Legend of Halloween…. a usurped Samhain?

The origins of Halloween come from the Celtic “Festival of the Dead” called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This is the biggest and most significant holiday on the Celtic calendar and marks the New Year and the beginning of winter.

Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living; because the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld during Samhain.

In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and people would often walk with their livestock between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual… bones of slaughter livestock were cast into its flames.  Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place at the table was set for them.

People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising.  It is said that the sidhe, fairy mounds and portals to the fairy world, were always open at Samhain.  Fairies were often thought to steal humans on this holiday and people took steps to ward-off these harmful spirits and fairies.  Fairy mounds were avoided, people stayed close to home and if forced to walk in darkness, they turned their clothing inside-out and carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay.  Offerings of food were left at the door for the fairies to ensure favor in the coming year.

Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were common.  Their purpose is said to be threefold:  they were used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and to protect one’s home from them.

Divination was also performed at Samhain.  The most common uses were to find out the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home and how many children one might have.  Season foods, like apples and nuts, were eaten during these rituals.  Apple peels were used to divine the first letter of the future spouse’s name, nuts were roasted to predict if a couple would stay together and egg whites were used to tell how many children someone might have.  Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.

Christians, in an attempt to convert “natives”, effectively and majorly transformed the holiday.  In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First issued the famous edict to his missionaries; if group of people worshiped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.

While the method of converting holidays to facilitate conversion was effective, Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted.  To offset this, the church made these creatures not only dangerous, but malicious and followers of the old religion were branded as witches.

Through time, the old beliefs never died out completely.  All Hallows Eve is still a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings are now all thought to be evil.

It is still common for children and adults alike to dress like these dreadful creatures; performing antics in exchange for food and drink.  To this day, witches, ghosts and skeletons remain among favorite holiday disguises.

Trick-or-Treat!

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Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, By Elizabeth George Speare

Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Witch Trials in Connecticut were among the first in New England; happening long before the more famous trials in Salem, Massachusetts.  Connecticut heard 43 witchcraft cases between 1648 and 1668, with 16 ending in execution. 

 Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Connecticut was the first recorded confession of witchcraft in the colonies.  In 1648 Mary worked as a house servant and had been convicted two years earlier on two separate occasions of thievery (first in Hartford and then in Wethersfield) and whipped.  In her case there was no trial or even a documented accusation.  She confessed under pressure from Reverend Samuel Stone (and after extended whipping).  Mary confessed that she was guilty of witchcraft (or, as it was called, “familiarity with the Devil”) and described her crimes including using the Devil to help her with her household chores.

 Three years later, John and Joan Carrington (a married couple) were accused of and executed for witchcraft, but even less is known about this couple or the circumstances surrounding their ordeal.

 Documentation surrounding this history is slim and piecing the story together is challenging at best.  Many court records are either incomplete or missing and those that do exist offer biased accounts.  Since most victims were poor, personal belongings left behind for historians to study are few and far between; much of what we know comes from the trials themselves.

 Interestingly enough, the most prominent source of information about Wethersfield’s witchcraft history comes from Elizabeth George Speare’s 1958 classic, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In it, Wethersfield meadows and cove and several real people from that time are described; making it seem biographical.  This novel, while thoroughly researched and beautifully written, contains much misinformation and is more fiction than fact.  For instance, the witch of Blackbird pond is a Quaker (while Quakers were viewed as dissidents, they were not persecuted in Connecticut as witches).

 The trial of Wethersfield resident, Katherine Harrison, helped bring closure to this period of sordid Connecticut history.  The Harrison trial, where she was found guilty in 1669, provoked a major revision of Connecticut trial law.  Governor John Winthrop, Jr, who maintained a strong interest in the occult as it pertained to alchemy, mining and industry and was an avid astronomer (bringing the first telescope to the colonies) sought clarification of the standard for evidence in witchcraft cases.  This inquiry led to the development of a set of standards that strengthened the evidentiary requirements for conviction including requiring a plurality of witnesses to testify to the same fact.

 Harrison’s death sentence was overturned and she was released with the recommendation that she leave town for her own safety.  Accusations, trials and even convictions would continue for several more decades, including a second Connecticut panic in Fairfield, but never again would a witch be executed in the state of Connecticut.

 

Happy Halloween…..

 ** Many thanks to the Wethersfield Historical Society for information posted