I first met the Church Grim in the iOS game Year Walk (Simogo Games, 2013)— one of the few games I’ve played since adolescence and one that held me in its subtle, moody spell. The narrative of Year Walk is modeled after the Swedish Årsgång— a divinatory ritual that involves a long, solitary passage through dark woods, where the walker meets with various supernatural entities. Year Walk ends at the local church, which is where you’ll find the Church Grim— a goat-headed ghost whose heart you’re asked to shatter.
But what is the Church Grim? I sought information in the companion app (a guidebook). An abridged version of that text follows:
“Little is known of it, since it was considered bad luck to even speak about it…When a church was built in medieval times, an animal was sometimes buried alive under the floors— most commonly goats since these were comparatively cheap. There have also been stories of criminals being buried alive as punishment. In other versions the criminal’s heart was cut out and placed inside an animal carcass that was sacrificed…
The Church Grim guarded the church against thieves and grave robbers, but because of it even honest folks avoided the church at night. Some stories say that if you were unlucky enough to be the last one to die during the year, you would serve the Church Grim the following year. There are other stories that suggest the Church Grim was not a guardian at all, but rather a sort of parasite drawn to the energy of the church. While there it fed on people’s hopes, dreams and fears.”
Fascinated by this, I wanted to know more. If Year Walk was really based on Swedish folklore, surely there must be more out there about my favorite character? But what the internet turned up were pages and pages of Google results that just referenced the game itself. It wasn’t until I began searching through old public domain books about folklore that I began to get somewhere.
I. Benjamin Thorpe, Northern Mythology, comprising the principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and The Netherlands (Vol. II: Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions) London: Edward Lumley, 1851
“WHEN the first churches were built, they were generally consecrated with the observance of various heathen customs which the people would not part with. One of these was to sacrifice some animal to the old gods beside the foundation-stone or outside the churchyard wall. These animals were buried alive, and it was believed that their spirit or ghost wandered about in the churchyard in the ghostly hours of the night; they were called “Kirkegrimer.“… When such spectres are seen, they are warnings of important events, lucky or unlucky…
It is also related that, under the altar in the first Christian churches, there was buried a lamb to ensure the permanent existence of the church. This was called the “Church Lamb.” When anyone enters a church at a time when there is no service, it sometimes happens (so says the story) that they see a little lamb spring across the choir and disappear. When it appears to any one in the churchyard, especially to the grave-diggers, it is a warning that a little child is to die.”
II. William Henderson, Notes on the folk-lore of northern countries of England and the borders
London: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co., 1879
“It was the custom in ancient times to bury a dog or a boar alive under the cornerstone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the churchyard, and drive off any who would profane it, i.e. witches or warlocks… In Sweden the beast which haunts churchyards is called the Kyrkogrim. It is there said that the first founders of Christian churches used to bury a lamb under the altar.”
III. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion
New York: MacMillan and Co, 1894
“In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building.”
IV. John 1:29, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition Bible
“…Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world.”
I can’t help but see the Church Grim as the shadow of an essential Christian symbol: Agnus Dei, Lamb of God. This lamb, as symbol of Christ, means victory and eternal innocence while the Church Grim signals trauma and foreboding. In Swedish folklore (which is surely based on real accounts of animal sacrifice) the Church Grim is a murdered animal; buried and condemned to haunt one place in an unholy afterlife. Agnus Dei, on the other hand, is a lamb that offers itself willingly for the good of all souls. Both animals, in their deaths, invest churches with supernatural powers, but the Church Grim frightens like a phantom and Agnus Dei blesses like a resurrected god. Even visually, Agnus Dei is raised above the Church Grim. Instead of dwelling in the shadows, God’s lamb lives in stained glass windows: jewel-colored sunlight passing through its body every dawn.
This guest writer’s blog brought to you by 2014 Poetry Contest winner and Mauve Issue contributor Claire Cronin.