laying ghosts

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Many traditions about hauntings imply that there is nothing the living can do to lay the ghost to rest. Others, however, describe ghosts which depart once whatever is troubling them has been dealt with; it may be that their bones need burial, or that some unfulfilled duty has to be carried out on their behalf, or some message delivered.. There is a third group of traditions from Oxfordshire, south-west England and English counties bordering on Wales, where ghost-laying is a conflict of wills between an exorcist and a stubborn, malevolent spectre.

These stories are set in the 18th or early 19th century; the ghosts are of local evil-doers (often gentry) and have been disturbing the whole community, until a parson, or more often a group of seven or twelve parsons, succeeds in laying them by fierce and unceasing prayer. The ghost-layers usually hold lighted candles, and occasionally bring a newly baptized baby with them. In many of the stories, the ghost, having first appeared as a threatening monster, is ‘read down’ into smaller and smaller forms; eventually it is imprisoned in a bottle, box, snuff-box, or boot, which is then thrown into a pool or river, or buried, preferably under a heavy stone (Burne, 1883; 107–11, 122–8; Leather, 1912: 29–35; Briggs, 1974: 143–5; Simpson, 1976; 90–6). Alternatively, it may be set endless tasks, for example making ropes and sand, or banished to the Red Sea for a set term of years.

Brown, 1979;Simpson, 2001.

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