The best Halloween stories come from Ireland. I am going to retell one of my favorites. It is a thrilling and twitchy tale that brings us awake. If it is in any way exotic, it is only because we have let our inner senses atrophy to the point where we no longer see or sense that the dead are always with us and that the door to the Otherworld opens from wherever we happen to be.
Read your way inside this wild tale out of Ireland, and you will find the veil between the worlds thinning. You’ll see or remember that shutting out the signs of a deeper world is not the way to set healthy boundaries between the living and the dead.
The Adventure of Nera
The Echtra Nerai (“Adventure of Nera”) – whose earliest written account is in a 1782 manuscript but is very much older – is the tale of a Halloween dare that puts everything at risk: life, sanity, the kingdom of the world.
The story unfolds in Connaught, in the kingdom of King Aillil and Queen Maeve, whose very name alerts us that magic and sex and danger are coming soon.
Two captives have been hanged from a tree, in the daytime before the night of Samhain. They will not be cut down until the next day; everyone knows that to touch a corpse at the time when the hollow hills open and ghosts and demons and the lordly ones of the Sidhe ride forth, in their blood-red finery, is to invite worse luck than Murphy’s.
The king decides to test the nerve of his warriors, and maybe embarrass them in front of Queen Maeve, whose sexual appetite is such that she has no doubt been entertaining a few of the bucks. Aillil tells his young blades that whoever has the courage to place a band of willow twigs around the leg of either of the dead men swinging from the tree will have the king’s own gold-hilted sword as a prize.
Some of the warriors accept the dare but return shaking and incoherent, muttering about ghosts and hell-cats.
A young man called Nera takes up the challenge. He does not bolt when the corpse stirs and speaks to him as he tries to fasten the willow-band. The dead man springs on Nera’s back, like a jumping spider, and clamps his leg around his neck. It’s a deadly grip; Nera cannot shake or shift his ghost rider.
The dead man has a powerful thirst and demands to be carried to a house where it can be slaked right away.
Nera is forced to carry him like a pack mule. They come to a house that has a ring of fire around it. The dead may not enter here. They come to a second house surrounded by a moat of water. Again, the dead may not cross. They come to a third house that is open and loose, with everything in disarray. There is filthy bath water in the tub, and filth and excrement in the pot the people of the house have not bothered to empty. And plenty of drink of other kinds. All of this is nectar and ambrosia to the hungry ghost.
When they enter the open house, he slurps everything in sight, then blows the last drops over his hosts, killing them all.
Now he is content to go back to his gallows. Nera walks back to the palace, relieved to be free of his hitch-hiker, and finds that nothing is as it was before. Aillil’s palace at Cruachan is in flames. The head of the king and the heads of Nera’s comrades are being carried down beneath the earth by the weird soldiers of the Sidhe.
Nera follows them, down through the mouth of the cavern of Cruachan, and – to his amazement – finds welcome in a world beneath the one he knows. There is no sign of the caravan of severed heads. The king of this Underworld greets Nera with friendly hospitality, though not as an equal; Nera is tasked to bring him firewood every day, in return for food and board, and sex with a lovely woman of the Sidhe who is given to him as a consort. Nera finds pleasure in her embraces, but cannot forget the appalling sight of Aillil’s palace in flames.
His Otherworld bride instructs him that what he saw was a vision of a future event – and event that will come to pass the following Halloween, but can be avoided if Nera goes back to his people with a warning. Her love for him is such she is willing to help smuggle him back up to the world of men. She further astonishes him by revealing that time moves differently in the two realms. While he seems to have passed many days with her, no time has passed in Aillil’s court. Nera pictures his reception at that court when he tells his story. People will say he is making it up, as if there are not already enough spooks and terrors on Halloween. His Otherworld lady gives him the credentials that will make him believed – summer fruits (“wild garlic, and primrose and golden fern”) – that died long ago in the world above.
Nera goes back to the surface world with his warning, and the king believes him. Aillil prepares an army to attack the Sidhe below Cruathan before they attack him. He allows Nera time to go down to bring out his woman, and the son to whom she gave birth while he was up top, and a bull-calf that will become a major player in a greater story. The Aillil and Maeve go down into the earth, and are victorious, and come back with treasures from the Otherworld, including a faery crown, hidden in a well.
But because Nera has been touched by the Sidhe, he vanishes back into their realm, with his faery bride, and will not be seen again (according to the pious transcriber of this tale) “until the crack of doom.”
The Adventure of Nera has lessons for us today. It is set at a liminal time and a liminal place, but in fact the liminal moment could be any time. The dead do come back, invited or uninvited, for many reasons. Physical contact with a corpse can be polluting; if appropriate precautions are not taken it can result in an undesirable energy transfer from the dead to the living, just as the hanged man jumped onto Nera’s back.
When the dead are attached to the living, they transfer their addictions and thoughts and desires, and even their physical symptoms.
For any of us who have struggled with addictions – or know someone who does – the image of the dead man riding the living in search of a drink is vividly educational. Every time I hear someone complain about a pain in the neck, and that pain does not have an obvious physical explanation, I think about the story of Nera. The living man carries the dead man on his neck. Don’t we all?
Nera’s experiences also guide us to think about psychic protection. His ghost rider cannot enter the houses that are protected by fire or water, where people have set up healthy psychic boundaries. Fire is a purifying agency; water absorbs dense etheric energies.
The house that is open to the hungry ghost is the one where people don’t take care of their shit, in the most literal sense.
There are further messages in the story. When Nera enters the realm of the dead, he is no longer bound by linear time. He can see far into the future – but does not initially recognize the gift and must be helped to understand how to use it. He finds his mentor in his faery lover. She teaches him something all of us should know:
if we can see the future, we may be able to change it for the better.
Armed with this knowledge, Nera is able to save his people from destruction.
But he has gone so deep into the Otherworld that now he belongs to it, more than the surface world. It is not an easy thing, living in two worlds at the same time.
Adapted from Robert Moss, The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead (Destiny Books) (c) copyright Robert Moss. All rights reserved,