Understanding Halloween

October 11, 2013

At the risk of preaching to the choir this week, I want to talk about the meaning of Halloween. Over the past few years I have been getting more and more calls-to-action over two issues associated with Halloween as it is commonly celebrated: the adoption of stereotypic American Indian trick-or-treat costumes and the borrowing of sugar skulls from Mexican American Dia de los Muertos ceremonies. While I agree with objections raised to these two practices, I nonetheless find the slant of this activism troubling. By objecting only to offensive elements within the sacrilegious perversion of this holy day, this activism ends up reinforcing the perverted narrative. Conversely, by bringing Halloween back in harmony with its roots, these and other offensive elements are banished.

Let’s look at the true meaning of the holiday. Halloween is a shortened version of All Hollows Eve, an ancient Celtic holiday of reverence for ancestors. It is still celebrated as such by Druids and Witches throughout the world. The day is usually celebrated between October 30 and November 2, depending on the religious tradition and the country. (Some Druids mark the full moon closest to November 1.) Many centuries ago the Catholic Church, in order to discourage the Pagan rites, co-opted the holiday as All Souls Day, and within the Catholic Church it retained much of its former purpose of remembering departed souls. All Souls Day has been an important holiday wherever there has been a strong Celtic influence, not only in the “Celtic countries” of the British Isles, but in France, Spain, and even parts of Germany. Because of the Aztec influence, the Mexican holiday retained even more of its original significance while incorporating elements of indigenous Mesoamerican belief.

This old postcard reflects what the Halloween is about. The evening marks the old Celtic New Year, and the words to Auld Lang Syne fit with the spirit.
This old postcard reflects what the holiday is about. Halloween marks the old Celtic New Year, and the words to Auld Lang Syne fit the spirit.
The ancient Celts believed that during the period marked by Halloween the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead became more porous. Thus this was an ideal time to contact and make obeisance to departed relatives. This was also a time when troubled spirits too wretched to find their way to the Celtic paradise might cause some mischief for the living. To help these troubled spirits, children would enact their plight by going from house to house in beggars’ garb asking for a small token of pity. The phrase “trick-or-treat” reminded the householder that unmollified spirits might become mischievous. The enactment of this ritual was believed to bring some solace to the wretched souls. Some witches even say the drama helped spirits to pass through.

Because all kinds of spirits were wandering on Halloween, houses needed special protection on this night. Talismans were put out to discourage unwelcome intrusions. This is the source of today’s jack-o’-lantern. While children were believed to have some innate protection from ghostly mischief, adults who wandered out on this night sometimes wore masks to scare away the ghouls.

Let’s take a look now at today’s Halloween celebrations in light of the original religious focus. The trick-or-treat “beggars night” activities are closest to the original meaning, but they have become somewhat perverted. The only appropriate Halloween costume for a beggar on beggars’ night would be that of a beggar ghost. Houses can have jack-o’-lanterns or other talismans about them, but decorations should not be doing anything to create a “creepy” ambience. The idea is to keep the house warm and cheerful and the more mischievous ghosts outside. The welcoming atmosphere indoors also sets the tone for interactions with the ancestors. The haunted house is the antithesis of this. Although Halloween is an important time for Witches, who often use the night to perform psychic work, demeaning stereotypic portrayals of Witches, in costume or in picture, are especially offensive on this core Witches’ holiday.

The Halloween party as it is commonly practiced does have some elements of old pagan belief. Bobbing for apples, the dumb supper, and spells to catch a glimpse of a future love interest are examples of activities that have deep roots. The main objection to the Halloween party is the parlor game atmosphere which trivializes the activities. Also, this is not a time for scary ghost stories. The object of the warm cheery gathering is to keep the scariness outside.

halloweengirlScary stories have a universal appeal and probably serve some purpose, but in light of what has already been explained the sacrilege of Halloween slasher movies should be obvious. Imagine for a moment the most sacred Christian or Jewish holidays being given an exploitative, sacrilegious theme. What if Easter produced a slew of apocalyptic flesh eating zombie movies, seeing as Jesus rose from the dead? What if Yom Kippur produced stories on the theme of sadomasochism, seeing as it’s the day of atonement? If the very suggestion of such a takeoff offends you, think about the commercial exploitation of Halloween in light of what the night is really about.

You can still celebrate Halloween in a respectful way, even if you are not a Witch or a Druid. Explain to children that Halloween is a time of ghosts, and give them the option of dressing as a sad ghost or a wretched ghost or a whimsical ghost. Save the ballerina and astronaut costumes for a different occasion. If you want to have a Halloween gathering, just keep it cheerful and leave the slasher movies and related themes out of the evening. Tarot cards, harmless spells, and other witchy activities are fine, as long as they are not trivialized. If you simply ask your guests to bring a picture of a departed loved one and come prepared to talk a little about this person, you have right there an nonreligious expression of the true meaning of Halloween.


May 24, 2013

Samhain typing.
Samhain typing.

My familiar Samhain (pronounced SOW-when) is a seven year old blue point Siamese cat. Among Siamese afficionados, she is known as an “applehead,” meaning she has not been bred for the extremely svelte figure favored in cat shows. Her shape is more like the Buddhist temple cats bred for centuries in her native Thailand.

One of the many apocryphal legends about this breed recounts that a pair were left by a monk to guard an important Buddhist relic, but the male became restless and set off in search of the human. The female stayed with her entrusted task, focusing so intently on the treasure that her eyes crossed and her tail became kinked. This earned the female Siamese cat the reputation for being the preferred temple guardian.

