Divination and the Veil Between Worlds

Halloween, or Samhain as it is traditionally known, is an auspicious time of year when the veils between worlds are thin. This means that all manner of supernatural creatures can pass through them to visit Earth – both friendly and unfriendly! Be sure to leave offerings for the spirits of visiting ancestors, and carve a Jack o’ Lantern to scare away the less civilised guests.

Jack o' lantern
Carve a pumpkin to scare away malevolent spirits. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The weakness of the veils also means that Halloween is an excellent time for divination. Messages from other planes are more accessible, and the dark, reflective atmosphere of autumn makes it the perfect season for asking those deep questions.

Whether you are just after some seasonal fun or seriously looking for answers, divination is an intriguing pastime.

Most of us hover in that liminal space between both wanting and not wanting to know what our futures hold – especially when it comes to love. A hint of a future romance, however small, is enough to give us hope and set us daydreaming. As the Wheel of the Year is turning towards winter, things are ending. Joy can be found in seeking new beginnings.

On a night when anything is possible, when the dead return, supernatural creatures roam free, you can disguise yourself with a costume, and we do extraordinary things like carve vegetables and light them with candles… why can’t the shape of an apple peel or a reflection in a mirror not also be a premonition of love?

Take a ball of yarn and toss it so it unravels. Begin to wind it up, and an apparition of your future lover will appear to gather the end. Or drop it out of an open window and ask the night who is holding the other end. The wind will whisper their name to you.

At midnight on Halloween, light two candles and gaze into a mirror. Brush your hair. An image of your future lover will appear behind you in the reflection.

Halloween mirror divination
Vintage Halloween card. Image in the public domain – source

Peel an apple so the skin comes off in one piece, then using your right hand throw it over your left shoulder. The shape it lands in is the initial of your true love.

If you have more than one suitor, designate some nuts for each of them and place them in a fire. The suitor represented by the first nut to pop is the truest. If you are in a relationship, burn nuts with your partner to see your love’s future. If they burn calmly together, you will both stay true. If one is engulfed by flames, the owner of that nut has the strongest feelings. If one cracks or explodes, the owner of that nut will be unfaithful.

vintage Halloween party
Halloween party image from 1903 showing divination games. Apple bobbing was also a popular game with various rules like whoever first picked up an apple would be the first to marry. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, my personal favourite, if you want to find a partner, walk blindfolded to a cabbage or kale field and pull one out of the ground. The size, shape, how much earth is on it, and how easy it is to pull up will reveal clues about your future lover. Remove the blindfold and walk home, and you may catch a glimpse of them on the way. If not, balance the cabbage on top of a door and whoever it falls on you are sure to marry!

Halloween cabbage field
If you trip over a cabbage on the way does that also foretell something? Photo by Kat Sommers.

Of course you can also use more common methods to discern the future, like tarot cards, pendulums, and crystal balls. Whatever method you choose, have a happy Halloween and may all your visions be bright!

Sources

Halloween: Frights, Lights, and Ancient Rites by Kimberley Ford

Today, Halloween is seen as a time to munch on candy corn and scare the neighbours with the freakiest trick you can find. A time when pumpkins with terrifying faces lurk on porches, and spider webs, black cats and witches are everywhere you look. But why is it that Halloween is associated with being scary? And why do we carve pumpkins?

Scary Spirits: A Short History of Halloween

Halloween has its origins as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead known as Samhain. It is a time when the veil between the living and the dead is believed to be thinnest. This festival is still celebrated by Pagans today, although many also celebrate it as marking the end of summer and the beginning of the new Celtic year which starts on the first of November. It is believed that, on Samhain, those who have died during the year will be able to walk as ghosts amongst the living before their souls pass through to the underworld. Death is respected by Pagans as a natural and necessary part of life rather than something to be feared, so the spirits of recently departed loved ones are welcomed and honoured. Those born during the past year are also welcomed into the community.

In the time of the Celts, Samhain was celebrated with a feast of harvest fruits and vegetables which the spirits of recently deceased relatives were often invited to attend – as well as the sacrificing of animals in aid of helping the spirits on their journey. It was also a time when the presence of these spirits was believed to help priests make predictions about what would happen in the future. During the celebration, people would wear costumes made of animal skins and attempt to divine each other’s fortunes, whilst bonfires were built to scare away unwanted spirits that could also get through the veil. After the festival, homes would be lit with flames from these bonfires for protection and to keep warm. The idea of scaring the unwanted spirits away still lingers today in the way we dress up and place candles inside of pumpkins.

Halloween pumpkin jack o' lanterns
Pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns by Chris Goldberg. Creative Commons – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Jack of the Lantern: How Pumpkins Became Jack o’ Lanterns

Pumpkins are now so synonymous with Halloween that you can’t get away from them come October, but pumpkins weren’t always used at Halloween. When a mass immigration of Irish people to America occurred in the 1800’s, they brought with them the tradition of carving turnips and other vegetables, such as beets, and placing an ember inside them to ward away malicious spirits. But, upon their arrival in America, they discovered that pumpkins, which they had never seen before, were much bigger and easier to carve. And so, the jack o’lantern as we know it now was born. 

