Halloween and the Goddess Hecate: Tricks or
Most of us regard Halloween as a secular holiday, understandable
with all those ghouls and goblins going door to door with their
never-ending extortion scheme called "trick or treating". It is
hard to imagine that this tradition rose from a mixture of pagan
and Christian religious practices that reach back into antiquity.
Tricks or Treats
Trick or Treating has its roots in the myths of
Hecate, the Greek goddess of the crossroads. A quiet and compassionate
goddess, Hecate was responsible for helping travelers find their way to
their eventual destinations.
Hecate's Nocturnal Wanderings on Autumn Nights
One of Hecate's duties was to ease the transition of the dying and, after
their deaths, to help them become adjust to their new homes in the
Underworld. In her role as 'Queen of the Night',
she sometimes took those who were restless and finding it difficult to
"settle in" on brief trips back to the land of the living--just to help them
gradually adjust to the change.
Mid-autumn was the time of year when the "veil between the worlds" was
thought to be the thinnest and most easily penetrated, a time when the laws
of space and time were temporarily suspended, allowing the spirit world to
intermingle with the living.
Often seen traipsing around the countryside with her following of ghosts,
Hecate was both honored and feared. Understandably, the stories of these
wanderings stimulated phobias about becoming ''possessed' by one of the
spirits who might have been searching for a body to occupy!
Treats to Eat
Gifts of food and drink were left on the doorstep at night to "feed" the
wandering spirits and prevent their coming into the house looking for food.
(Presumably vagrants, the homeless, escaped slaves, and wandering dogs were
the actual beneficiaries of this practice. Perhaps this practice accounts
for why the goddess Hecate was considered the protectress of the outcast and
And thus the tradition of "treating" began. The presence of ghosts,
skeletons, and demons on our porches should hardly surprise us!
Samhain and the Autumn Harvest
In ancient Ireland, October 31 marked the official "end of summer". It was
time for the pagan festival of Samhain, a chance to get together and relax
after the completion of the final harvest. Any crops that had not yet been
harvested were to be left in the fields to feed the spirits and keep them at
During Samhain, the Druids created an enormous bonfire on a hill and all the
Celtic tribes extinguished the fires in their homes and traveled to the
bonfire to relight their fires from a common
source, signifying their unity and attempting to bring good fortune to their
households. It was an occasion for spiritual ritual as well as celebration
and the sharing of the harvest.
According to folklore, Irish farmers carved little lanterns out of turnips
to carry their new flames lit from the Samhain bonfire back to their homes.
The belief that the flames would flicker to give warning when spirits were
present led to the tradition of carving faces into them to help scare the
Centuries later, during the great potato famine in Ireland, Irish immigrants
brought his custom with them, but it was quickly changed to carving pumpkins
since they were more plentiful and certainly easier to carve!
Of Saints and Souls
During the Roman occupation of the Celtic regions in the first century A.D.
a new Christian holiday, "All Hallows Day", was introduced by the Roman
Catholic Church. It incorporated many of
the pagan Samhain customs, for it had long been the practice of the Roman
church to co-opt some of the religious practices of local religions in order
to ease the practitioners into the Christian religion by making it seem more
The word Halloween actually came from contraction of the word "All Hallows
Eve" which occurred on the same date as Samhain. Also known as "All Souls
(or All Saints) Day", the holiday was
celebrated in remembrance of the Saints and other beloved departed on the
first of November.
Tricks Or Treats: You've Been Warned !
On All Hallows Eve, beggars were allowed to come to the doors and ask for
"All-Souls Cakes" (currant-filled biscuits or scones). In return the beggars
promised to pay for their treats by saying prayers for the recently deceased
of the household. If the household was stingy, vandalism often
ensued--hence, the association between Tricks and Treats.
Trick or treating in the true spirit of Halloween asks us to be more
understanding of those who in some way seem "different" from us, perhaps
even frightening. Given the meaning of the ancient customs, Halloween should
also remind us to share our bountiful gifts and to take a moment to recall
and honor "those who have gone on before us".