Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland…

Icelandic Christmas Ghosts

One of the interesting things about the appearance of Revenants in the Icelandic Sagas is the appearance of the undead at Christmas.

In The Saga of the People of Floi, an anonymous knocking figure begins the Yuletide horror. After a particularly beautiful Christmas day, a group of noisy celebrants are roused by a knocking on the door of the house in which they are staying. When the a man goes out to see who it is – optimistically remarking, ‘It is undoubtedly good news’ – he immediately goes mad and dies.

The same thing happens to another six of the men from the rowdy crew (notably, the terrible fate of madness and death is spared for the crew – staying in the same house – who were in bed nice and early) are tempted, one by one, in to the night, driven mad, and carried off by illness.

Once Christmas is over, the dead return in force: not only are the rowdy Jostein’s crew brought back as Revenants, but so are a number of dead locals.

Finally Thorgils, captain of the crew who slept early, takes all of the dead and burns them in a pyre, insuring that none of the Revenants, one of whom was his wife, would rise to trouble the living again.

Another Christmas Revenant comes from Grettir’s Saga. Here, Thorall (owner of a haunted pasture) hires the desperado Glam to watch his sheep. Glam is happy to take up his task in Mid-October and watch the flock through Hallowtide, but his rough manners soon bring him into trouble.

On Christmas Eve, he demands food from Thorall’s devout wife, uncaring of the fact that she is fasting. After managing to get a meal by threatening and abusing Thorall’s wife, he stumps out into the snow for his watch… never to return.

Unprepared to venture out into a snowstorm that seems to have devoured Glam, Thorall and his household wait until daylight. When they come upon the remains of the shepherd, his corpse is black and badly damaged, seemingly torn to pieces by an evil spirit.

It is here that Glam also rises: his corpse vanishes, and is found and then buried under a pile of rocks, but it does nothing to deter him from rising to terrify the local community.

Finally, on Christmas Morning the following year, Glam’s replacement – the shepherd Thorgaut – is found with his neck broken, and Glam begins to attack Thorall’s household, killing his animals, and literally frightening Thorall’s daughter to death. Finally the hero Grettir kills the Revenant, but only at the cost of being cursed himself. As in the first story, the Revenant is the result of an external contagion that is never identified: neither Glam’s killer, nor the being who kills Jostein’s crew, are ever seen or explained.

A final Scandinavian tale comes from Eyrbyggja Saga, where a portentous moon begins a chain of deaths that haunt an Icelandic community over the Christmas period:

At the wake of Thorgunna, Thorir Wooden-Leg explains the purpose of the Moon of Weird… and is soon killed by the Revenant of a shepherd possessed by some malign force linked to the dread moon. Next, things become even stranger: a creature in the shape of a seal rises up out of a fire pit, foreshadowing the deaths of Thorodd’s crew, who are drowned the next day.

The story’s main part has the dead show up for their own wake, and a bizarre creature being found in the community’s food store. When the dead seem to be intent on staying for Christmas there is little the people can do: they entertain their undead friends, and after the festive period is over, burn the bed-canopy of a dead Thorgunna, before convening a makeshift court where they sue the Revenants for outstaying their welcome.

‘Redolent of Denmark’: English Revenants

Whether in terms of Christmas, or the mid-winter festivals of Northern Europe’s pre-Christian inhabitants, the festive period is a natural time to fear the dead: nights are long, the weather is poor, and food has started to show signs of running thin.

England’s Revenants show a tradition similar to those of the Icelandic Sagas: M R James called the manuscript of an unnamed monk at Bylands Abbey, written on the back of a copy of Cicero’s Elucidarium, ‘Redolent of Denmark’.

My favourite is that of the tailor ‘Snawbal’, who meets the spirit of a dead man in the form of a crow wreathed in sparks of fire.

Unlike Thorall and the Icelandic heroes, Snawbal seems equipped with some knowledge of Christian protection that verges on Clerical necromancy. When the Revenant has him pinned down he utters a prayer that subdues it, forcing it to explain that it was excommunicated for bad deeds in life and begs to have ‘nine times twenty’ spoken for it, on pain of a curse that will bring sickness to Snawbal and see him rot away.

In this case, Snawbal not only achieves absolution for the spirit – and without having such a huge number of masses spoken – but performs a spell that protects him from the Revenant, who agrees to lift the curse, but warns him against further consorting with spirits due to the things that others are starting to say of him.

