Editor's note: EC is pleased to publish Kristina Wojtaszek's five-part weekly series on haunted folklore beginning today. Kristina is one of the authors whose work is featured in e-book (and a paper edition) called Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales, which is now available to chill and thrill readers. Published by World Weaver Press, the stories run the gamut from touching to terrifying. As for this five-part series, come back to EC each Monday of this month for Kristina's insight on all things ghostly.
The stranger in the photograph that was never there, the wailing from the abandoned house next door, the sudden chill that makes your hair stand on end… Ghosts. Ghouls. Specters and spooks. We've all heard tell of unexplainable spiritual encounters, perhaps even experienced them ourselves. But who are these mysterious figures that return from the dead, and how long have they been doing so? Though the earliest history of ghost tales may evade us, it is still worth the dig, because buried beneath unfathomable layers of time and lore lay the bones of an ancient and surprising story; an evolutionary lineage that descends straight from the thrones of the gods and goddesses of old.
Irish tales of fairies often share many of the eerie attributes of ghost stories, and with good reason. Often referred to as the "good people," many believe fairies to be fallen angels. It is said that as the rebellious angels were cast out of heaven, the Lord stopped his hand and they stayed wherever they were at that moment, be it in air, water, earth, or under the earth. The dead and fairies appear to live in close quarters, beneath the earth and just beyond the realm of life, especially when comparing tales of fairies being dug out of their mounds to the exhumation of human remains. In fact, many Irish tales end with a witnessed ghost disappearing somewhere near a known fairy mound. If we delve into a bit of etymology, the word fairy can be traced back to the Latin Fata which refers to the three Fates--the old women who spin and cut the threads of life. Banshee is a Gaelic word that literally means "fairy woman." Though most know her as an ugly, keening hag, she has also been revealed to be The Morrigan, the Irish phantom queen or goddess of battles and war. Round and round we dance, holding the hands of the fairies, who might be devils, goddesses, or spirits of the dead, just as in the tale of the man caught in the fairy ring who saw in their faces his dead relations.
The Emerald Isle is not the only land to host specters with ties to higher powers. From the Muslim Iblīs, comparable to Christianity's Satan, came the Arabic ghūl, the predecessor to lesser demons and spirits all the way down to the highly ambiguous ghoul of today. Other examples include doppelgangers, ghostly double images that often forewarn death, which likely descended from the French scythe-bearing Ankou (Death) himself, and the Russian rusalki, ghosts of murdered young women who may once have been river nymphs. The great Germanic Holle, goddess of birth, death and reincarnation, has also fallen through time and lore to the obscure apparition of a woman in white, while the Hawaiian goddess Pele has drifted from her volcanic origins to wander along roadsides, perhaps forming the first legends of hitchhiking ghosts. Today we are left with many, diverse species of specters. But all of these, it seems, are the evolutionary remnants of a single, common ancestor; the death-defying human soul.
Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries. Follow her @KristinaWojtasz or on her blog, Twice Upon a Time.