Saturday, October 4, 2014

The True History of Halloween

Why is Halloween so celebrated and yet so controversial? Why do some devoutly religious people have a problem with one of the most beloved holidays in the west?
    Is October 31st, (as popular culture tells us) a night when witches fly on broomsticks and ghosts leave their graves? Or is it time for witches sabbats where pagans meet in secret and practice strange rites in the dark? Is Halloween an innocent custom where children dress up in scary costumes and go from house to house begging for candy treats?  Or is it (according to Hollywood movies) a night when vampires, zombies and demons are allowed to lurk about? Perhaps Halloween is a night when the veil between the living and the dead is most thin and communication with ghosts is possible. One thing we do know, Halloween is all about the mystery, one day set apart from the other 364 days of the years when things are not as they seem.
    If we wish to understand the meaning of Halloween it’s important to consider older name of “All Hallows Eve,” which means “the night before the holy day.” This is what it was called in Ireland, Scotland and England for close to 1,000 years. On the Christian calendar Halloween is the night before “All Saints Day” which is on November 1st followed by “All Souls Day” on November 2nd.     Therefore, if taken religiously, it is a Christian holiday (primarily Irish Catholic) brought to the shores of America by Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine in Ireland in the early 1800s.  It was when the Irish also brought with them the carving of Jack O’ Lanterns— or as it was in Ireland as turnip lanterns.
   However, like Christmas, Halloween has ancient roots in European paganism. All Hallows Eve falls upon the same general date as an earlier Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-en) which was primarily a harvest festival and some say the end of summer while other sources report it is the beginning of winter.  For the Celts, Samhain was the name they gave to the month of November.
   There is little written about the pagan festival of Samhain in ancient texts but we do know it harkened the end of the year for pagans and November 1st was their New Year. Although Halloween is thought to be a mischief-inspired festival of devils and evil spirits it was never that in the past, especially not among the pagan Celts. It had more to do with having a good harvest and making preparations for the threat of winter. As a harvest festival, Samhain promised a resurrection of growth with hopes for the renewal of plant life and vegetation in the following spring. After all, it was the end of harvest and without a good crop in summer, starvation during winter was possible.
   In Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit among the countryside to chase away the darkness, in hopes that the fires would somehow remind the sun to come back again, to bring back a time when harvest did not die, but brimmed with new life and
growth on Beltane, or May 1— which is May Day.Despite vilification by modern religious conservatives, no one was ever sacrificed during Samhain, devils had no part in this festival and it was not exclusive to the Druids. In fact, Samhain was probably observed before the Druids came to the British Isles. The Celts did not have a Devil and had no god of death that demanded sacrifice that we know of. They did believe in gods, goddesses, giants, fairies, elves, goblins and ghosts — but none were primarily evil, and none were purely without fault.
    In fact, they were just like human beings, or ordinary folk you might meet in the countryside. However, during All Hallows Eve, it was believed the dead were allowed to come back and partake of food and nourishment at Dumb Suppers, where a special place was set for anyone in the family who had died the previous year. But much of the Dumb Supper has elements of Christianity in it and there is no proof the Dumb Supper pre-dates anything Christian in the British Isles.
   But the Celts did associate the dead with Fairyland and Halloween was an important date for the fairies who were thought to visit crossroads (or spook roads) on Halloween night.   The Celts looked at fairies very differently than we do now. They feared fairies because not only could the fairies bring you good luck they could bring you bad luck.  It was thought the dead lived in Fairyland for a short time before entering into heaven. (This is another example of the blend of Christian and Pagan beliefs.) The Pagan Celts believed ghosts lived among the fairies especially the ghosts of those who did not wish to leave earth. Instead, spirits of the dead lived in a place parallel with the earth. It was the fairies that crossed over souls of those who had just died into Summerland, or the Celtic afterlife.
   The Celts also thought on the night of October 31st the world between the living and the dead became blurred and it was possible to communicate with ancestors who had passed on. Since they feared the dead, they believed some of these ghosts could damage crops and so made offerings to them. But there is no evidence that witches who practiced magic were a part of Samhain since at that time, everyone in northern Europe was pagan.
   If we look at Halloween more closely it is apparent that American Halloween is mostly a Christian holiday but deeply rooted in European Paganism just like the other holidays of Christmas and Easter which are celebrated throughout Christendom. The first official commemoration of Halloween was when a mass was performed around November 1st by Pope Gregory IV in 835 A.D. as “All Saints Day.” The night before, October 31st became the “Eve of All Saints Day.”  It was on this night souls in purgatory were prayed over, as well.
   The belief in ghosts wandering the night on Halloween seems to have roots in Catholicism but may have older pagan origins.  Sources are thin about Samhain being a festival of ghosts before Catholicism came to Ireland and All Hallows Eve was born. It is speculated that pagan Celts may have worn masks to scare evil spirits away around the time of Samhain but, again, there are simply no tangible sources to support this idea.

