59 – The Halloween Special

As you might imagine since I’m doing an episode on it, Halloween has a lot of British influence upon it. In fact, the name itself comes from Scotland, where All Saint’s Eve (also known as All Hallow’s Eve) was shortened in the 16th century to Halloween. And the name stuck. But as you have probably gathered, originally the day was simply the day before All Saint’s Day (also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas). And this might come as a shock to you, but All Saint’s Day was the day in which early Christians commemorated all their saints… and it is still practiced today.

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  1. This is a great fun episode. Despite its origins rooted in the myths and folklore of Britain, Halloween was barely celebrated at all in Britain when I was a child, nor apparently within living memory of people alive today – although we all loved ghost and horror stories! All the Halloween rituals, Trick or Treating and so on which kids enjoy today comes mainly from the US. I wonder just when it died out in Britain before being revived thanks to American cultural influence.

  2. Last year around this time I heard a BBC History Extra podcast in which an author claimed a Welsh origin for much of what we now experience in Halloween. The author particularly cited the example of Welsh kids stealing garden gates on Halloween. Supposedly Welsh miners carried this tradition over to the US.

    I’ve also frequently heard that there was an Irish origin, with the example of carving proto jack-o-lanterns out of turnips. As I can think of no useful purpose for turnips, I have to applaud that practice, if true.

    Having said all of that, I haven’t had the chance to listing to this episode yet, so maybe all that is already in there. Episode 70 was the last one I listened to, so I need to catch up.

    On a wholly unrelated topic, the new Podcast app that Apple came out with after introducing the Iphone 5 occasionally insists on downloading all the episodes of any podcast I’ve already listened to, on my Iphone 4. Does anyone know a fix for that?

  3. This episode was particularly good!!! Particularly the way in which Celtic British folklore is linked in with the rise of Christianity. I’d love to hear more about the adapptation of pre christian deities into christian saints and to understand just why these folk icons, their tales, and the ideas that they stood for, were so hard to prise away from the British peoples despite centuries of cultural revolution, eg St Brigid…

      1. Maybe members special? I studied this in university and would be interested in your take on it.

  4. Just heard this excellent episode. I know this was ages ago for you but it’s new to me so I’d like to take issue with the idea you expressed right at the end, that the figure of the evil witch is a Christian invention.

    Here are some examples from the Dark Ages / early Medieval period:
    • Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century described belief in magic as “an error of the pagans”.
    • The Lombard Code (643): “Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.”
    • Council of Paderborn (785) outlawed condemning people as witches and condemned to death anyone who burnt a witch.
    • Council of Frankfurt in (794) called by Charlemagne, condemned “the persecution of alleged witches and wizards”, calling the belief in witchcraft “superstitious”, and ordering the death penalty for those who presumed to burn witches.
    • In the 9th century, Agobard of Lyon wrote a whole treatise against magical beliefs – ‘Contra insulsam vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis’.
    • Pope Gregory VII, in 1080, wrote to Harald III of Denmark forbidding witches to be put to death for supposedly causing storms, crop failure etc.

    Later on, even the Spanish Inquisition was very skeptical about witchcraft allegations! In fact, belief in, and fear of, witches was usually more common the further one got from seats of Christian authority and represented a strain of folk-belief that may well have lingered on from times of paganism. All those wicked old crones in fairy tales certainly weren’t coming from the church!

    1. I just wrote a long response and it didn’t publish. So after jumping around a little in frustration, I’m sitting down to take another swing at this.

      All the quotes you offered are post-conversion, and the vast majority of them are actually trying to stem the tide of persecution that was occurring in Christian communities. The simple fact that there are so many examples of less superstitious people trying to stop it lends credence to the fact that it was quite the problem.

      And frankly, the root of the problem can be found in the bible itself. Exodus 22:18 is pretty clear, and it gives the people a holy mandate to kill those evil witches. Does that mean that it actually predates Christianity (and goes back instead to Judaism?) Sure. But I think it’s pretty much uncontroversial to say that the medieval European Christians took that passage and ran with it.

      Not only that, but that concept of the evil witch is absolutely /laced/ with European medieval views. Have you ever wondered why the image of a witch has a hooked nose, wears strange clothes, and speaks oddly? Think about what unpopular groups were living in Europe that had strange clothes, accents, and hooked noses during that period…

  5. When I grew up I was taught an origin of the “black cat over the road” superstition. When I say “an origin” not “the” it is because I haven’t actually got a concrete source for it, it is just what I was taught, and a quick google in Scandinavian languages confirmed that others seem to have heard the same since it pops up in several places. Anyway; “In the old Norse beliefs it was thought that if a black cat crosses the road in front of you, it means Loke is thinking of you”. That is what I was taught. And it is bloody terrifying, is it not?

    (Relistening from start, catching new things all the time, it is great!)

    1. Cool! I’m going to remember that one. Though, these days I’m sure there are quite a few people in the world who associate Loki with Tom Hiddleston now, and wouldn’t mind him thinking of them.

      1. Yes, searching in English was taking too much of slogging through Hiddles fan references, so I abandoned that line of inquiry for today at least. Anyone with an actual knowledge of the Norse gods outside of the Marvelverse is likely to get it though :)

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