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"A Comparative Study of Ghost Stories" (1885)

GhostsWe seem to need a name for a new branch of the science of Man, the Comparative Study of Ghost Stories. Neither sciology, from σκιά, nor idolology, from εἴδωλον, appears a very convenient term, and as the science is yet in its infancy, perhaps it may go unnamed, for the time, like a colt before it has won its maiden race. But, though nameless, the researches which I wish to introduce are by no means lacking in curious interest.

It may be objected that the comparative study of ghost stories is already well known, and practised by two very different sets of inquirers, anthropologists and the Society for Psychical Research; but neither Mr. Tylor and Mr. Herbert Spencer nor “those about” Mr. Gurney and Mr. Myers work, as it seems to me, exactly on the topics and in the manner which I wish to indicate. Mr. Herbert Spencer, as we all know, traces religion to the belief in and worship of the ghosts of ancestors. Mr. Tylor, again, has learnedly examined the probable origin of the belief in ghosts, deriving that belief from the phenomena of dreams, of fainting, of shadows, of visions induced by hunger or by narcotics, and of death.

To state Mr. Tylor’s theory briefly, and by way of an example, men reasoned themselves into a theory of ghosts after the manner of Achilles in the Iliad. The unburied Patroclus appeared to his friend in a dream, and passed away, “And Achilles sprang up marvelling, and smote his hands together, and spake a word of woe: ‘Ay me, there remaineth then even in the house of Hades a spirit and phantom of the dead, albeit the life be not anywise therein; for all night long hath the spirit of hapless Patroclus stood over me, wailing and making moan, and charged me everything that I should do, and wondrous like his living self it seemed.’”

Here we find Achilles in the moment of inferring from his dream the actual existence of a spirit surviving the death of the body. No doubt a belief in ghosts might well have been developed by early thinkers, as Mr. Tylor holds, out of arguments like these of Achilles. It is certain, too, that many of the social and religious institutions of savages (if writers in the English language are to be allowed the use of that word) have been based on the opinion that the spirits of the dead are still active among the living. All this branch of the subject has been exhaustively treated by Mr. Tylor in his Primitive Culture. But I do not observe that Mr. Tylor has paid very much attention to what we may call the actual ghost stories of savages—that is, the more or less well-authenticated cases in which savages have seen the ordinary ghost of modern society.

Here, for the purposes of clearness, I will discriminate certain kinds of ghost stories, all of them current among races as low as the Australians, and lower than the Fijians, all of them current, too, in contemporary European civilisation.

First, let us place the well-known savage belief that the spirits of the dead reappear in the form of the lower animals often of that animal which is the totem or ancestral friend and guardian of the kinship. This kind of ghost story one seldom or never hears in drawing-rooms, but it is the prevalent and fashionable kind among the peasantry for example, in Shropshire.

In the second class, we may reckon the more or less professional ghosts that appear obedient to the medium’s or conjurer’s command at séances. These spirits, which come “when you do call them,” behave in much the same manner, and perform the same sorts of antics or miracles, in Australian gunyehs, in Maori pahs, and at the exhibition of Mr. Sludge, or of the esoteric Buddhists.

Thirdly, we arrange the non-professional ghost, which does not come at the magician’s call, but appears unexpected, and apparently irresponsible. This sort also haunts houses and forests; other members of the species manifest themselves at the moment of death, or become visible for the purpose of warning friends of their own approaching decease. Such phenomena as a sudden flash of supernatural light, or the presence of a white bird, or other ghostly creatures prophesying death, may perhaps be allotted to this class of apparitions.

These things are as well known to contemporary savages as they were to the classical people of Lucian’s day, or as they are, doubtless, to the secretaries of the Society for Psychical Research. Once more, we ought to notice the “well-authenticated” modern ghost story, which on examination proves to be really a parallel to the William Tell myth, and to recur in many ages, always attached to different names, and provided with fresh properties. To look into these ghost stories cannot be wholly idle. Apparently there is either some internal groundwork of fact at the bottom of a belief which savages share with Fellows of the Royal Society, or liability to certain recurring hallucinations must be inherited by civilised man from his untutored ancestors, or the mythopœic faculty, to use no harder term, is common to all stages of culture. As to habits of hasty inference and false reasoning, these, of course, were bequeathed to us by our pre-scientific parents, and these, with our own vain hopes and foolish fears, afford the stuff for most ghosts and ghost stories. The whole topic, in the meanwhile, has only been touched at either end, so to speak. The anthropologists have established their own theory of the origin of a belief in ghosts, without asking whether the actual appearance of apparitions may not have helped to start or confirm that belief. The friends of psychical research have collected modern stories of the actual appearance of apparitions without paying much attention, as far as I am aware, to their parallels among the most backward races, or to their mediæval and classical variants.

