- a ghostlike image of someone that usually appears to portend death
- any visible and unidentified apparition
- a pale, thin, and insubstantial object or person, sometimes without a clear shape
Wraith is almost always associated with horror. The image that pops into most people's minds is a pale, eerie, and looming figure of a woman. Wraith usually refers to the spirit—any gender—that appears before one's death, whether as a peaceful or as an ominous warning. In fiction, wraiths tend to be a bad omen as they are related to death, and characters want to escape them. Wraiths are similar to the idea of the grim reaper or the Angel of Death, but they usually don't follow through with the demise of a person. Wraiths are merely a signal that death is near.
A second use of wraith refers to any ghostly, disturbing entity that makes itself known. They tend to manifest in sinister nature and appearance. Similar to the previous usage, wraiths in this context are likely to be female and pallid in appearance. However, unlike the previous usage, these spirits do not prophesy death. Despite not foreshadowing death, wraiths even in this form are usually an unwelcome haunting.
The final and least common application of the word refers to a wan person or an ambiguously shaped object. Wraith is said to take the place of a person who is sickly, rundown, or generally wispy in nature. People that are called wraiths tend to be suffering from an illness or are close to death. Use of wraith can also illustrate a column of a vaporous substance, such as a pillar of smoke. Whether referring to people or objects, wraith always points to the insubstantial nature of the subject.
Example: The character became drenched in terror when he saw a wraith hovering by his bed.
Example: She quickly ran for shelter after noticing a wraith appear behind her on the unlit street.
Example: After several therapies, the boy's mother began to look more like a wraith than her usual, healthy self.
Wraithlike is the adjective form of the word, used to describe anything pallid or supernatural in nature.
Example: The full moon looming over the abandoned house gave the young women wraithlike appearances.
A Banshee is very similar to a wraith in that its screech warns someone of their death; however, banshees are specifically female creatures.
Phantom is another word with a meaning similar to wraith. However, a phantom is simply a ghost; it does not warn people of their deaths.
Even though wraith is a commonly used word, the origin still holds some mystery. Most experts point to Scotland in the early sixteenth century where wraithis was used in Aeneid—an epic poem—to describe a ghostly being. This is the theory most supported by evidence, especially as wraith is usually associated with ghosts and other spiritual entities.
Other experts, however, suggest the word takes its root from the Norse word orðr, which means "guardian." This aligns with the definition of wraith as a spirit that appears to forewarn death, similar to how a guardian angel would appear before someone's death.
A final candidate is the Irish and Gaelic root word arrach, which means "specter" or "apparation." This term relates to wraithis in that it defines wraith as a paranormal creature. Even with these three words, experts still are not sure of the exact origin of the word wraith.
From Anna Quindlen's One True Thing:
"My mother spoke, alive again inside my brain...She spoke and I listened to her, because I was afraid if I didn't her voice would gradually fade away, an evanescent wraith of a thing that would narrow to a pinpoint of light and then go out, lost forever, like the Tinker Bell if no one clapped for her."
Here, wraith is being used to describe an insubstantial amount of something. The authors portrays that listening to her mother's voice prevents her mother's disappearance; listening to her speak gives her substance and a clear shape, rather than an unidentifiable, wispy nature.
From Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children:
"..and when Amina Sinai was saying to the wraith of an old white washing-chest, "Go away now - I've seen enough of you,".."
In this passage during a climactic moment in Rushdie's classic, the character is seeing and bidding adieu to wraith of a washing-chest, one of the key objects in the novel.
- Wispy wraiths wail in the wind.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of wraith. Did you use wraith in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.