A Book of Folklore/Chapter 2
There is a remarkable Arabian story called Hai Ebn Yokdhan, written in Spain by Ebn Tophail. It is a philosophical romance, and relates how a child brought up by a nannygoat began to study the secrets of life. His nurse, the goat, died, and he wondered in what existed the spring of life, and he cut her open and searched the heart, where he found two compartments, one filled with coagulated blood, the other empty. From that he was led to search into what the vacant cavity once contained. He slew a goat, cut it open, and found in the vacant cavity a vaporous bluish flame--and that was Life.
Life is light and fire. This idea must have entered into the minds of primitive people. To this day in Yorkshire falling stars are supposed to be the souls coming down from above to newborn children and animating them, and when death ensues the flame of life passes out of the body. This is the conception that lies at the root of many folk-superstitions.
I knew a case in an adjoining parish, where there was a young man in a decline who had helped in the hay-harvest. He was dead before the next season. But I was assured that at haysel a flame was seen dancing about the meadow and running up to the hayrick; the haymakers had no doubt whatever that this was the spirit of the young man who had died in the previous year. In Wales the belief in corpse--lights is very prevalent. There it is a flame that comes from the churchyard to fetch the spirit of the dying man or woman. It is, in fact, the spirit of a relative come to call it.
It is called the Canwyll Gorph, or Corpse Candle; and the saying is that St David promised to Welshmen in his territory that none should die without the premonitory sign of a light travelling to his house from the churchyard to summon him. In the Cambrian Register for 1796 we read of--
A very commonly received opinion, that within the diocese of St David's, a short space before death, a light is seen proceeding from the house, and sometimes, as has been asserted, from the very bed where the sick person lies, and pursues its way to the church where he or she is to be interred, precisely in the same track in which the funeral is afterwards to follow.
In Devonshire it is supposed that this light is only seen when the moribund has children or relatives buried in the churchyard, and it is the souls of these that come to fetch their kinsman or kinswoman.
All under the stars, and beneath the green tree,
All over the sward, and along the cold lea,
A little blue flame a--fluttering came;
It came from the churchyard for you or for me.
I sit by the cradle, my baby's asleep,
And rocking the cradle, I wonder and weep.
O little blue light in the dead of the night,
O prithee, O prithee, no nearer to creep.
Why follow the church-path, why steal you this way?
Why halt in your journey, on threshold why stay?
With flicker and flare, why dance up the stair?
O I would! O I would! it were dawning of day.
All under the stars, and along the green lane,
Unslaked by the dew, and unquenched by the rain,
Of little flames blue to the churchyard steal two,
The soul of my baby! now from me is ta'an.
Baxter, in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, quotes a letter from Mr John Davis of Gleneurglyn, 1656, in which he says that the corpse-candles do as much resemble material candle--light as eggs do eggs, saving that in their journey these candles are sometimes visible and sometimes disappear, especially if anyone comes nea them, or in any way meet them. On these occasions they vanish, but presently appear again. If a little candle is seen of a pale bluisih colour, then follows the corpse of an infant; if a larger one, then the corpse of some one come to age. If two candles come from different places and be seen to meet, the corpses will do the same; and if any of these candles be seen to turn aside through some bypath leading to the church, the following corpse will be found to take exactly the same way. The belief in Devonshire is very much the same as that in Wales, only it is held that no corpse-candle will come to fetch a soul unless there be a kinsman already interred in the churchyard That there may be an amount of gas that is luminous escaping from a tomb is possible enough. I had one night dining with me friend who is now a vice-principal of a college in Oxford. To reach his home he had to pass our churchyard, and he came back in terror as he had seen a blue light dancing above a grave. But that these flames should travel down roads and seek houses where there is on dying is, of course, an exaggeration and untenable.
Baxter tells the story of what happened at Llangatten ir Carmarthenshire:--
Some thirty or forty years since my wife's sister, being nurse to Bishop Rudd's three eldest children, the lady comptroller of the house, going late into the chamber where the maid-servants lay, saw no less than five of these lights together. It happened a while after that, the chamber being newly plaistered, and a grate of coal fire therein kindled to hasten the drying of the plaister, that five maid-servants went to bed as they were wont, but it fell out too soon, for in the morning they were all dead, being suffocated in their sleep with the steam of the new tempered lime and coal.
