ISSUES OF FAITH: Joseph Campbell and the origin of ‘trick-or-treat’

IN 1980-82, I had the privilege of organizing lectures for Joseph Campbell, a scholar of the world’s myths who became a public figure the spring following his death — Oct. 30, 1987, in his 83rd year — through Bill Moyers’ six-part PBS interviews with him titled “The Power of Myth.”

The lectures of which I speak were given by Campbell at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. where I served as an associate minister, on the weekends nearest Halloween, which fit right into Campbell’s love of myths and masks. (His classic study of mythology is a four-volume work titled “The Masks of God.”)

Two titles

I also prevailed upon Campbell to give sermons on those weekends, which he did, marvelously, on two consecutive years under the titles “Trick or Treat” and “Trick or Treat II.”

Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve, he explained, is a festival of the ancient Celts that takes place on the evening preceding the holy days of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, matched exactly six months on the other side of the year by the festival of May Day and the preceding evening of Walpurgis Night.

At Halloween, with the organic world clearly passing into the realm of darkness, these ancient, pastoral peoples, said Campbell, “joined their meditation with the actualities of the natural world, participating in the world by way of meditation and relevant action.”

And just who are these masked creatures and goblins that appear at our doors at this time of the year?

As it turns out, they are the spirits of our departed loved ones come from the graves in the form of our own dear children.

Here’s how this works:

With the passing of the year into darkness, one’s thoughts are naturally drawn to those who have passed from this life into the darkness of the grave. Thus, in many parts of Europe in those days, people would go to the graves of their departed loved ones bringing not only prayers and recollections but also little gifts.

“There is a secret psychological aspect to this,” said Campbell. “So often when a dear person dies, we have a sense of guilt and regret for the lovely things we have not done, and for the little negative acts that we wish we had not rendered.”

Along with this, he said, there is an old, old fear of the dead — the fear that the dead can somehow reach out from their graves to hurt those who have hurt them, thus playing a nasty trick on the living.

Therefore, the gifts brought to the graves are brought not only to honor and remember the dead, but also to appease them.

That is how it was in much of ancient Europe. But in the Celtic world, to which our “trick or treat” custom owes its origin, it was the other way around: The graveyards came to the homes of the living.

The dead enter

Halloween “is the night of the re-entry of the dead into their domiciles, visiting again the people with whom they had dwelled. The idea of giving a gift, a treat, or suffering a trick — a shocking, surprising, nasty little trick — is associated with the guilt feeling.”

And the means by which the dead entered their former homes was in the form of their own dear children wearing the masks of the departed dead.

And that is another ancient idea to which Campbell referred — a kind of reincarnation idea in which the children are the returning ancestors.

“In a sense, they truly are,” says Campbell. “That is to say, the ancestral genes, the ancestral strain of inheritance, appears again in these little children. Many people in traditional cultures look at the child to see who it is who has returned.”

Masked creatures

So, who are these masked creatures that appear at our door demanding a treat or threatening a trick on Halloween?

In its Celtic origin, these masked creatures, our dear children, represent our departed loved ones. But they are also, said Campbell, “representatives of that general energy of life which pours through us and of which we are momentarily manifestations and creatures.”

Something to consider this coming Tuesday evening when your doorbell rings and the words “trick-or-treat” resound from the masks of the little ones.

(Note: The quotes in this column are from a transcribed copy of Joseph Campbell’s sermon “Trick or Treat,” Oct. 25, 1981, published by Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.)

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Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is bruceabode@gmail.com.