The Raising of Lazurus

The Raising of Lazurus
Vincent van Gogh

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Have you experienced a sudden drop in fortune? Then your Hopfenhuetel or Butzenhaensel has probably left you.

Ghost Theory Expounded Here


What is a ghost? The answer probably depends on whom you’re talking to. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a ghost as “an apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” The dictionary goes on to explain that it is common for ghosts to appear to the living even though they are not really part of this world. Haunting seems to be crucial to their existence for they either spook a person or a locality, but often both at the same time. Ironically much of what we know about the nature of ghosts comes to us from theologians or treatises seeking to dispel widespread belief in them. One of the earliest harangues against ghosts can be found in Deuteronomy 18: 10 – 11, cf. 13: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or a daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” Despite these assaults on popular tradition, belief in ghosts has flourished and these spirits often appear in fairy tales wandering the earth or even possessing a living person (on this website see Gratzug, Crossing to Remagen, True Eckart and Frau Holle, Ghost as Married Woman, Ghost of Boyne Castle).


Unwittingly, perhaps, the Catholic Church promoted belief in ghosts in their doctrine of purgatory, which provides a middle place for souls transitioning between life and death and thus a physical place for ghosts to reside. It was Augustine who finally endeavored to bring the teachings of the church into sharper focus and overturn popular superstition. He did not deny the existence of ghosts but did argue instead that their appearance and activity were due to demonic forces acting in the world. This rationale was continued in the 18th century when the German theologian Johan Ernst Schubert outlined his Ghost Theory in two treatises: The Appearance of Souls after Death and The Location of Souls after Death. Here Schubert explores the various notions of what happens to us at death and the nature of ghosts in general. Yale University has several items in its rare books collection written by Johann Ernst Schubert, but I am not aware of any library in America that holds this particular work. I am therefore posting excerpts of translations of Schubert’s text because they illuminate folk beliefs reflected in many of the fairy tales posted here.


What is the essence of a ghost? To Schubert this question is inextricably tied to the nature of our souls. He says “The soul is in and of itself an invisible essence. If we assume that the soul is located near the ashes (or decay) of its body, you still would not be able to see it or sense it. If it appeared, the soul would either have to re-construct the body, in which it formerly dwelled or build a body from other material to be able to appear to the eyes of the living. The one thing is just as impossible as the other….. "

Thus souls are not body-builders, but instead more like invisible clouds or transparent vapor. Schubert envisions them hovering close to their limp and decaying bodies, or, by extension inhabiting the cemetery. 


