Masks have a long history as a way to enter the role of the ancient theatrical stage depicting mythological and everyday scenes, as well as ritual rites of ancient peoples.
In modern Halloween, masks and costumes are the main place in the performance of the holiday-festival. Their symbolic significance is very reminiscent of an ancient theater, such as in the Ellada period, or in the sarcophagi of the pharaohs, where a mask is placed on the mummy: a symbol of the image that resonates over the millennia. The ancient Balkan people, as well as later the Romans (including the expansion of the Roman Empire to the Balkans), used masks not only as an easy incarnation, but were also practical: an actor with many masks could play a whole mythological scene of different characters.
In Slavic cultures, evil spirits were chased with masks. This tradition is called Kukeri and as a kind of exorcism, with noisy clothes (which have bells all over), with grotesque masks scare and drown out evil spirits.
A similar feature is used on Halloween, although the masks are said to reach the holiday when beggars seeking treats disguised their identities. But we can’t help but notice that in a death festival like Halloween, the mask performs an incarnation in another image, thus inviting or calming the evil forces. Article for the Halloween Origins here.
In Mexico, we see another festival of death, where participants paint their faces in a hyperbolic style of skulls and skeletons reminiscent of the Reaper, but in a combination of Mayan and Aztec beliefs, the mask is also used to honor gods in rituals. which were often with human sacrifices.
Ghosts on Halloween
Ghosts are an essential part of people’s beliefs. In different parts of the world, they play a central role for ancestors, loved ones and people they knew when were alive; even for terrible messengers from the afterlife who come to harass the living. But this notion of the “evil ghost” is less common, and its main role has always been to loved ones who want to help us or even help them.
However, the rise of the fashion for scary stories took place in the 19th century, when the Gothic genre entered art. Although ghosts have always been present in people’s minds, the Gothic genre focuses on classical literary works (eg Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu), as well as on the architecture of temples and brothels (Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, is practically an ode to this type of architecture in Paris).
In ancient Egypt, a certain ghost story, tells of a restless ghost who appears to a high priest to make him a better sarcophagus; in ancient Sumer the myths of the underworld and the realm of shadows depicted ghosts that took on a meaning of existence like that of the world of the living; in Nordic legends, the draugrs (ghost -zombie type) do mischief and seek satisfaction because they have never lived in honor and dignity; in Japanese notions, obaki are ghosts living in objects or incarnated as animals such as raccoon, beaver, cat or fox.
In modern Halloween, old notions of ghosts are mixed with the events of the American Civil War, where the battlefield claimed half a million lives. The first ghost stories after the Civil War are of soldiers returning home, reminiscent of Old English naval legends, where the widow lit a candle on the window so that her husband could return home. This is how we see the resemblance from ancient times to Old Britain, to the New Continent, that ghosts are always reminders and connecting elements for our deeds in this world and the next.
Skeletons in Halloween
Skeletons have always been a literal warning of death, mortality, and the short life of this earth. It is no coincidence that the Great Masons use the skull as a symbol, pirates looting merchant ships use a skull with bones, and even when we talk about the Crypt in the canals below Paris, it awakens in people the uncomfortable feeling of doom or at least reflection on life and death.
Since America has a strong British presence, we also see the carrying of the Reaper as a symbol. In Scottish legend, death appears as a dog, but in Breton legends it appears as a skeleton called Anku/Anju, carrying scythe for harvest.
Witches on Halloween
When we think of the image of a “standard” witch, it comes to mind the image of a withered cunning woman with a snub nose, as few teeth as possible, laughing maliciously, nimbly jumping on a broom, ready to cook her victims in a cauldron full of all sorts of cocktails of chemicals.
If we go back in history, witchcraft was declared as such by the Holy Spanish Inquisition, but before that there were pure pagan rites and traditions of various tribes and peoples in Europe, Asia, Africa. The evil witch, like the above-mentioned grotesque picture, is the overexposed image of shamans and non-believers when Europe was Christianized. If we look at the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga, the same Baba Yaga who actually acquires the symbolic ugly appearance of the hunchbacked nimble witch eating children, living in a hut on chicken legs, we understand how the church overturns the notions of pagan rituals as “wicked” and propagates the “new faith” as the “true” and the old notions as “Satanic.”
Bats on Halloween
Halloween decorations are full of the silhouette of a bat.
When we mention the bat, we must also refer to the Mesoamerican deity Kamazotz, which is likened to a giant bat. Not much is known about Kamazotz, except that he is the ruler of the Underworld. Its name is of two components: “kama” – death, and “zotz” – bat, ie. “Bat of Death”. Thus, the connection of Halloween as a tribute to death, and the connection with the bat, as a symbol of the Mayan god of death, becomes somehow obviously logical.
Another symbolism of the bat is related to that of the vampire: the transformation from one form to another and into a “creature of the night”, which definitely “instills terror in people’s hearts”.
Vampires on Halloween
In interpreting the symbolism of the bat, we cannot fail to mention the vampire, and when we speak of the vampire, we cannot fail to mention Bram Stoker and Dracula. But Stoker’s novel is inspired by the many legends of evil beings and the legendary ruler Vlad the Impaler, also called “Dracula”.
Vampires are a relatively new concept, although the roots go back to ancient times: to the Sumerians, the demon Lamashtu (equivalent to the Jewish Lilith); Strix described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Manangal, who were blood-drinking demons; and of course the Slavic concept through Vlad the Impaler Dracula, who was likened to an evil messenger of the Devil. There are also open graves, such as the one in Perperikon (Bulgaria), where a stake pierces the remains of an alleged vampire.
Both the notion of the bat as a harbinger of death in the Maya and the biological species of bat complete the bat-vampire relationship, as this specific species (Desmodus rotundus, Diphylla ecaudata and Diaemus youngi) are also real life bloodsuckers.
Zombies on Halloween
Zombies are not present in Catholic Halloween, they are rather a modern note, but honestly they fit perfectly into the holiday. Especially considering the interpretation coming from Haiti, through voodoo, bringing people back from the world of the dead.
Of course, cinema also clogs many of the creatures listed in this article: almost every decade in Hollywood history, there are several movies about vampires, zombies, mummies, the dead; whole genres like horror and thriller reinforce all this and give new ideas for the variety of costumes in the modern look of Halloween.