Last year, for Halloween I wrote about the scariest Magic cards of all time and that article can be found in the CFB archives if you’d like additional Halloween MTG content.
This year, in celebration of my favorite holiday, I decided to write about the Magic cards that draw inspiration most directly from the tropes, symbols, and history of Halloween itself. I’ll be focusing on the Magic: the Gathering cards that I think have the strongest flavor ties to Halloween, specifically. So, these are not merely a list of cards that are spooky or grotesque, but rather cards that draw direct flavor from the history of Halloween as a holiday.
One of the biggest surprises for me while writing today’s article is how far reaching, complex, and dynamic the history of the holiday is across time. So, today’s article will do two things… It’ll provide a basic history of Halloween and explanation of the symbols we associate with it, and also show how MTG has incorporated these histories and elements in cards that I believe draw heavily from the Halloween tradition.
What we know, love, and celebrate in 2020 as Halloween has a history that dates back thousands of years, and has changed and evolved over generations and exposure to new cultures and ideas! So, as a person who is interested in history, as well as fantasy literature and artwork, it’s really fascinating to me how all of these various pieces and symbols have taken shape and continue to exist in not only mainstream culture, but also in my favorite collectible trading card game!
“OLD SCHOOL HALLOWEEN AND SAMHAIN”
Halloween is more OG than Alpha MTG. The early roots of Halloween go back well over 2000+ years into ancient times and take origin in the Gaelic Pagan festival of Samhain. The festival marked the delineation between the end of summer and start of winter. Samhain was the day that acted as a boundary between these two seasons.
2,000+ years ago, Winter was a considerably scarier threat to survival than it is today. In ancient literature, Winter is a time associated with death because a lot of people didn’t survive. Modern Fantasy, such as Game of Thrones or a MTG card like Dead of Winter, directly reference this ancient symbolism of winter as the most deadly season: sickness, famine, and even freezing to death were significant challenges for ancient people in geographic locations with harsh winters.
The Ancient Celtic people believe that on Samhain day, in between Summer and Winter, the worlds of the living and the dead were blurred and the spirits of the dead could return and walk the earth.
Many of the fundamental tropes of modern Halloween date back thousands of years to these ancient Samhain celebrations. For instance, the ancient Celts dressed up in scary costumes to essentially disguise themselves and blend in with the spirits they believed had returned to earth.
Another signature tradition of Samhain festivals were huge, sacred bonfires built by the village druids as a protection from
malevolent spirits. Upon these giant fires, crops and animals were sacrificed, in hopes of earning protection from unfriendly spirits and the dead of winter.
The plane of Innistrad is obviously a cache of spooky flavor because it so obviously embraces elements of the 19th Century Gothic Horror genre. As an example of Samhain flavor, we can see that miraculous “Bonfires” are an adequate ward against Lingering Souls or even on board lethal from Brian Kibler at a PT!
“WHEN IN ROME.”
The Romans were the next culture to leave their mark on Halloween. As the Romans expanded their Empire into France, Britain, and Ireland they fused their own autumn customs with the native pagan Samhain festivals and celebrations.
The Romans had a similar ‘day of the dead’ holiday, delineated by the changing of summer into winter, as well as an autumn festival for the Goddess Pamona (fruits and trees).
The custom of ‘bobbing for apples,’ on Halloween likely has its origin in Roman customs merging with Samhain. Apples still play a central role in the seasonal foods we associate with modern Halloween: candy apples and hot cider, for example.
SAMHAIN CLASHES WITH “THE CHURCH”
The spread of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, throughout Europe played a huge role in shaping what we now experience as Halloween in the present day. For starters, the name of the holiday:
Obviously, we can’t discuss Halloween in MTG without mentioning the most explicitly Halloween card of all time!
In 837 AD “All Saints and Martyrs Day” was changed by Pope Gregory from late Sprint to November 1st. “All Hallows Eve,” or “All-Hallowmas,” translates to the eve of the day reserved for the hallowed (saints and martyrs).
‘ALL HALLOWS EVE’ VS. SAMHAIN AND WITCHCRAFT
Unlike the conquering Romans centuries early, who fused their own customs into the local festivals of Samhain, the Catholic Church insisted on a complete rebrand of not only the name but also many of the customs traditionally associated with the holiday. The early church was an incredibly powerful empire and entity of its own and was primarily concerned with converting and assimilating cultures into its own as it expanded.
