By R. B. SPAN
The thirty-first of October, the day preceding All Saints’ Day, is notable for the strange superstitions connected with it, and which are as old as the history of this country. In ancient Ireland All Hallows Eve was a great feast day, as it was amongst the Celts everywhere. On this day a new fire used to be kindled every year, and from this sacred flame all the fires of Ireland were re-kindled.
The ancient Celts took Samhain, or All Souls’ Day, as the first day of their year, and celebrated it much as we now celebrate New Year’s Day.
The other great feast day of the Celts was Beltane, or May Day, which ushered in summer. As a season of omens and auguries Hallowe’en seems to have far surpassed Beltane in the imagination of the Celts, and it was the custom of this genial, warm-hearted race to gather together on Hallowe’en for the purpose of ascertaining their destiny, especially their fortune in the coming year just begun. Not only among the Celts, but throughout Europe, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter was regarded as the time when the spirits of the departed revisited their old homes and joined in the family gatherings around the fire, and partook of the good cheer provided in parlour and kitchen by their affectionate kinsfolk. But it is not only the souls of the departed who ” revisit the pale glimpses of the moon,” but witches speed by on errands of mischief, fairies make their presence manifest, and hobgoblins of all sorts roam freely about. In the Northern Tales of Scotland there is a saying, which, translated from the Gaelic, runs:
Hallowe’en will come, will come ;
Witchcraft will be set agoing ;
Fairies will be at full speed,
Running free in every pass.
Avoid the road, children, children!
On that night in Ireland all the fairy hills are thrown wide open and the fairies swarm forth, and to the man who is bold enough to approach them they will show the treasures of gold, etc., hidden in these green hills. The cavern of Cruachan in Connaught, known as the “Hell Gate of Ireland ” is then opened, and mischievous spirits come forth and roam the country-side, playing pranks on the farmers and peasantry.
The Scotch Highlanders have a special name, Samhanach (derived from Samhain), for the bogies and imps of mischief which go about then molesting all who come in their way.
In Wales, Hallowe’en was the weird night of the year, the chief of the Teir Nos Ysbrydion, or Three Spirit Nights, when the wind, “blowing over the feet of corpses,” brought omens of death in eerie sighs, to those doomed to “shuffle off this mortal coil” within the year.
It was not so long ago that the people of Wales in some districts used to congregate in churches on Hallowe’en and read their fate from the flame of the candle which each of them held; they also heard the names or saw the coffins of the parishioners who would die within the year. In the Highlands of Scotland it was believed that if any one took a three-legged stool and sat on it where three roads met whilst the clock was striking midnight, a voice from the Unseen would tell him the names of those in his neighbourhood who would die within twelve months. It used to be (and may be still) the custom in Scotland for the young people gathered together in one of the houses to resort to various games and forms of divination for the purpose of ascertaining their futures—principally as regards chances of matrimony—such as, would they marry or not, was the marriage to occur that year or never, who would marry first, and descriptions of the future spouse, and so on, when the answers to the numerous queries would furnish a vast amount of entertainment. These practices were not confined to the Highlands, but the Lowlanders of Saxon descent also believed in and followed them—having inherited them from the Celts, the original owners of the country.
Most of the forms of divination are very quaint: the following are a few of the best known instances. A girl desirous of divining her future husband takes an apple and stands with it in front of a looking glass. She slices the apple and sticks each slice on the point of a knife and holds it over her left shoulder while looking in the glass and combing her hair. The spectre of the future husband then appears in the mirror, and stretching out his hand, takes the slices of apple over her shoulder. Some say that the number of slices should be nine, and that the first eight should be eaten and the ninth thrown over the shoulder, and also that at each slice the diviner should say, ” In the name of the Father and the Son.”
Another curious practice is to take an egg, prick it with a pin, and let the white drop into a glass of water; take some of this in your mouth and go for a walk. The first name you hear will be that of your future husband or wife. One old woman in Perthshire stated she tried this when a girl, and she heard the name Archibald, and this proved to be the name of the man she married. In the Hebrides, a salt cake called Bonnach Salainn is eaten at Hallowe’en to induce dreams which will reveal the future. It is made of common meal with a good deal of salt. After eating it you must not drink water or utter a word, or you spoil the charm. It is equally efficacious to eat a salt herring, bones and all, in three bites, provided no water is drunk and no word spoken afterwards. Amongst the farmers and country people a favourite method of divination is to take a winnowing- basket, or wecht, as the Lowland Scotch term it, and go through the action of winnowing corn. After doing this three times the apparition of your future husband or wife will pass through the barn, coming in at one door and passing out at the other. Amongst the young people gathered at the fireside it is often the custom to burn nuts to divine marriage prospects, and much fun is obtained from the pastime. Two nuts representing a lad and a lass who are obviously “in love” are placed side by side in the fire. If they burn quietly together the pair will become man and wife, and from the length of time they bum and the brightness of the flame one may judge of the length and happiness of the married life, but if the nuts jump away from each other then there will be no marriage, and the blame rests with the person whose nut has started away.
