Monday, July 28, 2014



The ancient Celts believed that when they died their spirits travelled to the Otherworld, a place where the supernatural reigned, home of the dead and kingdom of the fairies.  This was a place of beauty or dread, hope or despair depending on how you had lived your life or even how you died.  At certain times the dead could return to the world of the living in order to influence decisions taken and even to interact with the living, they did not however return in spirit form but in a solid shape, in fact they might look just the same as when they were alive.  They would eat, drink, and make merry and join in with those activities which they enjoyed in life, in fact, here in Ireland it was a common custom to set an extra place at the table for the returning entity at certain times of the year such as Beltaine or Samhain.  It was at these times when the veil that separated the two worlds was at its thinnest, the barriers were down, and the dead could cross over. The dead didn’t just come back to enjoy earthly pleasures though, they could return in order to warn you of some impending disaster, to offer advice, to complete some unfinished business or to take revenge on those still living.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland changed the way death was viewed.  The pagan belief in the Otherworld did not really fit in with heaven and hell so a very clever compromise was reached. Purgatory, a place where the soul could wait before it was to receive its final reward or punishment, and of course it was to prove to be a lucrative compromise.  While the soul waited in purgatory its time there could be ended and the soul could carry on its journey to heaven and its final reward.  However there was a catch, in order to gain freedom from purgatory the soul required prayers to be said and a mass celebrated in its name, and the only one who could perform this function was the priest, who had to be paid for his service.  The church decided to set up a special day for the purpose of saying mass for the souls of the departed and this day was called All Souls Day and of course it just coincided with the Celtic festival of Samhain, now there’s a coincidence.  The church even taught the people that the dead could return for one night only and this was to remind the living of their obligation to them, and woe betide those who failed to pay, for the dead would have their revenge.  The Clergy also told their parishioners that this obligation to the dead included making sure that they had a proper Christian burial, of course the only one who could perform the ceremony was the priest, and of course he had to be paid.

This notion of the vengeful dead soon caught on, and people began to fear the returning spirits. They even thought that the dead would punish them by harming, their livestock or making them weak by drinking the blood of the cattle or other animals that they depended on for their livelihood.  It was just a short step from domestic beast of the field to their own families, if the animals could be attacked then why not the members of the family.  The myth of the vampire was born.  Years later we have our own Irish contribution to the vampire stories Carmilla, written by Sheridan Le Fanu and of course the most famous of all, Dracula by Bram Stoker.

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