Thinking About the Dead
A number of years ago I had a series of horrific nightmares, visions of faceless men in dark suits pursuing me. They wanted to kill me because I had revealed their secrets, and they warned me over and over again not to tell anyone what was happening. I didn’t listen, and worked some of the images from these nightmares into poems and stories.
Alone at night, I hear the doorknob turn,
The hinges creak- and standing in the light
Are cold and silent men. I stand in fright,
And one by one they float in through the door.
Their suits are charcoal gray, their ties are thin.
On every mouth, a Mona Lisa grin.
Their eyes could just as well be balls of glass,
Their faces stuffed and mounted. Waves of dread
Pass over me and through me. Like the dead
There’s nothing there at all- an absent space
Just papered over by a face as clean
And free of comment as a pure machine.
“We’ve found him,” says the first one
And I turn, to try to get away. The power comes
And lifts me off my feet, completely numb
From crown to sole. Cold, drunken currents flow
And hold me in a field of fearful awe.
They know the truth. I disobeyed the Law
And now the consequence has found me out.
“You should have kept your mouth shut,” says a voice,
“Or joined the Legion while you had the choice,
“But chronicling our secrets…” As I scream,
Their faces start to glow. They circle in
Like feeding sharks. But, though I may have sinned
I still remain defiant. Down below,
In Death’s primeval waters, there is lore
Of hidden things that none have known before,
And I can steal it if I slip the trap.
The horror closes in. My fingers make
A sign of power, and I bolt awake.
My wife’s asleep beside me in our bed.
The kitchen light is flickering. Outside,
The city sleeps. And I am still alive.
A new dream followed, so vivid and convincing that I might as well have been wide awake. I was summoned into the presence of a powerful man, whose presence inspired intense dread – a sorcerer and a cannibal.
“You were warned,” he told me angrily. “You were warned already and you didn’t listen. Now it’s all going to start again, and there will be nothing you can do to protect yourself or your family. Everything will be destroyed.”
In momentary panic, I begged him to tell me what I could do to avoid this fate, and he told me the issue wasn’t what I should do but what I should not. I asked him what he meant.
“Nothing that could expand or fulfill human potential,” he said. “Nothing that makes you think about the dead.”
In all mythologies I know of, there are some spirits who are friends to humanity under the right circumstances – and then there are the others. The ancient Gnostics called them Archons, false gods who seek to prevent humanity from fulfilling its potential. When an Archon doesn’t want you to think about the dead, it’s time to think about the dead.
Drowned Women and Dead Kings
In the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri Sturluson describes the Norse god Odin as a deified king, and Odin or Wotan appears in some of the royal genealogies of the Germanic-speaking peoples. According to Euhemerus, Zeus was once a king of Crete. According to The Yellow Book of Lecan, Manannan MacLir was a famous merchant, so adept as a ship captain that he was considered a god of the sea after death.
Most pagans dismiss this sort of thing as euhemerization, an after-the-fact attempt to reduce a deity to mortal status. Euhemerization is definitely over-simplified – the name Zeus derives from the name of the Indo-European sky god, so this deity is obviously more than a deified Cretan king – but there could still be more to the idea than meets the eye. For one thing, some deities are known for a fact to be deified mortals.
The Chinese war god Guan Yu is a deified general who died in the the year 220. The guardian deity Zhong Kui was a scholar who committed suicide in protest after being denied the honors he had earned in the imperial examinations. The ocean goddess Mazu was originally a woman named Lin Moniang who drowned at sea in the year 987. According to The Divine Woman by Edward R. Schafer, Chinese river goddesses were often identified with drowned women, and wind and thunder gods were equated with local heroes.
According to Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters by Avron Boretz, Chinese deities are powerful ghosts:
“(T)he visible and invisible realms are merely phases along a continuum, the realm of qi. Ghosts (gui) and gods are thus constantly interacting with the living… The beings of the invisible realm, however, are all spirits of the dead. The qi of those who die violently or prematurely lingers among the living, tainted with the residues of decay. These noxious beings, generically labeled ghosts, are the most dangerous, since they are not only poisonous but also bear malice toward the living. On the other hand, the remains and spirits of those cared for by living kin are transformed into ancestors… and ghosts who possess extraordinary power or talent can be redeemed and installed as gods…”
The three categories described by Boretz are gods, ghosts and ancestors, but all three categories are the spirits of dead people. Ancestors are dead people who lived out their full lifespan and died a natural death with appropriate burial rites, ghosts are the angry and destructive spirits of people who died young or violently and gods are ghosts who are especially powerful and capable of benevolence.
