Hey, tomorrow is St. Mark’s Eve, a night where it was believed one could see the ghosts of those doomed to die in the coming year eerily glide up the steps and into church doors. It’s an English superstition steeped in a bit of hazy details and that kind of “whoooowhoooooooo” creepiness. With the mysterious night approaching, we decided to call Jacqueline Simpson and see what’s up. Simpson is an author, well-known English folklorist, and long time member of the Folklore Society. She’s also extremely gracious and taught that guy Terry Pratchett (aka the second most read writer in all the UK) a thing or two about magpie rhymes.
Vice: St. Mark’s Eve began around the 17th century. Do you know how the superstition started? Jacqueline Simpson: Nope. That’s a question that can hardly ever be answered in folklore matters because however early the first reference, you always get the impression that it’s something well established. OK. 17th century England suffered through various bouts of disease, like the Great Plague of London in 1665. Do you think this superstition stemmed from a fear of death?
Yes, indeed. The plague had been coming off and on ever since the late Middle Ages. There were many plagues before the big one that you mention. I think it’s fear of death and curiosity. And, of course, if you do let it be known that you have seen the wraiths of those that are doomed to die in the course of the next year, just think what power that gives you in the village.
Right. So really, anybody could claim to have seen the ghosts. It’s a cheap shot, but a very easy way to mess with an annoying sibling or a cheating husband. Sweet revenge.
It would be a very good way of upsetting and unsettling your neighbors. I must say I had not thought of that, but it could be a weapon in a private feud.
When it was practiced, was there any correlation between the people who believed the superstition and their class rank in society?
References all seem to be towards people out in the country, not in the towns. The poorer people lived in the country. There are mentions sometimes of people’s whose professions were connected to the church, like the church sexton, doing it as well.
The gravedigger. There’s one story from Lancashire, it’s recorded in the 19th century, but it’s supposed to of happened in the old days. There was a young clergyman who was curious to find out about this. He knew there was an old man in the village who understood second sight and magic and so on, so he persuaded this man to tell him what to do. The old man said he had to watch in the porch. So at the right date around midnight, there he was watching and he saw members of his congregation there, wraiths coming in, and then… he saw… his own wraith! Mwahahah! He went home and was never the same again. He was dead within the year!
Was this practice looked down upon?
Oh yes. It was considered very sinful, but that’s obvious, isn’t it? Any attempt to know the future is a sin. It was much looked down on.
So if people have to physically go and sit on the porch of the church, there would be no hiding such behavior. Anyone could know you were being sinful.
Ah, now that’s an interesting point. It wouldn’t do your reputation much good, but on the other hand it would make people scared of you.
It would make you so powerful. And especially considering how superstitious people were back then, it’d be a cinch to pull off. Now, there’s a lot of variation with details when it comes to the rules you must follow in order to see the wraiths.
Yes, folk customs and folk stories very often have little local variations.
I've heard that the time at which you see a wraith go into the church has particular meaning too. If you see one around 11 p.m. that indicates the ghost will die very soon, but if you see the ghost enter the church closer to 1 a.m. that means the person is doomed to die, but they would make it through most of the year.
Yep, that’s it. Sometimes it’s said that they come already in their shroud.
Do you know what the wraiths looked like? I’d imagine cold and creepy ghost-like shadows…
Well, it looks very much like the living person. That’s how you recognize who it is. But yes, I suppose it would glide along silently like a ghost, and maybe it would look very pale.
Is it still practiced today?
Oh no! Nowadays things are quite different. Modern superstitions and magic and so on don’t seem to absolutely ignore the notion of death, but people are much more inclined to want to find out when they’re going to marry or that sort of thing. Look at a pack of tarot cards and I bet you anything that practically all the tarot cards would be interpreted favorably, even number 14, the death card. Modern interpretations wouldn’t say death necessarily means death. It’s going to mean a big change or something that is sentimental. Of course, people do still like to know their future. People read their horoscopes or deal with fortune telling of various sorts, but I think it’s all more friendly than it was in the 17th and 18th century. Part of our general avoidance of the topic of death, I guess.