The Feast of All Souls in Tyrol: 1874

Tomb design, 1826

Tomb design, 1826

Several years ago Mrs Daffodil told of how the Feast of All Saints was celebrated in the City of New Orleans, in the United States. This year we anticipate the vigil of All-Souls, visit the Tyrol, and find rank superstition.


The Festival of the Departed is sacred in many countries. The graves of the loved ones are ornamented with flowers and candles, but scarcely anywhere is the day celebrated on so extensive a scale as in Tyrol, where the “poor souls,” as they are called, are held in such veneration as almost amounts to superstition. The climax is on All Souls Day, November 2nd, and its octave.

On the preceding days the churchyards are much frequented. Every grave is cleared from grass and weeds, and fresh earth is scattered upon it, either by the relations themselves or by the sexton, who indemnifies himself by making a collection from house to house.

Then the graves and crosses are decked with wreaths of moss, branches of box and garlands of artificial flowers, or natural ones, if the autumn garden can still supply them. Wealthy peasants often use circlets of brass for the purpose of decoration.

On the morning of All Saints, a solemn service is held, in honour of all the saints; at twelve o’clock the bells begin to ring, and go on for an hour. This is called “the parting bell,” or more frequently “ringing out the souls.” It is believed that the “poor souls” are thus released from the flames of purgatory till the following morning, when the bells again ring at the same time. There is often a high wind on this day, which the peasants call “the poor souls’ wind,” as it is supposed that they travel on it.

In the afternoon, a procession walks three times round the churchyard, praying aloud and sprinkling the graves with holy water; finally it pauses at the chapel and the priest recites the De Profundis, whilst the graves sparkle with hundreds of flickering tapers. Those which belong to wealthy people are distinguished by having candles fixed in glittering tin sockets, which encircle the grave, but even the poorest person bores a hole in the earth, and places in it his tallow candle. After the ceremony is over, many take the candles home and let them burn to the end “for the help and comfort of the poor souls,” it being considered a sacred duty to alleviate their sufferings in purgatory so far as is possible.

In Alpbach a so-called “souls’ light” is placed on the hearth on All Souls Eve. It consists of a lamp provided with a wick and filled with suet. The souls then come during the night, and anoint their burns with the melted grease. The stove must also be well heated, that those souls which are enduring the “cold torment” may warm themselves. It is believed that the souls suffer greatly from hunger, and it is therefore the custom in Pillersee and the Pinzgau to bake cakes in a particular form and leave them on the table with a jug of milk. Next morning the “Krapfen ” are found, torn in halves, and this is taken as a sign that the ” poor souls” have partaken of the meal provided for them. The fragments are afterwards given to the poor.

When the spoons clatter at supper, it is supposed to signify that the souls are hungry, and any food spilt in the fire falls to their share. People must be careful at meal times not to lay down their knives, edge upwards, or else the “poor souls” will be forced to sit on them.

The Tyrolese peasants firmly believe that the dead rise from their graves, on the night of All Souls, to hold a service in the church. If anybody has the courage to lie on the steps of the altar, in such a way that each soul must tread on him with one foot, and remain silent during the whole service, then the last spirit must give him a magic cap, which renders the wearer invisible. At midnight all who will die during the ensuing year appear in a long procession through the churchyard.

A priest of Wildschonau, who was summoned to a death-bed on All Souls Eve, observed as he passed through the churchyard that every coffin was open and empty. On reaching his destination, to his astonishment he saw a group of strangers round the house, holding lighted tapers in their hands and praying aloud. They were “poor souls,” who, wishing to testify their gratitude for the kindness shown them by the sick man, had come to help him, when he was lying at the point of death….

It is believed that anyone who has sufficient strength of mind to undergo the preliminary test can acquire supernatural powers on All Souls night, such as constant good fortune in any game or fight, becoming bullet proof, or even being able to procure whatever he may desire. Two people are needed for the process. Whilst the church clock is striking midnight, one of the men must draw a bier thrice round the church, with such rapidity as to enable him to reach his starting point before the last stroke of twelve, or else both persons will be torn in pieces by the enraged spirits. But as more and more souls attempt to seat themselves on the bier, the weight would be too great for a man to accomplish his task alone, therefore the other must run behind to beat off the ghosts, with either the key of the church or a large white elder stick. If this is successfully done, both the men acquire the desired privileges.

Early on All Souls morning, the sound of the bells summons all the pious village folk to another churchyard procession, and candles are again lighted, as on the previous day. Mass is said in the chapel, whilst the people stand praying round the graves of their friends and relations. After mass all return home.

At daybreak the begging begins and is carried on to an immense extent. Whole companies of men and women, laden with baskets and sacks, and followed by a noisy band of masks, parade the village, often grumbling and scolding meanwhile. They even do the same in the towns, where, on this one occasion, begging is allowed by the police. In the country articles of food are chiefly given. Small flat loaves, which go by the name of “souls’ bread,” are baked for the purpose, as it is considered that the gift of a whole loaf, however small, is more pleasing in God’s eyes than a slice off one already cut.

