It’s one of the best days of the year today, and we have a guest post from author Suzy Witten titled Trick or Treat!
Suzy’s the author of a favorite book of mine that’s perfect for fall – The Afflicted Girls. It’s a novel set around the Salem witch trials with an unexpected twist. You can read my review for The Afflicted Girls by linking on this text. And read on as Suzy tells us a bit about the history of witches and their association with Halloween.
Trick or Treat!
Ask a child: who rides a broom on Halloween night? Of course, she’ll know.
Then ask: but why are witches associated with Halloween? You’ll get a shrug.
Because she’d have to look back thousands of years... to when on Yule night in Norway, goddess Reisarova and her witch hordes mounted their black steeds with eyes of shining ember, and during the wild ride would cast down saddles onto roofs, foretelling death for the occupant.
Or when the troll witch giantess Hyrrokin rode through her Swedish skies on a wolf bridled with snakes.
Or when on Lithuania’s midsummer night, all magicians and witches flew to the top of Mt. Szatria to revel with their mighty sorceress Jauterita.
Or when in the Scottish highlands at summer’s end, with a wand of power in her hand, grey-cloaked crone Nicnevin led her witch fairies and goblins astride animal spirits in a great celebratory Parade. Or when in Ireland, the beings and souls of the Otherworld—some of them human who’d been turned into cats for evil deeds—assembled at the sacrificial bonfire of the Druids among the people to honor the dying natural world in the presence of the aged Crone, the Hag, the Cailleach... all knew would re-emerge in spring as a beautiful, powerful maiden. For it was on Samhain night that the barrier between the worlds was so thin, spirits who were homesick could re-enter this mortal world and commune with and visit their loved ones.
In the German-speaking countries of Eastern Europe, the Old Goddess might appear at harvest’s end as an ugly, long-nosed spinster. On this Ember Night, she’d bring treats or play tricks: spindles of finished thread for industrious girls, dirtying or tangling the unspun
flax of lazy spinners. Sometimes she’d sport a tooth or nose of iron, or carry live coals in her pitcher for burning their distaffs. Her job was to reward and punish children. Often she took the form of a pig.
In time, she became a myth... as did her namesakes.
“At the end of the middle ages an international myth of the Old Goddess stretched from the Slavic east to the Celtic west and from Italy to Scandanavia. People said that a vibrant, powerful crone flew in the midst of a cavalcade of spirits dead and unborn, joined by witches of all lands. On the eves of pagan holy days the spirit hosts set out for high mountaintops or other sacred places. At these animist sanctuaries the witches dance, play music and games, feast and celebrate their mysteries.The divine “Mistress of the Night” presides over the gathering, giving cures and revealing the future. Often she miraculously revives the animals the witches have been feasting on.” (The Tregenda of the Old Goddess, Witches, and Spirits; Max Dashu (2000))
In these seemingly unrelated populations of pre-Roman, pre-Christian times, the Old Goddess’ names and manifestations were many. She was secure in her recurring reverence... until in the 1st Century B.C, the Romans invaded Northern Europe and brought their own festivals and goddesses with them.
Over the next four centuries, old and new customs merged, until by the 4th Century A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity everyone’s lawful religion and launched a holy war against Paganism and its symbols. The old practices were “Christianized,” and the old names, rites, meanings, symbols were recast.
By the 8th Century A.D., the Pagan holy day of Samhaim was celebrated as Hallowmas: a triple Christian holiday comprised of All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en (October 31), All Saints Day or All Hallows Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). This was still the time of year to remember the dead... but now the dead included martyrs and saints, and all faithful departed Christians.
As for the rest of us, it is the night when witches ride brooms, ghosts come a’haunting, and skeletons rise from graves... to shout in every doorway: “Trick or treat!”
Suzy Witten's career spans 20 years in the entertainment industry: as a filmmaker, screenwriter, story analyst, and editor for film and television. A graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, she was nominated for a Women In Film filmmaking award for her theatrical film Runaway Eden about teenage runaways in Hollywood, and was a Walt Disney Studios Fellowship finalist for her original screenplay about the Salem witch hunt of 1692. She is in the process of finishing a new Young Adult book, and also works intermittently as a Media Relations Specialist during disasters for the U. S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). She resides in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, The Afflicted Girls, won the 2010 Independent Publisher (IPPY) silver medal for historical fiction.