Make place for mystery and awake to the magic


At last the bewitching hour has arrived: all hallows Eve. Some of us will be accompanying little goblins on their appointed rounds, our love care, and concern providing their protection during the dark of night. Halloweens comes down to us from the pre-Christmas Celtic festival of Samhain, held October 31, the last autumn night before the cold and bleakness winter. 

The name Halloween comes from the 1500’s, and is a variation on “All-Hallows-Even”, the night before All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day.  As with many things, the Catholic Church had a holiday to coincide with a pagan celebration.  To the Catholic’s credit, however, the Feast of All Saints was declared by Pope Gregory III (in the 700’s) and is talked about as early as 700 or 701.  By 835 under the guidance of Louis the Pius, the festival actually became a reality, and November 1 is the reported date of the Feast of All Saints, though some scholar contend that the original Feast of All Saints took place in April, and that the church changed it to coincide with the festival of Samhain to try to win the Celts over to Catholicism.


Back in Celtic times, the Celtic festival of Samhain is mentioned in texts as old as the 10th century  and the celebrators of Samhain would wear costumes in order to treat the roaming spirits of the dead.  It was thought that if you could trick the spirit, the spirit would refrain from bothering you about pesky things like tributes and respect.  On a night that the “veil” between the spirit world and the natural world was so thin, it’s best to pretend to be someone else.  “Look busy,” if you will.  In the early 20th century, Americans started wearing costumes for Halloween, which was celebrated but not with the Celtic beliefs in mind (at least, not for everybody).  In the 1950’s, trick-or treating became all the rage in the United States (can you believe it was that late?) but it actually started out in Great Britain and Ireland as something called “Souling,” As far back as the Middle Ages, poor children would go door to door collecting handouts in return for their prayers for the dead.  They were called “guisers.” Now it’s just about looking as scary or slutty as possible.  Ah, progress.

On this night-considered Celtic New Year-the druids believe that the super natural world drew closer to the physical world, so human beings were more susceptible to the powered influence of the unseen. Magic spells could be cast, divination was more revealing, and dreams held special significations. I still believe this. Being human, I believe Halloween is the perfect reminder that Magic flows through us, mystery infuses every encounter of every day.


Angry bats, ‘Northumberland Bestiary’, London ca. 1250-1260 (LA, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. 100, fol. 37r)

Bats are nocturnal creatures, so it’s natural that a celebration about the end of the light seasons and the beginning of the dark ones would incorporate them.  Additionally, in the old days Halloween meant big bonfires, which draw mosquitoes and moths, which would in turn draw bats, so bats were likely a common sight during the early Samhain festivals and later Halloween celebrations.  Those rational explanations aside, bats are sort of creepy, and certain groups thought that the little flying rodents were able to communicate with the dead.  How they would know is uncertain, considering the bats can’t communicate with US, but whatever.  Also, once vampire legends made their way into Halloween folklore, the position of the bat was set – since it was thought that vampires could transform into bats.  PLUS, witch hunters were pretty sure that witches could transform into creepy creatures like black cats, bats, and spiders, so there’s that, AND there are vampire bats who only feed on blood.  All those things put together might make bats the most Halloweeny things ever.


O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that live that at rest in his possessions (Sirach 41:1) Bible (German translation), Regensburg ca. 1472 (Universitätsbibliothek Augsburg, Oettingen-Wallersteinsche Bibliothek, Cod.I.3.2.IV, fol. 116r)

Back to that whole “night where the line is blurred between the living and the dead thing,” skeletons are an oft-seen Halloween symbol for that reason.  The skull, in particular, is a symbol used by many different cultures to represent either the brevity of human mortality, the fear of death, or danger that can result in death.  Think about the Jolly Roger symbol on pirate ships – it was there to threaten other ships into surrendering without a fight.  In other religions, skulls feature on the necklace of Hindu goddess Kali, over the head of Tama, Buddhist Lord of Death, and the list goes on.  The Druids and the Celts believed that the skull was the “psychic seat” of the human soul.  All in all, skulls and skeletons are associated with Halloween because they represent the end of the physical part of life, something that is connected to Halloween both because of the death of the “light” seasons and because of the perceived connection to the spirit realm.


Initial ‘D’ book of hours, Italy, ca. 1480 (British Library, Yates Thompson 7, fol. 174r)


Tomorrow (31 st November) by candlelight or by light of the full moon in your backyard, commit to use your power wisely for the highest Good of all. Souls are searching for wholeness that could be healed with magic at your command. Go directly to the source. Acknowledge your lineage and your authentic gifts with a great heart. I am sure there is magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us. Do it! Do it!





About conservationwithella

Hello, I'm Ella, Art on Paper Conservator & Preservation Manager at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections. This blog is a walk through my daily life, work, arts & crafts history, my discovery that everything in my life is enough to be a continuous source of reflection. I started blogging to entertain myself but I hope you enjoy it too. I'm sure you agree, that Life without art is nothing. :)

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