So much for Schubert and his ghost theory. Vernacular literature offers a rich variety of ghosts that do not fit so neatly into his organized theology. The ghosts of fairy tales and legends haunt mountains, forests, lakes and even houses. They are not the dead stuff of Schubert's theology! In popular lore ghosts prefer the winter season and the time around All Soul’s Day (November 1) was believed to be the time it was easiest to breach the barrier between the living and dead. In cold and dark months they can often be seen running merrily through a courtyard, riding in a sled, playing music or dancing in the parlor. They love to wear colorful garb adorned with bells and seek human companionship. The Swedish Tomte is one such ghost. He has the stature of a child but the face of an aged man. Often appearing in a red cap, an offering of tobacco or a shovel-full of earth would appease such a house spirit. These ghosts, known as kobold, shellycoat, brownie or heinzelman love to play tricks on the mortals with whom they live. They love to laugh and perform mundane household chores for the family they haunt. But their persistent appearances are often perceived as an annoyance, their rituals a nuisance or even an embarrassment to the master of the house. Instead of receiving a small boon, house spirits are often rebuked with unkind words or jokes. This enrages the kobold and causes him to leave the family he has been associated with for centuries. When the ghost leaves, the family’s fortune collapses. In German folk traditions these spirits are often named Huetchen, Hopfenhuetel, Eisenhuetel, Heinz, Butz or Butzenhaensel. These ghosts like to live in the stable, cellar, silo or even a favorite tree. Often they have their own room in the house under the eaves and a soft indentation can be seen on the pillow or chair where they sleep. Or they may even sleep in the same bed as the humans, with whom they live. On Thursday these spirits will not tolerate any wood-cutting or spinning. They love to play the harp, talk to everyone in the household and reveal secrets. Because of this familiar relationship, they are often referred to as uncle or father-in-law. But there is also a more sinister form of these spirits, who are then referred to as poltergeist or rumpelgeist.Here are the various names of house ghosts or spirits in saga and fairy tales:Aitvaras (Lithuanian house ghost, his manifestations include black rooster, black cat or flying snake. A devil or evil spirit, who demands the soul of the person he haunts and then richly rewards him (Faust))Bukura e dheut (Albanian fairy. Helpful and very powerful. Only a god or angel is capable of performing the same functions. Her castle is guarded by magical animals. Sometimes she has a demonic connection. She is protected by a three-headed dog.)Brownie (Scotland and Northern England: a house ghost. Similar to a Heinzelmannchen in Central Europe. In Cornwall, Brownies are responsible for guarding bees.)Domovoj (Russian, ghosts incarnating from dead souls, they protect the family and its cattle <> meaning <>.Druden (Truden, Old Norse trotha meaning “treten or “stossen”) (A female demon appearing especially in Southern Germany and Austria who disturbs sleep or performs evil magic. The word “Trute” is middle-high German for “ghost” and is synomynos with “witch”. The pentagram or “Drudenfuss” was a protection against evil spirits (Goethe’s Faust).Elves (Old English Aelfen. There were 3 types: Mountain Elves, Water Elves or Forest Elves. The English tradition characterizes them as lovely female spirits and they appear in German literature in this form in the 17th century. They love music and dance. Herder and Goethe refer to their king as “Erlkoenig”Haltia (Finnish “protector”, ghostly protectors of a house, mill or hearth/fire. The person who first establishes or builds a house or who first made fire in the house can become this house spirit.Heinzelmaennchen (Germany, Central Europe, helpful house spirits of gnome-like stature with red or green clothing and usually with red hair. They are indefatigable helpers of house occupants and provide good advice. Mean spirited comments or curiosity drive them away. Also called Heinzlein (short form for Heinrich) and a euphemism for a demon or devilish spirit.Juma (Finno-Ugric, Finnish for ghosts of the earth, water, wind and house.)Kobold (Central European, beneficient house spirit. Name means chamber, house (English: cove) and old (walten/ruling), the spirit ruling the house. Also appear as mountain spirits, who rob silver and return valueless cobalt. They work as invisible spirits toward the good of the house.)Majas gars (Latvian house ghost. Even in the 19th century Latvian farmers hoped to achieve the beneficence of such spirits through prayer and offering, thus assuring the fortune of the house and its inhabitants.Para (Finnish folk tradition, a house ghost that often appears in the shape of snake, frog or cat; responsible for multiplying a household’s fortunes in the form of grain, milk, butter and also money.Pukis (Lithuanian dragon helping function as house guide and treasure-bringing dragon.Shellycoat (Scottish kobold, loves bells on clothing, likes to play tricks and laugh, acts as true servant but presence perceived as annoyance)
Teraphim (Hebrew for house idol, bestowing charity and riches to a family, assumes a position of honor and leadership within the family, assures family’s inheritance and also serves oracular purposes. Book of Judges.



FairyTaleChannel.com


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Disclaimer: Reading for Insomniacs or Those Who Can't Get enough of 18th Century German Theologians




Ghost Theory Expounded Here
Have you experienced a sudden bout of misfortune?
Then your Heinzelmann has probably left you.

(This is the full article that will appear on FairyTaleChannel.org in abridged form, but with all the tedious quotes. This reading is definitely not for the faint of heart.)

What is a ghost? The answer probably depends on whom you’re talking to. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a ghost as “an apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” The dictionary goes on to explain that it is common for ghosts to appear to the living even though they are not really part of this world. Haunting seems to be crucial to their existence for they either spook a person or a locality, but often both at the same time. Ironically much of what we know about the nature of ghosts comes to us from theologians or treatises seeking to dispel widespread belief in them. One of the earliest harangues against ghosts can be found in Deuteronomy 18: 10 – 11, cf. 13: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or a daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” Despite these assaults on popular tradition, belief in ghosts has flourished and these spirits often appear in fairy tales wandering the earth or even possessing a living person (on this website see Gratzug, Crossing to Remagen, True Eckart and Frau Holle, Ghost as Married Woman, Ghost of Boyne Castle).

Unwittingly, perhaps, the Catholic Church promoted belief in ghosts in their doctrine of purgatory, which provides a middle place for souls transitioning between life and death and thus a physical place for ghosts to reside. It was Augustine who finally endeavored to bring the teachings of the church into sharper focus and overturn popular superstition. He did not deny the existence of ghosts but did argue instead that their appearance and activity were due to demonic forces acting in the world. This rationale was continued in the 18th century when the German theologian Johan Ernst Schubert outlined his Ghost Theory in two treatises: The Appearance of Souls after Death and The Location of Souls after Death. Here Schubert explores the various notions of what happens to us at death and the nature of ghosts in general. Yale University has several items in its rare books collection written by Johann Ernst Schubert, but I am not aware of any library in America that holds this particular work. I am therefore posting excerpts of translations of Schubert’s text because they illuminate folk beliefs reflected in many of the fairy tales posted here.

