How Wiccans and Witches Mark Halloween With Reflections on Death as Well as Magic

Yves here. Perhaps most readers know more about witches and Wiccans than I do, but I found this piece to be informative.

By Helen A. Berger, Resident Scholar, Brandeis University. Originally published at The Conversation

This Halloween, there are likely to be fewer pint-sized witches going door to door in search of candy. Concerns over the coronavirus have meant that in many places, trick-or-treating is off the menu. Even in Salem, Massachusetts, the place associated with the infamous witch trials of 1692 and the epicenter of Halloween gatherings, festivities are expected to be subdued.

But for members of the minority religion of Wicca and witchcraft, part of contemporary paganism, Halloween has never been primarily a children’s holiday. As a sociologist doing research on contemporary pagans for over 30 years, I have observed how it is marked as a sacred day known as Samhain in which death is celebrated.

This Halloween they might have something to teach us – both about the acceptance of death and staying safe.

The New Year

Although a minority religion, contemporary paganism is growing in popularity. There are anywhere from 1 million to 2 million people practicing paganism in the United States. This number is more than the number of Presbyterians, a traditional Protestant sect.

Wiccans and witches, terms often used interchangeably, view nature as sacred. For them, the Earth is the goddess or her body. Wiccans often sit under a particular tree or at a particular river to feel one with the divine. For this reason, most rituals are often held outdoors.

Wicca as a religion began in Britain in the 1950s. In the U.S. it came to incorporate elements of feminism, environmentalism and the questioning of traditional authority that were part of the social movements sweeping through the country during the 1960s and the 1970s.

But the pre-Christian traditions of the British Isles, the ancient agricultural holidays such as Yule and Beltane, continue to be one of its inspirations across geographical locations.

These holidays are the basis for the eight major Wiccan holidays, or what are referred to as sabbats, that occur throughout the year.

Rituals and Beliefs

Samhain, the most important of them all, has inspired modern-day Halloween celebrations.

Sabbats celebrate the beginning and the peak of each season, which corresponds to the mythology of the changing relationship of the god and goddess.

The god born of the goddess at midwinter – Yule – grows to manhood to become her lover in the spring. At that time, she is no longer his mother, as their roles have changed.

Wiccans believe that the goddess is eternal, changing through the seasons from maiden to mother, and ultimately to an old woman. The god eternally returns but dies before he can age. He is sacrificed at Samhain to ensure the fertility of the crops and the well-being of the community in the coming year.

Most Wiccans venerate a goddess and a god as equal, although for some the goddess is given greater importance.

Having a direct experience of the divine is important for Wiccans, and it happens most often in rituals. At the start of my research in 1986, respondents told me that they had seen the goddess in flames, heard her whisper in their ears or felt her guide them in their daily lives.

Psychic Energy and Magic

For Wiccans and witches, magic is real. They believe that magic happens when “psychic energy” is raised through dance, song or meditation, and is then directed through thought into a particular outcome. This takes place most often in rituals. At one ritual that I attended, for example, energy was raised to save endangered species.

By Iryna Pustynnikova

There is a belief among Wiccans that all living beings produce psychic energy that can be used to change things in the world. Those who are trained, such as witches, can do it more often and with more accuracy. Wiccans told me during my research for my book that when you think of someone and then you happen to bump into them – perhaps on a train or someplace else – you have unwittingly performed magic.

Remembrance and Celebration

Rituals are held for each sabbat. At Samhain the ritual focuses on death and includes a remembrance and a mourning. Wiccans and witches celebrate death as a natural part of the cycle of nature. Death is necessary for the creation of new life, they believe. Death is not, however, something to be sought out.

Some believe that souls of those who have died in the past year but have not yet crossed over into the next world will be able to do so at Samhain when the veil between the world of the living and dead is at its thinnest.

It is also believed to be a time that the spirits of the dead are most likely to visit and possibly provide insight and guidance. This time of year is viewed as particularly powerful. One of the witches I interviewed in 1988 told me that children should pick their Halloween costumes to reflect whom they want to become.

