The Origin of the holiday
That spooky, shivery fun that comes with celebrating Halloween today comes to us from the distant past when October 31 marked Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year. It was believed that on the night between the old year and the new, the boundaries between the living and the dead overlapped. The dead could come to life and bring with them mayhem, mischief, and sometimes sickness or failed harvests. The ancient Celts lit bonfires and wore costumes, often made of animal skins, to ward off the ghosts that came to haunt them. It was perhaps the most important night of the Celtic year.
Later, the Christians appropriated Samhain into the Catholic calendar. Pope Gregory III decreed that November 1 was to be a celebration of the saints known as All Saints Day. The night before was reserved for traditions as All Hallows Eve which was later shortened to Halloween.
Because it’s a night when the dead come to life, Halloween has always been associated with the supernatural. Everything is a little scary and mysterious. It’s a night when witches and their familiars are said to use skulls and spiders to cast their spells. The legends claim that werewolves may be out howling at the moon. There are stories that a bat might actually be a vampire in disguise. There are tales of cats, bats, owls, spiders, ravens, and wolves acting as witch’s familiars carrying out magical spells. A familiar, sometimes called a familiar spirit or animal guide, is a supernatural entity that assists with the practice of magic. Many animals are associated with the supernatural legends that are central to the Halloween celebration.
The thing that makes Halloween fun for children is the idea of trick or treating. That practice goes back to ancient times. It was believed that during Samhain a ghost could disguise itself as living and knock on a door to ask for food or money. Turning the spirit away would subject a person to the wrath of an angry ghost. Many times, the poor and hungry would disguise themselves as ghosts and beg for food. It became a practice to offer food to anyone knocking on the door on All Hallows Eve. The practice of trick or treating became popular in the United States during the mid-twentieth century after the practice was brought over by Irish immigrants.
Wearing costumes on Halloween also goes back to Samhain. It was believed that if you wore a costume, the dead might believe you to be one of them. You could save your soul by donning a costume.
There are many symbols central to the Halloween celebration. Many are animals, but there are also many non-animal symbols that represent the spirit of Halloween. First we will explore those symbols that are not animals.
The skull, both with and without an attached skeleton, is perhaps the most popular symbol attached to All Hallows Eve. It reminds us that the holiday was originally a celebration of a night when the dead came back to walk the Earth. The human skull has been a cultural icon in many parts of the world throughout history. It is most commonly used to represent death and mortality, but it has also been seen as a promise of a brighter future and a link to universal knowledge. The skull is used as a part of joyous celebration in many parts of the world. In Mexico, it is central to the Day of the Dead, a happy festival that honors dead relatives and loved ones. In the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, the skull is carried or worn by many of the gods and goddesses. In the Christian faith, the crucifixion occurred on Golgotha, a skull shaped hill. In Wiccan traditions, the skull is considered an emblem of transition. Celtic tradition, which is source of the Halloween holiday, considers the skull to be the house of the soul and the boundless power in the cyclical nature of life. Death is scary to the living, and the skull reminds us all of death which is the ultimate meaning of the Halloween celebration. Even for the Celts who honored the skull, fear may have been right there behind their spiritual hope that death was but a transition to another life.
There are many other non-animal Halloween symbols, including:
Ghosts: Ghosts are a Halloween obvious since it is a night when the dead come back to walk the Earth.
Witches: Halloween has always portrayed witches as an important element of the holiday, although the portrayal did not in always accurately reflect true witches. The stereotypical witch of Halloween is the witch as portrayed by fear mongers throughout history during the hundreds of years of witch trials. In truth, there was a powerful female spirit honored in Samhain celebrations as “the crone,” who was also known as “the old one” and “the Earth Mother.” The crone symbolized wisdom, change, and the turning of the seasons.
Cauldron: The witch’s cauldron is perceived as a pot filled with an evil brew used to carry out spells. The original cauldron is actually associated with the crone. Many pagan Celts believed that souls departed through the crone’s cauldron to an afterlife and perhaps reincarnation.
Witch’s broom: This tradition probably arises from the sad truth that many elderly or solitary women needed canes to walk. If no cane was available, some used brooms to steady their pace. It was older and solitary women who became the subject of countless allegations of evil practices during the centuries of witch trials in Europe and the Americas. Thus, the broom became a familiar prop for Halloween witches.
Jack-O-Lantern: Carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns is a favorite Halloween practice. It too goes back to a sad tale that resulted in practices during Samhain. There was an ancient tale that a farmer named Jack died and was refused entry into both Heaven and Hell. He carved a turnip to carry a lit piece of coal to guide him through the darkness of purgatory. Because of that tale, people carved turnips and placed candles inside of them to guide the ghosts away from their homes on All Hallows Eve. Later, turnips were replaced with pumpkins.
In addition to these symbols, there are many animal symbols. We will explore these symbols in the days to come.
