Baron Samedi

14925437_358778331130922_6383123827585630572_nIn Haitian Vodou Samedi, not to be confused with Papa Ghede (good counterpart), is one of the loa (spirit) of the dead. He is the loa of resurrection, and is often called upon for healing by those near or approaching death, and is the only one who can accept an individual into the realm of the dead. He is usually depicted with a top hat, black tail coat, dark glasses, and cotton plugs in the nostrils, as if to resemble a corpse dressed and prepared for burial in the Haitian style. He has a white, frequently skull-like face (or actually has a skull for a face).

Samedi spends most of his time in the invisible realm of vodou spirits. He is married to another Ioa named Maman Brigitte. He loves smoking and drinking and is rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth or a glass of rum in his bony fingers. He can usually be found at the crossroads between the worlds of the living and the dead. When someone dies, he digs their grave and greets their soul after they have been buried, leading them to the underworld. Samedi is the leader of the Guédé (death/fertility spirit), loa with particular links to magic, ancestor worship and death. These lesser spirits, all dressed like Samedi help carry the dead to the underworld.

He is Venerated in Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo, Folk Catholicism. Feast day is November 2. Attributes are rum, tobacco, cigar, top hat, glasses with missing lens. Patronage: Death, tombs, gravestones, cemeteries, dead relatives, obscenities, healing, smoking, drinking, disruption, spirits.


Ancient Ghost Stories- Eastern Style

The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.
The Hungry Ghost Festival Photo Credit- Original image by Mister Bijou. Uploaded by Karen Barrett-Wilt, published on 30 October 2014 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs.

We have discussed the similarities of how the afterlife and ghosts are viewed in the Western World in our previous post. There are also similarities that run through how these subjects are addressed in Eastern cultures, however, there are a few twists that mark them out as different.

As in the West, the ghosts of ancestors could appear to their descendants to give warnings or advice. However, in China this was taken to another level as ancestor worship was widely practiced. The Chinese afterlife was a journey for the soul to cross a bridge over an abyss. There the soul was judged and if it was found worthy, it drank something called Mengpo Soup, which caused it to forget its former life. Some traditions said the soul then went to heaven, others said the soul was then reincarnated. If the soul was judged unworthy, it went to Hell and was not expected to return except on the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Hungry Ghost Festival is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year. It is thought the veil between the world of the living and the dead is the thinnest at this time and the dead can easily cross over. People leave food and gifts for the ghosts so they will return to their own realm and not trouble the living. Unless the ghost was the spirit of an ancestor appearing in a dream, the Chinese believed some evil force must be involved.

There are generally considered to be five types Chinese ghosts and they are directly related to how the person lived and how they died.

Ba Jioa Gui are the spirits of those connected somehow to gambling debts, either through suicide or murder. These spirits appear under a banana tree and are wailing and sometimes carrying a baby. There is a tradition of tying a red string around a banana tree trunk to ask for lottery numbers, but if they get them and do not fulfill the promise to the ghost they will die a horrible death.

If a person committed a sin of killing, theft, and sexual-misconduct, they become an E Gui or hungry ghost. This ghost is condemned to a perpetual state of hunger, but its mouth is too small to ingest food. It’s skin is green or gray. It is also said that if people forgot their duties of respect for a spirit or the victims of murders who had not been caught, those spirits also became E Gui. They could torment the mind of the living or generally behave like a poltergeist.

Nu Gui are female ghosts, and are most represented in modern day Japanese and Hong Kong movies. This is the ghost of a vengeful and angry woman, who has committed suicide or been raped. She returns to take her revenge on the living and appears as a beautiful girl to seduce her victims like a succubus.

Yuan Gui are also ghosts who have been wronged, usually through wrongful death, but they do not have the drive for revenge of the Nu Gui. They are troubled souls who cannot pass onto the next life, but roam the world of the living in constant depression and restlessness. If they are able to communicate with one of the living, and that person can clear their honor then the Yuan Gui can move on.

