Yes, I know it wasn’t called “Halloween” back then. Stand down, fellow Samhain experts! Let’s invite the uninitiated to our bonfire, shall we?

A Brief History on the Origins of “Halloween”

“Halloween” is the shortened version of “All Hallows Eve,” which referred to the evening before the Catholic holiday All Saints Day. That holiday was a product of the Roman Catholic Church’s efforts to convert pagans into Catholics by co-opting pagan holidays honoring the dead. For the Romans, it was Lemuria (May 13), and the success of that led to the co-opting of the Celtic holiday Samhain (Oct. 31), (pronounced SOW-in) by moving All Saints Day from May 13 to Nov. 1. 

The Church did the same thing to Saturnalia – er, um, “Christmas” – and Eostre – I mean, “Easter.” Thus, the name “Halloween” was the product of an empire-expanding tactic in that era’s fusion of church and state. Now, I’m not challenging the fact that the reasons for the Catholics’ celebrations of Jesus Christ’s birth and death were substantive. Rather, I’m pointing out that the dates chosen to celebrate them were undeniably socio-politically strategic and historically inaccurate, and that this precedent attests to the credibility of the Catholic usurping of Samhain.

The Roman Catholic Church’s establishment of All Saints Day (depicted above) is where Samhain’s contemporary name, “Halloween,” comes from. Painting by Fra Angelico /Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia

OK, So What Was Samhain Then?

Samhain was believed to be the night when the dead returned to visit the living. On Samhain night, communicating with one’s ancestors, ghosts and the elementals was easy to do because the veil between this world and theirs was at its thinnest. As cold weather set in and plants died, death accompanied the shift from the Celts’ “light half” of the year to their “dark half” of the year, marking the Celtic (i.e., pastoral) new year.

As summarized in a “Smithsonian Magazine” article, Samhain was:

… an ancient pagan festival that marked the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year and long winter ahead. (Samhain translates to “summer’s end” in Gaelic.) Kicking off at sundown on October 31 and continuing through November 1, Samhain ushered in the transition from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice. During those two days, ancient Celts believed that the veil between life and death was at its narrowest, allowing spirits to roam freely between both realms.

Ultimately, Samhain was a celebration of the changing of the seasons and communing with the dead, held as a raging party with fire and purposeful debauchery. And at this festival, Druidic priests would build sacred fires and conduct rituals to ward off harmful spirits – after all, not all ghosts are good guys.

Celtic priests, druids, led Samhain festivities by lighting a massive bonfire. Photo by Adonyi Gábor from Pexels

The Trippin’ Druids

During the bonfire rituals, the priests would ingest hallucinogens, such as Mugwort (artemisia vulgaris) and fly-agaric mushrooms. With these they could obtain great knowledge and enlightenment and communicate directly with the dead and the elementals. Evidence of this practice was discovered in traces of Mugwort found on the drinking cup of an unearthed first-century Druid near Colchester.

Mugwort, a cousin of Wormwood (think absinthe), is described by Grove and Grotto as follows:

Mugwort contains the chemical thujone, which is a mild intoxicant. … Mugwort amplifies psychic vision and may induce prophetic dreams. An herb of the Goddess as Crone, Mugwort encourages wisdom and observation. … Mugwort is not really a hallucinogen, but a way to stimulate lucid dreaming, astral travel, and visualization. The effects of Mugwort are more pronounced during sleep or trance states. But Mugwort does have real psychoactive effects.

Mugwort, due to its hallucinogenic powers, allowed ancient Druid priests to commune with the dead while in an altered state of mind. Photo by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt from Pixabay

Mugwort factored in heavily as not only a communication tool but also a means of self-defense against ghosts, monsters and fae. Interestingly, Native Americans also used Mugwort to protect them from ghosts or even dreaming about the dead.

The other popular Samhain hallucinogen, fly-argic mushrooms, contain muscarine, muscimol, bufotenine and other toxic alkaloids. These cause the brain to misunderstand what the body is seeing, hearing, tasting and feeling.

Setting aside that modern-day scientific explanation, consider the folklore of that day. As Fantastic Fungi explains:

Irish folks have long thought of the mushroom “fruit” as a connection to the much larger organism underground. Because the huge tracts of subterranean mushroom can be thousands of years old, many of the ancients believed that its wisdom could be passed to humans via consumption of the fruit.

Otherwordly Oracle adds: “Mushrooms are a link to the Underworld and therefore to the ancestors. They’re also a symbol of the faery folk, and you’ll see fairy rings (circles of mushrooms) where the fae have danced.” Modern evidence of theories of this practice lies in the rock art and sweat houses throughout Ireland.

If the fly-argic mushroom above looks familiar to you, it’s because that’s the one always featured in children’s stories, usually accompanied by fairies and leprechauns. Photo by Onderwijsgek via Wikimedia Commons

Magik Among the Commoners

Priests weren’t the only ones using hallucinogens on Samhain; ordinary people used them too. But rather than using them to lead masses, they used them for divination. As Otherwordly Oracle explains:

Samhain is the Celtic last harvest and was once considered the beginning of a New Year. The “veil” between the spirit world and our world is at its thinnest. Or rather, the doors between our realm and theirs are open during this time. You’ll hear people say Samhain is a liminal time, which means it’s neither here nor there. It’s “between” times or a bridge from one season to the next. And liminal times equal mischief and magic in every sense of the terms. It’s a great time for divination, protection rituals, charms to draw in prosperity, to connect with the ancestors, to release old habits and much more.

“Seattle Weekly” captures the environment that generated a deeply engrained need to foretell the future; it wasn’t just a party game or idle curiosity. Rather:

Most plants and animals stop producing offspring; the days grow shorter, the nights longer. Then rain and snows come … It was normal to see not only the land but members of your family and community, as well as livestock, die off during winter. Ancient people struggled with ways to ensure their safety and health through these long months, calling on ancestors to lend their wisdom and foresight as people peered into the unknown. 

While simultaneously recreational, achieving an altered state of mind with hallucinogens to see into the future was thus regarded as a sort of responsibility. However, it didn‘t stop there. As Llewellyn explains: “Divination is more than foretelling the future. It does involve prediction, but it can also involve divining some truth or interpreting omens and signs as part of its practice. Divination often incorporates methods by which events are interpreted and explained.” In that light, even the commoners who weren’t in the learned class of Druids could use divination as a potentially life-altering learning experience.

Everyday people used a variety of ways to foretell the future and interpret the present, using games that were often played with an altered state of mind. Photo by Daniel Maclise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By the Way, Hallucinogenic Crops Are Ready for Picking on Samhain

One final thought … The fly-agaric mushroom comes into season at Samhain, appearing between August and November. The same is true of cannabis, and there’s even the SamHain cannabis strain (aka Alaska Cannabis Cache). So, one might speculate that getting high on Halloween is either a coincidence or a historic inevitability. I’ll leave it to readers to decide, but it’s remarkably interesting timing, no?

Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.