Halloween past and present

Halloween past and present

Pumpkin Twins halloween
Photographer: David Menidrey | Source: Unsplash

Halloween or Samhain (pronounced Sow-in or Sow-een) falls on October 31st.  Samhain is one of the eight sabbats in the Wheel of the Year, the Wiccan calendar.  Samhain is possibly the most important festival celebrated by Witches and is also known as the Witches’ New Year.

Samhain marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of Winter or dark half of the year.  It is seen as a time of endings as the trees and land rest paving the way for rebirth and the start of a New Year.  This dark part of the year, seen as a magical time, will inevitably be followed by light.  There is also a belief that during Samhain the veil between the two worlds is at its thinnest, making it easier to contact those who have passed to the spirit world.

The history of Samhain

Photographer: Adrian Moran | Source: Unsplash

Around 2000 years ago the ancient Celts believed that spirits returned to earth due to the boundary between the two worlds being dissolved.  They also believed that the presence of the spirits made it possible for the Druids (Celtic priests), to make predictions about the future.  The druids built large bonfires where they made animal sacrifices to the Deities.  They also dressed in animal skins and heads and told each other’s fortunes.  Once the festivities were over the Celts re-lit fires in their hearths from the sacred bonfires, to protect them through the coming months.

The Romans

Two Roman festivals were later combined with the traditional Celtic Samhain.  These were Feralia, a day when the Romans honored their dead and another day when they honored Pomona, Goddess of fruit and trees.  The apple is a symbol of Pomona which could be where the tradition of bobbing apples has originated.

November 1st became known as ‘All Saints Day’, a day which Pope Gregory III decided would be about honoring all Saints.  He combined this with ‘All Martyrs Day’ which was initially established on May 13th, 609AD by Pope Boniface IV.  The night before All Saints Day became known as ‘All Hallows Eve’, later named Halloween.  The reason it was given this name is that All Saints Day was also called ‘All-Hallows’ or ‘All-Hallowmas’.  In 1000AD November 2nd became known as ‘All Souls Day’, dedicated to honoring the dead.  This day was celebrated by the Church with bonfires and people dressing up as angels, devils, and saints.

Trick- or- Treating

The tradition of trick or treating can be traced back to the Christian tradition of souling which took place in England during the Middle Ages.  This practice took place from Halloween through to All Souls Day.  Poor people would go from door to door and were given pastries known as soul cakes, in return they would pray for the souls of the person’s dead relatives.  This tradition, started by the church, was believed to be a replacement for a previous tradition of leaving out food and wine for roaming spirits.  Eventually, children began calling to neighbors’ houses where they would receive food, ale, and money.  This became known as ‘trick- or- treating’ and later became popular in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.  It has since led to the custom of asking neighbors the question Trick-or-Treat?

The idea of dressing up at Halloween came from the Celts and their fear of encountering spirits at Halloween.  They would wear masks when leaving their homes after dark, in the hope that spirits would think they were other spirits.  To please the spirits and prevent them from entering their homes they would leave bowls of food outside for them.

Jack-O-Lanterns

Child holding jack-o-lantern
Photographer: Julia Raasch | Source: Unsplash

There are various legends associated with Jack-O-Lanterns.  They are believed to have originated from the UK.  Carved out turnips or other root vegetables were made into lanterns with scary faces, to ward off evil spirits.  They were often left in windows or doorways to prevent the spirits from entering the home. 

Irish Halloween Legends

One of the more popular legends came from Ireland and revolved around a man known as Stingy Jack.  The story tells how Jack tricked the devil, convincing him to turn into a coin to pay for drinks.  Jack then used a silver cross to prevent the devil from returning to his original form.  When he allowed him to turn back, he made him promise that he would not claim his soul when he died. 

Jack then persuaded the devil to climb a tree and pick some fruit.  He carved the shape of a cross into the tree trunk and the devil was unable to get down.  Once again Jack made him promise not to claim his soul.  When Stingy Jack died, he was not allowed into heaven.  He tried to enter hell, but the devil kept his promise and refused to take his soul.  The devil gave Jack an ember from the fire and sent him away.  Jack placed the ember inside a turnip and used it to light his way.  Stingy Jack is believed to have been wandering the earth ever since.

Irish immigrants brought the Jack-O-Lanterns into the United States.  Pumpkins were plentiful in the US and they soon realized that these would be perfect to carve out and use as Jack-O-Lanterns. Pumpkins were then used instead of turnips and are still used today.

