I’ve learned more about the history of Halloween and witches, and read more about witches today than I have in a whole life time. I will link to some of writing I’ve found most provocative because they are worth going to. Here are some of the things I have found most fascinating.
When I went trick or treating as a child, I was told Halloween began as a day in which people who had died and gone to purgatory came to our doors to beg for prayers in order to be in heaven to celebrate All Saints Day the following morning. I recently learned that the custom had come to America from Ireland, and I myself have seen it return to this side of the pond almost certainly as a commercial holiday to fill in the space between the end of summer and Christmas. Until the last 20 years, few farmers even grew pumpkins here in England, and when they first began to appear in supermarkets, nobody knew how to cook them.
Now I have been astonished to learn that, like Christmas, Halloween was a pagan feast converted by the Roman church to fit Christian theology. For the Druids it was a Festival of the Dead, and it remained full of dread until modern times.
The origin of witches goes back much further even than the Druids. “Witch” is a derivative of the word “widow,” and the world over, women who survived their husbands were viewed with fear and suspicion. Even the wives of gods were potential witches. Kali, the wife of the Hindu god Shiva is pictured with withered skin and dressed in black. In earthly life, widows were typically cast out with no community support. Even in modern times in the Western world, wives could be left outcasts and penniless if their husbands died before them. Widowed women, therefore, in order to survive often resorted to helping others. That help might be in the form of potions, some mere placebos, some effective, some deadly. Witches were sometimes sought to cast spells on enemies, and predict the future. A mixture of fear and belief made a witch’s life style a dangerous one.
What of witches today? Germaine Greer has a warning more terrifying than any Halloween story. Stephen Hawking, the renown physicist at Cambridge, warns that humans are destroying earth’s environment and will not survive another thousand years if we do not colonize another planet. Greer points out that life on this planet, from microbes to humans, are interconnected. We cannot survive without the support of an incredibly complex system beginning with microbes, which support plant life, which are essential for animal life. Another planet, she points out, will not come equipped with the support system we need.
The really scary Halloween story is how desperately we need to care for our planet.