Sacred Guardians

This Weeks Prompt:76. Ancient cathedral—hideous gargoyle—man seeks to rob—found dead—gargoyle’s jaw bloody.

The Resulting Story: [FORTHCOMING]

The story of the gargoyle is an interesting one. Grotesque sculptures—specifically one spewing water, but I feel that is an unnecessary division here—gargoyles are fearsome creatures that adorn many old buildings and churches. The gargoyle is sometimes thought of as a protector of the church—a feirce creature that fends off or frightens away evil spirits. Certainly, the gargoyle in this story is playing the role of guardian. But the actual origin of the gargoyle is far stranger.

GargoyleRouen.png

 

 

It all begins with a priest and a dragon. The dragon, however, was more dreadful then your typical terrifying creature. In the tradition of medieval dragons, it was a beast with bat wings, a long neck, and breath of fire (rather standard fare for dragons, as opposed to other french creatures like the Tarrasque). St. Romanus, a chancellor to the king, went out to face the dragon. In some versions, the ones I prefer, he was added by a condemned man, and leashed the beast. Bringing it back to the city it had terrorized, the saint burned the creature. However, the head and neck would not burned—they had become fire proof with the aid of its own breath. So the head and neck were mounted in the church, to ward off wicked spirits. The head spontaneously spouted water—or blocked the rain in a way that looked like a fountain (a nice inversion of its earlier fire breath). St. Romanus also reserved the right for his church to pardon one criminal—non traitorous criminal that is—per year.

The gargoyle then is not at first a willing defender of the church, but the image is rather effective as a guardian. The gargoyle is of course not the only statue associated with the church and not the only statue that guards holy places.

We can consider, for instance, the church grim. We’ve discussed this creature before—a black dog that wards the church, sometimes buried in it’s foundations. The robbery we are dealing with seems likely to be foiled by a church grim, as the creature is much more frequently a physical protector then a mere spiritual one. Other accounts of the church grim—sometimes called the Padfoot–describe a white or white dog, the size of a donkey that stalks at night. Other times, it takes the form of a lamb in the graveyard. It is also reported that the sound or stalking by a church grim marks one for death, and when unseen the grim may make the sound of chains being dragged. Speaking to or striking the church grim gives the grim power over you—resulting in comedic instances like a man being dragged by a particularly mischievous grim all the way back to his window.

NIO Statues.png

 

 

We can also consider the Nio. Unlike gargoyles or grim, who are a type of creature or sculpture, the Nio are at least in theory the same two individuals everywhere. The Nio are fearsome defenders of the Buddha—frequently, the two wield thunderbolts and have rather frightening appearances. The exact origin of the two is unclear—some posit them as defenders of the Buddha in life who took up this role after death, some place them as Raksasa, some as thunder spirits. Almost always, one of the pair has an open mouth, the other a closed mouth. The meaning of this pattern is disputed at times—the open mouth to frighten off evil spirits, the closed to keep good spirits in; the open mouth as the first letter of the alphabet, the closed as the last; the open as in someway feminine, the closed as in someway masculine; and so forth.

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This imagery, however, is repeated in the lion statues outside shrines in Japan. Komainu or shisa (Japan vs Okinawa) are in fact lions, not dogs, although their origins and naming are a tad convuluted. While I couldn’t find many stories on the komainu, the shisa is a popular general guardian spirit. I found the following stories on the site linked above:

A Chinese envoy brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. Meanwhile, at Naha bay, the village of Madanbashi was being terrorized by a sea dragon that ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, when suddenly the dragon attacked. All the people ran and hid. The local priestess had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent a boy to tell him. The king faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded throughout the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail. He couldn’t move, and eventually died.

At Tomimori Village in the far southern part of Okinawa, there were often many fires. The people of the area sought out a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested that the townspeople build a stone shisa to face the mountain. They did so, and thus have protected their village from fire ever since.”

