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Lighting the Way to Paradise

We’ve covered Irrlichter before, those strange lights wandering through the German countryside. Like many supernatural phenomena, they can be interpreted in different ways - and in some of them, they are lost souls in search of salvation.

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The God-Fearing Carter

Many people have seen a wandering lantern on the Lichtenstein hill[1] near Dorste.[2] In this area, a freight carter once had a minor accident, and wished: “Oh, if I had a lantern here! Then I could easily repair this!” Then, suddenly, the lantern was next to him and shone as brightly as three lamps. Then, the carter quickly restored his cart to its proper working order, and, when he was finished, he wished for the one who had shone for him “three times Heaven and eternal bliss”. Then a voice sounded out: “God made you say that, for I have waited for these words for many centuries.” The voice also recommended that, if he were to receive illumination from an invisible hand again in the future, he should not ask who it was. Then the voice fell silent. But it remained bright enough that the carter was able to see the road until he reached Osterode.

Source: Pröhle, H. Harzsagen zum Teil in der Mundart der Gebirgsbewohner. 1896, p. 202f.

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[1] The Lichtenstein hill to the northeast of Dorste features both a castle ruin and an elongated cave that was rediscovered in 1971 and served as a burial ground for 40 people during the Bronze Age.

[2] Dorste is now part of Osterode.

Commentary: Here the ghost appears as something akin to an Irrlicht or will-o’-the-wisp - but helping people instead of leading them astray, and earning salvation after receiving the carter’s blessing. It is not clear why the soul advises the carter not to inquire after other souls that provide illumination, however - would this drive the ghost away?

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Faithful Lights or Errant Lights

According to legend, these lights are poor souls which are still barred from Heaven. Thus, they float around and wait for their release. While they are not malicious, they nevertheless like to lead nightly wanderers astray by luring those wanderers towards them. If you pray, they come closer and squat down on your shoulder or another part of your body. They are then felt as a heavy load. However, they will flee from people who are swearing.

A worker from the old mill in Lutzerath[1] once drove towards Lutzerath one night and saw a Treulicht (“faithful light”). As he started to pray, the Treulicht approached and squatted down back on the cart. He continued his prayer, and the Treulicht sat down on the head of the horse. As he continued to pray, it sat down on his own shoulder, and finally on a button on his chest. Then, the worker swore, and the Treulicht retreated from him and spoke: “You murderer of souls! If you had recited the Lord’s Prayer three times, I would have been released, but now I must wander for a long, long time until the hour comes again in which I can be released. Now the acorn falls from the tree, and when that acorn has become a tree, a cradle will be made from boards made out of that tree. Only then it will be possible that a human, who has lain within that cradle as a child, will be able to release me!”

At dusk, an Irrlicht joined a man who had been unable to finish his urgent work during the day. Thanks to the illumination it provided, he was able to continue and finish his labors. When he was done, the man said with emotional eyes: “May Jesus thank you for this!” Whereupon the Irrlicht responded: “I’ve waited for these words for many years with great longing. Now I am a child of the eternal life, and you shall become so one day as well.”

Source: Schmidtz, J.H. Sitten und Sagen, Lieder Sprichwörter und Räthsel des Eifler Volkes. 1856, p. 39f.

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[1] While not shown in Google Maps, OpenStreetMaps displays an Altmühle (“old mill”) hamlet to the northwest of Lutzerath proper, close to the L16 road leading west at a spot where the Üßbach stream forms a small loop towards the north.

Translation notes: The original title of this tale was “Treulichter oder Irrlichter”. We’ve covered the meaning of Irrlicht earlier. The “Treu” in “Treulicht could be translated as “faithful”, but also as “loyal” or “true”. Conceivably, they got their name by “faithfully” accompanying wanderers.

“Arme Seelen” - which I translated as “poor souls” here, although “pitiful souls” would also be appropriate - are considered to be souls who are denied entry to Heaven due to past sins, yet who were not depraved enough to be sent to Hell. They continue to linger on Earth as ghosts, until someone helps them and releases them by fulfilling the right conditions.

Commentary: The terms of the purgatory of such “poor souls” can be extremely harsh, it seems - the first Treulicht apparently can only be released by someone who fulfills some highly specific conditions, and if that person screws it up, it will be many decades or even centuries until the next candidate gets a chance. I do wonder how these ghosts learn of these candidates - does an angel inform them of who is suitable, or do they have to linger around one specific tree until it is finally cut so that they can check if a cradle is made of it (and follow the child that lies around in it until the child get the opportunity to help them)? That would make the punishment even more horrifying.

On the other hand, helping a “poor soul” - beyond being a laudable act on general principles - can yield an extraordinary reward. If the second ghost spoke true, the man who helped it earned entrance to Paradise on that single act alone - irrespective of any other sins they might have committed in life.

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The Ghostly Light

1. A carter had the misfortune that a part of his wagon broke in the dark of night. He was unable to fix the damage even with the aid of the assistant who had accompanied him - namely, to restore the broken wheel, especially since his own lantern had also been lost. As it happened, he currently was at a spot of which he knew that it was supposedly haunted by a ghostly light. Then he spoke in his desperation: “Oh, I wished that the light that wanders around these parts came here and shone for me!”

