A Folkloric Harvest and Hallows Eve

A New World Witch by Andrew Jimenez- inspired by traditional American art by unknown artist.  Traditional American artwork is a passion of mine, especially when it comes to esoteric symbolism woven into our architecture. The symbolism of the gravestone, especially with a New English Death's Head motif hearkens back to our Puritanical roots and the fear with which they regarded death.  These days the witches of New England celebrate Samhain at the feet of gravestones, no longer somber, but celebratory.
-2019 Edition-
This Autumnal Equinox falls on a Moon's Day on a waning crescent moon, and All Hallows Eve lands on a Jupitarian Day under a waxing sliver of a moon. There's an auspicious nature to the coming transitional time, this darkyear. This autumn will be a thing of death and otherworldly travel, communion with the dead... but then, that's always been the general traditional nature of autumn's birth. The September/October season in Salish lore was said to be “the moon that turns the leaves white”. To the western world, autumn is personified as a lush and bountiful woman in the vein of Rosmerta, Demeter or Ceres, holding cornucopias of vegetation (derived from popular depictions of the Greek Horae). This post-harvest season is the time for drink, for mead and wine, for beer and brew and bread and sun-baked berries. More so, it is the time for magic mischief. The American witches harvest season is the time to come alive. It is a time to embrace all the wicked creatures and hallow rites that make the season so wonderfully right for the witch. It’s okay to be cliche, to boil brews in black cauldrons and wander the woods, to scare the kiddies and kick back in mischief. We are witches, after all.
"A bag of nuts and apples used to be placed on the grave of a supposed witch, in order to prevent her from roaming at night among the farm-houses, in search of her favorite dainties."- Cora L Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

Folklore of the harvest time in this country is deeply symbolic.  Corn and wheat sheaf, hay bales, apples, turkeys, pumpkins, squash, scythes, sickles and black cats, brooms and straw and magic.  It’s lovely and cliche at the same time. There’s a deep sense of familiarity to the North American traditions of celebrating the archetypal Salem witch, and really all witches, as the days wane into long nights.  The popularity of Halloween witch motifs can likely be traced back to late 19th century merchants who popularized the image of black cats, cauldrons and witches in Salem Massachusetts. This took off and the Witch City brand became the image we associate with colonial American Witchcraft.  Autumn is the season of witches in our culture, as it is in a lot of cultures.  From West Africa to Scotland to Central Mexico, fall is the season of spirits and demons, fairies and ghosts.  It is the season of the witch.

The autumn season, from Equinox to Samhain, marks a powerful, liminal time of transition into the darkness of the year, and as we wade into the cold, the dark and the silence of winter to come through the doorway of autumn, we praise those spirits and gods who walk between the worlds.  We call to our ancestors, we stir the land and the dead within it. We honor those things that never lived and for a short time, we relish the morbid mysteries of the afterlife. From September, the month in which the autumnal equinox takes place to all-souls-day at the beginning of November, there is a very specific energy, one that celebrates fright and fear and follies. In this country, Halloween is treated as a season, not just a day, and it begins when the darkness takes over the land, it exists for all of the month of October. Our movies, TV shows, stores- the society around us shifts into Halloween position right after the Equinox and for one whole glorious month, we celebrate our own fear of darkness. As we turn our sights to the autumnal equinox, the traditional "time of the vintage" in which wine, mead, and all those final harvest foods and fruits are feasted upon, we come together in celebration for what summer had wrought and turn our eyes to the oncoming dark and all the mysteries it holds.

When it comes to the folklore of autumnal magic, especially the all-hallows-eve season in the Americas, divination and spirit veneration are our sacred traditions, ones that extend across cultures and religions.  My favorite harvest time magic is the apple divination folk charms that migrated to the United States from Scotland, Ireland, and England.  I also enjoy the mirror and water divination spells of the season, and probably because they all serve the same traditional function: Love Divination.  