In North Wales it was the custom for every family to make a great bonfire, called Cod Coeth, on the most conspicuous spot near the house, and when the fire had died down, for each person to throw into the embers a white stone (marked so as to be identified). They then said their prayers and retired. Early next morning they sought their stones amid the ashes, and if any were missing it was believed that the persons who threw them would die within the year.
In Scotland (as in Ireland and Wales) Hallowe’en was for centuries celebrated by great bonfires on every hill and peak, and the whole country was brilliantly illuminated, presenting a most picturesque scene, with the flames reflected in the dark Highland lochs, and penetrating the deep craggy ravines. These fires were especially numerous in the Perthshire Highlands, and the custom was continued to the first half of the nineteenth century. They were observed around Loch Tay as late as the year 1860, and for several hours both sides of the loch were illuminated as far as eye could see. In Ireland the Hallowe’en fires would seem to have died out earlier, but the divination still survives.
General Vallancey states that on Hallowe’en or the Vigil of Samain, the peasants assemble with sticks and clubs and go from house to house collecting money, bread, butter, eggs, etc., for the feast in the name of St. Colombkill. Every house abounds in the best victuals they can obtain, and apples and nuts are largely devoured. Nuts are burnt, and from the ashes strange things are foretold; hemp seed is sown by the maidens, who believe that if they look back they will see the wraith of their future spouse; they also hang a smock before the fire on the close of the feast and sit up all night concealed in a comer of the room, convinced that his apparition will come and turn the smock ; another method is to throw a ball of yam out of the window and wind it on the reel within, believing that if they repeat the Pater Noster backwards, and look at the ball of yam without, they will see his sith or wraith; they dip for apples in a tub of water and try to bring one up in the mouth; they suspend a cord with a cross-stick with apples at one point and lighted candles at the other, and endeavour to catch the apple, while in circular motion, in the mouth. These, and many other superstitions (the relicts of Druidism), will never be eradicated whilst the name of Samain exists. (Hibernian Folk Lore, Charles Vallancey.)
In County Roscommon, a cake is made in nearly every house, and a ring, a coin, a sloe, and a chip of wood put into it. The person who obtains the ring will be married first, the coin predicts riches for its finder, the sloe longevity, and the chip of wood an early death. It is considered that the fairies blight the sloes on the hedges at Hallowe’en so that the sloe in the cake will be the last of the year. The colleens take nine grains of oats in their mouths, and going out without speaking, walk about till they hear a man’s name pronounced, and that will be the name of their future husband.
In the Isle of Man, Hallowe’en used to be celebrated by the kindling of fires, and by various ceremonies for the prevention of the baneful influence of witches and the mischievous pranks of fairies and elves. Here, as in Scotland, forms of divination are practised. As an instance, the housewife fills a thimble full of salt for each member of the family and empties it out in little piles on a plate and left there during the night. Next morning the piles are examined, and if any of them have fallen down, he or she whom it represents will die before next Hallowe’en. The women also carefully sweep out the ashes from under the fireplace and flatten them down neatly on the open hearth. If, the next morning, a foot print is found turned towards the door it signifies a death, but if turned in the opposite direction a marriage is predicted. In Lancashire, also, the fires of Hallowe’en were lighted up to the middle of the nineteenth century, and similar forms of divination practised as in Scotland and Ireland; and even to-day the Lancashire maiden strews the ashes which are to take the shape of one or more letters of her future husband’s name and throws hemp seed over her shoulder and glances around fearfully to see who is following her. At one time the Lancashire witches used to assemble from all parts of the country at Malkin Tower, an ancient and ruined building in the Forest of Pendle, and there they planned evil and mischief, and woe betide those who were out on the fells at night and crossed their path. It was possible, however, to keep them at bay by carrying a light of some kind. The witches would try to extinguish the light, and if they succeeded, so much the worse for the person, but if the flame burned steadily till the clocks struck midnight they could do no harm. Some people performed the ceremony by deputy, and parties went from house to house in the evening collecting candles, one from each inmate, and offering their services to leet the witches. This custom was practised at Longridge Fell in the early part of the nineteenth century. Northumberland was the only other part of England where Hallowe’en was observed and its quaint customs adhered to to any extent, though in all parts of the Kingdom (and in France also) it has always been believed (and is still) that the Unseen World is closer to this mundane sphere on October 31 than at any other time.
The Occult Review October 1916: p. 213-17
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is always pleasant to look at “superstition” on a Friday the Thirteenth, a day so fraught with fear. We have previously looked at charms to prevent bad luck and have been privy to the secrets of the contrarian “Thirteen Club.” We have also encountered some of these quaint (and sometimes terrifying) old beliefs before in the story of a young woman who wanted to host a completely “authentic” Hallowe’en party called “Nut Crack Night.”
Mrs Daffodil is amused at how the superstitions above toggle between “sex” and “death,” two of the human race’s most pressing concerns. The earlier ‘teens had seen a revival of folk-singing, Morris dancing, May Queens, and Corn Dollies. As the world hovered on the edge of War, the old ways evoked some mythical Golden Era of Peace and Plenty.
Yet pestilence, inter-tribal warfare, witches, and midnight horrors—like the poor—are with us always. This collection of “ancient” rites was published during the Great War, when no end to the bloodshed seemed possible. That year there must have been many sad visions of coffins and many white stones missing from the bonfires.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.