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It is the rule rather than the exception for ghosts to take the form of animals. A striking feature of this form of animism is its universality, an argument, it is said, in favour of its having originally sprung from the old theory of metempsychosis which has pertinaciously existed in successive stages of the world’s culture. ‘Possibly,’ it has been suggested, ‘the animal form of ghosts is a mark of the once-supposed divinity of the dead. Ancestor worship is one of the oldest of the creeds, and in all mythologies we find that the gods could transform themselves into any shape at will, and frequently took those of beasts and birds.’ At the same time, one would scarcely expect to come across nowadays this fanciful belief in our own and other civilised countries, and yet instances are of constant occurrence, being deeply rooted in many a local tradition. Acts of injustice done to a person cause the soul to return in animal form by way of retribution. Thus, in Cornwall, it is a very popular fancy that when a young woman who has loved not wisely but too well dies forsaken and broken-hearted, she comes back to haunt her deceiver in the form of a white hare. This phantom pursues the false one everywhere, being generally invisible to everyone but himself. It occasionally rescues him from danger, but invariably causes his death in the end. A Shropshire story tells how ‘two or three generations back there was a lady buried in her jewels at Fitz, and afterwards the clerk robbed her; and she used to walk Cuthery Hollow in the form of a colt. They called it Obrick’s Colt, and one night the clerk met it, and fell on his knees, saying, “Abide, Satan! abide! I am a righteous man, and a psalm singer.”’ The ghost was known as Obrick’s Colt from the name of the thief, who, as the peasantry were wont to say, ‘had niver no pace atter; a was sadly troubled in his yed, and mithered.’
Sometimes the spirit in animal form is that of a wicked person doomed to wear that shape for some offence. A man who hanged himself at Broomfield, near Shrewsbury, ‘came again in the form of a large black dog;’ and an amusing Shropshire story is told of the laying of an animal ghost at Bagbury, which took the form of a roaring bull, and caused no small alarm. This bull, it appears, had been a very bad man, but when his unexpected presence as a bull-ghost terrified the neighbourhood, it was deemed desirable by the twelve parsons whose help had been invoked to run him to earth in Hyssington Church, with candles and all the paraphernalia employed on such occasions. But the bull, becoming infuriated, ‘made such a bust that he cracked the wall of the church from the top to the bottom.’ Their efforts were ultimately successful, for they captured him, and as he was compressible, they shut him up in a snuff-box, and laid him in the Red Sea for a thousand years.
Lady Howard, a Devonshire notable of the time of James I., in spite of her beauty and accomplishments, had many bad qualities, and amongst others was not only guilty of unnatural cruelty to her only daughter, but had a mysterious knack of getting rid of her husbands, having been married no less than four times. Her misdemeanours, however, did not escape with impunity, for, on her death, her spirit was transformed into a hound, and compelled to run every night, between midnight and cockcrow, from the gateway of Fitzford, her former residence, to Oakhampton Park, and bring back to the place from whence she started a blade of grass in her mouth, and this penance she is doomed to continue till every blade of grass is removed from the park, which she will not be able to effect till the end of the world.
Many spectral dogs, believed to be the souls of wicked persons, are said to haunt the sides of rivers and pools, and the story goes that there once lived in the hamlet of Dean Combe, Devon, a weaver of great fame and skill. After a prosperous life he died, but the next day he appeared sitting at the loom and working diligently as when he was alive. His sons applied to the parson, who, hearing the noise of the weaver’s shuttle above, cried, ‘Knowles! come down; this is no place for thee.’ ‘I will,’ said the weaver, ‘as soon as I have worked out my quill’ (the quill is the shuttle-full of wool). ‘Nay,’ said the vicar, ‘thou hast been long enough at thy work, come down at once!’ So when the spirit came down, the vicar took a handful of earth from the churchyard, and threw it on its face, and instantly it became a black hound. Then the vicar took a nutshell with a hole in it, and led the hound to the pool below the waterfall. ‘Take this shell,’ he said, ‘and when thou shalt have dipped out the pool with it, thou mayest rest, not before.’ On the west coast of Ireland, fishermen have a strong prejudice against killing seals, owing to a popular tradition that they enshrined ‘the souls of them that were drowned at the flood.’ It was also said that such seals possessed the power of casting aside their external skins, and disporting themselves in human form on the sea-shore.
