The name comes from the contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”, meaning the eve of All Hallows Day, or All Saints’ Day. Hallow is an old english word linked to sanctity, to the sacred, which you might remember from the 21st of december 2006 when the title of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was announced and everybody on the internet turned into a linguist and tried to understand what it meant.
Thus it’s one of those holiday that’s split between a christian feast, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the first and second of november, and a more folkloric feast, Halloween on the night of the 31st of october. With its ghostly image, one can wonder: are Halloween’s roots in this Christian holiday, or are they to be found in a pagan festival, specifically the Gaelic feast of Samhain? (Yes, it’s “sawain”, not “samain”: Celtic languages are not easy to transcribe and we apologize for all our coming mispronunciations.) The problem with the Celts – at least with the British and Gaulish celts – is that because of a series of factors including the roman invasion and colonisation of much of their territories, the arrival of christianity and finally the Anglo-Saxons conquest of Britain, they didn’t leave writings predating Christianity.
So when we want to know more about their culture, we depend on Roman sources, which are not really objective nor always accurate, Irish and Welsh medieval texts which often are influenced by the christian context in which they were written, and folklore collected over the last three centuries, which can only give a very rough picture of their culture’s evolution, and only in the very limited perimeter of the British Isles and Brittany.
[amazon_link asins=’1975890469′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’uspurchase’ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ec969289-b459-11e8-9046-db35d05605f5′]Despite this lack of sources, there are many people today who rely on Samhain to prove the pagan origins of Halloween, and I think we can distinguish three major trends. First, Christians – especially but not limited to evangelical Christians – for whom Halloween is a kind of pagano-satanic feast. We find echoes of this kind of moral panic in France, for example, with Damien Le Guay’s polemical pamphlet “La face cachée d’Halloween” in 2002, reacting mainly to Halloween beginning to take hold in France and the rest of continental Europe as a children’s holiday in the mid-nineties. (1994-5) Second, neo-pagans, Wiccans and other New Age types who counter these attacks by insisting on the antiquity of Samhain, to legitimize Halloween. In France an example is this 2000 book by Jean Markale, an enthusiastic celtic revivalist, often criticized for its celtomaniac lack of method .
And third, fiction. Cinema and literature use Samhain as a dramatic device, especially in horror stories. And as you can imagine, it’s not necessarily well done from a scholarly point of view. In 1993, the year Lays and I were born, an animated tv movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree produced by Hannah Barbera came out on Cartoon Network which would often air around Halloween. Its plot? Four children are running after the soul of one of their friends, discovering somehow the origin of some Halloween customs through ancient Egypt, the medieval… Celtic… witches…
Of Stonehenge, the gargoyles of Notre dame and the feast of the dead, dia de los muertos in Mexico City, where Moundshrew, played by Leonard Nimoy, can supposedly teach them something about Halloween’s roots, each era allowing one of them to understand the reason behind their costume. And most people who talk about this film seem to be convinced that this is an educational film … “It sounds more educational than scary – Education – education isn’t a bad thing !” … that it’s a true exploration of the real roots of Halloween “It’s one of the best Halloween specials i can recommend the visuals are jaw-dropping it’s a nice history lesson about the holiday” “the Halloween tree ! how often do you come across a halloween special that actually teaches you something well that’s exactly what this one does and it surprisingly does it very well Q “The movie does have one element that goes for it and that’s the history while most holiday special take place on halloween very rarely do they talk about the history of its origins.
[su_quote]The film takes an innovative approach to educating its audience about the history of the holiday they use the characters costumes as a start on how each tradition comes to play one key dresses as a mummy then they go to ancient Egypt on a night when families light candles and celebrate the dead[/su_quote]
But seriously: this is not history, Ancient Egypt has nothing to do with Halloween. And Joey here does realize that the Gargoyles and Dia de los Muertos are off topic: “one kid’s a monster and then they take him to Notre-Dame… because… of gargoyles ?… yeah it’s still pretty cool even the other kids dresses a skeleton is brought to one of the first Dia de los Muertos even though it’s not Halloween but I think its intentions are good” And when they get to witches making… brooms ? It’s just there to regurgitate a romantic or new age view of witchcraft.
In the book, Moundschrew makes it out to be a mix of Greek, Roman and Celtic paganism, witches having somewhat inherited these traditions and practicing magic, even if their magic of course does not work. It’s probably wrong. Despite all the efforts of Michelet, Wiccans and other neo-pagans to romanticize them, the average alleged witch burned at the stake was not part of a secret sect of alchemists, and neither did she inherit the Gaelic tradition of Samhain. Moreover, in the movie they just show a holiday celabrated by celtic pagan witches at Stonehenge with souls turning into black cats (???), but in the novel, Bradbury paints Samhain as a kind of god of death, autumn and harvest, who also has a scythe (because death and harvesting, you see).