Mrs Crowe, in her Nightside of Nature, tells a couple of stories which she heard from a "dignitary of the Church" born in Wales. A female relative of his started early in the morning, attended by her father's servant. When she had reached halfway, where she expected to meet the servant of the friend she was about to visit, she dismissed the man who had accompanied her so far. The fellow had not long left her before she saw a light approach her, moving about three feet above the soil. She turned her horse out of the bridle-road, along which it advanced, to allow it to pass, but to her dismay, just as it came opposite her, it halted and remained flickering before her for about half an hour, and only vanished as she heard steps of the servant's horse, as he trotted up to meet and conduct her to her friend. On reaching the house of her friend she related what she had seen. A few days later that very servant who had come to meet her sickened and died, and his body was carried along the road upon which the light had moved; and more curious still, owing to an accident, the coffin halted for an hour at the very spot where she had been delayed confronting the mysterious light. That light, we may be sure, was supposed to be the soul of a relative come from the grave to meet and welcome a kinsman. In no other way can it be explained.
Another story is this: A servant in the family of Lady Davis, the aunt of the dignitary who told the above story to Mrs Crowe, had occasion to start early for market. Being in the kitchen at 3 a.m., taking his breakfast, when everyone else was in bed, he was surprised by the sound of feet trampling down the stairs; and opening the door, he saw a light. He was frightened and rushed out of the house, and presently saw a gleam pass out of the door and proceed towards the churchyard. As Lady Davis was ill at the time, he made no doubt that her death impended; and when he returned from market his first question was whether she were still alive; and though he was informed she was better, he declared his conviction that she would die, and described what he had seen and heard. The lady, however, recovered; but within a fortnight another member of the family died, and her coffin was conveyed by bearers down the stairs. One curious feature in the story is that the man had described how he had heard the sound of a bump against the clock on the stairs; and actually, as the coffin was being taken down, the bearers ran it violently against the clock--case.
Mrs Crowe in the Nightside of Nature, tells a story narrated to her relative to Scotland, showing that the idea of corpse-candles is not confined to Wales. It was to this effect. A minister, newly inducted into his cure, was standing one evening leaning over the wall of the churchyard, which adjoined the manse, when he observed a light hovering over a particular spot. Supposing it was someone with a lantern, he opened the wicket and went forward to ascertain who it might be; but before he reached the spot the light moved onwards, and he followed, but could see nobody. It did not rise far above the ground, but advanced rapidly across the road, entered a wood, and ascended a hill till it at length disappeared at the door of a farmhouse. Unable to comprehend of what nature this light could be, the minister was deliberating whether to make inquiries at the house or return, when the light appeared again, accompanied by another, passed him, and going over the same ground, they both disappeared on the spot where he had first observed the phenomenon. He left a mark on the grave by which he might recognise it, and next day inquired of the sexton whose it was. The man said it belonged to a family that lived up the hill--indicating the house the light had stopped at--but that it was a considerable time since anyone had been buried there. The minister was extremely surprised to learn, in the course of the day, that a child of that family had died of scarlet fever on the preceding evening.
Now, compare this story with that framed in the ballad of the Little Blue Flame, that contains a Devonshire tradition, and we find precisely the same phenomenon. A soul leaves the churchyard to fetch another of the family, and both appear as flames.
The poet Pfeffel of Colmar was blind, and he employed as his amanuensis a young Evangelical pastor. Pfeffel, when he walked out, was supported and led by this young man, whose name was Billing. As they walked in the garden, at some distance from the town, Pfeffel observed that whenever they passed over a particular spot, the arm of Billing trembled and he betrayed uneasiness. On being questioned, the young man confessed, with some reluctance, that as often as he passed over that spot, certain feelings attacked him which he could not control, and that he always experienced the same in treading in a churchyard. He added that at night when he came near such places he saw luminous appearances. Pfeffel, with a view of curing the youth of what he regarded as a fancy, went that night with him to the garden. As they approached the spot Billing perceived a feeble light, and when still nearer he saw a luminous ghostlike figure wavering over the spot. This he described as a female form, with one arm laid across the body, the other hanging down, floating in an upright posture, but tranquil, the feet only a handbreadth or two above the soil. Pfeffel went alone, as the young man declined to follow him, up to the place where the figure was said to be, and struck about in all directions with his stick, besides running actually through the luminous appearance; but the figure was not more affected than a flame would have been. The matter got talked about, and a great number of people visited the spot; but it was not till some months later that any investigation was made. Then Pfeffel had the place dug up. At a considerable depth was found a firm layer of white lime of the length and breadth of a grave, and of considerable thickness. When this had been broken through there were found the bones of a human being. No tradition existed in the place to explain this burial, whether it had been a case of murder, or that the human being here buried had died of pestilence, none could tell--but it was abundantly clear that the burial had taken place at some considerable anterior period. The bones were removed, the pit filled up, the lime scattered abroad, and the surface again made smooth. When Billing was now brought back to the spot, the phenomenon did not return.
