Ten Curious Things About Halloween/Samhain

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From Dumb Supper to Souling

Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images.

An old Samhain tradition is setting places at the table for deceased ancestors, in what's called a dumb supper. Different regions had their own way of leaving food or wine out for spirits. This evolved into the giving out of "soul cakes" on All Soul's Day.

The children went out door to door in a tradition called souling asking for soul cakes, and promising they would pray for the dead. This eventually became trick-or-treating for candy, sometime around the start of the 20th century. Growing up in the 70s, we used pillowcases to collect our candy loot, and there was trust in the neighborhood to run wild. With the right atmosphere, it's still an enchanting night for children, and for adults to dress up and have fun.

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Roman Import -- Bobbing for Apples

Hulton Collection/Getty Images.

The folksy tradition of bobbing for apples, in a bucket of water or hanging from a string, is a Roman (Pagan) import. The Romans invaded Britain around 43 AD and stayed on for 400 years, but this custom has lingered.

It’s a remnant of Paternalia, a celebration honoring the ancestors in late October and early November. Along with the Dead, the Romans honored Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. She is often depicted holding an apple. They brought their games with fruits and nuts to the lands they occupied.

Nutcrack or Snap Apple Night (3)

Some parts of Ireland and Britain had divination games with fruits and nuts. A girl wanting to be married put the names of her suitors on nuts, and threw them into the fire. The one that cracked open would be her future husband!

In the game Snap Apple, the apples would dangle from strings. The first to chomp down on an apple, would be the first to marry.

(3)Halloween, by Joanne O’Sullivan, Lark Books: 2003.
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Turnips Were the First Halloween Lanterns

A traditional Irish turnip halloween lantern from the early 20th century on display in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. (Wikipedia Commons).

Now that's a frightful face with Pagan (which means "country dweller") origins, when beets or turnips were used to light the Three Nights of Samhain. In olden times, Celts put embers in these carved out root vegetables, to chase away nasty spirits with ill intent.

In Scotland, these tumshie heads ("tumshie" is name for Turnip) were meant to be fugly ugly and threatening -- to scare off devilish entities said to come out at this time of year.

You've got to grab a big one from the garden, from the looks of it. Then skewer them on a pitchfork, to go with the theme of final harvest, but also of something strangely menacing. The pumpkin Jack O'Lantern came later, originating in America, since it's native to North America

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The Otherworld

Thurston Hopkins/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

At Halloween and Samhain, it's said that the veil is thin, between worlds. The Otherworld in Celtic myth is a land where nobody dies or gets old, there's plenty of honey, fruit and wine and treasures of all kinds. It was known as Tir na n-Og, the Land of Youth. At Samhain, the divine race of the other world, the Tuatha De Danann, or Dannanns for short, would go walkabout and freely roam! They came out of the Otherword through the sidhe (pronounced shee) or fairy mounds, to make mischief.

From this sense of collapsed boundaries between worlds came warnings to stay home, and rituals of scaring away spirits -- or playing with them by wearing masks.

The Druids were the shamanic elders of the Celts, not unlike the wizard Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Rather than being an intermediary for a sky-God, they had intimate knowledge of the terrestrial, ethereal, elemental and the primordial. Some of their wisdom has been lost, because they passed it on through an oral tradition.(2) And yet, what's been lost, can be remembered and reclaimed, as many are doing now.

An established group of reclaimers is The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, or OBOD, as it's known, based in Sussex, England. OBOD is an open order that aims to pass on the essential teachings of the indigenous spiritual tradition of the Druids. They offer audio lessons, since druidry was mainly an oral tradition.

(2)Pagan Origins of Halloween, by Rowan Moonstone (free ebook) at Darkbooks.org.
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Samhain, a Celtic Fire Festival

Marcia Malloy/Getty Images.

What we celebrate as Halloween has its roots in the Great Festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) of pre-Christian Celtic times. The Celts were a culture thought to have migrated into Europe from somewhere north of the Black Sea about seven thousand years ago.(1) Its traditions are the most undiluted to this day in the country of Ireland.

Samhain was, and is, one of the four Great Festivals in the Celtic calendar. It's the end of summer, time for final harvest and to bring animals in from the fields. The old year is over, and all who've passed are honored -- along with the ancestors. The New Year is born with the light of a great bonfire. It's a crossroads time, an in-between, a void, when there's easy passage out of what the Celts called the Otherworld.

Today's Halloween is a remnant of the Celtic Fire festival, with add-ons from the later Roman and Christian church overlay. Around 7th Century AD, the Christian hierarchy began its demonization of the nature spirits and the "craft of the wise." A new holy day was created called Hallowmas or Allhallows, now called All Saints' or All Souls' Day. Over the centuries All Hallows' Eve became All Hallow e'en, which today we know as Halloween.

(1)Heroes of the Dawn, Celtic Myth, Time-Life Books: 1996.
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The Bestiary is Let Loose

Bernd Klumpp/Seen at German Harvest carnival 2007 in Rottenburg, Neckar.

