What in the Name of Rumplestiltskin’s Leather Pants is a Wraith?
by Teresa Martin--@Teresa__Martin
That was the question on many a fan’s lips after a creature blasted through the floor of Aurora’s elaborate sleeping chamber in “Broken,” the Season Two premiere of Once Upon a Time. This creature was not given a name until Mulan described it as a Qui Shen, and translated it as “wraith.” She then clarified that this was a “soul-sucker.” The only further information that could be gleaned from the episode was that this creature marked a person and would be driven away by light. Subsequent personal research unearthed results that were unexpected. The trail led almost immediately to Scotland. However, the original wraith was different from what one may have read in The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy literature. For a wraith is not a black clothed soul-sucking creature, but rather the duplicate of one’s own soul.
The word “wraith” first appeared approximately in the 16th century, meaning “spirit.” A wraith is defined as “a ghost of a person on the verge of death . . . an exact likeness of its human counterpart, showing itself to relatives of that person as he is about to die …. [This] appears to have developed from a very old belief that a person’s soul is an exact duplicate of his or her living body (Haining 215).” A person will be suddenly confronted face to face with his double and that will be a sign that his death is near, but most commonly it is seen by others (Briggs 309-310). For the latter, it would occur “if someone were to catch a glimpse of a person whom they knew passing the door or window, and on looking outside were to find no such person there …. This was considered a remarkably clear instance of a person’s wraith, or spirit being seen at the time of death (Napier 70).”
The traditions of the traditional Qui-Shen are also incorporated into the plot. In the attack on Prince Phillip, daylight scares the wraith away. Later, Snow and Charming use fire to repel the creature as well as lead it into the magical hat. Moreover, when Rumpelstiltskin presses the medallion into Regina’s hand, she has the appearance of one who has been weakened, as though perhaps some of her energy was taken from her soul. The show has therefore utilized ancient Chinese Traditions with modern lore resulting in the enrichment of the show’s canon.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Once Upon a Time is how the writers use stories and legends from the world over. “Broken” informed fans that the show would be exploring deeper realms of literature and myth. Delving into the concept of the soul being taken by a Qui Shen introduced Chinese myth as a significant part of the story which affected residents of both the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke. Furthermore, the door is open for the appearance of these frightening portents as told in ancient lore. Perhaps in the next Storybrooke deaths, the characters will possibly see their wraiths thereby sending the same chills to the audience that the Celtic people of long ago felt when telling these tales on cold winter nights.
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.