The mystic lion statue guardian exists in Tibetan tales as well. We have a classic story of wealth there—a man regularly feeds a stone lion he finds in the woods. This man, Phurba, is notably poor, but still takes the time daily to feed the statue. The lion comes to life one day, and tells Phurba to come early the next day—and to put his hand in the statues mouth. There he will find gold, until the sun rises and the lion’s mouth closes. Phurba succeeds, and his rich neighbor Tenzin goes to do the same. Unlike Phurba, Tenzin does not take his hand out—and for his greed his hand is stuck into the lion.

Tibetan guardian spirits are also a fascinating delve in myth. They in a way resemble our gargoyle most closely—the spirit is a demonic creature, converted to Buddhism and then made a defender of what it converts. There is a long article I will link here, as I’m still reading the works relating to Tibet. However, this connection with the Gargoyle I think hints at some of the horror we can work with here.

Turning to the folklore of Hungary, we have another story of a mystic and righteous statue! A holy man dwelt long in the forest of Hrisco. So righteous and wise was the hermit, he was preferred as a negotiator—the legal authorities were rarely bothered. Eventually, he was called to deal with a peculair case of royalty. The Queen was a widow, and vowed to never remarry. When she met a man she fell in love with Francis, who was also a widower, she adopted him as a son. In time, Francis grew impatient and greedy—and locked the Lady of Larbor in her own castle, telling her servants she had gone mad.

Hungarian Hermit of Hiesco

The hermit, having been called by the king’s exiled and destitute lady, berated Francis—and suffered the wrath of the crown. Francis had the hermit locked in the highest tower and left to starve. And eventually the hermit did pass away—but the torment did not cease. For the next day, a statue of the monk appeared on a high rock near the tower. The statue pointed down accusingly at Francis—and despite the efforts of nobles and servants, the statue could not be destroyed. This accusing presence drove Francis mad—he demolished the castle, but the statue and castle returned. He fled, and died miserable and sleepless, the cruel presence of the monk haunting him to the last.

Our story I think then has a few interesting elements. The most overt parts is a story of the gargoyle in question, as a fearsome creature. A terrible origin story for the apparent statue. Here we can also observe the Lovecraft story, “The Terrible Old Man”. The story details a number of thieves trying to break into an easy mark’s house…and suffering a terrible fate. A useful technique here is the giving a clues to the history of the place, in small snippets and words. I have a nasty habit of just…saying what the story of a place or creature is. Our strange grotesque could have more hints around it. What sort of supernatural, or even alien, thing it had once been. Perhaps this is not the first thief to have met a grizzly end.

Particularly interesting to me is this recurring story, in both the Nio, the Gargoyle, and the Tibetan guardian deities, that an enemy of the holy place is converted into it’s most ardent defender. The potential parallel for our unfortunate burglar might work out well—perhaps a newly carved gargoyle bears an uncanny resemblance to him.

This story is also a good time to revisit the church as a location—particularly the Gothic cathedral. The most famous use of course is Hunchback of Notre Dame which…I have not read. I did see the Disney adaptation, which makes use of the gargoyles as…elements. Comedic relief I guess. Still, a cathedral is a fascinating location to me, as almost every cathedral is adorned with images. Stories in stained glass, statues of saints, names carved into the ground to mark tombs. A cathedral to me is certainty a presence as much as a place. It is easy to feel, among so many eyes and symbols, like you are being watched and judged.

Biblography

Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.

Henderson, William. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders. Pub. for the Folk-Lore Society by W. Satchell, Peyton, 1879.

Pogány, Nándor. The Hungarian Fairy Book. [1st ed.] New York: F. A. Stokes Co., 1913.

 

 

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The Fire Breaks

This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.
The Prior Research:Witches Sabbath

Part 1:The Black Mass Gathers

I watched as the blue and green lights on the mountain faded. They slowly went away, leaving nothing but strange scars in the side of the stone, and from the window even theses were barely there. I was transfixed a little longer—not much, but a little longer. I felt eyes on me, from those mountains—something strange and numerous gazing at me as I quickly packed my things and left. I locked the door behind me, and went down the by now mostly empty roads.

