Today is Halloween. My favorite holiday for many reasons. Today I’m talking about interpretation of myth into your own particular mythology and Halloween is that.
It used to be called Samhain (pronounced Sa-ween) in the ancient Celtic world. It was their Autumnal Equinox which also symbolized a day when the gods of darkness were victorious over the gods of light – the world starts getting darker after the equinox. Eventually the darkness culminated with the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year; the gods of light are victorious and light once again is restored (if you ever want to know why Christmas was displaced from July to December, just look at the symbology here). Samhain was also said to be a very magical day as the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin. Dark magic was supposed to be very powerful at such a time and spells particularly potent.
In a pre-Christian world this was a good thing, not so much in a post-Christian one where practicing magic was akin to summoning the devil. Samhain was transformed into a day of fear where people shut themselves away from the ghosts of the dead wandering the earth (who were thought, because they couldn’t make it into heaven, to be devils). They put out food and sweet treats to appease the wandering devils in the hopes that they would pass that house by, and some dressed as devils, either to blend in, or to scare the devils away from the good people in their houses.
The jack’o lantern is derived from an old Irish tale about a man so mean that heaven would not admit him and hell didn’t want him. So he was forced to carve up a pumpkin and light a candle within in order to see (he carved it with the likeness of his face, I guess that also helped him to see, some say that the pumpkin stood in for his head) while he wandered eternally through the darkness of the world. Apparently, Halloween is the day you can see his spirit guiding his pumpkin lantern, so you had better carve one too in order to light his path and get him on his way away from you.
Samhain, unlike many of the pagan holidays, persisted because people liked it so much and found it useful. Small victory, for so little of that ancient world remains and everything we know about it today are educated guesses made by anthropologists (it had been conquered and diminished by a more powerful culture: Constantine’s Rome). But like all living things, in order to remain in the world it had to change, so Samhain slowly morphed into Halloween, a day of candy and costumes for children. It became an interpretation of Samhain, the old racial memories of the world interpreting the celestial struggle between light and dark as a day of the dead, a day of dark magic. Stories fed into those memories: the novel Dracula and Frankenstein, movies about the werewolf, the Mummy. Those too morphed into stories about possessed serial killers and masterless zombies that rise up and eat the living, a subversion of how things should go.
Halloween is not Samhain, it is our own interpretation of it. The real Samhain is something we may never know again. How can we? That world is lost. All we know is an outline of what it might have been. So, we took it and we made it into something useful for us. It is still a day of subversion; a day where chaos triumphs over order, dark of light, where terror and the perverse rule. We use it as a day where we enact a perverse play in order to exorcise our worst instincts and get back to a life of order. (The Greeks believed that the proper balance was three months devoted to chaos, Bacchus, and six to order, Apollo – a strange way to live.)
In the poem “The Tyger” (a poem I saved for this day, for a reason you’ll understand later) Blake is not talking about a real tiger. I’m not even certain, since I know nothing about his life, if he even had seen a real tiger in person. For him a tiger could have just been an illustration in a book, or a tale told by a friend, just as there is another figure that no one has met in person, we’ve only been told about him and seen illustrations of him.
How do I know that this isn’t tiger the animal? His bright, orange flank does burn brightly in the sun. The sight of his symmetry (his stripes) does inspire real fear, for tigers hunt humans. But as we go to the second stanza of the poem, we start to see something more than a large cat: “On what wings dare he aspire?” Wait, tigers don’t have wings and they don’t have hands to seize fires. Later in the poem, the tiger is using a hammer and an anvil, or being created by them. His brain comes from a furnace, but surely a tiger is not made of molten metal or fire. Why did “heaven [throw] down their spears” at a tiger? Perhaps we are talking about Blake’s version of a tiger, or perhaps we are talking about Blake’s interpretation of someone else.
Perhaps there is someone else who inspires terror; who hunts men and twists their hearts; someone who reached for the celestial fire and was thrown down by heaven’s spears. (Hint, hint.)
Remember this is Blake’s interpretation of his subject. He was of a generation of writers known as the Romantics. They were far from the idea of Romance today. We’re not talking about torrid bodice ripping, but about idealism. Individuality was the charging cry of the Romantic. “Seize the celestial fire!” Shelley once cried out and Mary Shelley wrote about Prometheus Unbound (a human who did reach for the celestial fire and successfully brought it to earth). They believed we were our own gods, we should throw off the chains of oppressive society (the Kings, the Churches and the Rule Makers) and create our own worlds, our own myths.
Some might say that Prometheus Unbound, more commonly known as the book Frankenstein, wasn’t a tragedy for the Creature, for he walks away free of society having crushed his maker, even victorious over death. Is he a devil? Or is he his own god? The men on the doomed boat that discovered him rush away from him and from their impending deaths, the one that they eventually cannot escape, fearful of him.
So, was the bright one cast down from heaven for trying to be God defeated, or was he victorious? He became a king of his own. And he certainly never lost any of his own power. Blake does not state that he was created by god, but instead asks whether or not we are certain that he was. “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
And though we might rush away from him frightened of who he is, he does not see himself as frightening or evil. He is free of his maker with the power of a god, able to do as he pleases. Be afraid, be very afraid!
by William Blake
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame they fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame they fearful symmetry?