It may easily be conceived that this custom is much abused, and that the petition for alms is in point of fact a demand. In the Ober Inn Valley, where there are a great many poor people, the wealthier inhabitants are frequently obliged to fasten their doors and gates against the audacious intruders. In the Lech, Oetz, and Pitz Valleys, it is still the custom during the “souls’ octave” for poor people to come and beg “spinnings.” In this manner, a person often receives from ten to fifteen pounds of flax, tow, or hemp, and thus supplies himself with linen. They go on begging in the villages until noon, after which the bands of beggars return home with well filled bags.

The children, too, profit by this season, for they are invited to the houses of their godmothers and there regaled with all manner of delicacies. They are likewise presented with a peculiar kind of cake, which for boys is baked in the shape of a hare, but in such a manner that the feet cling together and the whole forms a circle. The eyes are represented by raisins. The girls’ cakes are in the form of hens.

It is believed that souls often assume the shape of frogs or toads, and therefore none of these creatures may be destroyed on All Souls Day, for fear they might be “poor souls.” Prayers for the souls are continued during the week, which is therefore called the “souls’ octave….”

As the peasants believe that a departed soul must expiate any evil done in this life on the spot where the sin was committed, the whole country is supposed to be peopled with these ghostly visitants. Almost every lonely wood or gloomy spot has its own ghost. At holy seasons, a blue light is visible on the meadows, a fiery form hovers over the marshes, and weird animals approach the frightened wanderer in desolate places; these are all “poor souls” who must thus atone for their misdeeds, far from human habitations. The reason for this is, that if the peasant perceives anything uncanny in his house or stables, he at once fetches a priest, who forthwith blesses the whole house and banishes the apparition to some solitary woodland nook, where it can no longer disturb people. However the exorcising may also be performed by the peasant himself, by collecting all the keys in the house and chinking them together. He can thus drive the spirit to the borders of his domain, but he must be very careful not to set foot beyond his own boundaries, or he will inevitably be torn in pieces. A common crime seems to have been removing the landmarks, for which the perpetrator is obliged to haunt the boundary, bearing a red-hot stone on his shoulder and crying in wailing accents, “Where shall I place it?” If any passerby has the courage to reply, “Put it back in the spot whence you took it,” the spirit is enabled to replace the landmark in its rightful position and is immediately relieved from his penance. The Hottinger Gasso at Innsbruck, is haunted by fiery milk women who have watered the milk during their life-time….

Many stories are told of the aid rendered by the spirits to their benefactors, in bodily as well as spiritual need, and the following tale is an instance of their gratitude. A nobleman, who had always zealously striven to help and comfort the “poor souls,” was once driving along the Brenner Lake. Suddenly three robbers sprang forward, stopped the carriage, and were about to murder the traveller. In his peril he called on the “poor souls” for help and immediately a strong wind arose, which swept the robbers into a cave on the borders of the lake, where the waves directly closed over them. The dismal groans and shrieks of the condemned robbers may still be heard issuing from the cavern, which however is only visible when the water is very low. Meanwhile the carriage and its occupant had been suddenly transported to their destination. The spirits bitterly resent any insult offered to them, and woe to the rash man who ventures to infringe the limits of due reverence! Even if only a flower be plucked in the churchyard, without offering up a prayer on behalf of the souls, they are sure to visit the offender at night to punish him.

There was once a daring young peasant, renowned as the most audacious poacher and the most skillful wrestler in all the country round. He was not a little proud of his reputation. One night he was sitting at the inn with his comrades and boasting of his courage, when one of them remarked, “Well, if you fear nothing, go to the charnel house at midnight and fetch the eggs which the sacristan’s hen lays behind the skulls. We will make them into a good omelette.” The boaster declared this errand was a mere trifle to him, and just before midnight he sallied forth. He could not refrain from a secret shudder, and his hair stood on end; nevertheless he accomplished his task and brought the eggs to his astonished friends. The omelette was cooked and eaten by the merry company. At the conclusion of the meal, our hero piously said, “May God help and comfort the poor souls who have won it, lost it, and left it.”

At these words the door flew open and a countless multitude of grinning skulls peered into the room, crying in hollow piercing tones, “Hadst thou not said that, we should have torn thee to atoms.”

All the young men shrieked in terror, “The poor souls!” and no one ventured to leave the room until day dawned.

The Tyrolese peasants relate countless legends of this nature, but the instances already given bear sufficient testimony to the curious estimation in which the souls of the departed are held.

 [October 10,1874.] 607

All the Year Round, Volume 12; Volume 32, 1874

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Fiery milk-women, hens laying eggs in charnel houses, running a bier around the church at midnight…. We do things very differently here in England,  with the Vicar droning the Bede Roll surrounded by the decent habiliments of a British Harvest Home. There is nothing quite like observing the owners of a prize mangelwurzel and an award-winning pumpkin glaring at each other across the chancel to make one thankful that one is English.

Mrs Daffodil has heard tales of persons loitering in church porches at midnight to see the procession of the parish dead of the coming year. Mrs Daffodil has never felt drawn to such superstitious rituals; she can predict with astonishing accuracy those who are hovering on the brink of the grave and only require a firm hand to send them over.  No need to spend a chilly and uncomfortable evening in the church porch. And none of this dashed nonsense about leaving cakes for the dead, or sparing toads….

Other posts on All-Souls/All-Saints: Souvenirs for All Souls Eve, and a pious imposition, with crabs.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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