The Japanese add a few more specific types of ghosts. One is the Shui Gui, or spirits of the drowned. Since their bodies cannot be found and they cannot receive funeral rites, they are unable to find peace. They live at the bottom of lakes or rivers and drag swimmers down to their doom. There is also the Wu Tou Gui or ghosts of those who received the sentence of being beheaded, and Ying Ling, the ghosts of unborn children who died. Stories also tell of the Ri Ben Gui Bing, who are the spirits of Japanese soldiers who invaded China during the World Wars. They are in uniform and carry guns or katanas.

Ghosts in India most closely resemble the E Gui or hungry ghosts of China. They were known as Bhoots and appeared as shapeshifters who appeared with backward feet. The feet are thought to appear backward to show that something has gone wrong. Bhoots appear when a person dies before their appointed time on earth, and because they were cheated of their allotted time try to possess another body. A woman who died in childbirth became a bhoot called a churail. This ghost inhabited the crossroads, much like the Roman Hecate, and tried to either steal children, possess the body of a woman or seduce and kill a man. Once the bhoot reached their allotted time on earth, they had to leave and become reincarnated.


Sources available on request

Ghosts of the White House

White House at Night. White House photo by Paul Morse
White House at Night. White House photo by Paul Morse

The stresses and pressures of the presidency are so huge, it is not surprising that an emotional mark has been left on the executive mansion.  A variety of ghost stories exist about the White House, and not all of them are the spirits of past presidents.  Let’s take a look at some of the supernatural stories that surround this famous address.

Before the White House was the the executive mansion, the land belong to David Burns.  His ghost is reported to be in the Yellow Oval Room.  He has been seen by both a valet to Franklin D Roosevelt and a guard of Harry S. Truman.  Both times, he is reported to have said, “I’m Mr. Burns.”  Perhaps he was talking to Thomas Jefferson, who has been sighted playing his violin in the same room.

The first family to live in the White House was John and Abigail Adams, and even then the house was not complete.  Because most of Washington DC had been built on a swamp, it was damp and dank.  Abigail Adams had a heck of a time finding a place dry enough to hang the family laundry.  Finally, she settled on the half finished East Room.  There have been reports of her ghost being seen on the way to the East Room in a cap and lace shawl carrying a basket of laundry, the scent of laundry soap and lavender in her wake.  President Taft is the first to have reported seeing the First Lady.  

Abigail Adams is not the only First Lady to return to her former home.  The famous White House Rose Garden was planted and zealously tended to by Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison.  The beautiful garden was her pride and joy.  A hundred years later, First Lady Ellen Wilson instructed the gardeners to dig up the garden.  The gardeners were working on moving the plants when the spectre of Dolley Madison came streaking towards them, mad as hell.  Needless to say, the gardeners quit their work immediately and the roses stayed.

Probably the creepiest ghost story about the White House is that of the demon cat.  Supposedly, in the basement of the White House is a cat which appears as a warning of great national disaster.  At first, the cat seems small like a kitten then grows to be a large phantom beast.  The cat has been seen both before the stock market crash of 1929 and right before President Kennedy’s assassination.

The Rose Room or Queen’s Bedroom is said to be haunted by President Andrew Jackson because it was his bedchamber while he lived there.  Mary Todd Lincoln held seances to contact the spirits of her sons was said to have claimed to have heard Jackson “stomping and swearing” through the halls of the White House.  Numerous employees, including seamstress Lillian Parks, report hearing raucous laughter and and violent swearing attributed to Jackson.  There is also supposedly a cold spot where the president’s canopy bed lay.  Other bedrooms are haunted as well.  Guests in the White House have reported seeing an unnamed British Soldier from the War of 1812 trying to light their bed on fire.

This brings us to the White House’s most famous ghost, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln himself had a supernatural experience while in the White House.  He dreamed that he approached the East Room and there was a lot of crying and wailing that got louder the closer he got.  Soldiers stood guard around a covered coffin.  Lincoln asked who had died, and one of the soldier said, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.”  Later presidents and first families have reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost along with his son Willie, who died while Lincoln was in office.    Grace Coolidge reported seeing the figure of Lincoln looking out the window of the Oval Office across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields.  Sightings of Lincoln increased during the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt, as the country was going through the Great Depression and World War II.  Churchill claimed he came out of the bath smoking a cigar to find Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room.

