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Why I hate the modern Hallowe’en

Back in 2007, about a week before Hallowe’en, the BBC reported from Scotland that the organisers of a Hallowe’en event had banned pumpkins and trick-or-treating on the grounds that they were “too American” and had no place in the traditional Scottish celebration of that festival. “We will be having none of that pumpkin or trick-or-treat rubbish. Pumpkins are banned and will not be allowed beyond the front gate,” said one of the organisers. Those attending were to take part, instead, in traditional Scottish Hallowe’en activities such as apple-dooking (apple bobbing) and making turnip (ie swede) lanterns.

I confess to being somewhat surprised by one aspect of this – the idea that apple bobbing and turnip lanterns are a specifically Scottish thing. I grew up with both in the urban north east of England during the 1960s – which far from being Scottish or “Celtic” was firmly part of the English/Germanic cultural sphere, and especially part of the Danelaw, as place name elements in the area show. For us it was a week of festivities starting with Hallowe’en, running through Mischief Night and ending with  Bonfire Night.

It’s a measure of how much we have lost, or perhaps more accurately surrendered without so much as a whimper let alone a (Guy Fawkes) bang, that Hallowe’en today, for all its wide popularity in Britain, bears no recognisable resemblance to the darker and more raw festival of a few decades ago. Today’s Hallowe’en, and almost entirely plastic it is too, is bought off the shelf at a supermarket from promotional displays which make their appearance as soon as the kids go back to school in September.

Go back only 40 years, however, and it was a cottage industry in which turnips were bought a few days before the actual festival, hollowed out painstakingly by the child with some assistance by the parent, with a blunt knife and a teaspoon, and eventually carried around neighbouring houses with a candle in for gods’ sake. Woe betide the wretched child whose parents insisted on putting a small torch in their lantern instead of a real candle; but what parent today, in abject terror of the Health & Safety Nazis, would dare to send their child out with the means to set fire to themselves – even though they or their parents happily carried a candle lantern year after year without ever suffering even superficial burns, let alone turning themselves into a self-propelled wicker man?

Cottage industry, too, were the costumes of those who insisted on dressing up for the occasion. Most of us didn’t, but for those who did insist it was mostly a hastily-made ghost costume cobbled together from a worn out sheet; and wonder of wonders! – no-one ever set fire to their sheet with their candle! However did we manage to reach adulthood in significant numbers without the Health & Safety plonkers breathing down ours and our parents’ necks and protecting us against things that it had never occurred to anyone previously that we might need protecting from?

Last Hallowe’en I arrived back from work to find occasional small children dressed head to foot in plastic tat being led from house to house by a parent. The little darlings, inevitably one per adult, had obviously been kitted up from Asda and bizarrely they were each carrying a handbag-sized black plastic cauldron into which householders were clearly expected to drop sweeties. It seems that the days of a child carrying a lantern, even one with a torch inside, are long gone. And why only one child per adult? Have people completely stopped having more than one child per family – a trophy as proof that their naughty bits work? Whatever happened to the days when families comprised several children, with the family’s offspring being led around the neighbourhood on Hallowe’en by the eldest without an adult present? And whatever happened to “A penny to keep the witch away”? Presumably that went the same way as everything else deemed by the Blair government to be socially exclusive – or was there a PF campaign to rehabilitate witches that I missed somehow?

Once again, as I have for many years, I am ignoring Hallowe’en this year. I will be ignoring it until parents and children do it properly.

Bah humbug and break out the toffee onions.


Samhain and pagan platitudes

Some years ago, by one of those strange coincidences, I had just finished typesetting Tony Roe’s article on psychopomps for the Samhain 2006 edition of WD and headed off to Sainsbury’s. Driving towards town I became stuck behind a column of slow-moving vehicles in the inside lane of the dual carriageway. Since the outside lane was empty it didn’t seem likely that there had been an accident so I cautiously pulled out and overtook the column. As I came over the brow of the hill I realised I’d been following a funeral cortege, which should have been obvious from the start. Reaching the front of the procession I saw that it was being headed by a horse-drawn hearse: two black horses with black plumes on their heads drawing a black, glass-sided hearse with three entirely black-clad undertakers, complete with shiny toppers, on the box of the hearse.