Halloween Traditions and Superstitions

Halloween was a time when the Celts felt closer to deceased relatives.  They would set extra places at the table for relatives that had passed to the spirit world and leave treats on their doorsteps and along the roadside.  They would also light candles to aid their loved ones in finding their way back to the spirit world.  Today people still follow the tradition of setting extra places at the table for loved ones in spirit.

Although not necessarily a Halloween superstition, the belief that a black cat will bring bad luck when crossing a person’s path stems from the middle ages.  People thought that witches turned themselves into black cats to avoid detection.  However, some people believe that if a black cat crosses their path it will bring them good luck.

Bats on Halloween

Bats were not considered to be a good sign on Halloween.  It was believed that if a bat flew into someone’s home then it was haunted.  If a bat flew around the home three times it was believed that someone would die.  There are also superstitions involving spiders.  If a spider is spotted on Halloween it is thought to be a sign of a loved one in spirit watching over the person.  If a spider is seen falling into the flame of a candle lamp, then witches are said to be close by.

Some of the Halloween superstitions, still popular today, involve ways of potentially foretelling the future, relating to marriage and children.  Cutting open an apple and counting the seeds was supposed to tell a person how many children they would have.  If a woman peeled an apple and then tossed the peel over her shoulder it was believed to land in the shape of the initials of her future husband.  In Ireland, during the 18th century, cooks would sometimes place rings in mashed potatoes on Halloween.  This was meant to bring true love to the person who found the ring. 

Throwing nuts into a fireplace was supposed to tell whether a relationship would last. If the nuts exploded or popped, the relationship would not last but if it turned to ash they would marry.  It was believed that if a woman ate walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before going to bed then she would dream of her future husband.  Another legend tells that if a woman stands in a dark room, looking in a mirror, holding a candle, she will see the face of her future husband over her shoulder.

Witches

Witches Of Halloween

Witches will often make a broom, known as a ‘besom’ at Halloween. These are then used to sweep away any old, stagnant or negative energies that no longer serve them.  This is seen as a way of creating space for the new year. 

The act of giving an acorn to someone was apparently a secret sign to tell the person that they were a witch.  Witches often used to keep their identities secret due to widespread persecution of witches.  Acorns were meant to be a symbol of protection, fertility, growth, and friendship.

Halloween and its traditions have become increasingly popular over the years, predominantly in the US and the UK.  There are a variety of celebrations in other countries across the world which are celebrated on October 31stincluding The Day of the Dead, celebrated mainly in Mexico and parts of Latin America, The Day of Dracula in Romania, Kawasaki Halloween Parade in Japan and Pangangaluluwa in The Philippines.  Other countries have similar celebrations to honor the dead at other times of the year.

A Brief History of Witchcraft

A Brief History of Witchcraft

A Brief History Of Witch Craft
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It is not known exactly when witchcraft first made an appearance.  Witches were mentioned in the Bible – yet it is unlikely the Bible was referring to Witchcraft as we know it today.  The following reference found in Exodus 22.18, “Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live”, may have been mistranslated.  In the King James version of the Bible; this quote was thought to be largely responsible for the persecution of those accused of being Witches in Europe and America. So, as it would seem the history of witchcraft is rather askew.

A Brief History Of Witch Craft
A Brief History Of Witch Craft

The Mythology and Folklore of ancient people, particularly Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans has led to many of the beliefs held in Western Witchcraft.  It seems that Witchcraft as we know it, stems largely from the Celts.  These were a group of tribes from the Iron Age, believed to have originated from around 700 BC in Europe.

The Celts were spiritual people.  Celtic Polytheism or Paganism meant that they worshipped many Deities, both Gods and Goddesses.  Celtic Priests, known as Druids, were believed to be Sorcerers and Prophets.  

The Druids also took on roles as teachers, philosophers, astrologers, healers, midwives, bards and Judges.  The number three was very significant to the Druids and many aspects of the old religion can be found in threes – the Triple Goddess (Mother, Maiden, Crone), the three phases of the Moon, the Earth, Sky and Sea, and the three stages of Life. 

Witches believe in the ‘Law of Three’ meaning that what is sent out will return threefold.  An ancient symbol known as the Triskelion was used by the Celts.   This symbol depicts three interconnected spirals.