Samhain is not a deity, by the way, but we’ll come back to that later. The association between Samhain and the supernatural does not stop there and can be found in a lot of horror movies. Halloween, the John Carpenter cult film from 1978 … did not explicitly allude to the supernatural. It was the story of Michael Meyers, who killed his sister on Halloween when he was six years old and who, fifteen years later, escapes from the asylum where he was detained to kill again in his hometown. But Debra Hill, who co-wrote the film with Carpenter, says that while Samhain is not mentioned in the movie they did have it in mind We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived.
The novelisation in 1979 wanted to clarify this connection and made Michael Meyers the reincarnation of a celt who, on the eve of Samhain, had sacrificed a girl who rejected his advances, along with her fiance. The other members of the village killed him in retaliation, cursing his soul to wander the earth forever. In Halloween 2 (1981), Debra Hill made this connection with Samhain clearer. At one point, Michael Meyers breaks into a primary school and writes the word Samhain with blood on a blackboard. Dr. Loomis points out that it’s the name of the Celtic lord of the dead.
As we will see in just a moment, this is plain wrong. But anyway, Michael Meyers is destroyed by fire so in Halloween 3 (1982) the villain is an Irishman who tries to sacrifice lots of children using masks that contain a miniaturized chip and a piece of stone from Stonehenge, combined with a television ad that tricks insects into eating them? In short a Celtic sacrifice to the forces of darkness. Halloween 4 and 5 do not innovate much, Michael Meyers was resurrected through the power of Hollywood loving profits and in Halloween 6, it’s stated that this serial killer genetic curse with Celtic time travel comes from the Thorn rune – which comes from a Germanic alphabet, not from any Celtic language – and is manipulated by a druidic cult – while the actual Druids prohibited the use of writing. Okay. Why not. One could maybe imagine Celts starting to use runes because of anglo-Saxon influence in the Middle Ages? But in any case this depiction is really representative of the way ancient Celts are treated in general.
We have so little information about them that it’s always tempting to borrow bits from the Romans or germans to fill in the blanks ; something that can be seen even in academia, in MacCulloch’s terrible The Religion of Ancient Celts in 1911, for example. Supernatural is a television show that came on the air in 2005 and will last forever. It follows the adventures of Sam and Dean, two brothers who hunt supernatural creatures. From a history of religions point of view, there’s a lot that could be said on the show since practically every episode we see them study religion and folklore, comparing various cultures that speak of similar creatures to get more information about their targets. Supernatural is set in the US, with its melting pot of culture that allows for a lot of folklore to be featured on the show and the exciting possibilities that come with it.
It practice, every monster is played by a guy in a suit, everything is solved by good old fisticuffs between guys in suits, or torture sometimes, and from season 4 onwards, everything is a demon versus angel thing, Christianity is the one true religion except for the parts about Jesus — which nobody wants to address because that would mean the Winchesters are not the center of history. And in their 2008 Halloween episode they explain that the feast of Samhain is named after a demon : “Dean, Samhain is the damn origin of Halloween.
The Celts believe that October 31st was the one night of the year when the veil was the thinnest between the living and the dead, and it was Samhain’s night. I mean, masks were put on to hide from him, sweets left on doorsteps to appease him, faces carved into pumpkins to worship him. He was exorcised centuries ago.” The boundary between the world of the living and the dead would be thinner that day and — why not ? – the Celts were already celebrating Halloween, they wore masks to escape the demon Samhain. They carved pumpkins to– Wait, pumpkins? As in, a vegetable that is native to the Americas and that the ancient Celts could not possibly have used? A similar mistake can be seen in The Real Ghostbusters cartoon were a Celtic spirit named Samhain is awoken and he has a pumpkin head. “I am Samhain. I am Halloween.” And again we are told that Samhain – pronounced as in Supernatural – is not a feast but the lord of the dead. This is completely wrong. There is literally no trace of a deity named Samhain.
It’s always been the name of a feast, of a holiday. Where does this come from? Well, we owe this invention to a folklorist named Vallencey in the eighteenth century. He did not know to which god this festival was dedicated – we can only speculate but probably not to any particular god – and well he said there was a god named Samhain, to whom he gives a biblical demon name “BalSab” which would mean lord of the dead.
He made this up from nothing and it was repeated by Lady Wilde in her book Mystic Charms and Superstitions and after that by many people until today, still based on nothing. Well, we can actually find one appearance by a character named Samhain. In a legend collected in the 19th century, he is the brother of Cian and Goibhnu. The latter gives him a magical cow who can provide an infinite supply of milk, but she is cunningly stolen by a guy named Balor of the Evil Eye. For some, like Peter Berresford Ellis, it’s enough proof that Samhain was a god, even though nothing else can be said about him.. The problems with this assertion is obvious: it comes from several compiled legends, collected in the 19th century, so quite late, and it doesn’t add any other piece of information.
