They’re coming to take me away

Cars and chariots of death.

Luise White’s Speaking With Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa has already been referred to here during a post on Mrs. Draculla from Abroad. In it she refers to East African vampire stories featuring fire engines which kidnap victims in order to imprison and desanguinate them at the local station:

In rural Tanganyika during World War II, a blood drive to supply plasma to troops overseas failed because a fire engine was always stationed by the small airstrip and Africans assumed that the blood was to be drunk by Europeans.

I don’t know if every culture has its Charon, its Ankou, but deathly chauffeurs are relatively widespread in Spanish life, even from the time before we started glancing up at low-flying jets and across at our travelling companions’ luggage. Here are a couple of examples from down our way.

Chariots of death

Seres Míticos y Personajes Fantásticos Españoles by Manuel Martín Sánchez contains a number of variants. Of The Chariot of Death (El Carro de la Muerte) he writes

This nocturnal apparition, collected by C Cabal in the Ribadesella area in Asturias, is said to presage death. It is a carriage that flies through the air with neither horses to draw it nor coachman to guide it. It arrives at houses where someone has passed away and carries him/her away, although there are legends in which seeing it causes death.

In Galicia, on the other hand,

The Chariot of Death is an indication that someone is about to die.

Chariots of the dead

The Chariot of the Deceased (El Carro de los Difuntos) is different because, instead of relating to individual mortality, it ties in with the communal rites like the Day of the Dead (traditionally celebrated in Catalonia on November 2nd, according to Amades) and the old custom in the mountains of León of celebrating the return of the dead to villages in the period December 25-January 6 and then banging pots and pans to chase them out.

Was Boadicea the origin of the demigoddess-in-scythed-chariot legend, or was cutlery added to her wagon by amateur hagiographers?

Here’s what Martín Sánchez says:

In Andorra exists the belief that death comes to look for the souls of the dead in a wagon called Carro dels Difunts. The scythe of death grinds horribly, warning thus of its sinister presence.

Away matches

Something that also happened in this period is that, due to the influx of classical literature into western Europe, heroes (Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, Odysseus) suddenly started visiting death. This is something we will ignore, since they mostly travelled on foot, and because the Iberian literature I have so far read suggests that the peoples of Spain weren’t hugely taken by the notion anyway.

The triumph of death

The Triumph of Death from the Predica dell'Arte del ben morire, Florence c1500

In the late C15th, under the influence of the Black Death, the chariot of the dead became wildly popular, appearing all over Europe in Florentine carnivals [link was to, now contains malware], Flemish paintings, songs, and romances with stock characters. This is the group that Don Quixote bumps into:

Don Quixote was about to reply to Sancho Panza, but he was prevented by a cart crossing the road full of the most diverse and strange personages and figures that could be imagined. He who led the mules and acted as carter was a hideous demon; the cart was open to the sky, without a tilt or cane roof, and the first figure that presented itself to Don Quixote’s eyes was that of Death itself with a human face; next to it was an angel with large painted wings, and at one side an emperor, with a crown, to all appearance of gold, on his head. At the feet of Death was the god called Cupid, without his bandage, but with his bow, quiver, and arrows; there was also a knight in full armour, except that he had no morion or helmet, but only a hat decked with plumes of divers colours; and along with these there were others with a variety of costumes and faces. All this, unexpectedly encountered, took Don Quixote somewhat aback, and struck terror into the heart of Sancho; but the next instant Don Quixote was glad of it, believing that some new perilous adventure was presenting itself to him, and under this impression, and with a spirit prepared to face any danger, he planted himself in front of the cart, and in a loud and menacing tone, exclaimed, “Carter, or coachman, or devil, or whatever thou art, tell me at once who thou art, whither thou art going, and who these folk are thou carriest in thy wagon, which looks more like Charon’s boat than an ordinary cart.”


To which the devil, stopping the cart, answered quietly, “Senor, we are players of Angulo el Malo’s company; we have been acting the play of ‘The Cortes of Death’ this morning, which is the octave of Corpus Christi, in a village behind that hill, and we have to act it this afternoon in that village which you can see from this; and as it is so near, and to save the trouble of undressing and dressing again, we go in the costumes in which we perform. That lad there appears as Death, that other as an angel, that woman, the manager’s wife, plays the queen, this one the soldier, that the emperor, and I the devil; and I am one of the principal characters of the play, for in this company I take the leading parts. If you want to know anything more about us, ask me and I will answer with the utmost exactitude, for as I am a devil I am up to everything.”

Car accidents

car ad

After that, I get the impression that new wheeled-death memes became quite rare in Spain. However, once car-ownership became comparatively widespread, life began to misinterpret the art of Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

Here is a report from Barcelona daily, La Vanguardia, dated August 3rd 1935:

In the neighbourhood of Albons, in Girona, a serious automobile accident has caused the death of Prince Alexis Mdivani. A young lady he was accompanying suffered serious injuries. Prince Mdivani was very well known. He was born in Georgia (Caucasus) Some years ago, he was divorced from the American Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth millions.

