October 26, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

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Of witches, Jack-O-Lanterns and lost souls

Irish Jack the blacksmith, a notorious drunkard and trickster, thought he could outwit the devil.

As legend tells it he tricked Satan into climbing a tree then trapped him by carving a cross in the trunk.

The only way the devil could get down was to promise never to tempt the silver-tongued Jack again.

When Jack died he was denied entrance into heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also banned from hell because he tricked the devil. Instead the devil gave him an ember to light his way through the inky darkness while he earned his way into either heaven or hell.

Jack put the ember in a hollowed out turnip. When Irish immigrants came to North America fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s they used pumpkins instead of turnips because they were more plentiful.

Now you know what lies behind the tradition of the Jack-O-Lantern.

But what about why we think witches fly?

Historically witches were nothing more than poor and destitute unmarried women. Without money their clothes became rags, their complexions soured from lack of food, and they often lived "beyond the pale" or on the other side of the graveyard clandestinely dispensing herbal remedies and lore.

Simon Fraser University psychology professor Barry Beyerstein believes the medicinal remedies old cronies cooked up are at the root of why we think these women flew.

"One of the things they cultivated was deadly nightshade," said Beyerstein.

"They boiled it down in pots, maybe not huge cauldrons like Hollywood says, and they mixed it with stirrers that kind of looked like broomsticks.

"The active ingredient in the plant is atropine which is absorbed through the skin and particularly through the mucous membranes. It is a huge muscle relaxant and you get these weird visions and lightheadedness and it kind of feels like your flying."

The more salacious part of the myth tells of "witches" applying the remedy to erogenous zones, and since they were by definition single their only companion was the broomstick, hence the idea of riding the broomstick.

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays, with its origins going back thousands of years. Its name is actually a corrupted version of the Catholic celebration of saints, All Hallows Eve, on Nov. 1.

It has been influenced by many cultures over the years, from the Roman’s Pomona Day to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the beginning of the New Year falling on Oct. 31,to the Christian holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days.

The Celtic holiday of Samhain marked the end of the season of the sun and beginning of the season of darkness and cold.

On Oct. 31 all cooking fires would be extinguished so homes would be cold and undesirable to any lurking souls. In some tales Druids, or Celtic priests, would build bonfires in sacred woods and offer sacrifices of animals and crops. At dawn villagers would come and the Druids would offer an ember to each family to start their fires anew.

In other tales, said Beyerstein, large bonfires would be lit in the village and that would be the source of the new flame for the year.

"In mythology it was also a time when people who had died in the last year could come back and make amends or settle old scores," said Beyerstein.

"That is where the tradition of wearing masks came from as villagers would use them to scare away these souls looking to get even or looking for a human to possess for the next year."

The custom of trick or treating is thought to have originated not with the Celts but from a ninth century European custom called souling, said Beyerstein.

On Nov. 2, All Souls Day, poor people would go door to door at the homes of the rich and offer to prey for their dead relatives.

"I guess the idea was the more people you have praying for you the better," said Beyerstein.

"In return the poor would get soul cakes, which were flat bread-like currant things.

"If the nasty rich didn’t pay up with a soul cake a trick would be played on them."

So although some pagan groups and cults have adopted Halloween as their favourite holiday the day itself did not grow out of evil practices.

It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans.

It’s a day that can be as fun or as full of trickery as you care to make it.


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