Sunday 18 October 2020

Things to do while spirits, ghouls and old gods walk the earth - by Lu Hersey

October 31st is the ancient Celtic fire festival of Samhain, now celebrated as Halloween, but a seasonal festival that predates Christianity. Most of the main pagan festivals were brought into the Christian calendar to entice people into the church, and the feast of Samhain became All Hallows Tide - but remained a time of year associated with spirits and death. It's a few days when the barriers between worlds are at thought to be at their thinnest, the dead can return from their graves and spirits and old gods walk the earth. 

Witches, Goblins & Ghouls - illustration by Arthur Rackham 1907

The festival celebrates the end of summer, when the last of the harvest comes in, and it's a good time to set goals for the future. Right up until Victorian times people celebrated with ritual fires and beacons lit on hilltops for the purification of the land, blowing their horns and circle dancing around Hallow fires. The bravest leapt through the flames or walked over the embers - or got drunk and set off on wild hunts to sabotage other people's beacons and fires, returning with burning peats fixed like pennants on the top of sticks. In Wales, as the fires died down, everyone fled back down the hill to escape the hwch ddu gwta, the tailless Black Sow, one of the terrors abroad on Halloween - and there are many of them lurking in our folklore that date well back into prehistory. 

Samhain was also the turning of the year, as the Celtic new year started as the harvest ended. Because the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, it was (and still is) considered a good time for any kind of divination for the year ahead. (If you're at all superstitious, some of the following rites are quite scary and probably best avoided!) 

A tradition in Wales and Scotland was to mark a white stone and throw it into the Hallow Fire (embers in your bbq bowl, fire or wood burner would probably work if you want to risk it). In the morning people went to look for their stone - if it was in tact, they'd be safe for the following year. If it was cracked, lost, had inexplicably moved or had a footprint near it, it foretold an early death. (See what I mean? You'll probably be fine whatever happens to your blooming stone, and if not, do you really want to know?)

Many other Halloween traditions are ancient divination rites, once taken very seriously. One involved courting couples placing two hazel or chestnuts in the embers to roast - if they cooked well, it foretold a happy marriage, but if they burnt or exploded, the marriage was doomed. Another was to find the initial of your future partner's name (my grandmother actually used to do this with me) by peeling an apple carefully, all in one strip, and throwing the peel over your left shoulder. It invariably falls in the shape of a letter... (though trying this several times with my grandmother over the years, I found that your partner is almost certain to have a name starting with S, C or possibly a lower case E, P or D if you squint or look at it upside down) 

Apples feature in many Halloween rites

Another apple rite is to stand in front of a mirror at midnight, with one candle lit, eating an apple with one hand and brushing your hair with the other. The form of your future husband or wife should appear over your left shoulder. Frankly if a shadowy figure appears over your left shoulder at midnight, you're more likely to choke on the apple or run screaming - but apparently this was a common practice and taken very seriously. A variation is to cut the apple into nine pieces, eat eight of them with your back to the mirror and then chuck the ninth piece over your left shoulder - if you turn quickly enough you might catch a glimpse of your future partner in the mirror. 

A widely practised Hallow-tide rite was to melt a lump of lead in a spoon and drop the melted lead into cold water - the molten lead forms the shape of your future partner's trade. (This probably takes a leap of faith - a bit like reading tea leaves or coffee bubbles. Otherwise everyone would be partnered with a shapeless blob. However it probably works very well if you're looking for the clues to your new manuscript...)

Okay, last one for now - and keep the fire hydrant handy. This is a divination game for a group of people to find portends for the year ahead. Place 12 candles on the floor in a circle. Each candle represents one month of the year, so starting in November (remember Samhain is the start of the Celtic year), the players take it in turns to leap over each candle, one month at a time. If the candle falls over or goes out with all the activity, it doesn't bode well for that particular month - but if it stays alight, the month will be good. 

Witches and their familiars - illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1907

If you want to try any of the above, good luck. You're more likely to be busy dealing with small people dressing up as ghosts and witches and eating too many sweets. Probably simpler to spend some quiet time casting off all the negatives from the past year and setting your goals for the year ahead. A bit like New Year's Eve. Because once upon a time, that's what it was. 

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites



Steve Gladwin said...

Always good to stick up for the pagans, Lu. x

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Lu, for giving me a smile to start the day with. The only one I have heard of is the apple peel. I suspect that girls who did this read what they wanted into the peel...”it’s definitely a Q, look, can’t you see? Quentin loves me!” I do have to agree that if I saw someone in the mirror at midnight I’d be screaming too!

LuWrites said...

thanks Steve 🙂... and thanks Sue. Yes some of these are best avoided just in case...

Joan Haig said...

Brilliant - read aloud at the breakfast table! Thank you :)

Susan Mann said...

Thanks, Lu. This is great. I have heard of a few of these. The apple one I think it most common. Thanks for sharing x

LuWrites said...

thanks Joan and Susan. Glad you enjoyed it :)