Halloween myths of relevance

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 04 Nov 01


It may be a combination of thrill and dread we derive from knowing we are alive, feeling the breeze on our faces, and underfoot, men, and women who, too, felt this breeze, are now decomposing, skeletal, rooted in trees and clay beneath us.

 

“I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon,” was the song that came to mind on Halloween night. Before you dismiss this ritual of children wandering in the dark, dressed as spirits of the dead, as American consumerism, consider what Naipaul says “we go back and back.” And we do. Almost all ritual is rooted in that deep pool of humanity we all share.

 

According to Greek mythology, the Goddess of the Cornfield - she initiated brides and bridegrooms into “the secrets of the couch” - bore several children out of wedlock. Among them was her daughter, Core, who was so beautiful that Hades, the God of the Realm of the Dead, abducted her while she was picking flowers in a meadow. Hades renamed her Persephone, and made her Queen of the Underworld.

 

The Greek Myths as told by Robert Graves, recounts that her mother, the cornfield goddess “was so angry, she continued to wander about the earth, forbidding the trees to yield fruit and the herbs to grow, until the race of men stood in danger of extinction.”

 

Corn wilted, cattle died, and the world became a cold and dark place. The earth was dry and parched and there was no sun, or warmth. Alarmed at the state of affairs, Zeus, lord of the universe, Hades’ brother, summoned Demeter and implored her to replenish the earth. Demeter refused and swore that the earth would remain barren until her daughter was restored to her.

 

So Zeus sent a message to Hades saying: “If you do not restore Persephone, we are all undone!” Hades agreed to return Persephone, but on the condition that his new bride hadn’t tasted the food of the dead. She hadn’t, really, but some naughty spirit tattled on her, saying he’d spotted her eating seven pomegranate seeds.

 

A compromise was reached. Persephone would spend three months of the year among the dead, and the rest of the nine, with her mother, on Earth. The myth demonstrates the powerful, universal and timeless concept of the Earth as a woman and mother, provider of food and life and symbol of fertility. It denotes the connection between women, whose monthly cycles are linked to the moon and ebb and flow of tides, with the elements.

 

The changing of the seasons, the cycle of life in which we all roll towards eternity, has been marked by the pagan rites of worship and celebration rooted in Mother Earth.

 

In hotter climates, the swift dancing feet of women, their anklets jingling rhythmically to drums, pray to Mother Earth for rain during drought, and celebrate harvests in the time of plenty. About now, when the fields have started to go fallow in colder climes, it is the beginning of the dead time of the year, the winter solstice.

 

Catholics co-opted the pagan festival as churches do, to bring in the locals who lived very much by the rhythm of the land, and old ways, to the church. They called the beginning of winter, and the end of the harvest, when Perspherene returns to the underworld, “All Souls Day,” telling their flock: “The spirits are coming. Light candles by their graves. Keep vigil against evil and say prayers for the dead. Light a bonfire to keep evil at bay.”

 

The myths have also produced the opposite effect. The early Protestants in America rejected Catholic teachings, including the spirits, and proclaimed them evil, saying if they are not of God, they are of the devil.

 

In America they call it Halloween when people play-act and revert to simple beliefs that work at a gut level - if there is a scary thing out there, if the dead have come out to play, if I look and dress like them, then, they won’t hurt us.

 

The idea of the bogeyman made me think of the fears with which we surround ourselves mostly, that of death, the uncertainty of the after life, of the unknown, and our own mortality.

 

Children scampering about in vampire teeth, skin dusted in sepulchral gray, skeletal masks and fake blood running down their faces is a wonderful way of countering that fear of death and annihilation that is part of the human destiny, cultivated particularly in very ordered societies where it isn’t seen as part of a cycle but a shocking end.

 

As the year advances, and the days get shorter, darker, cooler, the division between the world of the living and the spirits of the dead becomes more tenuous. Our senses are sharpened to the knowledge that mortality can be seconds away, a few inches deep for any of us.

 

The vast sphere of the unknown warns us that all knowledge is limited, that there is no absolute truth, and that we have no choice but to be humble about our beliefs.

 

It tells us, too, that we can chip away at the vast darkness and uncover sheets of light, if we face up to our deepest, darkest fears with courage.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur