Opinion: When the dead walk the earth

Friday 28 October 2022

Dr Jonathan Tracy and Dr Amy Whitehead write about the rituals and practices surrounding Hallowe’en.

Dr Jonathan Tracy and Dr Amy Whitehead.

At Hallowe’en, the supernatural world is traditionally believed to break into our own, so that ghosts, goblins, and other creatures of the night (or at least trick-or-treaters costumed as such) can interact with living humans. Indeed, many cultures throughout history have embraced annual rituals designed to honour, propitiate, and/or communicate with supernatural beings, especially the ‘dead’ - who for some are still living either among us, or on the thinly partitioned ‘other side’, as ancestors.

In ancient Rome, one such festival was the Parentalia (February 13-21), as described by the poet Ovid. Named for the Latin parens, ‘parent’ or ‘ancestor’, this rite paid honour and tribute to the hungry spirits of departed ancestors, who were believed to walk the earth for the festival’s duration. To quote Ovid, ‘Now the insubstantial souls and buried dead wander around; now the ghost is nourished by the serving of food.’ Prescribed offerings included floral wreaths, violet petals, grains of wheat and salt, and bread soaked in wine, to be placed in the middle of a road and accompanied with suitable prayers. As Ovid puts it, ‘ghosts ask for little,’ but if their modest requirements were foolishly neglected by the living, the slighted ‘ancestors’ could wreak dreadful vengeance, causing mass deaths and terrorizing the survivors with mass hauntings: ‘ancestral souls came forth from the tombs and moaned in the hours of silent night, and hideous ghosts, a shadowy throng, howled about the city streets and wide fields.’

In ancient Rome as today, however, there were rationalist sceptics and scoffers who denied the reality of ghosts, e.g. the poet Lucretius, author of a scientific-philosophical epic On the Nature of the Universe. According to Lucretius (and the Epicurean philosophy that he championed), human consciousness, memory, personality, etc. – the distinct human ‘I’ – is not some eternal, incorporeal spirit but rather the by-product of physical forces operating on tiny material particles (atoms) inside the human body. Thus, when the body dies, the soul dies too, with its component atoms dispersed to the four winds. And if no existence is possible for the human person after death, all apparent ghost sightings must be mere hallucinations or optical illusions.

Lucretius would therefore have attached zero practical value to the propitiatory rituals of the Parentalia. And he would presumably dismiss Hallowe’en as Scrooge does Christmas, with a hearty ‘Bah! Humbug!’

Fast forward to contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Australia, the US, and continental Europe, and one can find thriving, popular and growing sets of contemporary Pagan rituals and practices that take the festival of Hallowe’en (aka All Hallows Eve, or the Gaelic Samhain) very seriously.

They do not dress up as ghosts, goblins, horror-movie-inspired terrors, and witches with pointed hats and equally pointed noses. Contemporary Pagans and Witches (belonging to a range of ‘earth traditions’ including Wiccans, Heathens, Animists, Druids and those who practise the Witches’ Craft) treat Hallowe’en with reverence and respect. For them, Hallowe’en not only signals the end of the harvest season; it is when the darkest part of the year is celebrated and ushered in. Consequently, it is the one night of the year when the veil that usually separates our world from the ‘other’ is exposed as rather thin and porous. This porousness that accompanies the night of Samhain means that for contemporary Pagans of most descriptions, Hallowe’en is meant for honouring, indeed communicating with, and even sometimes being allowed a glimpse of, those who have gone before. In other words, it isn’t a night focussed on ghouls and goblins, but on our ancestors - our dearly departed.

Skeleton carrying pitchers, mosaic from Pompeii; now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples).

In terms of the seasonally oriented Pagan ritual year, Hallowe’en is one of the more prominent feast days. Samhain is an autumnal Pagan festival and it signals a time of darkness, death and dying before renewal and the return of the light in Spring and Summer. In the Southern Hemisphere, Hallowe’en is imported commercially to fall on the 31st of October. However, Samhain for most Pagans in Aotearoa New Zealand falls at the end of April. Its altars feature seasonal fruits and vegetables (apples, acorns and pumpkins), images of loved ones who have passed over, candles, and items of personal or sentimental value. These things are functional. Much like devotionals on Catholic altars, they both create tangible links to the season and serve as invitations to the loved ones being honoured. Pagans choose natural and created sites of significance as places from which to best celebrate this special night. It could be a clearing in a woodland or a sea cave. If in Europe, neolithic stone circles, dolmens, or ancient burial chambers are appropriate sites for hosting wandering spirits. Similar to the ancient Romans practices of the Parentalia, utterances, songs, material objects and ritual gestures are used to welcome the dead to walk among them; their names are called out and honoured by those who mourn their passing.

So if you meet a ghost this Hallowe’en, do as the Romans did: either (a) try to bribe it with a tasty treat and some pretty flowers, or else (b) try to prove it doesn’t exist. But be warned! If ghosts are real, they probably get dangerously annoyed with people who choose option (b). And remember, Witches really do walk among us, and they’re not always wearing pointy hats.

Written by Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology Dr Amy Whitehead, and Lecturer in Classical Studies Dr Jonathan Tracy.

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