Our Dearly Departed: Samhain, Lemuralia, & the Evolution of Hallowmas

As has been pointed out countless times before this, agricultural societies tend to share a calendar when it comes to death celebrations. It's the natural progression of the seasons: autumn is The Dying Time.

I've never met anyone who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with Samhain (but seriously, it's pronounced SAW-ehn, ok?)

It's, like, Protohalloween.

One of four time-passage (i.e., seasonal) festivals of the Celtic calendar, Samhain began on October 31 and marked the end of the harvest period and the onset of winter. This was also when livestock were selected for slaughter.

During this eerie transitional time, the veil between the natural world and the otherworld was lifted, and various rituals were performed in response, some varying by region.

Hilltop bonfires are a popular example. Sometimes a bonfire was used for protection via"sympathetic" magic, by imitating the sun and thereby enveloping the revelers in light as darkness dominated the year; many people would steal this protective flame and circle their home with torch in hand, to trace a protective circle. Other rituals used the fire for divination and games.

Fire was also a staple of cleansing rituals, such as inhaling smoke, or walking one by one between a pair of bonfires.

Some speculate that bonfires having drawn in bats led to the creatures' primitive association with Halloween. Because firelight attracts bugs, and bats wouldn't have been far behind, regularly sweeping in for dinner. So in an electricity-less age, a Samhain bonfire would have been one of the few opportunities to see this strange, shrieking creature dart in and out of the light.

Accounts of so many different Samhain rituals float around without ever citing a time period, coz frankly, we don't really know. What we do know is that the liminality was celebrated and feared. The Otherworld invited the visits of fairies and the dead into our human realm, as passage was free and easy on this in-between day.

Some, like your ancestors, you welcomed to your dinner table with an empty chair and reverent silence; some, you tried to ward away from your home with glowing, carved gourds, or trick by disguising yourself so they could not find you. It's said that this eventually became "guising,: or putting on a costume and going door to door to recite snippets of poems or plays in exchange for food.

But if you wandered out into the night, there was a chance you could find yourself lost in the Otherworld. To propitiate these sprites and ghosts, offerings of food, usually a portion of the crop, or drinks would be left outside for them.

Honoring the dead is, of course. a pan-cultural phenomenon.

There's Dia de Muertos, for instance, which originated with Aztec celebrations; as the rituals spread throughout Mexico, it was eventually moved to coincide with the Catholic triduum of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

Rife with cempasuchiles and happy skulls, it honors and celebrates the departed.

And then there are the forgotten festivals.

Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival, had massive influence over the Catholic calendar. According to Ovid, it began when Romulus, the surviving twin founder of Rome, was haunted by the angry ghost of his murdered brother Remus (Remuria became Lemuria, you see).

Lemuria was celebrated on alternating days mid-May (Maius): May 9, 11, and 13.

The grimmest of all those days was the last. The ghosts of those poorly departed never given proper rites were called "lemures" would wander the mortal world, seeking to bond with the living, usually a household. But they could not necessarily be trusted, since they were not family.

For those ghosts who weren't your forebears, you left offerings of leftover food, coins, or water or milk--sometimes at a crossroad--to ease their journeys, but on broken platters, so they knew they were not welcome to stay. I've also heard of milk being poured on graves to quell these ghosts.

But during Lemuria, there were also the larvae--the restless, vengeful dead who would haunt the living.

Ancient Roman mosaic representing the Wheel of Fortune.


To dispel the larvae from a home, the family patriarch would rise in the night and wash his hands three times. Then--barefoot, or at least with no bounds or knots in his clothing or shoes--he throws beans over his shoulder, or according to some, spits them out. As he goes, he recites an incantation to "redeem him and his" from the evil larvae.

He would do this in every room, nine times each, and at the end, he or the family made a freaking racket with bronze pans or gongs (or whatever) while banishing the larvae with another incantation.

In 609 A.D., the Pope turned Lemuria into All Saints Day. And some historians speculate that All Saints Day as we know it, a.k.a. All Hallows Day, was moved to its current place in the calendar by the Church specifically to remove focus from the pagan ritual of Samhain.

This made October 31 All Hallows Evening--the night before All Hallows Day.

Then All Hallows Even.

Then Hallowe'en.

And in case you were wondering: yes, the lemurs of Madagascar were named after the lemures. Because of their wide eyes and ghostly faces.

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