The Mystery of Death
A few years ago I was planning a dolmen (in English usually, but incorrectly, called a cromlech) near Brives, in the department of Corrèze, when the local antiquary, M. Philibert Lalande, informed me that it had been excavated, and on that occasion a curious fact had been revealed. It contained half a skeleton. The upper half had been incinerated and was enclosed in a pot; but from the waist downward there had been carnal interment; above the feet were bronze anklets that had stained the bones green. Clearly there had been a domestic quarrel over this lady's corpse--for that of a female it was. Some desired to have her cremated, according to the last new fashion; whereas others preferred following the ancestral usage of interment of the dead body. At length they split the difference by sawing the good woman in half, with each party disposing of their share in the manner most consonant to their opinions. Of one thing there can exist no manner of doubt: that carnal interment was the original custom of that prehistoric race that, for want of a better name, we designate Ivernian; and that the cremating of the dead came in with the Aryan conquerors or settlers.
These two methods of disposing of corpses indicate divergence of sentiment relative to death.
The supposition that death was the complete annihilation of the living, the thought that any human being who today is a dweller full of joy and vigour in our midst, could possibly be absolutely extinct tomorrow, such a notion was utterly and entirely foreign to the mind of prehistoric man, as it is to the savage of today. The earliest and rudest conception of death is that of suspended animation, like sleep or a fit. Lartet has described to us the sepulchral cave of Aurignac in the Pyrenees, in which were found human skeletons of the postglacial date, showing tokens of reverent burial, with rude stone weapons laid ready for their use, and provisions supplied for their entertainment, as also remains of funeral feasts at the cave's mouth. In the vast American continent, in which tribes are widely scattered and isolated, many in a state of lowest barbarism, the belief in a continuance of life after death is general; and the dead warrior is buried with his most useful weapons and choicest ornaments. Even the babe, whose life is usually accounted of little value among savages, was buried by the careful mother with precious strings of wampum that had occupied her busy fingers more months of patient toil than the days of the infant's short life. Among the rude stone monument builders, whose huge allées couvertes in the north-west of France, in Ireland, in Denmark and Southern Sweden are our wonder today, these immense structures, reared at the cost of enormous labour, were dwelling--houses for the dead. In life these megalithic monument builders were content to squat in small beehive huts, in which they could not stand upright. But for the dead, they reared palaces. These were not abodes for the invisible soul, but for the bodies. And for the bodies food was supplied. Most of these structures have either a moveable slab as door, or else one perforated, through which meals for the deceased might be passed.
On the Causse above Terrasson, in Dordogne, is a dolmen with a cuplike hollow in the capstone. A friend of mine livjng near learned that the peasants were wont to place either money or meal or grapes in it. So one night he concealed himself within the cist. Presently a peasantess came and deposited a sou in the cavity, when my friend roared out in patois: "Ce n'est pas assez. Donnez moi encore!" whereupon the woman emptied her purse into the receptacle and fled.
In North Devon, at Washfield, the squire, a Mr Worth, was a sportsman. When he died, in the eighteenth century, he gave orders that his hounds should be slaughtered and buried with him. The dogs were indeed killed, but interred outside the churchyard wall. At the funeral of a cavalry officer or a general, his horse is led in the procession, and is slightly wounded in the frog of one hoof, so as to oblige it to limp. Originally the horse was killed and buried with the warrior, and our usage is the faint trace of the old barbarous custom that has undergone modification.
It is now quite a common practice in England to decorate the graves with flower-wreaths. These take the place of the earlier gifts of food, and show that still in men's minds lingers the pre-Aryan cult of the dead body. The Roman Church has accepted it altogether, and the worship of relics is neither more nor less than the survival of prehistoric beliefs and usage. At Eben, above the Inn Valley, in the church, immediately over the high altar, is a grinning skeleton, tricked out with sham flowers and spangles, behind glass. It is the body of St Nothburga; and when the priest is saying mass at the altar, it looks precisely as though he were sacrificing to this skeleton. I have seen many more quite as revolting exhibitions.
There is a curious book entitled De Miraculis Mortuorum ("On the Miracles of the Dead"), by a physician, Christian Friderick Garmann, published at Leipzig, 1670. The object of the writer is to refute widely extended beliefs that the dead are still alive in their graves, because the hair and the nails continue to grow after death; because strange sounds and voices have been heard to issue from tombs; because when coffins have been opened the face cloth has been found to have been gnawed, eyes that were closed have opened, children have cut their teeth after death, and so on--some very horrible stories are told. The real interest of the book consists in establishing the fact that in the seventeeth century ideas relative to death pertaining to savages and primeval man prevailed largely in Germany.
