The Samhain season is upon us, a time when the veil between the worlds is thin, and our thoughts turn to spirits, ghosts, and communication with loved ones passed. Yet, this Halloween season is a great reminder that not so very long ago, much like Halloween, Yuletide was as much a chilling season of ghosts and witches as it was a festival of goodwill. Who are these spirits of the Yuletide season?
In The Old Magic of Christmas, I discuss these spirits; one such group of spirits is that of the White Ladies.
During the Yule season, I suggest the use of gauze, veiling, or cheesecloth to soften the brightness of electric Christmas lights when the elves come to visit, but these wispy materials can just as easily be used to celebrate these White Ladies, a more or less kindly breed of ghost known from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. The typical White Lady dresses, of course, in a sparkling or faintly glowing white gown. She jingles a clutch of keys either in her hand or at her belt, and she likes to haunt castles, ruined or otherwise. Sometimes, she has appointed herself the guardian of hidden treasure.
The Germanic White Lady liked to engage in a sort of reverse trick-or-treating, proffering flax seeds, grains of wheat, or even hairs from her comb to passersby. Once pocketed, these humble offerings turned to gold. North German and Danish White Ladies were as likely to have black hair as golden and were sometimes even described as half black and half white. (This may be why one of the most famous White Ladies of all, the ghost of Perchta of Rožmberk, liked to switch between white gloves and black depending on how things were going at her castle.) One way to tell a White Lady from an ordinary bride figure was her distinctive footwear. She did not, however, like anyone staring at or remarking upon her yellow slippers, perhaps because they concealed the feet of a goose or swan, proof that she was the medieval descendant of the many bird-women, such as Druden, Valkyries, and various aspects of the goddess Frigga, who for thousands of years were both feared and revered in Germanic lands.
The problem in writing Old Magic was that there were so many ghosts and so little space on the page. In the end, I decided to stick with those folkloric figures who demonstrated a kinship with the old gods and goddesses of Yule and to leave out the historical figures, with a few exceptions. Anne Boleyn gets a mention, as does an obscure Swabian princess. The Bohemian noblewoman, Perchta of Rožmberk, was guaranteed a spot because not only is she spooky—frightening the maids in the nursery by gliding through the wall at night—but because she shared her name with the old Yuletide goddess herself.
The rest had to be let go, but in honor of Halloween I'd like give a few of them their moment in the spotlight. Pick up any book of English ghostlore and you can read about the White Lady of Blenkinsopp Castle who is still regretting her decision to drop her dowry down the garderobe; the Old Lady of Sykes Lumb who, though she buried her pot of gold coins during the War of the Roses, bears a striking resemblance to the north German goddess Holle; and amateur actress Catherine Noel, who died of suffocation while playing the role of Juliet and may have been the world's first Mistletoe Bride. (I don’t want to say too much about the Mistletoe Bride here because she does have her own page in the book, and I promised her I wouldn't steal her thunder.) You might have a harder time unearthing the White Lady of Ragley Woods, the radiant Barbara Radziwill, or the Winter Queen Alzbeta Stuartovna. The Winter Queen is not really a ghost at all, but I believe she would have made a splendid White Lady had she not lived and died so near the dawn of the Age of Reason.
The White Lady of Ragley Woods
England's Warwickshire was long home to a female spirit who liked to haunt an opening in an old wall outside Ragley Hall as well as the brook that ran through Ragley Woods. Her white clothes and her fondness for drinking from the brook might link her to the German and Danish White Ladies who liked to hang around brooks, springs, and pools, combing their hair and handing out the strands to passing travelers. Bathing in fresh water was also how the goddess Holle kept herself looking young. But the White Lady of Ragley Woods might also have been a ghost in the more usual sense, albeit a very old one.
In 1833, the skeleton of a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon woman was found near the brook along with her jewelry and paring knife. Was the manifestation of the Ragley White Lady the result of this discovery, or did she haunt the place before her earthly remains were found? It would be helpful to have an account of the ghost from before 1833, perhaps one in which the eyewitness waxed poetic about the glint of moonlight on the lady's necklace of amber beads and square-headed brooches, but we have none. Still, the location of the grave along with the lady's appearance on the stile suggest she may have been a Barguest (to use the north English term), or "gate ghost," a kind of guardian spirit.
The fact that she was not laid to rest in a cemetery tells us that the Ragley White Lady was probably not a lady at all, at least not a Christian one. Had she been a member of the aristocracy, she would certainly not have been pressed into service as a Barguest, which is the lingering presence of a foundation sacrifice. Most Barguests were dogs, not women, but a few have managed to be both, like the White Lady of Thirsk in Yorkshire who sometimes took the shape of a white dog. While in human form, she liked to dip her toes in the cold waters of White-lass-beck. Like the Ragley Lady, the Thirsk Lady was also associated with a female skeleton unearthed nearby.
The White Queen
In Lithuanian folklore, white is the color of goodness, not necessarily of virginity. Our "White Queen," Barbara Radziwill, was born into a noble Lithuanian family on December 6, 1520, just a few generations after the Baltic peoples were converted to Christianity. She was named Barbara after the virgin martyr whose feast day is celebrated on December 4. Barbara Radziwill grew up to make a good marriage in 1537, but was widowed in 1542. Renowned for her sense of style and blonde good looks, she caught the eye of Sigismund Augustus, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland. The match was not approved by either the Polish court or by Sigismund's mother, but the two married anyway, and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550.
