SAINT PAUL, passing by the hill of Mars, beheld an altar bearing the inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD, and therefore reproached the Athenians for their superstitious devotions. Of course, hedging your bets is not restricted to pagans, and despite the triumph of the Pale Galilean, in no time at all various ancient holidays found themselves tricked out in new suits of clothing.
All-Hallow's Eve, celebrated October 31, was the traditional beginning of the New Year among the Irish. The barrier between the underworld and this became transparent, and inhabitants of each could transgress the lands of the other. The barrows and tumuli opened to the heroic, who could enter them in search of treasure, though not without grave risk. The two chief characteristics of ancient Hallowe'en were the lighting of bonfires and the belief that of all the nights of the year, this was the one during which ghosts and witches were most likely to wander abroad. Should mischievous pixies, elves or goblins chance to visit, they could be propitiated by small gifts of sweets, apples, nuts or bowls of milk left on the doorstep.
About the first of November, the Druids held their great autumn festival and lighted fires in honor of the Sun-god. Small stones were placed in the dying embers, one for each person, and in the morning a search was made. If any pebbles were displaced or missing, it was regarded as certain that the person represented would die within the next twelve months. Further, on the eve of this festival, Saman, Lord of Death, called together the wicked souls that for the last twelve months had been condemned to occupy the bodies of animals. Onto the Druidical ceremony were grafted aspects of the Roman festival in honor of Pomona, also held about the first of November. In this celebration, nuts and apples, representing the winter store of fruits, played an important part. The roasting of nuts and the sport of apple ducking, in which you try to seize with your teeth an apple floating in a tub of water, were universal.
Pope Boniface IV converted the Pantheon at Rome into a Christian church, dedicated to all the martyrs, in 610 a.d. The festival of All Saints, originally held on May first, was changed to November first in 834.
A pilgrim returning from the Holy Land, it is said, took refuge on a rocky island during a storm. There he met a hermit, who told him that among the cliffs was an opening to the infernal regions, through which flames ascended, and where the groans of the tormented were distinctly audible. The pilgrim told this tale to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who in 998 appointed the day following All Saint's to be set apart for the benefit of those souls in Purgatory. All-Soul's Day, celebrated November 2, is devoted to prayer and almsgiving on behalf of the faithful departed.
Christian tradition further has it that the Deluge descended on the last day of October, drowning the world and everybody in it save Noah, and his wife, and his three sons, and their wives, and two of each kind of animal. All Saint's thus remembers the ante-deluvian dead.
On Hallowe'en we carve jack-o'-lanterns, enlivening their eerie goblin faces with candles, and dress up as ghosts and witches and animals and go trick-or-treating and bob for apples and crack nuts. When I was a boy, we carved apples in the shape of tiny jack-o-lanterns, and stuffed the hollowed-out interiors with minced apple, raisins, nuts, and sometimes a bit of sharp cheese.
On this day we honor all the unhonored forgotten dead, all the unknown gods and saints grown misty from the passage of time. They are not really forgotten, and not really dead. Their children's children's children remember them in their very bodies, and once each year, burn candles and enjoy a celebratory feast in which all, both living and dead, partake.
All-Souls' Eve & All Saints' Day, 1994
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an alter with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. - The Acts of the Apostles, 17:22-23.
Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown gray from thy breath . . . - Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 - 1909) Hymn to Prosperpine (1866). "Vicisti, O Galilæe." You have conquered, Galilean," the dying words of Julian the Apostate (332 - 363).
BACK TO LISTINGSLAST ARTICLE