sabato 26 settembre 2015

Halloween: The Dionysian Origins of the Celts

by Sandro D. Fossemò 
Translation - Rossella Cirigliano

…and men loved darkness
rather than light
(John: III, 19

   In the ancient Irish Celtic tradition Beltane and Samhain are celebrated, two important holidays which mark the change from the solar season to the obscure season. Beltane is on the 1st of May and shows the beginning of the hot summer, while Samhain is on the 1st of November when the Celtic New Year is celebrated with the implacable beginning of the cold winter, when harvests stop and the cattle is taken back to its shed.
Celtic people believe that in the intermediate period between the end of summer and the beginning of winter was a passage phase, during which all the barriers with darkness are destroyed: a dimension of beyond able, in this rapid moment, to make the spirits of the dead interfere with the living, so as to make the ghostly vision of the dead possible. According to the cyclic idea of time Celtic people had, Samhain night is lived as a sort of magic out-of-time door between the material and the spiritual universe. In fact the classical idea of time disappears to make room for a non-temporal and Dionysian dimension, which gives play to the unconscious, penetrating reality and hereafter, with the inevitable consequence to have an interior feeling of beyond, “which drives us to look for the truth in the shade, descending into darkness and sounding the deep ego.” (Giuseppe R. Festa)
  An ancient legend relates that in this special interval the souls of the dead go to look for bodies to possess in the New Year. In order to scare the undesired and intrusive evil spirits, grotesque masks made up of animal skins are dressed with a macabre ritual. This interval is just on the night of October the 31st, close to Samhain. Such name may mean “end of summer” because sam means summer and hain means sunset or it may have origin from the name Samonios, showing the month representing an interval between October and November. On that night Dionysius gets a foothold and in fact it is celebrated with songs and dances dedicated to the gods in charge of protecting people during the freezing winter. In Scotland, young people wander about the borders of the farms holding a torch to avert the negative influences of heavenly evil forces and to keep Fairies away. An important Druidical ritual consists of putting out the Sacred Fire and then at sunrise lighting the New Year Fire, which represents the source of a new seasonal cycle, with the highest quality firewood, according to Celtic culture. By means of torches lighted by the new fire, families stir their hearths up again
    With the advent of Christianity these pagan holidays of a Dionysian type, as they were connected to night dances, hearths, masks and fertility rituals, are inevitably unpopular and firmly obstructed, also because the shaman god Cernunnos’ horns and mystic and sexual appearance in Celtic mythology recalls the Devil
(like it happened to the Greek god Pan, too). Consequently, Pope Gregory III moves All Saints’ Day from the 13th of May to the 1st of November. But, as this initiative did not manage to uproot paganism, they institute All Souls’ Day on the 2nd of November. This is a holiday dedicated to the memory of the dead and prayers, so as to communicate with the world of the dead, like it happens during pagan holidays. Catholicism does not eliminate Samhain, but it moves it to the Catholic world. As Paolo Gulisano and Brid O’Neil write in “The pumpkins’ night” the «candles lit on the graves of friends and relatives illuminate the graveyards. The lanterns hanging at the windows rekindle the houses and the fires warm up the cold bones. » In fact during All Saints’ Night «the Irish graveyards are disseminated with grave lights as if to continue the Celtic tradition of Samhain when the dead mingle with the living. » More than “continuing” the celebration it is exactly about adapting this anniversary to Catholic mores. «As it cannot uproot the day, whatever it is, Christianity in general made an effort to channel it and provide it with a purpose in accordance with its basic tenets. » We should not forget that in this process of repressive Catholic absorption, pagan tendency aimed at finding its own balance with nature and its relationship with the divine is lost or, better, has been abolished. We can state then, that «Samhain feasts, which end in general drunkenness, are primarily orgies in the exact sense of the word, which is to say the “collective exaltation of energy”, that potential energy that resides in every individual and sometimes needs to find expression through recourse to more or less magical rituals [...] The orgy is a sacred ritual whose objective has unfortunately been forgotten: to surpass the human condition by awakening all the resources of the individual in order to reach the supernatural and the divine.»
