Have you ever wondered where Halloween came from? A mixed up cacophony of spiritual beliefs and practices, Halloween has a long and winding history that begins before written records, and will probably carry on with us throughout many generations across the world.
Halloween, All Souls Day, Samhain, Dio De Los Muertos, and even perhaps Hawaiian Makahiki season are all somewhat related and intertwined. Themes of these holidays are that they fall around a mid-point between solstice and equinox solar year periods, and often denote a liminal, or spiritual high point in the year.
Halloween, All Souls Day, and Samhain are essentially considered of the same vein. In America, Dio De Los Muertos, has been somewhat blended and integrated into Halloween (sometimes through appropriation). Dio de los muertos is a Mexican holiday devoted to the honoring of the dead. Both holidays, while originating on opposite ends of the hemisphere with inverted harvest and planting cycles, tend to see the day as a time when “the veil between worlds” is thin, and ancestors and other spirits may visit Earth from other realms.
While this may sound spooky to some Christians, Halloween itself is actually a Christian holiday creation. This is interesting considering the advent of modern Hell Houses (“Haunted House” traditions focused on sin and hell, that ask participants to accept Christ after the show), and those who fear that the holiday is demonic in general.
In reality, Samhain, the original pagan holiday from which Halloween comes, was about harvest, and the thinning of lines between worlds. Death was a theme because of the cold of winter coming –and the ancient fear of starving or freezing during such a season. Samhain was especially important for villagers to pray with their spiritual practitioner, for large harvest, warm shelter, and an abundant and safe winter season. Symbolically, spring was the rebirth of the world after it’s wintry death, and seasons in between represented important liminal periods related to harvest, food supply, procreation and growth.
Some Christian scholars even theorize that Jesus Christ was actually born in the spring, not December, and the holiday of Easter is also symbolic linkage between the rebirth of spring, and also the return of Christ three days after his execution. Easter, like Halloween and Christmas, is also a pagan-origins holiday relating to the cycles of the earth, that runs parallel to later Christian time lines and theology.
Samhain itself in Medieval times fell around November 1st, and was considered the “thinning of the veil between worlds” and the best time to pray for abundance during the coming harsh winters. It falls directly at a mid point between solstice and equinox, and because of this is considered liminal and socially-spiritually important. The word Halloween comes from the words “all hallows eve” and was a Christian adaptation describing Irish American celebrations of the night before All Souls Day. Both the 31st and the 1st were morphed from the belief of ghosts and ancestors visiting, to the more tame but similar “remembrance” of loved ones who had died.
As a child, I used to lament that after Halloween and Christmas there were “no good holidays left” until Easter. And I used to wonder a lot why summertime had no holidays (was it just the school year?) and why we didn’t have more celebrations in between. As you can guess Halloween being a midpoint holiday between equinox and solstice, the pagans originally had an 8-holiday calendar marking these annual solar cycles:
2016 Samhain Nov 7th (Halloween)
2016 Yule solstice Dec 21 (Christmas)
2017 Imbolic Feb 3
2017 Ostara equinox Mar 20 (Easter)
2017 Belthane May 5
2017 Litha solstice June 20/21
2017 Lughnasad Aug 6/7
2017 Mabon equinox Sept 22
2017 Samhain Nov 6/7
The real Samhain, in 2016, will fall somewhere around November 7th-8th, where the solar positioning and astronomical calculations of this mid point have shifted in the last few hundred years. Some conspiracy theorists believe this holiday was “locked in” by early Christians to throw off pagan practitioners from this natural solar cycle monitoring. By making Samhain illegal, and setting All Hallows Eve to a fixed –non astronomical– date, the pagans would slowly forget the meaning of the time.
The witches of old were not your typical representation. The “eye of newt, tongue of dog” images of cackling, green colored witches from Macbeth with warts on their noses were a caricature made from years of campaigning against the earlier pagan religions. Originally, “witches” were simple wise women. Herbalists who healed illnesses, mathematicians and astronomers that predicted events from the cosmos and best times for planting and harvest. Witches were the ancient version of PhD specialists: doctors, artists, and therapists. Both men and women practiced “witchcraft”. Prior to the vilification of such practices and burning witch trials such customs were mostly benign and even helpful in their communities. Indeed, witches who helped their communities the most were sometimes targeted for burning trials first, because of their respective notoriety.
The burnings were a tragic era where 100,000 known cases of women, men and children were executed over religious upheaval and a changing Western culture. Some historians even believe these numbers are moderate estimates, only of those whose deaths were recorded. Some estimate as high as 9 million lost lives over a few hundred years. What caused this event of mass hysteria? The European and later American genocides of -primarily- healing women?
One possible contributor, aside from changing Christian religious ideology and Roman power structures, was partly due to a singular fungus.
Ergot of Rhy, the fungus from which modern LSD was synthesized, may have played a major role in the demise of so many European lives. Ergot was a regularly used “magical” herb of ancient wise women, who in most cases knew the proper dosages –as many modern doctors would for medicines. As my old chemistry teacher would sometimes say, the difference between a medicine and a poison is only in the dose.
While witches were reported to have used Ergot for shamanic “trips” and as a contraceptive drug, Ergot also grew wild on the wheat fields of many European villages. Whole food supplies for entire towns would sometimes become contaminated by this fungus, which at a high dose would produce seizures, and the shriveling and falling off of ligaments.
In the medieval times, this was used as a reason to target a witch, when seizures occurred or parts of the body deteriorated from ergot, women were often blamed for black magic that apparently made such disturbing things occur.
