Hallowe’en – getting (t)witchy

I find myself increasingly impatient with Hallowe’en these days, and it can’t just be my innate grumpiness – I find the commercialization and nihilism disheartening.

The celebrations of Mexico’s Day of the Dead seem a positive and invigorating way of remembering those no longer with us, but with less of a substantive tradition – or only a half-remembered one, anyhow – Hallowe’en in North America and Britain is fast becoming just another excuse to shift badly made crap.

Personally I can’t stand trick-or-treating, feeling it to be an unwelcome import, though I have to (grudgingly) admit that it does have its origins in English traditions like Punkie Night and Mischief Night.

Punkie Night especially is a long-established tradition in parts of Somerset, where children and adults make “punkies”  out of turnips, swedes or mangold wurzels, and place them somewhere prominent, or otherwise carry them around the village, to ward off evil spirits.

In the Brendon Hills, it is said that the shades of everyone who will die in the coming year pass through the local churchyard – and if anyone disturbs them, they too will be dead within twelve months…

Many Hallowe’en traditions, including the lighting of ritual fires (now more commonly associated in Britain with Guy Fawkes Night, on November 5th), come from Scotland, though their origins are often unclear. Nowadays many pagans celebrate October 31st as the eve of Samhain, the pre-Christian Celtic festival that marks the beginning of winter.

Whatever your preference, I hope you have a blessed and enjoyable Hallowe’en (or Samhain, or Nut-Crack Night), relatively free of commercial clutter. Me, I’m off to do a spot of apple-bobbing, and to light my punkie…

Dragons Part Two

I remember, aged about nine or ten, seeing the film “Dragonslayer”, with its splendidly named dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative. I’ve been fascinated by these mythical creatures ever since. The origins of the dragon myth are often unclear – in medieval England, it’s not difficult to see how dinosaur fossils and other natural phenomena, like comets, could be misinterpreted:

“Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…”

This entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for 793, appears to presage the coming of the Vikings later that year, and all the havoc they would wreak on the English.

Nowadays we don’t tend to believe in dragons as literal creatures – yet there is literal truth and symbolic truth, and many of our great dragon stories, like much of folklore, tell us deeper truths about ourselves without being “true” in the strictest sense.

The standard of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex is of a wyvern (a type of dragon with only one pair of legs) on a red background, and the flag of Somerset, my home county, and once part of Wessex, also bears the image of a dragon. Interestingly, in Wales, in the Mabinogion, the Historia Brittonum, and The History of the Kings of Britain, the red dragon of the Welsh fights and finally defeats the white dragon of the invading Saxons.

Why do dragons still hold an important role for us in the post-Enlightenment age? And how has that role changed over the years? These are questions I want to explore further in Part Three.