There may be more than Bloody Mary lurking behind your mirror. Mirrors and reflections seem to have always entranced people. In fact, the word 'mirror' comes from the Latin word ‘mirare’ which means "to wonder at." So, it should come as no surprise that there is a sect of divination specifically to do with mirrors. It’s called Catoptromancy, but is also known as mirror-gazing.

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Instead of simply being reflections of our present, there was a belief that mirrors could reveal the future as well. Catoptromancy is a form of scrying, and if you don’t know what scrying is it’s a way to tell the future using a reflective object or surface (typically a crystal ball). Catoptromancy is specifically using a mirror. 

The practice dates back to Ancient Greece and was recorded by Pausanias, a Greek geographer. He wrote, “Before the Temple of Ceres at Patras, there was a fountain, separated from the temple by a wall, and there was an oracle, very truthful, not for all events, but for the sick only. The sick person let down a mirror, suspended by a thread till its based touched the surface of the water, having first prayed to the goddess and offered incense. Then looking in the mirror, he saw the presage of death or recovery, according as the face appeared fresh and healthy, or of a ghastly aspect.”

Typically, to begin a Catoptromancy you can go one of two ways. First, you can position a mirror in a scrying plate fashion at a 90-degree angle on a table. Then, add a flame or small light near the mirror which allows the light to reflect back onto the scrying mirror. From there, the scryer would interpret messages or discern answers to questions from the reflection of the light in the mirror and the perceived images that may dance upon the mirror. As a second way, if you are alone, you can look into a mirror in a dimly lit room. Try to look through the surface of the mirror instead of just your own reflection. After some time, images and color will begin to appear and you begin your question and answer section. Because the requirement to discern images and colors that appear in a mirror, the practice has often been compared to dream interpretation. 

As a note, as mentioned in our Bloody Mary blog post “staring too long at a reflective surface, like a mirror or a crystal, in a dimly lit room could lead to hallucinations, visual distortion, and, in layman's terms, your eyes playing tricks on you.”

The blog header image is of ‘Claude Lorrain mirror in shark skin case, believed at one time to be John Dee's scrying mirror. Front three quarter view. Case open. Graduated grey background’. Image is coursey of the Wellcome Collection

Sin Eaters

What happens to us when we die, the fear of the unknown, has manifested in a variety of strange and unusual customs that try to put the dead in the best position possible for the next step. One of these customs is that of a Sin Eater. Sin Eaters have existed since the 1600s, and potentially earlier, and were popular amongst the UK, especially in rural or isolated areas. Sin Eaters were said to be able to take on the sins of the dead, thus allowing the dead a guilt-free afterlife.

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Sin Eaters were often hired with sudden death or in the event that a priest could not be reached to give last rites. In a way, a Sin Eater would absolve the deceased of their sins by taking them on himself, thus releasing the deceased from the responsibilities of their last mortal sins.

Sin Eating sounds a bit more gruesome than the actual ritual actually was. Although it varied throughout the centuries and in different parts of the UK, it essentially involved eating a ritual meal which would transfer the deceased’s sins unto the eater. Sometimes, the meal would be enough payment but in some situation, there was also a monetary award in addition to the meal. 

In some cases, the food would have touched the corpse or even be laid out on top of the corpse to be consumed by the Sin Eater. Most of the time, however, the meal would simply have to be eaten in the presence of the deceased person. Once the meal was finished and any money exchanged, the family members of the deceased would drive him out of the house while hurling insults and small items like sticks and cinders.

Additionally, a prayer or poem would sometimes be recited by the Sin Eater as he ate to finish out the ritual. For example, the Vintage News quotes:

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.”

In some folkloric beliefs, in addition to absolving sins, it was also said that Sin Eaters would help prevent the formation of ghosts or a feeling of unfinished business from the soul of the deceased to wander the home or haunt the surrounding area.

Although taking on others’ sins seems like it would be quite an intense affair, Sin Eaters were by no means rich. In addition to the free food, Sin Eaters would often only get a small payment, roughly a half-shilling or a shilling if they were lucky. Sadly, this barely covered the cost of even one meal. 

Sin Eaters were heavily stigmatized in communities, despite the need for them and their work. Often, Sin Eaters were already destitute and often lived in solitude and did not play a major part in the village. The villagers would often shun Sin Eaters, as it was believed with each ceremony they became more and more evil as they filled themselves with sins. 


The header image is from Unsplash and was published prior to 5 June 2017 under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photographer: Asthetik.

Palo Santo and Cleansing

On the blog, we’ve covered cleansing rituals before that do not focus on smudging. Palo Santo Wood is another cleansing tool that has a long, interesting history and folklore...and is more widely available than one would think. This particular wood has a long history with a variety of geographic locations including South America, Africa, and Asia. It’s long, widespread tradition as a part of medicinal treatment and ceremonial use have carried its story through the centuries.

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Although most popularly used in South America, Palo Santo can be found at the root of many folkloric traditions dating back centuries. Many of these traditions directly relate to healing or cleansing power of the wood. Palo Santo is the Spanish word for the tree (Bursera graveolens), which is part of the Burseraceae family like frankincense and myrrh. Palo Santo literally translates to ‘Holy Wood’ which denotes how important it is in healing practices.

Palo Santo is usually treated and then burned either by directly inhaling it by the person looking to be cured or cleansed or as a fumigant to cleanse larger spaces and groups. It has also been used in teas and orally through an essential oil.

Cleansing a space with Palo Santo is a fairly simple process. First, you light one end of a palo santo stick on fire (or, if you have a small bundle multiple ends), blow out the fire after a few seconds to produce the smoke, and then guide the smoke towards and throughout the space, you are looking to cleanse.

