Tag Archives: ghosts

Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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Folklore in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have to say, I really liked it. It is very funny and accessible. And while I have also never seen it performed, the language is so rich that I could easily picture the scenes in my mind’s eye as they would be acted out on stage. The play is full of sexual jokes and puns, which I’m sure went over really well with audiences during Shakespeare’s time. But what interests me the most about this play is the folklore woven in to the story.

When plotting revenge on Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Page presents a folk tale about Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Act IV, scene iv)

While the archetype of horned deities that roam the wooded areas are myriad and ancient, what is fascinating about this myth is that Shakespeare’s reference to Herne is the earliest known reference in existence.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He is said to wear antlers upon his head, ride a horse, torment cattle, and rattle chains. The earliest mention of Herne comes from William Shakespeare’s 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is impossible to know how accurately or to what degree Shakespeare may have incorporated a real local legend into his work, though there have been several later attempts to connect Herne to historical figures, pagan deities, or ancient archetypes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So this begs the question: Was Shakespeare drawing on local folklore when writing this play, or did he just make up the tale of Herne to help drive the story? There is no way to know, but all mythology and folklore must begin by the telling of a story, and that’s what is really important here. It doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare made this up, or if he heard it being told around a pub. What matters is that the tale was written down, and the myth was given birth, and it persisted. Herne may just be an artistic personification the archetypal forest god, but in the telling of the story and the acting of the play, Herne is given life and brought into existence within our collective consciousness.

The number three has been considered a mystical number for as long as humans have contemplated the magical nature of numbers, which is why Falstaff’s short passage regarding the number three caught my attention.

Prithee, no more prattling; go. I’ll hold. This is
the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd
numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in
odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death. Away!

(Act V, scene i)

This concept of the mystical power of 3 has become part of folk belief. The phrases are many: “Third one’s a charmer,” “Death comes in threes,” “Three strikes and you’re out.” Once a concept becomes planted in the collective consciousness, it manifests in folk sayings, as shown in the sayings concerning the number three.

Finally, no exploration of English folklore would be complete without mentioning the Fairy Folk, which Shakespeare also does in this play.

About, about;
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out:
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room:
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair installment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee:
Fairies use flowers for their charactery.
Away; disperse: but till ’tis one o’clock,
Our dance of custom round about the oak
Of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.

(Act V, scene v)

While the fairies in this scene are just people pretending to be fairies in order to tease Falstaff, the imagery is consistent with the folklore surrounding fairies. And of particular interest is the custom of dancing around the oak tree. The idea of the oak as a sacred tree dates back to Greek mythology. It is mentioned in Celtic, Norse, Baltic, Slavic, Druid, and Wiccan mythology. It even has significance in the Bible as being the place where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people and under which he erects a stone as the first covenant of the Lord. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is one more folk belief that is in this play that I want to mention, and it is a dark one: the “trial by fire.”

With trial-fire touch me his finger-end:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.

(Act V, scene v)

This conjures some very dark images for me. I cannot help but envision innocents accused of witchcraft or heresy tied to a stake and set a flame, as a way to test their guilt or innocence. This serves as a warning to us, that while there is much wisdom to be gleaned from folklore, we must also be vigilant and approach these tales with a critical mind.

In spite of the one dark spot, I still think this is a great and funny play. I hope to see it performed sometime in the near future.

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“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard: A Hero’s Journey into the Subconscious

I picked this book up on a whim, basically because it was on sale and I had heard of it, and also because I liked the character of Allan Quatermain (the protagonist in this book) from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notes on the back cover also state that this book influenced the Indiana Jones movies. All in all, it seemed like something I should read.

It’s basically a story about a small group of adventurers in Africa who go on a quest to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. The writing is great, the story is exciting, and the imagery is dazzling; but what I found most fascinating about this book is the symbolism concerning the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld.

For me, the hero’s journey into the underworld is symbolic of a person’s exploration of the hidden realms of the subconscious mind and is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth. This book is brimming with these types of symbols.

Before the intrepid crew sets out, Sir Henry Curtis lets everyone know that this journey they are about to undertake is the strangest on which a human can embark.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Henry, presently, in his low, deep voice, “we are going on about as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtful if we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for good or for evil to the last. And now before we start let us for a moment pray to the Power who shapes the destinies of men, and who for ages since has marked out our paths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with His will.”

