Halloween is full of ritual, and behind rituals lurk myths. Understanding this holiday is a challenge because it has both Christian and pagan roots in myth and ritual. Also, as is the case with myths themselves, festivals and rituals concerning the spirits of the dead have been fairly archetypal around the world and over time, making it difficult (and not always necessary) to pin down actual cross-cultural influences. When it comes to Halloween, our imagination runs a bit wild and plays tricks on us. As a result of these factors, while real myth underlies Halloween, a number of myths (in the sense of falsehoods) have arisen about Halloween that color our understanding of this holiday.
In terms of its Christian heritage, Halloween must be understood in relation to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2 respectively. The Catholic Church established All Saints’ Day to honor all saints, to whom people directed prayers seeking their intercession on behalf of the souls of the recently deceased, to ensure that they would move from purgatory to heaven. All Souls’ Day is meant to honor and come to terms with the souls of dead friends and relatives, especially the recently deceased. What we now call Halloween emerged formally as a church vigil and fast kept on the eve of All Saints’ Day, and so was known as All Saint’s Eve or All Hallows Eve (“hallow” could also mean saint). Since the saints were seen as interceding for the souls who were at stake on All Souls’ Day, over time the meanings and rituals of the two holidays and the preceding vigil became intermingled. The three days formally formed a tridium known as Allhallowtide.
Today the Allhallowtide holidays are often traced to pagan Celtic festivals, which the Christian holidays are commonly said to have replaced, especially the November 1 festival of Samhain centered in Ireland. These holidays, however, also have more ancient precedents in the classical Mediterranean world, so that is where we must begin so that we can understand the Christian Allhallowtide and the extent to which it is related to Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”).
The ancient Greeks held a three-day festival at the beginning of spring (around our March 1), called the Anthesteria, which modern scholars consider the equivalent of our All Souls’ Day. Over time, once the god Dionysus had become prominent, it also became a wine festival because the second fermentation of the wine was completed and the new vintage was ready to drink. But the actual rituals of the Anthesteria reveal that the festival was more ancient and was concerned with underworld spirits, specifically those of the dead (keres).
On the first day of the festival, wine jars were opened and the drinking and feasting began, but originally the vessels were probably burial urns, from which the spirits flew out when the lids were taken off (similar to Pandora’s jar from which sprites emerged). Originally the presiding god who was honored was Hermes, who in Greek myth was the messenger to the underworld and an intermediary to the keres, whom he could enchant and control with his wand (rhabdos, later the caduceus). Thus, on the second day an offering of cooked grain and seeds was made to Hermes; through him the Athenians were really feasting and placating the keres. To further keep the keres at bay, people chewed buckthorn (a purgative), pitch was smeared on the doorposts of homes, and buckthorn was fastened to the doors. On the third day, the keres were summarily dismissed with the formula, “Begone you keres! The Anthesteria is over.” The streets and homes were thus cleansed from the taint of death and all attendant perils, and life could return to normal.
The Romans had a similar festival devoted to the dead called Lemuria. Like the Greek Anthesteria (and Allhallowtide), it was celebrated over three days, in this case May 9, 11, and 13 (skipping the even days, which the Romans considered unlucky). According to the etiological myth told (and perhaps invented) by Ovid in his Fasti, after Romulus laid the remains of Remus in his tomb, the latter’s ghost visited Faustulus and Acca (who had adopted and raised the brothers) and asked them to have Romulus set aside a holiday in his honor. Romulus so appeased his brother’s spirit and called the holiday Remuria. The name was later changed to Lemuria, says Ovid, because “L” is a “smooth” letter that is easier to pronounce (Fasti, 5:451-84). But this account is nothing but a myth. In fact, the holiday is named after the shades of the restless dead, called lemures.
Lemuria originally had both public and private rituals, but the public aspects have been lost to us. The private ritual practiced at home, however, is described by Ovid. In the middle of the night the head of the household would get out of bed and, standing barefoot, throw black beans over his shoulder. He would do this nine times never looking back, each time reciting, “These I send. With these beans I redeem me and mine.” The spirit(s) of the dead were thought to collect or partake of them, thus being appeased; otherwise, they might make off with a living member of the family out of envy or loneliness. Having so appeased them, he sends them on their way with the second part of the ritual, in which he touches water and then clatters bronze implements, which was thought to drive them away. As he does this, nine times he recites, “Ghosts of my fathers, be gone!” Only then, having duly performed the ritual, may he look back (Fasti, 5:419-43). Because of this festival and its attendant ghosts, Romans were cautious about doing anything important during May, and in particular it was considered an unlucky month for marriages, which generated our tradition of June brides.
It is sometimes claimed, even in some fairly recent writings about Halloween that, insofar as the holiday relates to the harvest, the ancient precedent for Halloween is a Roman festival dedicated to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and orchards (e.g., Bannatyne, pp. 6-7). Some argue that it was part of a festival dedicated to Vertumnus (god of the turning seasons) called the Vertumnalia. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells a lovely myth about the romance between Vertumnus and Pomona (14:326-771), but in none of his works does he refer to a festival to her. In fact, there is no evidence for a Pomona festival, and it probably never existed. The error goes back at least to the 18th century English topographer William Hutchinson, who in 1776 wrote, “The first day of November seems to retain the celebration of a festival to Pomona.” This statement was then uncritically repeated going forward. One modern writer suggests that Hutchinson was simply inspired by Ovid’s myth (Morton, pp. 17-18), but more likely the error can be traced to a misreading of a passage in Varro Reatinus in his De Lingua Latina (Wikipedia Italy, “Vertumnalia”). My readers know that I like to post about goddesses in relation to holidays, but no chance of that here! The Pomona festival and its connection to Halloween is a myth.
