Hallowe’en is just a week or so away and the for days now the stores have been filled with hideous masks and replicas and complete outfits for children, and others to wear, not to mention equally hideous things designed to turn the average lawn into a graveyard. I thought it might be of interest to readers who didn’t know about it to see where these commercially made monsters originated, and how they connect with today.
It all began centuries ago with ergot. This is a fungus that grows on rye, under certain circumstances. It needs a special set of weather patterns for this to occur. These include a rainy spring, so that it can germinate on the young rye, a windy summer so that the spores can be blown around the fields, and a damp harvest time to fix the ergot on the grain.
Smut is the name that farmers give to the fungus. Chemists have found it to be a wonderful source of VERY powerful drugs. The farmers’ Smut gave us histamine to induce labor, hydergine to invigorate the senile, methergine to control uterine hemorrhage, and many others.
In 1943 Dr. Hofmann of the Sandoz Laboratory in Switzerland was working with lysergic acid, which is another Smut derivative. He accidentally spilled on his fingers some of the 25th amide in the amide series that he was investigating. He was stoned out of his mind for a long time, though he absorbed it only through his skin. He named it LSD.
The mind-bending, and consciousness-expanding hallucinations or perceptions of pure LSD, given under controlled conditions are one thing. Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Houston Smith and others have written about their use in the investigation of human consciousness. See my post about that dated 8/13/2007.
But the crescendo of horrors created by the impure LSD and a mixture of several other powerful hallucinogens also found in ergot, is quite another matter. And these horrors are quite an important part in the history of some European countries as it happens, and they had a spectacular effect on a commonly known, and misinterpreted part of our own history too.
The Vandals and the Visigoths brought rye to Europe during the Dark Ages. For centuries it was almost the only food of the poor. They were ill-nourished, prey to scurvy, rickets and ringworm (the good old days), but they always had the August harvest to look forward to.
It was bad years that produced the saying, "The wolf is in the rye." But custom compelled everyone to eat bread made from the first reaping. If the weather conditions earlier in the year had been those I mentioned previously, the whole town or village would have an attack of overwhelming horrors pretty quickly. These were the wolf of the rye.
There were two kinds of ergotism, as it was called later. They were acute and chronic. In the acute phase the person afflicted suffered from back pain and mental lassitude. Then the hands and feet became alternately unbearably hot and icy cold, and the skin became yellowish.
After that the feet went black, and the blackness spread sometimes up as far as the knees. When the fire and ice stage was over the disease became painless, and when legs or feet fell off at the joints, as was not unusual, no pain was felt. The acute phase was not uncommon in France.
In Germany it was usually the chronic phase that occurred. It looked like epilepsy, except that it continued for months at a time and the victims were conscious. Maybe the difference was caused by some basic genetic difference between the French and the Germans. It’s an interesting thought.
Now for some history nearer home. The spring of 1691 was very damp in Salem over here. The summer was windy and the harvest period was damp. By October there were 19 witches hanged or pressed to death and 150 people had been accused of witchcraft.
An examination of the trial documents, now on display in a witch museum in Salem, certainly suggests that both the accusers and accused had the symptoms of chronic ergotism. Those who confessed lost all their possessions and were in social disgrace. Those who protested their innocence, the 19, were executed.
It looks from outside like a horror movie in which the insane judge, jury, criminals and victims, all come from the same lunatic asylum. The ergotism evidence is made stronger by the fact that Samuel Putnam paid his debts in grain from his barn that year, and the pattern of madness exactly follows the pattern of his creditors. The people who received his grain were the accusers and the accused.
Salem’s disgraceful record of drug induced intolerance may have had bad consequences for the 19, but the 500,000 people who visit the witch kitsch of the myriads of stores and readers in the modern Salem every year have made that historical blip a very profitable matter for the Chamber of Commerce.
Very soon that same Salem will be having their annual Hallowe’en festival A pagan man with the unlikely name of Christian Day is a practicing psychic and co-founder of the 5-year-old festival. He organizes it in the original spirit of a day to remember and honor the dead.
Part of the festival involves what is known as The Dumb Supper, a banquet that lasts about three hours during which people eat in total silence and think about lost loved ones. Diners are encouraged to bring photos, drawings, and writings of their dead and to place them on the Altar of the Dead. And there is music of every kind to accompany the banquet and provide an ambiance such that most people are in tears by dessert, according to Day.