This tendency to view all spirits as the spirits of the dead is not restricted to China. European lore contains gods, ghosts and fairy beings, but all three are at least sometimes dead people.
The Evil Dead
According to The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux, European revenants are created in exactly the same way as Chinese ghosts:
“Are all the dead dreadful? No, there are only certain categories that present any danger. The ranks of these are called ‘the evil dead.’ Members of this group include those who have perished in violent deaths… that is, before the day fixed by fate for death… ‘those for whom no one has wept’ (indeplorati), formed the bulk of the troop of revenants and ghosts… all those who had not received the ritual burial… were potential revenants…”
In the lore of Bretagne (the Celtic region of France), revenants were considered the ghosts of the wealthy and powerful, condemned to wander the earth because of their own wickedness in life:
“The people that need to be exorcised are almost always the rich who have obtained their wealth by wicked means, and those who have led a disorderly life. Therefore they are mostly nobles and middle class; peasants have too hard a task earning their living not to be peaceful after their death… Their souls are condemned to wander until all the wrongs they have done have somehow been put right. They are ill-tempered and wicked… and get their own back for their distress by making trouble amongst the living. They are exorcised in order to immobilize and silence them.” (Celtic Legends of the Beyond; Anatole Le Braz, trans. Derek Bryce)
The Archon-figure who warned me not to think about the dead certainly gave the impression of someone wealthy and powerful, a kingpin lounging around on a deck chair with his phone next to him while his servants ushered me into his presence. Most of the evil dead, however, are not kingpins. Some are solitary, haunting particular places or people. Some are soldiers in the service of more powerful spirits. Some ride the night sky with the Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt is a spectral army of ghosts and witches, hell-hounds and huntsmen, chasing the wicked or those marked for death in the coming year. The leader of the Hunt is sometimes a god (Odin in Sweden, Gwynn ap Nudd in Wales), sometimes a dead king such as Arthur or Theoderic, sometimes a pagan goddess such as Diana or a spirit woman such as Holda.
In Scottish lore, the leader of the Wild Hunt is Nicnevin, the Queen of Elphame.
Queen of Witches and Elves
Elphame is the Fairyland of lowland Scotland, and lowland Scottish fairy lore has many Norse or Saxon characteristics. The Queen of Elphame, however, has a Gaelic name – Nicnevin is pronounced exactly the same as Nic Neamhain or “Daughter of Nemain,” a Gaelic war goddess. (Skeptics have proposed alternative etymologies, but all the alternatives I’ve seen are grammatically impossible in Gaelic.) Until the 14th century, Gaelic was widely spoken even in the lowlands, and Gaelic fairy lore clearly combined with Norse and Saxon beliefs. The fairies of Scottish lore are dangerous spirits, who ride out with Nicnevin at their head during the Halloween season. The spirits of witches ride with them, shooting down humans who are doomed to die. Their weapons are Stone Age arrowheads known as Elf Shot or “strokes.”
The belief that fatal illnesses are caused by the elvish weapons of the Wild Hunt is also found in Germanic lore, where the elves are sometimes identified with the malevolent dead. According to Claude Lecouteux:
“Dwarves, alfes (Nordic elves) and the caquemars [nightmares]… who either rode humans or shot arrows at them: these were the origins of all ills… But what are dwarves and elves doing here? It should be known that these beings from common mythology… were close kin to the departed if they are not the deceased themselves… Dwarves were wicked, harm-causing dead…”
Nicnevin is a fairy queen and the daughter of a goddess, but she is also the goddess of the Scottish witches – much like Diana or Aradia, who also lead the Wild Hunt and are considered the goddesses of Italian witchcraft and of Italian fairies.
The ambiguity in this lore is confusing but instructive. Who rides with the Wild Hunt – witches, fairies or the dead? Who leads the Wild Hunt – a god or a goddess, a fairy queen, a witch queen or a dead king?
Perhaps the answer is that there are no clear boundaries between these categories.
The People of the Mounds
In Gaelic lore, the beings we refer to as fairies are called the Aos Sí or “people of the mounds,” often shortened to “the Sí.” So what are these mounds?