"As a seasonal turning point, Halloween has always been related to the agricultural and pastoral cycles as well.  By this date, crops should be harvested and livestock brought in from pasture. The seasonal and organic relationships is manifested in the frequent uses of apples, nuts, and turnips (pumpkins in North America) in the games and rituals associated with Halloween.    Many of these reflect the day's liminal status as an annual and seasonal day of transition, in which barriers between this world and the world spirits are lifted. Often, the games are divinatory in nature."- Jan Harold Brunvand,  American Folklore: An Encyclopedia

My two favorite kinds of discipline; love charms and divination.  If you read a lot into the folklore of the Hallowstide, the apple, mirror and water bowl divination spells all revolve around utilization of the nearest full moon, the presence of the midnight hours and a small ritual action. I don’t know what it is about Halloween that has encouraged us to make love divination and romantic predictions the most prevalent form of folk magic and folk charm of the holiday, but from what I’ve read, the old world was ripe with those traditions and they deposited those customs right here in the Americas.

"In colonial days Hallowe’en was not celebrated much in America.  Some English still kept the customs of the old world, such as apple-dunking and snapping, and girls tried the apple-paring charm to reveal their lovers' initials, and the comb-and-mirror tests to see their faces.   Ballads were sung and ghost-stories told, for the dead were thought to return on Hallowe'en." -Ruth Edna Kelly, The Book of Halloween, 1919 (p. 104)

Apple and mirror charms for Halloween are as American as they get though they originated in Ireland, England, and Scotland mostly.  As these populations settled in the American South, so did their traditions revolving around apples. English settlers and their descendants throughout the Northeast, South, and Midwest have recorded folklore regarding the use of apples, mirrors, nuts, and pumpkins for divination magic.  From Virginia to Chicago to Vancouver BC, these folk charms of mirrors and apples have been implanted into community identities. These charms have been widely unused for the last century, but we folkloric witches have an opportunity to redefine and return these charms to our Halloween festivities, giving our children a chance to continue these same old rites that brought many of our ancestors joy and comfort in the dark year turning.

5 Traditional Charms and Rituals for a North American Folkloric Halloween

Apple Games: Bobbing for apples with initials etched on the surface to draw new love or predict love to come, or just bobbing for apples in general- this is probably the most recognizable old Halloween custom to older Americans and has deep roots all over the South and Northeast including Massachusetts and Alabama.  Counting apple seeds in a chosen bobbing apple to predict how many years one will be married or how many children they will bear. Using apple seeds to divine the fortunes of love usually by counting the seeds in an apple core given to you by your intended or to test whether love is true or not by placing them on the face and timing their fall. Aside from apples, another harvest crop used for divination is the pumpkin, our symbol of the season. Pumpkins are native to North America whereas apples were a gift from our European ancestors. Carving the alphabet on a pumpkin and sticking needles into the letters blindfolded in order to divine the name of your future love.  Carving a pumpkin with a gruesome or jeering face is as classic American Halloween as it gets and is meant to ward off unwelcome spirits who may be walking the land.

“A girl who sits before a mirror at midnight on Halloween combing her hair and eating an apple will see the face of her true love reflected in the glass."
- Folk charm of post-colonial America, Western European Origin

Mirror Fortunes: skrying of all kinds on Halloween is a staple of the holiday traditions, even among those who would not otherwise dare to associate with magic.  Usually, mirror divination for Halloween was to predict the face and name of a future lover, and these rituals usually need to take place nearest the full moon, at midnight, in a locked room and often with an apple present.

"On the last night of October place a mirror and a clock in a room that has not been used for some time, and at a quarter to twelve take a lighted candle and an apple, and finish eating the apple just as the clock strikes twelve and then look in the mirror and you will see your future husband."
- Alabama Folklore, Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society

Otherwise, it was just as suitable to walk backwards down the stairs with a mirror, looking over your shoulder, when you reach the bottom, or, the number 13, you’re to see the face of your future love. According to the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, if one holds a candle up on Halloween night and looks in a mirror, the face of their future mate will appear. Almost all Mirror or Apple charms of American folklore are operated on both Halloween and May Day (as well as Midsummer and Christmas) and in identical fashion.