Why do we trick or treat on Halloween?
The Irish Catholic belief was that on the night before All Saints Day saints could return and visit with the living. This evolved in to the idea that dead relatives might also come back on that night as well. Dumb Suppers were put on and an empty dinner place was set at the table waiting for the dead to return. Over time, this included all manner of ghosts wandering about the night. And no one celebrated Halloween as fervently as the descendents of the early Celts, the populations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Souls being prayed over on All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we can also see the basis of trick or treat and also a connection to Christianity.The trick or treat tradition is far older than the United States and was written about during the time of King James when the practice was called “guising” and “a soulin’.”
   Although our modern tradition of trick or treat was not officially recorded until the early 1900s  in the United States, there are elements that show it is much older based on the English, Irish and Scottish guising  or “mummer’s” pageants where people wore masks that were put on at Christmastime and also Hallowmas (holy mass) or Halloween. Another reminder that Halloween time was associated with the sacred and the holy.
Plays were held — many involving a ghost in “a winding sheet” (death shroud) –and afterwards the guisers or mummers would ask for soul cakes, coins or their supper as payment for the holiday entertainment. Guising, basically like a trick or treat, was also known “a soulin’” and was mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays.    Mummers, in fact, would put on their own plays, singing songs from house to house. Then, the line was not a definite one between older Pagan customs and newer Christian ones. The begging part of trick of treat has Christian origins as well, since impoverished people would beg from house to house the night before All Saints Day, asking for bread, sweets or coins so they might pray for the dead in the family in order to help them enter into heaven. These were adults and impoverished persons who did the begging. Many dressed in masks and costumes. Sometimes children would join the guisers to beg and pray, as well.
At the time, it was believed anyone’s prayers could help souls in purgatory even prayers said by the poor.  The population was happy to reward anyone who would pray over dead relatives. In fact, trick or treat and Christmas caroling have the same origins. Guising was not only practiced at Halloween it also was a custom at Christmas time.    The “tricking” part of Halloween seems to pretty much be an American introduction to the holiday in the 20th Century. In fact, pranks on Halloween were more common than begging for treats in the first part of the 20th century.  However, trick or treat is a custom that is around 500 years old.  It is interesting to note that “guising” is related to the word disguise (or the wearing of costumes) and “a soulin’” is a reminder that the practice was done to help souls of the deceased move out of purgatory into heaven.  Guising and a soulin’ were also carried out on Christmas Eve, Christmas night, New Years Eve and New Year’s Day.
How did Halloween become associated with devils and evil spirits?
   The idea of devils at Halloween came mostly with the advent of Protestantism in Europe after the split from the Catholic Church. Complaints by Protestant leaders were that too many pagan customs and practices had infiltrated the Catholic Church with its religious statues, pagan-inspired holidays and the burning of incense which broke away from the true asceticism and self denial of Christianity. In other words, it was alleged Catholics allowed paganism (which was considered devilish) into their churches. This Protestant belief wasn’t entirely without basis.  There are clear remnants of Paganism in Roman Catholicism. Early church officials saw the only way to convert the pagan tribes of Europe to Christianity by the early Christian church was to allow them to retain their deeply-ingrained pagan customs and festivals. Later, these pagan festivals were given Christian names and some of the earlier gods and goddesses were transformed into Catholic saints. 
So if we look at Protestantism that reached the shores of America early on, none had any tradition of Halloween merriment. The early puritans did not acknowledge Halloween nor did they celebrate Christmas. These were considered pagan holidays born of revelry, unrestraint and sinfulness. To the Puritans, life on earth was suffering and any rewards here were meager and spare. Heaven is what was hoped for and no one should celebrate life on earth which was looked upon as a crucible.
    Yet there was not a wide gulf between Protestantism, Paganism and Catholicism in this idea since Pagans and Christians also saw life as suffering to a degree. The latter two faiths believed persons might have some element of control if they prayed in the right way or if they practiced the correct form of magic or ritual. They also believed the spirit world was not only real but that spirits remained interactive with the living, should be given respect and not demonized.

Why did ghosts appearing at Halloween become associated with evil?
   When Protestantism took hold in Europe there was no longer the concept of a purgatory in their church— just of heaven and hell—and no place in between. This erased the explanation of ghosts or spirits being neutral, or at least not evil as souls who left purgatory for just a short while. The good souls got to go to heaven and the wicked souls went to hell. It was surmised that no good soul would ever want to leave heaven so it a ghost appeared it had to come from the bad place, which is hell and only devils leave hell, so it was thought.
In looking at these old beliefs what is there for us to celebrate in Halloween today?
   There is much to celebrate.  Good ideas die hard, if they die at all and Halloween is one good idea that is not about to leave us anytime soon. October 31st is now one of the most popular holidays in the U.S. second only to Christmas and is celebrated by all walks of life, all ages and races, religious and secular. It is a night when small trick or treaters scurry from house to house gathering candy and bells of Catholic churches ring call parishioners to the eve before the Feast of All Saints in which a mass is held for the dead.
    Halloween is a time when the impossible becomes possible and we can become anything that pleases us our imaginations or haunts our dreams. Men become women and women become men, small boys can race between Halloween mists donning the cape and powers of a Dracula, little girls can cast the glamour-spells of beautiful fairy queens. We are permitted to dress up in the disguises of what scares us and in doing so we gain mastery over our fears. Some can play jokes and prank friends either in costumes or cloaked in night.
   The dark magic of October 31st endures where we, like black cats, are able to walk along the neighborhood picket fence between the living and the dead. It is a balancing act to be sure because Halloween is not a time of certainty. Instead it is a night where unseen things in shadows are said to stir and come to life.

