In praise of teachers, wherever we find them
Guest Post: Days of the Dead

"Into the Woods" series, 39: At the Death of the Year

Twilight by Brian Froud

In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Halloween turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) -- a holiday Death by Brian Froudstill widely observed across Mexico and parts of the American South-West. The holiday varies from region to region but generally take place over the days of October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd, celebrated with graveyard gatherings and Carnival-like processions in the streets. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home.

According to Fredy Mendez, a Totonac man from Veracruz: "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away -- it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapor, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

(In tomorrow's post, we'll look at the Day of the Dead festivities in Tucson, Arizona.)

The Elfin Maid by Brian Froud

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world, and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In another Greek story, Orpheus follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the pathway to Land of the Dead is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face -- but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse.

When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.

The Rune of Journeys by Brian Froud

Coyote, Hermes, Loki, Uncle Tompa and other Trickster figures from the mythic tradition have a special, uncanny ability to travel between mortal and immortal realms. In his brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Michief, Myth, & ArtLewis Hyde explains that Trickster is the lord of in-between:

"He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of The Rune of Stewardship by Brian Froudthe stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty. The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes easily through the borderlands. The rest of us must confront the guardians who rise to bar the way: the gods, faeries, and supernatural spirits whose role is to help or hinder our passage over boundaries and through gates, thresholds, and liminal states of mind. In folk tales, guardians can be propitiated, appeased, outwitted, even slain -- but often at a price which is somewhat higher than one really wants to pay.

On Samhain, we cross from the old year to the new -- and that moment of crossing, as the clock strikes the midnight hour, is a time of powerful enchantment. For a blink of an eye we stand poised between two years, two tales, two worlds; between the living and the dead, the mortal and the fey. We must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, and flowers, songs, smoke, and dreams to the gate-keepers along the way. Shamans, mythic artists, and fantasy writers: they all cast paths of spells, stories, and marigold petals for us to follow, keeping us safe until the sun rises and the world begins anew.

Leaf Mask by Brian FroudThe art above is by Brian Froud, from The Land of Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Efland (with Ari Berk) and Trolls (with Wendy Froud). His latest book is Faeries' Tales, written and co-illustrated by Wendy Froud.


What superb artwork! The spooky grey used for the main figures in 'Twilight' and 'Elfin Maid' is spot on!

And in the spirit (excuse the pun) of the spooky season, could I tell you a true ghost story told to me by an older workmate when I was a fresh-faced lad of eighteen.

Cliff was a mechanic in the car factory where I worked, but in his youth he'd worked as a fireman on the wonderful old steam trains that used to pollute our cities and countryside in the days before the lines were made electric or deisel engines were developed.
One day he was working a particular route and because the train was approaching a station he didn't need to shovel coal into the firebox to keep up the steam pressure. Consequently he was standing next to the driver as he began to reduce speed for the approach to the station. Then just as they reached the edge of one of the platforms, a woman suddenly ran out and fell under the wheels.
In a panic the driver slammed on all the brakes, despite knowing that the old steam locos were enormously heavy and needed several yards of track to stop. But at last the huge train shuddered to a halt and Cliff, his driver and the train's conductor began the grisly task of searching under the wheels.
They found not a thing. Even so they had to report the incident to the Station Master and they went immediately to his office. The man listened carefully to everything they had to say and then took out his watch.
"You're the scheduled 3 0'clock for the city, aren't you?" and without waiting for a reply went on. "It's always 3 o'clock...Don't worry lads; there's no accident to report. She died years ago, but every now and then the tragedy decides to repeat itself."

Cliff was one of the most level-headed and honest men I ever knew, and despite ribbing from his workmates, he always maintained that the story was absolutely true.

Thanks for all the info about my favorite time of year!

This year my community chorus is performing a hymn to Persephone, 'Kore Evoheh.' Don't know how much you like choral music, but here's a recording from the sheet music vendors' website.

