Ghosts, Fairies and Omens

Pieter Lastman, The Angel and Tobias

367 - 10 (3)


"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"

(Hamlet, 1.5)





The belief that people's spirits might manifest themselves after death was extremely ancient. Many much-respected classical authors, (including Suetonius, Cicero, Livy, Plutarch) recorded the appearance of ghosts.


[Enter the Ghost of Caesar]

BRUTUS:  How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
GHOST: Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
Why comest thou?
GHOST:  To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

(Julius Caesar, 4.3)



The Roman Catholic Church taught that at death the souls of those too good for hell and too bad for heaven were sent to Purgatory. Here they were purged of their sins by punishment, but might on occasion be allowed to return to earth to warn the living of the need for repentance.

"I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away."

(Hamlet 1.5)



Catholic beliefs in Purgatory and Limbo (an intermediate state between heaven and hell in which the Old Testament Patriarchs were confined until saved by Christ) were rejected by Protestant theologians.
Protestant divines insisted that the dead went immediately to hell or heaven - the former could not return to earth and the latter would not want to.

"If they be in heaven, they need not to us: if in hell, there is … a great gulf betwixt us and them, our prayer cannot go over for want of a bridge: … There is no mean between these extremes: Purgatory is but imaginary: a poetical chimæra: a paper prison, like the other limbos, whereof Virgil (I think) the heathen was one of the first builders:"

(Westerne, Flaming bush, 1624)



Protestants rejected Purgatory as a money-making device of Catholic priests eager to sell indulgences and to charge for saying masses for the souls of the dead.


However, popular belief in ghosts survived in Protestant England. Moreover, various Scriptural references - the appearance of Samuel to Saul (I Samuel 28) and of Moses and Elias with Christ (Mark 9:4) suggested that apparitions of the dead were not wholly impossible.


However they dealt with Scriptural instances, virtually all Protestant theologians held that any contemporary ghost was in all probability a demon trying to tempt us to sin. Just as miracles had ceased, so had angelic messengers from God.


Heterodox thinkers like Reginald Scot, Thomas Hobbes, and Thomas White doubted the existence of all spirits - ghosts as well as souls. Their perceived atheism softened the attitudes of such Protestant theorists as Richard Baxter and Joseph Glanville to apparitions, and they saw these as possible proofs of the existence of the spiritual world.


Joseph Glanville (1636-80)

"But alas! we live in an age wherein atheism is begun in Sadducism*: And those that dare not bluntly say, There is no God, content themselves, for a fair step and introduction, to deny there are spirits, or witches. Which sort of infidels, though they are not so ordinary among the mere vulgar, yet are they numerous in a little higher rank of understandings "

(Glanvill, Essays on several important subjects, 1676)
For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit:" Acts 23:8]



One function of ghosts was the enforcement of prevalent social norms - encouraging charity, haunting sinners, threatening retribution. Ghosts also served to uphold a conservative society's belief that the wishes of ancestors should be honored.


These traditional functions of ghosts clashed with Protestant teaching that portrayed all apparitions as diabolic deceits.




"This is the fairy land: O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls and sprites:
If we obey them not, this will ensue,
They'll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue"

(Comedy of Errors 2.2)



Popular belief in sixteenth and seventeenth century England endorsed the existence of a whole range of magical creatures, including fairies, elves, brownies and hobgoblins.


Fairies were merry creatures who feasted and danced in woodlands at night. Puritans disapproved of such activities even when done by people.

Some fairies were particularly famous - Robin Goodfellow (alias Puck) and Queen Mab.
Robin Goodfellow was known for his mischievous tricks.
Queen Mab interfered in household tasks (such as churning butter) bringing good luck to housewives she favored and accidents to the idle and slovenly.



Although stories of fairies reinforced moral conduct, puritan reformers strongly disapproved of all such ideas, and disparaged them as "points of popery" and "the very dregs of miracles, in milkpans, and greasy dishes, by Robin Goodfellow, and hags, and fairies, all wrought somewhat for their idle superstitions" (Dering XXVII Lectures 1576).
Conservative clerics such as Richard Corbet displayed a great deal more sympathy for popular myths.


Fairies supposedly carried away neglected children, and replaced them with  another child (called a changeling) who was often half-witted or impish, and so afflicted the parents for their neglect.

"For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;
But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy:"

(Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1)



Oberon was the king of the Fairies, and Mab or Titania was their queen - a form of social organization that reflected the real world.


Confidence tricksters sometimes used stories about fairies to dupe the ignorant and credulous; nonetheless stories of fairy gold continued to circulate.


The ecclesiastical authorities - both Protestant and Catholic - were very hostile to belief in fairies and other magical beings. Protestants accused Catholics of inventing such tales and promoting superstition, and insisted that the devil must be behind any case that was not simply fraudulent.


