Halloween comes creeping up this month. But what is the origin of this holiday? Its roots go back to the Celts; this group of people has an antecedent in the Hallstatt culture of central Europe according to a widely held archaeological construct.
Historically, Celtic tribes spread from Europe into Western Europe and on to the British Isles. They preserved their cultural heritage with oral tradition, though Greek and Roman writers eluded to them. Later, in the 4th century A.D. they developed a way of writing called ogham.
Their culture also produced their own holidays and used their particular calendar. Our November 1st had its own designation on the Celtic calendar; it began their new year and winter. During this season, they celebrated the Samhain festival.
The Celtic people thought that the dead souls became animate and rambled around amongst the quick or living people at this time, as they journeyed to the afterlife. Ghosts, elves, and goblins were thought to return for harm. The Celtic priest fired up large fires made with oak branches, thought to be sacred. The priests protected the people with these fires and burnt animals and crop sacrifices. The folk extinguished the fires in their abodes. There were variations on theses practices in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Some Roman traditions were incorporated into Samhain postnate to conquering the British Isles in 43 A.D. such as the October festival of Feralia which honored the deceased and the festival of harvest or Pomona celebrating the goddess of fruit. Possibly, apple bobbing became part of Halloween because of Pomona. The Romans also liked apple cider and the Celts incorporated it into their celebrations.
When Christian missionaries came to the British Isles to convert the Celtic people, they strived to eliminate the pagan religion and its holidays. But All Saints Day originated to honor the Christian martyrs killed by the Romans during the latter days of their empire. Local congregations acknowledged the martyrs of their area. It had become a standard feast in Antioch by the conclusion of the 4th century. This feast is referenced by St. Ephrem in a sermon of 373 A.D. Originally, this feast day was observed during the Easter season. In the 8th century A.D. Pope Gregory the Third changed the feast date to the 1st of November.
This pagan holiday and the Christian feast were blended together by the church trying to rid the converts of pagan ideas and influences and yet get them converted. Since part of the pagan festival was on November 1st these celebrations were melded as Gregory the First told his missionaries "engage " the traditions of the people in order to facilitate their conversion.
This reality of death that we face was ritualized in the Celtic ideas and the death of the saints has been observed by the Catholic Church and other orthodox traditions. People dealt with death through religion and art more than we do today.
The Black Plague has surfaced through the centuries, even before the Middle Ages. This finger of death wiped out 25 million folks from 1346 to 1352. It snapped its ugly fingers and wiped out millions more from the 15th to 18th centuries. It started in China during the 1330's and through trade ships traveled to Italy in 1347.
Boccaccio an Italian poet aptly defines the symptoms of the Black Plague in Decameron speaking of the swelling of the lymph nodes and other symptoms. He described the macabre nature produced by this disease too.
“How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.”
This atmosphere of continual death had men going through the streets with carts crying "Bring out your dead." It influenced the written and visual arts and music. One result in the visual arts of the Black Death was the Ars Moriendi, which means The Art of Dying. These books were produced in the historical background of the plague and its effects on society. It was adapted to several languages in Europe. It started the genre of how to die treatises. There is one existing copy of the long version with illustrations and 299 without the prints.
The short form of Ars Moriendi had 11 woodcuts that explained pictorially and could be used to explain The Art of Dying. The focal point concerns the Last Rites of the Catholic Church for a Medieval Christian. The woodcut below is depicting Pride, which is said to be a temptation among five that assaults a dying person. The man in the picture is assaulted by demons trying to get him to accept crowns. This is an allegorical allusion to pride popular in Medieval Art. Jesus, Mary, and God the Father are in the scene watching. ( circa 1460, Netherlands)
The Dance of Death is a woodcut by by Hans Holbein done prior to 1538 is shown below.
This icon depicts monks deformed by the plague getting a priest's blessing. (Historiated initial "C")
We don't deal with death through art in a serious way anymore, at least usually not, but Halloween reminds us of the Grim Reaper's presence,which is an idea from Medieval Art that has a popular influence this month.