Thursday, October 28, 2004

Days of Death, Darkness and Halloween

Turning points are filled with portent. The time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore or the closing of an old year and opening of the new are made of mystery and magic. The turning of the year was the time when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead. In the Celtic calendar this was celebrated as Samhain, an ancient fire festival. It was connected with the return of the herds from summer pasture, the rekindling of fire for the coming year and the examination of the omens for the future. The souls of the dead would revisit their earthly homes on this day. Magical times indeed.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, replacing Samhain with a time to honour saints and martyrs. It was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (Middle English Alholowmesse) and the night before was All-hallows Eve. The celebration grew to include November 2 as All Souls' Day, a day to honour all of the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.

In America the ancient festival is transformed into the realm of folk observances with Halloween. The tradition of "trick-or-treating" dates back to All Souls' Day parades in England when the poor would beg for pastries called "soul cakes". In return, the grateful beggar would promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. Eventually "going a-souling" was taken up by children who would visit houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food, and money.

In Mexico and Latin America a three-day celebration begins on the evening of October 31. Many families build an altar to the dead in their homes and decorate it with flowers, photographs, samples of the deceased's favorite foods and fresh water. A wash basin and towel are left out so that the spirit can wash before eating and candles are burned to help the dead find their way home. Relatives tidy the graves of their departed family members and, on November 2, gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce. In past times, the Inca were so devoted to their dead that they would place their mummified bodies at the table during holidays so they could share thefamily meal

In my Australian childhood, we celebrated Bonfire Night on November 5 with fireworks (crackers), bonfires, and we burnt effigies of Guy Fawkes. In popular legend Fawkes was an Englishman who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. He was caught, tortured, imprisoned, and finally, in a particularly grisly manner, publicly executed.

Fawkes was a member of a Catholic group who wanted to remove the Protestant King James from power. The plot was foiled at the eleventh hour - some of the plotters escaped, some turned King's Evidence and reported on the rest. The unlucky Fawkes was taken in chains to the Tower of London to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was the Traitors Death and sent fear and horror throughout the populace. After Guy was dragged through the streets of London behind a horse cart, he was hanged only to be cut down just before death, his bowels were cut out (drawn) from his living body and he was then chopped into 'quarters'. The charge was treason, though when I was a child many people prefered to remember Guy as "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions."

Some historians say Guy Fawkes was not trying to blow up Parliament at all. Rather, he was trying to assassinate the king but ever since, the event has been retold to the people as "the attempt to blow up parliament" -- thus shifting the intended target from an unpopular monarch to a popular institution. Parliament somehow made political capital out of the Gunpowder Plot. Ever since 1607, bonfires lit up the night sky and warmed the air for celebration. The essential ingredients of the bonfire must have meant a lot for the people of the time - a place for cooking, light in the dark of night and of course warmth and a stage for all kinds of activity.

Under different names, and for reasons many have forgotten, the turning of the old Celtic Year is still celebrated with fire and deathly asociations.


Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens, was once so offended by the misdeeds of her young brother that she came down to Earth and hid in a cave. The universe was plunged into darkness and chaos and evil thrived.

The other deities gathered near the cave to discuss how to get her to come out. After much thought, they decided to hold a festival. A maidservant began to dance, and, as she whirled about, her clothing became loose and finally fell off. Amaterasu peered out of the cave to see what was going on. And laughed !

I know this story as that of Demeter and Baubo. How nice to find it again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Goddess Questions

I had a question this morning - who would be the best female deity to represent Halloween ? I enjoy getting requests but (as I replied by email) this is a tricky one and I can't make up my mind as to my answer. A dark aspect to be sure, but which particular representation to choose ? Not the first time I find myself getting more and more difficult to please.

There has been an upsurge in goddesslore lately, I don't know where it all came from. Perhaps the dreadful times we live in produced it.

But there's certainly a lot of nonsense on the web about this goddess and the other goddess without any reference to any history or to meaningful research. Still, it's a lot better than nothing at all

I must write up a basic list of the various aspects of the divine feminine. A goddess a day for a start


What on earth do we do about Halloween ? Spend a pagan night of revel, while away a few hours of amusement, attend a christian service or ignore the whole thing ?