Myth Monday: Samhain and Halloween
Myth Monday: Samhain and Halloween
Ever wonder where the holiday of Halloween came from, why we wear costumes, and ask for handouts at strangers’ houses?
Sure you do—otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
The celebration of Halloween goes back thousands of years, back to the time of Celtic Europe when four major festivals were celebrated: Imbolg, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. Samhain (pronounced SOW-een or sah-VEEN) was marked as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, when the veil between our world and the Otherworld became so thin that gods, goddesses, fairies and the spirits of departed relatives and friends could freely mingle with the living.
The Irish had a special link to Samhain, as it played a repeated and important role in their mythological history. According to Irish myth, the beastly demon-people called the Fomorians had taken over Ireland and subjected its inhabitants, the Tuatha De Danann, to cruel practices, such as sacrificing two-thirds of their crops, cattle and children to the Fomorians every October 31st. Disgusted by the practices of the Fomorians, the Tuatha De Danann decided to go to war against the monsters.
The Fomorians, by John Duncan 1912
Expecting a long and drawn out, bloody fight, the chief god of the Tuatha De Danann, the Daghda, and the sun god Lugh, decided to approach the Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, for help. On Samhain, the Daghda found the Morrigan bathing at the River Unius, standing so tall that she was able to put one foot on either bank. The Daghda was taken by the Morrigan’s beauty, and they made love right there (leading to the river’s nickname “The Bed of the Couple.”)
Apparently the sex was good, because the Morrigan readily agreed to help the Daghda and his people, warning him that Fomorians were planning an attack and telling him to bring his warriors to her.. The Morrigan then swiftly went out, slaying the Fomorian prince and gathering his blood in her hands. She gave the blood to the Tuatha De Danann army, blessing them with victory, then she went to a mountaintop overlooking the battle at Magh Tuiredh, “the Plain of Reckoning,” and summoned a storm to rain blood down on the Fomorians. Lugh led the second battle against the Fomorians, with the Morrigan joining in on the fray. It worked; the Fomorians. were slaughtered, the few survivors driven out of Ireland, and the people were free. The Irish celebrated the victory by lighting balefires (more commonly known now as bonfires) on mountaintops every Samhain.
That’s not the last time trouble visited Ireland on Samhain, though; because the gates to the Otherworld open up every October 31st, a host of supernatural beings could come and go as they pleased. One myth tells how the fire-breathing monster Aillen attacked the capitol Tara every Samhain until he was finally slain by eight-year-old Fionn Mac Cumhail. Another myth speaks of three female werewolves that would emerge from a fairy hill (also called a barrow, a mound of earth where fairies are said to live) and would raid Ireland, killing cows and other livestock. Another story has the warrior Neara experiencing a vision of a fairy host (a fairy army) slaughtering his king and his court the following Samhain.
Though the thought of running into a dearly missed family member might have been appealing to some, Samhain was largely viewed with caution and dread; some of those spirits might have been nice, but it also meant that some meaner spooks could travel over as well, ghosts of people who had been wronged in life, murdered or slain in battle. They could come back for revenge, and the lack of a physical body meant squat. They could still harm a living human if they really wanted to, and the Irish were prepared for any encounters. One weapon the Irish employed against ghosts was the jack o’lantern, a hollowed out turnip carved with a scary face and filled with a glowing coal or candle. The emanating light and grotesque appearance was thought to scare off malevolent spirits (also the reason why many medieval churches and cathedrals were adorned with gargoyles.) In later times people believed that the best way to drive away an evil spirit was to make it look like an even more ferocious spirit was already in residence, thus scaring it off. This could be accomplished by wearing a frightening costume or mask.
Turnip jack o'lantern
Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons
Wiccans and some pagan groups hold Samhain as their most sacred celebration of the year. They believe that this world and everything in it is ruled by two deities: the Goddess (a supreme mother goddess) and the God (a fertility deity believed to be the Goddess’s son and consort.) In some traditions, the Goddess is believed to give birth to the God at Yule (December 25th), signifying the return of light and warmth into the world. Through spring the God grows into manhood, couples with the Goddess and ensures fertility for humans, animals and plant life. Towards the end of summer the God begins to age, finally dying on October 31st. The world grows darker and colder and the Goddess mourns until the God is reborn again. Wiccans celebrate the passing of the God by holding a feast (often accompanied by a bonfire), which is eaten in silence. Each member takes this time to think about a loved one (relative, friend or pet) who had passed away during that year during the feast, or, if they had not experienced a death that year, support those who have. Samhain is a solemn time, not one usually marked with noisy parties. (*Note: if any of this is wrong or there’s more to add, please let me know—I’d love to learn!)
