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The Garden Gate: Beware the Night of the Mad Moon

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Where do you plan to be on the Night of the Mad Moon?

There are so many superstitions that come to life at Halloween time. An old one is that an unmarried woman will dream of her future husband if she puts a sprig of rosemary and a silver coin under her pillow on Halloween night.

Don’t look back if you hear footsteps behind you on this special night. It might be a ghost with evil intentions following you. If your candle goes out unexpectedly, it is because there is a ghost in the room who has blown it out. And if a black cat crosses your path, you will have very bad luck.

Our annual Halloween celebration is an offshoot of the ancient pagan festival of Aanheim.

On that night, the ancients believed, the spirits of all those who had died during the previous year would come back to haunt those still living. To appease them, and possibly to scare them away, people dressed in fiendish costumes and left offerings of food on the doorstep.

So now we have bands of costumed revellers going from house to house, shouting, “Trick or treat!” And we mollify them with candy treats.

During the 8th century, the Christian church replaced the pagan holiday with All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1. The evening before was to be called All Hallows (Saints) Eve, eventually becoming known as Halloween.

Our tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns began with an Irish folk tale about a miserly drunkard named Jack, who is said to have trapped the devil in the branches of an apple tree. After Jack’s death, he was not allowed into heaven. But the devil would not accept him, either, so poor Jack was left to endlessly wander the night, lighting his way with a little piece of burning coal inside a hollowed-out turnip.

Using a pumpkin, which is much larger than a turnip, is an American adaptation of this old tale.

Superstitions about vampires have existed for all cultures from very ancient times. The vampir (or vampire) comes from a Romanian legend about demon spirits which left their graves on this night to seek out and entrap human victims.

The only way a vampire could be warded off was with a variety of charms, amulets, herbs and potions. It could only be killed by cremation or by driving a stake through its heart.

Bram Stoker used this ancient legend in writing the classic Halloween story of Dracula.

It was thought in 16th century France that several noble families had become lycanthropes (or werewolves). After several wolf attacks had occurred, a servant went to the local bishop and “confessed” that he had seen his employers turn into dogs or wolves, and become very wild.

After being arrested and tried, the accused werewolf people were shot with silver rosary beads for bullets fired from a musket.

This is how the modern myth of the werewolf originated.

Unlike other monsters, Frankenstein was not based on any actual person or event. Mary Shelley was traveling through Darmstadt, Germany, when she visited the ruins of an ancient castle owned by a knight named Arbogast von Frankenstein.

She was apparently so intrigued by the castle that she used its name for the title of her subsequent novel about a student who created an artificial man while exploring the secrets of life in his laboratory.

Yew trees are evergreens, and they come in many varieties that are native to North America, Europe and Asia. They have a very long life span. There are yew trees in England that are known to be more than 1,000 years old.

Perhaps because they can become some venerable, they were much revered by the ancient Druids and were known in Elizabethan England as witch’s trees.

All during the Victorian era, yews were often planted in cemeteries and, therefore, were symbols of death, grief or sorrow. Another such symbol was the weeping willow.

Carnivorous plants are really not as dangerous as they sound, even though they have a place among Halloween plants. They grow well in high-humidity places and require very little attention. They do, however, like to be fed.

The best ones are Venus flytraps, sundews and campions or catchflies, which do not grow to be very big.

But if you like big carnivorous plants and are prepared to feed them small bits of meat or insects, cobra lilies or pitcher plants will grow to a height of about 4 feet. They like to keep their root ends in water, while the smaller varieties prefer drier soil.

Perhaps the Indians are correct. They say that this is the night of the Mad Moon, when anything can happen, and usually does.

Happy Halloween!
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.