The Roots and Herbs of Halloween and Samhain

Oct 17 / Seán Pádraig O’Donoghue
Halloween has its roots in the ancient Irish and Scottish festival of Samhain – which marked the beginning and the end of the year, and the time when the spirit world was close at hand.
Just as a seed fallen to Earth in autumn begins its life underground in dark, rich soil, before sprouting anew in springtime, so to the old Irish and Scottish year began in darkness. Ireland and Scotland are further north than most people realized, and autumn and winter nights there are long.

The Otherworld of the Irish and the Scots is the realm of the ancestors, the spirits, and the magical well where all the waters of this world have their source. It exists both above and below at the same time. The entrances to it, which are open wide at Samhain, lie in ancient burial mounds, holy wells, stone ringforts, and deep lakes. But it is also mirrored in the sky above, where the Milky Way is the river of stars that mirrors the waters flowing into this world from the Otherworld.

From an ancient Irish and Scottish perspective, during the dark part of the year, fertility flows downward from this world into the Otherworld. During the bright half of the year, it flows upward from the Otherworld into this world. At Samhain, the last fruits are on the Blackthorn and Hawthorn trees in this world, but the Blackthorn and the Hawthorn are blooming in the Otherworld. When those trees bloom in this world in May, they are bearing their last fruit in the Otherworld.

There are many layers of meaning here to be sure, but the simplest and most direct layer of meaning is immediately observable in the lives of plants. Autumn is the time when leaves fall from the trees to nourish the soil, fruits, and seeds fall to the ground or are carried away by birds and other animals to spread and plant the beginnings of new life, and plants send their energy down into the roots.

I follow the old custom from Connemara in the west of Ireland that nothing is to be harvested after the first of November because what remains in the fields and the forests belongs to the Otherworld. (I make exceptions for tree resins freely given and fallen evergreen boughs.) In the last week before the harvest’s end, here are a few of the plant allies I love working with most:

The Apple is synonymous with fertility wherever it grows. The Apple is generous with its sweet fruit, beloved by humans and Bears alike as they prepare for the long months of winter.

Perhaps because of the ethereal white of its blossoms in spring and the simultaneously sweet and pungent scent of its fruits fermenting into the soil after they fall to the ground in autumn, the Irish and the Scots and their Welsh and Cornish cousins associated the Apple with the Otherworld. King Arthur was famously taken to Avalon, the Island of Apples, when he was grievously wounded in battle, so he could recover and return again in his people’s greatest time of need. Manannán mac Lir, Irish god of the sea lives on Emhain Abhlac, which also means the Island of Apples. He visits kings and poets, carrying a silver branch from an Apple tree that bears fruit and blossoms at the same time. When he shakes it, you can hear the music that wove the world into being. When you hold it, you can see into the Otherworld.

This twin association with fertility and with the Otherworld made Apples central to a Samhain fortune-telling custom that started in the Scottish Highlands and spread to parts of Ireland, Appalachia, and New England. At Samhain, a girl peels an Apple in a spiraling way, all in one cut, and throws it over her shoulder. The Apple peel will twist into the shape of the initial of her true love-to-be.

Apple leaf and bark are cooling and astringent and soothing to the stomach, something I learned from Jim McDonald. Apple Cider Vinegar is my favorite menstruum to extract alkaline alkaloids from plants, something I talked about in the Holistic Pharmacology for Herbalists course that Matthew Wood and I taught together. It does require a preservative – add honey to make an oxymel or alcohol to make an acetract. And, of course, Apples are delicious to eat, and a good prebiotic food.

Make sure you leave a few Apples behind to ferment beneath the tree. As Stephen Buhner taught me, Apples drink in their own cider through their roots, and the alcohol helps them drift into sleep as winter approaches. This is likely the reason people in England have long brought cider and song to Apple trees in Midwinter – they intuitively knew this would aid the Apples in their winter dreaming.

Mugwort is a plant of roadsides and hedgerows, boundary places. As such, it is well suited to the times our world and the spirit world are closest together.

Most people are familiar with Mugwort as an herb that can invite vivid dreams. It is indeed, a visionary plant. I will often burn Mugwort as incense when I am trying to tap into my intuitive perception and see patterns in the world around me.

Matthew Wood taught me that Mugwort can also work in the other direction – bringing dreamy people back down to earth, and helping artists and writers and musicians keep the great ideas that come to them in trance states from drifting away before they can translate them into art. For these purposes, I love making a tincture blend that combines Mugwort, Wood Betony, and Calamus in equal parts. I dose it at 3, 6, or 9 drops.

Yarrow is perhaps the oldest plant in continuous ritual use by humans and our hominin kin. A bouquet of Yarrow flowers lay on the grave of a young Neanderthal girl buried in what is now Iraq, signaling its association with the movement of spirits between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors. In Irish, the plant is known as Athair Talún – “Father of the Land.”

Yarrow is well known as a fever remedy and a remedy for bleeding, but modern people are less aware of its role as a visionary plant, attested to in many cultures. English folklore speaks of Yarrow as an aid in divination. In China, Yarrow stalks are the sticks of choice in casting the I Ching.

This is likely due to the presence of high amounts of thujone in Yarrow. But the thujone in Yarrow is the opposite isomer from that in the Artemisias (Mugwort and Yarrow,) and I find they round each other out nicely. When trying to connect with the spirit world, I often combine equal parts of Yarrow and Mugwort in an incense blend.

Combined with Rose, Yarrow and Mugwort make a lovely mead. Careful though, it can be quite potent, so take just a few sips at first! This mead is perfect for gazing at the flames of the fire after a long day and reflecting on the patterns in your life and the patterns in the world.

With its dark gnarled roots that grow up into a starry spray of white flowers, Black Cohosh is the plant that guides me through and out of the darkness.

One of Black Cohosh’s other names is “Fairy Candle.” It is a name that likely came from Scots-Irish immigrants to this country. For then “fairy” would have been a word that evoked not the little winged creatures of modern children’s books, but the powerful, eldritch denizens of the Otherworld. So a “Fairy Candle” would have been a light guiding one through the spirit realm.

The dark half of the old Irish and Scottish year that begins at Samhain is a time of introspection. But sometimes introspection can lead to getting mired in dark thoughts and dark emotions that fog your sense of yourself and the world. You find yourself in the proverbial “dark night of the soul.”

Black Cohosh, three drops of tincture, three times a day, is the best remedy I have seen for helping to emerge from the “dark night of the soul,” I think of its starry flowers as the starlight that guides you home when you have fallen to the bottom of a well so deep that you cannot see the sun at noon. Sometimes I will add a drop of Angelica to add a little bit of hope and restore the ability to pray.

Vast Oak forests once covered Ireland and Scotland, and only patchy remnants remain. But the old Oaks there are memory keepers, trees that have lived 1,000 years or more and carry as well echoes of the memories of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who each lived for a millennium. It was in one particular old Oak grove that the Irish people learned the lore of Samhain from their mysterious ancestors, the Faerie People, the Daoine Sidhe, the ancient ones who left this world when the ways of civilization became too brutal, taking their magic with them.

In most Indo-European languages, including both the Irish and Scottish forms of Gaelige, the word for “Oak” is closely related to the word for “door.” In languages where this is true, old Oaks are seen as doorways between worlds. English, of course, is not one of those languages, but the English word “Oak” likely derives from an Anglo-Saxon rune that signified the voice of the gods.

Acorns were an important food source for my ancestors. And Oak bark is a famous astringent medicine. But my favorite way to work with Oak medicine is to lean into the trunk of an old Oak to learn something from its solid, nurturing strength.
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