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A variety of causes have been supposed to prevent the dead resting in the grave, for persons ‘dying with something on their mind,’ to use the popular phrase, cannot enjoy the peace of the grave; oftentimes some trivial anxiety, or some frustrated communication, preventing the uneasy spirit flinging off the bonds that bind it to earth. Wickedness in their lifetime has been commonly thought to cause the souls of the impenitent to revisit the scenes where their evil deeds were done. It has long been a widespread idea that as such ghosts are too bad for a place in either world, they are, therefore, compelled to wander on the face of the earth homeless and forlorn. We have shown in another chapter how, according to a well-known superstition, the ignes fatui, which appear by night in swampy places, are the souls of the dead—men who during life were guilty of fraudulent and other wicked acts. Thus a popular belief reminds us how, when an unjust relative has secreted the title-deeds in order to get possession of the estate himself, he finds no rest in the other world till the title-deeds are given back, and the estate is restored to the rightful heir. Come must the spirit of such an unrighteous man to the room where he concealed the title-deeds surreptitiously removed from the custody of the person to whose charge they were entrusted. ‘A dishonest milkwoman at Shrewsbury is condemned,’ writes Miss Jackson in her ‘Shropshire Folk-lore’ (p. 120), ‘to wander up and down “Lady Studley’s Diche” in the Raven Meadow—now the Smithfield—constantly repeating:
“Weight and measure sold I never,
Milk and water sold I ever.”’
The same rhyme is current at Burslem, in the Staffordshire Potteries. The story goes that ‘Old Molly Lee,’ who used to sell milk there, and had the reputation of being a witch, was supposed to be seen after her death going about the streets with her milk-pail on her head repeating it. Miss Jackson further relates how a mid-Shropshire squire of long ago was compelled to wander about in a homeless state on account of his wickedness. Murderers cannot rest, and even although they may escape justice in this life, it is supposed that their souls find no peace in the grave, but under a curse are compelled to walk to and fro until they have, in some degree, done expiation for their crimes. Occasionally, it is said, their plaintive moans may be heard as they bewail the harm done by them to the innocent, weary of being allowed no cessation from their ceaseless wandering—a belief which reminds us of the legend of the Wandering Jew, and the many similar stories that have clustered round it.
In ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ for August 1818 this passage occurs: ‘If any author were so mad as to think of framing a tragedy upon the subject of that worthy vicar of Warblington, Hants, who was reported about a century ago to have strangled his own children, and to have walked after his death, he would assuredly be laughed to scorn by a London audience.’ But a late rector of Warblington informed a correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries’ (4th S. xi. 188), ‘it was quite true that his house was said to be haunted by the ghost of a former rector, supposed to be the Rev. Sebastian Pitfield, who held the living in 1677.’ A strong prejudice against hanging prevails in Wales, owing to troublesome spirits being let loose, and wandering about, to the annoyance of the living.
The spirits of suicides wander, and hence cross-roads in various parts of the country are oftentimes avoided after dark, on account of being haunted by headless and other uncanny apparitions. The same belief exists abroad. The Sioux are of opinion that suicide is punished in the land of spirits by the ghosts being doomed for ever to drag the tree on which they hang themselves; and for this reason they always suspend themselves to as small a tree as can possibly sustain their weight.
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With the Chinese the souls of suicides are specially obnoxious, and they consider that the very worst penalty that can befall a soul is the sight of its former surroundings. Thus, it is supposed that, in the case of the wicked man, ‘they only see their homes as if they were near them; they see their last wishes disregarded, everything upside down, their substance squandered, strangers possess the old estate; in their misery the dead man’s family curse him, his children become corrupt, land is gone, the wife sees her husband tortured, the husband sees his wife stricken down with mortal disease; even friends forget, but some, perhaps, for the sake of bygone times, may stroke the coffin and let fall a tear, departing with a cold smile.’ But, as already noticed, the same idea, in a measure, extends to the West, for in this country it has long been a popular belief that the ghosts of the wicked are forced to periodically rehearse their sinful acts. Thus, the murderer’s ghost is seen in vain trying to wash out the indelible blood-stains, and the thief is supposed to be continually counting and recounting the money which came into his possession through dishonest means. The ghost is dogged and confronted with the hideousness of his iniquities, and the young woman who slew her lover in a fit of jealous passion is seen, in an agonised expression, holding the fatal weapon. But such unhappy spirits have, in most cases, been put to silence by being laid, instances of which are given elsewhere; and in other cases they have finally disappeared with the demolition of certain houses which for years they may have tenanted.
