I recently paid a trip to our local ASDA store and was amazed at the extensive range of expensively priced ghoulish paraphernalia laid out temptingly for the youngsters. Thanks to the Americans Halloween has now become an excuse for the shopkeepers to make money and the children to turn into marauding blackmailers preying on all and sundry. From what I remember of Halloween as a tacker it was a bonfire at the farm, some burnt hotdogs, an apple barrel full of cold water and some apples from the orchard, oh, and the badly carved pumpkin lanterns. The only ‘tricking’ was to lob a banger or two into the bonfire and watch the old dears jump out of their skins. The only ‘treat’ was just a casual slap around the head for doing it as opposed to a good leathering – but there we go, times, they are a changing.
All Souls Night, Night of the Dead, Halloween and unfortunately now – Trick or Treat, all names for the 31st of October, the night when the portal between the worlds of the dead and the living are opened. On this very night everything that hasn’t got a pulse, and a few that have haunt the land in order to spread fear and mayhem, the old corpse roads are akin to the M25 on a Friday night with lost souls nose to tail. Black Magic is at its strongest and covens of witches meet to celebrate the night of the dead, even simple divinations are though to be at their most potent on this night.
Originally the night of the 31st of October was when pre-Christian pagans celebrated and communed with the souls of their ancestors. The following day, Samhain, was a quarter day of the Celtic calendar when the physical and supernatural worlds were at their closest and magic at its strongest – WRONG. This probably only applies to Ireland and in England, Scotland and Wales the dates of such an event varied from New Year’s Eve to May the 1st if it ever occurred at all. However, it is to the Roman Catholic Church where one must look for the origins of Halloween, in particular the 1st and 2nd of November. Between AD 800 to 1000 the Catholic Church had celebrated All Hallows Eve on the 1st of November and All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, after which the dates appeared to have regressed back to the 31st of October and the 1st of November. It was at Hallowtide when the dead were commemorated and amidst much praying and bell ringing the souls of those in Purgatory were released into heaven. So, it is the soul responsibility of the Catholic Church (the Protestants abolished the concept) that the 31st of October is associated with things that go bump in the night.
As it’s believed that all sorts of weird and wonderful things are abroad on Halloween one should not be surprised that this was a time to consult the ‘spirits’ in order to get some insight into one’s future. To this end there were several forms of divination practiced in the cotts of Dartmoor, being Halloween below are 13 such traditions:
1) One such example was to assemble some girls in front of the fire and get them each to place a hazel nut on the bars of the grate. Whoever’s nut was the first to set alight would be the first girl to marry, the nut that was the first to crack signified the owner would be jilted at the altar. The girl who owned the first nut to pop off the grate would be going on a journey of some kind and also would remain a spinster. The poor unfortunate who owned the nut which simply smouldered would be looking forward to some forthcoming sickness with fatal potential.
2) Another variation on the above was to place two nuts side by side in the embers of the fire, one represented a boy and the other a girl. If both nuts burned away then the couple would have a happy life together. Should one burn and the other simply smoulder then the relationship would not be a lasting one, if neither nuts burned then nothing would ever come of the union.
“Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame, – And each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name; – As blazed the nut, so may passion grow, – For ’twas they nut that did so brightly glow.”
3) Another way for a girl to find out who her intended would be was to sit quietly in front of a mirror in the corner of the room whilst brushing her hair with her left hand and holding an apple in the right. Whilst she eagerly chomped away at the apple her future husband would appear in the mirror looking over her shoulder.
4) A girl should go alone to a limekiln at midnight and throw a ball of blue thread into the kiln whilst keeping hold of one end. Then she had to slowly wind it back in again and in theory before she had completed the task unseen hands below held the end and reveal the name of her future husband.
5) If somebody wanted to know how many years it would be before they married they would simply take a handful of paper strips and sprinkle them over a bowl of water. After giving them a stir they would simply count the number of pieces that sank to the bottom of the bowl, the total would be the number of years before they wed.
6) If any male members of the household wanted to know who they would marry they would simply melt some slivers of lead and then drop them into a bowl of cold water, the initials of their future bridge would then form at the bottom of the bowl.
