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In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets."

Hamlet, 4to. B.

Astr. It is not from the sources of mythology alone that I adduce my illustrations of the reality of ghosts but from the myriads of incidents which ancient and modern history record. Yet may I well crave your courtesy for the scraps of fable, and perchance of imposture, that may unwittingly creep into my discourse. Listen to me.

It was believed by the ancients that each body possessed three ghosts—to be released on its dissolution. The manes at once emigrated to the region of Pluto: the spiritus ascended to the skies: the umbra or shade still wandered on the earth. Or, as the poet has more comprehensively sung,

Bis duo sunt homini, manes, caro, spiritus, umbra; Quatuor ista loci bis duo suscipiunt:
Terra tegit carnem, tumulum circumvolat umbra, Orcus habet manes, spiritus astra petit.

Meaning that there are four principles in man, and this is their destiny:—the flesh to earth; the ghost to the tomb; the soul to Hades; and the spirit to heaven.

The queen of Carthage, confiding in this creed, threatens AEneas that her umbra will haunt him upon earth, while her manes will rejoice in his torments.

The notions of other mystic scholars are thus recorded by old Burton, in his “Anatomy of Melancholy:” as those of Surius—“that there be certain monsters of hell and places appointed for the punishment of men’s Souls, as at Hecla in Iceland, where the ghosts of dead men are familiarly seen, and sometimes talk with the living. Saint Gregory, Durand, and the rest of the schoolmen, derive as much from AEtna in Sicily, Lipara, Hiera—and those volcanoes in America, and that fearful mount Heckleberg in Norway, where lamentable screeches and bowlings are continually heard, which strike a terror to the auditors: fiery chariots are continually seen to bring in the souls of men in the likeness of crows, and devils ordinarily goe in and out.” And then, to bring this phantasy to a climax by a pandemonium of ghosts, listen to Bredenbachius, in his " Perigranions [sic] in the Holy Land," where " once a yeare dead bodies arise about March, and walk, and after awhile hide themselves again: thousands of people come yearly to see them." And this reminds me of the phantom of old Booty, who at the hour of his death in England was seen by the crew of a ship running into the crater of Stromboli in the remote Mediterranean,—a story which even in the present century was made the subject of discussion in a justice court.

Now, you must know, the ancients believed that only those who died of the sword possessed this privilege.

These are the words of Flavius Josephus: “What man of virtue is there that does not know that those souls which are severed from their fleshly bodies in battles by the sword are received by the ether, that purest of elements, and joined to that company which are placed among the stars:—that they become good demons and propitious heroes, and shew themselves as such to their posterity afterwards; while upon those souls that wear away in and with their distempered bodies, comes a subterranean night to dissolve them to nothing, and a deep oblivion to take away all the remembrance of them? And this, notwithstanding they be clean from all spots and defilements of this world; so that in this case the soul at the same time comes to the utmost bounds of its life, and of its body, and of its memorial also.”

The mystery of the nature of these ghosts I may not presume to define; but there are many learned writers of antiquity who believed in their materiality, and broached the intricate question of their quality and formation.

The alchymist Paracelsus writes of the astral element or spirit—one of the two bodies which compose our nature: being more ethereal, it survived some time after the death of the more substantial form, and sometimes became the familiar spirit of the magician. And what writes Lucretius the Epicurean to illustrate his credence in apparitions? That the surfaces of bodies are constantly thrown off by a sort of centrifugal force; that an exact image is often presented to us by this surface coming off as it were entire, like the cast skin of the rattle-snake or the shell of the chrysalis; and thus the ideas of our absent or departed friends strike on the mind.

The olden chymists, in the age of Louis XIV. accounted for spectral forms by the saline atoms of a putrid corpse being set free, and combining again in their pristine form. Listen, I pray you, to this grave philosophy of an abstruse essay, writ in 1794.

“The apparitions of souls departed do, by the virtue of their formative plastic power, frame unto themselves the vehicles in which they appear out of the moisture of their bodies. So ghosts do often appear in churchyards, and that but for a short time, to wit, before the moisture is wholly dried up.”

“Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp,
Oft seen in charnel-vaults and sepulchres,
Lingering and sitting by a new-made grave.”

And we read in the chronicles, that “during the time the ancients burned not buried their dead, there was no such appearance of ghosts as is now.”

Why waves the coarse grass ranker over the grave? It is touched by the larva of the rotting carcase, which, ascending from its putrid chrysalis, a butterfly, or Psyche, flits awhile like an ephemera, and drops again into the vault.

A sentiment something like this, I believe, was the grand cause of the enrolment of the mummies by the Egyptians; for they thought while the body remained entire, the soul was flitting about it: and the early Christians even believed that a portion at least of the soul remained, uncorrupted by the body.

Evelyn will grant that among the Romans there was a devout wish to be buried near venerated beings and saints, an emanation from whose bodies, they believed, would inspire the hearts of the believers.

And here I will relate a story from the Dinan Journal of 1840, and also the fragment of a very mysterious tale told with all the solemnity of a faithful chronicle.

“We had the curious spectacle of a long procession of girls from Pleudiheus, passing through our streets to the chapel of Saint Anne, to offer up prayers for the repose of the soul of the mother of one of them, who has been dead twenty-two years, and who every five years has appeared to her daughter, urging her to have masses said for her. This time the troubled spirit prescribed the day, hour, and place of the service, and even the precise dresses she would have the votaries wear. Consequently, they were all lightly clothed in white, although the rain fell and the streets were full of mud. —Some of the inhabitants of Dinan affirm that they saw the ghost of the deceased, marching at the head of the procession to the door of the chapel, where it remained till the mass was finished, and then suddenly vanished.”

Returning from the harbour to Cadiz with some Spanish doñas, the Baron Geramb heard a voice in French, crying, “Save me! Help, help!” but at the time he took little or no heed of the matter. On the morrow was seen on the shore of the harbour a body on a black board, with lighted tapers by its side, which was covered by the Baron’s direction. During a tempest in the evening, some secret impulse directed him again to the shore. Before his bewildered sight arose from the spot a shapeless phantom wrapped in the black winding-sheet which he had provided.

The phantom moved along with gigantic strides, assuming a globular form, and then, whirling in spiral circles, bounded off, and appeared at a distance like a giant. The spectre led the Baron to the streets of Cadiz, its course being accompanied by a noise as of the tinkling of autumnal leaves. In Cadiz a door suddenly opened with force, and the spectre rushed like lightning into the house, and plunged into the cellar. There was the sound of deep groaning, and the Baron descended into the vault: there lay the corpse naked and livid, and on it was prostrated an aged man, uttering the deep sighs of abject misery and despair. In a gloomy comer of this cave of death leaned the phantom, revolving in its spiral whirls, and then changing to a floating cloud of light; and then there beamed forth the pale features of a youth, undulating as if on the bosom of a wave, which murmured in the ear. Then came the chaunting of anthems and prayers for the dead, and a glittering young girl in white robes glided into the cellar, and knelt in devotion by the body.

The phantom—and so the legend proceeds.

There is a wondrous mystery, I grant, enveloping this story; but if there be any truth in that alchymic re-animation, Palingenesy

“If chemists from a rose’s ashes,
Can raise the rose itself in glasses;”

nay, if the sparkling diamond shines forth from a mass of charcoal, why may not the ashes of a body be made into a ghost, illustrative of the philosophy of substantial apparitions, adopted by Kircher,—a body rebuilt, after being resolved, for a time, into its constituent elements? The Parisian alchymists of the seventeenth century, indeed, demonstrated this mystery, and raised a phoenix from its ashes. They submitted to the process of distillation some earth from the cemetery of the Innocents; during which ceremony, they were scared by the appearance of perfect human shapes, struggling in the glass vessels they were employing. And, lastly. Dr. Ferriar thus deposes:—A ruffian was executed, his body dissected, and his skull pulverised by an anatomist. The student, who slept in the chamber of experiment, saw, in the night-time, a progressive getting together of the fragments, until the criminal became perfect, and glided out at the door.

And here is a legend of deeper mystery still.

