These days we are all too familiar with Halloween in its modern form. A night of trick or treating, dressing up as ghosts and ghouls, carving jack-o-lanterns from pumpkins. Hanging up cardboard silhouettes of witches’ cats in the window. But what did Halloween signify to people living in medieval times? And how did their beliefs and superstitions shape how we celebrate Halloween today?
It was during the Middle Ages that the Christian festival of Allhallowtide evolved. It eventually became a three-day festival; All Hallows’ Eve (31st October), All Hallows’ Day (1st November) and All Souls’ Day (2nd November). Of these, the most important was All Hallows’ Day. This day was set aside for commemorating the lives of Christian saints and martyrs.
The idea of setting aside a special day for saints and martyrs dates back to early Christian times. Originally, however, its date was not fixed on 1st November.
We first learn of this festival in the C4th from John Chrysostom who referred to it as the ‘feast of all the saints’. Initially the feast occurred on the first Sunday after Pentecost (which would place it in late May or early June).
In 609, Pope Boniface IV fixed the date for The Feast of All Saints on 13th May. Of course, particularly significant individual saints had their own feast days in the Christian calendar. But, by 609, there were more saints and martyrs than days in the year! It therefore made sense to set aside a specific day on which to honour all the saints, including minor and lesser-known ones.
Boniface chose 13th May because it was the day on which he consecrated the old Roman Pantheon as the Church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs. However, it just so happened that this date fell at the same time as the pagan Roman festival of Lemuria.
According to Ovid, Romulus instituted the feast of Lemuria to appease the spirit of his murdered brother Remus. In the Roman celebration of this feast, the head of the household performed a ritual to pacify unquiet spirits. As he walked around the home, he’d cast beans over his shoulder and chant “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.” The entire household would join in by clashing pots together and shouting “Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!” nine times.
So, even as early as the C7th, an indirect association between this festival and ghosts existed.
Eventually, Pope Gregory III moved the festival to 1st November in 844. His reason being to align the celebration with the day on which he consecrated a new chapel in St. Peter’s dedicated to all the saints.
What began as a single day of feasting eventually evolved into a three-day festival. What we now call Halloween began life as ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, so named because it was the eve before All Hallows. The medieval Church observed All Hallows’ Eve by conducting an evening mass and a vigil held prior to the feasting and festivities of the following day. During this time medieval Christians were encouraged to fast and pray, contemplating and offering thanks for the lives of the saints on the eve of their feast.
In the C10th, the Benedictines of Cluny added 2nd November to their calendar as ‘All Souls’ Day’. It was a day set aside for the specific purpose of praying for the souls of the dead. In medieval times praying for the souls of the dead was considered highly efficacious. It was believed that if the living prayed or said masses for the dead, the time a soul needed to spend atoning for their sins in purgatory could be reduced.
By the C14th, the observance of All Souls Day had spread from the Benedictine order to the wider church.
Harvest and Winter
One good reason for moving a feast to the end of October would be that this time of year falls not too long after the gathering of the harvest. As a result, there would have been plenty of food available. Of course, this was also a significant time for an agricultural society like that of medieval Europe.
By the end of October, with the harvest safely gathered, animals are brought into barns before the weather gets too cold. In agricultural terms, it is the month for making preparations for winter. It is also the time of year when the leaves are falling, plants are dying off, and some animals go into hibernation.
In Anglo-Saxon times October was called Winterfylleth. The Bede tells us that the old English people divided their year into two halves. Winterfylleth signified the idea that the first full moon of this month marked the start of winter (the name of the month itself coming from the words ‘winter’ and ‘full moon’).
From the perspective of a rural agricultural life, October is an important time of transition from the life and vibrancy of summer to the death and coldness of winter.
The Irish Celts saw the end of October as an especially significant time. In pagan times it was a date they marked with the festival of Samhain. Other Celts also saw this date as significant, although they had different names for it. The Welsh, for example, called it ‘Calan Gaeaf’.
Much is now made of a connection between Samhain and Halloween. However, the two are not necessarily directly related. Halloween was originally a medieval Christian festival after all. Its associations with spirits of the dead could as easily have been influenced by Roman Lemuria as Samhain.
Nevertheless, the location of All Hallows on 1st November created a link to a time of year that had previously held significance for Irish pagans.
But what was that significance exactly? What was Samhain and how was it celebrated? In understanding this we face a difficulty. The pre-Roman Celts were a people heavily reliant on oral tradition. Their beliefs and customs were not generally written down. We literally do not know for sure what they believed or what their customs were except through contemporary Roman writers and Christian writers from later periods.
Early Irish writers recorded something of older pagan traditions. However, these men were writing in late Roman times or even later. What they had to say relates only to Irish tradition. We cannot assume that what they wrote also applies to other Celtic societies.
