Death. It is perhaps mankind's greatest source of fear. And it's been linked directly to Halloween since the very beginning. This time in The Shadow of Samhain, I bring you a guest post from the most excellent Christine Hadden of Fascination with Fear... Christine has put together this fascinating and very thought-provoking meditation on the many connections between the Halloween/Samhain season and our eternal obsession with death and the afterlife. I hope you enjoy it as much I did...
Halloween, previous to all the current retail obsession with candy, costumes and horror movies, was long known as Samhain, and still is. The traditions and established practices of modern day pagans and non-pagans alike have been culled from centuries of folklore and beliefs involving what happens to us after we die and how we choose to celebrate and remember those whom we have lost. Old world religions that pre-date Christianity are most certainly the basis for the second most popular holiday of the modern age. Death, in essence remembering those who have died, is the sole reason the holiday was revered so much in the first place. It is believed, even today, that Samhain is the one night in which the veil between the living and dead is the thinnest.
The Festival of the Dead is most widely recognized as a Mexican holiday which begins at midnight on November 1. It is a spiritual holiday which honors the dead with a great day of celebration. On November 2, El Dia de los Muertos begins (quite literally The Day of the Dead). Religious Christians label the day All Souls Day, but it has different meanings all over the world. People across the globe, with their various religions and beliefs, hold these two days sacred as a time to remember those we have lost.
While in Mexico many people believe that the dead truly do walk again come the first day of November, elsewhere others do their best to coax the dead from their silent graves, if only to see them perhaps at least once a year. Candles are placed in the windows to light the way for the dead to return, food and gifts are laid out to welcome them back to the realm of the living, ritual “dumb suppers” are held--meals ate completely in silence to honor the dead and hope that their deceased loved ones return for one night. Usually an extra place setting is laid out, as well as food, for the lost souls of the dead.
Old Gaelic traditions claim that all the souls in Purgatory are released on the evening of All Hallows Eve. They are supposedly free to walk amongst the living for two days but then are sent back to wherever it is they came from. And some traditions hold that if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween night, you aren’t to turn around lest you will die if you look into their eyes. There is a magnitude of folklore and old tall tales surrounding the mystery of Samhain--enough that entire books have been written. Obviously there is much more curiosity about death and its connection to Halloween than many folks--particularly Christian bible-thumper types--will admit to.
In pagan religions, in particular some Wiccan traditions, it is believed that the Horned God (not Satan, but the male counterpart to Mother Nature, if you will) passes into the Land of the Dead on Samhain night, only to be reborn at Winter Solstice. (Hmm….sounds familiar, no?) Modern witches and pagans have great reverence for the last day of October, it being their most important holiday in the wheel of the year. Death itself is seen as only the beginning--as they believe in reincarnation. The cycle of life continues.
Though it may seem like Americans may balk at these worldwide beliefs and practices, think again. Americans have long had an undying hunger for more knowledge about death and other things we cannot understand. Take Houdini’s widow, for instance. Back in the mid-twenties, after his death, she held a séance every Halloween for ten years, hoping he would contact her from his otherworldly resting place. Alas, he did not. But it didn’t make anyone any less enamored with the belief that at some point, that veil would be thin enough for someone to break through.
Why else would tons of people flock to cemeteries or abandoned houses…just for a possible glimpse into the realm beyond? Our obsession with the after-life certainly hasn’t slowed down any in recent years, and shows no sign of stopping. But a reflection back on the reasons why the holiday of Samhain is so important would be a great way to start a celebration of Halloween.
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