What is the essence of a ghost? To Schubert this question is inextricably tied to the nature of our souls. He says “The soul is in and of itself an invisible essence. If we assume that the soul is located near the ashes (or decay) of its body, you still would not be able to see it or sense it. If it appeared, the soul would either have to re-construct the body, in which it formerly dwelled or build a body from other material to be able to appear to the eyes of the living. The one thing is just as impossible as the other….. "
Thus souls are not body-builders, but instead more like invisible clouds or transparent vapor. Schubert envisions them hovering close to their limp and decaying bodies, or, by extension inhabiting the cemetery.

Why are we so preoccupied with the notion of ghosts? This is also clear to Schubert:
“… From the minute we hear that a friend has died, whom we knew intimately, we cannot think about him without secretly feeling pangs of terror. Judge for yourself, gentlemen, whether or not this is based on the belief that the souls of the dead can appear to the living! (see The Shroud, Bread Shoes). Because who would be so silly as to fear lifeless bodies, which no longer have the strength to move? The whole world must admit that no one is safer than in the company of the dead. The living can harm us if they choose. But the dead don’t even have the strength to insult us. One would have to imagine that the souls of the dead congregate by the graves of their decaying bodies (which they used in this life) and that they are now wandering ghosts, which only appear to terrify the living….”
(He contradicts himself a bit, arguing in the first paragraph that souls are invisible and hover near their bodies only to ridicule the idea here.)

Can dead souls appear as ghosts? The answer is a bit convoluted, but worth slogging through:
“If (dead souls) could move their former bodies and use these bodies as they wished, then men could readily rise from the dead if they wanted to. But this motion of the dead body would constitute a reunification with the soul and a (ghostly) manifestation of this type would signify a return to the present life. This cannot be the case because precisely at the time one imagines an appearance of a ghost, the dead body is resting in its grave and a large part of the body has already turned to dust and decay. And even more impossible is for souls to return to their prior bodies, which they relinquished many hundreds of years before. The (souls) would have to collect their (body) parts from all regions of the world if they wanted to reinvigorate and reawake their bodies.”

What happens to the soul at death? Schubert admits there is no unanimity among scholars on this point but nevertheless takes a stab and perhaps inadvertently leaves the door open regarding all manner of ghosts:
“At the moment my soul leaves the protection of this body, it either receives another body to accompany it into eternity or it remains cut off from all other earthy matters until the time arrives when the dead come forth from their graves. If according to God’s wisdom it has acquired (zuzueignen) a new body, which would be fashioned according to its future needs (Beschaffenheit), it would perhaps be possible for it to establish, with God’s help, a visible body and show itself in this form to the living. But this is a belief I cannot support. I admit that among wise scholars there are those who believe that departed souls can move into new and subtle bodies and remain there until they can return to their own abandoned body. But (disembodied) departed souls have no need of such an abode. They can still remember their past deeds without such a dwelling; they can still recognize whether they are in the company of God’s chosen or among the damned; they can still behold God’s visage but also feel his wrath and sense the unbearable terror of a gnawing conscience. Union with a body would only mean that feelings of joy or damnation would be multiplied by external (bodily) sensations. This will only happen when the Almighty Judge awakes the flesh of the dead and holds His terrible Last Judgment. I admit that at the start of their existence incarnating ghosts require bodies. But for those who have already lived in a body and have collected a multitude of varied experiences, one must draw another conclusion. And this is the case for where the departed souls of men reside.”

Do ghosts ever appear to men?
“I don’t want to deny that up to now such figures have been seen among men, often being likened to the dead and some have claimed they are souls. I think this is possible although many appearances of this kind have either been a fraud or the mistaken fantasy of fearful men. You don’t have to believe that the souls of the dead are those reappearing in this life for we are not the sole spirits to be found on this earthly sphere. There are a great number of other creatures of this kind. They do not always live among us, but also seldom care to leave us. These spirits are very strong and powerful. Their purpose devised by a wise and almighty creator stipulates that they become unified with subtle, fast and invisible bodies. They do amazing things with the help of the same forces. Among their machinations I find this the least noteworthy, to make a visible body from the matter that they encounter everywhere, which is similar to a human form, to become one with this form and then to appear to humans. It follows that it is also possible to pretend to be a person who died several years ago and if it will benefit their purposes, to assure the living that they are the departed soul of this or that person, the name of which they must still know. This is a fraud which one would not experience from a saint or honorable spirit. When people have been terrified by such apparitions, this is the work of such a ghost, called by various names, Prince of Darkness or Master of the same realm.”

