Folklore crackles with tales of spirits and doubles. These bad omens, like the Bean Nighe, point to the death of the beholder. Irish folklore also features the fetch, a shadowy double who appears at the point of death.
According to the folklore, the fetch appears to a third person just as someone dies, or is about to. Some stories claim the fetch disappears down hallways or alleys if a mortal tries to follow it. It’s not a ghost. It’s just a copy of the original person. No one knows why it takes that form, and it’s rarely malevolent in nature.
Georgia Dunham Kelchner defines the fetch as “the inherent soul, the accompanying counterpart or representation, of a living person” (p. 17). So at the point of death, that soul travels beyond the body and appears to a loved one. Whether it’s through panic or to give reassurance, no one knows.
For Andrew Black, “[t]he Fetch may even bear the signs of how the person will die. The movie series Final Destination could be considered to be about an elaborate Fetch scenario, and much like in the films, the victim will usually die as predicted by the Fetch, if not in exactly the same manner.”
But, as with all things folklore, it’s not that straightforward. If a person sees a fetch in the morning, they will have a long life. Yet if the apparition appears at night, the person faces a swift death. Ouch.
Let’s find out more about them!
Where does the name come from?
‘Fetch’ is largely an Irish term but English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose claimed it as a northern English term in his Provincial Glossary of 1787. No one knows the exact origin of the word, though some believe it refers to a figure who “fetches” souls.
The fetch made its Irish literary debut in the early 19th century, popping up in an 1825 story “The Fetches” by John and Michael Banim.
The fetch appears in most English folklore from the 18th century onwards as the double. I wrote about doubles and doppelgängers over on the Folklore Thursday blog so you can read more about those there. And doubles shouldn’t be confused with folklore about reflections.
The Fetch and the Fylgja
The fetch bears some similarities to the Norse concept of the fylgja. Unlike the fetch, the fylgja didn’t represent specific people, but still acted as a portent of death. Well, sometimes.
The word ‘fylgja’ translates as ‘to accompany’. So for some people, the fylgja takes an animal form, based on the first animal to appear after a birth. It ‘accompanied’ a person throughout their life. A bit like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
I was born during the witching hour so who knows what my fylgja would be? Probably a bat. That says a lot.
Others believed the fylgja to be whatever animal ate the afterbirth. So lots of them took the form of carrion animals. Some even believed the type of animal indicated the personality of the person.
Seeing your own fylgja apparently heralded your death…unless it appeared as a woman, in which case you could expect good luck. Female fylgjur were considered a good luck sign for a family.
Famous Fetch Encounters
The 16th century English poet John Donne apparently saw his wife’s fetch in Paris. The apparition held a newborn baby, but Donne knew it heralded nothing good. She’d given birth to a stillborn child at the time he saw the fetch.
Another legend concerns Elizabeth I. The tale claims she saw a corpse on her bed. Somehow she summoned the strength to get closer and she recognised the corpse. It was her. She died soon after.
It’s difficult to know if the story holds any truth but you can imagine being a bit freaked out if it happened to you.
And how about this story?
Roger Clarke relates a tale dating to 1705. Mrs Margaret Bargrave sat at home in Canterbury on September day. As the clock struck noon, her friend, Mary Veal came in. They chatted for a bit, with Miss Veal consoling Mrs Bargrave about her “marital discord” (p. 106). She then asked Mrs Bargrave to write some letters for her, including instructions about who should get items from her jewellery collection. Almost an hour and three quarters passed before Miss Veal finally took her leave. It no doubt came as quite a shock when Mrs Bargrave discovered the next day that Miss Veal died, right around the time she popped in for tea.
These stories also appear in popular anecdotes, particularly favoured by ghost hunts and walking tours. The format is always the same. Person A speaks to or sees Person B. They later discover Person B died at the time they saw them, often many miles away.
I posed a question for this blog post. Why is a fetch a death omen? Well they’re not an omen of your death…unless you happen to see your own. But they do herald a death elsewhere, and they don’t even need a banshee to announce it…
Have you ever heard any fetch stories? Let me know in the comments!
Clarke, Roger (2013), A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, London: Penguin.
Kelchner, Georgia Dunham (2013 ), Dreams in Old Norse Literature and their Affinities in Folklore, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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