Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ghost of Halloween

A night of innocent fun for children, or an observance with evil origins?

However you view it, our Halloween is a long way from its beginning and—like so many other intrinsically religious observances—has been so diluted and commercialized it would hardly be recognized by its founders.

It began as the Celtic observance of October 31 as the eve of the new year. Sir James Frazer says the most important aspect of the observance was the rekindling of fires throughout the land from village bonfires, accompanied by prayers and divination to assure good fortune in the coming year.

This was the one night of the year when the “door to the otherworld” was opened.

Lacking a Christian concept of heaven, the people believed the spirits of departed relatives looked in to see how the family was doing. These benevolent spirits were welcomed with offerings of food and flowers.

At the same time, it was thought more harmful spirits were also unleashed for the night and they had to be propitiated with spells and gifts. The wearing of masks and costumes began as a means of confusing these evil spirits to help prevent their causing harm to helpless mortals.

With the introduction of Christianity, the church sought to subjugate the pagan aspects of the observance by making it a night to honor saints and martyrs (All Hallows Eve). This failed to obliterate the belief in ghosts and they remain a central feature of our Halloween.

All societies have in common this belief in ghosts. Modern cultures may deem themselves less susceptible to what is term superstition, but there is hardly an area that escapes the tradition of haunted places.

Are there such things as ghosts then?

One might turn to the Bible for guidance and—particularly in this case—find it ambiguous. “Man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?” (Job 14:10)

Lyall Watson (who is open to many kinds of psychic phenomena, but does not take ghosts seriously) points out we are aware of only a small portion of reality. And, as Philip Slater aptly argues, our conception of “reality” is not what actually exists but merely what we require to master our physical environment.