Divination is an integral part of the Samhainn celebrations, since the eeriness of the occasion provided the perfect conditions for such things. An appropriate setting is therefore essential, with turnip-lanterns providing the lighting (with additional candles and subdued lighting to provide a supplement if necessary), autumn foliage, flowers and berries providing the decorations and a fire – if possible – providing the focal point. Storytelling, music and song should set the scene, with participants dressed in appropriately eery disguises and games and feasting to follow.
Below are a selected number of games and divinations that were – and in many cases still are – traditionally held at Samhainn.
Dookin’ for aipples
Many of the games and divinations associated with Samhainn feature apples or nuts, which were often picked on the day by the children, who took outings to the hazel groves and apple orchards with great festivity. In some places, later on, it was the bruised and unsellable apples that were thrown to the children from the ships that brought them from the Channel Islands that were used in the games.1
Dookin’ for aipples (or bobbing for apples) is a game that’s spread across Britain and Ireland (and, of course, beyond), so it’s something that most people are familiar with. There are a number of different ways to play it, depending on how adventurous your participants are, and how much you want to clean up afterwards!
The basic game is to get a large tub of water and put in as many apples as you have players. They each then take it in turns to try and grab an apple using only their teeth. In some places the game is played with fortunes hidden into each apple – small charms that are secured into the flesh, and then each player reads their fortune for the coming year depending on what they get (the charms being the same as the ones used in the ‘crowdie charms,’ below). Alternatively a penny may also be thrown into the tub; whoever manages to lift the penny with their teeth will see great fortune in the year, and they get to keep the penny.
Another version of the game uses a large dish of flour instead of water. This is a good alternative if you don’t have a large tub for the water, and the players must again try to pick up an apple using only their teeth. As they do this the players will more than likely get covered in the flour and much sneezing (and laughter) ensues.Traditionally you’re supposed to keep your hands behind your back when you dook, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
As a child, I tried both the flour and the water method, minus the fortunes. McNeill gives an account of how she saw it performed in Scotland:
“A large wooden tub half-filled with water stands in the middle of the floor. Into this is tumbled a pile of polished, red-cheeked apples. The master of ceremonies has a porridge stick or some other equivalent of a Druidic wand, and with this he keeps the apples in constant motion. Each of the company in turn kneels by the tub…and tries to seize an apple in his teeth without the aid of his hands…If he does not succeed after three attempts, he must wait until all the others have had their turn.”2
The apples are to keep, of course, and they can be eaten straight away. Some people like to keep them for use in other divination rites later on, though.
If you want to use water for dookin’ but there are participants who don’t want to get their faces wet, they can try using a fork to ‘spear’ an apple in the water instead. The fork should be held in the teeth as the participant leans over the tub and aims it at an apple of their choice, then lets it go. If the fork sticks into an apple, they’ve won it. This is an easier method than simple dookin’ – especially nowadays considering the fact that apples tend to be way bigger than they used to be (unless you pick them from your own tree) – but you can make it more difficult by churning the water up so the apples are moving around.
Pulling the Kail (and turnips)
Stealing the kail stocks or turnips isn’t such a big thing these days but my husband has fond memories of doing it back in the 70s. It was one of the only outdoor games that was done in a group – most other rites were performed alone.
Groups of children or young people would go to the fields and try to steal the kail (or turnips) without the landowner’s knowledge – it was believed that otherwise the kail would be of no use for divination (I have not seen anything to suggest that turnips were likewise used for divination). The turnips might be used for carving or lobbing at houses to annoy nasty neighbours.
In the field, each person would bend down and pull the first kail that came to hand, and then it would be taken home. Its size, length and colour would be examined, and based on that judgement the person would divine the general physical qualities of their future husband or wife. A good amount of soil still stuck to the root suggested they would be rich and have property. Placed underneath the pillow, it would also give dreams of the husband or wife-to-be.3
Likewise, a girl could pull three ears of corn from the field and sleep with them under her pillow to dream of her future husband.4
Aipple and Can’le
A small of rod of wood is suspended from the ceiling, with a candle fixed at one end of the rod and an apple balanced at the other, just above head height. With the candle lit (originally it was a fir candle, but any kind will do), the rod is then spun round and everybody takes it in turns to jump and try to catch the apple with their teeth, and without using their hands.
