Songs for Samhain: A Harvest Festival and the Otherworld
A Special Time of Year
Samhain began as an ancient Celtic festival and was the precursor of today's Halloween. The old festival is celebrated today, though generally in a modified form, and is an important event for pagans. It celebrates the final harvest of the year and the unusually easy access to those in the Otherworld, or the realm of the dead.
Music aimed at Samhain celebrants often concentrates on the thinning of the veil between this world and the next. Sometimes it shares the myths and legends from the time of the old festival. In this article, I include and discuss six of my favourite songs and tunes related to this special time of year.
Samhain means "summer's end". There is disagreement about how the word should be pronounced. Sow-in, sow-en, and sow-een have been suggested, all with the emphasis on the first syllable. Shahvin has also been suggested. The word was probably pronounced differently in different dialects.
An Overview of Samhain
There is uncertainly about how Samhain was originally celebrated and about how widespread the celebration was, though some details are known. The festival lasted from sunset on October 31st until sunset on November 1st.
At Samhain, the last preparations were made for winter. Animals were taken to shelters to protect them from the cold weather, some animals were killed for winter food, and the last crops were gathered. In some areas, large bonfires were lit and animals were sacrificed for a community meal.
People believed that it was easier for those in this world and the next to come into contact at Samhain. The day itself was likely a festival of the dead. Some members of the Otherworld were welcomed and others repelled, depending on their nature. Meals were prepared for both living and dead members of a family. People wore costumes or animal skins as well as masks to disguise themselves from evil spirits.
Many modern pagans celebrate the wheel of the year, which is shown in the opening screen of the third video below. The eight festivals are linked to celestial or agricultural events. Samhain is often considered to be the start of a new year. Pagans no longer sacrifice animals at Samhain as was done in the past, but they do celebrate nature and honour or think of the dead.
Obviously, dead family members didn't eat the meal prepared for them at Samhain. It's hard to find information about what was done with the uneaten food. The Newgrange website referenced below says that the food was ritually shared with less fortunate people, at least in their part of the world.
Samhain Eve by Damh the Bard
Damh the Bard is a Druid as well as a musician. Druidry is one type of paganism. In "Samhain Eve", the singer describes his fear that his soul will be taken from his body as night falls and winter arrives. He feels the chilling presence of the being that wants to take his soul. The song ends on a happier note as the sun rises and a bell tolls. The spell that threatened his life had been broken and the singer discovers that he is still alive.
The song includes elements of Wicca as well as Druidry. The singer talks of casting a circle for protection, which is a Wiccan tradition, and the being that threatens to take him to the Otherworld is referred to as a raven-witch. Wiccans often consider themselves to be witches, although this isn't always the case. In addition, not all witches are Wiccans. The song use the interesting technique of the raven-witch sometimes singing with the narrator but following a different tune.
The lyrics mention the Oaken King. Druids once believed that the Oak King ruled over summer. At Samhain, he retreated as the Holly King took charge of winter. In the spring, the Oak King returned and the Holly King retreated.
All Souls Night by Loreena McKennitt
Loreena McKennitt is a popular Canadian singer and composer who plays multiple instruments. She's often said to sing songs in the Celtic genre but also performs music from other genres. She's known for her clear soprano voice.
"All Souls Night" describes the excitement of a Samhain celebration as it might have occurred in the past, though I suspect that the scene may be romanticized. The hillside is dotted with bonfires, people are dancing to the pulse of drums, and "the wind is full of a thousand voices".
The song also refers to nature and says that "the green knight holds the holly bush to mark where the old year passes by". The green man or knight was a symbol of nature's growth and fertility. Here he transfers his power to the holly bush (known as the Holly King in Druidry), who will rule over winter.
Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound— Loreena McKennitt in "All Souls Night"
Samhain Song by Lisa Thiel
Lisa Thiel sings songs that are intended to be spiritually empowering and healing. She has an eclectic background and has studied many belief systems, including the goddess tradition. She says that she honours the Celtic wheel of the year.