Saxo Grammaticus tells us a grim tale. Asmund and Asvid, brothers in arms, had vowed not to be separated in death. It fell out that Asvid died, and was buried along with his horse and dog in a cairn. And Asmund, because of his oath of friendship, had the courage to be buried along with him, food being put in for him to eat. Now just at this time, Eric, King of Sweden, happened to pass nigh the barrow of Asvid, and the Swedes, thinking it might contain: treasure, broke into it with mattocks, and came on a vault made of timber. To explore this, a youth was let down in a basket. But Asmund, when he saw the boy descend, cast him out, and got into the basket himself. Then he gave the signal to draw up. Those who drew thought by the weight that the basket contained much treasure. But when they saw the unknown figure of a man emerge, scared by his strange appearance, and thinking that the dead had come to life again, they flung down the rope and fled. He tried to recall them, and assured them that they were needlessly alarmed. And when Eric saw him, he marvelled at the aspect of his bloody face, the blood flowing freely and spurting out. Then Asmund told his story. He had been buried with his friend Asvid, but Asvid came to life again every night, and being ravenously hungry, fell on and devoured his horse. That eaten, he had treated his dog in the same manner; and having consumed that, he turned on his friend, and with his sharp nails tore his cheek and ripped off one of his ears. Asmund, who had no ambition to be eaten, made a desperate resistance, and finally succeeded in driving a stake through the body of the vampire.
Beginning with the year 1720, there spread through Lower Hungary and Servia and Wallachia a rumour that filled people with terror; and this was that vampires were about, sucking the blood of living persons. In 1725 accounts of vampires appeared in the newspapers. In the village of Kisolova died a serf named Peter Posojowitz, and was buried. Two days later several individuals in the place fell ill, and in eight days nine of them were dead. Every one of these declared that Peter Posojowitz was the sole cause of their illness. He had visited them in the night, thrown himself upon them, and sucked their blood. In order to put a stop to this, the grave was opened at the end of three weeks, and the body was found un-decomposed. The hair, beard, and nails had grown; the old skin had peeled off and a fresh skin had formed. Face and body appeared as sound and healthy as in life. Fresh blood stained the lips. The body was taken up, and a stake driven through the heart, Whereupon blood spurted from the mouth and ears. Finally the body Was burnt to ashes.
In 1732 appeared the protocol of an investigation made to order by three army surgeons in the presence of the commanding officer of their regiment, into a case of vampirism at Meduegya in Servia. Five years previously a heyduk named Arnod Paole, living in the place, fell from a hay wagon and broke his neck. Amod had in his lifetime often related how that he had been tormented by a vampire in Gossowa.
Some twenty or thirty days after his death several individuals complained that Arnod Paole had visited them, and four of these died. Accordingly forty days after his burial he was exhumed, and found quite fresh and with blood running out of his eyes, ears and nostrils. His shirt and shroud were soaked with blood. The old skin and nails had fallen off and fresh had grown. The body was at once burnt. But the mischief was not at an end, for everyone who has been bitten by a vampire becomes a vampire as well; and the trouble in Meduegya had become so great that orders were sent by Government to the three surgeons to open all the graves of those who were supposed to have been vampire-bitten, report on their condition, and, if necessary, burn the bodies.
They went accordingly to the cemetery and exhumed thirteen corpses. I can give only briefly a summary of the report, dated January 7, 1732.
1. A woman named Stana, twenty years old, who had died three months previously, after her confinement, along with her child. The latter, having been slovenly buried at insufficient depth, had been half-eaten by dogs. Nevertheless it was supposed to have become a vampire. The body of the mother appeared incorrupt. At the opening of the breast a quantity of fresh extravased blood was found. The blood in the cavities of the heart was not coagulated but liquid. All the internal organs were sound. The old skin and nails fell off and exposed fresh ones.
2. A woman named Miliza, aged sixty. She had been buried ninety odd days before. Much liquid blood was found in her breast. The viscera and other organs were in the same condition as the last. But what struck the heyduks standing by, and who had known her for many years, was that in life she had been a thin woman, whereas now she was plump, and under the dissecting knife revealed a strange amount of fat. She had protested in her last illness that she was the victim of a vampire.
3. An eight-days-old child which had been ninety days in the earth. This also in the so-called vampire condition.
4. The son of a heyduk named Milloe, sixteen years old. The body had been interred nine weeks before. It was quite sound and in the vampire condition.
5. Joachim, also a heyduk's son, aged seventeen years, had lain in the earth eight weeks and four days. His body was in the vampire state.
6. A woman named Ruscha had been buried six weeks previously, and her child, eighteen days old, who had been buried five weeks previously. Blood found in her breast and stomach.
7. The same may be said of a girl of ten who had been laid in the earth two months before. She was sound and incorrupt, and had fresh blood in her bosom.
8. The wife of the present mayor of the village and her child. She had died seven weeks ago and the child twenty-one days previously. Both were found in a condition of corruption through lying in the same earth and close to the others.
9. A servant of the heyduk, Corporal Rhade by name, who had lain in the ground five weeks, undergoing rapid decomposition.
10. A woman buried five weeks before, also in decomposition.
11. Stanko, a heyduk, sixty years old, who died six weeks before the investigation. Much liquid blood in the breast and stomach, and the whole body in vampire condition.
12. Milloe, a heyduk, twenty-five years old, buried five weeks before. In the vampire state.
13. Stanjoika, wife of a heyduk, buried eighteen days before the examination. Her face was rosy. She had been bitten, so she had asserted, by Milloe, just mentioned; and actually on the right side under the ear, was a blue scar about a finger's length, with blood about it. At the opening of her coffin fresh blood ran out of her nostrils, and there was "balsamish" blood in the breast and in the ventricle of the heart. The intestines were all healthy and sound.
