In medieval times All Hallows, kept on Oct. 31, the eve of All Saints’ day, was the Celtic festival at the end of summer named Samhain, in contrast with May day (Beltane), the festival at the beginning of summer, these marking the two main seasons of the Celtic year. Oct. 31 was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and one of the ancient fire festivals. It was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and its importance is indicated by the renewal of laws and land tenures, the rekindling of fire for the coming year, the practice of divinations and its association with the dead, whose souls were supposed to revisit their homes on this day. Since November ushers in the darkest and most barren half of the year, the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, fairies and demons of all kinds roaming abroad.
The Celtic festival was primarily a pastoral observance, but, as agriculture was frequently combined with herding, some of the rites associated with the harvest home and the killing of the corn spirit at the reaping of the last sheaf found a place in Samhain. Thus, the crops as well as the flocks and herds had to be protected from demonic influences that were rife at the turn of the year. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. Coupled with this were fire rites, divinations, funerary practices and masquerades, partly serious and partly frivolous in their later development as Halloween passed into the realm of fold observances. In Scotland traces of an expiatory sacrificial rite have survived in the case of both Halloween and the Beltane fires.
In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable opportunity for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health and death, differing in manner in the various parts of Britain. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. In Scotland young people assembled for games to ascertain which of them would marry during the year, and in what order the marriages would occur. Even the name, occupation and hair colour of the future spouse were determined. Sometimes resort was made in secret to a barn, where a sieve or winnowing fan was used to perform the action of winnowing corn. After repeating this three times the apparition of the future husband or wife was supposed to pass through the barn. Young women sowed hemp seed on plowed land at midnight on Halloween, repeating the formula. "Hemp seed I sow, who will my husband be, in let him come and mow." Looking over her left shoulder she might see the figure of the future spouse. Apples and a sixpence were put into a tub of water, and he who succeeded in extracting either of them with his mouth without using his teeth, or in pinning one of the apples with a fork, was destined to have a lucky year. Most of the numerous Halloween divinations in connection with apples, originally of sacred and symbolic significance, have become games played by children. In the north of England Oct. 31 is observed as "mischief night" marked by tiresome tricks with no serious underlying purpose, meaning or history.
Immigrants to the United States, particularly the Irish, introduced secular Halloween customs that became popular in the late 19th century. Mischief making on this occasion by boys and young men took such forms as overturning sheds and outhouses and breaking windows, and damage to property was sometimes severe. In later years the occasion has come to be observed mainly by small children, who go from house to house demanding "trick or treat"; the treat is generally forthcoming and the trick rarely played. The common symbol of Halloween, the jack-o’-lantern (the name is probably derived from that for a night watchman), is a hollowed-out pumpkin carved in the appearance of a demonic face and with a lighted candle inside. In Scotland a turnip was used for the jack-o’-lantern, but the native pumpkin was soon substituted in the United States.
By contract with these frivolous customs, it was on Halloween that the general assembly, or open-air parliament (Freig), was held at Tara in Celtic Ireland, celebrated once in every three years with special solemnities lasting for two weeks. At it the laws were renewed and the annals and genealogies written up. The proceedings opened with sacrifices to the gods at Tlachtgha in County Meath, the victims being consumed by fire. All household fires had to be extinguished on that night and rekindled from the fire of Tlachtgha, a tax being extracted for each fire lighted in this manner. In the Isle of Man all tenures had to be renewed on Nov. 1, called Hogunnas, and at the law courts in Loondon an ancient rent service, dating from about the 13th century, has survived in the custom by which the city solicitor, as the agent of the corporation of London, renders to the queen’s remembrancer a token rent for a piece of land called the Moors in Shropshire, and for a tenement known as the Forge in the parish of St. Clement Danes in London.
The Story of Civilization
The Age of Faith
In Western Europe, from the sixth to the eleventh century, they broke the dikes of culture, and overwhelmed the medieval mind in an ocean of occultism and credulity. The greatest, most learned men shared in the credulity: Augustine thought that the pagan gods still existed as demons, and that fauns and satyrs were real; Abelard thought that demons can work magic through their intimate acquaintance with the secrets of nature; Alfonso the Wise accepted magic, and sanctioned divination by the stars; how, then, should lesser men doubt?