Palo Santo is often used before a more intense ritual or at the beginning of a ritual in order to prepare the space/body and usually amplifies the positivity in the space. In addition to cleansing a space, Palo Santo also helps to attract and sustain positive energy in a space, thus making it an even more desirable cleansing tool since it is able to harness and amplify ‘the good.’

As far as use, Palo Santo trees are still very populous in South America and buying Palo Santo sticks and/or bundles is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than something like sage. In fact, it is believed that the best and most potent Palo Santo wood is gathered from branches and trees that have already fallen, instead of freshly felled trees.

Picture taken by wikimedia commons user, liscensed under CC by 3.0.


Many people have heard of smudging, but what about Saining? I’m not talking about the kind of saining you did as a fourth grade experiment but the spiritual kind. Saining, in this sense of the word, is focused on a Scottish blessing and protecting and is usually seen as a protective charm.

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Traditional saining rites are similar to other rites around the world and usually focus on water, smoke, and repetition. In general, saining practices serve a very simple purpose: to remove influences of negative spirits. The goal of saining is to help safeguard the health, well-being, and general spirit of an individual or household.

Similar to Smudging from Native American practice, Saining rituals can include smoke. Instead of sage, juniper is used. Juniper was readily available and usually able to be burned in large enough quantities to create enough smoke to sain an entire home. Sometimes, when gathering juniper, it was said picking it in a certain way made it better for saining. For example, they should be pulled by the roots then made into four bundles and carried home between each finger while repeating:

“I will pull the bounteous yew,

Through the five bent ribs of Christ,

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,

Against drowning, danger, and confusion.”

However, saining with fire is not the only when to sain. On each Quarter Day and several festivals it was suggested one should sain their doorways and walls of their home with saining water, specifically ‘magic water.’ Magic water is typically water that has been in contact with gold or silver, or been spit in by members of the household. Usually this water was taken from a stream that both the living and dead were believed to have crossed. The water would then be sprinkled throughout the house, all the windows and crevices would be scrubbed, and saying a charm like the one above. Some left over water would be saved and poured over a fire to create smoke to fill the home.

Saining was often carried through several times during the year but almost always on New Years Day to establish protection and clean energy for the coming year.

The above image comes from cogdogblog and is licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The Strength of Garlic

Most people know garlic as a popular ingredient in many delicious dishes, some people know garlic as a way to ward off vampires, but not many people know the power and folklore behind this flavorful bulb.

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Although garlic seems to have originated in Central Asia there are now wild varieties worldwide and it has been grown, used, and consumed for some 5,000 years. For those 5,000 years, it seems it has been a prominent element of folklore and spells. For example, in Indian, it is said the garlic came from a drop of amrita (similar to ambrosia) left behind by the Garuda, a giant bird, while he was sleepy and a little careless. Garuda is said to drive away black magic, negative spirits, evil incantations, and even has the power to remove all poisonous effects in one’s body. The Bowers Manuscript featuring Buddhist medical treatments states that the first garlic in the world appeared where a demon’s blood fell, which seems to give the food a strange power.

And, according to the ever-prolific Pliny the elder garlic and onions were invoked as deities by the ancient Egyptians when they took oaths. This was later supported when archaeologists often found clay garlic bulbs placed in Egyptian tombs and pyramids for the dead to use in the next life.

The Ancient Greeks also treated garlic with an elevated sense of purpose. Those going on long journeys or passing crossroads at night would place or bury garlic at crossroads. Why? As a dinner for Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, ghost, and necromancy, to gain her trust and protection. They also believed that garlic could use to ward against the gaze of the evil eye. Many ancient Greeks would wear a triangle-shaped amulet containing coal, salt, and garlic to keep the gaze off of them.

As you can see garlic has a long and storied history of being so much more than simply  a ward against vampires. But, of course, it is most well known in the magical world to ward off vampires. The link between garlic and warding off vampires is likely because of garlic’s power against general evil. In addition, garlic is believed to repel bloodsucking insects. Perhaps when rubbing garlic on themselves or putting it around their homes people realized fewer mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers were hanging about. So, if they covered themselves in garlic and it work against mosquitoes...perhaps it could work against much bigger bloodsuckers.

But, perhaps people were onto something when it comes to garlic and its ability to ward off evil. During plague years, many people used garlic to ward off the evil of the disease.  A team of scientists from Washington State University, Pulman, realized that when people believed they were protecting themselves from an evil they really were protecting themselves from disease.

Coauthor Xiaonan Lu writes, "While previous studies have validated that volatile thiosulfinates, a group of intermediate, unstable and volatile bioactive sulfur-containing compounds, have antimicrobial activity against Helicobacter pylori, our result demonstrated that the garlic-derived organosulfur compounds have the potential to be used as antimicrobial agents."

The focus of this study was on Campylobacter jejuni, which is known to be the most prevalent cause of bacterial food-borne illness in the world. It caused symptoms that often been linked to vampirism such as abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea, and leukocytes. So, the history of using garlic to fight “evil” which was linked to disease actually has a grounding in science

The above image is available under Creative Commons it is by

The Coptic Spell Book

Grimoires, magic book, spell book...whatever you call them these strange and mysterious tomes have been rumored of and spoken about for centuries. Whether they are playfully depicted in movies like Hocus Pocus or were used as a reason to steal people from their homes in the middle ages on claims of illegal witchcraft, you’ve probably stumbled upon a story of a spell book in one form or another in your life. But, what about when those spell books are discovered?

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Also known as ‘An Egyptian Handbook of Ritual Power’, the Coptic Spell Book is a scroll full of invocations and spells. It gets its common name, the Coptic Spell ook, because of the language it was written in. Coptic is an Egyptian language that is based on the Greek alphabet augmented with letters borrowed from Demotic, the first alphabetic script used for the Egyptian language. The book itself dates back to, approximately, the 8th century BCE and likely originated in Upper Egypt. Researchers classify it as a codex and it made from 20 bound pages of parchment.

