Every once in a while in her wanderings through the Weiser backlist, Ankhie comes across a forgotten gem. Such was the case this morning when, looking for something else, a slim volume entitled Celtic Legends of the Beyond: A Celtic Book of the Dead, popped off the shelf. How could I resist? It’s full of folksy recollections as recorded by French author Anatole Le Braz in 1893. The Weiser Edition was translated by Derek Bryce in 1986 then reprinted 11 years later.
The first thing my eyes fell on was a chapter on exorcising ghosts:
The people that need to be exorcised are almost always the rich who have obtained their wealth by wicked means, and those who have lead a disorderly life. Therefor they are mostly nobles and middle class; peasants have too hard a task earning their living not to be peaceful after their death.
Their souls are condemned to wander until all the wrongs they have done have somehow been put right. They are ill-tempered and wicked. They prowl about their old home, and get their own back for their distress by making trouble amongst the living. They are exorcised in order to immobilize and silence them.
Only priest have the power of exorcism. Not all priests can do it. It needs one who has the know-how, ability, and determination. It is quite something if there is one in every region. It is not enough for the exorcist to know his science thoroughly; it is also essential that he is a tough character.
When the priest is called in for an exorcism, he puts his surplice on and carries his stole in his hand. He takes his shoes off when he reached the haunted house, for he must be priest right to the ground.
The evening before his arrival, the people of the house have to sprinkle fine sand or ashes over the floors and steps of the house from the front door right to the attic. This permits the exorcist to follow the ghost’s footsteps and to shut himself in the room where they seem to end. This is where the evil ghost is lying. A terrible combat takes place between the exorcist and the ghost. Sometimes the priest comes back from his encounter worn out, pale, and covered in sweat. During the time this sinister meeting is taking place, the people of the house huddle around the hearth, dumb with fright. They block their ears so as to try not to hear the terrible din coming from the room. They ask themselves who is going to win, the evil ghost or the man of God. Sometimes the priest repeats special prayers, sometimes he struggles bodily with the ghost, sometimes he asks the ghost difficult questions, and takes advantage of the moment the other is thinking what to reply, to put his silken stole round its neck. Then the ghost is beaten. It becomes grovelling and docile. The priest says the rite of exorcism over it and makes it enter into an animal’s body, most often that of a black dog. he takes it outside and entrusts it to someone in his confidence, often the verger or the sacristan, one of whom would often accompany him on such a mission. Then they go, the priest in front, the other one behind and leading the animal, towards some rarely frequented place, such as a barren heath, a disused quarry, or a quagmire. ‘From now on this is where you shall live”, says the priest to the ghost, and he marks out a circle delimiting the space in which it can move; he often uses a barrel hoop for this purpose. They choose a rarely frequented spot because if someone were to pass close by, he or she would surely be grabbed by the feet and dragged underground.
The second passage was, logically enough, about Hell:
The road to hell is wide and well-maintained; it invites the traveller to take it. It has ninety-nine roadside inns in each of which one must stay for a hundred years. Good-looking, friendly bar staff serve drinks, which taste better and better the closer one is to hell. If the traveller resists the temptation to drink to excess, and reaches the last inn without being drunk, he is free to go back; hell has no more hold on him. But in the case of those arriving drunk, they are given a horrible mixture of snake and toad’s blood to drink. From then on they belong to the devil, and are done for.
I must admit, I enjoy the idea that one need not abstain completely to avoid hell, just keep it in check. Seems like a reasonable policy.