"Some of the maidens waited for the pagan feast of Samhain to learn their lovers identities. To learn whether love lay ahead, young people would cut an apple into nine pieces at midnight on Halloween while standing before a mirror. The spell required each piece to be speared with a knife of silver and held over the left shoulder, one piece at a time. Upon stabbing the ninth piece, the intended's reflection appeared." -Rosemary Guiley, Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy 

Water Lots: often using moonlight, letters of the alphabet, candle wax or needles. Divination by water is popular; usually this involves some form of ceromancy (wax divination) or acultomancy (needle divination) wherein the future of one’s love life or economic stability can be read in the number of needles that stick to the side of the bowl or the shapes created by the wax pouring into water (this Halloween game was very popular when I was a kid, I hope it still is a lot of fun for the young ones).  Where needles are concerned, I’ve read in a few books of Southern folklore that needles with colored tips are to be chosen by a group of youth and thrown into a bowl of water on Halloween, those which cling to each other are meant to be lovers. Needle-in-water divination can also be done with differently sized needles, nails or thorns.

Other water-based divination includes drawing lots or letters from a bow of symbolically pure water to predict one's fortunes. "On Halloween, take a pure white bowl that no lips have touched save those of a newborn infant.  Fill the bowl with water and drop in the letters of the alphabet. At midnight repeat: “"Kind fortune tell me where he is, who my future lord shall be; from this bowl all that I claim is to know my lover's name.”" Lock the bowl away carefully.  In the morning, blindfolded, pick out as many letters as there are in your own name, and if you can make a name out of the letters, that will be the name of your future husband."

-Old Newfoundland folk charm

Fire Divination: burning of nuts to divine one's future love. Walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts are all ripe in time for Halloween. Burning nuts to divine who will be married next: he whose nuts burn on the open fire first is wed first, or, if love is true, the named nut will pop in the fire while a false love will “live and die”. The nut charms of England and Scotland made their way and rooted deeply into the early folklore of North American Halloween. A traditional Scottish charm for this purpose goes as such: "Two hazelnuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweethearts name;
this with the loudest bounce was I amazed,
that in a flame of brightest colour blazed;
as blessed the nut so may thy passion grow, For twas thy nut that did so brightly glow!"

Dreaming True: even the act of dreaming during this time has long been tied to acts of divination. Simple techniques involving graveyard dust or plain grass in order to see the future, to the act of baking a special salted cake in order to dream of one's future fortunes, simple folk charms of Halloween take place in the elements and in the dream world.

"To dream of the future on Halloween in Pennsylvania, one must go out of the front door backwards, pick up dust or grass, wrap it in paper and put it under his pillow."-Ruth Edna Kelly, The Book of Halloween 1919

"To see their future husband, the young women used to take one teaspoonful of flour, one of the salt, and one of the water, and mix them together, forming dough.  This they made into a little cake, which they baked in the ashes of the stone grate. While eating this, they walked backwards toward their beds, laid themselves down across them, and went to sleep lying in this position.  If they dreamed of their future husband as bringing a glass cup containing water, he was wealthy; if a tin cup, he was in good circumstances; an if he had ragged clothes and a rusty tin cup, he was very poor."  -From The Journal of American Folklore, p. 49
Burning inscribed nuts, bobbing for inscribed apples, reading oracles of all kinds- these folkloric traditions bind Old World and New World magic through mutual seasonal practices.  Even though the Western world is largely Christianized, the pagan heart of autumn, especially in the Americas where so many of our traditions have become globally recognizable. Delightfully, autumn traditions, legends, lore, and charms change with each culture and in each region. In the Northwest, for example, the scary stories told around Halloween also include local legends about haunts and spirits that wind up drawing all manner of folk, including witches who give tours and seances for the public or private parties, right in the heart of Downtown Seattle. Every Halloween, you'll hear tales of the spirits who haunt Pike Place Market especially at Halloween, and tourists still flock to tour the site of Princess Angeline's haunting. When locals aren't thrilling themselves with local legends and haunts, they venture out into the many spirited places like the Devil's Staircase or the Walker-Ames house. Each culture brings its own scary stories and folklore regarding the dead and since Halloween offers an outlet for all cultures to share in the terror that autumn seems to bring, the shape of Halloween varies from family to family, place to place.