Seeing as it’s quite easy to get a little singed from the game, the candle is often omitted now, and the apple is simply swung backwards and forwards until somebody catches it. Bannocks smeared with treacle (molasses or golden syrup) are also used in this way, the bannocks themselves also being made with treacle (in this case, black treacle, specifically – molasses).5
Burning the Sweetheart Nuts
This divination is generally performed by those yet to be married, to see if they are destined to be with whoever they might desire at the time.
Gathered around the fire, everyone has two hazelnuts and takes their turn in due course. One nut is named for yourself and the other nut is named for the object of your desire (either aloud or to yourself). They are then placed on a burning ember, with a charm sometimes said:
“If you hate me spit and fly;
If you love me burn away.”
Naturally, if the nuts end up jumping away from the heat, then a happy future is not foretold for the two who have been named. If, on the other hand, the nuts burn quietly away, a good match is seen.6
Charms may be hidden in dishes which are then passed around the group gathered for the party. In the Highlands, the dish was traditionally a cream-crowdie, whereas in the Lowlands it was usually a large dish of buttery sowans; in more recent times champit tatties (buttery mashed potato) have been used as well. At ‘sophisticated’ parties (McNeill says), the charms may be baked into a cake or even a cloutie dumpling and then portions of the dessert are dished up and served at random.7
For the cream-crowdie, McNeill describes how it was made at a party she attended in Inverness-shire:
“Having made the deiseil (sunwise) circuit of the room, they placed the churn on a table and, singing an old Gaelic churning-lilt as they worked, proceeded to whip the cream with a rhythmic motion until it had attained the proper consistency. The implement used was the traditional fro’ing stick (frothing stick), the base of which consists of a small wooden cross with a ring of cow’s hair round it. A few handfuls of lightly toasted oatmeal were then thrown in. (This imparts an agreeable nutty flavour to the cream.) Finally, the charms were added, and every one crowded round with spoon and saucer to try his luck.”8
The charms used traditionally include:
Coin – for wealth
Ring – for marriage
Button – for a bachelor
Thimble – for a spinster
Wishbone – the heart’s desire
Horseshoe – for good luck9
These can be adapted to more contemporary concerns and can easily be incorporated into a group rite for a modern celebration, with the whole group helping to make the crowdie, or else it can be made in advance in individual containers, one charm to a dish, or one large dish. Long-term, silver charms for a charm bracelet could be used, but given the initial cost of buying them they could be collected over the years and makeshift charms used in the meantime. Wooden charms could be carved, or small gingerbreads baked into the appropriate shapes or with the symbol drawn into them, could be used instead.
The Sauty Bannock
Another love divination, which can be done in a group or on your own.
Oatmeal bannocks are baked with a good amount of salt in them – they should be made in silence, eaten in three bites and then each person should go to bed without a word spoken or anything to drink. The resulting thirst should result in a dream where your future spouse will offer you a drink to quench your thirst. This divination was likewise performed with a salted herring (preferably stolen) in some parts of Scotland, eaten raw or roasted.10
Twelve candles are placed in a circle, each one representing a month of the year. Everyone takes their turn to jump over each candle, with a clear jump denoting a good month, and any candles that get knocked or blown out as they are jumped denoting misfortune of some sort or another.11 (It helps to have someone make notes for this one).
Fortune by Egg White
Drop the white of an egg into a glass of water; if the egg white spreads then it is a good omen for the future, but if it sinks then an ill omen is foretold.12 Campbell writes that the egg white was dropped in to the glass in order to divine how many children the person was meant to have, indicated ‘by certain marks’ – though unfortunately Campbell doesn’t go into any details as to what sort of marks they may have been.13
The Written Wish
Write your wish on a piece of paper, roll it up and then throw it on the fire. You will get your wish if the paper burns up completely, but if it only half-burns or chars slightly you will be disappointed.14
The Dreaming Stones
This one can be adapted to taste, I think. It’s traditionally performed, alone, by a woman:
“Go alone to a boundary stream after dark, and with closed eyes lift three small stones in succession between the middle finger and the thumb, repeating each time the charm:
I will lift the stone
As Mary lifted it for her son,
For substance, virtue, and strength;
May this stone be in my hand
Till I reach my journey’s end.
