Monday, 27 October 2014

Carve that Rutabaga! The History of Halloween Symbols

Halloween is a mixture of imagery and imagination. The living dress as the dead, squash takes on a menacing role, and witches go door to door begging for candy. This seemingly hodgepodge of images and symbols actually have a great deal of meaning and history behind them. Here are just a few to get you thinking about the meanings of the decorations on your front lawn.

The two main colors of Halloween are orange and black. Orange is a symbol of strength and endurance. It also is linked to the harvest and autumn. Black is a symbol of death and darkness, traditional themes of Halloween.These two colours play into the origins of halloween. The holiday was derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain, where the boundaries between life and death were blurred, with autumn being the natural blurring of summer ending and the winter beginning.
The Rutabagas of the dammed!
Pumpkins were not the first veg to be used as decorations for Halloween. In the British Isles, a rutabaga or turnip were usually carved as they were common and easy to get out of anyone's garden. When the holiday was brought over to North America, pumpkin were available, much larger and easier to carve. In 1837 the Jack-o'-lantern in North America appeared for the first time, and was any carved vegetable lantern. For some weird reason a Jack-o'-lantern was what a night watchman was called, hence the name. Despite what vegetable is chosen to carve, the original purpose was to scare off evil spirits, because everyone is terrified of root vegetables.

Black cats have a long history of being associated with the occult and death outside of Halloween. In ancient Egypt, cats were sacred and black cats possessed magic powers. During the festival of Samhain, worshipers believed that by using evil powers, humans could turn themselves into cats. According to legend, many cats were thrown into the fires to get of rid the evil. Black cats in medieval Europe were also believed to be witches' companions or familiars. Now we know better: cats are just cats and being black has no significance. It's unfortunate that some people still believe such nonsense so black cats are seen as un-adoptable by many. Here's a video to prove them wrong:

There are two other animals that are associated with Halloween in Europe: owls and bats.Owls were common symbols of wisdom and hidden knowledge, and that included the occult. Traditionally, large Halloween bonfires were built and would encourage a large amount of bugs to gather, causing owls and bats to swoop above the bonfires. Superstitions also suggest that owls ate the souls of the dying, their screeches and their glassy stare are an omen of death and disaster. The nocturnal nature of these animals played well into the festival of the night. Bats have become a more popular image in North America, partially due to their association with vampires and witches, which are said to turn into bats at will.

I'm coming for your soul!

Finally, why are witches associated so strongly with Halloween? In the Celtic pre-christian world, it was believed Witches gathering twice a year when the seasons changed, on April 30 and the eve of October 31. Their magic was supposed to be very powerful on these two days. The fear of witches continued to be part of Christianity, as wise women were seen to be in league with the devil. Multiple witch hunts in the western world resulted in hundreds of men and women being murdered. The hunting down of witches then was misogynistic and anti-pagan, and by accusing people of being witches the historic Christians earn a special spot on my shit list. I'm not sure what the people of the past would think of our new interpretations: sexist yes, scary no.

I don't think she has a license for those...brooms.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Cundill Prize: Serious Money for Serious History

This year's nominees for The Cundill Prize in History was announced this month on October 2. This is serious money at $75,000. It is the richest prize for historical writing in the world, and issued annually. Two 'Recognition of Excellence' Prize of US$10,000 are also given. The award is:

...coordinated by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) on behalf of the Dean of Arts, was established in 2008 to be offered each year by McGill University (Montreal, Canada) to an individual, of any nationality and from any country, who has published a book determined to have had (or likely to have) a profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history.

Gary Bass for The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide. Ugh. Well written but crap on a cracker I'm done with Nixon and how he and the 1960s changed the world blah blah blah.

David Brion Davis for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. Awesome, asked hard questions like how it kept happening. Not for the faint of heart.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy for The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. Never read it. Good luck.

Richard Overy for The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 . ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ...oh sorry. Ummm you say this is a new take on an old topic. Ok. Sure.

David Van Reybrouck for Congo: The Epic History of a People. Read this with King Leopold's Ghost and you will understand why that region is so fucked up now. Hope this wins.

Geoffrey Wawro for A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire. LOVED IT!!! A must read. Why? Because it rounds up in a well written and actually understandable narrative the truly screwed up mess of pre-war Europe and the severely dysfunctional Empire leading to a war that never should have happened.

The three finalists for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature be announced in mid-October. The grand prize winner will be announced at a Toronto awards ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 20.
The prize is named after F. Peter Cundill, a very wealthy investor, who decided that it was time to recognize and promote literary and academic achievement in history. In 2008, he created the Cundill Prize. He unfortunately died in 2011, but his estate keeps it going. I wish I could ask him why did they name it after him, and not some famous historian? I'd suggest the awesome Marie Therese Veronica "Terry" Goulet, a Metis historian, but maybe I am living in a fantasy world where we acknowledge publicly there's brilliant First Nations/Metis in our country. (Just sayin') 

Mini rant over...for now.