Éanna Ní Lamhna is outraged at the unfair – and downright untrue – press that our wildlife gets every Halloween
After sunset on 31 October begins the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain – the feast of the dying sun and the last day of the Celtic year. It was a druidic belief that Saman, the lord of death, summoned together the souls of evil people condemned to inhabit the body of animals – hence the Irish name, Oíche Shamhna. In an effort to Christianise the festival, Pope Gregory IV introduced the feast of All Saints in honour of the blessed dead who had been canonised. This festival was originally on 21 February.
The only animal that has any kind of traditional role on this night is the Pooka – the fairies' horse (after whom Poulaphouca in Wicklow is named). He brings the fairies out on his back on this night and during his journeys round Ireland manages to spit on all the blackberries that are left in the hedges. They are thus not fit to be eaten afterwards. This is in fact quite true – blackberries at this time of year have been ripe so long that they are riddled with worms and are no longer edible to humans. The story of the pooka merely copperfastens this well-known fact.
What's with all the bats hanging up in every hucksters shop throughout the land? What have they got to do with Halloween? Nothing at all actually – every self-respecting bat in these latitudes is now deep in hibernation and they will remain this way until April. The last thing you'll have in your peregrinations outdoors on Hallowe'en is with a bat. So they are merely on offer as a scaring device. This is most unfair to such a useful creature that devours moths, mosquitoes and midges at the height of its powers in summer. Each bat can eat 3,000 midges per night – we should be lighting shrines of adoration to them instead of trying to terrorise each other with crude images.
The idea of associating bats with Dracula appears nowhere in Bram Stoker's masterpiece. While his Count Dracula becomes a vampire and bites people, nowhere at all in the book does Count Dracula become a bat or do bats bite people. It was Hollywood and Christopher Lee – he of the red silk-lined cape – who introduced the idea of Dracula turning into a bat, not Bram Stoker. In any event, what all of this has to do with Halloween is unclear in either version.
And what have we got against spiders? They too are part of the frightening props in the shops. Their representations are crude as well. Examine the next one you see hanging menacingly in a pretend web – more likely than not it will have its eight legs coming out of its body. Now, any half-observant schoolchild will tell you that spiders have all their legs on their heads. Real living spiders eat nasty flies that carry germs on their feet and give us food poisoning when they vomit on our food. They are our friends for goodness sake!
Why are we making these terrible images of them and selling and buying them at Halloween? What custom is this? Has Hollywood stolen even this most Celtic of festivals?