Samhain is nearly here again, that sacred time of the year when the veil between the two worlds is at its thinnest and magic and mischief fill the air. Also known as Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, this Gaelic festival has ancient origins and traditions that still persist today.
One of the most intriguing Halloween traditions is the idea of fancy dress, whether it’s children donning cute costumes to go trick-or-treating, or adults stepping into disguise for Halloween parties. This time of year is when the souls and spirits of those that have passed into the Otherworld are able to cross over more easily into ours, and the idea of dressing up for Halloween is connected to this.
Dressing up as the dead was traditionally a way to imitate or impersonate the spirits of the Otherworld. There were two reasons for this: the first was to pay respect or tribute to the dead. The other was to disguise oneself from the more sinister spirits by hiding among them.
While Halloween costumes are definitely becoming more creative and contemporary, there are a few classic costumes that will always stand the test of time. Let's have a look at some of them, and the histories behind them.
Pointed black hat, black dress, warty nose...no matter where you are for Halloween, you'll probably see a witch or two hanging - or flying - around. Wearing a witch costume at Halloween is a tribute to the Pagan origins of Samhain. Witchcraft as a practice is deeply influenced by Paganism, combining nature, ritual and magic. But what are the origins of this stereotypical image of a witch?
The origins of the pointed witch's hat are a bit murky. There's historical evidence that pointed hats were worn in religious rituals and ceremonies as early as the 12th century, which is why they might have come to be associated with spell-casting witches. Points were also related to devil's horns, and as witchcraft was often wrongfully associated with devil worship, this may have led to the depiction of witches with pointed hats.
As for the warty witch nose...this probably comes from the mythology of the 'crone', the archetypal figure of the wise woman with supernatural abilities who can either help or hinder a hero's journey. Crones are often imagined as being grotesque in appearance, leading to the warty nose and off-colour skin. But this is just one of many 'witchy' images. If you really delve deeply into the history of witchcraft, you'll discover there are a number of ways to get creative with your witch costume this Halloween.
Animal costumes are always popular at Halloween, but the classic black cat might be the most recognisable. Black cats and witch costumes actually go hand-in-hand, as the idea of the black cat probably comes from the mythology of the 'familiar'. Familiars are animal companions - normally domestic - who help you with your magical practice, whatever that may be. If you're interested in the history of familiars, you should have a read of our previous blog post, 'Of Feathers and Fur'.
Cats are popular familiars as they have been associated with the magical world since Ancient Egypt, when they were worshipped as manifestations of the goddess Bast and Sekhmet. They're also closely linked to the world of superstition, whether you believe that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, or that cats can predict when a human is sick or close to death. As Halloween is a time when the veil between two worlds flutters open, dressing up as a cat is all too appropriate.
Pumpkins aren't traditionally spooky, yet they're everywhere at Halloween. And dressing up as a pumpkin can be a fun light-hearted alternative to some of the darker dress-ups out there. But what's the connection between pumpkins and Samhain?
Samhain happens in October in the Northern hemisphere, a time when pumpkins and other root vegetables like squash and turnips are plentiful. It's said that the tradition of carving goofy or scary faces into pumpkins came about as a way of scaring off evil spirits, or simply giving a fright to travelers or wayfarers passing through town. So that's why you see so many ghoulishly grinning jack-o-lanterns at this time of year, and why you might end up choosing one as your more palatable Halloween costume.
It's not hard to guess why ghosts are a classic Halloween costume choice. As Samhain is a time to celebrate the spirits of the dead and their visits from the Otherworld, dressing up as a ghost is a direct interpretation of this. But why, when people dress up as ghosts, do they often choose to wear a sheet with holes cut in the eyes?
The simple explanation is that this is an easy and budget costume choice. Most people have an old set of bedsheets and a pair of scissors they can spare if they don't have the time or money for a more extravagant costume, and being an ethereal shapeless white figure is a simple way to represent an elusive spirit of the dead.
But the truth might be a bit more interesting. It's been said that the bedsheet ghost might actually come from the idea of a burial shroud. In older times, when people died they were often wrapped in a white burial shroud. So when their spirits returned to our world during Samhain, perhaps they'd still be wearing the shroud they were buried in - leading to the bedsheet ghost. Either way, it's an easy choice if you're still trying to figure out what to dress up as last-minute.
If we're talking about spirits that cross over between the worlds of the living and the dead, then vampires are all too appropriate. These popular mythic figures are sometimes known as 'the living dead' or the 'undead' - shadowy human-like creatures that feed on the blood of the living in order to retain immortal life.
The hallmark of a vampire costume is definitely fangs, all the better to suck the blood of your victims. But vampire costumes also commonly involve a classic tuxedo and cape with a dramatic collar. This fashion come from cultural depictions of vampires, such as Bram Stokers Dracula, the 1922 horror film Nosferatu, or even Sesame Street's 'The Count'. In these depictions, the titular vampire is posing as a human count, so wears European aristocratic garb with a dramatic flair. This has now come to be known as one of the most recognisable images of the classic vampire, and is commonly seen at Halloween.
So as you can see, classic Halloween costumes are more than just a chance to become someone - or something - else for an evening. They're entrenched in history and mythology, and are a way of imitating and connecting with the lost spirits of the Otherworld. Whatever you choose to become this Samhain, we wish you a sacred and plentiful festival!