Friday, March 30, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

In Western mythos, ghouls are nasty creatures that terrify the living and consume the dead.  What exactly they might be is more often than not left to the imagination.  In some stories they are demonic creature, in others walking corpses and in still others a combination of the two.  Passing a cemetery at night – ill-advised in any situation – the traveler should avert his eyes to avoid seeing the hideous ghouls gnawing on the bones of the newly buried.

Ghouls actually come from Middle Eastern mythology, where they are the same as in western tales and yet different.  The word ghoul derives etymologically from the Arabic ghul.  This word may in turn come from the Sumerian galla, those demons of the underworld that dragged Inanna’s husband off to the realm of her sister Ereshkigal. 

In Arabic folklore, the ghoul is not just a haunt of cemeteries, deserts and wild places.  It may also take on the loveliest of forms and try to live among men.  A story illustrating this, called “The Merchant and the Demon”, may have been first written down in a Persian book which predates The Arabian Nights known as the Hazar Afsan.  Here, the poignancy of the ghoul’s netherworld existence is made clear in its relentless fight to live like a mortal.

An old merchant in the city of Baghdad began to believe that his days on earth were numbered.  He had only one child, a son, to whom the merchant would leave all his vast wealth.  The son was not yet married, however, and wanting to provide more than just material goods for him, the merchant arranged a lucrative marriage.

When the son was introduced to his fiancée, his heart fell.  Though she was from a good and wealthy family, she was not at all clever or pretty.  The son imagined a lifetime with this woman and decided that he could not face it.  He would need to reveal his feelings to his father, but how?  The old merchant was only doing what he thought best.  In despair, the young man roamed the outskirts of the city at dusk day after day.

One evening, when he was at his wits end, the young man heard a woman singing in the most beautiful voice.  He stopped, and peering over the vine-laden gate to his left he saw a maiden on the balcony of a small but tidy house.  She was the most charming thing the young man had ever seen and he stayed by the gate until her song was done. 

Evening after evening he stood outside the gate, falling in love with the young woman.  He began to ask around the neighborhood and found that she was a well bred young lady.  Her father, though wise and well respected, was poor.  The young man was too besotted to let this stop him.  He went to his father and proposed marriage to the young lady whose name he did not know.

At first, the merchant would not be convinced but, seeing his son’s sincerity and desire, he at last relented.  The old merchant contacted the wise man who, overjoyed at the thought of a wealthy match for his daughter, readily agreed to the nuptial arrangement.  The couple was introduced and the young woman returned the young man’s affection.  A sumptuous wedding feast was held, and the couple moved into the old merchant’s palatial home.

All went well for the first few weeks.  The young man did find it odd that his new bride would not join him at meals, but he shrugged this off as the jitters of a newly wed maiden.  One night, startled awake by the call of an owl, the young man was surprised to find himself alone in bed.  He waited for his wife to return, forcing himself to stay awake until she finally crept back into the room and under the sheet only moments before dawn.

The next night, the young man did not allow himself to dose and sure enough just at midnight his bride slipped out of their bed and left the room.  This happened night after night until finally the young man determined to follow her.  He found, to his amazement, that she left the house all together and hurried through the streets do Baghdad until she came to a cemetery not far from her father’s home.  She entered through the creaky gate and then descended into a sepulcher from which the young man could see the flickering light of oil lamps emanating.

Terrified but curious, the young man shored up his courage and approached the sepulcher.  He gazed down the steps and, to his revulsion and horror, saw his lovely bride at table with a company of hideous ghouls.  As they laughed and drank together, a fresh corpse was brought in and laid out on the table.  The young woman tore into it along with the ghouls, ripping it apart and tearing flesh from bone until nothing remained but the skeleton. 

Sated, the ghouls began to break up their feast.  The young man ran for home, jumped in bed, and pretended not to notice when his bride returned.  That night at supper, however, when the woman refused to partake of the meal before her, the young man snapped.  “Doubtless you prefer to take your wine and meat with the ghouls,” he said.

The woman stood up and left the house without a word.  The young man did not follow, assuming that his bride had returned to her own kind.  Instead he drank heavily, and fell into bed to sleep it off.  In the middle of the night he was awakened by a weight on his chest.  When he opened his eyes he was greeted by the sight of his bride, her fang-like teeth bared as she tried to rip open his throat.  The young man managed to fight her off and stab her to death.  She was buried the next day, in the cemetery where she had met her comrades.

Three nights later the young man’s bride returned to him.  Again, she tried to kill him, and again he fought her off.  When she ran away with a hideous shriek, the young man determined to end his nightmare.  With his father’s help, he had his wife’s tomb opened.  There she lay, fresh and pink as if she were only sleeping, with the stain of blood on her lips.

Father and son approached the young woman’s father, and he finally admitted that she had been of the walking dead all along.  She had expired from fever some years past and, after three nights, returned to his house where she resumed her prior life without ever speaking of the tomb.  He knew she was a ghoul, he acknowledged, but he did not have the heart to do away with her.

The young man, however, did.  He had her body burned to ashes and scattered what was left of her on the muddy surface of the Tigris river.  The young man married that less clever, less pretty girl, and he never ventured to the outskirts of Baghdad again.

Header: The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis c 1857


Timmy! said...

Good story, Pauline. I guess sometimes it's better to go with the devil you know, as they say...

Pauline said...

Most of the time, actually. I bet that less clever, less pretty girl turned out to be the young man's best friend.