Within the parish of Tring, Hertford, a poor old woman was drowned in 1751 for suspected witchcraft. A chimney-sweeper, who was the principal perpetrator of this deed, was hanged and gibbeted near the place where the murder was committed; and while the gibbet stood, and long after it had disappeared, the spot was haunted by a black dog. A correspondent of the ‘Book of Days’ (ii. 433) says that he was told by the village schoolmaster, who had been ‘abroad,’ that he himself had seen this diabolical dog. ‘I was returning home,’ said he, ‘late at night in a gig with the person who was driving. When we came near the spot, where a portion of the gibbet had lately stood, he saw on the bank of the roadside a flame of fire as large as a man’s hat. “What’s that?” I exclaimed. “Hush!” said my companion, and suddenly pulling in his horse, made a dead stop. I then saw an immense black dog just in front of our horse, the strangest looking creature I ever beheld. He was as big as a Newfoundland, but very gaunt, shaggy, with long ears and tail, eyes like balls of fire, and large, long teeth, for he opened his mouth and seemed to grin at us. In a few minutes the dog disappeared, seeming to vanish like a shadow, or to sink into the earth, and we drove on over the spot where he had lain.’
Occasionally, when loss of life has happened through an accident, a spectre animal of some kind has been afterwards seen. Some years ago an accident happened in a Cornish mine, whereby several men lost their lives. As soon as help could be procured, a party descended, but the remains of the poor fellows were discovered to be mutilated beyond recognition. On being brought up to the surface, the clothes and a mass of mangled flesh dropped from the bodies. A bystander, anxious to spare the feelings of the relatives present, quickly cast the unsightly mass into the blazing furnace of an engine close at hand. But ever since that day the engineman positively asserted that troops of little black dogs continually haunted the locality. Then there is the pretty legend mentioned by Wordsworth in his poem entitled, ‘The White Doe of Rylstone,’ in which is embodied a Yorkshire tradition to the effect that the lady founder of Bolton Abbey revisited the ruins of the venerable structure in the form of a spotless white doe:
Which, though seemingly doomed in its breast to sustain
A softened remembrance of sorrow and pain,
Is spotless, and holy, and gentle, and bright,
And glides o’er the earth like an angel of light.
So common in France are human ghosts in bestial form, ‘that M. D’Assier has invented a Darwinian way of accounting for the phenomena. M. D’Assier, a positivist, is a believer in ghosts, but not in the immortality of the soul. He suggests that the human revenants in the guise of sheep, cows, and shadowy creatures may be accounted for by a kind of Atavism, or “throwing back,” on the side of the spirit to the lower animal forms out of which humanity was developed!’
According to a German piece of folk-lore, the soul takes the form of a snake, a notion we find shared by the Zulus, who revere a certain kind of serpents as the ghosts of the dead; and the Northern Indians speak of a serpent coming out of the mouth of a woman at death. It is further related that out of the mouth of a sleeping person a snake creeps and goes a long distance, and that whatever it sees, or suffers, on its way, the sleeper dreams of. If it is prevented from returning, the person dies. Another belief tells us that the soul occasionally escapes from the mouth in the shape of a weasel or a mouse, a superstition to which Goethe alludes in ‘Faust’:
Ah! in the midst of her song,
A red mouseskin sprang out of her mouth.