7) Alternatively a boy could write the alphabet in capitals on a sheet of paper and then with a pair of scissors cut each one out taking care not to touch the paper with his hands. As the letters we cut they were allowed to drop into a bowl of water, once the entire alphabet was in the bowl the water would then be stirred. In theory the initials of his future spouse would be left floating on top of the water.
8) Another one for the ladies, each one would be given a handful of hempseed and then the front door would be wedged open. On the first stroke of midnight the girls would rush outside scattering the seeds whilst reciting; “hempseed I sow, hempseed I throw, He that my true-love, come after me and mow.“. The future husbands would then appear and chase the girls back inside, however should any girl tarry then they were in dire peril of being caught by the grim reaper.
9) Another less pleasant tradition was that of the ‘Three Platters’ which would determine who a person would marry. Three dishes would be arranged on a table, one was filled with fresh water, another with sink slops and the last one left empty. Each person would then be blindfolded and asked to dip their fingers in one of the bowls, if they chose the clean water they would marry a maiden, the sink slop bowl signified a widow and the empty bowl meant they would have a lonely life.
10) Should any child be born on All Hallows Eve then they were said to be ‘blessed’ with the ability to converse with all things supernatural and were often regarded in later life with superstition.
11) If anyone wanted to find out what sort of luck they would have during the coming year then all they had to do was get two apples pips and stick one on each of their eyelids. Then they simply waited until one fell off, if it was the left eye then the following year would be lucky, however if the right one dropped first then it was best not to make too many plans.
12) A popular tradition was to place twelve lighted candles in a row with a gap of between one and two feet between them, each candles represented one month of the year. The assembled gathering would then in turn jump over each candle in succession, should any of the candles be put out then ill fortune would be sure to occur in that month.
13) On a more morbid note, it was also said that if a person went down to the local church and peeped through the keyhole of the door they would see or hear ghosts of the departed calling out the names of those who would die within the parish over the coming twelve months. Imagine doing that and hearing your own named called?
There some references of the tradition of the poor folk visiting the abodes of the rich and famous when they would beg for a gift of fire which would take the form of peat or if they were lucky coal. If none of those were available they would settle for small sums of money, kind of like ‘Trick or Treat’ but without the trick.
A fairly modern and less well known tradition on Dartmoor was to walk the Lych Way or ‘Way of the Dead’ on Halloween night which certainly added atmosphere to the occasion. There is a very strong possibility that even today covens of witches meet at some of the ancient stone circles of the moor, often there are the ashes from their fires to be seen the following day, the Ringastan being one such example. There has also been the suggestion that in previous years witches have met on the moor to hold ‘tests of power’ to establish who is the ‘Queen of Black Witches’.
Amongst other weird things that have taken place on Dartmoor at Halloween were several attempts to exorcise the ghost of Kitty Jay by some group of paranormal enthusiasts, apparently it was an attempt to finally lay the poor girl’s soul to rest. There are numerous locations on Dartmoor that would suggest dark and sinister occurrences, four of which (or should it be witch) are listed below:
It is said that if you visit Squire Cabell’s tomb, run around it seven times and then shove your hand through the bars either the evil squire or the Devil himself will bite your fingers off. But be warned the church is/was said to be frequented by Devil worshippers so you may not be the only one there.
There is the possibility of two real ‘scares’ here, firstly, as the Vixen Tor is on private property you may meet the landowner who will be yelling; “git orf my laand.” Secondly, but not quite so scary, you may even come across ‘Old Vixiana‘, the resident witch who will try to lure you into the bottomless mire.
“I oft have heard of Lydford Law, How in the morn they hang and draw, And sit in judgment after.” – so goes the verse on the heinous Lydford Castle where the unfortunates were kept in its filthy dungeons. Therefore is it not surprising that there are numerous ghostly sightings here both of a human and animal nature.
Maybe a visit to the Coffin Stone would conjure up the souls of the long departed whose coffins temporarily rested on the stone as they were carried to their last resting places. Or even worse the spirit of the evil man whose coffin, along with stone stone was rent asunder by a bolt of lightening.