On the Day of the Dead

  Chagford churchyard 1

November 1st, in Mexican and other folklore traditions, is the Day of the Dead; tomorrow, in the Christian calendar, is All Souls' Day. The beginning of November is a traditional time for the honouring of our ancestors, remembering loved ones who have gone, tending graves and cleaning up cemetaries, and for cherishing life while contemplating its inevitable end.

In his wise and beautiful book Anam Cara, the late Irish poet-philosopher John O'Donohue wrote:

Crow"One of the lovely things about the Irish tradition is its great hospitality to death. When someone in the village dies, everyone goes to the funeral. First everyone comes to the house to sympathize. All the neighbours gather round to support the family and to help them. It is a lovely gift. When you are really desperate and lonely, you need neighbours to help you, support you and bring you through that broken time. In Ireland there was a tradition known as caoineadh. These were people, women mainly, who came in and keened the deceased. It was a kind of high-pitched wailing cry full of incredible loneliness. The narrative of the caoineadh was actually the history of this person's life as the women had known him. A sad liturgy, beautifully woven of narrative was gradually put into the place of the person's new absence from the world. The caoineadh gathered all the key events of his life. It was certainly heartbreakingly lonely, but it made a hospitable, ritual space for the mourning and sadness of the bereaved family. The caoineadh helped people to let the emotion of loneliness and grief flow in a natural way.

Chagford churchyard 2

"We have a tradition in Ireland known as the wake," O'Donohue continued. "This ensures that the person who has died is not left on their own on the night after death. Neighbours, family members and friends accompany the body through the early hours of its eternal change. Some drinks and tobacco are usually provided. Again, the conversation of the friends weaves a narrative of rememberance from the different elements of that person's life.

Chagford churchyard 3

"It takes a good while to really die. For some people it can be quick, yet the way the soul leaves the body is different for each individual. For some people it may take a couple of days before the final withdrawal of the soul is completed. There is a lovely anecdote from the Munster region, about a man who had died. As the soul left the body, it went to the door of the house to begin its journey back to the eternal place. But the soul looked back at the now empty body and lingered at the door. Then, it went back and kissed the body and talked to it. The soul thanked the body for being such a hospitable place for its life journey and remembered the kindnesses the body had shown it during life.

Chagford churchyard 4

"In the Celtic tradition there is a great sense that the dead do not live far away. In Ireland there are always places, fields and old ruins where the ghosts of people were seen. That kind of folk memory recognizes that people who have lived in a place, even when they move to an invisible form, somehow still remain in that place. There is also the tradition of the coiste bodhar, or the dead coach. Living in a little village on the side of a mountain, my aunt as a young woman heard that coach late one night. This was a small village of houses all close together. She was at home on her own, and she heard what sounded like barrels crashing against each other. This fairy coach came right down along the street beside her house and continued along a mountain path. All the dogs in the village heard the noise and followed the coach. The story suggests that the invisible world has secret pathways where funerals travel.

Chagford churchyard 5

"In the Irish tradition, there is also a very interesting figure called the Bean Si. Si is another word for fairies and the Bean Si is a fairy woman. This is a spirit who cries for someone who is about to die. My father heard her crying one evening. Two days later a neighbour, from a family for whom the Bean Si always cried, died. In this, the Celtic Irish tradition recognizes that the eternal and the transient worlds are woven in and through each other.

"Very often at death, the inhabitants of the eternal world come out towards the visible world. It can take a person hours or days to die, and preceding the moment of death they might see their deceased mother, grandmother, grandfather or some relation, husband, wife, or friend. When a person is close to death, the veil between this world and the eternal world is very thin. In some cases, the veil is actually removed for a moment, so that you can indeed be given a glimpse into the eternal world. Your friends who now live in the eternal world come to greet you, to bring you home. Usually, for people who are dying, to see their own friends gives them great strength, support and encouragement.

"This elevated perception shows the incredible energy that surrounds the moment of death. The Irish tradition shows great hospitality to the possibilities of this moment. When a person dies, holy water is sprinkled in a circle around them. This helps to keep dark forces away and to keep the presence of light with the newly dead as they go on their final journey."