Turning to similar beliefs current among distant nations, we are told that the Andaman Islanders had a notion that at death the soul vanished from the earth in the form of various animals and fishes; and in Guinea, monkeys found in the locality of a graveyard are supposed to be animated by the spirits of the dead. As Mr. Andrew Lang remarks: ‘Among savages who believe themselves to be descended from beasts, nothing can be more natural than the hypothesis that the souls revert to bestial shapes.’ Certain of the North American Indian tribes believe that the spirits of their dead enter into bears; and some of the Papuans in New Guinea ‘imagine they will reappear as certain of the animals in their own island. The cassowary and the emu are the most remarkable animals that they know of; they have lodged in them the shades of their ancestors, and hence the people abstain from eating them.’ Spiritualism, we are told, is very widely spread among the Esquimos, who maintain that all animals have their spirits, and that the spirits of men can enter into the bodies of animals. In the Ladrone Islands it was supposed that the spirits of the dead animated the bodies of the fish, and ‘therefore to make better use of these precious spirits, they burnt the soft portions of the dead body, and swallowed the cinders which they let float on the top of their cocoa-nut wine.’
In most parts of England there is a popular belief in a spectral dog, which is generally described as ‘large, shaggy, and black, with long ears and tail. It does not belong to any species of living dogs, but is severally said to represent a hound, a setter, a terrier, or a shepherd dog, though often larger than a Newfoundland.’ It is commonly supposed to be a bad spirit, haunting places where evil deeds have been done, or where some calamity may be expected. In Lancashire, this spectre-dog is known as ‘Trash’ and ‘Striker,’ its former name having been applied to it from the peculiar noise made by its feet, which is supposed to resemble that of a person walking along a miry, sloppy road, with heavy shoes; and its latter appellation from its uttering a curious screech, which is thought to warn certain persons of the approaching death of some relative or friend. If followed, it retreats with its eyes fronting its pursuer, and either sinks into the ground with a frightful shriek, or in some mysterious manner disappears. When struck, the weapon passes through it as if it were a mere shadow. In Norfolk and Cambridgeshire this apparition is known to the peasantry by the name of ‘shuck’—the provincial word for ‘shag’—and is reported to haunt churchyards and other lonely places. A dreary lane in the parish of Overstrand is called from this spectral animal ‘Shuck’s Lane,’ and it is said that if the spot where it has been seen be examined after its disappearance, it will be found to be scorched, and strongly impregnated with the smell of brimstone. Mrs. Latham tells how a man of notoriously bad character, who lived in a lonely spot at the foot of the South Downs, without any companion of either sex, was believed to be nightly haunted by evil spirits in the form of rats. Persons passing by his cottage late at night heard him cursing them, and desiring them to let him rest in peace. It was supposed they were sent to do judgment on him, and would carry him away some night. But he received his death-blow in a drunken brawl.
In the neighbourhood of Leeds there is the Padfoot, a weird apparition about the size of a small donkey, ‘with shaggy hair and large eyes like saucers.’ Mr. Baring-Gould relates how a man in Horbury once saw ‘the Padfooit,’ which ‘in this neighbourhood is a white dog like a “flay-craw.”’ It goes sometimes on two legs, sometimes it runs on three, and to see it is a prognostication of death. He was going home by Jenkin, and he saw a white dog in the hedge. He struck at it, and the stick passed through it. Then the white dog looked at him, and it had ‘great saucer e’en’; and he was so ‘flayed,’ that he ran home trembling and went to bed, when he fell ill and died. With this strange apparition may be compared the Barguest, Bahrgeist, or Boguest of Northumberland, Durham, and Yorkshire, and the Boggart of Lancashire; an uncanine creature, which generally assumes the form of a large black dog with flaming eyes, and is supposed to be a presage of death. The word ‘barguest,’ according to Sir Walter Scott, is from the German ‘bahrgeist’—spirit of the bier; and, as it has been pointed out, the proverbial expression to ‘war like a Barguest,’ shows how deep a hold this apparition once had on the popular mind. There is a Barguest in a glen between Darlington and Houghton, near Throstlenest, and another haunted a piece of waste land above a spring called the Oxwells, between Wreghorn and Headingly Hill, near Leeds. On the death of any person of local importance in the neighbourhood the creature would come forth, followed by all the dogs barking and howling. Another form of this animal spectre is the Capelthwaite, which, according to common report, had the power of appearing in the form of any quadruped, but usually chose that of a large black dog. It does not seem to have appeared of late years, for tradition tells how a vicar of Beetham went out in his ecclesiastical vestments to lay this troublesome spirit in the River Bela.