Mrs. Lorain’s cooking would clear my mind—she often made a stew or soup that was something else. Walking down the path, smoother than I remembered, I saw a few more new arrivals chatting in strange tongues while buying bread. Two women and a man, dressed in outrageous clothing—like something out of century old painting, stretching itself into parody. One was tossing something like dice, but shaped strange on the table as they talked. Suddenly, one of the women looked at me. Her eye was bloodshot and black. It stayed fixed on me as she resumed conversation. It didn’t blink.

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I hurried along, avoiding the other crowds of strangers and costumes. The eye was still lurking on me some. It was a bit hard to breath when at times they pressed close to me. But at last, I arrived at the Lorain house.

“Peter! Why, aren’t you late. Did the students give trouble?” Mrs. Lorain asked from the kitchen. I collected myself for a moment. I slowed, staggered onto a chair and managed a smile.

“No, no, but the cold air caught me. I thought a storm was coming, so sprinted home.” I said, waving at the sky. It was cloudier outside then normal, but the storm had resisted raining for at least a week so far. Such is dawn of Autumn.

“Ah, well, I reckon it’s got a couple days before it rains and washes away some of the rubbish.” Mr. Lorain said, looking up from his almanac. He read it daily for such predictions. “Weather’s rather regular when you look at it all the way, Peter, you should know. Why, its almost enough to set a clock by.”

“Maybe, maybe. I thought for a moment I saw lighting on the mountain.” I said, cautiously expanding into my fears. I was unsure what to make of the sighting—there were accounts of seeing a woman in the Mediterrian and of course in Ireland and Scotland stones took on strange forms on misty mornings. Flashes of light as the sunset…were not necessarily strange nor significant.

“Ah, probably just some kids with some of the fireworks or something on the hill.” Mrs. Lorain said, as one of the guests—who introduced himself as Rinaldo, but would not give his family name—came down the stairs.

“What already? Their getting faster.” Rinaldo said, his necklace of feathers and bird talons bouncing a bit as he stopped. “Yeah, thunder and lightings an old trick on the mountain. You get some iron bowls or pans, you drop the right firecracker in them with in the old caves and it looks like the devil himself is in the woods.”

“Ah, well…if that’s all that’s good. I was worried for my wits back there.” I said, nodding slightly. When Rinaldo put a hand on my shoulder my blood ran cold.

“Don’t worry, sir, you’ll see far greater spectacles in a day or so.” He said, smiling with his ivory white teeth.

That was not comforting.

*

During the night, I got little sleep—and when I would sleep, I was startled awake rather quickly after. At first it was just the evening wind. I sealed the window then, paying little mind to the dancing and reveling I could dimly make out by the moonlight. Then it was a scratching at the window—one of the strays around town I think. I knocked on the door to keep it away.

And then…I don’t know why I woke up. I just did, in that terribly uncomfortable place of being a wake but loathing it. I got up to pace, but my legs and arms felt like stone. Even as I slumped over to my desk, weight settled on my back to bend me over. I started writing blankly, unaware and uninterested. I waited until the small glimmers of light came through the window. I packed for work then, unshaven and disheveled as I walked down the road. I’d barely remembered to dress.

School Brick2.png

The weights did not go away as I arrived ahead of the students, into the class room. I scraped the structure of the latest writing on the chalk board, coughing a bit at the dust. Exhaustion slows even times long passage and dulls the best senses. I didn’t notice the arrival of the Tarneys until Mrs. Tarney herself gave a rather noisey cough.

“Are you alright Peter?” She asked, leaning to the side of the doorway in a blouse and skirt—black with thin white lines running down, creaking into lighting lines at the bottom. I blinked and focused more on her voice.

