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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

cst-authorChristopher 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.

16 Comments »

  1. “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”).”

    I think it isnt this binary, and that there is a spectrum with these at either end but a much larger area of ambivalence in there too. the Hunt isnt just restricted to the malevolent or the violent dead, the nice dead are in there too. From a historical-anthropological point of view the Hunt was originally real living people who horsed/carried/embodied the spirits of the dead and the underworld and brought the various blessings of those places to the people, and as such needed thanking/propitiating.

    Like

  2. I agree with both you and Woods Wizard; I believe much the same.
    The concept of ‘unlamented’ dead being turned resonated deeply— I have felt this to be true without stating it so clearly. I had lumped them under the ‘unremembered’ group but this is a finer chacterization since it includes being remembered, but poorly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. very interesting! The question of Gods vs ancestors is somewhat of a recurring debate in Celtic and Religious Studies. I love your emotional and practical take on it – healing their trauma by offerings. And in my experience it is right. I hardly ever feel my own family around me – as they have lived good and simple lives and died “good” deaths. But I do tend to attract other entities who are still bound to our world. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like that you are moving us away from literal understandings… much of what you say is also my sense… although what defines a “good” death has probably radically changed over time… things I do not understand…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is really interesting and I have also been thinking along similar lines. The impossibility of distinguishing between the fairies and the dead is a recurrent theme for me. My local fairy funeral legend takes place on a coffin path. It makes sense the dead act as psychopomps to the newly dead. I sometimes have a sense of the fay as dead who have merged with nature hence they can wear nature as leaves, bark, etc. Although I sometimes sense they may be more like elemental beings too… no clear boundaries and who are we to say!

    The merging of god and fairy is seen in Gwyn ap Nudd’s myths where he is seen interchangeably as a god of Annwn and King of the Fairies. There is an argument that Gwyn was a 6th century warrior who later became a god of the dead. He’s always felt far more ancient than that as a god of winter and death to me though, his Romano-British name being Vindos.

    In relation to your water spirit example that seems to have happened here in Lancashire. The Romano-British goddess of the Ribble is Belisama. Yet there is another spirit connected with the Ribble called Peg O Nell who some people believe to be a servant girl who fell and broke and neck and drowned in the Ribble and others to be a water spirit. Both Belisama and Peg are reputed to take a life every seven years.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on John Jr's Dream Blog and commented:

    Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking post Gilbride (Christopher Scott Thompson). 👍

    I am not sure if this reblog comment will automatically be set to recieve alerts when someone replies or not, and so I will be making my full comment diretly on your post just in case.

    -John Jr

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Gilbride (Christopher Scott Thompson),

    My guess about reblog comments was correct, it did not automatically set that comment to receive alerts of replies or new comments and I can not manually enable that for that comment, and so I am glad that I decided to only use that comment as a test and make my full comment directly (WordPress should change this to where we have an option to enable that so that we will know when someone replies to our comment and/or comments on that post, I am glad that I learned this so that I can avoid reblog comments in the future, I am not used to reblogging so this is mostly new to me because I am used to just making my own posts)

    Your post made me think about various things that I have probably never thought about, and you have me curious and wanting to learn more and I have various questions that I would like to ask on various unrelated topics (but I will not because I do not want to waste space or your time, and distract from the topics in this post any more than I already have).

    It is refreshing to get to learn about how the beliefs of various religions/cultures/et cetera are similar in some ways, and how they are different in some ways especially when it relates to death and proper rituals for the dead and possible paranormal/supernatural/natural entities/spirits/deities/et cetera.

    I would like to make a longer and more detailed comment but I will avoid that because it would probably end up being longer than a post, you brought up some good questions that will hopefully get people thinking and start a debate about these things, and so thank you and I am now curious to learn more about topics like this.

    Thank you,
    -John Jr

    Like

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