Night of the Witches: Halloween vs Walpurgis
The name "Witches' Night" is a name exclusively from Continental Europe and the Spanish-speaking world, however, its background is common to the entire Western world. Halloween is one of the many names given to what is perhaps the most popular "non-religious" holiday of pagan origin: Halloween, whose name comes from the English All Hallow's Eve, which is celebrated the night of October 31. There are various versions of its origin, as it is associated with the Romans, the Celts, early Christianity and Irish folklore of the 17th century. In the mouth of David J. Skal (2019), a kind of "cultural Frankenstein", which has taken things from here and there, until becoming a satisfactory final product. But the name Halloween is actually a fairly modern name, since Halloween would be, in any case, the night of the Dead or of Spirits, because the night of the witches, as such, is precisely Walpurgis, on the other side of the calendar (night from April 30 to May 1). In fact, the most common name for Walpurgis is Hexennacht (German for Halloween). The association of Halloween with witches may have several origins that we will briefly review in this article.
Both Walpurgis and Halloween/Samhain (Celtic name of the holiday) have their origins in agricultural festivals. Walpurgis comes from the name of Saint Walpurga, however, it is only part of the Christian syncretism with divinities of nature and abundance that their festivals had at this time. However, probably because of its blatantly pagan nature, the association of Walpurgis Night with witches was much quicker. Perhaps due to the madness of the witch hunt that broke out in Germany, the main place of celebration, making it a model of paganism and demonic pacts. Therefore, any party that had spirits in the background would also have demons, and where there are demons, there would necessarily have to be witches. The frequency of the so-called Brocken Ghost on Mount Hartz, along with the popular practices and legends that made that night the greatest of covens, and definitely Goethe's work, Faust, led to the association of witchcraft with this date. Furthermore, the imposition of Saint Walpurga's day on this date is no coincidence, since she had her own history as a protector against witches. And it is a date that, on the other hand, is the consecration of spring and the beginning of summer, that is, the last tail of cold and dark nights. That is, Walpurgis is "Witches' Night", Hexennacht, because that night the witches go out to the greatest coven.
However, while Walpurgis Night is a preparation for the celebration of Beltane, Halloween has become a holiday in itself, most of the time devouring the solemn days that follow (All Saints and All Souls). ). In the past, the celebration was popular, people gathered for the end of the harvest and witches did not have any special role. For the Celts, it was the counterpoint festival of Beltane. However, there were beliefs that led to witches finding their place on these dates.
One of those beliefs is that on that night, a seasonal counterpoint to Walpurgis, the doors to the world of Spirits were opened, therefore, it was easier for witches to make pacts with them or with the devil; This belief was widespread throughout the Old World, Africa and Asia, however, it was above all a festival of honor and remembrance of the deceased; Obviously you also had to protect yourself from all those ghosts and beings from the underworld who took advantage of it to terrorize and harm the living. This last facet was what would link the night of October 31 with a moment in which witches, considered evil beings, had more freedom and possibilities to carry out their rituals and pacts.
On the other hand, it was common at this time to make bonfires burning the bad and leftover straw from the harvest, which was coming to an end; Bonfires could easily be associated with witches' covens, just as they were later recognized in Celtic pagan rituals and Sídhe mounds. Let us not forget that for the Celts fire had a purifying and projecting character to strengthen the sun and prepare in this case for the end of summer (Samhain, Samh-summer), and what better time than to light fires on a night in which He could burn "the bad" of the harvest and drive away evil spirits. Of course, the same association was made with lanterns, necessary for those who went out at night. Both elements, the bonfire and the lantern, are evidently necessary for a festivity that lasts into the night. Such normal elements were first endowed with an evil character, and later, with a protective character against the figure of witches and demons.
Halloween fires and candles also served as a guide for lost spirits or those visiting the living. In many places throughout Europe and also in Latin America, cemeteries are filled with candles not only with the intention of honoring the dead, but also making paths to guide them back to their graves or through Christianity, to the church or hermitage. , whose custom was to ring that night.
