IRISH HARBINGERS OF DEATH AND REAPERS OF THE SOUL

celtic-harbinger-of-death.jpg

Many a conversation in Ireland starts with ‘do you know who’s dead?’ Death is a normal topic of discussion any self-respecting Seanchái (Irish Storyteller) will include death and haunting in his tale. In modern day Ireland the customs of old still remain and the event is treated with weighted respect and tradition.  We seem to have a fascination and fear of our own mortal demise which stems back to our ancient roots and the safeguarding of the soul.

For the majority, it isn’t so much the dread of death itself, but what happens to the spirit and where it goes afterwards.  There have always been the takers of souls in the form of demons, fairies, spirits and other ethereal beings.  Over the centuries the Irish have got wise and found different ways to repel or hide from those looking to reap the soul and cast it to eternal damnation – or worse.

In order to find the right protection from these creatures of darkness, you have to know who they are and what they want.  Some are merely harbingers; others seek to harvest your very essence of being.  Those such as the Banshee will (mostly) just warn you that death is imminent, however there are two terrifying beings you should avoid at all costs.

SLUAGH

Once thought to be Angels that have tumbled from the grace of God, the Sluagh Sidhe actually have far more sinister origins and purpose.  Can you imagine how evil you have to be, that your soul is deemed too tainted for the fires of Hades and you are rejected by Satan himself? Well that is who the Sluagh are – souls of sinners not wanted by Heaven or Hell, destined to roam the Earth and take the departed for no reason other than the thrill of the hunt and to add to their ever growing number.

Unlike other Sidhe (fairies), the Sluagh are unable to walk this mortal coil.  They ride on the wind as a host, unable to touch the ground.  They travel as a flock and to all intents and purposes look like a conspiracy of ravens, which is probably one of the reasons the raven is seen as a portent of death.  As the howling wind and darkening sky take hold they close in and it is clear they are not bird like at all.  With wizened, leathery wings and gnarled, skeletal frames, these twisted creatures fly in from the west and seek out the homes of the dying.  This is why one of the traditions that still holds today is to close any westerly facing windows when a loved one is taking a last breath.

Sadly, not every innocent (or indeed not so innocent) soul escapes the clutches of the evil Sluagh and these misfortunes are caught up in the host of the soul hunters, not to touch the Earth again or reach Heaven or Hell for all eternity.

THE DULLAHAN

Headless horseman

The Dullahan and before him Crom Dubh, are descended from the god Crom Cruaich and are synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan in order to win favour from his god.

King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.  As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right.  He is still left ‘offerings’ in rural parts of Ireland today on Crom Dubh Sunday.

The darkest incarnation of the sacrificial god however, is the Dullahan, also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head.  Crom Dubh did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices by beheading that gave Crom Cruaich/Dubh his power.

For centuries the Celts have believed the head to be incredibly powerful, both the sacred and physical resting place of the soul.  Warriors would decapitate their foes and keep them to ward off evil and gain more power.  Those believed to have died as deviants would have stones placed in their mouths to stop the evil soul escaping.  It is no surprise therefore, that one of Ireland’s most feared unearthly beings incorporates all of the Celtic beliefs over the ages.

Gan Ceann is a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm, filled with the nastiest and darkest of the Sidhe and his job is to reap your soul.  He carries his head in the crook of his arm, black eyes darting from the mottled, decaying flesh stretched thinly across his skull, searching for his prey.

The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his wagon.  The wheel spokes are made of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin and the coach is pulled by a jet black horse with eyes of glowing embers.

The headless horseman has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head high, seeing across landscapes, through windows and into the darkest corners of the most remote homes.

The soul taker does not stop for anyone and all locks swing open, no one is safe.  If you get in his way, at best your eyes will be lashed out with his whip or the Dullahan will throw a bowl of human blood upon you.  The stain cannot be removed and you are marked as his next target.

Certain festivals increase the power of The Dullahan and this is a time to stay in and draw your curtains tightly.  If you are out in the still of night, there is no protection from this agent of death.  He does however fear one thing – gold. Throwing a piece in his path may make him back off for a while and may be the only thing that will save you.

The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die.  When he finds his quarry and speaks their name aloud, their spirit is brought forth to be devoured.