Well, it’s a start, but the evangelical opposition has of course reared its ugly head. There is a fundamentalist faction from the group Repent America which, in spite of the teachings of their Lord, teach and practice intolerance of any non-Christians, gays, abortion and the usual stuff about which their Lord actually said nothing, except ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’They will be coming on a repeat pilgrimage to make Salem repent its current wicked pagan ways.
Exemplifying the usual tolerance we find in this type of person a minister of Salem was expelled last year, by his congregation for being too friendly with people like Day and the many witches in Salem.
The Rev. Phil Wyman had invited Day and friends to debate the difference between magic and miracles. He visited many of the local witchery shops and was shown how to read Tarot. Some witches were delighted with his tolerance and came to him for counseling. A small number even converted to Christianity.
What the pagans (and others) recognized as tolerance and neighborliness the evangelicals saw as sacrilege, and accused the Rev. of courting the devil, the standard accusation thrown at dissenters. He stood his ground and accused them of starting another witch hunt and gave a lecture at the Festival of the Dead. As he pointed out…“My religion is all about a man who came back from the dead.”
And this time, in 2007, the fundamentalist bigots and ignoramuses don’t have the excuse of ergot. It’s all done by dogma, cherry picking verses from the Old Testament and an invincible belief in the power of evil, in everybody else of course. God is love! Hallelujah!
In my own lifetime, to return to history, there was a case of ergotism in France. It happened in 1951 when I had just returned from a stint in France, teaching English as a second language, and was still interested enough to read the French newspapers on the London newstands.
In Poitiers there had been a damp spring, windy summer and damp harvest time and there was a lot of poor grain around in August. Early in the month, a farmer M. Guy Bruere found that one of the sacks of wheat he had delivered was actually rye, complete with moths and some gray powdery stuff. He exchanged it for good wheat with his friend M. Maillot a local miller. The miller did the peasant frugality thing, and mixed it up into sacks that he sent to the enormous grain distributor, Union Muniere.
The Bruere flour was sent to the three bakeries in the La Villette district of Pont St. Esprit, about 300 miles south of Poitiers. The bakers found the flour to be awful, but that was what they had to use, so they baked with it. The bakers, their families and about 300 other people ate the stuff. The gourmet French dogs wouldn’t eat what was left, but many cats, chickens and geese did. In a few hours the town was full of screaming animals, many of which became paralyzed and died.
Next day many of the people had cramps, colic, diarrhea, itchy skin and the shivers—rather unusual in the August heat. And they were talking incessantly. The bakers immediately thought of mild food poisoning, called back the remaining bread and sent it to Union Muniere with a complaint.
That night NONE of the 300 or so people who had eaten the bread slept at all. In fact they kept on talking day and night without stopping for nearly a week, feeling high all the time. Those people who weren’t sick became a bit apprehensive, as the 300 stood around in little groups, talking day and night like truckers on amphetamines, but unlike truckers they were all smelling like dead mice.
Exactly one week after the bread was eaten, the disease called St. Anthony’s Fire, hit the town. People were in convulsions, screaming about being filled with snails, or being burned alive. People were running from imagined animals, and some exhibited supernatural strength when restraint was attempted. One man jumped from a second storey window and shattered both his legs on the sidewalk. Undeterred, he ran two blocks on compound fractures until he could be detained.
Delirious patients filled the local hospitals and suffered mental agonies as walls crashed in on them, and fireballs spun around them. Periodically the convulsions and horror gave way to visions of angels singing and flowers pouring out of the sky.
After three more sleepless nights the malady began to leave some of the sick, though for months many had recurrent attacks. The victims sued Union Muniere, but ergot did not legally count as a poison; there was no legal precedent, so the usual happened, when the poor fight the rich in court. The great multi-million dollar corporation easily defended itself in the French courts against the victims.
Dr. Hoffman, who discovered LSD in the first place testified that the malady was definitely ergot poisoning, and that the bread should be tested for ergot immediately because ergot alkaloids deteriorate quickly in the air. On hearing that the corporation at once began an orchestrated legal delay in the analysis of the bread, a delay that lasted for months. Corporations and their legal ploys are the same in any country.