The crown turned out to be a less than auspicious late birthday present: Barbara wore it for only five months before succumbing to a sudden, mysterious illness. If we are to trust Jozef Simmler's highly romantic 1860 painting, "Death of Barbara Radziwill," the thirty-year-old queen died in her husband's arms. There was talk that her mother-in-law had poisoned her.
The widowed King Sigismund dressed in black for the remaining fifteen years of his life, and kept his late wife's bedchamber covered in dark tapestries. He took comfort in the occult, patronizing an assortment of witches, alchemists, and magicians in his castle at Knyszyn. That is where Barbara's story veers off into legend, for prominent within the king's inner circle was the Faust-like figure, Pan Twardowski. Twardowski's given name is uncertain, for "Pan" is only a title. It may have been "Jan," which is Polish for "John," and some equate him with the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee who sojourned in both Krakow and Prague. Among his many other talents, Twardowski was a catoptromancer, a reader of mirrors.
In Barbara's Lithuania, as elsewhere in Europe, mirrors were regarded as magical objects. They were used for fortune-telling purposes into the early twentieth century, especially by nubile young women. Throughout the Continent, St. Barbara's Day was the occasion for cutting branches from fruit trees, placing them in water indoors, and observing them for clues about to whom and how soon one would marry, but there was a much spookier way of doing it with mirrors on Christmas Eve: place a mirror in a cold, preferably uninhabited room, then fog it up with your breath. As you wipe it, you will see the ghostly reflection of your future lover.
Pan Twardowski, however, was not content to read reflections: he wanted to use the mirror as a point of contact between the living and the dead. In a darkened chamber of the castle, he summoned Barbara's spirit into the mirror to console the grief-stricken Sigismund. In Wojciech Gerson's 1886 painting, "The Ghost of Barbara Radziwill," the dead woman rises up from the glass in billowing white queen's robes, coiffed, crowned, and veiled as she is in her portraits. Of course, Twardowski did not do it with mirrors alone; he also made sure there was a lot of white smoke rolling through the room when he called forth the ghost. If this incident ever actually occurred, it is probable that the image in the mirror was that of Barbara Gizanka, a court lady who resembled the late queen.
Lending weight to the idea that Twardowski did indeed enact such a ritual is the existence of the mirror itself, which now resides in the sacristy of the church in Wegrow, Poland, a stout, white, baroque building resembling a modest royal wedding cake. Twardowski's is not one of those silvered looking glasses in which we've all been enjoying flawless reflections for the past hundred and fifty years, but instead a polished metal mirror, supposedly with a high silver content. Almost square and not in the least ornate, the mirror is now fractured and spotted with rust. Metal or not, Napoleon managed to break it back in 1812 after he glimpsed the unpleasant images of his future in its surface. The fragments have since been placed in a black frame, back to front so the mirror can't cause any more trouble. Running around the frame in gilt capital letters is a brief Latin inscription to the effect that this is the mirror in which Twardowski worked his tricks; but, it is hanging in a church now, so there'll be no more of that.
Had Barbara Radziwill's spirit actually stepped into the magic mirror and out the other side, she would certainly have joined the ranks of the White Ladies and, young and beautiful as she was, might even have surpassed Perchta of Rožmberk for ghostly fame.
The Winter Queen
Alzbeta Stuartovna was born Elizabeth Stuart, an English princess with a sparkling future. She spent part of her childhood at Exton (later the home of the unfortunate Catherine Noel), where she liked to roam Tunneley Wood, the stretch of trees that would one day be called, "The Queen of Bohemia's Ride" in her honor. On St. Valentine's Day, 1613, the thirteen-year-old Elizabeth was married to one Frederick Elector-Palatine. Like the thirteen-year-old Juliet, she married for love as well as to unite two houses. Elizabeth would eventually bear Frederick thirteen children, but first it was off to Prague to start their new lives.
In November 1619, Frederick and Elizabeth, now "Alzbeta," were crowned together as King and Queen of Bohemia. They reigned only for about a year—from one winter to the nex—before Catholic forces drove them into exile. Elizabeth was known thereafter as the Winter Queen.
I would like to be able to tell you that she dressed in white for the rest of her days, but after she was widowed in 1632, Elizabeth is shown mostly in black. It is only in her childhood portraits that she appears in starched lace collar and white silk skirts, looking as if a wave of her ivory fan might send snowflakes dancing among the green trees behind her. I have not heard any reports of a diminutive vision in white flitting among the trees in Tunneley Wood, but if you do, know that she is more likely to be the spirit of the future Winter Queen than some run-of-the-mill Mistletoe Bride.
White Ladies do not like to travel long distances, so unless you live in a manor house, castle, or crumbling ruin, you're not likely to be joined by one this Halloween. This doesn't mean you can’t make them part of your celebration. You can make a White Lady out of a scarecrow, gauzy fabric, and white Christmas lights, or you can dress up as one yourself—don't forget the ring of keys. Have fun with it, but when trick-or-treaters come to your door, do be on the lookout for a white-clothed, bird-footed maiden materializing under the porch light. If she offers you something, such as a handful of acorn caps, maple seeds, or long dark hairs, thank her kindly and pocket them at once.