by Christine L. Johnston
Here at Peopling the Past we are excited to kick of an eerie series of posts in celebration of Halloween! Every Friday through October we will release a new post explaining the history behind some of our most chilling Halloween traditions and scary stories. So grab your flashlight and your candy corn, and get ready for some scare-tacular history!
In many ways Halloween is the time of year—at least here in North America—when the ancient world feels almost alive. There are so many stories and characters from ancient myth and history that appear in our scary movies and that come to life as costumes. From mummies to Medusa (fig. 1), Cleopatra to Caesar, Halloween night can feel almost like a walk through the ancient world. So how did this all start?
The holiday itself goes back pretty far into the past. The tradition of Halloween is thought to come from the Celtic festival of Samhain (Gaelic Oidhche Shamhna). This festival was held at the end of summer at a time when the barrier separating the living world from that of ghosts and monsters became thin (you’ll learn more about Celtic monsters in a coming post!). In order to scare off the ghosts and spirits who may get through the barrier, the Celtic people would build bonfires and throw a loud party, wear disguises, and place carved turnips with candles on window sills (you can learn more about Gaelic Halloween traditions and see some really cool images from celebrations held in the 1930s on the National Trust for Scotland website).
More eerie than carved turnips, a few early modern writers claimed that human sacrifices were carried out as part of the Samhain festival. For example the 17th-century History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating recorded that offerings of “two thirds of the children, and of the corn, and of the milch-kine of the men of Ireland” were made to appease the supernatural Fomorians on the eve of Samhain (History of Ireland section 331). Although a few such documents exist, they may describe rituals that were accomplished using symbolic offerings, or instead may represent exaggerations on the part of writers, particularly Christian authors like Keating (Rogers 2002). Although it may not have been part of the Samhain festival, human sacrifice did occur among some cultures in the ancient world, including—according to Roman writers—the Druids (stay tuned for a post on human sacrifice later this month!).
The holiday was adopted by European Christians in the Medieval period, and renamed the festival All Hallows’ Eve. This was because it fell on the eve before All Saints’ Day, which celebrated the deceased saints who had ascended to heaven. All Saints’ Day was part of the three-day Christian festival of Allhallowtide, which ended with All Souls’ Day. On this last day of the Allhallowtide, believers commemorated the departed and prayed for those in transition, including those in purgatory (fig. 2).
Samhain and Allhallowtide both mark the transition between summer and winter, as well as the temporary breakdown of the barrier between the dead and the living. The lifting of this barrier threatened the safety of the community and incited fear. This belief that spirits and monsters could emerge to walk among the living was also common in the ancient Mediterranean world. Specific festivals like the Lemuria in Rome (held over three nights in May), sought to ward off night-wandering evil spirits or shades (known as Lemures) and to purify the home. Protective tokens and images were often placed around the house, especially in the rooms of children. These items could take the form of amulets, figurines of protective deities, or other objects like the Egyptian apotropaic wands (shown here adorned with protective deities wielding knives; fig. 3). Fire and smoke were other common tools in the ancient world to help ward off the spirits. These protective measures were not always enough, as attested by this Mesopotamian table from the Neo-Babylonian period (first century BCE) that is inscribed with an incantation to the gods Gula and Marduk to heal a patient attacked by a ghost (fig. 4).
The barrier between the worlds of the dead and the living were not only passed by spirits. Myth and literature from the ancient Mediterranean include a number of stories about humans and heroes traveling back and forth to the underworld in order to speak to or rescue someone who was recently deceased. Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, and Orpheus are all known to have travelled either to the entrance or into the underworld and returned (you’ll learn all about the entrance to the underworld in another post in this series!). The goddess Persephone, stolen by Hades, ruler of the Underworld, is another example of someone who passes back and forth through this barrier (see also the Mesopotamian myth The Descent of Ishtar/Inanna). Some who make the journey, like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, do not return alive.
Travelling to the afterlife could also be a challenge. Navigating through the ancient Egyptian underworld for instance was a dangerous task. In order to arrive safely, the dead were often equipped with underworld books as their guide, the most famous of which is the Book of the Dead (you can learn more about the Book of the Dead and the Underworld in ancient Egypt in this video). While the spirit of the dead transitioned into the afterlife (as long as they passed the final judgement), the body remained lifelike, preserved through mummification. The barrier between the living and the dead was lifted further with the “awakening” of images of the deceased through the Opening of the Mouth ritual. As part of this ritual, seen here in the wall painting from the Tomb of Pairy (fig. 5a), a priest would use ritual implements (fig. 5b) to “open” the mouth of the image, enlivening it and allowing it to accept food and drink.
This blurring of the line between the lands of the living and the dead is at the heart of Halloween festivities, past and present. From mummies to zombies, the fear of those who cross this threshold is “alive” and well today. So now it’s time to get out your cobwebs and costumes, and don’t forget to carve your turnip—there’s more scare-tacular content coming all through October!
Kelley, R. E. 1919. The Book of Hallowe-en. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. Available on Project Gutenberg.
Morton, L. 2012. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. London: Reakion Books.
Rogers, N. 2002. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
British Museum’s site on Mummification (Warning: site includes images of human remains)