Halloween icon came from witch hunts, historian says
At the end of this month, children throughout Texas will transform themselves into animals, cartoon characters, ghosts, and ghouls to celebrate Halloween.
The holiday originated from Celtic fire festivals in pre-Christian times. During these fall festivals, bonfires were lit to restore the waning power of the sun as winter approached.
Eventually, the ritual was combined with a Christian celebration on Oct. 31— the evening of All Saints Day and the last day of the Celtic year — to form Halloween.
Another period of history, however, contributed to one of the most recognized and traditional Halloween symbols — that of the old, female witch with a long, hooked nose and warts, says a University of North Texas historian.
Dr. Richard Golden, UNT professor of history, has spent the last three years editing Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, a four-volume work with 750 entries that will be published next year. He hopes the encyclopedia will become the definitive reference on the age of witch hunting, which was approximately 1450 to 1750.
During this period, some 45,000 people in Europe, from Iceland to the Ural mountains, were accused of witchcraft and legally executed, Golden says. Most were old, poor women — an image still seen in Halloween witch decorations and costumes today.
"Women were seen as especially susceptible to the power of the Devil because they were considered more carnal and therefore evil, so they had to be controlled," he says.
He points out that while the elite of that time — clergy, magistrates and teachers — emphasized diabolism, or contact with the Devil, villagers were concerned about the ability of witches to work maleficium, or physically harmful magic.
"In fact, village committee often initiated witch hunting by pressuring authorities to persecute witches," he says.
Golden says some women were often first accused of witchcraft after they went door-to-door begging for charity. If a family turned a woman away and a misfortune struck the household shortly afterward, the family would say that the woman was a witch who had played a “trick" by throwing a curse to kill or injury a family member or livestock or spoil food.
The door-to-door begging for charity evolved into today's custom of trick-or-treating, with costumed children out for a good time and some candy to take home.
Golden also says those accused of diabolical witchcraft in the 15th through the 18th centuries were believed to fly at a night on brooms — the reason why many of today's witch Halloween costumes include brooms. However, those accused of witchcraft did not dress in black clothes with pointed hats because they were no different from their neighbors — save for their reputations and quarrelsome personalities, he adds.
Many Americans are familiar with witch hunts through works such as Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which dramatized the Salem, Mass., witch trials of 1692.
Golden points out, however, that events at Salem, which resulted in 150 people being imprisoned and 19 killed for witchcraft, did not even compare to the witch hunts in Europe at the same time.
"In this period of history, people honestly believed there were those practicing diabolical witchcraft with the intent to overthrow Christendom," he says. “There was witchcraft before and after, but it was only during this time that people were persecuted and prosecuted in large numbers for it."
Golden, who teaches both an undergraduate and a graduate-level class on the witch hunts at UNT, says he became interested in the period of witch hunting while he was in graduate school at The Johns Hopkins University.
"I concentrated on the history of French religion. The witch hunts werean important part of French and European history," he says.
Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition spans antiquity, the Middle Ages and the early modern period of history in both Europe and in the Americas. Golden arranged to have more than 150 of the most distinguished scholars working in the field of witchcraft contribute to the encyclopedia.
He says that in the 1970s, a renaissance in studying the witch hunts and witchcraft began. Much is what is known now was never included in the previous standard encyclopedia of witchcraft, a one-volume work published in 1959.
"Witchcraft touches everything — mainstream religion, science, politics, psychology, literature and medicine. It gives great insight into the history of law and women's history," Golden says.