Chagford churchyard 6

If you'd like more reading for the Day of the Day, I suggest:

"Imagined Afterlives: Death in Classic Fantasy" by Katherine Langrish; "Tuscon's All Souls Procession" by Stu Jenks; and own essay on "Death in Folk & Fairy Tales."

Chagford churchyard 7

Chagford churchyard 8

Words: The passage above is from Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World by John O'Donohue (Bantam, 1997). Raised in a Gaelic-speaking family in the west of Ireland, O'Donohue was a Catholic priest before devoting himself to writing and scholarship, creating works rooted in the mystical place where pagan and Christian philosophies meet. The poem in the picture captions is from American Primitive by Mary Oliver (Little, Brown, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs were taken last week in the graveyard of our village church here in Chagford. The building dates back to 1261, but there was probably a much older church on the same spot before it, and a pagan holy site before that. The current vicar welcomes everyone into the church, including the pagan community. We have come a long way from the days of witch burning, and that is a blessed thing.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool on Dartmoor

This week, with Halloween and the Days of the Dead just ahead of us, I've chosen songs of ghosts, revenants, and the shadowed border between life and death....

Above: "Imagination: There Was Once a Man..." by Aiden O'Rourke (co-founder of Lau), who explains:

"It all began with short stories. James Robertson, one of my favourite Scottish authors, wrote a short story every day for a year, and each story had exactly 365 words. I loved reading those stories: a daily dose of poetry and wisdom. And I loved the writing. The language is emotional, concise, apposite. Somehow the words and the pacing of the stories felt musical. I was intrigued by the discipline of setting such a quantifiable daily creative ritual. Would the same be possible in music? In 2016, I decided I would take on a similar writing challenge each day for a year. I told James and he replied, 'Don't do it!' then suggested I give it a month and see if it drove me mad. By 2017, I had 365 new tunes, each one linked to a story from James' collection. There's no doubt the tunes are based in Scottish folk music; that's my backbone, the place I come from, the traditional language I love. There's a parallel with James here, too, because he loves old Scots words and tales."

O'Rourke's story-music appears on the album 365: Volume I, released earlier this year, with a second volume forthcoming. In the video above, he's accompanied by keyboard player Kit Downes; and by James Robertson himself, reading the uncanny tale that inspired the tune.

Below: "Fair Margaret & Sweet William" (Child Ballad #74), an old, old song of love and ghosts performed by the great English folksinger June Tabor. The ballad appears on her excellent album An Echo of Hooves (2003).

Above: "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," based on the 17th century Irish poem "Táim sínte ar do thuama," beautifully sung by Dominie Hooper from Band of Burns. Dominie grew up here in Chagford,  dazzling us all with the power of her voice since she was young.

Below: "Wife of Usher's Well" (Child Ballad #79), performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. In this song, a mother longs for her three dead sons to return to her...but when they do, they come as revenants, still bound to the land of death. The ballad is rich in folk traditions about what the newly dead may and may not do, and how the living may safely interact with them. Polwart first recorded it for her marvelous collection of ballads Fairiest Floo'er (2007), but this fine version appeared a year later on the expanded edition of This Earthly Spell.

Above: "Death and the Lady," performed by folk legends Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, from the north of England. Norma introduces the song, explaining its history and connection to the Black Death.

Below: "The Ballad of George Collins" (Child Ballad #42), a traditional song performed in an extravagantly untraditional way by the brilliant young folksinger Sam Lee, who is based in London. The Penguin Book of British Folk Songs explains:

"The plot of  'George Collins' has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss."

In this variant of the ballad, the young man has been promiscuous with his favors and five other young women, in addition to his lover Fair Ellender, die from kissing his poisoned lips.