[1. Animal ghosts]

It is not necessary to occupy much space with the savage and modern ghosts of men that reappear in the guise of the lower animals. Among savages, who believe themselves to be descended from beasts, nothing can be more natural than the hypothesis that the souls revert to bestial shapes. The Zulus say their ancestors were serpents, and in harmless serpents they recognise the dead friend or kinsman returning to the family kraal. The Indian tribes of North-Western America claim descent from various creatures, and under the shape of these creatures their dead reappear. The lack of distinction, in the savage mind, between man and beast makes ghost stories of this species natural among savages. But it is curious, in Miss Burne’s volume on Shropshire Folk-Lore, to find that almost all the Shropshire ghosts, even of known persons recently deceased, display themselves in the form of beasts, while ghosts in human guise are comparatively rare exceptions. Thus the wicked squire of Bagley, after his death, came as a monstrous and savage bull. He was “laid” in church, where he cracked the walls by the vigor of his resistance. “There are believers in this story who affirm that, were the stone to be loosened, the bull would come forth again by many degrees worse than he was at the first.” “It is not an invariable rule that ghosts should take the form of animals.... A road near Hodnet is haunted by the ghost of a farmer who, for no known reason, comes again with a horse’s head,” like the Phigalian Demeter! The ghost (limited) of seven illegitimate children came as a cat! A man drowned in the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal appears as a monkey; and so on. So common, in France, are human ghosts in bestial form, that M. D’Assier has invented a Darwinian way of accounting for the phenomena. M. D’Assier, a Positivist, is a believer in ghosts, but not in the immortality of the soul. He suggests that the human revenants in the guise of sheep, cows, and shadowy creatures may be accounted for by a kind of Atavism, or “throwing back,” on the side of the spirit to the lower animal forms out of which humanity was developed!

The chief or only interest of these bogies in bestial shape lies in the proof they afford of the tenacity of tradition. It is impossible to imagine the amount of evidence capable of proving that what seems a bull is really the ghost of a wicked squire, as people think in Shropshire. But the prevalence of a superstition like this demonstrates that ideas originally conceived by savages, and natural or inevitable in the savage mental condition, may survive in the rustic peoples of the most civilised nations.

[2. Professional ghosts]

Ghosts_4The second class of ghost stories, tales of what we may call “professional” spirits that come and go at the sorcerer’s command, need not detain us long. This branch of the subject has been examined by the anthropologists. Mr. Tylor has provided many examples of the savage séance, the Shaman or medicine man bound and tied in a darkened room, and then released by the spirits whose voices are heard chattering around him. “Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings, for such things are part and parcel of his recognised system of nature.” I doubt if any modern medium could quite rival the following feat of an Australian Birraark or sorcerer, as vouched for by one of the Tatungolung tribe. “The fires were allowed to go down,” the Birraark began his invocation. At intervals he uttered the cry, Coo’ee! “At length a distant reply was heard, and shortly afterwards the sound as of persons jumping on the ground in succession. This was supposed to be the spirit Baukan followed by the ghosts. A voice was then heard in the gloom asking in a strange intonation, “What is wanted?” Questions were put by the Birraark, and replies given. At the termination of the séance, the spirit voices said, “We are going.” Finally the Birraark was found in the top of an almost inaccessible tree, apparently asleep. It was alleged that the ghosts had transported him there at their departure. If as good a séance could be given in Hyde Park, and if Mr. Sludge could be found at the close in the top of one of the Scotch pines in Kensington Gardens, we might admit that the civilised is on a level with savage spiritualism. Yet even this séance was very much less impressive than what the author of Old New Zealand witnessed in a Maori pah, when the spirit of a dead native friend of his own was present and “manifested” rarely.

