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Halloween Mirrors Spooky Beliefs of the Ancient Greeks

halloween ancient greek
Halloween is one of the most beloved celebrations of the year. Many spooky stories that play a role in Halloween celebrations may stem from ancient Greek beliefs. Credit: Paul Hermans/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Could Halloween, the annual celebration observed in numerous countries across the world on October 31, have ancient Greek roots?

Halloween activities, such as donning spooky costumes, trick or treating, attending costume parties, carving pumpkins, watching scary movies, and visiting pumpkin patches and haunted sites, make the holiday extremely popular amongst the young and the old.

Halloween likely has roots in Celtic pagan festivals

Yet the celebration is not as secular as it may seem. Also known as All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween has a religious connection. It takes place on the day before the western Christian feast of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. For believers, it is a time to honor and remember the dead, particularly saints and martyrs.

The many traditions associated with Halloween, however, link it to pagan practices. Most scholars agree that the roots of Halloween and related traditions can be found in pagan Celtic harvest festivals, particularly Samhain.

Likely, these long-held, important traditions and festivals remained even after the Celts were Christianized, and were connected to Christian celebrations.

Much of the Halloween celebrations and traditions that are practiced today were made popular after immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought them to North America in the 19th century.

Although Halloween itself is linked to Celtic practices, the spooky holiday has many parallels to ancient Greek beliefs as well.

Ancient Greeks loved spooky tales, like those told on Halloween

Debbie Felton, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has revealed that “long before Halloween became popular, ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed spinning good scary stories about the afterlife, as well as ghosts and monsters.”

In her novel study, entitled “Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity,” Felton examined various interesting stories of ghostly spirits and haunting from ancient times, shedding new light on the modern folkloric traditions on the supernatural and the monstrous.

“There are many reasons why people enjoy them and enjoy being scared by them. There’s certainly a cathartic effect to hearing a ghost story and being scared out of your wits without ever being in any real danger,” Professor Felton has shared.

Remaining dead serious about the deep connection of Halloween ghosts and monsters with Classical Antiquity’s terrifying narrations, Felton added: “… ghost stories ultimately reflect religious beliefs concerning the importance of a proper burial and the survival of the spirit after death. The dead have a need to rest in peace, while the living have a need to believe in an afterlife…”

The professor is an editor of the interdisciplinary academic journal “Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural,” which is published by Penn State University Press.

According to Felton, monsters and serial killers, either real or fictional, “have been with us since earliest antiquity,” being often “even more horrifying than their modern counterparts,” while she is skeptical about the existence of ghosts.

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