It is possible, it is even probable, that the popular superstition relative to lights seen above graves is due to the discharge of phosphuretted hydrogen from a decaying corpse. I drove over one day with my brother to see a church, and before entering it he thoughtlessly threw his overcoat across a grave. On our return he fainted, being overcome by the smell that his coat had acquired. And this grave was not of recent making, but was at the least eight years old. It is possible enough that such exhalations should become luminous, and thus start the belief that is so general, and which has been expanded by imagination into the travelling of such lights to fetch others.
What, we may ask, is the Will-o'-the wisp? Is it not the spirit of the man who has perished in a morass, dancing above where his body lies submerged? Some years ago a convict from Prince Town prison escaped. He was last seen flying over Foxtor Mire, and he never was seen again. Since then a blue flame has been observed occasionally hovering over the morass.
When the poet wrote:
he uttered a sentiment expressive of the nature of the soul common to the many. None who have stood by a deathbed can fail to observe how closely the parting of soul and body, the light fading from the eyes, and warmth leaving the body, resembles the extinction of a fire.
In Yorkshire, when a man is drowned, in order to find the place where the body is, a lighted candle is stuck in a loaf of bread which is committed to the water, and the light after a while floats above the spot where the corpse lies below the surface. When I was in Yorkshire in 1865 a man was drowned in the Calder Canal, and this method was adopted before dragging for the body. In this case the candle-flame represents the soul going in quest of its husk.
In the legends of several of the Irish saints, the mother of one dreams that a spark has fallen into her mouth or her lap. It is the soul coming to her child. With this may be taken the Yorkshire notion of a falling star, already referred to.
Repeatedly in the Icelandic sagas one reads of the haug-eldir, cairn-fires, flames that flicker and wave above tumuli covering dead warriors who have been buried with their treasures. These fires are none other than the spirits of the dead guarding their plunder. The Esquimaux suppose the Northern Lights to be the spirits dancing about the Polar Circle.
There is at the present day, or was till recently, a morass near Stadr by Reykjanes in Iceland, where from the other side of the bay a wavering blue flame is seen, and it is supposed that a treasure lies sunken there; but the light is that of the spirit of him whose gold lies beneath the marsh.
It was a belief among the German peasantry that the stars were human souls. When a child died its spirit was taken up to heaven and hung there as a star, but unbaptized children's souls became wills-o'-the-wisp. So also those of men who have moved their neighbours' landmarks. Above graves blue flames are seen to dance. Even unborn children are luminous, and this has been the occasion of many horrible murders of women expecting to become mothers, by men who desired to get hold of a hand of such an unborn, unbaptized child, by means of which they believed themselves able to send to sleep all in a house into which they entered for the purpose of robbery. We are distinctly told that it was the luminous character of the unborn that gave them this value.
A curious story is told in a letter from a German pastor in Elsass to the editor of Magikon (iv. p.349). He had gone to Freiburg and was on his way home by night, and early in the morning, at 4 a.m., reached the first outlying houses of his village. The moon was in its last quarter, not a soul was stirring, when, in the road at about twenty or thirty paces from him, he saw a ball of fire burning in the middle of the way. The light given Out was pale like that of spirits of wine. He halted and looked at it for some moments and then went forward, when the ball of fire rose with undiminished brightness to the height of about twenty feet from the ground and went to the graveyard, where it descended again and vanished among the graves. There was no trace of fire or ashes on the highway where the fire had been first seen. The pastor, whose name was J.I. Schneider, wrote that he, along with his children, had seen the same apparition a second time.