Of course, the Christian church was freaked out by all of this. Some in the clergy viewed the celebration of Samhain as heretical, while others were irritated that the continued celebration of Samhain and other Celtic holidays meant that they hadn’t fully gained control over the populace. Thus began the propaganda wars, with church leaders denouncing Samhain as being a form of devil-worship—and scaring the already-converted so badly that they would start denouncing their neighbors as witches—and by absorbing some aspects of the holy day to create their own celebration (the early Church was really good at that). Because they knew that the locals were too attached to October 31st, the Church kept the date and the feast, got rid of the bonfires, and renamed it All Hallow’s Eve (eventually changed to Hallowe’en and Halloween, because people are lazy and local dialect has a way of mashing words together). The Church then took their pre-established day of the dead holiday the Feast of All Saints (or All Saints’ Day) and moved it to November 1st (sometimes cited as the actual date of Samhain), and established November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, the day to pray for the souls of the non-saintly dead. By linking the pagan holiday with the Christian version, the Church helped to ease the transition of pagans into Christians. (Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated on November 5th in England in remembrance of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament in the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot to overthrow Protestant rule. While also celebrated with bonfires, or “bone fires,” where the pope’s bones were symbolically burned, Guy Fawkes Night was never really considered a Halloween or Samhain-type holiday, though it did absorb some of the aspects, such as bonfires and dressing up in costumes.)
And yet, much to the Church’s exasperation, it was centuries before Samhain traditions were largely stamped out; many communities continued to have bonfires (likely not realizing the pagan significance), dressed in frightening clothes to drive off evil spirits and left food out for the visiting souls of deceased relatives. The food that was left out was often eaten by vagrants or homeless orphans, soon leading to the tradition of souling, knocking on doors to ask for food for the exchange of prayers said for the families’ deceased loved ones (families often handed out special food called soul cakes or coins because they never knew when that hobo or dirty ragamuffin could be Jesus or an angel or saint in disguise … or maybe an ornery spirit who would wreck havoc if it didn’t get a bite to eat … or maybe an ornery, ordinary hobo or ragamuffin who’d trash their front yard if he wasn’t shown some kindness.) The Church tried to clamp down on it’s “if it’s not Bible-approved then it’s heresy” stance, but people just got rowdier. The more pious (as well as the more sadistic) tried to fight back against the evilness of Samhain/Halloween by doing such horrible things such as sewing cats up in sacks (because cats were thought to be agents of the Devil) and throwing them onto bonfires. The Puritans were so thoroughly disgusted by Halloween (and other “papal” holidays) that upon arriving in the New World they outlawed the holiday altogether.
Luckily, the Irish weren’t about to surrender Halloween, and traditions continued in the Emerald Isle. Irish immigrating to America in the 1840s brought with them Halloween and its traditions such as carving jack o’lanterns (this time into pumpkins, which were much more agreeable than the hard-as-rocks turnips), handing food and coins out to strangers and bobbing for apples, an ancient practice of fortune-telling: apples were thrown into a vat of water, then a person would catch one with their teeth. They would then sit in front of a mirror and peel the apple skin in one long strip. An image of their future spouse would then appear in the mirror or, alternately, the mirror is not used and the peel is thrown over the shoulder. The peel would land on the floor in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s first name.
Christy's Halloween, by Howard Chandler Christy ... I guess everybody forgot their costumes.
Halloween found renewed popularity not so much as a religious holiday—though the belief of spirits returning to earth remained—but as a way to entertain people on a cold and dark night. Still, Halloween had it’s problems; many young boys and men took it as a time to tear around town, probably at first to scare their superstitious neighbors and blame all their wanton destruction on ghosts, then later just to go out and destroy things for the fun of it. Property was defaced, windows smashed, animals set free or hurt or killed, items stolen, gardens ripped up, fires started, people beaten … imagine The Purge, but everybody’s a boy in knickerbockers and knee-high woolen socks. Sort of like that.
Many adults wanted to ban Halloween to stop the destruction, but credit for saving our beloved spooky holiday probably goes to the good people of Anoka, Minnesota, in 1920. Instead of doing away with Halloween, the people of Anoka established a Halloween festival, complete with a costume parade, games and bonfire. The festival was a huge success and was held every year (except for 1942 and 1943 when it was canceled because of World War II) and Anoka claims to be the Halloween Capitol of the US. Other cities and towns soon took suit, and Halloween became the holiday we know and love today.