In Wales, there is the Gwyllgi, or ‘dog of darkness,’ a terrible spectre of a mastiff which, with a baleful breath and blazing red eyes, has often inspired terror even amongst the strong-minded Welsh peasantry. Many stories are told of its encountering unwary travellers, who have been so overcome by its unearthly howl, or by the glare of its fiery eyes, that they have fallen senseless on the ground. A certain lane, leading from Mowsiad to Lisworney-Crossways, is said to have been haunted by a Gwyllgi of the most terrible aspect. A farmer, living near there, was one night returning home from market on a young mare, when suddenly the animal shied, reared, tumbled the farmer off, and bolted for home. The farm-servants, finding the mare trembling by the barn door, suspected she had seen the Gwyllgi, and going in search of their master, they found him on his back in the mud, who, being questioned, protested ‘it was the Gwyllgi, and nothing less, that had made all this trouble.’
It is a popular belief in Wales that horses have the peculiar ‘gift’ of seeing spectres, and carriage horses have been known to display every sign of the utmost terror when the occupants of the carriage could see no cause for alarm. Such an apparition is an omen of death, and an indication that a funeral will pass before long, bearing to the grave some person not dead at the time of the horses’ fright. Another famous dog-fiend, in the shape of a shaggy spaniel, was the ‘Mauthe Doog,’ which was said to haunt Peel Castle, Isle of Man. Its favourite place was the guard-chamber, where it would lie down by the fireside. According to Waldron, ‘the soldiers lost much of their terror by the frequency of the sight; yet, as they believed it to be an evil spirit waiting for an opportunity to hinder them, the belief kept them so far in order that they refrained from swearing in its presence. But, as the Mauthe Doog used to come out and return by the passage through the church, by which also somebody must go to deliver the keys every night to the captain, they continued to go together; he whose turn it was to do that duty being accompanied by the next in rotation. On a certain night, however, one of the soldiers, being the worse for liquor, would go with the key alone, though it really was not his turn. His comrades tried to dissuade him, but he said he wanted the Mauthe Doog’s company, and would try whether he was dog or devil. Soon afterwards a great noise alarmed the soldiers; and when the adventurer returned, he was struck with horror and speechless, nor could he even make such signs as might give them to understand what had happened to him; but he died with distorted features in violent agony. After this the apparition was never seen again.’
Then there are the packs of spectral hounds, which some folk-lorists tell us are evil spirits that have assumed this form in order to mimic the sports of men, or to hunt their souls. They are variously named in different parts of the country—being designated in the North, ‘Gabriel’s Hounds’; in Devon, the ‘Wisk,’ ‘Yesk,’ ‘Yeth,’ or ‘Heath Hounds’; in Wales, ‘Cwn Annwn’ or ‘Cwn y Wybr’; and in Cornwall, the ‘Devil and his Dandy-Dogs.’ Such spectral hounds are generally described as ‘monstrous human-headed dogs,’ and ‘black, with fiery eyes and teeth, and sprinkled all over with blood.’ They are often heard though seldom seen, ‘and seem to be passing along simply in the air, as if in hot pursuit of their prey’; and when they appear to hang over a house, then death or misfortune may shortly be expected. In the gorge of Cliviger the spectre huntsman, under the name of ‘Gabriel Ratchets,’ with his hounds yelping through the air, is believed to hunt a milk-white doe round the Eagle’s Crag, in the Vale of Todmorden, on All Hallows Eve. Mr. Holland, of Sheffield, has embodied the local belief in the subjoined sonnet, and says: ‘I never can forget the impression made upon my mind when once arrested by the cry of these Gabriel hounds as I passed the parish church of Sheffield one densely dark and very still night. The sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles on the foot of a race, but not so loud, and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural.'
