Happy Halloween: Honoring the Celts

Happy Halloween! I hope the dark season finds you in good spirits, and a bit magical. On this special, sacred day, I thought it might be fun to explore the festival and the ancient worlds where it originated. So buckle in, and come along with me to pre-Roman Europe, where it all began.

Most people know that Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of “Samhain” (pronounced Sow-in). The Celts who formulated it were ancient European tribes. Most people associate the Celts with Ireland and Scotland, but, according to historical sources, the Celts actually had a much farther reach. Celtic tribes lived in various parts of Europe. In fact, they occupied parts of what is now France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bohemia. In the south, Celts occupied parts of Spain and Portugal, and Turkey in the Mid-East.

There are many of us with Celtic blood! If your bloodline includes European roots, you probably have a bit of Celt in you.

This might be a reason why Halloween resonates so strongly in some of us. For me, it is DEFINITELY a favorite holiday.  

The Celts had a belief in “the Otherworld”, although the concept itself is ill defined. It is difficult to know exactly what our Celtic ancestors believed, but we do know they had beliefs in gods and goddesses, faeries, ghosts and all sorts of other-worldly beings.

As the sun faded, and dark part of the year closed in around them, the Celts would have observed everything in nature dying. Thus, their thoughts might have centered upon loved ones they had lost. Just like any other people, it would have been important for them to honor their dead, whom the believed had passed on to the Otherworld.

October 31st marks a halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. To be fair, some historians have argued about the exact dates – most likely the Celts were not calling the month “October”, but nonetheless, they would have been able to scientifically observe the patterns of the sun, and eventually figure out this midpoint. The ancient Samhain festival would have taken place somewhere near the end of October and the beginning of November.

Writings from ancient Ireland tell us that Samhain was celebrated as a mandatory three day festival. Yes, mandatory! You HAD to attend the feasting and revelry. The village Chieftains were required to go around and check that all their people were making merry during this time.

It was believed that any individual who chose not to participate would be subject to the wrath of the gods. This could result in sickness, or even in death.

It is clear that our Celtic ancestors took the festival very seriously!

And some, of course, went overboard in the celebration. There are recorded incidents of people going on drinking binges for six or seven days. Human nature has always been human nature… Give us an inch, we’ll take a mile.

During all this feasting and celebrating, it was also believed that beings from the Otherworld would be popping in and passing by. The Celts thought that the natural world and the Otherworld were only separated by veils, and during certain times of the year, these veils became thin. Samhain was one of the times when the veils were extremely thin.

Beings from the Otherworld could include the faeries, the gods and goddesses, the goblins, the tricksters, the spirits of family members, and many more. Not wanting to be inhospitable, the Celts would often set a table, with food, for these other-worldly beings.

If the other-worldlies were given food to appease them, they would be less likely to play tricks and cause harm to humans. (And some of them could be very nasty. The Celtic faerie world was definitely not all sweetness and light. Faeries were known to kidnap, maim, blind and even kill people.)  This practice of leaving food to appease spirits is believed to be the origins of our Trick or Treating traditions today.

Some historians believe the Celts also originated the “dumb supper”. This is a ritual in which a family would set a place at their own table for the dearly departed. During dinner, everyone had to keep absolute silence – hence “dumb” – as a way to honor the dead.

Samhain was also a great time for divination. The Celts had a special relationship with apples. (So did many others, including Eve, the Devil, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs!) The simple apple has long been a fruit of fascination. During Samhain, when apples were harvested, they were also used to predict love relationships.

One practice involved the peeling of apples. Young girls tossed the apple peels on the ground, and the shape or letters the peel took was an indication as to whom her future beau would be.

Another divination ritual was bobbing for apples. Initials of young men were carved into the apples. They were then set in a bowl. The young ladies would take turns – with their hands tied being their backs – bobbing for the apple of the man they loved. If a girl was skillful enough to bite the desired apple in one try, the match was considered to be a favorable one. Two tries were not as good as one, but the match was still favored. However, if it took the maiden three tries or more to obtain the desired apple, her love match was doomed!

During Samhain, the Celts also were known to dress up and wear masks. Since it was believed evil spirits from the Otherworld were present, wearing a mask was a way to blend in and fool them. If you wore a mask and were disguised as an evil being, the chances were better that the evil beings themselves would leave you alone. You would be considered “one of them”.  This is believed to be the origins of our costume wearing traditions today.

So, now you might be wondering, how did Samhain change to Halloween? They are similar celebrations, but they are not exactly the same.

In the 1st century, most of Europe became occupied by Rome. The Romans themselves were pagans at this time, and Celtic pagan practices were probably still observed widely around Europe, with traditions blending. This lasted until around the 3rd century. It was then that Roman Emperor Constantine switched his faith to Christianity. It became required that Europeans convert as well. However, a lot of the pagan practices were essentially kept intact, but they were given different names.

