Making impressions


Myths of Hallowe'en

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 08:31:50 am


Happy Feralia!

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 05:39:35 pm


The Dead of Winter

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 02:30:29 pm

I hope you have enjoyed your holidays. Christmas is one of those important days in the calendar which is rife with superstition and thought suitable for divination, but none of which is particularly concerned the dead. There is, however, a subtle but definite association between ghost stories and the Christmas season, mostly in the British Isles. Roud says that story telling at Christmas is dominated by the supernatural. As testimony to this the BBC continues to roll out programmes on radio and television. It seems the feeling that it is appropriate for ghost stories lingers. [Roud 2006]
The concept has made its way into that most ‘Chrismassy’ of songs, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, when Andy Williams sings in the seconds verse that ‘There’ll be scary ghost stories’. The vast majority of Americans seem unaware of the tradition; and if they are, they think it a British phenomenon and rather odd.
M.R. James told his ghost stories to an audience of friends at King’s College, Cambridge every year and there have been others beside who have indulged in Christmas story telling. During the last century Robertson Davies, Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, would tell a ghost story for the college Christmas party.
Tracing the origins of this tradition is difficult, but I am quite sure that those who claim it started with Dickens and A Christmas Carol, or his publication All the Year Round (the Christmas edition was packed full of ghost stories) are mistaken. Whilst ‘Mr Christmas’, as Dickens was sometimes known, did help to resurrect many traditions we enjoy, he wrote the following in his story Christmas Ghosts:
‘I like to come home at Christmas. …There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.’ It suggests that the story telling was already an established feature of winter and he was merely drawing upon it.
Evidence from a century earlier shows us that telling ghost stories was a very popular winter past time:
‘Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit around the fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own fancy.’ Written by Henry Bourne in 1725. [Simpson & Roud 2000].
‘I remember last winter there were several young girls of the neighbourhood sitting around the fire with my landlady’s daughters, and telling stories of spirits and apparitions. I … heard several dreadful stories of ghosts as pale as ashes that had stood at the feet of a bed, or walked across a churchyard by moonlight, with many other old women’s fables of the like nature. As one spirit raised another, I observed that at the end of every story the whole company closed their ranks and crowded about the fire’. Joseph Addison wrote in 1711. [Chambers 2006].
The principal activity here is telling ghost stories, even the printed stories in All the Year Round were read aloud to family and friends. Reading a ghost story is all very well, but it is in the communal ‘enjoyment’ that the tradition lies and lingers still. Roud says that the stories are often about the local area and people, so they include ghostly legends of actual experiences (in the broadest sense) [Roud 2006]. The ghost story is a peculiar beast, it can mean fiction or anecdote or local history, and all are in essence the same.
A direct reference to Christmas can be found associated with Judge Jeffrey. He was so infamous for his part in the Assizes after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 that his ghost was said to frighten old women and children in the West Country. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) in his History of England recollected from his childhood, ‘many tales of terror’ were told over Christmas fires over a century after the rebellion [Owen 2007], again taking the tradition back further than Dickens.
There are legends of apparitions which are set at Christmas. In Kingston, London there is a story of an old couple who wanted to be buried side by side. The husband died 1860 and was buried in All Saints’ churchyard; his wife died a few years later after, a new cemetery was brought into use, and she was buried there. It is said that every year, just before Christmas, the husband’s ghost can be seen walking to the wife’s grave and returning a few days later [Roud 2008]. The Battle of Edgehill is said to be replayed in a ghostly re-enactment in the night sky, the first occasion was witnessed just before Christmas 1642 [Clarke 2010].
In the Middle Ages ghosts were said to be attracted to winter, Christmas and the twelve days to Epiphany in particular. Medieval tales of ghosts are often set at this time: Oderic Vitalis tells us that on the night of January 1st 1091 the curate Walchelin encountered Hellequin’s hunt on his way home, whilst the soul of the mother of Arnaud of Calmelles was seen five days after Christmas. One explanation, from the time, is given in a tale where a dead father returns on Christmas Day and explains that, on that night, the souls relieved by the prayers of the living can rest and visit the living [Schmitt 1998].
A legend that persisted throughout northern Europe into the medieval period and beyond took the form of a phantom hunt. On a stormy winter’s night, especially around Christmas, the Wild Hunt might be seem flying in mad pursuit across the sky, their quarry often said to be the souls of men. To see the Wild Hunt is a bad omen. The root of the myth maybe the god Odin (Norse) or Woden (Teutonic) who rode his eight-legged horse Sleipnir across the sky in his guise as wind-god and gatherer of the dead. Other incarnations of the myth have different leaders, from Gwyn ap Nudd (Lord of the Dead), Herne the Hunter, King Arthur and Charlemagne and also the mythical King Herla, hence the other name variant: Hellequin’s Hunt [Orkneyjar 2012].
