Ghosts

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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Among the early and latter superstitions, Ghosts are very prominent.

As so many ghost stories rest upon tradition, it is well to bear in mind what the author of The Golden Bough says—"The superstitious beliefs and practices which have been handed down by word of mouth are generally of a far more archaic type than the religions depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan race."

It is not easy to laugh at Irish peasants for ghost yarns when all nations, from the remotest antiquity, accepted them, and philosophers like Dr. Johnson, preachers like John Wesley, reformers like Luther, poets like Dante and Tasso, recognized such spirits. Some, like an author in 1729, may doubt souls returning from heaven—"Nor do I know," said he, "whether it would be worth their shifting Hell, and coming back to this world in the wandering condition those things called Ghosts are understood to be." Others may exclaim with Dr. Johnson, "All argument is against it, but all belief is for it."

Thyraeus, the Jesuit, thinks that they are but souls from purgatory, seeking rest. Earberg considered, "It is against no Scripture that souls should come from Hades." Henri Martin, the French Celtic scholar, said, "The intercourse between earth and heaven is a belief strongly accredited among the Bards." Gladstone recognizes that the recent Greek dead "are wanderers in the Shades, without fixed doom or occupation." Homer's Odyssey has this reference—

"But swarms of spectres rose from deepest hell,
With bloodless visage and with hideous yell.
They scream, they shriek, and groans and dismal sounds
Stun my scared ears and pierce hell's utmost bounds."

Virgil shows to Æneas his father Anchises—

"Then thrice around his neck his arms he threw;
And thrice the flitting shadow slipp'd away,
Like wind or empty dreams that fly the day."

Suetonius tells us that the ghost of Caligula walked in Lavinia's garden, where his body was buried, until the house was burnt down. Ecclesiasticus (chap, xlvi.) speaks of Samuel thus: "And after his death he prophesied, and showed the king his end." In the archives of the Royal Society is a MS. paper, read November 16, 1698, on some "Apparitions in ye N. of Scotland," in which we are informed that Mr. Mackeney, A.M., Oxford, "said that they saw apparitions allmost every week; and upon his knowledge they did very frequently foretell the death of Persons, wch always succeeded accordingly."

Were all these mistaken? Were they under the influence of Herbert Spencer's Organ of Reviviscence, or Wonder-Organ, which "affords a tangible explanation of mental illusions"?

The Irish, like the ancient Jews, held that bad men, especially, could walk this earth after death; and the English law, almost to our day, allowed a stake to be driven through the body of suicides and murderers, to prevent their spirit troubling the living.

The Church has had its say in the matter. The Council of Elvira, A.D. 300, forbade the lighting of tapers in cemeteries, as that was apt to disturb the souls of Saints; so said the Council of Iliberit. St. Basil was told by a ghost that he had killed Julian. Both Ignatius and Ambrose were said to have appeared to their disciples. No Church has ever denied the existence and appearance of ghosts, and none opposed exorcism in some form or other.

"Irish pagans," observes Nicolas O'Kearney, "never dreamed of spirits after death having assumed such forms (misty ghosts). The spirits from Elysium always appeared in their proper shape, and spoke and acted as if they were still in the enjoyment of mortal life."

In this respect he differs from Macpherson's Ossian. The opinion is, also, opposed to other descriptions in recognized Irish poems of antiquity. In the poem Cathluina, as translated in Ireland's Mirror, is this:—"Ferarma, bring me my shield and spear; bring me my sword, that stream of light. What mean these two angry ghosts that fight in air? The thin blood runs down their robes of mist; and their half-formed swords, like faint meteors, fall on sky-blue shields. Now they embrace like friends. The sweeping blast pipes through their airy limbs. They vanish. I do not like the sight, but I do not fear it."

The Inverness Gaelic Society had a paper by Donald Ross on this subject, saying, "Spectres hovered gloomily over the reedy marsh or the moor, or arrayed themselves on the blasts of the wind; and pale ghosts, messengers of the unseen world, brought back the secrets of the grave." A Gaelic song has the following—"In a blast comes cloudy death, and lays his grey head low. His ghost is rolled on the vapours of the fenny field." Henri Martin speaks of "harps of bards, untouched, sound mournful over the hill."

