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Ghoulies and Ghosties

There is a point in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness when a sudden realisation dawns that we are sliding rapidly into winter. For us in Britain it occurs about the time when the clocks go back at the end of what we call British Summer Time on the last Sunday in October. The sense of accelerated seasonal change provoked by the unexpectedly dark evenings are reinforced by the bangs of premature explosions of fireworks properly intended for Guy Fawkes’ Day on the 5th of November, and by the occasional arrival at the end of the month of small children playing Trick or Treat.

This is an alien tradition in England, but one which seems to have become popular in the past decade partly as a result of the film ET, which featured it. It’s now common in many big cities in Britain, though we noticed that at first few of our juvenile doorsteppers had much of a clue about it. To test this, when one unknown sub-teenager tried it on me, I said firmly “trick!”. Poor lad, he hadn’t a clue what to do next.

But this fun festival of pumpkins, luminous skeletons and the rest is just a relic of what has been for millennia a most important date, the end of the old year. It was formerly the eve of the Celtic festival of Samhain, a name which comes down to us directly from the Gaelic for the end of summer. When Britain was Christianised, it become All Saints’ Day, or Hallowmass, itself a shortened form of All-Hallows’ Mass, where hallow is the Old English halig, “a holy man“, from which we also get our words holy and hallow. The eve of this important day was All-Hallows’ Even, which has become corrupted to Hallow-e’en, now more commonly spelt Hallowe’en or Halloween.

Until comparatively recently in Scotland, the Celtic new year’s day was one of the four ancient quarter days on which rents were due, leases came up for renewal and annual employment contracts ended. The other three were Candlemas (2 February, the beginning of spring, based on the old Celtic festival of Imbolc), Beltane (1 May, the traditional beginning of summer) and Lammas (1 August, the day when the Eucharist bread was first baked from the new harvest; its name comes from the Old English hlaf-maesse, the loaf-mass; the festival is a making-over of the Celtic Lugnasad, the feast of the marriage of the god Lugus, and the day of the harvest fair). These days, the equivalent dates in Scotland are Martinmas (11 November), Candlemas, Whitsunday and Lammas. This has always seemed a much better division of the year than the English quarter days of Christmas Day, Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), and Michaelmas Day (29 September), because these sometimes resulted in people being turned out of their homes on Christmas Day because they couldn’t pay the rent.

Both in the US and in Britain paganism or witchcraft, the old religion as it was once called, has had a resurgence of interest. With a nice sense of irony, the British newspaper Independent on Sunday printed a bitter complaint from pagans in 1996 that Hallowe’en was becoming too commercialised and trivialised. Paganism, of which there seems to be nearly as many varieties as there are practitioners, is now often called Wicca, a term which the Second Additions Volume to the OED dates only to 1959. The word is Old English for a wizard. The female form of the word was wicce, from which we get our witch, though at one time men could be witches, too. The modern word wicked sounds as if it ought to come from the same root, but in fact it comes from wreccha, from which we also derive wretch and wretched. A word often linked to witch is warlock, now commonly a male sorcerer, but originally in Old English “traitor, enemy, oath-breaker”; a wizard was originally a wise man and only later became associated with witchcraft and magic. An elevated term for a witch was pythoness, which came to us in medieval times from medical Latin via French.

Hallowe’en was the time when people lit bonfires against evil spirits and when the souls of the dead were supposed to visit their old homes. The festival had from early times a close association with all sorts of apparitions, who were not, however, solely linked to this time of year.

One common one causing fright or dread was called in Yorkshire the boggart, in Scotland the bogle, and in England the bogey or bogeyman. These words are all related, the oldest of them being bogle and the most recent bogy. This last form only appeared in the nineteenth century, along with bugan, as in the obsolete expression to play the bugan, “to play the devil with“. It’s thought that the root Celtic, perhaps cognate with the Welsh bwgwl, “terror, terrifying“. Our verb boggle was originally applied to a horse being startled as at a bogle. The Welsh root word bwg gave rise to the long-obsolete word bug for a hobgoblin, which now survives only in bugbear, a dreadful bearlike apparition that ate naughty children, a more terrifying idea than the modern weakened sense of something merely vexatious or annoying. Another closely related word is bugaboo. Possibly also related is the barghest, a goblin which appeared in the form of a large, black dog and which portended doom; the barghest was given many particular names locally in Britain, including the Demon of Tidworth, the Black Dog of Winchester and the Padfoot of Wakefield. The banshee (from the Irish bean sídhe, “woman of the fairy hill”) was a spirit reputed to wail under the windows of a house where someone was about to die.

The brownie was of a quite different type. In Scottish folklore, this was a small, industrious fairy or hobgoblin believed to inhabit houses and barns and who did good by stealth at night provided you fed him bread and milk. This term has survived much better in American English than in British. Larry Niven’s use of it to name little industrious and helpful alien creatures in The Mote in God’s Eye must have puzzled many English readers, who mostly know Brownies as clubs of brown-uniformed girls who are the junior wing of the Girl Guides (Girl Scouts to you in the US). In England the hobgoblin was as helpful a sprite as the brownie and was also known as Robin Goodfellow or Puck. The last name was also spelled pook and in earlier times was regarded as a name for the devil. The hob part of hobgoblin was a familiar form of Robin or Robert and became a standard name for a rustic person or a clown, though Old Hob or Old Hodge were also names for the devil. Other names for this mother’s little helper were lubber fiend and Lob-lie-by-the-fire, where lob is another name for a clown or a rustic.

The goblins mentioned several times already were wandering sprites which tended to attach themselves to houses, where they acted rather like poltergeists. The word comes from the Greek kobalos, “rogue”, which was the source also of the German malicious spirit of mines called a kobald, associated particularly with troublesome rubbish among the good silver ore. That rubbish actually contained a lot of arsenic and sulphur, which accounted for its evil reputation, as it was a danger to health as well as “poisoning” the ore and making the silver more difficult to extract. In 1730 the element now called cobalt was extracted from this apparent waste rock and so its name has a direct etymological link with the goblin. While we’re down the mine, so to speak, gnomes are etymologically and commonly regarded as “earth-dwellers”, possibly from the Greek genomos. The trolls, at one time thought to be mischievous dwarves inhabiting the hills, were skilled at working metals, but had an unfortunate tendency to carry off children.

Many of our modern names for nasties are not originally from Celtic Europe. The ghoul was an Arabic word for a demon that inhabited burial grounds; this came into English at the end of the eighteenth century and became particularly seen as a grave-robbing thing that preyed on children, though its figurative sense is now much more common than its literal one. The word vampire comes from Hungarian, though it also turns up in many Slavonic languages; zombie, another word for someone reanimated from the dead, but without the blood-drinking modus operandi, comes from a West African language, as does the West Indian jumby. The Jewish dybbuk is the malevolent spirit of a dead person which enters a living one and controls it. Our ghost is Old English, but its modern spelling is derived from the Flemish gheest through the influence of Caxton, who had spent much of his life in the Low Countries. Phantom and phantasm come to us from French; poltergeist is a nineteenth-century import from German; spook comes from Dutch via American English; sorcerer is old French.

As you see, there’s no shortage of words for evil beasties of all sorts. Sleep soundly tonight, won’t you?

Page created 2 Nov. 1996
Last updated 24 Oct. 1999

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Last modified: 24 October 1999.