Halloween carved pumpkins
An assortment of carved pumpkins by John Phelan. Creative commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

The name Jack o’ Lanternactually comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack (or ‘Jack of the Lantern’) who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. But, living up to his name, Jack refused to pay for his drink and convinced the Devil to transform into a coin he could use to purchase their drinks. But, once the Devil had become a coin, Jack decided to keep it and put it in his pocket, along with a silver cross which prevented the Devil from regaining his previous form. Eventually, Jack did free the Devil, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year or claim his soul if he died. 

However, the following year, Jack tricked the Devil again by sending him up a tree to pick some fruit. Once the Devil was up the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark so the Devil couldn’t come down unless he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. Jack died soon after, but God would not allow such a bad fellow into heaven and the Devil, despite still being angry, would not let Jack into hell either as he’d promised not to claim Jack’s soul. So, Jack was sent out into the night to roam the earth with only a burning coal from the flames of Hell inside a carved-out turnip to show him the way. And he’s been roaming ever since.

neep lantern
Turnip lantern. Image taken by Amelia Starling.

People from Ireland and Scotland then began to replicate Jack’s turnip lantern, giving them spooky faces and placing them by doors and windows to ward off the spirits of the dead – as well as Stingy Jack himself. The tradition still continues today, and is my favourite part of Halloween. For anyone interested in the most epic of all pumpkin displays look up the Griffith House in Kenova, West Virginia. Featuring rows of thousands of grinning pumpkins, their glow covers pretty much the whole house, even from the highest roof!

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Kimberley Ford is a Creative Writing graduate and book blogger. She writes YA, and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @kimwritesthings.


Scary Folklore: Motivating Children’s Behaviour by Kristin

When we read fairy tales and legends we tend to think of them as archaic beliefs that our modern, intellectual society has left far behind. Yet even in this scientific and technological age, there are supernatural characters that are still presented to children as real. Especially at this time of year, I’m fascinated by this holiday season in which we celebrate fear.

Certain folkloric characters are still used to scare children into good behavior. In a conversation a while back, I was surprised to hear one friend say that his mom used to threaten himself and his brother with the Boogeyman if they didn’t behave. I didn’t think that people my age would have been raised to fear him — to be honest I only have vague notions of who he is (and those perceptions mainly came from the Veggie Tales song “God is Bigger than the Boogeyman” and the Oogey-Boogey Man from “Nightmare Before Christmas.”) But the Boogeyman or related monsters are pretty universal – just check out this list of Boogeyman variants and beliefs around the world! Whether children have trouble with eating their food, not staying out after dark, or sucking their thumbs, most cultures have a grotesque monster who might kidnap them and often will try to cook and eat them.

Alongside these male monster figures, we are familiar with related the female version, witches who might lure children in and even try to eat them as well. Another friend, who grew up in Poland, said that as a child she was regularly threatened with Baba Yaga! Though not so well known in America in general, Baba Yaga is definitely well known in fairy tale circles. The witch was a common figure in folk tales in Russia and countries like Poland as well.  Agnieszka recalls, I was definitely threatened about Baba Yaga coming to get me if I misbehaved, that she would take me back to her house on a chicken foot. I definitely believed it and it scared the heebie-jeebies out of me so I behaved! “

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa
Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Image in the public domain – source

I don’t know how I feel about the idea of parents scaring their children with monsters and villains if they don’t behave. Not only does it sound a little cruel to give them such terrifying lies, but it seems like parents are avoiding the blame for disciplining their children themselves.

And yet, we do see the opposite happening with supernatural characters who get the credit for rewarding good behaviors — most notably Santa Claus (although I recently overheard one mother say, “No way am I going to let Santa get the credit for all my hard work!”). I imagine it would be a little frustrating for parents not to receive thank yous from their children for all the time spend shopping and wrapping and often sacrificing to make Christmas morning wonderful for their kids…

Krampus
A Christmas card from the early 1900s. The text says ‘Greetings from the Krampus!’ In German folklore, Krampus is a horned figure who punishes naughty children at Christmas. Image in the public domain – source

Although not quite as popular, one more character I think most people grew up believing in (at least in America) is theTooth Fairy. And although getting money in place of a tooth would seem like a win-win for children (I used to get quarters, but the Tooth Fairy, from what I hear, has gone up in her giving to keep up with inflation, my students get a dollar for each tooth…) there are some children who are legitimately afraid to imagine some woman entering their room while asleep and taking something that used to be a part of their bodies. It is kind of gross to imagine the Tooth Fairy’s large stash of teeth somewhere and what purpose she has for collecting them all…

I heard one cute story involving the Tooth Fairy. A student of my mom’s didn’t want the Tooth Fairy to come and take his tooth, so he set up his Lego men around the tooth to guard it. When he woke up in the morning, the tooth was still gone, and his Lego men were tied up-with floss 🙂

While that has humor for the adults hearing it, I imagine it might have been somewhat terrifying for that little boy. I admire his creativity in thinking of a way to keep his tooth safe, and yet I would think he felt somewhat helpless when seeing his best efforts thwarted. The fact that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus only come at night, when we’re asleep, not only gives adults ammunition for getting their kids to actually go to bed on exciting nights, but also is a reminder that we humans, even the strongest and bravest of us, are pretty helpless and weak for that third of our lives when we sleep.

