John William Waterhouse 1886 Oil Painting
Long before there was Halloween, there was Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated by the ancient Celts. It was celebrated between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, falling on October 31. As one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, it was one of the most important days of the year.
This day involved all the normal rituals you would assume for a time of the year when the days were getting shorter and colder. Animals were brought in from pastures and slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires would be extinguished an relit to symbolize cleansing needed before the long winter.
But most importantly, the evening of Samhain was a threshold between this world and the Celtic Otherworld. This means spirits or other magical creatures like fairies would cross over to this world. The Celts believed that if they left offerings of food and drink, the spirits would cross over to bless them and protect them over the long winter months.
In addition to spirits, it was also believed that the dead would return during Samhain. The living would invite the dead to their feasts and leave their places open for them. Not unlike Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, the dead were honored and revered, welcomed and remembered. Modern Pagans continue to celebrate to this day.
John William Waterhouse was an English Pre-Raphaelite most known for his paintings of Greek mythology and Camelot. Being nearly a generation younger than the original Brotherhood, he is generally considered the last of the great Pre-Raphaelites, working well into the 20th century. He managed to bridge classicism, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Impressionism, and also happens to be one of my favorite artists.
I struggled to find the right painting for Samhain. Although I was originally looking for something more specifically Celtic, I just love Waterhouse and thought it was a good opportunity to feature him. This is one of his earlier works.
Practically every single one of his paintings feature a lone female, and this is no exception. It’s implied that she is some sort of witch, as she draws the circle around herself and her cauldron. However, unlike most paintings featuring a witch, cauldron, frog, and raven, she is young and lovely. There are flowers in her belt and her dress features what appears to be Greek warriors. It’s an odd choice when you think about it, but somehow it works perfectly.
My favorite part of this painting is the steam rising from the cauldron. It seems like there is just a hint of forms, although no matter how hard I look I can’t quite make out something specific. I’ve always imagined it as the spirits crossing over, not quite formed.
The look on her face, the concentration, the passion. It’s like she sees something we can’t. Maybe it is the soul of a lost beloved, crossing over for one night. I envy her.
I wish you all a blessed Samhain. May you prepare for the coming winter in any and all ways you see fit. Maybe set an extra spot at the table tonight, just in case.