The Druids and The History Of Witchcraft   

The Druids observed eight Holy Days based on lunar, solar and seasonal cycles, Samhain (Halloween) on October 31st, Yule – Winter Solticeon December 21st, Imbolc on February 2nd, Ostara (Easter) – Spring Equinox, Beltane, April 30th, Litha – Summer Soltice on June 21st, Lughnasa – First Harvest on August 2nd and Mabon – Autumn Equinox.  Druidry has influenced some of today’s religions, such as Christianity and Wiccan.  Witches celebrate the eight Holy Days or Sabbats every year.

Wicca

The word ‘Wicca’ means ‘The Wise Ones’.  Anglo-Saxon kings in England used to consult the Witan (meaning moot or meeting), a council of wise ones, before making important decisions.  Wicca had knowledge of herbal lore, magick and divination.  They were often doctors, lawyers, magicians and Priests.  Today Wicca is recognized as a religion, whereas Witchcraft is not.  It is a nature-based religion in which there is a belief that the spirit of the Divine, God and Goddess, exists in all things. Wiccans live by two codes: The Wiccan Rede which states ‘An Ye Harm None, Do what Ye Will’, which means they are free to use magic but must not harm anyone and The Threefold Law meaning that whatever good or harm they do will return threefold.

Christianity

As Christianity increased in popularity, Church leaders promoted the persecution of Witches and the belief that they were evil and participated in devil worshipping and acts of human sacrifice.  During Medieval times, particularly the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, tens of thousands of people were executed after being accused of witchcraft.  They were burned, drowned, hung and tortured to death.  Many of these had nothing to do with witchcraft and were victims of mass hysteria and even grudges.  There are many publicized Witch trials which took place in Europe and America, one of the most well known being The Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Massachusetts, United States, between 1692 and 1693.

Daemonologie

In 1597, King James VI of Scotland wrote a book called Daemonologie, after he became obsessed with the Dark Arts.  His book focussed on Witches, magic and necromancy.  As this book was written by a Monarch, its influence led to a great rise in the number of Witchcraft trials in Scotland at this time.

King James V I also became King James I of England in 1603 when the two Crowns united and in 1604 he persuaded Parliament to pass the Witchcraft Act in 1604.  This was a much harsher statute than the previous one and meant that anyone accused of using any form of magic would be severely punished.  A first offense of Witchcraft became punishable by hanging.  

Witchcraft trials became widespread across England, one of the most famous being those of the Pendle Witches in 1612.  There were 12 suspects from Pendle Hill in Lancashire who were charged with the murders of ten people, using Witchcraft.  Ten were hanged after being found guilty, one died in prison and one was found not guilty.

Witchcraft History

One prominent figure, in English Witchcraft history, was Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder General.  In March 1644, Hopkins overheard several women discussing communications with the Devil.  This was the start of his career as self-appointed Witchfinder General, which ended in 1647.  During his short career Hopkins was responsible for the execution of nearly three hundred women and was well paid for his work.  One of the methods he used on the accused women included sleep deprivation which led to them being coerced into confessing.  He also used pins and needles to prick their arms and if they did not bleed they were accused of being Witches.  Another method used was tying the women to chairs and submerging them in water to see if they floated.  If they did they were found guilty.

The Witchcraft Laws in England were repealed in 1951.  A writer, Gerald Gardner, began to hear from Witches across Europe after telling their story.  He was surprised to hear that there were so many Covens still practicing the Craft, yet they did not wish to come out in the open as they were concerned that persecution could remerge.  Gardner rewrote ‘The Book of Shadows’, a book containing spells and rituals, written by Witches who met in the shadows due to fear of persecution.  

Gardner’s Book of Shadows contained his own spells and rituals and led to a form of witchcraft known as Gardnerian Witchcraft.  There are many variations of witchcraft today, too many to mention.  Witches today have their own book of shadows, similar to a journal, where they record spells, recipes and rituals.  Traditionally, a Witch’s Book of Shadows would be destroyed upon death, so there was no evidence of them ever having been a Witch.  This is no longer the case today.

Witchcraft has become hugely popular and widespread.  For anyone interested in learning about Witchcraft or Wicca there are many books available on the subject and groups on social media where like-minded people can come together, share their experiences, learn from one another and celebrate old traditions.  Some Witches belong to a Coven, others are solitary Witches.  Unfortunately, prejudice still exists, with a minority still believing that Witches are Satanists and involved in evil practices.  The media has had both a negative and positive influence.

Modern television programs and films have come away from using the stereotype ‘evil Witches’ shown in Disney films and old women with warts and pointy chins flying around on broomsticks!! Newspapers and other sources of media occasionally produce scare stories and misinformation.  However, there are many positive and factual articles online and in magazines written by Witches that dispel the myths and misinformation being spread.