A Book of Folklore/Chapter 7
In the infancy of man there were two phenomena that sorely perplexed him: his reflection in standing water, and his shadow. The universal ignorance of the most elementary laws of Nature goes far to explain the origin of many myths that were adopted as solutions of problems not understood. Why did a man, on looking into still water, see himself reproduced? He knew nothing of the principle of reflection, and he supposed that he saw a real double of himself. What was the cause of the shadow dogging his steps? It was not caused by his body intercepting the rays of the sun. That was a conception far beyond his reach. He supposed that his shadow was his attendant spirit. Consequently he had two companions--one luminous and the other dark; one good and the other evil.
I had plate-glass windows in my dining-room. Frequently peacocks, seeing themselves reflected in the panes, flew at them and shattered the glass, supposing that they saw rivals in the affections of the pea-hens. Tigers have been caught by placing mirrors in traps. The tiger approaches, sees his reflection, enters to rub noses or to bite the beast of his species he sees. Primitive man had no greater degree of intelligence in the particular of his reflection than have peacocks and tigers.
Throughout the Aryan stock we find a belief in fetches, wraiths, or doubles, i.e. of man being attended by his duplicate, often considered as a guardian spirit; in a good many places we find also a belief in an evil--minded, mischievous genius as well. These are none other than a survival of old conceptions relative to the reflection and the shadow.
I have known children cry out with rage when a comrade whipped or stamped on their shadow, crying out that it hurt them, or at least was an insult.
The Greeks held that there were agathodaemones, good spirits, also kakodaemones, attached to men swaying them to this side or to the other; and Socrates took counsel of, and followed the guidance of, his daemon. It was not till Christianity occupied the field that these demons were all comprehended as devils.
The Romans had their genii; every man had his genius, an attendant spirit; even the gods were supposed to have their genii. All the acts of life from birth to death, all the vicissitudes of life and human activities, all the relations between men and their fellows, all enterprises, were due to the impulses afforded by these guardian spirits. Every household had its Lares and Peates, but these were of a different order, as they were ancestral deities, the spirits of the founders of the family.
To get deeper into the beliefs of an Aryan people on this topic, we must go to Scandinavian and German sources.
The Norsemen believed that every man had his fylgja, follower, a spirit intimately related to him, and that died when he did. It did not always follow--it often preceded him to look into the future and foretell what was to be. When the fylgja preceded anyone it was possible to stumble over it. When a certain Thorsteinn was seven years old, he came running with childish impetuosity into the room of one Geitir. In so doing he tripped and sprawled on the floor, whereat Geitir laughed. Somewhat later, Thorsteinn asked what had occasioned this outburst of merriment; whereupon the other answered: "I saw, what you did not see, as you burst into the room, for there followed you a white bear, running in front of you, but when it saw me it remained stationary, and you stumbled over it." This was Thorsteinn's own fylgja, and Geitir concluded from its appearance that the lad was destined to great things.
The fylgja was often seen in animal shape--an interesting reminiscence of transmigration; for though the belief in the metempsychosis of the human soul had been given up, the idea lingered on and attached itself to the companion spirit. The fylgja showed themselves sometimes in the form of men, but also in that of any beast which represented the character of temperament of the man it followed. Brave men had their companion spirits in the shape of bears or wolves. That of a crafty man appeared as a fox. A timorous man had a fylgja in the form of a hare or a small bird.
The Icelander Einarr Eyjólfsson foresaw the death of his brother Gudmund in dream. He fancied that an ox with long horns ascended out of the Eyjafjord and leaped upon the high seat of Gudmund in his farm of Madruvöllr, and there fell dead. This ox, said Einarr, is a man's fylgja. That same day his brother returned from a journey, and took his place in the high seat in his hall, and sank out of it dead.
Hjal and Thord went together into a field in which a goat had been seen, which none could drive away. All at once Thord exclaimed, "This is very strange." "What do you see that is strange?" asked Njal. "I see," answered Thord, "the goat lying drenched in blood." Njal replied, "That is no goat, it is something else." "What is it, then?" asked Thord. "Look out for yourself," said Njal; "you are fey and that is your following spirit."
The fylgjar come into the world in the caul of a newborn child. If this caul be burnt or thrown away, the man has lost his guardian spirit for his life. In Norway a departing guest is always attended to the door, to make sure that the valve is kept open long enough to allow the spirit to pass out after the man.
In Germany the Companion Spirit is called Jüdel, or Gütel, and when a child laughs in sleep it is said the Jüdel is playing with him. If the guardian spirit keeps the child restless, something is given to it to distract its attention from its little ward.
The idea of the Companion Spirit has been christianised into that of the Guardian Angel. St Bernard says in one of his sermons:
"Whenever you perceive that you are sorely tempted, and that a great trouble menaces, invoke your guardian, your teacher, your helper. In difficulties, in tribulation, in any circumstances, in any hard pressure, have respect to your angel. Never venture, in his presence, to do that which you would not do before me." Caesarius of Heisterbach says that to every man pertains a good, but also a bad angel. Although the fetch or doppelgänger, as the Germans call him, has been melted into the Guardian Angel, he has for all that, in many cases, retained his identity; and stories are not uncommon of his appearance.
