Episode 18: Halloween: A Not-So-Spooky History


Halloween! A time of candy, Pagan ritual, sexy bus driver costumes, and syncretism. How much of this holiday has been handed down to us from the middle ages, and how much is modern? Join Em and Jesse for an exciting discussion of the medieval version of All Hallows’ Eve, with some fun digressions on the myths of Persephone/Ishtar in the underworld, JK Rowling, the movie Wicker Man, and why people are unlikely to put razor blades in Halloween candy.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Syncretism: when people with different beliefs run into each other, and for whatever reason they decide that they have actually been believing in the same religion even though they use different names for things–for example, Haitian Vodou involves many elements of syncretism between West African folk beliefs and Roman Catholic beliefs; for example, many of the lwa (the second level of deity, typically Yoruban gods) are syncretized with Catholic saints (Papa Legba, for example, is variously associated with St. Peter, St. Lazarus, and St. Anthony). Syncretism can happen because of cultural struggle (the Haitians were transported from West Africa to slavery in Haiti, where they were captives of French Catholics), or because two cultures live next to each other for a long time, or for other reasons. [Yeah, it’s a little more complicated than blending, borrowing, appropriating, and other words that get used for this sort of thing.–Jesse]

2/ There has been a weird revival of the Hades and Persephone story, probably because of this immensely popular web comic (hitherto unknown to me, but it’s entirely adorable) OR this other adorable web comic about them (what is even going on), but also there are a lot of memes like this that honestly I like because they retell the story in a way that gives Persephone a much more active hand in determining her fate than other versions. Although I find the interest in this particular story a little surprising–maybe because unlike Zeus or Poseidon, Hades seems to have been pretty loyal to her?

Other versions of the myth, which we discuss somewhat in passing, involve Persephone being abducted by Hades and then tricked into eating pomegranate seeds. Homer doesn’t mention the abduction myth in the Iliad or the Odyssey and just describes her as a formidable queen of the Shades. Hesiod mentions the abduction briefly. Either way, it’s worth noting that “Persephone” might mean “bringer of destruction,” which is kind of appropriate for a nature goddess, right? I mean, nature is not a benign force. Nature is flowers in a meadow, but nature is also bears and sharks and moose and hippopotamuses and tornadoes.

Jesse: It’s true that Homer doesn’t mention the abduction myth in the Iliad or the Odyssey; in fact, his description of Persephone focuses on the fact that she is to be feared. Hesiod also implies that she is as terrifying as her husband Hades (Theogony lines 768 and 775), although he also briefly mentions that Persephone is carried off from her mother by Hades (Theogony lines 914–15).

Hesiod’s Theogony at Perseus Project

It’s clear from Hesiod that Persephone’s dread aspect (Hesiod’s ἐπαινῆς Περσεφονείης) and her abduction by Hades are not mutually exclusive elements of the myth. The abduction is clearly a stable and long-standing part of the story–as is the fact that Zeus enables it by essentially giving Persephone to his brother Hades without her mother Demeter’s knowledge or permission–and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (not actually written by Homer) gives an incredibly detailed and fairly graphic account of the abduction. In this version, Persephone eats the pomegranate and has to spend 1/3 (later 1/2) of the year with Hades but gets to spend 2/3 of the year with her mother Demeter. You can read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter at Perseus Project.

On the subject of Persephone’s name (Περσεφονη)–it probably does not mean bringer of destruction. This is a false etymology–at some point, someone decided to deconstruct Persephone’s name accordingly, but her name did not actually derive from these terms. The false etymology relies on πέρθω (pertho; future tense πέρσω persō), which means “to destroy” and φονή (phonē), which means “carnage” or “a bloody murder.” Again, it’s a great false etymology, but her name didn’t actually derive from those words; someone created the derivation based on the name which was already in existence. In addition, Persephone is frequently referred to (and represented in statues as) a kore, or a young girl. While this may seem at odds with her “dreadful” nature, she strikes fear into people based on her position as Queen of the Underworld (she’s good at her job), not based on the fact that she is depicted as personally or physically terrifying (like Athena is, for example).

The Ninnion Tablet.

3/ Ishtar in the underworld was also discussed in a previous episode–see episode 8, note 18. [Here’s Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld (Sumerian text recorded c. 1750 BCE).–Jesse]

4/ Samhain (pronounced “Sa-wan”): a Gaelic harvest festival.

All Hallows’ Day Eve = Oct. 31st
All Hallows’ Day / All Saints’ Day = Nov 1st
All Souls’ Day = Nov 2nd

Jesse: Again, the usual booooooooo at JK Rowling for being a TERF.

5/ The Pantheon, aka the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

6/ The Wicker Man came out in 1973 and starred Christopher Lee, among others. There’s also a remake from 2006 starring Nicholas Cage. I haven’t seen either, but just looking at their ratings, one may be slightly better than another. Interestingly, the original novel was set in Cornwall.

7/ Day of the Dead / Dia de los Muertos, possibly originally a celebration of Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld, who swallows the stars during the day.

8/ The idea of liminality comes up constantly in the study of beliefs/traditions and folklore. It basically means being in a state where you’re between two categories of thing (such as being in between childhood and adulthood during a coming-of-age ritual). There’s often a certain danger associated with people in this state (one of the reason you don’t interrupt rituals). [Victor Turner is the one to read on liminality, if you’re interested. Here’s the Wikipedia entry to give you a place to start. –Jesse]

9/ Turnip lanterns: extremely creepy example.

10/ Unrelatedly, mumming is mentioned in Ulysses I.97–98. In context:

—The aunt thinks you killed your mother, he said. That’s why she won’t let me have anything to do with you.

—Someone killed her, Stephen said gloomily.

—You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you, Buck Mulligan said. I’m hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you….

He broke off and lathered again lightly his farther cheek. A tolerant smile curled his lips.

—But a lovely mummer! he murmured to himself. Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all!

If I’m reading this correctly, “mummer” appears to be a play on words, both Mulligan accusing Stephen of acting (or more like performing his atheism at inappropriate times?) and also suggesting that his mother was a lovely person. [It might also be a pun on Stephen’s name–December 26, St Stephen’s Day, is a day for mumming.–Jesse] (Probably all of the above, knowing Joyce.–Em)

Jesse: For some fun mumming pictures, zoom in on the bottom right of this page and on the bottom left of this page Notice the awesome animal masks!

For the dragons, check out Philip Butterworth’s article “Late Medieval Performing Dragons” in The Yearbook of English Studies vol. 43, Early English Drama (2013), pp. 318–342. Also check out this great image from the Luttrell Psalter (1320–1340)–go to the down arrow at the far (top) right and scroll down to 184r to see the dragon at the bottom of the page.

Entertainment (acrobats/mumming, jousting) from the Luttrell Psalter here [f 69v and f 82r–two separate pages]. And for more on the Luttrell Psalter, check here.

11/ Snopes on poisoning of Halloween candy.

Apparently there have been a few cases of people putting razor blades and such in candy/apples, but people are almost never hurt by the implements, and at worst have required a few stitches.