Outside the Circle: The Dark Legends Of Halloween

Outside the Circle: The Dark Legends Of Halloween October 13, 2016
a carved pumpkin
Toby Ord / CC BY-SA 2.5 / Wikimedia Commons

Black crow, turn back, hollow root,
Bare branches shiver like a reedy flute.
Foxes bark as their night blood hums,
Wild is the darkness that we become.

I lovingly invite them to my house every year. They stay about a month and a half. I start getting their invites back in late June and July, right when the heat and noise of summer are a little too much and I need to just step back. I look forward to their arrival, Bats dancing in the air, Witches cackling at the door. Spiders about with bigger than life webs. The food is always out for them too….candied apples in the kitchen, candy corn in glass.  Devil’s Food cake, Deviled Eggs. The Vampire blood lets me know they’re happy. The ghosts energetically communicate with breezes and the skeletons hang alongside. I am in my element at last.

trick-or-treaters in costume
Toyah Anette B / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The night sky seems to twinkle more now or is it just me? The trees whisper on my walks. Most people say the year will be ending soon, but for me it’s just the beginning. It’s bigger than life. New Year’s Eve for us nonmortals. Death warmed over takes on a whole new meaning when you adore this many candles about the house.

Witches rule at Halloween. The veil is thin and spirits are at play. Cool winds blow as orange and red leaves whirl from trees, crunching under feet. The scent of the Wild Ones about. A time of mystery and resonant with Wild Magic.  Blackbirds fly, companions of Witches.

It’s now that a magical person can take the deepest, freest breaths and remember their own magic, and how much joy that brings, how wonderful it feels and how it connects us to that awesome web of life that holds us all.

In the European traditions, Samhain is the night when the old God dies, and the Crone Goddess mourns him deeply for the next six weeks.  The popular image of her as the old Halloween hag menacingly stirring her cauldron comes from the Celtic belief that all dead souls return to her cauldron of life, death, and rebirth to await reincarnation.

So many symbols, legends and customs have created our Halloween as we know it today.

Jack-O-Lantern

The centerpiece of the American Halloween tradition. The original idea came from the Celts, who hollowed out apples and vegetables, even turnips, or beets to ward off evil. Later used by medieval Europeans as small lanterns. In Ireland hollowed out turnips were carved with simple faces and used to help light the way for those traveling dark roads, as well as to scare away earthbound ghosts. In Scotland, jack-o-lanterns were originally fashioned from the thick stem of a cabbage plant. They were called Kaitlin torches.

Muck Olla

In Ireland, the soft glow of lanterns fashioned from turnips once lit the way for an annual procession of costumed men who blew on cow horns and went door to door demanding tribute in the name of Muck Olla, a shadowy mythical figure said to be the ancient Celtic equivalent to our modern day bogeyman, and represented by a horse’s skull atop a pole. Known as Lair Bhan (white mare), the leader of the procession would wear a white robe and hide his face behind a mask in the shape of a horse’s head. To ensure prosperity in the coming year, families would give gold coins, donate food items

Punkie Night and Thump The Door Night are also pre trick or treat revelries seeing people going door to door for money and offering either song or mischief depending on the favor, or lack.

Wassailing was done on Halloween as well.  To scare any evil spirits around the apple trees. A custom involved the pouring of cider on the roots of a tree, as an offering to the spirit of the tree.

Witches

witch yard decorations
Anthony22 / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Scottish Halloween tradition known as “burning the witch” included the burning of a wicked looking female effigy in a great bonfire called the Samhnagen. This burning is said to date back to the time of the Druids, and there is evidence it was a custom known to the ancient Babylonians.

Halloween at the Scottish castle of Balmoral included an annual witch burning as late as the reign of Queen Victoria. The effigy of an old hag like witch known as Shandy Dann would be hurled into the blaze. In present day, an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned instead and takes place five days after Halloween. The infamous Roman Catholic who plotted to blow up King James I and the House of Parliament Nov. 5, 1605.The thwarting of the plan has long been celebrated in England with bonfires.

