Halloween Symbols and Their Origins
A black cat perched on the fence post, a ghostly wind blowing through the crackling trees, a glaring Jack O' Lantern standing guard at your front door. These are symbols and traditions of Halloween as we know it today, but where did this Halloween symbolism come from? We couldn't have just made it up unknowingly...could we have?
In this article, we will take a little tour back through history to discover the unlikely and sometimes shocking roots of Halloween symbolism. Some of our favorite things about Halloween may have beginnings that may surprise and intrigue you. Come with me on a trip back in time...
Black Cats and Witches
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Two of the most popular and favorite pieces of Halloween symbolism are the black cats and witches. But why do we associate Halloween with black cats and witches?
If we take a look back in time to before the rise and spread of Christianity, many years after Christ's birth, we can see that there were people all over the world who worshiped different types of gods and goddesses. We call these people "Pagans", which basically means now that they worshiped in a polytheistic way (worship of more than one god) instead of the modernly normal monotheistic way (worship of one god only).
When the Church began its powerful rise to stardom in Europe, these country-dwelling farmers known as "Pagans" began to come under scrutiny. They were told to either convert to Christianity or die. One type of European people who were known as Pagans were the Celts. And guess what was the Celts' number one holiday?
You guessed it...Halloween! Though they didn't refer to it as "Halloween", they called it Samhain. Samhain was the end of one year and the beginning of a new year to the Celtic peoples. They celebrated the passing of their ancestors and also believed that the veil between the mundane world and the spiritual world was at its thinnest...meaning that their ancestors could return to earth to visit them.
Coming to the Dark Ages and well on to the Colonial American days, "witch hunts" became prevalent throughout Europe and America, and other parts of the world as well. Many believe that these "witch hunts" were in fact a part of the Christian church trying to rid Europe & the US of its remaining Pagans...and in many cases simply "wise women". In the midst of the church trying to convert Pagans to Christianity, they also tried to convert the Pagan holidays to Christian holidays. One of those holidays being Samhain.
The church decided to rename Samhain into "All Hallows Eve," the night before "All Saints Day". This holiday was changed from honoring the Celts' ancestors and deities to honoring the Catholic saints. Did the idea stick? Not fully, as we can see that Halloween has pretty much stayed a very secular holiday in the Christians' eyes.
But back to the black cats and witches being such a deeply rooted part of Halloween symbolism. Black cats were believed to be "witches' familiars", many people believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats. These witches and black cats became a part of Halloween symbolism because of the association with Pagan holidays and the demonizing of these Pagan holidays by the Christian church.
Jack O' Lantern Origins
The Jack O' Lantern is the symbol of the American Halloween, through and through. But where did this smiley, lit pumpkin get its start? Stories and legends vary about the Jack O' Lantern's humble beginnings, including the legend of a lazy farmer who plays a game with the devil and in the end is prevented from entering Heaven and Hell, forever destined to walk the earth in search for someone else in his realm. He holds a Jack O' Lantern in his hand to light his way. Other stories tell of a man who has the head of a pumpkin.
Perhaps the closest evidence that we have to the actual roots of the Jack O' Lantern are the carved turnips from Europe. Many believe that the Jack O' Lantern is based after the carved turnips and they were invented in order to scare away the evil spirits from entering homes on Halloween night. Others believe that the carved turnips were used to guide the ancestors' home for an evening with their families. Either way, the idea of the carved turnip was brought to America by European immigrants such as the English and Irish and eventually someone decided that it was much easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip!
The scarecrow. A man made of hay that is used to scare off the crows from the fields, inevitably protecting the crops. Why is the scarecrow such a widely seen and used part of Halloween symbolism? Scarecrows represent the harvest, and Halloween was originally a harvest festival in ancient times so it only seems appropriate that the scarecrow be a part of Halloween symbolism.
The origins of the scarecrow vary. Most people believe that the scarecrow was invented to keep crows away from the fields' crops; however, there are some scholars that believe that the scarecrow idea originated in ancient times when a man was sacrificed to appease the gods and to ensure a healthy harvest. That man was believed to have been sacrificed and then hung up over the fields. Gristly...I know.
Bats & Vampires
So we've learned why witches & black cats, jack o' lanterns, and scarecrows are a part of Halloween symbolism, but why on earth are bats and vampires included in that lineup? Bats and vampires are as much a part of Halloween symbolism as any other creepy monster on Halloween night. If you can believe it, vampires are a superstition dating back hundreds if not thousands of years and during the Burning Times in Europe, when thousands of people were burnt at the stake for being "witches", there were also people who were killed or had their graves defiled because the silly townsfolk believed them to be "vampires" or the "walking dead".
Why are bats associated with vampires? Bats are associated with vampires for a couple of reasons. First, they are a part of vampire lore because of the fact that the bats would be attracted to the fires emanating from the embers of someone being burned at the stake all those years ago. And second because Bram Stoker wrote his story "Dracula" to include the idea that vampires could shapeshift into bats.
So why are bats and vampires such an integral part of Halloween symbolism? Well, let's go with the fact that they're dark, mysterious, and dangerous...just as any other Halloween creature is portrayed.
Do you celebrate Halloween?
Werewolves are also another big part of Halloween symbolism. This is quite similar to the roots of the vampires and witches being tied into Halloween symbolism. Werewolves were a type of creature that many European countries, particularly the countries in Northern Europe, believed to be a shape-shifting aspect of local witches.
The townsfolk in many different villages would burn these suspected "werewolves" at the stake, alongside their fellow "witches". There was even one case where a man named Hans was tortured into admitting that he indeed was a werewolf and had remembered going on "the hunt" at night, in search for prey.
Just as vampires and witches have become a common part of Halloween symbolism, so have the werewolves.
Ghosts & Goblins
It is more than obvious as to where the Halloween symbolism of ghosts and goblins originates. The ancient Celts believed that Halloween (they called it Samhain) was the one night of the year when the veil between the spiritual and mundane world was at its thinnest, and that their ancestors could return to visit them. This is where the idea behind ghosts and goblins Halloween symbolism comes from...actual beliefs from ancient times!
Many of the Celtic peoples would leave food out on their tables in order to appease the passing spirits and their ancestors who might find their ways home on Halloween night. In fact, many modern day Pagans honor their ancestors or the deceased by setting up honorary altars in their homes or performing "dumb suppers" (a dinner in which an extra plate is set out for the ancestors and the dinner is eaten in complete silence to honor the deceased).
Ever wonder where our fascination in zombies originates? Zombies are particularly popular as a Halloween costume and even as scary dolls for the front yard on Halloween. But why?
Zombies are actually thought to be undead creatures who probably originated with the belief in ghouls. A ghoul is a creature that is thought to roam around graveyards at night, eating the flesh of the freshly dead and the living (if they can find any living souls in the area).
Another origin takes us on a small trip to the island of Haiti. Zombies in Haiti are thought of as something a bit different than how we see them in the U.S. A zombie is a dead person who has been turned into a lifeless servant of a powerful witch. This zombie will do the witch's bidding and it is thought that these witches are able to turn people into zombies by using certain herbal concoctions.
So as you can see, our modern day version of a zombie is sort of a combination between these two. And zombies are scary, so why not have them as a part of our Halloween masquerades?
© 2011 Nicole Canfield