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The Origins of Halloween: Appeasing and Honoring the Dead

The fascinating origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived in an area that is now the United Kingdom over 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day represented the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter This was a time that was commonly associated with death.

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the worlds of the living and the dead crossed. On the night of October 31 they celebrated the festival of Samhain. When the ghosts of the dead returned to earth causing mischief and destroying crops, the Celts believed that their presence made it possible for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. These prophets provided direction and security for surviving the deadly winter that lay ahead. 

Huge sacred bonfires were built where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins. This is where the fortune telling occurred. When the festival ended, they re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during their season of death - the cold and darkness of winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had taken over the majority of Celtic land. Over the course of 400 years, two Roman festivals were combined with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans honored their dead. The second festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is an apple and most likely explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced on Halloween to this day.

In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor Christian martyrs and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III (731–741 AD) expanded the festival to include all saints as well as martyrs, and moved the day from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands where it gradually blended with the older Celtic rituals. In 1000 AD, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day - a day to honor the dead.

It is believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned, holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similar to Samhain. Bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils became custom. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

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"The concept that black cats are an evil omen is not necessarily a native European belief. Originally it was a Celtic belief that having a black cat cross one’s path was a sign of good luck; the blessings of the old religions became the curses of the new. Cats have long been considered extremely psychic, in-tune creatures and are known for their independence, secrecy, and elusiveness. The cat’s medicine is considered to concern independence, psychic insight, wisdom of the night (and otherworlds), and deftness in grace."

― Gede Parma
Ecstatic Witchcraft: Magick, Philosophy & Trance in the Shamanic Craft

Image Credit: Unknown


A Spiral is a curve which emanates from a central point, getting progressively farther away as it revolves around the point. The spiral and triple spiral motif is a Neolithic symbol in Europe (Megalithic Temples of Malta).  It is carved into the rock of a stone lozenge near the main entrance of the prehistoric Newgrange monument in County Meath, Ireland. Newgrange was built around 3200 BCE predating the Celts but has long since been incorporated into Celtic culture.[5][5] The triskelion symbol, consisting of three interlocked spirals or three bent human legs, appears in many early cultures, including Mycenaean vessels, on coinage in Lycia, on staters of Pamphylia (at Aspendos, 370–333 BC) and Pisidia, as well as on the heraldic emblem on warriors’ shields depicted on Greek pottery.[6]

Spirals can be found throughout pre-Columbian art in Latin and Central America. The more than 1,400 petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Las PlazuelasGuanajuato Mexico, dating 750-1200 AD, predominantly depict spirals.[7] In Colombia monkeys, frog and lizard like figures depicted in petroglyphs or as gold offering figures frequently includes spirals, for example on the palms of hands.[8]  Spirals can also be found among the Nazca Linesin the coastal desert of Peru, dating from 200 BC to 500 AD. 

The spiral is also found in structures as small as the double helix of DNA and as large as a galaxy. Because of this frequent natural occurrence, the spiral is the official symbol of the World Pantheist Movement.[11] Many suggest the spirals are representative of the cycle of rebirth or as a symbol of a mother goddess, who in recent times has been strongly associated with underground chambers, which are interpreted as symbolic wombs. Moreover, ancient people were acutely aware of cyclical forces of nature: monthly lunar patterns, yearly solar and seasonal patterns which were often depicted as spirals. It has been suggested that at least some of the ancient spirals represent the sun, so it is sometimes described as a solar symbol. 

Even ancient people could recognize that the stars overhead spun around a central point every night, and today we know we reside within a spiral galaxy. Thus, the spiral can be a symbol of the universe and our place within it and of the great cycles that constantly advance within this universe.

Certain spirals such as those reflecting the golden ratio (1: 1.618) or the Fibonacci sequence reflect certain mathematical truths. As such, some find those spirals to have particular value and meaning. Carl Jung, the famous psychiatrist, said that the spiral is an archetypal symbol that represents cosmic force. Some consider the spiral a symbol of the spiritual journey. It is also considered to represent the evolutionary process of learning and growing. It seems that life doesn’t proceed in a straight line. The path of life more closely resemble a spiral. We seem to pass the same point over and over again but from a different perspective each time. To walk and then stand in the center of a spiral or labyrinth has been a psycho-spiritual exercise for centering the consciousness. The spiral stands for coming into being.

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