Halloween: A History

Happy Halloween!


Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and a big part of that was knowing the history of Halloween.  Thanks to an incredible movie called The Halloween Tree (it’s also a book!) I learned a lot about the history of Halloween and associated traditions.  In honor of my favorite holiday, let’s dive into the history of Halloween.

Halloween: A History

Before Halloween was a holiday for children to dress up like monsters and gather candy, or a holiday for adults to wear skimpy and/or ironic costumes to party, Halloween was All Hallow’s Eve.  All Hallow’s Eve, also known as All Saints’ Eve, comes the night before All Saints’ Day, a day to remember your dead.


But even before it was a Catholic holiday, Halloween was Samhain, a Celtic holiday celebrating the harvest and remembering the dead.  Because of the transitional nature of the season, going from summer into winter, celebrants believed that faeries, and the souls of the dead, could cross into the human world with ease.  These faeries weren’t the Disney kind though.  These faeries were malicious and mischievous, and in order to protect yourself and your family, you had to make offerings to them to keep them from, say, burning down your cottage.


People would light bonfires to keep away the evil spirits, and wear masks to disguise themselves within their ranks.  Although let’s be real, the “ranks” were probably just other celebrants.  (But isn’t it fun to imagine it was a bunch of faeries and demons and ghosts wandering around Ireland?)  Trick or treating began as a threat, that if you didn’t offer these faeries and other evil spirits a treat, they would play a trick.

Happy Halloween

When Christianity swept into the region Christian priests and missionaries appropriated Halloween, among other holidays, to facilitate easier conversion of the locals.  Ironically enough, later Christians rejected the holiday as pagan, from Puritans in the sixteenth century to modern fundamentalists who use “Hell Houses” to try to prevent sinning.


Because of the puritans and other sects who rejected Halloween, it faded to the background until waves of immigration from Ireland and Scotland brought the holiday back.  By the early twentieth century Halloween had once again become a mainstream holiday.  Complete with creepy children’s costumes ca. 1950s.


Of course, the United States isn’t the only place that celebrates October 31.  Many places celebrate the Catholic holiday, and many others celebrate local traditions.  The most famous is, of course, Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead.  Because I have never celebrated Día de Muertos and I don’t want to accidentally insult celebrants, let me direct you to some great resources to learn more.

This Halloween, I’ll be watching spooky movies, listening to Dracula on audiobook, playing in the leaves with my dog, and probably not handing out candy as there are like 2 children in my neighborhood.  For more Halloween check out my All Hallows Reads recommendations, and the Legend of the Jack O’Lanterns.


Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Everyone’s heard of the Egyptian mummies.  And most of us have heard of the Peruvian ice mummies, unearthed 500 years after their deaths in the mountains of Peru.  But what about the bog bodies?

Throughout Europe, these bog bodies have been turning up, in incredible condition, for centuries.  The first recorded bog body was found in 1640 in Germany.  Early ones were reburied in consecrated cemeteries, because locals believed they were recently deceased.  It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that anyone realized they were ancient.

 Bog Bodies | Topics In History

Ancient peoples believed that bogs were entrances to another world.  A world where gods and spirits mingled, entangled, and ran free.  A place to deposit their most feared, most beloved, and possibly their most powerful dead.


The bodies that have been pulled out of these peat bogs are usually around 2,000 years old, dating to the iron age.  Over the past few centuries, peat cutters and others have found over 1,000 of these bodies.  The most famous is probably Tollund Man.

Tollund ManBog Bodies was unearthed in 1950 in Denmark, naked and curled up like a child.  He wore nothing but a leather belt and a sheepskin cap, but a rope hung from his neck. The researchers who worked on him did not have the capability to preserve an entire body; however, they did preserve his head and neck.  Before the body decayed, researchers were able to determine what he had last eaten (stew), and approximately how long after that he died (12-24 hours).  Several of his internal organs were in perfect condition.  Due to his incredible preservation in the peat, they could tell that he was about 40 years old, 5’3” (1.61m) tall, with short hair and stubble on his face, and that he had died from hanging.  But what happened to his clothes?  Why was he wearing a belt and cap but nothing else? 

