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Wraiths

by Teresa Martin

Hallowe’en is here with all its inspired horror tales and ghostly ambiance taking over public and home decorations.  There is a time-old tradition of scaring the living daylights out of each other on this night with tales of the supernatural, especially ghost stories. One such type of spirits, the wraiths, are ones in which I have had a particular interest: for lore has them as a duplicate of one’s own soul.

The word “wraith” first appeared approximately in the 16th century, meaning “spirit.”  A wraith is defined as “a ghost of a person on the verge of death . . . an exact likeness of its human counterpart, showing itself to relatives of that person as he is about to die …. [This] appears to have developed from a very old belief that a person’s soul is an exact duplicate of his or her living body (Haining 215).”  A person will be suddenly confronted face to face with his double and that will be a sign that his death is near, but most commonly it is seen by others (Briggs 309-310).  For the latter, it would occur “if someone were to catch a glimpse of a person whom they knew passing the door or window, and on looking outside were to find no such person there …. This was considered a remarkably clear instance of a person’s wraith, or spirit being seen at the time of death (Napier 70).”

The traditions of the traditional Qui-Shen are also incorporated into the plot.  In the attack on Prince Phillip, daylight scares the wraith away.  Later, Snow and Charming use fire to repel the creature as well as lead it into the magical hat.  Moreover, when Rumpelstiltskin presses the medallion into Regina’s hand, she has the appearance of one who has been weakened, as though perhaps some of her energy was taken from her soul.  The show has therefore utilized ancient Chinese Traditions with modern lore resulting in the enrichment of the show’s canon.

Delving into the concept of the soul being taken by a Qui Shen introduced Chinese myth as a  their wraiths thereby sending the same chills to the audience that the Celtic people of long ago felt when telling these tales on cold winter nights.

There are many old tales from Scotland that tell of such stories. One is the story of “The Death Portent” reproduced in its entirety:

​A farmer’s wife, who resided on the banks of the Ale, near St. Boswells’, looking out a 
 window, thought she saw a funeral approaching; and at once mentioned the 
 circumstance to some neighbours, then with her in the house. They ran out to look, but 
came back and sat down again, saying she must be mistaken, for there was nothing of 
the kind to be seen. The woman felt restless, however, and out of spirits; she could not
help going to the window again, and again she saw the funeral moving on. Her friends 
ran out of doors and looked along the road, but still could perceive nothing; a third time 
she went to the window, and exclaimed, “It is fast coming on, and will soon be at the 
door.” No other person could discern anything; but within half- an hour a confused noise 
was heard outside, and the farm-servants entered, bearing her husband’s lifeless body. 
He had died suddenly, by a fall from his cart.

​ The Irish have an equivalent specter called a fetch (Spence 158).  One story of this spirit, “The Doctor’s Fetch,” tells of a doctor’s wife who in the middle of the night saw her husband standing by a table in their room.  To her horror, she observed that her husband was still lying beside her.  She checked to be certain that he was asleep and was relieved when he appeared oblivious to the intruder.  However, she was mistaken.  The next day her husband met with a colleague and asked about his belief in the spirits.  The colleague replied that fetches “are mere illusions, produced by a disturbed stomach acting upon the excitable brain of a highly imaginative or superstitious person.”  The enquirer then admitted that he had seen his double the previous night and declared that he must be “highly imaginative or superstitious.”  Hence, in certain horror, the reader is made aware that the doctor had been feigning sleep and seen his fetch. Later that night the man died a painful death as he suffocated from a burst vessel in his lung (Kennedy 189-190).  These are stories in a grand tradition that can both entertain and scare the living daylights out of people.

  The Qui-Shen is indeed a spirit in Chinese lore but When interviewing a Chinese acquaintance, he had a great deal of difficulty translating the concept since the meanings of words in Chinese are very subtle.  He explained that the belief behind the Qui Shen centers on the concept that all souls become ghosts after death, and can go to what many call Heaven or Hell.  The Qui Shen are the souls doomed to Hell and attempt to escape this fate.  They do so by finding a human with a weak spirit, and then they attack it by taking its energy little by little.  Victims cannot have their souls sucked out, but when their energy is depleted by the assaults over a sustained period of time, they die.  The Qui-Shen then is a horrible threat as they can murder in this manner.  The motivation for the attacks is to enter the body of the victim to escape damnation. ​
So never fear! There are many safe-guards against those things that go bump in the night. Just perhaps double check to make sure it is the true you doing the protecting!
​WORKS CITED
Anonymous. “The Death Portent” ElectricScotland.com N.P.  10-26-12.
​     http://www.electricscotland.com/kids/stories/portent.htm
Briggs, Katharin.  British Folk Tales and Legends: A Sampler.  New York: Routledge Classics, 2002.Chevalier, Jean.
Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols.  New York: Penguin Books Lts., 1996.
Haining, Peter. A Dictionary of Ghost Lore.   Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982.Kennedy, Patrick.
Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2010.

Napier, James.  Western Scottish Folklore and Superstitions. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008.Spence, Lewis An Encyclopædia of Occultism, a Compendium of Information on the Occult Sciences, Occult                             Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism and Mysticism. “The Doctor’s Fetch.” 158-159 New             York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1920.

 

*First Published in “Once Upon A Fan” October, 2012 Updated for onKULTURE

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