by A. Æ. Hunt-Anschütz
Many years ago, at a Halloween party, a man in a vampire cape asked me if I knew why people wear costumes on Halloween. I didn’t. He went on to explain that pagan Celts disguised themselves to scare off evil spirits on October thirty-first. I asked how he knew that. He’d seen it on some TV show. (Apparently, he was one of those people who believes everything they see on TV.) For me, this explanation seemed to stretch the limits of credulity. If these evil spirits could be tricked so easily, they couldn’t have posed much of a threat to begin with! More importantly, where’s the evidence for this fact? Are there ancient Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx and/or Cornish writings that describe this pagan rite? Having done some research, I now know the answer. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that ancient Celts wore fancy-dress at Halloween time, much less that they wore it to scare off evil spirits. And yet you can still read this ”fact” (or variations on it) in hundreds of places on the Web.
The following is an attempt to rectify some of the misinformation spread about the origins of Halloween. It is not a comprehensive history and leaves many questions about the origins of Halloween unanswered. A thorough investigation of all the factors that have influenced Halloween customs in all parts of the world where it is celebrated today would require a very thick book, one which (as far as I know) has yet to be written. Since this article is aimed at the casual reader, I have not provided arguments or evidence in support of every fact relayed here. Those who are interested in a more scholarly treatment of the material should consult the relevant chapters in Stations of the Sun (see reference section).
Every October the popular press prints articles tracing the origins of the modern Halloween back to “the Druids” and “the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.” This is one of those statements that gets repeated so often in so many places that it is taken for granted as true. But when we look for actual evidence linking Samhain and Halloween it turns out to be as ephemeral as the spirits who are said to roam the earth during this dark time of year.
Samhain (also spelled samain, samuin or samhuinn) is a Gaelic word signifying the end of summer. A suggested etymology is sam “summer” (as in samrad, the Old Irish word for summer) and fuin “end”. The term was brought to Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland along with the Irish Scots who settled there. No form of the word samhain is found in any other Celtic language. Samhain feasts, which took place on and around November first, are only recorded in ancient Irish literature. Early Welsh literature, such as the Mabinogion, makes no reference to any festival occurring on that date. Thus, it is inaccurate to describe Samhain as “Celtic”. The word, and any festivals associated with it, are specifically Irish in origin.
So what do we know about Samhain celebrations in ancient Ireland? Our only source of information is traditional tales written down in the twelfth century, after Ireland had been Christian for several hundreds of years. One of the more detailed accounts of a Samhain feast is given in Serglige Con Culaind, The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulaind.
Each year the Ulaid held an assembly: the three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemi, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting. That is why the thirds of Samuin are as they are today.
Now the reason they met every Samuin was to give each warrior a chance to boast of his valour and exhibit his triumphs. The warriors put the tongues of those they had killed into their pouches – some threw in cattle tongues to augment the count – and then, at the assembly, each man spoke in turn and boasted of his triumphs.
The Old Irish tales indicate that druids were present at these feasts, as they would be at any assembly in their capacity as respected members of the community and advisers to kings. However there’s no mention of any druidic religious rites being held at Samhain. There is nothing in the ancient Irish literature that even hints at the idea that Samhain was a “Druid festival” as opposed to a time of year when a large feast was held for chieftains and warriors, along with their wives and families.
Judging by the descriptions we have of ancient Samhain feasts, it seems that the only thing they have in common with modern Halloween celebrations is the idea that the days around late October or early November are a good time for a party. Today’s Halloween parties, like ancient Samhain celebrations, include “games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting”. But then, so do all good celebrations at any time of year for any occasion! Historical accounts of Samhain feasts do not contain any reference to specifically “Halloweeny” customs. More crucially, for those who see the modern holiday as a time when the veil between the living and the dead grows thin and ghosts wander the earth, there is nothing in accounts of Samhain feasts to indicate a link with ceremonies for the dead.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
By contrast, the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day are specifically concerned with honouring those who have passed on. By the fourth century the Roman church recognised so many martyred saints that there weren’t enough days in the year to commemorate them all. The church began celebrating an All Saints Day to remember all the left-over saints that didn’t already have their own day. This holiday occurred at different times of the year in different places. In the early eighth century Gregory III consecrated a chapel in the basilica of St. Peter in Rome to all the saints and fixed the date of their remembrance to the first of November. In the eleventh century, Abbot Odilo of Cluny set aside a feast day in February to pray for “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time”. All Souls Day was later transferred to November second to form part of a festival with All Saints Day or “All Hallows” (hallow is an archaic English word for “holy one” or “saint” – as in “Hallowed be Thy name.”). The festival began on All Hallows’ Eve, the last night of October.
