The dark side of Halloween originates in the Celtic festival of Samhain which was celebrated on the evening before the first day of November. On this night, which we now call Halloween, the boundaries between the mortal world of the Celts and the 'Otherworld' home of the spirits were thought to be flimsy and easy to cross.
Not all the spirits from the Otherworld were unpleasant. Some fairies were known to be benevolent but it is true that, in Irish lore, friendly and even-tempered fairies are in a minority. Most are, at best, mischievous. Some are downright malevolent and only too quick to show their character's dark side. And Halloween seemed to bring out more of the 'baddies' than the 'goodies'.
One of the most feared was the Puca, or Pooka. This black goblin-like character was a menace at Halloween, especially to unsuspecting travellers or lone walkers who might encounter him, disguised and lurking at crossroads or bridges after nightfall. You had to be careful what you ate, too, because the Puca spent much of the night spitting on any unharvested apples and blackberries they found still hanging on trees and bushes.
But spitting was just one of his nasty habits. Far worse was his ability to disguise himself as an animal - usually a horse - and carry off riders for terrifying midnight rides through black forests. This was one of his favourite pranks from a long repetoire of often quite malicious tricks. No wonder Halloween is also known as Pooky Night in some parts of Ireland.
This Puca chappie is a reflection of the Celts fascination with shape-shifting transformations. It can also be seen in Celtic craftsmanship, especially in their metalwork and manuscript illustration; their designs might look at first glance to be totally abstract but with closer scrutiny an animal's head or body might appear.
Shape-shifting was originally one of the magical abilities of the gods in Celtic myth. Another was the power of prophecy. This is where the Banshee of Ireland takes her part on the folklore stage for she foretells death.
The name Banshee comes from the Irish 'bean sidhe'. Bean (pronounced Ban) means woman. Sidhe (pronounced Shee) is a distinctive circular mound of a type still found in many parts of Ireland that was once believed to mark entrances to the Otherworld. Over time, the word Sidhe came to mean fairy hill. The Banshee of Ireland translates, then, as the woman from the fairy hill.
In earliest mythology, the Banshee sang to the dying, her voice helping to carry their soul to the other side or the Otherworld. Her song was known as her Keen, a word meaning lament, and in time it became recognised as a warning of imminent death among the family to which she was attached. Originally, only five or six families with proven Irish lineage had a Banshee. Today the superstitious believe that any families with a long Irish heritage should listen hard!
The Banshee of Ireland is not particularly connected to Samhain or the dark side of Halloween, except in her being a fairy. However, on the rare occasion she is seen, rather than just heard, she does seem dressed for Halloween. Her appearance is typically described as that of an old hag, dressed in a dark grey cloak with her long silver grey hair tumbling untidily from the hood, and her eyes red from centuries of crying.
Some say that at Halloween she is accompanied by a headless horseman, or a coach pulled by a headless horse and dragging a coffin across the lonely hills.
While you might not want to encounter a Banshee anymore than a Puca, the wailing woman is not malevolent. She does not cause death. She merely warns of it. She is solitary and sad, for she loves her family and weeps for the hurt that will soon befall it. She is to be pitied, unlike the obnoxious Puca who is definitely to be avoided.
Find out more about the dark side of Halloween at http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/origin-of-Halloween.html
Claire Santry is a journalist who specialises in Irish heritage and is editor of http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com, a free online guide to tracing your Irish ancestors.
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