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A Pagan Holiday


It’s Halloween, time for creepy, crawly things and creepy, crazy people to pop out of the underworld and give us a good scare.

Do ghosts and goblins frighten you?  Witches on broomsticks?  How about a hoard of cross-dressing, street-walking zombie angels?  I hear whores and superheroes are very popular this year.

Worry not your pure heart; Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.  In this country, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up and get crazy, a bleached out, capitalistic expression of an ancient ritual that once paid tribute to the duality of existence and the division between the material and spiritual; it was a celebration of life and death.  But, in the proudest American tradition, we have super-sized Halloween into an extreme, culturally sanctioned psychotic break.  It’s a day when the social restraints that normally bind our egos and libidos are cut away, leaving only our imaginations to limit how slutty, debauched, deranged or lecherous we become.

No doubt, the American version of Halloween is a sacred cash cow, generating lots of revenue for businesses big and small.  According to the National Confectioners Association, $2.4 billion was spent on Halloween candy in 2012 and an October 2011 article in The Atlantic states that Halloween spending in the US was about $5.9 billion that year.  That’s definitely the American way, baby.

The dollar is King in our time and we tend to measure our value by counting up the dollars we have accumulated but it wasn’t always so.  Early cultures the world over found that living in harmony with nature was the way to abundance.  They were the original tree huggers.  They strived to live within the cycles of nature and to take advantage of the natural gifts that those cycles afforded them.  Planting, harvesting, births and deaths were viewed in the context of these cycles.

In all of these ancient cultures, there were individuals who had the gift of sight, who were able to see beyond the curtain that separates the material world from the spiritual.  At different times, we called them mystics, priests, seers, shamans, medicine men or witches.  All the old cultures depended on these mystics as the gateways to the other side, bringing back information that was used to guide major decisions.

Halloween as we know it today was originally a Pagan holy day commonly celebrated among the Celtic peoples of Europe.  If I may be less than scholarly here and use Wikipedia as my guide, the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which was used to refer to someone from the countryside.  In a non-spiritual context, today we might use words like rustic, yokel, or bumpkin.  By the middle ages, the term pagan was being used to describe those who were slow to convert to Christianity, usually those from the countryside who followed the old ways.

If you will recall, before Christianity took hold, most of the world believed in multiple Gods and Goddesses.  Roman, Greek and Norse mythology all include a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses and describe the exploits of these Original Superheroes in great detail.  Pagans, too, were polytheistic but, instead of Super Humans, their gods were plants, animals, the stars and the planets.

As Christianity became less and less tolerant of ANY competing spiritual paradigm, the term pagan took on a decidedly nasty tone.  Even today, in a society and culture that is growing distant from the church, I think most people might say a pagan was “god-less,” a “devil worshiper,” or a “heathen.”

Naturally, there is a Biblical foundation for this:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12 reads:

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.”

That’s some pretty friendly, turn-the-other-cheek kind of shit, right?  Given the open-minded nature of the Christian church in those days, it’s not a surprise that followers of the old ways moved their spiritual practices into the shadows to avoid being burned at the stake.

Perhaps you remember a little thing called the Inquisition?  Starting in the 12th century, the Catholic Church decided to weed out all the heretics and free thinkers in its ranks.  Starting in France, the church first targeted other sects of Christians who had their own ideas about being Christian.  It seems the church didn’t like competition; it wanted a monopoly on representing all men’s souls.

By the end of the Middle Ages, church leaders, apparently believing that the purge was having a positive effect, expanded it to Portugal and Spain, home to many Jews and Muslims, and to other parts of its worldwide religious empire.  About the same time, the church started to persecute witches and sorcerers, beginning the era of religious witch hunts.  These witch hunts lasted from the 15th century until the 18th century, resulting in the execution of between 40,000 and 100,000 people.  Today, some mark the official dead end of this period with British Parliament’s passage in 1735 of the Witchcraft Act, which made it illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft.

Suffice it to say, tolerance was not a quality that the early church was known for and pagans knew that the Good News of the gospel wasn’t so good for them.  As followers of the natural cycles of life, pagans dealt with life and death, material and spiritual, but the church had painted them as Godless, or even worse, as devil worshipers.  Pagans were believed to practice the black arts, commune with the dead and lead un-holy lives.  They worshipped multiple Gods and Goddesses, planets, and signs of the zodiac, pretty much everything the church hated.

