The History of Leith

March 7, 2005

The ghost in the coffin

In July, 1836, some children playing on the north-eastern side of Arthurs Seat at the boundary of the city of Edinburgh came across a peculiar collection of objects. This comprised 17 small containers in each of which there was a clothed wooden figure.

The children played for some time with the little boxes as a result of which nine were lost; eventually, the remaining eight found their way through various channels to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The little boxes are of wood. They are trough-shaped and each is covered with a flat lid, which was secured by wire or brass nails. The boxes range from 9.5 cm to 10.5 cm long, 2.5 to 3 cm wide and about 2 to 3 cm high. In each box there is a wooden figure the body of which (head, trunk, 2 legs) is carved out of a single piece of wood. The arms are formed from a cord which is pulled through a hole bored through the shoulders. The figures are covered with cotton cloth which is cut and sewn to shape. The interiors of the boxes are partly covered with cloth and the lids and sides are decorated with bulky little plaques of tin. The condition of the boxes and of the figures is not uniform; in some cases the children who found them caused damage. Damage through weathering has not been reported.
There is no positive evidence for the dating of the objects, but the National Museum of Antiquities places them in the beginning of the 19th century on the basis of the cotton used on them. This dating is certainly accurate had the objects been in the earth for a long time it is clear that neither wood nor cloth would have been so well preserved.
The little boxes lay, as far as can be established, in two rows of eight each and one somewhat apart from the others. We cannot now say whether this arrangement had any particular significance and we do not know either whether the boxes had been covered against accidental discovery by earth or stones. It is, perhaps, of greater interest that they were found not in a dwelling-house nor in cultivated ground but in neutral territory the ownership of which could not be identified or established.
The discovery of the little figures in trough like containers and the decoration of their lids and sides with tin plaques, sometimes in the form of little triangular heraldic shields, suggests that we are in this case dealing with miniature coffins.
The scientific report of 1902 of the discovery raises the question whether the discovery may not have had something to do with the symbolic burials of people who died in foreign parts or who were drowned at sea and whose bodies could not be recovered so that burial in the homeland was not possible. But the cave where the discovery was made was not consecrated ground and a secret, symbolic deposit was no honorific burial. In this way it seems that peace could not have been vouchsafed the restless soul of the dead. In addition, it seems reasonable to assume that, in the case of a symbolic burial where the actual body was not present, the name or badge of the deceased person would have been included. Any such indication is, however, missing. Again, the fact that the little coffins were so carefully placed in two rows of eight each indicates that this was not a case of individual symbolic burials, made one after the other. One cannot subscribe to the interpretation of the discovery as comprising symbolic burials and there is no information available on this point.
The great similarity of the little coffins to each other allows for another interpretation, namely, that they are the work of one person who hid away from his house and in the greatest secrecy the products of his handiwork. It must, therefore, have been a forbidden operation, that is, it must have had to do with magic and this magic could certainly have been exercised with each single coffin. Thus, it is possible to look on the collection of seventeen coffins as the stock-in-trade of one dealer. What can the magic have been?
Small imitations of the human body (dolls) are met with in the most varied areas of folk belief and folk custom though external similarities should not lead us to assume the same formative factors in every case: because it is these factors alone which are decisive.
I must confine myself 1 to two examples. When we find dolls regularly placed and covered with new garments and reverently displayed we are as a rule dealing with the continuing tradition of a Catholic saintly cult, even in Protestant regions.To an entirely different association belong the €œrevenge dolls, simple forms which, through name or inscription, are identified with a specific person who can be injured or killed by the corresponding treatment of the image.
But the little figures from Edinburgh are entirely different. They do not exist alone because associated with each is the little coffin in which it rests. Thus an explanation of the purpose of these little objects can be derived from this clear and unequivocal situation only.
I know of no similar discoveries from Britain or Ireland and a general enquiry for information in the journal Folklore was in vain. However, because the basic concepts of belief and superstition are not tied specifically to place or time within the European cultural complex we can without hesitation look for parallels in the rest of the Continent. And we are at once informed that there is no differentiation in this area between the Anglo-Saxon/Irish world and the rest of Europe.
An English source from the time of Henry VIII (1509.1547) tells us that Alraunen (mandrakes) in boxes were then being imported from Germany as commercial goods. By Alraunen in this context are meant small roots in human form. They are personifications of the Mediterranean poisonous plant mandragora (Mandragora Juss). Far from an objective scientific explanation of the poison of the plant, people in the Late Antique and in mediaeval times saw in it the working of dangerous forces. In this way, through the pressure towards personification, a demon in the form of a root, though with human qualities, was created. In middle and northern Europe, where the mandragora does not occur, these root men (Alraune, mandrakes) became useful little domestic spirits which were kept in boxes. Only when they were well looked after, that is softly bedded, preserved and washed in wine, did they keep their good meaning and their force.
Through original finds and documentary evidence the existence of such root-men in little boxes in Germany can be demonstrated from the 15th century down to 1965.It The most significant period from the point of view of superstitious interest in Germany was the 17th century, a fact which is not to be wondered at in view of the bloody religious wars and the fact that through them the faith in the teaching of Christian healing had reached a very low point.
