The word conjures images of caramel apples, jack-o’-lanterns, costumes, and of course all things “spooky.” This is one of those holidays that, try as the Catholic church may have, it never could separate from its Pagan roots. Another name for Halloween is Samhain—usually pronounced “sow-iyn”—and, for many folks who identify as Pagan, like Witches and Wiccans, it’s one of the holiest days of the year. For Pagans like the Celts, this holiday and Beltane (May 1) signaled the Light and Dark Halves of the Year. For them, Samhain was New Year’s Eve, to be celebrated with all the pomp and bacchanal of such an auspicious date. And while today’s version may seem all fun and games, behind the masks and piles of candy lie darker traditions paying homage to the forces of life and death.
For ancient Pagans all over the Northern Hemisphere, the waning of the sun’s energy in mid-autumn heralded the end of the bright, warm, abundant part of the year. The Mother Earth has spent the last few months producing a massive bounty of crops. Now, She begins to transform from verdant, life-giving Mother, into a skeletal, steely-eyed Crone whose abundant cup no longer pours forth. At best She is apathetic to our existence, the teeming vegetation harvested, at worst, She veils the last crops with grey mold, hurls hail down on us while we attempt to chase down the last of the season’s rabbits.
Most plants and animals stop producing offspring; the days grow shorter, the nights longer. Then rain and snows come, and some groups refer to this time as “The Feast of the Snow Witch.” It was normal to see not only the land but members of your family and community, as well as livestock, die off during winter. Ancient people struggled with ways to ensure their safety and health through these long months, calling on ancestors to lend their wisdom and foresight as people peered into the unknown.
This “shutting down” of Earth was considered the primordial face of Chaos rising and assuming reign over a portion of the year.
It was thought the “veil between the worlds” was thinner—the spirits of the dead would walk the earth. In other words, everything was going wrong, backward, upside down. Even the gods weren’t immune to this disorder, and many of the classic underworld journey myths take place at this time of year: The Greek goddess Kore/Persephone journeys to Hades; the Assyrian goddess Ishtar makes her descent; the Egyptian god Osiris is killed by his brother, Set, and resurrected by the great goddess Isis.
One way people observed this holiday was to dress up and wear masks—a practice that goes back at least to ancient Greece—as a way to trick the dead souls and demons that wandered Earth. People hoped that by blending in with the devils, they would be overlooked and spared misfortune in the coming months. Masking was also used to trick one another to prepare for the chaos of winter; placation for the mischief-makers usually came as a coin or a sweet treat; hence the “Trick or Treat” of today. A house that refused to pass out treats might have ended up with piss-pots overturned on their doorsteps and the walls splattered with rotting vegetables—the modern equivalent being a good old-fashioned TP-ing.
Even the tradition of jack-o’-lanterns has a darker side. The pumpkins we carve now are a 150-year-old American addition to a much older custom. For more than 2,000 years, people in Western Europe have been carving goblin, and demon faces out of turnips, rutabagas, and small gourds, tucking a light inside, and carrying them on poles or leaving them near their doorsteps to ward off the “evil spirits” floating around. But before people used turnips and gourds, it’s theorized that some Pagans, like the Druids, used human heads. They believed the head was the seat of the soul, and Celtic warriors would behead the soldiers they killed and mount their heads on poles outside their village to protect their lands.
Nearly every belief system on Earth has a festival dedicated to the forces of death, chaos, and ultimately rebirth, many of them at this time of year. In Mexico, Catholics celebrate Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when families party in graveyards with their ancestors, sprucing up the gravesites and having picnics right on top of them. In India, Kali Puja is dedicated to the Great Destroyer goddess, Kali. Her temples run red with the blood of animals sacrificed to ensure prosperity for all.
Because the veil between the worlds is thin at this time of year, many people practice forms of divination— tarot, throwing bones, astrology, and other methods—reaching out to their ancestors and other-worldly beings for guidance as they prepare to move through the Dark Half of the Year.
In astrology, the sign that oversees this season is Scorpio, whose constellation is often described as moving “backward in the sky,” and the Tarot card connected to it is Death. Both archetypes emphasize sex and death—sex in the sense of a union of opposites, namely order and discord, and death in the sense of profound personal transformation, the kind that often requires a dying-off of the old self before the new self can be reborn.
All of this—the hedonistic celebration of life, the appreciation for the abundance of the Earth, and the powerful reckoning of inevitable death and the transition of our life force into “something else”—are why many Pagans view this time of year as the Holy of Holies. Plus, we can finally wear our cool clothes.
In the modern era, most Pagans don’t have the luxury of endless foggy moors to go searching for elementals or huge tracts of land to build bonfires.
Many witches will carve pumpkins, put on costumes, hold giant, loud parties, and hand out treats to any devils who come knocking because they know to make room for love and chaos—or chaos will make its own room—but also because, as one of my sister Witches, Sara, likes to say, “Life is for the living!” But many witches will also head out to local cemeteries and tidy up graves, volunteer at senior homes, offer divination services to their communities. Some will hold sacred gatherings with fellow Witches and feast while discussing their magical acts from the last month – the traditional way to worship Hecate, Greek Goddess of Witchcraft and Magic. And some will hold Dumb Suppers—silent meals at which the table is dressed in black, attendees don’t speak, and a place is set for the spirits of anyone who would like to attend from beyond the veil
Pagans see the good in honoring the generations before them, the deeds and misdeeds that have added up to this moment. We are the accumulation of everything that has ever happened. Samhain is the season of coming to terms with that sacred burden, choosing what to leave behind, and what to carry forward.
So this Hallowe’en—sorry, Samhain—I recommend that you eat your fill of sweet treats, live it up, honor your dead, and pull a few pranks on friends and family. And then head bravely off into The Dark.
Star Anise, Vetiver, Oakmoss, Dragon’s Blood, Black Pepper
Stone helpers from the ancient world: Aquamarine, Beryl, Topaz, Garnet, and Amethyst
In the modern era, Witches also work with Labradorite, Moonstone, Unakite, Alexandrite, Flint
Themes for meditation:
- Choose an ancestor: what types of gifts have you received from them??
- What do you want others to learn from your life?
- Do some journaling on your feelings around Death and far-reaching transition.
(if that is healthy for you.)