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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif E492

Mass (church service) of the dead. Held at midnight. *BP III 472, 545; Krappe Balor 116ff., 121 n. 11, JAFL LX 159ff.; *Fb “død” I 228a, “kirke” II 125b; *Grunwald Hessische Blätter f. Vksk. XXX – XXXI 316; Danish: Kristensen Danske Sagn II (1895) 280ff., (1928) 176ff.; Norwegian: Solheim Register 17; Icelandic: Boberg; Lithuanian: Balys Index No. 3558; Jewish: *Neuman; New York: Jones JAFL LVII 242.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

C. Return from the Dead

The same question of the reality of belief appears with especial clearness when we deal with legends concerning the return from the dead. [401] The attitude of the story-teller varies much from country to country. Tellers of popular tradition, and their listeners as well, usually make no question about the credibility of a ghost story. This is true even in those western countries most influenced by rationalistic thinking, though here the ghosts which are alleged to have appeared are usually mere spooks. The tradition of the person who returns from the realm of the dead to revisit old scenes has become much impoverished, so that we have to go to groups of people less disturbed in their ancient ways of thinking to find full-blooded ghosts. Medieval literature, in general, and the folklore of eastern Europe, not to speak of that from so-called primitive peoples, is filled with instances of dead men who appear to their friends or enemies in form and stature as they had lived. Hamlet's father is on the borderline between the two ideas: he is recognizable, but is also spectral. Sometimes, however, the ghost is little more than a living dead man in full flesh and blood pacing up and down the earth awaiting the second death when his body shall eventually disintegrate in the grave. Frightful creatures these are, often appearing as vampires living on the wholesome blood of mortals.

It is hard to tell how widespread is the faith in the possibility of raising the dead. No study has ever been made that would throw, any light on beliefs of this kind at the present day in our western culture. It seems safe, however, to hazard a guess that such beliefs are very largely confined to strictly religious contexts, in which the occurrence is regarded as a definite miracle, a real interposition of power from on high. As we move eastward into Asia into other cultural patterns, and especially as we go on to Oceania or to the aborigines of the Americas or Africa, the bringing of a person back from the dead becomes much more commonplace and is easily accepted in non-sacred stories which are received as true.

Very much the same situation is found when we look into the stories of reincarnation. First of all, it is not always possible to distinguish accurately between the return from the dead in another form and the idea of ordinary transformation. As conceived by Ovid, sometimes the change of a [p. 255] person into an object or animal takes place without death and sometimes as a definite return in a new form. In present Western Culture, tales of actual reincarnation are probably nearly always thought of as unmistakable fictions, even by those who might believe in magic transformations. Of course, again, as we reach India, metempsychosis becomes for millions an object of religious faith, and this fact has made instances of reincarnation commonplace in Hindu tradition.

The very close relation of doctrines concerning future life and the next world to the whole religious belief and activity of people has profoundly affected this entire group of traditions. The pattern of organized Christian doctrine has worked for a thousand years or more to modify, and sometimes entirely to displace older concepts once universally accepted. Insofar as these survive at all, they are treated as fictions or, if not, those who believe in them are regarded as extraordinarily gullible and naive. But the poems and tales of Europe, both literary and popular, do contain many motifs dealing with the return of the dead, and seem to indicate a much richer tradition in former times.

We have already encountered resuscitation in several of our folktales. The dead may be brought back to life by cutting off his head (E12; Type 531), by burning him (E15; Type 753), or, as with Snow White, by removing the poisoned apple from her throat (E21.1; Type 709). A magic ointment may be used (E102), or the parts of the dismembered corpse may be brought together and revived (E30; Types 303 and 720). Most popular of all in folk tales is revival through the Water of Life (E80; Types 550 and 551). This water is usually found after a long quest and is powerful against both disease and death. Herbs or leaves are sometimes efficacious (E105; Type 612), or a magic fruit (E106; Type 590), or blood (E113; Type 516). In addition to these motifs peculiar to the folktale, there appear a few resuscitation tales which belong either to the world of myth or of legend. The method by which Thor, when he has killed his goats and eaten them, then reassembles their bones to bring them back to life (E32) has been employed by many other heroes in Europe and out, and the special feature of this legend, that one bone or member is missing and causes deformity in the revived animal or person (E33; Type 313), is likewise very widespread. Another tale from Norse mythology well known elsewhere is that of the warriors who fight each day and slay each other but are revived every night (E155.1).

