by Waverly Fitzgerald
Weather Report, November 2
All Souls’, blustery and chill. I hear them before I see them, six lines scribbling across the white sky. I look up at the tiny crosses beating above me. The pain is new each year, and I’m surprised, even though I expect it the sudden cold, the geese passing over.
From Dakota by Kathleen Norris
I love Kathleen Norris’ simple but striking evocation of the mood of November 2nd. The melancholy of the geese passing overhead, warns of the arrival of winter and resonates with the image of the Wild Hunt, the horde of wandering souls that flew through the winter night sky, sometimes disguised as swans or wild geese or the wind. In Scandinavia, they were led by Odin, in England by Herne the Hunter, but in earlier times, in the Mediterranean they were led by goddesses.
The Wild Horde itself was a complex phenomenon whose origins lose themselves partly in the prehistoric past. There was the assembly of ghosts under the leadership of a female divinity, Hecate or Artemis in ancient Greece, Diana or Herodias, the mother of Salome, in the Latin West. This gathering of feminine spirits which later swelled into the crowd of evil hags at the witch sabbath was well known to the theologians of the first millenium who in vain flung their anathema against it…
As usual the effort was in vain. For as late as 1484 the Austrian Sephanius Lanzkranna reports in his ‘hymmelstrasse’ about the exploits of the Demon Dyana, whom he identifies with the local demons Frawe Percht and Frawe Holt. Herodias herself rides to the present day with the Wild Horde in large parts of Italy and in the Eastern Alps…Ritual performances meant to embody ghosts of the defunct–a feature not mentioned by writers of the first millenium–have survived over a large part of the eastern Alps under the name of Perchta, a feminine demon in whom the spirit of the Carnival is incarnated. [Bernheimer]
Bernheimer points out that the masculine Wild Horde, led by Odin, Holler, Gwyn ap Nudd, etc. is a more or less Teutonic phenomenon while the feminine one seems to be of Mediterranean origin. It may be the northern male-led horde grew out of the Southern female-led one.
In his book, Ecstasies, in which he explores the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, Carlos Ginzburg describes evidence for an early shamanic cult, centered around a goddess of abundance and the dead. She was known by many names: Herodiade, Diana, Habondia (Abundance), Richessa and the Good Goddess (Bona Dea whose festival the Romans celebrated on December 1st). Her devotees said they flew with her through the night sky, entering the houses of the rich to feast; Ginzburg suggest these journeys were undertaken in trance.
The Cathars, who developed a unique Christian religion which flourished in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries until wiped out as heresy by a Crusade in the 13th century, believed that this was the day when the souls of those who died during the year entered into a place of rest. Before this day, they wandered around the earth, from church to church. Angels chose from this flock those ready to be admitted to the place of rest. The living could influence the selection by saying Masses for the dead, paying off their debts and giving gifts to the poor.
This is similar to the tradition of English tradition of going from house to house, gathering ingredients for soul-cakes. Sometimes these were left out for the poor to eat, sometimes given to the priest to pay for Masses for the souls of the dead, sometimes they were given to those professionals who took on the sins of the dead, as in this passage quoted by Kightly:
In the County of Hereford was an old Custom at Funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the part deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable poor rascal). The manner was that when a Corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the Bier; a Loaf of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corps, as also a Mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the Sins of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from Walking after they were dead.
John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism 1688
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church tried to replace the idea of ghosts wandering around the night sky with that of souls who went straight to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory upon death and thus could not be contacted by those spiritual practitioners whose role it was to pass along messages from one world to another. With this development, the link was broken between people and their ancestors, who could no longer be prayed to or invited to return to provide advice.
Instead, wealthy patrons bestowed money on monasteries for the privilege of having the monks pray for their souls after death. In 998, the abbot of Cluny, Odilo, dedicated the day following All Saints Day as a day of psalm-singing and alms-giving, in memory of all who had died. One legend says he was spurred on in this action by a report from a traveler who had been told by an African hermit that the monks of Cluny were famous for saving souls. Another legend, related by the thirteenth century canonist, William Durandus, recorded the fate of a certain abbot who forbade saying Masses of the dead on Sundays. The souls of the deceased “afflicted him for this with very hard blows” and so he revoked his prohibition.
The dead saints replaced the ancestors as the subject of prayers and other-worldly assistance. The only dead still presumed to have contact with the living were evil spirits who still roamed the earth. They were not the sort you wanted to encounter on a dark night, thus the association of All Hallow’s Eve with ghosts and terror.
An excerpt from my Halloween holiday e-book which can be ordered at the Living in Season store.
The first painting is called All Soul’s Day and it was painted in 1910 by Alader Korosfoi-Kriesch. The second painting is called Asgardreien and was painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.
Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men of the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon 1970
Ginzburg, Carlos (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Pantheon 1991
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Ladurie, Roy (translated by Barbara Bray), Montaillou, George Braziller 1978
Norris, Kathleen, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin 1993.