A few days ago I was talking with an acquaintance about the Black Mountains in Carmarthenshire, Wales. Part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the landscape is breathtaking - a seemingly unending panorama stretching out in all directions. My first serious sojourn into these mountains was early in the afternoon of Halloween, or Nos/Noson Galan Gaeaf in Welsh.
That coincidence of timing (I am writing this just days before Halloween) made me wonder how many people know the traditions of Noson Galan Gaeaf, many of which stretch back to pre-Christian (“pagan”) Celtic times.
Unlike us, the ancient Celts regarded the year as having two parts instead of four: the light and the dark, or summer and winter. The pagan Welsh Halloween, therefore, is simply Winter’s Eve. It was widely believed amongst pre-Christian Celtic peoples that on this night the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld (Annwn, in Welsh), sometimes called the land of the fairies, were at their most tenuous, just as they were on Summer’s Eve, or May Eve. Both nights are therefore termed an Ysbrydnos, or Spirit Night.
On such a night, spirits and other mystical creatures were thought to be able to cross from their world to ours, and many traditions have their origins in attempts to guard against such dangers. Two such traditions which survive to this day are the lighting of bonfires and lanterns to keep the darkness at bay, along with whatever apparitions might lie therein. Whilst hollowed-out pumpkins are popular now, though, turnips were the norm in Wales where they could often be seen lining the roadside.
There were also potential benefits, however, as humans might be able to “see through the veil” and divine the future. As is common in folklore, the future in question was mostly concerned with love and death.
A simple practice involved a girl peeling an apple and throwing the skin over her shoulder in order to divine the initial of her future husband’s name. Another, more macabre, ceremony was the Coelcerth.
In the Coelcerth, stones would be placed within a bonfire, each bearing the name of a member of the community. The flames would burn fiercely, and often far into the night. Come morning, the ashes were sifted and the stones revealed. If a stone were found to be missing, the person whose name it bore was expected to die before the following Noson Galan Gaeaf, one year hence.
Untangling the precise origins of the age-old practices of any culture is a near-impossible task, but those of Wales are particularly difficult to pin down due to a particular set of historical circumstances. Christianity arrived relatively early in Britain thanks in large part to the Roman occupation. Although initially resisted and even violently suppressed, in 380 CE (AD) Christianity became the official religion of the entire Roman Empire, and its influence increased rapidly.
Shortly after this watershed, the empire began to retreat, however, leaving pagan Germanic tribes to conquer vast swathes of Britain in a remarkably short period of time. This had the effect of isolating the Welsh from their Celtic, and often Christian, brethren in places such as Scotland, Cumbria and Cornwall. The integration of Christian and ancient pagan culture therefore evolved over centuries in ways unique to the region.
This integration can be seen in the ways in which churches and churchyards feature heavily in what otherwise appear to be wholly pagan beliefs. Perhaps the most famous example of this in relation to Halloween is the legend of the White Lady (y Ladi Wen,) a well-known legend throughout Wales even today.
There are three main versions of this legend, although there are inevitable variations combining elements of all three. Perhaps the oldest tells of this ghostly figure dressed all in white wandering the roads and paths on Winter’s Eve, luring unsuspecting travellers to their death with pleas for help or promises of great riches. This is a surprisingly common legend around the world, with parallels as far afield as Africa.
Another version pairs her with the Northern-Welsh Hwch Ddu Gwta, a terrifying beast in the form of a tailless black sow with which she would hunt victims as darkness fell. It is worth bearing in mind that a sow at this time was not simply a female pig, but a powerful matriarchal boar, a creature hunted with dogs and spearmen because of its ferocity.
The version which probably most blends pagan tradition and Christianity has the White Lady acting as a guardian, defending both crossroads and churchyards against the evil spirits of the Otherworld. As Christianity spread, its proponents frequently sought to incorporate or explain pre-Christian beliefs and traditions, and the Otherworld was variously associated with the Christian heaven or hell, depending on the context. Thus the concepts of immortality in the Otherworld were associated with heaven and angels, and the more fearful aspects such as dangerous spirits were associated with hell, demons and evil.
Other traditional practices lost much of their original significance and remained only as cultural customs, binding communities and providing enjoyment. One of these traditions might hold a clue to the origin of “trick-or-treating.” It has been suggested that an old Welsh tradition of local men dressing in rags and masks, then going from door-to-door begging for tokens such as small coins, winter nuts, etc. represents both the remnant of a much older pagan custom and the origin of the modern North American activity now practised by children around the world.
As with all folklore with such deep roots, the legends and traditions of Wales are inseparable from its landscape. I started this article by mentioning the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons. In my time wandering through this ancient land, I camped under the overhang of a cliff, watching ravens the size of eagles flock to their roosts in the rocks at sunset; I visited the Llyn y Fan Fach, a lake said to be a gateway to Annwn; I walked along aeons-old paths beside which leered dark caves like doors into the depths and bones of the earth itself. In such a haunting and haunted landscape, the dark months might bring anything out from the shadows.
The next time that you return home from a Halloween party late at night, imagine that same night with no street lights but only stars, and the Black Mountains between you and your home fire. Halloween isn’t just about dressing up, it’s a glimpse into a primordial past. A past in which the coming darkness of winter held more than earthly fears.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Simon Roots