Above: "Kitty Jay" by Seth Lakeman, a song from his 2004 album of the same name, performed in New York earlier this year. Seth, who lives here on Dartmoor, draws much of his song-writing material from local history and lore. Kitty Jay (as the legend goes) was a poor young woman who worked on a remote farm in the late 18th century. Impregnated and betrayed by her master's son, she resolved to take her own life, and for this sin she was buried in unhallowed ground at the Manaton crossroads.

Jay's Grave at the crossroads near Manaton

Kitty Jay's grave, which is not far from our village, is said to be haunted by a shadowy figure wrapped up in a cloak. (Kitty herself? Her remorseful lover?)  There are always fresh flowers upon it, although no one is ever seen putting them there.

Jay's Grave in spring

And to end with, below:

"In a Week," a very dark, yet eerily beautiful song about the process of death, written and performed by Hozier (Andrew Hozier-Byrne). He's accompanied here by Alana Henderson. Both musicians are from Ireland.

Photograph by Alexandra Bochkareva

The three Dartmoor photographs above: An ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool, and Jay's Grave at the edge of the moor near Manaton. The last photograph, of maiden and fox, is by Alexandra Bochkareva. If you'd like more spooky songs, last year's Halloween tunes are here. For more information on Child Ballads, go here.


A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic. But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woof). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2 in 2009. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta,  was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society in 2010. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood written by Jackie Morris, is a twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which has been nominated for the 2017 Kate Greenaway Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. I recommend all four books highly.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website, blog, and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine HydeThe passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors. The paintings by Catherine Hyde are: a detail from The Falling Sar, The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth. All rights reserved by the artist.


At the Death of the Year

Twilight by Brian Froud

In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday Death by Brian Froudstill widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.

According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

(Go here for Stu Jenks' Guest Post on the Day of the Dead festivities in Tucson, Arizona.)

The Elfin Maid by Brian Froud

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.

When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.

The Rune of Journeys by Brian Froud

Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & ArtLewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:

"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of The Rune of Stewardship by Brian Froudthe stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.

On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.

Leaf Mask by Brian FroudThe art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud). His latest book is Faeries' Tales, written and co-illustrated by Wendy Froud.


Death in Folk & Fairy Tales

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Once upon a time there was a poor tailor who could barely feed his twelve children. When the thirteenth was born, the distraught man ran out to the road nearby determined to find someone to stand as godfather to the child. He knew of no other way that he could provide for his newborn son. The first person to pass was God, but the poor tailor rejected him. "God gives to the rich and takes from the poor. I'll wait for another to come." The second to pass was the Devil, but the poor tailor rejected him too. "He lies and cheats and leads good men astray. I'll wait for another." The third man to pass was Death, and the poor tailor considered him carefully. "Death treats all men alike, whether rich or poor. He's the one I'll ask."

Godfather Death by John B. GruelleNow Death had never been asked such a thing before, but he agreed at once. "Your child shall lack for nothing," he said, "for I am a powerful friend indeed." The years went by and he kept his word. The boy and his family lacked for nothing. When the boy finally came of age, his Godfather Death appeared before him. "It is time to establish you in the world. You are to become a great physician. Take this magical herb, the cure for any malady of this earth. Look for me when you're called to a patient's bed. If you see me at its head then give them a tincture of the herb and your patient will be well. But if you see me at the foot, you'll know it is their time to die. Your diagnosis will always be right, and you will be famous around the world."

And so it was. The young man became the most famous doctor of his time, and his fame spread far and wide until it reached the ears of the king. The king lay sick in his golden bed and he summoned the tailor's son to him. But when the young doctor arrived at last in the richly appointed bedchamber, he saw that the king was gravely ill and that Death stood at his feet. Now this king was much beloved and the young man wanted to cure him very much. He quickly instructed the court attendants to turn the bed the opposite way, and he then restored the king to health with a tincture of the magical herb. Death was not pleased. He shook his long, bony finger at his godson and said, "You must never cheat me again. If you do, it will be the worse for you."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The young man took this warning to heart and did not cross his godfather again -- until the king's daughter fell ill and he was summoned back to the palace. This was the good king's only child. He was desperate to see her well. "Save her life," said the king, "I shall give you her hand in marriage." The doctor went to the lovely maiden's bedchamber, where Death was waiting. He stood at the foot of the princess's bed, ready to take her away. "Don't cross me again," his godfather warned, but the doctor was half in love already. He ordered the princess's bed to be turned and he gave her the herbal tincture.

