In the Iliad, after the spirit of Patroclus has visited Achilles in his dream, it is described as taking its departure, and entering the ground like smoke. In long after years, and among widely scattered communities, we meet with the same imagery; and it is recorded how the soul of Beowulf the Goth ‘curled to the clouds,’ imaging the smoke which was curling up from his pyre. A similar description of the soul’s exit is mentioned in one of the works of the celebrated mystic, Jacob Boehme, who observes: ‘Seeing that man is so very earthly, therefore he hath none but earthly knowledge; except he be regenerated in the gate of the deep. He always supposeth that the soul-—at the deceasing of the body-—goeth only out at the mouth, and he understandeth nothing concerning its deep essences above the elements. When he seeth a blue vapour go forth out of the mouth of a dying man, then he supposeth that is the soul.’ The same conception is still extensively believed throughout Europe, and the Russian peasant often sees ghostly smoke hovering above graves. The Kaffirs hold that at death man leaves after him a sort of smoke, ‘very like the shadow which his living body will always cast before it,’ reminding us of the hero in the Arabian romance of Yokdnan, who seeks the source of life and thought, and discovers in one of the cavities of the heart a bluish vapour—the living soul. Among rude races the original idea of the human soul seems to have been that of vaporous materiality, which, as Dr. Tylor observes, has held so large a place in modern philosophy, and in one shape or another crops up in ghost stories. The Basutos, speaking of a dead man, say that his heart has gone out, and the Malays affirm that the soul of a dying man escapes through the nostrils.
Hogarth has represented the figure of Time breathing forth his last-—a puff of breath proceeding from his mouth; and a correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries’ relates that, according to a popular belief, a considerable interval invariably elapses between the first semblance of death and what is considered to be the departure of the soul, about five minutes after the time when death, to all outward appearances, has taken place, ‘the last breath’ may be seen to issue with a vapour ‘or steam’ out of the mouth of the departed. According to some foreign tribes, the soul was said to dwell mainly in the left eye; and in New Zealand men always ate the left eye of a conquered enemy. At Tahiti, in the human sacrifices, the left eye of the victim was always offered to the chief presiding over the ceremony. It was further believed in New Zealand that ‘in eating the left eye they doubled their own soul by incorporating with it that of the conquered man. It was also thought by some people in the same archipelago that a spirit used to dwell in both eyes.’
The supposed escape of the soul from the mouth at death gave rise to the idea that the vital principle might be transferred from one person to another; and, among the Seminoles of Florida, when a woman died in childbirth, the infant was held over her face to receive her parting spirit. Algonquin women, desirous of becoming mothers, flocked to the bed of those about to die, in the hope that they might receive the last breath as it passed from the body; and to this day the Tyrolese peasant still fancies a good man’s soul to issue from his mouth at death like a little white cloud. We may trace the same fancy in our own country, and it is related that while a well-known Lancashire witch lay dying, ‘she must needs, before she could “shuffle off this mortal coil,” transfer her familiar spirit to some trusty successor. An intimate acquaintance from a neighbouring township was sent for in all haste, and on her arrival was immediately closeted with her dying friend. What passed between them has never fully transpired; but it is asserted that at the close of the interview the associate received the witch’s last breath into her mouth, and with it her familiar spirit. The powers for good or evil were thus transferred to her companion.’
In order that the soul, as it quits the body, may not be checked in its onward course, it has long been customary to unfasten locks or bolts, and to open doors, so that the struggle between life and death may not be prolonged-—a superstition common in France, Germany, Spain, and England. A correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries’ tells how for a long time he had visited a poor man who was dying, and was daily expecting death. Upon calling one morning to see his poor friend, his wife informed him that she thought he would have died during the night, and hence she and her friends unfastened every lock in the house; for, as she added, any bolt or lock fastened was supposed to cause uneasiness to, and hinder, the departure of the soul. We find the same belief among the Chinese, who make a hole in the roof to let out the departing soul; and the North American Indian, fancying the soul of a dying man to go out at the wigwam roof, would beat the sides with a stick to drive it forth. Sir Walter Scott, in ‘Guy Mannering,’ describes this belief as deep rooted among ‘the superstitious eld of Scotland;’ and at the smuggler’s death in the Kaim of Derncleugh, Meg Merrilies unbars the door and lifts the latch, saying—
Open lock, end strife,
Come death, and pass life.
