K.B. GODDARD tells of St Mark’s Eve, when the souls of the living leave their bodies and tell the future!
We are accustomed to thinking of Halloween as the time of year when the spirits walk among us and the supernatural holds sway. However, it is a question as to whether St. Mark’s eve (April the 24th) has not a better claim to be the spookiest night of the year than has the eve of All Saints.
What, you may wonder, is so spooky about this particular spring evening. If Halloween is the night when the souls of the dead go wandering, then St. Mark’s eve is the night when the souls of the living were held to be quite active, presumably leaving their bodies untenanted.
One such custom was that should an unmarried woman hang her shift up to dry before the fire overnight and keep watch over it, the vision or spirit of her future husband would appear and turn the garment over. Because nothing says true love like leaving your body in the middle of the night to ensure your intendeds underwear dries evenly.
Divination seems to play a big part in the observance of St. Mark’s eve and there are various husband-identifying rituals associated with the date.
Another form of divination practised in the home is of a less optimistic nature. The practice of “riddling the ashes” involved spreading out all of the ashes from the fire on the hearthstone before retiring to bed. In the morning if there was found the footprint of any member of the household it meant they were to die within the next 12 months.
Not content to know who they were to marry or who in their family was due to pass away, there was a further custom of deathly divination. It was believed that if you held a vigil in the church porch on the eve of St. Mark’s you would see something truly awful and remarkable. It is said you would witness a ghostly procession of all the people in the village who were destined to die within the coming year making their way into the church in their winding sheets, apparently for a kind of funeral rehearsal.
One such story tells of two men in Burton in Lincolnshire who supposedly tried this form of divination. Sure enough, they saw first three of their neighbours, a fourth, who was an infant, and a fifth, an elderly man, known to neither of them. In the following months, in the order in which their spirits had entered the church, the three neighbours passed away. A woman of the town gave birth to a child who soon after died. There remained only the fifth unknown man.
Then one day, during a bitterly cold January, there arrived in the town a foot messenger with letters for a local gentleman. This messenger had travelled a great distance, crossing the Derbyshire hills from Cheshire, and was nearly perished with cold. They recognised in the man the figure of the fifth apparition. A few days later the man died.
The eerie custom is summed up in the following extract from the poem by James Montgomery:
“Tis now replied the village Belle,
St Mark’s mysterious Eve
And all that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe:-
How when the midnight signal tolls
Along the churchyard green
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding sheets are seen
The ghosts of all whom Death shall doom
Within the coming year
In pale procession walk the gloom
Amid the silence drear”
K.B. GODDARD is a Derbyshire-based writer specialising in Victorian style ghost stories. She has published two short story collections so far and has plans for a third. Her work has also been featured on horror fiction site Shadows at the Door and on The Wicked Library podcast. She loves history, mythology, Sherlock Holmes and old ghost stories. Not necessarily in that order.