In 2020, Samhain is believed to be even more spiritually and magically powerful as it is occurring on a blue Moon, a second full Moon in a month, that is believed to be more powerful.

Circling Alone

When I first began my research, the norm was for most witches and Wiccans throughout the United States and the United Kingdom to be in covens – small groups that met in someone’s home or in the back room of an occult bookstore.

In my surveys from 1993 to 1995, just over 50% of those who responded in the U.S. were solitary practitioners – that is, individuals who practiced primarily alone, outside of a group.

The data from my recent survey shows a significant increase in the proportion of solitary practitioners. More than three-quarters of practitioners self-identified as solitary practitioners.

This has been made possible by how-to books and internet sites on solitary practice. Religion scholar Douglas E. Cowan explains that the internet has allowed solitary practitioners to occasionally join together in virtual space to participate in a sabbat.

From following online discussions of pagan groups, I know that some groups will meet this Samhain, either outdoors, masked in an indoor venue, or with few precautions. However, the majority, as solitary practitioners, will observe rituals by celebrating alone or online.

In this time of social distancing, these solitary practitioners may provide one model of remaining spiritual, practicing one’s religion and maintaining much-needed social distancing.

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  1. bruce

    I am not a Wiccan and certainly not a witch, but I am a pagan. Paganism is an evidence-based religion, not a faith-based one. All the divinity a pagan sees and knows exists in the nature around him or her, there is no magical Skygod ready to ride to my rescue through prayer, instead, we are all fragments of it.

    I am acutely aware of the equinoxes and solstices – precise moments in time – and look them up in advance. The whole “first day of spring” thing bugs me because it was winter when that day started, the first whole day of spring is actually the next day.

    I am not a member of a coven, I don’t discuss paganism unless somebody brings it up, and I am happy to disclose my secret ritual for celebrating the sabbats: fixing myself a daiquiri or two.

    I wish I had enough psychic energy to find my car keys. I don’t have power places in nature, but I do have querencias, unfortunately they’re in California and I left them behind in 2001, but I can return by closing my eyes.

    No crystals, no smoke, but I do collect cat art. I have a power object in my closet. Your power object is the thing you still have that you have owned for the longest time, everybody has one, and the level of power varies with the object. A teddy bear is of limited utility. I have an eight and a half foot long Fenwick fly rod in an aluminum case, called Fishcalibur. I was wielding it (ceremoniously, not threateningly) the time I took over a Greyhound bus, and I used it to take my last game bird, a wild turkey, by charging it and striking it out of the air. What’s your power object?

    Apropos of Halloween, my annual rant. Don’t give candy to children, give them money instead. Kids over about 4YO will appreciate being empowered to make their own choices, under that, they won’t know the difference, their parents are reassured that the freak next door didn’t hide a razor blade in a dollar bill, and it short-circuits the candy industry. I miss the kid traffic; out here in the Oregon boonies, 10/31 is just another day. Happy Halloween!

    1. Donn

      From an Irish pagan who’s been press-ganged by his 8 year old daughter to dress up as The Trunchbull today, a very happy Halloween to you too Bruce! Samhain shona duit!

    2. Susan the other

      Great comment bruce. I’ve always considered myself to be a Pagan. Not a conventional Pagan – just a natural one (I’m lazy). Of course, it’s because I don’t fit a religious role, but I do fit a niche of pure amazement. I pay homage to the moon every night – I can’t help it because it just comes through my windows! (How pushy) And of course, it is always awesome. Re kids and money – I gave my grandkids $25. credit cards last year for Xmas and my youngest one (4) would not let anybody touch it! He took it to bed and slept with it. Really. So I think your idea about giving kids money is very rational. If we lived in the forest a sprig of an evergreen would do, no?

    3. jr

      Wonderful comment Bruce. I’m a practicing Hermetic Magician and I love to hear about other traditions and their ways. I don’t have any objects that hold power from my youth, let’s say they were lost in a Fire, but I do have a new set of them I’m imbuing with my essence. These are my Tools for my worship of Dionysus, my Father:

      The glass piece is a cake dish circa 1874, now it is dedicated to Dad as of tonight. Hand painted!
      Underneath is my homemade Thyrsus , a pinecone from the Adirondacks, a bit of rag from a Tshirt I wore in my wandering, Satyr days dipped in wine given to me by friends. They were out of giant fennel at the grocery store so I used bamboo, another agricultural plant.