The witches broom
Why and how did early witches use Ergot? Ergot was used at low doses to abort a child, and was also reported to have been used in psychedelic and shamanic rituals. Ever heard of “riding the broomstick”? Such a phrase was not actually meant to be literal in the real world, but denoted what would today be considered a pretty strange practice. A salve made of Ergot was reportedly sometimes rubbed near mucus membranes, including the genitals, and was sometimes applied using a broom. The “ride” and “flying through the night” spoken of in modern images of witches was apparently a mental and spiritual -rather than physical- kind of journey.
While Ergot was toxic at high levels, a shamanic witch would be trained and knowledgeable in presumably safe dosages and application methods. Though it’s possible that those witches who “tripped” often -or who had not perfected their craft- would perhaps suffer the negative consequences of Ergot over time.
The witches broom (or besom) was also symbolic of male and female union. In many cultures wedding practices would have the bride and groom jump over a broom stick together. The broom handle itself was a phallic symbol, sometimes carved at the end in such a fashion and inserted into the head of the broom, the receptive, “female” end. Witches sometimes had both brooms for cleaning and also another broom, with the end made from straight twigs and sticks, that was not for sweeping floors but was “swept” through the sky and ritual areas to cleanse a space of negative energies. Besoms such as these were also left outside doorways as womens symbols to let other villager women know weather or not she was available to receive visitors.
While these practices may seem a bit strange or intense to us today, ancient shamanic practices similar to these are found in many cultures. In addition to this, the ability to use contraceptives allowed women greater freedom for their bodies and the trajectory of their lives. While no pro choice person is ever pro death, the ability to choose in both modern and ancient times is closely tied to the concept womens liberation and autonomy, as well as goddesses associated with the balance of life and death.
The poisoning through large amounts of Ergot in European food supplies, coupled with political strategies to remove women from spiritual power within their communities and install new systems of government and religious ideology, created a cataclysmic effect of mass murder all across the continent. Today, many still do not know the simple reality of womans ancient spirituality from this time, that the words “hag” and “banshee” were actually once descriptors of womens status and elevated roles within communities. The hag was literally an older woman with knowledge of mathematics. The banshee, a class of women with psychic abilities who predicted deaths of community members (the wailing of a banshee was a custom of the times, when villagers would wail in sorrow at funerals). These were simple folk lore, yet such powers gave women status, and also caused others to fear them in the end, leading to eventual persecution.
As women in modern society, we have little or no remaining culture of the “old crone” or wise woman –or even wise man in some cases. In modern Western culture, the old get old and are often sent to rest homes, but prior to the decimation of this class and indigenous religions, the elderly were often revered as skillful and wise, important members of a community. Perhaps when facing ecosystem collapse, revisiting the importance of wise women and men would assist society in being more aware of cycles of past, present, and future. We are not meant to become soilent green. The old were once revered as they assisted the community in maintaining balance and awareness of long term cycles. The history of the power and downfall of this ancient healer class is intertwined with such modern social changes in values and norms.
Just as ecofeminism has emerged as an ideology for liberating women and re-balancing the biosphere in tandem, modern wicca and earth-based spiritual practitioners sometimes see themselves as part of a fight for womens and earths rights. In a climate where “mother nature” is symbolically raped of resources and sustenance through exponential market growth, spiritual women especially are also aware that the demise of goddess worship and wise woman culture may correlate with such environmental destruction. Our bodies, and our earth, are all considered of nature and the same. The paradigm of mans conquering of nature and taming of women is an intrinsic part of unchecked capitalism –where competition, exploitation and ownership over other forms of life is valued over community collaboration, medicinal and environmental wisdom.
The symbols of Halloween
Besides the witches and undead themes of Halloween, other symbols of the holiday are also directly related to ancient Samhain practices. The bat was often seen in flocks around the all-night ceremonial bonfire of the season. Spiders were symbolic in many cultures of the night, mystery, weaving of creative life and worlds beyond. The Jack-o-lantern was an Irish-American pumpkin adaptation to a carved turnip on the night of Samhain, lit with a candle to protect residents from unwanted visiting spirits.
Is Halloween Satanic? Not at all. While some satanists have appropriated ancient spiritual symbolism from these early European practitioners, the practice of “witchcraft” was a practice of healing medicines, words and herbs, and had little to do with later Christian theology. When ecofeminism touches on the changing roles of females in Western society, we see through this lens of Christian depictions of women being morally weak, and how it has contributed to the association of the sacred feminine with Satan. As most wiccans see it, Christianity and Satanism are like two sides of a coin, a far removed paradigm from the original pagan practice of caring for nature, celebrating such cycles, and the acknowledgement of dark, light, female, and male in harmonic balance. In the tradition of ancient herbalists and earth worshipers, there was no such thing as Satan.
Can one celebrate Halloween with a clear conscience if they are Christian (the most prominent U.S./Western religion)? Absolutely. Given that Halloween is a Christian-invented holiday merging Samhain and All Souls Day, even if you do not carry any of the old Samhain beliefs, the traditions were ones shared by many pre-Christian (and pre-dark lord) ancestors, and represent a conglomerate of multicultural and multi-era spiritual blending.
Halloween today is an increasingly commercialized holiday, as one Irish historian James Swagger noted, many wiccans are concerned that the sacred time of Samhain has been reduced to a consumer holiday glittered with plastic and sugar. We have indeed lost much the original depth of symbolic meaning for those modern trick-or-treaters who participate in it. Swagger himself has a more moderate position: he wouldn’t mind so much at all that Halloween is so popular, if only we didn’t forget all the other holidays connected to it.
Samhain – Harvest
Imbolic – Resting
Belthane – Planting
Lughnasad – Growing
What would it mean for us as a culture to fully celebrate and ring in all of these cycles year-round? In a modern American era of grocery shopping and consumption far removed from natural harmony, perhaps there is a lot to be said for also honoring these other times for annual growth and the sewing of new seeds.
Blessings to You!