Christianity initially had established the date of All Souls' Day in May, which is when the Romans also celebrated it (Lemuralia). Some Eastern Christian churches still celebrate it in this month. The Romans, however, also had another festival in the fall in honor of Pomona, the goddess of abundance and harvest, a less serious and more participatory celebration. Pope Gregory III, in the 8th century, wanted to suppress these festivities and imposed All Saints' Day as a solemn holiday on November 1. However, he did not get the people to stop celebrating the night before.
After the medieval and Renaissance madness of the witch hunt, these characters already had a place in everyone's minds when talking about evil entities. Therefore, in every festival with pagan overtones, and in every one in which the Devil could be present, witches would also be present. So it is convincing to think that, since the celebration prior to All Saints' Day had pagan and libertine origins, it was also considered a favorable time for witchcraft.
The origin of Halloween that we know today has its practically indisputable origin in Irish folklore. Carved pumpkins (formerly turnips) have their rise after the arrival of the Irish to North America in the 17th century, with the legends of Jack O'lantern. This character, indisputably prototypical of the popular antihero, would have deceived the devil on multiple occasions, who would have returned as many times to claim his soul. When he died, Jack was not accepted into heaven for his evil actions, but the Devil would not have welcomed him either, but would expel him from hell with a flare. Jack could only keep the embers in a carved turnip, which from then on he used as a lantern (Jack o(f) Lantern, Jack with the Lantern) in his eternal wandering around the earth. When the Irish arrived in American territory fleeing famine, they discovered not only a greater abundance of pumpkins than turnips, but these were much larger and easier to carve. The faces of the lanterns had to be terrifying so that the spirits would not approach, believing that they were even worse beings.
This idea of driving away evil spirits with horrendous images was not something new either. Popular costumes and masks representing devils or monstrous animals were widespread throughout Europe, and were paraded through the streets of towns to scare away all evil. The demons and spirits themselves would be frightened by those horrible costumes and the scandal. Of course, people also dressed up or put on short performances on the night before All Saints' Day. You had to chase away the spirits and if you came across one, mix with them, so that they wouldn't know that you were human. Half seriously, half joking, the costumes went from terror to mockery and fun. Among these terrible beings, the witch was the female model of being evil, at least until vampiresses, spider ladies and devils appeared and became popular. So Halloween is called "Halloween" more because of general traditions than because it was really believed that witches had a special purpose that night.
Later the holiday became popular until it became a festival, as denoted by the first Halloween parade, held in 1921 in Minnesota. Children asking for sweets from door to door were a continuation of the popular custom, just as happens, for example, with the Christmas bonus. Specifically in the US there is evidence of how Christmas bonus day used to be on Thanksgiving, and how, after the Great Depression, the request for Christmas bonuses, especially from the less fortunate, began to take place on Halloween. The isolated but real cases of poisoning children through sweets or with hidden pins did not prevent the spread of the party, on the contrary, they made it visible that the costumes of horrible beings were nothing compared to human evil.
And of course, they knew how to take economic advantage of this festival, something that could not be done with Walpurgis, which hardly has any popular celebrations, with only one large festival in Germany and the Nordic countries. In the United States, Halloween is the opportunity before Christmas to have a big sale of candy and costumes, as well as decorations. The American film industry, with its various monsters and household items, and specifically with the character of the Halloween killer, Michael Myers, who was the determining explosion for Halloween to become the terrifying night par excellence, much better known and recognized, despite that witches have never had a relevant role in its beginnings. They will have it later in all those fictions in which Halloween is a special date, and in neo-pagan circles in which this holiday is recognized as a natural cycle at the opposite end of the calendar to Beltane: that is, often even they, ignoring the previous night, Walpurgis.
The key, then, to the success of the celebrations has also been the place where they arose and developed. While Walpurgis emerged in Central Europe and remained a folkloric festival, Halloween developed in the United States, the country that has had the most diffusion in the last two centuries, both historically and through audiovisual media. Thus, even despite the importance that the pagan festivals of the natural calendar are gaining, Halloween has a greater claim than Walpurgis, and everything predicts that it will continue to be that way.
Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -firstname.lastname@example.org
- Skal, D.J. Halloween: la muerte sale de fiesta. Espop ediciones, 2019.
-Raedisch, L. Night of the witches: folklore, traditions & recipes for celebrating Walpurgis Night. Llewellyn Publications, 2011