Halloween: Pagan Ritual to Party Night
Oxford University Press
I’m going to get the bias conversation right out of the way, up front so I can move on.
I’m aware that writers carry a bias. I’m fully aware that the bias issue I have about this book is probably completely applicable to myself, though I think that most people who know me (at least through this blog) are going to think ‘spirituality’ and not ‘sociology’ in relation to a book that tries to strip out the pagan roots of a pre-Christian holiday.
Though, actually, it’s the sociology that’s giving me such a hang-up with this book.
I will say this in defense of this book. I’m not sure that he’s wrong, in fact, there’s a strong possibility that he’s right. And it is interesting to see the development of halloween imagery from a solidly Christian history. There’s just a couple of points that leave me feeling like this book is lacking.
1. Human sacrifice. Yes. You read that right. The human sacrifice debate, namely, whether or not samhain was ever connected to such. The thing is, the author wants to say that there’s no definitive proof that the Celts ever engaged in it (because there’s not) but then spends ten pages discussing whether or not we can really say that, because we have source material from the time describing the act. However, he also wants to point out that the source material is probably flawed due to political leaning and timing issues.
The author also wants to bring the bog men into it. The bog men are several mummified corpses found in peat bogs in Britian that look like they were left there deliberately. In mentioning this to an anthropologist friend in passing, she snorted and said a) Cesaer wasn’t known for his lack of proganda (she’s also a Classist) and b) it’s not like murder was invented in 1963. The debate is whether or not bogs were the equivilent of dumping bodies in a ditch.
Either way, my feeling is that when you spend ten pages out of a fifteen page chapter trying to say that you’re neutral about it, you’re probably not actually neutral about it. I’d actually be more okay with taking a solidly pro-sacrfice stance in that situation.
2. Elves and bonfires. Yes, you read that right too. The author makes a claim that Samhain wasn’t a death holiday and that the images we associate with Halloween actually are derived from Christian rites. The only holdover from pre-Christian and/or pagan holidays are bonfires.
Okay. I’m actually okay with that, in that my stance on reconstructionism is that we just don’t know.
It’s the elves that get me. The author’s argument about how divination/the afterlife managed to get caught up in samhain is that the Celts had a fairly healthy fey-based belief set going. And elves live underground and allow humanity to interact with their side of the veil on samhain. Therefore it’s a holiday about the underworld, just not the underworld of the dead- it’s effectively a fey holiday.
Here’s my issue with this particular stance. I’m not saying he’s wrong, again, we just don’t have enough information to say either way. But by this time in the book he’s already said that you can’t use folklore and/or mythology to track social beliefs (…oh really now. I can think of multiple branches of at least 2 social sciences that would question that stance severly, since you don’t codify things that don’t matter to you), so then using the mythos of a culture to determine the social role of a holiday seems flawed to me.
I’m going to stop here, because I haven’t made it out of chapter 2 yet in this review and I really don’t want to destroy this author’s writing. I do find the emphasis on Christian holidays to be an interesting tact to take and frankly I’m not as familar with topics like medivial mummery. I’m just interested in why he takes such an aggressive tact in saying that previous works have their emphasis on the ‘wrong’ history.
I think that my overall stance on this book is that it should be read with the works of other authors. It’s an interesting jumping off point, and obviously when discussing a holiday that’s been influenced by upwards of 2,000 years of history there’s enough room in the sandbox to be working with different belief sets. I just think that it really should be read in comparision to other works just for balance.
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