Other ghostly associations with the winter solstice from the pagan world are known, and may have influenced the Christian and modern traditions. The Christian feast replaces one or more pagan festivals, giving it symbolic potency at the turning of the year. The birth date of Jesus is not recorded in the gospels; early Christian tradition proposed several dates, usually in spring. The 25th of December first appears in a Roman calendar of Philocalus in AD. 354. Some early sources suggest that Christians liked to join in with the pagan festivities during the Sol Invictus (birthday of the Sun on the 25th) and other festivals such as Saturnalia, so the church fathers resolved to solemnise the Nativity to this date [Hutton 1996]. The giving of gifts, candles and festive salutations, general over indulgence and foolery were part of the pagan celebrations. The date of the 25th was assumed to be the solstice in the Roman calendar, perhaps not helped by the tendency of Julian calendar to drift over time, but also because the solstice is very hard to measure precisely as the sun appears to rise and set in the same position for several days [Hutton 1996].
Amidst the celebrations of Saturnalia, Sol Invictus and Kalends, the Romans held the Larentalia on the 23rd of December, and later on, the Compitalia (dates varied every year and ran up to early January). Both are festivals of the Lares, the latter specifically for Lares of crossroads and neighbourhoods. They are guardian ancestral spirits with specific domains such as household and hearth. Their natures is clearly closer to ghosts rather than deities: the mother of the Lares (Mater Larum) is called Mania and is goddess of the dead and co-ruler of the underworld. She is the mother of ghosts, Lares and Manes and her name is sometimes given to mean ‘bogey’ or ‘evil spirit’. The Larentalia is connected with Acca Larentia; she is probably the same goddess as Mania, (being of Estruscan origin and mother of Lares). Confusingly, she is also connected with Romulus and Remus – the spirit of the murdered Remus becoming one of the first Lares [Wikipedia 2012].
The mid winter festival of Yule was a major celebration for Scandinavian peoples. On Orkney, seven days before Yule was Tulya’s E’en which heralded a period in which the supernatural spirits were let loose and the trows were free to come above ground. So feared were these spirits that it was not considered safe to venture outside after dark [Orkneyjar 2012]. The Teutonic Feast of the Dead may have been a mid winter feast based upon similar lines, though evidence is rather lacking.
Orkney’s hogboon or hog-boy had to be brought offerings of food and drink at Yule. The name is a corruption of the Old Norse haug-bui, or haug-buinn, roughly translated as ‘mound-dweller’. The mounds referred to are ancient burial places and the creature a spirit of the dead ancestor, the Anglo-Saxon’s called such a creature a Barrow Wight [Orkneyjar 2012].Barrow Wight or Barry White?
There are hints of supernatural forces rising at this time from other parts of Europe. In Latvia the mid winter celebration is preceded by Veļu laiks, the ‘season of ghosts’ where a space at the table is reserved for the ghosts who are said to arrive on a sleigh [Wikipedia 2012]. In Greece, folklore says that anyone born on Christmas day is in danger of becoming a vampire [Hill 1970].
The final link between the dead and mid winter comes from a very remote time which can provide no historical sources; there is material evidence which can be interpreted loosely. In the British Isles, during the late Neolithic, large monuments were built which held burials. These are often aligned with astronomical events such as the solstices or the major or minor ‘standstills’ of the moon. These tombs only held a fraction of the actual population; their role was symbolic but there seems to be an association between the sky and the dead [Burl 1983].
Interestingly, the winter solstice is a common alignment: Newgrange in Ireland is famous for its ‘roof box’, an opening above the entrance which, long after the giant tomb was sealed, continued to allow the rays of the rising solstice sun to penetrate. Maes Howe on Orkney has a similar alignment to the setting sun at mid winter, whilst at Stonehenge the setting winter sun passes between the sarsens of the tallest trilithon. The latter is not a tomb in the normal sense, although there are burials within the monument. A recent theory put forward by Mike Parker Pearson links Stonehenge to Durrington Walls, a wood ‘henge’ nearby which produced evidence of winter feasting, the theory suggests that the living celebrated at Durrington whilst Stonehenge was for the dead. It has been said that there is very little evidence beyond these major sites [Hutton 1996], but the probable alignment to the winter sun is known in entire groups of smaller graves such as the wedge-tombs of Ireland and the Clava Cairns near Inverness.
We can say very little about the beliefs of these times, but perhaps we can suggest a link between the dead and winter. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove any link between that and the subtle remains of the modern tradition.Stonehenge at mid winter
The original inspiration for the ghosts may be winter itself, the psychological effect of environmental factors: the darkest time of the year when plants die back, and animals too may not survive the harsh conditions. If darkness and death are the principal components of winter then it is not so hard to put the supernatural onto this stage. Perhaps winter inspired all the beliefs we have seen through history – and in this way they may indeed be linked. Winter, it seems, is the domain of the supernatural and the dead, especially in its darkest part.