Some Witch trivia around Halloween…

  • On Hallooween in 1970, the Parks Dept. of NY City granted the Witches Intl. Craft Assoc.s (WICA) a permit to hold a “witch in.” Held in Central Park, this paved the way for many of the gatherings we know today.
  • In 1967 on Halloween, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of The Golden Dawn was formed.
  • The 31st of October is also the charter date for the Covenant of The Goddess.

Hobgoblin

Hobgoblin is a term typically applied in folktales to describe a mischievous spirit. “Hob” from the Welsh, signifying “hearth”, and therefore, a household fairy. Hobgoblins seem to be small, hairy little men who—like their close relative, brownies—are often found within human dwellings, doing odd jobs around the house while the family is lost in sleep. Such chores are typically small deeds, like dusting and ironing. Often, the only compensation necessary in return for these is food.

While brownies are more peaceful creatures, hobgoblins are more fond of practical jokes. They also seem to be able to shape-shift. Like all of the fae folk, hobgoblins are easily annoyed. They can be mischievous, frightening, and even dangerous. Attempts to give them clothing will often banish them forever, though whether they take offense to such gifts or are simply too proud to work in new clothes differs from teller to teller.

Bogeyman

A bogeyman can live in the cupboard, under the stairs, in cellars, barns, old houses, mines, and caves, in fact, anywhere dark and dank. They may lurk behind people, causing an uneasy feeling, or mischievously pull bedclothes off sleepers.

Bogeyman  is a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into good behavior. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, he has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror. Parents may tell their children that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them. Bogeymen may target a specific mischief or general misbehavior, depending on what purpose needs serving. In some cases, the bogeyman is a nickname for the devil. Bogeyman tales vary by region. The bogeyman is usually a masculine entity.

People used to believe that a hairy, dark, ghost-like creature called a talasam lived in the shadows of the barn or in the attic and came out at night to scare little children. In addition, there is a city-folklore creature called Torbalan (“the Bag-man”), who raids during the night, kidnapping children that have misbehaved.

The Jersey Devil, which originated in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, is believed by many to be an old time Boogeyman created by residents to scare off travelers from coming into the area. Bloody Bones, also known as Rawhead or Tommy Rawhead, is a boogeyman of the U.S. South. Bloody Bones tales originated in Britain. The Bogeyman may be called “Boogerman” or “Boogermonster” in rural areas of the American South (“booger” being the American English equivalent of the British English “bogey”), and was most often used to keep young children from playing outside past dark, or wandering off in the forest.  In some Midwestern states of the United States, the boogeyman scratches at the window. In the Pacific Northwest, he may manifest in “green fog”. In other places, he hides or appears from under the bed or in the closet and tickles children when they go to sleep at night, while in others, he is a tall figure in a black hooded cloak who puts children in a sack. It is said that a wart can be transmitted to someone by the boogeyman.

Boggart

Beware a horrible, hairy, skulking creature, going along a deserted lane at night. He has long, yellow, pointed teeth and yellow eyes. Some say that boggarts are brownies who have turned evil. They may wreck houses, steal children’s suppers, break valuable possessions, and hide things. A single boggart can terrorize a whole neighborhood.

Boggart is one of numerous related terms used in English folklore for either a household spirit or a malevolent genius loci inhabiting fields, marshes or other topographical features. The household form causes mischief and things to disappear, milk to sour, and dogs to go lame. The boggarts inhabiting marshes or holes in the ground are often attributed more serious evil doing, such as the abduction of children. Always malevolent, the household boggart will follow its family wherever they flee. It is said that the boggart crawls into people’s beds at night and puts a clammy hand on their faces. Sometimes he strips the bedsheets off them. Sometimes a boggart will also pull on a person’s ears. Boggarts can cause mischief in homes but tend to live outdoors, in marshland, holes in the ground, under bridges and on dangerous sharp bends on roads. The recorded folklore of Boggarts is remarkably varied as to their appearance and size. Many are described as relatively human-like in form, though usually uncouth, very ugly and often with bestial attributes.

Grim Reaper

a statue of a skeleton holding a scythe
A statue of Death in the Cathedral of Trier / Jbuzbee / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Watch out for a hooded fairy skeleton. It wanders among the gravestones of churchyards while mist rises about its feet. Then again, you don’t necessarily have to meet this charachtar in the cemetery.