Samhain was a key seasonal festival in pagan Ireland. It marked the time of year when life was dying off and winter was beginning. A time for feasting and coming together, it was also a chance to share stories around the fire, and for discussing and resolving issues within the local community. It was also a time for remembering the dead.
Sometimes these gatherings were held at or near ancient burial mounds (places the pagan Irish associated with otherworldly powers). Some sources mention bonfires, and others speak of sacrifices. A bonfire, of course, would have provided warmth on a cold October night, as well as fire to roast meat for a communal feast.
Archaeology provides some evidence that these pagan traditions had some very ancient precedents.
The Mound of Hostages at Tara in Ireland contains several hundred burials. It dates to neolithic times and was in use many centuries before the Romans first arrived in the British Isles. Its construction aligns to the rising of the sun on the morning of Samhain and there is evidence of communal feasts and bonfires near to the site whilst it was in use. It is tempting to imagine the Samhain tradition described by early Irish writers, played out at Tara over two millennia before the rise of the Roman Empire!
Samhain tradition across the Celtic world
The accounts of early Irish writers can only safely apply to the Celtic tradition in Ireland. Other Celts certainly saw this time of year as significant. However, did they, like the Irish, also attach similar beliefs and rituals to it?
The folklorist Ronald Hutton has argued that early Welsh literature attributes nothing especially supernatural to this festival. He suggests that the concept of Samhain only spread outside of Ireland with Irish immigration and even then, not before the early Middle Ages. Hutton goes so far as to claim, “the medieval records furnish no evidence that 1st November was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed.”
Indeed, looking further afield to Celtic Gaul, the Coligny Calendar, which dates to the C2nd CE, shows the months of the Gaulish year. An important split between summer and winter divided the year, as appears to be the case for other Celtic societies. In this sense the October/November transition was clearly important. However, there is no direct evidence of any Gaulish rituals, superstitions, or celebrations at this time of year. Indeed, it seems that, for the Gauls, the start of summer, in May, was a more important time.
Halloween – a Christian concept
There is no certainty that Halloween adopted supernatural beliefs from earlier pagan traditions, whether Irish Celtic or Roman pagan. The association between Halloween and these earlier traditions ultimately relies on a coincidence of dates.
However, there is an argument to show that Halloween did not need to borrow from earlier pagan traditions. Halloween’s association with the supernatural is fully explainable within the context of medieval Christianity.
Because we, in the West, have grown up within a Christian tradition, we tend to regard Halloween from the perspective of modern Christian orthodoxy. That might lead us to exclude Christianity as a potential source of seemingly ‘unchristian’ superstitions or supernatural beliefs. However, just because something is an unacceptable belief in mainstream Christianianity today, this does not mean medieval Christians shared that idea. Myopia of this sort can prevent us from appreciating the historic role medieval Christianity played as a source of belief in the supernatural.
To fully appreciate how medieval Christians regarded Allhallowtide, it is first necessary to understand the medieval concept of Purgatory and the significance of All Souls’ Day.
Purgatory and All Souls’ Day
The medieval Christian concept of purgatory taught that sinners, even if they had found salvation in Christ, would nevertheless need to be cleansed of their sin before they could enter God’s kingdom. Thus, once such a person died, their soul often did not pass directly to heaven or hell but, rather, to purgatory. Here their soul was cleansed of sin before finally being admitted to God’s presence. Unfortunately, this cleansing process involved punishment, pain, and suffering. For some people, if their sins were grave, this ordeal could last a very long time.
However, praying for the souls of the departed or, better still, masses said for their souls, had the power to liberate them from their punishment. The medieval Church based this belief on a passage from the Book of Maccabees.
“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”2 Maccabees 12:46
From the C10th onwards, All Souls’ Day, was established as part of the Allhallowtide festival. It became the primary time of year when it was appropriate for thoughts to turn to the departed and to pray for their souls.
However, these beliefs inevitably became closely interwoven with medieval superstitions regarding ghosts.
The medieval ghost
During the Middle Ages the Church had a complicated relationship with the concept of ghosts. Some Church leaders taught that ghosts did not exist. That rather than being true manifestations of the dead, they were in fact evil spirits or demons in disguise, sent to deceive the unwary.
However, such teachings did not prevent many people from insisting on seeing such entities as quite real manifestations of the spirits of the dead. They did not necessarily regard ghosts as evil or even malevolent spirits. Instead, the medieval ghost was often depicted as a troubled soul, seeking release from purgatory. By the intercession of saints or some other divine power, these souls might be granted the power to manifest and communicate with the living. Usually, such a ghost would approach the living to ask for help to atone for their sins.
Although some members of the clergy attempted to discourage a belief in ghosts, others did much to encourage it. A significant number of preachers actually used ghost stories to convey a Christian message. Usually, this took the form of a tale in which the ghost manifests to implore someone to perform a service designed to free them from purgatory.
