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Processions of the Dead

Updated on July 29, 2016
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

The Sluagh
The Sluagh | Source

Celtic Lore

“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” – The dead collector, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Bring out your dead, your devils, your demons and ghosts. Bring out the damned, the saved, the found and the lost. Many cultures around the world have their myths about the dead and other supernatural entities walking the land, whether on parade or just roaming in groups. They range from benign to malevolent, and of course there are a few that are just uncaring undead. Below is a sampling of the creatures that make up the parades of fiends, as well as how they are portrayed in modern culture.

In Ireland and Scotland, the sluagh are the restless dead who are welcome neither in the Celtic Otherworld nor the Christian afterlife. They are evil spirits who can take the form of a bird, typically corvids or carrion birds, and scour the country side on wing, looking for the newly deceased. If care is not taken at the laying out, the sluagh will steal the soul and fly away with it. A sure way to prevent this is to close all windows that face the west, which is the direction these spirits fly in from. Some folklore even discusses the sluagh as a part of the fairy host, although little in the way of Irish legends leads to this connection.

Goblin Market (by Christina Rossetti)
Goblin Market (by Christina Rossetti) | Source

Another Celtic myth, coming from Breton, is the Ankou. Sometimes a solitary creature, this psychopomp is also seen with ghoulish helpers that transport the souls of the departed as a group. The Ankou is also considered the king of the dead, and each year his subjects, the souls of the departed, walk westward to the End of the World in a parade that has an ever changing path.

Ankou (La Roche-Maurice, Finistere)
Ankou (La Roche-Maurice, Finistere) | Source

The Santa Compaña

The Santa Compaña is a procession of souls that walks through the towns and villages of Spain. These souls are the dead who are not allowed into heaven, but must walk the Earth in their white robes with the cowl pulled low over their faces. These souls may or may not be seen, although in either case, the light of their candles can be noticed, as well as the scent of the burning wax. Whether you actually see the procession or not can be dependent on the individual person, with those who have been wrongly or never baptized being more likely to see the dead spirits, as are those who have a deeper connection with the supernatural. In some cases, those who see the actual procession are doomed to become a part of it. The procession is led by a cursed living human, who must walk every night leading the parade, with a cross or cauldron in their hands. If this person is not able to hand over this job, by handing over the item they hold, they will sicken and die, joining the “Holy Company” (the English translation of the parade’s name). Becoming this living grand marshall can be avoided by making and stepping in the Seal of Solomon or making various anti-curse hand gestures, such as the goat horns that has been popularized by heavy metal music.

Santa Compana
Santa Compana | Source

El Dia de los Muertos

Mexico has El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, a multi-day festival of set for remembrance of those who have passed on. It is a time to combine celebration with mourning, and parades are held in order for the living to honor their deceased relatives. Although the dead themselves are not a part of the parade, the living do paint themselves to resemble skulls, as a way to let the dead know they are not forgotten. These parades can take place anywhere, but originally they are thought to have started in the town and ended in the local cemetery where the participants stop at the graves of their loved ones, where they place offerings. This celebration and the accompanying parades have expanded much further than Mexico, with immigrants who have come in to the United States bringing their culture and the holiday with them. Ostensibly celebrated by those of the Catholic religion for the past several hundred years, there is scholarly work that dates it further back, predating the Spanish conquest of the early 1500s, to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the ruler of the afterlife and the Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. With its usage branching out and crossing North America, similar non-Christian gods from Central Mexico are starting to be honored at this time, such as Lord Ziquiztli, the Aztec Lord of Death, and Tecciztecatl, the Old Moon God.

Day of the Dead celebration in Mixquic
Day of the Dead celebration in Mixquic | Source

Hawaii's Nightmarchers

In Hawaii, one must be wary of the Hukai’po, or as named in English, the Nightmarchers. This is a band of ghostly apparations that move to the beat of pounding drums. Typically said to be armed spirit warriors, they are thought to be restless souls dressed for battle, but whether looking for one or returning from one, it is unknown. With only rare daytime appearances, they generally appear at night with their torches raised high to light their way. If a particularly honored cheiftan or warrior is among the group, the torches and drumming will be even brighter and louder. If you happen to chance upon this procession of ghostly warriors, a grim end to your life may soon occur. The best way to prevent this is to prostrate yourself and avert your gaze, in the hopes that they do not see you. Having a decesased friend or family member in the troop may also mitigate such a fate, as they will claim you so the parade of non-corporal warriors do not. The best bet is to run inside if you hear their drumming, and if you visit the islands, to stay away from areas they frequent.

