Supernaturalism in Riders to the Sea

Supernaturalism in Riders to the Sea

Supernaturalism in Riders to the Sea


The supernatural element has been in the tragedies of all the languages for long the Greek tragedians introduced gods and goddesses whose wrath generally caused tragedy to puny humans. Shakespeare used the supernatural vigorously because his audience believed in the supernatural. He introduced witches in Macbeth and ghosts in Hamlet. Supernaturalism was also a tool of terrorism in the hands of the post-Elizabethan dramatists.

Beliefs of the Island People

Synge drew the material for his plays from his experiences he gathered by living with the people of Aran Islands. These people were Christians but they had many superstitions which were far older than Christianity. They were a primitive, isolated community. They lived a risky life. They faced dangers at the sea. Hence they became fearful and believed in God. They prayed to God for their safety. Maurya prays for the safety of her sons but in vain. These people also believed in omens and portents, ghosts and fairies, the forces of Nature and the position of stars. Riders to the Sea, though a realistic poetic play, incorporates the supernatural in the form of superstitions and the ghost of Michael.

The Element of Mystery

Along with the supernatural is accompanied the mysterious. As the play opens we are confronted with the mystery of Michael’s drowning: he was drowned nine days ago but there is a mystery about the mode, manner and place of his death. Even his dead body was not found. Only a bundle of clothes was found in Donegal from a man who had collected the clothes from a human body. It is yet to be established if the clothes belong to Michael. Nora and Cathleen discover that these are really Michael’s clothes. Though it is confirmed that the body of the dead person found was Michael’s, yet it remains mystery how the body floated so far north as Donegal.

The priest has also told Nora that two men had been rowing with illicit whisky at the hour of cock-crow near the black cliffs of the north and the car of one of them had caught the body. Now this hour has a supernatural significance. There was an old belief that the souls of the dead could wander about the whole night but they had to return to hell or to their graves at the hour of cock-crow. The black cliffs also have a spiritual significance because in classical mythology the souls had to pass through a black region before going to the underworld. Thus an air of mystery surrounds the drowning of Michael.

The title

The title of the play has a supernatural significance. Among the two riders of the play one is Bartley, the living man on the red mare and another the phantasm man of the dead (Michael) on the grey pony.

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Supernatural element in the discovery of Michael’s dead body

There is an element of the supernatural in the discovery of Michael’s dead body. The dead body was found in the far north (Donegal). It is a mystery how the dead body could float so far away. Moreover it was found at cock-crow (dawn), the time the souls of the dead return to their graves after wandering about all night in a disconsolate condition. The black cliffs of the north where the dead body was found have supernatural associations. In classical mythology the souls have to pass through a black region on their way to the underworld.

 A fearful vision seen by Maurya

When Maurya is standing at the spring well to give Bartley his bread and her blessing, she sees a fearful vision which perhaps constitutes the most terrible supernatural element in the play. While speaking about the vision she says to Cathleen:

“I’ve seen the fearfullest thing any person has seen since the day Bride Dara seen the dead man with the child in his arms.”

Explaining the vision she says she saw Michael on the grey pony following Bartley on the red mare. The ghost of Michael had fine clothes on him and new shoes on his feet. This supernatural sight bears an ominous import for the superstitious Maurya. She takes it for granted that Bartley, his last surviving son is dead, because she is superstitious enough to believe that the sight of a dead man pursuing a living man portends that the latter will soon join the company of the former in the other world.

Magical holy water

The holy water which Maurya used to collect in the dark nights after Samhain and which she sprinkles over Bartley’s dead body is another supernatural element in the play. It is not blessed by a Christian priest; it is believed to have magical properties capable of keeping away death from the family.

Building up the atmosphere

The supernatural in Riders to the Sea does not determine human action as it does in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet. It helps to build up the proper tragic atmosphere which is one of terror, mystery and fatality, and which fills us with a sense of the tragic doom that awaits Bartley.

Supernatural as universalizing agent

But the greatest service the supernatural renders to Riders to the Sea is to universalize the tragedy of a fisherman. The supernatural makes us feel that we are not in the presence of a decrepit woman of Aran (i.e. of Maurya) but in that of the people who live under the judgement of death-who feel their isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and seas.

The Pig with the Black Feet

The pig with the black feet eating “the bit of new rope” is a good illustration of the blending of the real and the super-natural. The pig as well as the rope is real. But the pig eating the rope is supernatural and is charged with an ominous significance. It forebodes that some evil is going to befall the family.

To conclude, the supernatural does a lot to make Riders to the Sea a great tragedy

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