Here is my own ghost story to accompany Stuart's. Years ago, sharing a townhouse in Northern Virginia, I woke one night to find a woman in a nightgown beside my bed, brushing her long hair. Then my vision readjusted, as if the pixels of a video screen aligned themselves, and she quietly faded out. I wasn't scared or alarmed at all, and neither was the cat sleeping with me. I woke again later that night to find her in front of the large mirror that was part of the dressing table in my room, brushing her long hair. The same adjustment to my vision occurred.

I thought she must have been attached to the antique bed and dressing table in my bedroom. They were family heirlooms that belonged to my housemate. I never saw her gentle spirit again.

I love Day of the Dead. I'm looking forward to hearing about the festivities in Tucson.

hello Dona, I love your story. For me these simple 'incidental' tales in which ghostly figures appear without prompt or appointment prove the existence of ghosts with a simple verity that needs no verification from high-flying technology such as digital cameras or other gizmos.


"I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost. . ." Ishtar to the gods of the dead, trying to rescue her fallen lover, Tammuz

I tried threatening them
and they laughed.
Think you, they said,
that our bolts and doorposts
are so feeble
that they will fall
at your human touch?
They are signs, symbols,
shadows of shadows.
They do not exist
except in your grieving heart.
Dead is dead,
there is no return from it.
Go home, mourn,
wait your turn.

I did not listen,
raised my hand,
screamed his name,
and shattered.

©2014 Jane Yolen all rights reerved

I'm catching up today on the blog posts, so a belated & hearty congratulations, Stuart!

A most recent "ghost sighting" in Tallahassee, to add to the lovely stories above. Was walking along a green space with my mother-in-law when I saw a shape materialize in front of me. Humanoid, yes, and quite blurry. I'd been seeing some strange things in meditation, which made me stop with the regular practice, and I brushed it off as one of those.

As we were leaving the space, someone grabbed my hand harshly, like a half hold/half strike, and I jumped and said to my mother in law, Did you just grab my hand? She said no, and I looked around and there was no one around but us. It was dusk, and two owls began hooting-- first a more traditional hoot, then a screech owl, which is one of the creepiest sounds when you're at the edge of the woods and a possible ghost may've just touched you. My mother-in-law and I went running back to the car! My husband, ever the rationalist, maintains it was a bug. If we could find a bug in that area large enough to fill my hand without my ever seeing it, I'd believe him.

I purchased a local ghost story book while in Portland, Maine, was planning on reading it for Halloween to celebrate. With some chocolate, of course.

I enjoy your blog so much, Terri. Thank-you so much for taking the time to write this informative and intriguing post. I love the Lewis Hyde quotes about Trickster. I recently purchased his book, 'Trickster Makes This World,' and I'm working my way through 'The Gift.'

Jane, these poems about David are both powerful and utterly heartbreaking.

I love the ghost stories everyone!

And thank you, Nicole.

Happy Halloween, Terri, and thanks for the wonderful post!

Thank you, Raquel.

This post has prompted me to create a ritual this year in honor of my dead sister. I'm living in Egypt, so I'll do it on Nov. 17. When I read the above about Osiris and Seth, a shiver of conviction about the rightness of such ritual passed through me. My sister's been dead for 22 years, and I never said a proper goodbye. This will be my chance to do that, and to say hello again.

Hi Terri and everyone,

I adore this time of year and all the myths/traditions surrounding Samhain, The Day of The Dead, All Saints/Souls Day etc. These illustrations are breathtaking and the legends retold in this blog entry today, haunting and so fascinating.

One poem I wrote a few months ago kind of fits in with today's topic. I wrote about a woman, who was half Indian, ( of Aztec descent) and half white. Her ancestry was a blend of both worlds yet she had settled into the Caucasian one. And near death, she faces that reckoning with identity, ancestry, life deeds/lessons, and children. For her, it is a day of journey, preparing to pass into that eternal world where other familiar souls are waiting to receive/guide her. And it is also, a day of testimony, what things are important to write down, to leave as a "living gospel" for her children and other members of the family.

The Reckoning

In the house of desert stone
the sun first shines – on a wash bowl
and pitcher half-filled with water.
The other half sinks into the skin
of a woman who arose
with lamplight and the need to write.