The princess was healed immediately, but Death reached out a cold, white hand and clamped it on his godson's arm, saying. "You'll go with me instead." He took the young man into a cave, its wall niches covered with millions of candles. "Here," he said, "are candles burning for every life upon the earth. Each time a candle grows low and snuffs out, a life is ended. This one is yours." Death pointed to a candle that had burned down to a pool of wax. "Please," his godson begged, "for many years I was your faithful servant. Please, Godfather Death, won't you light a new candle for me?" Death gazed at him remorselessly. The candle sputtered and flickered out. The young doctor fell down dead.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

This story, titled Godfather Death, comes from the German folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. It can also be found in variant forms in a number of other countries as well -- such as The Shepherd and the Three Diseases from Greece, The Just Man from Italy, The Soul-Taking Angel from Armenia, The Contract with Azrael from Egypt, Dr. Urssenbeck from Austria, and The Boy With the Keg of Ale from Norway. It's one of a number of folk and fairy tales in which Death is personified: sometimes as a frightening figure, sometimes as a compassionate one, and sometimes as a matter-of-fact man or woman with a job to do.

There are many tales in which Death is out-witted, such as Jump In My Sack from Slovenia -- in which a young man pleases a powerful fairy who offers him two magic wishes. He asks for a sack which will suck in whatever he names, and a stick that will do all he asks. These wishes are granted, and the young man uses the sack to bring him meat and drink, until he comes to a great city and falls in with a group of gamblers. Death (or the Devil, in an Italian version of the tale) is among the gamblers in disguise, amusing himself at the gaming table by luring men to financial ruin and then collecting their souls when they are driven to suicide. The young man sees through Death's disguise. He orders the sack to suck Death up, then orders the stick to beat him soundly. At length Death begs for mercy, promising the young man whatever he wants. The young man asks for the restoration to life of all his gambling friends, and then orders Death to leave at once and to stay far away from him. But many years later, old and ill, he has second thoughts about this bargain. He now uses the sack to call Death back, and is grateful to be led away.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In a number of tales Death is outwitted and banished with dire consequences. The old, the ill, and the fatally wounded do not die, but linger in agony until finally the importance of Death's role can no longer be ignored. In a Spanish tale, an old woman traps Death in her pear tree and will not let him go until he promises to never come back. The woman's name is Tia Miseria (Aunt Misery), and as long as Death keeps his promise to her, we'll have misery in the world. In a similar tale from Portugal, Death outwits the old woman in the end -- but finds her so shrewish, he promptly brings her back to her house and flees.

Some tales feature a Godmother Death, such as versions of the stories told in Slovenia and Moravia, and across the sea in America's Appalachian Mountain region. The depiction of death as male or female depended on the culture, the times, and the storyteller, but examples of both are widely found in folk tales the world over. In Death and the Maiden, a story known in both folk tale and folk ballad form, the interaction of a male Death figure and the well-born young woman he's come to claim has an almost seductive quality. She tries to bargain for her life, offering up her gold and jewels, as he gently explains that she must go with him that very night. In some pictorial representations of the story, Death is portrayed as a knight clad in black; in others, more frighteningly, he is a skeleton in knightly clothes. (Franz Schubert drew on this tale for his lovely Quartet in D Minor: Death and the Maiden, composed in 1824.) In a Turkish fairy tale, The Prince Who Longed for Immortality, a male Death figure is pitted against the Queen of Immortality. They wager over who will get the hero by throwing him up in the air. In a story from northern Italy, Death is portrayed as a lovely young woman. She's an unwelcome guest in the palace when her true identity is revealed (as she takes the handsome young king away) — but a welcome guest in the cottage of a poor, old woman who's been waiting for her.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In early medieval representations, Death was usually masculine: powerful, pitiless, omnipresent. Clad in black, he was the Grim Reaper who cut men and women down in their prime, prince and poet and pauper alike. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, we find more examples of Death as a woman — such as Donna La Morte in Petrarch's famous poem, "The Triumph of Death," who appears suddenly all "black, and in black" to claim the life of a young noblewoman. The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) first appeared in the middle of the 14th century as the Black Death ravaged its way across Europe. The Dance of Death originated in the form of a Christian spectacular play, performed in churchyards and cemeteries among charnel houses and graves. Death appeared here as masked, skeletal figures intent on leading away a series of victims (twenty-four in number) from all classes of society. The victims would protest, offering reasons why they and they alone should be spared, but in the end all are danced off to the grave while the fiddlers play. This was paired with sermons stressing that death could strike anyone at any time, exhorting the audience to prepare themselves and live free of sin.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In Italy in the following century, death spectacles were more elaborately staged. As Charles B. Herbermann and George Charles Williams describe them (in the Catholic Encyclopedia): "After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices."

