The Pagan Book of Halloween
by Gerina Dunwich
TWPT: What is it about Halloween or Samhain that attracts such attention in our society from those who are outside of the Pagan belief system?
Gerina: Undeniably, Halloween/Samhain is a holiday unlike any other and I think non-Pagan society is attracted to it for various reasons. Children, of course, are fond of the costumes and candy that are a part of Halloween's trick-or-treat custom. Masquerading has always been a popular element of this holiday and I think many people, both young and old, enjoy the freedom that Halloween gives them to temporarily step outside of their mundane roles and routines and, through the "magic" of make-up and costumes, become someone or something else. By the same token, Halloween allows other individuals to shed the facades and masks that they wear daily and, for one night of the year, be who or what they really are or want to be. On a psychological level, this can be very liberating.
Halloween's connection to Witches and Witchcraft, the spirit world, the rites of the mysterious Druids, and supernatural creatures such as fairies gives it a certain otherworldly charm, to which many people are drawn. Mankind has always been both terrified and fascinated by the unknown. In addition, Halloween's popularity among young adults may be attributed to the fact that it is viewed as a social event rather than a traditional holiday that people are expected to spend with family members, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Most non-Pagans are at least vaguely aware that the day they call Halloween is rooted in Paganism, but they have no idea whatsoever how its customs and symbols came to be or what the meanings that lie behind them are. Sadly, some unenlightened individuals erroneously believe that Halloween is filled with evil and linked to the Devil. Of course, as most Pagans know, nothing could be further from the truth!
TWPT: How do you celebrate Samhain personally and what does the season mean to you as a Witch?
Gerina: I have always loved the Halloween season. It is a special time of the year for me when magick and mystery are in the air, and the doors to the otherworlds stand open. I observe Samhain in my own way even though I do not belong to any of the Celtic Wiccan/Pagan traditions. Being a Witch and a Pagan author, the 31st of October is always a very busy time for me. My day typically starts out with a dozen or more radio interviews, followed by one or two public appearances in the afternoon. I love to cook, so every year at this time I prepare a huge holiday feast for family and friends complete with homemade pumpkin pies. In the evening I read Tarot cards and the pendulum, and perform a Samhain cauldron ritual similar to the one that appears in The Pagan Book of Halloween. And no Samhain would be complete without the traditional Dunwich family sťance being held. Last year, after returning home from a book signing at Fairuza Balk's occult shop in Hollywood (Panpipes Magickal Marketplace), I conducted one with a few of my relatives in the hopes of making contact with the spirit of Sybil Leek. Interestingly, one of my cousins who attended the sťance was born on February 22nd - the same birthday as Sybil Leek.
Years ago when I lived in Upstate New York, Samhain night would always be spent in front of a blazing bonfire with my beloved coven. We would write our spells on slips of paper and then cast them into the flames while chanting to raise magickal energy. After ritual, we would read the Tarot and party into the wee hours of the morning. I have celebrated Samhain as both a solitary and as a covener, and I can honestly say from my own experiences that there are very few things quite as exciting or spiritually fulfilling as celebrating a Sabbat with others of a like mind.
TWPT: When was it that you decided to write The Pagan Book of Halloween?
Gerina: A few years ago in New York I was having a discussion with fellow coven members about all the negative stereotypes associated with Halloween and how many of the residents of the North Country continued to subscribe to them. As a result, I decided to write an article for the local newspaper about the true meaning of Halloween and went to the Massena Public Library to do research. I found a few generalized books on American and European holidays listed in their database, but nothing that focused entirely upon Halloween or Samhain. Upon that realization, the idea to write The Pagan Book of Halloween was born.
TWPT: Were there a lot of other books out there that covered this topic from a Witch's point of view?
Gerina: Not really. Out of the 65 books I consulted while doing research for The Pagan Book of Halloween, there were only around 10 that I would consider being written from a Witch's point of view.
TWPT: What's the most difficult part in writing a book like this?
Gerina: I would say that the amount of historical research required to write this book was the most challenging part - especially when dates or the spelling of names sometime varied from one source to the next. But, all in all, it was a very enjoyable book to write, and I must admit that I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. It was refreshing to work with a new publisher (Penguin) after being with Citadel for so many years, and this book offered me the long-awaited opportunity to branch out from my earlier basic Wicca books into a new and more exciting subject matter.
TWPT: What are some of the topics that you covered in this book and how in depth were you able to go given the length of the book?
Gerina: The areas on which the book focuses most strongly are Halloween's history, misconceptions, symbols and folklore, magickal and divinatory practices, and its spiritual significance to modern Pagans. In addition, there are lots of traditional holiday recipes, a Sabbat ritual that I wrote for both covens and solitaries, and even some poetry. I tried to cover each section of the book as thoroughly as possible. However, as publishers usually have the last word in the matter, Penguin ended up editing out a lot of material, including an entire chapter that accused the Church and the media of being responsible for many of the malignant myths and misconceptions that enshroud Halloween. They claimed that the way in which I presented the facts lent too much of a hostile and combative tone to the book. But in my heart I suspected that the real reason certain things were changed or removed from the book was because, despite their historical accuracy, the publisher feared that many non-Pagan readers might perceive them as a direct or indirect attack on Christianity (which they were) and this might have an adverse effect on book sales.
TWPT: Did you look at Samhain from your own point of view or were you inclusive of some of the broad range of approaches to this holiday by other Witches and Pagans?
Gerina: Actually, I tried to remain as objective as I could throughout most of the book, although I admit that it was intentionally written with a Pagan slant. In the "Ritual and Revelry" section, which examines how Samhain/Halloween is observed by various cultures throughout the world as a "Day of the Dead" festival, I tried to be as inclusive as possible. And the Samhain Ritual in Chapter 9 was designed in such a way that it can be easily adapted to meet the needs of solitaries, covens, and any Wiccan or Pagan tradition.
TWPT: Since so much attention is paid to Witchcraft during this time of the year do you see this as an opportunity to spread the truth of who we are?
Gerina: Definitely. And I try to do this every time I'm interviewed or make a public appearance. My intention is never to preach Paganism or proselytize, but I feel there can never be enough education. The more the general public is enlightened to the beliefs and practices of us modern Pagans, the less there will be fear, anger, discrimination, and violence directed at us. That is my belief, and that is my goal. The entire month of October is the perfect time to "spread the truth" to the public because, with Halloween just around the corner, everybody is in the right frame of mind to listen and learn. But as soon as November 1st rolls around, most people begin thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping and don't want to hear about us anymore.
TWPT: It's been a year since The Pagan Book of Halloween was released; tell me about the feedback that you have gotten from this book so far?
Gerina: The feedback I've received so far from both the Pagan and non-Pagan communities has been mostly positive, which is always encouraging. The only harsh words I've received were from a handful of Celtic apologists who were, for some reason, offended that my book included several references to the ancient Druids' practice of human and animal sacrifice. I personally do not support the modern theory that the numerous classical accounts of Druidic sacrificial rites were nothing more than Roman military propaganda. In my opinion as an occult historian, the amount of textual and archaeological evidence that exists clearly proves otherwise.
TWPT: In closing, do you have any Samhain wishes for our readers?
Gerina: At this time of the season when once again the Great Wheel turns, I would like to extend this threefold wish for a blessed, joyous, and safe Samhain to each and every one of my fellow Pagans. May you all have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year, and blessed be!
TWPT: Thanks much for sharing your thoughts about your book and about what Samhain means to you. We wish you a blessed Samhain and a wonderful new year beyond.