Finally the concentration of ergot was found to be 1 in 1000. It took more months to persuade the court that this was still a potent amount of ergot and that the original concentration must have been much higher. In 1964 the victims won a technical victory after 10 years of procedural delays by the lawyers of Union Muniere. To win damages, under French law, the victims would have to start again at the beginning. So they decided to give up the fight.
So it looks as if the spooky parts of the Hallowe’en season aren’t just for kids. They are replicas or replays of what was going on in the heads of many at that time of year in the Europe of our ancestors.
This is not to discount the spiritual traditions of the Thinning of the Veil, or the Day of the Dead, based on the cycle of the year, not on hallucinatory drugs. But it does throw a new light on the visions of some of the saints. The history of ergot poisoning is bound up with religious practices, as are the scurvy based hallucinations due to mediaeval winters without vitamin C.
St. Anthony’s famous fights with demons coincided so aptly with those of ergot victims that St. Anthony’s Hospitals functioned for over a century, until climatic changes altered the incidence of ergot poisoning. Now it is rare.
Now that’s where the folk memory of monsters roaming around at Hallowe’en probably originated, but that is not the reason for the season as the Christians say at Yule, the pagan festival which they renamed Christmas.
The proper name of Hallowe’en is Samhain, pronounced Sowenn. This is not a magic word. Just look up November in a dictionary of the infuriating Irish Gaelic, and you will see that Samhain means November…or the end of summer.
It was a Celtic festival centuries before the Christians invaded the British Isles and began appropriating every pagan festival as their own. October 31st is exactly midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Such important midway points were also times when sensitive people could experience being midway between the worlds of the living and the dead.
The evening of October 31st was the start of the Celtic New Year, because the Celts began their day at sunset, and by analogy the evening of October 31st was the beginning of the dark half of the year, and therefore the beginning of the New Year.
This was the day when those who had died during the year were invited back to visit the living if they wanted to. Places were set at table for them, and just before daybreak they were escorted back to the graveyard by people dressed as ghosts and carrying lanterns to show the way. Very friendly, and another connection with today's lanterns and spooky outfits.
In Mexico this day is El Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead and a time for communicating with dead relatives. In Wales, the day is Nos Calan Gaeaf, which literally means ‘the first night of winter. Remember, Celtic days begin at sunset, not sunrise.
Since the veil between the worlds is thinnest at this date it became the time when many people tried divination. Young women would engage in many different domestic rituals to see who they were going to marry.
This was also the time of year when Harvest time was celebrated and the flocks and herds were brought in to be wintered or slaughtered as winter provisions, it was a time when there was a lot of fruit and nuts around. Many of the domestic rituals involved apples and nuts for this reason, and still do, though without the ancestral memory of the reason for the season. After all, many young people think that food comes from the super market, not from the soil.
One of the young women previously mentioned might put hazel nuts close to the fire. Each nut would represent one of her possible husbands. Then, in England she would chant, "If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die."
Or she would use my own mother’s favorite method of forecasting visitors. She, the young woman, would peel an apple without breaking the peel and throw it over her left shoulder. It would hit the ground and form the initial of the name of the lucky fellow.
My mother, who incidentally was born on October 31st, used to surprise me regularly when she sensed that we were going to have a visitor in an hour or two, and she always did this to find out who it was going to be, so that she knew what food to have ready. It never failed. And for the skeptics, we didn’t have a telephone, or even electricity. She was just plain psychic. It was just what Amy did, as the family would say.
If you cut an apple straight through, horizontally you see the sacred pentagram. This may be why the Celts honored the apple, as many pagans did, and the Christians tried to bad mouth it by saying that it was an apple that Eve ate in the Garden.
The Romans had a day for the dead around the same day and their goddess of the period was Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees. Apples, botanically speaking are pomes, derived from the Latin name pomum...apple, or pomarium...orchard. In French the word for potatoes is pommes de terre, apples of the earth. There are always connections with the past. The Roman festivities and major deities blended in easily with those of the Celts when they came to Britain.
Today we are supposed to burn candles in lanterns carved from pumpkins with scary faces, to scare away witches and ghosts. As I mentioned earlier, way back then the lanterns were to show the dead the way back to their previous home so they could have a social evening with their old families again. They were then used by the families to escort their departed relatives back to the local cemetery.
