The sky fills with dark, smoky clouds, and the leaves combust into fiery color. A warning chill fills the air, carrying the throaty cawing of ravens on the wind as it whips past you in the quickly darkening night. In the shadows between trees, you hear rustling, perhaps a soft, sinister whisper, and the step of a paw on decaying mulch. Though some nights you might forget that magic is as much dark as it is light, those who visit our world from other realms on Halloween night won’t let you.
Celebrations for the harvest have been part of the culture of agricultural societies for thousands of years, and festivals honouring the dead have similar longevity. While we can point to such Roman festivals as Lemuria and Parentalia as forerunners, it’s the combination of the harvest festival and the festival of the dead in the Celtic tradition that really gives us the spirit of modern Halloween. In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, the celebration of ‘summer’s end’ is celebrated as Samhain, but other Celts instead named their festival for the ‘first day of winter’ – Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall, and Kalan Goañv in Brittany. The dual nature of the name of the festival hints at its dual celebration: the end of the growing season, and the beginning of the cold and dark.
Samhain in Ireland is considered a liminal time, one in which the division between worlds is at its least solid. Thus it is high time for the fair folk, known in Ireland as the Aos Sí or Tuath Dé. The Aos Sí have always been revered and feared for their power, and at Samhain it is especially important to keep them happy. Any perceived disrespect might induce them to wreak havoc on the harvest, which would be a disastrous blow to the community as winter begins.
Fairies aren’t the only beings able to take advantage of the thin veil between worlds. It is this time of year that the souls of the dead can also make a reappearance in the land of the living. The Christian festival of All Hallows’ Day originally coincided with Lemuria, the Roman festival for the souls of the dead held in May. In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved it to coincide instead with Samhain. Much like the need to appease the Aos Sí, the souls of the dead must be cared for during their visitations in order to prevent vengeance or mischief. The tradition of souling, a probable forerunner to trick-or-treating, consisted of groups of people going door-to-door begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for dead loved ones. These prayers would calm the souls of the dead and prevent them from being enticed to cause chaos for the living.
Where fairies and spirits congregate, there are always stories: warnings of what happens when the Aos Sí are unhappy, reminders of the power of the dead. One tale of a fairy you should be lucky enough not to meet on Samhain is the tale of the Dullahan. Mounted on a midnight-black steed, the headless Dullahan rides at a furious pace through the Irish countryside. ‘Headless,’ perhaps, is not entirely accurate; he has a head, but it does not rest on his shoulders. In one hand he holds a monstrous whip made of a human spine, and in the other he holds high his glowing head, by which light he sees the unhappy house of the human for whom he has come.
There once was a man walking home on a cold autumn night. As he walked, he heard the sound of racing hoofbeats break the still silence. The distant sound grew closer and closer, and in terror the man turned to look back. Behind him, the Dullahan approached, his horse snorting flames and his decapitated head burning with fiendish light.
The man began to run, but he knew he could not run for long. If he was lucky, the Dullahan would overtake him and he would be hit in the face with a bucket of blood or blinded in one eye. But if he was unlucky, the hellion horse would stop, and the Dullahan would whisper his name, stealing his soul from the land of the living.
The Dullahan closed the distance between them, and his horrible stallion’s breath burned the back of the man’s neck. Suddenly, the man remembered the Dullahan’s only fear: pure gold. He pulled a gold coin from his pocket and quickly cast it on the road behind him. With a piercing shriek, the Dullahan and his mount disappeared into thin air.
Another tale of the fairy folk that travel between worlds is the tale of “The King o’ the Cats.” Though the Dullahan can come at any time, the Cat Sidhe is known to visit specifically at Samhain, and any house that has not left out a saucer of milk for its arrival will find their cows equally devoid of milk the next day. Although it can be mischievous at Samhain, its activities the rest of the year can be a different sort of mysterious.
A man named Harry once fell asleep by the side of the road and awoke to hear a meow from the other side of the wall behind him. Quietly, he turned around and looked over the top of the wall. There he saw nine black cats, each with a single white spot on its chest, walking down the path. Eight of them carried between them a small coffin with a gold crown atop it, and the largest cat led the way.
Just as they were about to turn off the main road to make their way to the graveyard, the lead cat turned and looked directly at Harry. The cat said, in a high-pitched voice, “Tell Dildrum that Doldrum is dead.” Resuming his position, the cat led the procession away down the path to the graveyard.
Harry did not know anyone named Dildrum, and was very puzzled by this scene. He returned home and told his wife, Mary, and his cat, Sam, all about his very strange day.
“It’s all true,” Harry insisted. “But how can I tell Dildrum that Doldrum is dead if I don’t know who Dildrum is?”
“Oh, Harry,” Mary sighed. “Enough of your stories. Can’t you see you’re upsetting Sam?”
Sam stretched and walked around the room, looking curiously at Harry. The cat began to grow, staring at Harry all the while. He grew and grew until he was the size of a dog, even larger than the large cat that led the procession.
“Doldrum is dead?” Sam said. Harry and Mary looked incredulously at the cat as he continued to speak. “Old Doldrum is dead? Why, then I am the King o’ the Cats!”
Into the fireplace and up the chimney leapt King Sam the Cat Sidhe, and he was never seen again.
The fairies, of course, are not the only otherworldly walkers on the eve of Samhain. The souls of the dead return to visit their loved ones or, if unmourned and un-prayed for, to seek revenge on those who mistreated them in life, as one lady of York discovered in the tale, “The Greenwood Side.”
This young lady fell in love with her father’s clerk and soon found herself with child. In secret she fled to the forest to give birth hidden and alone. The cruel mother took her newborn twins and murdered them, hiding the bodies beneath a stone. There she left them, intending to return home having left the mistakes of the past well behind her.
Her way took her past the local church, and playing in the nearby grass were two children, sweet and small.
“Oh, lovely children,” the woman said, looking at them with adoration, “if you were mine, I’d dress you in the finest silk.”
“Oh, mother dear,” the children replied in terrifying unison, “when we were yours, you did not prove to us so kind.”
At these words her blood ran cold and sluggish in her veins. She looked upon the spectres of the evidence of her wrongdoing, and asked them, trembling, “Dear children, tell me true, what kind of death awaits me?”
With cold, dead eyes that stared unblinking back at her, their ghosts told her of her fate. “For seven years, a bird in a tree. For seven years, a fish in the sea. For seven years, to ring a church bell, and seven years, be a porter in hell.”
Restless spirits and fearsome fairies that roam on Halloween are not the kind and gentle heroes we’ve come to expect from fairy tales. The duality of Samhain, both a celebration of the bounteous harvest concluded and a solemn reminder of the wariness and fortitude one needs for the coming darkness, is a reflection of magic itself. It encompasses all these facets at once, and at no time of year is it more important to be mindful of this.
Victoria Audley is a writer and folklorist with degrees in philosophy and museum education. She has performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a Highland dancer and as the White Swan. When she isn’t writing ghost stories and fairytales, she can be found baking, reading, and attempting to convince the neighbourhood cats to let her pet them. She currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with her husband and twenty-one fake crows.