The Origin of All Souls day…Voices from a Volcano

What is the origin of All Souls day? It started in the 900s with voices coming from a volcanic cave. But before that a little background on praying for the dead:

Door of PurgatoryAs we all know, the practice pf praying and sacrifice for the dead goes back to the Jewish custom of sacrifice for the dead. This custom of prayers and sacrifices for the dead predate the birth of our Lord Christ in Bethlehem.

We find an explicit Old Testament description and exhortation of prayer and sacrifice for the dead in 2 Maccabees 12:42-26. Moreover, all the Church Fathers testify to the practice of praying for the dead in the Eucharistic liturgy. Praying for the dead an example of one of the most ancient Christian customs – older than Christmas, older than church buildings, even older than the New Testament itself.

But what about this special day, All Souls, on which we pray and sacrifice for the dead in a special way? We find an account of its origins in the writings of Saint Peter Damian, who records the following story.

In the 900s, there was a French pilgrim returning from the Holy Land who was shipwrecked on an island with a cave from which belched heat and gas (a volcano of some sort). This pilgrim met a Christian hermit who lived near this cave. The hermit explained that he could sometimes overhear demons in the cave complaining about all the souls that are released from purgatory through the prayers and sacrifices of the monks in Cluny, France.

When the French pilgrim returned to France, he visited the monastery of Cluny and recounted the hermit’s story to the abbot of the monastery, then Abbot Odilo. The pilgrim testified to the great number of souls delivered from purgatory through the humble prayers of the Cluniac monks.

Odilo (died in 1048) was deeply moved by this and redoubled the monks efforts in assisting the souls in purgatory. Thus, he dedicated the day after All Saints Day (Nov 1) to all the souls still in purgatory (Nov 2).

Soon, the practice spread to the rest of France and then to the universal Church so that November 2nd became All Souls Day.


Saint Odilo, pray for us.

May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

To discover the Jewish origins for praying for the dead, please see my book The Crucified Rabbi.

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  • Robert Sessford

    There would appear to be some incongruencies here….  If purgatory (as Mr. Marshall affirms) is where the Love of God burns away sin, what would be the explanation for demons becoming upset about souls leaving? And who are these well-intentioned monks anyway, interferring with God’s plan for a soul’s cleansing? By praying souls out, are they asking God to limit the cleansing? Or are you saying more cleansing is possible because as the monks pray, the imprisoned souls accept the cleansing with more will?  I think we should base our theology on scripture, not legends.

  • Samy Nassif

    Do you really think a Church dogma could be based on just one man’s legendary encounter??
    The Coptic Orthodox Church, of which i’m a member, stipulates that every Church dogma must be supported by the Bible and Church Fathers (In the plural).
    No dogma can be endorsed based upon singular personal experiences as such!
    This said, it remains to say that it is against Christian teaching and commonsense altogether to believe that Christ’d blood is insufficient to cleanse from sin, so that a different cleansing is required by the Heavenly Father!!!

  • Taylor Marshall

    Samy Nassif,
    Don’t you as a Copt, pray for the dead?
    ad Jesum per Mariam,
    On Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 6:47 AM, Echo <

  • jim

    If you read volume 1 of The Faith of the Early Fathers, you will see that they believed and taught a final purification before entering Heaven. They just did not use the word “Purgatory” as we do.

  • Kim

    Samy Nassif
    The Copts (and the Moslems too) pray for God to have Mercy on the dead. If there was no hope for that Mercy to be applied to the dead then both groups would not be praying “God have Mercy on our dead” in Arabic “Ya Rab erham motana).

  • Kim

     Samy Nassif
    The Copts (and the Moslems too) pray for God to have Mercy on the dead. If there was no hope for that Mercy to be applied to the dead then both groups would not be praying “God have Mercy on our dead” in Arabic “Ya Rab erham motana).  


    Taylor’s post is about the origin of the liturgical commemoration of all the dead on November 2. His post does not concern the doctrine of praying for the dead as being founded upon a pious legend.

    The commemoration of the dead dates back to the Jewish practice of praying for the dead, as in 2 Maccabees, above. This practice is evidenced in the New Testament by Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus in 2 Tim 1:16-18. For the earliest, post-biblical examples of prayer for the dead, see the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Passio of Perpetua and Felicity, the Crown (3:3) and Monogamy (10) by Tertullian, Cyprian’s 51st epistle, and Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures (23, 5, 9).