A few years back I tried to get in the spirit of Halloween; my expressed goal was to escape the materialization of what was once an honored custom. My strategy was to learn about the traditions that shape the ways we celebrate a day that must have had a life before the advent of flimsy (if fire repellent) costumes and nutritious (if yucky) candy.
When I asked my young niece, then living in Dublin, if they celebrated Halloween in Ireland, she gently advised me that the Irish “thought it up.” Her terse rebuttal “changed my life.” Rather than fret about the excesses of Halloween, specifically the $75.03 per capita Americans will spend on Halloweeniana this year, I vowed to dig into the roots of the ancient myths and customs.
It seems the Irish do have a claim on the ancient Celtic customs which once marked the change of the seasons. After the harvest, when the light of summer gave way to the dark of winter, Samhain was the time to gather the souls of the year’s dead. Samhain was also the time for the autumn cleanup and battening down for the winter. Among other things this meant settling debts, making peace with one’s enemy and extinguishing all fires – thus the pitch darkness of All Hallow’s Eve. All Hallow’s Eve was a mystical time when the thin spaces between mortal world and the netherworld faded, a time when the borders were open and the spirits flowed unencumbered.
Having covered the broad strokes in that earlier post, I’ve moved on to explore the lesser known tales. My favorite is Queen Maeve of Connacht. Though Maeve’s association with Halloween may seem trivial there is a link: Early proponent of women’s equality that she was Maeve was determined to match the possessions of her husband Aillel. On Sanhaim she staged what became known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley to capture a prize bull of Ulster that would match her husband’s bull. There she encountered the bold Cu Chulainn, defender of the accursed Ulster. It’s a long amf bloody tale, appropriate to the season. [Note: English majors may know Maeve from William Butler Yeats’ The Old Age of Queen Maeve (http://www.online-literature.com/frost/792/]
Maeve’s husband Ailill appears in another Celtic tale involving Samhain. In this one Nera, a hero from Connaught, is the only one brave enough to face the King’s challenge to loose a dead man from the gallows by tying a twig around his ankle. On Samhain night the dead man comes to and asks for a cup of water. Nera reigns triumphant. There’s more about burning royal buildings and a fairy who tells Nera that it’s all a dream after which Nera may or may not have been imprisoned by fairies until the following Samhain,,,
In a word, strange things happen on All Hallow’s Eve.
There’s fun stuff, too.
Carving pumpkins dates back to 8th Century Celtic lore and to an Irish blacksmith named Jack who colluded with the Devil and was denied entry to heaven. When Jack was condemned to wander the earth he made a deal with the Devil for some light. He was given a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip that he had gouged out. Fearing the wandering blacksmith, Irishmen placed lighted turnips in their windows to scare him away. Somehow the turnips morphed into pumpkins in the New World.
Halloween costumes can also be traced to Celtic roots. On Samhain, when the temporal and eternal worlds came together, the Celtic Druids would dress in elaborate costumes to disguise themselves as spirits and devils. Their hope was that they would avoid being carried away at the end of the night.
There’s more – faeries, known as pookas, who appear as sleek horses and thrive on mischief, bonfires (fires of bones), dunking for apples, even blind dates all have roots in Celtic mythology. When it comes to Halloween customs, the Irish definitely had a hand in “making it up”.
Then along came the missionaries, bent on converting the Celts to Christianity. Out went the Druids and the “pagan” rituals, including Samhain. By the 7th Century AD Pope Gregory determined that the better part of valor was to adapt the pagan customs. The Gregorian calendar of today is just one example of transforming pagan customs and beliefs into Christian feasts and rituals. Thus Halloween evolved as a sort of compilation of pagan and Christian customs, with Druids keeping apace as All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) made their appearance on the Gregorian calendar.
If you’re really into Halloween lore, check out Jack Santino’s classic piece, “The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows,” spirited from The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html
Once again this Halloween I plan to evoke the real spirit of All Hallows Eve by keeping this focus on the mythology – the glorious gruesome Celtic roots of the rituals. SpongeBob Square Pants’ plastic bucket will be a cache of precious gold, Angry Birds seem as aggravated devils in disguise, that fairy princess could be Maeve herself. Then, when the doorbell stops ringing, I’ll listen for the spirits who will inevitably hover just across the thin divide. It worked for the Celts!