The Visual History of Halloween
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Pagan roots: Celtic Samhain
The origins of the modern feasts go back to the period of the Celtic domination in some European areas. For the Celts the new year was starting on November 1, so the holiday can be called as well the Celtic New Year. The field works had been finished, the harvest had been stored, and the peasants could finally have a rest, thank the deities for the fruit of their work and see the omens for the following year. That night the doors between the world of humans and the otherworld were open, and all the spirits were allowed to come out to the lands and celebrate together with people.
Thus, all wandering spirits of the dead, mythological creatures and Faeries – all were out that magical night. From one side, it was the opportunity for people to perform the rituals to reveal the future with the help of faery creatures. The living could see and talk to the dead. On the other side, there was a strong belief, that the spirits of the dead came out searching for the body to possess for the following year. So most rituals and traditions – putting out all lights in the house, masquerading etc. – were supposed to protect the peasants from this danger. Besides, they avoided to meet the elfish creatures, which took the most from their freedom and enjoyed tricking people. Many of the tricks were evil and sometimes dangerous for life, due to the discontent of the creatures, driven out from their lands by humans.
In the Isle of Man on October, 31 is still celebrated Hop-tu-Naa, similar to the Celtic festival of New Year.
Pagan roots: Roman Feasts
By the end of the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire had conquered most of the Celtic lands. In the consequent process of incorporating the Celts into their empire, the Romans took and adapted some Celtic traditions as a part of their own pagan rituals, festivals and customs. One of those was the festival known as Pomona Day, a pagan harvest festival honouring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees and gardens. It was celebrated around November 1.
Picture: Photogravure of Pomona, by Nicolas Fouché, as a Souvenir Sheet, Hungarian Post. Denomination: 10 Forint. Art treasures in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. Issued first in 1969. Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/childe-hassam/pomona
Another important ancient Roman festival was Feralia, celebrating the Manes (Roman spirits of the dead), which was held on February 21, the day marking the end of Parentalia (a nine day festival, intended to give rest and peace to the dead ancestors by honouring them). The participants made sacrifices in honour of the dead, prayed for them, and made oblations to them. February 21 for the Romans, like October 31 for the Celts, was the end of the year.
There are researches about the Lemuralia Festival, observed by the Romans on May 9, 11 and 13. During that festival the rites were performed to exorcise the malevolent ghosts of the restless dead from their homes. These spirits were called lemures, or larvae.
Pagan roots: Slavic Dedy
Dedy were regular ritual days in Eastern Slavic lands, held all over the year to honour the dead relatives. In mythology Dedy was the name for the souls of ancestors, who had died nine and more years before. The ritual days traditionally fell on Saturdays.
Unlike Radunitsa tradition, people didn’t visit cemeteries on Dedy, but invited the spirits of the dead at home. They cooked special food and performed rituals to honour and please the dead, so that they didn’t do any damage to the house or harm to the family.
Lithuanian All Souls’ Day of November also has roots in the pagan feast called Ilges, very similar to Dedy.
The Polish celebration of All Souls’ Day combines features of the modern Catholic feast and of Zaduszki - the ancient Slavic tradition similar to Dedy.
Christianity: Catholic church
All Hallows' Eve came to be a day of remembering the dead who are neither in Purgatory nor in Heaven, but are damned. The church has implied the new Christian significance to many symbols and rituals deriving from ancient Celtic traditions. Thus, all supernatural creatures filling the world during this day, as well as all pagan deities, have been rendered as diabolic evil beings, the spirits of the damned persons coming from the Hell. The images of ghosts, skeletons, witches, symbols of the devil and death became more and more spread during the feast.
All Saints’ Day. There are opinions, that in 609 or 610 Pope Boniface IV consecrated May 13, the culminating day of the Lemuralia, to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, in order to de-paganize the Roman feast. By 741 also commemoration of all Saints was added to the feast. In 844 the tradition was moved to 1 November, perhaps, to cover still strong ancient tradition of Samhain, which was mixed with the pagan harvest festivals of Rome.
Picture: All Saints. Author: Albrecht Durer. 1511. Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/albrecht-durer/all-saints-picture-1511
All Souls' Day has its origins in 1048, when the Bishop of Cluny established a regular praying for the souls in Purgatory. There is a legend telling about a pilgrim, who was coming back from the Holy Land and found himself on the desert island after the shipwreck. A hermit living there told the pilgrim about the fracture in the rock, leading to the Purgatory, and about the moaning of the sinful souls which could be heard from it. And once he had heard demons complaining of the prayers of people, in particular, the ones of the Cluny Abbey monks, the power of which was saving the souls in Purgatory. On his coming back, the pilgrim told the Bishop about this, and so the tradition of praying was set on November 2. With time it spread widely in Catholic church, celebrated with bonfires, parades, and people dressing up as saints, angels and devils.
Picture: Purgatory by Limbourg brothers, from the series “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”. Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/limbourg-brothers/purgatory
Christianity: Orthodox church
All Saints. From the early sources it is known that originally All Martyrs had been celebrated from the 4th century on May 13, similarly to Catholic traditions. The feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the 9th century, expanded by the Byzantine Emperor, Leo VI the Wise. His wife, Empress Theophano, lived a devout life and was canonized after death. Her husband wanted to built a church and dedicate it to her. When he was forbidden to do so, he decided to dedicate it to All Saints, his wife included. Later he expanded the feast of All Martyrs to a more general feast of All Saints, whether martyrs or not, so that Theophano would be honored whenever the feast was celebrated. The date was finally set by monks of Stoudios in Constantinople and Jerusalem Typicons (books of liturgical order) on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The date was justified by the belief that the grace of the Holy Spirit, which enlightened all Saints in different times, was sent down on the church at Pentecost.
Picture: Saint Theophano and her husband the emperor Leo VI the Wise, XVIII c. Author unknown. Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Te%C3%B3fano_y_Le%C3%B3n_VI_el_Sabio.jpg
The Soul Saturdays have been established by the Orthodox church to cover the strong traditions of the pagan Dedy. One of the most known dates for the Soul Saturday in the year is the one before October 26. It is called Demetrius Saturday and was originally introduced in 1380 by saint prince of Moscow Dmitry Donskoy, in memory of the Orthodox soldiers who fell in the Battle of Kulikovo against Tatar commander Mamai, bringing Moscow the important victory over the Golden Horde. With time the tradition spread in all Rus lands and became the day of remembrance of all dead in faith.
Picture: Kulikovo Battle. Illustration from “The legends about the battle of Mamay”, 17th century. Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kulikovo05.jpg
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by the early Irish and Scottish (Celtic) immigrants. The traditional turnips, carved into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls held in Purgatory, have been changed by the immigrants to the pumpkins, more available at the American lands and much bigger by size, and therefore easier to carve. By transformation the custom has lost its occult-like overtones and became merely a harvest celebration, a night of bobbing for apples and telling ghost stories around the bonfire.
In mid-to-late 19th century the celebration in America came back to be associated with Halloween, taking on more scary and entertaining character, with costume parties, tricks and decorations, watching horror films etc. In this format, much redesigned for children’s entertainment, the feast is gradually coming back to Europe.
Halloween History by National Geographic