On the other hand, the spirits of the good are said sometimes to return to earth for the purpose of either succouring the innocent, or avenging the guilty.
‘Those who come again to punish their friends’ wrongs,’ writes Miss Jackson, in her ‘Shropshire Folk-lore’, ‘generally appear exactly as in life, unchanged in form or character. A certain well-to-do man who lived in the west of Shropshire within living memory, left his landed property to his nephew, and a considerable fortune to his two illegitimate daughters, the children of his housekeeper. Their mother, well provided for, was at his death turned adrift by the nephew. Her daughters, however, continued to live in their old home with their cousin. A maid-servant who entered the family shortly after (and who is our informant) noticed an elderly man often walking in the garden in broad daylight, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, with breeches and white stockings. He never spoke, and never entered the house, though he always went towards it. Asking who he was, she was coolly told, “Oh, that is only our old father!” No annoyance seems to have been caused by the poor old ghost, with one exception, that the clothes were every night stripped off the bed of the two unnatural daughters.’
German folk-lore tells how slain warriors rise again to help their comrades to victory, and how a mother will visit her old home to look after her injured and forsaken children, and elsewhere the same idea is extensively believed. In China, the ghosts which are animated by a sense of duty are frequently seen: at one time they seek to serve virtue in distress, and at another they aim to restore wrongfully-held treasure. Indeed, as it has been observed, ‘one of the most powerful as well as the most widely diffused of the people’s ghost stories is that which treats of the persecuted child whose mother comes out of the grave to succour him.’ And there perhaps can be no more gracious privilege allotted to immortal spirits than that of beholding those beloved of them in mortal life:
I am still near,
Watching the smiles I prized on earth,
Your converse mild, your blameless mirth.
As it has been observed, no oblivious draught has been given the departed soul, but the remembrance of its earthly doings cleaves to it, and this is why ghosts are always glad to see the places frequented by them while on earth. In Galicia, directly after a man’s burial, his spirit takes to wandering by nights about the old home, and watching that no evil befalls his heirs.
Occasionally the spirit returns to fulfil a promise as in compacts, to which reference is made in another chapter. The reappearance of a lover, ‘in whose absence his beloved has died, is a subject that has been made use of by the folk-poets of every country, and nothing,’ it is added, ‘can be more characteristic of the nationalities to which they belong than the divergences which mark their treatment of it.’ Another cause of ghosts wandering is founded upon a superstition as to the interchange of love-tokens, an illustration of which we find in the old ballad of ‘William’s Ghost’:
There came a ghost to Marjorie’s door,
Wi’ many a grievous maen,
And aye he tirl’d at the pin,
But answer made she nane.
‘Oh, sweet Marjorie! oh, dear Marjorie!
For faith and charitie,
Give me my faith and troth again,
That I gied once to thee.’
‘Thy faith and troth I’ll ne’er gie thee,
Nor yet shall our true love twin,
Till you tak’ me to your ain ha’ house,
And wed me wi’ a ring.’
‘My house is but yon lonesome grave,
Afar out o’er yon lee,
And it is but my spirit, Marjorie,
That’s speaking unto thee.’
She followed the spirit to the grave, where it lay down and confessed that William had betrayed three maidens whom he had promised to marry, and in consequence of this misdemeanour he could not rest in his grave until she released him of his vows to marry her. On learning this, Marjorie at once released him.
Then she’d taen up her white, white hand,
And struck him on the breist,
Saying, ‘Have ye again your faith and troth,
And I wish your soul good rest.’
