Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 31, 1994

Classic Myths Lurk Behind Spooky Night
By Chris Rowett

Kyle McCarter tells great ghost stories.
    A few years ago, when the chairman of Near Eastern Studies
was recruited to give a Wednesday Noon Series Lecture on
Halloween, he felt "obligated" to brush up on the subject. So
now, as a somewhat reluctant guru of goblins, a scholar of
spirits, he is considered a Halloween expert.
    The holiday arose, Dr. McCarter said, more than 2,000 years
ago from the Celtic tradition of celebrating the festival of
Samhain, the lord of death.
    Throughout Ireland, Britain and northern France, it was
believed that on Oct. 31--the eve of the Celtic New Year--Samhain
allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes,
Dr. McCarter said.
    "On that night, you wouldn't lock your doors," he said. "And
you would make sure the fire was burning and the hearth was all
swept so your dead relatives could come visit."
    The underworld being what it was, some of those souls had
nowhere to visit, and they were not happy about it.
    "They were ticked off because they didn't have any place to
go," Dr. McCarter said. "So they would play tricks."
    Samhain, the story goes, would instruct the souls on what
physical forms they could adopt for their return to the world.
    "If they were bad souls, they would have to take the shape
of animals," Dr. McCarter said. "If they were very bad they would
have to take the shape of a cat."
    The celebration gave young men an excuse to impersonate the
spirits of the dead, playing tricks and wreaking havoc on their
    "For the rest of the year, they would be confined," Dr.
McCarter said. "But for that time they could do whatever they
    The professor compares the occasion to the yearly Mardi Gras
mayhem in New Orleans, when the boundaries of acceptable behavior
tend to fade.
    "Boundaries are dangerous," he said. "There's that moment in
between when the world can get out of hand, before it is secured
for the next year."
    Treats became a part of the tradition in an effort to
persuade the revelers to behave.
    "In other words, it was a bribe," Dr. McCarter said. 
    When the Romans conquered the Celtic world in A.D. 43, they
introduced Europeans to the Feralia festival, which was also held
in late October to honor the dead.
    ...even more life by Pope Gregory IV, who established All
Saints' Day in 835. The Nov. 1 feast commemorates all martyrs who
became saints, or hallows, and the preceding night is called All
Hallows Eve, or Halloween.
    Though Halloween has changed form over the years, Dr.
McCarter said the autumn ritual has survived because it is a
family and neighborhood tradition.
    "It has a lot of good social benefits," the 49-year-old
father of three said. "I've always gone trick or treating with my
kids and before that when I was a kid. I guess everybody likes

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