After this visitation all the bodies that were in vampire condition were beheaded and then burnt.
A very general belief among the peasantry of England is--or was--that if a young man and a young woman are engaged and one of them dies before they are married, the tie still subsists, and can be only broken with difficulty. The dead one may claim the living. On this is founded Burger's ballad of Leonore.
I knew a handsome old woman, wife of a farmer of my neighbourhood in Devon, who had betrothed herself to a youth in the place, but he died before the wedding came off. After a sufficient time had elapsed she got engaged to the farmer, whom she eventually married. Directly after this the dead lover appeared to her at night and said: "Joanna, you cannot marry another than me, till you have returned my present, the red silk handkerchief. I'll stop it till I have that back." She left her bed and took the kerchief out of a drawer and handed it to him, whereupon he disappeared. If remonstrated with, and told that this was a dream, she would wax warm and say: "I know it is true. I know it, for the silk handkerchief disappeared from that night. And if you'd ha' opened his grave you'd ha' found it in his coffin."
Sometimes the dead lover insists on taking away his betrothed, unless she can redeem herself by answering certain riddles. There is a widely-known and sung ballad called The Unquiet Grave. It begins:--
Cold blow the winds of night, sweetheart,
Cold are the drops of rain.
The very first love that ever I had,
In greenwood he was slain.
The damsel goes to the graveyard and sits above where he is buried.
A twelvemonth and a day being up,
The ghost began to speak:
"Why sit you here, by my graveside,
And will not let me sleep?
What is it that you want of me,
And will not let me sleep?
Your salten tears they trickle down,
And wet my winding sheet."
"What is it that I want of thee.
O what of thee in grave?
A Kiss from off thy lily-white lips,
And that is all I crave."
"Cold are my lips in death, sweetheart,
My breath is earthy strong;
If you do touch my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long."
It is, by the way, a mistake to say that "the ghost began to speak", for it is obvious from what follows that it is the dead man and not the ghost at all. The ballad is not complete; there are verses lost. But the gist of it seems to be that the damsel seeks release from her dead lover, and desires to return him the betrothal kiss; but when she finds that there is death in this, she seeks another solution, and is set tasks.
"Go fetch me a light from dungeon deep,
Wring water from a stone,
And likewise milk from a maiden's breast
That never babe had none."
She stroke a light from out a flint,
An ice-bell (icicle) squeezed she,
And pressed the milk a Johnis wort,
And so she did all three.
"Now if you were not true in word,
As now I know you be,
I'd tear you as the withered leaves
Are torn from off the tree."
There used to be played in farmhouses in Cornwall a dialogue game of this kind. The dead lover goes outside the door, comes in and threatens to carry off the damsel who is seated in the middle of the room. She objects to go. Then he says that he will only give up his rights to her if she will accomplish certain tasks.
Go fetch me, my lady, a cambric shirt,
Whilst every grove rings with a merry antine,
And stitch it without any needlework,
And thou shalt be a true lover of mine.
O thou must wash it in yonder well,
Where never a drop of water in fell;
O thou must bleach it on yonder grass,
Where never a foot or a hoof did pass.
And thou must hang it upon a white thorn,
That never blossomed since Adam was born.
Unless these works are finished and done,
I'll take and marry thee under the sun.
To this the girl replies:--
Thou must buy for me an acre of land,
Between the salt sea and the yellow sand.
Thou must plough it o'er with a horse's horn,
And sow it over with a peppercorn.
Thou must reap it, too, with a piece of leather,
And bind it up with a peacocks feather.
Thou must take it up in a bottomless sack,
And bear it to mill on a butterfly's back.
And when these works are finished and done,
I'll take and marry thee under the sun.
"In all stories of this kind," says Professor Child, "the person upon whom a task is imposed stands acquitted if another of no less difficulty is devised which must be performed first."
Among the Bretons, when a young couple are engaged, they go to the graves of their parents and grandparents, and announce the fact to them. In all these cases the dead are supposed to be in a comatose state, and there is no thought of the soul as apart from the body.
But there have existed ideas concerning the intercourse between the dead and the living still more close. The classic story of the Bride of Corinth formed the basis of a not over-pleasant ballad by Goethe. A similar idea is found in Iceland.
Helgi Hundingsbane was visited in his grave-mound by his wife Sigrun, who spent a night there with him. He informed her that all her tears fell on and moistened him. "Here, Helgi," said she, "have I prepared for thee in thy mound a peaceful bed. On thy breast, chieftain, will I repose as I was wont in my lifetime." To which the dead Helgi replies: "Nothing is to be regarded as unexpected, since thou, living, a king's daughter, sleepest in a grave-mould in the arms of a corpse."
In some cases the devil has taken the place of a dead man. This would appear to be what has happened in the following story, taken down by me verbatim from an old woman in the parish of Luffincott in North Devon. I will give it in her own words:--"There was an old woman lived in Bridgerule parish, and she had a very handsome daughter. One evening a carriage and four drove to the door, and a gentleman stepped out. He was a fine--looking man, and he made some excuse to stay in the cottage talking, and he made love to the maiden, and she was rather taken with him. Then he drove away, but next evening he came again, and it was just the same thing; and he axed the maid if on the third night she would go in the coach with him, and be married.