A typical example would be the story of ‘a certain man from Haydock’. This story claimed that in 1373 this man was visited by the ghost of his former mistress. This woman was able to appear to him because permission had been granted to her by a higher power. She implores the man to help her, explaining that “I can be freed from the punishment I am suffering, if masses are celebrated for me by good priests.”
The ghost then provided her former lover with several hairs from her head. To her lover’s surprise, these hairs are black, even though her hair had been golden in life. Nevertheless, the man does as the ghost asks and finds that, after the performance of each mass, one of the hairs changes its colour from black to gold. Finally, when all the hairs have changed to gold, the woman’s soul is freed from purgatory.
The priest who originally wrote this story, ends his tale with the proverb “Praise be the power of the mass”.
It is easy to see how such ghost stories became associated with praying for the souls of the dead. If the living had set aside All Souls’ Day to pray for the dead, then surely it made sense for the dead to reach out to the living for aid at this time.
The religious observance of praying for the souls of the dead led to the development of the earliest form of trick or treating.
During the Middle Ages, a tradition evolved whereby ‘Soulers’ would travel from house to house at Allhallowtide offering to say prayers for a dead relative in exchange for a Soul-cake (also called Soulmass-cakes).
Typically, Soulers would consist of the poor and needy and, of course, children. The Soul-cakes were a kind of shortbread cake with sweet spices, stamped with the sign of the cross to indicate they were alms for the needy.
In later times ‘Soulers’ would sing songs for cakes and carry small lanterns made from hollowed out turnips (an early form of the jack-o-lantern). However, it is difficult to be sure how many of these associated traditions can truly be dated back to the Middle Ages and how many were later innovations.
How All Hallows’ Eve became Halloween
It was the introduction of All Souls’ Day to Allhallowtide, that created the strongest link between this autumn festival and the spirits of the dead. Without this All Hallows, and All Hallows’ Eve were simply days in a festival celebrating the lives of saints and martyrs.
The fact that this festival was located at the end of October at the same time as Celtic Samhain was largely coincidental. A Syrian pope made the decision to locate All Hallows at this time of year. It is unlikely he had any particular knowledge of Samhain.
The addition of All Souls’ Day to Allhallowtide did not originate in Ireland but in Cluny, in France. And there is no evidence to show that the Gaulish Celts observed any form of Samhain festival.
The association between Halloween and the spirits of the dead is far more likely to be purely of medieval Christian origin. Furthermore, the association with ghosts is not a pagan corruption of a Christian festival but a medieval Christian construction. It derives from a belief in purgatory coupled with the unique way in which medieval Christians regarded ghosts.
The influence of Samhain
All this is not to say that Samhain had no influence on how the Halloween tradition evolved over time.
After all, Halloween developed the strongest association with supernatural forces in places that experienced significant Irish immigration, most notably in north America but also the British Isles.
The Halloween tradition as we see it today was almost entirely absent from mainland Europe, despite a shared western medieval Christian heritage. Even in France, with its own Celtic heritage, there is scant evidence of Halloween having so powerful an association with the supernatural prior to the C20th. The relative degree of Irish influence, or its lack, might well account for this difference.
Major Irish migration to both America and within the British Isles occurred during the mid-C19th. So, it is quite possible that Halloween only evolved into the Halloween we know today from this time.
In medieval Allhallowtide, however, associations with the supernatural centred around the prayers for the dead offered on All Souls’ Day. For this reason alone, it is not at all surprising that Halloween is a time when ghosts have good reason to be active.
The influence of pagan Samhain may have affected the character of this festival in medieval Ireland, providing a stronger and more direct association with the supernatural. However, this influence is not really evident elsewhere in Europe.
Furthermore, if we look at how this festival evolved in different cultures the link with the supernatural is also strong in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. However, the Mexican Day of the Dead has no obvious cultural connection with Irish Samhain. Instead, it draws its inspiration from a medieval Christian heritage. A heritage that the Mexican Day of the Dead and north American Halloween both share.
It may therefore be misleading to see Halloween in its modern form as a Christian festival heavily inspired or even corrupted by earlier pagan traditions. I feel it is far more valid to see it as a festival strongly rooted in medieval Christian supernatural beliefs.
More folklore & mythology
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in reading some of my other articles dealing with medieval folklore and mythology:
A series of four related articles on Robin Hood and an article on King Arthur:
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References & further reading
Carved image of man in purgatory: Mariä Himmelfahrt, Ollersbach. Photo by Herzi Pinki (via Wiki Commons)
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs: Fra Angelico c.1420 (via Wiki Commons)
Hill Of Tara – Mound Of Hostages: Photo by Martinvl (via Wiki Commons)
Souls in Purgatory: Stephan Lochner 1450 (via Wiki Commons)
Soul cakes: Photo by Malikhpur (via Wiki Commons)