Past, Present & Beyond – Beware the shadows and avoid whistling after dark

What would death be without spectres and ghosts? Barbara Roden explains some of the local customs observed after a death.

It’s Halloween again, a time when ghosts and other supernatural entities are very much in the spotlight. Most of us know something of ghostly traditions and stories in western culture, so as a change of pace here are some stories of the other world from the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) people, as recounted by James Teit in The Thompson Indians of British Columbia (1900).

The Nlaka’pamux believed that every soul has a shadow, and that this shadow stayed in our world after death, when it became a ghost. The ghost could stay for a few days or for many years, although for the first four days after death it visited the people and places that the dead person had been wont to visit in life. For this reason a string of deer hooves would be put across the entrance of the deceased’s winter house, which on four successive nights would be rattled at intervals by an elderly woman, to prevent the dead person from entering.

When a person died, friends and neighbours would gather at the house of the deceased, where they stayed until after the burial, which usually happened the next day. During this time they could not sleep, lest the ghost of the deceased draw their soul away; and after sunset they were not allowed to eat, drink, or smoke in the open air or the ghost would harm them. After the burial, an elder would address the deceased, asking them not to disturb their widow or widower. It was considered dangerous to take the bow and arrows of a dead man, for he would come back for them, and in doing so take away the soul of the man who had possessed them, causing his speedy death.

Ghosts only appeared at night, and could usually only be seen by shamans, although dogs and horses could often see them when people could not. Ghosts could sometimes be seen watching the living, but only a part of their head, or their upper body, would be visible. Whistling after dark would attract them, and it was considered especially dangerous to do this during the first four nights after their death. When a ghost was seen it was described as being of a light grey colour, with the eyes and mouths filled with blue fire, and moving in a jerky fashion. When pursuing a living person a ghost would not leave the trail, so it was easy to evade them by stepping aside and taking a different route.

The deceased would travel to the land of souls – also called the land of ghosts – along a trail painted red with ochre. Along the trail were stationed three guardians – elderly men who were wise and venerable-looking – who would intercept anyone whose time to enter the land of ghosts had not yet come. If such a person reached the third guardian, stationed at the lodge where the deceased entered, he would sometimes be given a message to bring back to this world. The entrance to the lodge was just large enough for a soul to enter, and once inside the dead person would be greeted by deceased friends, who had gathered to welcome him. When the deceased left the lodge he would emerge into a wide country that was always light and warm and smelled sweetly of flowers.

Not all Nlaka’pamux spirits were as benign as most ghosts seem to have been. They believed in what were called “land mysteries” and “water mysteries”, which were perceived as evil omens presaging death; anyone passing a place known to contain mysteries would turn their face away. Land mysteries were the spirits of the mountain peaks, while water mysteries lived in lakes and cascades. The lakes and creeks of an area south and west of Lytton were considered to have many mysteries, with a lake near Foster’s Bar particularly feared. Unoccupied canoes could be seen crossing the lake, and ice formed into people which ran along the shore until they vanished.

Other monsters would occasionally be met with in the mountains. One of these was a human body, white in colour, but without any limbs, which rolled along the ground, uttering cries similar to those of an infant. Anyone who met this monster would die shortly thereafter. Another creature was described as being the height and size of a normal person, but naked, and of a ghost-like colour. It was exceedingly gaunt, so that the shape of every bone and joint could be seen under the skin, and its eyes were very large and round, and protruded from its head. This creature would pursue anyone who encountered it, and unlike a ghost would continue the chase regardless of what evasive measures the pursued person took. If it overtook the person being chased, that person would faint.

Some people were referred to as haxa’, which Teit defines as a mysterious person or supernatural being, possessed of powers above the ordinary, which cannot be readily understood or imitated. One such haxa’ was also a cannibal, who attracted victims to his forest home by shining a bright light from his house. Two brothers who were looking for lodging reached and entered the house, and the haxa’ decided to fatten them up for a time before killing them. During this period the brothers became friends with the haxa’s sons, and when they learned that they are about to be killed persuaded the sons to change beds with them for the night. The brothers made good their escape, while the haxa’ killed his own sons.

So beware of whistling after dark, lest you summon a ghost. If you do, turn off whatever path you are on; but beware of seeking refuge at any isolated house with a bright light burning in the window. . . .

Barbara Roden

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