So you think that when you die you get eaten by the worms and that’s it huh? Not so! Humankind has been fascinated by death for years and years and there are many spooky myths and legends surrounding death and dying.
In the West we sime of great sadness but for religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, death is seen as a wonderful time of the release of the soul. Time to go on home folks…The Egyptians of course believed very strongly in reincarnation and the rich would bury their gold, clothes and rather terrifyingly, even servants to take with them ready for their next life. The servants were actually buried alive, so that they could look after their wealthy owners in the afterlife.
Spooky Animal Omens – death is coming?
Some cultures believed that insects, birds and even animals act in strange ways to announce an upcoming death.
Birds - Each culture has its own beliefs but many birds including crows, owls and ravens appear over and over again around the world as signs of impending death, black coloured birds in particular. Crows are associated with misfortune too and the raven is said to be linked with the devil himself.
The Tower of London in the UK has the most famous ravens of all. It is said that if the ravens ever leave the tower, the British Royal Family will die…and the legendary King Arthur is believed to have actually been turned into a raven when he died.
Dogs - Dogs are said to howl immediately before or after the death of an owner and this still happens today, the world over. Perhaps the dogs can sense the death in some way? It is because dogs are thought to have ‘second sight’ and have psychic ability? Maybe!
The actual moment of death was said to be announced by the dog barking three times in a row and in Ireland it was believed that if your dog dug up your garden then you faced death or severe illness, although I’ve never found a case yet where this was true! Hey most dogs dig up your garden don’t they?
Death-watch Beetle – this shiny black beetle appears to mark the impending death of someone close. The death-watch beetle was used in the 1998 Movie ‘Practical Magic’ staring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. This spooky comedy features a family of witches and the death-watch beetle shows itself to warn of the death of the witches husbands, following an ancient family spell.
Spiders – most of the women I know are scared half to death if they see a spider anyway so there’s no surprise that the spider is associated with death in many parts of the world. Although in the Middle Ages spiders were seen as helpful creatures who killed flies and other nasties. It was considered important to keep them around. Maybe this is where this ancient saying came from; ‘If you wish to live and thrive, let the spiders run alive’.
Butterflies – butterflies mark the transition from life to death to rebirth, mirroring their own change from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Butterflies are often thought to be the spirit of the dead who come back to visit the living.
Scary death visions
In the UK, a ‘corpse candle’ is a strange light which is said to appear to float through the night air and hang around where death is about to occur…I guess nowadays this is the equivalent to the ‘orbs’ we capture on film (although we don’t associate death with the phenomenon, just ghosts!).
If you walk up to the lights they are supposed to vanish into thin air. There was a similar Welsh legend where a blue light was meant to suggest the death of a child. Small lights were also thought to be the death call for children, and larger lights appeared when the spooks were collecting their adult corpses… or a bigger loss, say of several people at once.
There is an ancient legend which says that Saint David, the patron Saint of Wales, was worried that people were not warned that death was close so he prayed that his people would have a sign. It is said that Saint David then had a dream in which he was told the people of Wales would always see the ‘corpse candles’ as a kind of warning that death was close.
Another death omen is the corpse lights which are seen in white, red and blue and both inside or outside the house. They have appeared low to the ground and even floating over people’s houses. Also known as Jack-‘o-Lanterns they could be produced by atmospheric gas…but who knows…maybe something more serious is lurking.
Many a horror movie features a scary coach and horses which arrive, sometimes with headless coachmen to take away the dead. This is based on a real legend. The coach screeches up outside the house with the dying person inside. They then wait patiently for them to die. The carriage then disappears with the body to some horrifying place of evil.
Some see or dream about a black coach pulled by black horses with black feathers – lots of black then? These were traditional funeral coaches which would carry the casket with the dead to the church or final resting place. These too were seen as warnings of death.
Then there was the delightful coach-a-bower. This coach had headless horses and if you opened your door when you heard them approach, they would throw a bowl of blood in your face. Nice…
If you’re not scared enough yet, how about the howling of a wailing banshee to brighten your day? Banshee, which literally translates woman-faerie, is a terrifying figure who hails a death by clapping and erm…wailing, and just generally making a lot of noise.
To have your death announced by a banshee is quite an honour as this is usually done for holy figures or ‘great ones’. Watch out if your last name begins with MAC though. According to Scottish and Irish folklore, the banshee attaches herself families with this surname. The banshee is thought to be a woman who died whilst giving birth and she comes to strike terror to those who hear her blood curdling wail.
Just so you can be ready, this is what she looks like. In Irish lore she is beautiful and has lovely long hair. She doesn’t have great fashion sense though and wears a green or red dress with a long grey cloak. In Scotland she is ugly and evil. She’s never heard of a wonder bra so her breasts are said to be long and droopy. She has only one nostril, buck teeth and webbed feet. Who makes this stuff up? Get to the dentist girl!
Oh and just to confuse things, in America the banshee has long yellow hair. Fabulous!
Classic grim reaper stuff is a tall guy with a cloak on. He hides his head under the large hood of his cloak and carried a large scythe or cutting tool on a stick. If you don’t die of a heart attack when you see him he might be cut your head off with his scythe thingy.
Sometimes the reaper is said to have the ‘body’ of a skeleton so I can imagine why he might hide his body in shame…fashions differ here again with black cloaks being seen in the USA and white in and around Europe.
The angel of death?
On a more positive note though, I guess I would rather be collected by an angel and traditionally this would be the angel Azrael, the ‘collecting angel’. Azrael’s job would be to escort souls to their new home (or old home if you believe in reincarnation).
Interestingly, many people who have near death experiences see an angel or deceased loved ones ready to collect them at the point of death. I could see how it might be easy to get confused if your loved one in life used to wear a cloak or only had one nostril…but that’s a whole other story!
© Jacky Newcomb 2010