The Christians took over this festival, as they did Yule (Christmas) and Oestara (Easter), by making it a day to remember the dead who were so numerous that they could not have a single day as a saint’s day attributed to one person, so they called it All Saints Day and the evening before was All Hallows Evening, from which we get Hallowe’en.
The Jack O’Lantern facet of Hallowe’en isn’t recent. It’s a very old Celtic tradition. The idea of using pumpkins instead of turnips and potatoes is pretty recent however. The whole thing is based on a whimsical Irish story about a blacksmith named Jack.
He was a pragmatic sort of guy and when the devil turned up in his smithy and offered him a deal in exchange for his soul Jack agreed. The devil gave Jack a total and pretty much supernatural level of skill at his trade for the usual seven years. So he was a Jack of one trade, and master of it, unlike certain other Jacks.
But Jack was Irish and had his own Irish ideas about the payback arrangements. He went around on his private sting operation, bragging loudly about his ‘better than anyone else’ skills as a smith. Being a smith then was being a worker in fire magick, very impressive in those days. The news reached heaven as all Irish news eventually does. After all, from Ireland to heaven is a local call nowadays, and Saint Peter himself turned up one evening in the smithy to try to convince Jack to be more humble.
As a heavenly incentive he offered Jack three wishes, and not being Irish he expected that Jack would use them to ensure his advent in heaven. Instead Jack used them to set three traps. The first was that if anyone climbed his pear tree they wouldn’t be able to get down again until Jack gave them permission. The second was that if anyone sat in his armchair they couldn’t get out of it without his permission, and the third was a similar situation concerning his purse.
Peter went away disappointed and puzzled. When the devil turned up to get his contracted soul Jack arranged the three circumstances for him with the appropriate blarney, and the devil had to release him from his contract in order to be able to go about his usual business. Jack flourished for years as a super master smith, with his soul untouched by the devil.
But eventually he died. When he got to the Pearly Gates Peter wouldn’t let him in because he had misused his three wishes. When he got to the gates of Hell the devil wouldn’t let him in either in case he bragged about the way he fooled the devil. Reputation is very important in Hell.
Jack was a quick thinker as you may have already surmised. As the gates of hell were closing before him he reached in with a turnip he had been eating and scooped up some of the eternally burning coals that were everywhere. Now he uses his unusual lantern to light his way as he wanders around the world waiting for the Day of Judgment, when his case will be decided.
In this way he resembles the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. And in his deal with the devil he is not unlike another ingenious Jack everyone knows now, Jack Sparrow, and his thirteen year deal with Davey Jones.
When the Jack O’ Lantern custom came across the Atlantic the turnips, still used in Europe, became the more easily carved and showy pumpkins. And now they are there to frighten away the devil’s servants and to enrich the Chinese, not to guide the dead to and from the cemetery.
The other day on which the veils grow thin is Beltane, around the first of May, the festival of fire, without monsters, real or dietary. Summer began in old Europe when the constellation The Pleiades, The Seven Sisters, came over the horizon in May, and ended when The Pleiades went below the horizon in November. You will only see six of the stars in the cluster today with the naked 20/20 eye, but how one went missing is another story.
Beltane too was all connected with the Earth cycles in the days of yore, so to speak. It was even the day when the May tree bloomed, before the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian. Now the cycles of change of the Earth have become sale’s cycles of the commercial world. I always look forward during the Chicago winters to that day in May when summer begins for this born again pagan. For the Catholics it is the beginning of the month of Mary; the Virgin of course, not the Magdalene, unless you are a Templar.
The greatest and supernatually talented, bard/magician of the Celtic world, Taliesin, who was a teacher of the more well known Merlin, once gave away the secret of his birthplace. He said, in Welsh of course, “ A’m gwlad gynnevin yw bro ser hevin,” which means, “My original country is the Region of the Summer Stars.” And the summer stars were the Pleiades. Yet another reason why I prefer May to November.
Anyway, try to remember the reason for the season. It isn’t so that stores selling paper and plastic products from China can make a mint, or so that already obese kids can get a sugar buzz from cheap chocolates with a high lead content. Happy Hallowe’en!