Nancy Sherer

Current folklore credits the Celts with the origin of Halloween. The end of October, opposite the solar year from May Day, after the crops had been harvested, likely was the Celtic New Year. The cattle were brought down from the hills for the winter in what Sir James Frazer calls terrestrial New Year. Bon fires were lit, games were played and fortunes were told.

With the fields bare of grain, what were the souls of the dead supposed to eat? Frazer claims that this festival was a time to call ancestral spirits to the hearth and appease the hungry dead. It isn’t surprising that other supernatural wanderers might try to trick their way into a free meal. Witches, pucks and other devilish characters roamed freely on Halloween.
Fire was an important part of the Celtic festivals, and Halloween was no different. The night was lit up when everyone tried to build a bigger fire than their neighbors. Pebbles thrown in the fire were used in fortune-telling. Portents of death and marriage were looked for in the position and condition of stones.

The night of restless souls walking the earth is too ancient and widespread to have begun with the Celts. Comparative religion shows that the concept of wandering, hungry, and tricky spirits is more than just a calendar festival. Even today, in many countries the living visit the hallowed ground of their ancestors to offer food and money to the dead. Usually, the food is burned so that the ghosts can dine on the smoke. If neglected, these hungry spirits become angry and destructive. In some places, a special form of money is burnt as an offering to dead ancestors so they can buy what they need in the after world.

Whistling in the graveyard - that twisting of terror into amusement - is one of Halloween’s most appealing aspects. Few can resist the gut-twisting thrill caused by fear. It isn’t too surprising to learn that the same area in the brain produces the hormones necessary for fear and pleasure, laughter and screams. There are many ways to trick the brain into making these chemicals. Riding a roller coaster, conjuring up religions, and the Halloween notion of wandering, desperate dead all trigger the thrill of fear. We delight in setting up terrifying possibilities so we can laugh in relief as we face or escape them.


Although Americans do not believe in wandering souls, the dead cannot be separated from the holiday. Secular skeptics that we are, we don’t believe that souls wander between heaven and hell, ever hungry, yet unable to provide food for themselves. But we embrace the myths of ghosts, demons, monsters, and madmen one day a year, pretending that we believe so we can step outside of reality, playing behind masks that reveal our hungers.

But Americans rarely mask themselves as traditional bugaboos. To act as passive, begging souls just won’t do for the American spirit. From masks of Reagan and Clinton, Kissinger, Linda Tripp, and the timeless favorite, Nixon, tricksters use Halloween as a chance to express emotions for which they can’t find the words. Costumes range from humorous ‘pregnant nun’ to sensuous cat suits or belly dancers. What is a Halloween celebrant’s secret self? A pirate, a tin man, a werewolf, a witch? Obvious to any spectator, is the editorial message of the mask. The costume reveals the soul’s desire.

And of course, there is the Trickster.

On the night of the Shinto Festival in Japan, the Trickster, Susa-so-o rattles at the door when rice-offerings are made. He’s not the only Trickster who walks with the dead and is always hungry but never eats. Tricksters range throughout cultures and eras too numerous to even catalogue. They typically are savior/destroyers, cunning but merciful, and finally, always a friend of humans. The oldest that we have physical evidence of is from the ancient middle-east and Egypt.

Looking into prehistoric civilizations of the middle-east, where all we have to speculate on is eroded stone carvings and faded temple paintings, we can see basic themes that are an integral part of American’s Halloween rituals. Hermes is the most ancient trickster whose reputation survives in records of art. The god of treasure guided the dead to the Underworld. He is the god who most loves humans. He likes playing tricks. He wears a travelers’ hat and is seen most often at crossroads at twilight. Is he the same “Prince of Air” that we now call the devil? He is the god of boundaries. The stone steles in ancient Attica that mark borders are called hermes. From heaven to hades, Hermes can cross realms that others cannot.

Tour guide to the Underworld, Hermes was known as the god who loved humankind best. He is sometimes credited with bringing us fire, and he is always credited with creating the alphabet. He was generous and helpful yet, a trickster. When ancient playwrights wanted to use graveyard humor, Hermes was their icon. He was most powerful at twilight.

In some stories, Hermes appears to be one of the hungry dead. He is often portrayed as attaining food that he didn’t eat.

Hermes is closely related to Mercury, who in historic times was said to rule the lungs. Although Roman Mercury is not exactly the same entity as Hermes, they share many attributes such as winged sandals and traveler’s hat. Hermes retained attributes as god of wisdom and healing. In later times, Apollo took those attributes, demoting Mercury to a mere messenger.

Although Hermes fits nicely in with Halloween, his grandson, the devil rules the day. Hermes’ son was the lusty, cloven-footed, horned, devilish Pan that was transformed into the humorless, christian Satan for everyday purposes. But the Halloween devil retains Pan’s sense of glee and trickery. In spite of the churches best efforts, American Halloween remains a secular holiday. The devil is not dissed. His sly trickery is the theme of the evening.

Perhaps we can stretch back one more step into Halloween’s history - back to prehistoric Egypt. Because of the arid climate of that region hieroglyphs were preserved that tell us about Mim (AKA Menu). Mim was an ancient god of travelers, fertility, and mortuary offerings. Mim presided over the riotous celebrations when the dead were offered food. Mim’s emblem was lettuce. Lettuce, along with garlic and honey was used to protect children from spirits of the dead.

(Lettuce plays an important role in the European folk tale, Rapunzel. Rapunzel means lettuce. The tower where Rapunzel dwells is some dark tower where souls go to be renewed for another life. That towers and hermes both signify reincarnation is no coincidence. This fairy tale belongs to the Persephone cycle. Hermes annually guides Persephone between realms of Hades and Earth. In “Rapunzel" it is the witch who conveys the heroine through the cycle of rebirth.)

A favorite symbol of Halloween is the Jack o’ lantern. Pumpkins ripen in late October, are firm enough to hold their shape when cut up and hollowed out, and have a very nice-size space in the middle for a candle.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater.
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
Put her in a pumpkin shell.
There he kept her very well.

The answer to this children’s riddle is that Peter’s ‘wife’ is the candle that is placed in the Jack o’lantern. Or is it a more macabre riddle of murder and infidelity?

Pumpkins are a recent substitution of the Green Man’s severed head. Pumpkins, like maize and beans, were an important part of the South American Indian’s harvest. Frazer discusses human sacrifice in connection to these crops, so it is not surprising that pumpkins would be connected with life and death themes that easily translated into European traditions.
Nancy Sherer

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