I have lived in Redditch for over 20 years but this was the only time I had seen this horse-drawn hearse, and very impressive it was too. Indeed, seeing any funeral procession in the town is fairly rare – I suspect many of the townsfolk put their dead out for the binmen rather than squander their booze and bingo money on life’s non-essentials.

Now one of the things which drives me completely bonkers is the annual outpouring on mailing lists and discussion forums (and for that matter in magazines) of the standard pre-Samhain platitude about “the veil between the worlds being thinnest at this time of year”, and variations upon this sentiment, and seeing the hearse that October reminded me that this Season of Platitudes would soon be upon us once again.

I’ve referred to it as a platitude and no doubt that will offend some but I do so because to refer to one particular moment in the year as somehow uniquely dangerous in terms of interaction with the other worlds suggests to me a profound and ultimately thoughtless ignorance of the wider folklore of the British Isles (including Ireland) on the part of the platituder.

It irritates me all the more because almost inevitably the individual who at any other time of year throws his or her (but almost certainly her) hands up in horror at the mere mention of necromancy, which they will tell you is evil and dangerous and has absolutely no place in paganism or wicca, is precisely the same individual who at Hallowe’en or Samhain will blithely set an extra place at the dinner table and “summon the ancestors” or do little rituals in an attempt to contact her deceased grandmother to find out where Granny left that book of spells and rituals that she must have had hidden somewhere. No joined up thinking there then.

As Ronald Hutton has pointed out (Stations of the Sun, p362) the original association of Samhain with supernatual goings on seems to derive from early Medieval Ireland and that this was later carried to Scotland by Irish migrants. Additonally he suggests that the idea of supernatural happenings and fairy gatherings at Samhain may simply echo the gatherings and festivities going on in the real world at that time of year. He also points out that the earliest Welsh literature ascribes this period of supernatural danger to Beltane and to a lesser extent to New Year but is silent about the period around Samhain. We cannot, therefore, even say that this idea of Samhain as a supremely dangerous period is pan-Celtic so to subscribe to the popular belief is to accept one very particular view to the exclusion of all others.

So much for the Celtic world – what about the Germanic one? Germanic tradition and folklore has its own very specific season of supernatural danger – the intercalary period necessary each year to align the lunar and solar calendars, which since the arrival of Christianity at least has fallen between Christmas and New Year. In many respects these few days, between the ending of one lunar month and the 5 or 6 days which must elapse before the beginning of the next if the two astronomical years are not to get out of sync, represent more truly a “time between times” than Samhain. It is during these days and nights that the Wild Hunt, the spirits of the dead led by Odin, Herne, Gwyn ap Nudd or, indeed, Edric and Goda, was most commonly thought to ride, arriving howling on the storm with its yelping hounds to snatch up the souls of the dead and those unwary living foolish enough to be out and abroad when they shouldn’t be. Yet I would hazard a guess that very few of the pagans who make such a fuss about their ancestors and the weirdness of Samhain, and make offerings to the fairies then, ever bother to take magical and protective precautions during the dark and ominous intercalary days – or leave out a stirrup cup for the Wild Hunt.


The summer solstice and the Rollright Stones

If there is one thing we can say about the summer solstice without fear of contradiction, it’s that there will be more people standing around in stone circles and on hill tops than will be doing so at the winter solstice in a little over 6 months time. Funny that.

Until the late 1990s, Oxfordshire’s Rollright Stones still belonged to the late Pauline Flick whose family had owned that small piece of land for decades. She opened the site each year at Beltane, the summer solstice, Lughnasa and Samhain to the public, manning the box office through the night at the little cabin near the entrance and relieving visitors of 20p or 30p for entry. Given the situation of the stones, right alongside a quiet rural road, the site’s not being officially open wouldn’t have made any difference as visitors would simply have entered anyway, through the hedge if necessary.

For a couple of years, immediately following my arrival in the Midlands, I attended the summer solstice gathering there along with probably a couple of hundred others. Most visitors attended in small groups and sat around their lanterns or jars with a candle in, either in or around the circle itself or over the road by The King Stone on the crest of the ridge with its north-easterly aspect directly towards the sunrise. And all very pleasant it was, even if the actual sunrise was hidden behind the inevitable bank of cloud on the horizon.