But it is not only as a flame that the soul is conceived to appear; it is supposed to remain with the body. In the year 1832 my grandfather renovated Lew Trenchard Church. He swept away the rood-screen and the carved oak benches and repewed the church. The carpenter employed opened the vault of old Madame Gould, the grandmother of my grandfather. She had been a notable woman, and he thought he would like to see her. It was night, and he had his lantern. I tell the tale as he told it me. When he opened her coffin she sat up, and a light streamed from her above that of his lantern. He was so panic--stricken that he fled the church, and ran home a distance of a quarter of a mile. And as he told me, she followed him, and he knew that, because his shadow went before him the whole way. Arrived at his home, he dashed in and jumped into the bed beside his wife, who was ill, and both saw Madame standing before them, with a light shining about her, which gradually faded. He told me this story himself, with all the sincerity of a man who is speaking the truth. Next day he found his extinguished lantern where he had left it.
There are certain manifestations that may have helped on the popular superstition as to the soul being a fire, that may as well be mentioned. I cannot doubt myself that on occasions preceding death there is a luminosity apparent, as though the departing soul were shining through the body, as a candle does through the sides of the lantern. Sir H. Marsh, a London physician, writing in the Medical Gazette in 1842, gives an account of such an appearance that he had himself observed attentively.
But the soul has also been thought to take an animal shape. Guntram, the Frank king, was out hunting one day, as Paulus Diaconus tells us, when, feeling tired, he lay down under a tree to sleep. The squire, whilst guarding his royal master, with surprise saw a serpent emerge from the king's mouth and glide down to a rivulet hard by and seek to cross the water, but was unable to do so. Thereupon the squire, determined to see the end of the adventure, drew his sword and laid it over the stream from bank to bank. The serpent, seeing this improvised bridge, wriggled across and disappeared down a small hole at the foot of a hill on the opposite side. After remaining there for a while it returned along the sword and into the king's mouth. Soon after, Guntram, awakening, said that he had just had a most extraordinary dream, in which he thought that he had crossed a torrent on a bridge of steel, and entered a subterranean palace full of gold and jewels. The squire then relating what he had seen, Guntram set a number of men to work, the hill was undermined, and the treasure discovered. Thenceforth that hill bore the name of Mont-Trésor.
Helinand in his Chronicle tells a similar story. Henry, Archbishop of Rheims, and brother of King Louis, was travelling one summer with his retinue, and halted in the middle of the day for a rest. The Archbishop and some of his attendants went to sleep in the grass, but others kept awake, and these latter saw a little white animal like a weasel issue from the mouth of one of the sleepers and run down to a brook and try to cross it. Then the story goes on like that of Guntram, but without the discovery of treasure. When the man awoke and was asked about what he had dreamt, he said that he had been a long journey and in it he had twice crossed a bridge of steel. Hugh Miller, in My Schools and Schoolmasters, when writing about a cousin named George, says:--
He communicated to me a tradition illustrative of the Celtic theory of dreaming, of which I have since often thought. Two young men had been spending the early portion of a warm summer day in exactly such a scene as that in which he communicated to me the anecdote. There was an ancient ruin beside them, separated, however, from the mossy bank on which they sat by a slender runnel, across which lay, immediately over a miniature cascade, a few withered grass-stalks. Overcome by the heat of the day, one of the young men fell asleep; his companion watched drowsily beside him, when all at once the watcher was aroused to attention by seeing a little, indistinct form, scarcely larger than a humble-bee, issue from the mouth of the sleeping man and, leaping upon the moss, move downwards to the runnel, which it crossed along the withered grass-stalks, and then disappeared amid the interstices of the ruin. Alarmed by what he saw, the watcher hastily shook his companion by the shoulder, and awoke him; though, with all his haste, the little cloud-like creature, still more rapid in its movements, issued from the interstice into which it had gone, and flying across the runnel, instead of creeping along the grass-stalks and over the sward, as before, it re-entered the mouth of the sleeper just as he was in the act of awakening. "What is the matter with you?" said the watcher, greatly alarmed; "what ails you?" "Nothing ails me," replied the other; " but you have robbed me of a most delightful dream. I dreamt that I was walking through a fine, rich country, and came at length to the shores of a noble river; and just where the clear water went thundering down a precipice there was a bridge all of silver, which I crossed; and then, entering a noble palace on the opposite side, I saw great heaps of gold and jewels; and I was just going to load myself with treasure, when you rudely awoke me, and I lost all."
I have little doubt that what Cousin George saw was a humble-bee issuing from the mouth of the sleeper, for this is the form the soul is not infrequently supposed to wear.
