Category Archives: Samhain
At the risk of preaching to the choir this week, I want to talk about the meaning of Halloween. Over the past few years I have been getting more and more calls-to-action over two issues associated with Halloween as it is commonly celebrated: the adoption of stereotypic American Indian trick-or-treat costumes and the borrowing of sugar skulls from Mexican American Dia de los Muertos ceremonies. While I agree with objections raised to these two practices, I nonetheless find the slant of this activism troubling. By objecting only to offensive elements within the sacrilegious perversion of this holy day, this activism ends up reinforcing the perverted narrative. Conversely, by bringing Halloween back in harmony with its roots, these and other offensive elements are banished.Let’s look at the true meaning of the holiday. Halloween is a shortened version of All Hollows Eve, an ancient Celtic holiday of reverence for ancestors. It is still celebrated as such by Druids and Witches throughout the world. The day is usually celebrated between October 30 and November 2, depending on the religious tradition and the country. (Some Druids mark the full moon closest to November 1.) Many centuries ago the Catholic Church, in order to discourage the Pagan rites, co-opted the holiday as All Souls Day, and within the Catholic Church it retained much of its former purpose of remembering departed souls. All Souls Day has been an important holiday wherever there has been a strong Celtic influence, not only in the “Celtic countries” of the British Isles, but in France, Spain, and even parts of Germany. Because of the Aztec influence, the Mexican holiday retained even more of its original significance while incorporating elements of indigenous Mesoamerican belief.The ancient Celts believed that during the period marked by Halloween the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead became more porous. Thus this was an ideal time to contact and make obeisance to departed relatives. This was also a time when troubled spirits too wretched to find their way to the Celtic paradise might cause some mischief for the living. To help these troubled spirits, children would enact their plight by going from house to house in beggars’ garb asking for a small token of pity. The phrase “trick-or-treat” reminded the householder that unmollified spirits might become mischievous. The enactment of this ritual was believed to bring some solace to the wretched souls. Some witches even say the drama helped spirits to pass through.Because all kinds of spirits were wandering on Halloween, houses needed special protection on this night. Talismans were put out to discourage unwelcome intrusions. This is the source of today’s jack-o’-lantern. While children were believed to have some innate protection from ghostly mischief, adults who wandered out on this night sometimes wore masks to scare away the ghouls.Let’s take a look now at today’s Halloween celebrations in light of the original religious focus. The trick-or-treat “beggars night” activities are closest to the original meaning, but they have become somewhat perverted. The only appropriate Halloween costume for a beggar on beggars’ night would be that of a beggar ghost. Houses can have jack-o’-lanterns or other talismans about them, but decorations should not be doing anything to create a “creepy” ambience. The idea is to keep the house warm and cheerful and the more mischievous ghosts outside. The welcoming atmosphere indoors also sets the tone for interactions with the ancestors. The haunted house is the antithesis of this. Although Halloween is an important time for Witches, who often use the night to perform psychic work, demeaning stereotypic portrayals of Witches, in costume or in picture, are especially offensive on this core Witches’ holiday.The Halloween party as it is commonly practiced does have some elements of old pagan belief. Bobbing for apples, the dumb supper, and spells to catch a glimpse of a future love interest are examples of activities that have deep roots. The main objection to the Halloween party is the parlor game atmosphere which trivializes the activities. Also, this is not a time for scary ghost stories. The object of the warm cheery gathering is to keep the scariness outside.Scary stories have a universal appeal and probably serve some purpose, but in light of what has already been explained the sacrilege of Halloween slasher movies should be obvious. Imagine for a moment the most sacred Christian or Jewish holidays being given an exploitative, sacrilegious theme. What if Easter produced a slew of apocalyptic flesh eating zombie movies, seeing as Jesus rose from the dead? What if Yom Kippur produced stories on the theme of sadomasochism, seeing as it’s the day of atonement? If the very suggestion of such a takeoff offends you, think about the commercial exploitation of Halloween in light of what the night is really about.You can still celebrate Halloween in a respectful way, even if you are not a Witch or a Druid. Explain to children that Halloween is a time of ghosts, and give them the option of dressing as a sad ghost or a wretched ghost or a whimsical ghost. Save the ballerina and astronaut costumes for a different occasion. If you want to have a Halloween gathering, just keep it cheerful and leave the slasher movies and related themes out of the evening. Tarot cards, harmless spells, and other witchy activities are fine, as long as they are not trivialized. If you simply ask your guests to bring a picture of a departed loved one and come prepared to talk a little about this person, you have right there an nonreligious expression of the true meaning of Halloween.
Matthews, Caitlin and John Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloomThat grows in concealment in the woods,…While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its sideWith a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
– Black Book of Caermarthen XVII
These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns.The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.SourcesMatthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1895.Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1868.University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.