Join me over the coming weeks, as I unravel some of the most chilling myths and legends in the world…
Death. We humans have a strange and somewhat tortured relationship with it. We know it’s coming, we know we can’t dodge it, but we’re terrified of it and do all we can to avoid it. Perhaps Hallowe’en’s great appeal is that it allows us to peer through the curtain that separates the living and the dead – but harmlessly, without consequences to ourselves.
Such, at least, might be said for the commercialised, cutesy Hallowe’en we celebrate nowadays. The ancient Celts took this time of the year much more seriously. It marked the end of summer and the onset of winter: the crops had been harvested, the vegetation was dying, and the frost and cold weather were beginning to set in. Starvation, and the effects of the elements, were far more real and tangible threats back then.
We’re not at quite as much risk these days, but this is still the time of year when our thoughts turn easily toward the Dark Side – and what could be darker than the prospect of our own deaths? Imagine how much darker it would have seemed in a more religious time than ours, when death also implied judgement and – possibly – punishment. Having some warning of your own impending demise might at least allow one to make one’s peace with God – and, according to our ancestors, Nature had devised a myriad of ways to alert them to the Grim Reaper’s approach…
Corpse candles, or corpse lights, were particularly well-known in Wales. This eerie blue light travelled just above the ground, following the route from the graveyard to the soon-to-be deceased’s house and back again. This was frequently said to happen the night before a death. Other accounts speak of a light resembling a candle flame, generally (but not always) seen in churchyards, which heralded a death. It’s easy to find rational explanations for this phenomenon – combustion of the gas associated with the decomposition of organic material, ball lightning, static electricity – but you might be forgiven for feeling a touch nervous if you saw it. Especially if it appeared to be heading in your general direction…
It’s not known whether corpse candles have kept up to date and currently haunt crematoria, but as Hallowe’en approaches you might be wary of them anyway. They are a sure sign that someone’s clogs are about to be popped.
The Phantom Funeral
Closely related to corpse lights are phantom funeral processions, which were said to haunt the byways of Britain in days gone by. These strange, spectral processions were bad news, signifying that there would soon be a real funeral – and, therefore, a death. As with many old myths, accounts differ. Some people had the misfortune to see a phantom funeral; others only heard shuffling feet and the sound of the mourners weeping and keening for their dead loved one.
These days the phantom funeral seems to have disappeared from our legendary landscape. I haven’t, at any rate, heard about any phantom funerals involving motorised hearses, but if somebody would like to enlighten me…
The Falling Picture
A picture that falls off the wall for no apparent reason is very bad news, especially if the glass cracks – it’s a sure sign that somebody should prepare to meet his or her maker. If you are depicted in the picture, you may be certain that you’ve had your chips. Such, at least, is what they say. I should point out that this happened to me quite a few years ago, which leads me to suspect that, if it is indeed a death omen, it’s rather a long-range one.
The Deathwatch Beetle
No sound so loud as when on curtain’d bier / The death-watch tick is stifled. – Keats
The deathwatch beetle, as the name would suggest, is ill-omened indeed. This little wood-boring beetle makes a tapping or ticking sound to attract a mate – a noise most clearly heard at night. But the sound that signifies sweet romance in the beetle world has altogether less happy associations for us humans. You certainly wouldn’t want to hear it if you happened to be sitting up beside the bed of a sick loved one, as it was a sure sign that death was approaching.
Personally, I am so frightened of creepy-crawlies that the sight of this little fellow…
…would probably be enough to induce a fatal heart attack anyway.
Birds and Bats
The owl brings tidings of death. – Chaucer
According to legend, if a bird flies into your house, someone residing beneath your roof is graveyard-bound. Owls, which have long been connected with magic, seem to have particularly negative connotations: if you see an owl during the daytime, or if one hoots right above your head, it’s curtains for you.
If a bat, meanwhile, makes its way into your house you’re in trouble. Apparently this only applies if the bat escapes, and so folk wisdom suggests killing it. Frankly, I would advise against this, partly because it’s unnecessarily cruel and partly because, in many places in the world, bats are a protected species.
When I was growing up in Wales, black cats were generally considered to be good luck, and folk wisdom suggested that they should be greeted kindly, stroked and made a fuss of. Another British acquaintance of mine has since assured me that black cats are bad luck. Since this seems to be more in line with the belief systems of other countries, I’m at a loss. Can any folklorists out there provide a definitive answer?
Suffice it to say that the humble household moggy seems to have a dark reputation, at least when its fur is black. The meowing of a black cat at midnight seems to be a very bad thing indeed, and is a sure-fire warning that a bucket is about to be kicked.
The Death Coach
Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. – Emily Dickinson
If one of your loved ones was seriously ill, you wouldn’t want to hear the sound of a mysterious coach drawing up outside the house. According to legend, the coach’s driver (or, occasionally, passenger) was the Devil himself, no less, and had arrived to collect another soul. Other versions of the legend are somewhat less dark: the coach’s arrival was not necessarily a sign of damnation, but only (only!) death. In any case, if you saw or heard one then someone in your house was living on borrowed time.
I don’t know whether the Devil prefers motor cars these days, but the sight of a Ford Focus drawing up outside your house is unlikely to produce any particular feelings of fear in the modern heart.
What corpse candles are to the Welsh, banshees are to the Irish. This female spirit or fairy (her name, rather unromantically, means “woman of the barrows”) warns of impending death by wailing loudly, as if she were mourning a loved one. A banshee may be associated with one particular family, and her appearance seems to vary: some are ugly old hags, and some are stunningly beautiful. In any case, you wouldn’t be pleased to see her: she generally only shows up when someone’s about to have a run-in with the Reaper.
You might think that banshees have been driven away by modernity, but you’d be wrong: according to some sources, the most recent sighting of a banshee was in 1948, while others insist that the assassination of President Kennedy was foretold by a banshee’s wail.
And these are just a fraction of the many death omens that exist in this world. Needless to say, if even half of them were true there’d be very few of us left, so it’s worth taking the old legends with a pinch of salt. In the meantime, if you’d like to know how much time you have left, you can go to www.deathclock.com to calculate the time of your death. The Death Clock assures me that I still have a good few years to go, but we shall see…
Until the next instalment – and assuming I don’t die in the meantime – goodnight. And don’t let the deathwatch beetle bite.