The modern man moves through time and space without knowing from whence he comes nor wither he goes. He has no direction. He is lost. He is like an arrow shot randomly into the thin air: sans purpose…The modern man crossed the river of forgetfulness a long time ago, sometime in the Stone Age, but the lost memories are still there, in his seemingly incomprehensible and certainly strange myths and fairy tales, songs and art, traditions and customs. He still lives with what he had ages ago, but has lost his ability to see even what is plain before his eyes, so he does not understand it.
— Varg Vikernes
October has always been my favorite month, particularly because it ends with Halloween. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with and delighted by Halloween and everything about it, from the creepy costumes and eerie decorations, to the exhilarating thrill of simply being scared out of my wits for the fun of it. And, of course, what child doesn’t love all that candy?
Now that I am an adult, I can get candy anytime I want, but my appetite for all things Halloween remains insatiable. Sadly, we have become completely cutoff from the true meaning and origins of this festival, which in ancient times was a tremendously significant event.
Halloween in America has been heavily influenced by the Celtic Festival of Samhain (pronounced sou´wĭn), a tradition over 2,000 years old that was the most important festival in pre-Christian Ireland. Meaning “summer’s end” in Gaelic, Samhain was brought to America by Irish immigrants.
As with most native European traditions, Samhain was hijacked by early Christian invaders who co-opted it to make the Middle Eastern Christian religion seem familiar and therefore more palatable to Pagan Europeans. They invented All Saints (All Hallows) Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd, which became “holy” days in contrast to the “evilness” of Samhain.
As October 31st is the day before All Hallows, that evening became known as Hallow Evening or “Halloween” in English. In America, Samhain became associated with the North American fall harvest, incorporating many symbols unique to the season in that location, most notably pumpkins used to make jack-o-lanterns.
Samhain, like most traditional beliefs, has its origins in the observation of nature. The declining strength of the sun, the bringer of warmth, light and life, was a source of anxiety for ancient peoples, who built winter bonfires as Earthly representations of the Sun as it faded away into darkness. This became the fire festival of Samhain, the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, marking the division between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter) of each year. It was during this time of transition that the division between the realms of light (summer = growth, life) and darkness (winter = deterioration, death) was thought to be at its thinnest, enabling spirits of the dead to cross over from their world into ours.
During Samhain, bonfires were lit into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast. Ancestors were honored, their benevolent spirits were invited home, and various dishes (treats) were prepared for them. Failure to provide the returning spirits with treats would bring the household bad luck in the coming year. In addition to the ancestors, harmful spirits also crossed over into our world during this time. These could be avoided by dressing in costumes and wearing masks, which people used to disguise themselves and deceive (trick) malicious spirits to avoid being harmed by them.
Samhain comes from an even older tradition. In ancient Europe, Hallow Evening was actually the first holiday of the year—New Year’s Day. Known as “initiation eve,” it was a time for children to go through a ritual to become “real men” (adults). Pre-Christian European culture was based on honor and a belief in reincarnation. However, only the good and honorable dead are reborn. The ritual children engaged in on initiation eve was designed to enable reincarnated honorable spirits (the children) to recognize and remember themselves. By choosing to become who they were in a past life, they are transformed from children into real men and considered as adults by the rest of the tribe.
The children would dress up to look like the dead and go to the caves or burial mounds where the dead were placed along with some of their possessions after they had died. They would blow a horn or whistle to open the gate to the place of burial, then hang their clothes on sacrificial trees or gallows to make it look like they had hanged themselves as a symbol of their own death. They wounded themselves to bleed and smeared ash or mud on themselves to look like the dead and put on masks. A cow was slaughtered on the burial mound so that the blood would seep into the grave underneath into the realm of the dead.
To gain entrance to the burial mound, they needed to have mistletoe from an oak tree. Oaks were considered to be the most sacred tree in the forest and it was believed that all the life force, the very spirit of the oak tree, was concentrated in the mistletoe during the winter. This tiny bough represented the power and energy of the Sun. It was a medicine, used for love spells and to protect against danger. Today, mistletoe is more commonly associated with Christmas, but now you know why kissing underneath it is still so important!
The mistletoe shows that the children are pure and innocent, and that they have killed the honorable child in them and are ready to become adults. They enter the burial mound naked and unprotected. Children who do not have mistletoe must wait until the next year’s Hallow Evening to go through this initiation.
The children brave enough to go this far encounter a woman dressed in a bearskin (representing the she-bear spirit in the realm of death) who is covered in the slaughtered cow’s blood. She teaches the children the secret verses and riddles they must memorize and solve to become adults. These are designed to awaken the memories of past lives in the children. The objects buried with the dead in the burial mound are there to help them remember their past life. If such recollection occurs, the children took some of these objects out of the burial mound with them, along with the skull (representing the mind and spirit) of the dead forbear. They hunt and kill a predatory animal, then sleep in the burial mound wearing the skins of the animal they have killed.
If successful, the children are no longer considered to be alive, as they have symbolically killed themselves and entered the realm of the dead. They emerge from the burial mounds as real men (adults), becoming who they were in a previous life. Those who are not successful will put on the clothes they hung on the sacrificial tree, regain the life force they had before they entered the realm of death and resume their ordinary lives. They will have to wait until the next Hallow Evening for another chance to become real men.
It should be obvious by now why children dress in scary costumes and go door to door exclaiming “trick or treat!” on Halloween. Imagine how much scarier the night would be if they had to strip naked and walk into a cave where a dead body and a blood-soaked woman in bear skins awaited them! Alas, all but the most superficial vestiges of the ancient Hallow Evening remain. Rather than a ritual signifying a transformation to adulthood, it has become a night when most adults revert to childish behavior. Creepy costumes have been replaced with sexy nurse outfits and other self-debasing nonsense. Instead of honoring our ancestors and discovering our inner connection to our forebears, we fuel our obesity and diabetes with an obscene amount of toxic sugar and other junk food. Christianity has stolen the hallowedness of the occasion, turning it into a night of evil spirits, wicked witches and Satan that is symbolically cleansed by the hallowed All Saints and All Souls days.
Obviously, there is no going back to the way things were—not many children would want to hunt and kill a wild predatory animal or sleep in a tomb with a dead body, as much fun as that might sound to some parents. Nevertheless, I think it is important to understand the true meaning of Halloween and the reasons for the rituals we engage in so we can better understand ourselves, educate our folk and reclaim the knowledge and culture that has been lost to us. It is possible to enjoy Halloween and make it educational. Maybe we can even incorporate aspects of Samhain or the older traditions into our activities and create a Halloween revival to reclaim what has been degraded by Christianity and rendered meaningless by capitalism.
Halloween is a European tradition, an important part of our culture that is deeply embedded in our psyche. If you want to know more about pre-Christian Europe—to see what is plain before your eyes so you can understand it—I highly recommend the following books, from which I have sourced and adapted much of the content in this article.
The Secret of the She-Bear, Marie Cachet; 2017
Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia, Varg Vikernes; 2011
MYFAROG: Mythic Fantasy Role-playing Game Version 2.7, Varg Vikernes; 2015