The traditions of Halloween, so called because it is the evening before the Principal Feast of All Hallows (more commonly known as All Saints’ Day), are usually seen at best as a blend of Celtic and Roman mythology, and at worst as thinly veiled (and hence dangerous) Satanic rituals. The Internet teems with websites on the history of Halloween, and newspapers and broadcast news run stories regularly toward the end of October. Tracing traditions to verifiable historical sources can be difficult, but three common views of Halloween—its roots in the Roman festival of Feralia, bobbing for apples and the connection between Halloween and a Satanic “Lord of the Dead”—can be reasonably well debunked.
Halloween’s Celtic ancestor is Samhain, a harvest festival that marked the end of summer, the beginning of the Celtic New Year and the dark half of the Celtic Year. The name derives most reliably from Gaelic sam-fuin, “summer’s end.” On this evening it was believed the veil between the natural and the supernatural was at its thinnest and spirits could cross over. These supernatural entities could be appeased by offerings of food and drink, a custom that may be reflected in the form of “soul-caking” on All Souls’ Day (November 2): village children go begging for cakes in return for offering prayers for the dead. The origins of the American custom of “trick or treat,” commonly linked to soul-caking, appears to be of much later origin.
Divination, telling the future by various means, was an important part of Samhain and is still seen in such Irish traditions as the barmbrack, raisin bread baked with a ring inside. For the lucky recipient, the ring symbolizes marriage or some other stroke of good luck in the coming year. Apples and nuts, both plentiful at this time, were also used for fortune telling. The false attribution of the Halloween custom of bobbing for apples to a festival of Pomona, a Roman goddess of tree fruits, on November 1 is widespread, but no such festival actually exists in the Roman calendar.
The Roman festival of Feralia, also cited as a precursor to Halloween, was indeed a festival honoring the dead, but occurred on February 21, not in the fall. A far more likely candidate is the festival of Lemuria, occurring on May 9, 11 and 13. (The even days between were avoided as unlucky.) Lemuria was a fearful time when the lemures, terrifying spirits of the dead, were thought to walk the earth and must be appeased. The choice of May 13 as the date for the re-dedication by Pope Boniface IV of the Pantheon (previously a pagan temple to all the gods in Rome) to St. Mary of the Martyrs can hardly be coincidence. The Christian Church often superimposed Christian festivals onto pagan holidays. The transformation of the Roman festivals of the Saturnalia and of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, into Christmas is a good example. The subsequent annual commemoration of All Saints’ on May 13, and its later transfer to November 1 by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, should be seen in this context.
Perhaps the most egregious Halloween misconception deals with the identification of Samhain as the so-called “Celtic Lord of the Dead,” an equivalent to Satan. Contrary to this popular belief, there is no such entity in Celtic mythology. (An obscure hero called Samhain or Sawan does appear as a minor figure in a Celtic story about the theft of a supernatural cow.)
The modern invention of Samhain as “Lord of the Dead” and the subsequent identification of Halloween as “Satan’s Holiday” should be seen as part of the historical tension between monotheistic and polytheistic (those having many gods) religions. By necessity, the pantheon of gods in a polytheistic religion must be either set aside in favor of the one deity or re-cast as his enemies. The practices of the pagans (originally a term merely meaning “those dwelling in the countryside” but extended to non-Christian believers stubbornly clinging to old ways) were slow to die. If the Celtic traditions of Samhain are viewed in this context, the history of Christian opposition to Halloween, as well as subsequent distortions and misconceptions, can be understood.
Indeed, the harvest festivals celebrated by some churches as an alternative to Halloween may be a more accurate reflection of the original Celtic agricultural festival.
Pamela D. Johnston teaches ancient history and classics at Fresno Pacific University.