In Christianity, it was still important to honor the dead. After all, many of them were saints, and had suffered greatly and been martyred for their beliefs! The Church declared November 1st as the official “All Saints’ Day” in which saints could be honored. November 2nd became “All Souls Day” in which all souls of the dearly departed could be honored, even those who had not been canonized as saints.

Needless, to say, October 31st fell on the evening before All Saints’ Day. Saints were known as “the hallowed” – wearing halos. So saints’ day was called “All Hallowed” and the night before was “All Hallowed Eve”. The slurring of the word is attributed to the beautiful Scottish brogue, which would have pronounced it more as “Halloween”. (Imagine Jamie Frazer saying it. You get the idea.)

Halloween itself went through many changes. It was never celebrated in the early American colonies, due to Puritans who simply would not have it! But over time, the European influence of our Celtic ancestors took hold. Well, to he honest, these influences came from our Celtic ancestors, and also from the indominable spirit of Capitalism! (What better way to make a buck? Candy sales bring in $ millions yearly to the US economy. Not to mention costumes and decorations.)

But regardless of our modern trends, it is important to respect and remember the traditions from whence they came.

Thanks for reading, and have a divine All Hallows Eve!

Witch of the Week: Geillis Duncan

The spooky season is upon us, and as part of my Halloween tributes, I thought it might be fun to start a new series on one of my favorite topics—Historical Witches! These women were sometimes notorious, sometimes popular, but most often obscure. All Historical Witches are dear to my heart. They suffered horribly and died as unique types of martyrs, usually forgotten along with their mangled bodies and the ashes of the pyres they were burned upon. These women deserve some recognition.

So, come along with me on a journey to 16th century Scotland! Here we will explore the life and death of one young witch who was the first victim in what became the most gruesome witch hunt in the history of the British Isles.

The Healing Touch

Geillis Duncan was a young girl from the small town of Tranet, East Lothian, near Edinburgh. She worked as a maidservant for one David Seton, the town bailiff. We don’t have a birthdate for Geillis, but historians believe that in 1590 she was probably about 16 years old. Geillis had never been formally educated. She was probably illiterate. But she seemed to possess a unique talent for healing. (This may have been a family trait or practice, as many uneducated women at the time worked as herbalists, midwives, and healers, their skills being handed down through generations.)

Geillis’ talent for healing might have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that her employer, David Seton, seemed to have an overactive imagination, and many suspicions about witchcraft. He apparently associated Geillis’ healing abilities with the supernatural.

In the meantime, other events in Scotland were occurring that were making people, and in particular King James, increasingly fearful of witches. It was these events that really made things bad for Geillis.

More about Geillis in a minute, but first it is necessary to understand the milieu she was immersed in, which led to her demise…

Double Double, Toil and Trouble

At this time, King James VI of Scotland was engaged to Princess Anne of Denmark. In September 1589, Anne attempted to sail to Scotland so the wedding could take place. However, storms on the sea were so severe that her journey was stopped short. Her ship, badly damaged, barely made it back to Denmark. The impatient king then decided that he would sail to Denmark himself, claim his bride, and bring her home.

James made it to Copenhagen in January 1590. His crossing had been equally perilous, with several storms at sea. When he got to Denmark, he found more than his bride…

As it turned out, witch hunts and the persecution of witches were in full swing in Europe at this time. A book titled Malleus Mallifcarum (The Hammer of Witches) had recently been published and had become popular across the continent. Malleus was the first book to declare, with a Papal Bull from the Pope, that witches were in league with the devil, and that they intended to hurt, maim, and kill others. Furthermore, witches could control the weather!

This, of course, led to the belief that the storms King James and Anne had faced at sea were most likely the creation of witches. And sure enough, in April 1590, two women in Copenhagen were arrested. They confessed to creating the storms in an effort to kill the monarchs.

When I say “confessed”, I really mean “tortured until they could bear it no more.” Needing desperately to end their own pain, people accused of witchcraft usually admitted guilt. This happened quite often. Torture of prisoners accused of witchcraft was perfectly legal in Denmark. Furthermore, it was expected that since witches worked in groups, there was never just one or two of them alone. Anyone accused was also tortured until they admitted to working with others, who were also witches. Hence, the two women arrested in Copenhagen eventually “revealed” other “members” of their group. Eventually seven women were put to death in Denmark for attempting to kill the king with storms.

Anne and James returned to Scotland, but the seeds of paranoia had been planted in the king. It has been said that it did not take much to rile up King James. Scotland is a dark, stormy and spooky place to begin with. It has a rich folklore of ghoulies, ghosties, and long-legged beasties. Besides that, when James was an infant, his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered. It was suspected that his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had participated in the murder. You can see how such events would make James a bit skittish. Apparently it would be quite easy to get James believing in witches, demons, werewolves and the like. He could easily be provoked to launch a full blown campaign against witches.

