Category Archives: Death

Who becomes a ghost? Nobody!


You can’t beat a ghost, literally. You can try, but since a ghost is an NCB (Non Corporeal Being), it has no physical body and does not respond to being whacked with weapons. Now if people come back from the dead in their own body, that is a different matter. It is also a different thing, not a ghost but a… any guesses? No? You know me too well!

If you have come back from your grave it may well be that you were buried alive. With the dubious medical practices of the past, live burial was not entirely uncommon. To offer a last chance to those who were not only at Death’s door but had been neatly nailed in a box and delivered to his lobby, it was standard practice to place a string in the deceased’s hand and attach the end to a bell on a stand above the grave. In this manner, if you did come round in a wooden overcoat under several feet of earth, it was possible to be “saved by the bell” and become a “dead ringer”. It also made you a “revenant”. A revenant is someone who has “come back”, from the French “revenir”: “to come back”, and was particularly used for those who had come back from the dead. A significant feature of a revenant is that they have come back to life; they are alive, unlike vampires.

Far from being handsome or sparkly, the original folkloric vampire of eastern Europe was a fat, fetid, dead person with matted hair and dark or purple skin, wearing a shroud, that rose from the graveyard to feed on the living. These it seems, were largely the result of hysterical fear of the dead combined with confusion over the stages of decomposition. Someone would have a bad dream or a fevered vision and the most recently deceased person would get the blame. On being exhumed to see if they were leaving their grave in the night, their body would be found plumper than when they died, possibly gurgling, and with fresh blood dripping from their mouth. Clear signs that they were wandering about and drinking blood! That these symptoms are pretty much what one would expect as bacteria fill the dead body with gasses and this forces “purge fluids” from any openings, wasn’t well known to your rural communities at the time. The classic methods of dispatching these foul creatures, A stake in the chest or decapitation, are both good ways to deflate a gaseous, bloated corpse.

In 1819 a bloke called John Polidori wrote his book “The Vampyre”, a while later Bram Stoker nicked his ideas and wrote a slightly more famous book. Thus the newly pale, cultured, attractive and un-dead vampires put on evening wear and took over stately homes, conveniently leaving an empty space in our graveyards, and our fears of walking corpses, for the zombies to move in. Zombies (you knew they’d turn up eventually) entered our language, and our imagination, from Africa and the Caribbean in the 19th century. These post life perambulators are corpses re-animated by witchcraft, a meat puppet, and as such are still technically dead. A zombie is in some ways the exact opposite of a ghost, in that it is a body with no spirit.

Revenants are rarely heard of these days, Vampires are getting ever more glamorous and even the zombie-come-latelies are not the shambling foot draggers they used to be. Ghosts, however, remain ghosts. Unchanged by the years, the disembodied spirits of the dead still float around the sites of their demise, moaning and groaning, or unwittingly repeating some long-finished task, unable or unwilling to pass over to the other side. In these uncertain times it’s nice to know there is someone you can rely on, even if there is actually no body there.

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“Death cometh, soon or late”


This week it has come to one of our beloved cats and our broadband router. Each case bringing it’s own particular suspension of time and normal activity; one through tears, reminiscence and digging; the other tortuous trouble-shooting and inaccessible e-mails.

Black hooded, scythe in hand, one skeletal finger pointed accusingly at the salmon mousse, the medieval European reaper has pretty much eclipsed all other psycopomps, those who guide our souls to their final resting place. Valkyries and angels occasionally wing their chosen ones away to a blessed afterlife but consensus of popular culture (the very definition of folk-tale) is that our last breath will be harvested by a cloak full of bones with a voice like tombstones and a good line in dry humour.

But where will Mr. Grim take us? Let me transport you across time and space to the shores of ancient Japan which, Shinto myths tell us, were brought into manifestation from primordial chaos by Izanami and Izanagi before they too took physical form and stepped down from the high heavens. These divine lovers then populated the world with the spirits of earth, wind, mountains, trees, and so on until, whilst giving birth to the spirit of fire, Izanami was burnt sufficiently badly to cause the first death in their new world and retired to Yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi, bereft without his dear wife, heads to the underworld to bring her back. At the back door of the mansion of the dead he speaks with Izanami who explains that she may not be allowed to return as she has eaten the food of Yomi, but she will speak with the divine spirits in charge. She solicits assurance that Izanagi will wait outside and not attempt to look at her. After waiting for a day, Izanagi gets bored and goes searching through the mansion for her using a tooth from his comb as a torch. Eventually he finds his beloved but is horrified by her decaying, maggot ridden corpse. She is deeply angered by his betrayal and sets the Hags Of Yomi, several thunder spirits and a thousand dead warriors on him. After an exciting chase, Izanagi reaches the land of light and blocks the exit with a big bolder, thus ensuring that the dead stay down there, and the enraged Izanami becomes their goddess.

A picture of a large rock

The actual physical place, with the actual physical rock that blocks the exit of Yomi.
Seriously, you can go there.

My reason for telling you this tale is that it neatly illustrates a peculiarity which is common to the great majority of mythologies. whilst there is much detail of the creation of all that is above ground no mention is made of the creation of an underworld; yet, when Izanami becomes the first dead being ever, Yomi is already in existence, fully functional, complete with staff, hosts of dead warriors and hags. It seems that no action is needed on the part of the progenitors: the underworld simply appears spontaneously in response to the existence of the world above. In most cases these underworlds accommodate both good and bad where the former live in bliss, reunited with their dearest while the latter have to wade in rivers of spears and get eaten by snakes. Going up to live with the Gods above appears to have been added later as an exclusive option for the elite. The conditions for a beatific winged courier to carry one’s soul in to the sky are generally pretty stringent, however, the tickets to the eternal re-union parties of the various underworlds are simply attained by not stealing or committing murder and generally being kind.

So when the day comes, as certainly it will, and you feel a bony digit tap you on the shoulder, and you are somewhat behind on slitting the throats of goats whilst telling your chosen deity how fab they are, do not despair, all may yet be blissful.  I look forward to seeing our little tortoiseshell kitty again.  The router I’m less fussed about.

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