A similar practice exists among the Eskimos, and one may often hear a German peasant express his dislike to slam a door, lest he should pinch a soul in it. It has been suggested that the unfastening of doors and locks at death may be explained by analogy and association. Thus, according to a primitive belief, the soul, or the life, was thought to be tied up, so that the unloosing of any knot might help to get rid of it at death. The same superstition ‘prevailed in Scotland as to marriage. Witches cast knots on a cord; and in a Perthshire parish both parties, just before marriage, had every knot or tie about them loosened, though they immediately proceeded in private to tie them each up again.’ Another explanation suggests that the custom is founded on the idea that, when a person died, the ministers of purgatorial pains took the soul as it escaped from the body, and flattening it against some closed door—which alone would serve the purpose—crammed it into the hinges and hinge openings; thus the soul in torment was likely to be miserably squeezed. By opening the doors, the friends of the departed were at least assured that they were not made the unconscious instruments of torturing the departed.
There is a widespread notion among the poor that the spirit will linger in the body of a child a long time when the parent refuses to part with it, an old belief which, under a variety of forms, has existed from a primitive period. In Denmark one must not weep over the dying, still less allow tears to fall on them, for it will hinder their resting in the grave. In some parts of Holland, when a child is at the point of death, it is customary to shade it by the curtains from the parents’ gaze, the soul, it is said, being detained in the body so long as a compassionate eye is fixed upon it. A German piece of folk-lore informs us that he who sheds tears when leaning over an expiring friend increases the difficulty of death’s last struggle. A correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries’ alluding to this superstition in the North of England writes: ‘I said to Mrs. B——, “Poor little H—— lingered a long time; I thought when I saw him that he must have died the same day, but he lingered on!” “Yes,” said Mrs. B——, “it was a great shame of his mother. He wanted to die, and she would not let him die; she couldn’t part with him. There she stood fretting over him, and couldn’t give him up; and so we said to her, ‘He’ll never die till you give him up,’ and then she gave him up, and he died quite peacefully.”’
Similarly, it is not good to weep for the dead, as it disturbs the peace and rest of the soul. In an old Danish ballad of Aage and Else, a lover’s ghost says to his mistress:
Every time thou weepest, for each tear in that flood,
The coffin I am laid in is filled with much blood.
Or, as another version has it:
Every time thou’rt joyful,
And in thy mind art glad,
Then is my grave within
Hung round with roses’ leaves.
Every time thou grievest,
And in thy mind are sad,
Then is within my coffin
As if full of clotted blood.
A German song tells us how a sister wept incessantly over her brother’s grave, but at last her tears became intolerable to the deceased, because he was detained on earth by her excessive weeping, and suffered thereby great torment. In a fit of desperation he cursed her, and in consequence of his malediction, she was changed into a cuckoo, so that she might always lament for herself. Mannhardt relates a pretty tale of a young mother who wept incessantly over the loss of her only child, and would not be comforted. Every night she went to the little grave and sobbed over it, till, on the evening preceding the Epiphany, she saw Bertha pass not far from her, followed by her troop of children. The last of these was one whose little shroud was all wet, and who seemed exhausted by the weight of a pitcher of water she carried. It tried in vain to cross a fence over which Bertha and the rest had passed; but the fond mother, at once recognising her child, ran and lifted it over. ‘Oh, how warm are mother’s arms!’ said the little one; ‘but don’t cry so much, mother, for I must gather up every tear in my pitcher. You have made it too full and heavy already. See how it has run over and wet all my shift.’ The mother cried again, but soon dried her tears.
We may compare a similar superstition among the natives of Alaska, when, if too many tears were shed by the relatives during the burial ceremonies, it was thought that the road of the dead would be muddy, but a few tears were supposed just to lay the dust. The same idea is found in a Hindu dirge: ‘The souls of the dead do not like to taste the tears let fall by their kindred; weep not, therefore;’ and, according to the Edda, every tear falls as blood upon the ice-cold bosom of the dead. We may trace the belief in Ireland, and Sir Walter Scott says it was generally supposed throughout Scotland that ‘the excessive lamentation over the loss of friends disturbed the repose of the dead, and broke even the rest of the grave.’
The presence of pigeon or game feathers is said to be another hindrance to the exit of the soul; and, occasionally, in order to facilitate its departure, the peasantry in many parts of England will lay a dying man on the floor. A Sussex nurse once told the wife of a clergyman that ‘never did she see anyone die so hard as Master Short; and at last she thought—-though his daughter said there were none—-that there must be game feathers in the bed. So she tried to pull it from under him, but he was a heavy man, and she could not manage it alone, and there was none with him but herself, and so she got a rope and tied it round him, and pulled him right off the bed, and he went off in a minute quite comfortable, just like a lamb.’ In Lancashire, this belief is so deep-rooted that some persons will not allow sick persons to lie on a feather-bed; while in Yorkshire the same is said of cocks’ feathers. Shakespeare alludes to the practice where Timon says—
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads.
