The Legend of Halloween

Categories: Archeoastronomy, Halloween
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Published on: October 25, 2010



Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who’s history dates back 4,000 years, primarily lived in the area that is now Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and Portugal, although their empire stretched from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east, celebrated their new year on November 1.

This day marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Samhain was also the day when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. All of the harvest must be gathered in — barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples — for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.

The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth interacting with the living. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first festival was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second festival was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread to the Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, also known here as Dia De Los Muertos, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called Hallowmas.

The Legend of Jack-O’-Lantern

The Irish brought Jack-O’-Lantern to America. Jack was a legendary, stingy drunkard. He tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree for a juicy apple and then quickly cut the sign of the cross into the tree trunk, preventing the Devil from coming down. Jack made the Devil swear that he wouldn’t come after his soul in any way. The Devil promised. However, this did not prevent Jack from dying. When he arrived at the gates of heaven, he was turned away because he was a stingy, mean drunk. Desperate for a resting place, he went to the Devil. The Devil, true to his word, turned him away. “But where can I go?” plead Jack. “Back where you come from,” spoke the Devil. The night was dark and the way was long, and the Devil tossed him a lighted coal from the fire of Hell. Jack, who was eating a turnip at the time, placed the coal inside and used it to light his way. Since that day, he has traveled the world over with his Jack-O’-Lantern in search of a place to rest. Irish children carved out turnips and potatoes to light the night on Halloween. When the Irish came to America in great numbers in the 1840s, they found that a pumpkin made an even better lantern, and so this “American” tradition came to be.

The Great Galaxy in Andromeda

By the end of evening twilight tonight the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, also know as M31, is well placed for observing. With no interfering moonlight, a fine opportunity is awaiting skywatchers in dark locations. Use the Great Square of Pegasus as a starting point. This “sky mark,” now rotated into a diamond shape, sits more than halfway up in the east. Sight across the diamond from the upper left corner star, β Pegasi or Scheat, to the lower left corner star, α Andromedae or Alpheratz, formerly known as δ Pegasi. Continue in that same general direction you will find a 3rd magnitude star called δ Andromedae. Take a slightly more northern course to 2nd magnitude β Andromedae or Mirach, lying about 8° to the northeast of δ Andromedae. Make a 90° turn to the right and move about 3½°. You are now at μ Andromedae, a 4th magnitude star. Making a slight course adjustment to the left and moving about 3° you will come to 5th magnitude ν Andromedae. Now slowly scan the area with a good pair of binoculars. You are looking for a faint oval glow, about 1½° to the southwest, that easily fits in the binocular field of view.

Laptop Screen Filters

Many astronomers use laptop computers in the field. Unfortunately, using a “night mode” theme or skin is not enough to reduce the brightness of the screen to a level that will not damage your eye’s dark adaptation. To do that you will need a piece of red acrylic plastic. Here, in South Central Texas you can find red acrylic at:

Plastic Supply of San Antonio
102 Josepine St

The most recommended thickness is 060 (1/16″), which is item #2423.

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