I don’t know why the phrase came to mind, except that it is coming up to Hallowe’en and thoughts turn to such things. My mother used to say around this time of year, as a joke, a prayer or saying she had heard as a child:
‘From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.’
Now as a small child this both amused and slightly worried me. It sounded funny and several of the words were not ones I was familiar with and sounded archaic or possibly made up (“archaic” probably wasn’t what I thought aged seven of course, although I did like and collect odd words even then) and so it stuck in my mind for that reason. There was also however the element of “what are ghoulies, ghosties and long legeddy beasties”? and perhaps more concerning for its linguistic ordinariness but inexplicable auditory reality, ‘things that go bump in the night’?
There was also a slight worry about the existence of these things God was supposed to be delivering me from. Mum always made the point of saying they didn’t exist, but the niggling question of why anyone would formulate a prayer against them if they didn’t exist wouldn’t go away. I would seek reassurance from time to time that this was just an amusing piece of old time stuff we didn’t have to worry about now, and duly received same, but it obviously lurked in my mind, as you can see from this if from nothing else.
Harder to admit was the sneaking suspicions I had about God. If you couldn’t see Him (and it most certainly was a Him in those days) how did you know God existed? People said He did, and as the schools I attended until age eleven were called St George’s and Christ Church you may imagine that they were quite keen on the idea of believing in the existence of God. Indeed they were quite keen on belief in the existence of the Devil, not the boring generic secular concept of evil that serial killers, war and Disco inflict on the world, but a real supernatural entity after your eternal soul.
School also, independently of my mother I assumed, regaled us at this time of a co-opted Samhain or Calan Gaeaf, with tales of witches, and ghosts and this prayer was trotted out as an example of folk wisdom asking God for protection from the unknown evils around us.
The ‘deliver from’ was not as problematic to me at seven as it may be to seven year olds these days. Postmen, again, definitely men in those days, delivered letters but I was aware of the concept of delivery from evil in the Lord’s prayer and once explained I had no problem with the idea of words having nuanced meaning.
So where did it come from, this prayer or folk saying/request? I don’t know that anyone said where it was from. I always had the feeling it was Scottish, whether this from something someone said when they told me about it or whether the odd syntax and words just sounded Scottish to me I am not sure. It certainly didn’t bother me sufficiently to seek out its origin or if it did, for me to commit it to memory. And then today when it popped back into mind I thought I’d do some in depth research on it. Yes friends I Googled it.
‘Nobody knows’ is the executive summary.
The two front runners in terms of repeated claims are:
A prayer from a Cornish Litany.
A Scottish prayer.
There is also an honourable mention for a Hausa origin in a book c1918.
The earliest written explanations for the origin of the prayer cluster around the early twentieth century, the earliest written claim I can see is from 1905 but presumably the use they are referring to was late nineteenth century. There are a few unsourced claims for a sixteenth century origin but for all sorts of reasons I am suspicious. The Cornish would have been speaking Cornish in their everyday lives at this period and litanies would be in Latin, and Scots would likewise I suspect have more distinctly Scottish (not Gaelic) words in a vernacular prayer and again litanies would be in Latin.
I have a regard for the work of Victorian antiquarians and folk tale collectors but also a healthy distrust of taking too seriously much of their disquisitions on the origins of what they collected.
And how have long leggety (another version) beasties fared in the meantime? Much the same as God I’m afraid. Interesting examples of pre-Enlightenment attempts to explain the world’s unknown boundaries since refuted by science and logic. There may be more things in heaven and earth than exist in Horatio’s philosophy but if he were alive now he’d probably be working at CERN and ghoulies, ghosties, long leggedy beasties and a bearded creator would have been long ago struck off the list of unknowns.
I love a good ghost story, tale of a vampire or a lycanthropic romp, especially at this time of year, but the suspension of disbelief required is greater, or perhaps the reigniting of belief in the face of the evidence is what is required. Whichever it is, I am happy to put the Enlightenment on pause for a few hours while I watch a seasonably unsettling film or read a troubling tale of terror. Just don’t expect me to be seeking deliverance from non-existent bumps in the night when the credits roll.