Oft have I heard my honoured mother say,
How she has listened to the Gabriel hounds—
Those strange, unearthly, and mysterious sounds
Which on the ear through murkiest darkness fell;
And how, entranced by superstitious spell,
The trembling villager nor seldom heard,
In the quaint notes of the nocturnal bird,
Of death premonished, some sick neighbour’s knell.
I, too, remember, once at midnight dark,
How these sky-yelpers startled me, and stirred
My fancy so, I could have then averred
A mimic pack of beagles low did bark.
Nor wondered I that rustic fear should trace
A spectral huntsman doomed to that long moonless chase.
In the neighbourhood of Leeds these hounds are known as ‘Gabble Retchets,’ and are supposed, as in other places, to be the souls of unbaptized children who flit restlessly about their parents’ abode. The Yeth hounds were heard some few years ago in the parish of St. Mary Tavy by an old man named Roger Burn. He was walking in the fields, when he suddenly heard the baying of the hounds, the shouts and horn of the huntsman, and the smacking of his whip. The last point the old man quoted as at once settling the question, ‘How could I be mistaken? Why, I heard the very smacking of his whip.’
But, as Mr. Yarrell has long ago explained, this mysterious noise is caused by bean-geese, which, coming southwards in large flocks on the approach of winter—partly from Scotland and its islands, but chiefly from Scandinavia—choose dark nights for their migration, and utter a loud and very peculiar cry. The sound of these birds has been observed in every part of England, and as far west as Cornwall. One day a man was riding alone near Land’s End on a still dark night, when the yelping cry broke out above his head so suddenly, and to appearance so near, that he instinctively pulled up the horse as if to allow the pack to pass, the animal trembling violently at the unexpected sounds.
An amusing account of the devil and his dandy-dogs is given by Mr. J. Q. Couch, in his ‘Folk-lore of a Cornish Village,’ from which it appears that ‘a poor herdsman was journeying homeward across the moors one windy night, when he heard at a distance among the Tors the baying of hounds, which he soon recognised as the dismal chorus of the dandy-dogs. It was three or four miles to his house, and, very much alarmed, he hurried onward as fast as the treacherous nature of the soil and the uncertainty of the path would allow; but, alas! the melancholy yelping of the hounds, and the dismal holloa of the hunter, came nearer and nearer. After a considerable run they had so gained upon him that on looking back—oh, horror! he could distinctly see hunter and dogs. The former was terrible to look at, and had the usual complement of saucer-eyes, horns, and tail accorded by common consent to the legendary devil. He was black, of course, and carried in his hand a long hunting pole. The dogs, a numerous pack, blackened the small patch of moor that was visible, each snorting fire, and uttering a yelp of indescribably frightful tone. No cottage, rock, or tree was near to give the herdsman shelter, and nothing apparently remained to him but to abandon himself to their fury, when a happy thought suddenly flashed upon him and suggested a resource. Just as they were about to rush upon him, he fell on his knees in prayer. There was a strange power in the holy words he uttered, for immediately, as if resistance had been offered, the hell hounds stood at bay, howling more dismally than ever, and the hunter shouted, “Bo Shrove,” which means “The boy prays,” at which they all drew off on some other pursuit and disappeared.’
Gervase of Tilbury informs us that in the thirteenth century the wild hunt was often seen by full moon in England traversing forest and down. In the twelfth century it was known as the Herlething, the banks of the Wye having been the scene of the most frequent chases.
In Wales, the Cwn Annwn, or Dogs of Hell, or, as they are sometimes called, ‘Dogs of the Sky,’ howl through the air ‘with a voice frightfully disproportionate to their size, full of a wild sort of lamentation,’ but, although terrible to hear, they are harmless, and have never been known to commit any mischief. One curious peculiarity is that the nearer these spectral hounds are to a man, the less loud their voices sound; and the farther off they are, the louder is their cry. According to one popular tradition, they are supposed to be hunting through the air the soul of the wicked man the instant it quits the body.
