Traditions and superstitions from Halloween's Celtic roots

Supernatural specialist Dr Bob Curran sheds light on the darker rituals and folklore that lay at the heart of Halloween's origins in Ireland

Above: Derry celebrates Halloween this year with a nine-day 'Return of the Ancients' festival

Halloween has long been a staple of our modern-day calendar, taking place at the tail-end of October. If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll discover that it actually used to occur much earlier in the year.

With this year’s Derry Halloween festival taking the theme ‘Return of the Ancients’, we’re delving into the ancient Celtic roots of this spooky holiday. What are some the traditions people used to keep to on All Hallows’ Eve? Just who comes back from the otherworld to visit the living at Halloween – and should we take an extra glance over our shoulder as we go about our business at this time of year..?

A psychologist, historian and author of many books relating to the supernatural, Dr Bob Curran says Halloween actually used to take place in the summer, closer to May Day. It wasn’t until later that the Church moved it to the date we now know, to tie in with the Feast of Souls – a day to honour the dead.

'The year was split between light and dark,' says Curran. 'The Celtic year was divided into four quarters, based on the four stations of the sun (the solstices and equinoxes). These were Imbolc, Beltane (the beginning of summer), Lughnasadh and Samhain (the beginning of winter). These divisions all had supernatural importance.'

At Halloween, it was believed the veil between our world and the otherworld was at its most fragile. It was a time when the dead could therefore come back to the land of the living, though there were many other things to watch out for too.

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'You had to be very careful because Halloween night was supposed to be the night of the fairy funeral,' says Curran. 'This was a common belief – that the souls of those who had died in the past year were taken to the Gates of Hell by the fairies. The fairies couldn’t enter because they had no souls, so they were usually in a bad mood and if they met you on the road, they could take you with them. The thing to do if you met them was to take your coat off, turn it inside-out and say, ‘My face to you, my back from you.’

'At Halloween you also had to give a warning when throwing out the water at night from the house, in case someone – a spirit – was passing. You had to say, ‘Away, away, dirty water!’ All sorts of things were very active around Halloweeen - not only the souls of the dead, but other things from the otherworld as well.'

Such things included the aforementioned fairies, while Sheehogues were also said to be afoot – creatures that were 'unquantifiable but somewhere between fairies and the souls of the dead.' The Púka was also very active around Hallowe’en and these half-ghost, half-fairy beings could do all manner of things, such as entering people’s houses to create havoc.

As the sun sunk lower in the sky and the nights grew longer and colder, it was believed the darkness of the otherworld was beginning to invade our own world. With the supposed weakening of the sun in winter, people therefore burned fires to help replenish it and to ward off spirits. They tended to stay indoors because of the cold and so had lots of time to think and to tell stories.

'The dead were still in their memories and they translated this as that they were still around,' says Curran. 'They believed your dead ancestors were the best people to look after you because they were interested in helping the family line to continue.'

As such, at Halloweeen it was understood that ghosts came back for various reasons. For instance, they could administer warnings, bestow gifts and offer advice, says Curran. They could also come back to conduct unfinished business interrupted by their death.  

'If you misbehaved, ghosts might warn you of the consequences,' says Curran. 'A mother who had died in childbirth could also come back to suckle the child. That gave the child great powers, usually ‘the cure’.

'A ghost could come back to bestow gifts, such as the cure or the second sight, so you could see what was going to happen in the future – usually that other people who were going to die in the area. You would see what was called a pattern – the imprint of the ghost. Ghosts could punish you too. They could also bestow great riches, for example, showing you where money was hidden.'

Halloweeen was also a time for prophesying and for young women, presented an opportunity to find out who they were going to marry. This involved witchcraft, however, so was generally done in secrecy…

'At the time of the first Harvest moon a young woman could look in the mirror, say the Lord’s Prayer backwards and she would see the person she was going to marry,' says Curran.

Samhain moon

The Samhain moon lit up in Derry to celebrate the ancient festival

'There was also the Dumb Supper. You cleaned the house and made sure you were alone, then you baked a cake or a loaf of bread, but without uttering a word. It had to done in silence – clocks had to be stopped as well. At midnight, you placed the cake or loaf on the table with two chairs and an iron knife, and a pattern of the boy you would marry would come and eat the cake. But if you uttered a word when the pattern was there, you killed him. That was considered great witchcraft.'

A young woman could also wash her shift and hang it in front of the fire to dry. At midnight the man she was destined to marry – if indeed she was to marry - would come and turn the shift. You can’t discuss Halloween without mentioning witches, of course, and it was at this time of year that they were considered to be most powerful.

'In ancient Ireland we have to draw a distinction between black and white magic though,' says Curran. 'Because in many communities, witches worked as midwives and wise women. They had knowledge of herbs and so on. At this time of the year, in small communities, there was generally a woman who wasn’t well liked and who cursed you. So you had to be aware of women who could do you harm.

'In the winter people had colds and were dying – this was put down to the administrations of witches. It also explained if livestock died or got ill as well. You had to be careful not to annoy people at Halloweeen!'

This year Derry celebrates 'Return of the Ancients', themed around the origins of Halloween in Ireland, from October 26 to November 3. For details of it's 100 plus events taking place, including the popular Awakening the Walls illuminations trail, as well as travel information, make sure to visit www.derryhalloween.com.

As part of the programme there will also be a Halloween Origins Tour visiting a number of prehistoric sites and ancient habitats across Derry and Strabane which hold tales about the beginnings of Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival. The hiking tour, which takes approximately seven hours, runs each day from October 26 to November 1 departing from the Visit Derry tourist office on Foyle Street at 9.30am. Places cost £39.40 per person and can be booked online by clicking here or by contacting tour guide Martin Reilly on 07926785706 or emailing martin839@btinternet.com.