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Ghost armies in the sky, spectral battles reenacted across the centuries, lost soldiers unable to move on. Tales of phantom armies exist across the globe, continuing to haunt the living even into present times.
5 – Drosoulites
In May 1828, on the Greek island of Crete, a Greek patriot called Hatzimichalis Dalianis led hundreds of men in an attack on Frangokastello. The castle, built in the 1370s by the Venetians, symbolised foreign oppression to the Greek population: it first protected Venetian nobles and their interests, then later, during Ottoman Turkish occupation, the protection of Turks and the imposition of order on rebellious locals. By attacking the foreign fortification in the 19th century, it was hoped that the Greek War of Independence would spread from the mainland to Crete. However, the attack failed, with 335 Greek warriors, including their leader, massacred by Turkish forces after a seven day siege. Around 800 Turks also lost their lives in the conflict, as they were hunted down by rebel ambushes in the gorges below. 1
Since that time rumours spread that the Battle of Frangokastello was far from over, and that every year, on the anniversary of the fighting, the soldiers return from beyond the grave to resume their assault on the old fort.
Witnesses have described a long procession of human-like shadows, dressed in black and armed with weapons, walking or riding towards the castle. Believed to be the spirits of the Greek soldiers, the apparitions are visible for around ten minutes, and can be seen from as far away as half a mile. When the phantom army reaches the sea, it disappears.
This phenomenon was named “Drosoulites” by local people, meaning “dew shadows”, in reference to the time of day when the apparitions appear.
The appearance of the dew shadows has been repeatedly and widely documented. In 1890 a Turkish army who witnessed the phenomenon thought the figures to be so real, that they mistook them for rebels, and open fired at them before fleeing. 2
Thus far, no consensus has been reached at to the cause of the apparitions. Some have suggested that the ghost army is a mirage, caused by the calm seas and moist atmosphere of the early morning. However, others are certain that it is the Greek patriots, returning to Frangokastello to assert their independence.
4 – The Battle of Otterburn
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Across the centuries there have been persistent reports of a phantom army at Otterburn, in Northumberland, England.
In August 1388, the area around a small village became the site of The Battle of Otterburn, one of many border skirmishes between the Scots and the English. The Scottish led raid into English territory was a success, but only at the cost of the Scot’s leader and over 2,000 other casualties. According to numerous reports, these lost souls still haunt the area.
Exactly 500 years after the battle, in 1888, an action replay of the conflict was supposedly witnessed by two farmers, Percival Hall and John Ellesden, who were moving their sheep through the area close to the battleground. Hoofbeats and trumpets were heard in the distance by the two men. Then, on the high ground above them, they saw a column of cavalry. According to the farmers’ description, the soldiers broke off into three sections and began to march down the ridge, out of sight. Captivated by the spectral scene, the men rushed up the incline. It was late in the day, and the sun had just set. By the light of the moon, which poured down onto the field below, Percival Hall claimed that he saw shadowy men fighting. Both farmers described hearing the sound of metal on metal, as well as the ear piercing noise of horses shrieking and men in the midst of bloody combat shouting. 3
In the decades and centuries after the 1888 sighting, the phantom army at Otterburn has been sighted by others in the area.
In November 1960, the fourteenth century-spectres were allegedly seen by multiple witnesses. One witness, a woman called Dorothy Strong, was in a taxi on a road near the battlefield when an army of ghosts appeared. In a magazine interview she described how,
“Suddenly the engine died, the fare-meter went haywire and the taxi felt as if it was being forced against an invisible wall. The soldiers seemed to close in on us and then fade into thin air.” 4
3 – The Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. Regarded as a turning point in the war, three days of intense battle, fought in and around a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania in early July 1863, resulted in approximately 50,000 men killed, wounded or missing. 5
In the decades since the conflict, hundreds of people have claimed that they have encountered the ghosts of the fallen in what is now the Gettysburg National Military Park. Reports include witnessing phantom soldiers crouched in the undergrowth, preparing to attack. The inexplicable smell of tobacco, as well as the sound of disembodied voices crying out in pain have also been described by visitors to the historic battlefield. 6
As many Confederate soldiers never received a proper burial, with the exact number of Confederate casualties still unknown, their restless spirits are said to wander both the battlefield, and sites around the town linked with the bloodshed. One such location is Daniel Lady Farm, which served as a field hospital for the Confederate army. Whilst some of the injured who were taken there recovered, many died. It is these souls, unable to move on, which are said to wander aimlessly in their thousands around the farm. 7
One visitor to Gettysburg described in a forum post in 2005 an odd experience they had at the site of the battle a few summers before. They were walking through the field where the first day’s fighting occurred, at roughly the same time of day as the battle, tracing the path which the Confederate infantry would have taken to cross the stream some 140 years earlier. It was along this route that they encountered what they described as an “oppressive pressure”, which was “accompanied by a faint buzzing sound”. Tied to “one spot” along the path was an “unpleasant, but not frightening” “tension” which “couldn’t be ignored”. In their testimony they described stepping in and out of “that one spot”, which remained there for at least ten minutes. Convinced that they had experienced something out of the ordinary, they returned to the same location later the same day, but the sensation and buzzing sound had disappeared. 8
Like so many other visitors to the battlefield, they were left with the feeling that the magnitude of the conflict had created scars across time, and that the spirits of fallen soldiers continue to haunt the battleground.
