Classical Studies and Halloween

As a grad student, this can be a precarious time of year, bringing with it cooler weather, midterms, lengthening nights, paper-writing, falling leaves, and — most importantly — the festivities of Halloween.  Many of you may already have seen costumed revelers or prepared celebrations yourselves; after all, a party in the middle of the semester might be just the break that we graduate students need. But does Halloween, a holiday of Celtic origin, have more to offer students of classics? Today we’ll take a look at places where the mythology of Halloween intersect with classical culture and language, and collect some suggestions for incorporating this holiday in our classrooms and studies.


Most contemporary American Halloween traditions can be traced back to festivities surrounding the Day of Samhain, the first day of the Celtic new year (see Halloween in America, Santino 3-4). This liminal day served to mark the transition into the new year, and also symbolically to provide not just a temporal bridge but a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead. Crops stopped their growing cycle and were harvested in preparation for the coming winter months, while firewood was gathered in preparation for the dying light. The Irish sagas also incorporated this holiday as a bridge between life and the afterlife, describing battles fought and wars decided all on Samhain.

Roman skeleton mosaic, courtesy of the History Blog:

Part of the reason that this holiday has been included in modern day American culture, however, was its incorporation into the Roman holiday honoring Pomona, goddess of the apple and harvest. Her celebration naturally occurred coincident with Samhain, and for Romans living in Gallia this led to the assimilation of the two festivals. These traditions survived for hundreds of years until they were both assimilated into the Roman Catholic Church’s celebration of All Saint’s Day, leading to the familiar Halloween we celebrate today.

Given the classical connection with this holiday, and the relationship that we, as participants in the modern world, certainly have with Halloween, how can we graduate students engaged with the classics celebrate this holiday?

Language and Halloween Translations

One way to celebrate Halloween as a classicist is to engage specifically with the language of the holiday. Among other things, Halloween is the time where stories tell of spooky monsters and horrific settings.  The classics are not without their share of things that go bump in the night, either. Sententiae Antiquae has gathered some of the most fitting stories of these monsters within their pages:

These stories present Greek and Latin tales of some of the spooky creatures we are used to seeing this time of year — Werewolves, Zombies, Vampires, and fear itself. Sententiae Antiquae has done an admirable job of indulging in the festivities of the Halloween season and providing revelers with Greek and Latin passages that fit these themes, but also reminding us of the intricacies of these classical cultures. Not only do they write how the Lamia is frequently interpreted using the vampire mythos, but reminds us that she is “a particular distillation of misogyny” and invites us to explore other similar tales. They also provide passages and descriptions of how Medieval scribes are associated with our Halloween theme.

An Etruscan relief showing “brain-eating”, courtesy of Sententiae Antiquae:

Other resources for celebrating the language of Halloween as a classicist are also made available to us. For example, Latinitium has created a Halloween Special video — in Latin, of course! — describing creatures both monstrous and supernatural that haunted the Roman world.

Culture and Halloween Traditions

In addition to reading passages on Halloween subjects, we can also celebrate the culture and traditions of this season.

Many groups and classrooms also choose this season to celebrate the Roman festival of Lemuria or Lemuralia. Though traditionally practiced on May 9, 11, and 13, this festival featured the lemures, malevolent familial spirits who returned on these three days to haunt their descendants.  Despite the calendrical mismatch, Lemuralia and Halloween do seem to share a certain tone and thematic element of ghosts and spirits returning from the dead. They also strangely share a tie to All Saint’s Day, which used to be celebrated on May 13 before it was moved back to the beginning of November. The Classical Association of New England provides a guide for celebrating Lemuralia with a Latin class, much of which can be adapted to different age ranges or locations.

Image result for Ancient Greek Lamia
Lamia carrying off an infant, courtesy of Senentiae Antiquae

Modern-Day Festivities

Is translating spooky stories and celebrating Lemuralia not enough for you? Are you looking for more ways to incorporate the classics into your Halloween celebration? Dig through a collection of classically-themed costumes collected by Idle Musings, including everything from tongue-in-cheek grammar points such as the supine (“just lie prone on the floor”), the fear clause, and intervocalic sigma rhotacizing, to classical stand-bys like the Furies, Medusa and Perseus, and the good ole Green and Yellow.  The Smithsonian Magazine also offers a guide for a last-minute, slightly more authentic toga to wear to your next Halloween party. Sententiae Antiquae provides a discussion on how to say “Trick or Treat” in Latin or Greek, so we can address each other appropriately come Halloween. Forbes even published a guide for which Halloween candy to pair figures in Roman history.

Toga wearers 1906
Turn-of-the-century Thespians showing off their Togas, courtesy of The Smithsonian Magazine:

Despite the dreariness and deadlines of this time of year, Halloween offers classical studies students plenty of opportunities to engage with traditional modern-day customs using our chosen discipline. What ways have you incorporated classics with Halloween? What classically-themed costumes and parties have you planned?


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