The text was originally discovered in 1981 when a researcher was going through the extensive papyrus collection at Macquarie University and it was recently translated by Malcolm Choat and Ianin Garnder.

The book seems to be laid out purposefully. It begins with a series of invocations which eventually culminate in drawings and words of power. These invocations are followed by spells to cure various ailments, spiritual issues (including possessions), and finally spells to bring about desirable things like success in love and business.

Surprisingly, the Coptic Spell Book contains links to Christianity. Many of the invocations are actually Orthodox Christian invocations. However, it’s main focus seems to be Sethian. Sethians were a group that held that Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, in high regard. The book also calls upon Baktiotha, who is an ambivalent figure. However, according to Live Science, “The researchers believe that the invocations were originally separate from 27 of the spells in the codex, but later, the invocations and these spells were combined, to form a "single instrument of ritual power.”

Who was this codex created for? It would not necessarily need to be a priest, monk, or another religious figure. Perhaps it could be used by those outside the ranks of the clergy or religious world. I certainly think this is a possibility because of the spells included, especially towards the end. While it would make sense to include healing spells and cures to ailments to a religious text for religious use, I think the addition of things like success and lay spells indicates lay-person usage.

The above image is entitled Museo Archeologico - Milan. It is liscensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 and was taken by Jose Luiz Bernardes Riberio.

The 'swallow your soul' EVP

Hey folks. This is Scott. I’m stepping into Tess’s blog domain here because I want to make a quick statement regarding the “I’ll swallow your soul” (henceforth SYS) EVP. As we indicated during the episode, we are well aware that the character Henrietta says this line in Sam Raimi’s  Evil Dead II. To be more specific, she said it five times before he cut off her head spectacularly. Well, she said it a few times even after that.

The line was not in the first Evil Dead, and it was not in the third film, Army of Darkness either. After Army of Darkness, our hero, Ash, was ported over to an original series on Starz called, Ash vs. Evil Dead.  That series ran for three seasons, but sadly for fans, Bruce Campbell has gone on record saying he’s ready to move on from playing Ash so there will not be a fourth season.

The iconic line was uttered twice in the course of Ash vs. Evil Dead’s 3 season run. Once in the first 2 minutes of the season finale of the first season entitled  “The Dark One.” Then again in the first minute or so of episode one of the third season, entitled  “Family.”

I’ve compared the SYS EVP to all of Henrietta’s lines in Evil Dead 2, as well as the Season Finale of the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, but was unable to find a streamable version of episode 1 from season 3. I found that none of the five times Henrietta said it, nor one of those two times I could find it in the Starz series matched the voice, delivery, and quality of the one in the SYS EVP. So that’s the first observation I wanted to share.

Regarding the timeline of the SYS EVP as it relates to the Evil Dead franchise; Evil Dead came out in 1981 but did not have that line in it. Evil Dead 2, which did feature that line 5 times, came out in 1987. Ash vs. Evil Dead did not appear on Starz until 2015.

The SYS EVP, recorded in March of 2005, eighteen years after Evil Dead II, and ten years before Ash vs. Evil Dead. Evil Dead II is a possible inspiration for the line by that logic, but not the Starz series if the file dates are accurate. We have not personally verified them, but have no reason to doubt their veracity at this point.

That particular file is among hundreds of EVP files associated with it, all from the Sallie House, that has been shared with us by the Pickman family. By their admission, they’re not organized in the best way because they are from multiple investigations, by various investigators with varying degrees of standards for terminology and categorization. The Pickmans themselves were involved in some but not all of them. However, 99 percent of the EVPs are labeled with the date they were recorded. Is that easy to change?  Sure. We have not as of yet explored metadata on the source files, and our timestamps were all updated in the process of moving the data around in our archives. But manually entering random dates in a couple of hundred EVP file names is some diligent hoax work there if that’s what folks are doing. Knowing the Pickman’s as I do at this point, I am not of the mind that the dates of all of those EVPs are made up. I do not believe that.

The Kansas Paranormal Group collected the SYS EVP  during an investigation. The voice in it is not the voice of anyone who was present. We’ve found numerous cases recently of peoples own voices appearing in EVPs, and I’ll point to the presence of what sounds like a version of my voice in File 10 during a time when I was not even in the room. To be clear the Pickman family was closely associated with KPG, but as far as we can tell the group at this time is no longer particularly active. The investigation that captured the SYS EVP was, after all, 13 years ago.

As I said, the SYS EVP is only one of probably over 200 that we have right now. I’m not going to pretend I’ve heard them all, but I’ve listened to several dozen and while I don’t always listen to what the person who captured it thought was there, MOST of the time I do. We all know how that works so take that with a grain of salt, but here’s some of what the other EVP’s we have been saying.

1) “There was a boy there.”

2) “Take it to him, Margaret.”

3) “Now you are one of us.”

4) “Can’t keep warm.”

5) “It’s Murphy’s Law.”

6) “Thomas do you want some sun.”

7)  An apology after a camera turns off saying, “Sorry about that.”

8) “Did somebody already take the rabbits.”

9) “Deep Unknown”

10) “Here’s another seer.”

11) “I’m a little bit scared.”

12) “I’m not putting anything back.”

13) “Tell Everyone.”

14) “There’s something else. Don’t hurt him.”

There are at least 150 more. We’re going to go through all of those EVPs as time allows an attempt to help the Pickman’s organize them for posterity.

