Halloween - History, Facts and Significance in South Africa
In the spirit of Halloween
Observing people marveling in the spirit of Halloween, one realizes the power of tradition.
Tradition is not a senseless custom or merely a habit to be acquired and broken as we please. It is deeply rooted in earnest beliefs that were once cherished by our ancestors. It is an inherited pattern of thoughts and action that unite people on a specific level of agreement.
Halloween, a tradition rooted in Indo-European customs, never had a chance to become a tradition in South Africa, as Western culture in South Africa was established by the Dutch - the descendants of Germanic (Teutonic) people who renounced most pagan and Catholic traditions when they became Protestants in the 16th Century.
Jan van Riebeeck, who set foot on South Africa's shore in 1652, and his peers, were the third and forth generation of Protestants. By the time descendants of Celts and Roman Catholics, who were the followers of the Halloween tradition, which was by then All Hallows Day, arrived in South Africa, no room was left for the tradition to thrive.
Halloween: Ancient History
During the Iron Age the Celts were a group of tribal societies living in Europe. (Oldest archaeological evidence of their existence dates back to around 5500 BC.) By the 1st millennium AD, following the expansion of the Roman Empire and the migration of Germanic people, the culture of the Celts had become restricted to the British Isles. Recent researches alleged that the Celts were the descendants of the people of Stonehenge, who lived during the Bronze Age about 2300 BC.
Before late in the Iron Age, the Celts did not see their gods as having human shapes, though the gods were seen as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Gods were ‘skills’. The goddesses were nature; they were (in) the rivers, fountains, mountains, etc. If female gods had ‘skills’, it was to heal and love.
Celtic pagans left no written records about their religion, so for the history thereof researchers rely on archaeological evidence and the contemporary accounts left by Greek and Roman writers.
When leading his conquering armies against the Celtic tribes, Julius Caesar made various descriptions of Celtic priests (called druids) who had practiced human sacrifice by burning people in a wicker man. This was also documented by Roman writers such as Cicero, Suetonius, Lucan, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.
The Wicker Man
A wicker man and other Celtic beliefs -
A wicker man - was a large statue of wicker - a hard woven fibre of plant origin such as the cores of rattan cane, willow switches, reeds and bamboo. A living person was put inside the wicker man and the latter was set alight to pay tribute to the gods, in particular to Taranis, the god of thunder. This god was also associated with the wheel and was syncretize with Jupiter, the Roman’s king of the gods (the sky and thunder). In Greek mythology Zeus was the equivalent of Jupiter.
Apparently, and hopefully true, Taranis preferred to burn criminals and thieves in the wicker men. Personally I doubt whether this is true, as sacrifices to gods were supposed to be 'pure and virtuous'.
Interesting too, is the Celtic burial practices, which included burying ornaments, weapons and food with the dead, suggested their belief in life after death, or reincarnation and transmigration of the soul. They also believed in the paranormal – the Otherworld, the realm of fairies and all kinds of supernatural beings.
The iconography of the human head allegedly played a significant part in Celtic paganism. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in the 1st century BCE that Celtic warriors cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attached them to the neck of their horses. It was also displayed in other ways. One notable example was found at the Gaulish site of Entremont near Aix-en-Provence - a fragment of a pillar carved with images of skulls. In the pillar were niches where human skulls were kept, nailed into position. Until today already fifteen of these examples were found.
The Celts had their own calendar before the Julian calendar was imposed throughout the Roman Empire.
Four annual festivals divided their year into quarters.
- The Samhain was at the end of summer which was also the end of one pastoral year,
- Bron Trogain was during autumn when ‘earth was sorrowing’,
- Imbolc was at the beginning of spring and
- Beltine at the beginning of summer.
Samhain was held on November 1. This was thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans.
The Romans brought an end to Celtic practices -
While the Romans crucified their criminals, or planted them alive with only their heads above the ground, they saw the burning of living people in a wicker man, and all other Celtic traditions, as barbarism.
