Strabo, Diodorus, and Julius Caesar all refer to a druidic practice that involved "huge human-like wicker structures into which living men were cast before they perished in fire." (Rogers, 15). Another account by the Syrian historian Posidonius mentioned a similar druidic practice that involved filling up a giant wicker-man with many living men inside it and setting it on fire. The figure of the wicker man first appeared in Britannia Antiqua Illustrata in1676. The cult must have always stayed in the public memory, but it became an integral part of our modern pop-culture in 1973 when the film Wicker Man was released. The film was a box office success and remains a favorite even today amongst horror film aficionados. This druidic practice was linked to the Celtic festival of Samhian, which marked the end of summer.
If you watch the TV show, The Game of Thrones, it will be easier for you to understand Samhain. It's the equivalent of "Winter is coming." It's a period for stocktaking and preparing for the cold weather; it's also the time for increased supernatural activity. Which is why it was crucial to create rituals to ward them off. Most of the Samhian rituals were benign like lighting a big bonfire and sharing food. But the infamous ritual of the wicker man was also connected to Samhian. Halloween is believed to have its roots in this festival.
In 16th century England, the ritual of Hallowtide involved praying for spirits stuck between heaven and hell. Churches stocked up on candles and rang bells to keep the spirits at bay. But later, Hallowtide got more complex, and involved public shaming in the form of skimmingtons, frequently accompanied by bawdy music. On this day social and moral boundaries were transgressed, which often included role reversals like the wife abusing and hitting her husband.
"Souling" was another popular Hallowtide custom. It involved baking a bread or cake for the ghosts, and then sharing it with relatives and neighbors. Since all these rituals symbolised the beginning of winter, sharing food was inevitably a part of it. Many fortune-telling rituals are also associated with Hallowtide. For example, if one saw white shadows around someone's house that day, it meant impending death.
Today, Halloween is linked to All Hallow Even or All Hallow's Eve, which is the eve of All Saints Day on 1st November, followed by All Soul's Day on 2nd November. No matter how we look at it, it is a time for heightened supernatural activity. This idea of celebrating phantoms is not just limited to the western world, it's a global phenomena. In India, Bhoot Chaturdashi is the day for celebrating everything spooky. In Bengal it's celebrated on the eve of Kali Puja.
When I moved to Washington State, many years back, I lived in a small town in eastern Washington called Pullman. I experienced my first Halloween there with my friends Lee and Kate, who treated me to a Halloween village in the Palouse area. It had a corn maze, a haunted house, and while sipping hot ciders we listened to a ghost story at the local library. While I have always enjoyed horror films, and a good scare, that moment it dawned upon me why I loved Halloween so much. It brought back memories of my grandmother's farmhouse, particularly memories around storytelling.
My grandmother's farmhouse was not too far from Kolkata, but back in the 90s bad roads made it seem very distant. Plus, for a very long time, there was no electricity, and that made the place both spooky and charming. In fact, my grandfather, who died before I was born, had bought the farm right next to the village graveyard to ensure isolation, and it stayed that way. You could hear the fox at night and the rustling of the winds from the bamboo grove. The atmosphere was always perfect for a good ghost story.
Our entire family met there during Diwali. Unlike most Bengalis, we didn't have Kali Puja, we had the Diwali Lakshmi Puja. But more than Diwali, I always looked forward to Bhoot Chaturdashi. It was the night that all the ghosts came down from the trees and walked on the roads. So, we had to stay indoors, and be out of their way. This was the story my grandmother had told us. The ritual that day was simple. Grandma would make a dish with fourteen different types of greens. Well, I think she stopped at 5 or 6, but it was the idea that mattered more. Later in the evening, my uncle and I would go and keep fourteen lit lamps under trees we presumed were favorites of ghosts. For example, the Brahmin ghost (known as Brahmadotti in Bengali) liked the Bel tree, the banyan tree needed more than one lamp, since it was a bit like a secular low budget housing complex, and so it went. Then after dinner, my two cousins Guti and Tim (don't get me started on Bengali nick-names, they are both lovely young women, who are saddled with these names because Bengalis do that to their children) who are much younger than me, the dog, the cat, my Uncle and my grandmother would all retire in a room to hear ghost stories.
We usually chose the room that faced the graveyard. My uncle always told the stories, and he is a master storyteller. In a large room only lit by few candles, we would all huddle together under a huge blanket; the cat would purr on my cousin's lap, the dog would wedge himself between my grandmother and me. From the window we could see the graveyard and giant eucalyptus trees swinging. Soon, we would all be spooked beyond disbelief. My cousins clung on to me, I clutched on to my grandmother, and the dog too inevitably got carried away and stayed with us all night. As usual the cat remained nonchalant.
It was, I realised much later, a perfect moment; for few hours, all of us were deeply happy. I had never realised till that moment in the library in Palouse, that storytelling was so incredibly powerful. At that moment, I was transported to the memory of holding my loved ones, because good ghost stories always have a magical effect. My grandmother is no more; the dog and the cat died both of ripe old age. We have sold the house, and there are no family Diwalis anymore. So, all is lost forever… But I always celebrate Halloween. I decorate my apartment with ghouls and monsters; my friends come over for Halloween dinner, and then, before going to bed I listen to a ghost story. Tucked under my blanket, I let the voice of Vincent Price take over. And all the warmth returns. The farmhouse, my grandmother, the dog, the cat, the perfect memory…how can I not love ghosts!
- Rogers Nicholas, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, NY, Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Jack Kuglemass, Masked Culture: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, NY, Columbia University Press, 1994.