Death in the Rider Waite tarot deckThere are many pictorial representations of the Triumph of Death and the Dance of Death, such as the woodcuts created by Hans Holbein in 1538. Holbein's series begins with the Creation, Temptation, Expulsion, and Consequences of the Original Sin, resulting in Death's entry into the world. The fifth woodcut depicts the dead as skeletons in a cemetery, cavorting with musical instruments. The subsequent images show various figures being danced to their graves, from a high-born Pope to a lowly Beggar. The final images show the Last Judgment, and the triumph of God over Death. Death also appears as a skeleton in the earliest extant Tarot cards, which first appeared in Italy and France in the 14th century. Use of the cards was limited then because each deck had to be painted by hand. With 16th century printing techniques, their use became more widespread. In the Marseille deck from this period, Death is a genderless, skeletal figure, holding a scythe and standing on a field of bones. The better known Rider Waite Tarot deck (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) dates back only to 1910, but draws on symbolic imagery from an earlier period. Here, Death appears as a skeletal knight, dressed in black armor, seated on a white horse. This imagery echoes Holbein's woodcuts, and Albrecht Dürer's 16th century engraving "Knight, Death, and the Devil."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

My friend and colleague Midori Snyder is a writer who has worked with the folklore of death in several ways ( in her elegiac faery novel Hannah's Garden, her children's story "Jack Straw" [read it online here], and in a novel-in-progress based on an Italian fairy tale),  so I asked her for her thoughts on the subject:

"There are many characters in folklore associated with death," Midori responded, "various death-announcers and death-dealers, but I would suggest that they are not actually Death figures, as in a Mr. or Ms. Death personified. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War, for example, revels not only in the glory of war but also its violence and carnage: the taste of fear, the scent blood, the dying moments of warriors on the battlefield. Flying above the battle in the form of a black crow, she is a figure of Fate, like the Valyries of Norse myth, foretelling who will live and who will die...but she is not Death herself. The various incubi and succubi of European folk legend are death-dealers, in their actions are fatal to the luckless mortals who get tangled up with them...but they aren't Death, either. Their interest is in specific individuals (generally those who catch their sexual interest), whereas Death is an equal opportunity killer. Death takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong, the weak. Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting, unpredictable pattern. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen -- but never when and never how. Tales such as Godfather Death, or the medieval Dance of Death, specifically addressed this idea and this terror -- as opposed to folklore's other death-dealing creatures, who select very specific victims. Edgar Allan Poe's frightening story 'Masque of the Red Death' plays with the idea that one imagines one can foretell and identify Death, and therefore keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the sheer ease with which Death infiltrates the masque with the rest of the revelers."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez 10

"I've also been thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours," Midori continues. "The Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, is not a Mr. Death figure, but, rather, he is the King of the Dead, content to rule over the souls who have come to him instead of going out and nabbing them himself. Likewise in the Christian tradition, where those who die are 'born to eternal life' in heaven or hell, Christ isn't a Mr. Death, and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice), although both have something to say about dead souls in the afterlife.

