Sir Walter Scott tells a shortened version of this story in Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft; it is from The Eyrbyggja Saga (The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers) from Iceland. My retelling here is based on the 1892 English translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson. The story encompasses Chapters 50 – 55 of the saga.
Franklin, Massachusetts. I just spent two straight days lecturing all day (ten lessons!) on statistics and machine learning. Exhausting. Now I’m curled up in my hotel wishing I had some hot cocoa to go with the snow, and the artificial gas fireplace in my room. Oh well.
As promised (or threatened?):Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Here, Scott traces how early belief systems of the Celts, Germans and Nordic peoples contributed to the demonology of the subsquent Christian-dominated culture in Scotland and other parts of Great Britain. This is much like the inversion theory we’ve talked about before, with respect to aswang (manananggal) or penanggalan.
Scott lists a number of examples. I’ll mention one: “Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic”. I think the Nixas that Scott mentions is the same as Nikkar, or Nichus, the Scandinavian ocean god. Nikkar is apparently the incarnation of the destructive aspects of Odin (see Harland, below, as well as the “Note by Karl Haupt” beneath this Polish folktale about Nixes). According to John Harland, in Lancashire Folklore (1867), Nikkar metamorphized by the Middle Ages into St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. From Nikkar probably also came “Old Nick”, by way of the water monsters known as Necks. And “Old Nick”, of course, is slang for the devil.
But I really want to talk about something else: two of the Nordic folktales that Scott mentions. Not because they fit in the inversion thesis, but just because they’re cool. I’ll do one today, and one (hopefully) tomorrow.
…it was a favourite fancy of [the Norsemen] that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.
This leads us to the story of Asmund and Assueit, two Norse chieftains and brothers-in-arms. The two were so devoted to each other that they took a vow that when one of them died, the survivor would go down into the sepulchre, or burial mound, and be buried alive with his friend. How very Egyptian of them. In fact, the burial mound also contained (by tradition I assume) the dead man’s arms, swords, and war trophies.
Assueit died first, killed in battle. Asmund kept his promise. Their soldiers buried them both, along with their war horses. And that was the end of it, for about a century, until a Swedish rover and his men wandered through the region. The locals told him the story of Asmund and Assueit (including the part about the arms and trophies). The rover decided to liberate the buried treasure, and ordered his men to open the sepulchre.
But when they did, they heard the sounds of battle coming from inside: yelling, the clang of swords hitting swords, swords crashing against armor. They lowered one of their men down into the tomb by a rope to investigate. When they pulled the rope back up, rather than their man, they recovered — Asmund, battered and scratched and mangled.
Asmund fell on his knees before the Swedes and recited — in verse, apparently — his life for the past one hundred years. No sooner did their soldiers close up the tomb when Assuiet rose up, reanimated by some ghoul or demon. A hungry one, it seems, because the first thin Assueit did was devour both the war horses. Then he tried to eat Asmund. Asmund picked up a sword to defend himself, and the struggle lasted the entire century — I guess until just after the Swedes opened the tomb. Finally Asmund subdued the demon and drove a stake through the body, destroying him.
After finishing his story, Asmund fell down dead at their feet. The Swedes recovered Assueit’s body, burned it, and scattered the ashes. Then they reburied Asmund in the tomb.
I assume they took all the arms and trophies before they left.
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.
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.
I almost didn’t post this one. It’s a classic near-death story, so classic it verges on stereotypical. It does have a few unusual details, though, so I just decided to go ahead.
Photo: John Mount
“This happened to my father, your lolo, when he was a young man, doing missionary work,” Dad said. “He had been assigned to a parish in Mindanao — Cagayan de Oro.”
I’m a bit hazy as to what “missionary work” means in this context. My grandfather was a priest who belonged to the Philippine Independent, or Aglipayan, Church. The church was founded as a reaction to the Spanish-dominated Catholic hierarchy, which slighted native Filipino clergy and churchgoers. Its nationalistic position attracted a lot of converts.
So I would imagine that my grandfather’s missionary work entailed ministering to an Aglipayan parish, one similar to the Roman Catholic parish that his parishioners had abandoned. Mindanao has a relatively large Muslim population as well; it’s possible that he also proselytized.