In other words, the re-appearance of a dead person to the living is possible but only through a demonic force or devil. But according to Schubert, there are three ways to combat encounters with such spirits:

“The evil spirit only appears in the form of a deceased person, where ignorance and superstition rule. This spirit does not come easily to those who walk in the light of truth. (for an example of such a person, see the Fairy Tale Frau Trude) .

There is not the slightest reason to fear such apparitions or to avoid places where one keeps the bones of our departed brothers. For it is not their souls, that are seen in this form. In view of the first comment, one must also point out that the devil never wakes the shadow of a dead person for the purpose of harming our body or attacking us. (The Skull taken from the Bone House, 125)

Thirdly, one must take great care not to become part of the number of godless and damned, in whose created form he has appeared. Because he has known his friends and foes in this life, it is possible to present himself as a god-fearing or godless person. It often is more advantageous to show himself in the form of a just and pious dead person than to wander around as the shadow of a villain. For this is a trick.” (Frau Trude)

So much for Schubert and his ghost theory. Vernacular literature offers a rich variety of ghosts that do not fit so neatly into his organized theology. The ghosts of fairy tales and legends haunt mountains, forests, lakes and even houses. They are not the dead stuff of Schubert's theology! In popular lore ghosts prefer the winter season and the time around All Soul’s Day (November 1) was believed to be the time it was easiest to breach the barrier between the living and dead. In cold and dark months they can often be seen running merrily through a courtyard, riding in a sled, playing music or dancing in the parlor. They love to wear colorful garb adorned with bells and seek human companionship. The Swedish Tomte is one such ghost. He has the stature of a child but the face of an aged man. Often appearing in a red cap, an offering of tobacco or a shovel-full of earth would appease such a house spirit. These ghosts, known as kobold, shellycoat, brownie or heinzelman love to play tricks on the mortals with whom they live. They love to laugh and perform mundane household chores for the family they haunt. But their persistent appearances are often perceived as an annoyance, their rituals a nuisance or even an embarrassment to the master of the house. Instead of receiving a small boon, house spirits are often rebuked with unkind words or jokes. This enrages the kobold and causes him to leave the family he has been associated with for centuries. When the ghost leaves, the family’s fortune collapses. In German folk traditions these spirits are often named Huetchen, Hopfenhuetel, Eisenhuetel, Heinz, Butz or Butzenhaensel. These ghosts like to live in the stable, cellar, silo or even a favorite tree. Often they have their own room in the house under the eaves and a soft indentation can be seen on the pillow or chair where they sleep. Or they may even sleep in the same bed as the humans, with whom they live. On Thursday these spirits will not tolerate any wood-cutting or spinning. They love to play the harp, talk to everyone in the household and reveal secrets. Because of this familiar relationship, they are often referred to as uncle or father-in-law. But there is also a more sinister form of these spirits, who are then referred to as poltergeist or rumpelgeist.

Here are the various names of house ghosts or spirits in saga and fairy tales:

Aitvaras (Lithuanian house ghost, his manifestations include black rooster, black cat or flying snake. A devil or evil spirit, who demands the soul of the person he haunts and then richly rewards him (Faust))
Bukura e dheut (Albanian fairy. Helpful and very powerful. Only a god or angel is capable of performing the same functions. Her castle is guarded by magical animals. Sometimes she has a demonic connection. She is protected by a three-headed dog.)
Brownie (Scotland and Northern England: a house ghost. Similar to a Heinzelmannchen in Central Europe. In Cornwall, Brownies are responsible for guarding bees.)
Domovoj (Russian, ghosts incarnating from dead souls, they protect the family and its cattle).
Druden (Truden, Old Norse trotha meaning “treten or “stossen”) (A female demon appearing especially in Southern Germany and Austria who disturbs sleep or performs evil magic. The word “Trute” is middle-high German for “ghost” and is synomynos with “witch”. The pentagram or “Drudenfuss” was a protection against evil spirits (Goethe’s Faust).
Elves (Old English Aelfen. There were 3 types: Mountain Elves, Water Elves or Forest Elves. The English tradition characterizes them as lovely female spirits and they appear in German literature in this form in the 17th century. They love music and dance. Herder and Goethe refer to their king as “Erlkoenig”
Haltia (Finnish “protector”, ghostly protectors of a house, mill or hearth/fire. The person who first establishes or builds a house or who first made fire in the house can become this house spirit.
Heinzelmaennchen (Germany, Central Europe, helpful house spirits of gnome-like stature with red or green clothing and usually with red hair. They are indefatigable helpers of house occupants and provide good advice. Mean spirited comments or curiosity drive them away. Also called Heinzlein (short form for Heinrich) and a euphemism for a demon or devilish spirit.
Juma (Finno-Ugric, Finnish for ghosts of the earth, water, wind and house.)
Kobold (Central European, beneficient house spirit. Name means chamber, house (English: cove) and old (walten/ruling), the spirit ruling the house. Also appear as mountain spirits, who rob silver and return valueless cobalt. They work as invisible spirits toward the good of the house.)
Majas gars (Latvian house ghost. Even in the 19th century Latvian farmers hoped to achieve the beneficence of such spirits through prayer and offering, thus assuring the fortune of the house and its inhabitants.
Para (Finnish folk tradition, a house ghost that often appears in the shape of snake, frog or cat; responsible for multiplying a household’s fortunes in the form of grain, milk, butter and also money.
Pukis (Lithuanian dragon helping function as house guide and treasure-bringing dragon.
Shellycoat (Scottish kobold, loves bells on clothing, likes to play tricks and laugh, acts as true servant but presence perceived as annoyance)
Teraphim (Hebrew for house idol, bestowing charity and riches to a family, assumes a position of honor and leadership within the family, assures family’s inheritance and also serves oracular purposes. Book of Judges.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Near-death Experiences and Glimpses of the Afterlife in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales and saga are keenly interested in every day themes of human existence and so it is not surprising that death and mortality figure prominently in these stories. Humans have probably always had a powerful urge to explain what happens after death and many of the earliest myths do just that. Many ancient traditions describe death as a physical journey or crossing to the afterlife. A complex geography of the netherworld was created with the dead traveling to either Britannia, Jutland or Scandinavia. The idea of a soul living on after the body has died is ancient. But in the early Middle Ages a type of story was introduced whose sole purpose was to provide proof of the afterlife. Based on accounts of near-death experiences, a new genre of story arose, sometimes referred to as medieval vision literature. After reading these early near-death narratives, some striking similarities with earlier pagan traditions are evident. Notions of death in fairy tales and saga seem to blend heathen folk beliefs and Christian attitudes. These stories provide us with a picture of both enduring and changing beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Edda describes a bridge over which the souls of the dead must tread. This bridge is thatched or covered in bright gold and it trembles and groans underfoot as the dead cross over. There is a bridge leading down into Hel as well as one leading upward into the realm of the gods (for more about these themes, see the link in this website concerning the Rainbow or Bifrost). According to Jacob Grimm, the ancients believed that a person had three souls, two were tied to the body and were lost at death but the third survived. Abandoning its decaying body, this soul proceeded on to the afterlife. Death does not kill in ancient traditions, but rather, is a messenger that announces the end of life and accompanies the soul to its new realm. Souls were both received and drawn to Wuotan, Frouwa, Ran and Hel, water spirits, angels, elves and the devil. Dying warriors were taken to the abode of the gods but descriptions of this place are few. Some accounts mention that it glitters with precious gems, gold and silver; others that the roof is made from tilted spears. Often, the dead had to arrange their own passage and cross a body of water, as described in Crossing to Remagen (see below for full text). In other tales, the dead joined a huge throng, processing a great distance on foot (Gratzug). The living were crucial to the well-being of the dead in that they supplied the departed loved one with the clothing, equipment, money or even boat to make the difficult journey. The sound of dead souls disembarking from the shallop in Crossing to Remagen is reminiscent of the footfalls heard when the dead crossed the rainbow in the Edda. That a specific or unusual sound should be equated with death is also a core element in modern near-death experiences (or NED). According to R. Moody in Life after Life, noise or sound is often the first sensory impression of a near-death experience. In the story of Adalbert the Compatriot (full text below), we find many of the key elements of a modern day near-death experience. According to Dr. Carol Zaleski in Medieval Otherworld Journeys, near death experiences were essential to the early church for proving the existence of life after death and the soul’s immortality. In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great uses near-death experiences to underscore the veracity of church teachings: the afterlife is a real construct, you will be punished for your sins, masses and good works on behalf of the dead are important and each person is called to live a more holy life. (To find out more, read the full web article by Dr. Zaleski Medieval Otherworld Journeys). As described in many modern accounts of near-death, Adalbert the Compatriot seems to grasp immediately that he is dead. His first experience is described as moving through the air being guided by angels. He is aware of a tunnel or shaft in the center of the earth and he meets spiritual beings who accompany him on his journey. He is given a life review and confronted with the deeds of his life time. He reaches a physical boundary defined by a stinking river and must cross a bridge to enter into the heavenly realm. A guardian angel or messenger of death appears as guide and plays an authoritative role in Adalbert’s new existence. He determines that Adalbert must return to the realm of the living. Adalbert is terrified and does not wish to return. A similar reluctance is often mentioned by survivors of near-death experiences. And like modern-day accounts of near-death, Adalbert’s ordeal transforms him and causes him to make profound changes in his life. By contrast, the Swiss folktale Path to Paradise is not concerned with proving the notion of an afterlife. Rather, the narrative reads more like a service manual outlining the different stages of death. Unlike a typical near-death experience, the narrator does not seem to know exactly when he dies. But his soul, or something like it, continues to exist even after he has relinquished his body. In this story the Rhone River seems to represent a natural boundary of sorts and crossing it might be understood as a metaphor for dying. The tinsmith's initial guide in the afterlife is a frightening figure with green, bulging frog-eyes but later in the narrative, angelic beings appear. This tale includes elements that are common in many traditions concerning death: attraction to a distant light; the aerial bridge; a crossing; a wild and raging sea/body of water; ultimate calm and serenity in death; a beautiful and joyous garden of paradise; distinct sounds; and perhaps most interestingly, sensory perception including smelling fragances and tasting food. The sensations of eating and smelling described in this tale might suggest that the tinsmith has experienced a physical resurrection. And like Adalbert, there is a sorting out of souls into those deserving and not deserving paradise. Similar to the Grimm’s fairy tale The Shroud, death does not sever the attachment between the dead and their loved ones. The tinsmith wonders how his family is faring and whether they will ever be rejoined in paradise. An ongoing concern of the dead for the living might have provided comfort to the audience of these tales. But The Shroud also includes an ancient pagan notion that likens death to sleep. Only when survivors abandon their grief and release the dead, can their sleep be peaceful The child also carries a candle and like the candles on a birthday cake, fire and light are often used as metaphors for a human being’s life force. In fairy tales and saga we see changing views about the responsibility of the living toward the dead: instead of conferring practical utensils that will be needed in the afterworld, survivors in medieval literature are encouraged to say masses and perform good works here on earth. And in later tales the living are instructed that the best thing for a survivor is to more or less get on with life. This may have something to do with changing attitudes toward death: from physical journey to spiritual transformation.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Rainbow

