Painting of the festival of samhain people mystical creatures dancing in the woods

Anthropology: The Cultural Meaning of Different Halloween Symbols in Society

Each year, Halloween falls on October 31st. In the West, the spooky season we know today came from various religious rituals and ancient festivals. Did you know it’s one of the oldest holidays in the world?

In countries like Australia, the United States, Ireland and Canada, you can spot ghostly kids knocking from door to door sweetly asking for candy. Celebrators revel in the power of transforming themselves into an other-worldly being, to be something they are not.

Elsewhere in the world, Halloween takes the form of colourful, ritualistic celebrations like the Day of the Dead in Latin America or Guy Fawkes Night in England. Halloween is more than a single night of trick-or-treating or scary partying. Read on to discover the real meaning behind some of the globally renowned symbols we know and love today.

Halloween’s origins

Black and white image of three children staring into a candlelit pumpkin
Image Source: Boston Globe/Getty Images

Before delving into the intricate meanings behind Halloween symbols, let’s begin with a brief history of where the holiday came from. The word ‘Halloween’ has religious connotations. It translates to ‘hallowed (meaning blessed) evening.’ For early European celebrators, the holiday was known as ‘All Hallows’ Eve. It took place on October 31st. All Saint’s Day (on November 1st) also paid homage to ‘hallows’ and saints. After many years, the name was contracted to ‘Halloween’ – the title that we are all familiar with today.

Festival of Samhain

Painting of the festival of samhain people mystical creatures dancing in the woods
Image Source: Patheos.com

The Halloween tradition originated with the Festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) amongst the Ancient Celtic people.

Around 2000 years ago, the Celts celebrated the new year on November 1st. This day marked the start of a dark, cold winter. The Celts believed this time was strongly tied to human misery, despair and death.

Samhain represented the divide between the summer and winter seasons and the divide between the living and the dead. The dreaded day on November 1st marked the collapsing of boundaries between the living and dead worlds. As a result, paranormal beings and ghosts would seep into the ‘real world.’

Families would honour their deceased ancestors and invite them into their homes. On the other hand, people wore scary masks and costumes to disguise and protect themselves from the unwanted evil spirits that flooded the real world.

Festivities comprised of huge bonfires where people hurled the bones of slaughtered livestock. Families prepared extravagant food platters to ritualistically share with both the living and the dead – a true uniting of life and death.

Three silhoutted figures walking in front of a blazing fire
Image Source: History.com

Popular Halloween symbols

As Halloween lingers in the late days of October, a spooky veil simmers on the Earth’s surface. Cobwebs swathe broken tree branches, and the silhouettes of old witches on broomsticks adorn household walls. But what do these iconic figures mean, and why are they used on Halloween?

The pumpkin (Jack-o-lanterns)

Pumpkin with a wide smile and eyes carved into it illuminating light from within
Image Source: Kark.com

The carved-out pumpkin is associated with rebirth, fertility and abundant harvest seasons. These symbols are ubiquitous in the United States. However, the pumpkin-carving tradition actually originated in Ireland.

When the Celts of Ireland and Scotland celebrated the Festival of Samhain at the end of the harvest season, they hollowed out turnips and vegetables. They carved wicked faces into crops and used them as lanterns.

Irish immigrants then carried this tradition into America in the 19th century. Pumpkins were much easier to find and carve into, so immigrants used this plump, orange crop instead of turnips.

The term ‘Jack-o-lantern’ (a contracted version of ‘Jack of the lantern’) comes from the old Irish legend of Stingy Jack.

Canvas painting of Jack o lantern holding a lit turnip to guide his way forward
Image Source: Stingy Jack, by Devon Devereaux

While there are many versions of this old tale, the most popular understanding centres around an Irish blacksmith who indulged in drinking and took pleasure in deceiving people.

According to the legend, Stingy Jack was supposed to die on All Hallows Eve. When Satan came to take Jack’s soul, Jack asked for a simple favour: an apple to eat before death. As the devil ascended an apple tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree bark, trapping Satan and forcing him to promise not to take the blacksmith’s soul. Many years later, when Jack finally meets his inevitable demise, he cannot enter heaven because of his sins. However, he cannot enter hell either since Satan promised not to take his soul. As a result, Jack was forced to aimlessly wander the Earth, forever searching for a resting place. Satan gifted him a piece of burning coal to illuminate his path, and Jack made a lamp using this lump of coal and a hollowed-out turnip. These Halloween ‘lamps’ are now popularly known today as ‘Jack-o-lanterns’.