No matter what religion we belong to, All Hallows Eve suggests the world holds mystery in it. And even if not quite believed in by all who participate in it, this mystery can at least be explored through séances, ghost stories, dumb suppers, scary movies, costume parties and fortunetelling games on October 31st. By this we are permitted to join a parallel world of goblins and ghosts, fairies and vampires, sorcerers and witches. Maybe the real reason is this:
We each know there are things which may not be able to be glimpsed under normal conditions. The perfect time for such unseen things to appear is when the veil between worlds thins...Traditionally, and in most countries, this is the night we call Halloween.
  -- Susan A. Sheppard

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fairyland & the Dead

by Susan A Sheppard

I have learned that whenever I dream of fairies someone is going to die.

This may startle some who view fairies as airy, winged sprites that perch daintily on flowers or hide under mushrooms and grant wishes to the good. But just like human beings, not all fairies are beneficent, and are said to exist in an in-between place from heaven and earth.
Throughout history, most especially in the British Isles, fairies have long been associated with witches, ghosts and spirits of the dead. Yet the idea that links fairies with spirits of the dead should not cause alarm. It is all an aspect of the nature such beings have a part in. After all, what we view as "supernatural" is simply a part of nature that we just don't understand yet.
Tales of human entry into Fairyland, mostly in Scotland, held that fairies attended to the dead, and were sometimes responsible for a number of hauntings in homes, or ghostly visits, acting as witch’s familiars. To some, fairies were pagan souls from pre-Christian days cloaked in some astral form, not knowing how or deserving to get into a Christian heaven. In Celtic belief, it was thought Fairyland was the very first place souls would visit after death before moving on to an astral realm, guided by fairies into Summerland or Celtic Otherworld and the Netherworld of the Egyptians.
But in popular culture, this link has been largely forgotten. Death, and anything associated with it, such as ghosts or spirits of the dead, is an area of cultural and religious taboo. New age circles are not always so comfortable with the idea of ghosts or haunted places. We revere fairies while we fear the dead. The concept of ghosts remains disturbing to many and is erroneously associated with evil. It may seem hard to see fairies in such a place, but people in the past believed some fairies were in the land of the forgotten dead.

Some say that the communications with spirits upsets the dead and such spiritual interference should only be allowed during Samhain or Halloween. In some respects, this very well may be true. But there are many spirits who still want to communicate with the living, and they will make their presence known until their message is received. This is what causes hauntings. Thus in our modem day, like the Banshee fairy that washes out the bloody clothes of her dead along waterways, fairies and their connections to ghosts have been rinsed of their powers.
Long ago, fairies and ghosts were viewed as much as the same, spirits neither good nor bad but s
omething in-between. Even human beings were thought to be fairies if they showed special powers or unusual ugliness or beauty — much the same as witches. In Scotland, it was considered great esteem for a man to marry a woman who was a “fairy witch.” This could be dangerous as well since fairy witches were often blamed for blights and bad luck.

Yet in Ireland, where the ghosts were called Thevshi or Tash, Finarva, the King of the Fairies ruled over the dead. Again, there was danger that was associated with fairies and haunting ghosts. If not treated with proper respect, they might come back to wreak havoc on the living, thus, all fairies were referred to as “the little people” or the “wee folk” and the names of the dead were rarely spoken
It was believed in the Celtic realm that when a soul leaves the body, it could be enticed away, at times, by fairies, looking for a new soul to join them in fairyland. Very small children were susceptible to this, because they fairies themselves are much like children themselves, open and natural to the world. In western Ireland, in Christian times, when a small child died, blood from a chicken would be sprinkled on the threshold so spirits or fairies would be enticed away from the body.
According to Lady Wilde, in her 1897 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland that starting on All Hallows Eve, “the dead would spring up in their shrouds and rush out into the moonlight with mad laughter to join the fairies.” On the last night of November, it was especially tenuous between the living, souls of the dead, and the fairies. It was this last night (believed by the Irish) that fairies would dance with souls of the dead on hillsides before they must return to the chilled, cold earth. Certain tales indicate fairy witches joined them in their dance.
Individuals who died at twilight would find themselves in Fairyland and could visit the living as ghosts. It is interesting to note that modern ghost researchers say the most opportune time to investigate ghosts and hauntings, is to start around dusk since this is the time spirits tend to show themselves to mortal human beings. Once again, with the coming of night pulls us into a twilight world, a ghostly dreamtime.

Fairies as Witch’s Familiars

Familiar spirits are ghosts, or discarnates such as fairies, that contact human beings routinely and can be used for magic. The most recognized familiar in witchcraft as in popular culture has to be a black cat, followed closely by a raven or a crow. Native American familiars arrive in the form of a totem animal more likely to be a bear, eagle or an elk. The animal’s body is possessed by another spirit or divinity that is primarily an imp, a ghost or a fairy. When called upon, the familiar may wish to assist a sorcerer, magician or witch, or rescue a person who needs help.

The animal familiar is mostly found in England where accused witches were thought to have familiars that were really fairies, demons, imps and elves, and sometimes ghosts of evil people invading the body of an animal. Familiars could be kept as a pet, or even a spider or a toad found inside the house of the accused witch. The idea of familiars traveled to America to show up in some of the Salem Witch Trials later.

By 1598, beliefs in fairies appearing in the guise of animals was firmly solidified, when a man in Aberdeen claimed he had met with the Queene of Elphen (Queen of Elfland) along with her cats wandering along the rode at Twilight.