And that is exactly what he did, beginning with the ill-fated Geillis Duncan.

“Art Thou a Witch?”

In the autumn of 1590, David Seton began to notice that his maid Geillis, in addition to her strange healing powers, had a habit of sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. He came to the conclusion that this must mean Geillis was a witch. He confronted Geillis, yelling “Art thou a witch?” She claimed she had only been tending the garden. Seton became angry, accused her of lying, and proceeded to torture her to get the truth.

Torture was, apparently, within Seton’s legal rights as her employer. He was determined to get a confession out of her. When Geillis would not talk, Seton, with the help of some other men, employed a device called the Pilliwinks.

The Pilliwinks, also called thumbscrews, was a tool that consisted of two metal pieces, screwed together, like a vise. The victim’s hand was placed inside it, and the device was tightened in an effort to get the victim to confess. Fingers could be crushed, and those subject to the Pilliwinks often suffered permanent damage to their hands.

Still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another method of torture. He tied ropes around her head and, like the Pilliwinks, tightened them steadily with a vise. The rope torture could lead to fracturing of the skull and facial burns. Her head must have been throbbing, and no doubt the poor girl could not think straight. But still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another terrifying method. He made Geillis strip naked, and all the hair was shaved from her body. He then “examined” her, looking for “witch marks.” It was believed that when the devil took a woman and made her a witch, he would mark her, like a branding, as she would be forever in service to him. Of course, any normal person could have a number of marks upon their body, such as birth marks, bug bites, scars, etc. But, in this case, it was the finding of a so-called “devil’s mark” that finally broke Geillis.

“All I Have Done Is By Witchcraft”

Seton found a mark on Geillis’ neck. With this, the maid gave an elaborate confession, admitting “All I have done is by witchcraft.” She claimed she was, in fact, in league with the devil, and had given up her mortal soul.

After enduring the Pilliwinks and skull warp, no one is really sure why the finding of the mark made her confess. Some historians believe that Geillis may have been sneaking out at night to meet a lover. The devil’s mark may have been a hickey, and Geillis, embarrassed, may have made up the elaborate confession. Maybe she figured she was already defeated. In the hyper religious and pious world of 16th century Scotland, running out to meet a young lover in the middle of the night would have been her ruin. After undergoing so much torture, she probably just gave up. Historians also agree that this type of “examination” for “witch marks” was akin to rape. Geillis would have been terrified, confused, and utterly unable to defend herself.

At any rate, Geillis’ confession was notable because it was the first occasion of a Scottish witch claiming to have been in league with the devil. It would lead to a horrible, bleak time in Scotland, resulting in the unjust deaths of many people, both women and men.

In November 1590, Geillis was brought to prison in Edinburgh.

Once in prison, Geillis, most likely under pressure of more torture, admitted to being part of a coven. Her confession got more elaborate. She then claimed she had attended a meeting of witches, with over two hundred people present. The meeting was held at The Kirk of North Berwick on Halloween night. The devil had been present. The purpose of the meeting was to plot how to bring about the demise of King James VI, as instructed by the devil. She gave authorities the names of at least eight other women and men who were supposedly involved. And not only that! Geillis claimed that her coven was working with the witches in Denmark, and together they had conjured the sea storms!

A confession like this would have no doubt left James salivating. All his suspicions were coming true! James then insisted upon meeting with the witches in person and hearing their stories, so he could draw his own conclusions. Needless to say, he decided they were all guilty.

Could it be? Did the witches really have magical powers, and a plot to take over the kingdom of Scotland? Or was this the overactive imagination of superstitious king who had witnessed one too many conspiracies?

Young, Fair, and Damned

Sadly, Geillis remained in prison for another year, until it was decided she would be burned at the stake. She was only about eighteen years old.

On the day of her execution, Geillis tried to retract her accusations, claiming that David Seton had forced her to confession with his extreme torture methods. But at that point, no one paid attention to her.  She was executed on 4 December 1591 at Castlehill, Edinburgh. 

The other accused women, once arrested, revealed more names, and in total, over one hundred people were arrested in what came to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

All of these women had unique stories, which I will save for another installment in my Witch of the Week series.

But for now, let’s have a moment of silence to honor Geillis. A teenager. A maidservant. A girl with no money or resources. A girl whose only “crime” was having a natural gift for healing, and possibly a weakness for a boy who may have been her lover.

What do you think of Geillis Duncan? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Death-day, Edgar Allan Poe

Today we celebrate the Death-day of one of my favorite authors, that Master of the Macabre himself, Edgar Allan Poe!

He lived a life that was almost as horrific as the stories he penned.