As soon as he had said so, the light was next to him. Now he put the broken wagon back into its proper order with the aid of his assistant, tied the wheel together as well as he was able, and repaired everything else that needed fixing. All the while, the light faithfully gave him light. Then, it accompanied him along the most difficult parts of the route. Once he no longer needed it, he spoke to it: “I have pleaded that you might come and shine for me, and you fulfilled my wish. Now, by the grace of God, go to the place of rest where you belong!”

Thereafter, he heard a voice which was jubilant in joy, thanked him profusely, and spoke that he had granted it salvation with these words. It had waited for this in vain for two thousand years, for however often it had sought to approach people in confidence, they had always shyly fled from it. And none had spoken the words that would have saved it until he had done so.

2. A baker in Gelliehausen had ground flour in Benniehausen.[1] When he traveled back late in the evening, he saw a light in front of him on the path. He would have liked to walk besides the light, and thus called out to the light that they should wait. At the same time, he walked faster, but couldn’t catch up to them. By continuing to follow them in this way, he eventually became so tired that he laid down next to a haystack. He remained lying there until the next morning, and saw that he was just in front of Gelliehausen.

3. A man from Sebexen[2] had gone to a neighboring village, and was going back home in the hours of darkness. When he reached the so-called Küler[3] (a wood belonging to Sebexen), he saw a light moving around in the shrubbery. He thought that his wife had come with a lamp to meet him halfway, and called out: “Come here, and light the way for me!” Suddenly, the thing jumped on his back, and, with force, steered him away from the right path to the depression of the Helgenholtgrund.[4] When he finally got close to the village to the so-called “Krüzhôligen Weg” (a depressed road where two paths crossed), it left him. Now he tried to grab it, but his hands only closed on moss. He kept this moss as a keepsake for a long time.

4. A fisher from Wulften had frequently fished in the territories of Lindau and Hattorf.[5] For this reason, he must now haunt the region. He appears at the boundary of the Rothenberg forest,[6] walks towards the village green, and then moves up alongside the Oder[7] until he reaches the village boundary. He carries a lantern in his hand, and wears a red frock. This frock has only one coattail, as the other one was once ripped off by a fisher from Lindau when he had fished on that man’s territory. People thus call the ghost “Einschooß”,[8] and he is also given the mocking nickname “Fränzchen”.[9]

When he stood in front of his home, the field warden from Wulften once saw the ghost moving downriver along the Oder[10] in the form of a light. He shouted “Fränzchen!” in order to mock him. Soon, the ghost got in front of his door, whereupon the field warden quickly fled inside his chamber. The ghost was unable to follow him there, but he was aware that the apparition moved in front of the window and noticed how his light illuminated the whole room.

Soon after, the field warden accompanied a traveler to Bilshausen, and returned home at night between eleven and twelve o’clock. Then, suddenly, Einschooß approached him and threw him into a swamp in order to avenge himself. The warden only escaped from him with great difficulty.

Source: Schambach, G. and Müller, W. Niedersächsische Sagen und Märchen. 1855, p. 213f.

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[1] Both Gelliehausen and Benniehausen are now part of the Gleichen municipality.

[2] Sebexen is now part of the Kalefeld municipality.

[3] OpenStreetMap shows a forested hill named the “Kühler” to the northeast of Sebexen. My best guess is that he came from the direction of Ellierode, a village now part of Bad Gandersheim.

[4] I was unable to identify this location. However, “-grund” implies the floor of a valley, and the most logical place would be the valley of a small stream labeled “Wiershäuser Bach” on Google Maps, which flows downhill towards Sebexen from the east. Presumably, he followed the flow of this stream towards his home.

[5] The closest villages to the west and east of Wulften. Lindau has now been incorporated into the Katlenburg-Lindau municipality.

[6] According to OpenStreetMaps, the Rotenberg is a forested hill to the south of Hattorf and the southeast of Wulften.

[7] Not the river Oder that flows along the Polish-German border, but a much smaller river of the same name within the Harz mountain region.

[8] Roughly, “One-Tail”, with “Schooß” being the German term for “Coattail”.

[9] My best guess here is that this derives from “Franzen”, a derogatory nickname for Frenchmen - since the Napoleonic Wars were in living memory, this would be considered a major insult. The nickname might be a reference to the coattails of French uniforms. The “-chen” in “Fränzchen” is a diminutive, likely referring to his single coattail - “half a dressed-up French soldier”, perhaps. If this interpretation is correct, it’s no wonder the ghost got so mad.

[10] Interestingly, this would be in the opposite direction of his usual route.

Commentary: The first tale is a salvation narrative in line with the others, although, unusually, the spirit tells us just how long it has waited for salvation - which implies that it has lingered on since pre-Christian times. Would it even have been possible to release this spirit by invoking one of the pagan gods of old?

The second tale presents the Irrlicht as a haunt that drives wanderers astray - or, at least, driving them to exhaustion by driving them onwards. While the distance between the two villages is a mere 1.8 km, we should keep in mind that the baker was presumably carrying a heavy sack of flour (or perhaps transporting it in a wheelbarrow, although the story doesn’t mention any details).

The third tale presents the spirit as an outright malevolent, Aufhocker-type entity, while the fourth is a more conventional ghost tale - of a person who has to remain on Earth due to some past sins (in this case, poaching) and now follows a regular nightly routine. But he can still be roused out of this routine when angered!

Thus, these four short tales show how the same phenomenon (the Irrlicht) can be interpreted in different ways depending on the intentions of the storyteller - they were part of a narrative toolkit, not a categorizable real world phenomenon.

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