Halloween, Samhain, All Hallows, All Saints or Hallow-Eve is the season of the Crone. In ancient paganism, the word Crone denoted an elder priestess or tribal matriarch; a cognate word is “crown,” the symbol of a leader. The word was made pejorative when the Christian Church redefined all elder priestesses of the old religion as malevolent witches. Similarly, the word “hag” was once derived from Greek hagia—a holy woman—and also became a Christianized term for a witch.
The divine Crone was originally a part of the trinitarian Goddess, who appeared in Maiden, Mother and Crone forms, associated with the three phases of woman’s life, the three phases of the moon and the annual cycles of nature. Viewed as an underworld deity who cared for the dead, the Goddess as Crone ruled autumnal harvest festivals, when the spirits of dead ancestors could visit their descendants and share in the harvest feast. Among the Celts, the well-known “death’s head at the feast” used to be an actual skull of an ancestor, set at the table to receive offerings, often with a candle set within it, to simulate the warmth of life and the light of vision. Such was the origin of the jack-o-lantern.
“We still give children candy at Halloween, but we have forgotten why.”
In southeast Asia, harvest customs still involve food offerings to ancestors at the holiday known as the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. In Mexico, it is called the Day of the Dead, characterized by honoring the ancestors and feeding the children little candy skulls as the memento mori. Feeding children treats on holy days is a long-established human habit, originally designed not only to make such occasions memorable for the children, but also to show visiting tribal spirits that the next generation is here, needing their continued help in maintaining the food supply for the tribe. We still give children candy at Halloween, but we have forgotten why.
Skulls and Masks
The skull was an important symbol of the divine Crone, often envisioned as her true face, veiled like everyone’s skull by the mask of flesh. Typically, she was also hidden behind a black veil. Various traditions claimed that one might see her true visage only in one’s final moments of life, not as in a glass darkly, but then face to face….
Masks, covering the face, were used in sacred drama and other ceremonies to represent the presence of deity. To put on the mask, in ancient times, was often interpreted as a literal assumption of the divine spirit that the mask embodied. The animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt began as priests and priestesses wearing totemic animal masks. The wolf and bear clans of northern Europe wore masks of the appropriate animals for religious rites and considered themselves inwardly possessed by their sacred beasts. Such traditions gave rise not only to common surnames like Wolf and Baer, but also to legends of werewolves (“man-wolves”) and berserkers (warriors who became possessed by battle-frenzy when wearing the “bear sark” or bearskin).
“Mask wearing for religious purposes has been common throughout history.”
Mask wearing for religious purposes has been common throughout history…. When mask-wearing was associated with pagan ancestor worship and religious rituals of the common people, it is hardly surprising to find it still extant in the only pagan religious holiday that the Church never managed to pre-empt and turn to its own use: Halloween.
Many versions of the Crone Goddess coalesced into the churchmen’s image of the “Queen of Witches”… Up to the 19th century, it was an official Article of Faith of the Catholic Church to believe in the existence of an underground “Queen of Witches,” who usually had one of three possible names: Hecate, Persephone or Lilith. All three of these were formerly Crone figures of the original female Holy Trinity.
“Up to the 19th century, it was an official Article of Faith of the Catholic Church to believe in the existence of an underground ‘Queen of Witches’…”
Hecate and Persephone
A Greek version of the ancient trinity was made up of Hebe, the springtime maiden (Roman Flora); Hera, the Queen of Heaven and mother of the gods; and Hecate, the Crone, ruler of the underworld of the dead. Hecate’s male consort was Hades (Roman Pluto). Porphyry and other classical writers sometimes considered Hecate the whole trinity, appearing as Hecate Selene, the new moon in heaven; Hecate Artemis, the full-moon spirit of nature; and Hecate Persephone, the waning moon representing death and the nether regions. She was worshipped at three-way crossroads as Hecate Trevia, “Hecate of the Three Ways.” Her images stood at crossroads to receive offerings from travelers and gifts of gratitude for safe journeys…
Though Hecate was popular in Greco-Roman culture, she actually originated in Egypt as the Crone Goddess Hekat, an amalgam of the seven obstetrical Hathors who daily delivered the newborn sun….
“She was sometimes perceived as the Crone form of the Cat Goddess Bast, whose priestesses were also midwives and to whom black cats were sacred. Hence, the still recognizably familiar ‘familiar’ of the witch.”
Another of the Church’s favorite witch-queens was Proserpina, the Latin form of Etruscan Persipnei and Greek Persephone. Classical mythology confused her with Kore, the springtime Virgin, because the trinity of Kore-Demeter-Persephone was actually cyclic. In the reworked myth, Persephone was the maiden abducted by the underworld god (Hades or Pluto) and unwillingly made Queen of the Underworld and forced to live underground during each winter season, when her mother Demeter grieved for her and refused to let the earth bear fruit or greenery until her daughter’s return in spring….
