The Ancient Greek roots of Halloween

Greece doesn’t celebrate the festival of Halloween, but it was created in Greek antiquity nonetheless

While much of the Western world except Greece celebrates Halloween on Thursday October 31, the celebration actually is rooted in ancient Greek mythology. The Ancient Greeks believed that people who died went to the banks of the River Styx, the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. They would give the ferryman Charon a tip to transport them across the river to Hades so as to spend eternity.

If they lived a good life, they would reside in Elysium, a virtual paradise, and also be allowed to return to the world of the living for one day per year.

Christianity converted this myth by stating that the virtuous would become saints and their day with the living was set on November 1 for all saints day or the “hallowed ones” where they were honored with praise and prayer for evil spirits to leave them.

Halloween is the polar opposite of Carnival. The former has its origins in Samhain, a pagan festival that marks the beginning of winter, and the death of nature before its spring rebirth. Necessary as this death was for rebirth to happen, winter was scary—especially in an era of limited resources and shelter, when a long winter could literally cost lives. So, the Celts made this day a celebration of death in an effort to ostracize the fear of death. According to the Celtic tradition, on the night of October 31, the souls of those that have passed away during the year wander the earth before they pass on to the world that awaits them. The living wore ghoulish costumes to fit in with the unearthly visitors and to disguise themselves among them. Treats were left at the doorsteps of houses to appease the spirits—this practice evolved into  “Trick or Treat.”

As I already mentioned, in Greek Orthodox tradition, there is nothing similar to Halloween, but recently I realized that there is something that could be thought of as equivalent to Halloween: the four last Saturdays of the Easter Lent which are called Psychosavata─spelled ψυχοσάββατα, pronounced [psee-ho-sa-va-ta] and translated to “Saturdays of the souls.” During these days, the pious churchgoers, mainly the women in the family, cook Koliva as a humble offering to the dead. Koliva is a mixture of boiled kernels of whole grain, ground walnuts, sugar, finely chopped parsley, covered with confectioners’ sugar, decorated with Jordan almonds and shaped to resemble a freshly-filled grave. The tradition of offerings to appease the dead originates in ancient Greece, but the Church, just as with Carnival, after failing to eradicate the pagan tradition of offerings to the departed, embraced it in its own tradition. Koliva is blessed by the priest during the evening Mass and distributed to the Mass attendees in memory of the family’s departed, while part of the mixture is spread on the graves of the ancestors. I still remember walking among the graves at dusk with my grandmother as a very young child. We would make a stop, first at her parent’s grave to scatter Koliva on the tombstones, and then at my grandfather’s parents’ graves to do the same. I was too young to understand the meaning and significance of what my grandmother was doing, and too busy trying to wrap my head around the fact that my grandmother had parents and what it meant that they were dead! I was not able to make the connection between Psychosavata and Halloween until very recently since Psychosavata does not involve any of the graphic images of death that one encounters in Halloween, e.g. skulls and skeletons, and there is no mention of ghosts or ghouls. The dead are referred to as the “sleeping ones” and their souls are thought to visit our world in the form of moths. I am not sure whether the lack of graphic images of death in Psychosavata is due to excessive squeamishness of the Greek people towards the supernatural or the influence of the Church, but I do know that one of the reasons I like Halloween is because it comes with an abundance of such images. They serve as a reminder of mortality and darkness, and although I realize ghouls and ghosts do not exist, what they symbolize helps me keep things in perspective. Much like the ancient Celts, I like to face the darkness (the one that accompanies the winter, the one residing in the souls of humans, including my very own), make friends with it, and try to overcome it as best I can.

So, this Halloween, once more I will make peace with the idea of the upcoming winter; I will remember my beloved grandmother, who I know would agree that Halloween is more fun than Psychosavata, and think about mortality as a fact of life. Afterward, I will put on my witch’s hat, grab my broom, go out with friends who make me laugh, and celebrate my mortal heart off! Nobody can avoid mortality, but one can temporarily defeat it by living life to the fullest and that is what my Halloween is about. Have a great Halloween everyone!

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