Strange encounters

The idea of supernatural entities existing alongside and interacting with us is an intriguing and particularly ancient one. Those believed to have the power to summon and control such entities have been both feared and persecuted on account of their supposed abilities throughout history (by her own admission, the witch of Endor took her life in her hands in summoning the spirit of Samuel for King Saul [1 Samuel 28:3]), but who or what are these entities, and where did they come from?

The theology of the Abrahamic religions regarding life after death presents a problem when considering ghosts as the restless spirits of dead humans. If the dead are either admitted into heaven or condemned to hell, what business do their spirits have in aimlessly wandering their former homes or places of death? The Quran offers an interesting alternative theory, having absorbed the pre-Islamic notion of jinn.

Jinn (literal translation ‘to hide’ or ‘to conceal’) were worshipped alongside pagan gods before the arrival of Islam. The first records of them date from 4000 to 6000 years ago in the civilisations of the ancient Near East, and they were said to have been created from smokeless fire and to inhabit the desert and other uninhabited, desolate spaces where they posed a particular threat to unwary travellers, leading them astray or even vampirising them.

This concept of a supernatural trickster, whose interactions with humans range from mildly playful to downright destructive, and frequently involve shape-shifting, is found in virtually every culture, from the Norse god Loki to Azeban of Abenaki mythology. In English mythology we see the trickster in the form of the Cornish knockers, the brownies and boggarts of northern England, Robin Goodfellow, and even some representations of the Devil in local legends such as the Devil and St. Dunstan. According to the legend, St. Dunstan was working in his forge when the Devil, disguised as a beautiful girl, approached him and began questioning him on spiritual matters in an effort to seduce him. St. Dunstan, noticing a cloven hoof beneath her skirt, took his red-hot tongs and clamped them round the Devil’s nose, causing him such pain that he shifted form from one hideous monster to another before finally fleeing to Tonbridge Wells to cool his nose in the water there, thus giving it its characteristic red colour.

For most people in pre-modern England, the existence of ghosts, goblins, witchs and the Devil was unquestionable. These entities posed a real danger to life and property, and no doubt helped them make sense of a world fraught with danger and misfortune. Nonetheless, standing alone on a dark night, with the wind howling around you, in the desolate and lonely places said to be haunted by England’s mysterious inhabitants, it is easier than you might think to give credence to the legends.

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