Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween from an Anthropological Perspective

One last post on Halloween, although I fully realize it is now All Saints Day. In my reading this morning, I ran across a passage from Victor Turner, who discusses Halloween in a series of cross-cultural calendrical rituals (as opposed to rites of passage) that emphasize the temporary reversal of roles and the importance of masks in those rites:

In Western society, the traces of rites of age- and sex-role reversal persist in such customs as Halloween, when the powers of the structurally inferior are manifested in the liminal dominance of pre-adolescent children. The monstrous masks they often wear in disguise represent mainly chthonic or earth-demonic powers--witches who blast fertility; corpses or skeletons from underground; indigenous peoples, such as Indians; troglodytes, such as dwarves or gnomes; hoboes or anti-authoritarian figures, such as pirates or traditional Western gun fighters. These tiny earth powers, if not propitiated by treats or dainties, will work fantastic and capricious tricks on the authority-holding generation of householders--tricks similar to those once believed to be the work of earth spirits, such as hobgoblins, boggarts, elves, fairies, and trolls. In a sense, too, these children mediate between the dead and the living; they are not long from the womb, which is in many cultures equated with the tomb, as both are associate with the earth, the source of fruits and the receiver of leavings. The Halloween children exemplify several liminal motifs: their masks insure them anonymity, for no one knows just whose particular children they are. But, as with most rituals of reversal, anonymity here is for the purposes of aggression, not humiliation. The child's mask is like the highwayman's mask--and, indeed, children at Halloween often wear masks of burglars or executioners. Masking endows them with the powers of feral, criminal autochthonous and supernatural beings.
(Victor Turner, The Ritual Process, 172).

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