In 2000 I wrote monthly columns for an online magazine titled Fearsmag. I was paid to write whatever I wanted. This was a lot of fun for me. I decided to write on fears and would pick a different one each month. I started in October. Unfortunately, I only wrote four articles before the dotcom crunch swept away the magazine.
As a child were you ever afraid of the dark, of the things that lived in your closet? I was. I would always imagine the devil lurking beneath my bed and I had to try to look under it to dispel the notion without letting the devil grab my hair and pull me under. What of the dark of the great outdoors: I would sing as I checked on my rabbit whose pen was around the side of the house. In the dark where creepy unknowns leered and watched I would bravely sing my way through and thus conquered my fear.
We’re approaching that time of the year traditionally known for facing fears and shadows and for fear of shadows. The dark and night have always been associated with the unseen, both physical and spiritual. It represents fears, hidden desires and the underworld where anything is possible. One never talks of a lover’s sun but a lover’s moon, the brightness that lights the way on emotion’s dark swirling sea. Vampires can’t abide by sunlight, werewolves howl at the moon and roam only at night. All that is feared and evil and able to overpower our rational minds and our frail bodies crawls and creeps and flutters through the night.
It is an old fear, the dying of a season, the coming of the dark months, but one that has hit almost every culture and stayed with us in our traditions to this day. To the ancient Celtic people this time of year was known as Samhain (sow-en)*, or Summer’s End, the turning of the old year and the birth of the new. It was the darkest of times, the sun grew ever more reluctant to show its diminished face, the fruits had long abandoned the trees, and even the leaves fell in their death dances. Cold winds blew over the heath, rain fell like mourning tears and people filled their root cellars with preserves, the sheds with wood and they knitted warm clothing for the oncoming siege of winter. Who knew if the sun would ever return?
What could they do to coax back the sun? Samhain was the turning of the great wheel of time, but was there any surety that that wheel would continue to turn, or like a well worn wagon, would that wheel topple, never to spin again? Sensible people filled their larders, prayed to the gods and did what they could to appease the forces of nature.
From this fear of the never ending darkness came Samhain or the celebration of Hallowe’en (All Hallow’s Eve). As the wind moaned through the standing stones and waves dashed unheedingly into rocks, people knew that the souls of the dead were wandering closer to the land of the living. The underworld was nearer than ever, the veil that separated the living and dead drew apart and souls could once more traverse the land. And woe to the person who had caused a wrong. Everyone dreaded the departed returning for reparation.
As the earth grew brittle with cold and streams could numb limbs blue, it was only natural that such souls as had died that year might stop at the hearths of their loved ones to warm themselves before that final departure from the lands above to the underworld. Or perhaps they had already passed through that chilling veil and were stopping by for a visit, some attachment remaining still for the corporeal world.
Many were the precautions that people used to keep the dead at bay. Some souls were friendly or helpful, yet others were malicious. One could sweep their thresholds, clean hearths, hang strands of herbs or leave something out for the wandering spirits. Not many people would travel on a night like all Hallow’s eve, and if they did, it was in groups. What better way to fool the spirits that might be looking to lick up another live soul than to act like you were already one of the crowd? Some of the earliest Samhain celebrations involved men dressing as women and women as men. Ghosts and skeletons, then ghouls, goblins, witches and nightmarish beasts—these were the first costumes of Hallowe’en.
Hallowe’en was a time of fortunes, to find what the year ahead stored in its larders for you. Who better than to let you know what the year held than those who were no longer snared by time’s net? That which lay barren in the ground would rise up with the soft kisses of the returning sun and would grow in the new year. By having one’s destiny foretold there was at least a certainty that the year would turn and the sun shine once again. Yet, it was with dread, I’m sure, that some people faced their auguries. Who wanted to be told that their loved one would die or they themselves? Yet, that knowledge was tempting. The future’s seductive lure of revealing what was in store has enticed many people to its bedside throughout the centuries.
One could prepare if the future opened its eyes to you. All this to stave back the impending dark, whether it was that of waning days or the black abyss of death that everyone knew lay somewhere “out there” for them.
Always one of the best ways to push back the veil of night was to light Jack o’lanterns, a practice that came in some time after the early Druidic festivals which included lighting large bonfires upon the hills. Jack o’lanterns, originally carved of turnips, kept those spirits or demons that lurked within the folds of darkness’s cloak at bay. Bonfires didn’t hurt and keeping one’s spirits up in large groups helped scare away any fears.
If you had done no wrong to the one who had passed on, you had little to fear from the souls of the dead who would visit at Samhain. Through most of Celtic culture a “dumb supper” would be held. There, people would lay out a meal of bread and honey and perhaps some cider or ale for the departed who were sure to stop by. A good and substantial meal helped one move beyond the world and at the same time made sure that the spirits weren’t slighted.
Gypsies during the Middle Ages used a similar custom. If they could not cremate the dead to pass the soul on its way, they would bury the person with all of their possessions. It wasn’t worth it to keep a treasured trinket only to have a mulo (ghost) come traipsing after you and demanding it back. To further keep the dead spirits happy, Gypsies would party and feast around the gravesite for several days, eating and drinking and leaving enough for the deceased to make sure the soul was appeased.
A guilty conscience might have been the reason many people left food for their deceased, but the underworld was beyond normal senses. It was dark and the unknown. Many people felt it better to err on the side of caution than to become the unwelcome host to the angered dead.
Besides warding off and appeasing the spirits, Samhain marked the time of stillness, of summer’s and sun’s and harvest’s and herding’s ending. Herdsmen killed off the weak, sick and old animals that wouldn’t make it through the winter and salted and preserved the meat.
Darkness left little to do besides mending and repairing and sitting around hearthfires telling tales, drinking and singing songs. When the revelry was done, or couldn’t be sustained the dark time of the year was a time of introspection. When animals burrowed into their lairs, the sap returned to the roots of the trees and sun drew farther away, it was only natural to contemplate life and one’s role, to think out new paths for the year ahead, to plan and to seek one’s fortune.
With all the activity—bonfires, costumes, auguries, dumb suppers and Jack o’lanterns, people had little time to think about their fears or actually encounter them. I bet there were more conversations with the deceased two thousand years ago or even one thousand years ago.
As Hallowe’en and the darkening months approach maybe you’ll have time to reflect upon them. The next time you encounter the ghost and goblins and things that go bump in the night, maybe you will have the sense to be afraid. Maybe you will have no reason to fear anything. If you’ve wronged no one, especially those who have died, then you might be safe. But don’t forget the darkness that can be the most frightening, is the darkness within yourself that can consume you.
*Samhain, the Celtic Feast of the Dead. Ducking for apples in water came from souls in the cauldron of regeneration.