So, yes, the  ’swallow your soul’ EVP is in a cult classic horror film and later TV series. The EVP reportedly being recorded after the former and before the latter. Do I think that whatever is there might have said it anyway? Yes. I believe it’s a prankster with a dark, twisted and sometimes sick and evil sense of humor. By 2005, multiple investigation teams had been in and out of that house. We could go so far as to say that no one knows how many people had been in and out of there doing God knows what. The Pickmans moved out 15 years prior. It’s easy to imagine people paying for access, going in there with a few beers and even watching Evil Dead II inside the house to see what would happen. Could that thing that is there have seen that scene? Maybe also loved it? Yeah. Do I think it would find a way to repeat it back because it knows what scares people? Yes. Why? Because it is sentient and it feeds on fear; correction, it feasts on fear.

The other thing that EVPs do all over the world, not just in The Sallie House, is mimic. They mimic the people in the room. They mimic the people doing investigations. So why can’t they mimic media? I’ll also add, that when it comes to scary things to say, “swallow your soul” is not exactly the most original line in the world. I’d ding both Sam Raimi and the entity at the Sallie House on that one, and frankly, it plays into the clumsy nature of how these things communicate in the first place. They aren’t great at it.

I think the other thing that makes this one so unusual, especially for our audience, is how clear it is. It’s in an entirely different class from our File 10 EVP, but it’s a well known class and certainly not exclusive to The Sallie House. But it does fall into that danger zone of the picture that’s too clear so it must be fake! Although some could say that File 10 is the picture that’s ‘too blurry’. I digress.

I suppose my overall point is this: even if that SYS EVP is an exact match for a line in a movie or TV show, having been in that house, it will take more than that at this point for me to rule it out as authentic. Additionally, just because you can find an instance of dialog in an EVP that was said somewhere else, does not mean it’s not authentic.  You should also keep in mind that if you hear a particular phrase from a piece of media, that’s not necessarily where it originated.

If this one were proven a hoax somehow, it would not negate the other couple hundred EVP’s we have in our possession now, all the years of other evidence, including the photos, nor of course the EVP that I got. The mountain of evidence in our possession right now involved dozens of people if not more from all walks of life. Could someone have been up to something? Sure. But even if that were the case, it would not change what I believe about what is in that place.

With any other house, or maybe other people providing evidence that I don’t know, I would be more doubtful. Not this place.


November 20th, 2018

The above image is an 1866 painting Dancing Fairies by A Malmström. This work is in the public domain.

Samhain: An Overview

According to Celtic lore, the year is divided into two halves, the dark half and the light half. The dark half begins on November 1st and is marked by Samhain. It was on the day of Samhain where the veil between this world and the otherworld was believed to be thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.

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Like Hallow’s Eve, Samhain is also an ‘eve.’ Samhain preparations and celebrations begin early on Samhain Eve. Since Samhain marks the end of summer, families usually begin the day with an intense fall cleaning so they could begin winter with a fresh, clean home.

Like many things, Samhain is all about balance. There were both good and bad spirits that could visit them during Samhain. Family’s ancestors and loved ones were welcomed into the homes of the living and celebrated while costumes, masks, and other creations were used to disguise and scare off the spirits that wished to do harm.

The colors orange and black also have their origin in Samhain. The black represents the time of darkness and, according to some sources, the death of god(s) (linked to the sabbat Lughnasadh) and the orange symbolizes the hope of the coming dawn during Yule when god is reborn. Some believe Jack-o’-lanterns also have their beginnings in Samhain when turnips and gourds were carved into scary faces, hollowed out, and lit up with a candle in some cases. The horrific faces were meant to scare away bad spirits. However, there is also the belief that light leads spirits to the afterlife (which is why bonfires and lanterns are important to Samhain).

As quoted in Time, “According to historian Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Samhain was a “time of stock-taking and perhaps sacrifice” — including probably animal sacrifice — during which “pastoral communities [prepared] to survive the winter.”

Although some sacrifices were made they weren’t gruesome or uncommon for the time period. Typically crops and sometimes livestock would be burned in bonfires. These were offerings for the other side as a way to protect against evil and gain favor from the more malicious spirits that may try to malign or hurt the community.

Bonfires also raged throughout the night. All of the community would come by the bonfire and enjoy food, drink, and dancing. Some members of the community would wear costumes, usually dressing up as fearsome animals, as a way to scare bad spirits away from the community.

Because the veil was so thin it was also a popular time for human tricks. Many people played tricks, pranks, or got up to other mischievous business and instead of taking responsibility for these actions they were often blamed on fairies and spirits which were running rampant.

In addition to tricks, Samhain was also supposed to be the best time to try your hand at divination. Divination was accomplished in a variety of ways such as throwing bones, reading tea leaves, and other means. Or, people who would not normally want or desire their future told feel the need to find out or ask by the light of the bonfire.

In the 800s AD, due to the Christianization of Britain, the early Church attempted to take Celtic festivals and Christianize them. Pope Boniface IV called November 1st (Samhain) All Saints Day which had similar themes of honoring the dead and preparing for the winter. October 31st (Samhain Eve) was then named “All Hallows Eve”...and that would eventually phase into ‘Halloween.’

The above image is an 1866 painting Dancing Fairies by A Malmström. This work is in the public domain.

Where does Trick-or-Treating Come From?

Although Trick-or-Treating a very American practice the phrase itself dates all the way back to medieval Europe. Like many ancient celebrations, they occurred at specific times of year (which is why there are so many festivals and traditions worldwide from late September through early November). In fact, before it was trick-or-treating it was known as ‘Souling’ and later as ‘guising.’

