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Spooky tales from the spirit world

Anne Shaffer
Assistant Features Editor

Bats, spiders, ghouls, and monsters.  Around Oct. 31, these creatures and so many more appear as decorations on porches and in shop windows as the country gears up for a favorite holiday among children: Halloween.

Halloween is a conglomeration of several different holidays.  The ancient Celtic Samhain festival, held from Oct. 31 through Nov. 1, commemorated the end of the harvest season and was celebrated with bonfire rituals and divination games.  On this day, the Celtic peoples believed that the spirits of their ancestors would come out of the “Otherworld” to revisit their homes, and most people took steps to protect themselves from evil spirits.

Halloween decorations often feature the popular symbols of frightening spirits and witches’ familiars.

The name “Halloween,” however, probably has its roots in Christianity.  Two holidays, All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’, Hallowmas, and Hallowtide) and All Souls’ Day, are held on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.

Pope Gregory III declared these holidays in order to join the pagan religions he was trying to convert with the Christian one he represented, according to the Library of Congress.  The night before All Saints’ Day became All Hallows’ Eve.

According to the Library of Congress, “the old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely.” A great many Halloween traditions can be traced back to the pagan holiday of Samhain. Costumes, for example, were worn in order to fool the returning spirits in case they were not feeling friendly.

According to Live Science, trick-or-treating in costumes came about because these visiting spirits knocked on doors disguised as beggars, and if the person who answered the door turned them away without gifts, he or she was at risk of incurring that spirit’s wrath.  The “trick” in the phrase “trick or treat” is a reference to the potential threat posed by vengeful spirits.

Surprisingly, trick-or-treating only became popular in the United States in the 1900s, when Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them.  As a tradition, however, it goes back to the Middle Ages and is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Halloween is also associated with a massive number of symbols: witches, cauldrons, bats, spiders, jack-o’-lanterns, and many more.

Probably the most well-known Halloween symbol is the jack-o’-lantern, typically carved from a pumpkin.  The original jack-o’-lanterns, however, were carved from of hollowed-out turnips.

An old Celtic tale tells of a man, Jack, who tricked the devil and then, after he died, could not get into either heaven or hell, according to Live Science.  Because of this, he wandered the earth and used a lantern carved from a turnip as a guide. Those who carved pumpkins believed that the lanterns would act as a guide to other lost souls.

Live Science states that many of the traditional Halloween symbols are associated with witchcraft.  Black cats, bats, and spiders were all thought to be witches’ familiars, demonic spirits given them as pets by the devil.

Cats, bats, and spiders also have their own myths.  Supposedly, the devil could turn himself into a cat to associate with witches.  If a bat flew around a house three times, someone in the house would soon die.  Live Science records one myth which states “that if a spider falls into a candle-lit lamp and is consumed by the flame, witches are nearby.”

Who could forget the Wicked Witch of the West from the classic “Wizard of Oz?” The witch is still a symbol of Halloween today.

The Halloween witches, with pointy hats and warty faces are, according to Live Science, representative of the Celtic crone goddess honored on Samhain who represented wisdom, change, and the turning of the seasons.  When people died, their souls went into the crone’s cauldron to await reincarnation.

Several other Halloween activities originate from ancient times.  One, bobbing for apples, was a combination of Roman beliefs and Celtic ones after the Romans brought their fertility goddess, Pomona, to Britain.  The popular theory was that the first person to catch an apple in his or her teeth, without the use of hands, would be the first person to marry.

This All Hallows’ Eve, remember the story of those ghouls and beasties and make sure that you have plenty of treats so you can avoid the tricks.