One of the “facts” often quoted to support the “Halloween comes from Samhain” myth is the idea that the church changed the date of All Saints Day to correspond with the November first date of Samhain. This seems highly improbable given that the church in Germany was celebrating All Saints Day on November first when the church in Ireland was still celebrating it on April twentieth. The historical evidence suggests that the Irish church changed the date of All Saints to conform to the standard European date, which just happened to fall on the date of an ancient Irish festival.
Medieval Catholics believed that those who died unshriven or somewhat sin-laden, but not so sinful as to be damned to Hell, would go to wait in Purgatory. Their living friends and relatives could help to get them into Heaven by praying, collecting alms, attending mass and doing good Christian deeds on their behalf. All Saints Day and All Souls Day were dedicated to this sort of activity. The responsibility for getting the dead into Heaven was taken very seriously by whole communities. On All Saints Day the court of Henry VII dressed in mourning clothes: the king in purple and all his attendants in black. Many rituals became attached to Hallowtide, when the Church celebrated a mass for the dead. Torchlight processions and vigils were held, bonfires were lit and churchbells were rung at midnight to comfort the lost souls. In some parts of Europe, the dead were believed to leave Purgatory around the time of All Souls Day and revisit their homes to seek the prayers of their families.
Origins of Halloween Customs
The medieval Catholic focus on the dead at the time of All Hallows’ Eve is at the root of Halloween as we know it. By the fourteenth century a custom called “souling” had developed in England in which the poor would go from house to house asking for soul-cakes. The better-off would give out small cakes or loaves in exchange for prayers for their dead relatives. Souling continued up until the twentieth century in some parts of Britain, though the ritual became increasingly secularised and was eventually relegated to children. Souling almost certainly forms the basis for American “Trick or Treating”. Shakespeare uses the phrase “to speak puling like a beggar at Hallowmass”. I’ll note that both of my parents, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the 40s and 50s, refer to the practice of trick-or-treating as “begging” and to trick-or- treaters as “beggars”. The phrase they used to ask for treats as children was “Help the poor!”
During the mid sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation put a stop to All Souls Day rituals in England – or at least drove them underground. The Protestants rejected the Catholic belief in purgatory and the idea that living humans could help dead souls get to heaven through their deeds. Thus, any Hallowmass activity connected to these beliefs, such as the ringing of church bells at midnight, was forbidden. But such edicts could not stop people from being genuinely concerned for the fate of their dead friends and relatives. All Hallows’ Eve rituals, which were once centred around the Church, became private family or community rituals. In eighteenth century Derbyshire people made bonfires on the common to “light the souls out of Purgatory”. In nineteenth century Lancashire Catholic families still assembled at midnight on hilltops to say prayers for the dead. Legends about witches meeting at midnight on Halloween most likely have their roots in sightings by Protestants of Catholics engaging in forbidden Christian religious practices.
After the Protestants had driven Halloween away from the church, people were free to attach their own meanings and customs to it. It is not surprising that the holiday took on associations with the occult or demonic given the strong link to the dead and the strong disapproval of the Church of England. Once the connection with praying for dead ancestors in purgatory was lost, the evening took on more sinister tones in the popular imagination. The dead souls who were welcomed home at Hallowmass in medieval Catholic times came to be seen as restless spirits to be feared. No doubt the spookier aspects of Halloween were also influenced by the time of year at which it occurs. Shorter days, colder nights, and dying vegetation provide a good atmosphere for tales of terror.
Customs attached to other celebrations were adopted as features of Halloween. Guising, the practice of wearing fancy dress or disguise, had been part of Christmas and New Years Eve customs in Britain and other parts of Europe since medieval times. By the nineteenth century the practice was a feature of Halloween in Scotland and Ireland. Divination and fortune-telling, another New Years Eve tradition, was a popular Halloween activity in Victorian times in various parts of Britain, no doubt due in part to the occult significance the night had acquired. In the twentieth century, as Halloween celebrations gained increasing popularity in North America, anything and everything weird, frightening or macabre could be encompassed by the holiday – including characters from gothic literature such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and their on-screen equivalents. The relatively recent addition of the psychotic serial killer to the Halloween cast of characters is testimony to just how all-encompassing the holiday has become. Halloween customs are not static relics of ancient rites; they continually evolve to reflect the interests of the people who engage in them.
