Halloween - From ancient festival to modern money maker

Friday, 9 November 2018


Halloween is fast becoming a new tradition that Australians follow, but it also has a reputation as a crass import that some Australians love to hate. But how did an ancient Celtic tradition become a holiday centred on door knocking for lollies?

Two University of Newcastle researchers have weighed in on the myths and folklore of Halloween and its historical origins in a series of articles and radio interviews.

Professor Marguerite Johnson is a classical historian whose research deals primarily with sex and gender but through the lens of cultural history. She studies myths and folklore and the supernatural to investigate how the ancient Greeks and Romans expressed social fears around bodies, women and suspect gender.

She was interviewed on ABC’s Radio National program in the lead up to Halloween and says that Halloween has become a commercial holiday – we buy costumes and party supplies, but don't reflect much on the spiritual angle of the day.

“Halloween has its origins in the Celtic new year festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and the dead were said to walk among the living,” Professor Johnson said.

“It’s often criticised a crass import and a junk binge, but I love it and celebrate it every year as its part of the ritualisation and celebration of life. As a culture we’re losing these rituals and moments to dress up and enjoy life. Instinctively as human beings we are drawn to these types of celebrations because that’s what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.”

The pagan Celtic festival of Samhain marks the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. Johnson says it was also seen as a time of supernatural unrest.

“With the end of harvest and the earth dying they believed the veil between the living and the dead could be pierced and that supernatural forces were afoot and the dead could walk the earth for a few hours. This is why they would burn bonfires, light jack-o-lanterns and dress up as witches to protect themselves from the spirits that came to life,” Professor Johnson said.

“They also believed it was a time when fairies, elves and goblins became active so would leave offerings outside their houses to appease these folk. This ties into the modern Halloween tradition of handing out sweets.”

Professor Johnson’s PhD student, Tanika Koosmen researches the same themes through a study of the history of werewolves and how history can provide insight into cultural developments and changes in gender and perceptions of bodies.

She has written an article on The Conversation on the ancient origins of werewolves, the staple of supernatural fiction, and was interviewed on ABC Radio Darwin and ABC Radio National. In Greek and Roman texts, werewolves became a symbol of social deviance and the impact it can have on the human body. “The ancient authors believed that immoral actions had physical consequences,” Ms Koosmen said.

“In the ancient texts, the werewolf began to represent cultural anxieties about how bodies are influenced and manipulated. Modern culture has continued this tradition by retaining the violent elements of the werewolf tale, and we continue to express cultural fears about the body through stories of man to wolf transformation.”

Both scholars are members of the Gender Research Network in the Centre for 21st Century Humanities.