The curious coincidences between savage and civilised “spiritualism” have still to be explained. Mr. Tylor says that “the ethnographic view” finds “modern spiritualism to be in great measure a direct revival from the regions of savage philosophy and peasant folk-lore.” But in a really comparative study of the topic, this theory would need to be proved by historical facts. Let us grant that Eskimo and Australian spiritualism are a savage imposture. Let us grant that peasants, little advanced from the savage intellectual condition, retained a good deal of savage spiritualism. To complete the proof it would be necessary to adduce many examples of peasant séances, to show that these were nearly identical with savage séances, and then to demonstrate that the introducers of the civilised modern séance had been in touch with the savage or peasant performances. For the better explanation of the facts, the Psychical Society might send missionaries to investigate and test the exhibitions of Australian Birraarks, and Maori Tohungas, and Eskimo Angekoks. Mr. Im Thurm, in Guiana, has made experiments in Peayism, or local magic, but felt no more than a drowsy mesmeric sensation, and a headache, after the treatment. While those things are neglected, psychical research is remiss in attention to her elevating task.

[3. Independent ghosts]

In the third class of ghosts we propose to place those which are independent of the invocations of the sorcerer, which come and go, or stay, at their own will. As to “haunted houses,” savages, who have no houses, are naturally not much troubled by them. It is easy to leave one gungeh or bark shelter for another; and this is generally done after a death among the Australians. Races with more permanent habitations have other ways of exorcising the haunters—by feeding the ghosts, for example, at their graves, so that they are comfortable there, and do not wish to emerge. Two curious instances of haunted forests may be given here. To one I have already referred in a little volume, Custom and Myth, recently published. Mrs. Edwards, in Macmillan’s Magazine, printed a paper called “The Mystery of the Pezazi.” To be brief, the mystery lay in the constant disturbing sounds of nocturnal tree-felling near a bungalow in Ceylon, where examination proved that no trees had been felled. Mrs. Edwards, her husband, and their servants were on several occasions disturbed by these sounds, which were unmistakable and distinct. The Cingalese attribute the noises to a Pezazi or spirit. I find a description of precisely the same disturbances in Sahagun’s account of the superstitions of the Aztecs. Brother Sahagun was one of the earliest Spanish missionaries in Mexico, and his account of Aztec notions is most intelligently written. In Mexico, too, “the Midnight Axe” is supposed to be a phenomenon produced by woodland spectres. A critic in the Athenæum suggested that the fact of the noise, attested by English witnesses in Ceylon who knew not Sahagun, was matter for the Psychical Society. Perhaps some physical examination would be more likely to discover the actual origin of the sounds of tree-felling. I was not aware, however, till Mr. Leslie Stephen pointed it out, that the Galapagos Islands, “suthard of the line,” were haunted by the Midnight Axe. De Quincey, who certainly had not heard the Ceylon story, and who probably would have mentioned Sahagun’s had he known it, describes the effect produced by the Midnight Axe on the nerves of his brother, Pink:

So it was, and attested by generations of sea-vagabonds, that every night, duly as the sun went down and the twilight began to prevail, a sound arose—audible to other islands and to every ship lying quietly at anchor in that neighborhood—of a woodcutter’s axe.... The close of the story was that after, I suppose, ten or twelve minutes of hacking and hewing, a horrid crash was heard, announcing that the tree, if tree it were, that never yet was made visible to daylight search, had yielded to the old woodman’s persecution.... The woodcutter’s axe began to intermit about the earliest approach of dawn, and, as light strengthened, it ceased entirely, after poor Pink’s ghostly panic grew insupportable.

I offer no explanation of the Midnight Axe, which appears (to superstitious minds) to be produced by the Poltergeist of the forests.

A much more romantic instance, savage and civilised, of a haunted woodland may perhaps be regarded as a superstition transmitted by French settlers to the natives of New Caledonia. The authority for the following anecdote is my friend and kinsman, Mr. J. J. Atkinson, of Viewfield, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Ghosts_2Mr. Atkinson has lived for twenty years remote from books, and in the company of savage men. He informs me that a friendly Kaneka came to visit him one day, and seemed unusually loth to go. After one affectionate farewell he came back and took another, and then a third, till Mr. Atkinson asked him why he was so demonstrative. The native then replied that this would be their last meeting; that in a day or two he would be dead. As he seemed in perfect health, the Englishman rallied him on his fears. But he very gravely explained that he had met in the woods one whom he took for the girl of his heart. It was not till too late that he recognised the woman for a forest-haunting spirit. To have to do with these is death in three days, and their caresses are mortal. As he said, so it happened, for the unlucky fellow shortly afterwards died. I do not think my informant had ever heard of Le Sieur Nann and the Korrigan, the well-known Breton folk-song of the knight who met the forest fairy, and died in three days. A version of the ballad is printed by De la Villemarque, Barzaz-Breiz. Variants exist in Swedish, French, and even in a Lowland Scotch version, sung by children in a kind of dancing game. In this case, what we want to know is whether the Kaneka belief is native, or borrowed from the French. That there really exist fair and deadly women of the woods perhaps the most imaginative student will decline to believe. Among savages men often sicken, and even die, because they consider themselves bewitched, and the luckless Kaneka must have been the victim of a dream or hallucination reacting on the nervous system. But that does not account for the existence of the superstition.

