The modern festival for children goes back deep into pagan times, through church history. Its origins were mixed. Blaming women for social ills was a constant theme. The consequences were severe.
The sky is dark and vacant, save for the glowing yellow moon. There’s a snap and a howl of wind. A small dark house looms beyond the swaying branches and moonlit fog. Through the window a light flickers on and the curtain glimmers orange.
Long claws slowly pull back the curtain and a woman in a shadowy robe peers through, eyes piercing and lips smeared black. The brim of her pointy wide hat rests above penetrating blue eyes. The witch smiles, revealing gruesome fangs, and opens the front door.
Spiderman, Cinderella, and Harry Potter excitedly open their bags and exclaim, “Trick or treat!”
Many years ago, an ancient Gaelic festival took place annually on October 31. It was believed that on this day the barrier between realms became very thin, allowing the living to connect with the dead. With a thin veil, it was thought that evil spirits and other supernatural forces could cross over to the living realm and cause harm.
Observers of this occasion were mostly religious. All Hallows’ Eve precedes All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day, a Christian festival that honours saints. Traditionally, the Church held a vigil on All Hallows’ Eve for the devout to pray and fast in preparation for the following festival.
At the time, the holiday involved many rituals and ceremonies to connect with the spirits. It was believed that observers celebrated in costume as a disguise against ghosts and evil spirits. As part of the festivities, grand feasts were held and lanterns were created by hollowing gourds—hence jack-o’-lanterns.
When Irish immigrants began arriving in America in the 1800s, their traditions and festivals followed them and began mixing with English and American ones. The simple telling of ghost stories and other traditions taking place in the fall in America transformed into what we now know as Halloween—costumes, decorations, extravagancies, and spookiness—a blend of Irish and English traditions.
The idea of sorcery and witches became associated with Halloween and its creepy qualities. Many young women at the time believed that Halloween was the best day to see into the future and often sought fortune tellers.
Witches represented many traditional feminine qualities that did not fit into the traditional patriarchal power structure, such as seer, healer, and nurturer—qualities that threatened the status quo. That made them, in a word, scary.
Now the iconic witch costume is one of Halloween’s favourite characters and will forever be appropriate for this creepy occasion.
The season of the Witch
Witch hunts were common for centuries, starting in the 1400s and continuing into the late 1700s. An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people were put to death for witchcraft. Most were women.
Ironically, the word “witch” means “wise-woman,” for the women accused of witchcraft were often healers and experimenters. Wise-women were important healers in Early Modern Europe and women held a crucial role in village medicine in the pre-industrial era.
During this period, medicine and science were losing their spiritual and otherworldly dimensions. Healers, magicians, and witches faced dwindling supporters and their reputation and claim to wield spiritual forces were getting lost.
In the Early Modern Period, Earth experienced what is known as the Little Ice Age. Europe was plagued with cold, harsh weather, disease, and famine, and witches made for convenient scapegoats. Witch hunts and trials often corresponded with natural and ecological disasters, crop failures, and inflation. There had to be someone or something to blame and sorcery seemed like an acceptable explanation.
As anger grew about the condition in which many Europeans lived in, witch hunts and trials increased. Protestantism was rising and proving to be the first real competitor of the Catholicism. To maintain dominance, the Catholic Church labeled people of other religions “heretics” and either attempted to convert them or killed them. As the Catholic church weakened, its tactics of conversion became less successful.
And so, the Catholics and Protestants battled for domination. Approximately 400 religious battles occurred in Europe from the 1300s through the 1800s. The perpetual wars combined with disease, freezing weather, and famine made for hard times.
Satan and his witches were deeply feared and the churches took advantage of that. They provided safety from hell and dark magic. It’s been theorized that to prove their dominance the churches hunted witches to show the danger mortals faced. If there was something for people to fear, the churches could keep their power.
Burning to death
Smoke fills your lungs and you begin coughing and choking. Your hands are tied behind your back and your ankles are strapped together. The rope scrapes against your wrists as you struggle with the bindings. Your terrified shriek pierces the cold night air as red and orange flames lick your feet.
Through the smoke you can see crowds gathered, shouting and glaring.
How can people cheer for my death?
You’re standing on a platform. Your heart is racing. Your mouth is dry. Your hands are sweaty.
This is my end.
Your hands shake behind your back and your legs feel numb. You think of your family and hope they aren’t watching. The flames surround you and grow higher. Your hands are clammy and your hair is sticking to the back of your neck.
“Help me! I’m not a witch! I’m innocent!”
Your voice drowns in the cacophony around you. No one is going to save you. You are going to die. Your chest is constricted and your breathing is shallow and quick. You have minutes left—probably less.
You will never see the sun again.
To your right you see another woman, screaming and sobbing, tied to a second post. To your left there is a third, nearly turned to ash, fire blazing in her hair. Your legs are burning and the searing pain is unbearable. Your skin is blistering and melting. You’re screaming and shaking, trying to free yourself despite knowing your death is a mere moment away.
You raise your head to the sky and tears slide down the sides of your face and drip from your chin. Your eyes are closed and you find yourself wishing to burn faster, to end this agony. The fire has now begun eating your arms. Anguish escapes from your throat and you cry out. You never knew this kind of constant, incinerating pain was possible.
You briefly wonder what will come after —but your time has run out. The flames engulf your chest and the smell of your own skin burning sears your nostrils. Your lungs no longer heave. Your muscles have evaporated. Your bones have charred. Your face is burning now and you can feel your skin liquefy and begin dripping.
And then—you’re gone.
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