And it seems like too weak a proof for him to start his article on Samhain in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by saying he was “one of the gods”. So there are still some researchers who consider that Samhain was a god, but it’s quite a minority, even a fringe position. Review of encyclopedias and dictionaries on the subject In the end, we cannot really blame the creators of Supernatural or Halloween because the problem goes way back. Usually when we don’t know much about a topic, we start with dictionaries or encyclopedias on the field in question, because they’re often written by specialists and they give you references to go furhter. It’s never perfect but it’s a starting point. And, if I try to summarize a dozen of those dictionaries published in the last 25 years they portray Samhain pretty much like these horror movies.
Samhain being a deity we saw that was erroneous. That it was the Celtic New Year that it was the Day of the Dead That it was the occasion for ghostly manifestations and an increased supernatural activity a special moment to get in touch with the deceased That there was human sacrifices And bonfires practices of divination and other festivities Some are more skeptical or refute one mistake or the other, but it’s still weird that they share the same portrayal of Samhain as horror movies, cartoons or tv shows unable to pronounce the name right. So in this video, we’re going to try to figure things out and see what we can find out about Samhain and the origins of All Saint’s Day and Halloween… One of the themes that comes up a lot is human sacrifice. In The Wicker Man , the 1973 film (which had a 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage) we see a policeman investigating a disappearance in a small British island whose inhabitants seem to perpetuate celtic pagan practices, before he is himself killed by fire in a Wicker Man. The film mixed a lot of folk elements that usually factor in the portrayal of Celtic paganism: a certain idea of sensuality, the naked dancing amid standing stones, masks of animals including of deers, etc.
But this idea of ancient Celts making large wicker men full of men and beasts that they burn in offering to their gods, we owe it to Julius Caesar, who mentions it in his Gallic Wars. Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo also speak of human sacrifice. It is believed that many of those Greek and Roman historians draw from the writings of Posidonius and are questionable, but even the oldest historical reference to Celtic religion in Athenaeus mentions human sacrifice. It has an obvious function. It’s a discourse that enables Romans, Pagan as well as Christians, to portray themselves as more civilized than the cultures they conquered. In the same vein, Strabo says that the Irish sleep with their mothers and sisters and devour the corpse of their fathers – even if he admits that it comes from unreliable testimonies.
Human sacrifice is a complex topic. It is quite possible that the Celts did sacrifice people, but archeologists found no trace of the gigantic pyres of humans and animals described by Caesar. And in general, it’s an accusation that tends to be linked to alterity, to otherness, to the Other. No Roman claims that his people make human sacrifices — although they did bury Vestals alive — when they talk about human sacrifices it is either about foreigners (Celtic or Carthaginian) therefore a geographical otherness; or to state that their ancestors made human sacrifices, but that it was a long time ago and that they abolished them: a temporal otherness, in a way, that makes them look good. And even when we do find a body, like the Lindow Man found in Cheshire: a man tied up, strangled, and left to sink into a bog — what tells us it was not simply some form of execution or murder? Nonetheless some claim that Samhain would feature human sacrifices or at least sacrifices.
Bede (c. 725) says that the Anglo-Saxon month corresponding to November, Blodmonath, month of blood, takes its name from the bloody sacrifices that were performed at that time. Because of that, Markale supposes that a very important pig sacrifice took place at Samhain. The problem is, aside from the fact that Blodmonath is a germanic name, that even if it might have derived from the cattle being slaughtered at that time of year, it was probably just to process their meat and save up on fodder during winter, so it’s more about butchery than sacrifice.
A better example would be The Dindschenchas — “the lore of the places” — a collection of Irish texts from the eleventh or twelfth century that sought to explain how places got their names. It mentions that in a place called Mag Slecht, which would mean the plain of prostration, there were human sacrifices on Samhain, offered to Cromm Cruaìch (which would mean lord of the hill?), a golden idol surrounded by twelve stone idols. The pagans bowed to him so that their noses touched their knees and offered him their first-born as sacrifice, sheding their blood around the idols in exchange for a good harvest of wheat and milk. at least until Saint Patrick allegedly put a term to these practices.
But as Jacqueline Borsje of the University of Amsterdam explained, this story is probably not historical. First, we do not find this story of human sacrifice in the Confession that was supposedly written by St. Patrick himself in the fifth century or in the Collectanea, traditions on the life of St. Patrick compiled by the bishop Tírechan at the end of the seventh century. The idol Cromm Cruaìch does appear in some ulterior lives of Saint Patrick but still no human sacrifice until the Dindschenchas. Second, those idolatrous sacrifice look a lot like some passages of the Old Testament,which describe human sacrifices to Moloch or Baal, and the vocabulary used even resembles the Vulgate translation. So we can conclude that in trying to reconstruct their pagan past, the Irish have filled the blanks using the stories of the Old Testament that warned the people of Israel with whom the Irish identified.
