From Turnips to Jack-O-Lanterns: The Origins of Halloween

Samhain(summer’s end) was originally the Celtic festival celebrated around November 1st to mark the end of the old year and celebrate the beginning of the new.  The festival had a two fold purpose–to commemorate and communicate with the dead and with the other inhabitants of the spiritual world in which the souls of the dead now lived, and to reflect on the past and catch a glimpse into the future of the individual and the community.  To find ways to give this holiday meaning for us, here’s a little of the history that goes with it.

The Celts mourned and prayed for the souls of those who had died in the past year, to help them move along on their journey to the otherworld.  They also believed that on that night the veil between our everyday world and the spiritual otherworld was at its thinnest and most transparent, and that contact was possible with ancestors and others who had gone before them, as well as with spiritual beings who inhabited the otherworld, just out of their reach and vision, but all around them.

So they immersed themselves in a celebration of and connection with the dead, later echoed in the Christian holiday constellation of All Hallow’s Eve(Halloween),  All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, put together by the Catholic Church to exert some control over pagan practices that were too strong to be eradicated.  On Samhain (as on May Eve) the Lord of the Dead, Gwynn ap Nudd (in Wales, other regions had various names for him), rode his giant dark horse with thundering hooves across the night sky, accompanied by his pack of “hell hounds,” white dogs with blood red ears, and the fluttering, shadowy souls of the dead.  While the Lord of the Dead and his train traveled in our world, the gates to his realm stood open, and heroes could embark on the perilous journey to visit the Underworld, to acquire treasure (like the magic apple of the Tree of Avalon) and knowledge  from its inhabitants.  But the gates remained open only for the night itself, and the hero must return by cockcrow or be locked in, possibly forever.

Many of our Halloween customs and superstitions come from the traditions of the Celts, based on the stories about this night.  Our intricate and eerie Jack-O-Lanterns descended from humble gourds and veggies like beets and turnips, carved and lit from within to frighten away faeries and other spirits who may come upon the unwary traveler in the dark and force him to join Gwynn ap Nudd’s “Wild Hunt.”  Another common legend of this night tells of the hero’s dark journey to the Underworld, depicted in the gruesome image of his severed head thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration, to heal both the hero himself and his land.  We find an echo of this motif in the game of bobbing for apples, where the participant’s hands are bound behind his back and he immerses his head in water to catch the “sacred” apple.  The frightful nature of this holiday also encouraged travelers and revelers to wear disguises to shield their identities from prowling spirits, which later became the custom of dressing as the wandering spirits themselves, who asked for propitiation in the form of food and drink as they went from house to house, caroling like Christmas wassailers.  Our modern day trick or treaters still ask for propitiation in the form of candy in exchange for the mercy they show in not trashing the homes of their “hosts.”

The Celts also found another function for Samhain, one which capitalized on the nature of this holiday as a liminal point in time, as well as on the transparency of the veil between the worlds.   They considered it a threshold into the spirit world, when divination and understanding of secrets and mystery was possible, and when their understanding of past, present and future could be enhanced.  The Celts viewed time differently than we do, as cyclical rather than linear. Our contemporary idea of each new year is a milestone in the straight line that is time, running from birth to death. These markers stack up year after year, always going forward, never to be revisited, with no possibility of touching a future year. But the Celts saw time as a circle with no real beginning or end, and believed they could touch the past or future as other points in the circle. On Samhain, with the spiritual world so accessible, they used various forms of divination to see the meaning and significance of the past and future with heightened insight and intuition.

Dreams on this night were considered from the gods, They saw portents on the morning after the great Samhain bonfire in the colors and shapes of its ashes. The apple played a prominent role in Samhain rituals in the role of a divinatory tool because of its reputation as the fruit of the magical Tree of Paradise.  Victorians still cut apples in half so the seeds appeared like a star, then counted them to figure out the first letter of the name of a future mate.  And the winner of the bobbing for apples game would be the next one married, a part of the game still alive even in the 20th century.  The Celts also ate hazel nuts to increase their ability to understand the signs and omens of the otherworld, the way young Gwion Bach of Wales found himself accidentally filled with cosmic knowledge and insight when he licked his fingers after burning them in the magic potion of the goddess Ceridwen.  The hazelnut tree also leads us to the tarot, in that the Magician’s wand is traditionally believed to be made from the hazel tree. The Celts reflected on the past and tried to peer into the future on Samhain, and the tarot can help us celebrate this aspect of the holiday by acting as a reflection of our path as it takes a new turn.

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