There was a merry party collected in a town in France, and amongst all the gay lords and ladies there assembled, there was none who caused so great a sensation as a beautiful young lady, who danced, played, and sang in the most exquisite style. There were only two unaccountable circumstances belonging to her: one was, that she never went to church or attended family prayers; the other, that she always wore a slender, black velvet band or girdle round her waist. She was often asked about these peculiarities, but she always evaded the interrogatories; and still, by her amiable manners and beauty won all hearts. One evening, in a dance, her partner saw an opportunity of pulling the loop of her little black girdle behind: it fell to the ground, and immediately the lady became pale as a sheet; then, gradually shrunk and shrunk, till at length nothing was to be seen in her place but a small heap of grey ashes.

And what think you now, Evelyn?

Ev. I think your candle burned very blue, Astrophel, when you were poring over these midnight legends; yet, I believe, I may, by and by, explain the story of your Lady of the Ashes;—all, excepting the mystery of the sable girdle. But, methinks, you should not have stopped short of the qualities by which we may recognise the genus of these phantoms. There was once, as I have heard, a ghost near Cirencester, which vanished in a very nice perfume, and a melodious twang; and Master Lilly, therefore, concluded it to be a fairy: and Propertius, I know, writes of another; and he decided, that the scent diffused on her disappearance, proclaimed her to be a goddess! Glanville has set himself to argue upon, nay, demonstrate, all questions regarding materiality and immateriality, and the nature of spirits; puzzling us with mathematical diagrams, and occupying fifteen chapters on the nature of the witch of Endor: and Andrew Moreton, too, in his “Secrets,” comments, with pedantic profanation, on the “infernal paw-wawing of this condemned creature.” Coleridge, and even Sir Walter, who had a mighty love of legends, propose a question, whether she was a ventriloquist or an aristocratic fortuneteller, or an astrologer or a gipsy, imposing on the credulity of Said. And yet that same Sir Walter very shrewdly suggested to Sir William Gell the manufacture of a ghost, with a thin sheet of tin, painted white, so that by half a turn the spectre would instantly vanish.

Cast. A ghost, I believe, according to the rules of phantasy, ought to be without matter or form, or indeed any sensible properties. Yet are very serious tales related of guns bursting when fired at them, and swords broken by their contact, and of loud voices issuing from filmy phantoms through which the moonbeams are seen to glimmer. A spirit ought, of course, to communicate with us in another way than that which we know, and possess those ethereal faculties of creeping through chinks or keyholes, and of resuming its airy form, like the sylph of Belinda, when the “glittering forfex” had cut it in twain. An exquisite morceau of such a phantom just now flits across my memory. It is of two old ladies dwelling in two border castles in Scotland. One of these dames was visited by the spectre bust of a man; and the other by the lower half of him. Which had the better bargain, I know not, but I believe—

Astr. Nay, it were not difficult, lady, to overwhelm me with tales like yours—the idle and unmeaning gossip of a winter’s night: but there are many spectral visitations so intimately associated with events, that the faculty even of prophecy cannot be doubted. Bodine, as Burton writes, is fully satisfied that “these souls of men departed, if corporeal, are of some shape, and that absolutely round, like sun and moone, because that is the most perfect form: that they can assume other aërial bodies, all manner of shapes at their pleasure, appear in what likeness they will themselves: that they are most swift in motion, can pass many miles in an instant, and bo likewise transform bodies of others into what form they please, and, with admirable celerity, remove them from place to place; that they can represent castles in the ayre, armies, spectrums, prodigies, and such strange objects to mortal men’s eyes; cause smells, savors, deceive all the senses; foretel future events, and do many strange miracles.”

Then the eccentric Francis Grose has thus summed up many of their wondrous attributes:—

“The spirit of a person deceased is either commissioned to return for some especial errand, such as the discovery of a murder, to procure restitution of lands, or money unjustly withheld from an orphan or widow: or, having committed some injustice whilst living, cannot rest till that is redressed. Sometimes the occasion of spirits revisiting this world is to inform their heir in what secret place or private drawer in an old trunk they had hid the title-deeds of the estate, or where, in troublesome times, they had buried the money and plate. Some ghosts of murdered persons, whose bodies have been secretly buried, cannot be at ease till their bones have been taken up and deposited in sacred ground, with all the rites of Christian burial.” The ghost of Hamlet’s father walked on the platform at Elsineur, to incite his son to revenge his murder; and many modern phantoms have enlivened the legends of our local histories, bent on the same mysterious errand.