At this time, in Gaelic lands it was believed that anyone who passed away around at Twilight, his or her spirit could get lost, ending up in Elfland only to return as ghosts. Fairies were very much like the undead, or the nosferatu, whom some believed they shared tombs with while in Elf or Fairyland.

Fairies and familiars exhibited related psychic powers, they have the ability to divine the future, and leave their realms, just like ghosts who want to interact with the living. They are also described as ghosts very early on, as in a green glowing light, rather large or small and inside a moving shadow. In British occult lore, it was believed that sometimes when the Devil appeared, he did as a handsome man dressed in green, a color primarily associated with fairies. The Devil would then vanish in the form of a black dog, of course, associating him to the banshee’s Black Shuck and other British hobgoblins.
What is lost on our culture today is fairies became a part of demonology after the witch trials. It is only when the Victorians cleaned up fairies, and their associations with witches and the dead, that they were re-introduced as very much watered down creatures.
It was once feared that when there was no water or milk left out for the fairies or familiar spirits that visited the home, they might have to drink human blood. The most common name for a witch’s familiar in England was “Robin.” It is interesting to note that the legendary figure of Robin Hood, like the fairies so often, is always portrayed wearing green clothing.

Fairies and Poltergeists

When considering poltergeists, and how we view them in our modern day, it is not so different than the way common folk used to see fairies. Fairies, like spirits, could cause havoc and mayhem in the household if not given the proper respect. Fairies could also move objects and hide them in the most unlikely places. At times, they even threw things, like glasses or cups and might splash food or liquids in people’s faces to show their unhappiness. Sometimes the fairies might drum to keep residents awake all night, tap or knock on doors or walls in order to draw attention to their plight or just to show their disapproval at homeowners. Others were reported to run a cane up and down the headboard of a bed or made loud invisible footsteps in homes. Unruly children might cause the fairies to slap, to pinch or push. Mysterious lights or shadows appear and disappear in the home. This was all just a part of fairy mischief.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The unseen type of fairy, the kind that plays tricks, is very much like our everyday poltergeist. Of course, in German, poltergeist simply means a rapping ghost or meddlesome spirit.

The appearance of the poltergeist tends to occur in cycles, and never appears as a person, or a personal ghost, with a face or a history or a name. (They may lie and respond to any name given though.) Some may mistake their poltergeist for a person that they know of that died in the home or perhaps a relative who passed on. Such unsettling occurrences, such as doors slamming, shelves crashing and empty footsteps must be explained somehow. But it usually is not. Poltergeists may be our own volatile and erratic psychic powers unleashed, and are typically associated with an adolescent boy or girl.

Therefore, the popular theory explaining poltergeists over the past fifty years is, that poltergeist phenomenon is fueled by dormant telekinetic powers found within the human brain. The stress of adolescents may stimulate the poltergeist activity that at one time could easily be mistaken for the powers of fairies, witches or spirits of the deceased. What is intriguing about linking poltergeists to fairy hauntings in the distant past is that poltergeists are generally not thought to be spirits of the dead, either. They are a form of haunting all on their own, but generally associated with other types of hauntings.

In fact, I have found during my own ghost investigations that the appearance of poltergeists are often a pre-cursor or a “firing up” to other major types of hauntings, which may involve actual ghosts or spirits of the dead. Where you have poltergeists, you will most likely find actual ghosts. There must be some synergy between the human mind and spirits, and other type of spirits, for instance fairies, earth energies, and elementals.

 Imagine what might happen to the owner of a home plagued with poltergeists during the times of the witch trials and executions. It would seem insane to admit to poltergeists (as fairies or ghosts or imps) in the home to anyone, most especially authorities who could put you on trial. And a number of witch inquisitors, when visiting the homes of many supposed witch’s home, reported having their hats knocked from their heads, having their shins kicked and their pockets turned inside out. In any event, the only way to save oneself was to point a finger at the “real witch” responsible for the haunting.

Elementals as Spiritual Expressions of Earth Energies

Elementals, or natural earth energies representing the four elements of fire, earth, water and air, have much in common with fairies. They are ethereal forms of life and spirit that are not usually seen by the human eye but are also expressions of earth energies. In fact, many believe fairies are just that — elemental spirits that are really not human in any way, but can be contacted by psychic visions and by other powers.
One could hardly call elementals supernatural since they are very much a part of the natural world. But they sometimes appear as balls of light, colored gases and cloudy lights, the rippling silver of waves on water, or even in the simple stirring of a blade of grass. Such energies have personalities and it is the tradition of witchcraft that interactions with elementals will benefit crops, will cause gardens to be more abundant and will generally make life on earth more pleasant for human beings.

After all, elementals are in the primordial phase of all creation on earth and in our solar system. Yet they are not impartial to humans — they are in essence helpers.
Earth Elementals govern the physical realm of sinew, bone, mountain, muscle, grass and rock. Air Elementals govern the ethereal realms, such as wind, storms, the influencing of stars, planets, oxygen and spirit. Water Elementals represents the astral realm, just beyond the earth realm. They rule emotion, empathy, medium-ship and ghosts.

As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once wrote: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age – after all, green is the color of life and growth.Behind nature, perhaps, is where the spark of divinity lies. Such could be said of the elemental forces found in the natural that are apart from the human mind or soul, and yet also a part of both.

