Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of October 30th - November 5th, 2009

The Dark Roots of Halloween

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Jack O'Lantern

Jack O'Lantern

  As the growing shadows of darkness lengthen, fueling the cool, damp nocturnal mists of the forest valleys, an ancient tradition whispers to us from the winds of yesterday, beckoning to the deceased souls of the previous year to return for one final Earthly sojourn. Some of these ghostly shades find themselves welcomed and comforted on this singular evening, while others will be frightened away forever.

  In the realms where Time comes together and feeds on itself, the past meets the future, leaving behind the old while recreating the new. In many cultures (Jewish, Chinese and Native American), it is recognized that life moves on at New Years. It is time to off-load baggage, to relinquish grudges, forgive enemies and pay old debts. The Chinese broom their houses clean for the New Year, while Hebrews renew their relationship with God. Even the Native Americans fast and eat foods that cause them to throw up, cleansing their system and forgiving most anything save murder. Although different cultures may intersect the circle of Time on different dates, the underlying philosophies are the same.

Snap Apple Night

Snap-Apple Night,
painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833.
It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.

  Many cultures once divided Time into two, marking the annual cycle at either the equinoxes or solstices. Cultures such as the Hebrew, Chinese, Native American and Celtic employed lunar or solilunar calendars. Terrestrial life returns with the rebirth of Spring, while spiritual life commences at the start of Autumn. The Hebrew calendar distinguishes between these two with a civil and ecclesiastical calendar, commencing at opposite ends of the year. The Celts started their year both on May 1st (May Day) and October 31st (Samhain or Halloween). For each these were holidays when the New Year began, where Time, our Old Man with the sickle and beard, was usurped by a naked infant with a sash and new number emblazoned upon his chest. Where the fabric of Time is cut and stitched together, the 'seam' may be peered through, and secrets of the forthcoming year gleaned. At Halloween the Celts believed this thinning of the veil between the worlds allowed spirits to return, the future to be known. Today psychics and astrologers do the same as they vie for a place in the tabloids each January to make predictions about the year ahead.

Halloween Graveyard

The night the spirits fly...

  Many of the games associated with Halloween concerned themselves with divining the future. Women looked intently into a mirror to see the face of their future husbands. Should a skull appear it was believed they would die before the marriage was realized. Articles were baked into a barmbrack, such as a ring, bean, coin and other items. If the piece you were given contained a coin, it indicated wealth for the coming year; if a ring, marriage. Those who received the bean had to host the party the following year. Since this was an expensive undertaking, the bean was often silently swallowed.

  Even the apple harvest played a role in helping to determine the future. Another way to learn of one's future mate was to peel the skin off an apple into one long strip and throw it over your shoulder. The peel was said to form the first letter of your future partner's name.

  Do these Scorpionic traditions of interacting with the dead, forgiving other's trespasses and peering into the future really have any hold over this time of the year?

 Only Time will tell.


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