Gnostics taught that newly dead souls would meet Persephone (or Proserpina) in the underworld as soon as they crossed the River Styx. She would teach them the “words of power” and magic rituals that they would need to insure a comfortable afterlife. Knowledge of these matters was a primary purpose of Gnostic initiation, even among Christian Gnostics, whose ideas were declared heretical during the fifth century. Nevertheless, Gnostic traditions continued to influence ordinary folk in secret for at least a thousand years more.
Lilith: Queen of Witches
The Semitic version of the Queen of Witches was Lilith or Lilit, known in apocryphal writings as the first wife of Adam. It was said that she abandoned Adam because he was too bossy and too crude in his sexual techniques. She defied God and sneered at the angels that God sent to retrieve her. She went away to the Red Sea and found more compatible male consorts, by whom she conceived thousands of children. This detail identifies her as one of the primary Earth Mother figures, who possessed the title of Mother of All Living, later transferred to Eve.
“Lilith [was] one of the primary Earth Mother figures, who possessed the title of Mother of All Living, later transferred to Eve.”
The name of Lilith first appears on a 4,000-year-old tablet from Ur containing the “Sumerian version of the Gilgamesh epic” called “Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree.” She was known in Sumeria and Babylon as Belit-Ili, the Lily Goddess…. Such she-demons were also called Night-Hags or Night-Mares, recalling the black, mare-headed form of Demeter/Persephone as Crone (Demeter Chthonia, “Underground Demeter”).
In northern Europe, the Night-Hags were witches known as Volvas, who could shape-shift themselves into the form of mares between sunset and dawn. Lilith’s constellation of myths gave rise to Christianity’s crudest notions about witches, not only their shape-shifting abilities and their animal familiars but also their occult power over men’s genitals, their alleged sexual insatiability and their magical induction in humans of impotence or sexual enslavement. Such fears lay at the root of the witch-hunting mania that took over Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, and still lurk behind many forms of male violence against women.
“Lilith’s myths gave rise to Christianity’s crudest notions about witches, not only their shape-shifting abilities and their animal familiars but also their occult power over men’s genitals.”
Lilith’s sacred totem was the owl, the Wise Bird of the Crone, which explains why owls still appear in Halloween symbolism…. The idea of the Crone Goddess underlies all such Halloween symbols as the wise owl, the black cat, the ancestral ghost, a glowing skull-lantern, the mask and costume, the gifts of food to children, the sacred fires and the harvest feast. Perhaps the most important symbol was the cauldron: a divine vessel, forever churning forth temporary life forms and then reabsorbing them into its eternal stew….
The Cauldron and the Soul
Shakespeare’s Macbeth shows the three Weird Sisters dancing around their sacred cauldron, singing “Round About the Cauldron Go.” They are none other than the old Saxon Triple-Goddess Wyrd, whose name means “Fate” and who took all creatures into her fatal cauldron to bring them forth again in new forms. That she was the death-bringing and life-giving spirit of the earth is indisputable. Some form of the Cauldron seems to have accompanied most of mythology’s Crone figures.
“The cauldron stood for birth, nurture, destruction and death, cyclic redistribution going on forever on a global scale, including everything from bacteria to the largest organisms.”
It was quite a different concept from the Judeo-Christian one. The cauldron symbolized the idea that just as thought is inseparable from brain, so spirit is inseparable from body; the one is a function of the other. Native American cultures, for example, viewed the whole environment of earth, air, waters, plants and animals as sacred, because it was all part of their totemic ancestor-worship. The spirits of all clan members became part of the environment, just as the spirits of animals and plants that were eaten became part of the eater. So in a spiritual sense as much as in a material one, there was constant interchange between self and environment. Gods, ancestors, saviors, animal spirits and living humans all were part of the same mix. Hidden in this concept lie the familiar superstitions that claim gods or devils can take human form and vice versa, or that humans can be made into saints or demigods simply by the use of human words and magical formulae….
The ancient view was somewhat more eco-logical, more egalitarian and certainly more compatible with modern knowledge of natural processes. In the Crone’s cauldron, “soul” becomes synonymous with “life force,” characteristic of all organisms rather than the exclusive property of humans. Matter was one with its creatress and linguistic derivative, Mater, Mother, the material of everything. Mother love, which the Hindus called karuna, was the basis of all feeling and morality….
If this ancient view had stayed with us, instead of being condemned and obliterated by patriarchal religion, we might have very different attitudes toward death and dying, body and spirit, self and other, even good and evil. Since religion is, in large part, humanity’s effort to deal with the inevitability of death, the philosophical implications of this change were enormous. Perhaps the earlier views were more sensible after all.
“What would churches be today, if they had not so profitably driven the public mule with the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell?”
What would churches be today, if they had not so profitably driven the public mule with the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell? Freed from its collective dream/nightmare of both carrot and stick, the human creature might have gone in different directions and understood Halloween, the Season of the Crone, in entirely different ways. The Crone reminds us that religion-induced fear of death wastes our powers, while an honest acknowledgement that life must end may be the best incentive to true enjoyment of being alive.
For further information and citations, see Man Made God by Barbara G. Walker, author of The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.