As with many festivals and traditions, Halloween can trace its roots back to the Druids – the Celtic peoples who lived in Ireland more than a millennia ago.
The Celts believed that Halloween, known then as Samhain, was the night that the veil between the spirit realm and the living was at its thinnest allowing spirits and other supernatural forces to come cause mischief or harm. To the ancient Celts, people were transformed into cats as a punishment for their bad deeds. Those unfortunate enough to be cursed by black magic were also turned into cats, especially black cats.
After Roman take over, the Catholics began converting the Celts. The two belief systems merged. The church turned witches, those that ancient peoples looked to for wisdom and medicine and made them into devil worshiping hags. It was believed that witches could turn into cats (thus the black cat connection) and other animals such as bats and spiders – familiars.
It wasn’t until the 1400s that witch hysteria spread across Europe. More than 100,000 were accused of witchcraft with upward of 50,000 being executed – most via hanging, but those killed during the Spanish Inquisition were burned at the stake.
America’s witch scare, which culminated in the infamous Salem Witch Trials were largely the end of the mass hysteria and killing of accused witches. While there were autumn festivals that included the telling of ghost stories and other such creepy traditions, it wasn’t until the influx of Irish immigrants that came to America in the 19th century that Halloween as we know it today began to take root. The mixing of Irish and English customs – jack-o-lanterns, costumes, going door-to-door asking for money – led to the current incarnation of Halloween.
Many young women especially believed that Halloween was the best day for divination and would often seek out fortune tellers to find out the names of their future husbands. This mashup of traditions and beliefs across millennia led to witches becoming a symbol of a holiday celebrating the macabre.
I personally love witches and witch stories. Witches fly in the face of societal expectation and convention – after all its always the young girl, the old midwife, the loner woman – who is accused. I see them as feminist symbols of power. From Hocus Pocus, to The Crucible, The Witch and American Horror Story, there is no shortage of intriguing stories of the power of magical women. It was this history and this media that led me to release the Coven Collection last year and I hope to expand on it in the future.
Any suggestions for future Coven subjects?