To celebrate the spirit (pun intended) of Halloween, here’s a collection of literature and lore related to the Ozarks and to the land many of our ancestors called home. Leave a comment to be entered in this month’s giveaway; the winner will be posted on Sunday, November 1st.
A local site said to be home of “the unusual and unexplainable” is the legendary Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In an excerpt of The Haunting of America by Troy Taylor, we’re introduced to lingering spirits:
Staff members receive frequent reports from overnight guests of strange goings-on in their rooms and in the hallways. Room 424 has had several visitations but the most famous haunted spot is the previously mentioned Room 218. Several guests and employees have encountered strange sounds and sensations in that room. Doors have slammed shut and some people claim to have been shaken awake at night. One man, a salesman, was asleep in Room 218 one night when his shoulder was violently shaken back and forth. He awakened just long enough to hear footsteps hurry across the floor. He saw no one in the room.
Who this particular ghost may be is unknown, although some believe it is the spirit of the man who was killed during the hotel’s construction. His body was said to have fallen just about where the room is currently located. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any particular macabre history about this room. A story of the hotel has it that the wife of one of the hotel’s past owners stayed in the room. At one point in the middle of the night, she ran screaming from the room, claiming that she had seen blood spattered all over the walls. Several staff members ran up to take a look but found no blood and nothing else out of the ordinary….
Another ghost of the hotel is that of a distinguished-looking man with a mustache and beard and who dresses in old-fashioned, formal clothing. He seems to favor the lobby of the hotel and a bar that is decorated in the style of the Victorian era. People who claim they have talked to the man say that he never responds, he only sits quietly and then vanishes. In an interview, a staff member recounted one odd experience with the silent ghost: “During the summer, we had two auditors work for us because we’re so busy. One of these men left the front desk to get a drink of water in the bar, after it was closed. He told me that he saw some guy sitting on a barstool, staring straight ahead. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t move. Our guy left to get his partner, who was still at the front desk. They came back and spoke to the man. They thought he was drunk”.
When the man again did not respond, the two auditors decided to leave him alone and go back to work. As they looked back over their shoulders on the way out of the bar though, they saw that the barstool was now empty. The man was nowhere in the room.
“One of them started searching for the man,” the staff member added. “He looked around the lobby, which is about 25 to 30 yards across, everywhere in that area. The auditor who was looking around went over to the steps (a staircase ascends from the lobby). The fellow from the bar was on the second-floor landing, looking down at him. He went up but as he got to the second floor, he felt something push him back down again. That’s when he got the manager and told him what had happened.”
Read a longer excerpt here.
Whether it’s lingering spirits or just the magical feeling you’ll find in the hills and hollers, the Ozarks seem to inspire generations of creative souls. That’s certainly true of Jack R. Cotner–author, artist, poet, and painter–who calls this place home. Here’s one of his poems, reprinted in full with his permission, that seems a perfect fit for the time when some believe the dead may walk among the living:
© Jack R. Cotner
Retreating inward from the pain,
I smell the sweetness of her hair
As we move along the path. I strain
Uphill, dragging muddied weight to where
Headstones squat like sacred peaks between
Mowed grass where walked mourning crones.
Stoic statues weathered, weeping, still serene,
Guarding lengthy rows of buried bones.
We halt. Crows pass, loud caws abating.
A portal beyond the pale awaits, silent.
The gaping hole lies open, waiting, waiting
For my dearest here quiet, broken, spent.
Farewell, sweet beauty, unfaithful miss.
I weep. Red lipstick on blue, icy lips
Beckons. Entranced, I take one final kiss
Before tossing splendor into the dark abyss.
Goodbye my love, goodbye.
In addition to poetry, Jack also writes a Celtic mystery series set in the 5th century. Many who settled in the Ozarks came here from the land of the Celts, and their descendants have kept some of the old ways alive though storytelling and more. Wander far enough in the hills and hollers and you just may come across folks paying homage to the ways of old and safeguarding traditions from one generation to the next. Having my own share of Celtic blood I appreciate the old legends and lore. One such story is the story of Samhain, the original Halloween. This comes from the gifted writer Ali Isaac, “guardian of Irish mythology.” Here’s the tale:
For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.
The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to lower winter pastures where they would be safer from starving predators; the weakest and least likely to survive the winter would be slaughtered for their meat, and so began the task of meat preservation. Firewood or turf would be collected and stacked up to keep the home hearths burning, homes shored up against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for the bounty of Summer they had been given, rejoicing at the completion of all their hard work and preparation, and a time to welcome in the new year.
The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.
As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the golden fiery orb of the sun slipped beyond the horizon and darkness took hold, huge communal bonfires were lit. Torches would be dipped into the sacred fire and carefully carried home to rekindle the hearth fires, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.
It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.
Whatever your beliefs, wishing you a magical weekend!