Having washed off
the sweat of old dreams
and some tears, she listens
to the wind. Outside the soft
hum of womanly song
hangs over the saguaro
like wool on a spindle
waiting to be spun
into her own grief or joy.

A gospel of living
she wants to leave her daughters
before she journeys thin
and transparent into the field. Her ancestors there
singing at the edge of a trail
once traveled by wagons. Now by coyotes.
They breathe in dust – almost tasting
the salt of unseen hands
that reach out for a tribeswoman. She
who will come soon with ink
on her skirt. The brewed scent
of red pepper and cocoa
on her breath.
Note -- the ancient Aztecs brewed chocolate as a drink with red hot pepper. It was considered a spiritual drink with magical properties.

Wonderful, wonderful tales and personal narratives --
I love it!

Hi Dona

This is fascinating, spell-binding in its mysterious and haunting way. I have read about ghostly attachments to heirloom furniture, mirrors and other objects that were intimately part of their living lives. As if they hang onto
personal accessories to find their place/refuge in a world of death. I am glad to hear you were not frightened and she was obviously a gentle spirit.


Hi Stuart

This is a fascinating story and one that I very much believe is true. I think often when tragedy occurs suddenly and the soul passes on, it remains in that startled state, often going through the motions of the experience that killed him or her.

My grandmother came from Bratslava, Slovakia and brought with her a number of folktales and ghost stories, she claims were true. She used to tell us kids of a local bridge in her village that was suspended over a deep river. When wagons or other horse-drawn vehicles tried to cross at midnight on certain days of the month, they were suddenly halted by a spectral figure, a woman dressed in white who would drift toward the railing and then throw herself off the bridge into the water below. This action by her was repeated again and again throughout the years. It was witnessed by many. And the story behind her appearance was that a young woman , a century before, had been the victim of a sad love affair. She had been deceived and used by a rich man who quickly tired of their relationship through arrogance and boredom. Cruelly he deserted her. Being distraught and terribly heart-broken, not to mention the shame of being labeled an indecent woman by local gossips/elders, she killed herself. I imagine the tale was embellished and even exaggerated by those telling it over the generations, but I do believe it was true.

Best Wendy

Hi Jane

I did not listen,
raised my hand,
screamed his name,
and shattered

This penetrates deeply and echoes with a raw intensity. You capture this sense of grief and desperation to defy death and its isolated world with power and angst. There is a gripping beauty in this poem and it strikes a deep chord within me. Thank you so much for sharing this.


Hi Raquel

What an experience!! I believe something was reaching out to you, especially with the two sounds made by the owls. Animals have a way of innately connecting to both worlds, they are harbingers , in my opinion, as well as conduits. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It has given me chills.


"before she journeys thin
and transparent into the field"

Shiver of recognition. Thanks,


Thanks, Wendy and Terri. I didn't know where the poem was headed until it dumped me there!


Interesting story, Wendy. There seem to be so many eye witness accounts of this type that they simply have to be true. I used to work in a very haunted building that was just brimful with spooky happenings. One even set off the security systems and was recorded on the internal CCTV system.

so much power and wonder here. Thanks to all, Stuart, jane, Wendy, Raquel, Dona...and all.

Here are two of my ghost stories.

(1) I went back to a Bend High Alumni event and one of my dear friends and I got together again. She
drove me to her house way out on a dirt road. We were waiting for her husband to come home. She
showed me her artwork and the many beautiful agates and thundereggs, sliced in half to reveal their
glitter and magical colors.

I heard a car door slam and I said, "That must be your husband."
"No, it's the ghost."
What? I ran to the attached garage and saw no car. I went and looked up and down the dirt road
and all I saw was more land. No car.
My friend said, "He used to live here. Sometimes he tries to come home."

I wondered what else could sound like a car door slamming. I pretty much believe it was a ghost.

(2) I lived in a basement apartment with lots of windows. I often sat at my table by a window with
wooden steps by it. Once some raccoons came peeking into the window and I photographed them.
They were very nonchalant.

