Hell and All Hallows

I actually wrote this in 1999, and thought it was worth a posting. It was prompted by a sermon delivered in an Orthodox church the Sunday before Hallowe’en — which is not celebrated among the Orthodox since the Byzantine liturgical calendar places All Saint’s Day within Whitsuntide.

Originally, among the Nordic countries, the underworld was ruled by a goddess (who I think later changed genders and became a god) named Hel. The place she ruled was called Hell. It is much the same concept as Hades (the god) and Hades (the underworld). While it can be argued that hell was not Valhalla, where the heroes who died in battle went, neither can this original ‘hell’ be compared to gehenna, the place of torment most modern English speakers think of when they say “hell.”

With regard to Hallowe’en, it is a much more ancient feast than all saint’s day. For this, I will mention two pieces of information.

First, Hallowe’en had its origin, really, in the Celtic countries, although a version of this festival was celebrated in both Teutonic and Slavic places. Initially, Hallowe’en, or Samhain, was a celebration of the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and the end of summer (in that only two seasons existed: summer and winter). In addition, this festival marks the halfway point between the equinox and the solstice. it was a fire festival and the cornstalks (i.e. wheat chaff, dead vines, etc) would be burned in the fields, which of course, added nitrogen to the soil and aided in the next year’s growth.

Of course, the Celts weren’t simply a people who celebrated the very mundane acts of harvest, and so this festival also had several religious connotations, which are analogously found in Slavic and Teutonic myth, although in this regard i am more familiar with the Slavic tradition. in this North European mythology, time was governed by a god of light and a god of dark — *not* good and evil but simply a god who ruled the dark half of the year, represented by the Celts as the Holly King, and one (the Oak King) to rule the light half of the year, which lasted from May 1 to Oct 31. Yule, or December 21, was the birth of the light god; February 2 was the first manifestation of the light god’s power; May 1 celebrated the victory of the Oak King over the god of dark, and June 23 celebrated the rebirth of the god of dark, as the days began to shorten once again. October 31 marks the victory of the dark god over the light god. thus the people of northern Europe also celebrated a religious holiday on this day.

The dark god and light god took different names and forms over the centuries, and even characters found in Arthurian legend still bear traces of the gods they once represented. In time, as Christianity took root, the light god was identified with the Christ, and the dark god with Satan or the devil (or, at time, with St John the Baptist). Traces, however, remain which indicate that some Christians realised the dark god was not a god of evil (since “evil” gods generally don’t exist in pantheon’s which are strictly based on the natural world, where “good” and “evil” don’t exist, only a circle of life, death, and rebirth). Such instances are rare. When they occur, St John the Baptist is identified with the god of darkness; they Holy Spirit might have made a better identification, strictly speaking, if we are going to identify one god with another god. Today, paganism is being revived and Hallowe’en is considered a religious celebration again, as a result of a number of north European neo-pagans marking it with celebrations of their own.

Because of the victory of the god of darkness that occurred at this time of the year, and because the god of the dark was identified with the dead, the unknown, the sea, the forests, and the otherworld of the fairies etc, it was believed that the forces or minions of the dark god’s realm were free to run wild over the earth. (In Slavic countries, and among western Mediterranean countries, this date is June 23, St John’s eve.)

As everyone knows, Christianity had its origin in the Roman Empire. Rome celebrated a month of the dead in November. The Romans would feast in the necropoleis (which were always located outside the city, and in the case of Rome, across the Tiber, where the Vatican stands today). Marriages were not performed in November because it was the month of the dead, and thus inauspicious for marriage and offspring.

when missionaries reached Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornall, and northern Gaul, they desired to substitute a Christian festival for this pagan one, and aware of the two traditions (or not), and knowing that holy people did precede the advent of Christianity, and knowing that it is honourable to pray for those who have died, they established the feast of all Saints on November 1, and the feast of all souls on November 2. all hallow’s Eve, of course, was the night of Oct 31 – Nov 1. In certain times and places, people would dress up as their favourite saints on this night.

Superstition (or prior spiritualities) naturally lingered, with the belief that the spirits of the departed would come to visit, and turnips (at least in the German and Polish countries) were carved with scary faces and lit form inside by candles to warn away the dead, or protect the living. In Germany and several other European countries today, the fire festival aspect is still kept on November 11, St Martin’s Day, when the children will parade through the streets with lanterns, to mark the end of the vendage (pruning the vines), and the beginning of Carnival.

The people of Latin America, being traditionally Latin Catholic, still honour their dead on these three days, and the first three days of November are especially dedicated to commemorating the deceased (as is the entire month of November, still). In addition, November 1 is a holy day of obligation in most Latin Catholic dioceses throughout the world, which means Catholics are strongly encouraged (or told) to attend Divine Liturgy on this day.

Actually, I think both November 1/2 and the first Sunday after Pentecost are quite appropriate for commemorating All Saints. The saints are such because they were transformed, deified in love the by the remarkable and new manner of outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the next commemoration of Christ’s resurrection (i.e. Sunday) following the feast of the Holy Spirit is an ideal time to commemorate those who have been perfected, completed, divinised and transformed by union with the divine energia.

November is, in northern climates, a month of dying vegetation and so it is only natural to think of the dead and the fact that Christ rose from the dead and we are not bound by the old cycle of death and rebirth. Also occurring at this time of the year in Latin tradition (although fairly recent), is the feast of Christ the King, which makes a perfect culmination of meditating on death, judgement, heaven, and hell during November — since Christ will one day return and the dead will be raised on that awesome and glorious day. It is said that St Michael will announce Christ’s coming at this time, and his Byzantine feast falling a week after All Saints and about ten days before the Feast of Christus Rex makes a perfect progression in this season. (St Michael’s Latin feast falls on September 29, when the harvest season really picks up its pace at mid-autumn, a sort of early announcement of the harvest of judgement to come liturgically in November).

The emphasis on sainthood and holiness is different in May and in November. In the former, the action of the the Holy Spirit is emphasised; in the latter, the glory and the necessity of death for the transformation to be effected is the more prominent feature. Both are fruitful for contemplation.


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