"When we look at myth, specifically at that cycle of tales in which death is brought into the world (often by a bumbling Trickster figure), death is rarely personified. It moves like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous. Death happens. But in folk and fairy tales, death acquires a face, a figure, a point of consolidation -- which allows the protagonist of the tale, when confronted with his or her mortality, to recognize the moment at hand. The personified images of Mr. or Ms. Death are generally of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonymity and flexibility of personified Death insures the equality with which death meets us all...high and low.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. In medieval and Renaissance pictorial representations, Death often wears a tattered, mirror version of the clothes his victim wears. It is, after all, for each of us, our Death that we meet, no one else's. In the stories where he appears, Mr. Death is a reflection -- a concrete, externalized image of the protagonist's death. And therefore his/her appearance has something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived. From the Grim Reaper of medieval legend to the elegant young stranger in Peter Beagle's story 'Come Lady Death' or the 'woman in white' in Bob Fose's All That Jazz, from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's haunting film Dead Man, Death appears in a variety of guises but also functions differently as a narrative sign. Coyote's death in Trickster myths, for example, is experienced (and read) very differently than the death proffered by the skeletal knight who comes to take the Maiden away. The first is read as temporary, because Coyote always come back to life -- while the other is frighteningly permanent. The skeleton reflects what the Maiden will become. Indeed, what we'll all become."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death is a frequent theme in fairy tales -- as well as the stark realities of death's aftermath, for many stories begin with the death of one or both of the hero's parents. Fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out that death in childbirth was far more common in centuries prior to our own and the prevalence of step-children and orphans in fairy tales reflected a social reality. Many of these tales (in their pre-Victorian forms) were exceedingly violent, including those gathered by the Brothers Grimm in editions published for German children. Though the Grimms are known to have edited their fairy tales with a rather heavy hand, stripping them of sensuality and moral ambiguity, they had no such qualms about leaving much of the worst violence intact. (Indeed, as scholar Maria Tatar has noted, in some stories they beefed it up.) Murder, cannibalism, and infanticide are staples of the fairy tale genre. From Bluebeard with his chamber of horrors to the goodwife in The Juniper Tree who decapitates her inconvenient step-son, death is a very real threat in the tales -- yet it does not always have the last word. In Fitcher's Bird (a Bluebeard variant), the heroine not only outwits the wizard who aims to marry then murder her, but she's able to bring the hacked-up bodies of her predecessors back to life. The step-son in The Juniper Tree returns to earth in the form of a bird. Cinderella's dead mother returns as a fish (in the oldest, Chinese version of the story), a cow (in a Scottish variant), or a tree (in the version found in Grimms), watching over her daughter and whispering wise words of advice.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Another good example is the story of Snow White. Our heroine is not merely sleeping but dead, in the early versions of her tale: displayed in a glass coffin, her form incorruptible, like a saint's. The necrophilic overtones of the story are most evident in a 16th century Italian version called The Crystal Casket. In this tale, the heroine is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her step-daughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The step-mother then hires a witch, who sells poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead -- and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place the girl's body in a fabulous casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the royal city.

Photograph by Daniel VazquezThe casket is soon found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes the body home with him. "But my son, she's dead!" protests his mother. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. The queen ignores the macabre creature -- until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed. The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the queen, "the girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The heroine is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.

