Samhain Customs and Folklore

Interested in learning about some of the traditions behind the celebrations of the late harvest? Let's look at some of the customs and folklore behind the Samhain season - learn why black cats are considered unlucky, how trick-or-treating became so popular and more!

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Samhain is Not a God

Silhouette Cloak
Samhain is many things... but not a Celtic death god. Image by Paula Daniëlse/Moment/Getty Images

There's been a rumor going around for ages that Samhain is the name of a spooky Celtic death god. Totally not the case at all, but let's take a look at where this misconception originated, and why it's perpetuated by some groups of evangelical Christians.

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Jack O'Lanterns

Use symbols of the season to decorate your Samhain altar. Image by Garry Gay/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

One of the most enduring symbols of Halloween is the jack o'lantern. Carved pumpkins are a mainstay of the Samhain season, and for some folks, the more elaborate the carved design, the better! School children are alternately delighted and terrified by them -- but how did the whole idea of carving up a pumpkin evolve in the first place? Let's talk about the legend of the Jack O'Lantern!

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Samhain Superstitions

Samhain is a time of many superstitions and legends. Image by mediaphotos/E+/Getty Images

Samhain is a time rich in superstition and spooky stories. From divination to ghost tales, let's look at some of the best-known superstitions of the Samhain season!

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Bat Magic and Mythology

Bats can always find their way home - thanks to echolocation. Image by Craig Dingle/E+/Getty Images

In many parts of the world, once the sun begins to set, bats emerge from their resting places and zoom around outdoors, hunting for sustenance. During the Samhain season, in particular, we tend to see an abundance of decorative bats, ranging from cute to scary. Let's look at how bats became associated with Samhain and Halloween, and at some of the legends and myths surrounding these nocturnal flyers.

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Black Cat Folklore

Image by Xose Casal Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Every year when people begin putting out their Halloween decorations, and we start dressing our homes for Samhain, inevitably the image of the black cat comes up. Where did the fear of these beautiful animals come from, and why are they so often seen as unlucky? Learn more about Black Cat Folklore.

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Cailleach Bheur, the Ruler of Winter

Cailleach, the old woman, rules the darker half of the year. Image by Adri Berger/Image Bank/Getty Images

The goddess known as Cailleach in Scotland and parts of Ireland is the embodiment of the dark mother, the harvest goddess, the hag or crone entity. She appears in the late fall, as the earth is dying, and is known as a bringer of storms. Let's look at the legend of the Cailleach Bheur.

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Caring for the Dead

Funeral mask worn by the Small Nambas tribe, Melekula Island, Vanuatu. Image by M. Leigheb/De Agostini/Getty Images

Many of today's contemporary funeral practices might be considered a bit strange by our ancestors. There is such a wide variety of funeral practice throughout history that it's worth taking a look at - in fact, archaeologists have learned that studying the treatment of the dead can actually give them a clue to how a culture lives. Let's explore some of the ways that we care for our dead.

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Deities of Death and the Underworld

Anubis guided the souls of the dead through the underworld. Image by De Agostini / W. Buss / Getty Images

Death is rarely so apparent than it as at Samhain. The skies have gone gray, the earth is brittle and cold, and the fields have been picked of the last crops. In cultures all over the world, the spirit of Death has been honored at this time of the year. Here are just a few of the deities who represent death and the dying of the earth.

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Spider Mythology and Magic

Spiders may be scary, but they can be magical too!. Image by James Hager/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

Most spiders are harmless, and people have learned to co-exist with them for thousands of years. Nearly all cultures have some sort of spider mythology, and folktales about these crawly creatures abound!

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Mexico's Day of the Dead

Dio de los Muertos is held every year in Mexico. Image by Dallas Stribley/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Each year in Mexico, and in many Hispanic communities around the United States, people celebrate the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) between October 31 and November 2. While it may sound a bit macabre, it's actually a joyful celebration, honoring the memories of those who have died in the past year. Today's Day of the Dead festivals are a blend of old Aztec tradition merged with modern Catholic beliefs. Let's look at the customs behind the Day of the Dead.

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Nut Crack Night

Hazelnuts are typically ripe around September 14, known as Nutting Day in the British Isles. Image by Alberto Guglielmi/Photodisc/Getty Images

Early divination was often done using only the items at hand -- sticks, vegetable peels, cloud formations, etc. Around the end of the harvest season, there wasn't often much left in the fields. However, nuts were often plentiful. Pecans, chestnuts, filberts and more would have been gathered up in baskets and stored, which made them the perfect medium for late fall divination. Learn more about the tradition of Nut Crack Night.

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Owl Mythology and Folklore

Image by Lee Sie Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Owls are known far and wide as symbols of wisdom, omens of death, and bringers of prophecy. In some countries, they are seen as good and wise, in others they are a sign of evil and doom to come. There are numerous species of owls, and each seems to have its own legends and lore. Let's look at some of the best-known bits of owl folklore and mythology.

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Pagans and Halloween

Trick or Treating is one of the most popular Halloween customs. Image by Kinzie+Riehm/Image Source/Getty Images

One of our readers wants to know if it's somehow anti-Pagan to celebrate Halloween. After all, if Samhain is supposed to be a spiritual tradition, can we reconcile that with lots of secular silliness and the gobbling of candy? Sure we can! Read more about Pagans and Halloween.

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Are Green-Skinned Witch Decorations Offensive?

Are green witches ugly? Not necessarily. Image by Lauren Bates/Moment Open/Getty Images

A reader wants to know if she should be offended by the green-skinned witches she sees everywhere at Halloween, or if she's taking things way too seriously. Let's talk about green-skinned ugly witch decor, and where the idea came from in the first place. 

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Tricks or Treats?

Does celebrating Halloween somehow lessen your Samhain Sabbat? Only if you let it. Image by Tim Hall/Cultura/Getty Images

While many of us Pagans celebrate the holiday called Samhain, for some of us, it's also the secular event of Halloween. The tradition of trick-or-treating isn't quite as old as the holiday itself, but it's certainly been around for a while. Let's look at how this unique custom evolved.

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Are Vampires Part of Wicca?

Today, vampires are often portrayed as tragic, misunderstood heroes. Image by Ivan Bliznetsov/Vetta/Getty Images

A reader asks, “I’ve been learning a lot about Wicca and other Pagan religions. I’m really interested in vampires. How come there’s nothing about vampires in all those books you recommend?" Well, there's a pretty good reason for that, actually - let's talk about vampires for a moment.

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9 Spooky Samhain Poems

Some people are "psychic vampires," who feed off the energy of others. Image by Mark Andersen/Getty Images