A multitude of mysterious and supernatural beings had descended into Christianity from pagan antiquity, and were still coming into it from Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland as trolls, elves, giants, fairies, goblins, gnomes, ogres, banshees, mysterious dragons, blood-sucking vampires; and new superstitions were always entering Europe from the East. Dead men walked the air as ghosts; men who had sold themselves to the Devil roamed woods and fields as werewolves; the souls of children dead before baptism haunted the marshes as will-o’-the wisps.
When St. Edmund rich saw a flight of black crows he recognized them at once as a flock of devils come to fetch the soul of a local usurer. When a demon is exorcised from a man, said many a medieval story, a big black fly-sometimes a dog-could be seen issuing from his mouth. The population of devils never declined.
A hundred objects-herbs, stones, amulets, rings, gems-were worn for their magic power to ward off devils and bring good luck. The horseshoe was lucky because it had the shape of the crescent moon, which had once been a goddess. Sailors, at the mercy of the elements, and peasants, subject to all the whims of earth and sky, saw the supernatural at every turn, and lived in a vital medium of superstitions. The attribution of magic powers to certain numbers came down from Pythagoras through the Christian Fathers: three, the number of the Trinity, was the holiest number, and stood for the soul; four represented the body; seven, their sum, symbolized the complete man; hence a predilection for seven-ages of man, planets, sacraments, cardinal virtues, deadly sins. A sneeze at the wrong time was a bad omen, and had better be disarmed with a "god bless you" in any case. Philters could be used to create or destroy love. Conception could be avoided by spitting thrice into the mouth of a frog, or holding a jasper pebble in the hand during coitus.
The enlightened Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons in the ninth century, complained that "things of such absurdity are believed by Christians as no one ever aforetime could induce the heathen to believe."
The Church struggled against the paganism of superstition, condemned many beliefs and practices, and punished them with gradation of penances. She denounced black magic-resort to demons to obtain power over events; but it flourished in a thousand secret places. It practitioners circulated privately a Liber perditionis, or Book of Damnation, giving the names, habitats, and special powers of the major demons. Nearly everybody believed in some magical means of turning the power of supernatural beings to a desired end. John of Salisbury tells of magic used by a deacon, a priest, and an archbishop. The simplest form was by incantation; a formula was recited, usually several times; by such formulas a miscarriage might be averted, a sickness healed, an enemy put out of the way. Probably the majority of Christians considered the sign of the cross, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ave Maria as magic incantations. Magic power.
According to Aretino some Roman harlots fed to their lovers, as an aphrodisiac, the rotting flesh of human corpses stolen from the cemeteries. Incantations were used for a thousand purposes; by the proper one, said Apulian peasants, you could protect yourself from mad dogs. Spirits beneficent or malevolent peopled the air; Satan often appeared, in person or by deputy, to tempt or terrify, to seduce, empower or instruct; demons had a fund of mystic knowledge that could be tapped if one should properly propitiate them. Some Carmelite monks at Bologna (till Sixtus IV condemned them in 1474) taught that there was no harm in seeking knowledge from devils; and professional sorcerers offered their expert charms in invoking the aid of demons for paying customers. Witches-sorcerers usually female-were believed to have special access to such helpful devils, whom they treated as lovers and gods; by delegated demonic power these women, in the belief of the people, could foresee the future, fly in a moment over long distances, pass through closed gates and doors, and wreak dire evils upon persons who offended them; they could induce love or hate, produce abortion, manufacture poisons, and cause death by a spell or a glance.
In 1484 a bull of Innocent VIII (Summis desiderantes) forbade resort to witches, took for granted the reality of some of their claimed powers, ascribed to them some storms and plaques, and complained that many Christians, falling away from orthodox worship, had contracted carnal union with devils, and, by spells and magic rhymes, curses and other diabolical arts, had done grievous harm to men, women, children, and beasts. The Pope advised the officers of the Inquisition to be on the alert against such practices. The bull did not impose belief in witchcraft as the official doctrine of the Church, nor did it inaugurate the prosecution of witches; popular belief in witches, and occasional punishment of them, long antedated the bull. The Pope was here faithful to the Old Testament, which had commanded, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The Church had for centuries maintained the possibility of demonic influences upon human beings; but the Pope’s assumption of the reality of witchcraft encouraged belief in it, and his admonition to the inquisitors played some part in the witchcraft persecution. In the year following the promulgation of the bull forty-one women were burned for witchcraft in Como alone.