The Grim Reaper (Death) is an Angel of Death. It is thought that those who see him will soon perish, and as such he is considered a bad omen. The Grim Reaper is the man believed to ferry the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology. A common legend, in reference to his powers, is that of touch, which is said to kill anyone who is touched by his hand, and oftentimes, anyone who comes in contact with any part of the Grim Reapers’ body. He is usually depicted as a skeleton wearing a dark, hooded cloak, bonny grin and grasping a scythe.

The popular depiction of Death as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood first arose in 14th century England, while the title “the Grim Reaper” is first attested in 1847. In some mythologies, the Grim Reaper causes the victim’s death by coming to collect him. In turn, people in some stories try to hold on to life by avoiding Death’s visit, or by fending Death off with bribery or tricks. Other beliefs hold that the Spectre of Death is only a psychopomp, serving to sever the last ties between the soul and the body, and to guide the deceased to the afterlife, without having any control over when or how the victim dies. In many mythologies, Death is personified in male form, while in others, Death is perceived as female, (for instance, Marzanna in Slavic mythology). La Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a sacred figure and feminine skeletal folk saint venerated primarily in Mexico and the United States in Folk Catholicism. Many English fairies are similarly hooded. There are church grims who live inside the building and haunt the churchyard in dark, stormy weather. They toll the church bells at midnight when someone is about to die.

♦ ♦ ♦

In Celtic legend, Fairyland is also the realm of the dead and the afterlife.

Lunantishees

According to Irish folklore, Lunantishee are the mischievous spirits that guard the blackthorn bush.

The Day of The Lunantishees is, in Ireland, a day to honour the Lunantishees – known as the spirits who guard holy Blackthorn trees or Sloes. They permit no one to cut Blackthorn branches 11 November (originally All Hallow’s Eve) or on 11 May (originally May Day).

The Blackthorn is a symbol of both punishment and protection as it represents the struggle of new life arising from the breakdown of old things.

It is known as the Black Rod or Blasting Rod, of the ominous Mage or Witch who would carry staves of this wood as a walking stick, club or knife-like weapon. These staves were renowned for their great magickal power.

It was considered prudent in olden times to leave an offering of cake, butter and milk or ale outside the door or on a windowsill, in order to procure the Lunantishees good favor and avert the mischief they can cause.

Devils

a humanoid figure with claws and talons and a green face snorting fire
Depiction of the devil as seen in the Codex Gigas / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The early Christians did not understand the old Celtic beliefs. They erroneously associated the Celtic underworld concept with the Christian one of hell’s fiery pit of punishment and damnation, and believed the Celtic Lord of The Dead was actually the Devil. Because the old Celtic New Year was a day devoted to the dead, the Christians assumed that Samhain was the incorrect pronunciation of the name Sammael, which means ‘god of the underworld’.

Bats

Aah, the popular Halloween symbol, the bat is connected with sorcery and death in various cultures. Its long time association with the darker side of folklore and superstition no doubt has much to do with its habits of nocturnal flight and roosting in places such as caves and old, ghostly ruins.

Bats were first linked with witches in the Middle Ages, when it was believed that witches were assisted by demons who assumed the forms of animals. These ‘familiars’ were often bats, or black cats.

Bats and their blood were also used in the casting of spells and the brewing of potions and the preparation of flying ointments. All things associated with the practice of the Old Religion, such as the cauldron, broomstick and the bat, became connected with Halloween.

They are also commonly used by practitioners of the black arts and Voodoo and Hoodoo folk magic. Known to employ bats in many of their love spells, healings and curses. To many modern witches, the bat is a creature that represents protection, good fortune, and rebirth. It is said to be a guardian of the night and a guide to past lives.

a photograph of a bat in flight
Townsend’s big-eared bat / PD-USGov / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Today, Halloween continues to rule the thirty-first of October, casting its spell over young and old alike even though many of its original customs have long been claimed by the cobwebs of the past. It remains the most sacred night of the year for many of us, as well as the most entertaining one for children of all ages and cultural backgrounds. For me, no other holiday is as magical and mysterious.


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