These three stories are curious, as they represent a premonition of the final departure of the soul, which, according to a belief alluded to by Sir Walter Scott, after departing from the body has to pass over "the brig of Dread, no broader than a thread." If it falls off it is forever lost; if, however, it attains the other side of the gulf, it enters into the heavenly palace.
My great-great-grandmother after departing this life was rather a trouble in the place. She appeared principally to drive back depredators on the orchard or the corn-ricks. So seven parsons were summoned to lay her ghost. They met under an oak-tree that still thrives. But one of them was drunk and forgot the proper words, and all they could do was to ban her into the form of a white owl. The owl used to sway like a pendulum in front of Lew House every night till, in an evil hour, my brother shot her. Since then she had not been seen. But here again we have the Celtic idea of metempsychosis.
There is a ballad sung by the English peasantry that has been picked up by collectors in Kent, Somerset and Devon. It is entitled At the Setting of the Sun, and begins thus:--
Come all you young fellows that carry a gun, Beware of late shooting when daylight is done; For 'tis little you reckon what hazards you run, I shot my true love at the setting of the sun.
In a shower of rain, as my darling did hie All under the bushes to keep herself dry, With her head in her apron, I thought her a swan, And I shot my true love at the setting of the sun.
In the Devonshire version of the story:--
In the night the fair maid as a white swan appears; She says, O my true love, quick, dry up your tears, I freely forgive you, I have Paradise won; I was shot by my true love at the setting of the sun.
But in the Somerset version the young man is had up before the magistrates and tried for his life.
In six weeks' time, when the 'sizes came on, Young Polly appeared in the form of a swan, Crying, Jimmy, young Jimmy, young Jimmy is clear; He never shall be hung for the shooting of his dear.
And he is, of course, acquitted.
The transformation of the damsel into a swan stalking into the Court and proclaiming the innocence of her lover is unquestionably the earlier form of the ballad; the Devonshire version is a later rationalising of the incident. Now, in neither form is the ballad very ancient; and in the passage of the girl's soul into a swan we can see bow that among our peasantry to a late period the notion of trans-migration has survived.
I was visiting an old woman who was bedridden when one day she said to me: "I saw my brother last night; he came flapping his wings against the window." I stared, and asked for an explanation. Her brother had died some time previously. "He came as a great black bird, like a rook but larger, and he kept beating against the glass. He is come to call me." I endeavoured to give a natural explanation of the phenomenon, but she would not hear of that. She knew it was her brother by the tone of the voice. "Beside, he warn't an over good man, and so he wouldn't go into a white bird. It was my brother and no mistake."
The Oxenham omen of the bird that appears before a death in the family is another instance, for the bird is probably supposed to be the spirit reincarnate of an ancestor.
That the soul is on its travels when any person is dreaming, or in a faint, or a cataleptic fit, is generally believed, and the various revelations or visions of heaven and Purgatory and Hell that have been given to the world, from early times down to Dante's Divina Commedia, derive therefrom.
A curious story was told by Mr John Holloway, of the Bank of England, brother of the engraver of that name. He related how that being one night in bed with his wife, and unable to sleep, he had fixed his eyes and thoughts with uncommon intensity on a beautiful star that was shining in at the window, when he suddenly found his spirit released from his body and soaring into that bright sphere. But, seized with anxiety for the anguish of his wife if she discovered his body apparently dead beside her, he returned and re-entered it with difficulty.
He described that returning as distressful, like coming back to darkness; and that whilst the spirit was free he was alternately in the light or the dark, according as his thoughts were with the star or with his wife. Alter this experience, he said that he always avoided anything that could produce a repetition, the consequences of it being very distressing.
A citizen of Bremen had observed for some time that about the hour of midnight his wife ceased to breathe, and lay motionless like a corpse, with her mouth open. He had heard it said that souls could leave the body and go on their wanderings, and returned through the mouth. He could hardly believe it, but he resolved on trying the experiment on his wife; so he turned her body over when she was in this condition, with her face buried in the pillow. Then he went quietly to sleep, but on awakening next morning he found his wife in the position in which he had placed her, stone dead.
The conception of the soul passing into an animal form is distinctly Aryan. It is the basis of the Brahmin philosophy. The Celts, and after that the Teutons, brought with them from the East the belief in metempsychosis; but of this more in the next chapter.
- In Lincoinshire a similar story is found, and there the soul of the sleeping Comrade did actually appear as a bee. Notes and Queries, ii.506; iii. 206