JANUARY :: We share more of our favourite haunted locations, further frightening experiences, and some possible fascinating evidence of the paranormal.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Making the Paranormal Normal :: Halloween as a Ritual of Inversion - An Australian Perspective

© Ghost & Girl
"For a while, we pull these fearful and painful realities into a relatively contained and public context. We share them with our children. We create a special and safe moment during which danger and death, skeletons and strangers can safely be part of our existence...Halloween reverses the usual order of many things in many ways". ~ Ken C. Erikson, Anthropologist
Here's the deal: I have never celebrated or participated in Halloween. Ever. I can muse about ghosts, and theorise about life after death, but Halloween presents me with a difficulty: How does one write about something one has no experience of?
You see, in southern Australia (where I have lived all my life), October is spring. Here the days are getting longer and warmer. It hasn't rained solidly in at least two months. The ground is dry, the grass is beginning to crunch underfoot, and the plants are finishing their spring bloom in preparation for summer shut-down.
October 31 in Australia bears no relevance to the ancient Celtic calendar that brought about Samhain, which lead to All Hallow's Eve and, in time, Halloween. In Australia, the first day of November marks the beginning of summer: Beltane. If Australians wanted to be serious about Halloween and keep in line with its history and traditions, then the reality is that it would need to be celebrated not in October, as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, but on the Southern Hemisphere's Samhain, which falls on April 30.
There is limited information as to why Australia, despite its shared cultural and religious history with Europe and the Americas, never adopted the tradition of Halloween. There are suggestions, however, that the seasonal differences may have played a major part, or perhaps the religious influences at the time of settlement had something to do with it as well. It might even be that the arduous life of a settler (whether a free one or not) simply couldn't accommodate the traditions of the Old Country.
However, whatever the reasons for its initial absence from the Australian calendar - an absence that existed for more than two hundred years, I might add - in recent times, Halloween has been creeping its way into our lives.
Or, at least, into our supermarkets and department stores.
The arrival of Halloween to Australian shores is the result of clever marketing techniques from the big-brand, American-owned companies that influence all our purchasing habits. But despite this, the introduction of Halloween might be just what Australia needs.
In the past decade or so, Halloween has become a thing in Australia. People throw costume parties and children go trick-or-treating in their neighbourhoods. I was surprised to learn during my own investigations (read: intense questioning of local residents), that even in a small town situated on the edge of the desert, Halloween has been the thing to do for the past fifteen years. And not only that, but with each passing year it gets bigger and better, with more people becoming involved.
But don't think for a minute that this is your typical, Northern Hemisphere Halloween event. There's no history behind the existence of Halloween in Australia. It's only cultural influence is American pop-culture.
So, why then do we do it, if we have no seasonal, cultural or historical ties to the tradition?
I asked this question of a parent whose two teenage daughters have dressed-up and gone trick-or-treating for the past ten years. Her response was this:
"You'd think it'd be about the candy, but it's not. It's about the make-believe, about being a kid. It's the experience of it that has them wanting to do it again, year in and year out, no matter how old they get".
When I first decided that I would write this post, I wanted to write about Halloween as a ritual of inversion. A ritual of inversion (or reversal, as it is sometimes referred) is an event that permits people to participate in something that goes against the accepted norms of one's society.
Halloween is the time of year when it is okay, in fact acceptable for people to dabble in danger and death. It's the time when ghost stories are encouraged rather than scoffed at; when monsters and strange events become the topic of conversation; when one can dress up as a mythical creature without ridicule; and when all the things that make up the paranormal become the normal. All those things we'd rather not think about, let alone discuss or participate in at any other time of the year, become accepted practice during Halloween.
This is what makes Halloween a ritual of inversion, and perhaps it is the reason why Australians seem willing to adopt it and make it a part of their annual calendar. There was nothing like it before. When I was growing up, one didn't talk about death, or ghosts, or monsters. It was either taboo, or didn't exist. Now children make up songs about ghosts on their way to school in the morning, and choose out costumes for trick-or-treating, and attempt to scare each other silly with the scariest story they can come up with. 
And since it's Halloween, that's perfectly okay.
From an Australian perspective, Halloween presents one with the perfect excuse to become involved in the paranormal. Australia needs Halloween, simply because it is a ritual of inversion. It's cultural influences, and even its seasonal irrelevance seem unimportant in light of the fact that Halloween acts as a social pressure-release valve.
That is, Halloween makes it okay to talk about and participate in those things that might otherwise raise eyebrows; to celebrate not only the make-believe, but shared experience with death - and what comes after it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Samhain :: Ancient Festival of the Dead