And what did the heathen do back then you ask? Well, human sacrifices of course ! And that’s probably how we ended up with this story of human sacrifices stopped by St. Patrick, although the process seems to be a bit more complex — if you’re interested, I would recommand Borsje’s article on the topic. So were there sacrifices on Samhain? Perhaps, the evidence is not really conclusive. And for human sacrifices? Even less so. In some Celtic languages, the month of November was named Samhain or a related name, and we can find some clue about it in medieval Irish literature. The Tochmarc Emire lists Samhain among the four quarter-days of the year: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughdasahn.
(Hutton 403) Beltaine was still well known into the Middle Ages, but not much is told about the others – as you can see in our Imbolc episode – which would suggest that they had long disappeared. The Serglige con culaind (12th century.) tells us that three days before and after samhain there were festivities, games and competitions, which would then last one week. (See Koch 1607-8) The Sanas Cormaic (tenth c.), a kind of lexicon, says of Samhain that it is the end of summer, which would fit with its likely etymology. The fact that the Coligny Calendar, a Celtic calendar from the second century found in Roman Gaul had a month named Samonios and, it seems a samonios feast suggests that the feast was old.
However, this is a lunar calendar, so it would mean that it did not always fall on the first of November. Caesar also said that unlike the Romans, who counted the days from midnight to midnight, the Celts counted from dusk to dusk. So assuming Samhain became fixed in a solar calendar, it would begin on the eve of November 1, that is, to us, October the 31st. Now as to what Samhain was beyond that … Many people, in particular the folklorist John Rhys theorized that Samhain was the Celtic New Year. Rhys had noticed that on the culturally celtic Isle of Man, some people — well, at least some elderly guy he found there — treated November 1 as the new year : in the old days some bills were paid at this date and some would even call it Hogmanay, a word sill used in Scots to mean new year’s eve. It’s not an unreasonable supposition, and as Rhys noted, there are a few New Year rituals on this day in the Isle of Man, even if he himself remarked that it was possible that they had only recently been transferred from the 31st of December or the first of January But we also have good reason to believe that Beltaine was the beginning of the year.
One theory, relying on the Coligny Calendar, is that the year was divided in two: Samhain marking the beginning of the cold half while Beltaine marked the beginning of the warm half. A counterargument to Rhys is that it’s very common for people to use different calendars for different purposes. And you probably do: we certainly use the Gregorian calendar starting on the first of January, but the school year, at least in Switzerland generally lasts from August-September to June-July Depending on the country, the fiscal year does not necessarily begin in january, and so on. The fact that some leases and contracts end on Samhain on the Isle of Man can be a sign of such a calendar existing, but it does not necessarily give it a crucial significance. Also, we’re not really sure that there was only one celtic calendar, be it in a country in a given era or more so throughout the entire Celtic world: it seems that there always were several coexisting calendars, legal, agricultural, etc.
In this context there, was Samhain the Celtic New Year? Maybe, but as it stands, it does not mean much. Among other sources John Rhys relied on a seventeenth century account by Geoffrey Keating, , who explains in his history of Ireland that on Samhain, everyone had to extinguish the fires they had in their house, on penalty of fine. The druids would gather on a hill named Tlachtgha, where they would light a bonfire and make sacrifices to their gods. Everyone would then come to the hill and bring back fire to rekindle theirs. Beyond the fact that the ritual hardly seems practical if the whole country is to come and get fire back from the same hill, and that it implies a degree of religious centralization in Ireland that goes against everything we know about the era, Keating doesn’t even provide a source for it! Relying on this account, even though it cannot really be taken at face value, James George Frazer, made it one of his Fire Festivals. He reconstructed an entire calendar of Fire Festivals at the solstices, equinoxes and halfway between them.
Despite the lack of evidence, many researchers after him, as well as neo-pagans, would adopt this “celtic” calendar. (Sermon 408) For him bonfires mostly had purifying virtues, but sometimes they could represent the sun, or help the sun in its course. In this respect traditions of Hallowe’en fires can mostly be found in three places: in center and north Wales In the districts around the Highland Line in Scotland. and on the Isle of Man, where in 1845 it was said that in olden times people built fires during a festival named Sauin to scare away witches. The problem is, one, that as the index of Frazer reminds us, people make bonfires all the time so it might not be that significant.
Two, these fires are virtually absent from regions of the British Isles usually deemed “Celtic” being The rest of the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides (with the exception of Skye at the later date of 1923), Cumbria, Cornwall, and even Ireland. (Hutton 368-9) In this last case they can be found in Dublin and the Protestant parts of Ulster probably due to the many Scottish immigrants there (Hutton 368 n. 38-9) but Frazer himself was somewhat puzzled that this practice would be absent from everywhere else in the major Irish folklore collections of the nineteenth century. From this, it seems that there was no great Celtic fire festival at Samhain. In addition to that, Frazer supposed that Samhain was a pagan festival of the dead that the Catholic Church had replaced with All Saints DAy. His reasoning was simple: the two feasts were close, it would be the Celtic New Year, there are examples of cultures who honor their dead during the new year, and the Catholic Church would have taken over this holiday from the Celts, since that is what they do all the time.
