Look out of the window, if you happen to live above the Tropic of Cancer you might observe exquisiteness of autumn´s colors. This radiant beauty does not hide the facts that nature is dying and amount of sunshine is shortening day by day. This is naturally the time of harvest festivals, but after those celebrations it is time to pay respect to ones ancestors. Festivals of the dead are held around the world usually between August and November. Inca´s even went so far that they named one moth (Ayamarca / Novemeber) as Festival of the Dead. Many of those festivals last 3 days, are held at end of October and beginning of November. My guess is that the most famous of them today, in the Western world, is Halloween due to its place in popular culture of USA. Many people celebrate it, and other festivals in ignorance of the origins of those festivities. I think people ought to know the roots and reasons behind those holidays (btw. etymology of holiday: in Old English haligdægmeaning holy day, religious festival and day of recreation) before opening the first beer and suiting up in a disguise.
All who have studied history know how believes, values and festivals of indigenous people have been destroyed or transformed by invaders who were technologically more advanced. Old habits die hard and this was something the early Christian missionaries acknowledged, thus they incorporated their own festivals to the same dates when pagans (in Latin: the people who lived in the countryside) celebrated their most significant religious festivals. Ironically, this attempt to vanquish all connections to the heretic believes of the past guaranteed that they survived to this day. Take Halloween for example, it is a combination of Roman and Celtic feasts to honor the dead dating back thousands of years. Lemuria was a festival when ancient Romans performed rituals to banish the malicious and terrible ghosts of the dead from their home. In one of the traditions of Lemuria, head of the household woke up at midnight, walked around the house barefooted while throwing black beans over his shoulder and repeating following mantra nine times “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine”, in hope to exorcise those spirits. In the beginning of 7th century the main day of Lemuria, May 13st, was replaced by All Saint´s Day or All Hallow´s Day. This new Christian festival was later moved to replace Samhain which was important festival to Celtic people who inhabited most of central Europe before Roman armies conquered them. The name of Halloween (celebrated always on 31st of October) evolved over time from All Hallow´s Day which was placed to November 1st, first to Hallow Evening, later to Hallowe´en and from that to Halloween. So what is Samhain and how did the Celts celebrate it?
Samhain also known as Samhainn, Sauin or Samain could be translated as end of summer or a season. This was a festival when time and space were pliable, ending and beginning of eternal cycle, it marked the end of harvest and beginning of the darker half of the year. It lasted from 31st of October to 1st of November and is known also as the Celtic New Year. Since the harsh, terrifying and dark winter was coming this marked time for beginning of preparations, time to stock the grain supplies, move cattle closer to home and decide which animals to slaughter. During Samhain the dead were able to wander in the world of the living, it was believed that souls of those persons who have died during the past year travelled to the otherworld at this time. Also at that time spirits, fairies, daemons, ghosts and other supernatural beings were able to come in to this dimension. People lit huge bonfires to honor and guide the dead, and keep them away. People also disguised as supernatural beings to fool those ghosts and daemons shambling around, this can be now seen in modern customs of Halloween. Other customs of Samhain have survived to this day in modified forms, these are handing out of food and drinks and carving of Jack-o’-lanterns.
We humans have lived under the rules of nature most of our time on this planet, we still do but it is not so obvious since in 2008, for the first time in human history, there were as many people living in urban areas as there were in rural areas. This development cuts us off from observing firsthand the turning of Wheel of the Year, nevertheless, as one can observe from the picture we still celebrate most of those old pagan festivals in one way or the other. These celebrations seem to be rooted deep in our collective psyche, this is something the Catholic Church noticed back in 9th century and decided to add one more holiday to this period on 2nd of November, called All Souls Day to celebrate all common people who passed away during the past year. This action did not help and the old customs prevailed in new forms. Trick-or-treating is actually quite new phenomenon dating back approximately 80 years, but it is connected to Samhain traditions where food and drinks where offered to appease the supernatural beings roaming around and to English Middle age custom of souling where children and poor people went from door to door on All Saints Day/All Souls Day singing and praying for the dead. For that they would receive soul cakes and when those were eaten it would help to free souls from Purgatory.
Jack-o´-lanterns of today look something like this one, the traditional ones however were carved into turnips instead of pumpkins. Terrifying faces were carved on these vegetables and they were placed in front of the door on All Hallow´s Eve to keep malevolent spirits away, turnips were placed by pumpkins after Irish immigrants arrived to USA and notices they were easier to acquire and carve. According to folklore, there once lived a mythical man in Ireland called Stingy Jack also known as Drunk Jack or Jack the Smith. Jack was a known thief, deceiver and manipulator, his notoriety became known even to the devil and he decided to see if it was true. Jack being drunk but cunning managed to fool the devil and make a deal with him, it was agreed that devil would not be able to collect Jack´s soul when he dies. After some years of bench drinking and malicious behavior he died and was denied access to heaven due to his behavior, he went to gates of hell but devil abided by his deal and thus Jack was doomed to walk between dimensions, forever. Devil being a good champ tossed embers of hell to Jack, which he placed inside a carved turnip. Now Jack could see where to wander, with the fires of hell lighting his way in this dark netherworld.
