This week: Halloween

©The British Library Board  Title page from Matthew Hopkins’s 1647 book The Discovery of Witches. Hopkins, known as ‘Witchfinder General’, had around 300 women executed in East Anglia during the turmoil of the English Civil War in 1645 and 1646. Image: Wikimedia Commons, British Library.

It’s a scary thought for parents. After an enforced pause in 2020, Halloween spending is expected this year to return to something like pre-pandemic levels – which in 2019 stood at £474m in the UK alone, according to market analyst Statista. That equates to an awful lot of chocolate ‘treats’ being doled out on Britain’s doorsteps this 31 October to gangs of excited toddlers in fright wigs and Dracula masks.

Many in this country think of Trick or Treating as a highly commercialised and relatively recent American invention. But while it is true that the practice has been a Halloween tradition across the Atlantic since the 1920s, its origins are far more ancient – with some historians pointing to an ancient Greek custom, whereby children would go from door to door dressed as swallows, demanding food and vowing retribution on any who refused.

What’s more generally agreed is that many of our most enduring Halloween traditions – including lighting bonfires and wearing costumes to ward off ghosts – evolved more directly from the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, which began at sunset on 31 October and marked the end of summer. It was a time when great feasts were held and the dead were said to walk the earth. Though later christianised as ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the day before All Saints’ Day in the church calendar – Halloween retains this pagan flavour, combining contemplation of mortality with mischievous fun and games.

It is this ancient spooky spirit that we are embracing this week on The Past. In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, we travel to Iona to examine fresh evidence which casts doubt on an enduring ‘zombie narrative’ – the traditional story of how the island’s trailblazing early medieval monastery was subject to tragedy and bloodshed at the hands of vicious Viking raiders.

You’ll also find us delving into the archives (by candlelight, of course) in search of tales of witchcraft, wizardry and all manner of ghoulish behaviour: we went to Bolsover Castle, in Derbyshire, to learn how magical markings were used to protect animals as well as people during the Stuart era; we headed to Wern Wen, in north Wales, to study a sinister malediction carved into a beam at a 19th-century farmhouse; we ventured to Reigate to see the lengths to which people would go to ward off witches in the 17th century; and we even checked in to the British Library to examine the magical links between archaeology and the Harry Potter series of children’s books. Elsewhere, we journeyed further back in time to understand why the ancient Greeks thought so much about the dead – from how their remains should to be disposed of to how their spirits might be summoned back to the land of the living.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more Halloween-themed history, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of horrible happenings and ghostly goings-on. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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