Thursday, October 30, 2008
Many Worlds on Samhain and All Hallows Eve
Samhain or All Hallows Eve, known popularly as 'Hallowe'en' traditionally was the time in the year when the gates to other worlds were opened, allowing the living to communicate with their dead.
In contemporary Western culture, it is more of an excuse for costume parties, consumption of chocolate and general merrymaking than anything else. In the States, marketing figures show that consumers spend more on Hallowe'en decorations, costumes and food than they spend on any other festival.
Rather than setting a place at the table for the beloved dead, sitting on a grave mound to communicate with other worlds or otherwise being involved in any spiritual activities, it appears that Hallowe'en now is equated with 'horror' and the nastier aspects of the occult. Films depicting mass slaughter by lunatics or otherworldy creatures are popular at this time of year. The media runs marathons of 'horror' films of a type known as 'Grindhouse' films, a term that I initally thought referred to some awful tradition of using a meat grinder to dispose of the remains of murder victims but in fact refers to exploitation films without any artistic quality to recommend them.
Ghost stories always have been popular, even in ancient times. Beowulf is kind of a 'ghost story', albeit one that includes heroics and exceptional poetry. Folktales throughout the world speak of horrifying creatures fueled by bloodlust or a desire for revenge upon humanity. Nonetheless, I think it is a pity that a festival that originated in a tradition to honour the dead and explore the otherworld has degenerated mainly into a simplistic 'fear fest'.
The practice of 'trick or treat', on the other hand, is very ancient and deserves recognition in our culture, although some of the fun has been robbed by threats of poison and other abuses of ancient rites of hospitality. Dressing in costume likewise is a venerable and respected custom. It is simply the stark equation of 'Hallowe'en' with horror that needs some reformation in my view. A good tradition would be that of remembering dead friends and relations by sharing photograph albums and recounting favourite memories. At least, raise a glass in honour of the dead at some point on All Hallow's Eve, even if you follow that with a 'Grindhouse' marathon of films.
Interestingly enough, though, Samhain marked the time when animals would be slaughtered in order to prepare for the harsh Winter season. The reasons were twofold: animals who were slaughtered need not be fed through the barren months, and secondly, the meat could be salted and preserved for use until Spring.
Perhaps the emphasis on horror and mass slaughter at Hallowe'en harkens back to the old practice of sacrifice. Instead of making an actual ritual sacrifice of a human being, people watch it being enacted fictionally in a film. Could it be argued that the enactment of a sacrifice generates energy in the same way that a real sacrifice would? Certainly all the same emotions are engaged when the viewer watches the act in question: a combination of terror, excitement and in some cases, vicarious bloodlust. In ancient times, animals were subsituted at the last moment for the original human victim. Now, perhaps, we substitute virtual reality for the actual.
Were it done to propitiate the gods or 'spirits', why should any otherworldly being require real flesh and blood in sacrifice? Perhaps the ritual would suffice...
On a lighter note...
The photograph shows three dolls that have been popular in the States in the past century. The tiny 'Wee Patsy' doll is a modern Effanbee reproduction of a doll originally created by the Effanbee company in the 1930s. The large 14" doll is a Madame Alexander doll from 1948 with the lovely 'Margaret' face, dressed in a designer outfit by contemporary doll artist Robert Tonner. Barbie needs no introduction.
I believe that dressing dolls for holidays is a good way to celebrate any festival. It was something that my mother did when I was a child and I inherited my love of dolls and doll clothes from her. It can be very therapeutic as well. If one does not own a beautiful house with all luxury furnishings, one can decorate a doll's house, achieving harmony and perfection in miniature. In some cultures in fact, this practice was considered to be a form of sympathetic magic. By furnishing a miniature home with specific items and placing a doll in it, one created a 'wish' and imbued it with power. Many tombs in fact contain miniature dwellings, completely furnished, with tiny figures representing the dead to inhabit them.
I wouldn't go THAT far with these dolls but it is rather satisfying to create an attractive doll portrait for Hallowe'en.