Here are some magic spells and rituals which were common at Halloween back in the day throughout the country

By Marion McGarry, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

Halloween has traditionally been an enjoyable festival celebrated in Irish homes. Marking the Eve of Samhain, the day before November 1st, Oíche Shamhna on October 31st is one of many festivals that Irish emigrants exported abroad, and so it took root across the world.

Most of us are familiar with the enduring Irish Halloween customs of dressing in disguise, playing games (such as "snap apple") and foods such as barmbrack and colcannon. Perhaps not so familiar are some of the divination and spells that could be practised at Halloween. You didn’t need to be a qualified witch or wizard, anyone could do so in the comfort of their own homes. Such practises were thought to have a better chance of working if undertaken at certain "liminal" times of the year such as Halloween when it was believed that supernatural forces were active and powerful.

Going beyond the brack

Divination means attempting to see into the future. People tried to predict who they would marry, what the weather would be like, who would die next in the family, and so on. The Roman Catholic church frowned on such practices, but this did not stop people indulging.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Catherine Fulvio on the Ballyknocken Barm Brack

The most popular form of marriage divination on Halloween is still with us today and that is the concealed ring in a barmbrack. Whoever got the slice with the ring was the next to get married. In the past, bracks contained lots of other items baked into them to prophesy the future: a rag meant poverty, a coin indicated wealth and so on.

Beyond the brack, traditional Halloween marriage divination involved a huge variety and number of rituals and beliefs, some of which you could try today. It was believed one’s future husband or wife might appear in a dream on Halloween night if one placed certain objects such as a piece of iron, a cabbage leaf or a piece of yarrow under the pillow. It was believed that if someone ate large quantities of salty food before bedtime, their future spouse would appear in their dreams offering them a drink of water.

One long apple peel, thrown over the shoulder to the ground, was examined to see if it formed an initial of a future spouse. Snails were employed in a similar way: they were put in ashes or flour and their slime-tracks were examined to see if they looked like the initials of a future husband or wife.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1994 guide to making Halloween costumes by Mary Fitzgerald on Den TV in 1994

If a girl washed a cloth in a stream and hung it on a thorn bush on Halloween night, her future husband's face would appear on it. Similarly, if one went to a stream flowing south, dipped a cloth into the water and looked to the opposite bank, they would see the shape of their future spouse in the shadows.  If someone threw a ball of wool out of their window, and it hit the ground but did not catch on anything, they would never marry.

Another custom involved a girl, blindfolded, collecting a cabbage from the garden. If she took a healthy one with green leaves and strong roots, it meant a good husband, though one with withered leaves and few roots did not bode well.

Another ritual was that pairs of small objects, such as beans, were named for a certain boy and girl and dropped into water. If one sank, the couple would not marry; if both floated, it meant an unhappy marriage and if both sank, there would be a happy marriage. Similar customs involved hazelnuts or chestnuts named for couples and placed in the embers of the fire. If the heat caused the nuts to jump apart, it indicated an unstable marriage; if one went on fire, it meant certain death. A pair remaining side by side and intact was a good prophesy for the union.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, David Skal and Bruce McClelland discuss Dracula and his Irish author Bram Stoker

A death in the family

All the family could take turns in a group divination that predicted death in the family. These rituals were often taken more seriously than marriage divination, especially those conducted on January 6th, when candles were selected for each family member with the first ones to burn out indicating the order in which they would die.

The Halloween ritual of "ask the saucers" went thus: various saucers were set out, each containing a material or substance. The person was blindfolded and had to choose a saucer: if they chose the one containing water, it meant they would go on a sea journey; if they chose salt, it meant wealth; if they chose a ring it meant marriage and if they chose clay, it meant death.

Halloween spells and love magic

Halloween was believed to be a good time to cast spells, for either good or bad purposes. "There is such a thing as magic", wrote the renowned scholar John O'Donovan (1806-1861), "and it is practised even at this day in Ireland"

If one found a briar rooted at both ends on Halloween night and were willing to crawl through it, the belief was that they could get evil spirits to help them with malevolent deedsMany spells promised invisibility to the person: there was one particularly complex spell involving 13 pewter plates to collect fern seeds, which required great dedication and eyesight to do so.

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Hugo McGuinness and Mary Muldowney on Bram Stoker's childhood in Dublin's north inner city, and the local folklore that might have influenced him

It was thought that love spells made at this time would be most effective. A simple (and consensual) love spell was to hold sprig of mint in the palm of one’s hand, then take the hand of your loved one and keep the two hands closed over the mint with no words spoken for a short time.

The preparation and enactment of other love spells were considered to be loaded with danger. The latter usually had to be secretly mixed into the food of the person who was to be enchanted. One love potion was 10 dried and powdered leaves of hemlock to be swallowed. The liver of a black cat, if dried and ground and taken in a drink, was considered an aphrodisiac.

A rather grotesque spell practised in Ireland, not just at Halloween, was termed Drimial agus Thorial, by Lady Jane Wilde in Quaint Irish Customs and Superstitions. It could only be undertaken by a woman determined enough to exhume a male corpse, and to carefully cut off a section of its skin. O’Donovan noted that the skin had to be taken from the corpse in one long strip from the head to the heel, having to contain a part each "of the forehead, of the nose, of the chin, of the skin and hair of the breast, of the belly, of the pubes."

The woman then had to wear the strip of skin around her waist for three nights while praying to the devil. She then had to tie the skin around the man she desired as he slept (either to his wrist or to tie his two legs together) and then remove it. When he woke, the man would be bound by the spell and forced to marry the woman, cursed to be forever in her thrall.

From RTÉ Lifestyle, a Halloween skull make up tutorial

Outside of Halloween, mummified parts of dead human bodies and skulls were known to be used in folk magic on rare occasions. The dead man's hand was viewed to have powerful properties of healing and magic, though it was not always necessarily used within the realm of the black arts. Some visitors to wakes would touch the male corpse’s hand as it was considered to have curative powers. There was talk also of people using a dead man’s hand - kept on standby in a "state of putrefaction" - placed in milk to help it churn into butter.

The products and processing of human skulls were seen as potent and these might be applied topically or ingested. Moss grown on skulls, even the powdered bone from them, was used in conventional medical treatments in some European countries. These were used for many ailments, particularly nosebleeds, until the mid-18th century.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