Halloween is a season of magical re-wilding our culture, which is way too over domesticated! It's one of the few times for some, of giving embodiment to the primordial soul through costume. You might find inspiration from one of the Zodiac sign/constellations, as a horned or cloven-hoofed creature.

Some mythic beasts, however, come to live through the power of the human imagination. The minotaur is half-man and half-bull, the centaur is half horse and half man, and the satyr is half man and half goat. Then there are ogres, trolls and goblins.

Some, like the ogre, shows up in mythologies around the globe, and always as a human-flesh eating monster. A Native American legend tells of a cliff ogre who would push people over the edge, and into the mouths of its children waiting below.(4) At Halloween, we come closest to living out the inner beast, or encountering the killer instinct of the mythic (or real) predator, through scary costumes.

(4)Halloween, by Joanne O’Sullivan, Lark Books: 2003.
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Fairy Fly-By Time?

Tomek Sikora/Getty Images.

Once when walking across a field in tall grass, with a particularly enchanted friend, we both saw something tiny fly up and whizz away. Was it a fairy? She was sure it was! In Celtic lore, they're the Gentry, the Good People, the Good Neighbors or the Wee Folk.

With the enhanced psychic sight of Scorpio time, it seems possible to see such mystical creatures. Like ghosts, I suspect they're most at home in overgrown, natural places.

It's a time to see rare entities, or bring them to life through the imagination. Like the trickster Pixies, gnomes, and watery spirits like the sprites, silkies and nymphs.

Look no further than the nearest Oak and its spirit known as the dryad, to bring the sacred into the season. For all it gave, the Oak was sacred to the Celtic people, as a door to the underworld. It's interesting to note that the word door comes from the Celtic word for oak, which is daur. And since the Celts considered trees the ancestors, it's a wonderful time to sit under your favorite Daur to the underworld, or give one a hug.

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Ghosts are Everywhere!

Molly Hall for About.com.

It's Scorpio season, Zodiac sign of death and transformation, and the time of solar diminishing. All this evokes the dark mysteries of dying, being held by an unseen force (demons), being haunted, and of entities trapped between worlds. But as I learned as a ghost tour guide in Savannah, named America's Most Haunted City, seeing a ghost is a subjective experience. What's obvious to some is just nothing to others.

To illustrate this, let me share this image taken when we went on a Haunted Hearse Tour with About.com colleagues. My husband and I were floored by the golem-like demon there superimposed over someone's face.

Also, the blond to the left (not me) was not screaming like that, but smiling in a normal way. The two faces, then here, are trickster demons of some kind. The spookiest thing to us, was that very few people at the conference thought much of it. I've seen a lot of orbs and faces in orbs, but for me, this was the most blatant case of ghosts or demons stealing the show. Do you see it?

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Witches are Everywhere!

Doorway panel from a church in Lyons, circa 1330/from researcher Max Dashu.

Max Dashu of Suppressed Histories.net shared this startling image from circa 1330 AD, of a naked witch riding a goat, while whirling a hare. She wrote with it, "This doorway panel from a church in Lyons, circa 1330, is opposite another that shows a lord in his castle sending out mastiffs to hunt her down. She is quite similar to a naked caped witch painted in a Danish church of the same period."

Interesting synch with France, as my first past life dream -- or time memory of the collective -- was of being carted off in a wagon-cage. I knew in the dream it was France, and to add to the dream drama, we prisoners were being shot at with arrows! The name witch has lost some of its stigma in the last few decades, as the power of the dark and wild feminine is reclaimed from being demonized.

I find this image compelling since Pluto is in Capricorn, a feminine sign of ancient earthly powers. At Samhain, we can honor those who ancestors of a tradition, and heal these lineages by reviving earth power in ourselves.

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Beloved Familiars

Halloween postcard, mid 1900s/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images.

Halloween is a bewitching time of the year, when the sharper psychic powers could find you having breakthroughs of inter-species understanding. The familiar of the witch or wizard is traditionally a black cat, toad or owl, the predator bird with night vision like Harry Potter's Hedwig. Each of the three witches in Macbeth has a familiar -- a cat named Graymalkin, a hedge-pig named Paddock and an owl called Harpier.

Just as the indigenous North Americans used animals as messengers and scouts, witches' familiars are thought to be little helpers. In Japan, the witches have fox allies and in Africa, it's the hyenas or baboons.(5)

This remnant of indigenous Europe has become fixed in the modern imagination, as seen in this postcard from the mid-1900s. But it's yet another way that Halloween reminds us of the past, when the dark mysteries and supernatural were part of everyday life. And those considered wise, were the ones who understood animal medicine, and were close intimates with these relations.

(5)Halloween, by Joanne O’Sullivan, Lark Books: 2003.
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Hall, Molly. "Ten Curious Things About Halloween/Samhain." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/ten-curious-things-about-halloween-samhain-206791. Hall, Molly. (2016, August 9). Ten Curious Things About Halloween/Samhain. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-curious-things-about-halloween-samhain-206791 Hall, Molly. "Ten Curious Things About Halloween/Samhain." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-curious-things-about-halloween-samhain-206791 (accessed November 20, 2017).