Evolution of Halloween by the Medieval Churches

As we described in part 2 of the Halloween Story, the Catholic Church was very tolerant of the pagan rituals of Samhain and attempted to adapt them to its own religious festivals as a way of gaining acceptance by the Celtic and Roman culture. That had been relatively successful with regard to ghosts and spirits returning from the dead (after all, they were old souls).

It was another matter, however, with regard to witches who were believed to actively find ways to impact (usually unfavourably) the daily lives of ordinary people. There was real irony in this, given that women in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance cultivated and collected herbs to assist in midwifery and medicine. Indeed, the value of some of the herbs that they first cultivated during this time are recognized to this day, such as Willow bark (containing precursor chemicals used to make aspirin), garlic (blood clotting inhibitors) and foxglove (cardiac insufficiency).

Witches were increasingly seen by commoners as beings who were doing the bidding of Satan and there were scattered incidents of killing women who were believed to be witches. Pope Alexander IV prohibited the prosecution of witchcraft in 1258, but for the most part, the church basically ignored them and hoped they would go away.

One of the most well-known statements of the danger of witches is found in the first act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth where the witches intone, “Double double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

In 1517, Luther rejected several teachings and practices of the Catholic Church with his Ninety-five Theses and, when he refused to recant his works at the Diet of Worms (main illustration of this blog), was excommunicated from the church – thus beginning the Reformation and the Protestant Church.

Luther, John Calvin, Jan Hus and many of the other early Protestant leaders were quite dogmatic and rigid in their beliefs and were quick to seize upon witchcraft as an aberration that had to be destroyed. They launched the infamous “Great Hunt” for witches in Europe and the Salem witch trials in America which led to some eighty thousand accusations and forty thousand deaths by fire and torture over the next 100 years.

Sadly, finding and destroying witches became a source of competition for followers and the Catholic Church also began to prosecute and kill them.

The Malleus Maleficarum (the ‘Hammer against the Witches’), published in 1487, accused women of destroying men by planting biter herbs throughout the field.

In 1605 Guy Fawkes led a conspiracy to blow up England’s parliament building and to remove the protestant King James I from power. The so-called Gunpowder Plot was foiled and, when Fawkes was executed in 1606, an annual celebration was launched. Communal bonfires (so-called “bone fires”) were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the pope.

The celebration became known as Gunpowder Treason Day and it became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment that continued for almost 200 years.

Another aspect of the Protestant’s paranoia about witches was, curiously enough, the broom. Brooms as a means of sweeping dust and ash was mentioned in New Testament books written in the first or second century. Associated primarily with women, they became a powerful symbol of female domesticity.

Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night) is still celebrated in England.

In the ancient Samhain festivals, rural farmers would leap and dance astride poles, pitchforks or brooms in the light of the full moon to encourage the growth of their crops. By the mid-fifteenth century, however, this “broomstick dance” became confused with common accounts of witches flying around on brooms to do their nefarious deeds.

The unmistakable phallic symbolism represented by the broom was seen as spiritually deviant, a state of femininity and domesticity gone wild. In truth, it was more a reflection of male fantasy and fear gone wild. Since alleged witches were thought to concoct brews from plants that produced hallucinogenic chemicals, men imagined them smearing these ointments on the broom handles where they would be absorbed by the witches’ intimate parts as they flew about seeking to destroy the works of men. (How the witches would ensure that there would be no splinters from the broom handles didn’t seem to be an issue with which the churchmen concerned themselves.)

Fortunately all of these crazy ideas have been forgotten today, but a broom remains indelibly a part of a witch’s costume.

With the early European settlements in North America, the pumpkin was found in abundance in Central America and brought back to Ireland and Scotland. The advantages of pumpkins for carving – larger and softer compared with the large turnips and rutabagas previously used – was quickly evident. Pumpkins with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles became a sure sign of Halloween.

Francisco Goya’s portrayal of two unclothed witches flying on a broom together.

There was an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack”.  He invited the Devil to have a drink with him but, because he never wanted to pay for his own drinks, convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay the barkeeper. Jack then decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross which prevented the Devil from returning to his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, but only on the condition that the Devil would not claim his soul should he die.

When Jack did die, God would not allow such a person into heaven and the Devil kept his word and did not allow Jack into Hell either. Jack was condemned to roam the earth forever with only a candle in a carved-out pumpkin to light his way. The Irish then referred to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then, simply, Jack O’Lantern.


In our next installment, we will follow the evolution of Halloween celebrations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in From the British Isles to America.