Don't worry about being hexed by a witch this Halloween. You're more likely to be zapped by a fairy stroke or ripped apart by a buggane.
Well, at least that's what the ancient Celts who observed the precursor to Halloween thought.
Halloween, as every young pumpkin-carver knows, is a corruption of All Hallow's Eve ? the night before the Christian feast of All Saints' Day.
But long before the birth of Christianity, Celts were celebrating Samhain ? the holiday marking the end of the harvest and the start of the Celtic new year.
"It was a holiday when the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural were considered to be transparent and thin. It anticipated the coming of winter," says Nick Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of Halloween: From Pagan Rituals to Party Night.
Samhain (pronounced SOW-in in Irish Gaelic and SAHV-in in Scottish) was a "highly ambivalent time," says Edmund Kern, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
"It was a good time for prognostication, a good time for telling the future," he says. "But it was also a good time for the dead to settle a score."
When Evil Spirts Roam the Earth
And that's the problem when the boundaries between the two worlds break down. The ordinary rules of society break down, too ? which can lead to some raucous behavior. But it also means that ghosts and other supernatural beings had an open passport to our world.
The dead liked to visit their earthly haunts on Samhain. "There was a belief that the spirits, that people who had lived in the community, those spirits could come back to see how things were going," says Frederick Suppe, a medieval and Celtic historian at Ball State University in Indiana.
Some people might find comfort in the prospect of visits from their deceased loved ones. But if a dead person had reason to carry a grudge against you, watch out.
And, of course, ghosts weren't the only otherworldly beings wandering around at night. "There are various kinds of evil spirits ? some are just mean and nasty and horrible," says Suppe.
Among those you might encounter, should you be so unwise as to venture out on Samhain:
Pooka: The Irish believed in this mischievous creature, who was given to rather nasty games.
"If you hadn't collected your harvest [by Samhain] , the pooka would urinate on it out in the field," says Suppe.
Fairy Folk: Fairies weren't likely to mess with mortals on Samhain ? unless those hapless humans did something to annoy them.
"You might be wandering around and you might get in the way of these spirits. They might zap you with a fairy stroke," says Suppe. "This is where our expression 'to suffer a stroke' comes from."
Buggane: People on the Isle of Man believed in this charming creature, which could "literally tear people limb from limb," Suppe says.
Banshee: This female spirit wasn't necessarily malicious, but she knew who was going to die next, and would wail to welcome these doomed folks to the underworld.
Water Horse: It might look like a nice, friendly pony, but when a person climbed on its back, the malevolent equine would dash into the nearest lake, drowning the unfortunate rider.
Conspicuously lacking from this list: witches.