Polly Becker Tooth Fairy
The tooth fairy visits children as they sleep. Whilst her intent is benign, the idea of a supernatural being visiting whilst asleep is naturally scary for some children. Image by Polly Becker.

But really, especially with Halloween approaching, those of us of all ages tend to find enjoyment in trying to scare ourselves and others. Although it may seem like a strange tradition, when people decorate their lawns with skeletons and other scenes that are violent and morbid, each time we watch horror movies, go to haunted houses, or participate in Halloween activities and emerge victorious, we are symbolically conquering our fears. Scary movies are like a personal challenge-will this movie terrify me or will I defeat it? Maybe creatures like the Tooth Fairy, even the Boogeyman and Baba Yaga, provide children with the important rite of passage of realizing they don’t believe/aren’t afraid any more. I didn’t get the sense that my friends who spoke of being threatened as children were upset with their parents or traumatized — it was seen as more of a cultural myth than their parents being cruel.

Did your parents threaten you with a dangerous character when you misbehaved? What lengths did they go to to convince you that those creatures were real? And is it all right for parents to frighten their children unnecessarily?

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Kristin is a Chicago-based blogger who writes about fairy tales on Tales of Faerie.

 

Harvest Time: Folk Horror & Our Fear of the Countryside by Bethany Scott

Something odd happened to Britain in the 1970’s.

The hippie movement was turning sour. Scientists furthered new environmental research and people began looking inward to their country surroundings. Urban sprawls butted against farmland, creating unsettling, unfamiliar spaces, and there was a surge of interest in dark folklore of the British Isles. The mantras of peace and love were abandoned. Innocence fled the fields.

The peak of the folk horror movement in the 70’s left a taste in British mouths that we have never been able to get rid of, most vividly in fiction.

The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man (1973). Image from Cryptic Rock.

The notion of a terror from within toppled the reign of the ghoulish Hammer horrors and set the stage for films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw. No one was scared by Gothic castles adorned with clanking chains any more: the real horror was to be found right outside your front door in the piercing sunshine of the summer solstice.

The most effective folk horror fiction puts nameless fears into words. It reminds us of our fear that, for all our quantifiable facts and study, there will forever be a shapeless realm like a veil between ours and whatever dead place lies on the other side. M. R. James was an early example of folk horror’s timeless appeal, penning several contributions to the genre in the early 20th century. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary usually featured an unnamed narrator sat by a cosy fire in some Oxford clubhouse, relating a woeful tale of horror to rapt companions. James was fully aware of the power of bringing the supernatural into familiar surroundings.

In James’s View from a Hill, a scholarly archaeologist is called to the country to examine artefacts and finds a ghostly abbey, ruined during the Reformation, visible only through binoculars.

O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad
Still from O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1968). Image from Moonbase Central.

The dark forces still dormant in the fields around the abbey nearly kill him. In O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, an affable gentleman named Parkin retires to the seaside for a restful break. On a walk, he finds an ancient bone whistle in a graveyard and, pleasantly unaware of the consequences, blows a note. It heralds the arrival of a featureless spectre that haunts him just beyond his scope of vision. The story was adapted for television in 1968, and traumatised the British public with a dream sequence involving Parkin pursued by the spectre along an endless stretch of bleak Norfolk coast.

Folk horror even pervaded public service announcements which highlighted to children the danger of seemingly everyday situations. These broadcasts have become notorious, and many adults have been unable to shake their memories. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was one such film created to prevent accidental drowning, and featured a Grim Reaper-style hooded figure lurking nearby as children swam or attempted to retrieve a ball from a flooded quarry. Needless to say these broadcasts were very effective.

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water
Still from The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973). Image from Noise to Signal.

The popularity of folk horror continues, with books such as Simon Maginn’s Sheep shining a light on the innate fears unique to British culture to this day. We are an island nation, naturally distrustful of strangers and blanketed by a beautiful yet perilous and often lonely countryside with a pagan past that has left little by which it can be understood. Our increasingly technological lifestyle means the forces of nature, seen and unseen, are more removed from our everyday lives than ever, and that leaves us wondering – were our solstice celebrations really as innocent as we once claimed?

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Bethany Scott is an author living in Scotland with her military husband and three civilian cats. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyrscott and visit her blog.