This superstition occupies, too, a conspicuous place in the folk-lore of Germany and Norway. Mr. Baring-Gould, in his ‘Iceland, its Scenes and Sages,’ describes it as he heard it from his guide Jon, who related it to him under the title of the ‘Yule Host.’ He tells us how ‘Odin, or Wodin, is the wild huntsman who nightly tears on his white horse over the German and Norwegian forests and moor-sweeps, with his legion of hell hounds. Some luckless woodcutter, on a still night, is returning through the pine-woods when suddenly his ear catches a distant wail; a moan rolls through the interlacing branches; nearer and nearer comes the sound. There is the winding of a long horn waxing louder and louder, the baying of hounds, the rattle of hoofs and paws on the pine-tree tops.’ This spectral chase goes by different names. In Thuringia and elsewhere it is ‘Hakelnberg’ or ‘Hackelnbärend,’ and the story goes that Hakelnberg was a knight passionately fond of the chase, who, on his death-bed, would not listen to the priest, but said, ‘I care not for heaven, I care only for the chase.’ Then ‘hunt until the last day,’ exclaimed the priest. And now, through storm and sunshine, he fleets, a faint barking or yelping in the air announcing his approach. Thorpe quotes a similar story as current in the Netherlands, and in Denmark it occurs under various forms. In Schleswig it is Duke Abel, who slew his brother in 1252. Tradition says that in an expedition against the Frieslanders, he sank into a deep morass as he was fording the Eyder, where, being encumbered with the weight of his armour, he was slain. His body was buried in the Cathedral, but his spirit found no rest. The canons dug up the corpse, and buried it in a morass near Gottorp, but in the neighbourhood of the place where he is buried all kinds of shrieks and strange sounds have been heard, and ‘many persons worthy of credit affirm that they have heard sounds so resembling a huntsman’s horn, that anyone would say that a hunter was hunting there. It is, indeed, the general rumour that Abel has appeared to many, black of aspect, riding on a small horse, and accompanied by three hounds, which appear to be burning like fire.’ In Sweden, when a noise like that of carriage and horses is heard at night, the people say, ‘Odin is passing by,’ and in Norway this spectral hunt is known as the ‘Chase of the inhabitants of Asgarth.’ In Danzig, the leader of the hounds is Dyterbjernat, i.e. Diedrick of Bern. Near Fontainebleau, Hugh Capet is supposed to ride, having, it is said, rushed over the palace with his hounds before the assassination of Henry IV.; and at Blois, the hunt is called the ‘Chasse Macabee.’ In some parts of France the wild huntsman is known as Harlequin, or Henequin, and in the Franche Comté he is ‘Herod in pursuit of the Holy Innocents.’ This piece of folk-lore is widespread, and it may be added that in Normandy, the Pyrenees, and in Scotland, King Arthur has the reputation of making nightly rides.
Another form of spectre animal is the kirk-grim, which is believed to haunt many churches. Sometimes it is a dog, sometimes a pig, sometimes a horse, the haunting spectre being the spirit of an animal buried alive in the churchyard for the purpose of scaring away the sacrilegious. Swedish tradition tells how it was customary for the early founders of Christian churches to bury a lamb under the altar. It is said that when anyone enters a church out of service time he may chance to see a little lamb spring across the choir and vanish. This is the church lamb, and its appearance in the churchyard, especially to the grave-digger, is said to betoken the death of a child. According to a Danish form of this superstition, the kirk-grim dwells either in the tower or wherever it can find a place of concealment, and is thought to protect the sacred building; and it is said that in the streets of Kroskjoberg, a grave-sow, or as it is also called, a ‘gray-sow,’ has frequently been seen. It is thought to be the apparition of a sow formerly buried alive, and to forebode death and calamity.
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