At any rate, from what my father describes, his father had many of the duties of a parish priest: saying Mass, visiting members of his congregation, managing the day to day activities of the church.
“One night, he came home quite late in the evening, after visiting with a sick parishioner. As he entered his house, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.”
“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.”
It was my mother’s turn. She sat at the kitchen table, eating tangerines. Dad leaned over the kitchen counter with a banana. I sat at the kitchen counter, so I could listen to both of them.
“The thing to look out for is a house where someone died,” Mom said. “You know, in California, when you sell your house, you have to disclose whether or not someone died there, or if there was a tragedy in the house.”
“Really? I never heard anything like that,” I said.
My husband and I bought our house from our landlord, after renting it for eight years. Our landlord had been the second owner, and I would not be at all surprised if the first owner had passed away in the house.
“Well, did you ask about it?” Mom asked.
“Um. No.” I said.
“Well, there you go. But the people who bought our house in Pinole, they asked. They had a whole list of questions we had to answer for them! No one wants to move into a house with a multo. Maybe you have one in your house, and you don’t even know it.”
“If we don’t know we have a multo, then it doesn’t make any difference, right, Mom?” She made a tsk noise.
“Okay, okay. Did you have a multo at your house when you were a kid?”
My Great-Grandparents’ house, about 1929
“Well, the house that you remember was built in the fifties, especially for your lolo and lola, so it was brand new when we lived in it. Before that, when I was little, we lived in the big house, my lola’s house, which is next door to where your lolo and lola’s eventually built their house. My lola had moved out by then, to live with her daughter, but my uncle, Tio Pedro, still lived there, with us. The big house was old, and lots of people died there: my grandfather, and some of my great-uncles and great-aunts…”
Photo: Nina Zumel
“When a house is empty for a long time, the enkanto — the fairies — come to live there.”
Dad was warming to our ghost story conversation.
“I know this is true, because it happened to our house in Saraat, during the War.”
He meant World War II. The Philippines was not a happy place, during that war, but my father’s memories of that time are surprisingly pleasant. He was only about eight or nine years old when the Japanese occupation began, the youngest of his siblings, by far — what they call an “afterthought child”. When the Japanese came, I think some of my uncles ran to the mountains, to join the resistance, and much of the town evacuated as well. My grandfather chose to stay.
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”
— Jeffery Peterson, Telling ghost stories is a lost tradition on Christmas Eve
M. R. James did it every year, and Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol”. It’s a Victorian tradition apparently, and I’ve always thought it was a bit odd, but hey — it’s fun, too.
So to celebrate this Christmas Eve, here’s Hume Nisbet’s 1890 contribution to the tradition, The Old Portrait. Enjoy.
I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy Holiday Season.
Arrived at my parents’ house for the Christmas holiday; there’s nothing to do here except eat, which might be good for the blog. I brought an iPad full of ebooks, and two physical books, both short story collections: The Jack Daniels Sessions, by Elwin Cotman, and Ghosts of Yesterday, by Jack Cady.
I mentioned Ghosts of Yesterday before; I picked it up around Thanksgiving, and I’ve been sort of sipping at it on and off since then. I picked up The Jack Daniels Sessions a while back on a recommendation by Jesus Angel Garcia, the author of badbadbad. I started Jack Daniels Sessions yesterday. If you read like I do, multiple short story collections simultaneously, Cotman and Cady make a good pairing.
It’s time to return this blog a little closer to its originally intended theme: ghosts. This follow-up on a previous post about one of my childhood San Francisco landmarks leads to the closest I can come to a ghost experience of my own.
Been catching up on my email, blogs, and whatnot, since I got back. I came across this post from AcidFreePulp, one of the blogs that I follow. It’s on the question on “real books” versus ebooks. I’ve been hearing this argument from several of my friends, a lot, lately. Friends who are writers tend to fall on the “paper forever!” side of the argument. Friends who are voracious readers (especially readers of genre fiction) tend to fall on the “how did I live without my Kindle?” side.
Me? I tend to fall in the middle. Since AcidFreePulp took the position for physical books, I’ll take the other side, just for fun.