A belief in the existence of visible ghosts on earth was general before and after the middle ages. An old divine of our own country says:—”I look upon it as a special piece of providence, that there are, ever and anon, such fresh examples of apparitions and witchcraft as may rub up and awaken their” [the people’s] “benumbed and lethargic minds into a suspicion at least, if not assurance, that there are other intelligent beings besides those clothed in heavy earth or clay. In this, I say, methinks the divine providence does plainly interest the powers of the dark kingdom, permitting wicked men and women, and vagrant spirits of that kingdom, to make leagues or covenants one with another, and to make the confession of witches against their own lives, and the miraculous feats they play, palpable evidence that there are bad spirits” as well as good.
An author, who wrote on second sight, last century, under the name of Theophilus Insulanus, considered all persons were irreligious who entertained a doubt of the reality of apparitions of departed souls.
Another author thought ghosts were mere aërial beings without substance that could pass through walls and other solid bodies at pleasure. Ghosts commonly appeared in the same dress as the persons whose spirits they represented were accustomed to wear when alive, though the ghosts were sometimes clothed in white. The appearance of spirits was generally accompanied by an unaccountable light. Dogs and horses possess the faculty of seeing ghosts.
People living on the Baltic shores have a deity named Putseet, whom they encourage to remain with them, by placing in their barns, every night, tables with bread, butter, cheese, and ale thereon. If the provisions are taken away, good fortune is expected; if left untouched, bad luck is looked for. This spirit assists in thrashing, churning, grinding, and sweeping the house at midnight.
The Northern nations regard spirits of this description as the souls of men who gave themselves up, during life, to illicit pleasures, and therefore were doomed, as a punishment, to wander about the earth for a limited time, to assist mankind.
There is a legend in Germany of an extraordinary nature. Travellers were shown a pair of brass gates, one of which had a crack, caused by the following circumstance:—When a supreme monarch had given orders for the building of a church, the devil came one day and asked what he intended it for, to which the Emperor answered, “For a gaming-house,” and Satan went away seemingly well pleased. A few days afterwards the fiend returned, and seeing altars erected, asked what they were for. The Emperor answered, “For gaming-tables,” which encouraged the devil to lend his assistance in the completion of the sacred building. Next time Satan made his appearance he brought a pair of large brass gates for the edifice, but happening to see a crucifix, he flung them down with such force that one of the gates was damaged. For many years the gates were objects of curiosity.
In the west of Europe, where superstition prevailed, there were many formidable demons, whose history originated in Celtic, Teutonic, and Eastern fables. In Orkney, even during the last century, lovers met within the sacred circle of stones dedicated to Scandinavian deities, to plight their love. Through a hole in one of the pillars the hands of contracting parties were joined, and the vow made was called the promise of Odin. To violate this vow, rendered the false one infamous in all time coming.
In the body of the giant Ymir several maggots had been generated, which, by order of the gods, partook of both human shape and reason. These little beings possessed the most delicate figures, and always dwelt in subterranean caverns or clefts in the rocks. They were remarkable for their riches, activity, and malevolence, and were probably the modern fairies of the north and west, who are usually described as beings of small stature, and gaily dressed. These creatures, the offspring of worms, possessed the power of making themselves visible and invisible. They multiplied their species, and lived in a style of grandeur that could not be surpassed by the greatest monarch on earth. They were good friends to certain members of the human family, but bitter enemies to others of Adam’s posterity. With their elf arrows they could kill or wound man and beast. They carried off children and domestic animals, generally leaving vile creatures resembling the children or animals carried away, so as to prevent the felony being discovered.
Opinions originally entertained in this country relative to the dwarfs have undergone considerable modifications, from the same attributes being assigned to them as to the Persian peris. Fairies were supposed to have brought many blessings to England, sending people pleasant dreams, giving money to them in a mysterious manner, and causing the nation to prosper. In remote times a brownie was attached to the home of every considerable family in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Like men, some brownies were tall, and some of small stature. They were industrious and faithful, if well treated in the way the Samogitæ did the Putseet. When a brownie once united himself to a family, he seldom deserted it, but continued to serve generation after generation. Burton speaks of nine classes of evil spirits:—First, the false gods of the Gentiles, adored as idols, who gave oracles at Delphos and elsewhere, whose prince was Beelzebub; second, the liars and equivocators, as Apollo, Pythias, and the like; third, the inventors of mischief, as Theutus, in Plato; fourth, malicious, revengeful devils, whose prince was Asmodeus; fifth, coseners, such as belong to magicians and witches, their prince being Satan; sixth, aërial spirits, that corrupted the air, and caused plagues, thunder, fires, and other calamities; seventh, a destroyer, causing wars, tumults, and combustions; eighth, an accusing or calumniating devil, that drove people to despair; and the ninth, tempters in divers shapes, having mammon for their prince. Burton goes further. He asserts that “no place is void, but all full of spirits, devils, or other inhabitants; not so much as a hairbreadth is empty in heaven, earth, or waters above or under the earth. The earth is not so full of flies in summer as it is at all times of invisible devils.”