And a lot of people agree with him. But as Ronald Hutton reminds us, the reality is much more complex. First, the divisions of the English year appear to be rather Anglo-Saxon, so Germanic rather than Celtic. Second, All Saints Day, as its name clearly indicates, is not a feast of the dead, but a celebration of saints. And around the Mediterranean in the second half of the fourth century we see a multiplication of this kind of celebrations, commemorating the Christian martyrs killed by pagan emperors.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian, who died in 373, mentions one such celebration on May the 13th in his Carmina Nisibena. In the fifth century, Syrian churches had one during Holy week, and the Greeks preferred the Sunday after Pentecost, thus we have varying dates. Rome favored May the 13th, which was made official by Pope Boniface IV in 609 when he consecrated the Pantheon to All Saints. But around the year 800 we see that germanic churches, so in England and Germany, preferred the date of November the 1st, it appears for example in the later copies of Bede’s martyrology. The holiday was then allegedly generalized under Louis the Pious in 835 at the instigation of Gregory IV. Was this set up to replace Samhain? In support of this theory, we can point out that there were influential Irish monks and missionaries in this region, such as Saint Columban, who founded many monasteries; and so they would have spread an irish custom.
Except that we have evidence that All Saints Day cannot come either from or even to Ireland! We know from two calendars, the Felire of Oengus and Martyrology of Tallaght that in Ireland, around the ninth century Saints were commemorated on April 20. So it’s not necessarily clear why November 1st was chosen instead of a date in April or May: Samhain may have played a role to some extent, but that date clearly came out of the Germanic world, not the Celtic world.
We can speculate that one problem with those dates in April or may is that they can get too close to the moveable feasts around Easter. Easter, at least in the west, falls between March 22 and April 25, so the Ascension follows between April 30 and June 3 and Pentecost between May 10 and June 13 It could mess up the liturgy a bit if a feast of the dead were to fall in between them. Thus, outside of the Annunciation at the very beginning of the cycle on March 25 there’s no major fixed feast in this part of the catholic liturgical year.
As for the ‘day of the dead’ as such, known as All Soul’s Day or officially the commemoration of all the faithful departed, it only appears later. It’s supposedly Odilo, Abbot of Cluny around the 10th-11th century, who created a day commemorating the dead in all the institutions attached to Cluny, but the exact date it was celebrated at the time remains unclear. In any case, it ended up being set on the day after All Saints’ Day, so November 2nd. We can try to guess why. First, All Saints’ Day bears a fairly obvious relationship with death since many saints died in martyrs, which is what is commemorated on this day. Moreover, during the Middle Ages with the development of the hell/purgatory/heaven dogma, saints became intercessors, intermediaries, which could be called upon to help the souls of the deceased. (Hutton 364-5) Of course, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are not necessarily distinct in most people’s mind. In France, more often than not, the dead are honored on the first of November, which is a public holiday. So now that we’re talking about the dead, let’s go back to this idea that Samhain is a fateful date, during which the boundaries between the spirit world and the world of the living are thinner, and during which supernatural phenomenons occur.
And indeed in Irish sagas a lot of weird things happen on Samhain, which was associated with manifestations from the Sidhe, the spirit world or otherworld, inhabited by supernatural beings. In the Serlige con Culain: the hero Culain attacks two otherworldly birds, linked by a red gold chain and singing a mysterious song who turn out to be fairies in animal form: he falls asleep and dreams that they are whipping him, causing him to lose the ability to speak for a year and forcing him to stay in bed until the next samhain, when one of these fairy women from the otherworld sends someone to tell him they can heal him in exchange for his help.
This was also the date when the Fomorians, the former monstrous masters of Ireland, demanded a tribute of milk, honey, and a third of the newborns. It could be linked to Samhain as a date on which you payed your rent or your contract ended, and so on. One explanation for the numerous occurrences of Samhain in Irish medieval tales would be that it’s a recognizable date, during which there were regular festivities. The same way, in the Arthurian legends, stories often begin on Pentecost/Whitsunday, Christmas or Easter: since all the characters can be reunited for a banquet at Arthur’s court, which makes for a natural starting point. But it’s also on this day that the Fomorians were vanquished by the Tuatha de Danaan, during the battle of Mag Tuired. Many kings from the Ulster cycle die on Samhain, and in the adventure of Nera, it’s on Samhain’s night that someone dares him to tie something to a hanged man’s ankle, at which point he comes back to life and asks for water.
