Behind seemingly innocuous celebrations are profound concepts, peculiar histories, and perhaps disturbing ideas that seem to have a life of their own. In many cases, they are only vaguely understood by the celebrants. Such is the case with Halloween.
In Celtic and Anglo Saxon culture, October 31st marked the Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain marked the beginning of the year rather than January 1st. Halloween was the date herds returned from pastures, fires were rekindled for the coming year, and laws and land tenures were traditionally renewed. November was thought to be the grimmest month and October 31st marked the point of transition when life moved underground. Divination was also considered to be most effective on October 31st, since spirits were said to visit their previous homes that particular day.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, “The Origin of Halloween”, Halloween is a complex festival that has its roots in the Dionysian mysteries of Ancient Greece and perhaps the even more ancient Shamanic celebrations of Siberia.
Later, it was associated with the Roman celebration of Pomona, the Apple Queen, although even that had much earlier Etruscan beginnings. Much of the Latin source material about Pomona is from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. (See the article, “Demographic Changes”.)
Pomona was the Roman deity of fresh fruit and fruit trees, particularly the apple. Although not well-known today, she was important enough in Roman times to have her own priestess and festival. Her influence has passed down through the ages indirectly in the French word for “apple”, pomme, and the delicious fruit that we know today that the Romans domesticated from wild apples.
According to myth, Pomona was a wood nymph whose beauty was legend. She was pursued by many including the god Pan, but only succumbed to Vertumnus, the god of seasons and change, who tricked her into talking to him by disguising himself as an old woman. Apparently he was quite a persuasive conversationalist because he became her consort.
As a peculiar harmonic of this liaison, Halloween in Victorian England rivalled St. Valentine’s as a romantic holiday. Halloween cards, rather than Valentine cards, were exchanged, often decorated with pictures of beautiful witches.
Today, Halloween is an amalgamation of different cultural ideas and deities, yet there we find ancient pagan traditions and beliefs that refuse to simply die.
Many may not know that the reason children dress up in costumes on this holiday is that in much older times, due to their low life expectancy, they were considered closer to death itself than the older folk. The costumes represented the spirits of the dead who visited nearby homes where they were given the seeds of life in the form of nuts and fruits, especially apples.
Ancient beliefs are often manifest in our holidays. The pagan beliefs of earlier times are still with us in spite of all efforts to subdue them or wipe them out altogether. I have often wondered where the gods go when they die? Perhaps, they don’t. Just like the apple, it is food for thought.