Depending on the kind of popular cinema you consume, you’ll have a vastly different idea of what Halloween is supposed to be. While on one hand, there are thousands who see Halloween as the perfect excuse to don a skimpy nurse’s outfit or bunny ears and head to the nearest booze-fest, yet others consider it to be sacred – a continuation of the ancient Gaelic festival, Samhain which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year i.e. winter.

A still from Mean Girls (2004)

Samhain was widely celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man and was seen as that time of the year when the veil separating the living and otherworldly creatures like the Irish supernatural race called the Aos Sí, spirits of the dead, and fairies was at its thinnest.

According to many historians, the Church shifted the date of their All Saints’ Day to November 1 (Samhain was traditionally celebrated between October 31 and November 1), and eventually, All Saints’ Day and Samhain merged to become Halloween. This was totally on-brand for the Church which had a penchant for appropriating dates and deities belonging to pagan religions.

Halloween display in Kobe, Japan

Now, during Halloween, one can see children wandering from house to house in various outfits, squeaking out “trick or treat” when the door opens, and happily receiving candies and toffees from strangers. But before the 9th century, folks in Ireland believed that the aos sí needed to be appeased in order to let the people and their livestock survive the harsh winter months. Hence, portions of food were left for them on the ground.

Neopagans and Wiccans still celebrate their own versions of Samhain. While popular culture will tell you that it means dancing naked under a full moon, that’s not necessarily always the case.

The hero Fionn fighting Aillen, who is said to have burned Tara each Samhain

There are typically four aspects to Samhain – light, dark, mischief, and change. The Irish hero, Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool), and the river goddess Boann represent the light. According to legend, Boaan was a woman who tended to a well within which lived a creature called ‘the salmon of knowledge’. Boann transformed into the River Boyne when the well flooded and washed her away. She took good care of ‘the salmon of knowledge’ until it was time to give it to Fionn Mac Cumhaill who ate it and gained all the wisdom in the world.

Subsequently, this also helped him defeat the evil goblin Aillen, who appeared every Samhain to burn down the great halls of Tara which was the seat of the High King. As his reward, Fionn was named the leader of the High King’s elite warriors.

Moving on to the dark aspect of Halloween, we come across the comely but dangerous Morrigan, goddess of war. She’s said to take the form of a raven and lead an army of grotesque creatures who hunt for human lives.

Sharp toothed, squat, and dressed in red coat and cap, the Fear Dearg or the Red Men take care of the mischief and mayhem bit. They are known to play practical jokes on unsuspecting humans so watch out, folks.

If you see a creature with black hair and golden eyes this Halloween, you’re in luck. You might have just come across the púca, shape-shifters who can change the fortunes of anyone they meet.

The Hill of Ward

But, if you truly want to experience Samhain, you must head to the Hill of Ward in Ireland’s Ancient East. This is where the story of Halloween began. It is there that one can witness a glimpse of this ancient festival replete with traditions that are now almost extinct.

(Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Twitter)