It’s likely that he was clothed when he was placed in the bog two thousand years ago, but that those clothes were made from plant based fibers such as flax or linen.  Since peat is, itself, plant based matter in various stages of decay, the clothes would’ve simply rotted away, leaving no trace.  Other theories are that he was not afforded clothes if he was executed, or that his death was a ritual sacrifice, and clothing was not a part of that ritual.

Bog Bodies

Yde Girl By Ruud Zwart (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bog bodies are often deemed ritual sacrifices, killed by their own people, though a few, namely Kayhausen Boy, seem to be murder victims.  Yde Girl,found in the Netherlands, is frequently considered a victim of ritual sacrifice.  She was about 16 when she was killed, and stood at just 4’6” (137 cm) tall.  Cashel Man, at 4,000 years old, has provided the oldest example of a bog body with skin still intact.  Archaeologists have also concluded that he was a victim of ritual sacrifice.   In the 1980s, similar corpses were found in a calcareous bog in Florida, becoming the first American bog bodies.


We’ve established that bog bodies occur, and that many are preserved so well you can see wrinkles and fine hair, but how does that happen at all?  Well, let’s get to it.

 Peat, the substance in most of these bogs, has been used for centuries to thatch roofs, treat soil, and create bedding for animals in Europe, so peat cutters are usually the discoverers of these bodies.  The chemical construction of the peat, which is created during the slowed decomposition of vegetation and moss, creates a boggy, acidic wetland.

In one type of bog, the acidiferous bog, acid leaches into the skin and preserves it like leather.  But when this acid reaches the bones, it corrodes them.  Bog bodies thus end up twisted in strange manners, or sometimes appearing deflated, because of their decayed bones.  Essentially, the skin in an acidiferous bog is treated like a cucumber in pickling brine.  The acidic tannins in these bogs turned the skin into human leather.  It also dyes the bodies’ hair to a bronze-red color.

Bog Bodies

Osterby Man by Wikipedia Uploader Bullenwächter

In calcareous bogs the acid is more closely aligned to the chemical makeup of the bones, and eats through the skin.  This leaves bog bodies as perfectly preserved skeletons with little to no soft tissue left.  Osterby Man (pictured above) has only a small patch of skin, along with hair exhibiting a Suebian knot style.

The peat also blocks oxygen from reaching the bodies, which aids in the preservation process by preventing bacterial growth.


There have been hundreds of bog bodies found throughout Northwestern Europe, and they have provided valuable clues to what life was like in Iron Age and Bronze Age Europe.  We will likely continue to find them for hundreds of years, preserved so well you can still see the patterns on their toes.


 Further Reading

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History Student Source Guide

History Student Source Guide copy I studied history.  In a couple of years, I’ll be teaching history to high school students.  In the time I spent preparing for research papers, I’ve found a few great free databases for primary and secondary sources.    


Internet Sacred Text Archive | http://www.sacred-texts.com/ Lots of history classes include religion and religious texts.  This archive has an awful lot of texts that are sacred to various religions and cultures.  Because most of them were composed millennia ago, they’re public domain and free to share.  The Archive also has sagas, myths, and legends, including Arthurian legends, and Icelandic sagas.  There are also sections on various topics.  It’s very handy to have around.

SagaNet | http://handrit.is/ SagaNet used to be hosted at Cornell, but now it’s hosted through an Icelandic site.  However, it’s still the same material.  It’s a collection of Icelandic sagas for free access.  If you’re studying the vikings, this is very handy to have around.

Perseus Digital Library | http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/ This is a vast collection of classical literature and mythology.  My professor for my online Greek & Roman Mythology course recommended it as a source of very accurate translations of classical material.  It’s also hosted through Tufts, which bolsters its credibility. 