So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped.  We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us.  We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment.  All in the name of saving our souls.

The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless.  All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!

BANSHEE

Abhartach

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails.  If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry.  Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly.  For those who have been strong enough not to succumb to either? She will rip you to death with her bare hands.

THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON

 

 

Gormanston Castle

In Irish Peerage the title of Baron or Viscount of Gormonston belongs to the patriarch of the Preston family and has been around since the late fourteenth century, their residence being Gormonston castle in Drogheda, County Meath.

The castle remained in the family until the 1950’s when it was sold to a Holy Order to create a school.  Prior to that however, it was the location of one of the strangest occurrences for generations.

With the first instance reported in the seventeenth century, it was documented that the foxes in the surrounding countryside would know when the head of the Preston household was dying, even if that fact was unbeknown to the family themselves.

Arriving in twos and amassing under the window of the Viscount’s bed chamber, the foxes would howl and cry all night long.  Servants would do their utmost to drive the animals away, only for them to return to their place of vigil.

Once the Viscount had passed away, the foxes soundlessly faded into the night.

HELLHOUNDS

Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history.  They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws.  Sometimes they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.

Quite possibly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are seen in rural and isolated areas, although once your eyes set on the Shuck the mark of death is upon you.

In Kanturk, County Cork a local man by the name of Foley was walking home when he encountered the hell beast on the road, eyes glowing and snarling.  He stood terrified as the Shuck brushed up against his leg.  Unable to sleep that night, he told his family of his encounter and died just a few days later.

ORNITHOMANCY

Crows and Ravens have long been emblematic of death, made all the more foreboding by their predisposition to feed on carrion, the decaying flesh of animals, as well as their black plumage.

These birds were purported to be chaperons, guiding the souls of the departed into the next world as well as conduits between this world and the spirit plain.

In Ireland there are references going back to ancient times and in Celtic folklore, The Morrigan is symbolised by a crow.  She is a goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty and a harbinger of doom for those men who cross her path.

No corporeal weapons were needed in order for the Morrigan to take her prey.  She relied solely on magic and her ability to shapeshift at will and is known primarily for appearing as a crow to those at death’s door.

The belief has continued over the centuries that when a single raven or crow has appeared at a house, tapping on the window, a death within was looming.

In the late eighteenth century there is an account of the Ross-Lewin family in Kilchrist, in County Clare being terrorised by their own messenger of death.  The father of the household was away on business and his children went to spend the evening with friends.

On returning home, they passed the old abandoned church where they saw an old hag crying and waving her hands in the air.

Thinking her crazy the terrified youth went towards her only for the old woman to vanish.  They sped home and told their mother of their encounter and the matriarch expressed her fears of a death in the family.

At that moment an enormous raven landed on the window sill and tapped three times on the pane.  A few days later the family were in mourning as news reached them of the death of Mr Ross-Lewin.

Of course birds of ill-news do not end there.  Thrushes flying in the window and settling and white owls seen during the day are also signs of a bereavement in the home.

 

Raven

Raven

So we closed our west facing windows and turned mirrors so souls were not trapped.  We paid Sin Eaters to take our transgressions and clear a path to Heaven. We left food as offerings to the Sidhe and the departed that they may look favorably upon us.  We hired Keeners to cry at wakes so as not to invoke the Hounds of Hell, sent to collect the dead and take them to eternal torment.  All in the name of saving our souls.

The fate of the spirit is of more concern to the Irish than death itself and over the centuries protection of the soul has taken precedence over anything else. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what protections are put in place however, as the malevolent search for souls by the likes of the Dullahan and the Sluagh is too powerful and relentless.  All we can do is the best we can in this life, maybe close the odd window at the right time, oh, and carry a bit of gold in our pockets – just in case!

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One thought on “IRISH HARBINGERS OF DEATH AND REAPERS OF THE SOUL

  1. Michael Suilleabhain says:

    hi.a house in rossmacowen has been emptu since 1933.. a school teacher saw a huge dog with glowing eyes..she went back to waterford and was never seen again….my neighbour who is still alive today says.and is true.. that his mother was housekeeper for her and it was she agnes doyle who found the schoolteacher in total state of shock…rumours have it a long time ago a woman died and her dog ate her in the house and both their ghosts there today…

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