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Many different myths explain the appearance of a rainbow in the sky. In the Edda, the curved arc is a celestial bridge, over which the gods tread. That is why it is called Asbrû or more commonly Bifröst (or Bilrost, Old-high German: piparasta). Translated this means the trembling, shaking path. Röst expresses a certain length of time or distance, comparable to our hour or mile. It is the best of all bridges, made from three sturdy hues. But one day it will collapse when the world ends and Muspell's sons travel over it. The tail of this bridge extends into Himinbiörg, Heimdallr’s residence (or Himmelsberg = mountain of heaven). It is the link between the realm of the gods and Midgardr (realm of humans). Heimdallr has been appointed guardian of the bridge and consequently, is heaven's guard. He protects the bridge from Hrimthursen and mountain-giants so that they cannot enter heaven via this bridge (Hrimthursen = giant, demonic beings with large ears, capable of causing both physical and mental illness). In this function as celestial road, the rainbow brings to mind the wagon, chariot and path the gods use to travel across the sky. The bridge is purported to make a rattling sound when the horses and wagons of dead men cross it. Christianity spread the belief expressed in the Old Testament that the heavenly arch or rainbow is a sign of the covenant God made with mankind after the great flood. But here folkloric and Christian traditions mingle. Folkloric tradition also adds the motif of a golden key or treasure marking the spot where the rainbow touches the earth. Gold coins or Pfennig pieces fall from the rainbow and are found on earth. These golden coins are called regenbogenschüsselein or patellae Iridis; it was thought the sun dispersed them by means of the rainbow. In Bavaria the rainbow is called heaven’s ring or sun ring and the golden coins are called heaven’s ring bowls or cups. Romans saw the rising arc of the rainbow as something that actually sucked water out of the earth: “bibit arcus pluet hodie”. Superstition dictated that one must never point to the rainbow (or for that matter, the stars in the sky). Building or making something on top of a rainbow signifies a vain, fruitless undertaking. A Finnish song tells of a maiden sitting on the rainbow and weaving a golden robe. The pagans told the same story about the piparasta. Serbian folk tradition says that everything masculine passing under the rainbow becomes feminine and everything feminine becomes masculine. The Welsh tradition sees the rainbow as a chair for the goddess Ceridwen. The Lithuanian tradition refers to the rainbow as Laumes josta or the belt of Lauma (Laima = goddess of fortune), dangaus josta (heaven’s belt) and kilpinnis dangaus (heaven’s arc). Folk belief in the Polish region of Lithuania describes the rainbow both as messenger and advisor after the flood. In some regions of Lothringen it is called the courier of Saint Lienard or couronne of Saint Bernard. According to Estonian folk tradition, the rainbow represents the sickle of the thunder god. The Greeks mention a demi-goddess, Iris, who is dispatched as messenger from heaven over the rainbow. Indian tradition recognizes the goddess Indra in the colorful arc of heaven. And according to the belief of Germanic tribes, after death the souls of the just are accompanied by their guardian angels over the rainbow and into heaven.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In this Lithuanian Fairy Tale, Death Comes as Godmother