In another ballad, ‘Clerk Sanders,’ there is a further illustration of the same belief. The instances, says Mr. Napier, differ, but ‘the probability is that the ballad quoted above and “Clerk Sanders” are both founded on the same story. Clerk Sanders was the son of an earl, who courted the king’s daughter, Lady Margaret. They loved each other even in the modern sense of loving too well. Margaret had seven brothers, who suspected an intrigue, and they came upon them together in bed and killed Clerk Sanders, whose ghost soon after came to Margaret’s window. The ballad, which contains much curious folk-lore, runs thus:
‘Oh! are ye sleeping, Margaret?’ he says,
‘Or are ye waking presentlie?
Give me my faith and troth again,
I wot, true love, I gied to thee.
‘I canna rest, Margaret,’ he says,
‘Down in the grave where I must be,
Till ye give me my faith and troth again,
I wot, true love, I gied to thee.’
‘Thy faith and troth thou shalt na get,
And our true love shall never twin,
Until ye tell what comes o’ women,
I wot, who die in strong travailing.
‘Their beds are made in the heavens high,
Down at the foot of our Lord’s knee,
Weel set about wi’ gilliflowers,
I trow sweet company for to see.
‘Oh, cocks are crowing a merry midnight,
I wot the wild fowls are boding day;
The psalms of heaven will soon be sung,
And I, ere now, will be missed away.’
Then she has ta’en a crystall wand,
And she has stroken her throth thereon;
She has given it him out of the shot-window,
Wi’ many a sigh and heavy goan.
‘I thank ye, Margaret; I thank ye, Margaret;
And aye, I thank ye heartilie;
Gin ever the dead come for the quick,
Be sure, Margaret, I’ll come for thee.’
Then up and crew the milk-white cock,
And up and crew the gray;
Her lover vanished in the air,
And she gaed weeping away.
Madness, again, during life, is said occasionally to produce restlessness after death. ‘Parson Digger, at Condover,’ remarked an old woman to Miss Jackson, ‘he came again. He wasn’t right in his head, and if you met him he couldn’t speak to you sensibly. But when he was up in the pulpit he’d preach, oh! beautiful!’ In Hungary, there are the spirits of brides who die on their wedding-day before consummation of marriage. They are to be seen at moonlight, where cross-roads meet. And it is a Danish tradition that a corpse cannot have peace in the grave when it is otherwise than on its back. According to a Scotch belief, excessive grief for a departed friend, ‘combined with a want of resignation to the will of Providence, had the effect of keeping the spirit from rest in the other world. Rest could be obtained only by the spirit coming back, and comforting the mourner by the assurance that it was in a state of blessedness.’ The ghosts of those, again, who had some grievance or other in life are supposed to wander. The Droitwich Canal, in passing through Salwarpe, Worcestershire, is said to have cut off a slice of a large old half-timbered house, in revenge for which act of mutilation, the ghost of a former occupier revisited his old haunts, and affrighted the domestics.
Once more, according to another Animistic conception which holds a prominent place in the religion of uncultured tribes, the soul at death passes through some transitionary stages, finally developing into a demon. In China and India this theory is deeply rooted among the people, and hence it is customary to offer sacrifices to the souls of the departed by way of propitiation, as otherwise they are supposed to wander to and fro on the earth, and to exert a malignant influence on even their dearest friends and relatives. Diseases, too, are regarded as often being caused by the wandering souls of discontented relatives, who in some cases are said to re-appear as venomous snakes. Owing to this belief, a system of terror prevails amongst many tribes, which is only allayed by constantly appeasing departed souls. Believing in superstitions of this kind, it is easy to understand how the uncivilised mind readily lays hold of the doctrine that the souls of the departed, angry and enraged at having had death thrust on them, take every opportunity of wandering about, and annoying the living, and of wreaking their vengeance on even those most nearly related to them. In this phase of savage belief may be traced the notion of Manes worship found under so many forms in foreign countries. Indeed, once granted that the departed soul has power to affect the living, then this power attributed to it is only one of degree. With this belief, too, may be compared the modern one of worship of the dead; and as Dr. Tylor remarks: ‘A crowd of saints, who were once men and women, now form an inferior order of deities active in the affairs of men, and receiving from them reverence and prayer, thus coming strictly under the definition of Manes.’ A further illustration may be adduced in the patron deities of particular trades and crafts, and in the imposing array of saints supposed to be specially interested in the particular requirements of mankind.
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