Halloween Customs from the Discount Shelf of Erin’s Aisle (Medieval Irish Folklore of All Hallow’s Eve)

By Sir Guillaume de la Belgique
(©2003 Scott Farrell)

The sun is slipping towards the horizon a mite earlier these days, the night wind has a chill nip to it and there’s the pungent scent of cow manure on the breeze. All of that likely means the days of autumn and harvest tide are upon us, or that we’re camping at Caid’s Great Western War. (Or, possibly both … )

Yes, my children, it’s time once more for the festival we call Halloween, which has its roots back in the Celtic folklore of our kilt-wearin’, whiskey-swillin’ Morris-dancin’ ancestors. Halloween is a time when the curtain betwixt the realm of the livin’ and the realm of the supernatural is stretched as thin the waistband on grandma McDougal’s eldest pantyhose. So gather round the hearth and let yer old uncle Guillaume Sean Patrick Blarney O’Verzealous de la McBelgique tell ye about the ancient origins of this festival in an attempt to help you appreciate the lore of olden days, and to scare yer braies off just before bedtime.

Have no fear, me young friends. It’s not the moanin’ of tormented souls ye hear out there in the darkness; it’s just the strainin’ o’ the floorboards at yer local marketplace beneath the weight of all those bags o’ Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.


In the Celtic calendar, the passing of the old year was celebrated upon the last day of the harvest season. This day was called Samhain (pronounced “saw’-horse”). Samhain was a time when spirits and spooks had an opportunity to encroach into the world of the living, and one of the most feared of these was the dreaded “pooka.” (Okay, so it sounds more like a brand of bubble gum than terrifying monster. I’m not sure it’s any sillier than a monster called “Freddie Kruger.”)

In many tales, pookas are spirit creatures that take the form of black horses and lure unsuspecting victims onto their backs. How these poor riders meet their demise varies: A pooka might kill its rider by galloping over a cliff, by ensnaring the rider’s hands in its mane and plunging into the sea, or by going through the express lane at the supermarket with more than nine items in its basket.

Pookas could also take human form, however, and thereby possess the bodies of the living. Many Irish legends describe an unwitting victim coming into contact with a pooka when they met a stranger outside their gate. The pooka would start up a conversation by asking, “Do you know who lives here?” and if the homeowner answered their question, the pooka would cast a glamour on them that would cause them to rave and hurl things and generally act in a mad, crazy manner. This ancient belief survives to this day, of course, in the form of the malevolent spirits that we call “real estate agents.”

On Samhain the pooka had a very specific duty. According to legend, any crops that were left unharvested at sundown on this day would be despoiled by the pooka — which is a typically lyrical Irish way of saying that on Halloween night the pooka used farmers’ fields as sort of a paranormal outhouse. Believing that the pooka had taken a faerie whiz on their wheat and vegetables, farmers burned everything remaining in their fields on November 1st. I can’t say I blame them.

During the Middle Ages, the image of the pooka was transformed into a pleasant but mischievous sprite called “Puck,” who, as it turns out, was nothing more harmful than the devil incarnate. Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow, roamed the countryside on Halloween playing pranks and beguiling travelers. Shakespeare incorporated this character in his play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with this description:

Fairy: “Either I mistake your shape and making quite, or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he that frights the maidens of the villagery, and sometime make the drink to bear no barm, mislead night-wanders, laughing at their harm?”

Puck: “Hey, babe. Why don’t you meet me in my dressing room during intermission?”

Boogie Fever

Another Celtic spirit that haunted the night was the bwgwl, which was known in languages spoken by people who had invented vowels as the “bucca-boo” or “boggle.” Generally, these shape-shifting specters inflicted mischief on people who inadvertently found themselves in dark or lonely places on Halloween night. For example, one tale describes an old woman who, while out walking after sunset on Samhain evening, spied a sheaf of grain lying by the side of the road. The old woman picked it up, tucked it into her apron and shuffled home, but as the evening darkened into night, she felt a strange tugging at her skirt. When she withdrew the sheaf of grain, she found that it had sprouted arms and legs, and as she watched it went skipping away down the path. (The legend does not say how many pints the old woman had imbibed down at the pub before walking home.)

Not all boggles were quite so harmless though. There are also legends that describe travelers caught out-of-doors after dark being beset by boggles and ridden to madness. In these stories, the boggle mounts the person’s back, digs its nails into his neck, breathes its pestilent breath into his face, and forces its victim to run in panic-stricken terror until he drops from exhaustion — an experience which was truly “mind boggling.” It’s very similar to the condition most people find themselves in after listening to four months of television commercials about a gubernatorial recall election.

Heck’s Kitchen

One of the most feared supernatural spirits (even in Celtic lore) comes from Greek mythology: Hecate. This lunar goddess was believed to haunt crossroads and would terrorize travelers and pilgrims who didn’t make an offering to her when they passed an intersection. Whenever Hecate appeared, her arrival was heralded by wolves howling, stormy winds blowing, voices from the underworld, stoats sneezing, ducks blowing bubbles underwater, laser printers jamming and all sorts of unnatural occurrences. Then, Hecate would appear with three heads, each with snakes writhing in their hair, and holding a torch aloft, she would shriek: “Welcome to the Jersey turnpike. That’ll be $12.50. Exact change only, please.”

Being the goddess of the moon, Hecate had three guises: a maiden, a mother and a crone. Pretentious and self-important scholars now realize that these three aspects represent the archetypal attributes of femininity, primarily: A) the only thing you can be sure of is that its going to be different every day, and B) the only time you’re going to get a full night’s sleep is when it’s not around. (Boy, my wife is going to get me for that one … )

Flower Power

Although Halloween night was filled with goblins, spooks and specters (as was just about every night, according to medieval folklore), there were several ways to keep the monsters at bay.

One method, of course, was to give the spirits something to devour besides human flesh. This is why, on Halloween, people placed bowls of barley and milk outside their doors to placate the supernatural beings. (Try that one this year — I guarantee it’ll cut down on the return-visit trick-or-treaters.) But there were other methods to ward off spectral attacks as well.

According to folk custom, travelers who found themselves abroad after dark could drive away monsters with a daisy blossom, which, being a flower of the daytime, either A) contained the power of the sun, or B) marked them as such hopeless sissies that the spirits wanted nothing to do with them.

Another means of shooing away ghosts was to tuck a piece of bread in your pouch or pocket. There’s an old Irish rhyme that goes: “That holy piece of bread will bless, ‘till it grows mold and makes a mess.”

For the inhabitants of the Celtic world and the Middle Ages alike, darkness was more than just the end of the day. It was literally an echo of the chaos that existed before the universe was formed. And for the people in those times, nothing was more frightening than chaos and disorder — because these things led to a breakdown of social structure, which led to disruption of the natural order, which, of course, led to … Vikings.

The customs associated with Samhain and Halloween were created by a culture whose people, although sometimes crazy, were by no means stupid. These were their ways of quantifying and influencing the unpredictable. So, lads and lassies, lay out a bowl o’ barley and milk before ye climb into bed this Halloween night, and tuck a crust of bread under your pillow to keep ye safe. I’ll have a drink to your health and long life — assuming, of course, that my local pooka hasn’t taken a leak in my tankard o’ latté.

Enjoy more (slightly warped) examinations of medieval folklore on the audio CD

“Guillaume for the Holidays”

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