Astronomy Myths and Legends: History of Halloween!

Astronomy Myths and Legends: History of Halloween!

Because of my training in mythology and history, I like this blog to not only be a window into the night sky, but also a glimpse into the past. Before science, people used myths and legends to explain how the world works, and they have always had ideas about what is going on in the heavens. I am proud to begin this new page to explain some of the myths that connect us with the stars and with the past.

If you’ve read any of my other posts on holidays, you know that I try to prove the assumption that every holiday has some kind of roots in Astronomy, from the winter-solstice festival known as Christmas, to the connection between the planet Venus, ancient Rome, and modern day Easter, so today I’m connecting astronomy with the spookiest holiday of all- Halloween!

Almost every culture on Earth has some kind of autumnal celebration, and a lot of them are connected with the dead. for examples the ancient Aztecs would honor the dead in autumn with human sacrifice, and the Japanese would celebrate by hanging lanterns. The whole world seems to get a little jittery this time of year, and here’s why:

Artists' concept of the movement of the sun and planets, circa 1500.

Artists’ concept of the movement of the sun and planets, circa 1500.

 

  1. First, you have to forget that our planet is spinning around the sun. To the ancients, this is what our planet’s relationship with the Sun looked like: (pic of Ecliptic).
    1. To an observer on planet Earth, tracking the Sun’s path through the year, the Sun appears to set different points on the horizon, making it look like it is moving across the sky.
  1. If you look at the path of the sun as imagined in this image, the Sun appears to move in a tilted fashion. The highest and lowest points are called the Summer and Winter Solstice respectively. The winter solstice by the way, is what we now celebrate in holidays such as Christmas.

 

 

autumnal-equinox

If you look at the middle of the model, you can see the point where the Sun dips down to its lowest point on the left, the point when the world literally starts to get darker, known as the Autumnal Equinox. Halloween marks the exact midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, when the seasons change, crops ripen, and the world starts to get dark and cold. For our ancient ancestors, it was essential to mark this time period to know when to harvest crops in preparation for the long, dark, cold winter. This is probably why this time of year has a deep connection with fear and dread.

 

Not only does the Sun help mark Halloween, but the stars too. In fact, the tradition of Halloween might have started as a Druid ritual based on the celebration of The Pleiades, a group of extremely bright stars that reach their highest point in the sky at midnight on November 1st.

Night sky over Stonehenge

Night sky over Stonehenge

The Druids believed that at midnight, the veil between life and death was the thinnest, and for one night, the souls of the dead could return. Rather than celebrating Satanic rights and evil, the Druids and Celts chose instead to celebrate with parties and feasts, (probably to celebrate the bountiful harvest). At the midnight hour, all fires in the house would be extinguished and the Druids would light bonfires around the perimeter of their houses to keep the wicked dead from coming in, while allowing the good spirits to fly free. When the Celts conquered the Romans, they helped keep the tradition of celebrating the mid-autumnal equinox alive, and when the Romans converted to Christianity, they changed the celebration of the dead on November 1st to All Saints Day. The night before maintained its significance as a celebration of all things autumnal, spooky, and dead. All Hallow’s eve on October 31st, became Halloween.

The Red-giant star Arcturas.

The Red-giant star Arcturas.

 

Not only did the Pleiades herald the season of Halloween, but also the appearance of the pumpkin-yellow star Arcturas, which appears in the sky right after the sun sets, right at the end of the Big Dipper. The strange color comes from the fact that Arcturas is actually a Red-Giant star millions of years old, that is doomed to eventually explode into a supernova. When it finally does explode, its light will still travel to Earth for thousands of years, talk about seeing ghosts on Halloween!

 

The origin of Halloween in America

In the 19th century, many Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America, and brought with them many other Halloween traditions, for example, the concept of the Cayilleach or old crone, who was the ancestor of the modern-day wicked witch, who according to Scottish Celts, would fly on broomsticks or cats during “Hallowmass.” Some Celts would leave cakes or fruit out on their doorsteps for the souls of the dead, and some would dress up in masks to avoid evil. In the early 1930s, this tradition evolved into Trick Or Treating, although the children would also sing and write poetry in order to get their treats similar to Christmas carolers, (wouldn’t that be a nice change from toilet paper!) So the tradition of Halloween goes back over 3,000 years, but it all came from a group of stars 100 million years old.

Happy Stargazing!

Paul

PS, if you liked this spooky post, check out this one about the myth of werewolves!.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul

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