At this time of year, as the days get darker and the nights get longer, it’s easy to be more aware of the mysterious side of life. Fear of the unknown is an important part of Halloween, Samhain and even Guy Fawkes Night. The ancient purpose of these rituals has always been to keep us safe from the dangers of the coming darkness.
The word Halloween comes from the Christian festival of All Hallows Eve. However, this seasonal ritual began centuries before Christianity. Originally called Samhain (pronounced Sow’en), it marked the turning point between the end of summer and the start of winter.
Even with a good harvest stored away, people feared the deadly powers of winter on the way. So this was a time to make offerings of thanks to the sun god Baal – both for the bounty of the past summer, and for continued protection through the winter.
People said this turning point of the year caused the veil between the worlds to become thin, bringing a time of danger, excitement and wonder. Charms and spells would be especially powerful at Samhain. Evil spirits could also come through, seeking humans to possess or destroy. Druid priests performed special rituals at this time to appease the spirits of the dead.
For additional protection, on the eve of Samhain the private home fires were put out. This made the houses look empty, so that malignant forces would pass them by. Instead, the people built a huge communal fire outside. They then feasted and danced around it, wearing fearsome masks and animal disguises of skins, horns and antlers to drive away the horrors of the dark.
The custom of trick or treat also has prehistoric roots. It began with people putting food in front of their houses to placate the demons then roaming the land looking for sustenance –preferably in human form. People later began to act out that drama themselves. They masqueraded as demons, going from house to house demanding offerings, with threats of retribution if unsatisfied – a bit like an early protection racket. The masked children who knock on doors at Halloween are performing the same ritual, still fresh from the wild side of the human psyche.
Much like our modern electoral system, in ancient times the tribe chose a leader to reign for just one year. During this year, their temporary king had every luxury available. Then they sacrificed him and chose a replacement.
The sacrifice of the old year’s king was a central purpose of the Samhain fire. It was called the bone fire because when it was over, the shaman read the dead king’s bones in the ashes for good or bad omens. With one letter dropped, it’s now our merry bonfire. The annual burning of a man’s effigy on Guy Fawkes Night is a direct echo of this arcane ritual.
Our early winter festivals are like a gnarled old tree. While their roots still go down to these ancient terrors, the festivals these days are more about fun than fear. It feels good to thrill to the mysteries of life when we feel perfectly safe. Or are we? Maybe the veils between the worlds really are thinner at this time of year. Wishing everyone a joyfully spooky Halloween, Samhain, and bonfire night!