Nera’s adventure continues with him having a vision of his town on fire, filled with dead people, and a woman warning him that it’s going to happen next samhain unless his people and him destroy the Sidhe Army hidden in the hill of Cruachan. (Morton 16) We also have the tale of some sort of three-headad vulture coming out of its cave on this night to wreak havoc with hordes of devilish creatures, etc. This idea of Samhain as a litterary device to gather all characters cannot explain all these ghostly or monstrous apparitions, so scholars like Jeffrey Gantz, Proinsias MacCana and, in France, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt or Françoise Le Roux consider that Samhain is indeed an ominous date when manifestations from the otherworld, the Sidhe, increased in intensity and frequency.
( And this ominous dimension seems to be reflected in folklore. To quote only a few examples : In some places food offerings were left on that date; they could be implied to be for the dead or for fending off witches. On the Isle of Lewis in the seventeenth century, local priests reported to have abolished a pagan ritual. Namely, sailors would go on the edge of the waves, kneeling in the sea and imploring a spirit named “shoney” (johnny) for a good catch next year by pouring a bowl of ale in the water. They then went to sit in silence in a chapel, and later went to make merry in the fields. In Argyle in the twentieth century, people in disguise would visit houses while playing the role of ghosts, inhabitants pretending not to see them. In the nineteenth century at Longridge Fell in the Lancashire Pennines, it was customary to ascend on a hill from eleven o’clock to midnight, with a lit candle in hand, and if it were to go off, it would mean a witch had done it, which would mean bad luck for you, but if it were to stay lit you were safe.
Divinatory practices which would vary greatly from place to place. In north wales, people would throw a pebble in the Halloween bonfire and if the next day your pebble could not be found, it would be a sign that you would die during the next year. Divination can also be found on the eve of May Day, on the 24th of june or on New Year’s Eve. (Hutton 380) Depending on your point of view it could reinforce the theory that Samhain was the Celtic New Year, or weaken it, given that those practices appear on the eve of any significant date. And that they look a lot like roman customs of the New Year as we saw in our episode on the Kalends of January. For all this and more, again, I refer you to Hutton’s book. There is no proof that it started the year, or that it was about the dead but from all these elements, from folklore or irish literature, Hutton concludes that there was an important pagan festival on the first of november. But what really convinces him is the link between Samhain and Beltaine.
Beltaine deserves its own episode, but they share some customs: both are seen as ominous times, on opposite ends of the year. The thing is, a lot of Samhain and Beltaine-related beliefs can also be found beyond the British Isles, on the eve of May Day, or Walpurgisnacht, as it’s called in german. That’s a problem : Walpurgisnacht was a big deal in a lot of the germanic world and even beyond, where it was said that on this night witches were out and about ; so it can’t just be a celtic festival. And geography might not be as important as economy. Hutton theorizes that the period around Samhain and Beltaine, marking the beginning of the seasons, was only important in pastoral economies, where it would be the period of transhumance, the herds being brought out in their grazing fields at the beginning of may, and taken to their winter quarters at the beginning of november.
Given the vulnerability that might come at those transitional times, a lot of the customs we’ve seen make sense, and it seems logical that places that had a completely different economy altogether did not care much for those feasts. (Hutton 225, 370) If we accept this hypothesis, which fits with a lot of the facts, Samhain loses its aura as an important celtic religious festival and starts to look like an important moment for pastoral economies, but shared largely beyond celtic peoples. The modern Halloween tradition We’ve talked about traditional folklore and practices, but when we talk about modern Halloween traditions you’re certainly thinking of two of its most emblematic elements : trick-or-treating, going from door to door in disguise to ask for candy, unleashing various tricks on the neighbour that would not comply, and the Jack’o’lanterns, faces carved in pumpkins to be used as lanterns.
You might be surprised to learn that there is a very strong case for those practices to be entirely linked with christian concepts of death and the hereafter. Let’s go back to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The concept of purgatory mostly developed throughout the Middle Ages as an intermediate stage between Heaven and Hell, though the idea that you could help the deceased through prayer could already be found in christian antiquity, to relieve them of their pain or ease their way into heaven. But during the Reformation, protestants started to push back against such conceptions, because they often implied to call upon saints as intercessors, which protestants despised, but also because if you can decide what becomes of one’s soul after one’s death, it means that people are not judged for their actions but just for how many friends they have praying for them.
Thus, in the British Isles, the reformation brings about the end of official church celebrations for the commemoration and rest of the dead, which was fought against by some. (Hutton 371-2) This might explain why, in reaction to this disappearance, we note the emergence of a lot of private rituals. An example of those rituals would be the “Teen’lay”: straw was burnt at the end of a fork while people prayed around it in honor of the dead. (Hutton 372-3) Another one that would be of even bigger interest to our actual purpose : Soul Cakes. Poor people would come knocking from door to door and ask for Soul Cakes, which were given in honor of the dead of the household, which might already had some soul-saving virtue, being an act of charity in their name, but in exchange for the cookie, the beggars would also say a prayer for the souls of the deceased.
