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Hell caves, evil fairies and animal sacrifice: Halloween’s intense Irish roots

A ghost is projected onto the side of Slane Distillery as part of a Halloween festival called Púca, celebrating the Celtic tradition of Samhain in Slane, Ireland. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
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Most cultures have holidays honoring the dead, like the Bon Festival in Japan or Famadihana in Madagascar.

Some include tales of hungry ghosts, like China’s Yue Laan, or evil spirits, like Central Europe’s Perchtenlaufen.

In England, there was even the Mummer’s Night tradition of the lower classes cross-dressing and going door-to-door, singing songs, making mischief and demanding “treats,” usually meat or alcohol — but this was more of a Christmas activity. (Christmas used be a literal riot.)

Though Halloween’s roots are numerous and reflect a multiethnic society, the way it is celebrated now is a distinctly American holiday. But there’s one tradition that historians say was more influential than any other: Ireland’s Samhain (pronounced “SOW-in”).

Samhain was the new year celebration observed by the Irish Celts for thousands of years before the arrival of Christianity in the 6th century. Literally translated, it means “summer’s end,” according to Lisa Morton, a preeminent Halloween historian and author of several books on the topic.

“It was the end of the warmer, sunnier half of the year for them. As their new year’s celebration, it was a time when they thought the veil between worlds was at its thinnest, and that all kinds of things could cross over on that night,” Morton said in a phone interview. “Those things might be the malicious sídh (pronounced ‘she’) — that was their version of fairies.”

But these were not “Disney fairies” like Tinkerbell, Morton stressed. They were nasty creatures and devils that would cause your crops to whither and might even burn down your house.

Since the Irish Celts were rural and Samhain was often the only time of year large numbers of people would gather in the ancient capital of Rathcroghan, in modern-day County Roscommon, there was also an administrative element. Livestock would be brought in from the fields for winter, and taxes were due to the king.

“We don’t know a lot about it, because the Celts didn’t leave written records,” Morton said. “But we do know from later Catholic missionaries who transcribed things, and some archaeological evidence, that they probably celebrated with feasting.”

And at those feasts, animals were sacrificed, and “they told ghost stories, and we have some of those stories, and some of those stories are specific to the hell caves,” Morton said.

The term “hell caves” is probably an early Catholic interpretation of Oweynagat (“Cave of the Cats”), a large cave system just outside Rathcroghan that was believed to be the entrance to the world of mean, nasty fairies. It was from these caves they would emerge on Samhain.

One of these ghost stories was about a hero named Nera, who followed an army of fairies into the other world, where it was summertime. Later, after he had escaped, he proved to the king his story was true by producing a handful of summer flowers.

“So that cave was a very magical place on Samhain,” Morton said.

Historians are split on when dressing up in scary costumes came into play. In a recent National Geographic exploration of Rathcroghan, researcher Mike McCarthy said the festivalgoers also “disguised themselves as fellow ghouls” so they wouldn’t be attacked and dragged into the other world. But Morton isn’t convinced; as with trick-or-treating and haunted houses, she thinks scary costumes started once the holiday had crossed the Atlantic.

The frightening history of Halloween haunted houses

So how did it get to America? Well, first it went through the filter of the Catholic Church.

“[Missionaries] had a doctrine at the time that suggested they were more successful if they co-opted existing temples and celebrations, rather than trying to destroy them and stamp them out,” Morton explained. “They didn’t have a lot of luck with the Celts and Samhain right off the bat.”

So first, around the 8th century, they moved the Catholic holiday of All Saints Day, originally observed on May 13, to Nov. 1. For the Irish Celts, a new day started at sundown, meaning the evening of Oct. 31. “Hallow” is an old word for holy, and “All Hallows Eve” eventually morphed into the word Halloween.

This first attempt was not very successful, so the church also moved All Souls Day, another observance of the dead, to November 2, around the 11th century. That “seemed to finally do the trick and convert the Celts,” Morton said.

In fact, it was so successful that although there’s scant evidence Celts outside Ireland ever observed Samhain, All Saints Day and All Souls Day expanded across the Celtic Catholic world, including to Scotland and England. (The Church of England put the kibosh on that when it separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th century.)

As Halloween spread, the macabre aspects of Samhain stayed embedded in it.

“Part of the reason that it has survived throughout the centuries is because we like that macabre side of it,” Morton said.

Halloween arrived on our shores in the 1840s with a wave of Irish immigrants pushed out of their home country by the Great Famine. The 19th-century golden age of magazines, particularly women’s magazines, pushed it out of immigrant enclaves and into the broader public.

“Middle-class housewives loved reading stories about quaint, regional celebrations, so the magazines would include these stories about Halloween festivities and parties and so forth, and they caught on,” Morton said.

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