Burl, A., (1983) Prehistoric astronomy and Ritual, Aylesbury
Chambers, P., (2006) The Cock Lane Ghost, Stroud
Clarke, R.,(2010) A Natural History of Ghosts, London
Davies, O., (2007) A Social History of Ghosts Basingstoke
Hill, D., (1970) Return from the Dead London
Hutton, R., (1996)The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Orkneyjar, (2012) see Yule and Hogboon Retrieved from Dec 2012
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Roud, S, (2008) London Lore, London
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998)Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Simpson, J. & Roud S., (2000) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford
Wikipedia, (2012) see Lares, Acca Larentia, Mater Larum, Mania and Ziemassvētki Retrieved from Dec 2012


Halloween, its folklore and history - or why everything you know (about its origins) is wrong

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 06:00:22 pm

Halloween pumpkins
The following was put together originally as part of the Calendar of the Dead series. The history section for Halloween goes against current popular belief as regards its origins but I think the historical truth is more interesting and revealing.

Customs & Beliefs
The Christian festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November) and their eve, Hallowe’en, make up the period called Hallowtide. The two festivals were commemorative days for the dead and the Saints. Hallowe’en (aka All Hallows or Holy Eve) was said to be a time when witches and fairies were abroad and of course, ghosts. Like the eve’s of other Christian festivals (St Marks, St Johns, May Day/Walpuris) dark forces rise before the holy day. Shakespeare, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, sends Falstaff into the woods on this night to be set upon by hobgoblins.

Hallowe’en is associated with divination, particularly love divination, often using nuts and apples which are plentiful at this time. It is also known as Nut Crack Night, perhaps because of this.

Robert Burn’s poem Hallowe’en, written in the late 18th century is all about rites and practices to find your true love and discern your future happiness. Examples of divining rites are peeling the skin from an apple in one piece, throwing it behind you and the letter that it most resembles will be the initial of your future husband, or mark two nuts with the initials of lovers and place them on a shovel over a fire, if they roast quietly the union will be good, if they pop and jump, then it will not. At midnight stand before a mirror, brush your hair in front of it, and the figure of your future partner will peer over your shoulder. Young men in Ireland might pull up cabbage stalks, their size and the amount of earth that adhered to them foretold whether their wives would be tall or short, rich or poor. (Roud 2003 & 2006.)

Porch watching could also happen at this time, one record from 1911 in Wales, said that if you went to the church at midnight you could peer through the key hole and spy spectral forms of, or hear spirits call the names of those who would die in the neighbourhood in the coming year. (Roud 2003.)

Hallowe’en has certainly been associated with games involving apples (such as bobbin’ for apples) and nuts since the 19th century, in England children might attend parties and play at scaring people with lanterns made from turnips and swedes. Records from the early 20th century show that scary children’s parties existed before the tide of American Hallowe’en arrived in the 1970s and 80s. It has been suggested that children in the south and east of England were more likely to celebrate November the 5th than Hallowe’en, whilst this was more popular in the north and west.