And Grose remarks: ‘It is impossible for a person to die whilst resting on a pillow stuffed with the feathers of a dove, for he will struggle with death in the most exquisite torture.’ This is also a Hindu and Muslim belief, and in India ‘the dying are always taken from their beds and laid on the ground, it being held that no one can die peaceably except when laid on mother earth.’ In Russia, too, there is a strong feeling against the use of pigeon feathers in beds.
The summons for the soul to quit its earthly tenement has been thought to be announced, from early times, by certain strange sounds, a belief which Flatman has embodied in some pretty lines:
My soul, just now about to take her flight
Into the regions of eternal night,
Methinks I hear some gentle spirit say,
‘Be not fearful, come away!’
Pope speaks in the same strain:
Hark! they whisper, angels say,
‘Sister spirit, come away!’
And in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (iv. 4), the former says:
Hark! you are called; some say, the Genius so
Cries ‘Come!’ to him that instantly must die.
As in days gone by so also at the present time, there is, perhaps, no superstition more generally received than the belief in what are popularly known as ‘death-warnings,’ reference to which we shall have occasion to make in a later chapter.
It has been urged again, that at the hour of death the soul is, as it were, on the confines of two worlds, and hence may possess a power which is both prospective and retrospective. In ‘Richard II.’ (ii. 1), the dying Gaunt exclaims, alluding to his nephew, the young and self-willed king:
Methinks I am a prophet, new inspired,
And thus expiring do foretell of him.
Nerissa says of Portia’s father in ‘Merchant of Venice’ (i. 2): ‘Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations.’ This idea may be traced up to the time of Homer, and Aristotle tells us that the soul, when on the point of death, foretells things about to happen; the belief still lingering on in Lancashire and other parts of England. According to another notion, it was generally supposed that when a man was on his death-bed, the devil or his agents tried to seize his soul, if it should happen that he died without receiving the ‘Eucharist,’ or without confessing his sins. In the old office books of the Church, these ‘busy meddling fiends’ are often represented with great anxiety besieging the dying man; but on the approach of the priest and his attendants they are represented as being dismayed. Douce quotes from a manuscript book of devotion, of the time of Henry VI., the following prayer to St. George: ‘Judge for me when the most hedyous and damnable dragons of helle shall be redy to take my poore soule and engloute it into theyr infernall belyes.’ One object, it has been urged, of the ‘passing bell’ was to drive away the evil spirit that might be hovering about to seize the soul of the deceased, such as the king speaks of in 2 Henry VI. (iii. 3):
O, beat away the busy meddling fiend,
That lays strong siege unto this wretch’s soul,
And from his bosom purge this black despair.
We may find the same idea among the Northern Californians, who affirmed that when the soul first escaped from the body an evil spirit hovered near, ready to pounce upon it and carry it off.
It is still a common belief with our seafaring community on the east coast of England, that the soul takes its departure during the falling of the tide. Everyone remembers the famous scene in ‘David Copperfield,’ where Barkis’s life ‘goes out with the tide.’ As Mr. Peggotty explained to David Copperfield by poor Barkis’s bedside, ‘People can’t die along the coast except when the tide’s pretty nigh out. He’s a-going out with the tide—he’s a-going out with the tide. It’s ebb at half arter three, slack water half an hour. If he lives till it turns he’ll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide.’ In the parish register of Heslidon, near Hartlepool, the subjoined extract of old date alludes to the state of the tide at the time of death: ‘The xith daye of Maye, A.D. 1595, at vi of ye clocke in the morninge, being full water, Mr. Henrye Mitford, of Hoolam, died at Newcastel, and was buried the xvi daie, being Sondaie. At evening prayer, the hired preacher made ye sermon.’ Mrs. Quickly in ‘Henry V.’ (ii. 3) speaking of Falstaff’s death says: ‘’A made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; ‘a parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide.’ In Brittany, death claims its victim at ebb of the tide, and along the New England coast it is said a sick man cannot die until the ebb-tide begins to run. It has been suggested that there may be some slight foundation for this belief in the change of temperature which takes place on the change of tide, and which may act on the flickering spark of life, extinguishing it as the ebbing sea recedes.