Halloween is almost upon us, and everywhere you look you'll see signs of people getting into the spirit of this spooky holiday. Black cats, owls, bats, spiders and other creatures of the night lurk everywhere.
But how did these animals come to be associated with this holiday? And do they deserve their evil or scary reputations?
Today, Halloween is a fun, light-hearted holiday that (economics aside) doesn't have a lot of significance in our daily lives.
However, it started out a little more ominously. Halloween had its beginnings at a time when man feared the coming of winter as a time of hardship and death. About 3,000 years ago, the Celtic peoples of the British Isles and Northern France paid tribute to Samhain, the Lord of Darkness and Death, with a three day celebration that began on Oct. 31.
During these days, it was thought that Samhain opened up the gates of the underworld, and goblins and other evil creatures roamed the earth.
They also believed the spirits of the dead roamed the land, so families would leave food out for their departed loved ones so they would not get angry and cause mischief. Great bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and to please kindly ones.
Many people wore costumes, especially those of animals, to avoid being recognized by unfriendly ghosts. Today, we still dress up in costumes, but for the somewhat different reason of going from house to house to collect the edible treats that each offers to placate mischievous "trick or treaters."
We still associate many animals with Halloween, but why?
Let's explore some of these "creepy creatures" a little more closely to see how they came to be associated with this eerie event.
Cats were feared by some as the souls of wicked people reincarnated, possibly because of their stealth and ability to see well at night. Later, cats became a symbol of witchcraft and were a common witch's "familiar," or special pet, whose shape the witch could assume.
Less frequently, the "familiar" was an owl, toad, spider, goose, or other animal. When animals were sacrificed to pagan gods, cats were a common target because of their association with witches.
Bats are also prevalent in Halloween lore.
What other explanation besides black magic could there have been for a mammal that flies? Today we know that bats are the only true flying mammal, and that they play a critical role in seed dispersal and pollination of many important tropical fruits (which would likely disappear without them), as well as consuming vast quantities of nocturnal insects. A single brown bat can catch up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour.
The twenty million Mexican free-tailed bats from one cave in Central Texas eat a quarter of a million pounds or more of insects in a single night. Bats are superb fliers with precise maneuverability and are no more likely to become tangled in your hair than they are to run into a brick wall.
Bats are common in Kansas, with 15 species found in our state.
Worldwide, there are nearly 1,000 species, with only three of the renowned vampire bat fame. The majority of bats eat insects, fruit, or other small animals. Vampire bats, incidentally, do consume blood, but they lap it up from an incision made with their tiny sharp teeth, rather than sucking it through fangs as traditional lore claims.
Spiders, another misunderstood and much maligned creature, are vital to the balance of nature and can claim much of the responsibility for keeping insect pests under control. Spiders consume about 30,000 tons of insects annually.
Of all the spider species known worldwide, only a handful are harmful to humans, and spider venom is increasingly being studied for beneficial uses in modern medicine. The large hairy tarantulas that cause the greatest panic actually have a bite no worse than a bee sting.
Another creature of the night, the owl, has an air of secrecy about it that makes it perfect for Halloween.
Like other nocturnal animals, we often fear what we can't see or don't understand.
The owl's silent flight, large luminous eyes and uncanny ability to snatch a mouse off the forest floor in total darkness only add to its mystical quality. In the darkness of night, the owl's eerie hoot may send shivers up your spine, and some cultures still believe it to be an omen of bad news or death. Some Native Americans respected the owl, believing it to be a guardian spirit or the reincarnation of a medicine man.
Other characteristics add to the owl's mystery. A sharp beak, formidable talons, incredible hearing and the perceived ability to swivel its head a full 360 degrees (which it can't actually do) may cause shudders in some or respect from others.
Many of the animals associated with modern fears and superstitions are rooted in such ancient customs that frequently we can't even remember how these beliefs came to be. Modern science has taken a lot of the mystery out of the creatures of the night that our ancestors once feared and worshipped.
This knowledge has allowed us to overcome our fears and learn to appreciate these fascinating animals for what they are, not to mention making Halloween a lot less stressful.
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