The ghosts which at present excite most interest are ghosts beheld at the moment of their owner’s decease by persons at a distance from the scene of death. Thus Baronius relates how “that eximious Platonist, Marsilius Ficinus,” appeared at the hour of his death on a white horse to Michael Mercatus, and rode away, crying “O Michael, Michael, vera, vera sunt illa,” that is, the doctrine of a future life is true. Lord Brougham was similarly favored. Among savages I have not encountered more than one example, and that rather sketchy, of a warning conveyed to a man by a ghost as to the death of a friend. The tale is in FitzRoy’s Voyage of the ‘Adventurer’ and the ‘Beagle’ . Jemmy Button was a young Fuegian whom his uncle had sold to the ‘Beagle’ for a few buttons.

While at sea, on board the “Beagle,” about the middle of the year 1842, he said one morning to Mr. Byno, that in the night some man came to the side of his hammock, and whispered in his ear that his father was dead. Mr. Byno tried to laugh him out of the idea, but ineffectually. He fully believed that such was the case, and maintained his opinion up to the time of finding his relations in Beagle Channel, when, I regret to say, he found that his father had died some months previously.

Another kind of ghost, again, that of a dead relative who comes to warn a man of his own approaching decease, appears to be quite common among savages. In his interesting account of the Kurnai, an Australian tribe, Mr. Howitt writes:

Mr. C. J. Du Vé, a gentleman of much experience with the Aborigines, tells me that, in the year 1860, a Maneroo black fellow died while with him. The day before he died, having been ill for some time, he said that, in the night, his father, his father’s friend, and a female spirit he could not recognize, had come to him, and said that he would die next day, and that they would wait for him.

To this statement the Rev. Lorimer Fison appends a note which ought to interest psychical inquirers. “I could give many similar instances which have come within my own knowledge among the Fijians, and, strange to say, the dying man, in all these cases, kept his appointment with the ghosts to the very day.” A civilised example recorded by Henry More is printed in the Remains of the late Dr. Symonds. In that narrative a young lady was wakened by a bright light in her bedroom. Her dead mother appeared to her, exactly as the father of the Maneroo black fellow did, and warned her that she was to die on the following midnight. The girl made all her preparations, and, with Fijian punctuality, “kept her appointment with the ghosts to the very day.” The peculiarity of More’s tale seems to be the brilliance of the light which attended the presence of the supernatural. This strange fire is widely diffused in folk-lore. If we look at the Eskimo we find them convinced that the Inue, or powerful spirits, “generally have the appearance of a fire or bright light, and to see them is very dangerous ... partly as foreshadowing the death of a relation.” In the story repeated by More, not a kinsman of the visionary, but the visionary herself was in danger. In the Odyssey, when Athene was mystically present as Odysseus and Telemachus were moving the weapons out of the hall, Telemachus exclaims, “Father, surely a great marvel is this I behold! Meseemeth that the walls of the hall, and the fair spaces between the pillars, and the beams of pine, and the columns that run aloft are bright as it were with flaming fire. Verily some god is within of them that hold the wide heaven.” Odysseus answers, “Lo, this is the wont of the gods that possess Olympus.” Again, in Theocritus, when Hera sends the snakes to attack the infant Heracles, a mysterious flame shines forth, φάος δ’ ἀνἀ οἶκον ἐτύχθη. The same phenomenon occurs in the saga of Burnt Njal when Gunnar sings within his tomb. Philosophers may dispute whether any objective fact lies at the bottom of this belief, or whether a savage superstition has survived into Greek epic and idyll, and into modern ghost stories. Into Scotch legend, too, this faith in a mysterious and ominous fire found its way.

Seemed all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin’s chiefs uncoffined lie,
Each baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheathed in his iron panoply.

Scott derives the idea from the tomb fires of the Sagas, but we have shown the wide diffusion of the belief.