It was really popular with children, who would often be satisfied with cookies, fruits or money, but older young men would warmly accept a little beer. It’s a great business model : give us something and we’ll pray for your dead ! To get the message across more efficiently they had some songs like this one, that Sting covered in 2009 : A soul cake, a soul cake, Please, good missus, a soul cake, One for Peter, two for Paul, And three for Him that made us all.
An early form of such a custom could be found in a tract from 1511 entitled The Festyvall which states that bread was offered “for all christian souls”. The tradition of souling can be found all throughout the nineteenth century, hindered a bit from 1870 onwards because of the generalised schooling of children, which left them with less time to go begging for baked goods. The thing is, Sting was doing a christmas themed album, so he says : And come no more a-soulling ’till christmas time next year To make it a christmas song, while it originally it said til this time next year. But in any case, a lot of people would come bother you until Christmas. All Saints’ Day marked the beginning of a big winter begging cycle where people would beg for people’s hospitality, generally singing door to door.
On the 23 of november, it was done by blacksmiths in honor of Saint Clement, their patron saint ;on the 29th of november you had the feast of Saint Catherine, for wheelwrights, carters, spinners, rope makers and so on. And along these you had other forms of celebration: on the 30th of november, Saint Andrew’s day, men and women would exchange clothes. And closer to christmas, a kind of itinerant begging on Saint Thomas Day, the 21st of december, was called Thomasing, and was so prominent that the day was often called “Begging Day”.
The Twelve Days of Christmas featured carolling, which still exists today in some capacity in anglo-saxons countries, where you go sing carols from door to door in ugly sweaters in exchange for a little money, though today it’s usually for charity ; and wassailling, where it’s especially young women asking that their wassail bowl be filled with roasted apples, hot wine etc. We could certainly emit the hypothesis that souling, as it was called, is of celtic origin, but it didn’t really take hold in northern England, in Scotland or in Wales. And there are only very few records before 1700. It can actually be best explained as the emergence of new forms of urban begging, because during that time of the year different economic activities came to a halt, agricultural jobs, fishing at sea, but people still needed to make a buck. So, at first, souling marketed itself with the christian ideal of charity, in connection to the christian ideology around purgatory, at a point where traditional rituals of prayer and intercession in favor of the dead were disappearing.
Although the meaning was soon lost to leave only the candy… But that’s often what happens when your marketing is efficient. Another way to make a few bucks during the winter was Mumming, or Mummers Plays a sort of folk theatre that people played in disguise, sometimes in exchange for money, going from door to door, and in the same way it could be seen at numerous times during winter. Of course, we could assume that it’s the origin of Halloween disguises, that we find at the beginning of the twentieth century among some of those that went from house to house to collect candy. In Orkney, young men would wear women’s clothing ; on Skye, they would blacken their face and wear old clothes.
And it was an opportunity to cause some mischief. In this latter case, to quote Hutton : were traditionally allowed to ‘exercise the greatest licence’, sitting where they pleased in a kitchen, singing, conversing, and ignoring the inhabitants of the house which they had entered and who were expected to set scones, cakes and fruit before them. That’s one example of the kind of mischief that was an important part of the night, but it was by no means confined to Halloween. Now, all this could have a celtic component. We talked about it in our episode on the Kalends of January (which is only in french for now please submit english subtitles thanks), mentioning that numerous church fathers complained that around the New Year, there were some masquerades, people disguising themselves as animals, especially deers. Some people made a connection to Cernunnos, the gaulish god, given the geographical repartition of those testimonies, who are mainly found in Gaul, Britain and Spain.
It’s a parallel that could be added to what Rhys noticed on the Isle of Man, to put it differently, with the introduction of the Julian calendar, Samhain customs would have shifted on the new New Year, the first of january. But I don’t know if it’s really conclusive, especially given there’s no deer disguise found on samhain. Furthermore, disguising oneself for festive occasions was relatively common all throughout the year, just like itinerant begging, or divinatory practices. In the end, we see that these things are not really uniquely associated with Samhain. Jack’o’Lantern and Pumpkins All this brings us to jack’o’lanterns, which are clearly associated with that time of year.
In Ireland, they were traditionnaly carved from turnips, but the custom can also be found in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, and in Somerset, where they were called “punkie”, and halloween called punkie or spunky night. The name “jack’o’lantern” was linked to the story of a spirit trying to lure away wanderers with a lantern, which was probably linked to will-o’-the-wisps. Punkie was actually a word used for the will-o’-the-wisps. People usually give mundane explanations to these lanterns : they were simply a way to get light during the night, or maybe to fend away evil spirits. But given that will-o’-the-wisps are often depicted as the souls of unbaptised babies, we might theorize that it was originally meant in honor of the deceased. (Hutton 382-3). Now it might be a bit contrived. When the tradition came to the united states, mostly thanks to irish immigrants, they started using pumpkins instead of turnips, probably because, well, they’re quite bigger and easier to carve.
