Piseogs are the disappearing, peculiarly Irish, superstitions that attend every aspect of human behaviour. Jonny Dillon examines our bizarre fascination with death and magic.
There is an old saying, ‘Níl luibh na leighas in aghaidh an bhais’ – ‘There is no herb or cure for death’. Despite its inevitability, there are a multitude of traditional customs and practices surrounding this most critical moment of human experience. These range from the fanciful and the emotionally resonant to the grotesque.
A great many traditional practices were aimed at protecting the life-force of an ailing or weakened individual. In houses where a person lay ill for example, the fire would be kept burning brightly and not be allowed to wane – a failing or extinguished fire betokening the weakening life-force of the patient. It was also thought more likely that a person might make their passing to the otherworld as the tide began to lower and flow out to sea, or as the moon began to wane and diminish.
When a person was dying, every effort was made to ease the passing of their spirit to the otherworld. Shortly before the moment of death, the windows and doors of the house would be opened wide to allow the spirit to escape. None present would kneel or stand between the person and these exits. At the moment of death, mirrors in the house would be covered and clocks would be stopped, a practice still observed today, and stemming perhaps from an older belief in reincarnation; that the spirit of the deceased might pass into some object in the house. For those with beehives on their land, it was imperative the bees be told of any bereavement in the family, lest they flee the hive or die themselves.
In making the journey to the graveyard, the coffin carrying the deceased would be taken from the house feet first, and the chairs upon which it had been resting would be turned upside down on the floor. When the corpse had been carried from the home, an iron might be pointed round about the roof of the house in order to help to drive the spirit out. Even the route taken to the graveyard was surrounded with ritual practice, and if you were to meet a funeral coming towards you along the road, it was said that you should always turn around and walk at least three steps with it.
Not all who died were afforded the same degree of ceremony. Unbaptised children would not be buried in consecrated ground. Special plots away from normal burial grounds were necessary for these children. Typical unconsecrated burial sites included fields, hedges, cliff ledges, beaches, the outside of a church wall, or the north side of a graveyard. Such children were often buried at night with little by way of ceremony. These spaces were viewed as having their own particular power. A person who walks on the spot where an unbaptised child has been buried will most certainly be sent astray and lose their bearings. The antidote was to turn a garment of your clothing, such as your coat or hat, inside out, thereby restoring your situation to order.
The bodies of the dead were understood to have their own particular power. Certain maladies could be cured by those whose hands had massaged a corpse from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head. This was thought to bestow the ability to cure diseases in humans or animals for up to a month after the body had been buried.
More gruesome still, was the severing of hands from the corpse by a Bean Feasa or ‘Wise Woman’, in order to use them as a talisman by which the ‘profit’ or good fortune of a chosen individual could be stolen by magic. The severed hands would be placed in a pail of milk which would be stirred while certain incantations were recited over them. This being done, the good fortune and profit of the targeted individual would be taken from them and transferred to their aggressor. A hand cut from a corpse was used by thieves. Lighting a candle in its palm, they could travel unseen through the house. It was believed to stop any occupants from waking, allowing the marauders free reign of the place.
Most grisly of all perhaps, was the Buarach an Bháis, or ‘Spancil of Death’. This consisted of an unbroken strip of skin which was sliced from a corpse, starting at the back of the head, running along the spine and ending at the sole of the foot. This strip of skin was used as a love charm, being wrapped in brightly coloured silks and tied around the legs of your target as they slept, thereby causing love and attraction through magic. We have no record of the success rate of the Spancil of Death.