Jon de Vos – Is that brimstone I smell?
October 29, 2009
The word “grue” is a fine Scottish verb that’s fallen out of contemporary use. It describes the involuntary shudder down the spine that occurs when we realize that stranger coming out of the fog is Jack the Ripper. Today we still have the delightful compound, “gruesome” in everyday usage, as in, “Your sister/Saw VI (circle one) is really gruesome.”
Despite similarities between the words, Hollywood and Halloween, they’re not linguistically related and despite the overkill of horror movies that time of the year, Hollywood didn’t invent Halloween either. Most of what we know about this devilish holiday comes from Welsh and Irish legends about the life and times of their Celtic ancestors who lived merrily in Jolly Old England for a thousand years before they were subjugated by Rome around the start of our modern calendar. Gaelic poets and storytellers passed on oral legends about leprechauns and Bravehearts and folk heros like Jack of the Lantern, who outwitted the devil.
They believed that on All Hallows Eve, Saman, lord of the underworld, gathered all the souls of the dead for one last try at life by stealing another soul’s live body. Any unwilling victim would be “possessed” by the spirit of the dead for one full year. At the end of that year the hitchhiker would pass peacefully on to the afterlife.
Priests in this time were called Druids, the community organizers of the day, and not the sort to take this supernatural invasion lying down. They put out their hearth fires and let their houses go cold, dark, and hopefully uninviting, to these roving souls. The townsfolk would dress like demons, hobgoblins, and witches to run shrieking through the village, playing pranks and setting fires in their wake to frighten away the ghosts.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. Any townsman or woman determined, or even simply imagined, by his neighbor to be “possessed” would be burned alive on the spot as a lesson to any thieving spirit that might be lurking around. They coined the term “Bone Fire” to describe the event. Today we have bonfires.
The Romans outlawed human sacrifice and added elements of their own fall festivals, like playing games with the fruits of their harvest. Some of these survive today as we carve jack-o-lanterns and bob for apples.
Halloween came to America in the 1840s as the Irish were driven out of Ireland by the potato famine. There’s always been a hard edge to the holiday and the setting of fires has always been an unfortunate part of the tradition even before it crossed the Atlantic.
America put its own unique and disastrous spin on the pranks and fire setting that began over 2,000 years ago. In Detroit in 1985, police and fire rescue were overwhelmed with 810 major fires deliberately set over a long Halloween weekend; the intent clearly was to burn the city down and for a while, it looked like they might succeed. Next year thousands of citizens took to the streets in a mostly effective attempt to beat back the arsonists and these vigilantes have returned every year since, a major deterrent to these fiery crimes.
There are signs, however, that this year might be different. Earlier this month, 11 houses on adjacent streets on Detroit’s east side went up in blazes set within a 48 hour period. With Detroit’s unemployment just under 30 percent and 119,000 foreclosures in the metro area since the first of the year, the omens are bad and police are worried, but estimates are that there will be more than 50,000 civic volunteers on the streets tomorrow night, armed with flashlights, fire extinguishers and cell phones.
Hope you don’t get your soul snatched this weekend.
– Willard, Jon de Vos’ pet rat who writes this column, may be trick or treating in a neighborhood near you. Drive safely! firstname.lastname@example.org