Halloween Symbols – Frequently Asked Questions

Halloween Icons
Halloween Icons, Image Courtesy of Taesmileland, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why are ghosts, haunted houses, and graveyards associated with Halloween?

Halloween has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celts, who once lived throughout Europe, believed that on the eve of what would later become October 31 on our modern calendar, the dead and other supernatural beings walked the earth and mingled with the living. Remnants of the old Samhain beliefs persist today, and Halloween continues to be associated with death-related symbols such ghosts, haunted houses, graveyards, and anything else that evokes the spirit world.

Why are the colours black and orange associated with Halloween?

Nobody really knows for sure, though the most likely reason is that orange  suggests aspects of autumn such as fall harvest crops (pumpkins, carrots, etc.) and leaves changing colour, and black evokes the darkness at summer’s end and death-related symbolism.

Why are witches associated with Halloween?

The witch stereotype is based on the Crone, a pagan goddess who featured prominently in the old Celtic Samhain celebrations. The Crone was originally a positive symbol of change and wisdom, but when the original Samhain traditions were suppressed and the old gods dismissed as demonic by incoming Christians, the Crone was recast as a menacing, harmful creature.

Why are cats associated with Halloween?

Cats (particularly black cats) were once thought to be witches’ familiars. This belief likely arose because the women who were accused of witchcraft often kept pet cats for company.

Why are broomsticks associated with Halloween?

Elderly women, who were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, were often too poor to afford horses, and some used brooms as walking sticks to get around.

Why are cauldrons associated with Halloween?

According to the old Celtic mythology, the cauldron of the Crone goddess (which represented her womb) was the place where souls went to await rebirth. The Crone’s stirring of this magical brew enabled new souls to enter and old ones to be reborn into new bodies. As with the other ancient beliefs, when the Celtic religion was suppressed, the cauldron imagery devolved into a negative symbol – the bubbling, toxic brew created by the evil witch.

Why are spiders associated with Halloween?

Spiders were associated with witches during the medieval era, possibly because they evoked dark forces in the minds of superstitious people due to their habit of hiding in dark places and the fact that a few species are poisonous.

Spider-related superstitions have included the belief that a spider falling into the flame of a candle-lit lamp signals that witches are nearby. However, spiders have not always evoked negative associations. Many myths feature spiders as positive omens, and one superstition holds that a spider appearing on Halloween night indicates that the ghost of a dead loved one is watching over you.

Why are bats associated with Halloween?

The ancient Celts lit bonfires on Samhain night to help guide the dead on their journey to the otherworld and to keep them at bay so that they would not bother the living. They believed these fires attracted insects, and that the insects attracted bats, so bats became associated with Samhain.

During the medieval era, bats were thought to be witches’ familiars. The bat lifestyle may have contributed to their association with dark forces, because they sleep by day and hunt in the darkness, and the caves where they live evoke the underworld.

Why are owls associated with Halloween?

Owls are considered bad omens in a number of cultures. The hoot or screech of an owl was once thought to foretell death, and a traveler dreaming of an owl predicted shipwreck or robbery. Some people also thought that owls were the only creatures who could live among ghosts, and that the empty homes where they made their nests were haunted.  It is likely that owls got a bad rap due to their nocturnal habits and tendency to shriek in a terrifying manner.

Most cultures have associated owls with magic, but not all have linked them with misfortune. The Indonesians thought owls were wise beings who could provide guidance; the Australian Aborigines believed owls to be the sacred souls of women; and in Brittany, spotting an owl foretold a bountiful harvest.

Why are skeletons and skulls associated with Halloween?

Halloween’s origins can be found primarily in the old Celtic Samhain festival. The ancient Celts believed that the dead walked among the living on Samhain night,  and skeletons evoke death, so they became a symbol of the modern Halloween celebration. However, the popularity of skeletons as Halloween icons may also stem from the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, in which skeletons feature prominently.

The Day of the Dead festival was originally held in early summer, but was later moved to begin on All Hallows’ Eve by Christian colonizers in the hope of replacing the Mexican celebration with their own holiday. They attempted to do this with Samhain as well, but were never fully successful with either holiday, as the original traditions of both have persisted to varying degrees.

Why are jack-o-lanterns (pumpkins) associated with Halloween?

Jack-o-lantern is a short version of Jack-o’-the-lantern, a term that comes from the legend of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was a prankster who went out drinking with the devil and then claimed he had no money to pay his bar tab. The devil transformed himself into a coin so that Jack could pay, but instead of handing the money over, Jack pocketed the coin and trapped the devil in his pocket with a cross, only releasing him when Satan promised never to take Jack’s soul down to hell. When Jack died, heaven didn’t want him and the devil had sworn not to take him, so he was cursed to walk forever in the darkness between worlds.

The devil must have liked Stingy Jack, because he took pity on him and gave him an ember from hell’s fires to light his way. Jack hollowed out a turnip and put the ember inside so that he could carry it more easily.

As the legend of Stingy Jack spread, people began carving their own vegetables and lighting them with coals or embers to keep harmful spirits at bay. Later, immigrants who came to North America from the UK carried on the tradition, but they switched to carving pumpkins rather than smaller vegetables and started lighting them with candles.

Why are vampires associated with Halloween?

This association likely stems from the belief that vampires could transform themselves into bats, which were associated with the old Celtic Samhain festival. However, the basis for modern vampire mythology can be found in Eastern Europe in the 1700s and 1800, where it was believed that those who had particular deformities or who died in an unusual manner would come back from beyond the grave to terrorize the living. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published in 1897) also made a major contribution to vampire lore.

Why are werewolves associated with Halloween?

A number of cultures have myths that feature shape-shifters who take on a wolflike form, most often around the time of the full moon. During the medieval era, werewolves were associated with witches and similarly persecuted, with communities tending to blame either a “witch” or a “werewolf” for any unexplained murder or misfortune that occurred.

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