Halloween Traditions, Ghosts and Witches in France

Plenty of these around today

Plenty of these around today

I don’t need to tell you what today is. Halloween has become more commercialised in recent years in France and traditions such as trick-or-treating have taken root. I hope we live far enough off the beaten track not to encounter costumed children demanding friandises (sweets) tonight. 

Traditional trickery

The idea of playing tricks on people on 31st October is not new. In Brittany in times past, children would hollow out beetroots, cut holes in them to make a skull-like or ghoulish face and place a candle inside. They then hid these grisly lanterns by lonely paths to frighten travellers. Or they placed them on their heads and paraded about after dark in a ghostly procession.

Tall tales?

Many places in France are associated with celebrated ghost stories, and every château worth its salt has a resident spectre. When neighbours got together on winter evenings (les veillées) to carry out mundane tasks such as shelling walnuts, they told each other stories and folk tales. A lot of them concerned supernatural happenings.

In my search for ghostly stories in this region, I came across one linked to the château de Belcastel. Born into a noble but impoverished family, a young man left for the crusades in 1189, leaving his beautiful wife in his parents’ care. He had no scruples about massacring infidels, convinced that it was a just cause.

Belcastel (Aveyron)

Belcastel (Aveyron)

He was badly injured in an ambush and left for dead, but was nursed by an old Moslem woman. She told him he now had a son and said that her god and his deplored war and cruelty. Men used religion as an excuse for political and monetary gain. Despite her care, the young man’s wounds festered and he knew he would never see Belcastel again.

One day, infidel soldiers brought in the body of the woman’s son, who had been killed by Christian soldiers. In her grief, she put a curse on her patient. His bones would lie in her country forever, while his soul would be condemned to wander his Aveyron valley at night for as long as Christians and Moslems had not made peace.

There may be worse places to haunt than this...

There may be worse places to haunt than this…

Far from being a scary ghost, this unfortunate phantom tries not to frighten lone wayfarers, but foxes and bats flee at his approach.

Witch hunt

Witchcraft in France is a big subject, but let’s dip a toe in the water as it’s Halloween.

The first witch trial took place in Toulouse in 1275, when a certain Alice was condemned. A papal bull issued by Innocent VIII in 1484 ordered that witches and black cats (their familiars) must be eliminated. Thousands of cats were burned in France well into the 17th century until the practice was condemned – but no doubt it continued after that.

In 1486, two German inquisitors published a manual that helpfully set out how to identify witches, e.g. from certain bodily marks, and then to burn them with due process. Surprisingly, witch trials in France were usually heard in secular courts.

By the reign of Louis XIV, the witch-finding frenzy was losing momentum. A royal edict of 1682 effectively dissociated witchcraft from demonism and prescribed more lenient penalties for some offences. The last female witch to be officially executed in France was put to death in 1689. A male sorcerer was officially executed for the last time in 1750. However, the government continued to prosecute people for illegal medical practice (e.g. laying on of hands or dispensing home-made potions) until well into the 20th century.

And local people continued to take matters into their own hands. There’s some debate about this, but the last recorded time a witch was burned at the stake in France was in July 1826 at Bournel in Lot-et-Garonne. Little remains of her story, but the local peasants seem to have been responsible. Was she blamed for a poor harvest? Was she a scapegoat for a series of local mishaps? Superstition and the idea of malevolent influences persisted – and not just in remote rural areas.

Belief in ghosts, witchcraft and the supernatural are interwoven into the social fabric of France. Beneath the fun and jollity of Halloween celebrations today lies a long cultural history.

You might also like:

French Superstitions
More French Superstitions
French Solstice Customs

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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9 Responses to Halloween Traditions, Ghosts and Witches in France

  1. Wonderfully informative as ever, thank you. Here in our area which goes by the old name of quercy there is a revival of occitan and we have a lovely young storyteller (avec chien!) who tells his tales with a heavy sprinkling of patois and occitan but always includes translations, thankfully. He tells of the ‘drac’, a mischeivous fellow who is a genial trickster rather than malevolent. I picked up a locally published book of various ghostly stories and traditions. When i remember to sort out the fig jam recipe i’ll try to include book details. Re trick or treating, our commune children have the sweet habit of sending out polite notes of when they will be arriving thus guaranteeing you have stocked up on bonbons! A wonderfully disguised group arrive while their parents loiter lower down the drive with torches. This year we are in the uk so no sweets at our door! A bientot

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We are just on the Rouergue side of the Quercy but I’ve heard of the ‘drac’, who is probably a local storybook character here, too. I’ll be interested to have the details of the book you mention. A bookshop in a local town specialises in books about local history/folklore/culture and I might pick it up there (or a similar one).

      What a good idea to send a note about trick or treating! Where I lived once in the UK, Hallowe’en was just an excuse for the local 12 year-0ld troublemaker to demand rewards with menaces (usually spray can graffiti on one’s car) and it has coloured my view of trick or treating ever since.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth says:

    Fascinating stuff. As you might imagine I’m bracing myself for trick or treaters here tonight. Which fills me with horror. But you are right it is taking off with a vengeance in France – last year we took friends’ children for a ride on the Halloween Train from Room to Lugardes and great fun it was …. packed with people in costume and the organisers who run the local rail society had a ball scaring the children (and me) as we ground to a halt in all the tunnels. 🚂 🎃 👻 💀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah ghosts and ghoulies my favourite subject. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elly Wright says:

    Liked this a lot Vanessa. It seems there are still people now in my neighbourhood in France, who do not like black cats. I could do with a broomstick just now, as I have no car at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. There is some custom that you should run three times widdershins around the cat, chanting, “Ou va t’y, Mistigri, pars sans faire de mal ici.” Being carless is no fun – hope that resolves itself soon.

      Like

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