What Ancient Pagans Knew That Moderns Risk Forgetting

The problem with our Halloween is that it’s sub-pagan. That is, it doesn’t even rise to the level of paganism. That’s not a compliment, but a warning about our own triviality. To be more exact, it is a warning about not taking the reality of life, death, and evil seriously enough. I say this whether your child is dressed as a howling, half-putrefied zombie or Taylor Swift.

The origins of Halloween lie with the ancient pagan Celts in the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), a kind of harvest-end festival marking the time when the life-giving summer and fall give way to the harsh and bare deadness of winter, the time of light and warmth to the time of darkness and cold. Given that a fair number of them would not make it through winter or would starve or succumb to sickness in the spring before any crops could spring up—a real danger for many ancient people—they knew they were staring death in the face.

On the night of Samhain, the Celts believed that the heavy veil dividing the world of the living from the dead was mysteriously thinned, and the beloved dead as well as malignant spirits roamed the world. The beloved dead were helped back home by fires and candles lighting the way. The evil spirits were warded off by frightening masks, or, with the Celtic Druid priests, by religious rites including, sometimes, human sacrifice.

We no longer mark our years by natural divisions like the ancient pagans. It is hard for us, to say the least, to conjure up what it really meant to have a harvest festival—a celebration of the food derived from the good earth that was to keep one’s family alive against the cold, clutching fingers of dark winter—while we’re opening a can of processed pumpkin bought from the store. We know we can just go to the store anytime in January and February, and the shelves will be full. There will even be “fresh” tomatoes in the produce aisle. We are neither especially thankful for food nor especially worried about death. And the reason is the same: unlike the ancient pagans, death has no sting for us.

But that isn’t the only reason death has no sting for us. We live in a largely secularized culture, one that has cast away notions of the afterlife, of the soul’s peril, of real demons and real evil. There is no veil dividing us from another world, no greater cosmic drama stretching from this life to the next, no realm of supernatural beings devoted either to our eternal bliss or to our eternal torment. Our dead are gone; they are not potential harbingers of hope or warning from beyond; they do not wait to pass through the curtain on All Hallows Eve. Nor are we worried about any demonic beings, entirely bent on causing evil and misery whose only pleasure lies in the destruction of life, goodness, and happiness. Both the exalted good of heaven and the unimaginable misery of hell have been banished to the world of myth.

Secularization has brought us to be quite content with a much smaller, less perilous world, with only one dimension to it—the pleasures we can get from this life. That is, I think, why Taylor Swift or Frozen character costumes are appropriate for our young. It also explains the rage for scantily clad adult women costumes. That’s as good as it gets…if the material world is all there is.

But here’s the problem. Trivializing life and goodness leads to a fascination with death, destruction, and evil—not as something to be overcome, but as alluring, romantic, exciting, and profound. To cite an important example, for some time now, pre-adolescent girls have been absorbed with Vampire Romances, lured in by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. You can be sure you’ll have a lot of little vampires ringing your doorbell again this year. I recall seeing one such cherub wandering around a store with a t-shirt that said, “My boyfriend is a vampire.”

Manuela Ruda’s boyfriend, then husband, Daniel Ruda was a vampire too. Manuela worked in one of London’s Gothic clubs, and was part of a circle of people who drank human blood at “bite parties” or met up with fellow blood-drinkers via the internet. She slept on graves, and one time, actually in a grave. She met her husband through an ad in a lonely hearts magazine: “Black-haired vampire seeks princess of darkness who despises everything and everybody and has bidden farewell to life.” They both worshiped Satan. In 2002, she and her husband lured a man into their apartment. Daniel hit him with a hammer; Manuela stabbed him in the heart. They said a satanic prayer, drank his blood from a bowl, and then had sex in the coffin in which Manuela routinely slept.

The British judge was rightly appalled, but could only treat the couple’s evil as so horrible, so unimaginably vile, that it could only have arisen as the result of a severe psychological disorder. They showed no remorse. At the trial, Manuela calmly stated, “It was not murder. We are not murderers. It was the execution of an order. Satan ordered us to. We had to comply. It was not something bad. It simply had to be. We wanted to make sure that the victim suffered well.” The judge sent them to a psychiatric hospital; they’re due out in a few years.

The notion that Manuela was telling the truth never entered the mind of the judge. It was unthinkable that there could be some being, not of this world, a super-human damned creature who is so miserable that his only relief is the most vile revenge against the God who damned him. That there really could be such a thing as demonic possession, brought on at the invitation of the one who wishes to be possessed, was not permissible in court because it was unthinkable for the judge. He was therefore forced to treat the Manuelas as insane rather than evil.

But what if there really is such a being? C. S. Lewis, among others, remarked that the Devil’s greatest victory in the modern world was to get us not to believe in him. If the Devil actually exists, then secularism is his greatest achievement for secularism simply defines the spiritual world as non-existent, and the notion of a veil between two worlds as mythological nonsense. That is why we have a secular Halloween.

When Christians encountered the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, they had no doubts about the reality of the soul’s existence after death, that there were demons, and that there was a great cosmic drama in which we find ourselves, stretching from heaven to earth and from this life to the next. They had no quarrel with the pagans in any of this. In fact, they took the whole thing more seriously, and so quashed the fear of real evil that brought the Druids to sacrifice human beings and replaced it by the much more astounding and awful news that God Himself had vanquished real evil through His own sacrifice on the cross. Samhain therefore became All Hallows Eve (literally, All Saints Eve), the night before All Saints Day, the day made possible by the most important holiday of all, Easter.