2 – Battle of Dan-no-ura
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In 1185, near to present day Shimonoseki in Japan, one of the bloodiest sea battles of the era was fought, the Battle of Dan-no-ura. There, the forces of the Heike clan clashed with the Minamoto clan in a bid for supremacy over Japan. Despite being outnumbered, the Minamoto won the battle, aided by a traitorous general who switched sides during the fighting. With his help, the clan’s forces were able to identify the ship which held the six-year-old Heike Emperor of Japan. Realising that the battle was lost, many of the Heike could not stand to live with defeat. These soldiers, alongside their child emperor and his grandmother, committed suicide. 9
The lives lost in this battle are said to have been so numerous and tragic that they have haunted the shores for hundreds of years afterwards, into the present day.
In the years that followed the battle, it was said that the spirits of the lost warriors would appear in the waves to drown swimmers and sink boats, dragging them down into the dark ocean. The terror induced by these grisly encounters compelled local Buddhists to erect a shrine in 1191 to appease the lost souls. A cemetery was also erected by the beach, with the names of the young emperor and his vassals inscribed on monuments within it. These tributes, as well as the performance of regular remembrance services, are said to have helped assuage the angry spirits. However, this did not quieten them altogether.
Reports from the early twentieth century describe how fishermen in the area attested to witnessing thousands of pale ghostly fires hover above the waves on dark nights, a phenomenon which they call Oni-bi, or demon-fire. Whenever the wind picks up, they allege that a great shouting is heard coming from the sea, as though a battle were occuring.
Peculiarly, it is not just the seas which are allegedly haunted by the spirits of the lost Heike warriors, but also its wildlife. A strange breed of local crab in the area, known as Heike crabs, are said to contain the faces of the dead, imprinted onto their shells. 10
1 – The Wild Hunt
Throughout European history people have claimed to have seen a large group of malevolent, spectral warriors hunting in large numbers. Such tales of a wild hunt have existed in oral tradition since time immemorial, however one of the earliest written testimonies was recorded in England in 1127:
“Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.”11
Many reliable witnesses in the area, including holymen, attested to seeing this spectral party, which was said to have terrorised the local populace for nine weeks until Easter.
An even earlier account from 1091 is recorded in Orderic Vitalis, written by an English monk in Normandy. His recollections describe how a troop of demons, led by a masked giant with a club, hunted down a local monk on the beach. Fortunately, the man survived to tell the tale. 12
Accounts and testimonies of a similar, barbarous nature continued to surface throughout the centuries.
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In 1834, Jacob Grimm in Germany coined the term “The Wild Hunt” for the phenomenon. He commented that the wild hunt was evidence of the survival of pre-Christian folk-belief in the pagan god Odin. Grimm described the deity as having “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power […] a spectre and a devil.” 13
Yet, Odin is not the only one who has been allegedly sighted leading the spectral army of The Wild Hunt. Other sightings include King Arthur in Brittany, Count Arnau in Catalonia, King Beatrik in Lombardy, the Biblical character, Herodias on the Isle of Guernsey and even the Welsh god of the underworld. 14 Even in North America, the tale of the wild hunt was known as an old cowboy tale. When it was told to songwriter Stan Jones, he used it as inspiration for the famous song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”15
The strange and befuddling nature of the many wild hunt testimonies have left even the skeptical confused. In 1985, the German physicist Hans Peter Duerr commented that,
“[it] is generally difficult to decide [… whether] the appearance of the Wild Hunt is merely a demonic interpretation of natural phenomenon, or whether we are dealing with a description of ritual processions of humans changed into demons.” 16
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