      Here is a prayer I wrote to the Twice Born King:

      I am the Satyr, the Horned One, the Fiend!
      Wine flows like Blood, Dancers convene!

      I am the Youth, supple and green!
      Grapes splitting open, sweet and obscene!

      I am the King, bearded, serene!
      Tall as a mountain, righteous and free!

      I am the Sun, Earth is my Queen!
      Twice Born, Beloved, Aureate Sovereign!

      and a poem:

      I poured wine
      Into my mind
      Last night.
      Not any wine
      But a divine wine
      A flavor so fine
      So heady
      Yet sublime
      That space
      And time
      Into a vine.

      The vine
      Rooted me in place
      Then climbing
      Through the dead waste
      Of space
      It raced
      Sprouting leaves
      And grapes
      Luscious gems
      Scarlet globes
      With a most exquisite

      Then music
      Drums thunder
      Pipes blaze
      Satyrs leap
      A wanton
      Maenads whirl
      For countless
      I could only

      And then a garden
      Thick and wild
      Grape upon vine
      And above
      A face
      So fair
      So mild
      As innocent
      As a child
      Yet terrible
      And wild.
      He smiled.

      And now
      I dance
      And sing
      The pipes howl
      Voices ring
      The bodies fling
      My thudding heart
      Takes to wing
      To see
      The thyrsus
      To the twice born

      My best wishes to all NC on this, the Beginning of the Darkness of the Year, under the Dominions of Gabriel in Fall and Auriel in Winter, may They guide you all to the Light.

  2. Blue Pilgrim

    It’s not really death that is celebrated. Halloween, Samhain (generally pronounced sow-in), is harvest time — the time when the crops die and are gathered as the old year wanes, and before the winter solstice when the old year ends and the new one begins. So samhain is a time of passing and renewal in the yearly cycle of beginning, growth, ripening to fullness, waning and rebirth (interesting that rebirth, the Winter Solstice, is the time chosen for Christmas, another time of new beginnings). The pagan religions are tied up with nature and the Earth, and it’s various cycles. Death is just a natural part of the cycles, as is harvest and the end of summer.

    Magic and ‘psychic powers’ and simple, natural things and part of the greater reality which more ‘civilized’ people have lost touch with. Now, at last, people are paying more attention to nature and broader realities, calling it ‘ecology’, for instance, as the Earth responds to centuries of abuse of the industrial revolution and anthropomorphc excesses, where humans were taken as the only measure of value, despite them being just a blip in the history and space of the universe.

    This schism is what Wicca and paganism are now about — the renewal of spirit in times of excess modernity and lack of harmony.

  3. Daniel Raphael

    It is the time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest–the hinge of the year, as I think of it. One looks through one’s heart–the surest way to scry–for those belovéd ones who have passed, with the hope you might have contact with them, and let them know they are remembered and loved still. Small traditions like leaving out a place of cookies and a glass of beer or other drink by one’s door, are consistent with this thought.

    As with so much else in life, it’s the thought–and the state of heart–that counts. We could do worse than to give thought to those who have loved us, and whose love sustains us still. Blesséd Be.

  4. David

    Halloween is, of course, All-Hallow’s Even, ie the day before All Saint’s Day, which is celebrated as a public holiday in many parts of Europe, and is traditionally the day when families go to put flowers on the graves of departed members. In France, at least, special prayers are also said for those who have died in the last year. As far as I recall the date for the festival was established well over a thousand years ago. It has been argued that here, as elsewhere, the Church took over dates and themes from earlier religions. In reality, though, for most of the history of Christianity, formal doctrine (often poorly understood in illiterate societies) coexisted more or less happily with traditional folk beliefs, which seem to be fairly common all over Europe. One of these, apparently not discouraged by the Church, was the so-called Soul Cake ritual, where children would go from door to door begging for food for the returning dead, or sometimes for the dead of the last year who had not made it to the afterlife. As I child in the 1950s, I vaguely remember songs like:

    Soul-cake a soul-cake please good missus a soul-cake…
    One for Peter two for Paul, three for him who made us all.