The song below is relatively simple, with (almost) the same two verses repeated three times, but it's pleasant to listen to. Instead of trying to repel a being in the Otherworld, as in the first song, the singer asks the ancestors to visit during Samhain. She talks of meeting loved ones "as the Great Wheel turns again".
Samhain, Samhain, let the ritual begin,
We call upon our sacred ancestors to come in
Samhain, Samhain, we call upon our kin,
We call upon our dear departed loved ones to come in— Lisa Thiel in "Samhain Song"
Samhain Night by Jenna Greene
Jenna Greene is a singer, songwriter, and harpist based in the United States. Her "Samhain Night" song describes an all-night celebration of the harvest and the new year. Unlike the case in the first video in this article, the atmosphere during the night isn't ominous.
The celebrants dance around the fire within a circle, honouring their love ones who have passed on. The narrator tells listeners to "study close the shadows, study close the flame" because "a voice from long ago may whisper your name". The use of a protective circle illustrates the idea that contacting an unseen world could attract dangerous beings as well as loved ones.
Light the sacred fires, hold your lover tight
Welcome now the spirits of Old Samhain Night— Jenna Greene in "Samhain Night"
For Those Who Brought Us Here by Cernunnos Rising
Pagans vary in their beliefs about deity. Some are polytheistic, some are duotheistic and believe in a god and a goddess, and some consider deities to be metaphorical. Duotheists may believe that their god and goddess each encompass other deities. Christo-pagans (those who have both Christian and pagan beliefs) may have a monotheistic view of deity, though they sometimes consider God to have both male and female aspects.
The music in the video below was created by a group called Cernunnos Rising. Cernunnos was (or is, for those who believe in him today) a god of animals, fertility, and the underworld. He wears the antlers of a stag and is referred to as a horned god. He is not the devil, however, and the underworld is not hell. Belief in the devil and hell is part of some strands of Christianity, not paganism.
The phrase "those who brought us here" refers to the ancestors. The lyrics of the song describe a Samhain celebration. The narrator and his companions are standing by a bonfire at night and hold lanterns. They honour the ancestors as they sing. The last verse, which is shown below, describes the hoped-for view of the ancestors.
We stand at the threshold between life and death,
The otherworld mists start to clear,
And in the flickering shadows, born of the fire,
We see our ancestors appear.— George Nicholas in "For Those Who Brought Us Here"
Samhain by Trobar de Morte
Trobar de Morte is a Spanish group that specializes in "medieval fantasy folk music", according to their website. The members of the band often wear medieval costumes during performances. They are said to play dark folk and dark wave music. Dark folk music frequently has depressing themes such as desolation and death. Dark wave music is often written in a minor key and sounds sorrowful. There is nothing sad about the group's "Samhain" piece, however. In fact, it sounds cheerful and energetic.
Unlike the other pieces in this article, the one below doesn't have lyrics. It does have an enjoyable beat and rhythm, though. It doesn't fit quite as well into the Samhain theme as the pieces above, despite its title, but it's not hard to imagine people dancing to the drum beat as they celebrate the autumn festival.
All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day
Though the exact order of events is uncertain, some time in the eighth or ninth century the Catholic Church declared that in England November 1st was to be observed as All Saints Day. October 31st was called All Hallows Eve and eventually became known as Halloween. November 2nd became All Souls Day. The new designations of the days spread to other parts of the British Isles. It's thought that activities from the Samhain festival that had been held during the same time period became incorporated into Halloween and All Saints Day.
Today some people are happy to blend Samhain and Halloween celebrations and may even consider them to be alternate names for the same event. Many pagans feel strongly that the two celebrations should be kept separate, however. For them, Samhain is a distinctly pagan celebration with its own rituals. I think it's great that music attuned to pagan traditions and beliefs also exists.
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© 2018 Linda Crampton