Column: Halloween

Halloween is the Druid New Year. The Druids believed that on that night, commonly known as All Hallows Eve, the spirits of people who had died during the prior year would rise from their graves and start their journeys to the OtherWorld. Large vegetables, like turnips (not pumpkins), would be carved out and illuminated with candles to assist these ghosts in their efforts to leave the material world and reach the spirit world. These were not malevolent spirits. They were expected to occasionally revisit the places they lived before they died, but they neither frightened nor harmed the occupants of their prior abodes.

It was a festive time with households offering “treats” to neighbors and strangers who came by to celebrate the holiday. They left food outside for spirits that might want a snack as they wandered by. Many people would come in clumsy disguises and their hosts would pretend that they did not recognize them. It was a night for conviviality and a new beginning.

Druid practices were common among the Celtic inhabitants of what became the British Isles. The Romans spent much time and resources trying to stamp out Celtic practices and resistance to Roman rule in what would become Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. They killed uncooperative Celtic leaders, some of whom were women, and burned the sacred groves in which the Celts practiced religious ceremonies. The Roman emperor Hadrian concluded that stamping out the perpetual assault on Roman settlements by people coming from the north of the main island was not cost effective. He had the army build a wall across the island and left the north to the unruly Celts who did not see the benefits of Roman rule.

Halloween was so popular among the Celtic population that its celebration persisted after most of the British Isles converted to Christianity.  An unfortunate offshoot of the acceptance of free-roaming spirits on this festival day was the depiction by leaders of the Catholic and subsequently of the Protestant churches of some of these spirits as inherently evil. Bad stuff was perpetrated by bad spirits. These evil-doers were given various titles. In Latin, they were called Malefica; in German, they were Die Hexen; in English, they were Witches.

The belief in witches as the cause of Man’s misfortunes has incited recurrent spasms of terror over the centuries. Most Americans have heard of the Salem witch trials but are not familiar with the thousands of other grisly episodes in European history during which towns, cities, or entire nations devoted resources to identifying and destroying witches. Whether in America or in European countries, the unfolding of terror usually followed the same pattern. Misfortune for an individual or an entire population would lead to accusations of witchcraft. The accused perpetrator was obliged to prove that he or she was innocent of causing the misfortune. Torture would be applied until the accused confessed and identified fellow witches, and speedy executions by hanging or burning would follow.

Witches were easily identified.  In most cases they were women, and most of the women identified as agents of the Devil were nonconformists or more educated than their peers. Women healers were especially vulnerable to being labelled as witches, since the general population was mystified by good treatment results and terrified by bad outcomes. It usually required only a few days of torture to get these women to describe how they were approached by the Devil and what they agreed to do as one of his many agents. Under torture, they routinely identified other members of their cohort. Their interrogators had to strip the accused naked to look for marks left by the Devil. Given the sexual depravity associated with agents of the Devil, it was not surprising that these tell-tale signs were often evident on the accused’s genitalia.

Women were deemed much more vulnerable to seduction by the Devil because they were considered sexually insatiable. This was a notion adopted by societies completely dominated by men. Men were not at fault for their promiscuity: women were to blame. This view that men would be chaste or at least not sexually indiscriminate if it were not for the machinations of women has recurred over the millennia in numerous cultures and is still prevalent in many societies and religions. If men sin, this archaic prejudice presumes, it is because they are beguiled or enchanted by scheming women. Men were traditionally considered less likely to become tools of the Devil because they were viewed as having stronger characters than their wives or daughters. As absurd as this sounds to inhabitants of 21st Century industrialized nations, much of the western world accepted these views as established truths for several centuries. Troublesome, outspoken, or merely demented women could be eliminated with little more than gossip that accused them of being witches.

Witch hunts usually ended when the affected community grew weary of the mushrooming claims and counterclaims. In eras when life expectancy was short and infant mortality was high, witch prosecution could quickly lead to a worrisome depopulation of a village. Quite often the managers of the hunts would be targeted as the dragnet spread throughout the affected community. The men interrogating, prosecuting, and executing the accused witches were not immune to accusations of witchcraft themselves.

Today we Americans have a much more benign view of “witches.” We may dismiss these evil agents as the paranoid delusions of our ancestors or accept them as potentially benevolent entities, like Glinda in the Wizard of Oz. We can reject Halloween as an unholy pagan festival or embrace it as a celebration of annual renewal and rebirth. Most Americans choose the latter and even revel in frightening depictions of the holiday turned evil. Many of our fellow citizens find horror movies, like Halloween, simultaneously entertaining and frightening as Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of the famed actor Tony Curtis, takes a stand (again) against the forces of evil. The depiction of her as the heroine in the battle between good and evil indicates that at least in the United States the perception of women has changed somewhat over the past few centuries.  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email