The History of Halloween Symbols

witch_fountainHalloween as we celebrate it today brings out the wacky, weird and sometimes frightening in all of us. Known as a good excuse for adults to play dress up and behave ever so naughty, Halloween in the 21st Century is more about a good time and less about its origins.

Today’s celebration of Halloween mixes traditions from the Catholic All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day, the Roman festival of Feralia, and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  This mix of traditions has ingrained individual symbols we associate closely with this holiday however, these symbol have a rich history of their own.

Witches

The word “witch” comes from Old English “wicca”. Since the early days of Christian Europe, witches have been synonymous with Halloween wickedness. Shakespeare depicted the witch as cretinous women of prophecy who revealed the fates of Macbeth and his clan. In colonial Salem, Massachusetts, the witch became a young woman offering carnal temptations to men already bound by wedlock.

A vast number of cultures ranging from Germany to Sub-Sahara Africa believe witches possess the ability to cast spells, speak with the devil and commune with the spirit world. On Hallows Eve, ancient cultures believed the powers of a witch grew stronger as the spirits of the departed returned to our world of the living.

Black Cats

Black cats and witches have walked as a pair for many centuries. A number of cultures believe black cats have a heightened ability to sense good and evil spirits. Other cultures contend that if a black cat takes up residence nearby, it might be the reincarnation of a deceased loved one. However, many disagree on whether spying a black cat in your path signifies good luck or bad luck.

The historical demonization of the black cat has lead to a decrease in the adoption of black cats in shelters as well as a higher increase in maltreatment compared to cats of other colors. To combat the black cat’s negative image, shelters across the country celebrate Black Cat Awareness Day on August 17th. Don’t let the Hollywood black cat stereotypes fool you and show your love for felines of every color on Black Cat Awareness Day as well as during the Halloween season.

Ghosts and Skeletons

Ghostly ghouls and skeletons make frequent appearances in Halloween decorations and costumes. These images represent the dead who return to earth on Halloween night.

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos makes frequent use of skeletal imagery with skulls cast in sugar and images of dancing figures built only of bone appearing as a common image in folk art from the country. Residents celebrate with fireworks, parades and pilgrimages to the graves of their departed relatives. They lay out offerings to keep their souls well feed and well liquored throughout the night.

Bats

Like black cats, bats have long been associated with witches. More recently, bats became a counterpart to evil with the popularization of the modern vampire in Dracula by Bram Stoker. However, before the Vampire took over cinema, some Mayans saw the bat as a different kind of symbol.

They saw the bat’s ability to travel swiftly through the night as well as its residents in caves as a symbol of rebirth and keen intuition. They also believed bats to be guardians of the underworld. The Chinese see bats as symbols of good luck and fortune despite the Western mythology that associates bats with the onset of evil.

Jack-O-Lanterns

The Jack-O-Lantern continues to be one of the most iconic Halloween images, but most people don’t know the legend behind the Jack-O-Lantern’s glowing ghoulish grin. The Jack-O-Lantern was born with the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. There are many variations of this legend, but the gist goes something like this; Stingy Jack, as his name suggest, had a reputation for shallow pockets and trickery.

One night, he ran into the Devil at a local pub. Realizing that his time was finally up, Jack asked the Devil to buy his last drink of ale before he accompanied the Devil into the depths of Hell. Convinced by Jack to play a final prank on the bartender, the Devil transformed himself into a coin for use as payment. Rather than paying the bartender, Jack pocked the coining, trapping the Devil in his pocket with the crucifix he carried inside. The crucifix prevented the Devil from escaping and gave Jack ten more years of freedom from death’s grip.

However, ten years later on All Hallows Eve, he again found himself confronted by the Devil.  Before the Devil could take his life, Jack asked if the Devil would procure him an apple from a nearby tree for one final meal. The Devil acquiesced to his request and climbed into the tree, but before he could climb back down, Jack had surrounded the base of the tree with crucifixes, again trapping the Devil. The Devil demanded his release, which Jack granted only after the Devil had promised never to take his soul to hell. Reluctantly, the Devil agreed and Jack set him free.

Jack continued his sinful life, convinced that he had beat eternity in hell. He finally passed away and found himself at St. Peter’s pearly gates. Before he could set one foot inside, St. Peter stopped him. Jack’s life of drinking and deceitfulness precluded him from entering heaven. He was turned away.

Jack’s soul was weary of Earthly existence, so he made his way to the Gates of Hell and begged the Devil for entrance. But the Devil refused to break his word; he had promised Jack that he would never take him to Hell and so Jack’s soul was again turned away. The Devil offered Jack was a glowing ember from Hell’s fire to light his path back to Earth. Jack put the ember in a hallowed out turnip and commenced to wander the world of the living looking for peace.

For many years, the Irish would put hollowed out turnips with an evil grin and place them on their doorsteps to mimic the smile of the Devil and warn away Jack’s spirit. It wasn’t until Irish immigrants to America found pumpkins more plentiful and easier to carve, that the grinning pumpkin became a staple of Halloween celebrations.

The changing direction of weathervanes indicates the coming of a fall breeze and the celebration of Halloween. If you’re looking for some iconic Halloween shapes to decorate your lawn or garden, Outdora offers some unique options, including The Flying Witch Garden Weathervane, to keep track of changing seasons while paying homage to Halloween history.

Capture the spirit of the season with the Magic Mist Fogging Witch Fountain. This garden fountain conjures up the witch toiling over a bubbling cauldron with the theatrical addition of multi-colored LEDs lighting the fog.  A perfect centerpiece to any Halloween spread, this garden fountain reminds onlookers of the most common witch iconography, if not the most historically accurate.

To celebrate Black Cat Awareness Day and Halloween, the Standing Cat Weathervane offers functional garden décor with a subtle Halloween twist. Available in black as well as the tabby pictured, this weathervane is perfect for the feline friendly friend and the Halloween enthusiast.

While the gargoyle remains absent in the Halloween history above, it has a rich symbolic history that extends beyond the wanderlust of returning spirits on October 31st.  Gargoyles regained popularity in the Medieval period as well as Victorian England, but carving water spouts to resemble animals, grotesque creatures and other forms is found as far back as Ancient Greece. The symbolic purpose of these fixtures is debated, but whether you want to frighten away malevolent spirits or simply add a touch of Gothic flare to your yard, the Painted Gargoyle Weathervane make the perfect addition to any home exterior.

There are many Halloween images, decorations and traditions to choose from while planning your own celebrations this year. Whether you choose to stay in and watch a scary movie or join the marauding children decked out in their wildest fantasies, you’re sure to see some of the symbols mentioned above in the crowds. However you choose to celebrate; you now know a little more about the symbols decorating shop windows and neighbor’s yards this October 31st.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Shackelford works as an SEO content developer, blogger, web developer, and creative writer in Petaluma, CA. When she’s not stomping around the Cali wilderness or writing, she works as a consultant and director on short films and educational game products across the Southwestern United States.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.