Contemporarily known as a time of fright, mystery, darkness, and macabre gaiety, most of us are at least cursorily aware that Halloween has its origins in ancient pagan tradition, and that it is the beginning of a three-day sacred festival later adapted by the church, as part of it’s strategy of absorption and re-branding of pagan traditions to adopt Northern Europeans into the fold. Let’s dive in and take a look at the history of the three-day festival of Allhallowtide, and it’s possible connection to the goals and principles of Freemasonry.
To pre-Christian Europeans like the Celts and various Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, our modern November 1st marked the beginning of the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the new year. Also representing the onset of darkness as the season shifted to shorter and shorter days, particularly the eve of the new year, Samhain (pronounced sow-in, old-Irish for “Summer’s end”) or modern Halloween, was seen as a time when the veils between the spiritual and mundane world are particularly thin, allowing for spirit contact, haunting, as well as enhanced divination and oracular opportunities among the priest-like druids.
It’s worth noting that this tradition, particularly as it relates to the return of the spirits of the dead during this time, is not exclusively European; in fact, Halloween exists in various forms around the world. The belief that the spirits must be appeased in some way is also common.
For instance, Día de Muertos in Mexico actually doesn’t stem purely from it’s Catholic conquerors, but actually has origins in the pre-Columbian Aztec and other cultures. The Hungry Ghost Festival of China is also a correlate, with people believing that the spirits of the dead grow hungry and must be fed offerings, during this time of year.
Particularly in the Anglo-Celtic world in ancient Britain, activities related to divination formed a major part of the celebrations, probably owing to it’s druidic origins. These included various kinds of scrying, dream interpretation, and also rituals of protection and purification. The early origins of trick-or-treating were also practiced, with celebrators dressing up as the dead, symbolically going house to house and collecting offerings on their behalf.
The following days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (Nov 1st-2nd) were a wholly Christian addition, although they did have pagan correlates, simply not on these particular days. The pagan festival which correlates to All Souls Day, for instance, originally took place in early May. These were days for feasting and celebrating the saints and traditions of the Catholic church.
As you may know, the Roman Catholic church often coexisted with pagan traditions, and even adopted elements of them in order to appeal to and convert the pagan residents of any given region. The festival of Samhain is no exception, and in the Christian world it became the eve of the 3-day feasts of Allhallowtide. Some of the Samhain traditions were adopted with new Christian meanings, such as offering proto-trick-or-treaters “soulcakes”, meant to celebrate the christened dead, or also praying and leaving offerings at the graves of the dead.
It’s impossible to consider the symbolic meaning of Halloween without associating it with the shadow, the aspects of the self which have been rejected from the light of consciousness, and thus dwell in the darkness of the unconscious, taking on a life of their own and occasionally coming to haunt us. As the ancient traditions focused on the dead gradually transformed over time into various witches, vampires, and other monsters, the prominent figures and symbols of Halloween have come to be various manifestations of shadow aspects of the psyche.
The werewolf, for instance, is a representation of our wild and beastly selves, particularly those aspects which are hidden during the day, but emerge at night. The witch is naturally the feminine powers of intuition and magic, twisted and gnarled in it’s rejection from the masculine-dominated consensus world of daylight. Vampires are the parasitic and predatory aspects of the self, particularly when it is disconnected from its own natural life-force, which of course burns if it is touched by the light of day. Frankenstein can be seen symbolically as the monstrous alter-ego created by the intellect in it’s rejection of the mysteries of femininity, spirit, emotion, and the need for human relating.
Our willingness to celebrate, dress up as, and thus embody these shadow elements, then, can be seen as a way of facing and embracing these various neglected or rejected aspects of ourselves, and thus transforming them with the Light of consciousness. Understanding their symbolic meaning is the next step, beyond simply reveling in their spooky stories and ghoulish aesthetic. Thus, although the two are not often connected, we can find in Halloween the sacred Masonic principle, from darkness to Light.