In the late 1990s, with Pauline Flick terminally ill, the Stones passed into the ownership and care of The Rollright Trust. There had been earlier attempts by local pagans to persuade Pauline to sell the stones to a pagan-run trust but each time things had looked hopeful she changed her mind. Faced with her own impending death she finally agreed to sell and an appeal was launched within the pagan community to raise the asking price. Pagans being pagans, virtually nobody was willing to actually put their hands in their pockets and the appeal went nowhere until funds were offered by a couple of City bankers with an interest in archaeology. Although the funds were raised, the trust set up and the stones bought, the pagan influence was greatly watered down with a good half of the appointed trustees being business people and archaeologists. Today there appear to be no pagans at all on the board of trustees.

In the years immediately following the stones’ acquisition by the trust, the site remained open to visitors at the usual festivals. A non-denominational, but vaguely wiccan, ceremony was held on or as near as possible to the festival date which all were welcome to attend for the usual payment on the gate because this was found to be the best defence against the various druid orders and other pagan groups all wanting to hold their rituals at the site on the popular dates. On the other festivals the visitors were few, and at the winter solstice and Imbolc they were non-existent. I know this because for several years I wardened the site overnight on these latter two dates, sometimes with one or two others and occasionally on my own. Usually the only visitors in fact were a couple of plods from either Warwickshire Constabulary or Thames Valley Police (the border between the forces runs along the minor road beside the stones) who parked their patrol car in the layby and came in for a coffee and a chat.

So if you are planning to attend an overnight outside gathering this summer solstice, ask yourself whether you will be doing the same in 6 months’ time with 17 or 18 hours of darkness and, quite possibly, a hard frost.

Witchcraft in BBC radio drama

Browsing the BBC Radio 4 schedules today I noticed that the station had recently broadcast a play entitled Ursula and the Boy based on the historical episode of Ursula Kemp who was accused of witchcraft in 1582 and against whom one of the witnesses was her own 8 year old son.

I’ve not yet listened to the play but will try to make time to do so over this weekend.

I’m reminded of an earlier BBC radio play with an historical witchcraft theme – Colin Haydn Evans’s Gaveston which was broadcast originally on 7th June 1993 and then, if memory serves me correctly, on the actual summer solstice in 1994. I was fortunate on the second occasion to record the broadcast for my own personal archive.

Gaveston was based, as one might expect, on Margaret Murray‘s books (I’m very tempted to say novels), The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The Divine King in England. Her thesis was that there was an organised cult of witchcraft in mediaeval and early modern Europe, and that from time to time kings or their appointed substitutes were sacrificed to ensure the health of the realm. She particularly singled out William II, “Rufus”, who died in the New Forest under still unexplained circumstances in 1100, and Piers Gaveston, the youthful favourite of Edward II, as her purported sacrifices.

Now as a piece of drama Gaveston was a jolly decent play – thrilling and atmospheric; but as history, which Murray purported it to be (even if Evans didn’t), it was frankly crap. Even at the time that she published Witch Cult, Murray’s interpretation of history was scorned and ridiculed by academic historians working in the mediaeval and early modern fields, but it did inspire the imagination of Gerald Brosseau Gardner and become the basis of his creation of wicca. When Murray was invited to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, her version of history quickly reached the general public and was accordingly accepted by hoi polloi as the last word on the subject. And so it remained until the early 1970s when academic historians began to publish new studies of witchcraft and magic. The first that came to general attention was Keith Thomas‘s Religion and the Decline of Magic in 1973. Through the 1970s and 1980s these new studies appeared, so that by around 1993, when Gaveston was first broadcast, only pagans and the general public still set any store by Murray’s work as history.

What turned the tide for most pagans was the publication during the 1990s of a series of works by Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, culminating in The Triumph of the Moon in 1999. There are, undoubtedly, the pagan equivalent of Flat Earthers who cling to Murray’s work, but they become fewer, and ever more desperate, as the years pass. They may eventually die out of their own accord, but it may yet take a comet to finish them off.

So if you ever get a chance to hear Gaveston, do so. It’s a jolly gripping yarn. But, for gods’ sake, don’t believe a word of it. It’s complete cobblers.