In parts of Somerset is Punkie Night, which occurs at the end of October, it involves both children in fancy dress and lanterns which are called Punkies (or Spunkies) that are made from carved turnips and mangold wurzles. The popular story told about the origin of Punkie Night are prosaic and unconvincing (one version being men from the village lost their way home in the dark and made the lanterns to see with), it is more likely a local variation of Hallowe’en. It is note worthy that Punky is also the name for bog lights and Puc (or Puck) is the name for goblins. The lanterns are known as Jack o’Lanterns in eastern parts of the country, which is also another name for flares of marsh gas.

Hallowe’en celebrations in Ireland and Scotland were more prevalent and recorded earlier than in England. Scottish children disguised themselves and went house visiting; in parts of Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, the night is called Mischief Night when children played tricks, believing that anything done on that night was beyond the law. It is likely that the Scottish and Irish traditions were exported to America with the immigrations in the 19th century and formed the practices which are current today. In Caernarvonshire, along with customs such as special suppers and house parties found elsewhere, there was also a ritual of placing a piece of bread on the window sill, with the words ‘May’st thou bless thy whole family, This is what I give thee this year.’ The implied recipients were ancestral spirits. In contrast, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, food was placed on the doorstep to appease any witch that may approach, along with a number of other precautions and defences against evil. Both are probably vestigial pre-Reformation customs, to propitiate or comfort the dead. In Wales it was a night to avoid stiles, crossroads and churchyards, when spirits gathered there, when the Black Sow or White Lady were abroad. In 18th and 19th centuries men would dress in rags and masks and go about the night, frightening children, they called themselves gwrachod, or hags, ancient figures of fear from medieval tales. (Hutton, Roud 2003 & 2006.)

One current popular belief associated with Hallowe’en that is often stated as fact is that the origin of Hallowe’en is Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), a festival from pre Christian Ireland which took place around early November. This is widely believed not just by Neo-pagans, who promote the idea of an earlier festival, high jacked by Christianity, but also by the general populace. However, the idea of old Samhain celebrations as the source for Hallowe’en comes from relatively recent times. In the 19th century Sir John Rhys suggested Samhain was the Celtic new year which he ‘inferred’ from contemporary folklore and this was popularised and expanded upon by Sir James Frazer when he used it to support his own idea that it had been a pagan feast of the dead. That the medieval church dedicated the 1st and 2nd of November to Christianize a pagan festival. Neither position is supported by direct evidence, only by a great deal of supposition and conjecture. (Hutton.)

The celebration of Samhain is known only from medieval texts which recorded traditions and stories, many hundreds of years after the time they were set in and long after Ireland was Christianised. Similar feasts in Scotland and Wales are also known only from later sources. Samhain occurred just after the harvest was finished. It was a time of assembly when the Kings and lords gathered together for feasting, it was also a time to pay taxes. Whilst the stories set at Samhain often contain encounters with fairies and deities and other magical beings, the dead play no part. Nor is there any suggestion that these magical beings are particularly part of Samhain, although Gantz suggested it was a time of unusual supernatural power because of the number of stories which contained these elements. Hutton points out that this may be simply because the Samhain gathering was a useful setting for such stories in much the same way as the Arthurian stories commenced with a courtly assembly for Christmastide or Pentecost. There is no evidence that it opened the Celtic New Year. Frazer’s argument that it was a Christianisation of a pagan Celtic festival is inconsistent with its early history when All Saints was celebrated on a variety of calendar dates in different parts of the Christian world, in Ireland this was April 20th - no where near the date of Samhain. (Hutton.)

The real origins of Hallowtide, are probably dual, they may be both Christian and pagan, but there is no evidence for it being ‘Celtic’. Light can be shed on this if we examine the early history of the Christian festivals All Saints and All Souls. In 609AD Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin and the Martyrs on the 13th May. This date was already in use in the Mediterranean world as the feast in honour of the Martyrs and Saints as mentioned by St Ephraem in the mid-4th century (Hutton). This was not celebrated consistently on that day in other parts of the Christian world. In the 8th century Pope Gregory III moved it to the 1st November to honour the day that the Oratory in St Peters was founded. Pope Gregory’s links with Germany suggest there may have been practice in this part of northern Europe which he was endorsing (this may be linked to the Teutonic Feast of the Dead but I cannot find reliable sources to substantiate whether this even existed).

Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny established the Chair of St Peter or the Holy See on the 22nd February, when he ordered a solemn mass for the souls of all Christian dead in his monastery and daughter houses. He moved this day for All Souls to the 2nd November and its celebration was well documented since 1030. (Schmitt.)

What is significant about the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls is the original dates chosen for them: the 13th May and the 22nd February respectively. Both are connected to the dates of Roman pagan festivals which honoured the dead: the Lemuria and the Parentalia.

The Lemuria lasted 3 days in May, 9th, 11th and finishing on the Ides of May, the 13th. It was a religious day to honour those dead which might haunt the living because they had not been properly buried and were not remembered. The dead were offered beans by the head of the household whilst reciting a verse intending to drive them away from the home (see AGC Newsletter 40, Spring 2012).

The Parentalia was a major religious festival during the month of February, commencing on the 13th and climaxing on the 21st with the Feralia (the 22nd being a private festival for family gatherings). These festivities honoured the ancestral and familial dead, Ovid writes of visits to family tombs with offerings of flowers, wine and bread. (Wikipedia.)

The use of these dates is a clear appropriation of older Roman practices and beliefs by the church. Schmitt says the festival for the Souls of Christian dead was a likely attempt to eradicate the Parentalia and the custom of offering libations on graves, whilst Medieval liturgists agreed that the Lemuria was the origin for Hallowtide. Perhaps the familial duties of the Parentalia and the superstitious fear of the Lemuria were persistent and strong beliefs even in the early church. In parts of Italy today, dishes containing beans are traditionally eaten on these holy days, the funereal connection of this food goes back to classical times.

Roman Ghosts

The foundations for the Christian commemoration of Saints and Souls originated with Roman commemorations of the dead, it’s not unreasonable to suggest some of the superstitions and darker associations of these earlier rites have lent something to Hallowe’en. The popularity of the Eve over its holy days and the prevalence of apparently unchristian customs is due at least in part to the success of protestant reformers to eradicate the holy days of All Saints and All Souls.

All Saints and All Souls (1st-2nd November)
Once the belief in the existence of purgatory was established in the early medieval period it became important to try to help souls to move on. Activities such as all night vigils and bell ringing in churches were supposed to help relieve their suffering and ease their path to heaven. Hutton says that by the end of the Middle Ages these were spectacular feasts when churches laid on extra supplies of candles and torches to be carried in procession. In 1539 the church of St Mary Woolnoth paid 5 maidens to play harps by lamplight, in the 1470s the mayors of Bristol were expected to entertain council dignitaries to fires and drinking with spiced cakebreads. (Hutton.)

After the reformation in Britain the feast for All Souls was was dropped, as the concept of purgatory was rejected from the liturgy in 1559, the religious practices associated with it were banned. However, bell ringing was very popular and persisted for many years with various prosecutions recorded in the later 16th century. In some persistently catholic areas of the country, vigils of prayer and fire took place in the fields in the night to pray for the dead, giving rise to ‘Purgatory Field’ in place names. (Hutton.)

Offerings of money and food in the form of Soul Cakes had been traditionally given to the poor at this time, this was also supposed to help the souls of the dead, the poor representing the dead in taking receipt of alms and food. In 1686 John Aubrey records that in Shropshire and surrounds, high heaps of Soul Cakes were set on the table for friends and visitors, not just in papist households; the receiver was expected to repeat the rhyme: ‘A soul cake, a soul cake, Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake’, in other areas ‘God have your soul, bones and all’ was also known. This secular activity persisted at least into the 19th century, house visiting for food became known as souling although it was generally carried out later on by children. In rural Cheshire and Staffordshire it was known until the 1950s and the caking rhyme is still used in Sheffield today without understanding its original meaning. (Roud 2006.)

Souling is also the name given to a type of Mummers play, the only surviving example of which is from Antrobus in Cheshire, the entertainments being provided alongside Soul Cakes and beer. (Roud 2006.)

