There are almost as many ‘explanations’ of ghosts as there are ghosts themselves. One day, all ghostly phenomena may be explicable in scientific terms or, one day, we may become aware of a parallel or interfused reality in which they, and other such inexplicable things, have their existence. Here are just some of the possible explanations:
- A ghost could be a folk memory of an ancient tragedy. For example the crying child ghost heard at the Roman fortress of Reculver, in Kent. In 1966 the skeletons of several babies were discovered beneath the foundations. Could the crying ghosts be ‘memories’ of a ritual child sacrifice some 2000 years ago? At Richborough, sixteen or seventeen miles from Reculver, a ghostly Roman cohort is sometimes seen, its phantom soldiers marching into the sea.
- Ghosts are not even always human beings. Phantom ships have been seen sailing towards shore, leaving the water and continuing to ‘sail’ for a considerable distance overland. In Cornwall ‘corpse candles’ were said to foretell a death. These small blobs of yellow light would process along the street and stop over the house where a death was imminent. This is a strange, parallel – Cornish lights hovering over a house of death; the Star of Bethlehem hovering over a house of birth.
- In some parts of Britain there have been reports of spectral coaches drawn by headless horses. This could be a ‘memory’ of the Norse invaders and their god Odin/Woden – whose Wild Hunt was said to cross the night sky in Winter followed by baying hounds. To witness the Wild Hunt was to be carried off to a distant land. To speak with the Huntsman meant certain death. Spectral dogs could be a folk-memory of Odin’s fearsome hounds.
- Many ghosts are said to be those of famous or royal personages. It may be that we just cannot let go of the idea of these individuals – that they are so vividly alive in our imaginations that we cannot accept the mundane fact of their deaths. Think of Elvis Presley and all the rumours that he did not die, that he has been sighted walking past a window at Gracelands and so forth.
- And then there is the legion of Grey Ladies, Brown Ladies and other nameless ghosts, whose original purpose for remaining has faded with time, but who still walk the corridors of country houses, or haunt the cellars of castles, apparently manifesting some long-ago instense emotion – love, hate, fear, the need for revenge or a final farewell – leaving some kind of pattern in the fabric of time for sensitives to pick up on.
- Animals react to ghosts in different ways. Horses sweat and shy, and dogs bark in the presence of a ghost, but cats enjoy the company of ghosts and are said to purr when they are around. The farmyard cockerel could banish ghosts and avert the evil eye, at least in the Hebrides. A cock crowing at dawn told the farmer it was safe to rise and begin his day’s work, for the spirits of darkness had all been banished. It was said that a cockerel could frighten away the Devil himself – one reason cockerels appear so often in church weathervanes.
- Many of the old customs around the time of death and in connection with funerals, were not so much to honour the dead as to make sure they could not come back and haunt their fearful relatives. Touching the dead person, gently and respectfully, prevented the toucher from being haunted by the ghost of the corpse. It was also a way of proving that goodwill existed between toucher and corpse. A murdered man’s body was said to bleed if touched by his murderer.
- Fairies were once believed to be the ghosts of those that had died before Christianity came to Britian, and of the stillborn and the unbaptised.
- The festival of Samain or Samhain (pronounced sahwin or sowin), the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter (31 October/1 November – the origin of our Halloween) was a time when natural laws were suspended and ghosts and demons were free to roam. Samain was the beginning of the celtic calendar and signified both death and new life. This was the time for animals to be slaughtered to provide food for winter, and for sheep to be mated for next year’s flock.