    By then the custom of going from door to door had long died out (though as I recall we did make halloween lanterns for example) and was re-imported into Europe as “trick or treat” quite a bit later, and mainly, I think, under the influence of Hollywood. This was, of course, the time that Christianity stopped being a religion, and became a kind of earnest and rather prim humanism. But in fact the melding of Christian and pagan elements was completely characteristic of western societies (even Protestant ones) until the relatively recent past, and vestiges of it still survive. There’s a shelf of academic books on the subject, but also some popular ones by people like John Michael Greer.

    1. elissa3

      David, I’m curious as to what and how the halloween lanterns were made. And are you speaking of France?

      As a Parisian in the early 1980s, I found that none of my French friends had any idea of jack o’ lanterns. So, I threw a Halloween pumpkin carving party in 1982. Because it was nearly impossible to find intact citrouilles at street markets, I tagged along with an acquaintance, a supplier of some restaurants in Paris, to Rungis, where I managed to secure 15 intact pumpkins. A good time was had by all, although some of the carving had a distinctly European flair.

      Visiting Bordeaux in October four years ago, I noticed jack o’ lantern motifs in a shop window, so I wonder if this idea is having a revival in France.

      BTW, thanks for your informative updates on French politics in NC. Although I only visit every 4-5 years, I have an affinity for the country and a keen interest in what’s happening.

      1. David

        No, it was when I was a child in England, and I think (he said, straining his memory) they were just made of paper and cardboard, painted various colours , with broomsticks and other magical impedimenta. I don’t think there actually were any pumpkins for sale in England in the 1950s, or at least not in the working-class area where I lived. And you’re right about France. Halloween(tm) in the modern sense in France is almost entirely an import from the US, and just another excuse to sell stuff. Most parents let their children participate (less this year of course), but the fashion as I have observed it seems to be for parties in which the children compete to turn up in the most grotesque make-up you can imagine. Again, that’s not happening much if at all this year. I think to be honest the revival has something to do with Jon Carpenter’s film (well known here) as well as the general americanisation of French culture over the last thirty years.

  5. ambrit

    The trend to tele-worship is a practical revisioning of the atomization of Western society to adapt to pandemic conditions.
    Phyl, being raised an American Catholic, (I do see regional variations in the beliefs and practices of ‘The Church,’ as it likes to call itself,) now does a Sunday morning Mass by televisorarial attendance. The ‘Religious Authorities’ condone, indeed, through participation, encourage, this ‘virtual’ congregation.
    I cravenly do not bring up the precedent for this set decades ago by the Protestant sects practice of airing Sunday morning religious programs. “I told you so,” is not a truly viable method of engendering familial comity and amity.
    Someone stop me if I stray too far off of the “beaten path,” but I must observe that the tendency to solitary “worship” and meditation is a rational means of removing earthly socio-political hierarchies from the practice of the contemplation of the Divine. Earthly ‘Powers’ have always had an adversarial relationship with the ethos of a person’s ‘personal’ relationship with the Divine.
    Ah well, time to get out and set up the mine field in front of the front porch for tonight’s Trick of Treaters.

  6. Blue Pilgrim

    My grandmother told me that when she was young (turn of 19th-20th century) kids when around asking ‘anything for Thanksgiving’ (ragamuffin day) but the government ask during the depression that people not do tat because there were so many who not afford to be generous. Then when finances got better it morphed into trick-or-treating at Halloween).

    Also see:

  7. apleb

    Where is this photo for this article from?
    It has nothing to do with Halloween, Wicca or such.

    Depicted are witches but from southern german folklore called Fasnacht/Fasnet
    Which is every year from jan 6th to ash wednesday, except next year due to that little pandemic.

    There are witches involved but more or less of the fairytale Hansel and Gretel variety that eat you.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry. There was a photo with the article but it was via Getty Images and I don’t want to take a chance re the people at The Conversation not having arranged for the photo rights for reposting (they say the articles are subject to Creative Commons license but The Conversation doesn’t own the photo IP).