The Hallowtide rituals are complex and varied. Although we now think of America as the source for current celebrations, the picture is in no way that simple with many earlier rituals have given rise to current practices, such as house visiting, food begging and ‘tricking’ all being elements existing before. In 19th century Cornwall ‘Ringing Night’ was on the eve of Guy Fawkes Night and children would ‘holloa’ for biscuits, both activities probably fragments of the earlier ringing traditions at All Souls and Soul Cakes, but moved to the new celebration and their original meaning lost (Roud 2006). Bon fires are a feature of Guy Fawkes Night and would have originally been part of the Hallowtide rituals, although as Roud points out, bonfires at gatherings in winter is hardly a surprise in northern Europe. The common practices and features of this time of year have waxed and waned and taken new forms and meanings but they have persisted to this day. Although All Souls was reinstated in 1928 as a commemorative day in the Church of England, Hutton points to Armistace Day on the 11th as the new day for the dead in November, a coincidence of date but a fitting one.

Hutton, R., (1996) The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Roud, S., (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland London
Wikipedia, (2012) Parentalia Retrieved from Sept 2012


Calendar of the Dead: Spring

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 01:20:58 pm

Throughout the year certain dates in the calendar have associations, direct and indirect with the dead and the supernatural. I have collected some of them together here, from Europe and further afield. The following are associate with the Spring period from 21st March to 20th June.

24th April, - St Marks Eve was the night when one could stand in the church porch at midnight, and witness a ghostly procession of those who would die that coming year, entering the church. The practice was first recorded early in the 17th century until late in the 19th, but was discouraged by the authorities. A correspondent to Hone’s ‘Every-Day Book’ in 1827 wrote that those who were to die soon entered first, whilst those that would last most of the year would not enter until nearly one o’clock. Those who would be gravely ill but not die would approach the church and peep in, but not enter (Simpson & Roud [2000]). There are many tales of watchers who see themselves in the procession and die not long after. Occasionally this tradition is found associated with Midsummer Night or All Saints’ (Roud [2006]).

30th April - The eve of May Day has magical associations. In the British Isles, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, it was customary to light bonfires, usually to protect cattle from witchcraft (Hutton [1996]). The festival is also known as Walpurgisnacht in Germanic countries, and is named after the English missionary Saint Walpurga who was canonised on the 1st of May (her saints day is February 25th). In Estonia, Germany and Denmark the night is associated with gatherings of witches, and with driving out evil spirits with loud noises. In Lancashire and Yorkshire this was Mischief Night when young people traditionally played tricks on their local community. In other areas Mischief Night is November 4th (Roud [2006]).

Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer’s Nights Dream’ is set on May Eve (; although in Britain there are some associations with fairy folk, this is very rare (Roud [2006]). On the Eve of May the people of Kingstone and Thruxton put trays of moss outside the door at night for the fairies to dance upon (Leather [1912]).

Month of May - May has a tradition of being an ‘unlucky’ month; marriages in May ‘never prosper’ and are supposed to be unhappy. In 19th century Suffolk, Sussex and Wiltshire broom flowers should not be brought into the house, nor its twigs used to sweep the floor as this could mean a death in the household (Simpson & Roud [2000]). The May Tree, Hawthorn, is considered unlucky and its blooms should not be taken indoors although they play a part in external decorations. Bringing the plant inside might bring about illness and death although contradictory traditions also exist (Simpson & Roud [2000]). The Rowan tree was also considered a powerful defence against witchcraft and the Evil Eye and was placed above stable doors on May Day (Leather [1912]).

May 27th (2012), Pentecost/Whitsun - The 7th Sunday after Easter marks Pentecost or Whitsun, when the Holy Ghost descended to the remaining eleven disciples. In the medieval church the winter season had the strongest links with the dead and their manifestations; this time was thought to end around Pentecost. This is perhaps no accident as, according to tradition in the early church, the Sunday after Pentecost (the Octave) was a commemorative day for the ‘faithful dead’. This was before it was moved by Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny to the 2nd November c.1030. The earlier association did not disappear; the monks at St Bénigne of Dijon prayed for the dead on the Monday of the Octave. On the Thursday, at the monastic community in Cluny, prayers were offered for those buried in the cemetery (Schmitt [1998]).
Many tales of apparitions focus on Pentecost. The monk Raoul Glaber (c.985-c.1047) reported that in the monastery of Reomagensse, a ‘sweet natured’ brother called Wulferius stayed behind after matins to pray in the church of St Maurice on the Sunday of the Octave of Pentecost. Suddenly the church was filled with figures in white robes and they began to celebrate the mass. Wulferius was told they were the blessed dead and that he too would depart from life soon (Joynes [2001]).