Nearly all these stories of resuscitation appear as motifs in folktales or myths, not as actual traditions. This is also true of most of the tales of reincarnation. In folktales they are rather common, and examples will occur to almost anyone familiar with them: the little boy in The Juniper Tree (Type 720) who comes forth as a bird from the bones his sister has buried (E607.1 and E610.1.1); the appearance of Cinderella's dead mother as a cow (E611.2) or a tree growing from the grave (E631; Type 510); and the many varieties [p. 256] of the tale of The Singing Bone (E632; Type 780). More definitely in ballad tradition appear the twining branches which grow together from the graves of lovers (E631.0.1). We have already seen, also, how some explanatory legends have ascribed the habits of certain animals to their recollection of former existences as men (A2261.1).

On the contrary, as we have already noticed, the living tradition and active faith of nearly all countries abound in ghost legends. Not only may thousands of people be found who testify to having seen ghosts, but practices are all but universal which assume for their justification a substratum of such a belief.

There is so much variety in the general concept of ghost that one can hardly make an exact definition of it. In general, it may be said that we have legends all the way from a complete return from the dead with full human functions to the most wraithlike of spooks frightening people as they pass graveyards. We have noted that some traditions imply essentially a "living dead man," who merely wanders about waiting final death (E422). Not less complete in human functions is The Grateful Dead Man (E341) already met in a series of folktales (Types 505-508), where he returns to pay a debt of gratitude. These revenants of flesh and blood are most often malicious, and their return is usually to punish rather than to reward. The dead lover returns and takes his sweetheart behind him on horseback and attempts to carry her with him into the grave (E215). [402] The dead wife frequently returns to protest to her husband against his evil ways (E221), particularly if he has married again. Or a dead person returns to punish indignities suffered by the corpse or ghost (E235; Type 366), such as the theft of an arm or leg, or the kicking of the skull. Or, as in the Don Juan legend (E238; Type 470), the dead man is scornfully invited to dinner and then compels his host to go with him to the other world.

The dead may also return in their proper form on friendly missions. Best known of such stories, both in tales and ballads, are those concerning the return of a dead mother (E323), either to suckle her neglected baby or otherwise aid her persecuted children. [403] The dead child sometimes returns to stop the inordinate weeping of its parents (E324, E361). And sometimes conscientious dead come back to repay a money debt (E351) or to return stolen goods (E352).

Retaining some of his human characteristics, but essentially ghostlike, is the vampire (E251), who comes out of his grave at night and sucks blood (Types 307 and 363). There are many descriptions of these horrible creatures, especially in the legends of eastern Europe and of India. Elaborate means are devised for getting rid of them, the best known being the driving of a stake through the grave. Other wandering and malicious dead appear in many [p. 257] legends without the special characteristics of the vampire. They frequently make unprovoked attacks on travelers in the dark (E261), or they haunt buildings and molest those bold enough to stay in them overnight (E282-E284; Type 326).

Tales of spooks are likely to be rather vague in their outlines and frequently to be little more than an example of some popular belief or practice. There are, for example, a large number of stories about the unquiet grave (E410ff.), all telling of some reason why the dead person is unable to rest in peace. It may be because of a great sin—murder, suicide, adultery, or even, in medieval tales, the taking of usury. Particularly restless are the excommunicated or the unbaptized, or those who have not had proper funeral rites. And the murdered and the drowned are doomed for a certain period to walk the earth (E413, E414). Many special qualities are ascribed to these spectral ghosts. They are frequently invisible except to one person (E421.1.1) or to horses (E421.1.2). They are luminous (E421.3) and they cannot cast shadows (E421.2). But the wraithlike nature of these ghosts has permitted them to assume a multitude of forms in the imagination of those to whom they have appeared. Sometimes they are animals (E423), sometimes skeleton-like (E422.1.7), sometimes headless (E422.1.1), like the one which Ichabod Crane encountered.

