Monday, October 31, 2011

Mythic Monday: All Hallow's Eve

The dead are on the  move!  That's the excellent story behind the Halloween holiday, and certainly something that can be pulled whole cloth into your D&D game.  The distance between the mortal world and the realm of the dead narrows precipitously on this day, allowing the souls of the departed to roam the night for a brief time and offer up warnings, omens, and glimpses of the future (plot hooks).

First, a brief survey of Halloween.  The Halloween holiday here in the US is a "complex", an amalgamation of various traditions, some ancient, some not so much.  The jack-o-lantern tradition comes from turnip carving in Ireland, brought to America in the middle of the 19th century (the story of Stingy Jack and the Devil, an Irish story, is a tale for another Monday).  I can't imagine turnip-carving would be as enjoyable as pumpkin carving.  Mummery (costumes) is an English tradition, along with the practice of children begging door-to-door on certain days of the year.

But the reason Halloween is associated with all the spooky imagery is the most interesting.  The Celtic season of Samhain was a time when the world of the dead were closer to the mortal world, and bonfires were lit in the night to ward off spirits.  I grew up associating Samhain with metal albums and Michael Meyers, but alas, there's nothing Satanic about Halloween's Celtic origins.  In the early church, the holiday was All Souls Day (also called All Hallows Day) and it's easy to see how the night before became All Hallows Eve / Evening, contracted to Halloween.  It's still celebrated as the Feast of All Saints on Nov 1 and All Souls Day on Nov 2 in Catholic areas.  I had a rigorous Catholic upbringing myself, and was indoctrinated in all that ritual and mysticism as a youth.

The reasoning behind the Catholic tradition for All Souls Day is a day to honor the deceased and departed; one of the Medieval ideas behind the feast is that souls in purgatory have a shot at slipping out and moving on to a better or worse place on this day (and a bunch of prayers from the still living folks can nudge them the right way).  The dead are on the move!  You've got to like how Mexico celebrates it as the Day of the Dead, with parties in the graveyards.

I'm sure if we did a survey of ancient traditions, we'd find lots of these days for honoring the dead when old souls can come back and mess with folks that are still alive.  The other one I'm familiar with is the May holiday of Lemuria, the Roman time for exorcising malicious ghosts and the restless dead.  The Catholic feasts themselves were originally in May, strongly associated with the feast of Lemuria, and were moved to November in the early Middle Ages.

The point of all this Halloween blather is to get you thinking about putting this kind of holiday in your game world.  Holidays are markers in the calendar year and identify the changing seasons.  They're important signposts.  If you have kids, you know how important upcoming holidays are to their worldview - when one holiday gets done, they start asking about the next one.  For gaming, I suggest looking at the underlying origins for real world holidays and creating a similar celebration for the folks of your game world.

Implications for Gaming
Have you given any thought to what happens to souls in your game world, after the people die?  I never liked the AD&D approach of the outer planes - each person's soul heads out to the proper outer plane after death, speeding through the Astral Plane to the Happy Hunting Grounds or Nirvana or Limbo or wherever all the like-aligned souls can chill out together in that nutty nine-fold alignment system.

The official 4E cosmology was a big improvement here; we may laugh at the name "Shadowfell", but having an entire plane of existence filled with the gloomy dead milling about in ruined mirrors of the real world is pretty dang cool, and much closer to the classic view of the Underworld you see in Greek myth, with all those depressed souls in drab funeral-wear trudging around the plains of Asphodel and groaning.  My approach to making this work without much effort in AD&D is to recast the Ethereal Plane as that  gloomy land of the dead, populated by lost souls and the occasional undead terror, sent back from Hell or the Abyss.

Most dead spend an indeterminate time malingering in the underworld before moving on to a final reward.  Some souls that are strongly aligned with the values of an outer plane do pass right into the Astral plane en route to a divine destination, be it the planes of ultimate good or evil.  (Even the Greek underworld had the Elysian Fields and Tarterus).

In the annual cycle of the mortal world, the Day of the Dead is that point of the year where the mortal world and the gloomy underworld are nearly coterminous.  The restless dead can sometimes be seen by the living through the veil.  There are many traditions across the mortal game world to honor this time; the holy church engages in prayer and ritual, believing that ceremony, prayer, and remembrance can encourage the departed to move on to a final reward beyond the underworld.

In places following the old faith, bonfires are lit to drive away the night time shadows and ward against haunts and spirits; in other areas, costumes and masks are donned to confuse the dead souls and avoid an unsettling encounter with a wronged ancestor.  Offerings, gifts, and adornment are brought to the graveyards during the day, to pacify the departed.

Conversely, if one wants the chance to speak to a deceased soul, this is the night to visit the grave or cemetery and hold a lonely vigil late into the wee hours.  But this practice of meeting a departed shade is not without danger, for just as the benign or indifferent haunts of departed souls can interact with the world of man on All Hallow's Eve, certainly undead terrors returned by the lords of ultimate evil can slip through the barriers easier as well.  Ghosts and apparitions are naturally ethereal, and All Hallow's Eve is the night when wraiths and specters are also sent back from Hell (if you've followed this column the past few weeks, you'll recall that most undead are either Abyssal or Hellish in origin, and most undead shades and spirits come from Hell).  Even visit from haunts are not without risk; statistically I would model the restless departed souls using the Fiend Folio Haunt, a neutral undead that can temporarily possess a living host to carry out some unfinished business.  The wise dead-speaker takes precautions before setting a lonely vigil in a graveyard on All Hallow's Eve.

For the Dungeon Master, this would be an excellent time to have the shade of a departed NPC or henchman come back and harass the PC's about something in the campaign, a wrong or slight that went unaddressed, or even a chance to give your players a vague omen or prophecy (ie, a plot hook) delivered in a suitably ominous or dramatic fashion.  Per Jacob Marley:

How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.  That is no light part of my penance.  I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.
--A Christmas Carol

Use a calendar, and put holidays on it.  Use the underlying beliefs from real world holidays as ideas for your fantasy holidays, but "Fantasy" them up to make them real - give them some teeth.  Go forth with these ideas, and be excellent.


  1. "The jack-o-lantern tradition comes from turnip carving in Ireland, brought to America in the middle of the 19th century (the story of Stingy Jack and the Devil, an Irish story, is a tale for another Monday). I can't imagine turnip-carving would be as enjoyable as pumpkin carving. "

    I grew up in Northern Ireland, carving turnips at Halloween, back when the English did not celebrate it. I can confirm turnip-carving is difficult, uncomfortable and quite dangerous - turnips are tough buggers!

    I was from an Ulster Protestant family; I'd be surprised if the Scots-Irish/Ulster-American Protestants didn't bring turnip carving over to America with them in the 17th century or early 18th?

  2. Thanks for that insight, S'mon! A true turnip carver in our (online midst) that's excellent!

    I have a friend who's a professor of religion, his book on holidays pinpointed the pumpkin carving to mid 19th century, sometime after all the Irish immigration related to famine. It's quite likely that earlier immigrants brought it to America, but perhaps it hadn't reached critical mass to take America by storm until after the Civil War.