‘Witches and devils’ – Halloween with the AAM

Nights are drawing in, pumpkins are abundant and we’re warming up for a bewitching pair of concerts in London and Cambridge next week. On Monday and Wednesday, our leader Pavlo Beznosiuk will perform Tartini’s fiendish ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, and will direct Telemann’s rarely performed ‘Frog’ concerto, alongside extracts from Handel’s Alcina Charpentier’s Medée with soprano Rebecca Bottone. According to Stephen Rose’s programme notes for the concert (read them here),  furies will be unleashed, choruses will cackle and ‘gruesome echoes’ will reverberate. Inspired to get under the skin of this intriguing programme ahead of the concerts, our own Anna Goldbeck-Wood did some digging on the origins of our obsession with witchcraft and Halloween…

The craze for witchcraft, the beginnings of Halloween

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europe became swept up in a hysterical fear of witchcraft. Anti-witchcraft measures were enshrined in law and large scale witch hunts were embarked upon, resulting in the imprisonment, torture, execution and banishing of hundreds of thousands of people. The majority were women.

A chap called Heinrich Kramer – an inquisitor of the Catholic Church – published a treatise on witches in 1486, and he was by no means the only one. His book, catchily named ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, challenges doubters of witchcraft, discusses witches’ powers and practice, argues why women are more likely to be witches – “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable” – as well as giving instruction on how witches should be prosecuted.

Accepted ‘proofs’ of witchcraft ranged from ‘diabolical marks’ (which could be visible or invisible, as determined by the examiner), denouncement by other witches (common, since the accused could often avoid execution by naming accomplices), relation to other convicted witches, showing fear during interrogations, not crying when tortured, blasphemy, to causing harm believed only to be possible by means of sorcery.

Punishments for being proven (by these tenuous means) guilty of witchcraft were gruesome. The commonest included –

  • Hanging or strangling, then burning at the stake
  • Burning alive at the stake
  • Binding to a chair and submerging in water (used as a form of trial – if the defendant survived they were convicted a witch and executed)
  • Binding to the oars of a ship
  • Pressing to death

But by the time Tartini came to write the ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, advances in science and philosophy had begun to calm this hysteria. There was a move away from mystical explanations that had been so relied upon in the Mediaeval and Early Modern times. Indeed, referring to witchcraft as a frivolous superstition soon became fashionable. By 1736 attitudes had changed so much that anti witchcraft laws were repealed in England – and Switzerland saw Europe’s last execution for witchcraft in 1782.

With relaxed attitudes, Halloween practices (mostly stemming from age-old folklore) flourished. The word ‘Halloween’ was first attested in the 16th century; believed to be a Scottish variant of the fuller ‘All-Hallows-Even’; that is, the night before All Hallows Day, which, as with many Christian festivals,  has a parallel or pre-existing pagan origin. For Celts, 31st October was considered to mark the last day of summertime, and the start of the new year. Around this time, the worlds of the living and the dead blurred, and spirits of the year’s departed roamed in search of living souls to possess. Celtic customs arising from these beliefs are largely responsible for the way we still celebrate Halloween today:

Fancy dress | On the night of October 31, people would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes, and noisily parade around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.

Apple bobbing | Charles Vallancey, a British-Irish Military surveyor, gives the first known account of this in his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis (1786). It is thought that the practice arose from the fusion of Celtic Halloween practices with the Roman festival for the goddess of fruit, ‘Pomona’.

‘Souling’ | The origin of what we know to be ‘trick-or-treating’ today. Peasants would go from door to door on All Hallows Eve, collecting food in exchange for prayers for the departed.

Jack-o-lanterns | Turnips (not pumpkins) – abundant at harvest time, and native to the Celtic lands – were carved with scary faces and made into lanterns to ward away wandering evil spirits.

I’ll leave you with a poem by John Mayner – the earliest known piece of literature to feature Halloween. It was first published in 1780 in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, and is thought to have inspired Robert Burns’s later and more well-known poem of the same title.


Ranged round a bleezing ingle-side,
Where nowther cauld nor hunger bide,
The farmer’s house, we’secret pride,
Will a’ convene

Placed at their head the gudewife sits,
And deals round apples, pears and nits,
Syne tells her guests, how, at sic bits,
Where she has been,
Bogles hae gart folk tyne their wits
At Halloween.

A’ things prepared in order due,
Gosh guides’s: what fearfu’ pranks ensue!
Some i’ the kiln-pat thraw a clue
At whilk, bedeen,
Then sweethearts at the far-end pu’,
At Halloween.

But ‘t were a langsome tale to tell
The gates o’ ilka charm and spell;
Ance gau to saw hemp-seed himsel’
Puir Jock M’Lean
Plump in a filthy peat-pot fell,
At Halloween.

Half felled wi’fear, and drook it weel,
He frae the mire dought hardly spiel;
But frae that time the silly chiel
Did never grien
To cast his cantripes wi’ the Deil,
At Halloween.

So join us, a witch in the guise of soprano Rebecca Bottone and the world of ghouls and spirits on Monday 31st October in Cambridge or on Wednesday 2nd November at the Wigmore Hall, London, for a truly extraordinary night. For more information about the ‘Witches and devils’ concerts, to book tickets or to read the programme visit our website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s