Poltergeists in History

Although the word poltergeist, from the German for “noisy ghost,” entered the English lexicon relatively recently, dating back to the mid-1800s, what we’d now call poltergeist activity is found in much older historical records.  Take for example the following account recorded by the Welsh scholar Giraldus Cambrensis in his Itinerarium Kambriae from around 1191:

In this part of Pembrokeshire it has happened in our own times that foul spirits have held intercourse with men, not indeed so as to be seen, but so as to make themselves sensibly manifest.  For in the home, first of a certain Stephen Wiriet, and later in that of William Not, they rendered their presence known by the throwing of lumps of dirt (jactu sordium) and of other things meant to deride rather than to do bodily injury.  In William’s house, as both the host himself and his guests had repeatedly to deplore, they made rents and holes in garments both of linen and cloth, and against this mischief no amount of watchfulness, no locks or bolts, afforded the least protection.  But what was stranger still, in Stephen’s house the spirit used to talk with men, and when people bandied words with it, as many did in mockery, it taxed them with all the things they had ever done in their lives which they were least willing should be known or spoken about.

By the early 20th century, researchers made the connection that poltergeist activity often centered on a particular person, now referred to as the poltergeist agent.  The poltergeist agent was, and is, generally a teenager, often female, and almost always under serious emotional distress.  Consequently, it seems likely poltergeist activity doesn’t have anything to do with “ghosts,” but instead involves some sort of psychic activity, normally with the poltergeist agent completely unaware he or she is manifesting such energy.

In the case noted above, while we don’t know much more about the specifics, Giraldus provided a compelling clue the events involved poltergeist activity.  He noted with surprise that in hauntings of this sort the use of holy water, even holy water from the font on Holy Saturday, had no effect on the activity.  In fact, priests arriving to perform sacramental rites often became the first ones pelted by dirt.  Strong indications records of poltergeist activity exist far back in human history.

Refecence: Rev. Herbert Thurston, S.J.  Ghosts and Poltergeists.  Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, 1988. (Reprint of work originally published in 1953.)

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