A time of restless spirits and creatures of the night

Beware … the season of the dead is upon us.

While tomorrow is Halloween, some Christian beliefs consider the following day All Soul’s Day, or a day to commemorate the deceased, that they might “rest in peace.” It is a time when spirits of the dead supposedly return to commune with the living. In recognition, family members leave offerings for the spirits, attend festivals while dressed in costumes, and decorate the graves of deceased relatives.

All Soul’s Day coincides with the Day of the Dead, which is observed in Mexico and other Latin American countries every early November. As occasions honoring spirits of the departed, both are markedly similar to Halloween, which, of course, is recognized October 31 in the United States and western Europe.

Halloween revelry is based largely on folk beliefs concerning supernatural forces and spirits of the dead, while typical decor features imagery associated with bizarre beings like ghosts, vampires, witches and werewolves. Avowed creatures symbolizing bad omens, including black cats, bats, spiders and owls, are also commonplace.

Hence, as we enter into the season of the dead, a dreadful mysticism hangs heavily in the cold night air. Meanwhile, the arcane creatures that exemplify its meaning are forever among us.

In the realm of analytical thought, the tangible existence of ghastly ghouls, goblins, witches and werewolves is surely questionable, but no one can deny the true presence of certain, much maligned and misunderstood creatures of the night. Perhaps the most passable are black cats.

In many cultures, cats are worshipped as spiritual animals capable of sensing good and bad spirits. Some western mythology suggests black cats have special powers enabling them to represent apparitions or incarnated humans, thus connecting them to the occult. Old wives tales tell of cats sucking the breath from sleeping babies, while upon encountering a dead human body, a black cat will snatch its soul, turning the person into a vampire.

In the Middle Ages, black cats were often associated with witches and Satan. Many were hunted down, tortured and killed. During the annual feast of St. John’s Day, pure black cats were captured and burned alive, while through the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1231, those who knowingly protected cats from harm were sentenced to death. The Catholic Church once believed that the nocturnal wanderings and screeching of cats during the breeding season were signs of secret orgies and ceremonies with the devil.

Certainly, not all societies have considered cats — particularly black cats — evil or diabolical. Many, in truth, have historically seen them as beneficial, or the bearers of good fortune. In southern France, for instance, black cats are regarded as “magician’s cats,” which bring good luck to those who care for them and treat them well. While in some circles, a black cat crossing one’s path is a bad omen, in others it is a sign of good things to come.

Though seamen traditionally avoid the word “cat” at sea, many believe having one on board is lucky, especially if it is an all black cat. To throw it overboard would promptly cause a violent storm. Moreover, cats are rarely left aboard an abandoned ship, and are generally rescued along with the sailors.

Nevertheless, old superstitions persist. Due to reported widespread abuses, many humane societies now prohibit the adoption of black cats during the entire month of October. Most, in fact, advise families with black cats to keep them indoors always, or at least throughout the Halloween season.

Personally, my immediate live-in family consists of two humans and two black cats. Fraser is a 12-year-old Burmese mix with short all-black fur, and an exceedingly affable and affectionate disposition. The younger Bob, too, is a loving domestic short-hair with black fur, but has a small, yet distinct, white star on his chest.

Jackie and I adopted Fraser when he was just four months old, and have always kept him indoors or walked him on a leash. Now that he’s older and less likely to run off, he’s allowed to roam the yard freely, as long as one of us is nearby.

Bob, on the other hand, adopted us during the construction of our home and has always been an outdoor cat. Now, more than three years after he first walked up our driveway, he spends more time inside, yet still insists on going out daily. With foxes, coyotes, cougars and bobcats presumably on the prowl, we’ve always feared for his safety, but especially this time of year, with other … well … fiendish souls apparently lurking in the shadows, we dread his occasional cries for freedom at the front door.

In our minds, both Fraser and Bob have been the bearers of good fortune.

As black cats have suffered ill repute through the ages, so too have bats. With a thousand species equaling a quarter of all mammals on earth, bats aren’t exactly strangers to mankind. Nevertheless, they remain cloaked in mystery and secular mythology has conferred them similar ranking to their feline counterparts.

In the Far East, bats signify good luck, long life, happiness and fertility, but for thousands of years, people in western civilizations have associated them with darkness, evil and the underworld.

In the first millennium B.C., the Celts of western and central Europe celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a new year with a holiday called Samhain. Samhain began at sundown on October 31 and extended into the next day. According to the Celtic pagan religion (Druidism), spirits of those who died the previous year roamed the earth at that time.

To hold the spirits at bay, the Celts built bonfires at sacred hilltop sites and performed rituals, infrequently involving human and animal sacrifices. The fires, of course, attracted insects, which in turn, attracted bats. Because bats flew only at night and emerged from caves, tombs and abandoned churches, their linkage to evil spirits was inevitable.

Contrary to longstanding beliefs and superstition, bats are harmless to people. In Mexico, Central and South America, there have been rare occasions when one of three known species of vampire bats has bitten and drank the blood of humans. However, bites are painless, only small amounts of blood are consumed, and the “victims” invariably survive without turning into vampires themselves.

Other beasts symbolizing bad omens, including spiders and owls, are commonplace creatures in our physical world. Because most of each are predatory species and active at night, they have long been allied with the macabre.

In Colorado, the spider of most concern to humans is the Western Black Widow. If bitten by one, its neurotoxic venom effects excruciating pain in the limbs, a tightening of the stomach muscles, facial contortions, sweating, and other unpleasant symptoms. Victims are unlikely to die, but the level of discomfort experienced may make them wish they were dead. Fortunately, black widows are extremely timid and reluctant to bite, and highly effective antivenin is readily available, if needed.

A variety of owls grace the forests of southern Colorado, and all are nocturnal birds of prey. Again, because they fly at night on silent wings, Roman and Native American cultures have largely portrayed them as secretive and mysterious servants of evil. However, many other western civilizations have connected them to wisdom and prosperity.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau summarized owls when he wrote, “I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and underdeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all [men] have.”

Regardless of enduring attitudes toward creatures of the night, Halloween has become an exciting and entertaining rite of autumn. And, without a doubt, its most celebrated decoration is the jack-o’-lantern, or hollowed-out pumpkin carved to resemble a grotesque face.

The jack-o’-lantern derives its name from a character in Irish folk tales. The story tells of the soul of a deceased person named Jack being barred from both heaven and hell, and condemned to wander the earth in darkness, with just a lantern to light his way. To this day, it is said that Jack o’ the Lantern appears every Halloween.

Whether Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Day, legends suggest tomorrow begins the season of the dead. With restless spirits about … beware.

chuck@pagosasun.com