TRICK OR TREAT!! This is what you here the voices of children screaming every Halloween night, but Halloween must have a deeper meaning than a candy-filled costume party for kids, right? And it does.
In this section, you will find more information on Halloween and where it got its start.
Halloween represents a blend of cultures, past and present and provides us a wonderful window into the beliefs and practices of our ancestors. By understanding the origins of this magical holiday and usingthe direct link it provides us to our past, we can easily place our modern practices in historical context and potentially gain a better understanding of ourselves. Some believe that the observation of Halloween is evil, or promotes devil worship, but the holiday did not grow out of evil practices. It grew from a combination of observances between the ancient Celts, Greeks, Roman Catholics and the prayer rituals of Medieval Europe.
Halloween has been celebrated for over 2000 years and was an important annual festival to the ancient Celts. The Druids regarded November 1 as New Year’s Day. It was known as Samhain, (pronounced sow’-en, literally meaning the end of summer) and was a time for celebrating the year’s harvest and for honoring the dead. The Celts believed that all laws of time and space were suspended during this time, allowing spirits to roam the earth and intermingle with the living, so they built raging fires and made offerings to appease these restless spirits.
Portions of the Celtic holiday eventually morphed into Christian culture after the Romans conquered the Celts. Conscious efforts were made to bring the Celts into the practice of Catholicism. In the 8th century, the church moved All Saints Day, the holiday designated to honor Christian martyrs, from May to November 1 with the hope of converting the Druids, who would associate this observance with their own ancient rituals honoring the dead. The word itself is a corruption of All Hallows Eve, the day preceding All Hallows Day. Halloween came to American with the early Irish and Scottish immigrants. It is from their folklore that we get many of our modern practices.
Carving pumpkins is a favorite activity this time of year. The story of the Jack-O-Lantern comes to us from Irish folklore. Jack was a farmer who had a reputation for being a drunkard and a trickster andone day, had an fateful encounter with the Devil himself. He tricked the devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. Jack placed a cross on the lower bark, preventing the demon’s exit from the tree. Jack removed the cross, but not before coercing the devil to promise he would never take his soul in hell. Years later when Jack died, Heaven turned him away because of his transgressions on earth, so Jack had no where to go but to Hell. When the devil answered the gate, he wouldn’t permit Jack to enter, citing a deal’s a deal, but the demon did take pity and tossed out a burning ember. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and he placed the coal in the big root to make the first Jack-O-Lantern. On the night when the dead may walk among the living, people light his way as he wanders the world. Sometimes he is called Jack O’ the Shadows, or Death itself.
The thought of wayward souls walking the streets with the living promised some unappealing situations. Some believed the disembodied spirits from the previous year would return on that night to find a body to inhabit. To discourage and frighten the predacious spirits away, entire villages would dress in ghoulish costumes and engage in noisy activity throughout the night. As the disbelief in these aggressive spirits grew, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts and witches was regarded as a fun, lighthearted ritual rather than a serious self-preservation tactic. The Celts would extinguish their fires to make their homes seem cold and dark and undesirable to the spirits. Then they would re-light all their fires from a common source.
The practice of trick or treating is thought to have originated not with the early Celts, but with the early Christians. There is a centuries old European custom called “souling.” On or around November 1 or All Hallows Day, early Christians would walk from village to village asking for soul cakes, or small square pieces of bread with currants. In exchange for these soul cakes, the recipient would say a prayer on behalf of the donor’s dead relatives. In the 9th century, the popular belief was that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, so a prayer, even from a stranger, could help the soul pass into heaven.
Witches are inextricably linked to Halloween. Witches and sorcery play integral parts in almost all of the world’s traditions. For thousands of years, shaman and witch doctors have called on the aid of spirits through incantations and offerings to protect and heal fellow tribe members, crops and livestock. Psychologically, witchcraft provided our early ancestors a means of establishing a sense of control over the elements and helped eased anxiety associated with disease, uncertain weather and natural disasters. The trouble arose when the preventative measures failed to keep the maladies at bay. Many natural occurrences were ultimately blamed on malicious witches.