In their efforts to civilize the Celts, the Romans syncretized the Celtic gods with their names and all with those of the Roman gods. (Syncretism implies the combining of the gods of previously separate cultures.)
While the Celts created wooden idols (sacred poles) as representatives of their gods and goddesses prior to Roman conquest, stone monuments were created after syncretism.
Halloween in the Middle Ages
The apostel Paul initiated Christianity in the Roman Empire.
In 900 CE St. Patrick banished Celtic rituals involving living offerings to their gods, who were now regarded as ‘demons’ and 'idols'. Also the persistent pagan concept of hierogamy – the sacred marriage of the king with the goddess of sovereignty, which included a sexual union that constituted the core of the royal inauguration - was banished. By the 7th century Celtic priests (druids) were of ignominious irrelevancy.
The Celtic cross was a pre-Christian symbol which was later amalgamated with the Christian crucifix.
The Samhain festival of the Celts was Christianize as All Hallows Day or The Day of the Dead, the Eve of which is Halloween.
All Saint’s Day / All Hallows Day / Hallowmas / Halloween was in the Roman Catholic Church officially Solemnity of All Saints known and unknown, weather martyrs or not martyrs.
Eastern Orthodox icons of All Saints were Christ enthroned in Heaven surrounded by the angels and the saints. At the bottom was Paradise with the bosom of Abraham and the Good Thief. The latter was the thief crucified alongside Jesus who repents of his sins and asks Jesus to remember him in the Kingdom. (Matt27:38). The wife of the Byzantine Emperor, Leo V1, was also one of the icons of All Saints.
In Western Christianity, All Saints’ Day also falls on November 1, followed by All Soul’s Day on November 2. The origin of this festival dates May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary (Blessed Virgin) and all martyrs. This culminated on the third day in the Feast of Lemures, in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated.
Because Halloween originally came in the wake of the yearly harvesting of crops and fruit, vegetables - like the pumpkin - are common Halloween symbols. Many Western Christian denominations encourage abstinence from meat - therefore the variety of vegetarian foods associated with this day.
Halloween in modern times
In America and many other countries in the world Halloween is a very popular festival.
I doubt if much thought is given to any dead saints and/or martyrs. Perhaps modern people remember and miss their beloveds who had passed away, as people tend to do during all festival.
Today, in the middle of the 20th century, having fun seems to be Halloween's only purpose. In my humble opinion FUN seems to be a god of this age. Those who refuse to bow to FUN are labeled as conservatives, party-poopers and all kinds of anti-Halloweens - which reminds me of the original practice of burning people in wicker mans, although only with thoughts and words in the mind and heart.
Skeletons in my closet,
the evil in my soul
tricked me on Halloween.
Treating them with forgiveness
was all I could afford.
Next year this time they'll trick me,
and I will treat them again.
© Martie Coetser
I find it hard to come to terms with all the money spent on food, candy, fancy costumes and decorations during Halloween while millions of people in this world live in poverty. In South Africa alone thirty million people lives below the breadline.
Of course, people have all the right in the world to spend their money as they please, and charity does begin at home.
I still believe Halloween is the perfect opportunity to launch significant fund raising projects to the benefit of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the old and all who are TRICKED instead of TREATED by FATE.
Quotes about tradition -
"It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition." ~ Henry James.
"Tradition is an explanation for acting without thinking." ~ Grace McGarvie
“Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe, aren't even aware of.” ~ Ellen Goodman.
”Tradition, long conditional thinking, can bring about a fixation, a concept that one readily accepts, perhaps not with a great deal of thought” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti.
“Just because something is tradition doesn’t make it right” ~ Anthony J. D’Angelo.
"Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay." ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti.
A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.— T.S. Eliot
© Martie Coetser
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Updated: October 27th, 2017
- Samhain - the Celtic origin of Halloween
This is the time of the year for celebrating Halloween. Ghosts, goblins, jack-o-lanters, witches, bonfires, haunted houses, costumes, trick-or-treating - all these customs and traditions we use in celebration of Halloween today reach back in history.
- Halloween History- A psychotherapists' Spin
© 2010 Martie Coetser