A direct evidence of the Catholic influence comes from the development of the holiday’s name, exactly like it occurred to the old term “All Hallows’ Eve”, where Hallow means Saint or Sacred and Eve shows the day before All Saints’, which is exactly on the 31st of October.
Following a severe famine during the second half of the 19th century, the Irish emigrate to the United States of America where they export Halloween tradition but this time, in remembrance of Jack O’ Lantern, the popular orange pumpkins are used, as the turnips are rare and small in the new land. The pumpkin, emptied and carved in such a way to represent a Mephistophelian face and lighted inside by a candle, becomes the symbol par excellence of the day or the night of the witches. The legend of Jack O’ Lantern
tells of a mean and alcoholic ill-famed blacksmith who manages to cheat the Devil, but at his own expense. Probably during Halloween night Jack, dead drunk, meets the Devil in a pub. Before giving his soul to the Devil the blacksmith asks, as a last wish, for another and final drink. The Devil accepts and changes himself into a coin to pay for the drink, but the shrewd blacksmith grabs the coin and shoves it into his wallet, where a cross-shaped catch paralyzes the Devil transformed into a coin. Jack agrees to free the Devil under one condition: he should let him live for at least ten years. The Devil accepts. After this period the Devil reappears to have Jack’s soul back, but Jack traps the Devil again, and he accepts to leave him alone. When Jack dies he is not accepted either in Paradise for his bad behavior or in Hell where the Devil refuses his admission; but luckily the Devil gives Jack a piece of coal to help him find his way in the dark of limbo. Jack puts the piece of coal into a turnip and it becomes a lantern, which helps him walk as a lost soul until Doomsday. Halloween’s pumpkin then recalls the occult presence of Jack o’ Lantern wandering on the 31st of October as a foul spirit in the freezing darkness of hell.
Also the pagan tradition connected to the saying “Trick or Treat” has found a Catholic implication. As the spirits may go back to their places, on Samhain Day the front door is left ajar to let the souls in, food is prepared and the room is kept warm by the fire. By doing so, the dead are welcome and unpleasant surprises by vengeful spirits are avoided. In the Catholic era things are similar; in fact around the Middle Ages on Souls’ Day poor Christians get to the houses and ask for a sweet in exchange for their prayers to the dead, who have to ascend to Paradise from Purgatory. A sweet that in Britain has the name of “soul cake” makes me think of some “sweetener of the soul”, achieved through prayers. On Halloween Day the habit to make a cake in order not to annoy the spirits, which might take a revenge, has probably been revived by children, who are going to play tricks to whom refuses to give them some sweets. If in the past you could run the risk to be the victim of ghosts, now you are the victim of masked children who go house-to-house and say the popular phrase “Trick or Treat?”.
Eventually, also because of secularism and consumerism, theinterweaving of Celtic paganism and Catholicism is distorted by a new horror paganism made up of Gothic and ghoulish implications stimulated by the commemoration of the dead to celebrate the darkness. Unintentionally, Catholicism has created a rich syncretism in favor of a renovated paganism which, disguised as Halloween, is resurrected, through the combination of new symbols, in an original and innovative synthesis of pagan and Christian elements, where devils and witches have substituted evil spirits and fairies, within a quizzical holiday of a gloomy and a funereal type. In some sense the more the Celtic tradition has been inhibited by Christianity, the more Halloween has given way to the primeval Dionysian impulse including drunkenness, dance, mask and darkness. << Dionysius and Hades are the same thing.>> (Eraclito) Samhain therefore has regained some  of   the ground originally lost.

However, it has lost its own natural and genuine Celtic identity, free from a diabolic content. Halloween, instead, has changed and    has
been enriched with a carnival folklore, where the neo-
pagan holiday has absorbed the ominous  gothic myths of Christian civilization with its castles, deserted churches, spirits of the dead living again and wearing period clothes, possessed cats, vampires, graveyards, ancient houses, monasteries, werewolves, catacombs, devils from hell and gingery witches wandering on a broom in the dark Halloween night, traditionally lighted by a full moon.


Paolo  Gulisano – Brid O’neil , La notte delle zucche. La festa di Halloween, Ancora,2006
Jean Markale, Halloween. Storie e tradizioni,L’Età dell’Acquario,2005
Mario Manzana – Elena Radovix, La vera storia di Halloween, Trentini,2002
La Gazzetta dei Maghi e delle Streghe, Speciale Halloween ,4 ever,2004

The Real Story of Halloween

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