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”

Bleak Beginnings

Edgar Allan Poe was born in a Boston boarding house on January 19, 1809. His parents were Shakespearian actors, performing in a production of King Lear. Edgar was the second of three children, with an older brother Henry and a little sister, Rosalie. His father, David Poe, a notorious alcoholic, abandoned the family in 1810 when Edgar was just one year old. The very next year his mother, Eliza, died of tuberculosis. Little Edgar was then taken in by his godfather, a wealthy Virginia merchant named John Allan, and his wife Frances. 

Although his adoptive parents were rich, life did not go well for Edgar. He did not get along well with his foster father, and was sent away to boarding school. John Allan also saw fit to enroll Edgar at West Point, a military school. Edgar did not fare well there, and was eventually thrown out.

A Teenage Bride

Having been officially abandoned by his foster father, Poe moved to Baltimore and reunited with some of his blood kin. He lived with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, her daughter Virginia (Poe’s first cousin), his brother Henry, and his invalid grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.

Edgar fell in love with his young cousin, Virginia. On May 16, 1836 they were married. She was thirteen years old, and he was twenty-seven.

Before you balk and get grossed out, keep in mind that the vast age difference would have not been so weird back then as it is today. The concept of teenager only became a “thing” in around the 1950s. Throughout most of the history of humanity, seven years old was actually considered an adult. (Remember practices like child labor. It wasn’t right, but humans did it.) Likewise, the idea of first cousins marrying was not unheard of, and it fact considered quite normal. (Queen Victoria married her first cousin Albert, for example.) Still, a thirteen year old bride would have raised a few eyebrows, and Virginia lied about her age in the registry, claiming to be twenty-one.

Despite all this, Edgar and Virginia appeared to be very much in love. She called him “Eddy” and he called her “Sissy”. According to accounts of friends, the couple did not share a bed until Virginia turned sixteen. His years with his young wife were perhaps the happiest Edgar Allan Poe had even known.

Poe the Poet

Edgar then began working in various writing jobs, including assistant editor for the Southern Literary Messenger and contributing author for the Baltimore Saturday Visitor.

Poe published his first novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket  in 1838. That same year he became assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He published numerous articles, stories, and reviews, enhancing his reputation as a critic. Also in 1839, the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in two volumes.

He wrote some of the first literary criticisms, as well as some of the first short stories. He is considered the inventor of crime novels and detective stories. Some of his most famous works include: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

He published The Raven in 1842, and it became an overnight success.

Trouble and heartache, however, were never far behind.

Poe’s wife Virginia became ill with tuberculosis in around 1842. She spent a few sickly years, with Edgar devoutly caring for her, until she finally passed away in 1847.

It was said that after Virginia’s death, Edgar was never quite the same. His behavior became increasingly erratic and unstable. He tried to court other women but had difficulty sustaining romantic relationships. He, himself, would suffer the fate of death not too long after, in 1849.

A Long, Strange Trip

Poe’s death itself has always been shrouded in mystery.

He had moved to New York, but in the fall of 1849 he went to Richmond, Virginia where he visited a woman named Elmira Royster, to whom he became engaged. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849 and was heading back to New York. But he never made it home.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found “delirious” on the streets of Baltimore outside  a pub called Ryan’s Tavern. He was “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker, a printer, who found him.

Walker sent a letter requesting help from an acquaintance of Poe, one Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass. His letter reads as follows:

“Dear Sir—There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance. Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”

Snodgrass’s first-hand account describes Poe’s appearance as “repulsive”, with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant” eyes. His clothing, Snodgrass said, which included a dirty shirt but no vest and unpolished shoes, was worn and did not fit well.

Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was Poe’s attending physician, gives his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance that day: “a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat”.

Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in this condition. It was believed the clothes he was wearing were not his own, as wearing shabby clothes was out of character for the usually well dressed Poe. (While promoting The Raven, Poe was known to show up at readings wearing a black cape, a top hat, and other elegant clothing.)

He was taken to the Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 at 5:00 in the morning. The true cause of his death is still unknown. Some have speculated he may have had a brain tumor, diabetes, an enzyme deficiency, syphilis,  apoplexy, delirium tremens, or epilepsy. Still other speculate his death may have actually been a suicide due to depression. (One year previous, Poe nearly died from an overdose of laudanum,  which at the time was easily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer.)

Or perhaps he simply reunited with his one true love, Virginia. (That is what I, personally, tend to believe.)

Some sources say that Poe’s final words were “Lord help my poor soul”. Suspiciously, all medical records have been lost, including his death certificate.

But he leaves behind an amazing legacy — a body of literature that includes Gothic tales, dark romanticism and phantasmagorical poetry. The man who spent his life shrouded in death now lives on as a never-out-of-print horror icon.

Happy Death-day, Edgar!