Carry the stones home, holding them carefully in your hand, and place them beneath your pillow.”15
Stones in the Bonfire
Where a bonfire was held in Callander, once the fire died down the ashes were collected and spread in a circle. A stone was put near the edge of the circle by each person present, and whichever stone was found to have moved out of place by the next morning, whoever put it there was not meant to last the year.16
Many of the divinations and games are similar to those found in Scotland – the dookin’ for apples, the apples and candles, the burning of the nuts, the eating of a salt herring, the hidden charms17 – but there are enough differences to warrant separate entries for Irish rites as well.
Danaher is perhaps the best source here, and summarises the sorts of games that would have taken place:
“As we might expect, the type of game played on Hallow E’en depended very much upon the composition of the company gathered to celebrate the feast. In a household of father, mother and younger children, one would naturally expect to see only small children’s games, while a group of elderly people would engage in a game of cards or in storytelling, reciting poems or ‘drawing down old times’.”18
Young adults, on the other hand, would gather together for tricks, dares and tests of skill and strength, as well as general mischief.
Ducking for Apples
“A half-barrel was placed on the floor, and nearly filled with water; silver coins were thrown in, and large apples set floating on it; boys, stripped to the waist, wih their hands tied behind their backs, then endeavoured to take up the former with their lips, and the latter with their teeth; and what they landed they were allowed to keep.”19
Apples and Candles
“Two stick fastened together, cross-fashion, with their ends pointed, were slung by a cord from a rafter or beam. An apple and a lighted candle, alternately, were stuck on the ends of the sticks, and they were sent spinning round. The game was now for a boy to bite a piece out of the apple, without getting a mouthful of the candle.”20
As in Scotland, sometimes the candles and rods were dispatched with and only the apples were swung around to be caught. Other times raw potatoes might be substituted for the candles instead.21
For the feast in Limerick, foods like pancakes, stampy, blackberry pies and apple cakes were often included. A ring was concealed in one of the cakes and whoever got it would be the next to marry, whereas a wooden boat would denote a trip to the Skellig rocks ‘and single blessedness.’22
Hallowe’en barmbracks are still sold in west country Cork with hidden objects baked into them – a pauper’s rag gives an obvious clue to the finder’s fate, or the usual ring to signify marriage may be found.23 Charmingly, a chip of wood signifies that the recipient will be beaten by their partner, with the thimble for a spinster and the button for a bachelor as in Scotland. Similarly, the charms might be put into colcannon or champ instead.24 There are barmbracks on sale in most supermarkets in the run up to Hallowe’en that contain a penny “for luck” for whoever gets that portion.
Burning the Nuts
Two hazel nuts, walnuts, chestnuts or grains of wheat were taken and named after the two potential lovers, and were then placed in the ashes or on the grate to see how they would behave. Spitting and jumping showed the couple were not meant to be together, whereas nuts or grains that burned happily together indicated an altogether happier fate.25
Similar to the circle of ash and stones described above, ivy leaves (without spot or blemish) are gathered and placed in a glass by each member of the family or gathering. These are left overnight and if the leaf is still spotless in the morning it is a good sign – a spot foretells an altogether more terminal destiny before the year is out.
Likewise, thimbles of salt can be turned out onto a plate, and these piles are then left out overnight. Any stacks that fell foretold death of the owner.26
1 McNeill, Hallowe’en, 1971, p40.
2 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p32.
3 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p561.
4 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p562.
5 McNeill, Hallowe’en, 1971, p44.
6 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p33-34.
7 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p34; Hallowe’en, 1971, p45.
8 McNeill, Hallowe’en: Its origin rites and ceremonies in the Scottish tradition, 1971, p53-54.
9 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p34.
10 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p34.
11 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p35.
12 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p359.
13 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p560.
14 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p36.
15 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p39.
16 Napier, Folklore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p121.
17 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p202-205.
18 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p214.
19 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p205.
20 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p205-206.
21 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p206.
22 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p202.
23 Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art, 2006, p192.
24 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p219.
25 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p219.
26 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p226-227.