In the early Christian era, the church was tolerant of the local sages and wise women who used charms, herbs and incants to influence the quality of life. They were regarded as harmless relics of the old religion and were found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Hebrews, Greeks and Romans all believed in their abilities. But in the late 13th century, a growing opposition to the old ways began to dominate the mindset. These women came to be considered in league with the devil, stemming from a precept that magic was the manifestation of evil. People who fell under suspicion of practicing witchcraft were hunted by decree of the Inquisition and from 1450 to 1700, thousands of people, mostly women, were executed on the basis of bogus confessions obtained by means of torture. They are often portrayed as the villains in many of our children’s stories.
Professional witch hunters were paid a fee for each conviction. In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum was published by two Dominican inquisitors and translated into several languages. It was sent to both Protestant and Catholic countries and its description of grotesque, demonic practices provided the impetus for widespread hysteria. It outsold all other books except the Bible.
One of the last outbreaks of witch-hunting took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692, when belief in diabolical witchcraft was declining in Europe. Twenty people lost their lives amidst the madness that ensued after two little girls claimed they had been bewitched. In the second half of the 20th century, an interest in practicing pre-Christian paganism resurfaced. The word pagan simply means country dweller. The neo-Pagan and Wiccan revivals typically foster a love of nature, emphasize a sacred interpretation of nature’s cycles, promote equality among males and females and shave a renewed sense of wonder and belief in magic.
One scary character you’re destined to see in the shadows on Halloween night is a vampire. Our western culture has some deeply rooted connections to the ghastly bloodsucker. We find tales of vampires all over the world and throughout time. With her Vampire Chronicles, contemporary author Ann Rice has most recently revived an undying interest in vampires. This series of dark novels explore the seductive, secretive world of vampirism and her books Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned spawned the popular movies of the same name.
Before Rice, it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that bridged the legend into modern culture. Vlad the Impaler has been identified as the historical Dracula. He became the ruler of Wallachia, (present-day Romania) just south of the Carpathian Mountains in 1456. Twenty years earlier, Vlad’s father had been a member of the Order of the Dragon, a Christian brotherhood dedicated to fighting the Turks. The name Dracula literally means “son of Dracul” or “son of the dragon.” Dracula’s serial, brutal methods of killing and displaying his enemies’ corpses earned him the name the Impaler.
The idea of drinking another’s blood goes back to early religious practices. Human sacrifice and cannibalism remain highly taboo subjects, but indeed these rituals are embedded firmly in pre-Christian doctrine. The consumption of the body was a ceremonial act to ensure continued unity with the deceased. Blue bloods are said to have become so by drinking the blood of martyrs, thereby ensuring them a direct link with god. The rites of the Sacrificial King seem ghoulish to us now, but to our early ancestors, this was a way to directly communicate with deity. The one to be sacrificed was happy to serve to his people as a direct messenger to god.
Some contend that the story of Jesus borrowed from this Sacrificial King concept as Jesus was considered a martyr for his people, was made to wear a false crown of thorns, and placed above his head was a sign that bore the letters INRI. These are the Hebrew letters Yod Nun Rish Yod, which stand for Jesus, King of the Jews. The act of devouring the martyr was ritualized at the Last Supper with the taking of the Eucharist.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” – John 7:53-58.
Every religion professes the existence of an afterlife. It provides excellent motivation when absolute faith is required of the practitioners. If their assumption is indeed true, we are all part of somethingmuch larger than we can comprehend. Among the sacred doctrines, the existence of a soul is less of a point of contention than what happens to that soul after death.
Early Romans observed the Feast of the Lemures, during which the unwholesome and malevolent specters of the restless dead were appeased. Ancient Romans performed rites to exorcise the fearful ghosts of the dead from their homes. The myth of origin of this ancient festival was that it had been instituted by Romulus to appease the spirit of Remus.
On those days, the Vestal Virgins of the temples would prepare sacred mola salsa (salt cake) from the first ears of wheat of the season. The custom involved the head of the household getting up at midnight, walking around the house with bare feet, throwing out black beans over his shoulder and repeating the incantation, “With these beans I redeem me and mine” nine times. The household would then clash bronze pots while repeating, “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!” nine times.
