This month’s lecture was given by Beverley Rogers who is currently studying for a degree in Death, Religion and Culture at Winchester University. One aspect of her studies looks at how folklore can be used for research.
Records of folklore have been collected since the Sixteenth Century and John Aubrey is credited with first collecting details of folklore. The Eighteenth Century travel logs of Thomas Penant give an insight into folklore and it was William Thomas who actually coined the phrase “folklore”. In 1878 the Folklore Society was formed and its journal is still going strong today. This was a time when Victorian gentle folk saw the industrial revolution as ugly and dirty and wanted to return to the good old days when things were pretty. Interest in folklore was at its height towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and before World War One. There is a resurgence in an interest in folklore at the moment.
Halloween itself was an old pagan tradition that was converted to suit the sensibility of Christianity. All Saints Day, which was officially a church day, was moved from May to October. In Welsh rural communities November 1st was traditionally a day of celebration when the herds were brought in for the winter, season workers were paid off and leases were renewed. It was also at this time that decisions would be made as to which animals would survive the winter and which would be killed for food.
Common folklore included seeing ghosts of the dead at crossroads, sties or in churchyards at midnight on All Hallows Eve would give a glimpse into the future – whether it would involve marriage or death. It was also believed that the devil could be met at this time, who could take any shape, except that of a white sheep. The most common ghost at Halloween was that of the Y Ladi Wen (The White Lady) who would warn children about bad behaviour. Sightings of The White Lady have been recorded at Ogmore Castle, St Athans and Oystermouth Castle.
There are different stories from different parts of Wales. For example, some believed that turnips or swede carved into jack o’ lanterns would guide the dead to earth whilst others believed that placing it in windows or doors would stop spirits entering. In some areas it was common to burn the trunk of an old tree to keep spirits away whilst others wouldn’t light a fire as it was believed the spirits would become too comfortable and stay.
A lot of the folklore around Halloween was in connection to marriage or death. Whoever received the portion of the nine ingredients mash with a wedding ring in it was going to be the next to be married. Phantom funerals were common, with a vision of a funeral and/or mourners being seen. A couple of days after the sighting there would be a death and the funeral would be exactly the same as the phantom one.
During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, as the country moved from predominately rural to industrial the customs started to die out.