Japan

Hyakki Yagyō is the Japanese “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons,” in which a hundred kinds of yōkai form a procession. The yōkai are a type of monster and spirit in Japanese folklore, whose name is derived from the kanji symbols for “bewitching/attractive/calamity” and “apparition/mystery/suspicious.” This annual event takes place during summer nights and is led by Nurarihyon, a yōkai who appears as an old man with a gourd shaped head. Those who happen upon it (or are happened upon by it!) will die and be taken away by the spirits. Your only hope is to have in your possession a magic scroll written specifically to protect you from the demons, so as is usually the case with such monstrous processions, staying inside your house is the only sure way to stay safe.

Kunisada - The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (Hyakki Yagyo - 1825)
Kunisada - The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (Hyakki Yagyo - 1825) | Source

France and Detroit, Michigan

The Nain Rouge, or Red Dwarf, is a French hobgoblin who was brought over to the United States and into Detroit, Michigan. It started its time in the New World as a protector, but its role has turned into more of a harbinger of doom. Interestingly in this case, a parade is performed not by the creature, but rather by humans in order drive the being away for the following year. At the end of the parade, its effigy is destroyed, scaring it into leaving. Participants are encouraged to wear costumes so the Nain Rouge will not recognize anyone from the previous parade.

Modern Culture

Such parades have found their way into modern culture, as well. Of course Halloween could be considered a semi-procession of its own, between trick-or-treating and the literal Halloween parades happening across the United States every year. During the month of October, zombie walks have also become popular. Zombie walks give the chance for people to dress up and make up their faces to look like the walking dead and then shuffle and moan their way through a designated path. On the heels of October, Krampus parades are becoming popular in December at Christmas time. In these, participants dress up as Krampus, Santa Claus’ more vicious partner, giving life to the folklore on the dark side of the Yule season.

Such processions are also used in literature and song. Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked this way Comes” (1962) utilizes it with the story’s Dark Carnival and Christina Rossetti‘s “Goblin Market” (1862) used the idea of a marching group of goblins who lure young maidens to a slow doom with the sweetest of fruits. Black Label Society, a hard rock/heavy metal band from Los Angeles and fronted by ex-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, penned the song “Parade of the Dead” in which gods of death and parades of madmen occur. My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” has the New Jersey quintet lyricizing on remembering and honoring the dead. Used by many bands, starting with Arthur Brown in the 1960s and being popularized by Norwegian black metal bands, corpse paint is a method of painting band members faces to look like corpses, creating a visual image of the dead performing on stage.

Zombie Walk!  Picture of author and his daughter on their way to a zombie walk.
Zombie Walk! Picture of author and his daughter on their way to a zombie walk. | Source

...

So if you find yourself outdoors at night, and the wind brings hints of candles or drums or footsteps upon its wings, it would be prudent to find shelter right away, or at least hide your eyes and hope you are not noticed. Otherwise, it may be your candle or footsteps that the next doomed soul spots, as you join in one of the many eternal parades.

Further Reading

“Death Omens in a Breton Memorate” Ellen Badone (1987)

“The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries” W.Y. Evans-Wentz (1911)

“Something Wicked This Way Comes” Ray Bradbury (1962)

“The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles” Ronald Hutton (YEAR)

“Ghost Riders in the Sky” Western Folklore journal Susan Hilary (1964)

“Horror for the Holidays: Meet the Anti-Santa” NPR broadcast

“Haunted Hawaiian Nights” Lopaka Kapanui (2005)

“The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain” Lewis Spencer (1945)

“Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead” Stanley Brandes (2006)

“The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico” Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer (1991)

“Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Demonology and the Culture of the Yokai” Michael Foster (2009)

© 2016 James Slaven

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