geraldine Ferraro, and many others—some rich, some poor; some famous, some rather obscure; some young, some really old.

So why do the dead crash the holidays, year after year?

I do not know the longer history of these year-end death lists, or why media both old and new have embraced this annual practice. The lists are neither exhaustive nor comprehensive—most of them are cultural repositories of once living people who are no longer, ghosts now brought to the public eye and representing… what? Fame? Accomplishment? Impact? Tragedy? All these are relevant, no doubt.

Click here to read the full article

December 15th, 2011 at 10:41 am

Celebrating A Death

by Paul Raushenbush
Religion Editor, Huffington Post

It is a strange and conflicting emotion to celebrate a death. My professed beliefs include the redemption of evil and the potential good in all humanity. Yet I felt a sense of exhilaration when I read the headline ‘DEAD’ about Osama Bin Laden.

For the last ten years Osama Bin Laden has exemplified the absolute worst of religion. He was a fundamentalist and a zealot in his own belief and willing to kill those who believed differently; he recruited young people into his ranks by preying on their despair; and he carried out violence in the name of God. Through actions and belief, Osama Bin Laden profaned the name of God and denigrated all people of faith.

Click here to read the entire ariticle

May 2nd, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Baby, You’re a Firework! – Humanism and the Hereafter

From State of Formation

“I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does Revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This Universe, this all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework.”

So said John Adams, second President of the United States, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson following the death of his wife Abigail. In this letter, Adams states clearly his reason for believing in an afterlife: he simply can’t imagine that God would create something so wonderful as a human being and allow it do die. To Adams, belief in an afterlife and belief in God are mutually reinforcing. His belief in God is founded on his belief in the afterlife (“If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God”), and at the same time his belief in the afterlife is founded on a conception of God who would not simply allow life to be extinguished like a “boyish firework”.

To this, a Humanist reply: in the words of noted philosopher Katy Perry, “Baby, You’re a Firework!

Click here to read entire article.

Taking a Divine Breath

Taking a Divine Breathby Elizabeth Bonney
from State of Formation

The topic for my seminar class on the evening of November 8th was “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.”  We sat around the table that night discussing the various theological perspectives on the topic, commenting on the many theories proposed by top scholars in the field, and offering our own insights into the intellectual conversation at large.  We do that well, here in divinity school; we easily get lost in the theorizing and intellectualizing, often forgetting to ask what these theories really mean for us.

You see, something else happened on that Monday here in New Haven.  Earlier in the day, in a courthouse just a few blocks down the street from the hill where we found ourselves that evening, jurors approved that the death penalty could be applied to a man convicted of many counts of sexual violence and the murder of three (a mother and her two young daughters).  The crimes for which the man was found guilty are horrendous, and there is no doubt in my mind that he should be held accountable for his actions.

However, as I sat around the seminar table that evening, I found my stomach painfully knotted with questions and an aching sense of responsibility.  I kept asking myself: As a person of faith, what is my responsibility to forgiveness and reconciliation, and what does that look like?  To whom should the faithful extend forgiveness?  Are there limits to that forgiveness?  I believe in justice, but I do not believe in vengeance.  What is the role of faith communities in creating a space safe for the victims’ family to feel grief and long for vengeance, while maintaining a commitment to justice that their grief cannot?  What about the jurors?  Who is caring for them?  In three days, they decided a man’s life was worth taking.  What does that do to someone spiritually?  How do we care for them?

Click here to read the entire article