All Hallows Eve is now better known as Hallowe'en night, and is widely held to the spookiest night of the year, a time for ghosts and goblins and witchery! As many of you will know, it is said that we celebrate the eerie and frightening at this time as our ancestors believed that on this night the veil between worlds was thin, allowing spectres and faeries and witches to draw near to us. Hence we ward away their incursions by making jack o'lanterns and bonfires to frighten them away.
Now how historically accurate all of that is we are investigating in my next podcast - Hypnogoria 004 - The Origins of Hallowe'en, but looking through my tomes of ancient customs and folios of folklore, it is definitely true that out forebears considered Hallowe'en night to be one of the times of the year that were very appropriate for carrying out all manner of charms and rites and spells.
Some of these folk customs and bits of hedge magic were, in different regions and different times, performed on other days our ancestors deemed magically significant. For example, we most associate the ancient tradition of wassailing with Christmas and New Year, but the Western Isles of Scotland on All Hallow's Eve fishermen would gather on the beach for s round of sea wassailing. They would sing traditional songs to the waves, culminating in a toast with a brimming cup of ale to the god of the seas to ensure fruitful catches and safe voyages over the coming year.
And despite Halloween reputation as the eeriest night of the year, a good many of the folk charms carried out in ages past were surprisingly in the cause of romance! In Scotland it was said that if you scattered hemp seeds over your left shoulder on Halloween and intoned the following rhyme "Hemp-seed, I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me", if you looked over your left shoulder there would appears your destined true love. In other parts of the British Isles it was said a similar prophetic vision of your lover to be could be invoked by eating an apple by candle-light in front of a mirror in Halloween night.
And many areas held that a similar charm could be performed with apples. In this variant those seeking to discover their soul mate would peel and an apple and throw the peel over their left shoulder. And the shape the peel landed it was supposed to form the initials of your true love.
A somewhat squishier alternative for some amorous divination on Halloween comes from Shropshire. There is was said that if you catch a snail on Halloween and place it on a box or in the ashes of your hearth on Halloween night, in the morning you'll find the initials of your true love to be spelled out in the snail's slimy trail!
Similarly there are a good number of spells that could employed on Halloween night to discover who was secretly in love with you. For example, in Derbyshire young ladies would inscribe on chestnuts the names of boys who they suspected holding a torch for them. The chestnuts were then placed upon the hearth, sometime among the embers of the fire, on All Hallows Eve and it was said which ever chestnut popped out of the fire nearest the young lady revealed the name of her secret lover.
But there were more serious charms you practice upon a Halloween night. In Herefordshire, there was a more morbid form of divination - each member of the family would pick an ivy leaf and label it as their own. The ivy leaves were then left in a bowl of water over Halloween night. In the morning any member of the family who was fated to die in the coming year would find their leaf marked with a coffin shape. In other regions, egg whites were dropped into water to serve a similar purpose and again if the whites formed into the shape of coffin you would not live to see the next Halloween...
However the most sspooky of all Halloween customs, and the one closest to its modern day incarnation of a time for ghosts and ghouls and phantoms, is the practice of church porching. This custom was very common in the British Isles, and aside from being practiced on All Hallows Eve, St Mark's Day, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve were favoured in some areas. But as All Hallows was the day in the medieval Christian calendar when prayers were said for the dead, All Hallows Eve was the most appropriate date for this eerie custom.
This folk rite was an overnight vigil - folk would gather in the church porch or in some areas at the lych gate before midnight and quietly observe. For it was said that upon this night, an eerie procession of spirits could be seen entering the nighted church. However this was no solemn parade of the dead, for this eerie train of spectres was composed of those who would to die in the coming year. It was said the shades of those who were to die appeared dressed in winding sheets and shrouds and a ghostly service would be held in the church. Afterwards the spectres would file out and go their separate ways in the churchyard and the scrape of coffin lids and the rattle of grave soil be heard as they vanished!