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A common practice called ‘Souling' is reminiscent of Halloween. In its earliest form (and likely with pre-Christian roots) Souling entails leaving ‘soul-cakes’ a sweet, simple treat outside the home for departed souls to munch on (and leave those in the dwelling alone). However, this developed into a practice by the impoverished and later children. Impoverished people went ‘Souling’ going from day-to-day on November 1st singing ancient songs and prayers for the deceased a people’s doors. They would be rewarded for their songs and prayers with soul cakes (or other small loaves and quick bread). Later, children also joined in to get treats from those whose ancestors they sang and prayed for.

In Scotland and Ireland ‘guising’ was also popular. Unlike ‘Souling’ the young people would purposefully dress up and sing, juggle, recite poems, tell a joke, or perform some other kind of ‘trick’ to be rewarded with fruit, nuts, coins, or other small treats.

It was believed that these traditions of Souling and guising traveled with immigrants to America and began weaving themselves into the fabric of Halloween. However, the phrase trick-or-treat would not really take hold until the 1930s.

Although it got off to a bit of a rough start especially with the sugar-rationing of WWII by the early 1940s trick-or-treating, dressing up in costume, and asking for candy from the community became as popular and American as apple pie (which is to say, like apple pie trick-or-treating had a long and storied history before it became an American hallmark).

The above image is by Paul Sapiano. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Dia de Los Muertos

November 1st is for many a holiday that rivals Halloween in its power and personal meaning. Día de Los Muertos is Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1st through November 2nd. Día de Los Muertos is a time to commemorate death. Although it is often compared to Halloween there is nothing scary about Día de Los Muertos. In fact, it is a celebration that is imbued with love and remembrance of those that have gone.

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According to the National Hispanic Center, “Essential to Día de Los Muertos rituals and practices is the pre-Columbian belief in the universal duality of life; birth and death, light and dark, joy and pain are critical and necessary partners in the cycle our existence.” The basic premise of Día de Los Muertos is the belief that at midnight on October 31st the souls of the dead are able to reunite with their loved ones. Those who died in childhood are said to come on November 1st whereas adults come down November 2nd.

To celebrate their homecoming families construct colorful, merry altars in their homes. These altars are usually decorated with flowers, candles, their loved one’s favorite food, pictures of the deceased, the deceased’s favorite things, and pan de muerto. Pan de muerto is a sweet bread that is made specifically to celebrate Día de Los Muertos.

But, Día de Los Muertos is not just celebrated in the home. In fact, loved ones travel to cemeteries to picnic, play music, clean off the gravestones, dance, and sing to the departed. Some even will spend the night in the graveyard.

You may be wondering how Día de Los Muertos most unique and identifiable symbol, the Sugar Skull, came to be. They are called ‘Calavera Catrina’ now but before there were sugar skulls, there were Literary Calaveras. Calavera does mean skull but in the 18th and 19th century the most popular way to celebrate the dead on Día de Los Muertos was to write short, silly poems that sarcastically poked fun at the living.

This began to shift in the early 20th century thanks to Mexican political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. He created a design to go along with literary Calavera. In this design, he personified death as a feminine skeleton dressed decadently in French clothing. According to National Geographic, he meant it to act as “social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos Somos Calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our man-made trappings, we are all the same.”

In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured this fancy French skeleton in his famous painting, ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.’ He named her Catrina and ever since her colorful and extravagantly decorated skull has been made in sugar form.

In addition to celebrating at cemeteries, with home altars, and by sharing sugar skulls Día de LosMuertos also involves a larger celebration. Oftentimes, people dress up as skeletons, pain their face to mimic Calavera Catrina, and wear fancy clothes and costumes.

Today Día de Los Muertos is more popular than ever...but don’t confuse it for Halloween!

This image is from the Thacher Gallery. “Day of the Dead: Altar Building with Chisme y Comida.” Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jack-o’-Lantern: A Brief History

The word Jack-o’-Lantern has only been used since the early 19th century in American but the term dates back to 17th-century Britain, where it referred to a night watchman with a lantern tasked on keeping watch through the night. But, the use of gourds lit with candles goes back much farther than either of these terms.

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The history of the Jack-o’-Lantern is muddled with poor research and confusing accounts. Why? Well because a lot of the tradition occurred in times where recording traditions like this weren’t very common.

Although pumpkins are the Jack of choice these days turnips, in pre-Christian Britain, were the most popular Jack-o’-Lanterns. However, beets and other smaller gourds were also popular Jacks to use. The early Jack-o’-Lantern had a similar function to a man with a lantern. During Samhain, which is believed to be when the lanterns were used the most, however, it is not unthinkable that it could be used during other time of the year. These turnips and other vegetables were carved with the most frightening faces a person could imagine. The scarier the better because it was the person’s hope that these carvings would scare away the spirits that would wander by their homes when the veil was thin. These faces were also sometimes illuminated by coals.

There is also the myth of Stingy Jack which is also linked to Jack-o’-Lanterns. In Ireland, ages ago, there lived a man named Stingy Jack. Based on name alone I’m sure you can guess he wasn’t a very fun fellow. He was known as the town drunkard and on top of that he often lied, cheated, stole, and played countless pranks on unsuspecting townsfolk. Every night he would walk down the pub and drink until he was kicked out.

One night on his evening sojourn to the pub he came across a grotesque and inhuman body lying on the ground. This frightening body was that of the Devil who had come to collect Jack’s soul and bring him to the depths of hell. Shocked, Jack requested one more earthly delight...another drink.

The Devil, surprisingly, agreed. So, they both walked to the pub and Jack ordered a drink. When he had finished his ale he turned to the Devil and with some unknown confidence requested the Devil pay the tab. The Devil was equally shocked at this request and wanting to continue the fun he transformed himself into a sixpence so he could walk over and give it to the bartender...but Jack didn’t pay.