Godmother Death


A man and a woman were living in abject poverty when God gave them a gift of a small child. They thought to themselves: “Whatever shall we do! We are so poor, we can't even afford to baptize this child?” When they invited people to the baptism, everyone declined the invitation. One morning the husband rose early and when he left his house he thought to himself: “The first man I meet, he shall be the godfather of my child!”

And so it was! He met a man, asked him to be godfather and told him of his dire need. The man accepted. The husband heartily thanked him and continued on his way to find a godmother. He met a young and pretty wife. He wished her “Good Morning!” and asked her to be the godmother. She also did not refuse. When the godparents had assembled and brought their gifts, they held a huge feast and baptized the child. When they had all left the celebration, only the godmother remained behind. She thanked the parents for asking her to be the godmother and inviting her to the baptism and said “How shall I reward you? No one except you has ever invited me to a baptism. Do you know who I am? I am the Goddess of Death. I shall make this child a doctor. As soon as a person is sick, take it upon yourself to heal him! When you approach the sick person and see me standing at his feet, he will recover and become healthy again. Then you must promise to heal him! But if you see me standing at his head, don’t make the effort, for I will kill him. If you do as I say, you shall become a famous doctor and you will become enormously wealthy!”

When the poor child grew to be a man he healed many people. No one saw the Goddess of Death except him. If he saw her standing near the sick person’s head, then he said that further help was futile. Everyone soon loved him very much. He became a famous doctor and was very rich. But one day the daughter of a king became deathly ill and the king called the doctor. When he arrived, he saw the Goddess of Death standing by the head of the princess. He pleaded with her to be beneficent and remove herself and let him heal the sick maid for then he would receive a handsome reward from the king. But the Goddess replied that he should move away because she intended to kill the princess. The doctor became angry at his godmother and fitted the bed so that it could be turned. Then he placed the princess in the bed. When the Goddess of Death stood at her head, the doctor simply turned the bed around and the Goddess found herself standing at her feet. When she walked around to stand at the princess’s head once more, he turned the bed around so that she stood by her feet. He tormented the Goddess in this way for some time until she left the sick maid enraged. The doctor healed the princess, was highly honored and received a good reward.

But when he went home, the Goddess of Death, his godmother, approached him and said: “You did not listen to me. Lay down, I shall kill you now.”

“But dear godmother,” the doctor replied, “Give me three days time! I want to make my own coffin and lie down inside. Then you can kill me.”

She consented. The doctor had a very strong coffin made and strong clasps forged. When three days were up, the Goddess of Death returned and asked “Well! Have you prepared yourself for death?” The doctor lay face down in the coffin. She could not kill him and ordered him to lie on his back. When he rolled onto his back, he raised his knees so that the Goddess of Death could not close the coffin. “You don’t even know how to lie down!” the Goddess said. “Let me show you!” He jumped up. The Goddess of Death lay down inside and stretched out as straight as a reed. The doctor seized the lid of the coffin and slammed it shut, locking the Goddess of Death inside. Then he took it into the forest, dug a deep hole and buried the Goddess of Death inside.

