As Halloween approaches, we are once again subjected to lots of misinformation and downright foolishness regarding witches, paganism, and the occult in general. Unfortunately, this ancient holiday's true meaning has become lost in a muddle of macabre sensationalism. Each year we read stories of children eating tainted candy and teens using Halloween as an excuse for bad behavior. In some places, conservative Christian groups try to get the holiday banned, believing erroneously that it has something to do with satanism.
Also known as All Hallows Eve, Hallowmass, and Samhain, Halloween is a holy day for witches and many other pagans. It is the witches' New Year, a time for reflecting on the past and looking ahead to the future. Originally, the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween was a way to visually demonstrate what you wanted to be in the coming year and to project that image out into the world. (No one who knew this would choose to dress up as a ghost, skeleton, goblin, or hobo!)
Samhain (what Wiccans, many pagans and witches call Halloween) is also a solemn time for remembering friends and relatives who have passed on––consequently its connection with death. However, the dead don't rise up out of their coffins and walk around as ghosts or zombies on this sacred holiday. Witches may enact rituals or light candles to honor departed loved ones. Some believe heaven and earth are close together on Samhain, and that this is the best time to make contact with spirits on the other side.
No belief system has been so maligned as witchcraft. It is important to remember that before the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Goddess religions predominated for millennia throughout Europe and many other parts of the world. Between the 14th and 18th centuries––a period known as the "Burning Times"––tens of thousands, perhaps millions of women and children (the most famous being Joan of Arc) were accused of being witches and massacred by Christian zealots. Although most of the violence was levied against females of all ages, the Church also put astrologers, homosexuals, and other assorted dissidents to death. And we all know what happened in Salem, Massachusetts, a city that now capitalizes on its darkest hour and enjoys a brisk tourist business during Halloween.
Wicca is a Goddess-based religion––one of the few in a world where patriarchal belief systems prevail. Despite the fact that our male-dominated culture still denigrates witchcraft and paganism, many women (and some men, too) today are rediscovering these ancient traditions and finding a form of spirituality they can relate to, one that respects the feminine.
For the record: Witches do not put hexes on people, fly around on broomsticks, snatch and eat children, or perform animal or human sacrifices. They do not believe in Satan (he's a Judeo-Christian conception). They do not deny the existence of God or the male principle. Most of them are not cackling hags (although the "hag" is one of the three manifestations of the Goddess: the older woman, representing wisdom). They do not hate men and have no desire to overthrow Christianity or any other religion. Not all pagans are witches; paganism is a general term for various spiritual belief systems that honor the earth, nature, and the cosmos. Many of the rituals, holidays, myths, and practices now connected with Christianity derived from the earlier Goddess-based traditions.
Fear and ignorance are dangerous forces. They are at the root of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, jingoism, and other forms of violence and hatred. This Halloween, let us put aside our prejudices and uphold one of the principles this country was founded on: religious freedom.