Instead, he slid the six-pence piece into his pocket right next to his crucifix. Being so close to a crucifix trapped the Devil and lessened his powers. Having all the power, Jack decided to make a deal with the Devil...he’d let the Devil out of his pocket but only if he promised his spare his soul for another decade. The Devil agreed.

Ten years pass and a scene much like his first meeting with the Devil occurs. Jack, knowing his time was up, agreed but made one more request. He requested to eat one more able from a nearby apple tree. The Devil, pleased at this simple request, agreed and climbed up a tree. As he was climbing and distracted, Stingy Jack cunningly carved a cross into the tree with his knife. The Devil was stuck...again. And Jack had another barter. The Devil had to promise to never take his soul to hell. The Devil agreed.

Stingy Jack finally died after a long life of drinking and debauchery. He was turned away at the gates of heaven but was unable to go to Hell, either. So, he was doomed to wander alone. The Devil, strangely, felt something for the cunning man who had eluded him twice and gave Jack a single, burning ember to help light his way through the dark.

When Jack came upon a turnip he hollowed it out, placed the ever-burning ember inside, and created a lantern that would forever guide his way through the darkness of the netherworld. It was then he lost his nickname Stingy Jack and gained a new one...Jack of the Lantern.

So how did it come back in the 19th century? Well, Halloween used to be epically pranky. One of the most popular pranks involved carving faces into pumpkins and then using those pumpkin heads to scare people in the dead of night.

At the end of the 19th century, their attractiveness and symbology of Halloween took hold in America and they became a common decoration.

The above image is from Flickr user Benny Mazur. It is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Nos Galan Gaeaf

You might know November 1st as a day to celebrate All Souls Day or Días De La Muerta but there is another holiday that also takes place on November 1st: Calan Gaeaf. Calan Gaeaf is a Welsh holiday. Like Halloween the day before Calan Gaeaf was called Nos Galan Gaeaf or Spirit Night.


Similar to our understanding of Halloween and traditions that shaped Halloween it is believed that Nos Galan Gaeaf is the time when the veil is the thinnest between the living and the dead. On Nos Galan Gaeaf it is suggested that you avoid all places where spirits are likely to gather such as churchyards, graveyards, and crossroads.

One of the popular albeit morbid games often played was called Coelcerth. Families would build massive fires and place stones in the fires with their names on it. If any of the stones were unable to be found it was believed that it would mean that the person whose stone was missing would die within a year.

Nos Galan Gaeaf was also a time to celebrate the second harvest and the stored food that would see the people through their winter. A harvest feast was typically had and there were dancing and frolicking into the night.

In North and South Wales there are two different focuses of Nos Galan Gaeaf that bringing together bring together two important parts of the world, black and white, together. In the south, there is the focus of ‘Ladi Wen’, also known as a Lady in White. Although this Lady in White isn’t our typical Resurrection Mary because Ladi Wen has no head. In the North, there is ‘nwch ddu gwta’ which presented a black sow without a tail. Together they would roam all of Wales together on the night of Nos Galan Gaeaf. They were two terrifying beings so if you weren’t by a raging outdoor fire, in a barn, home, or another dwelling you might be in serious trouble.

Nos Galan Gaeaf was also a good night to try and test future-telling. It was said that boys could ten ivy leaves throw away one and put the rest under his head before he sleeps to see his future. Girls should train a wild rose to grow into a hoop then on Nos Galan Gaeaf she should climb through it three times, cut it in complete silence, and go to bed with its length under her pillow.

Around the 18th century as Wales grew less and less rural the traditions of Nos Galan Gaeaf began to die away. However, Nos Galan Gaeaf night is still not wholly forgotten and remains a night to think about strange spectres, headless wraiths, and foreboding tailless sows.

The above image is unrelated to the story and is by Flickr user aseop. It is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Folklore Behind Bobbing for Apples

A common Halloween party tradition is bobbing for apples. But, how did this strange tradition begin? While it is a fun party game today its origins and development can be traced back to the Samhain festival, ancient Rome, and has its roots in divination.

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The Romans originally brought apples to the Celtic people when they covered Britain. One of the many things they brought with them were the apple trees and a goddess of beauty and fertility, Pomona. The Celtic people had been celebrating Samhain long before the Romans came and the Romans saw a way to blend the two cultures through apples.

When the Celts first encountered apples they couldn’t help but notice that when you cut an apple in half its seeds form a pentagram. The pentagram in Celtic culture was a fertility symbol and since Pomona, the Roman goddess represented by the apple tree is also a fertility goddess apples seem to be a highly potent fertility symbol.

They also have some pretty serious implications. Atlas Obscura points out, “bobbing for apples is sometimes called dooking or douking for apples, the same word used to describe dunking a woman in water to test if she might be a witch.”

During Samhain, it was believed that bobbing for apples could be a divination tool. Back then, bobbing for apples was for a very specific set of people: unmarried young people. Young unmarried people would try to bite into an apple and it could either be floating in water or hanging from a string (it is usually called snap apple when on a string). It was said the first person to bite into an apple would be the next one to marry. This is the most simplistic take on the tradition.

But, the game doesn’t have to be over when one person gets the apple. The game can also be held en masse. For example, if multiple young, unwed people are bobbing at once the moment they catch one they could peel it quite carefully and then wrap the peeling (all in one ribbon) around their head. Once they’ve wrapped it they are to throw it over their shoulder. Once the peel is flung the shape it lands in will be representative of the first letter of their true love’s first name.

Ann English tradition-spin on bobbing for apples doesn’t really look like the classic bucket full of water and apples. In fact, apples are strung up and then twirled so they spin in front of a lit fireplace. The order the apples fall will tell the order in which the people that hung them will be married.