One last ghost haunts the North Portico, and is a sad story.  In the hysteria after Lincoln’s assassination, conspirators to John Wilkes Booth were swept up and imprisoned and tried in a military court.  Mary Surratt owned the tavern where the conspirators met and her son was a member.  She was charmed by Booth, but there is questionable evidence as to how much she knew and when.  She was arrested and tried and was the first woman executed by the United States federal government.  The ghost on the North Portico is Mary’s daughter, Anna, banging on the doors of the White House, pleading to see President Andrew Johnson to beg for a pardon.  She was turned away.


Sources available on request

Witch Superstitions

witchSince the beginning of time, humanity has feared what is different.  Certain people were called out as having “powers”.  Some of these were “cunning folk” who used herbs to heal the ailments of people against the advice of learned doctors.  Some were people who just didn’t fit the mold of normalcy- eyes too bright, too outspoken, too bright.  These were all labeled as “witch” and in the hysteria of the medieval times were sacrificed for the supposed good of the community.  However, what exactly labeled one as a witch?  And no Virginia, it is not someone who is made of wood and weighs the same as a duck (if you have not seen Monty Python’s Holy Grail, shame on you and go now.)

People could be labeled witches or at least suspicious from the time of their birth.  Babies born with a caul, or a membrane covering the head and face, were thought to have second sight.  Babies born with teeth were said to become witches or sorcerers.  In Africa, these children were left to die in the bush and in China, babies had their teeth extracted and sent to the bottom of the nearest body of water.  Some superstitions even say that a baby born with teeth would be a vampire.  The time of birth made a difference as well, as superstition said a baby born at midnight can see ghosts and a baby born on Sunday cannot be harmed by evil spirits.

But what about as the person grew up?  Surprisingly, not all accused of witchcraft were women.  There is deep seated misogyny, which lead theologians to believe women were more susceptible to temptation because of the “folly of Eve”, but there were men accused as well.  During the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, many of the victims were leading male figures of the cities and surrounding villages.  At the end of these trials, a total of 368 people were executed in a twelve year period, from 1581 to 1593.  The association of cats, especially black ones, and witchcraft also began in medieval times.  Norse legend tells of the goddess Freya having a chariot pulled by black cats that became black horses.  After Christianity came to Scandinavia, Freya was outlawed as a witch and her cats sent with her.  Cats fit the bill for witchcraft for other reasons as well.  Then as now, cats were companions to older ladies and when they were accused of witchcraft, their pets were condemned with them as familiars.  In the late medieval times, there was almost a obsession to drive cats into extinction.  In France, thousand of cats were burned monthly until in the 1603s, King Louis XIII halted the executions.

The witch’s “traditional” garb is also a perversion of several different sources.  One theory is the tall pointed hat was a representation of a hennin, which was the height of fashion in the 15th century.  In the 15th century, this became a dunce hat worn by criminals in royal courts.  Another theory link the pointed hat to a Judenhat or “horned skullcap” Jewish people were forced to wear by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.  The linking of Jewish people and Satan was not new to medieval ears and by the 13th century they were associated with “unbelievers, hypocrites, heretics, pagans, and demons.”  Another theory ties the pointed hat to the Quakers because the founder of the movement, George Fox, refused to remove his hat in the presence of Cromwell’s ministers.  The iron caldron to mix potions came from the traditional iron cooking pot.  Caldrons were also sacred in the Celtic tradition.   The warts on the witch’s face was from a belief that there was a “witches’ mark” or “mark of the devil”.  Witch hunters would search for warts, blemishes or birthmarks under arms, near genitals and breasts.

And finally we come to the broom.  The witch was rumored to use a flying ointment rubbed on his or her body.  Then they would mount the broom, with the bristles ahead of them to hold a candle, then fly around.  Well, the ointment did exist and possibly contained the mandrake plant.  Mandrake contains scopolamine and atropine, which are two chemicals that cause feelings of euphoria in low doses and hallucinations in higher doses.  There are reports of rituals where participants rubbed the ointment on their foreheads, wrists, hands and feet as well as a staff they would mount and ride.  The ointment on the staff possibly went into their…um…how to put this delicately….private areas…and possibly caused a hallucination of a floating sensation.

In modern times, the Wiccan religion has made a comeback, or possibly not a comeback but come back into the open.  They celebrate Sabbats, the solar wheels of the year, and Ebats, the 13 full moons of the year.  The new year is celebrated on Samhain or what is better known as Halloween.


