Halloween has become one of the most popular festivals of the year. Appealing to both children and adults with its emphasis on horror and just being generally creeped out. But where does it come from? Well, the roots of Halloween have ancient origins. And there are many different theories.
The Halloween craze as we know it today really got going in the early 20th century with kids trick or treating, apple bobbing, and carving pumpkins. Like Christmas, it has been ruthlessly commercialised and much of what we think is traditional is actually quite modern. But…there are elements that stretch back into our ancient history.
What does Halloween signify?
Look out the window of your centrally heated, double-glazed home in the late afternoon at this time of year and something immediately hits you. It’s getting darker. Now imagine you live in a hut and make your living on the land, completely at the mercy of the changing seasons. You notice the encroaching darkness far more keenly and worry that there’ll be enough food to get you through the winter.
To our ancient ancestors, this could be a scary time. Winter, as they liked to say in Game of Thrones, is coming! The animals are slaughtered. The crops have been brought in. Now you hunker down until the Spring. But you do more than that. Together with your community, you appeal to the Gods. Your holy people enact rituals to appease them.
A time of fear
In pre-Roman Britain and northern France, Druids might have lit fires on hilltops and chanted to the Sun God. A silent throng would have watched the robed figures communing with the deities. But not only did you believe in a pantheon of Gods but also beings that dwelt between heaven and earth or simply around you – but rarely seen. Elves and fairies in their earliest form. Sometimes benevolent but more often malign – who liked nothing more than terrifying humans with sadistic pranks.
Then there were those in the community who were believed to have magical powers. The women we call witches with the power to cast spells. Sorcerers capable of controlling events. Astrologers who could predict the future. Shamen who interacted with the spirit world.
Evil is let loose on the world
As the darkness enveloped the light, many believed the forces of evil increased in power. They mustered like an army in large force. Supernatural beings moved among mortal men and women. Those who had sinned were vulnerable to being possessed by demons. This was a time when your soul was terrible danger. In Scotland, it was once believed that a child born on Halloween might be capable of devilish deeds.
As paganism was replaced by Christianity, this belief didn’t disappear. It was simply modified. All Hallow’s Eve became a time to pray for those souls that had not yet entered heaven. Dead relatives stuck in purgatorial limbo waiting to discover their fate. Christians claimed to have invented this but it was in fact a continuation of pre-Christian belief in tormented ghosts. Even the pagan ancient Romans celebrated Lemuria at this time of year where rituals were performed to exorcise the restless dead from your home.
Witches holding parties at Halloween
In the sixth century CE, during what used to be called the Dark Ages, Halloween was known as Witches Night or the Devil’s Sunday. On this night, Satan took control of the world. He rode on a goat to an assembly of witches who then indulged in a mass orgy. Before attending this scene of unrestrained lust, each witch smeared herself with the melted fat of a murdered, un-baptised infant. Then flew out of a chimney on the back of a black cat to where all the fun was happening.
These witches often masqueraded as respectable married women. Their husbands having no idea the wife was a consort of the devil. As she left during the night, the witch would place a magical stick next to her husband in the bed which he mistook for his wife. She then left for the party of the year where all the witches drank from horses’ skulls and danced back to back. The devil played the music using the skull of a hen and the tail of a black cat.
At the close of proceedings, the goat was burned and its ashes divided up among the witches to be used in their spells. One tradition related that on the day after Halloween, you could see that the village’s black cats looked visibly bleary-eyed. The previous night’s revelries having taken their roll. Feline hangovers all round!
DISCOVER: The last witch prosecuted in England!
The Pumpkin Devil
On Halloween, the devil made his head round in shape. He would roam the forests and make impromptu appearances in houses to terrify the occupants. But he was scared of his own image. So, villagers began to carve pumpkins to ward off the devil. “It takes a devil to catch a devil,” was the old adage.
Before Europeans arrived in the New World, this tradition more than likely started in Ireland and the vegetable used to carve a head was the turnip. This was fashioned into a Jack-o’-lantern and attached to a walking stick to light the way. There was a story of a man called Stingy Jack who was forbidden to enter either heaven or hell and had to roam the world in between with his flaming turnip lantern. Clearly this personifies the kind of souls that needed to be exorcised at Halloween.
Curious ancient traditions at Halloween
Some ancient practices at Halloween have died out as we have become urbanised societies. In rural villages, a young girl would be led out to a kale patch blindfolded at Halloween. She would then have to select a plant and pull it up by the roots. If the stalk was straight, her husband would be tall and handsome. If it was crooked, he would be ugly. If lots of dirt stuck to the roots, he would be rich. But if the roots were clean, the couple would be in poverty forever.
Many of the early Halloween traditions related to marriage. They often involved nuts or apples. In Ireland, a young woman who had to choose between two suitors would name two hazelnuts after them. She would then toss the nuts on to the hot coals in the hearth. The one that burst open would be the unfaithful husband. The one that glowed in the heat would remain true. However, if they both glowed then she better find another way to pick her future spouse.
Cross-dressing at Halloween
It seems almost inevitable but this was a festival where cross-dressing was permitted. One newspaper report I found from the 1960s relates how in one Irish town, the girls borrowed their brothers’ football kits and the boys put on make up. For days afterwards, men were walking around with traces of lipstick and mascara!