Other times the divination aspect is slightly altered because the young names of those bobbing would also be written or etched into the apples. So, if you watched carefully enough you could aim to snag the apple with your lover’s or crush’s name!

Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. It is liscensed in the public domain.

The Hungry Ghost Festival

Now that we’re just one week away from Halloween I wanted to change up #Blogstonishing a bit. This last week will focus on exploring Halloween traditions and similar celebrations in other cultures. We’re starting with The Hungry Ghost Festival. The Hungry Ghost Festival starts a few months before Halloween but shares many similarities.

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The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place on the 15th night of the 7th Chinese month, which is usually in mid-to-late August. However, sometimes it is held in early September. Also known as Yu Lan it has its roots in Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. On this day the gates to the spirit world are opened and the deceased are permitted to walk the earth once again. In fact, Anven Wu Yim-ching, a director the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organizations, says “It can be just like Halloween,” and even included a Ghost Festival costume contest in 2015.

Similar to early Western conceptions and festivals (and what would later come to form Halloween) The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place in a liminal space where the dead have free reign over the living world once again. It is the practice to make offerings in order to appease and pacify these ghosts and ensure the living’s safety.

Hungry Ghost Festivals have their origin in the Ullambana Sutra. According to this sutra one of Buddha's disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana, learned that his mother who had passed away had been reborn as a hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts, according to legend, are beings with huge stomachs but their mouths are too small and their neck too thin to take in enough food and so they live with an insatiable craving. Some believe that you can become a hungry ghost is you live a life of gluttony, obsession or addiction. Mahamaudgalyayana tried to ease his mother’s suffering but when he offered her food it transformed into burning coals. So, he turned to the Buddha to learn how to help his mother.

Buddha told him that on the 15th day of the 7th month the Buddhist community should fill bowls with fruits and other food. In addition to physical food spiritual offerings of incense and candles should also be made. Then, they should place the bowls of food in front of an altar and recite prayers en masse. The ghosts who arise will receive the food and be blessed for a hundred years.

When the ghosts of your ancestors arise on this day it is important to make offerings to them. Should you ignore Ghost Month and especially the Hungry Ghost Festival your ancestors might curse, haunt, or otherwise malign you. Popular gifts include Zhizha (hell money, which dates backs to 1000 BC) which should be burned so it can be transported to the underworld and ghosts can use it as they please.

According to Terence Hang, a sociologist from the Singapore Institute of Technology, “Individuals now purchase and burn whatever is fashionable to consume in a contemporary, globalized society. One can get hold of paper iPads, paper credit cards, paper Rolls Royces, and more.” Paper effigies of everything from popular beers to TVs can be found and offered.

However, real food is still used. If you are going to use real wood you should place fresh food outdoors near your home (maybe on a porch or balcony). During this time of year, according to Louise Hung, “For the entire ghost month, my street in West Kowloon was never without takeaway boxes of food placed on the sidewalk after dark. Some laid out red cloth or flowers for the food to sit on, others placed bottles of water or beer alongside the offerings. It was all about giving people’s ancestors their favorite foods, or pleasing passing spirits so they wouldn’t bother the inhabitants of someone’s home or shop.” She noted that she rarely saw leftovers or trash left out in the morning, save for a few food items that may have gotten run over in the night.

Now that we have learned what to do during Hungry Ghost Month Louise Hung provides on the blog, Order of the Good Death, a list of things to avoid during this month:

1) Don’t begin a new job, get a new home, get married, be born, or do anything new during ghost month. Your new beginning may be doomed. If you have to be a special snowflake and be born during ghost month, only celebrate your birthday during the daylight hours.

2) Ghosts are drawn to red, so don’t wear red or else a ghost may attach itself to you.

3) Don’t pee on a tree. A ghost may be living in that tree.

4) Always close exterior doors, you don’t want to invite in wandering ghosts.

5) Don’t lean on walls – ghosts stick to walls.

6) Never disturb a ghost’s food and offerings. If you do, apologize profusely.

7) The night is not yours during ghost month, it’s for the dead. Unless it’s in honor of them, don’t do things outside after dark.

I have also read on various other sites (sources linked above) that you should not buy a house during this time, enter a romantic relationship, or make big moves (like a marriage proposal or trying to start a family) within an existing romantic relationship.

The above image is licensed in the public domain. It is entitled the Second section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. This particular section explains how those who have been born as hungry ghosts are saved by the offerings of the living. It relates the story of one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seek water to drink. The central scene of this section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker for the ullambana festival for the dead. The whole scroll has been designated as National Treasure of Japan in the category paintings. It was possibly part of a set of scrolls depicting the six realms which were kept at Sanjūsangen-dō.

Messages from the Grave

Cemeteries allow a host of meaning and activities to be grafted upon them. For some, they are a beautiful, bucolic place to memorialize loved ones, for others it is a place to go ghost hunting and catch a scare, others treat it as a place to learn more about the past, and for even mit is a final resting plce. Living human beings place many more activities, meanings, and symbolism onto graveyard and cemeteries...but what about the meaning that gravestones are showing us?

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Why shouldn’t we analyze headstones, cemeteries, and graveyards from the last 300 or so years with a similar care and interest that we show to burial mounds and graveyards of thousands of years past? How we mark our dead is a cultural phenomena that is easy to overlook and even easier not to think about...for who among us wants to plan the design of our tombstone? So springs the study, analysis, and interpretation of cemetery art. These symbols - from crosses to flowers - can tell us even more about the deceased than the written inscription on their stone. This is especially important when so much of the writing has become unreadable or never existed in the first place.

One of my favorite that I had come across was something I had seen several times before, but never quite understood it: a torch turned upside down. Why put such a puzzling image to mark someone’s final resting place? Well, because it symbolizes eternal life. How? Because despite it’s inverted position, the flame continues to burn on in defiance of natural laws. Perhaps people buried under these symbols were visionaries.

