As Halloween approaches there’s no shortage of decorations for sale, usually covered with Halloween symbols that we all recognize even if we don’t know where they come from. Along with ridiculous costumes and enough candy to make you vomit, there are some things that you find every single Halloween. Jack o’ lanterns, ghosts, bats, black cats – a lot of these symbols have their roots in the history of Halloween. Many of them trace back to the pagan festival of Sahmain, which is thought to be the most direct ancestor of our modern celebration. This was a celebration of the dead at a time when the boundary between this world and the next was believed to be much thinner than normal. These scary symbols might not look so intimidating as decals in your window or cardboard signs hung on classroom walls, but their history is downright creepy. Full of folklore and spirituality, there’s a long tradition of Halloween and deadly symbolism that you might not be aware of. So before you grab your costume and go trick or treating this year, you might want to look at why we dress up in the first place. These are the origins of all your favorite Halloween symbols (and you may never look at broomsticks the same way again).
With witches aplenty, it’s probably no surprise that we find broomsticks as a Halloween symbol. But why are they meant to be a witch’s travel method of choice? Well, it’s a little dirty. Witches were thought to have applied hallucinogenic”flying ointment” – um, internally – with a wooden staff. An account from 1324 of a witch on trial says that “they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” Right. Although for the next few hundred years they were described as flying on anything from a cupboard to a fork, it seems to be the wooden staff imagery that really lasted. It is thought that the broomstick, a symbol of domesticity, may have stuck because that makes it the perfect object to be perverted by witches – femininity gone wrong. Pretty scary for the patriarchy.
While in some folklore black cats have been considered lucky or even a sign of prosperity, their association with witchcraft is much more widespread and links these creatures to Halloween. The idea that cats are “witches’ familiars is found in writings and trial reports of the 16th century.” People so feared their demonic connotation that groups of cats were often burned alive across Europe. Bad news for your favorite black cat. Black cats were also feared in early America and seen as a sign of witchcraft, while today they are often thought of as being bad luck. The creepiness really does live on – in fact, because they are so associated with the holiday, they are potential targets of torture and ritual sacrifice, and some humane shelters limit adoptions of black cats around this period.
Though you probably think of jack-o’-lanterns as synonymous with pumpkins, they actually find their origins with the humble turnip and the creepy story of Stingy Jack. According to the Irish folk tale, Jack invites the devil for a drink with him and, not wanting to pay, convinces the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead of spending it, Jack keeps the coin in his pocket next to a cross, only freeing the devil when the devil promises not to claim Jack’s soul when he dies. When Jack dies, Goddoesn’t allow him into heaven and the devil doesn’t let him into hell, instead giving him a burning coal to light his way. Jack puts this coal into a hollowed-out turnip to light his way and is forced to wander the earth forever, a doomed soul. Irish people would put jack-o’-lanterns outside their door to frighten away Stingy Jack and any other wandering spirits. When they immigrated to America, pumpkins (native to the New World) were used to keep their tradition alive.
If there’s one human (well, human-ish) symbol of Halloween, it’s the witch riding away over a full moon. Witches, especially in the Christian view originating in the Middle Ages, were thought to be in league with the devil. Their casting of spells and connection with the other world make them a natural fit for Halloween and its predecessor, Sahmain. But how did they become so ubiquitous around this holiday? Some think it was a tactical move by the greeting card industry. In any case, a bubbling witch’s cauldron and wart-covered old woman are sure to be in any haunted house you visit this year.
Bats are one of the most common Halloween symbols today, but their connection with the holiday is multi-layered, dating right back to its roots. It’s thought that the bonfires built to ward off evil spirits during Samhain, the pagan festival from which Halloween is derived, would attract insects. These, in turn, would attracts bats, meaning bats were closely linked to this holiday. Not only that, but a lot of vampires folklore states that vampires can turn into bats, giving them an extra spooky edge. And folklore aside, bats are pretty scare-worthy. Vampire bats live off the blood of animals – and sometimes people – and drink your blood for up to 30 minutes. Definitely Halloween material.
The biggest question on modern Halloween is “What are you going to wear?” – but costumes used to be about way more than whether you should be Captain America or Harley Quinn. According to beliefs surrounding the pagan holiday Sahmain, this was the time of year where the “veil” between this world and the world of the dead was the thinnest, so you were most likely to engage with the dead. And that could be very bad news. So they would wear costumes, often made of animal heads and skins, to trick any ghosts they might run into. A lot scarier than a slutty nurse’s costume, for sure.
It’s no surprise that ghosts have become a major Halloween symbol. Historically, Sahmain was thought to be the time where the dead and living worlds were the least separated, so you could run into a ghoulish spirit. But they weren’t necessarily the friendly, Casper-esque ghosts we see today. Though the presence of spirits was supposed to make the future easier to predict, pagans considered these departed spirits no laughing matter.
The dancing skeletons you’re so used to seeing at Halloween may not seem so scary -they’re often downright friendly – but when you start to really think about that imagery, things get a little darker. Halloween has its roots in the pagan festival Sahmain, the feast of the dead. And it doesn’t get more dead than skeletons. They are literally what’s left after your skin rots off and everything else decomposes. Pretty creepy when you think about it, and no surprise that they’re associated with a number of holidays honoring the dead. There’s a history of displaying skulls all the way back to Aztec skull art, compromised of everything from racks of skull to skull necklaces, and even earlier, back to 7200 BC. Skulls are also a major symbol in the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday.
These eight-legged creates with their web-weaving skills have an extensive history in mythology and folklore. In fact, the word “arachnid” derives from the story of Arachne, a mortal woman with a gift for weaving whom Athena turns into a spider in Greek mythology. Because of their web-making skills, spiders have long been thought to be weavers of fortunes, as far back as being associated with the ancient Egyptian goddess Neith. So why do we find them around Halloween? Like black cats, they are also thought of as”familiars,” or companion of witches. Add that into the fact that spider webs are often found in abandoned and creepy places – and that some of them are deadly enough to kill humans – and they make for a fitting Halloween symbol.
Pointy-toothed smiles appear in Halloween jack-o’-lanterns and costumes, mostly in allusions to vampires. Vampire stories come from a range of cultures – from the Chinese jiangshito the Mesopotamian ekimmu– and stories of what we think of as vampires originated as early as 11th-century Europe. Of course, the most famous vampire, Dracula, is a fictional character, but some believe he is based on Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad III, a medieval Romanian prince. In the story, Count Dracula is described as having pointy, very white teeth (presumably for all that blood drinking), which is where we get the fangs we see today.
A symbol and a decoration, corns and wheat stalks can be seen everywhere around Halloween. Considering that Sahmain and the modern Halloween both fall around the end of summer harvest, corn and wheat would have been widely available. Plus, they are a sign of stocking up for the coming colder months. But as this period is all about death, husks play into the imagery in an interesting way. Just as skeletons show what will remain when we rot away, dried-out husks are the remains of all the once-living bounty that has now been harvested.
After pumpkins and candy, apples may be the food most seen around Halloween, whether for bobbing or in a witch’s hand. Though we make the more modern link between apples and witches (Snow White, anyone?), the apple’s connection with this holiday goes much further back. Apples were associated with Pomona, the Roman goddess of abundance and when the Romans invaded Britain they brought their beliefs and their apples along with them, which is where apple-bobbing came from. But there’s also a scarier side. When you slice an apple open the seeds form a pentagram, a symbol associated with witches – so be careful apple bobbing.