Psellus founded a system of demonology, which had for its basis the natural history and habitation of demons. His first class consisted of fiery devils, that wandered in the regions near the moon, but were prevented from entering that luminary. They displayed their power in blazing stars, in counterfeit suns, moons, and meteoric lights, and prevented foul weather. These demons, we are informed, occasionally resided in the furnaces of Hecla, Etna, or Vesuvius. His second class was made up of aërial devils, that inhabited the atmosphere, caused tempests, thunder, and lightning, rended asunder trees, burned down steeples and houses, struck men and beasts, showered stones, wool, and frogs from the skies; counterfeited in the clouds the battles of armies, raised whirlwinds, fires, and corrupted the air so as to spread disease. The third class was terrestrial devils, such as lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood-nymphs, foliots, robin-goodfellows, or trulli. The fourth class was aqueous devils, as the various descriptions of water nymphs. The fifth class consisted of subterranean devils, known by the name of Getuli or Cobals. They preserved treasure in the earth, and prevented it being suddenly revealed; they were also the cause of horrible earthquakes. Psellus’s sixth class of devils was named lucifugi. They delighted in darkness, entered into the bowels of men, and tormented those whom they possessed with frenzy and the falling sickness. An opinion prevailed that devils possessed corporeal frames, capable of sensation; that they could feel and be felt; that they could injure and be hurt; that they were nourished with peculiar food; that they did not hurt cattle from malevolence, but through a desire to obtain natural temperate heat and moisture from the animals they killed; that they disliked the sun’s rays; and that they attained a great age.
Of all the kinds of demons we have heard of, the most loathsome are the vampires. Horst speaks of a vampire as a “dead body which continues to live in the grave, which it leaves, however, by night for the purpose of sucking the blood of the living, whereby it is nourished and preserved in good condition, instead of becoming decomposed like other dead bodies.” Fischer, who believed there were vampires, informs us that the bite of a vampire left no mark upon the person, but that the bite speedily proved fatal, unless counteracted by the injured person eating some of the earth from the vampire’s grave, and smearing himself with his blood. These precautions had only a temporary effect, if at all successful; for the bitten victim, sooner or later, became a vampire himself—died and was buried, but continued to follow the examples of old vampires in nourishing themselves, infecting others, and propagating vampirism.
Down to the middle of the last century there was a belief in vampirism in the east of Europe. This form of superstition created much anxiety in the public mind, none knowing when he might be bitten by one of those hated demons, and be thereby transformed into a vampire. Men of science bore testimony in favour of vampirism with seeming truthfulness and ability, worthy of a better subject.
In England every man was supposed to have his “double” or “fetch.” The appearance of a fetch created great uneasiness in the mind of the person witnessing the apparition. It was taken as foreboding death or serious calamity to the being represented.
There were also churchyard ghosts in England, whose duty it was to watch bodies over which church rites had not been performed after violent death. In Scotland and England there were peculiar superstitious views concerning the souls of suicides. Authoritative decrees prohibited graveyard gates being opened to permit the bodies of such persons being carried through them for interment. If relations persisted in depositing the remains of a friend who had committed suicide, it was necessary for them to take the dead body over the graveyard wall after sunset. But in most cases the bodies of suicides and murderers[Pg 290] were buried at a “cross road,” with a stake driven through the corpse, to prevent its ghost rising to frighten or harm innocent people.
The precaution of driving a stake through the body did not always prove effectual, if countless tales related of ghosts being seen in the vicinity of such unhallowed burying-grounds be true. Surprise need not be expressed at such superstition prevailing in a country where faith in witchcraft still lingers, and in which, at no very remote time, the statutes against witches were in full force. The State and the Church believed in the existence of demons and witches.
Luther’s opinions on the subject of the agency and operations of evil spirits may be inferred from his Colloquia. “Many devils,” he says, “are in woods, in waters, in wildernesses, and in dark poolly places, ready to hurt and prejudice people; some are in the thick black clouds, which cause hail, lightnings, and thunderings, and which poison the air, the pastures, and grounds.”
In a conversation on witchcraft, Luther said he had no compassion on witches: he would burn every one of them. He reminded the people, that, according to the old law, the priests threw the first stones at such malefactors. Luther said his mother had undergone infinite annoyance from one of her neighbours who was a witch. This witch could throw a charm upon a child, which would make it cry itself to death. A pastor having punished the witch for some of her wicked tricks, she cast a spell on him by means of some earth he had walked upon. The good man fell sick of a malady, which no remedy could remove, and shortly thereafter died. Luther was satisfied the devil, through his prophets, could, and did, foretell future events; that he (the devil) was so skilled that he could cause death even by the leaf of a tree; that he had more boxes and pots full of poison, wherewith he destroyed men, than all the apothecaries in the world had of healing medicine. The devil, Luther thought, was so crafty that he could deceive our senses. He caused one to think he saw something he saw not, and to hear thunder or a trumpet he heard not. Men, he argued, were possessed by the devil, corporeally and spiritually. Those whom he possessed corporeally were mad people.