She said Yes; and he made her swear that she would.
"Well, the old mother did not think that all was quite right, so she went to the pars'n of Bridgerule and axed he about it. 'My dear,' said he, 'I reckon it's the Old Un. Now look y' here. Take this 'ere candle, and ax that gen'leman next time he comes to lei your Polly alone till this 'ere candle be burnt out. Then take it, blow it out, and rin along on all your legs to me.'
"So the old woman took the candle.
"Next night the gen'leman came in his carriage and four, and he went into the cottage and axed the maid to come wi' he, as she'd sworn and promised. She said, 'I will, but you must give me a bil o' time to dress myself.' He said, 'I'll give you till thickey candle be burnt out.'
"Now, when he had said this, the old woman blew the candle out and rinned away as fast as she could, right on end to Bridgerule, and the pars'n he tooked the can'l and walled it up iii the side o' the church; you can see where it be to this day (it is the rood loft staircase upper door, now walled up). Well, when the gen'leman saw he was done, he got into his carriage and drove away, and he drove till he corned to Affaland Moor, and then all to wance down went the carriage and horses and all into a sort o bog there, and blue flames came up all round where they went down."
The conversion of a dead lover into the devil is obviously a Christianised modification of a very ancient belief, that the dead do come and claim female companions. In all likelihood there lingered on a tradition of some gentleman having been engulfed in the morass of Affaland.
One more story, and that very significant, showing how that to this day belief exists in the dead being in a condition of suspended animation in their graves. It is recorded by the late Mr Elworthy. "No longer ago than July 1901, I met Farmer-----who lives on a farm belonging to me in Devonshire. After the usual salutations, the following conversation occurred:--
"Farmer: 'I s'pose you've a-yeard th' old 'umman--is dead to last.'
"F.T.E.: 'No, I had not heard of it. Where did she die? Not in this parish, I hope. She was here living not very long ago.'
"Farmer: 'Oh, no; her wid'n bide here. Her zaid how they was trying to pwoison her, so her made 'em take her home, and they drawed her home in a carriage. Her was that wicked, her died awful. Her died cussin' and dam'in--wi' the words in her mouth."
"F.T.E.: 'Poor thing! I suppose she was mad. When did she die?'
"Farmer: 'Her died last Monday, and her's going to be buried t'arternoon to Culmstock.'
"F.T.E.: 'It's a good thing for us she is not going to be buried here, for she's sure to be troublesome wherever she lies.'
"Farmer: 'Oh, no, her 'ont, sir. You knows Joe, don't 'ee, sir? Well, I seed Joe this morning, and he's gwain to help car' her; so I sez to Joe, say I, "For God's sake, Joe, be sure and put her in up'm down."
"F.T.E.: 'Do you mean that the coffin is to be turned upside down?'
"Farmer: 'Ay, sure, and no mistake! Her 'ont be troublesome then, 'cause if her do begin to diggy, her can on'y diggy downwards."
Mr Elworthy adds: "I have known other cases of interments that have been made face downwards."
Now Frobenius, in The Childhood of Man, says that on the Shari River that flows into Lake Tchad in Central Africa, on a death they, "make a breach in the walls of the hut, through which the blindfolded body, face downwards and head foremost, is carried out, the breach being then again closed up. The people of the Shari explain that they turn the body face down and bandage the eyes to prevent the spirit from knowing which way the body was taken." Frobenius is here a little mistaken. This treatment of the body is in order to prevent the body from returning and being vexatious to its relatives.
All these superstitions pertain to very early conceptions of death, of a period when carnal interment was practised.
In the year 1779 there were living together two widows, sisters, and the daughter of one of them, at a farm called Blackabroom, in the parish of Bratton Clovelly in Devon, when a man, a tramp, called and asked for food. They gave him his tea, after which he murdered all three, [a] and searched the house for money, but only found £5, as the rest had been securely concealed. The man, whose name was Wetland, went into Hatherleigh, where he betrayed himself by unguarded talking about the murder. He was arrested and hung in chains on Broadbury Down, a crescent of high land covered with heather, and where lie many tumuli. The gallows tree is stilt in existence in a barn near. Now I believe it to be an absolute fact, that till the body fell to pieces, the women coming home from market every Saturday were wont to throw up to him a bunch of tallow candles for him to eat, and they generally succeeded in getting the dips to catch in his chains. As the candles disappeared during the week--pecked by birds--the women concluded that Welland had actually fed on them. Obviously the idea was still prevalent that life continued to exist in the body after execution. The gallows was standing in 1814.
In 1832 occurred a great rising of the peasantry in Hungary against the nobles. It was ruthlessly put down, and fifty Slovack peasants were hung on gallows in different parts. Curiously enough, every New Year's Day, each body was afforded by the relatives a new suit of clothes. (Paget, Hungary and Transylvania, 1850).
Here again, clearly the dead are supposed to be still alive, after a fashion.
