The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween:
Celebrating the Dark Half of theYear
by Jean Markale. Translation by Jon Graham.
Inner TraditionsPress, 2001. ISBN 089281900-6
Subject Matter: Celtic Studies (Western Europe),Folklore/Mythology,
Philosophy, Theology/Religious Studies
Reading Level/Type : Academic (requires college-level reading skills)
Especially Recommended For: Those interested in the philosophical
exploration of death celebrations.
Notes and Cautions: Translated from the French version, <<Halloween:histoire et traditions >>.
Review: In The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween, Jean Markale (The Druids, Women of the Celts, etc.) ranges widely between disciplines to tease out the human needs behind this fascinating festival of death.
The result is a work that succeeds brilliantly as literary criticism, but
fails miserably in its historical arguments. Whether the reader finds
this book a trick or a treat depends on what s/he wants from it.
Markale masterfully identifies the psychology behind the oft-repeated
themes of Celtic folklore: the cauldron of resurrection, the sojourns
in the land of the dead, the still-urgent demands that the dead make
upon the living. He offers intriguing parallels between modern films
about the return of the dead and the old tales. As ever, his use of
Breton folktales counters the tendency of English-speaking writers
ignore the Celts of France in their analyses. To do so is to miss an
especially rich mythology of death, in which souls creep to church
every Halloween for prayers, and where a rolling iron ball is
explained as some unseen soul's chain of sin.
Yet even as he forges these insights, Markale is breathtakingly
cavalier when he makes historical connections. He leaps from event to
another, assuring us that the idea *must * have been a
"continuation," of an earlier pagan thought, without offering a single
bit of evidence. Sometimes his leaps are over centuries; at one point
he skips from 5th century to 19th century Ireland! In the space of two
pages (98-99), he offers that the Mary Theokotos recognized by the
church in 432 was *really * the "Ancient Mother Goddess of the Middle East." (Apparently those churchmen were all closet Astarte-worshippers). This goddess, he says, is the same as the monument at Newgrange which "indubitably evokes the shape of a woman's belly," (one wonders about Markale's vision of female bodies) which is clearly connected to medieval Irish tales of the Danu, to Brittany's patron, St. Anne, who (in Markale's tortured history) is yet another identification for the Virgin Mary. Got that? No? Me neither.
Markale's frequent ethnic and racial assumptions are also troubling.
In explaining why the Scots and Irish celebrate Halloween differently,
he breezily asserts that the Scots are "Presbyterians, thus
Calvinists, and much more `rational' than Irish Catholics." (111) Such
generalizations are not evidence, and alert readers that Markale's
historical arguments should be accompanied with generous helpings of salt.
But when working outside a timeline, he weaves a masterful tapestry of
human desires, as pictured in the threads of Celtic folklore.
Markale's unparalleled mastery of Breton folklore is also a treat,
despite Jon Graham's occasionally clunky translation. His discussion
of a Breton priest's encounter with the "most tortured soul in
purgatory" made the hairs on my neck raise. As a history of
Halloween, this book isn't even worth ringing the doorbell, but if
you're looking for insight into humanity's "dark half," this might
just be the chocolate bar you were hoping for.
(c) 2003 R. McClelland-Nugent. Permission granted to archive on SCDC site and SCDC newsgroup arhives. Other reproduction forbidden without author's permission.