I’d like to stress, all of these empires are particularly brutal. I don’t want to make it seem like the Roman Empire was liberal by any stretch of the imagination (they fed Christian dissenters to lions!) but the Church was singularly focused on conversion and imposing its own customs, beliefs, and values onto native people as it expanded its territory and influence.
Continuing to practice ancient or Pagan customs and traditions, rather than adopt Christian ones was demonized as practicing witchcraft.
The concept of the witch with the poisoned apple is absolutely ripe with symbolism buried in historical conflict. The apple as a symbol of the occult, satanic, or temptation goes back to the old testament story of Genesis where Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, are tempted by Satan in the form of serpent to defy god by eating the Fruit of Wisdom (often depicted as an apple).
It’s certainly not a 1-to-1 correlation, but these recurring symbols do come into play as the pagan Samhain traditions began to take on a close association with the activities of Witches and Warlocks.
In fact, most modern references to Samhain will typically evoke a reference to Witchcraft. Modern Halloween staples like Hocus Pocus or Sabrina: The Teenage Witch make reference to Samhain as a special occasion for witches and warlocks. It’s important to understand the dichotomy of “Pagn = Witch” is framed by the lens of 9th Century Christianity in order to persecute native Celtic people who would not abandon the culture of their ancestors and replace it with the traditions of the church.
The idea of refusal to convert and assimilate being met with accusations of witchcraft or the occult run rampant throughout history, and in the case of Halloween the symbolism of the witch or witchcraft draws directly from the conflict between the church and indiginous people in Western Europe.
In the vein of witchcraft and the occult taking shape as symbols of Halloween we can expand that to include the Black Cat:
Black Cats have a special place in Halloween lore, as they are the customary familiar of witches and warlocks. It was believed that witches were able to transform themselves into black cats. Crossing paths with a Black Cat is to be avoided because you might be disrespecting a witch (in cat form) who will begrudgingly put a curse on you or your kin.
Black Cats were also believed to be familiars to witches, *witch* is to say (had to do it), they are demonic or evil spirit intermediaries between Satan and his covens. Salem, the wise-cracking sidekick of Sabrina: the Teendage Witch is a familiar.
Cats, particularly black cats, have a sacred role in Egyptian mythology as creatures that have connection, and can traverse, between the world of the living and the dead which makes them a perfect symbol to be fused with Samhain (a day that represents a merger of the worlds of living and dead).
ALL SOULS DAY
In England, Halloween was known as All Souls Day and celebrated with costumed parades of needy citizens going door-to-door begging for “soul cakes.” Instead of burning crops or making sacrifices, Protestants would give soul cakes to the poor and in return the beneficiaries promised to pray on their benefactor’s behalf in the coming winter, and for the souls of their dead ancestors.
The cakes, costumes, and parade combine to form a proto-version of what would become Trick-or-Treating. It’s interesting to me how so many of our whimsical modern traditions have eerie and uncomfortable backstories. I’m not trying to shame anyone against Halloween. I personally love celebrating Halloween with my friends and family, but I luckily live in an age where people are not being burned at the stake over it! One of the most important parts of learning about history, and where we come from, is understanding how and why injustices have been done in the past, so that we can recognize when they are being made in the present.
I see Halloween as a cultural event that has somehow been able to survive, adapt, evolve and continue to exist into the present times despite all of this opposition and influence. It’s amazing to me that something with its roots in traditions going back thousands of years is still carried forward and enjoyed by so many people around the world.
HALLOWEEN COMES TO NORTH AMERICA
The origin of Halloween is derived from Europe, but the holiday has become big business and a fixture of the autumn season in North America. 25% of all candy bought in the USA is bought in anticipation of the Halloween season!
It actually took a long time for Halloween to catch on in the States. The pilgrims – who were basically the fun-police and believed organized religion wasn’t strict enough in Europe – didn’t have much interest in costumes, parades, or superstitions.
Halloween didn’t really come to the United States as we know it until 1845. Can you guess why?
1845-45 marks The Great Potato Famine in Ireland when a huge surge of Irish immigrants left their native soil and came to the new world. With them, the Irish brought their Celtic and Gaelic Halloween traditions!