By way of ending this brief sketch of the comparative study of ghost stories, an example may be given of the recurrent tale which is told of different people in different ages and countries. Just as the anecdote of William Tell and the Apple occurs in various times, and among widely severed races, so, in a minor degree, does the famous Beresford ghost story present itself in mythical fashion. The Beresford tale is told at great length by Dr. F. G. Lee, in his Glimpses of the Supernatural. As usual, Dr. Lee does not give the names of his informants, nor trace the channels through which the legend reached them. But he calls his version of the myth “an authentic record”. To be brief, Lord Tyrone and Miss Blank were orphans, educated in the same house “in the principles of Deism.” When they were about fourteen years of age their preceptor died, and their new guardians tried to “persuade them to embrace revealed religion.” The boy and girl, however, stuck to Deism. But they made a compact that he or she who died first should appear to the survivor “to declare what religion was most approved by the Supreme Being.” Miss Blank married Sir Martin Beresford. One day she appeared at breakfast with a pale face, and a black band round her wrist. Long afterwards, on her death-bed, she explained that this band covered shrunken sinews. The ghost of Lord Tyrone, at the hour of his death, had appeared to her, had prophesied (correctly) her future, and had touched her wrist by way of a sign.

He struck my wrist; his hand was as cold as marble; in a moment the sinews shrank up, every nerve withered.... I bound a piece of black ribbon round my wrist. The black ribbon was formerly in the possession of Lady Betty Cobb, who, during her long life, was ever ready to attest the truth of this narration, as are, to the present hour, the whole of the Tyrone and Beresford families.

Nothing would induce me to dispute the accuracy of a report vouched for by Lady Betty Cobb and all the Tyrones and Beresfords. But I must be permitted to point out that Lord Tyrone merely did what many ghosts had done before in that matter of touching Lady Beresford’s wrist. Thus, according to Henry More “one” (bogie) “took a relation of Melanchthon’s by the hand, and so scorched her that she bore the mark of it to her dying day.” Before Melanchthon the anecdote was “improved” by Eudes de Shirton in a sermon (Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions, 1877). According to Eudes, a certain clerk, Serlon, made with a friend the covenant which Miss Blank made with Lord Tyrone. The survivor was to bring news of the next world. Well, the friend died, and punctually appeared to Serlon, “in a parchment cloak, covered with the finest writing in the world.” Being asked how he fared, he said that this cloak, a punishment for his love of Logic, weighed heavier than lead, and scorched like the shirt of Nessus. Then he held out his hand, and let fall a drop which burned Serlon to the bone

And ever more that Master wore
A covering on his wrist.

Before Eudes de Shirton (1081-1153) William of Malmesbury knew this anecdote, which he dates about 1060-1063, and localises in Nantes. His characters are “two clerks,” an Epicurean and a Platonist, who made the usual contract that the first to die should appear to the survivor, and state whether Plato’s ideas or Epicurus his atoms were the correct reply to the conundrum of the universe. The visit was to be paid within thirty days of the death. One of the philosophical pair was killed, a month passed, no news of him came. Then, when the other expected nothing less, and was busy with some ordinary matter, the dead man suddenly stood before him. The spectre explained that he had been unable to keep his appointment earlier; and, stretching out his hand, let fall three burning drops of blood, which branded, not the wrist, but the brow of the psychical inquirer. The anecdote recurs later, and is attached by certain commentators on Dante to one Siger de Brabant. Now this legend may be true about Lady Beresford, or about William of Malmesbury’s two clerks, or about Siger de Brabant, or about Serlon; but the same facts of a compact, the punctual appearance of the survivor, and the physical sign which he gave, can scarcely have occurred more than once. I am inclined, therefore, to believe that the narrative vouched for by two noble families is accurate, and that the tales of William of Malmesbury, Henry More, Eudes de Shirton, and Siger de Brabant are myths

Or such refraction of events
As often rises ere they rise.

Though this sketch of a new comparative science does not perhaps prove or disprove any psychical or mythological theory, it demonstrates that there is a good deal of human nature in man. From the Eskimo, Fuegians, Fijians, and Kurnai, to Homer, Henry More, Theocritus, and Lady Betty Cobb, we mortals are “all in a tale,” and share coincident beliefs or delusions. What the value of the coincidence of testimony may be, how far it attests facts, how far it merely indicates the survival of savage conceptions, Mr. Tylor and Mr. Edmund Gurney may be left to decide. Readers of the Philopseudes of Lucian will remember how the Samosatene settled the inquiries of the psychical researches of his age, and in that dialogue there are abundant materials for the comparative student of ghost stories. — Andrew Lang, Nineteenth Century.


From Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art (Vol. XLI., No. 6. June, 1885)

[All emphasis and illustrations added by editor, the latter gleaned from the British Library.]