Just a few days, it will be Halloween. Yes, that season of the year when the spirit of the dead and other spirits are visiting the world of the mortals. Halloween is always associated with eeriness and spookiness. But do we need to fear the spirit of the dead, the visiting sprites in the garden when the night falls, or the demons, which they say, can cause us harm?
In the Celtic world, Samhain (which means the end of summer), is considered one of the most important cycles of the year. It is when the crops have already been harvested and the falling of leaves signals the entry of the time darkness — winter. It is usually celebrated on October 31st up to November 1st, in the northern hemisphere.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is the “sinister” time of the year for it “was fraught with danger, charged with fear, and full of supernatural episodes.” It is the time of the year when the veil between the mortal and the spiritual worlds is in its thinnest; therefore, it is also the season when the spirit of the departed returns to the land of the mortals and return to their homes. It is also the time when evil spirits are also present. Because of this, bonfires were lit and sacrifices are made in order to ward them off and protect the household from getting attacked by these malevolent entities.
In an article published by the BBC in 2011, it says that while the central theme of the Samhain is death and honouring the souls of our dearly departed, it is actually a feast to celebrate life itself. Death is not to be feared; rather, it should be welcomed as it is part of Nature.
Meanwhile, the good spirits — the fey or faeries — also roam during the nights of Samhain. The offerings were made to honour them, as they are the protectors of the people and their livestock.
Furthermore, it is also the time for divination. The commonly asked questions are about marriage and death. What is more interesting is that some use apple to divine the future!
“Apples were the fruit of the Other World, a land sometimes called Avalon or Avallach — the Isle of Apples. They are often used for magic and fortune telling. A young woman would peel an apple all in one paring, and throw it over her shoulder on Samhain Eve. The peeling would take the shape of the first initial of the man she would marry. Eating an apple in front of a mirror while combing your hair will conjure your true love’s image in the mirror. Another tradition is “dunking for apples”. Apples are placed in a tub or barrel of water, and dunkers will try to retrieve these apples with their teeth. Those who succeed will have good fortune the following year,” wrote Susa Morgan Black, a modern-day druid from Scotland in 2019.
This age-old tradition is actually the precursor of the celebration that we all know as Halloween.
Undas: Honouring the Saints and Martyrs
In the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, Undas is considered as equivalent of Halloween and is celebrated on November 1st.
The word Undas came from the Spanish word “honras,” which means “to honour.” However, the November 1 celebration is not dedicated to the souls of our dearly departed but for the saints and martyrs of the Christian (Catholic and Orthodox) faith. That’s why it’s called “All Saints’ Day” or Todos Los Santos in Spanish. It is on November 2nd that we honour the souls of our family and friends who already passed on, and pray for the souls in the purgatory.
In his column for the Philippine Star, Breakthrough in October 31, 2019, Elfren S. Cruz wrote that prior to World War 2, are truly conscious over the distinction between the two celebrations.
Nov. 2 was originally chosen as the date in order that the memory of all the holy spirits both of the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory should be celebrated on two successive days. In this way, the Christian belief in the Communion of Saints will be better expressed,” he said in his column.
“This day of praying for the dead is tied to the Catholic belief that not everyone who dies in God’s grace is ready to go to heaven. To prepare them for the beatific vision (direct experience with God and His perfect nature), they must be purified of lesser faults or venial sins,” he added.
“This stage of purification is Purgatory. Catholics believe that the prayers and mass offerings of the living will in some way benefit those who are dead but are still in Purgatory. All Souls Day, therefore, is a day for saying requiem masses and praying novenas for the souls of our beloved ones who may still be in Purgatory,” Cruz further explained.
The Magic of the Ancestors and Honouring the Dead
The ancient Filipinos believe in life after death. Though the burial rituals differ from tribe to tribe, it still shows how the Filipinos venerate the dead through prayers and rituals.
The spirits of the ancestors are considered as guides, whose wisdom and power can be tapped through certain rituals. They are called Anitos, although the term is also used to refer to nature spirits and deities in the Filipino folk cosmology.
In Mindanao for example, the shamans or witch doctors, often invoke the powers of the anitos to heal certain illnesses, to bring good fortune, and to ensure bountiful harvest.
In the hinterlands of Luzon, the Ifugao tribe is also into ancestral, sympathetic magic. In an article published in 1958 by R. F. Barton, he wrote:
The priests, seated on mats of runo reeds laced together in parallel, whether the ritual is held in village or field，and amidst jars of rice-wine, large wooden bowls into which the wine is occasionally poured, and ritual chests piled with freshly-plucked betel nuts or betel flowers with peppervine leaves, first invoke their respective ancestral spirits and these spirits then “possess” them, and partake of the wine and promise the benefits desired through the bodies of the priests. For sipping the wine, the priests use coconut-shell cups with symmetrically notched rims.
Bringing Back the “Magic” and “Sacred” in the Halloween
As the spirit of our dearly departed and ally spirits visit us this Halloween, let us welcome them with deep reverence and sacred respect.
For me, an elaborate ritual is not needed. A simple offering of flowers, candles, incense, food, water, and heartfelt prayer will do. It is your intention that counts. Let us bring back the real reason why we celebrate this day that is to honour the souls of the dead and to tell them that we, the living, have never forgotten them. Moreover, it is also a way to thank them for their intercession and guidance.
Barton, R. F. (1958). “Myths and Their Magic Used in Ifugao.” Folklore Studies 17, (PDF) 209–212.
BBC Religions. (2011). Samhain. In BBC website. Retrieve from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/samhain.shtml#top
Black, S.M. (2019, December). Deeper Into Samhain / Samhuinn. Retrieved from https://druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-festivals/samhain-festival
Cruz, E. S. (2019, October 31). History of Undas. In Breakthrough (Column), The Philippine Star. Retrieved from https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/10/31/1964784/story-undas
De Jong, R. (2014, June 22). Mindanao, Magic, Medicine and Mystery. In Things Asian. Retrieved from http://thingsasian.com/story/mindanao-magic-medicine-and-mystery
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016). Samhain. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Samhain
The Editors of New World Encyclopedia. Samhain. In New World Encyclpedia™. Retrieved from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Samhain
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, October 10). Anito. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:11, October 14, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Anito&oldid=982884235
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, September 15). Funeral practices and burial customs in the Philippines. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:20, October 14, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Funeral_practices_and_burial_customs_in_the_Philippines&oldid=978482491