Author and fairy tale scholar Veronica Schanoes notes, "Many fairy tales and myths concern the fantasy that if you love someone enough, you can bring them back from the dead. In fairy tales, that effort is usually successful and the wish is fulfilled: Sleeping Beauty wakes up; Snow White revives; the older sisters in Fitcher's Bird are resuscitated; the heroine recovers her prince in East of the Sun, West of the Moon; etc. But in myth, the stories tend to be more poignantly about the limits of human love and its inability to defeat death: Gilgamesh can't bring back Enki; Achilles can't bring back Patroclus; Theseus cannot rescue Pirithous; Orpheus fails; and even though she is a goddess, Demeter's love for Persephone can only bring her back part-way."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen often touch on the subject of death, but the ones that address the subject directly are among his most pious and sentimental, better suited to Victorian tastes than they are to ours today. One of the more interesting of them is The Story of a Mother, in which Death knocks on a woman's door and takes her beloved son away. The distraught woman determines to follow, and makes her long, weary way to Death's realm. There, she finds a greenhouse filled to the bursting with flowers and trees of all kinds -- each one representing a single life somewhere on earth. When Death arrives, she tricks him into giving back the life of her son -- but Death shows her the future and the terrible life her child will lead. She knows then that his death is god's will, and a mercy, and she is at peace.

Andersen's very best tale about death has deservedly become a classic. The Nightingale is the story of a Chinese Emperor and a bird with an exquisite song. The Emperor dotes on the bird for awhile, then replaces the humble, faithful creature with a golden mechanical replicate...until the night that Death comes for him, squatting heavily on his chest:

Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner. Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now that Death sat on his heart.

"Don't you remember?" they whispered one after the other. "Don't you remember—?" And they told him of things that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.

"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor. "Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they say!"

But nothing will drown out the whispers. The Emperor's mechanical bird sits silent, for there is no one to wind it up. Then the real nightingale arrives, having heard wind of the emperor's plight. He sings so beautifully that the phantoms fade and even Death stops to listen. The nightingale bargains for the emperor's life, and Death departs.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death underlines the magical stories that make up The Arabian Nights, for it is the reason Scheherazade spins her tales: to save herself and her sister. "There's something almost Trickster-ish about Scheherazade," Midori points out. "She uses storytelling to keep death at bay -- but she does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where its conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires yet another night to finish -- and then promptly starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion (the rehearsal of 'death') does come -- but in the middle of the night, which enables her to resurrect herself in another tale before the sun rises. So it's as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the storyteller. It's like trickster's death in the Coyote stories, a death that is never final. He's always returning, repeating a movement between death and creation."

It fairy tales, too, death is not always final; it's sometimes an agent of change and transformation. Sleeping Beauty in her death-like sleep, Snow White in her glass coffin: this is a mere rehearsal for death, and out of it new life is created (literally, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, who gives birth to twins as she lies asleep and wakes as they try to suckle). In Trickster myths, the connection between death and life, destruction and creation, is usually made clear; but in fairy tales too, death is not always an ending, or at least not just an ending. It can have within it the seeds of new life, of change, of transformation — which is what these tales, at their most basic level, are so often all about.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death in folklore, when not associated with the more violent sorts of death-dealers, is generally rather ambiguous," Midori concludes, "which is of course the nature of death itself. At some point we must accept and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all -- yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality. Death figures in folk and fairy tales allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it."

This is fertile ground for fantasy writers, some of whom have already made good use of it: Ursula K. Le Guin in The Farthest Shore, Jane Yolen in Cards of Grief, Rachel Pollack in Godmother Night, Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comics, etc.. But there's still much territory to explore as the fantasy genre ages and matures... and as we fantasy writers and artists age and mature along with it.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

For an excellent discussion of death in fantasy literature, I highly recommend "Imagined Afterlives," a new essay by Katherine Langerish.

The marvelously macabre photographs today are by the American photographer Daniel Vazquez, who lives and works in the Bay Area of California. Please visit his "American Ghoul" website and Instagram page to see more of his stunning work (and to purchase his prints).

Photograph by Daniel VazquezPictures: The photographs above are by Daniel Vazquez; all rights reserved by the artist. The illustrations are: "Godfather Death" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938) and the Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Words: Many thanks to Midori Snyder for her contribitions to this essay. (Go here to read some of her own essays on myth and folklore, highly recommended.) All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale.   - T.W.


Dancing skeletons
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks

Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.

But we all know that’s not true.

Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.

Any, all, or none of the above.

But one thing is not mysterious.

We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.

The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.

"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.

"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.

"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.

"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.

These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."

Yes, it is.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.