Two farmers in the neighbourhood of Cologne, living in the same village, were at enmity with each other all their days. During an epidemic both died within a few hours of each other, and as burials were many, a double grave was dug, and the two men were put in, back to back. Thereupon the two corpses began kicking at each other with their heels, and it was found necessary to take out one of them and dig for him a fresh grave
After a while at an early period a complete change in observance ensued. Carnal interment was abandoned, and the dead were burned. In consequence, no more huge dolmens and halls of stone slabs were erected, and the ashes of the deceased were enclosed in a pot over which a small kistvaen was erected.
With the burning of the dead the old belief in the bodies of the departed walking, requiring food, sucking blood, claiming brides, suffered eclipse, only to return full again with Christianity, when bodies were once more interred.
With incineration, the ghost took the place of the restless body.
The change from burying the body to burning it was due to a revolt of the living against the tyranny and exactions of the dead. The dead having been treated very handsomely, made themselves, as Devonshire people would put it, "proper nuisances". They meddled in private affairs, would have the best cut off the joint, and the last bit of fashionable finery; they insisted on being periodically visited, their bones scraped, and their skulls polished. Falling into a morbid condition of mind, men were continually seeing phantoms in sleep and awake--to such an extent that those who were in this condition could not distinguish between what they had dreamt and what they had actually seen. A modern observer's description of the state of mind of the negroes of South Guinea in this respect would apply to that of the dolmen builders of old. "All their dreams are construed into visits from the spirits of their deceased friends. The cautions, hints, and warnings that come to them through this source are received with the most serious and deferential attention, and are always acted upon in their waking hours. The habit of relating their dreams, which is universal, greatly promotes the habit of dreaming itself, and hence their sleeping hours are characterised by almost as much intercourse with the dead as their waking are with the living. Their imaginations become so lively that they can scarcely distinguish between their dreams and their waking thoughts, between the real and the ideal, and they consequently utter falsehood without intending, and profess to see things which never existed."
No evidence exists that the change of custom from carnal inhumation to incineration was due to external influence, to contact with another people who burned instead of burying their dead. The same weapons and ornaments and pottery are found in the cairns that cover the ashes of the dead as in the rude stone chambers in which they were laid unburned. It was due to the impatience of the living to escape from the thraldom of the dead that the revolution in.~ practice took place. This is not mere conjecture, for it can be shown to have taken place in historic times. Among the Scandinavians interment of the dead was usual; but should a departed individual become troublesome, he was dug up and burnt.
The classical instance is that of Glamr in the Grettis Saga. I havet told the story elsewhere [b] so fully that I can but give an outline of it here.
Early in the eleventh century a farm stood in a valley that leads into the Vatnsdale in Northern Iceland. I have seen its foundations. In this lived a man named Thorhall. His sheep-walks were haunted and his shepherds murdered by being strangled or their backs broken. It was ascertained that the cause of this was that a certainf Glamr who had been in the service of Thorhall "walked", not only about the farm but even over the roof of the house, and one nigh broke into it. Grettir the Strong, who was staying with Thorhall, put a stop to these un-pleasantnesses by first snapping the spine of the corpse and then burning it to ashes. That done, the charred remains were conveyed many miles inland into the desert and there buried, under a cairn of stones; and I have seen and sketched that same cairn.
This is not a solitary instance. Several others are related to th same effect. Corpses were left in their graves to sleep in peace, but if they became troublesome they were incinerated. What took place in Iceland on a small scale took place on a large one among the dolmen builders, and for the same reason. We have seen the same system adopted in the case of the vampires in Servia so late as 1732.
Popular superstition now oscillated between the two conceptions of death. We have seen a Devonshire farmer entertain precisely the same notions relative to a corpse that are found among savages almost at the bottom of the cultural ladder. But undoubtedly the legacy from the age of incineration, the idea of the spirit detached from and independent of the body manifesting itself, is the most prevalent.
There was a woman in Horbury Bridge, near Wakefield, who kept a little shop. We had many a long walk together, and she told me two stories of her experiences that show that the two independent conceptions relative to death were in her mind.
A woman had died in the house, and the body was put in a shell in the room over the kitchen, where she and a friend were sitting. All at once both of them heard a noise overhead, as if the corpse were getting out of its coffin, and this was followed by steps on the floor. The two women listened in alarm, till they heard the dead body return to its former place, when they ventured upstairs. The corpse was in its shell, but the linen that had enfolded it was rumpled, and some flowers that had lain on the bosom were displaced.
The other story was this. When this good woman was a girl of sixteen her mother died, and she went into a situation in the same hamlet, where she was very unhappy because unkindly treated. One night she left the house, ran to the churchyard, and, kneeling by her mother's grave, told her the tale of her sorrows. Then she saw the vaporous form of her mother standing or floating above the grave-mound. As the woman described it, it was as if made out of fog and moonshine, but the face was distinct. And she heard the apparition say: "Bear up, Bessie, lass! It's no but a little while, and then thou'lt be right." Whereat the figure slowly dissolved and disappeared.
The belief in ghosts is so prevalent, so widely extended, and so many more or less authentic stories of their appearances exist, that a thick book might be filled with them. What is more to the point is that though most educated individuals repudiate the notion, they nevertheless retain a sneaking conviction that there may be some truth in the many stories that they hear; and they endeavour to explain them on natural grounds. All these stories derive from the period when men burnt their dead, and so put an end to the conception of the continued life after death of dead bodies.