Many are the ways in which the dead are discouraged from leaving the grave and in which they are "laid" if they become restless and wander forth (E430ff., E440ff.). All kinds of precautions are taken at funerals, the best known being to carry the coffin through a hole in the wall or to place a coin in the mouth of the corpse. Some relics of ancient sacrifice to the dead are still to be found. Many different magic objects can be carried as a protection against them, and like witches, they are thought to be powerless to cross rapid streams or to pass a crossroads. The restless ghost may sometimes be quieted by reburial or by an elaborate magic ritual, or by burning or decapitating the body. He may have to wander until some particular event takes place, or he may be only waiting for the cock to crow.

Ghosts are not always encountered by themselves. Many are the legends concerning groups of dancing ghosts (E493), of church services (E492), or processions of the dead (E491). And in addition to stories embodying these general conceptions, three of the tales concerning companies of ghosts are among the most popular in all Europe, The Wild Hunt, The Flying Dutch man, and The Sleeping Army.

The first of these, The Wild Hunt (E501), appears in the greatest variety of detail, though the central idea is always the same. It is the apparition of a hunter with a crowd of huntsmen, horses, and dogs, crossing the sky at night. Stories of this kind go back to classical antiquity, and they appear nearly all over Europe. The huntsman himself, and sometimes his companions, are identified with historic characters, sometimes even with one of the gods. [p. 258] The Flying Dutchman (E511), while not nearly so well known as The Wild Hunt, has much more definite texture as a real tale. A sea captain, because of his wickedness, sails a phantom ship eternally without coming to harbor. The only variety in the different versions concerns the nature of the crime, whether it has been unusual cruelty, a pact with the devil, or defiance of a storm. The third of these legends, The Sleeping Army (E502), tells of a group of soldiers who have been killed in battle and who come forth on certain occasions from their resting place, usually in a hill or cave, and march about, restlessly haunting the old battlefield. [404]

All these, and many other traditions of the return from the dead which might be cited, imply a belief in some mysterious element which survives the death of the body, that which we ordinarily call the soul. There is every tendency for popular tradition to conceive of this element in material terms, so that the passage of soul from body at death is not only actual but visible. Sometimes it is thought of as having the form of a mouse (E731.3), or bird (E732), or butterfly (E734.1) [405] which leaves the mouth at the supreme moment. Souls are sometimes identified with the stars, and it is thought that a shooting star signifies that someone is dying (E741.1.1). And, finally, not only popular tradition, but medieval literature as well, gives us pictures of devils and angels contesting over a man's soul (E756.1). It can be little wonder that an idea so difficult for even theologians and philosophers should produce much inconsistency in the traditions of unlettered folk.

[401] The whole of chapter "E" of the Motif-Index is devoted to this subject.

[402] See Type 365. This tale of "Lenore" appears both as ballad and prose folktale.

[403] See Types 403, 510A, 511, and 923.

[404] For other similar tales, see D1960.1 and D1960.2, p. 265, below.

[405] Cf. the Greek ψυϰη, meaning at once soul and butterfly.


303, 307, 313, 326, 363, 365, 366, 403, 470, 505-508, 510, 511, 531, 516, 550, 551, 590, 612, 709, 720, 753, 780, 923


A2261.1, D1960.1, D1960.2, E, E12, E15, E21.1, E30, E32, E33, E80, E102, E105, E106, E113, E155.1, E215, E221, E235, E238, E261, E282-E284, E323, E324, E341, E351, E352, E361, E410ff., E413, E414, E421.1.1, E421.1.2, E421.2, E421.3, E422, E422.1.1, E422.1.7, E423, E430ff., E440ff., E491, E492, E493, E501, E502, E511, E607.1, E610.1.1, E611.2, E631, E631.0.1, E632, E731.3, E732, E741.1.1, E756.1