(p. 53)

As they set out on the journey, Quatermain attempts to describe the mountain landscape, symbolic of the border realm between the two states of consciousness. But because this lies on the border of the subconscious, it is ineffable and beyond the ability to describe in words.

To describe the grandeur of the whole view is beyond my powers. There was something so inexpressibly solemn and overpowering about those huge volcanoes—for doubtless they are extinct volcanoes—that it fairly took our breath away. For a while the morning lights played upon the snow and the brown and swelling masses beneath, and then, as though to veil the majestic sight from our curious eyes, strange mists and clouds gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope. Indeed, as we afterwards discovered, they were normally wrapped in this curious gauzy mist, which doubtless accounted for one not having made them out before.

(p. 61)

Consciousness is eternal, and a symbol that frequently is used to represent the continuity of consciousness is the ourosboros, or the snake devouring its tail. This symbol is tattooed upon the body of Umbopa.

“Look,” he said: “what is this?” and he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.

(p. 103)

Later, Quatermain contemplates the eternal nature of the soul, or the subconscious.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

(p. 132)

When the adventurers finally enter the cave, they marvel at the forms, the strange creations of the subconscious, reminiscent of the forms in Plato’s cave. These forms are described as strange, since they exist beyond the realm of our ordinary waking consciousness.

Sometimes the stalactites took strange forms, presumably where the dropping of the water had not always been in the same spot.

(p. 173)

It is also worth noting that water is another symbol of the subconscious. Essentially, the hidden divine aspect of our consciousness is what creates the forms which eventually manifest in the material realm.

Quatermain then contemplates how the inside of the cave is illuminated.

… I was particularly anxious to discover, if possible, by what system the light was admitted into the place, and whether it was by the hand of man or of nature that this was done, also if it had been used in any way in ancient times, as seemed probable.

(p. 174)

This symbolizes one of the most important questions for humankind: From where did consciousness arise? Light is the symbol of consciousness, or the divine intellect. It casts light into the darker regions of the subconscious and enlightens us with the divine knowledge. But is this the result of our own doing, a construct of our own minds? Did we evolve this way? Or was some divine “nature” responsible for the gift of enlightenment?

When the group emerges from the cave, they are greeted by a friend who acknowledges the importance of their return to the world of normal consciousness, which is the symbolic end of the hero’s journey, the return from the land of the dead, or the deep reaches of the subconscious.

“Oh, my lords, my lords, it is indeed you come back from the dead!—come back from the dead!”

(p. 196)

I have to say, I really loved this book. It spoke to my sense of adventure, but also inspired me with its rich symbolism. And the quality of the writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it. It’s short and quick, and definitely worth it.

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Hellboy: Krampusnacht

Tis the season: lights, decorations, Yule logs, nativity scenes, mistletoe, holiday cheer, and of course, Krampus.

One of the things that I love about the Hellboy series is the way that the creative team incorporates myths, legends, and the occult. Myths are such powerful forms of storytelling and they convey profound wisdom and insight into the human condition that they are able to be re-imagined with each new generation. And that is exactly what this issue does—it presents the story of Krampus in a way that resonates with the average American reader.

You’re going to have to bear with me. I’m an American. Over there we’ve got Santa Claus and the elves with toys. Over here… you’ve got Saint Nicholas and his monster sidekick, the Krampus. While Nick’s handing out toys, Krampus–that’s you–hits the bad kids with sticks and rides them around in a basket.

Toward the end of the tale, Hellboy and the professor discuss the possible origins of the Krampus legend.

Professor: Well, I wonder what old Harry Middleton will make of this. I’ll have to call him in the morning… For years he’s maintained that the Krampus was actually the demon goat of the witches’ sabbath, done up in fancy dress for the holidays. And I’ve argued that it was just a slightly nastier variation on the Scandinavian Yule Goat.

Hellboy: “Yule Goat.”

Professor: Yule Goat. Joulupukki. The pre-Christian goat-man version of Father Christmas.

I had never heard of Joulupukki before, but a quick search online provided me with some background on the myth.

Joulupukki is a Finnish Christmas figure. The name “Joulupukki” literally means “Christmas goat” or “Yule Goat” in Finnish; the word pukki comes from the Teutonic root bock, which is a cognate of the English “buck”, and means “billy-goat”. An old Scandinavian custom, the figure eventually became more or less conflated with Santa Claus.