I have already mentioned the doctrine of metempsychosis, brought with the Aryans from the East, their first home. But along with the notion that human souls after death passed into some other body, there were other explanations given as to what became of disembodied souls.
One went that they wandered in the wind; the moaning, the screaming, and the piping of the blast was set down to the voices of the souls, bewailing their fate as excluded from shelter under a rool and a seat by the fireside.
The wind blows cold on waste and wold,
It bloweth night and day.
The souls go by 'twixt earth and sky,
Impatient not to stay.
They fly in clouds and flap their shrouds,
When full the moon doth sail;
In dead of night, when lacketh light,
We hear them sob and wail.
And many a soul with dismal howl
Doth rattle at the door,
Or rave and rout, with dance and shout
Around the granite tor.
We hear a soul i' th' chimney growl
That's drenched with the rain,
To wring the wet from winding sheet,
To feel the fire 't were fain.
This idea is not antagonistic to metempsychosis it shows us the spirits of the deceased wandering over the world in quest of bodies that they may occupy. In African tribes a madman is supposed to be possessed of two souls, one of a lately deceased man that has taken up its abode in him, the other is his own spirit. Frobenius mentions a case. "A few years ago such a possessed person burnt a whole village in the Gaboon district without anyone preventing him. The villagers stood by and looked on, not venturing even to save their own effects. When the Government forces arrived, there was a great row, and the arrest of the poor idiot almost led to a war."
In Yorkshire, Essex and on Dartmoor it is supposed that the souls that pipe and wail on the wind are those of un-baptized children. usually such ghosts as are reported to have been seen are those of persons who have committed some crime, or suicide, but also occasionally those of victims who have been murdered and have not received Christian burial.
As peoples became more civilised and thought more deeply of the mystery of death, they conceived of a place where the souls lived on, and being puzzled to account for the rainbow, came to the conclusion that it was a bridge by means of which spirits mounted to their abode above the clouds. The Milky Way was called variously the Road of the Gods, or the Road of Souls. Among the Norsemen, after Odin had constructed his heavenly palace, aided by the dwarfs, he reared the bridge Bifröst, which men call the Rainbow, by which it could be reached. It is of three colours: that in the middle is red, and is of fire, to consume any unworthy souls that would venture up the bridge. In connection with this idea of a bridge uniting heaven and earth, up which souls ascended, arose the custom of persons constructing bridges for the good of the souls of their kinsfolk. On runic grave-stones in Denmark and Sweden we find such inscriptions as these: "Nageilfr had this bridge built for Anund, his good son." "The mother built the bridge for her only Son." "Holdfast had the bridge constructed for Hame, his father, who lived in Viby." "Holdfast had the road made for Igul and for Ura, his dead wife." At Sundbystein, in the Uplands, is an inscription Showing that three brothers and sisters erected a bridge over a ford for their father.
The bridge as a means of passage for the soul from this earth to eternity must have been known also to the Ancients, for in the Cult of Demeter, the goddess of Death, at Eleusis, where her mysteries were gone through, in order to pass at once after death into Elysium, there was an order of Bridge priestesses; and the goddess bore the name of the Lady of the Bridge. In Rome also the priest was a bridge-builder pontifex, as he undertook the charge of souls. In Austria and parts of Germany it is still supposed that children's souls are led up the rainbow to heaven. Both in England and among the Chinese it is regarded as a sin to point the finger at the bow. With us no trace of the idea that it is a Bridge of Souls remains. Probably this was thought to be a heathen belief and was accordingly forbidden, for children in the North of England to this day, when a rainbow appears, make a cross on the ground with a couple of twigs or straws, "to cross out the bow". The West Riding recipe for driving away a rainbow is: "Make a cross of two sticks and lay four pebbles on it, one at each end."
A more common notion as to the spirits of the dead was the shipping of them to a land in the West, where the sun goes down--Hy Brazil, as the Irish called it.
In Yorkshire, North and East Riding, the clouds at even sometimes take the form of a ship, and the people call it Noah's Ark, and observe if it points Humber-ways as a weather prognostic. Although I have never heard them say that it was a soul-ship, I have little doubt that originally it was supposed to be such. Noah's Ark was not empty. There is a story in Gervase of Tilbury that leads to this surmise. The book, Otia Imperalia, was written in 1211.
On a certain feast-day in Great Britain, when the congregations came pouring out of church, they saw to their surprise an anchor let down from above the clouds, attached to a rope. The anchor caught in a tombstone; and though those above shook the cable repeatedly, they could not disengage it. Then the people heard voices above the clouds discussing apparently the propriety of sending someone down to release the flukes of the anchor, and shortly after they saw a sailor swarming down the cable. Before he could release the anchor he was laid hold of; he gasped and collapsed, as though drowning in the heavy air about the earth. After waiting about an hour, those in the aerial vessel cut the rope, and it fell down. The anchor was hammered out into the hinges and straps of the church door, where, according to Gervase, they were to be seen in his day. Unfortunately he does not tell us the name of the place where they are to be seen. Agobard, Bishop of Lyons, who died in 840, wrote against the superstitions prevalent in his day, and he says that he had heard and seen many persons who believed that there was a country called Magonia, whence sailed ships among the clouds, manned by aerial sailors, who took on board grain and fruit from off the earth, and poured down hail and sent tempests.
