This week, I’ve been dusting off my Morticia Adams dress in preparation for Hallowe’en. Well, that’s the Christian term, which means “Saints’ evening” and dates from about 1745. But it is widely thought to be the Christianisation of the ancient Pagan festival Samhain, from the Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’.
Samhain, which some claim was the old Celtic New Year, was believed to be a liminal time, when the veils between this world and the next were at their thinnest. On this night, the spirits of the dead could easily walk among the living. Perhaps it was most fitting to honour the dead at a time of “dying” in nature.
For the Celts, the day ended and began at sunset, thus the festival always started the evening before. To celebrate, the Druids built huge, sacred bonfires. People dressed up in costumes of animal horns and skins and brought food to share in a communal feast. In an act of sympathetic magic, torches lit from the bonfire were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them; the fires mimicked the Sun and might halt the decay of winter.
In some places, the church tried to ban these bonfires. In others, they assimilated them and claimed the flames would keep away the devil. The Celts also thought that the presence of the spirits helped to predict the future, so this was the perfect time for divination with animal entrails. Think I’ll be sticking to my tarot cards!
People often complain about modern Hallowe’en practises coming over from America. But in fact, they started here, went over there then returned with a vengeance, like a spooky boomerang.
Come October, the supermarkets are full of pumpkins; this is an English practise, albeit supersized US style. Traditionally, pranksters hollowed out turnips and carved them with grotesque faces to make “jack-o’-lanterns”, which either represented the spirits, or protected you from them.
“Trick or Treating” has its origins in “Souling”, dating back to the 15th century. at least. Groups of poor people, especially children, would go door-to-door collecting soul cakes, in return for prayers for the dead. The cakes were for the departed souls, although the ‘Soulers’ might munch a few on their behalf.
Be generous and you could expect good fortune from the spirits but turning Soulers away would bring misfortune. Soulers also wore costumes, partly to represent their ancestors, but also to avoid being recognised by any troubled souls wandering the earth for their last chance to take revenge.
To celebrate, I went to the “vigil and Hallowe’en Portal” at the Crossbones Graveyard in South London. This old burial ground, in the shadow of the Shard, was once the final resting place for the Winchester Geese, medieval sex workers licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in the local brothels.
In the 1990s, it was partly dug up as part of the Jubilee Line extension. Then, on 23 November 1996, the writer John Constable had a vision of “The Goose”. His shamanic alter ego John Crow had somehow summoned the spirit of a medieval whore. It doesn’t get more Samhain that that!
That night, John channelled a poem, which “unveiled the secret history” of Crossbones. Then the Goose led him through the dark, Southwark backstreets to a desolate works site in Redcross Way. John was unaware that the Crossbones was a real historical graveyard, or he had been guided to its very gates.
This experience inspired The Southwark Mysteries, an epic cycle of poems and plays. Since that date, Constable, his wife Katy Nicholls, and their team have held monthly vigils to the “outcast dead” and created a shrine at the gates and a beautiful memorial garden. Now it even has a plaque!
I’m honoured to have been involved with this extraordinary work for some time. I performed in an early production of the poetry cycle and attended one of the first group read throughs of the script.
It was like a modern-day mystery play, with characters of Jesus, Satan and the Goose herself. But there weren’t enough men to play all the parts; a common problem in theatre where there are more actresses than actors but more male roles than female.
So, when it came to casting Satan, I seized my opportunity.
“Does it have to be a man?” I asked. “Can I play it?”
John paused for a moment then agreed and I went to on to play Satan at The Globe theatre in the first production in 2000. I made my entrance onto the stage, clad in a tight red catsuit and horns, bursting out of a paper map. I even had to wear a big strap on and threaten to give to give the Goose a good seeing to.
The Dean of Southwark Cathedral was there. I was a bit worried he might be offended, but I heard that he was quite taken with Satan. Best review ever!
The last chance to catch a vigil at Crossbones led by John Crow is on 23 November. After twenty-three years, John and Katy are finally handing over the responsibility to a group of supporters to continue their work.
The Southwark Mysteries is Samhain magic in action. Because the borough of The Clink lay outside the law of the City of London, the Winchester Geese were legally allowed to ply their trade so long as they paid their fee to the Church.
However, they were still buried in unhallowed ground. This shocking act of hypocrisy has now been corrected. On 22 July 2015, St Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral led the clergy and congregation in procession to conduct “an Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration”, in which the burial ground finally received the church’s blessing. Perhaps the Goose can now rest in peace.
To find out more about The Southwark Mysteries, visit crossbones.org.uk