Origins of Halloween Origin Myths
Since the origins of Halloween can be adequately explained with reference to Catholic All Souls Day and its Protestant prohibition, one might well ask why so many popular books, articles and web sites claim ancient pagan roots for the modern holiday. The simple answer is that in the popular imagination Druids are a lot more interesting than Catholics! Halloween conjures up images of the spooky and mysterious, so people naturally like to imagine that its origins lie in primitive occult rituals. People also tend to like simple explanations for things, whereas the historical explanations for any modern folk custom are likely to involve a lot of complex factors. The idea that ancient Celts wore disguises at Samhain to scare away evil spirits is both intriguing and simple. The real origins of Halloween fancy-dress can’t be summed up in a sentence. They can only be explained with reference to other European guising customs, many of which have rather mundane connections with seasonal money-making schemes.
Most of the popular myths about the origins of Halloween can be traced back to two nineteenth century British authors: Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer, who speculated about connections between Halloween and pagan Celtic rituals, but provided no valid evidence to back up their claims. At the time they were writing, modern folk customs were typically seen as remnants of prehistoric religious rituals which survived among the common, uneducated country folk long after their original purpose had died out. This “survivals theory” is widely rejected by contemporary historians, anthropologists and folklorists, who have a less romantic outlook on the past than their Victorian predecessors.
Unfortunately, nineteenth century ideas about the origins of Halloween still have widespread appeal outside of academia. This is partly due to laziness. Many people who write Halloween-themed books, articles, or TV scripts (most of which are meant primarily for entertainment) simply repeat information they’ve read on the web or in other popular (as opposed to scholarly) sources. They don’t question what they read or bother to do any serious research into the matter. A popular Halloween book written in the 1990s might well get its material from a book written in the 1950s which gets its material from a book written in the 1890s – completely ignoring any historical studies relating to the topic that have been undertaken over the last hundred years.
Another factor that keeps the old myths about the origins of Halloween in the public eye is the specific interest of two diametrically opposed groups. Every Halloween, fundamentalist Christians and Neo-Pagan witches argue over whether or not Halloween (and all it stands for) is “evil”. Ironically, both religious groups share and help to propagate the false assumption that the origins of Halloween are not Christian. Fundamentalist Christians repeat and add to myths about the pagan origins of Halloween in order to damn it as diabolical (to do this they also have to make ludicrous claims about Druids worshipping Satan). Wiccans (who celebrate Halloween as one of eight festivals on their “wheel of the year”) repeat and add to the myths about pagan origins of Halloween in an attempt to give ancient historical legitimacy to a twentieth century religion which is largely based on obsolete nineteenth century ideas about paganism.
Dispelling some of the myths surrounding the origins of Halloween does not take away any of the awe or mystery for those who see Halloween as a sacred time when the dead can make contact with the living – for indeed, interactions between the living and the dead were essential to All Souls Day. Nor does the truth behind the holiday detract from the entertainment of Halloween for anyone who enjoys it as a secular celebration. Halloween, as we know it today, has roots in serious medieval Christian religious beliefs about the afterlife, with five hundred years of fun and spooky secular beliefs and folk customs grafted on. It is precisely this combination of elements that gives the holiday its special appeal. Many people engage in Halloween activities with the sense that behind all the fearful fantasy they are acting out, there might be something real – that the ghostly figure they glimpsed outside the window or the unexplained rattling sound might just possibly be a soul returned from the realms of the dead. This tension between the known and unknown, the true and fantastic, the secular and sacred, is the source of our Halloween thrills. But that doesn’t mean it should be the source of our Halloween facts!
This article summarises, amalgamates and expands on material presented in two authoritative sources. All information presented here as “historical fact” can be found in one or both of the following books:
- Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996 (See the following chapters: 35. Samhain, 36. Saints and Souls, 37. The Modern Hallowe’en)
- J. Simpson and S. Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, 2000 (See the following entries: All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Guising, Halloween, Souling, Survivals Theory)
Information on the etymology of Samhain is taken from:
- Malcolm Maclennan, A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Aberdeen University Press, reprinted 1984
The quote from The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulaind, is taken from:
- Jeffrey Gantz (trans), Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Penguin Classics, 1981 (This collection includes several other references to Samhain.)
The modern origins of Wicca are thoroughly explained in:
- Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford University Press, 1999
Credit where credit is due: This article is copyrighted, © A.Æ. Hunt-Anschütz 2002, and appeared at the now-defunct website Wyrdwords. I have taken the liberty of reproducing it here. I can find no obvious contact information for the writer; if you are A.Æ. Hunt-Anschütz and you’d like me to take down this copy of your article, then please let me know and I will be happy to do so.