Samhain is Not a God

Where did this myth come from, anyway?

Silhouetted Cloaked Figure
Samhain is many things... but not a Celtic death god. Paula Daniëlse / Moment / Getty Images

Every year, usually starting around September, people start making noises about “Samhain, the Celtic god of death,” despite the fact that Samhain is not a death deity at all, but the name of a Pagan holiday that coincides with Halloween and is a great time of year to stock up on candy corn. So let's talk a little bit about the rumor that Samhain is some sort of evil, demonic god of death, and clear up the rumors and misconceptions.

The Chick Tract Issue

Way back in the late 1980s, very religious people had a tendency to show up at shopping malls first thing in the morning and wander around handing out little pamphlets to employees and shoppers, telling everyone they were going to hell for one reason or another. Most of these pamphlets were produced by Jack Chick.

One of the most memorable bits of Chick literature was the one about Halloween, and why it was so evil to celebrate it. The tract, complete with illustrations, explained,

October 31st was celebrated by the Druids with many human sacrifices and a festival honoring their sun god and Samhain, the lord of the dead. They believed that the sinful souls of those who died during the year were in a place of torment, and would be released only if Samhain was pleased with their sacrifices."

Yep. Samhain, the Celtic god of the dead! He wants your souls!

Except here’s the problem–well, one of several problems–with this particular tract: Samhain isn’t a Celtic god of the dead.

Samain in Celtic Mythology

There may have been, at some point in Celtic mythology, a minor hero named Sawan or possibly Samain, who could have maybe played a role in the Irish myth cycles. In the legend of Balor of the Evil Eye, Balor steals a magical cow, the Glas Gamhain. Depending on which retelling of the story you read, the cow could have belonged to Goibniu the blacksmith (a variation on Lugh), or possibly Cian, a son of Dian Cecht, the god of medicine, and part of the Tuatha de Danaan.

In Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion, the Welsh myth cycles, she describes Goibniu and Cian as brothers, and adds a third brother, Samain, into the story. According to the Guest translation, Samain was in charge of watching the magical cow when Balor stole it. Although Samain (alternately, Sawen or Mac Samthainn) appears in a few versions of the story, depending on who translated it and when, he does not appear in all of them. Regardless, even in the ones that do include him, he is a very obscure and minor character, and certainly not a deity. In fact, most lists of Celtic language variants don’t mention him at all. He’s just not that important–he’s a guy who lost his brother’s magical cow, not the "lord of the dead."

The Celts and Death Gods

When we’re talking about gods and goddesses from different pantheons, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s no easy way to parallel them across cultures. In other words, while both Thor and Mars may be deities of war, they’re not "the same," and can’t really be compared to one another, because each is unique to the cultural and societal context of the people who followed them. Likewise, many cultures have had gods of death, or deities who were at least associated with the underworld, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same or carry the same connotations; they're culturally and historically specific.

The Celts certainly didn’t shy away from the dark side of things. They had deities that were in charge of all kinds of murky things–the Morrighan, for example, was a goddess who decided whether you died in battle or survived the fight. Likewise, in Wales, Gwynn ap Nudd is a deity of the underworld, and Arawn is the king of the realm of the afterlife. Manannan mac Lir is associated with the spirit world, and the realm between it and the lands of man. The Cailleach is connected to the darker half of the year, disasters and storms, and the dying of the crops in the fields.

Among all this, though, one thing the Celts didn’t have was a god named Samhain associated with death. So how did the misconception start?

Where Did This Death God Thing Start, Anyway?

As near as anyone can determine, it looks like the whole Samhain-as-God-of-Death rumor started around the 1770s, when a British colonel and military surveyor named Charles Vallancey wrote a series of books in which he tried to prove that the people of Ireland actually originated in Armenia. Vallancey’s scholarship was sketchy at best, and part of his work referenced a deity named Samain or Sabhun.

Unfortunately, Vallancey’s writing was so fancifully bad that within just a few decades, everyone who read it admitted that it was full of completely groundless conclusions, and thus, pretty much every one of his claims and assertions were suspect. The Quarterly Review, a literary publication that ran for much of the 1800s, said that Vallancey “wrote more nonsense than any man of his time.” However, that didn’t stop numerous writers from quoting Vallancey’s work in the nineteenth century, including one Godfrey Higgins, who used Vallancey’s writings to claim the Irish had actually come from India. So the myth was perpetuated, despite its foundational text having long since been disproven.

The origins of this rumor having begun with Vallancey’s work was uncovered in 1994, by a folklorist named W.J. Bethancourt III, in his essay Halloween: Myths, Monsters and Devils. If there are any earlier references to Samhain as a death deity, no one has found them yet.

So What Is Samhain, Really?

Thanks to centuries of misconceptions, a lot of people now think Samhain is a Celtic god of death, because this myth has been perpetuated for ages. What's the truth?

Samhain isn’t a god at all, and, as we've seen, the idea of Samhain being a god was based on false, inaccurate scholarship that has nonetheless been propagated for centuries. Samhain, for most modern Pagans, is a time to mark the end of the fertile season, and to embrace the darkness of the coming winter. If it fits in with your traditions, discuss how you honor your ancestors to celebrate Samhain, or how you work with the spirit world.

Samhain is many things to many people in the Pagan community… but one thing it’s not? A Celtic god of death.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Samhain is Not a God." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, Wigington, Patti. (2020, August 26). Samhain is Not a God. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Samhain is Not a God." Learn Religions. (accessed June 8, 2023).