“Almost 700 years ago, the overwhelmed physicians and health officials fighting a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in medieval Italy had no notion of viruses or bacteria, but they understood enough about the Black Death to implement some of the world’s first anti-contagion measures… city officials put public health measures in place that foreshadowed today’s best practices of social distancing and disinfecting surfaces.” (History.com)
Today, on Halloween, some kids and/or adults will paint their faces to reflect the boils filled with pus and oozing dark blood that reflect the Black Death, the bubonic plague, still considered to be the worst pandemic in recorded human history. At my birthday parties as a kid we always got in a circle to sing and move to a favourite nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosy” which scholars think was written about the symptoms of the plague.
Halloween is short for “All Hallows’ Evening” and is also known as All Saints’ Eve which is a celebration observed in many countries on October 31st – the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day.
The Halloween tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. During the 8th century Pope Gregory 111 designated November 1st as a time to honour all Saints and before too long, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain.
The Day of the Dead (el Dia de los Muertos), is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. ” A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year from October 31-November 2. While October 31st is Halloween, November 1st is ‘el Dia de los Inocentes’, or the day of the children, and All Saints Day. November 2nd is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on November 2.” (History.com/Editors)
The roots of the Day of the Dead as celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage around the world, go back around 3,000 years, to the rituals honouring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Research shows that the Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life. “El Dia de los Muertes is not, as is commonly thought, a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays do share some traditions, including costumes and parades.” On the Day of the Dead, it is believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolve. This short period allows the souls of the dead to awaken and return to the living world to eat, drink, dance and be merry with their loved ones and the living family members treat the deceased as honoured guests in their celebrations – even leaving the deceased their favourite foods and offerings at gravesites.
The most known symbols related to the Day of the Dead are calacas (skeletons) & calaveras (skulls). In the early 19th century Jose Guadalupe Posada re-envisioned Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld, as a female skeleton known as La Calavera Catrina, now the most recognizable Day of the Dead icon. I remember my mother, Audrey, who is around me frequently, coming back from a trip to Mexico before she died in 1981. She was there during the Day of the Dead and described it to me vividly. The huge celebrations, parades, the eating of candy skulls and in particular she mentioned the poor and those with paralytic conditions crawling on hands and knees in devotion up the incredibly long stairs of the cathedrals to pray. She participated with gusto as her motto was “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” She always used to talk about North Americans who travel and want the same type of accomodation, food and experiences they have at home. Why travel she asked?
We know that there is a lot of horror and gore associated with Halloween and the Day of the Dead. This is because our planet is as yet unevolved – and in reality there is a lot of horror and gore on the planet – although – we are all holding a new vision. Until then, life remains a pretty brutal experience for countless numbers of people.
Some of the horrors of the past was perpetuated due to deep spiritual significance. For example, John Verano, an anthropology professor at Tulane University, explains the Aztec human sacrifices. “It was a deeply serious and important thing for them.” Large and also small human sacrifices would be made throughout the year to coincide with important calendar dates to dedicate temples, reverse draught and famine and more. The rationale for human sacrifice was essentially a matter of survival. According to Aztec cosmology (some of which I studied long ago @ Concordia University) the sungod, Huitzilopochtli, was waging an ongoing war against darkness. If the darkness won, the world would end. To keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their lives, the Azteca had to feed Huitzilopochtli with human hearts and blood.
So, returning to the Black Death, the bubonic plague, it struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. It arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People on the docks were horrified to see that most sailors aboard were dead and those alive were severely ill and covered in black boils oozing blood and pus. Authorities ordered this fleet of “death ships” out of the harbour but it was too late. The next 5 years saw this plague kill more than 20 million in Europe, which was almost one-third of the continent’s population.
Even before these death ships pulled into port at Messina many Europeans had heard rumours about a “Great Pestilence” carving a path across the trade routes of the Near and Far East. In the early 1340s it had hit China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt. The pathogen responsible may have existed in Europe as early as 3,000 B.C.
The Black Death was terrifyingly and indiscriminately contagious. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “the mere touching of the clothes appeared to itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” It was horribly efficient. Perfectly healthy people went to bed at night and could be dead by morning.
Today scientists know that the bubonic plague is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis (named for French biologist Alexandre Yersin who discovered it at the end of the 19th century.) It is known to travel through the air from person to person as well as from the bite of an infected flea or rat and of course fleas and rats were pretty much everywhere in medieval Europe; however, they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds.
With our new plague called Covid-19, the grim series of events with the Black Death are extremely comprehensible. While the Black Death took months to spread through boat travel, today an airplane trip can take a contagion around the world in 24 hours. In the middle of the 14th century there seemed to be no rational explanation for it. No one knew how it was transmitted or how to prevent or treat it. Physicians who did treat it tended to use bloodletting and boil-lancing which are dangerous, unsanitary practices. Certainly, this next few sentences we can relate to. “Meanwhile, in a panic, healthy people did all they could do to avoid the sick. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites, and shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, bbut even there they could not escape this disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens as well as people.”
The Black Death had run its course by the early 1350s but appeared again every few generations for centuries. Modern sanitation and public health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease. While we now have antibiotics to treat it – the World Health Organization says there are still 1,000-3,000 cases per year. I knew this because within the last few years I had a dream that two people in NYC had contracted the bubonic plague from rats – when I woke up and carried on with my day, the news mentioned that two people in New York City had caught the bubonic plague and were being treated with antibiotics and expected to live.
This deadliest of pandemics resulted in the estimated deaths of up to 75-200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa. The most popular theory is that it ended due to quarantines. The uninfected would remain in their homes, only venturing out when absolutely necessary – while those who could afford to moved out of densely populated areas.
So many sheep died from the plague that one of the consequences was a European wool shortage. Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed it was God’s punishment – retribution for such things as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication, and worldliness. Due to this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some believed the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublmakers – so thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 49 and thousands more fled to sparsley populated areas of Eastern Europe..
It is said some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the pandemic by lashing out at their neighbours and others turned inward fretting about their own souls.
Halloween and the Day of the Dead afford us the opportunity to celebrate, mourn and experience catharsis all at the same time. If you are mourning, call in Archangel Azrael, also known as the Angel of Death to console you.
Love and Light, Monica