Ghost cars

In my estimation, the savagery in 1936 in Catalonia of Orwell’s friends, the anarcho-syndicalist and POUM death squads, far exceeded anything perpetrated by the Stalinists and their friends or by the Francoists in later years. Sometimes victims were killed where they were found, sometimes they were dragged out of villages, tortured horribly, and left to die, and sometimes they were picked up by the “ghost car” (cotxe fantasma), the name given to stolen vehicles manned by local militiamen, which delivered them to execution squads waiting at Montcada cementery, just north of Barcelona.

The apparently aleatoric leaps from one place to another of Canet de Mar’s ghost car caused locals also to call it “the locust”, according to Xavier Mas Gibert. His Guerra – Revolució i Contrarevolució a Canet de Mar (1936-1943) (Mataró, 2002) is one of the finest (and one of the few honest) pieces of history to appear about the Civil War in this part of the world. Here is an excerpt:

With Joaquim Salvà Perejoan at the time of his detention were, apart from his family, Dolors Pera Andreu, a neighbour who was at number 1 in the same street, Carrer d’Àngel Guimerà. Salvà, who lived at number 9, was a young man of 28 who, on seeing through the windows of the porch [cancell: I can’t think of the word] the silhouettes of the militiamen, guns on their shoulders, tried to flee, jumping out of the back exit which at that time led onto a garden of Can Golba. The militiamen had the house surrounded, and he couldn’t get away. Joaquim Salvà know that he was in danger (one of the moderates had warned him) and he already had a hiding place arranged in a farmhouse of friends of his on Montnegre in Sant Cebrià district, but he didn’t want to leave until the carobs had been picked, which were late due to the rain that fell all that summer. That cost him his life, because they took him away and he was executed that same night.

The following excerpt from a piece in Catalan by someone called Lluís Bonet Punsoda is taken from the Christmas 1949 edition of Condal, the magazine of the Colegio Condal. Colegio Condal currently goes under the name of La Salle-Comtal and is based in the fine 1907 building by Bonaventura Bassegoda i Amigó just behind Domènech i Montaner’s 1908 Palau de la Música.

Of that Christmas so sad I still have a most bitter and unforgettable personal memory. In the mid-afternoon, with the shop open – but no one was coming in – a car stopped in front of the house, out of which got four or five men in leather jackets and with pistols hanging from their bandoleers. They entered all at once and asked for my father. My father couldn’t come… because a month and a half before an armed group resembling the one that was now demanding him imperiously had taken him in a car like this one and had sacrificed him before the walls of Moncada cementery.

It is completely feasible that this is invented, but I suspect not, given, for example, ned to others from the school community. I hope someone will tell me eventually if this writer is the same person as Lluís Bonet i Punsoda, who in 1979 as pregoner played a leading role in Tarragona’s Holy Week ceremonies.

There’s an interesting article here on the iconography of death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and there’s a neo-mediaevalist chariot of death ref here in Jacint Verdaguer’s Canigó, a “Pyrenean legend from the time of the Reconquest.” Unfortunately I’m very short of time. Sorry.

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Last updated 15/08/2019

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Andorra (1): Andorra; Catalan: [ənˈdorə]), officially the Principality of Andorra, also called the Principality of the Valleys of Andorra, is a sovereign landlocked microstate on the Iberian Peninsula, in the eastern Pyrenees, bordered by France to the north and Spain to the south.

Ankou (1): Ankou is a personification of death in Breton mythology as well as in Cornish, Welsh and Norman French folklore.

Asturias (3): Asturias, officially the Principality of Asturias, is an autonomous community in north-west Spain.

Barcelona (1399):

Brighton (11):

Carro de la muerte (1):

Carro de los difuntos (1):

Carro dels difunts (1):

Catalan literature (8):

Catalonia (1155):

Chariot of death (1):

Chariot of the dead (1):

Charon (1): In Greek mythology, Charon or Kharon is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Don Quixote (36): Don Quixote, fully titled The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

English literature (60):

Ethnology (13):

Flanders (31): Flanders], French: Flandre [flɑ̃dʁ], German: Flandern, [flɑndɛɹn]) is the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, although there are several overlapping definitions, including ones related to culture, language, politics and history.

Galicia (72):

George Orwell (21): Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, whose work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction and polemical journalism.

Jacint Verdaguer (6): Jacint Verdaguer i Santaló was a Spanish writer, regarded as one of the greatest poets of Catalan literature and a prominent literary figure of the Renaixença, a cultural revival movement of the late Romantic era.

Joan Amades (15): Joan Amades i Gelats, was an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist.

Kaleboel (4307):

León (1):

Miguel de Cervantes (82):

Natural history (512): Natural history is the research and study of organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study.

Popular culture (12):

Spain (1881):

Spanish literature (171):

Tanganyika (1): Tanganyika was a sovereign state, comprising the mainland part of present-day Tanzania, that existed from 1961 until 1964.

Tanzania (1): Tanzania, officially the United Republic of Tanzania, is a country in eastern Africa within the African Great Lakes region.

Tree (284):


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