Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft: 1

Painting on the wall of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Photo: Nenko Lazarov, adjusted by Martha Forsyth. Wikipedia

The more numerous part of mankind cannot form in their mind the idea of the spirit of the deceased existing, without possessing or having the power to assume the appearance which their acquaintance bore during his life, and do not push their researches beyond this point.

— Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Letter 1

I started Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft the other day. The book was originally published in 1830, as one of the volumes in a series called “Murray’s Family Library”. It’s in the form of letters to Sir Walter’s son-in-law, J.G. Lockhart, who convinced his father-in-law to write a piece on witchcraft for the Family Library. Sir Walter was recovering from a stroke at the time, and his son-in-law wanted to distract him from work that was too strenuous. Also, apparently, Sir Walter needed the money.

The first letter takes a skeptical tone towards supernatural phenomena. Sir Walter lists off a number of naturalistic explanations for ghostly appearances, omens, and the like. He backs up his list of phenomena and explanations for them with anecdotes and stories that he’s heard from friends and colleagues. It’s a bit like reading a nineteenth century Snopes.

It may be remarked also, that Dr. Johnson retained a deep impression that, while he was opening the door of his college chambers, he heard the voice of his mother, then at many miles’ distance, call him by his name; and it appears he was rather disappointed that no event of consequence followed a summons sounding so decidedly supernatural.

He talks about visitations that were probably wishful thinking on the part of someone who has lost their loved one, and supposedly prophetic dreams that are probably just a projection of the dreamer’s waking concerns. If your father is gravely ill, he’s on your mind. Mightn’t you dream about him? And if he dies soon after, you jump to the conclusion that your dream foretold his death.

There’s more: mental illness, nervous breakdowns, bad digestion, hallucinations — aural and tactile as well as visual. Sleepwalking, even. The section on mass hallucinations was interesting, especially the stories of soldiers who believed that a saint, or an army of angels, were fighting with them during some especially fierce battle.

If an artful or enthusiastic individual exclaims, in the heat of action, that he perceives an apparition of the romantic kind which has been intimated, his companions catch at the idea with emulation, and most are willing to sacrifice the conviction of their own senses, rather than allow that they did not witness the same favourable emblem, from which all draw confidence and hope. One warrior catches the idea from another; all are alike eager to acknowledge the present miracle, and the battle is won before the mistake is discovered. In such cases, the number of persons present, which would otherwise lead to detection of the fallacy, becomes the means of strengthening it.

My husband once told me a story about being on a whale-watching boat trip with his mother. Things weren’t going so successfully, so she decided to liven things up by pretending to see a whale. My mother-in-law is like that.

“Look, it’s a whale!” she called out. To be fair, I think she only meant for her family to hear her, but her voice might have been a bit too loud. Soon everyone on the boat was peering over the side, calling out that they could see the whale’s tail, or its back. And look, there’s its spout!

At least they felt they got their money’s worth. And the story proves Sir Walter’s point.

The anecdotes are definitely the best part. Sir Walter has some great anecdotes. Most are too long to retell here, but here’s one of my favorites.

A rich young playboy goes to his doctor, with a complaint. He is constantly being visited by a band of figures dressed in green, who appear in his drawing room and do a little dance. He knows that they are figments of his imagination, but this doesn’t prevent him from being compelled to watch their entire performance — every night.

“Corps de Ballet” by George Cruikshank. Illustration for The Letters

The doctor decides his patient is on the edge of a breakdown from his hard-living and decadent lifestyle. He prescribes a lifestyle change: temperate eating habits, early hours, and preferably life away from the city for a while. The playboy takes the advice, and moves out to his country estate.

After a month he writes his doctor, elated; the green ballet is gone! The young man decides to move permanently to the country; he sells his house in town, and has the furnishings shipped to his country estate. When his old drawing-room furniture arrives at the manor — so do the dancers.

A haunted furniture suite! How fun is that? I can imagine M.R. James writing a creepy antiquarian ghost story on this plot, with a complete and historically accurate description of the tables and chairs. The dancers would be skinny and faceless, and probably hairy. Or maybe a comic ghost story, by Max Beerbohm. Yes, definitely Beerbohm.

In Sir Walter’s version the young man abandons everything and flees to the Continent, forever. Let’s hope he didn’t stumble into any haunted hotels.

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