I had decided that I preferred Siamese cats as familiars even before I learned about their importance in Thai Buddhist temples. By “familiar” I mean an animal who assists with spellcasting and clairvoyant work. To be an effective familiar, an animal must have psychic abilities and must also bond closely with her witch companion. Dogs bond easily with humans, but dogs are a bit tricky because some dogs are very psychic while others are entirely flat-footed (flat pawed?) when it comes to contacting the etheric realms. Cats are reliably psychic, unless you get the rare one that’s actually psychotic, but they sometimes bond imperfectly even with a person who treats them well. Horses and birds meet both criteria, but they can pose logistical problems. A Siamese cat will usually bond firmly with one other person, and like all cats will have psychic abilities.
Samhain with her papers.
Samhain with her papers.

There are downsides to choosing a Siamese. They require a great deal of attention and they have high energy levels. If you do not play with your Siamese enough, you will get the “ankle attack.” Getting a second cat as a companion will not solve the problem, since the Siamese bonds closely with one other being, and you want that special one to be yourself. Also there is the talking issue: this is a breed with a loud voice that communicates vocally. Someone once told me that one of the first cat rescue groups focusing on a specific breed formed around the Siamese, because many people are attracted to the look of the breed, then can’t handle the energy level and the constant talking. So if you get a Siamese or Siamese-mix, be sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into.

Samhain's altar.
Samhain’s altar.
I like the idea of tuning into and bonding with my cat familiar before I actually meet her by trying to discern the name corresponding to her universal soul vibration. I have tried this with two cats now, and I do not think I was able to achieve this. The first time the name Michelle came to me, which I changed to Misha because I thought Michelle was a stupid name for a cat. When I arrived at the house to meet Misha/Michelle, I discovered that the little girl had named this kitten Michelle. Was Michelle the vibration emanating from the kitten’s higher self, or did I just discern the name the kitten was already responding to? With my latest familiar, the name that kept coming to me was Kit, as in Kit Carson. I thought Kit was also a stupid name for a cat. When I arrived to pick up this kitten at the home of the family who bred Siamese cats, I inquired about the name since I wasn’t coming up with anything satisfactory. The lady told me “The children give all the kittens names, often really silly names, but this one they just call Kitten.” I had done it again. Maybe kittens don’t have human names corresponding to their soul vibration. Or maybe they do, and the children didn’t understand “Kitten’s” real name because it was an unfamiliar word. I ended up naming her Samhain, which is Irish for Halloween, because I brought her home with me the day before Halloween.

Samhain getting an Angel Card reading.
Samhain getting an Angel Card reading.
One of the challenging things about having a familiar – and I imagine this holds for all familiars, even the discarnate ones – is that the familiar will try to steal the power of her witch companion. With cats this takes the form of power struggles over magical objects. The altar has been a particular focal point of this struggle with Samhain. Someone suggested that I give Samhain her own altar to defuse the tension, and it seemed like a good idea. Samhain was delighted with having an altar of her own, but this did not take away her fascination with mine. Another power struggle emerged while I was writing my book, Invoking Animal Magic. Samhain kept stealing pages from the book and tearing them up. I responded by giving her a special folder with her own papers, another gift she appreciated and another gift that did not entirely serve its purpose. My latest attempt to shape behavior has been over tarot cards. I like to leave tarot spreads out several days so I can contemplate the cards, but this means Samhain has to be watched carefully. I decided to try giving Samhain mini card readings, and it turns out Samhain, like most narcissists, really really likes having her cards read. But she still can’t be trusted not to mess up mine.

Samhain\Kitten is a fascinating multi-talented familiar, and I could easily write a multi-part blogging essay about her. I realize, however, that only literary giants like Doris Lessing or May Sarton can get away with writing whole books about their cats (and having peple read them). But now that I have made this introduction, Samhain will show up from time to time as I discuss my magical work.

Aine at Summer’s End

October 26, 2012

European goddesses often have both an animal and a bird form. Can you guess why Aine’s bird form would be a swan?

Cold and flu season is upon us, and herbalists are writing about garlic, echinacea, mullein, honey, and a host of other beneficial plants. Irish herbalists saw the blessing of the goddess Aine (pronounced ON-ya) as a necessary catalyst in these herbal concoctions. Aine is a fire goddess whose spark makes its circuit throughout the body commencing with every sunrise. Aine often takes the form of a red mare, as in Celtic lore horses are equated with the sun. At Midsummer Aine’s protection for livestock would be invoked by waving torches over animals.

Probably due to her fiery nature, Aine appears in stories as a lustful woman with many lovers. She bore many children, and Irish rulers often traced their family lineage to her. She is said to have a stone birthing chair cut into the side of a mountain. Those who sit in this chair become insane, and the insanity is permanent if they repeat this procedure three times. But insanity can also be cured by sitting on Aine’s chair, so perhaps no lapse of sanity is incurable.

Like many healing goddesses, Aine has a wrathful side. In one legend she curses her rapist by sucking the skin off his ear and depriving him of his possessions. My guess would be that this is based on an older story related to a broken taboo at Samhain (Halloween). Aine also had a legendary father who was cruel to her. After her escape she became a spinner of sunbeams in the forest (another allusion to her origin as sun goddess) where she tutored wives in the art of slowly debilitating their husbands through herbal interventions. I’m guessing that the debilitated husband story refers to the aging process measured by the movement of the sun, as well as Aine’s role as teacher of herbology.

Aine is believed to be the same goddess as Anu, about which little is known aside from her prehistoric monument of twin hills capped with cairns to look like nipples. She has also been equated with Danu, the legendary mother of the Irish gods, which would explain why so many rulers sought to legitimize their reign by claiming to be her descendents.


Celtic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.

Matthews, Caitlin and John Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.

Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.