The mythology of the ancients, and the fairy superstition of our own land, are also replete with legends of these apparitions. The rites of sepulture were essential for the repose of the manes. If the body was not quietly entombed, the soul was wandering on the banks of Styx for one hundred years, ere it was permitted Charon to ferry it across the river. Thus spoke the shade of Patroclus to Achilles, in his dream:

“Thou sleep’st, Achilles, and Patroclus, erst
Thy best belov’d, in death forgotten lies.
Haste, give me burial: I would pass the gates
Of Hades, for the shadows of the dead
Now drive me from their fellowship afar.”

And this is a prevailing sentiment among the North American Indians:

“The bones of our countrymen lie uncovered, their bloody bed has not been washed clean, their spirits cry against us,—they must be appeased.”

In the letter of Pliny the Consul, to Sura, we learn that there was at Athens a house haunted by a chain-rattling ghost. Athenodorus, the philosopher, hired the house, determined to quiet the restless spirit. “When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the fore part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, he directed all his people to retire. The first part of the night passed in usual silence, when at length the chains began to rattle. However he neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pencil, but diverted his observation by pursuing his studies with greater earnestness. The noise increased, and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up and saw the ghost exactly in the manner it had been described to him—it stood before him beckoning with the finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; but the ghost, still rattling his chains in his ears, he looked up and saw him beckoning him as before. Upon this he immediately arose, and, with the light in his hand, followed it. The spectre slowly stalked along as if encumbered with his chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skele- ton of a man in chains was there found; for the body having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrified, and had mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried; and thus, after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.”

Yet, not only to entreat the rites of sepulture, the phantom will walk according to some law of those beings remote from the fellowship of human nature,— it may be to obtain readmission to that earth from which it was, by some fairy spell, in exile.

In the wilds of Rob Roy’s country, there is many a Highlander believing still the traditions of the Daoine Shi, or Men of Peace: and among the legends of Aberfoyle there is one phantom tale that is apropos to my illustrations.

There was one Master Robert Kirke. He was one evening taking his night walk on a fairy hill, or dunshi, in the vicinity of his manse. On a sudden he fell to the ground, struck, as it appeared to many, by apoplexy: the seers, however, believed it to be a trance inflicted on him by the fairy people for thus invading the sacred bounds of their kingdom. After the interment, the phantom of the minister appeared to one of his relatives, and desired him to go to Grahame of Duchray, his cousin, and assure him that he was not dead, but was at that time a prisoner in elf land, and the only moment in which the fairy charm could be dissolved, was at the christening of his posthumous child. The counter-spell was this: that Grahame should be present at the baptism, holding a dish in his hand, and that when the infant was brought, he should throw the dish over the phantom; the appearance of which at that moment was faithfully promised.

When the child was at the font, and while the guests were seated, the apparition sat with them at the table; but fear came upon the Graeme at this strange glamourie: he forgot the solemn injunction, and it is believed that Mr. Kirke, to this day, “drees his weird in fairy land.”


From The Philosophy of Mystery, by Walter Cooper Dendy (1841).

A review appearing in The Spectator (1841) summarizes as such:

We have the conversations of the Stranger and his companions renewed in the dialogues of Astrophel and Evelyn, two youths, one a student of divinity, the other an M. D. and practical philosopher, who, accompanied by a pair of gentle girls, beguile a few hours of summer moonlight on the banks of the sylvan Wye, by holding discourse on the nature of apparitions, dreams, transmigration, &c. The embryo divine, under the inspiration of a night passed with the velvet lawn of Tintern for his couch, brings forward his narratives and facts to establish the certainty of ghostly influences; while the M. D. remorselessly, though not always conclusively, explains them away by simple references to natural laws.

References and Bibliography

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