Ghosts

Halloween folklore ghosts surround two scared people at a table
Image Source: history.com

The Festival of Samhain celebrated the boundaries between summer and winter, old and new, and dead and alive. For many cultures – particularly ‘Day of the Dead’ in Mexico – Halloween is a carnival for the dead. From late October to early November, the veil between the living and dead worlds is believed to be the thinnest. So, people welcomed the ghosts and spirits of ancestors, revelling in their momentary existence amongst the living.

Witches

Woodcut artwork etching of witches on brooms
Image Source: wellcomecollection.org

In the Middle Ages, people associated witches with devil worship and black magic. Dreaded witch-hunts that plagued European towns created mass hysteria and a collective fear toward the imagery of a witch. Many Shakespearean plays and European folk tales portrayed witches as ugly, sinister crones. Interestingly, the greeting card industry added witches to Halloween cards as early as the late 1800s. 

Black cats

Black cat with yellow eyes on a fence with a gloomy
Image Source: Getty Images / cattime

Legends of the Ancient Celts associated black cats with witchcraft and black magic. Supposedly, people who committed sins and bad deeds were turned into cats as punishment. Additionally, legend has it that witches could also transform themselves into these black furry creatures. Some believed that the devil would gift black cats to witches as their animalistic servants in the European Middle Ages.

Skulls

Bones remind the living world of the eternal connection between life and death. Skulls as symbols of Halloween date back thousands of years. A notable source of the creepy imagery is Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who specialised in artistic skulls, skeletons and ‘macabre mischief’. In the early 20th century, Jose introduced skulls as a pop culture standard in Mexico. The most famous artwork – La Calavera Catrina ­– is the personification of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). This renowned skull is perhaps the country’s most archetypal image of death.

Black-line etching of a skeleton wearing a hat
La Calavera Catrina, (c.1910-13). Zinc etching. Image Source: Dia de Los Muertos

The skull symbol and ‘the Day of the Dead’ as Mexican national identity

In Mexico, Spain and other Latin American countries, Halloween celebrations begin on October 31st and continue until early November. People gather lively in vibrant festivals, revelling in upbeat music, food and dancing. The spooky celebrations are designed to honour the deceased who, according to the legends, return to Earth during this time. People leave gifts on their loved one’s graves and many families construct alters decorated with candy, photographs and flowers to the dead in their homes.

Beyond Western traditions, Halloween symbols are more than just a spooky representation of holiday festivities. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead has become a symbol of the Mexican national identity. According to Stanley Brandes:

‘The rapid penetration of Halloween symbols into Mexico increasingly evokes Mexican nationalistic sentiments, embodied in a campaign to preserve the country from U.S. cultural imperialism.’

During the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), tourists flock to Mexico to experience the colourful, carnivalesque display of morality. Extravagant decorations, paper cutouts and plastic toys that humorously play on the image of death embellish the festivities. Most notably, images of skulls in the La Calavera Catrina style litter the celebrations. People eat skull-shaped candies, and large, colourful skull murals adorn public walls.

Woman with white and orange face paint and an orange flower skull headpiece
Image Source: AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme via abcnews.go.com

Mexican culture puts a light-hearted spin on the macabre nature of death. Both expensive tombstones and simple mound burial sites are decorated with colourful flowers, hundreds of candles and plates of food as offerings to ancestral spirits. Mexico’s use of colour in their symbolic celebration of Halloween confronts us with a new perspective on death.

In Mexican culture, Halloween is when the dead return to life to celebrate with their loved ones. Perhaps, while revelling in Day of the Dead festivities, Westerners might challenge their views of death as a final, morbid event.

Bats

A bat flying towards the camera with its wings spread
Image Source: De Agostini Editorial / Getty Images

There are a few reasons why bats are an iconic symbol of Halloween, particularly in Western culture.

Firstly, nocturnal animals are often associated with death and darkness. Adrienne Mayor, a researcher of classics and history, told National Geographic:

‘[Bats] engage in mysterious activities in the dark and so they have been cloaked in superstition since ancient times…The combination of dark grey, brown, or black shades with cryptic night-time habits evoked a sense of awe and fear back in the time when the only lights at night were oil lamps and wax candles.’

In other words, bats’ nocturnal and mysterious nature has, for centuries, associated them with death and the underworld. Folklorist Frank Brown argued that many Western people associated bats with death or bad luck in the early 20th century.

Others say that bats’ Halloween associations begun as early as the Samhain festival times 2000 years ago. The Celtic harvest festival usually involved lighting massive bonfires. These fires attracted bugs, which in turn, attracting bug-eating bats.

