Folkmoor: Laying Ghosts

Mark Norman
Mark Norman

As we are approaching All Hallows Eve, Samhain or Hallowe’en (depending on your viewpoint) we should all be on our guard for the possibility of increased hauntings!

As a liminal boundary time, Hallowe’en (to use the modern generic term for the period for simplicity) is a time associated with things ghostly because the veil between the worlds is said to be thin, allowing those on the other side to more easily pass through … if that is within your belief system.

In any case, I thought that maybe it would be wise to discuss (at least from the perspective of folklore) the manner in which to put these spirits to rest before they have the opportunity to trouble you too much! You may need the help of a number of persons of the cloth…

In looking for stories to illustrate this column I came across this account in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association for 1892.

It was recorded by P.F.S. Amery, who was the chair of the folklore committee at that time, and discussed the laying, or putting down, of ghosts:
“Early in this century (ie: the 1800s) Madam H— died at her residence in the parish of Ilsington. It is reported in the neighbourhood that at her funeral the four horses drawing the hearse refused to mount the hill approaching the churchyard at Ilsington; they foamed, and could not be induced to proceed.

‘In this dilemma the clergyman was sent for, who put down the ghost of the lady, and the hearse got up the hill easily. The house in which she resided was thenceforth reputed to be haunted, chains and other creepy noises being frequently heard. It is worthy of note that the Revd. Jonathan Palk, who resided at Ashburton, was the vicar of Ilsington from 1787 to 1828, and must have been the clergyman referred to. He was a bachelor and a Hebrew scholar, and is credited with putting down several ghosts at Ashburton.”

This last sentence seems curious at first glance. Why should it be relevant that he was a Hebrew scholar? And what is involved in putting down, more often called laying a ghost anyway?

In local stories, laying a ghost usually involved a local parson ‘reading it down’ – that is using the bible or a prayer book to consign it to a remote part of the parish through the reading of verses. This technique did not dispose of the ghost, but rather was a sort of delaying tactic.

The ghost would be set to an impossible task (common ones include spinning ropes of sand or emptying a pool using a vessel with a hole in it) for a certain length of time. In many cases this was 66 or 99 years, multiples calculated using the premise that a generation was 33 years.

When the time was up, the spirit was permitted to return home, but only at the rate of ‘a cockstride a year’ (something which I have written about in a previous Folkmoor column). There are many Devon folk ghosts which feature these motifs.

If you wanted to get rid of a ghost permanently, then a more formidable parson was needed. The Revd Palk was probably one of these. In folklore generally, the parson must be ‘an Oxford or Cambridge man’ which we might take to mean highly educated. These were the only people with enough knowledge and power to do the work. In many stories, the parson is able to consign the ghost to the Red Sea, and I suspect that it is this idea which makes the noting of Revd Palk as a Hebrew scholar important alongside the fact that he was obviously well educated.

The reasons why ghosts were sent to the Red Sea are open to debate, and we do not have the space to go into details here. Suffice to say that aside from the Biblical connections, the fact that the Red Sea was traditionally believed to be vast and excessively deep (or even a bottomless abyss) are likely to be relevant, as well as the fact that there is a mediaeval tale which told that the land of faerie lay beyond the Red Sea.

If the ghost proved to be too powerful even for this, then help would be sought from the clergy of neighbouring parishes. Numbers are important in folklore and seven and twelve are often cited as the number who took part in a ritual.

Where this approach was taken, the goal was to trap the spirit in a bottle or small box, such as might contain snuff for example. The combined power of the parsons would cause the ghost to diminish in size until it could be contained in the receptacle. This would be closed and then cast into a pool or maybe hidden in a tree, leading to later stories of hauntings of course when an unwitting person opens it again!

There are parallels in other areas of folklore, as with many of the things that we explore in these columns. One theory about the origins of fairies suggests that they were once human-sized but have gradually diminished in size as belief in them has become less.

The shrinking of a ghost into a bottle might well be a similar allegory for the fading of a folk memory of the story about it. And we might also see the idea of the bottled spirit mirrored in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in a bottle.

If you use this technique to dispose of troublesome spirits this October, do make sure you label the bottle clearly to avoid future mishap.

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