“Read a Damn Book – 045: The Book of Hallowe’en”

Fall is almost upon us, and my favorite holiday is already in the air. But what’s really going on with this great, spooky, crazy day dedicated to ghosts and monsters and candy? (And how much has the holiday changed in the last 1,000 years???) Let’s find out.

history of halloween - (peg)

Ruth Edna Kelley – The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)

I did some searching, and couldn’t find out much about Ruth Edna Kelley, except that she was a librarian, and that she put out one of the very first book-length examinations of the history of Halloween. I started reading this book, almost half-heartedly, but I liked the cover and love the topic, so I thought, “Why not?” And within the first ten pages, as Kelley is tracing the Celtic elements that contribute to our modern holiday, she writes this about the Druids (the Celtic priests):

“Their chief god was Baal, of whom they believed the sun was the visible emblem…To Baal they made sacrifices of criminals or prisoners of war, often burning them alive in wicker images” (p. 9).

And I went, “WHAT?! Baal? He was a middle eastern god, Canaanites and all that. What the hell was he doing in northern Ireland? This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about…” So I did some research, and I discovered that the worship of Baal spread throughout the middle east, into north Africa and Europe, although in some areas, instead of Baal, the god was called Beil or Bel—and I knew that BELtane was one of the Celtic holidays in which fires were lit and sacrifices offered…so I suddenly thought, “Maybe this lady DOES know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start paying a bit more attention here.”


For those who are interested in cultural history, religious practices, the history of magic, and how to seriously throw down at a party, this book by Kelley can absolutely help you out. Kelley writes about the regional superstitions and practices from a great many places: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France, the Roman Empire, the Scandinavian lands, and points out the elements that most likely contributed to Halloween. Many of these cultures believed in supernatural creatures, like fairies, goblins, demons, and various gods, as well as believing in the possibility that the spirits of the dead could, on certain nights, communicate with or even walk amongst the living. (Usually, daybreak will dispel any supernatural effects.) Kelley looks at the regional versions of these beliefs in wonderful detail, often quoting from poems or stories that illustrate the beliefs she is describing.

Catholic conquerors, who would later come into these pagan lands, often attempted to overlay Christian symbols onto pagan beliefs, but in doing so would still managed to keep the spirit of the old superstitions and festivals alive, and the Catholics even added some of their own weirdness to the mix with practices such as “souling.” It was believed by Catholics that some spirits, who in life were not good enough to go to Heaven, but who were also not evil enough for Hell, would be trapped in Purgatory until such time as their souls were purged of sin and released to go upstairs. One thing that could help was praying for the souls of those trapped in Purgatory, and at some point, “soul cakes” were invented, either as a bribe to get people to pray for souls trapped in Purgatory or as PAYMENT for praying for those souls, and children would, during the “Hallows” festival, go door to door either begging for soul cakes or for money to buy soul cakes, and for each cake that the children ate, a corresponding soul was believed to be released from Purgatory to fly to Heaven. (Weird! What the HELL does eating cake have to do with forgiveness for sins???)

Another interesting thing that Kelley points out is that for many cultures, the presence of fairies or ghosts or other supernatural creatures during the fall festival meant that you could use their magic for various fortune-telling rituals. Most of the cultures that Kelley discusses had rites or spells that could be used to determine when someone would be married, what their future spouse would look like, if they would have good fortunes over the next year, or if they were likely to die before the year was out. (Some of these rituals remain with us today in the form of games, like bobbing for apples.) It can be pretty shocking as a reader in our modern era of science and good sense to see how earlier ages believed so much in magic! (Cough! Cough! Clears throat…) But Kelley does a VERY thorough job of examining these rituals and beliefs, pointing out the differences in various regions, and showing how they have led to our “modern” celebrations…

Oh, and about that idea of “modern” Halloween… It might be of interest to some of you to know that Kelley doesn’t mention the phrase “Trick or Treat” at all in this text. The book was published in 1919, and Trick or Treating didn’t become a THING in the United States until the very late 1920s or 1930s, and that was only in a few areas. In fact it wasn’t until after World War II that the practice of dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for candy really took off. Before that, Halloween in the United States was mostly kids pulling pranks—and Trick or Treating was invented, primarily, to BRIBE kids not to destroy or set fire to anything for the night. (None of this comes from Kelley’s book, of course. I recommend reading David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday (2002) if you want a history of All Hallow’s Eve that cover the evolution of the holiday throughout the 20th century!)

So, to wrap up, Kelley’s book is excellent if you’re looking for a thoroughly researched history of pagan and occult practices in Europe over the last thousand years or so. What Kelley really does well is that most of her assertions are actually backed up by snippets of poems or stories from the regions in question that illustrate her points. (Again, being a librarian means she knew how to back up her argument with primary sources!) The edition that I have (my wife bought it off Amazon for me for my birthday) has no publication information and one or two typos, but nothing so egregious that it made reading difficult. In addition, it should be pointed out that Kelley occasional indulges in some very outdated language that comes across as a bit racist (particularly in the short section where she discusses African-American folk beliefs), but if we consider WHEN this book was written, it’s not particularly surprising, and the few somewhat racist moments don’t really interfere with the argument that Kelley is making—but I did cringe a couple of times while reading, and the language may upset some readers. Overall, the book is well written, extremely well researched, and entertaining, and I found myself reading sections of it aloud to my wife, who was also entertained by the weird practices and beliefs that some humans have held—way, way back in the deep past—back before we KNEW any better. Right? Back when people thought that the forces of nature were controlled by gods who needed to be placated and sacrificed to in order for them not to be angered, and so they wouldn’t send horrible, natural disasters to destroy our cities… Glad that kind of ignorance is all over, aren’t you? (I’m looking at you, Pat Robertson…)

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)




About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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