Moreover, bats are inherently enigmatic creatures. They are the only mammals that can fly, making them a kind of ‘in-between’ being. Their liminal, ‘in-between’ nature alludes to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico in some ways. In Mexico, Halloween represents the blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living, a day where Earth is an ‘in-between’ place for all kinds of creatures. Similarly, during the Ancient Celts’ Samhain festivals, Halloween represented the in-between period between the summer and winter. Therefore, it makes sense that bats are key spooky season motifs with their strange liminal existence.

Spiders

A white surburban house with giant black spiders on the walls
Image Source: bhg.com

In medieval European folklore, spiders had strong associations with witches. People believed that these eight-legged creatures (along with bats and black cats) were the evil companions of occultists and black magic conjurers. In this way, spiders as a symbol of Halloween are mostly due to their association with other major symbols.

Superstitions about the creepy crawlers proliferated throughout Europe before spreading globally. Some of these old superstitions included:

  • If a spider falls into flames, a witch is nearby.
  • Seeing a spider on Halloween means the spirit of a dead person is watching over you.
  • If a white spider makes a web above your bed, you’ll have good luck. But if a black spider makes a web above your bed, you’ll soon have misfortune.
  • If you step on a spider, you will cause rainy weather.
  • Drinking a spider with syrup cures fever.

Additionally, spiders exist in pagan rituals (rituals that use magic) and magic folklore. Some cultures believed that spinning webs was evidence of magical powers or witchcraft.

Similar to bats, spiders continue to be associated with darkness due to the places they inhabit. Where bats inhabit dark caves, spiders also prefer areas of darkness and low traffic.

It seems that we associate Halloween and its spooky symbols with creatures that we cannot fully understand, perhaps because they do not live the same way as us. We hold a fear of the other, a fear of the unfathomable. Interestingly, while humans usually detest things we cannot understand, Halloween celebrations evoke these mysterious symbols as tools and costumes for happy merriment.

A critical perspective on Halloween

Critics argue that the real horror of Halloween – much like the excess materialism seen around Christmas time – is the horror of consumerism. Historically, spooky symbols have deep cultural meanings. They unite the collective over a shared holiday. However, some people argue the spooky season is another chance for big brands to heave in fortunes from Halloween merchandise. The corporate world has snapped up Halloween symbols as another thing to sell.

In 2019, Americans spent half a billion dollars on Halloween pet costumes (with pumpkins being the most popular choice). Just in case your cat didn’t hate you enough already, now you can be matching-pumpkin besties!

A woman wearing a pumpkin costume headpiece hugs her ginger cat who wear a smaller pumpkin headpiece next to an advertisement displaying the 'pumpkin pals' costume
Image Source: mcphee.com

Arguably, this is a telling sign of America’s out-of-control consumerism. As Jay L. Zagorsky says:

‘How did a holiday that began as a way to honor the dead morph into just another ritual of over-the-top American consumption?’

Perhaps the ritualistic nature of Halloween is not lost. But the ‘ritual’ may no longer be about celebrating life and death. Rather, the spooky holiday is morphing into a consumption ritual. Symbols and iconography once used to represent ancient beliefs in the spirit world are increasingly losing their cultural meanings, instead replaced by a dollar sign.

Paying attention to how much people spend on holidays like Halloween is important because it shows our society’s values. Apparently, we value how much others see us consume in our creative displays of wealth.

A new meaning of Halloween symbols and rituals

A row of kids dressed in Halloween costumes running on the grass
Image Source: goldeagle.com

An interesting research paper recognised an emerging function of the spooky season. This function suggests there is an inversion of power between adults and children. The carnival atmosphere of Halloween allows children to try on different identities and master their fears. At the same time, adults transcend the standard rules of etiquette and relinquish their desire for control over their children.

Anthropological significance of Halloween symbols

Artwork of the Roman Festival of Death shows people holding hands and dancing with skeletons
The Dance of Death / Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Every year, we still see ancient Halloween symbols adorned on house walls and trick-or-treating children. However, in Western culture, these spooky visual displays may have lost their original meaning. In some cultures – such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead – Halloween symbols still hold strong connotations to celebrating the spirit world. But in most Western societies, Halloween iconography is mostly just a necessary purchase for a time of consumerist excess. An anthropological view of Halloween symbols helps us reignite the original stories of the ritualistic festival. Symbols allow us to connect with the past and carry it into the present. By being more aware of the true meanings behind spooky season icons, we can rekindle the stories of our ancestors and celebrate mindfully.

Symbols are important at Halloween. Whether people understand the stories behind them or merely use them as a chance to live a day in the body of another, these spooky visuals momentarily transform us into a world of abnormality. Perhaps, given the use of masks and sheathed costumes, Halloween could be a COVID-friendly holiday to celebrate!

Leave a Reply