The folklore of Halloween, Samhain, and the turning of the Celtic year
Sunday, October 31, 2021
In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.
Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts.
In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday still widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.
According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."
In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.
When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.
Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & Art, Lewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:
"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."
Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.
On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.
The art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud); all rights reserved by the artist. Go here to see more of his work.