Some ghosts were material enough. That of St. Kieran, of Clonmacnoise, managed to strike King Felim, the plunderer of his church, so effectually, with his ghostly crozier, as to give an internal wound, of which the chief died. When Finn or Fionn appeared to Osgar, on the battle-field of Gabhra, it is affirmed that "his words were not murmurs of distant streams," but loud and clear.

But the Fetch, as recognized in the scattered poems collected, or revised, in Macpherson's Ossian, is more a spirit of the air. Some of the descriptions, relating to the ghosts of Erin and Argyle, are striking:—

"She was like the new moon seen through the gathering mist—like a watery beam of feeble light, when the moon rushes sudden from between two clouds, and the midnight shower is on the heath.—Clouds, the robe of ghosts,—rolled their gathered forms on the wind—with robes of light.—Soon shall our cold pale ghosts meet in a cloud, on Cona's eddying winds.—Tell her that in a cloud I may meet the lovely maid of Toscar."

Again—"Faint light gleams over the heath. The ghosts of Arden pass through, and show their dim and distant forms.—The misty Loda, the house of the spirits of men.—Ghosts vanish, like mists on the sunny hill.—His soul came forth to his fathers, to their stormy isle. There they pursued boars of mist along the skirts of winds.—I move like the shadow of mist.—The ghost of Crugal came from his cave. The stars dim—twinkled through his form. His voice was like the sound of a distant stream."

Of one it is said, "His eyes are like two decaying flames. Dark is the wound of his breast."—Caugal, who appeared in dress and form as living, but pale, is made by the poet to say, "My ghost is on my native hills, but my corse is on the sands of Ullin. Thou shalt never talk with Caugal, nor find his lone steps on the heath.—Like the darkened moon, he retired in the midst of the whistling blast."

Of another—"A cloud, like the steed of the stranger, supported his airy limbs. His robe is of the mist of Lano, that brings death to the people. His sword is the green meteor, half-extinguished, his face is without form and void." Some "show their dark forms from the chinky rocks." Others "fled on every side, and rolled their gathered forms on the wind." One comforts himself, dying, with, "My fathers shall meet me at the gates of their airy halls, tall, with robes of light, with mildly kindled eyes."

A hero cried out, "I never feared the ghosts of night. Small is their knowledge, weak their hands." A poet murmurs, "I hear at times the ghosts of bards, and learn their pleasant song." Of a great warrior, it is said, "A thousand ghosts are on the beams of his steel, the ghosts of those who are to fall by the King of resounding Morven." Or, "Let Carril (a bard) pour his songs, that the chiefs may rejoice in their mist." Of a beautiful woman, it is written—" She is fair as the ghost of the hill, when it moves in a sunbeam at noon over the silence of Morven."

A ghost may warn of danger, foretell disaster, foresee death, communicate intelligence. Whatever may be thought of Macpherson's Ossian, there can be no doubt that all the poetical representations of Irish ghosts bear pagan, and not Christian, characteristics. The traditions, coming through Christian centuries, have a distinct pagan colouring. The ghosts of Christian times would seem to have left their Christianity in this life, becoming heathen on the other side.

Other illustrations of Irish superstitions occur in the course of this work, though noted under various heads. The Irish were not more superstitious by nature than their neighbours; but, in changing less their abodes, and retaining faith in the religion of their fathers, they have clung to old traditions more than those who were subject to greater transitions of place and ideas.

After all, as some of these Irish superstitions are the heritage from the past in all lands, can the scientific mind afford to treat them as irrational and absurd? Is experience of all times and all nations utterly worthless? If the photographer's sensitive plate can see more than the human eye, and exhibit stars which no telescope can show, are we so sure that nothing exists but what is revealed by our senses? May we not hinder our own mental vision by a studied resolution to reject what we cannot explain?

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