Halloween and its cousins (Teng Chieh, Dia de los Muertos, etc) offer people all over the world a chance to celebrate the dead. In America, it means a month of scary movies, fall-themed treats, costume parties, alcohol, and anything to do with witches, zombies, werewolves, and all things ghoulish and ghastly. The holiday draws on both ancient Celtic and Christian practices, and many are aware that some of our current traditions have ties to Samhain (pronounced sah-win), a pagan religious festival that originated out of Celtic spiritual customs. But what are the legends that inspired the Celts to begin with?
A Spooky Start
In Celtic Ireland, around 2,000 years ago, Samhain represented the division between the lighter half of the year (summer) and the darker half (winter). During the interim, ancient people believed that the line between the spirit world and the mortal one became so thin that the dead could pass through it and walk the earth once more.
It was at this time that family hearths were left to burn out while villagers helped take stock of herds and supplies for winter. Once work was finished, everyone came together to light community bonfires. They’d have contests, practice forms of divination, and hold meetings. Some references suggest animal and human sacrifices and other, darker rituals took place at the behest of Druid priests, but they’re tough to verify. At the end of the night, celebrants would take a flame home to relight their family fires.
Documents also mention drinking alcohol to excess and overeating at gluttonous feasts. There was an idea that once you reached a certain level of really full and sodding drunk, you could communicate with the gods. This might provide a nice opportunity to ask them for healthy crops and good fortunes over the next year. How convenient!
This mandatory fire festival lasted days, and all community members had to participate. If you didn’t, bad things would happen to you, whether at the hands of spirits or village officials. This was because Samhain was seen as an extremely important event that affected the outcome of the new year. If you missed it, you might anger the gods, and angry gods don’t bless towns with bountiful harvests. Ergo, you had to show up.
But What of the Dead?
To appease their ancestors and fallen brethren, families laid out dumb suppers in tribute. To ward off evil spirits, people wore costumes and masks to blend in and avoid becoming a target. This was also particularly helpful if you were mean to someone who passed away recently.
Instead of letting it go to waste, people typically shared their uneaten ghost food with the less fortunate. You can imagine hungry folk making the rounds and going door to door asking for spirit leftovers. By the Middle Ages, once most pagan holidays had been adopted and tweaked by Christians, an early form of trick or treating emerged from this practice.
Medieval poor people, including children, would approach homes on Allhallowtide and ask for something to eat in return for song and prayer. At the same time, people prepared small baked cakes marked with crosses to set out with wine as offerings for the dead. When hungry folk came knocking, they’d usually receive one of these treats, known as soul cakes. Those who begged for them became known as soulers.
Monsters Walk Among Us
It wasn’t just ghosts and spirits who roamed the countryside during Samhain — ghouls would creep in from other dimensions for a bit of fun as well. Hellbent on making mischief, they took many forms. Take for instance:
Irish for spirit, the furry Púca was capable of bringing good or bad fortune to the Celts. These nefarious creatures were shapeshifters who could take the form of goats, cows, horses, hares, cats, dogs, and even people. You could always tell when a Púca was impersonating a human, though, since they invariably retained an animal feature or two. Regardless of the form they took, they had a bad habit of wandering off with children and never returning.
Whether they brought good tidings or not, Púcai were known to be very mischievous, and especially loved to harass weary travelers. To keep one at bay, you had to know how to handle it. For instance, if it tried to entice you to climb on its back, you had to comply. You’d then get a wild ride and the creature wouldn’t harm you.
During Samhain, households that wanted to be spared from abuse left offerings out for the Púcai. It was critical to leave them something good, and place it far away from the village and your children — just in case.
To this day, there are still some who sprinkle a bit of grain in their yards to keep the Púcai happy on Halloween. If they like it, your garden will overflow with ripe fruits come spring.
The Lady Gwyn
Travelers also needed to watch out for The Lady Gwyn. A forlorn woman who appeared dressed in all white, she was sometimes headless, evil, and vindictive. Pretending to be a lost soul, she would lure and chase any journeymen she caught wandering during the night with her tailless black sow in tow. If you see her, pray that she’s in a good mood — you don’t know what she’ll do if she catches you.
Then, there was Stingy Jack. There are many versions of his story, but here is one:
Jack lived in an ancient Irish town, and everybody knew him to be a manipulating drunkard with a silver tongue. Eventually Satan himself overheard tales of Jack’s evil deeds, and, feeling incredulous and envious, went to see if they were true.
One evening, the devil found Jack drunk, wandering down a lonely road. Realizing it was the end, Jack asked Satan if he could have a few drinks before going to Hell. The Devil said sure, why not, and took him to a pub where he drank his fill. When the bill arrived, Jack asked Satan to pay the tab by metamorphosing into a silver coin.
Impressed by the audacity of the request (and perhaps a bit tipsy), Satan did as he was asked. Clever Jack took the silver and placed it in his pocket, which also happened to contain a crucifix. This trapped the devil in coin form, and to be restored, he had to promise to leave Jack’s soul alone for a decade.
Ten years later, Jack and Satan met much the same way as they did before, and Jack again bowed to the inevitable. Time to go to Hades. But first, could he have an apple to feed his starving belly? Satan acquiesced, climbing a nearby tree to fetch one for him.
Quick as a flash, Jack carved a cross into the trunk. Now thoroughly hacked off, Satan demanded his freedom. Jack said sure — if he swore to never take him to hell. With no other way down, the Devil agreed.
When Jack finally succumbed to his alcoholism years later, he ascended to Heaven and attempted to enter through the gates of St. Peter. Unsurprisingly, he was denied admission. He then ventured down to Hades and begged Satan to let him in. True to his word, the Devil refused.
He turned him away, but not before tossing him a spare ember to mark his status as a denizen of the netherworld. Until forever, Stingy Jack is doomed to roam the realm between good and evil with nothing but Satan’s ember, which he placed in a hollowed-out turnip to illuminate his path.
To keep Jack and other disgruntled spirits away on Samhain, it’s usually a good idea to carve out a turnip or pumpkin, illuminate it with a candle, and place it in your window to scare them away.
Save Our Souls
It wasn’t just churlish ghouls and mischievous creatures of the night that appeared during Samhain celebrations. There were also courageous, valiant warriors who entered other dimensions and defeated monstrous demons. Check out Part Two to get the rest of the story.
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