Similar physical Revenants can be seen in Herefordshire, in the stories of Walter Map. He writes of ‘a certain evil Welshman’ whose body was inhabited by an evil spirit, having lived and died irreligiously, that allowed him to return from the dead, calling out the names of his neighbours, who die one by one. In this story Walter’s master, the Bishop, advises the knight to dig the body up, sever its head, sprinkle holy water, and then re-bury it.

Unfortunately, this does not work, forcing the knight William to sever its head with his sword as it retreats into its grave, ending the creature’s reign of terror in much the same way as the Icelandic Sagas.

I could go on: William of Newburgh writes of about a baker from Buckinghamshire who rises from the dead and tries to lie with his wife; a sinful man from Berwick enlists the Devil’s help to re-animate his body and embarks on a reign of terror that quickly forces the people of Berwick to hide in their houses – both out of fear of a pack of dogs who follow the dead man, and of catching a disease from his corpse.

There is, however, another interesting link between Revenants and the Medieval Dead…

Of Ghosts and Fairies

From the Medieval era into the Early Modern, Ghosts are part of an interesting Venn diagram between the dead, demons and fairies.

We see the fairy end of the spectrum in the very Northern-influenced case of Katherine Fordyce from the Orkneys.

From what I could discern, Katherine’s case is 16th century: in the story, after Katherine dies a neighbour begins seeing her in dreams. At first, the captive Katherine is seen standing near a fairy mound. She asks the neighbour for a child she is about to conceive, offering the family prosperity in return, and explaining that she has become captured by the fairies (or, as the record describes her, ‘Trowbound’, despite it being very clearly stated that Katherine is being held by the fairies) because the correct prayers and observations were made over her when she died while giving birth.

By the next time her neighbour dreams of her, things have changed: Katherine is imprisoned in a stone seat, held down by an iron bar across her knees, nursing a babe for the fairies. This time she asks not for the child to keep, but that it is named after her, again promising prosperity until the child grows old enough to marry, remarking that she could be free if someone would say the name of God in her presence.

We see a similar situation in the trial of Bessie Dunlop: a ghost named Thom Reid, a man who died at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, takes her to the court of Elfhame, teaching Bessie to heal fairie illnesses. Thom also states to Bessie that the dead Laird of Auchinslek ‘rides with the fair folk’, and Bessie subsequently reports seeing the dead laird ‘in a fairy place.’

This link between Fairies and the dead can also be see a story from Oderic Vitalis, where a monk travelling through the countryside encounters ‘Hellequin’s Hunt’, a Wild Hunt led by the Devil and dwarf-like demons, where the sinful dead ride in a war-procession of eternal torment: the monk even finds his own father and brother (who died in war, but still sinfully) who are imprisoned in red-hot armour. In this case, they thank him for taking holy orders and explain that every his every ecclesiastical milestone is accompanied by a reduction of their torments, and that they shall soon be free.

The border between demons, the dead and fairies is similarly porous in Walter Map’s telling of the legend of King Herla, who entertains a Dwarf and is invited the following year to the Dwarfen King’s home under a hill (clearly a fairy hill/barrow). There, Herla is laden down with gifts, including a lap dog. When one of his men disobey’s the Dwarf king’s injunction not to dismount until the dog does, he crumbles to dust: time had no meaning in the Dwarf’s world, and Herla’s men have been under the hill for hundreds of years.

This tradition of Winter Tales and Ghost stories runs strong through English culture: in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Mamillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins…” with Hermione responding, “Let’s have that… do your best to fright me with your sprites…”

Dickens wrote something similar: “…we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – Round the Christmas fire…”

And finally we have Montague Rhodes James, greatest of the English ghost story writers and translator of the Bylands Manuscript, who prefaced the first volume of his stories, “I rwote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons fo Christmas…”

Whether English or Scandinavian, Christmas ghosts are a part of our tradition, and are here to stay.


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Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Scottish Folklore, Shakespeare, Strange History, The Devil, Things D&D Got Right, Welsh Folklore, Whole Article

3 responses to “Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

  1. Interesting and had no idea of these


  2. Pingback: Tales of Scotch Plains from Christmases Past – The Blue Hills Gazette

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