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There are many Halloween symbols that immediately come to mind when people hear the word. They are iconic images, every single one of them. But where do them come from?

Here we break down the most popular of them. And if you’re looking to download Halloween symbols, we have links to where you can download popular images and clipart.

Trick or Treating

Possibly the most iconic symbol of Halloween is trick or treating. When you think about it, the practice is a little odd… children going from door to door dressed up in outfits, asking for candy. But every year, millions of them do it, and it’s socially acceptable. Weird, right? Weird, and great.

What we now know as Halloween has roots in the very old, pre-Christian festival of Samhain, a Celtic celebration that would take place on October 31st. The Celts lived over 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland. They believed the dead actually rose and returned to earth on this day. On that night they gathered to offer sacrifices, light bonfires, and generally pay homage to the dead.

During some of these Samhain celebrations, people would wear costumes made of animal skins in order to scare away ghosts, these spirits rising from the dead. They would set out tables full of food and leftovers in order to placate these unwanted spirits. It’s easy to imagine how time evolved the practices, especially as Christians colonized and spread into Celtic lands. It mixed with practices involving poor families visiting wealthier families to receive soul cakes.

We aren’t exactly sure how the term “trick or treat” began. But what it is now was firmly in place by the 1950s when we saw a few staples of the holiday appear. That is, the Peanuts comic strip famously depicting trick or treating, as well as the 1952 Trick or Treat cartoon from Disney.

Jack o’ Lanterns

Another famous Halloween symbol that is so commonplace that people don’t even question it is the jack o’ lantern. Like trick or treating itself, the meaning and origin stems from early Celtic beliefs about spirits rising from the dead. Back then they used turnips instead of pumpkins, but the idea was the same. They hollowed them out and put embers inside in order to ward away the roaming spirits of the night.

Witch Symbols

The ongoing images of witches, as well as witch-related symbols like broomsticks, spells, and magic cauldrons, go back a long way. Each one of them can be traced back to various origins, though it is easy to see famous examples like the Wizard of Oz and document its spread through popular culture.

We will likely never know any specific origins of witches, just as many origins of folklore characters and creatures will never be known for sure. One of the earliest examples of a witch is actually in the Bible. In the book of Samuel, written around 7th Century, there is the tale of King Saul searching for the Witch of Endor to summon the prophet Samuel’s spirit, with the goal to defeat the Philistine army.

There are many other passages in the Bible that condemn witches in various ways, so the spread of Christianity is closely linked with the spread of witch symbols and the fear of them.

The various Halloween symbols that are synonymous with witches grew over time. Many early examples of their use can be found in literature. For example, the earliest known picture of a witch on a broomstick goes back to 1451, with illustrations appearing in the French poet Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames.

Ghost Symbols

The “bedsheet ghost” is one of many popular Halloween symbols that appear again and again in books and pop culture. It is another case where there isn’t a single origin. Many early depictions of ghosts wore clothes, such as in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

By the 19th and 20th Century depictions of ghosts wearing their burial shroud (essentially a sheet) became more and more common. By that time, the billowing ghost aesthetic of sheets flowing in the air began to dominate many ghost stories.

Photo by Šimom Caban on Unsplash

Last Updated on February 7, 2022.

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