You already probably know that Halloween evolved from the Celtic ancient tradition called Samhain. It was when the early Catholic church adapted Samhain as a Christian holiday that it became Halloween.
But would you believe that almost every Halloween icon also traces its roots to ancient history? Let's take a look at some famous symbols and their history.
An Irish myth tells the story of Stingy Jack, who for many years had been trying to escape the devil's plan of claiming his soul. He played tricks on the devil until he died.
Having been rejected in both heaven and hell, Stingy Jack was sentenced to Earth with only a burning coal to light his way. He placed the coal inside a carved-out turnip and has been roaming around ever since. The Irish referred to this Stingy Jack's ghost as "Jack of the Lantern" or "Jack o' Lantern."
Because of this myth, it became Irish tradition to carve faces onto turnips as a way to keep Stingy Jack away. In 1845, the Potato Famine struck Ireland and waves of Irish immigrants came to live in the United States, bringing with them the beloved practice of turnip carving. Eventually, the Irish discovered that pumpkins make better Jack-o'-lanterns. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Two ideas explain why bats gained their spooky reputation (aside from their literary link to Dracula, of course).
First is that early Irish and Scottish settlers in the US made a connection between large groups of bats and Samhain around October and November. They believed that the bats, who naturally gathered to prepare for winter, had something to do with the Celtic day of the dead.
The second reason why bats equals Samhain/Halloween is that it has been a longstanding tradition to light bonfires during these holidays. And these bonfires tend to attract insects, which also attracts bats. To be fair, bats flying around an open flame really is a scary scene!
Superstition surrounding black cats probably started with the Druids, who thought that the dark-colored felines were host to evil spirits. The Celts burned black cats in their Samhain bonfires to rid their towns of bad luck. They believed that evil spirits caused the cold of winter, so one less black cat would mean a more lenient winter.
Fast forward to the European Witch Trials and the myth behind black cats endured. It was believed that the witches in question could turn themselves into black cats or that the cats were evil spirits in disguise. When witches were burned at the stake, their animal companions or "familiars" were burned along with them.
Black cats share their bad reputation with spiders and owls as they were also considered to be under the witches' influence.
No other Halloween icon has a history more skewed than the Witch. Revered in ancient times as The Wise One, the practitioners of the Craft got the "evil" tag and, unfortunately, it has stuck to this day.
As part of the Catholic church's efforts to convert pagans, church officials accused witches to be working with the Devil. The Witch Trials were a culmination of the efforts to undermine witchcraft and secure a place for Christianity in European life. Pop culture also played its part, as films and TV shows mainly portrayed the witch as an ugly hag with bad intentions.
That said, witchcraft has had a resurgence in recent years, thanks to more accurate representations in the media. More and more people, especially among the younger generations, are learning about and starting to practice Wicca and/or witchcraft.
Before modern-day Halloween became an extravaganza of costumes depicting "malevolent" creatures of the dark, its precursor Samhain was actually a solemn day to honor the dead. The Celts believed that those who died that year would make their way to the otherworld during Samhain. They also believed that unpleasant spirits also roamed around, so they would dress up as ghosts to confuse the actual ones.
Skeletons symbolize death and mortality. Although morbid to some, death is seen by the Celts as a beautiful part of the cycle of endings and beginnings. For them, the death of one ushers in the birth of a new person.
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