Because in the 17th century the fantasy and the faith of literate people were concerned with these spirits which brought money and luck we find in the literature of the 17th century extended descriptions of such demons in little boxes, with special reference to their shape and condition as well as to their forces:the owner of one such box can be certain of complete success in all financial transactions. Indeed, the root-man can function at night also as a mandrake or money-spinner in that he is able to double any money which is given to him. The little spirit makes its possessor happy, rich and well.
In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the little box in which the human- looking figure lies is changed into a coffin. That is certainly no accident and certainly not without significance. All literary references indicate that the possession of such demons was forbidden both by profane and ecclesiastical law and, at his death, the owner was taken by the devil. In order to banish the ghost finally the figure was placed in a coffin-shaped box on the underside of the lid of which a large cross was painted)
As far as I know the latest example of a mandrake in the coffin comes from Lubeck. Here in 1886 in the debris of a house called Schutting, the house of the Society of Lubeck Schooner Captains, were found six little coffin- shaped boxes, some of wood, some of thin iron plate. Five of them lay side by side, one was apart from the group. In each coffin there was a lifelike figure made of cloth and with an animal skull.Luckily the little coffins have the dates 1710 and 1711 cut on them so that the find can be dated with certainty to 1711 or later. Here also as in the Edinburgh discovery it is a question of a hoard. Because the building in question was in the possession of the Schooner Society from 1620 to 1854 it is possible for the first time to associate the mandrake belief with the sailor folk.
In the 18th century the belief in the protecting and enriching force of the mandrakes was gradually pushed into the background by other beliefs, though the original concepts never disappear completely. The knowledge of such things is always transmitted from generation to generation and it is possible for such mad ideas to break out again and again and everywhere.
No superstitious concept remains unchanged throughout the centuries. We have seen how the idea of a dangerous plant was changed, in that instead of the plant a manlike root was looked upon as the bearer of the evil force. But even the figure made from a root was lost and was replaced by figures of wood, ivory and animal bone. The coffin to which the spirit can be banished becomes a comfortable habitation and the spirit itself is freed and moves without restriction through house and garden; it becomes adviser and soothsayer and doubles at night any money given to it) Thus the mandrake mixes as a goblin with the other house spirits without losing in any way his essential characteristics:small shape, brownish appearance, a beard, a friendly disposition as adviser and cautioner to its possessor, the box as place of refuge and peace and the spirits need for clothing and sustenance. Its name is not always preserved (Alraunez mandrake). I should like to think that the English elf, the brownie, means the same thing and especially because of the latters brown wood or root colouring. But to this group of elves belong only good spirits, who have a close association with the owner, his family and his property, that is to say, those which may be reckoned as spiritus familiars.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the belief in such well-intentioned house spirits gradually declined but one professional group held to it longer than any others, namely, the sea captains. This is not surprising, for the seaman and his ship are in constant danger and it is reasonable that the sea captain should bring his little house spirit in its box on board with him, there to give it free rein and to seek its advice in times of distress. The two most recent publications about this ship spirit indicate clearly the nature of these bodies:
he is always loyal to his owner the owner brings him on board in a little box
the little figure is yellow or brown in appearance, has a grey beard and is about 30 cm. high
lie advises the owner (the captain)
he eats with him behind closed doors
as long as he is on board the ship cannot sink or be wrecked.
The few genuine references out of nautical circles are exiguous and very late; they come from the years 1806 and 1826) Because already in 1826 the literary people had descended on this theme and because the two authors of the mono graphs alluded to, dealing with this ship s spirit well known today as a bogyman (Klabautermann), used the whole literary outpouring of the 19th and 20th centuries as source material, nothing more is to be gleaned from the sailor folk
Even if the contemporary name Klabautermann (bogyman) indicates that the Dutch cultural area must have been the place of origin for the type the researches of the two writers mentioned in the footnote cannot tell us anything more than that the concept of such a spirit must have originated round the waters of northern Europe. Both authors stress that the Klabautermann bore the clear characteristics of a house spirit and nothing can be added to the solution of the problem of the origin of the elf through the development of folktale studies.
The examples which we have collected about the oral tradition of the belief (or superstition) in kindly and helpful little ship spirits leave no doubt but that we are here again dealing with the mandrake in the coffin. Of course, no original is available to us and there is no hope of ever finding one, for ships and the plenishings of ships are notoriously more ephemeral than any other material things. One may assume that the old sea folk and their families who lived on land must certainly have thrown away the little human figures in their coffins as soon as the belief in their force was lost. However, one should always be on the look-out for such objects.
It is, however, certain that it is the sea folk who held most strongly to the belief in a helpful spirit in a box or in a coffin. The literary and oral reports testify to the continued existence of this superstition amongst the sailormen down to the beginning of the 19th century. In addition, the discovery of the Lubeck hoard (hidden in 1711 or shortly after) in the headquarters house of the association of schooner masters indicates connections with sea travelers. It may. therefore, be suspected that the Edinburgh objects were connected with sea people or with their families or that they were made for sale to such people. I cannot make up my mind as to whether the clothing of the Edinburgh pieces points in the same direction or not, though the long trousers (pantaloons) might be seen as the wide trousers of sailors. If, of course, the date beginning of the 19th century is correct it may be that this trousers shape is merely a representation of contemporary fashion.