Not all fairy mounds have the same origins, but in many cases they are Stone Age burial mounds and passage graves. The most famous of these is the Brú na Bóinne, a funerary cult complex with elements dating back to the 35th century BC. In medieval Irish lore with pre-Christian origins, the Brú na Bóinne is the palace of the Dagda, king of the Tuatha De Danann, the Irish gods. The Brú na Bóinne is also associated with the goddess Boann and the god Oengus. These are Celtic deities, but they are said to live in a Stone Age burial mound. In Irish lore, the Danann gods are the rulers of the Aos Sí.
If the gods are the rulers of the fairies and the fairies are the spirits from the Stone Age burial mounds, then doesn’t it follow that both the gods and the fairies are the spirits of the most ancient dead? The Gaelic version of the Wild Hunt is called the Sluagh Sidhe or “Host from the Mounds,” and their weapon is again the Neolithic arrowhead.
When I’ve suggested this before in Celtic Polytheist circles I’ve met intense resistance, as if people were reluctant to acknowledge any possibility that there might be no clear distinction between gods, ghosts and fairies. One person argued to me that the Gaels had no idea that the Brú na Bóinne and similar structures were originally burial mounds, and thus would not have drawn any link between the dead and the Aos Sí. However, the Gaels were actually fully aware that fairy hills were really burial mounds. According to the Secret Commonwealth by Reverend Kirk:
“There be many places called fairy hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from them; superstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell there.”
Kirk goes on to say that mounds were sometimes erected next to churchyards so that the spirits of the dead could go into them and create a new fairy mound over time. This is far from the only source equating the fairies with the spirits of the dead. According to Emma Wilby’s Visions of Isobel Gowdie:
“(I)t was widely believed that the deceased could find themselves dwelling, or trapped, in fairyland, and many cunning folk claimed that the helping spirit who guided them through fairyland and interceded with the fairies on their behalf was a spirit of the dead. Other cunning folk overtly claimed that the fairies were themselves the dead.”
Wilby goes on to identify the spirits of the Wild Hunt as “those who died an unnatural, premature or violent death” – the evil dead of European folklore, whose leader in Scotland was the fairy queen Nicnevin. Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie rode with the Wild Hunt in dreams and visions, shooting down bothersome local aristocrats with Neolithic arrowheads. The Scottish witchcraft trial records include numerous references to specific, named dead people as being seen among the dead in the fairy mounds, led by a fairy queen.
The evidence in this situation may seem confusing, but only if we try to resist the obvious conclusion – the fairies, the dead and the gods may not be exactly the same thing, but they cannot be clearly distinguished from each other either. There is considerable overlap between these three types of spirit being, and that has interesting theological implications.
Toward a Theology of Death
Returning to Chinese folk religion as described by Avron Boretz, I think we can see the same three broad categories of spirit being in both China and Europe. Some of the dead become ancestors, honored by and generally benevolent toward their descendants. (The dead who go to the House of Donn in Irish lore may represent this type.) Some of the dead are angry and potentially dangerous because they died in a traumatic way (ghosts and the spirits of the Wild Hunt, malevolent fairies, the “Unseelie Court”). Some of the dead have such powerful spirits that they become what we call gods, capable of intervening in the world in various significant ways.
But if the gods are dead people, what do we make of the claim that they are eternal beings? I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Imagine a cosmic deity of Water – such an elemental force is almost purely archetypal, with few of the specific characteristics we would associate with a named deity. This cosmic deity of Water manifests on one particular spot on Earth as a specific river. Every river has a personality of its own – the river might be rough and wild or gentle and broad, it might have waterfalls or many turns and bends or any number of other characteristics. A society of animists worshiping this river would be able to talk about it in person-like terms. Then one day a woman accidentally drowns in the river, and the people think of her ghost as being angry at its fate – liable to drown others, a malevolent fairy. By giving her gifts and singing her songs, they soothe the fairy woman’s traumatized spirit and establish a friendly relationship with her. She merges with the personality of the river itself, with the cosmic power of elemental Water – and becomes the goddess of that river. A specific person with agency, a natural phenomenon and an eternal deity all in one.
The spirits of the natural world can be as broad and archetypal as Fire and Water, or as specific and personal as the ghost of a drowned woman. By dying in the world, we give our life to it. We people every corner of the Earth with our spirits and our memories. We become the magic.
By giving offerings to spirits and the dead we not only give love to those we honor as ancestors, but healing and reintegration to those who died in pain and trauma. We transform an angry, suffering ghost who wishes to harm the living into a friend and ally, and in some cases that being eventually becomes a deity.
How do we “expand and fulfill human potential”?
We change our lost souls into gods.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword. Thompson lives with his family in Portland, Maine.
Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism, can be ordered here.