      So I did the best I could at Wikimedia.

  8. ckimball

    Forty or so years ago I had arrived at Westerbecke Ranch (Marin Cnty)
    to attend a mystery school which would focus a weekend a month
    to introduce us to a spiritual discipline or religion though teachers knowlegeable in their practice.
    When I arrived the first person I encountered asked me what I did.
    I blithely said “I do interior design” What do you do?” He said,
    “I am a Celtic Druid priest”. I will never forget, I felt his response in
    my gut…and my own ‘blithe’ response to his question came back at
    me as superficial.
    I had never met anyone who presented absolute unequivocalness.
    I latter learned he had recently reentered society from a thirteen year sojourn in the woods where he identified the nature of its inhabitants
    by the sounds that came from them. I hope I’m remembering right.
    At some point he invited some us to a Samhain ceremony Oct 31
    when the veil between worlds would be its thinnest. We were told
    to concentrate on someone we would like to reach. This was some
    hours before the ceremony. I chose my father intending to ask this
    question. ‘what was the point of our family, what were we learning,,
    what were we doing?’ (I’m earnest, but doubting, not expecting anything) David begins the ceremony of opening the gate between
    our worlds and I feel the room become very cold. Then at some
    point I hear my father “Jesus Claudia, don’t come after me. Go
    live your own life.” It was him as matter a fact as ever. It was laughable, completely different than I could have imagined.
    Best wishes to you all for a memorable Halloween

    1. ckimball

      As I check back this this morning, I find I want to flesh out a couple
      of my remarks for the record. “He identified the nature of its inhabitants by sounds…”
      Sounds are represented by the Celtic/Keltic alphabet are imbued with meaning with some considered sacred. He was deepening his knowledge. Every tree has purpose and meaning for the ancient Kelt.
      David Patton felt rooted in himself and when he walked, each step
      made full contact with the ground on purpose.
      My father’s answer which seemed to dismiss the question but instead told me to move on I can see now was on point. Answers
      do come upon you in their own circuitous path.
      In life his responses were not predictable. I can still hear him laughing as he did when he said,
      “So you got canned!” when I was fired from my first job. The pain and shame dissolved in an instant.

  9. Paul Whittaker

    The Druids (pre Roman) in Britain held their ceremonies in groves of Oak trees, Mistletoe has significance for them. They left some scattered evidence: the Tar steps bridges over creeks on the moors, I drove over one still used as the township simply paved over it. I thought Wicca were around the same time as the Vikings, as there is one mentioned in Harold last Saxon King 1042-1066.

  10. Sue inSoCal

    This is a great discussion. I find a lot to like about pagan religion. I’m intrigued with death as part of life on the wheel. If you’ve coached someone who is dying to the other side, it’s like the flip side of birthing a baby.

    All Saints Day is uplifting, celebration at graveyards with families picnicking. No fear of death.

    Another interesting cultural rite of respect and acknowledgment for those who’ve gone before us is setting a “dummy plate” for dinner for your ancestor(s). Throw open the window, set a plate of their favorite food and drink (while you dine as well) and leave it out for them. I really love this on Samhain or All Saints Day. Some wonderful experiences shared here today/night. Thanks!

    1. three eyed goddess

      “….if you’ve coached someone who is dying to the other side, it’s like the flip side of birthing a baby.” As a nurse, I’ve ‘birthed’ babies and been at the bedsides of the dying. There was a bumper sticker one could see during the 2010s in the SF Bay Area – “Labor and Delivery Nurses: We Help People Out” – I’ve always thought “Hospice Nurses Help People Out” should be a thing too.

      1. Sue inSocal

        You are absolutely right. Birthing = reverse hospice! Either way, in my opinion, they are awe inspiring events. Particularly if you’re a listener…

  11. John Rose

    Sorry to be pedantic but Halloween is All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints day, November 1 so the bad spirits sneak out before being banished by the good ones. It is November 2nd, All Souls day that is the time for remembrance of those who have passed on before us. At least those the the origins. Things are pretty much mixed up these days.

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