Another intriguing mix of cultures, religions and coincidences of history is the Mexican festival of death called El Dia de Los Muertos. It is a mix of Catholicism, Samhain and indigenous believes of that region. Aztecs, Incas and other civilizations have been recorded to celebrate the dead for 2500-3000 years before the arrival of Spanish butcheries. Skulls were important part of those celebrations, they were generally kept as signs of trophies and displayed during various rituals symbolizing death and rebirth. During November Incas would take their dead kings out of their crypts, put close on them, carry them through the city, sing and dance in their company, burn foods and drinks to feed them and finally the dead kings would advise the living ones in important decisions. Apparently those bones were not able to warn Incas from the arrival of white death. When the Spanish introduced Christianity to these indigenous people, picture of a guy nailed to a cross and talk of martyrdom was not so far from their own behavior of human sacrifice, thus the synthesis of these believes eventually formed into El Dia de Los Muertos. It is celebrated on All Saint´s Day and All Souls Day, skeletons and skulls are still important part of those festivities, unfortunately, bones of the dead are no longer dug out from graves. Mexicans go to cemeteries and build a private altar to the dead, graves are cleaned and decorated, ofrendas (offerings) such as flowers, foods and drinks are placed to these altars and graves. Again the old customs live on in a new form, ignoring suffocating grip of more dominant –isms. The dead are remembered around the world in various ways, next we will look at these festivals.
Nearly everywhere people celebrate birthdays and calendars begin from birth of some dude but many Asian cultures (also Russian, Jewish and Iranian) festivities are organized on the day when a person died. These customs seem to originate from the worship of ancestors and paying respect to the death has taken many forms. November in Finnish is Marraskuu, kuu means the Moon and marras could be translated as the death. Name of this month of death originates from the simple fact that last plants of the year are dying and first snow is on its way. One can deduct from this that harvest festival had to be arranged in the beginning of autumn, name of this festival is Kekri and it was held around 29th of September. Eating, drinking, dancing, singing and playing were part of the festivities, special food of that time was lamb and all the dead family members were invited to dine with the living. Other custom was to roam village to village dressed up as a goat which were herded by man dressed up as a woman (called Kylän Kaisa), part of this lively parade was Goddess of Abundance who had a chest full of nipples.
Japanese have a more peaceful way to honor their dead and this Buddhist-Confucian mix of traditions is called Obon. As with Halloween, also during Obon the souls of departed return to the dimension of living at this time, however they came to visit the living relatives in peace. Again food is offered to ancestors, placed on altars in temples and homes. Obon is also known as The Festival of Lanterns, lanterns with candles inside were hanged outside homes and others set floating to rivers or sea. These lanterns helped the spirits of ancestors to find their way back to world of the dead. One more example from West Africa, to cover traditions from all of the continents, is Egungun. This spirit is part of Yoruba people´s pantheon, it represents eventual end of all living beings and is thought as ancestral collective. During a festival known as Odun Egungun, through drumming, dancing and singing Egungun is summoned to visit the living, masqueraded priests are believed to be possessed by the spirits of ancestors. Egungun spiritually cleans the community, houses and people by revealing the virtuous and wicked behavior of the community, later people possessed by Egungun give messages, warnings and blessings to the spectators. Unifying features around the globe in these festivals to honor the dead seems to be offerings of food and visit of the ancestors to world of the living, yet today it seems we have forgotten our past.
Death is the great equalizer. No matter how wealthy or poor you are, there is no escape from the scythe of nature, nonchalantly harvesting the sick, old and weak. Living here in the north, observing how cold and darkness devour all living things, makes it easy to imagine how our ancestors perceived autumn as the season of death. Sun, light, life, all reducing and finally even the dead were able to wander back to land of the living, during rainy, windy and dark fall nights. In the end everything you see, this text, computer screen or your mother, is light reflecting to back of your brain. There is no better symbol for death than darkness and cold.
Death today is something hidden to a quiet back room of a hospital or a dark corner of an elderly home, this normal part of a life cycle has transformed into a clandestine, clinical death, observed mostly by medical professionals. We should stare death in the face like Captain Kirk, deal with it and embrace life through that experience. It is quite normal for people living here in the shielded safety of Western civilization to avoid death in real life, even death of another animal is something you just don´t witness in everyday life. Though in movies death is shown to all the gory details and evening news gormandize in the orgy of suffering and death by bringing war and catastrophes from far away to your living room. Facing death of another human in real life is considered to be something awful by most people when it should be seen as natural, even poetic experience which would help one to accept the inevitable. One should also kill or at least observe butchering of an animal if one eats meat. I would like to kill the animals I eat so I could better appreciate the life of that vacuum packaged piece of meat wrapped in plastic sitting in my fridge. It is this fucking clinging on things, even life itself, that causes so much suffering in this ever growing capitalistic and materialistic world full of brainless worker sheep, who are too afraid, lazy or dumb to even think of the fundamental elements and questions of life. This is what awaits you in one way or the other, what are doing with your life?
Getting ready for Halloween? Before you start celebrating, think about abovementioned reasons behind this holiday. Although these festivals were sheared with myths and supernatural entities, the idea behind all of it is still valid, respect of death, life and ancestors. Celebration customs transform in the flow of time and we don´t need to do things as they were done thousands of years ago, however knowing the history and meaning behind the festivals is something all of us should know. All it takes is a little bit of time and use of one’s mental faculties. One last tip for those parents afraid of poison in the candy your children collected while trick-or-treating. There is an urban legend about of razors inside caramel apples and poisoned candy, and it is true. I think it tells a lot about human nature that nearly in all of these rare cases the razors, cyanide or occasional heroin implanted to the candy was done by the parents or close relative of those, now dead children. Yet is this culture of fear where people are afraid of their neighbors and all the other things force-fed by the mass media propaganda, people fail to use logic and reason to critically think about source and the statistical probability of these incidents. While one is suiting up to a slutty nurse costume or smothering one´s face with fake blood and adding vampire teethes, one could pause for some time to honor the achievements of ancestors and learn to venerate life through death.