Given all this hatred and persecutory zeal, how did Pagans and Halloween manage to survive the Inquisition, witch trials, and centuries of slaughter?  First of all, Paganism and all the old world nature religions are much older than Christianity and have very deep roots in many cultures.   Christianity acknowledged this early on by fashioning its own rituals and holy day calendar after the Pagan.  Christmas, Easter, and Halloween itself have all become Christianized but were clearly modeled after the Pagans’ own calendar.  So, even though Pagans were sought out and murdered, they were also encouraged to adopt the new Christian faith, at least superficially, and allowed to celebrate on or near their own native holidays.

Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was once something akin to a harvest festival, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, a much darker, colder time of year.  According to Tamar Lalenya, a healer and a mystic who I met at the Mystic Journey Bookstore in Venice recently, Halloween is the pagans’ most important holiday “because it is the time of year when the veil that separates the spiritual and material worlds is the thinnest.  It’s a good time to do magic.”

Part of that magic was communing with the dead.  Honoring the dead was an important part of acknowledging the past.  For Christians, All Hallows’ Eve, is also about honoring the dead, dead Saints that is.  The following day, November 1, is All Saints’ Day, when all goodly saints, known and unknown, were honored.  Finally, on November 2 comes All Souls’ Day, when all good, observant Christians who had passed to the next world are honored.

Naturally, the accessories that come with Halloween also come from the old ways and the Christian adaptations.  Jack O’Lanterns and costumes were said to scare the devil, and death, away.  Some say that costumes were meant to deceive the devil so he wouldn’t know whose souls to take away with him. Bonfires were often built in order to keep the dark, evil things at bay.

The Celtic name for Halloween is Samhain (pronounced like Sow-win or Sa-win) and it was believed to be a time when the spirits could more easily come into our world.  There were feasts at which the souls of dead relatives were invited to take a place at the table.

Hundreds of years later, we still feast, but its mostly on candy and alcohol.  One might argue that the Halloween parties of today would scare the devil out of the devil himself but it is no longer a harvest festival or celebration of our departed ancestors.  It is a night when we can become whatever it is we most fear to be during the day.  We take our deepest anxieties, fears and longings and we run with them.

Elaine Alghani, a shamanic practitioner in Woodland Hills with deep Celtic roots, says that Americans may be overdoing the whole Halloween ritual because we tend to ignore the past and our ancestors, except when someone dies.  So, in order to compensate, “it’s been turned into a mad form of commercial ugliness.”

Perhaps modern Halloween is our way of plumbing the depths of some new psychic awareness, letting ourselves escape the boundaries we were taught as children and finding ourselves briefly in a flurry of costumes, masks, make up and abnormal behavior.

“Everything that used to be underneath the surface is now in the open,” said Catherine Auman, a transpersonal therapist and observer of our communal psyche who works in Los Angeles.  “BDSM, porn, the sexualization of children, violence, sluttish behavior, fetish shoes, addictions, overt narcissism, ‘the dark side.’  Everything has been homogenized.  Nothing is shocking anymore.”

It seems that the more outrageous a Halloween party gets, the better. And if you’re honest, isn’t that the kind of Halloween party you want to be at?


The religious supernatural recognizes – zed a self torn between transcendent forces that fought for its possession.

The Devil and his minions, the Demons, engaged in a struggle for the soul with the angels and guardian spirits. When the religious supernatural expresses the search for salvation in terms of conflict and terror it anticipates the universe of Fantastic anxiety. A particular interest in this cluster of images is the material drawn from Cornell’s extensive Witchcraft collection.

Most of these engravings are taken from books printed in the 1800’s and early 1900’s about witchcraft and the occult. The image below is a witch riding a wolf, originally woodblock

  • Book Maurice Garçon. La Vie Execrable de Guillemette Babin, Sorciere. Paris : H. Piazza, 1926. Page 28.
Bernard Zuber, artist.

Article Written By Rick Ruiz

BioRick Ruiz is a writer, former journalist and owner of Zenvironment, a Conscious Communications consulting firm.  A native Southern Californian and graduate of Cal State Fullerton, he now lives in Santa Monica.  He has studied and written about martial arts, spirituality, personal growth and the southern California lifestyle.  He can be reached at rick.ruiz@zenviro.net.


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