The pentacle or pentagram, as is related to witches and Wicca, represents the elementals and elements of fire, earth, water and air — plus a 5th element of Akasha, meaning spirit.
Summoning The Fairies

Whether you believe fairies to be actual souls of pagan ancestors, shining ones named divas, earth’s elementals, spiritual guides or watchers, or ghosts from a forgotten race such as the Tuatha Da Dannan, there are ways to contact the fairy realms. In most instances, the fairies will contact you first, but if you wish to bring them into your own domain, with evidence for their existence, you might try these methods.
Begin by making an effort to spend time in the natural world. Meditate or contemplate under a grove of cool trees, fall asleep under the stars, near an isolated water source, such as a waterfall or a stream. This will open your consciousness to the fairy realms.

Get comfortable and relax, especially nearby a nature setting or one easily in your view.

Now close your eyes. Allow your mind to fill with a rich, velvety darkness.
Imagine a shimmering green light filling your mind’s eye. Mentally, move toward it. Focus fully on this glowing green.
At this point, perhaps you feel a gentle rocking sensation. Surrender to it.
Now imagine a shining green sphere expanding throughout the blackness. Watch the green ball fill throughout your consciousness. See black no longer. Only green.
Think of a favorite scene from nature.
Mentally, call out to your fairies or fairy. Do you see anyone walking or flying toward you? Is there mist, vapors or fluttering over you, or nearby?

Invite your fairy into your abode. Greet your fairy visitor with good cheer.
Add some silver. Fairies are most fond of silver. It connects them to moonlight.

Focus on a name or on a fairy clan name. If the fairy has no answer, think harder. (If the fairy does not give you a name, tell it to go away for the time being. It may not be one of the sidhe.)
Expect your fairy to answer you in imagery and pictures. Your fairy may come across to you clear enough to get names and words. If you do, consider this a bonus.

If you have a need, ask it of your fairy, or inquire of your fairy what ways your need or goal can be accomplished.
Before your fairy leaves you, ask for peace and wisdom in forging your own path.
Bid your fairy farewell by saying “Merry part.” To invite your fairy to visit with you again, set out small bowls of sugar, flowers, or milk.
Once you make contact psychically, creatively or mentally, there are signs that indicate the presences of fairies in your life. This may seem juvenile to some, but fairies were once and still are taken very seriously in parts in the British Isles and now ....America..... Individuals in the past knew that fairies were powerful presences. That is why people in the countryside gave the sidhe great respect.

Signs of Fairy Presences

You experience dreams (ones that stick with you) where nature plays a prominent role, especially nature dreams that involve singing or music.

Dreams of miniature human clothing, such as shoes, jackets or pants, etc.

The sound of bells, or childish laughter from which you cannot determine the source may indicate the presence of fairies.

A sudden unexplainable gust of wind.
Finding impressions of circles in the grass not there the day before.
You hear your name being whispered into one ear (never aloud) and not in the other. You just basically hear whispering when no one is there.
A sudden feeling of warmth, wit or mirth.
What is usually termed poltergeist activity in the home, such as the motion or displacement of objects, disembodied movement such as lamps, swinging, doorbells being rung with no one there and other strange spiritual manifestations.
Pets begin to show great interest in certain parts of your yard, area or home, such as sniffing, whispering or ears standing up or just becoming more alert.
Walking into a room or area and you suddenly see shimmering lights, or bright sparkles in the black grasses after dark, as well as evidence of small lights or miniature orbs in pictures near your home.
In a green world, this is what fairies are about. Do not be afraid to seek them out!



Thursday, September 4, 2014

Marrtown: A Quiet Place Where Banshees Haunt

(copyrighted --all rights reserved-- Llewellyn's Magical Almanac)

by Susan A Sheppard

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
O, well done, I commend your pains.
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes...
From “MacBeth” by William Shakespeare

Not all fairy tales have happy endings. Not all fairies bring goodness and light. Among the Irish and Scottish people there is a supernatural creature they call “the Banshee.”
 The Banshee is an attendant death fairy, one that brings an omen of doom to Irish or Scottish clans. It is the Banshee that announces the death of a family member, usually over bodies of water with her keening or caoine, a shrill crying for the dead. But the Banshee doesn’t just stay near bodies of water washing out the grave clothes of her dead as it is told. She also travels to the homes of those about to die, sometimes mounted on a pale (at times black) steed or riding a black funeral coach with two, white headless horses leading the way.

There are various descriptions of the Banshee. The Irish Banshee is called Bean Sidhe in an older tongue. Depending upon what source you use, “Bean” means woman and “Sidhe” (shee) means fairy. But other sources say that Bean Sidhe is translated as “woman of the hills.” Some ancient lore says the Banshee can even be the ghost of a young woman who has died in childbirth, especially if she was not given the last rites of confession.

The Irish Banshee is said to materialize as a beautiful young woman with streaming auburn hair. She wears a green woolen dress with gray cloak clasped about her shoulders. She hangs out at rivers and waterfalls.  Sometimes she is said to have white hair and a silver comb. The only hint that this beautiful Banshee is a messenger of doom comes from the fact that her eyes are blood red from crying for her Irish dead.
 The Scottish Banshee, the “Bean Nighe,” is more menacing. The Scottish Banshee dresses in moldering grave clothes, her face covered by a tattered veil. Often, she rides a prancing steed. Her age and features are difficult to make out but she appears to be a decrepit crone. And yet, the Banshee’s movements are lithe and she rides her pale horse sometimes with a black hearse following behind her. Rarely, the shroud of the Scottish Banshee is crimson, reddened by the gore of blood. 