That the cloud vessel is the Ship of Souls is made clear by certain extant Cornish traditions. I will quote instances from Hunt's Romances and Drolls of the West of England, and Bottrell's Traditions of West Cornwall.
A phantom ship was seen approaching against wind and tide, sailing over land and sea in a cloudy squall, and in it departed the soul of a wrecker. His last moments were terrible, a tempest taking place in the room, where the plashing of water was heard. A similar spectral barque occurs in another story. "These caverns and' cleaves were all shrouded in mist, which seemed to be gathering from all quarters to that place, till it formed a black cloud above and a thick haze below, out of which soon appeared the black masts of a black ship scudding away to sea, with all her sails set, and not a breath of wind stirring." It carried off the soul of a noted white witch.
A story told at Priest's Cove is much like these. Here a pirate lived. At his death a cloud came up, with a square-rigged ship in it, and the words, "The hour is come, but not the man" were heard. As the ship sailed over the house, the dying man's room was filled with the noise of waves and breakers, and the house shook as the soul of the wrecker passed away, borne in the cloud ship.
In Porthcurno harbour spectral ships are believed to be seen sailing over land and sea.
Near Penrose a spectral boat, laden with smugglers, was believed to be seen passing at times over the moors, in an equally spectral sea and a driving fog. By degrees, not always in the same place nor at any fixed period, the idea of the Ship of Souls in the clouds materialised into actual boats in which the spirits of the dead were carried over, not to a mystical land of Magonia, but to actual islands or territories.
The western coast of Brittany, with its sheer granite cliffs starting out of an ever-boiling sea, but with its strange inland waveless lakes of the Morbihan and the Gulf of Etel, and with its desolate wind-swept wolds, strewn with prehistoric monuments of the dead, more numerous than anywhere else, has been esteemed the gathering-place of souls seeking to be shipped either to the Isles of the Blessed, or to Britia, that is none other than Great Britain.
No place could have been selected more suitable for the purpose that the Pointe de Raz. Near it is the Bay of Souls. The rising and falling ground is barren. Here is the Tarn of Cleden, about which the skeletons of drowned men congregate and run after a stranger, imploring him to give them a winding-sheet and a grave.
Procopius, who died shortly after 543, tells us how that hence the souls of the departed are shipped across to the Island Britia. Near the coast are some islands inhabited by fishermen, tradesmen, and ferrymen. These often cross over to Britain on trading affairs intent. Although they are under the Frank crown, they pay no taxes, and none are required of them. The reason is that it is their office to ferry over the souls of the dead to the places appointed for their residence. Those whose obligation it is in the ensuing night to discharge this duty go to bed as soon as darkness sets in and snatch as much sleep as they can. About midnight a tap is heard at the door, and they are called in a low voice. Immediately they rise and run down to the coast, without well knowing what mysterious cause of attraction draws them thither. Here they find their boats apparently empty, yet actually so laden that the water is up to the bulwarks, hardly a finger's breadth above the surface. In less than an hour they bring their boats across to Great Britain, whereas ordinarily a ship with stout and continuous rowing would not reach it in a day and a half. As soon as they have reached the British shore, the souls leave the ships, and these at once rise in the sea, as though wholly without lading. The boatmen return home without having seen anyone either when going or when discharging their freight. But, as they testify, they can hear a voice on the shore calling out the names of those who are to disembark with those of their parents, their followers, and their character. When women's souls are on board, then the names of their husbands are given.
Claudian also had heard this story, but he confused the northern shipping of the dead with the nether world practices when Ulysses descended. On the extreme coast of Gaul as a place sheltered from the ocean, where Ulysses by sacrifice summoned the spirits of the dead about him. There he could hear the faint wailing of the vaporous spirits that surrounded him, forms like the dead on their travels.
There are numerous German stories of ferrymen, shipping invisible fares over the Rhine, the Weser, and the Elbe.
The Greeks and Roman believed in the Elysian fields knee-deep in asphodels, where wandered souls, and to which they were ferried across the river of Styx by Charon.
Now let us examine the genesis of these beliefs. The conception of a region of the gods above the cloud, to which access was had by the rainbow bridge, is not primitive.
The Norsemen were Vikings who raided up the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire; who pushed down to the Garonne, to Spain, and through the Straits into the Mediterranean and reached Constantinople, where some of them took service under the Greek Emperors. Insensibly their ideas of cosmogony got influenced by the Christians with whom they were brought in continual contact; and they adopted the notion of a heaven of the gods above the clouds. But this was not their original belief. They held that the world was round and flat, and that about it flowed a mighty river. Beyond this was Gloesisvellir, the Shining Plains, to which the dead were shipped. These ideas got localised. The Celts had their convictions that the Land of the Spirits was beyond the setting sun, and St Brendan and his party sailed in a carack in quest of it, but failed to discover it. In Germany the localisation of the Land of Souls was across one of the broad rivers. In the confusion of ideas some held that a heavenly ship among or above the clouds transported the souls to their final home. But this theory was not lasting. Still, it existed.