9th, 11th and 13th, Lemuria - In ancient Rome the festival of Lemuria (or Lemuralia) was celebrated in private households. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in the early years of the first century AD, claimed that the tradition was of great antiquity (Fasti, Book V). The Lemuria was an exorcism of troublesome ghosts and evils spirits, such as Larvae, Lemures and Manes (as opposed to the Lares and di Manes which were ‘good’ spirits). Those who had not been afforded a proper burial, such as murder victims or those that died on military campaigns, and the wicked, would return in this form and trouble the living because they had not received the appropriate rites and would not be remembered without a proper grave. They were thought of as ‘hungry’ ghosts and the ritual provided them with food and offerings. The Lemuria spanned 3 alternate nights in May, on the 9th, 11th and 13th, the last being the Ides of May (full moon). There are conflicting accounts around the duration of the festival but there is agreement that it only falls on odd numbered days. (Collison-Morley [1912]; Wikipedia [2012])

At night, the head of the family would walk barefooted, make a special sign with his hand for protection, wash his hands for purification and repeat special incantations nine times. He did this whilst throwing black beans behind him, a food associated with the dead (Paton [1921]). The spirit would follow and collect the beans, but the householder was careful not to look back. Another incantation is repeated nine times and finally a bronze instrument or pans are clashed together, to drive the spirits away. Once the ritual was finished, it was safe to look behind. By offering this food directly (possibly from his own mouth) the ghosts would feel they had received their due and leave the family in peace for another year.

Ovid, Book V: The Lemuria
When Hesperus, the Evening Star, has shown his lovely face
Three times, from that day, and the defeated stars fled Phoebus,
It will be the ancient sacred rites of the Lemuria,
When we make offerings to the voiceless spirits.
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb.
It was May month, named for our ancestors (maiores),
And a relic of the old custom still continues.
When midnight comes, lending silence to sleep,
And all the dogs and hedgerow birds are quiet,
He who remembers ancient rites, and fears the gods,
Rises (no fetters binding his two feet)
And makes the sign with thumb and closed fingers,
Lest an insubstantial shade meets him in the silence.
After cleansing his hands in spring water,
He turns and first taking some black beans,
Throws them with averted face: saying, while throwing:
‘With these beans I throw I redeem me and mine.’
He says this nine times without looking back: the shade
Is thought to gather the beans, and follow behind, unseen.
Again he touches water, and sounds the Temesan bronze,
And asks the spirit to leave his house.
When nine times he’s cried: ‘Ancestral spirit, depart,’
He looks back, and believes the sacred rite’s fulfilled.
The Lemuria may well have been an influence on the medieval and later traditions in the rest of Europe, the final part of this book is an uncanny an echo of our own folklore:
And the ancients closed the temples on these days,
As you see them shut still at the season of the dead.
It’s a time when it’s not suitable for widows or virgins
To wed: she who marries then won’t live long.
And if you attend to proverbs, then, for that reason too,
People say unlucky women wed in the month of May.
Though these three festivals fall at the same time,
They are not observed on three consecutive days.

The Lemuria may well have had a lasting effect on our calendar days of the dead – as will be from later festivals in the year.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief ramble through the Spring calendar dates and their ghostly and magical associations. I look forward to bringing you the next 3 months of dates when the dead may return.

Collison-Morley, L., (1912) Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, Oxford, Retrieved from
Hutton, R., (1996)The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Joynes, A., (2001) Medieval Ghost Stories, Woodbridge
Leather, E. M., (1912) The Folklore of Herefordshire, Hereford, reprinted 1991 Lapridge Publications
Paton, L. B., (1921) Spiritism and the Cult of the Dead in Antiquity, Toronto, Retrieved from
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998)Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Simpson, J. & Roud S., (2000) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Wikipedia, (2012) Lemuria (festival,) Retrieved from March 2012
Ovid, Fasti, trans. Kline, A. S. (2004), Retrieved from

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