The Mid-Ohio Valley as well as West Virginia was settled predominantly of people of Irish and Scottish ancestry. Along with the Welsh and French, they shard ancient Celtic ties and are descended from clans. The Celts believed in unique forms of mysticism, such as sorcerers, witches, leprechauns and fairies, and not the least of them — the Banshee.
Stories of Banshee spirits went underground as Irish and Scottish immigrants moved into the verdant hills of the Ohio Valley and West Virginia. But the legend of the Banshee is not entirely forgotten, as you will see by reading the following pages.

Let us travel back to the shores of Scotland on a blustery winter day in the year 1590. A group of women, known later as the Berwick Witches, summoned their powers at the ocean’s edge. Over the icy waters of the North Sea, King James VI and his new bride Anne of Denmark made their way back to Scotland when their boat nearly capsized. Rumors circulated that King James was in great danger from a plot or a curse put upon him by the witches of North Berwick.

This quickly caught King James’s attention, since he had always been fascinated by witchcraft. It wasn’t long until the "witches" were captured and put on trial.
One young woman, called Gilly Duncan, confessed under torture that she and other witches cursed the King, and was intent upon murdering him by chanting spells and evil curses. She also claimed that she and other witches were in cahoots with the Earl of Boswell, first in line to the throne after King James’s death, and they wished him dead.

King James had earlier written a treatise against witchcraft. Wild claims about the Devil being intent upon murdering King James were made and rumors flew. It was reported back to King James that a group of Scottish witches had gathered at night near a castle in Edinburgh where they fashioned a waxen image of the King. In front of a raging bonfire, the witches passed the wax doll amongst themselves, chanting in unison:

“This is King James the VI, ordained to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.” The witches’ poppet was tossed into the flames where it melted away instantly.
Were such dubious claims likely? It is highly doubtful. Most of the women charged with witchcraft identified themselves as devout Christians, and would not likely talk ill against such a powerful and paranoid ruler.
But the story fit in perfectly with what the King already believed, making him even more determined to hunt down the “witches” who were “persecuting” him. More “witches” were brought forth and the King himself interrogated them. It was alleged that 200 witches met at a Church in North Berwick on All Hallows Eve to curse King James again. It was then told that the Devil himself presided over the meeting wearing a black mask, preaching obedience to him and bringing great evil against the King. Unable to stay quiet a moment longer, King James interjected and called the witches present liars.    

The witches were later executed at Edinburgh’s Castle Hill. But it did not end there. In later years, Scottish witches were “brought to justice” at MacBeth’s Hill near the town of Nairn. Witchcraft had a strong hold in Scotland. Scottish rule executed 4,400 alleged witches. Only a handful of witches were executed in England and Ireland. Next to Germany, Scotland murdered more people during their witch trials than any other country.

If the names of “Duncan” and “MacBeth” sound familiar, there is a reason. It has long been thought that King James held great influence over William Shakespeare and was even responsible for Shakespeare’s unflattering portrayal of Scottish witches in his play “Macbeth.” James supported the works of Shakespeare, whose famous plays came about later.

King James was certainly one of the most literate of all British Kings and Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written only seventeen years after initial royal paranoia about the Berwick witches, a long enough time for the imagination to fodder and take certain liberties with the actual story.
Most of the scenes for MacBeth took place at Glamis Castle, allegedly the most haunted castle in Scotland. This was even acknowledged in the day of Shakespeare. But Scotland’s influence on public thought having to do with witches and witchcraft did not end there. Many trials and executions were to follow later.

 North of Aberdeen, there is a haunted place called the “Forest of Marr.” It is believed this is the area where some of the Scottish witches escaped. As they went underground, the women’s occult powers grew. It was conjectured that the ghosts of the executed witches eventually became Banshee spirits known as the "Bean Nighe" and continued to roam the countryside bringing death to the Scottish Clans who backed King James or were responsible for their persecution. From that area of Scotland to Wood County, came a family named “Marr.” Some have said that their lives were marred by the earlier witches’ tragedies. And now we begin our first tale moving from the dark reaches of Scotland into the even darker reaches of West Virginia...
Marrtown Banshee

On certain lonely, moonless nights in the Mid-Ohio Valley, under a sky littered with stars, riding over the hills of Marrtown, there appears a shrouded figure on a white horse— one that is known as “the Banshee of Marrtown.”

 Marrtown was once a small farming community southeast of the city of Parkersburg. The family of Scottish immigrant Thomas Marr settled Marrtown in 1836. Thomas later married a local woman named Mary Disosche whose family owned a local brewery. The Marr family brought to America many of the ancient beliefs and superstitions from their native land of Scotland, where a belief in banshees, witches and ghosts remained strong. The daughter of a widow, Mary Marr was an autumn bride, considered to be an ill omen among the Scottish people. In years to come, Mary would lose six of the eight children that she bore. Only two would carry on the Marr name. Times were hard for Thomas and Mary Marr but they did not lose their dream of a better life, pouring their energies into a simple tract of land that is now Marrtown.

Soon, a picturesque white farmhouse stood against shadowy woods thick with sumac, milkweed and blackberry brambles, framed by a sweeping green valley. To the west of the Marr homestead was a steep hill that ran directly into the Ohio River. To the north was Fort Boreman Hill, where Union troops camped during the Civil War, and where a Pest House housed locals and soldiers who had contracted typhoid fever, small pox and other diseases.

