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Comets, Holloween and the Day of the Dead

Picture of the comet
A Comet Destined for Earth

Comets, Holloween and the Day of the Dead

The end of October and early November have always been dense with symbolical significance in quite a surprising number of traditions inherited from former times. We in the modern western world have seen a revival in the observance and celebration of Halloween, originating from a Celtic festival of the dead and a remembrance of ancestors who came before. As it is now constituted in its Christianized aspect, it is one third of the so-called Hallowmass Tridium, consisting of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, lasting from the evening of October 31 through Nov. 2. Contemporary perspective deprives Halloween of any meaning beyond that of an excuse for kids to gorge themselves on candy, and now adults too, to have an excuse to dress up in costumes and party. I remember a piece that I read in Parade magazine in 2010 that exemplified this reductionist view quite efficaciously. The article was entitled “Lessons from the Great Pumpkin.” This, of course, was a reference to the make-believe character imagined by Linus in the Peanuts comic strip. This is what the author, Eric Konigsberg, had to say about Halloween.

“The true genius of the Great Pumpkin may be the way it sends up other holiday parables by having a character seek deeper meaning in the sole holiday that has no real lesson to teach. Is there any other day we celebrate that is as empty of moral or historical significance? Halloween exists today simply so that kids can dress up, run around after dark, eat too much candy, and scare the pants off one another.”

That’s all there is to it in the mind of this author. However, with all due respect, he is completely clueless as to the real history of this ancient tradition, but apparently is under the impression that he knows enough to have an opinion that he expresses in a national publication. However, as you shall see, if you persevere in reading this article, and several more to come, there is much, much more to the matter than this writer has imagined.

So, by way of contrast, I would like to introduce you to the work of Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science and an active member of learned societies on both the North American and European continents. He wrote and published numerous papers and articles on science, history and politics. In the anthropological world he is probably best known for the discovery of an unknown tribe of Pygmies living in the Atlas region of northwestern Africa. For a period of time he was most popularly known for a lengthy paper he authored in 1868 entitled the Festival of the Dead. This work has, for the most part, been overlooked and forgotten by modern scholarship, but the discoveries described therein have assumed a renewed relevance for our time.

Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science
Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science

In the year 1859 Haliburton was visiting England and decided to prepare a paper to present before the Society of Antiquaries of London. He chose as a subject for his paper the customs connected with All Souls Day. After spending some time researching and gathering information Haliburton realized that, as he put it

“the coincidences in the observance of this festival by different nations were much more striking than I had supposed.”

As a result of this realization he spent a great deal of his spare time over the next 9 years engaged in the investigation of the origin of various festivals and customs from around the world associated with the dates around late October to November 2, and this research culminated in his 1868 paper.

It was when he came to the conclusion of his preparations for the 1859 paper that Haliburton realized something that apparently made a very powerful impression upon him. He describes this realization in the Introduction to his Festival of the Dead.

“. . .a new and most startling fact was discovered when I came to read over the paper I had prepared . . .it was singular that the festival of the dead amongst the ancient Peruvians was celebrated on the same day as by the Spaniards, viz. on All Souls Day, November 2nd. I had also considered this merely as a curious coincidence; but it was generally observed in November south as well as north of the equator, a fact so remarkable that it was evident that whatever could be the cause, it must be something hitherto unknown.


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