"A gypsy fire is on the hearth,
Sign of the carnival of mirth;
Through the dun fields and from the glade,
Flash merry folk in masquerade,
For this is Hallowe'en!"
(Author Unknown)
Most academic scholars believe that Halloween is simply a Christianised feast influenced by the Pagan Samhain.

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) has been celebrated in Britain for centuries as it marks an important date on the Pagan calendar: the Festival of the Dead and the Celtic New Year. However, many countries, such as Australia, do not recognise Halloween, whilst for other countries, Halloween involves dressing up, trick or treating, carving jack-o-lanterns and participating in themed games such as apple bobbing.

Mischief and jovial aside, Samhain also represents the thinning of the veil; the time of year when it is believed that the Otherworld can be reached more readily.

The idea that Samhain is a juncture between our world and the Otherworld led to a popular belief that on this night, time would stand still. During Samhain the natural order of life was thrown into chaos and the earthly world of the living became hopelessly entangled with the world of the dead.

The world of the dead was itself a complicated place. Here roamed not only spirits of the departed, but also a host of gods, fairies and other creatures of an uncertain nature. An unwary traveller might expect to encounter any one of these creatures during this time, and it was advisable to stay indoors. Ghosts were everywhere. They may or may not have been harmful to the living.

Superstition states that all fires on this night must be extinguished and could only be relit from the great flames of Tlachtga. This, of course, is not to be taken literally; rather, it symbolised the brief and temporary ascendency of the powers of Darkness at this time of year.

Tlachtga, where the great fire of Samhain would be lit
There are many superstitions surrounding Samhain, some of which include:
~ If you hear footsteps behind you, don’t look back as it may be the dead following you.
~ Carry a lump of bread in your pocket, so that if you come into contact with a ghost, it will serve as an offering.
~ A child born on this night will have the gift of second sight.
~ If you come across a spider, don’t kill it as it may be a dead relative.
~ Bridges, crossroads and burial sites are areas to avoid, as the dead mingle freely with the living.
~ Don’t sit underneath a Hawthorn tree or you might be kidnapped by the Little Folk.
~ If you look into a well, you might see twelve months into the future.
~ Oatmeal and salt placed on children’s heads will protect them from evil.
~ Go to bed early in the event you encounter something from the Otherworld.
Although the spirits were thought to be benign, they needed some sort of appeasement in the form of ritual offerings. So long as the offering was forthcoming the spirits were happy and benevolent. However, bad luck would descend on the household if they weren’t appeased.
Some remnants of this tradition may have survived in the modern celebration of Halloween, in the custom of "trick or treat". Children, dressed in costume, invite the household to make a donation or face the consequences. The 'treat' may represent the ritual offering, whilst the 'trick' (nowadays a harmless prank) may have, in antiquity, represented the malevolent consequences of inadequately appeasing the ancestral spirit on this night.
Queen Maeve by J C Leyendecker
Irish mythology is littered with references to the magical significance of Samhain. It marked the end of the fighting and hunting season for the warrior troop known as the Fianna. At Samhain they retreated into winter camp, quartering themselves on the general population until the return of Summer at Beltainne (Beltane).
Fionn mac Cumhaill chose Samhain as the time to present himself before the court at Tara, while it was also during Samhain that the god Lugh made his dramatic entrance to the same court. In the legendary Irish poem Tain Bo Cualigne, Queen Maeve waits until Samhain before setting out on the great Cattle Raid of Cooley in order to capture the prized bull of Ulster.
It is interesting to note that when the early writers wished to impart a magical quality to events they were depicting, they choose the Festival of Samhain for the occasion.
How do you celebrate Halloween?
Further reading: