There are several explanations as to where the celebration known as Halloween came from, such as the Celtic festival, Samhain, that marked the beginning of the darker part of the year. In more recent history, the Christian calendar set All Hallows’ Day (All Saints Day) on November first, while October 31st became All Hallows evening, known as Hallowe’en and now the familiar Halloween.
Even though Samhain predates the modern form of this celebration, it is probably not the origin.
In the blog post, “Duality“, I pointed out that the concept of a separated body and spirit came from the prehistoric shamanic practices of Siberia, and that this idea spread westward and southward into Ancient Greece where it developed into the mystery religions. This genesis likely occurred around 700-800 BCE, but possibly much earlier.
One of the major deities that was foundational to these rites was Dionysius. Although celebrated mostly in Greece, there are traces of his origins in the Minoan Civilization, the Middle East, and as far away as India. He was known as the “twice-born god”, and according to several myths, returned from the dead to live again, a theme that is fundamental to a variety of faiths, including Christianity.
The Dionysius mysteries flourished in ancient Athens, where his life was celebrated in a repeating three-year cycle called the trieterica. This period paralleled the length of time necessary to cultivate and ferment wine, a gift that originated with him. Each year was further divided into twelve months, and the month of October was called Pyanepsion. It was marked by harvest celebrations, grape-treading dances, masked rites, shape-shifting celebrations, offerings of grapevines and animals, chorus and waterside rites, and most importantly, contact with the underworld via liminal mediums such as water and fog.
Dionysius was a shape-shifter, and in the month of October he changed from being the bright and ecstatic god to his darker nocturnal form associated with the underworld.
Although not a perfect match, I doubt it is a coincidence that the Day of the Dead, Samhain, and Halloween fall at the same time of year. To my mind, Halloween is the modern variant of one of humankind’s oldest traditions, whose roots lie at the beginnings of human history.