As Halloween approaches there's no shortage of decorations for sale, usually covered with Halloween symbols that we all recognize even if we don't know where they come from.
Along with ridiculous costumes and enough candy to make you vomit, there are some things that you find every single Halloween. Jack o' lanterns, ghosts, bats, black cats - a lot of these symbols have their roots in the history of Halloween. Many of them trace back to the pagan festival of Sahmain, which is thought to be the most direct ancestor of our modern celebration. This was a celebration of the dead at a time when the boundary between this world and the next was believed to be much thinner than normal.
These scary symbols might not look so intimidating as decals in your window or cardboard signs hung on classroom walls, but their history is downright creepy. Full of folklore and spirituality, there's a long tradition of Halloween and deadly symbolism that you might not be aware of. So before you grab your costume and go trick or treating this year, you might want to look at why we dress up in the first place. These are the origins of all your favorite Halloween symbols (and you may never look at broomsticks the same way again).
With witches aplenty, it's probably no surprise that we find broomsticks as a Halloween symbol. But why are they meant to be a witch's travel method of choice? Well, it's a little dirty. Witches were thought to have applied hallucinogenic"flying ointment" - um, internally - with a wooden staff. An account from 1324 of a witch on trial says that "they found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased her staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin." Right. Although for the next few hundred years they were described as flying on anything from a cupboard to a fork, it seems to be the wooden staff imagery that really lasted.
It is thought that the broomstick, a symbol of domesticity, may have stuck because that makes it the perfect object to be perverted by witches - femininity gone wrong. Pretty scary for the patriarchy.
While in some folklore black cats have been considered lucky or even a sign of prosperity, their association with witchcraft is much more widespread and links these creatures to Halloween. The idea that cats are "witches' familiars is found in writings and trial reports of the 16th century." People so feared their demonic connotation that groups of cats were often burned alive across Europe. Bad news for your favorite black cat.
Black cats were also feared in early America and seen as a sign of witchcraft, while today they are often thought of as being bad luck. The creepiness really does live on - in fact, because they are so associated with the holiday, they are potential targets of torture and ritual sacrifice, and some humane shelters limit adoptions of black cats around this period.
Though you probably think of jack-o'-lanterns as synonymous with pumpkins, they actually find their origins with the humble turnip and the creepy story of Stingy Jack. According to the Irish folk tale, Jack invites the devil for a drink with him and, not wanting to pay, convinces the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead of spending it, Jack keeps the coin in his pocket next to a cross, only freeing the devil when the devil promises not to claim Jack's soul when he dies. When Jack dies, God doesn't allow him into heaven and the devil doesn't let him into hell, instead giving him a burning coal to light his way. Jack puts this coal into a hollowed-out turnip to light his way and is forced to wander the earth forever, a doomed soul.
Irish people would put jack-o'-lanterns outside their door to frighten away Stingy Jack and any other wandering spirits. When they immigrated to America, pumpkins (native to the New World) were used to keep their tradition alive.
If there's one human (well, human-ish) symbol of Halloween, it's the witch riding away over a full moon. Witches, especially in the Christian view originating in the Middle Ages, were thought to be in league with the devil. Their casting of spells and connection with the other world make them a natural fit for Halloween and its predecessor, Sahmain. But how did they become so ubiquitous around this holiday? Some think it was a tactical move by the greeting card industry. In any case, a bubbling witch's cauldron and wart-covered old woman are sure to be in any haunted house you visit this year.