Animals important to Halloween traditions
Bats are a central image to any Halloween scene. Bats were considered the familiars of witches throughout the Middle Ages. The bat’s strong association with witches makes it a favorite among the animals associated with the celebration of Halloween. There are many scary legends about the dangerous nature of the Halloween bat. It was long thought that if a bat flies around a house three times on Halloween, it will bring death to someone in the house. It was also believed that if a bat flew into a house, the house was haunted with ghosts. Seeing a bat was considered a sign that ghosts were coming. Bats were frequently seen on All Hallows Eve because people often burned huge bonfires to discourage the dead from coming near. It is thought that the bonfires attracted many flying insects, which in turn, would attract bats. It was long believed that witches used bats’ blood in their magical potions. Bat blood was supposedly stirred in a cauldron to create a potion that gave witches the power to fly. The bat is also associated with vampire legends. Even before the creation by Bram Stoker of the Dracula story, there were legends of blood sucking demons that flew through the night in Europe. There were many Eastern European tales of the nosferati or “undead” vampires sucking the blood of loved ones or relatives after death to create a new member of their tribe. The fictional Count Dracula was loosely based on a fifteenth century Romanian nobleman Vlad Dracul, who became known as Vlad the Impaler because of his treatment of enemies. He used many types of torture, but his favored method of killing was impaling his enemy on a wooden stick. It is said that he once impaled 20,000 enemy soldiers on the banks of the Danube River after a battle. The discovery of the Vampire Bat in the Americas added fuel to the legends of bloodthirsty bats. It was a natural to attach the bat to the idea of human blood-sucking vampires. It was commonly believed that vampires could transform or shape-shift into the form of a bat. With all of the creepy tales surrounding the actually very cute and useful animal known as the bat, it is quite understandable that it is a star on All Hallows Eve.
The owl is often depicted as a scary Halloween creature. It is thought that owls, like bats, were drawn by the many insects flying about the bonfires that were always lit on All Hallows Eve as protection against the walking dead. The owl was considered to be a witch’s familiar that could help in carrying out evil spells. It was believed that a witch could transform into an owl and fly through the night to perform magic. An owl’s hoot was thought to precede the approach of witches. Even though it is a scary character in the Halloween tales, the owl is considered a source of good fortune and wisdom in many of the world’s cultures.
Perhaps the raven became a Halloween favorite as a result of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven which suggests that the raven is a supernatural evil prophet. In many European legends the raven is depicted as a force of evil in disguise. In Sweden, the raven was thought to be a wandering soul of a murdered person who did not receive a proper Christian burial. Ravens are actually playful and extremely smart. They have been depicted in countless myths and worshipped by many cultures. In Norse mythology, they were depicted as Odin’s messengers. They were associated with the Greek god Apollo. In some Native American cultures, they are seen as a creator of the world and in others as a trickster. Clearly, raven’s association with suggestions of evil and supernatural prophecy make it a popular Halloween animal
Both the spider and the spider web are highly popular Halloween symbols. Their primary connection to Halloween is the medieval belief that spiders were the familiars of witches, used in carrying out their magical spells. Seeing a spider was a sign that witches were nearby. Additionally, spiders and their webs are commonly found in the spooky places associated with Halloween such as graveyards, dungeons, and haunted or abandoned houses. That’s because many species of the spider prefer dark living spaces. Additionally, in many cultures, the spider is seen as a mystical weaver of fate and oracle of death imbued with supernatural powers. The supernatural spider is a Halloween star.
The black cat is a Halloween perennial, mostly because it is associated with witches and witchcraft. The cat is another animal that was believed to have been used by witches as a familiar that could carry out their magical spells. The black cat was considered a bearer of bad luck in many ancient cultures including medieval France, Germany, and Spain even though it was seen as a source of good luck in Britain and worshipped in ancient Egypt. In Plymouth during the witch trials, the black cat was reviled as a companion of witches. The Puritans supposedly burned black cats on Shrove Tuesday to protect their homes from fire. Its long association with witches and the supernatural make the cat a Halloween favorite.
The wolf is a Halloween perennial because of the supernatural werewolf connection. It has also been said that wolves were sometimes used by witches as familiars. The wolf was an important animal to the Celtic and Viking cultures. The Vikings drank wolf blood before battles, wore wolf hides into battle, and considered wolves their battle companions. Viking legend told of Vargr or Warg, a human who could shapeshift into a wolf. In other European legends, the wolf was seen as both good and bad. It was supposedly a creation by the devil, but it was said to bring good luck in battle. Various parts of the wolf were used as medicine. Powdered wolf liver was said to ease childbirth. Sleeping with a wolf’s head could cure insomnia and ward off bad dreams. Legends of the shapeshifting werewolf originate from many different areas all over Europe. Their roots go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Humans become werewolves in many ways, some by affliction and some by personal choice. Rubbing a magical salve on the body or wearing a belt of wolf’s fur is said to cause the transformation. It was also believed that eating human flesh or drinking water from the footprint of a wolf would cause the shift to animal form. The werewolf transformation is sometimes permanent and sometimes temporary. It could be cured by taking wolfs bane, surgical removal of wolf parts, or exorcism. The magical and powerful werewolf is a natural for the Halloween celebration.