The years of the Civil War, as for most, were not happy ones for the Marr Family. They lost two of their children to typhoid fever. From their front window Thomas and Mary witnessed small clashes that turned into bloody battles between Yankee and Confederate soldiers. There were public hangings on nearby Fort Boreman Hill. As the Civil War drew to a close, marauding soldiers from both sides stole freely from the Marr family, making off with what food and stock the family had put away for themselves.

Shortly after the Civil War, the Marr family’s Scottish brew of bad luck appeared to come to an end. Thomas landed a job as night watchman at the toll bridge that crossed over the Little Kanawha River from lower Parkersburg to the road leading into Marrtown. Mary would stay home to tend the farm and children. Still, there were ominous hints of what was about to unfold.

On several occasions as Thomas traveled to and from his work, he mentioned to Mary about seeing a robed figure riding a white horse. Thomas said that he came upon this rider nearly every night in the identical spot not far from his farmhouse. Mr. Marr said he was not able to determine the gender of the person on the horse but it was as if their paths were fated to meet. Some sense told Thomas that the person was a woman but he couldn’t be sure. The face remained covered by a ragged hood. Whenever Thomas tried to approach the shrouded figure, the black mare reared. Horse and rider then disappeared into the mists of morning.

On a cold February night in the year 1876, Mary sat by the front window awaiting Thomas to come home from his job. Earlier, Mary had awakened suddenly and was eager to see her husband. The middle-aged woman heard footsteps coming up the road. She stood up to peer out the window. But instead of Thomas, a white horse loped up to the front gate of the house and then stopped. Sitting atop the horse was a rider whose face was covered by a tattered veil. It looked to be a woman. Alarmed, Mary moved from her chair and walked outside into the frigid night air. The rider, dressed in the threadbare clothing of a beggar, remained silent.

As bitter winds gusted, Mary pulled her woolen shawl close. Mary asked the rider what she wanted. There was no answer. Plumes of icy air billowed from the nostrils of the white horse. As Mary repeated her question, rider and horse inched closer. The aged woman sat stiffly in her saddle. Underneath the gauzy veil, Mary saw that the woman’s eyes radiated an eerie red glow. After a few moments, the woman on the horse spoke. “I am here to tell you, Mary Marr that Thomas Marr has just died. Say your prayers, Lady. I bid you well.” Rider and horse turned abruptly and galloped away.  Mary collapsed onto the front stoop. Through tears, she watched the shrouded woman and her horse vanish entirely just as they reached the bend in the road. Within the hour, a man who worked with Thomas came to deliver the dreaded news.

No one knows for sure what happened to Thomas Marr that fated winter evening. Some say that while working at the toll bridge Thomas was shot by an assailant’s bullet then fell and drowned in the Little Kanawha River. Others claim that it was the cry of the Banshee that startled Thomas into meeting his end in the river below.

Other reports have Thomas Marr found dead along the B&O railroad tracks only a few yards away from the turbulent waters. After all, it is known that the keening of the Banshee is most often heard over bodies of water. The truth is, Thomas Marr did die on February 5th, 1878 when the Marrtown Banshee was to have made her visit, and she had to cross water to do so.
In years to come, the Banshee did not abandon her Marr clan just yet. The ghostly rider continued to make other visits to the family. Mary Marr lived to be ninety years old. Such advanced years were an exception for the time. As Mary lay as a corpse in the parlor of her home many years after her husband’s death, family members heard the rattling of chains in the attic. Others claimed to hear the shrieks of a wild cat near the house around the same time.

A few years after Mary died, one of the Marr descendents had his arm cut off in a tragic accident. As family members sat up with the boy, they heard snarling and growling sounds on the porch. When the women went outside to see what is was, the stoop where Mary met her Banshee was covered with blood as if a terrible struggle had taken place.

What has become of the Banshee of Marrtown? It is said she still rides, giving dreaded omens to those of Scottish Blood. Not Scottish or Irish, you say? You would still be wise to avoid Marrtown on certain still, dark and moonless nights…

