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Identifying Samhain as a Celtic Death God is one of the most tenacious errors associated with Halloween.
Almost all stories about the origin of Halloween correctly state that Halloween had its origins among the ancient Celts and is based on their "Feast of Samhain." However, a writer in the 18th century incorrectly stated that Samhain was named after the famous Celtic "God of the Dead." Many religious conservatives who are opposed to Halloween, Druidism, and/or Wicca picked up this belief without checking its accuracy, and accepted it as valid.
No such God ever existed. By the late 1990's many secular sources such as newspapers and television programs had picked up the error and propagated it widely. It is now a nearly universal belief, particularly among conservative Protestants.
Modern-day Samhain is the day when many Wiccans believe that their God dies, later to be reborn. [Wicca is a Neo-pagan, Earth-centered religion.] Thus, Samhain is not a God of death; it is actually began as a yearly observance of the death of a God.
Was/is Samhain a Celtic God?
The answer is a definite yes and no:
YES. He did exist. Many Neopagan and secular sources are probably wrong. As As Isaac Bonewits writes: "Major dictionaries of Celtic Languages don't mention any 'Samhain' deity..." However, there is some evidence that there really was an obscure, little known character named Samain or Sawan who played the role of a very minor hero in Celtic mythology. His main claim to fame was that Balor of the Evil Eye stole his magical cow. His existence is little known, even among Celtic historians. He was a hero, not a god. It is likely that he was named after the end of summer celebration rather than vice-versa.
NO. Many conservative Christian and secular sources are definitely wrong; there is/was no Celtic God of the Dead. The Great God Samhain appears to have been invented in the 18th century, as a God of the Dead before the ancient Celtic people and their religion were studied by historians and archaeologists.
There are many sources supporting the conclusion that Samhain refers to the festival, not a God of the Dead. They come from Celtic, Druidic, Irish, and Wiccan individuals and groups:
Wiccan web site "Brightest Blessings" mentions:
"Samhain (October 31), most often recognized as our New Year, is also called Ancestor Night. It represented the final harvest, when the crops were safely stored for the coming Winter. As the veil between the worlds of life and death is thin on this night, we take this time to remember our beloved dead."
W.J, Bethancourt III has an online essay which traces the God Samhain myth back to the year 1770 when Col. Charles Vallency wrote a 6 volume set of books which attempted to prove that the Irish people once came from Armenia. Samhain as a god was later picked up in a 1827 book by Godfrey Higgins. That book attempted to prove that the Druids originally came from India. The error might have originated in confusion over the name of Samana, an ancient Vedic/Hindu deity. Bethancourt comments:
"With modern research, archaeology and the study of the Indo-European migrations, these conclusions can be seen as the complete errors they were..."
Later, he writes: " 'Samhain' is the name of the holiday. There is no evidence of any god or demon named 'Samhain,' 'Samain,' 'Sam Hane,' or however you want to vary the spelling."
Rowan Moonstone, a Wiccan, comments:
"I've spent several years trying to trace the "Great God Samhain" and I have YET to find seminal sources for the same. The first reference seems to be from Col. Vallency in the 1700s and then Lady Wilde in her book 'Mystic Charms and Superstitions' advances the 'Samhain, lord of the dead' theory. Vallency, of course was before the work done on Celtic religion in either literature or archaeology."
The Irish English Dictionary, published by the Irish Texts Society, defines Samhain as follows:
"Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (esp. the Fiann) were quartered."
The Scottish Gaelis Dictionary similarly defines Samhain as:
"Hallowtide. The Feast of All Soula. Sam + Fuin = end of summer."
J.C. Cooper, author of The Dictionary of Festivals identifies Samhain as:
"Samhain or Samhuinn: (Celtic). 31 October, Eve of 1 November, was the beginning of the Celtic year, the beginning of the season of cold, dearth and darkness."
Wiccans have attempted to reconstruct the ancient Celtic religion. They include this festival as one of their 8 Sabbats (seasonal days of celebration). They do not acknowledge the existence of a God of the Dead named Samhain or a similar deity by any other name. Modern-day Druids and other Neopagans also celebrate Samhain as a special day.