At first the Aryan idea was metempsychosis. Then as the souls could not find bodies to animate, they went wandering in quest of them. Next they formed the notion that across the sea, or the river that flowed round the earth, the souls went in boats.
And now we find this notion by no means extinct. Hamlet says:--
(Age) hath shipped me into the land
As if I had never been such.
And there is a hymn issued by the Sunday School Union, and sung up and down the land:--
Where shall we meet beyond the river,
Where the surges cease to roll?
Where in all the bright for ever
Sorrow fleer shall vex the soul.
Shall we meet with many dear ones
Who were torn from our embrace?
Shall we listen to their voices,
And behold them face to face?
This is old Paganism wearing a Christian mask.
The ancient Greeks put on their tombs the word Euploia, "Favourite voyage", showing the popular ideas on the subject. For this, modern Greeks substitute a pair of oars laid on the grave.
Mannhardt was quite right in saying: "From the afore-recorded customs and stories it appears abundantly clear that the traversing of souls across water is deeply grounded in the consciousness of the people. As this is also found among the Celts, the Greeks, the Irish, and in the Hindu religions, it is apparent that this conception goes back to a period before the separation of the several branches of the stock."
King Arthur was carried away in a boat after the battle in which he received his death-wound to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, that was identified afterwards with Glastonbury.
Now let us look at the final phase of this notion of the shipping of the dead, and this we discover in the myth of the Flying Dutchman. The earliest trace of this I find in the Greek Acts of Saints Adrian and Natalia. Adrian was martyred about the year 304, but the Acts are much later. After the death of Adrian, at Nicomedia, his wife Natalia took ship to go to Byzantium.
As the vessel was on its way, storm and darkness came on, and out of the gloom shot a phantom ship filled with dark forms. The steersman of Natalia's vessel shouted to the captain of the phantom ship for sailing directions, not knowing in the darkness and mist that this vessel was not real and freighted with living men. Then a tall black form at the poop shouted through the flying spindrift, "To the left, to the left; lean over to the left!" and so the steersman turned the prow. At that instant a luminous figure stood out in the night, at the head of the vessel, with a halo about him such as we see encircle a lantern in a fog. It was Adrian in glory. And he waved his arm and cried, "You are sailing aright! Go straight forward." And Natalia uttered a cry and sprang forward, crying "It is my husband--it is Adrian come to save us!"
Then the light vanished and all was dark. The storm blew down on them, laden with the shrieks of the discomfited demons, as the black fiend--ship backed into the gloom. Here, as a matter of course, in a saintly legend, the souls of bad men in the phantom ship become devils.
The next story of which I am aware is one that purported to be from an old manuscript not older than the sixteenth century, and probably of the seventeenth, that appeared in the Morgenblatt for
"Whilst we were sailing from the Rio de Plata for Spain, one night I heard a cry 'A sail!' I ran at once on deck, but saw nothing. The man who kept watch looked greatly disturbed. When I spoke to him, he explained the reason of his condition. Looking out, he had seen a black frigate sail by so close that he could see the figurehead which represented a skeleton with a spear in his right hand. He also saw the crew on deck, which resembled the figurehead, only that skin was drawn over their bones. Their eyes were sunk deep in the sockets, and had in them a stare like that of dead bodies. Nevertheless they handled the cordage and managed the sail, which latter was so thin as to be like cobwebs, and the stars could only be dimly seen through them. The only word he heard, as the mysterious barque glided by, was 'Water'. The man who had seen this became depressed through the rest of the voyage and died soon after."
There are various versions of the story framed to account for the vision of the Flying Dutchman. That most usually accepted is that an unbelieving Dutch captain had vainly tried to round Cape Horn against a head-gale. He swore he would do it, and when the gale increased, laughed at the fears of his crew, smoked his pipe and swilled his beer. As all his efforts were unavailing, he cursed God, and was then condemned to navigate always without putting into port, only having gall to drink and red-hot iron to eat, and eternally to watch.
In Normandy the Phantom Boat puts in at All Souls. The watchman of the wharf sees a vessel come within hail at midnight, and hastens to cast it a line; but at this same moment the boat disappears and frightful eerie cries are heard that make the hearer shudder, for they are recognised as the voices of sailors shipwrecked that year. Hood has described this in The Phantom Boat of All Souls' Night.
The theme has been adopted by novelists, poets and dramatists. It is a tale told in various forms in nearly every maritime Country, and till of late years sailors firmly believed in the existence of the Flying Dutchman, and dreaded seeing the phantom vessel.
These are all the abraded remains of the ancestral belief of our Aryan forefathers relative to the souls of the deceased being conveyed over the river of Vaiterafli, "hard to cross" of the Vedas, the Styx of the Greeks, the Gjöll of the Scandinavians, the earth surrounding river, into the land of spirits beyond. [c]
[a] Extract from Burial Register, Bratton Clovelly: BURIALS 1779.
1. Grace Peard, widow, was buried Nov 5. 2. Patience Rundle, widow, Nov 5
3. Mary Rundle, daughter of Wm and Patience Rundle, Nov 5. These 3 ware Barbibly (sic) murdered.[ In very obscure writing underneath]
[b] A Book of Ghosts Methuen & Co. London
[c]The idea that souls "go out with the tide', noticed in David Copperfield is connected with the same myth.