Pagans used to have festivities to honour the return of the sun and some believe Joulupukki is the earliest form of present-day Santa. The Yule Goat was thought by some to be an ugly creature and frightened children while others believe it was an invisible creature that helped prepare for Yule.

Most theorists believe when Christianity began incorporating Pagan ways into their festivals in order to justify the action, they merged the Pagan figure with an already existing Catholic legend known as Saint Nicholas to create Santa Claus.

(Source: Wikipedia)

While the holiday season is a time of celebration throughout cultures and traditions, there is also a touch of the mystical associated with it, and this is often conveyed through ghost stories related to the season.

There must always be ghost stories at Christmas, Elizabeth.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you have a blessed holiday season and a joyous New Year.

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The X-Files: X-mas Special 2016

xfiles_xmas2016

Tis the season for the annual X-Files X-mas issue, and this one was mildly entertaining. It is basically an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” where Mulder is visited by ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Overall, it’s pretty silly and not really worth the $7.99 I spent on it, but the smoking man as Jacob Marley (Morley – ha ha) almost made it worthwhile.

There was one quote that I found interesting:

I find encouraging one’s imagination often leads to a purer understanding of the reality that informs it.

Many people look at fantasy and imagination as an escape from reality, but I do not see it that way. Imagination allows us to perceive the fabric of the universe, which reality rests upon. There are some things that can only be glimpsed through the imagination, but that does not make them any less real than what we perceive with our ordinary senses.

Anyway, that’s all I have to share about this graphic novel. It’s pretty mediocre, but if you are a die-hard X-fan like myself, you might find it entertaining.

Cheers!

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Magneto: Issue 13

Magneto_13

Just as I was thinking about discontinuing reading the Magneto series, I was reminded of how good it is and how thought-provoking the writing is. This issue is excellent and explores something I find fascinating: how stories affect our concept of reality.

Stories, when repeated, become part of the fabric of our collective consciousness. They teach us things about ourselves and build a bond which helps hold our society together. On a level, we know that these are just stories which, although fiction, express universal truths regarding the human experience. But sometimes, as this comic points out, people begin to accept these stories as facts which lead to the birth of urban legend, and in more extreme cases, self-deception.

What is the appeal of ghost stories? Gathering around a darkened room… speaking in whispers… recounting the tales of monsters that lurk in shadows. Is there comfort there? The reminder that… while we speak of the dead… we are all truly alive, or is it purely for the thrill? The pumping heart… the racing blood… the trembling flesh. Among these tales of terror… the “true” ghost story is among the most offensive. “Listen,” you say. “This is what happened to me.” You know the entire time that your every word is a lie… and your audience realizes the same… although they force themselves to believe. And so it is the ghost stories we tell ourselves… when no one else is listening… that are the most egregious. Lies for our own benefit. “This really happened to me.” Lies we force ourselves to believe.

This hit painfully close to home. When I was younger, I lied to myself as a way to justify my actions and to absolve myself from guilt and shame. In these stories I forced myself to believe I was the hero. I twisted history to view myself as making the right decisions, to validate the choices I made, to make it easier to live with myself. It was a coping mechanism for me and one that I suspect many people still rely upon. It is painful and difficult to look at yourself and judge your actions honestly, but it is important to do so. This is the only way that you can grow as an individual.

As you know, I love stories, but I must be careful not to allow stories to distort my view of reality. It is appropriate to use stories as a way to interpret reality, but it can be a slippery and dangerous slope when we allow stories to define our reality.

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“Phantom” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

All look and likeness caught from earth
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own ;—
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

According to the editor’s note in my book, this short poem is one of Coleridge’s attempts at describing Sara Hutchinson as she appeared to him in a dream. But as is often the case with Coleridge’s work, there is more meaning hidden below the surface.

As one who was fascinated by the supernatural and metaphysics, we can assume that Coleridge believed that the human body is inhabited by a soul that continues to exist after a person has died. When a person enters into an altered state of consciousness—whether through sleep/dreams or psychotropic substances or meditation—that person becomes more open to perceiving non-corporeal entities. Coleridge makes it clear in this poem that he believes the spirit is the true essence of a person and not the physical form. Based upon the way he describes his interaction with Sara, I suspect that Coleridge believed he actually crossed a threshold while in the dream state and met with the spirit of Sara Hutchinson.

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