In 1486 the inquisitors at Brescia condemned several alleged witches to the "secular arm"-i.e., to death; but the government refused to execute the sentence, whereat Innocent was much peeved. Matters went more harmoniously in 1510, when we hear of 140 persons burned at Brescia for witchcraft; and in 1514, in the pontificate of the gentle Leo, three hundred more were burned at Como.
Whether through perverse stimulation by persecution, or from other causes, the number of persons who believed themselves, or were believed, to have practiced witchcraft rapidly increased, especially in subalpine Italy; it took on the nature and proportions of an epidemic; popular report claimed that 25,000 persons had attended a "witches’ sabbath" on a plain near Brescia. In 1518 the inquisitors burned seventy alleged witches from that region, and had thousands of suspects in their prisons. The Signory of Brescia protested against this wholesale detention, and interfered with further executions; whereupon Leo X, in a bull Honestis (February 15, 1521), ordered the excommunication of any officials, and the suspension of religious services in any community, that refused to execute, without examination or revision, the sentences of the inquisitors. The Signory, ignoring the bull, appointed two bishops, two Brescian physicians, and one inquisitor to supervise all further witchcraft trials, and to inquire into the justice of previous condemnations; only these men were to have the power to condemn the accused. The Signory admonished the papal legate to put an end to the condemnation of persons for the sake of confiscating their property. It was a brave procedure; but ignorance and sadism got the upper hand, and in the next two centuries, in Protestant as well as Catholic lands, in the New World as well as the old, burnings for witchcraft were to form the darkest spots in the history of mankind.
The mania to know the future supported the usual variety of fortunetellers-palmists, dream interpreters, astrologers; these last were more numerous and powerful in Italy than in the rest of Europe. Almost every Italian government had an official astrologer, who determined the celestially propitious times when important enterprises should commence. Julius II would not leave Bologna till his astrologer marked the time as auspicious.
Belief in witchcraft was next to universal. The Penitential Book of the bishop of Exeter condemned women "who profess to be able to change men’s minds by sorcery and enchantments, as from hate to love or from love to hate, or to bewitch or steal men’s goods," or who "profess to ride on certain nights and on certain beasts with a host of demons in women’s shape, and to be enrolled in the company of such"-the "Witches’ Sabbath" that became notorious in the fourteenth century. A simple witchery consisted in making a wax model of an intended victim, piercing it with needles, and pronouncing formulas of cursing; a minister of Philip IV was accused of hiring a witch to do this to an image of the King. Some women were believed able to injure or kill by a look of their "evil eye." Berthold of Regensburg thought that more women than men would go to hell because so many women practiced witchcraft-"spells for getting a husband, spells for the marriage, spells before the child is born, spells before the christening…it is a marvel that men lose not their wits for the monstrous witchcraft’s that women practice on them." Visigothic law accused witches of invoking demons, sacrificing to devils, causing storms, etc., and ordered that those convicted of such offenses should have their heads shaved and receive two hundred stripes. The laws of Cnut in England recognized the possibility of slaying a person by magic means. The Church was at first lenient with these popular beliefs, looking upon them as pagan survivals that would die out; on the contrary they grew and spread; and in 1298 the Inquisition began its campaign to suppress witchcraft by burning women at the stake.
Many theologians sincerely believed that certain women were in league with demons, and that the faithful must be protected from their spells. Caesarius of Heisterbach assures us that in his time many men entered into pacts with devils; and it is alleged that such practitioners of black magic so disdained the Church that they travestied her rites by worshiping Satan in Black Mass. Thousands of sick or timid people believed themselves to be possessed by devils. The prayers, formulas, and ceremonies of exorcism used by the Church may have been intended as psychological medicine to calm superstitious minds.
The Night Battles – Ginzburg
The Caul – Bendenetti
Livinoian Werewolves – Chase the Devil to Hell and Beat Him With an Iron Whip
Witches – Benedetti
Good Female Sticks - Battled the bad witches with brooms – If the bad witches won the crops would be ruined and the bad witches would piss into their barrels of wine.
16 April 2000