The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober

No excuse for ignoring Halloween.

So, first here’s Jeff Buckley’s superb musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulalume”, a poem conceived as a rhetorical exercise by Poe.

And, since Halloween is all about the spirits of the dead …

Appearances of the deadRaw Feed (1993): Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts, Ronald C. Finucane, 1984.

I picked this book up on a lark and am glad I did.  I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, informative book.

The cultural history of ghosts is fascinating – from the gibbering spirits who hung about tombs in the Classical (they’re sometimes angry, often hideous in appearance) period, to the shades that early Christian writers puzzled over (demons? delusions? Or returning spirits of the dead?) to the blazing straw figures, disembodied hands, and other apparitions of suffering souls from purgatory in the Middle Ages to the debt, honor, and revenge obsessed characters of the Restoration, to the stupid, vague Victorian and modern ghosts.

I was interested to see how ghosts came into play in the arguments of the Reformation.  Catholics viewed them as proof of souls in purgatory.  Protestants as demonic or angelic apparitions (or perhaps as “aerial” spirits – that portion of the soul that hung about the Earth unlike the “astral” part that returned to heaven – a minority opinion).  Finucane does a nice job showing the social functions of ghosts.  In mediaeval times, they were object lessons of souls consigned to purgatory, sometimes pleas for social justice (admonishing charity to the poor, confession of crimes) and appeals for piety, crusades, and indulgences.  Many accounts of ghosts asking the living – almost always known to them – to perform acts that will shorten their time in purgatory. 

I liked the baroque ghosts of the seventeenth century who want to pay their debts, avenge crimes, and look after their heirs.  Often they are very life-like.  Even the bland, blatantly fraudulent sometimes, ghosts of Victorian and modern times serve a function:  a touchy-feeling affirmation of the afterlife.  I liked the court case of Tours in 1575 (so much like a modern case in New York) involving the renting of an allegedly haunted house.  The arguments of both credulous plaintiff and skeptical defendants sound very modern.  Another proof of the oldness of many occult beliefs and superstitions are the many cases of Catholic clerics talking to rapping ghosts to allegedly prove purgatory exists.  I also liked Thomas Huxley wickedly saying ghosts were an argument against suicide – better to live a poor life than die and speak their typical nonsense.


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