Rest in Peace

The origins of Halloween rituals

Nobody over the age of twenty is much afraid of Halloween, not nowadays. We treat it with endless irony. Our pumpkin heads no longer drive back the dark and the cold; their grins are cheery. However, our jokey version of confronting the growing cold and darkness as the death of the year approaches draws on far older and genuinely more frightening stories and customs that date from a time when death seemed ever present.

The jack-o’-lantern as a trickster replicates the Gaelic lands’ fascination with the severed heads of enemies and also of sacrifices. The Gaelic tribes, according to Julius Caesar, who fought several wars with them, enjoyed sacrificing any captive that fell into their hands to the gods. They also displayed the heads of those they had killed as apotropaic figures- figures so scary that they drive back the scary - around their settlements. Houses once required a foundation sacrifice, to ensure the security of the building. Even in modern times in England, cats have been walled up in buildings, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, often in hunting postures to drive off something darker and nastier than themselves. Horse skulls also serve such a purpose. The head of Bendigeidvran (Brân the Blessed) presided over the otherworld and protected the island of Britain from its burial at the White Mount in London. All these ideas depend on the notion that the original owner of the potent head or body is somehow still present.

Timothy Taylor argues that the question of how living humans can stop the souls of the deceased from reanimating their bodies was one of the most important questions in earlier periods. At some unknowable point in human history, people decided there were two partially separable elements present in a living creature: the material body and the force that animates it. It was understood that the animating force would naturally desire the continuation of its residence in the body and struggle to reinsert itself after death, and then try to repossess its property, including its spouse and children. The living had to enchant, cajole, fight off, sedate, distract and disable this life force from reanimating the body. The risk lasted so long as the flesh lay on the bones. When the bones were white or were sent up in smoke it was deemed that the person had finally left this life and was no longer a danger to the living. We have, as Taylor remarks, forgotten what it is like to be really afraid of malevolent undead humans.

The sites most often reimagined and reused were Neolithic barrow tombs and burial grounds. Neolithic barrow tombs, mounds and burial grounds were often the source of magical reimaginings which highlight the worrying power dead bodies were thought to possess. For Sarah Semple, these are in early Christian times often understood as the mouth of hell, and thus reused as a site for execution. Andrew Reynolds suggests that the choice of barrows for the interment of criminals, may have been influenced by the wish for the criminal to be tormented in the afterlife by the evil spirits which dwelt in the mound. Etymological evidence demonstrates that barrows were associated with dragons but also with goblins, elves and Woden himself. Such power could be used; the Anglo-Saxon Lacunga contains a charm to cure a sudden pain or elf shot, which opens with the words ‘Loud were they, lo, loud/ When over the barrow they rode.’ It is not clear from this charm how the warriors riding over the barrow relate to the extrusion of the ‘little spear’ that is the harmful elf dart; they may even be the inhabitants of the barrow, its own restless dead. Stephen Pollington points out that this charm is composed as if it were part of a heroic poem, which suggests that it is the noise and determination of the warriors that work to drive out the harmful spear or arrow point. Perhaps the ride awakens the powers within the burial mound just as pouring blood on the mound does. These dead sleep only lightly.

Further evidence for inhabitants of barrows is found in the eighth-century Life of Saint Guthlac, which describes the saint’s search for a lonely, unholy and despised place. He chooses a particular island in the fens on which is a large burial mound associated with horrors and fears. He eventually triumphs against the demons inhabiting the mound, drives them back to hell, and constructs his monastery on the site, exorcising the supernatural entities by fasting and prayer. Saints were not alone in seeking out such mounds; the pseudo- Egbert penitential condemns ‘asking the future at burial places’: the dead know about the past, and also see what is to come, communicating it to the living. Pollington suggests that the burial mounds were read as the resting place of ancestors, and points to the Icelandic tradition in which the dead continued their existence on another plane within the mound. If the dead resided in the earth in a limbo existence, they might be reachable by powers of sorcery. The places where the dead spirits were accessible are those burial places reserved for the damned—suicides, criminals and the unbaptised, those in a Christian world who were heathen and whose resting place was sometimes the barrow. Such figures may later have been reinterpreted as elves. 

In 2019, choosing to dress as a fairy for Halloween has nothing at all to do with death. It has to do with baring large amounts of skin to the eye and the elements; it has to do with exposure as an object of desire. To be sure, the fairy of the Middle Ages is also connected with sexuality, but her sexuality can be reached only through a willingness to encounter death. When the Queen of the Fairies kidnaps Thomas the Rhymer and takes him to Elfland, she does not plan to start a book club with him. However, before they can lie together, they must wade through red blood to the knee, the blood of all those slain on earth. 

Similarly, in the medieval romance of Sir Orfeo, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the fairyland is built of the bodies of those who die before they have lived their full allotted span of years. 

Of folk that were thither y-brought,
And thought dead and never nought
Some stood without a head
And some no arms nade,
And sum through the body hadde wounde.

The other categories of wounded mentioned are those shrivelled in fire, the drowned, the mad, and women in childbed.  This is a collective spectacle of horror, but it is also a portrait of those whose deaths have come about through a violent assault on the body’s integrity, whether from within or without, by another.  

What if we see all these people as foundation sacrifices, the foundation being our own society, and perhaps the successful transition of our own dead to some realm that offers more than the king of the underworld can to these human fragments? What we are seeing here is a filing system analogous to the structure of burial on earth in both pre-Christian and Christian times. Some are located in plain sight. Others are filed away, in mounds, by the north wall of churches, at crossroads, in the hope that they will never be seen again. But as the year shifts from sunlit fertility into the dark, these beings stir and grow restless. Why should they not be angry? Why should they not be envious? And, urgently, will a couple of plastic pumpkin heads be enough to keep them from the door?



Read more from our Halloween Issue:

The Metaphysics of Horror – David Livingstone Smith

The Dark Side – Stephen de Wijze

The Return of the Living Dead – Slavoj Žižek

The Search for Extraterrrestrial Life - Lynn J. Rothschild

Dressed To Kill - Shahidha Bari

Why We Should Care About Our Corpses - Thomas Laqueur

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