Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders
The following is from the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders by Sir Walter Scott:
A Lyke-wake Dirge
This is a sort of charm, sung by the lower ranks of Roman Catholics, in some parts of the north of England, while watching a dead body, previous to interment. The tune is doleful and monotonous, and, joined to the mysterious import of the words, has a solemn effect. The word sleet, in the chorus, seems to be corrupted from selt, or salt; a quantity of which, in compliance with a popular superstition, is frequently placed on the breast of a corpse.
The mythologic ideas of the dirge are common to various creeds. The Mahometan believes, that, in advancing to the final judgment seat, he must traverse a bar of red-hot iron, stretched across a bottomless gulph. The good works of each true believer, assuming a substantial form, will then interpose betwixt his feet and this "Bridge of Dread;" but the wicked, having no such protection, must fall headlong into the abyss.--D'HERBELOT, Bibiotheque Orientale.
Passages, similar to this dirge, are also to be found in Lady Culross's Dream, as quoted in the second Dissertation prefixed by Mr Pinkerton to his Select Scottish Ballads, 2 vols. The dreamer journeys towards heaven, accompanied and assisted by a celestial guide:
Again, she supposes herself suspended over an infernal gulph:
A horrible picture of the same kind, dictated probably by the author's unhappy state of mind, is to be found in Brooke's Fool of Quality. The dreamer, a ruined female, is suspended over the gulph of perdition by a single hair, which is severed by a demon, who, in the form of her seducer springs upwards from the flames.
The Russian funeral service, without any allegorical imagery, expresses the sentiment of the dirge in language alike simple and noble.
But the most minute description of the Brig o' Dread, occurs in the legend of Sir Owain, No. XL. in the MS. Collection of Romances, W. 4.1. Advocates' Library, Edinburgh; though its position is not the same as in the dirge, which may excite a suspicion that the order of the stanzas in the latter has been transposed. Sir Owain, a Northumbrian knight, after many frightful adventures in St Patrick's purgatory, at last arrives at the bridge, which, in the legend, is placed betwixt purgatory and paradise:
The fendes han the knight ynome,
And Owain seigh ther ouer ligge
"And we the schul with stones
"And when thou art adown yfalle,
Owain biheld the brigge smert,
The brigge was as heigh as a
Ther nis no clerk may write with
So the dominical ous telle,
The fendes seyd to the knight
Owain anon be gan bithenche,
When the fendes yseigh tho,
[Footnote A: Fewes--Probably contracted for fellows.]
[Footnote B: The reader will probably search St Paul in vain, for the evidence here referred to.]
The author of the Legend of Sir Owain, though a zealous catholic, has embraced, in the fullest extent, the Talmudic doctrine of an earthly paradise, distinct from the celestial abode of the just, and serving as a place of initiation, preparatory to perfect bliss, and to the beatific vision.--See the Rabbi Menasse ben Israel, in a treatise called Nishmath Chajim, i.e. The Breath of Life.