Internet History Sourcebook | http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ Run by Fordham University, this is one of the first sites I would turn to when looking for source material but not knowing any titles.  It is separated by time period and area, and is easy to search.  There are also subject headings.

Project Gutenberg | http://www.gutenberg.org/ At Project Gutenberg you’ll find transcribed public domain books.  Word to the wise: you need to know exactly what you’re looking for.

Amazon | http://www.amazon.com/ Surprisingly, Amazon is a good source for public domain books.  That can include translations of ancient, medieval, or early modern literature, historical texts, and religious texts.  Also, many religious groups offer free e-book versions of their religious texts as a method of evangelizing.  This is really handy when you need to cite a portion of that religious text to back up an interpretation of cultural norms.  It’s also really handy if you take any religious studies classes.  Personally, I have a mega ton of ancient epics on my e-reader.  I really recommend getting the Kindle app if you don’t have an e-reader, it’s available for essentially every format there is.  


Library of Congress | http://www.loc.gov/pictures/ The LOC has an enormous collection of historical images, and because it’s a government facility you can download the photos for free!  This is super handy if your topic is relatively modern and you want to use images, especially in a presentation.

Bodleian Library | http://bit.ly/1jABCwv Oxford University has shared a lot of incredible medieval imagery from their collections.  Because they’re so old, they’re all public domain.  Paintings and images are useful for presentations, but also for papers and you can tell a lot about a culture by their art.

Index of Medieval Medical Images | http://digital.library.ucla.edu/immi/ From UCLA, this index gathers images of medieval medicine, as implied by its title.  Super useful for any project related to the medieval world or history of medicine.  


Academia.edu | https://www.academia.edu/ Here you can search for papers that have been made accessible by the authors.  This is great, because so much academic research is behind a paywall, which blocks anyone who doesn’t have the database access from the research.  But with a search on Academia.edu you can find plenty of possibilities!

Google Scholar | scholar.google.com When searching for academic articles without a university database, Google Scholar is your best friend.  While your results will sometimes be met with paywalls, you can also find some freely available sources here.

Directory of Open Access Journals | http://doaj.org/ Many scholars want their research to be available to all.  If only five people read your article, you’re not going to get much discussion out of it.  So some journals have made their contents freely available through the Directory of Open Access Journals.  You will have to search, but nothing is behind a paywall.  


History Pin | http://www.historypin.com/ I was first introduced to History Pin by my public history professor.  History Pin is a collaborative project to place “pins” in an electronic map of the world and identify historical happenings.  You can put in your area, or any area really, and find photos pinned to the map.  I just found a picture of the first post office in my town.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | http://www.iep.utm.edu/ A lot of history includes philosophy and theory.  Maybe you need to find some data about Karl Marx or Emile Durkheim.  Maybe you need to understand a topic quickly.  This is your spot for that.  It’s provided by the University of Tennessee, so it’s credible.

History Lessons on YouTube | http://dft.ba/-historylessons I make short history lessons on my YouTube channel.  They’re researched, and I use sources to back up my information.  For quick lessons in a topic or time period, check them out.


There are obviously many more databases, but these are databases that are free.  I’m sure there are many more free databases I never found, as well.  Anyone can access these as long as you have an internet connection.  If you’re attached to a school you’ll undoubtedly have access to other databases.  Those are great, use them.  These are also great, use them too.

Download this guide as a PDF here.

This Week in History: July 1-6

I’m trying to bring this series back this month.  For each week of the month of July I’m going to make a post about historical happenings that week.  Each day has five items, with links to more information.  

Battle of Malvern Hill by Currier and Isles

July 1:

1837 – England and Wales implemented a system to record all births, deaths, and marriages.

1862 – Battle of Malvern Hill (American Civil War).

1890 – Telegraph cable made near-instant communication between Canada and Bermuda possible.

1942 – First battle of El Alamein (World War II).

1960 – Somalia became a free, independent nation.

President James Garfield

July 2:

437 – Valentian III became full emperor of the Western Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).