The Jack-o-Lantern, as we know and love it, has its ‘roots’ in the Irish folktale of “Stingy Jack,” that came to America in the mid-1800s. Stingy Jack, is an unscrupulous protagonist who gets the better of the devil by tricking him into making a deal where the devil picks up his bar tab but cannot collect on his soul. Stingy Jack is a gamer for sure! Unfortunately, God is not pleased with Stingy Jack’s behavior and won’t let him into heaven either. 9th on tie-breakers, wah-wah.
Stingy Jack is given the ironic punishment of having to wander the Earth in darkness with nothing to light his way but a coal. Morale of the story: always pay your tab!
The Jack-o-Lantern tradition originated back in Ireland. Families would carve faces onto potatoes or gourds and light them to keep the spirit of Stingy Jack away. The pumpkin was adopted in the States because it’s sweeter looking than a potat-o-lantern.
Pumpkins are in season right around Halloween which means it’s literally “Harvest time!”
The Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin is the de facto, universally recognized symbol of Halloween but interestingly it is a relatively new addition compared to some of the other ones I’ve discussed thus far in the article that go back to ancient druidic origins! Another rebrand.
The last part of the Pumpkin mythos I’d like to touch on before wrapping up today’s article comes from Washington Irving’s 1819 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Sleepy Hollow is considered a quintessential early American ghost tale and is also famously an early example of authentic American setting and aesthetic in literature. Keep in mind, this is more than 30 years before American writers like Hawthorne and Melville would legitimize and elevate the American literary style in the mid-1800s.
The story features the iconic Headless Horseman, who is also famously depicted in Magic card form:
In the classic Disney cartoon rendition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman is famously and iconic depicted with a flaming Jack-o-lantern for a head. However, as I’ve discussed in the article already, Jack-o-lanterns wouldn’t become a thing for nearly 30 years after Sleepy Hollow was written.
In the tale, it’s left up to the reader’s imagination to decide whether Ichabod Crane encounters the ghost, or if was all a ruse concocted by a romantic rival to scare or murder him away. What is known from the text, is all they found of crane the next day was his saddle, hat, and a smashed pumpkin (which would not have been a jack-o-lantern!).
The tale establishes the pumpkin’s place as the spookiest vegetable in American Horror Literature even before it is cemented into our imagination with the innovation of the Jack-o-lantern.
Today, almost two centuries after Halloween was established as an American phenomenon, Halloween has continued to evolve beyond into a celebration that encompasses all things spooky, scary, or horror related.
Any classic scary tale or movie is fair game:
New horror from graphic novels or television is included:
People decorate their homes in the styles commonly associated with high Gothic:
In Modern times, Halloween has become a celebration of all things scary. Once we hit mid-September, the ‘spooky season’ merchandise comes out in droves and brick and mortar Halloween open up for business. Even more terrifying than ‘spooky season?’ Pumpkin Spice season!
All of the basic symbols and customs we continue to celebrate are entwined with 2000+ years of history and input from different cultures that have added to the complex and hearty autumn stew we know and love as Halloween. I’ve tried to hit key notes and symbols, but in truth, after all these paragraphs I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the intricate history surrounding Halloween.
The core component of Halloween is still the same as it ever was 2000+ years ago. It’s the last chance to cut loose and celebrate with friends and family before the dead of winter sets in. It’s a moment to remember our own personal Halloween’s from previous years and remember those we shared those fun memories with who are no longer with us. It’s a day that reminds us life doesn’t last forever, not to take our time here for granted, and to celebrate the very act of being alive in an existence that is capped by eventual mortality.
If it isn’t obvious… I’m a big fan of Halloween! It’s my favorite holiday because it’s one that is truly shared by the community. It’s a holiday for friends and family, but it’s also one we share with our neighbors via celebrations and trick or treating. While the roots of Halloween are rooted heavily in Western European culture, every culture has a celebration or festival that acknowledges those we loved who have passed as well as our own mortality. Few things make us feel more alive than the recognition that our time here isn’t infinite and to make the most of the time we have.
Today’s article was a little bit different than the article about scary flavor I did last year. I tried to pick cards that I felt had a specific connection to the history and symbolism of Halloween throughout history. As always, I’d love to hear which cards the readers think SCREAM Halloween! Feel free to drop your favorites in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter (@briandemars1) with your favorite cards that make you think of Halloween.