Editor's note: Here' the fourth of Kristina Wojtaszek's intriguing and informative series on folklore and ghosts and other spooky types. Kristina's short story, "Cinder" is featured in Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales. For a look at "Cinder," click here.
The fifth and final installment of this series is next week, so don't miss the final spooky folklore update.
Mysterious, seductive, suppressed and sometimes vengeful, the presence of women abound in legend. Often portrayed as specters untamed by man or death, the hidden powers of the feminine spirit, and the ways of Mother Earth herself, are often explored in folklore. Perhaps the most powerful expression of femininity is that of motherly love, so it's no surprise that this nurturing continues beyond the grave in tales of old. From the Brothers Grimm come several such stories, including mothers who return to nurse or provide for their children, looking out for those whose stepparents deal a cruel hand. “The Brother and Sister,” “Cinderella,” and “The Goose Girl” are a few. Conversely, a living mother might grieve so relentlessly for her deceased child that the child's spirit returns to comfort her, and set him free, as is seen in “The Little Shroud.” The Ubume of Japan is the ghost of a woman holding a baby after death in childbirth. If the child was never removed from her body and placed in her arms, she comes back to haunt by asking those she encounters to hold her child to give her a rest. Occasionally, this ends in doom for those who dare it. In stark contrast to such devotion, the mother in some versions of “La Llorona” purposefully drowns her children in order to gain a new husband. When this doesn't win the man over, she drowns herself, but is then forced to spend eternity as a specter in white weeping and searching for her children in the river.
Women in white are a common motif in folklore, even persisting in legends today. In European countries, the women in white may appear near caves or guarding bridges, where they require men to dance with them or kneel before them in order to pass. For this reason, some folklorists believe them to have come from the domestic guardian goddesses called Matres (meaning mothers). Others believe the white women from Germanic folklore to be descended from Hulda who lives in the bottom of a well, and keeps the souls of infants who die. Also known as Dame Holle, she is occasionally seen as the leader of the Wild Hunt or the Spectral Army, whose phantom soldiers cross the European skies.
|Dawn Visitation, by Harold Hitchcock|
Another goddess associated with both war and death is the Norse Freyja, who is said to receive half the souls of those slain in battle. The female spirits who choose who live and who die in battle are called the valkyries, specters who might be seen with ravens or horses to forewarn death. The Morrigan, the phantom queen of Ireland, may appear as a crow and her sighting is a sign of death to come. Another group of death bringers are the Kumakatok who knock on doors in the dead of night in the Philippines. There are three, and beneath their hoods, two appear as elderly while one is a strikingly young woman. There is also a skeletal female version of the Grim Reaper in Poland called Śmierć who escorts the dead. Norway's personification of Death is Pesta, an old hag named after the Black Plague. If her apparition appears with a rake in hand, some of the townsfolk will survive the sickness; but be it a broom instead and all are doomed.
There are countless female deities to spirit away the dead, but most are considered benevolent escorts. The more harrowing spectral women are the seductresses and those who seek vengeance. The Onryō of Japan are usually the returned spirits of women who cause mischief by cursing kimonos, tormenting neglectful husbands, and even beheading the wives that replace them. The Rusalki of Russia are often said to be the spirits of women who drowned themselves or were murdered. Some were young girls who sought to end their lives after an unwanted pregnancy was discovered. They often dance or sing, luring men to follow them into the water, to their death. Many female specters are succubi, seductresses who drain the life from men. Examples include the Kitsune (fox spirits of Japan); the legend of Otsuyu, the phantom woman whose lover is found in the death clutch of a skeleton; and Lauretta Baldusi of “The Ghostly Concert,” who removes her betrothed's femur to form into a guitar.
First called “Conte de fees” in French, fairy tales may have even been named after the feminine spirit, as taboo women were often considered to be fairies. Even the three Fates who controlled not only men, but gods, by the simple domestic task of spinning, measuring, and cutting the yarns of our lives, are just little old ladies.