1679 – Daniel Greysolon de Du Luth led the first European expedition into what is now Minnesota.

1881 – Charles J. Guiteau shot President James Garfield, who died of his wounds 17 days later.

1890 – Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

1976 – North Vietnamese officials declared the creation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, uniting north and south Vietnam, and obliterating the Republic of Vietnam.

William the Bastard

July 3:

1035 – William the Bastard became the Duke of Normandy.

1767- Adresseavisen wasfounded.  It is the oldest newspaper in Norway that is still published in 2014.

1775 – George Washington took control of the Continental Army.

1848 – Peter von Scholten officially freed all slaves in the Danish West Indies.  This represented a successful year-long plot by enslaved people to abolish slavery in the Danish West Indies.

1913 – Confederate veterans reenacted Pickett’s charge, and were met by Union veterans offering friendship.

Lewis Carroll (self portrait ca. 1856)

July 4:

1776 – The Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

1826 – Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams both died on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

1827 – New York State abolished slavery within its borders.

1862 – Lewis Carroll began telling Alice Liddell the story that later became Alice in Wonderland.

1879 – British troops captured, and then burned the Zululand capital Ulundi, which ended the Anglo-Zulu war, and forced the Zulu king Cetshwayo to flee.

Twenty-Sixth Amendment at NARA

July 5:

1884 – Germany made Cameroon a colony.

1950 – The Knesset of Israel passed the Law of Return which allowed all Jews in the world to emigrate to Israel.

1954 – The BBC broadcast their first ever news bulletin on television.

1962 – Algeria gained independence from France and became its own nation.

1971 – The United States voting age became 18 rather than 21 with the passage of the twenty-sixth amendment.


Tune in again on July 6 for another installment of July’s history.

American April

I’ve been in a bit of a rut, blogging-wise.  I just can’t seem to find the inspiration and write.  Most of my writing mojo is going into cover letters and job applications.  But I’ve recently started  making youtube videos, and I’m starting a series there called American April.


All month long I’ll be making one or two videos a week about a topic, event, or person in American history.  It will focus mostly on early American history because that’s what interests me most and it’s my channel.  So if you’re interested in learning about American history and watching me look silly, subscribe to my channel and watch the videos.  I’ll also be posting related information here on the blog as well, so look out for it here.

The first video goes live tomorrow, but the introduction video is up today.  I’ll embed it below.



Plus bonus ASL lesson at the end of the video!

Saint Patrick’s Day

Sláinte!  Being partly Irish, St. Paddy’s has always been a big deal for me, so for this year I did some historical research about St. Patrick himself.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest.  This was not unusual given that the celibacy aspect of priesthood is a fairly recent addition to the priestly oaths.  There are multiple accounts of where he was from, so no one knows exactly where.  Some accounts suggest Cumbria, while others say either Wales or Scotland.  He was captured at 16 by Irish pirates, and pressed into slavery.  Before he was captured he was not, himself, religious or spiritual, despite coming from a line of religious men.  However, according to Saint Patrick’s own writings in The Confession he became a religious believer during the six years he spent herding sheep during captivity.  After those six years, he heard a voice telling him to flee, and he did.  When he reached the coastline he found a sailor who was willing to return him to Britain.  

Saint Patrick

Years later, he had a vision of a saint handing him a letter addressing Patrick as ‘The Voice of the Irish’ and pleading with him to return to Ireland to preach to the Irish.  

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

While in Ireland, Patrick converted thousands, according to his own writings.  Everyone knows the story of St. Patrick using the clover to explain the holy trinity, and that he drove the snakes from Ireland.  But I’ve read some historians’ interpretations that this was a metaphor for driving the pagans from Ireland or converting them.  This would pick up on the serpent imagery used in the Old Testament when referring to the devil.  