What’s even more delightful is how much our Mexican brothers and sisters helped redefine and maybe reinvigorate the nature of Halloween due to the influence of Dia De Los Muertos, a holiday that originally was only popular in the central and southern regions of Mexico.  It may have originated in pre-Columbian animistic rites, according to some scholars and historians like author Tomás Prower, it may even have ties to the mysteries of Mictecacihuatl, the pagan ancestor of Santa Muerte herself; "Mictecacihuatl was the goddess of the Aztec underworld Mictlan who watched over the remains of the deceased and was celebrated through memorial festivals of the dead, from which Mexico's' Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration originated."- La Santa Muerte: Unearthing the Magic & Mysticism of Death, but we today know of the day as one with distinctly Catholic Hispanic overtones, overshadowing the animistic nature of the season.  

In my lifetime, Dia de los Muertos went from being a holiday only mentioned or celebrated within the Central Mexican American community to one of the most recognizable Latinx holidays in the Americas and is now becoming an all American holiday itself, merging symbolism and rituals with those of the traditional North American Halloween.  What a wonderful synchronicity of cultures happening before our eyes- all us kinds of North Americans celebrating death and the ancestors at the same time of year together in our own cultural ways. I suppose we have the film industry to thank for promoting the idea of Dia as a celebration that we can enjoy and participate in.  How wonderful that ancestor veneration is never forgotten, that kids will take cues from these movies and learn how to honor the dead again, even if it’s just once a year.

I also think it’s pretty sad that some of the traditions have been taken out of the season as the years of commercialism have taken its toll…. But that was happening long before my generation was coming up. I’d like to see us implement more family and community traditions that hail back to the animistic and mystic magic of Halloween.  Read your kids more folklore from Halloween and American legends, haunt stories, campfire stories; there’s a lot to work with all over North America. Ghost stories from early Canadian and American history is chilling fun to retell to each other as the sky grows dark, especially out in the dark wilting wood, around the light of the revealing fire.  

The Season of the Witch

  All Hallows Eve and the surrounding time has a unique folk magic and rituals that are participated in by people of all religions and races.  There are specific foods we as a culture consume en masse because our familial traditions and memories are embellished with the magic of it: we put out carved pumpkins both to cheer and fright, and we tell our kids it’s to scare away the bad spirits, just like we were told by our parents… a strange inherent bit of animism going on in the folkloric undertones of our cultural spiritual identity in some small way.  We serve apple pies and eat apples and drink apple cider because that is simply part of the custom we know, it’s our food of the season.  We dress up in costumes for several purposes; to scare, to celebrate, to express humor, to look sexually appealing- by the millions, we don costumes and pretend for a night.   We scare ourselves best we can and indulge in the macabre and gruesome even though many would otherwise condemn those very things. For a season, we are entranced with the tradition of fright.   

“Marginal, supernatural creatures such as fairies and witches have been associated with Halloween over the centuries.  The traditional ballad “Tam Lin” gives a detailed account of the belief in the great fairy rides on Halloween, while the day is said by many to be the highest feast day of the year for witches”- Jan Harold Brunvand, American Folklore: An Encyclopedia

Nothing is more Halloween than the Witch.  No emblem of autumn more rich in lore and fearfully respected.  It’s the season of the witch, dammit. For just a few months of the year, people relish the idea of the witch as the spirit of the autumn-winter's bitter mystery.  For some of us, this association is a lot more than black cats and cauldrons; it’s also a time that many witches in the western world associate with the celebration of their spiritualities.  For a lot of us, the transitional power of this season and what it yields for us is why we celebrate it so happily. The added bonus is that everyone kind of loves the witch when autumn comes, I think because she makes the season nice and terrifying and that’s what we really want.  The old world believed that it wasn't just witches and ghosts who rode into the night, but also the fairy. Maybe this is because the fairy were often conflated with spirits of the otherworld or even with demons.
"Robert Burns tells us that Halloween is thought to be a "night when witches, devils, and other mischief making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary."-Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore

It’s like whole communities performing ancient rituals and raising this power of fear and freedom at the same time… It permeates the autumn air doesn’t it? There are plenty of taboos to go along with the season as well; put the broom under the porch or behind a door to scare away us witches, hang iron horseshoes to combat evil spirits, invite in no strangers lest they be a demon and for the love of God don’t eat the blackberries!  

