October 28, 2011

Halloween, All Saint’s Day and their Ancient Connection to Southern Italy

Le cocce priatorje (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Lucian

In recent years Halloween celebrations have become more popular in Italy. Many places have ghost walks and children’s costume parties. At night restaurants, bars and clubs hold special Halloween events. All Saint's Day (Hallows) and All Soul's Day are still the primary celebrations and religious holidays at that time of year, but if the current trend continues in Italy, Halloween will become the accepted secular celebration leading up to them, much as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday precede the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent.
Many would be surprised to learn that in the village of Orsara in Puglia they have already been celebrating a version of Halloween called "fuuc acost" for over a thousand years. On the night of November 1st, between All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day, children dress as witches, skeletons or ghosts. Bonfires are lit and food is cooked in their embers. Sweets and wine are also shared, not only with the living, but also offered to the souls of the dead that wander among the living on this night. They even carve pumpkins in the likeness of skulls and light them throughout the streets.

There are various claims about how the tradition made its way to Orsara. Some claim that it was brought back by Romans returning from Celtic lands, or from Spain through the Knights of Calatrava. Others say the traditions of Orsara stem from Roman or Greek origins, such as the cults of Demeter and Persephone. I saw one reference that it was brought by the Germanic Lombards during the 8th century. I’m curious about that because Nordic/Teutonic feasts concerning the spirits of the dead usually occurred in winter or during the winter solstice (Yule or Jol), and are not usually associated with Halloween. Also, during that period many of the Lombard invaders were no longer pagan, but followed Arian Christianity. Assuming it was imported, the possibility exists that other Christians brought Halloween to Orsara, because, like today, most people who celebrated it in that century were Christian as well.

Today, there are actually people who say that immigrants from Puglia brought Halloween to America, and I’m sure that they did, only to find that the Irish were already celebrating it there. Halloween as we know it is primarily derived from the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, with elements absorbed from similar practices brought to Hibernia by the Romans, namely the celebration of Feralia and worship of Pomona. After Christianity came to dominate Europe, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day took the place of Samhain, but the original traditions could not be completely erased. 
Pomona by Karl Bitter, Pulitzer Fountain of Abundance in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
All Saint's Day (Hallows) is a celebration that honors all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown, and the souls of the dead who have achieved beatification. The following day, All Soul's Day, commemorates the souls that are waiting in Purgatory who need the prayers of the living to reach Heaven. Many Christians also pray for their deceased relatives and visit their graves around this time. The saints, as agents of God, are believed to have the capacity to intercede on behalf of the living, and are often asked for assistance in the prayers of the faithful. However, though currently discouraged by the Church, it was not uncommon in centuries past for boons to be asked of the souls of purgatory in exchange for prayers that would help them get closer to heaven. Today, remnants of this practice can be seen in the Neapolitan cult of the dead, also called the cult of the skull. 

In the Western Church All Saint's Day, as such, was originally said to be created by Pope Boniface IV on May 13th, 609 or 610 A.D after consecrating the formerly pagan Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. This overlapped the final, and most important day of Lemuria, a pagan Roman feast in which the wicked spirits of the dead were appeased with ritual and ex-votos. Medieval liturgists claim that this was done on purpose because of similar themes of giving recognition to the dead. Today, the explanation has been abandoned by the Church. Instead, they claim it was traced to Pope Gregory III (reigned 731 – 741) and the day was moved to November 1st, which happened to roughly coincide with Samhain. This could be a convenient coincidence, but it could also be a shrewd move by the Church to provide a Christian alternative to another similar pagan holiday, and satisfy the people’s need for that type of celebration.
The Pantheon, Rome (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Samhain is the Celtic festival from which we now derive much of our Halloween traditions. It is often considered the Celtic day of the dead, but it is also a harvest festival and a celebration of cycles, summer and winter, light and darkness, and life and death. Samhain marks the end of summer, and the barrier between the mortal and spirit worlds was believed to be at their thinnest at this time. Bonfires were lit, costumes worn and sacrifices were made to appease the spirits of nature and of the dead, and ensure a fruitful harvest the following year. Most of the time the sacrifices were crops or animals, but when times were desperate sometimes a human sacrifice was used. Turnips or other available vegetables were hollowed out and lit by candles; pumpkins were only available after they were brought back from the new world in the late 1500s.

After contact with the Romans, Samhain was influenced by Feralia, last day of the Roman festival of Parentalia, which honored the Roman’s ancestors. They believed that the spirits of the dead walked the earth on this day. Romans would have picnics at their family’s tombs, and offer wreaths and small amounts of food as offerings to the deceased. Rituals from the worship of Pomona, a Roman goddess of fruits and trees, were also incorporated into Samhain, perhaps because of their commonality with the harvest. It is thought that bobbing for apples came from this association.

While the heart of modern Halloween comes from Samhain, many aspects of it come from Roman paganism, or the early Roman Church. Lemuria, Feralia, and Pomona, as well as All Saint's and All Soul's Day, were all very familiar to our ancestors. The spirits of the dead were well known by them through our Greco-Roman heritage. The gateway to Hades was believed to be under Lake Avernus near Naples, in Campania. Cicero described an ancient oracle of the dead in that region that existed long before the Roman Empire absorbed Naples.
Lake Avernus by Richard Wilson
Orsara is not the only place in Southern Italy that has traditions similar to Halloween. Variations can be found throughout the region. I have heard November described as the “month of the dead” by some Southern Italians, but they were probably referring to the period between October 31st and Saint Martin’s Day on November 11th. In Sicily, presents from deceased ancestors would be left for children on all Saint’s Day. An article in i-Italy by Maria Rita Latto described “socks of the dead” that were filled with sweets that children believed were from their dead relatives. She also describes something like trick-or-treating, but with the focus, once again, on gifts from the dead. Ms. Latto laments the loss of our traditions as Halloween replaces them, she states:
“Why not bring back our important past customs, instead of adopting those of other countries, just to follow foreign fashions that lack our soul?” 
I am sympathetic to Ms. Latto’s concerns, and it is true that such traditions have been in decline. However, in this particular case I’m hoping that instead of diluting Southern Italian traditions that the popularity of Halloween might bring attention to them and give them new life. It is not fair to say that our young folk are uninterested in our traditions when so many are unaware of them. For those of us that are aware, it is up to us to use whatever tools are available to promote them. Halloween is close enough to some of our own customs that it can always be used to reintroduce them, especially in America where, ironically, they will be seen as something new.

Nearly all peoples have had some version of the day of the dead, and many of us still do. So I would like to wish everyone a safe and happy Halloween, All Saint's Day and Fuuc Acost.