Seventh day of Halloween – seven skulls a screaming!
October 31st is nearly here and we’ve been counting down the days with our “Seven Days of Halloween” sort of song. It is an imitation/ode to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” song. So now it is the seventh day which means…
“On the seventh day of Halloween my true love sent to me seven skulls a screaming, six witches flying, five apples bobbing, four soulers souling, three nuts a cracking, two cats a mewing and a vampire in a coffin.”
To many people, Halloween is a time of screaming skulls, zombies and vampires but to many other people it is a sacred night, a night to remember those who have died and for them the skull has a different symbolism, a symbolism associated with the festival Samhain. For more on Samhain see our blog on our current window display http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/news/samhainhalloween-window-display/
Death and October 31st (from the timeline in our Halloween exhibition)
“As the fallen leaves career before us – crumbling ruins of summer’s beautiful halls – we cannot help thinking of those who have perished – who have gone before us, blown forward to the grave by the icy blasts of Death.” Chamber’s Book of Days
October 31st has a distinctive mood. It is a time of change and transition as the summer definitively ends, the night darken around us and our thoughts become more sombre and turn to the winter ahead. A festival seems to have developed at this time of year to defy the dark, enjoy the good times and also to consider the changing seasons. Feasting took place in times of plenty and October seems to have been a time when animals were slaughtered.
There are records of a festival named Samhain which has been translated as “Summer’s End”. It was a festival that lasted three days which seems to have begun on the evening of the October 31st.
Painting above showing the Other World.
¨ involved eating, drunkenness, music and ritual games.
¨ was presided over by kings but everyone in the community was involved.
¨ was a time to renew the power of the king, to assemble the powerful and to do justice.
¨ was a new beginning: a time to remember the year that had passed by writing its history and also to renew contracts for the year ahead.
¨ was the time when all the burial mounds were open, when time was suspended and where there can be intimate contact with the Other World (fairies, ghosts, spirits) according to folk tales.
Paraphrased from Jean Markale, The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween
Key Date: 2nd century AD Coligny Calendar (photograph above)
The earliest reference known reference to a word Samhain can be found on a calendar in France. It is made of bronze and is broken into 73 pieces. It contains twelve months and one is named Samonois. The meaning of this word is debated with some suggestion it links with the Celtic word Samhain (meaning Summer’s End) but it may means Seed-fall. This would seem to suggest that it was in Autumn. However, it has been suggested that it was a summer month as Samon means summer in Gaulish.
This may seem like proof of the ancient origins of Samhain but it is far from conclusive. It is just a carved name and gives no further details about what happened at that time of year.
October 31st is celebrated in different ways in different parts of the British Isles. Here are some examples of places connected with death and October 31st.
Tlachtga or Hill of Ward, County Meath (photograph above courtesy of BoyneValleyTours.com)
It is said that an old fire on the altar was quenched on October 31st and the new fire ignited the next morning. Sacrifices (especially black sheep) were burnt in the new fire and omens were taken from the death struggles of the animals. Tlachtga is sometimes called the birthplace of Halloween. Many accounts and tales link October 31st with this ancient site.
Brú na Bóinne, County Meath (photograph of Brú na Bóinne above by Jean Houson.)
“…bright folk and fairy hosts…hold games and feast upon nuts each Samhain at the prehistoric mounds.” Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun
In Welsh October 31st is called Nos Calan Gaeaf which means “Night of the Winter Calends” or the night before the first day of winter. Halloween is one of the Teir Nos Ysbrydion or “Three Spirit Nights” when spirits roamed the world (the other two were May Eve and Midsummer’s Eve).
Common customs in Wales were to leave food out for dead and to listen at the crossroads to hear omens for the year ahead. North West Gwynedd “white cheese and oatmeal bread were eaten, and a piece of bread placed on an outside window in the hope of reciprocal kindness for those inside.”
Bonfires lit on All Souls’ Eve (November 1st) were said to be lit to light the way for souls out of Purgatory. They were called tindles or teanloes and Halloween is sometimes referred to as Teanlay in the North of England.
In the parish of Whalley, there is a field called Purgatory Field. At midnight on Halloween men assembled there and tossed forkfuls of burning straw into the air while praying for souls in Purgatory
“As late as a century ago in Catholic Ireland, it was commonly believed that the dead would return on All Hallow Eve or on the days thereafter. In Newmarket, County Cork, the “woman of the house” would light candles and leave spring water for the deceased visitors.” Nicholas Rogers, Halloween From Pagan Ritual to Party Night
So there you have it, our countdown of the seven days of Halloween.