I like to imagine that the inception of Halloween is exactly how the warlock Conal Cochran puts it in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. As he tells the protagonist, a rather beer- and cigarette- infused Tom Atkins, Halloween had a much darker side…and it was filled to the brim with awful tricks and treats:
— ” —
“…you don’t really know much about Halloween, do you? You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy … It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattle and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf. Halloween, the festival of Samhain. The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children…”
(John Carpenter | Halloween III)
That’s the good stuff, right there.
Anyway, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays because I love the fall so much. The weather, the atmosphere, the macabre. Even so, the annual day where I dress like a weirdo and eat candy is also a day steeped in ritual, mysticism, and lore. Let’s learn a little bit about it today!
Before it was Halloween
Back 2,000 years ago, it was referred to by the Celts as Samhain (pronounced sow-in) (aka Samhainn and Samhuinn) in Gaelic Ireland, and it was a new year’s celebration that may have stood for “summer’s end.” The grand celebration rang in the dark, cold months and wished a fond farewell to the summer (what we refer to in Michigan as the “Time of the Culling” [not really but we should]). It was also a good time to bring in the animals from pasture and gather the necessary resources for the arduous winters.
In addition, the world of the dead seemed to move closer to the living in those times.
— ” —
“In the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, the spirit world was never very far from everyday life. The Celts believed that spirits both benign and malignant were in intimate contact with regular people. Each family had it’s own “Banshee” (fairy woman) who would appear occasionally to family members to announce an impending death.”
(Dennis Doyle | Halloween Customs)
In so many ways, the Celts thought the “barriers would be down … between the real and the unreal,” which doesn’t sound as scary in modern times when movies spray gore at viewers, but I imagine if you were a Celt living 2,000 years ago, the thought of a long-dead relative joining you by the fire would be quite frightening.
Notwithstanding, the Druids and Celtic priests used this time of thinness between worlds to make prognostications about the coming cold, perhaps to allay the fears of the common folk who were busy trying to run their dead relatives out of their homesteads. They also lit huge bonfires, wore costumes, and tried to tell each other’s fortunes, all while drinking and feasting.
Halloween and sacrifice
There are much older stories, too. These stories state that the Celts were at some point put in the position to sacrifice some of their children, grains, and cattle to the Fomorians of Irish Mythology (a monstrous race of hostile ne’er-do-wells). However, such stories are infused with myth, and it seems many historians interpret the Fomorians as symbolic of nature and its destructive forces; likewise, people of olden times were way more superstitious than they are today.
According to researcher Wu Mingren, it is explained in Greek Philosopher Strabo’s Geography that out of superstition the Celts created massive figures composed of straw and wood to use for these sacrifices.
“… Strabo records that ‘cattle and wild animals and all sorts of human beings’ were thrown into this colossus, and then burnt,” Mingren writes. “Strabo also asserts that the ‘wicker man’ was just one method of human sacrifice …” and the druids would also, “shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples.”
(Wu Mingren | Wicker Man)
The sacrificial allegations don’t end there, however, as Julius Caesar himself alleged that the barbaric tradition was happening just outside the borders of Rome.
Ceasar wrote that, “They (Gauls) believe, in effect, that, unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind.”
“Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.”
(Tastes of History)
Though, it’s important to note that Caesar may have been embellishing a bit, as it is pure speculation whether there were actual human sacrifices even in the most famous instances of presumed sacrifices. Researchers are unsure if some of the remains of historical sacrifices were actually the result of “a homicide, a violent robbery, or the execution of a criminal.”
— ” —
“Significantly, all of these deaths predate the Roman era, so was Caesar reporting a established tradition, a contemporary one or was he embellishing his account? Was human sacrifice being practiced by the Britons, Gauls and Germans? As with a lot of ancient history, we simply cannot be certain.”
(Tastes of History)
The Romans eventually conquered this culture, and adopted the Celtic celebration into both Feralia and Pomona—the former was a day of the dead and the latter was to celebrate apples. These celebrations, plus those of Sumhuinn, have lived on in various ways, from eating snacks to playing tricks or dressing up in costumes.
A lot of the history I looked up about Halloween seems to be composed of a few different things: one of which is folklore (lots and lots of folklore), myth, legend, and hearsay from some of the most important writers of yesteryear (that includes Caesar). As such, there’s a lot of, “Is this true?” or “Is that true?” going on when it comes to researching the holiday.
So, with that in mind, this year you don’t have to necessarily pay homage to your ancestors through wicker men or human sacrifice, but maybe you should plant a few pieces of candy in the soil just to be sure you are appeasing those cooky Fomorians…or the spirits behind the thin walls of death.
“Dispelling Some Myths: The Wicker Man.” Tastes Of History, 18 Aug. 2021, tastesofhistory.co.uk/post/dispelling-some-myths-the-wicker-man.
Doyle, Dennis. “Halloween Customs.” Glendale Community College, http://english.glendale.edu/halloween1.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.
Mingren, Wu. “The Fearsome Wicker Man: An Eerie Way Druids Committed Human Sacrifice.” 14 Jan. 2021, ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/fearsome-wicker-man-eerie-way-druids-committed-human-sacrifice-005285.