"It is evil to eat blackberries after Halloween night, for on that night the spirit, called Puca, comes out and defiles them."- Cora Linn (Morrison) Daniels, Charles McClellan Stevans, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life

The Autumnal Altar of the New World Witch

If you’re interested in bringing more folkloric magic into your Hallow season with friends and family or alone, try exploring the roots of these traditional charms of New and Old World Lore.  For kids, you can teach them the folklore of apple magic and love, of the apples of Venus and the magical star hidden within her flesh. Bake treats of the traditional American variety like pumpkin and corn breads, decorative and terrifyingly delicious ones.  Bake pumpkin seeds with oil and salt and devour on hazelnuts. Leave offerings of baked goods for the spirits- the performance of a "Dumb Supper" or "Silent Supper" is a deeply rooted tradition in Halloween that is primarily used for love divination in the Americas. Include this ritual in order to feed and honor the dead. Treats or tricks amirite?

When it comes to the season of the witch, there is a color palette, a flavor palate, a scent, a feeling, rituals, customs, taboos, and menagerie. Corn, more than a cultural symbol and megacrop, it has long been our fertility symbol of the season, one that existed before colonization and became symbolic of American agriculture itself. the symbolic feast animal of the season may be the turkey, but the official folk-food of Halloween in the Americas is all that which is sugary sweet and a comfort to eat. Pie, cider, candy, and corncrakes; the spirits and us share a sweet-tooth that is excused in this season of excess.
Symbols are pumpkins, cauldrons, corn, brooms, graveyards, skeletons or calaveras, apples, seeds, wheat, sickles, scythes, crescent and full moons, grapes, oak, bread, and turkeys.  The colors black and orange, the scent of autumn and the light of fire and moon.   This season, in American folklore, is the time of witches, ghosts, the ancestors, spirits, fairies, love fortunes, and divination. The darkyear belongs to the Hag and those old Horned gods of misrule, be they devils or men of the crossroads. Remember, tradition states that the best time for these spells and charms is the nearest full moon to Halloween, at the hour of midnight, the element of water nearby, in a graveyard, an empty room, a cellar or basement.  

Animal allies are crows, mice, bats, moths, black dogs, cats, hares, rabbits, and birds. Mushrooms and ferns, ivy and dried oak grow powerful this time of year. Carve pumpkins this season. Divine every night. Look towards your romantic future with curiosity and hope. Scare yourself and those around you. Eat of the nuts of trees, grains of plains, apples high and berries low. North American witches; place a mirror, comb, apple, chestnut, crow feather, pumpkin, cauldron and candy on your altar. Deck the halls in oak and ivy, in straw and corn. We have our black and orange banners, our holy apple pies and pumpkin seed libations, our vintage vine and our honey mead, our spicy smells and rituals to the spirits. We have it all right here, sewn into the North American fabric. From Canada to the Southern tip of Mexico, the autumn season is a matter of spirits for us all. This is autumn, it is the season of the traditions of American witchery.

Trick. Or. Treat. You. Bad. Ass. Witches.

The Book of Halloween by Ruth Edna Kelly
American Folklore: An Encyclopedia by Jan Harold Brunvand Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society

The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy by Rosemary Guiley Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore by Charles Hardwick La Santa Muerte: Unearthing the Magic & Mysticism of Death by Tomás Prower Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life by Cora Linn (Morrison) Daniels, Charles McClellan Stevans

For More on Halloween Folklore in the New World
New World Witchery: Halloween

Library of Congress: American Folklife Center
LiveScience History of Halloween

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