The first written record in the US dates back to 1834, but there might already be a trace in 1820 in Washington Irving’s famous short story: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where a pumpkin was found next to the body of Ichabod Crane. In later incarnations of the story, of course, it would be a jack’o’lantern instead of a mere pumpkin. One factor in the diffusion of these traditions was the Great Famine in Ireland, between 1845 and 1852, which caused massive emigration of irish people to the rest of the British Isle, and — especially — to the United States, where Halloween would become hugely popular and where all those elements would combine in the twentieth century to form the holiday we know. And from the United States it would be exported again to continental Europe. You could see Halloween in the anglo-saxon media that was consumed in Europe, but it was not really well known back then, to the point where if you search for mentions of Halloween in european newspapers before the nineties, most of them are about the John Carpenter movie (which thus needed a different title when it was translated into french, “la Nuit des Masques”, night of the masks) or speak of halloween in an anglo-saxon context.
And between 1994 and 1996, the holiday started to manifest itself: if you look at Switzerland and France it might have been helped by some marketing operations, like France Telecom giving away pumpkins in 95, or some brand of cigarette giving away cigarettes on the night of Halloween in some Swiss nightclubs. So its propagation might be helped by business-minded people looking for an opportunity to sell stuff during a part of the year that was traditionally off peak (except for Florists, maybe), which is also part of a broader american cultural influence, in a way But it’s broadly seen as an american thing and hasn’t catched on in a lot of places. Let’s talk about The Halloween Tree again. Are we saying that this is intolerable anachronistic propaganda? Well, a little but not entirely. Its greatest sin is perhaps to have won the Emmy in 1994 for “Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program”. What? Okay, it’s not bad writing, it’s Ray Bradbury, but… it didn’t really make the best use of the medium especially if you consider that it won against Animaniacs, Batman the Animated Series and Rugrats! So yes, Ray Bradbury seriously believes some of this history lesson and obviously people take him seriously.
But it’s still fiction and we’re not really mad that novelists, screenwriters or youtubers have a skewed vision of Halloween or celtic religion. But it’s a bit more worrying when it comes to people who write books on the subject. In the novel and the movie Bradbury is not writing a history Halloween. He is rather doing what Dickens did for Christmas in A Christmas Carol, a ghostly journey to clarify the meaning of a holiday attacked as too cheerful or not Christian enough. And in essence his book is intended as a response to Christian attacks against Halloween, that’s why we are shown the Romans destroying Celtic culture, then Christians destroying all paganism; or that Moundshrew cannot enter a church : to make Halloween separate from christianity. The various pagan traditions invoked serve this discourse and when speaking of Ancient Egypt or Dia de Muertos he does not describe the origins of Halloween, he compares how two cultures deal with death, and tries to draw a lesson : staging death, in a way, allows us to confront it and make it lose its grim sid, which for Bradbury would be the function of Halloween. (Bradbury 136-8) And of course some Christians are annoyed Halloween eclipses All Saints’ Day.
But even though early Christians were quite vocal in their fight against paganism, there was a certain tolerance towards practices regarding Death. One could cite, for example the roman tradition of eating with the dead, and involve them in the meal by pouring food into holes in their graves, which was called the refrigerium and lasted quite a long time into Christian antiquity. But most importantly there is a passage that I find quite significant in the life of Saint Martin of Tours. He sees a procession in the distance, people carrying something wrapped in white sheets battered by the winds. Suspecting that it’s a pagan ritual he intimes them to stop with his saint superpowers, and they actually find themselves unable to advance.
So they drop what they’re carrying and Martin realizes that this is not an idol, but a corpse. It was a pagan funeral. And when he realizes that … He lets them go. Generally speaking, the church were not monsters, they understood that when it came to honor the dead everybody would not necessarily be entirely Catholic, but it didn’t mean that this sentiment was fundamentally unchristian. In conclusion, I would say that it is often impossible to distinguish Christian folklore from surviving pagan traditions, and that distinction doesn’t always make sense anyway. But no matter how much it bothers Christians or neo-pagans, all we can guess about Samhain from folklore is intertwined with the Christian feast of the dead, and has been for over a thousand years. So maybe we could stop twisting the history of this holiday in order to attack Christians and maybe instead of saying that it is a satanic pagan festival, Christians might try to incorporate it into their celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, drawing inspiration from the practices of charity and prayer for the dead that gave birth to these customs in the first place.
Who knows? Maybe everyone could benefit from it… Thank you for watching this video! If you want to go further, there is a link to the script in the description, which includes our bibliography with links to online sources when they are available. If something is unclear, or if you think we’ve made a mistake, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. If you want to follow us on twitter, the links to our profiles are in the description as well. So far, all our other videos are in French, but they often include English subtitles so don’t hesitate to share and subscribe – if this one proves successful, we might even do more videos in English! Until then, well happy halloween! .
As found on Youtube