 The Banshee of Center Point
 Banshees aside, if you have ever had the opportunity to fly over West Virginia and the Mid-Ohio Valley in a small plane, you may have noticed the foliage below appears as dense and electric-green as that of a rainforest, an excellent place for harboring fugitives but terrible for your sinuses!
In a time where most of the wilderness in the U.S. is vanishing, West Virginia is still “wild and wonderful,” as the slogan says. But what kind of “wildness” may mean something other than what the travel ads claim. Native American tribes were afraid of these lands. The Shawnee Indians were especially spooked by the lands east of the Ohio River and avoided it as much as possible. The Native Americans did not make a habit of settling into what is now West Virginia believing cursed by ghosts and strange beasts.  
 There is a community in a remote part of Doddridge County called Center Point, a place that is now a virtual ghost town. Center Point is typical of small mountain communities reclaimed by the woods. The village used to have a post office and the Ross Country Store, but that is all but gone. A craggy, brown creek courses through lush foliage with leaves as big as mud flaps. Modest white houses cling to the sides of hills with sloping yards made muddy by children at play.
In Center Point, there isn’t much for children to do other than chase each other with sticks or head for the creek in search of the little brown clots with pinchers known so familiar to West Virginians as “crawdads.”
Unless you’re crazy about pleasant green scenery, country areas, like Center Point weren’t exactly a hullabaloo. Nothing that good had happened there. But nothing that bad happened either. That is, until the summer of 1918, when the Black Flu hit. That was the year when the people of Center Point thought the entire world was coming to an end. The rest of the world did, too. Millions had already died.
And…Unless you were a seven-year-old girl named Pearl White who loved to play in the woods, one who dreamed of flapping her arms and flying away like a bird, a place like Center Point could be pretty dull. But there was plenty for Pearl to do. She had drive and imagination. She wasn’t worried about the Black Flu. Sickness happened to people older than she was and Pearl was invincible. Why, she almost knew how to fly already!
It was near dusk in late summer. Pearl was staying with her Grandmother at Center Point on the farm while relatives traveled to Pennsboro to help those already stricken by Black Flu. Like so many of the flu victims, Pearl’s young, unmarried uncle had taken sick but appeared to be doing fine. His flu didn’t seem to be much worse than a chest cold. It was odd how the Black Flu preyed upon those in the full bloom of life. Many victims that succumbed to the Black Flu were young, only in their twenties and thirties. But Pearls’ uncle was in good spirits, sitting up and talking as the day wore on.
One late August evening drew in a bit more somberly than before. The indigo of twilight was soon upon them. The night was clear. There was not one cloud among the stars. Flickering lights studded the evening sky. Pearl counted them as the Big Dipper, the belt of Orion, the North Star and dreamed of flying to all of them. Center Point was small, but the world was still hers.
Pearl’s grandmother was in the process of taking her granddaughter to the outhouse one more time for the night before retiring to bed. As darkness enclosed, the clip-clop sound of horses’ hooves sounded up the road. The trot was slow and measured. Whoever it was didn’t seem to be in a hurry. They looked around to see a rider on a horse. Grandmother thought, perhaps it was the mailman paying a late visit. After all, the Black Flu had taken its toll on Center Point. Many people had died. Mail could arrive at just about any time of day or evening. 
Pearl and her grandmother paused to watch the rider and horse make their way toward the farmhouse. Crickets sang in the shadows. It seemed strange how the figure sat erect on the horse and was enshrouded in pale, fluttering rags almost like a mummy. The horse itself was also pale like a ghost. The gender of the rider could not be made out either although something told them it was a woman.  
Pearl felt an urge to draw near the figure. She was curious and ran toward the front porch, where the horse and rider seemed to be intent upon stopping. Her grandmother followed Pearl. Now they could see that the rider looked more like an old woman and still, the little girl was not sure. The rider’s face was covered by what was a torn, ragged veil Garnet red eyes glittered beneath the gauzy fabric. The hands looked old and waxen, too, like those that had been sealed within a coffin.
Pearl’s grandmother recoiled but still the little girl ran to meet the figure on the horse anyway. They sauntered up the front walk. The sun was entirely gone, the world left in shadows. The rider tugged on the bridle and the horse stopped. In later years, Pearl would say that she was so close to that Banshee’s horse that she could feel its hot breath on her face.
Yes, those of Celtic blood called this creature a Banshee. Pearl and her relatives were of Scottish descent and this is a classic way that the Scottish Banshee appears, always as a shrouded figure.
And yet, on that fated night in Center Point the Banshee spirit issued a warning. She pointed a bony finger at Pearl’s Grandmother and proclaimed in a rasping voice, “One of yours is to die this very night!” A keening cry split the evening’s stillness. Banshee and horse instantly vanished.
Shaken and left in shadows, Pearl and her grandmother hugged each other. But there was no time to think about the terrible thing that had just happened. Already sounds were coming from the house, sounds of someone struggling for air.  It was Pearl’s uncle.
The two ran inside just in time to realize that the young man’s lungs filled with fluid. Blood foamed from his nose and mouth. This was the usual way people with the Black Flu died. Grandmother knew it. There was no saving him. Within moments, Pearl’s uncle had drowned in his own blood. After the death rattle, all became still, except for the sound of horses’ hooves galloping away. It was then something squalled like a wildcat in the distance.
Despite the evening when she witnessed her uncle’s terrible death from the Black Flu, Pearl White grew up and she did learn to fly. She became a pioneer in the field of aviation and was the first woman to parachute out of a plane. Pearl was a member of the famous “Barnstormers,” a name given to pilots who performed dangerous stunts. Pearl performed her stunts all the way from the Pennsboro Fair in 1935 to the movies in Hollywood, California.
In her life, Pearl White feared very little. In fact, as a young woman she was attracted to danger. When she was just at the age of sixteen, men would strap Pearl’s body to the belly of a plane, go up and then swoop down so she could pick up small objects off the ground. She broke her back one time, and that was at Ravenswood, West Virginia in 1935 and yet she came back.
It was strange how in later years, Pearl was often afraid to sit outside on her front porch at her modest home on upper Juliana Street in Parkersburg. There was something that disturbed her... the oncoming of night.
Pearl was not afraid to be strapped to a plane and fly through the air. She was not afraid to jump out of one as a teenager. After meeting up with the Center Point Banshee as a small child the only thing Pearl White was ever afraid of — was the dark.
Variations of these articles were first printed in Llewellyn's Magical Almanac and on the Haunted America website. You can also read these banshees stories and other tales of the paranormal in Susan's book "Cry of the Banshee" which can be ordered through West Virginia Book Company. Here is the link:
Susan A Sheppard