Children’s stories of the holiday make it seem that this was a simple task, but he raised a lot of controversy among the Irish people by converting the sons of kings, converting women who then became nuns against family opposition, and by not accepting gifts.  Gift-giving was, before the modern period, a way of tying people together, and keeping their loyalties.  Patrick also had trouble in Ireland because he was not himself Irish.  

Saint Patrick wrote a lot about his time in Ireland, and about all of the controversies and struggles involved.  However, since he was writing about himself, he was biased.  Other writings cast him in a stricter, harsher light, and claimed that he accepted gifts only from female converts, although Patrick claimed that he accepted no gifts, and that he paid special attention to his female converts.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  

One twelfth century story claims that Saint Patrick met two ancient warriors of the Fianna.  According to legend Patrick tried to convert them to Christianity and in doing so the story compares the two lifestyles: pagan warrior, and peaceful Christian.  

Saint Patrick's Grave

St. Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick

When Saint Patrick died, on March 17, there was a battle for his body.  When the two groups who wanted the body for themselves arrived to fight, the river flooded, and when it subsided, they worked out their differences and each went away believing that they had won.  According to legend, the flood and subsequent peaceful resolution was the direct work of God.  

Along with Saint Brigid, Saint Patrick is considered one of the patron saints of Ireland and the Irish people both in Ireland and abroad.  

For further reading about St. Patrick, click here.

Topics in History: Memento Mori

This is one of a new series I want to do: Topics in History.  As a former history major, and aspiring museum curator, I want to flex my historical muscles a little bit more on this blog and throw some education into the internet.
Memento Mori

Original Image: Danse Macabre (1493) by Michael Wolgemut.

One of the most fascinating subjects that I’ve ever found in history is memento mori.  You’ve probably heard of them.  There’s been a flurry of interest in the last few years in Victorian death photography, which is of course only one type of memento mori.

“Memento Mori” means approximately “Remember that you will die” in Latin and the phrase dates back to ancient Rome.  Since then, it’s come to refer to art and material culture that focuses on death.  In medieval Europe, especially after the black death, a lot of art portrayed death (often as a skeleton) dancing.  Death was not necessarily seen as a tragedy to most Europeans, but rather an event that led to eternal spiritual life.  Artists commemorated death with images of skeletons and angels dancing, dining, and drinking.  Paintings were probably the most common form of memento mori, but there were also plenty of sculptures, usually carved from marble, that depicted images of death.

Danse Macabre in Tallinn by Bernt Notke

Other kinds of material culture have also been given the memento mori treatment.  An outstanding number of clocks featuring skeletons and latin inscriptions still exist as memento mori.  Jewelry, especially rings and lockets, was also a popular medium of the same.

Ring c. 1700

Victorian death photography is probably the most famous of the various forms of memento mori.  Now, photographs are common.  We snap selfies and take pictures of strange fashions we see on the bus.  We take portraits every year of school, for graduations, for sororities and other organizations.  We don’t question that we will have a million photographs of ourselves.  But that wasn’t always the case.  Before the mid-twentieth century photographs were rare, expensive, and difficult.  Few people had them taken on a regular basis.  Often, the only time a family could afford to have a photograph taken was at death.  As such, death photography became an incredibly common form of remembrance.  I remember discovering this phenomenon in the Nicole Kidman movie The Others as a child.  There is an entire archive devoted to these photos, and at least one flickr collection.

Art is a lens into the individual psyches of the artists, as well as into the collective psyche of their culture and time period.  Memento Mori give us a look into what might often be considered the darker side of the human mind.  But I don’t think it’s dark.  In pre-modern times death surrounded everyone.  Infants died from SIDS and no one knew what it was.  Young children fell playing, and died of complications.  Adults got a leg boil and died.  Infections killed every day.  Now, we fear death as something that is out of the norm.  Earlier peoples undoubtedly also feared death, but they confronted it much more frequently than we do.  I don’t think that Memento Mori represent a morbid dark side of the human psyche at all.  I think they represent the same type of thought process as Carpe Diem or YOLO.  A reminder that life is unpredictable and you don’t get any do-overs.