Plants and animals also play into the symbolism. For example, roosters and dolphins signify a resurrection. Lambs usually indicate the death of a child whereas owls symbolize wisdom and old age. Oaks highlight supernatural power, violets highlight faithfulness, and wreaths mean victory in death.

Another favorite was the butterfly. Perhaps it is my own bias peeking through but I always think butterflies seem quite cheesy. However, the Greek word for butterfly is “psyche.” If you’ve ever dabbled in Greek philosophy, you might know that psych is also the greek word for soul. To take it even a step further butterflies begin life as caterpillars, cocoon themselves (almost as if in a coffin), and remerge as butterflies. In a strange way, is the grave acting as some sort of cocoon for a grander experience?

Even more interesting, according to 99% Invisible, “Others symbols are tied to orders, institutions and professions, like stumps associated with the Woodmen of the World; squares and compasses with Masonic orders; a mortar and pestle with pharmacists; a palette and brush with artists; anvils with blacksmiths; anchors with sailors; and linked chains with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.” Continuing on tha idea, Eagles often symbolize a military career.

Another element I find interesting are all the different symbols that hands in different positions can mean. Clasped hands are usually linked to faith and prayer. A hand with a pointed finger (either upwards or downwards) indicates mortality, a downward hand can also specifically represent a sudden or unexpected death. A hand holding a heart usually represents charity, whereas a hand holding a book highlights the “embodiment of faith.”  

What other symbols have you noticed are prevalent in cemeteries and graveyards? What do you think they could mean?



This image of the German cemetery in Sighișoara, Romania, taken by Myrabella. It is liscensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Is There Such a Thing as a Welcome Ghost

Link to original article  Is there a world where ghost children aren’t terrifying? Well, defying all belief lies the zashikiwarashi lore in Japan. The zashikiwarashi, otherwise known as a child ghost, are supposed to bring good luck to all who see them. The living inhabitants of the house often welcome zashikiwarashi, as they typically bring good fortune, despite being a little mischievous.

A lucky homeowner, Mashairo, from Japan caught one of his little houseguests on Facebook and the viewcount has already surpassed a half a million views.

The video shows the front room of Mashario’s home and an eerily translucent child-like figure cross the room from one end to the other.

Many have doubts about the video, for example, the camera angle seems a bit strange and unnatural, the high “quality” of the potential ghost, and the strange music playing in the background all contribute to the skepticism of this strange video. But, it is an interesting clip nonetheless.

Whatever you may believe, give the video a look because, like the lore says, you may just get lucky.

The Nurikabe Strikes at Night, Blocking your Path

Since there's very little happening on the internet today, we thought we'd give you a Holiday Gift!

We recently stumbled across talented artist Matthew Meyer's blog where he posts his original art work regularly. We became quite intrigued with his depictions of Japanese Yokai. Yokai are a class of super-natural monsters in Japanese Folklore and there are many, many of them in all kinds of forms, but the one that caught our eye today was the Nurikabe. It's at once a little comical and also frightening. We'll let you read Matthew's description of it below, and when you finish, check out his Yokai-a-day series, which he does every October in honor of Halloween. You can also go to his other site where he's creating an illustrated database of the yokai and read about the Nurikabe there as well. It's fair to say he's an expert on yokai as he is currently living in Japan researching them extensively and we're hoping he might be a guest on the show at some point.

When you're done, if you like this stuff, check out Matt's book The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons,  with original illustrations and background on them. In 2015, he's self-publishing a crowd-funded sequel via Amazon entitled, The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits which will feature 125 new yokai, including the Nurikabe.

Here's Matthew's original blog entry, a link to his Facebook page, and Twitter account as well.

A-Yokai-A-Day: Nurikabe

Originally Posted on

Sunday October 14th, 2012

Today’s yokai is extremely well-known and popular in Japan, made famous by Mizuki Shigeru’s yokai stories. However, like many of Mizuki’s works, it has its history way back in the ghost stories of the Edo period. If we look back at the original monster scroll paintings that started the whole Edo period yokai mania, we’ll find that nurikabe has changed quite a bit from his original form to the cute character most people know today. Many yokai have changed such, and their original forms were much scarier or more grotesque.


Nurikabe (塗壁)

Nurikabe means “lacquered wall” and also the word for a plaster wall today. It comes from coastal regions of Japan, and was originally an invisible, wall-like manifestation that blocked people from walking late at night. Like most other invisible yokai, it was given a spectacular form by imaginative painters, and since then it has been depicted in various styles.

One of the most famous depictions of a nurikabe comes from a scroll by Kanō Tōrin Yoshinobu painted in 1802. I think his nurikabe looks kind of like a mix between an elephant and the luck dragon from The NeverEnding Story… Others have painted him as simply a broad face on the surface of a house’s wall, almost like a kind of wall tsukumogami.

Nurikabe appear on roads late at night. As you are walking, right before your eyes, an enormous, invisible wall materializes and blocks your way. There is no way around it, as it extends as far as you can go to the left and right. There is no way over it, and it cannot be knocked down either. However, it is said that if you tap it near the ground with a stick, it will vanish, allowing you to continue on your way.

In some locations, nurikabe is thought to be a manifestation of a mischievous itachi or tanuki. In the case of a tanuki, the wall itself is the animal’s enormous scrotum (!) stretched out across the road to block your way. Imagine bumping into that! (Though it does help explain why hitting the part near the ground would make it disappear… ouch!)

Are you interested in yokai? Can’t get enough of strange Japanese culture? Then you should check out Matthew's book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, on and learn the story behind over one hundred of these bizarre monsters!