One night, I looked at saw a man standing on the steps. My reaction was odd, as I was not afraid.
He wore a suit and hat from the 1930's. wore glasses and looked like a professor. He looked as if
he was dreaming. I looked away and then, back and he was gone. I will never forget that mild looking
man. I might add, it was very difficult to get over the high fences or find any way to get to the
path to the garden.

My peeping Tom was benign and slipped away. I never saw him again.

To me that was the most interesting part of the experience. How simply reasonable it was - my vision changed and she was gone - but leaving me with the knowledge that there was another experience of sight.

I agree. It was so simple - and yet I will never forget it.

Wonderful story!

Oh, how lovely. I'm glad the post gave you inspiration, and I'm sorry for the loss of your sister.

As a former desert dweller, this one speaks to me SO much.

Is it just coincidence that in all the stories you mention the men cannot complete the task of bringing their women back from death, however the women succeed? I think historically the power of women has always been an underlying thread, through myth and legend. Gotta love a strong woman ;)
Thank you for this article. Very informative.

You're forgetting Dionysus rescuing Semele; Heracles rescuing Theseus (though this is obviously male rescuing male); Ushas Goddess of the Dawn rescued by the God Indra; King Gesar of Mongolia rescuing his Mother from death and also (though it's not my tradition or religion) many Christians believe Christ rescued all of humanity from everlasting death.

So I suppose it must be a coincidence that successful male rescuers were omitted.

It was just a coincidence. Mythology is such a vast field that there are *all* kinds of men and women represented in traditional stories world-wide: heroes and cowards, honorable folk and knaves, the strong, weak, and in-between of both genders. Gender relations vary depending on the time, place, and culture in which they were told.

As a long-time feminist as well as a folklorist, I certainly love myth and folklore about strong, good women, just as I love mythic tales about strong, good men. Do you know these two folklore books for children edited by Jane Yolen?

* Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls
* Mightier Than The Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys

They're both excellent. (And make great Christmas / Hanukkah / Winter Solstice presents.)

Stuart, I never heard the tale of Dionysus rescuing his mother from Hades before -- that's a new one for me. I thought her story ended with her death and Dionysus' birth from Zeus' thigh. Admittedly, Greek myth has never been my strongest area, but I've always had a soft spot for Dionysus. What a weird and wonderful part of the Dionysus myth. Thank you!

I'm loving the ghost stories, everyone.

I always felt my old house, Weaver's Cottage, which was 400 years old, had ghosts or spirits of some kind or another. They never felt unwelcoming to me. Other people who stayed there reported hearing whispering in the back bedroom at night, but although it was odd, no one ever found it malign or threatening.

One winter I rented the cottage out to a woman who didn't believe in ghosts, spirits, fairies, or another of that ilk, but whose little dog kept waking her up with frantic barking every night around 3 a.m.. I told her that the next time it happened she should say out loud that she and the dog had my permission to be there and would whoever it was please leave the dog alone. One night she was so tired and frustrated that she finally gave it a try, though she felt completely ridiculous. The problem stopped -- which she reported with some chagrin, as she really hadn't expected it to work.

Hi Terri

Thanks so much for reading and commenting on this poem. I deeply appreciate it. The desert is haunting and its landscape does penetrate the blood and spirit. It has a mystery about, an almost indefinable quality. At night when the moon slants a certain way over a field of Joshua trees, I have seen some trees silhouetted against the sky's background like hopi flute players. Magical and weird, but always fascinating.


Hi Jane

Thank you so much for reading and commenting on this poem. I appreciate and know what you mean by that sense of recognition we can feel when reading certain poetical phrases.


Hi Terri, I began to doubt my own comment and so I got out some of my tomes, and yes on his apotheosis Dionysus raised his mother to heaven and placed her amongst the stars as Thyone.

Blessed be we.

All Hallows Night
by Lizette Woodworth Reese

Two things I did on Hallows Night:
Made my house April-clear; Left open wide my door
To the ghosts of the year.
Then one came in. Across the room It stood up long and fair
The ghost that was myself

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