The origins of “trick or treating” are debatable, but can probably be dated back to one of various festivals and traditions from the middle ages in Britain. However, something strikingly similar and almost certainly unconnected can be found in the history of the Greek island Rhodes, dating back to classical antiquity.
Mention of this tradition can be found in Deipnosophists, by Athenaeus. His sprawling work is close to my heart because it feels very much like an ancient version of blogging, taking the format of transcripts of after dinner chats with friends. It reminds me strongly of my group of friends who all keep in touch with group emails, and the topic often starts with one thing and then spreads out into weird and wonderful diversions. This is also the case with Athenaeus.
The passage we need to look at comes from book 8, part 5. As usual, the conversation springs from a discussion of food, and one of the guests mentions the saying “we’ll dine tomorrow on Corone’s calf”. Ornithologists will recognise “corone” from the Latin name for carrion crows: corvus corone. There follows a discussion about an old tradition of going around collecting “for the Crow” (“Give to the Crow, good sirs, something of what each of you has on hand”). But the bit that we need to focus on is a similar tradition that is mentioned next, which I will quote in full below. The speaker cites Theognis, a Greek poet from the Sixth Century BC.
Another ceremony of collecting is called among the Rhodians ‘Playing the Swallow;’ of this Theognis speaks in his Rhodian Festivals. He writes: ‘There is a sort of collecting the Rhodians call Playing the Swallow, which occurs in the month Boëdromion. The term “swallowing” is used because of the custom of singing in refrain: “The Swallow has come, has come! She brings fair weather, fair weather and fair seasons. Her breast is white, her back is black. You there! Trundle out some pressed fruit from your rich store, a cup of wine, a tray of cheeses. A wheat-cake, too, and pulse-bread, the swallow does not spurn. Are we to go away satisfied, or shall we grab something for ourselves? If you give us something – Otherwise, we won’t let you be. We’ll carry off your front door, or the lintel over it, or the good wife sitting within. She’s a little thing, we can easily lift her. So if you give us anything, make it something big! Open, open the door to the Swallow. Indeed we are not old men, but little boys.” This mode of collection was instituted first by Cleobulus of Lindus, when the need of collecting money once arose in Lindus.’
The original poem from Theognis mentioned here has survived, and I can only find depressingly literal and decidedly unpoetic translations, so here’s my own humble effort, with much poetic licence taken:
Playing the Swallow
With the change of the seasons to spring, so it came,
A black and white beauty, the swallow it’s name,
Hey you, in your mansion, bring cake and bring wine,
Bring cheese and bring bread; it will not decline.
Give the swallow some treats, or else face your tricks,
We’ll take out your door, the lintel, the bricks!
That oddly short woman who’s sitting inside,
We’ll carry her off, so swallow your pride.
We’re not men, we are kids, so bring food that is sweet,
We honour the swallow, with our trick or your treat.
by Roger Pocock, based on a poem by Theognis.
I hope you enjoyed that little bit of silliness, and please credit this site if you want to use it elsewhere. This is going to be an odd year for trick or treating, but I hope everyone reading this manages to find some enjoyment in this time of year. Happy Halloween, from all of us in the Junkyard. RP