Folk beliefs and folk superstitions are today more influenced by the scientific exploitation of folklore than is generally accepted. The two monographs about the helpful ship spirit (bogyman) are awful examples of this. The first reports from oral tradition were immediately worked over by the literary authors and even to the present day the literature is concerned with the bogyman. Both monographs have changed the concepts of the literature and in this way have buried and destroyed the old traditions under an avalanche of nonsense about foreign origins. This literary production has, naturally, not been kept from the ordinary people and the consequence is that the true folk belief was made ridiculous and, therefore, died out. I found an Alraune (mandrake) in a box in the house of a Hamburg family in 1965 but the owner had no real idea of the genuine tradition associated with the object and what he did know was taken from folklore publications about folk beliefs and from an encyclopedia.
This Hamburg discovery does not, therefore, argue for a continuation of a genuine belief in the mandrake in the coffin but in any case shows a readiness to believe in and to fear such things and even to place hope in them.
And another thing: in all writings about folklore there are reports of attempts to find out from old people through questioning what their superstitions are. Research workers are always disappointed by the meagre quantity of superstitious concepts and this disappointment leads to the view that modern sailors, for example, are made dull and left without reaction because of their association with modern technology. One is in this context inclined to forget that in any given time few ideas of hope and fear survive and that there never was a single person who was able to hoard in his own brain all the knowledge collected in the Handworterterbuch des Deutschen A berg (Handbook of German Superstition).
RESUME
The little figures found in coffins in Edinburgh belong in my opinion to the beginning of the 19th century and are the latest evidence for the belief in a mandrake in the coffin, a belief that was current in Europe from the Middle Ages down to the 18th century. It was apparently a hoard, deposited by the maker or by the merchant and intended for sale to superstitious contemporaries. The customers of that period were presumably to be sought in seafaring circles.

Walter Havernick

Acknowledgement Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
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