Sources available on request

Ancient Ghost Stories

tumblr_mvb74p1mjg1rwjpnyo1_1280Anyone familiar with Greek myth knows that any hero worth his salt had to make a visit to the underworld.  However, the afterlife was not an unfamiliar concept to any of the cultures of the ancient world.  In fact, ancient peoples were probably more sure that the soul survived bodily death than some in the modern world.  The details of the afterlife differed from culture to culture, but there are consistent themes.  The afterlife was a place ruled by specific laws and souls could only roam the earth if given specific permission from the gods for special circumstances.  These usually included murder, where the murderer went unpunished, improper funeral rites or death where the body was never recovered, for example drowning.  The return of these spirits was not a welcome thing for the relatives involved, in fact many of our funeral customs stem from the desire to protect family members from an unquiet ghost.  These include covering mirrors, wearing black and lighting candles around the body.  

If a ghost did appear to a person on earth, it was up to that person to right the wrong so the ghost could continue on to the afterlife.  In ancient Mesopotamia, these visitations manifested themselves as sickness.  The scholar Robert D. Biggs writes, “The dead – especially dead relatives – might also trouble the living, particularly if family obligations to supply offerings to the dead were neglected. Especially likely to return to trouble the living were ghosts of persons who died unnatural deaths or who were not properly buried – for example, death by drowning or death on a battlefield”  Mesopotamian doctors asked the patient before treatment if they had any sins to confess, and if so that was part of the treatment as they believed sickness was the outward manifestation of sin- much like in the Old Testament.  The one of the earliest written stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a trip to the afterlife and a ghost.

Improper funerary rites are a big theme as to why ghosts returned to earth.  This was especially true in ancient Egypt.  A ghost is also said to return if the deceased found out about a hidden sin of the living or a need for justice.  The person being haunted had to plead their case to the ghost for relief, and if that didn’t work have a priest intervene to judge between the living and the dead.  On the flip side, if funerary rites were performed properly a spirit could take a guardian role over the living- much like a guardian angel.  However, Egyptian myth is very clear about the difference between a protective peaceful spirit dwelling in the afterlife and a vengeful ghost returned to earth.

Ghosts are prominent figures in both Greek and Roman myth as most heroes have to go to the Underworld to get a glimpse of their destiny or make sure they were on the right path.  However, ghosts came into play for the everyday person as well.  As with other cultures, the theme of unfinished business and improper burial ran through the appearance of ghosts.  Again, benevolent family spirits could protect their living relatives, usually appearing in dreams to their progeny.  As with most thing Roman, ghosts were more organized and followed strict rules.  They could only appear at certain times of night and must be seen with some kind of light.  Only ghosts of loved ones were allowed to appear in dreams.  To placate evil spirits, the Romans celebrated Lemuria.  According to Ovid, this festival had been celebrated since Romulus murdered Remus, and the murdered twin’s spirit haunted early Rome.  The Romans also left crossroad offerings to Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads who was present when souls entered or left bodies.  She had the power to prevent ghost from visiting the living, but if she wanted revenge she could send them on their way.

Romans even had reports of a traditional haunted house.  A letter from Pliny the Younger to his friend Licinius Sura described what modern ears would recognize as sounding like a poltergeist.  He writes “The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of weapons and chains. First they came from afar, but then they were heard nearby. Soon there appeared a filthy, emaciated old man with scraggly hair and beard. He had chains on his hands and feet.”  As with most haunted houses, the residents sold the place and headed for the hills.  The ghost was satisfied when a traveling philosopher saw the for sale sign and stayed the night.  The ghost appeared to him and led him to the chained remains of a man.  Once the body had been given proper burial, the visitations stopped.  He also told the story of a ghost who cut the hair of his freedman, Marcus, while he slept.  Pliny took this as a sign he escaped prosecution as Roman tradition said persons under public accusation let their hair grow.  Emperor Domitian died soon after this occurrence and in the emperor’s desk drawer were articles of impeachment against Pliny.

The similarities of supernatural behavior and beliefs cross multiple cultures, and in future posts we will examine the similarities in the Far East as well as in the Americas.


Sources available on request