Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.
Where does Hallowe’en come from?
Hallowe’en is one of the most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.
From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape historian. The communities and settlements where these rites are played out become the stage for interconnecting stories, beliefs, and tradition.
Add folklore and oral history to what Tolkien called the “soup pot of history” (or should that be witches brew?!) and we begin to see a potent narrative where women are well and truly in the heart of the Samhain festivities – both in terms of driving the activities and also the balance of power.
The Hallowe’en traditions of ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up in scary clothing for sweets is the latest in a tradition to mark the end of autumn. There are many ideas as to the origin of Hallowe’en, and in some respects which is nearest to the truth has become less of an issue. However, what is consistent is that women are central to the theme.
Cailleach: the Old Crone
The Gaelic goddess Cailleach (or Old Crone) presents a strong image of the woman and landscape intertwined to end the autumn and bountiful seasons. It is suggested (Mac Curtain, 1980: 27) that the name ‘cailleach’ had a double meaning in primitive Irish; the word ‘caille’ meant a veil, and no later than the fifth century AD ‘cailleach’ is recorded to mean both a nun and, almost simultaneously, becomes in secular mythology the word for ‘an old hag’.
Said to be closely associated with the dead and hostile to the living, Cailleach Bhéarra marks the end of autumn and the start of winter in the most vigorous of fashions by crossing the Irish landscape with a hammer pounding the fertile ground to solid rock. Cailleach was said to dwell at cave sites and prehistoric standing stones and megalithic tombs across Ireland, (Champion and Cooney, 1999: 200; Dowd, 2015: 251-2) and was thought to be such a malignant force that her suspected presence in Badhdh’s Hole in County Waterford causes local communities to be uneasy about archaeological investigations of the site (Dowd ibid.). Her presence at these locations brought spirits to her. (Editor’s note: Badhbh is pronounced ‘bibe’. This is another word for ‘banshee’, and the word is still in use in Waterford today: generally used to describe a contrary or nasty person – usually a woman!)
Interestingly, many hillforts and megaliths in England and Scotland are associated with fairies that are supposed to roam freely on Hallowe’en. Clay Hill, near Warminster, is a hot bed of little folk, and folklore tells of large fires and strange-talking people revelling in the darkness of the 31st October. Maybole in Ayrshire is also known for fairy activity within the archaeological remains.
Spooky sites in Ireland
The archaeological importance of the change in the seasons can be found particularly in Ireland, and the folklore echoes the evidence. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall), a passage tomb in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, is thought to be illuminated by the ‘Samhain sunrise’ in early November, and reinforces the tie (in a narrative at least) between Cailleach the Crone and the ancient communities that constructed the tomb between 4,500 to 5,000 years ago (between 2500 and 3000 BC).
Many of the symbols we now associate with Hallowe’en seem to derive from Cailleach; the Crone’s Cauldron, said to collect the souls of the dead, was also thought to represent the earth mother’s womb ready for reincarnation. Her association with the dead certainly seems to be the link between the festivals, marking the end of the autumn and the long winter to come, and the spookier Hallowe’en that we celebrate now.
In many neo-pagan and Wiccan accounts, Cailleach is thought to be the goddess of Samhain, but she has competition from another powerful Gaelic woman – in this case, the daughter of the druid and sun god Mog Ruith. The fort is at Tlachtga, also in County Meath (currently under archaeological investigation, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ExcavationsatTlachtga/) is said to be named after Tlachtga, a druidess who was also the daughter of Mog Ruith and the original site of Samhain festivities. Presiding over her temple, all fires in the kingdom were extinguished and were relit from the sacred flame at Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain (Evans, 2014). The Anglo-Saxon tradition for Samhain refers to ‘need-fire’, where fires held magical properties – this was carried on into later traditions, as we’ll see below.
How did modern Hallowe’en begin?
The ancient traditions and Catholicism collided when Pope Saint Boniface’s festivity to honour dead saints was moved from May to coincide with the Samhain celebrations on November 1st (generally thought to be sometime after Pope Gregory the III, around the end of the eighth century (Roy, 2005: 95)), when communication with the deceased was thought to be the most convivial.
The Abbot of Cluny Saint Odilo was attributed to bringing All Souls Day remembrance to the party sometime between 962 and 1049 AD, and therefore, the blurring of practices laid the road to the Hallowe’en we know today. Within this new order, outside of the religious practices of the Catholic Church, women, already so pivotal in the origin of Samhain/Hallowe’en, once again became fundamental in its next phase.
Women and Hallowe’en
Women were central to the home and its protection, and during the days leading up to All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, a number of protective methods were implemented to keep those within the home safe from anyone, or anything, wandering about in the darkness. Fundamental to this was protecting the boundaries, and additional care to bring plants. Women were primarily charged with ensuring the living and the dead were kept at a safe distance from each other, and this included putting bent nails in doors and salt in keyholes (which also worked the rest of the year), and bringing in plants from the natural world. Elderberry branches above lintels were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection. Food needed to be prepared and left on the doorstep to appease witches. Strands of hazelnuts (either worn or kept in the home) also brought protection to the home, and were used and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.
This is crucial to our narrative of women in Hallowe’en, as this period was also seen by women as a time to harness the spirits around and put them to good use – in the form of both divination (seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) and catopromancy (divination with mirrors). Hallowe’en was the time to predict and safeguard the future; Apples, echoing back to Pomona, were used for divination for future and the longevity of life, and were included in cakes made with coins (wealth), rings (marriage), or marbles (single/childless). inside, whatever you ended up with was your future (Editor’s note: a similar practice continues in Ireland today with the barmbrack [‘báirín braic’ in Irish], a sweet fruit loaf which contains a number of different objects,including a ring, and which is traditionally eaten around Hallowe’en. Learn how to make your own barmbrack here.). The protecting hazelnuts were placed into fires with single girls reciting love spells such as “if you love me pop and fly, if you hate me, burn and die” in order to establish future suitors.
The practice of catopromancy (divination with mirrors) is most associated with Hallowe’en, and used by women to predict their future, be it wealth, health, or partners. In particular, this tradition was popular during the Victorian period where women would call to the mirror to show their future husband over their shoulder! Catopromancy also assisted communication with the dead, which undoubtedly lead to the game of calling “Bloody Mary”, who would be summoned with the threat that she would curse someone to die before the year was out.
As children born on Hallowe’en were thought to have the gift of communication with both the dead and fairies (or other fey like creatures) the act of women undertaking communication with the spirit world shows another blurring of traditions surrounding the festival.
Throughout the history of Samhain/Hallowe’en, women have had a pivotal role to play. From changing the seasons, and changing the earth, to calling the spirits, relighting the fires and protecting the home, to helping communities through the winter, their role is imprinted on the natural and archaeological landscape around, and accessible through folklore and material culture. And all this without once mentioning riding on a broomstick….
Dowd, M. 2015. The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland Oxford: Oxbow Books
Evans, K. 2014. Tlachtga: The Birthplace of Hallowe’en? http://digventures.com/2014/10/tlachtga-the-birthplace-of-halloween/
Gentilcore, R. (1995). The Landscape of Desire: The Tale of Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Phoenix, 49(2), 110-120. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1192628 doi:1
Mac Curtain, M. (1980). Towards an Appraisal of the Religious Image of Women. The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 1, Images of the Irish Woman pp. 26-30
Roy, C. 2005 Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO Ltd