She lay there almost seven years. No one found her the entire time. He remained a very famous doctor, because no one was dying anymore. One day children were watching their flock in the forest and heard sighing below the earth. They all decided to dig and see who was there. They dug up the coffin, opened the lid and found a living woman inside, who was now completely desiccated. Since that time she has been a terrible sight to behold. She thanked the children for freeing her, sat down on a stone near the path and waited for the doctor to come by. She sat as if she were a beggar woman, concealing her face. The doctor came by, stopped in front of the woman and commanded her to say an “Our Father”. When the prayer was over, she said “Amen,” killed the doctor where he stood and took him home. I know this because I was also in attendance at his funeral and enjoyed the wonderful food spread out on the table for his guests.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A near-death experience described in the story of Adalbert, the Compatriot

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Adalbert, the Compatriot Adalbert, the compatriot, was getting on in years. The time came when it was believed he was dying, for he lay as lifeless as a dead man for an entire night. But when the sun rose and he was about to be buried, he came back to life. Those standing round his bed fled in terror. But the risen man went into the church and remained there a long time, praying on his knees. He saw and heard nothing and did not notice that a throng had gathered round him. Only when he was addressed directly by one of the crowd did he finally cry out “Oh you foolish and godless men. What torture awaits you in the afterlife!” Adalbert’s words and warnings occupied the thoughts of all those around him, but most of all, Priest Mandel, Abbot Sponheim and Prior Joachim. These three clergymen went to Adalbert’s dwelling and he told them what had happened the night before. After his death, he said, several angels guided his soul through the air. Large sparks whirled around them in every direction like snow flakes. These were innumerable devils desiring nothing else but to push him into the blazing fire encircling them. But the good angels warded off the devils. Every sin he had ever committed was known to the bad and good angels alike. But these sins appeared even more terrible to him, even if he had considered them insignificant in his earlier life. Once when he was traveling to Kreuznach he met a beggar who asked him directions. He responded but did not describe the path in enough detail. The beggar had to spend several hours wandering around lost in the forest. According to Adalbert the Compatriot, it was for this that he was punished in a way he could not even describe, even if he were given one-hundred tongues. And because of another mistake, which he had hardly considered an error before, the devils threw burning coals on him with loud laughter. He thought this punishment lasted at least four-hundred years and burned him in a most terrifying way. In the end an angel was given him as guide and this angel led him to the place of eternal damnation. In truth he had not been dead four-hundred years but rather only a single night. But during this time innumerable souls were pushed into hell and he thought so many could hardly have died in just one-hundred years. In the center of earth, Adalbert the Compatriot saw a horrible shaft filled entirely with souls and from this shaft flames emerged and extended into heaven. The devils swirled around and in between them. Crying, wailing and horrible cursing resounded from the depths. The angels spoke to Adalbert the Compratriot “Whoever is enclosed herein, never emerges again”. The angel also showed Adalbert purgatory. Adalbert looked into a deep, deep valley, into which flowed a large, stinking river. Over this river stretched a thin and slippery bridge from one mountain to the next, higher than if four church towers of Kreuznach Cathedral were stacked one atop another. This bridge was only two feet wide and then fell down steeply to the center, only to rise again sharply on the other side. But the souls who sought to cross this bridge were many. Some fell at the beginning. Others fell in the middle. Still others fell at the end into the raging waters below. Horrible dragons and snakes waited below and the heads of the damned could be seen held in their jaws. Others fell next to monsters according to the degree of their sinning, either falling on their head, neck or knee. Many were able to recover quickly and make their way through the river and safely ashore. Those who were able to reach the bank looked much more beautiful than before. They were received joyfully by angels and led to the palace of heaven. But those who started the journey laden with gold, fell at the very beginning. Because it was impossible for them to turn around, they had to struggle terribly to get ashore. They were engulfed in the tumult of the putrid waters for years until they finally reached the river bank, completely debilitated. Adalbert saw one very beautiful soul quickly cross the bridge with sure footing. That was Monk Theodobert, the angel said. He loved nothing on earth but the dear God himself. Now the angel took Adalbert’s hand and led him to the realm of the saints. The flock of heavenly beings wanted Adalbert to stay with them. But the angel who brought him over said: “He must go back to earth so that he can confess and atone for his sins and return to us much happier in several years.” Adalbert the Compatriot was terrified and cried bitterly to no avail. After he had told the three clergymen all this, he subjected himself to the rules of strict penance. He built himself a hut of wood and lime in the forest near Dahlen and lived there seven years in complete abhorrence of the flesh. The Abbot of Kreuznach, the Prior of Hildesheim and the Priest of Mandel founded a cloister for nuns between Rockshain and Braunweiler to memorialize him. It is now called Katharinenhof.