By the 19th century, in urban settings Halloween had become more a social occasion that involved games such as divination and apple bobbing. Robert Burns’ famous poem Halloween was largely about divination games in connection with romance. Formerly, Samhain divination rituals took place at the outdoor bonfire and involved stones and nuts, but as shown in this illustration of Burns’ poem it had been taken indoors. This is one continuity between Samhain and Halloween that is not a myth. Engraving by Edward Scriven after J.M. Wright’s illustration to the poem (ca. 1841).
When in 609 or 610 the Roman Catholic Church established what became known as All Saints Day (on the occasion of converting the formerly pagan Roman Pantheon to Christian use), it was set on May 13, the last day of Lemuria. In 837 Pope Gregory IV officially and mandatorily changed the date to November 1. The explanation for later given by the 12th-century theologian Jean Beleth was that Rome could not support the large numbers of pilgrims arriving for the feast in May; better in the autumn after the harvest had come in. In reality, churches to the north in Germany and England were already celebrating the holiday on November 1, perhaps as an effort to Christianize Samhain, and the Vatican followed suit. In any event, the November 1 date gradually took hold through Western Europe in the ensuing centuries, and by the 12th century May 13 was no longer used. Notably, in Ireland the earliest evidence, from the Martyrology of Oengus dated around 800, states that All Saints’ Day was celebrated there on April 20, shortly before the May 1 Beltane festival. This belies the notion that Halloween in Ireland was derived directly from Irish Samhain or a pan-Celtic holiday (Hutton, p. 364; Rogers, p. 22; NCE, p. 289). Apparently, the Irish wanted to keep the two holidays separate. Eventually, however, Ireland too shifted to the mandated November 1, possibly also in response to Samhain, at which point it became aligned with Samhain, and the rituals in the two holidays could become intermixed.
Much about Samhain remains unclear and we should be cautious when talking about it, but sometimes our imaginations get the best of us. We do know for sure that Samhain, which means “summer’s end,” marked the first day of the winter season. Beyond that, it has often been claimed that it was also a pan-Celtic New Year’s Day. This notion was first inferred in modern, flawed folkloric accounts not based on older primary evidence, and was then popularized by John Rhŷs and James Frazer over a century ago and continues to be repeated. However, the earliest (medieval) Irish sources show the opening of the year either on January 1 (due to indirect Roman influence) or March 25, and likewise in England, Wales, and Scotland (Hutton, pp. 410-11). The leading scholarly authority on the seasonal holidays of the British Isles, Professor Ronald Hutton at the University of Bristol, has surveyed the scholarship and evidence on this point, and he found no evidence that Samhain marked the beginning of the New Year, at least in the British Isles. Rather, he suggested, “the notion of a distinctive ‘Celtic’ ritual year, with four festivals at the quarter-days and an opening at Samhain, is a scholastic construction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which should now be considerably revised or even abandoned altogether” (p. 411).
Another uncertainty about Samhain is whether originally it was really concerned with ghosts of dead ancestors, like All Souls’ Day and Halloween. The time of Samhain was indeed thought of as a liminal moment, when the border between the ordinary and supernatural worlds was at its thinnest and the supernatural could penetrate our world and be experienced. So people did think that at that time evil spirits emerged and threatened people’s well-being and that of their crops and animals, and that these spirits had to be propitiated and warded off, for which there were rituals. Hutton found no evidence, however, that Samhain in pre-Christian times was specifically associated with ghosts of the dead. Rather, the reverse was more likely the case, with the Christian All Saints’ and Souls’ Days influencing traditional Samhain and being the source of many of the Samhain rituals that we know of (Hutton, pp. 365-70; Rogers, p. 22). Samhain did, however, originally include rituals of divination and bonfire rites, which became typical of Halloween. The holiday, observed after the cattle were brought home from pasture and the war season had ended, was also the occasion for an annual tribal assemblies, most notably at the Hill of Tara, which, in addition to the business that was conducted then, were festive occasions where myths and legends were told. Indeed, the key events in many Irish myths take place on Samhain. The tradition of guising, originally designed to ward off evil spirits, might originally have been part of Samhain, but there is no evidence for it until the Christian Allhallowtide.
The consistency of this kind of holiday across Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Christian cultures bears witness to how the holiday’s content is archetypal, reflecting the structures deep within our psyches which underlie our spiritual life (see Campbell). The numinous content of the occasion stimulates our imaginations, resulting in myths about the holiday in addition to those which underlie it.
Bibliography and Sources Cited
Bannatyne, Lesley. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican (1990).
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. John Raffan, trans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (1985).
Campbell, Joseph. “Trick or Treat,” lecture delivered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 21, 1981, available at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/31/joseph-campbell-on-the-roots-of-halloween.html Last accessed October 28, 2015.
Harrison, Jane. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed., 1922. Repr., Princeton: Princeton University Press (1991).
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996).
James, Edwin. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. London: Thames and Hudson (1961).
Morton, Lisa. trick or treat: a history of halloween. London: Reaction Books (2012).
New Catholic Encyclopedia (cited as “NCE”), entries “All Saints, Solemnity of,” and “All Souls’ Day”.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).
Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press (1981).
Wikipedia Italy (in Italian), “Vertumnalia” Available at https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertumnalia. Last accessed October 28, 2015.
Copyright Arthur George 2015