"This conversing of Satan with the witch, hath been the ground of all these conceits of fairies, &c. whereby the papists kept the ignorant in awe"

(Cooper, Mystery of witchcraft, 1617)

"… the common gross and erroneous opinions that the blockish vulgar people do hold, who are all generally enchanted and bewitched with the belief of the strange things related of devils, apparitions, fairies, hobgoblins, ghosts, spirits and the like".

(Webster, Supposed witchcraft, 1677)



Belief in fairies became increasingly confined to the lower ranks of the social scale. The folklore of Irish and Scottish peasants was particularly rich in such notions - many of them chronicled by Robert Kirk in his The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies (1691).




" 'Tis a lucky day, boy, and we'll do good deeds on't."

(Winter's Tale 3.3)


bullet The idea that some times were luckier than others was also common in early-modern England. Before the Reformation, many festivals and Saints' days were specially observed and associated with particular activities.
For example, of Saint Swithin's Day (July 15) it was held:
"Saint Swithin's day if thou dost rain, for forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithin's day if thou be fair, For forty days 'twill rain na mair
[no more]."
Saint Swithin (Swithun) Church Cornwall; the well nearby is said never to run dry.

On Saint Mark's Eve (April 24), visions of people who would die in the next year appeared in churchyards. The feast of Saint Valentine - patron saint of lovers - (February 14) continues to have romantic associations. Eating goose on Michaelmas (September 29) supposedly guaranteed good finances for the following year.


Belief in lucky and unlucky days was tied to number magic.

"This is the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death."

(Merry Wives 5.1)



The number seven was thought particularly significant -  critical periods for health and fortune in a person's life were found by multiplying seven with the odd numbers 3, 5, 7, and 9. People's sixty-third year, the "grand climacteric," was especially important.


It has been argued that the magical connotations of time stemmed from the rhythms of agrarian communities, where the seasons were very important and levels of activity varied drastically during the year.
The shift to a more diversified economy decreased the importance of seasonal variation, and the Protestant religious calendar stressed Sunday rather than intermittent festivals.


The invention of the pendulum clock allowed people to measure the passage of time accurately. Christiaan Huygens (1629-95) who patented and built the first pendulum clock in 1656/7 also published Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum (1673) explaining the theory of pendulum motion.


Pendulum clocks were accurate to within a minute per day and helped to confirm a newer view of time as flowing continuously and evenly.




Dürer, Young hare



Omens were supernatural indications of a future event. Many superstitions revolved around the idea that something innocuous (such as the number thirteen, a nose-bleed or spilling salt) might presage evil.

"…common and ordinary things are highly accounted of, as if they were lucky or unlucky, that is, when they do conjecture some joyful or sad events, upon some accidental words or deeds aforegoing. As if such a creature, as suppose a hare, or cat should meet them, or cross the way before them, if the salt-cellar upon the table should be overthrown, or wine spilt, …"

(Ames, Of Conscience)



Today's sweet Easter bunny is a pale vestige of many superstitions about the hare - it was held to be a bad omen for a hare to cross someone's path; witches were supposed to take the shape of hares; and their familiar imp often took the form of a hare; a pregnant woman who saw a hare would give birth to a child with a hare-lip.


"Unnatural" prodigies were often seen as omens of evil events. Monstrously deformed offspring (human or animal), for example, signaled impending disaster.


Scripture lent a certain credibility to the notion that signs might foretell important changes; for example, the star that presaged the birth of Christ. Christ himself asserted that the end of the world would be preceded by "great earthquakes ... in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven;" "And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh" (Luke 21:11, 20).


Comets were sometimes seen as a sign of God's anger. The Nonconformist Scottish divine, Robert Law, wrote in his diary that the great comet of 1680 "is certainly prodigious of great alterations, and of great judgements on these lands and nations for our sins."

"In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen"

(Hamlet 1.1)



The growth of Deism undermined belief in God's providence, and the mechanical philosophy of Galileo, Hobbes, etc., afforded no place for occult connections between the forces of nature and human events. Belief in omens continued amongst popular superstitions, but elite belief in such things decayed as the seventeenth century wore on.


The decline of magic

Jan Steen, The Quack



The decline of magic can be attributed to a number of causes. One factor was the rise of science - systematic observation and accurate quantification undermined Aristotelian physics and old notions of occult connections between different parts of the world.


Technological progress also made magic less useful: - medicine, although often ineffective, was nevertheless proving more reliable than  spells and charms. Statistics could predict accidents without recourse to notions of luck. Banking, insurance and organized fire-fighting helped forestall the misfortunes (theft and loss of money, fire and flood) that had previously made resort to magic so tempting.


More importantly, although during the seventeenth century medicine and technology remained backward by later standards, a scientific and statistical world view increasingly permeated the educated classes.


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