What Are Soul Cakes?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Halloween is a strange holiday. Frivolous and playful, yet it's a day driven by a dark spirit — the time to embrace all things eerie and supernatural, haunted and creepy. Death and its minions are no stranger to Oct. 31.

Most commonly linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which occurs on the last day of fall, the celebration was originally meant to put summer to sleep and prepare for the bleak months ahead. But beyond the practical, it was also a day when the physical and spiritual worlds collided. The souls of the deceased were thought to return to the physical world on Samhain eve. To ward off the spirits, giant bonfires were built, and human sacrifices were made (allegedly) to procure safety against the marauding dead souls.

As things evolved over time, Samhain became All Souls' Eve and All Souls' Day, and soul cakes came into existence — but when and where aren't exactly clear. Some suggest that treats were made for the bonfires and were a form of ill-fated lottery; he who selects the burnt cake becomes the human sacrifice ensuring bountiful crops the following year. Others say that the cakes were scattered around to mollify evil spirits condemned to exist in the form of animals.

What is known is that by the 8th century, soul cakes were given to beggars (soulers) who would say prayers for the dead on All Souls' Eve. And the price? One soul saved per cake. In other places they were given to wandering mummers, the costumed predecessors of buskers, as they entertained on Halloween. Today's trick-or-treaters are thought to be their descendants, and soul cakes are thought to be the first treats for tricks.

These days, soul cakes are generally presented as a small round cake, variously spiced, often studded across the top with a cross of currants. They are part scone, part biscuit, part teacake — and a sweet little treat harkening back to the times when souls roamed this realm and Halloween was truly a haunted night.