In the 8th century, as the popular observance of the Lemuria had faded, the feast of the dead, or All Saints was shifted to November 1 by Pope Gregory III (731-741). He consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary, not at all by chance, to coincide with the Celtic celebration of dead spirits at Samhain.
There are many theories dealing with the existence of ghosts. Some people believe that ghosts are the residual energy left behind by an emotionally strong person or event. More energy and electrical impulses are expended during periods of high trauma or excitement, and that energy can linger indefinitely. Modern ghost hunters equip themselves with devises that locate and track energy sources. Electromagnetic detectors pick up subtle fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength fields that appear to have no source at all.
Freud postulated that ghosts are a projection of our subconscious mind manifested by our fear of death and the unknown. Ghosts might also be the result of time anomalies, if time is nonlinear. An event that happened in the past might be seen briefly in our time because of fluctuations in time/space.
Another otherworldly creature roaming the forests and townships on Halloween is the mythical beast, the werewolf. In folklore, the werewolf is a man who is transformed, or who can transform himself intoa wolf in nature and appearance under the influence of a full moon. The werewolf is only active at night and while he roams the countryside, he’s been known to devour anything that crosses his path.
The word werewolf comes to us from the Old-Saxon – by combining “were” meaning man with wolf, we get manwolf. You hear the work lycanthrope associated with werewolves, and this term has come to mean someone who suffers from a mental condition whereby they actually believe they change into a wolf. Legends of werewolves were popular among the ancient Greeks and are found in many of the world’s folklores. In areas where wolves are not common, the belief is modified to include werebears, weretigers, werelions and so on. These beasts are known as shape shifters.
In the dark Middle Ages, the church stigmatized the wolf as the personification of evil and a servant of Satan. Many of our children’s stories reflect this attitude and wolves share the villain’s role with the witch. In 1270, it was considered heretical NOT to believe in werewolves. The church forced confessions from the mentally ill to prove its convictions. Ultimately, they quit charging people of being werewolves in the 17th century, but only for a lack of evidence. The belief in the beasts, however, did not cease in the absence of indictments.
Among things strange and wrapped in mystery is the mummy. A mummy is a corpse, but unlike a skeleton or a fossil, a mummy still retains some of the soft tissue it had when it was alive – most often skin, but sometimes organs and muscles. This tissue preservation can happen by accident, or through human intervention, but either way, it only occurs when bacteria and fungi are unable to grow and promote decay.
The absence of water is important since bacteria can’t grow without it. Mummies can be dried in the sun, with fire or smoke or with chemicals. Since most bacteria can’t live in sub-freezing conditions, permafrost can also produce a mummy. An oxygen-free environment, such as a peat bog, will cause mummification because the microorganisms can’t live without air. Yet another way to create a mummy is to bury it in soil that contains chemicals that kill bacteria.
The Egyptians became master mummy makers. One of the oldest known Egyptian mummies dates back to around 3500 B.C.E. and is believed to have been created from the arid desert winds and hot blazing sand rather than at the hand of some ancient embalmer. The first intentional mummies occur around 3000 B.C.E. as the culture’s beliefs concerning eternal life became more sophisticated. By 1550, any Egyptian who could afford it was mummified. They believed that a person’s Ka, or vital force, and Ba, the personality, left the body at death, but they could be lured back if a convincing recreation of the body was offered. This reunification was your ticket to the nether world.
A thorough mummy job took seventy days. The first forty were spent drying out the corpse. The organs were removed except the heart, believed to be the source of thought, was left inside the body. The body was then rinsed with wine and packed with salt. To make sure the Ka and Ba could find the body, an elaborate restoration process was necessary. The skin was massaged, rouge and paint applied, the body was stuffed, padded and perfumed and amulets were placed at various places to appease different gods. Finally, the mummy was coated in warm resin and wrapped in layer upon layer of linen.
About The Author
Wendy Brinker is an artist and writer in Columbia, SC. Read more of her essays at www.meridiangraphics.net or view her commercial work at www.drpmedia.co.