Some years ago I was walking through the cloister at Hurstpier-point College, when I saw coming towards me the bursar. I spoke to him. He turned and looked at me, but passed on without a word. I went on to the matron's apartment, and there the identical man was. I exclaimed: "Hallo, P., I have just passed you and spoken to you in the cloister!" He turned very pale and said, "I have not left this room." "Well," said I, "I could swear to an alibi any day."
A Mr Macnish, quoted by Mrs Crowe, tells the following story:
Mr H. was one day walking along the street, apparently in good health, when he saw, or supposed he saw, his acquaintance, Mr C., walking before him. He called to him aloud, but he did not seem to hear him, and continued walking on. Mr H. then quickened his pace for the purpose of overtaking him, but the other increased his also, as if to keep ahead of his pursuer, and proceeded at such a rate that Mr H. found it impossible to make up to him. This continued for some time, till, on Mr C. reaching a gate, he opened it and passed in, slamming it violently in Mr H.'s face. Confounded at such treatment from a friend, the latter instantly opened the gate and looked down the long lane into which it led, where, to his astonishment, no one was to be seen. Determined to unravel the mystery, he then went to Mr C.'s house, and his surprise was great to hear that he was confined to his bed, and had been so for several days. A week or two afterwards these gentlemen met at the house of a mutual friend, when Mr H. related the circumstances, jocularly telling Mr C. that, as he had seen his wraith, he of course could not live long. The person addressed laughed heartily, as did the rest of the party; but in a few days Mr C. was attacked with putrid sore throat, and died; and within a short period of his death, Mr H. was also in his grave.
In the biography of John Reinhard Hedinger, Court chaplain in 1698 to Duke Eberhard Ludwig of Würtemberg, appears a curious story. The duke was a sadly immoral man, and after Hedinger had repeatedly urged him to a better life, he preached in the Court chapel against the sins to which the Duke was most addicted. The prince was furious, and sent orders to the Court chaplain to come to him alone in the palace at a certain hour. Hedinger went and was introduced. The intention of the duke was to reprimand him harshly and then punish him severely. When the chaplain entered the cabinet of the prince, the latter stared at him with astonishment, and said "Why have you not come alone?" "I am alone, your serene highness." "No, you are not," retorted the duke, with his eyes fixed on the right side of the Court preacher. Hedinger replied gravely: "But I am--quite alone. Your highness, if God has sent His angel to stand by me, I know nothing about it." The duke dismissed him, showing all the signs of profound agitation. Whether this were an angel, or Hedinger's double, cannot be said, as Eberhard Ludwig did not give a description of what he saw.
The musician Glück was staying in Ghent. While there he was spending an evening with some friends. He returned to his lodgings one moonlight evening, when he observed going before him a figure that closely resembled himself. It took every turn through the streets which he was accustomed to take, and finally, on reaching the door, drew out a key, opened it, and entered. On this the musician turned round, went back to his friends, and earnestly entreated to be taken in for the night. Next morning they accompanied him to his lodgings, and found that the heavy wooden beams of the ceiling of Glück's sleeping-room had fallen down in the night and crushed the bed. It was obvious that had he passed the night there he must have been killed.
Barham, in his Reminiscences, related the story of a respectable young woman, who was roused in the night by hearing somebody in her room, and that on looking up she saw a young man to whom she was engaged. Extremely offended at such an intrusion, she bade him instantly depart if he wished ever to speak with her again. Whereupon he told her that he was to die that day six weeks, and then disappeared. Having ascertained that the youth could not possibly have been in her room, she was naturally much alarmed, and her evident depression leading to some inquiries, she communicated what had occurred to the family with whom she lived. They attached little importance to what seemed so improbable, more especially as the young man continued in perfectly good health, and was entirely ignorant of the prediction, which was carefully kept from him. When the fatal day arrived the girl became cheerful, and as the ladies with whom she lived went on their morning ride, they observed to each other that the prophecy did not seem likely to be fulfilled. On their return, however, they saw her running up the avenue towards the house, in great agitation, and learned that her lover was then either dead or dying.
In Yorkshire the wraith or double is called a waft. There is one night in the year in which the wafts of those who are about to die proceed to the church and may be seen. This is St Mark's Eve, and anyone who is curious to know about the death of his fellow-parishioners must keep watch in the church porch on that eve for an hour on each side of midnight for three successive years. Mr Henderson says in his Northern Folklore:--
On the third year they will see the forms of those doomed to die
within the twelvemonth passing, one by one, into the church. If the watcher fall asleep during his vigil he will die himself during the year. I have heard, however, of one case in which the intimation was given by the sight of the watcher's own form and features. It is that of an old woman at Scarborough, who kept St Mark's vigil in the porch of St Mary's in that town about eighty years ago. Figure after figure glided into the church, turning round to her as they went in, so that she recognised their familiar faces. At last a figure turned and gazed at her; she knew herself, screamed, and fell senseless to the ground. Her neighbours found her there in the morning, and carried her home, but she did not long survive the shock.
I know of a case far more recent, at Monkokehampton, in North Devon, when a stalwart young carpenter resolved on keeping watch. He saw two pass him, and then his own wraith, that looked hard at him. He fled and took to his bed. The rector visited him and did all in his power to convince the man that he had been victim to hallucination or a dream. The doctor visited him and could find nothing really the matter with him. Nevertheless he died within a fortnight.