“I’m…yes. Had a rough night last night.” I said, resuming to diagram and map Prospero’s island.

“Oh, something disagree with you?” She said, tapping her foot. “Normally Mrs. Lorain–”

“No, no, her cooking was superb as always.” I said, shaking my head. “No, just some sickness that I suspect is at it’s end. I’ll probably not stay so late tonight. The autumn winds aren’t good for my health I fear.”

“Well, they are thin and cold up here.” Tarney said as I placed the chalk down and began to set up my other things. “You might want to start bundling up…you look absolutely pale.”

And with a click of her tongue she was gone.

The lesson for the week was rather dull as well, but not without merits. We had begun work on Shakespeare’s plays, and now came to the end of those stories. Prospero and his island on our minds, I reviewed the structure and sonnets. The children were more fond of this then other plays—the nymph and dread Caliban gave an air of wonder to it. Suitable, I think, to even the teenagers and the young children. Far more than the tragedies.

After classes were dismissed—and there were a number of classes I contrived to teach the same text, for different aims—I again settled down and started packing my things to go. After last nights…strange encounter, I thought it would do to leave early. But…but I must be honest, there was a macabre fascination with the sight that held me. I need to know—was it delusion that I saw fire on the hills? And the strange habit of Mrs. Tarney made me cautious to follow her down the hill.

So instead I waited, watching out the window. I saw the old path that wound to the mountains—a dirt road worn out when trade up the hills were common. Sitting in my chair, I saw a trickle of travellers heading up the winding path. Most were dressed…more ostentiously then before. Bright colored cloaks and dresses, with feathered collars and scaly neck pieces. Almost all wore masks worthy of Venice…although a few had masks that were so pale and untouched they looked like bone wrote in the shape of a long forgotten creature.

I paid the first few of strangers no mind. The next two or three piquied my intereast away from the hill—after all, it was not a well known route. And after a dozen or so had gone, it became clear that some gathering was going to take place. Some party no doubt—I wondered briefly it was a tradition from when these now grown guests were teens. No matter. I made a few notes of faces and particularly outrageous costumes. Most were rather macabre. But otherwise,not worth notice. Not really.

The sun was setting now, and distantly I saw…yes, a spark. And another. Just fireworks, as the young man had said. Nothing more, nothing more. With that in mind, I packed my things, and headed home.

*

The road back to the Lorain’s was oddly barren. There was a young man packing things in the bakery—which was usually open far latter than this. A cat, who seemed like a miniature tiger, crossed my path. Turning to face me, the cat let me know I was not welcome on these fair streets with a rather unwholesome noise.

Then he scampered off.

The incident was unremarkable…except stray vermin and the occasional cat were the only occupants in the whole town I could find. The Lorain’s had locked the front door to the house—although the back was open. None of the guests, nor either Lorain was home. After searching for a time, I considered if they too had gone to that strange lights in the mountains. I considered going to bed early—retiring again to make up for lost sleep. But…sleeping alone, in an unguarded home, with potential drunkards wandering back into town…If there was one reasonable fear I had, it was the descent of a hoard of drunk bohemians armed with mischief.

So I sat and read for a time by the candlelight. And as I poured over pages of Parisian lore, I lost myself. Time spun her wheel faster over my head, interrupted only by the mewling of hungry cats. Then, a loud crash—and a distant flash. Lighting and thunder outside, lighting and thunder. I nearly fell out my seat, and turned to the mountains—and there, those lights had grown. There was a great conflagration along it’s mount. Some strange shape was at it’s core—and long dancing shadows came down from on high.

Fire Outside ElderBir.png

I set aside my fears and terrors. For there, there I knew was some mischief about. I began walking up through the town—the light of the mountain cast it in morning twilight. The cats were all about, standing at attention on the main road. I walked in back streets, slipping around the strange street up towards the mountain. The roofs were thick with ravens. Red eyes followed me out of town.

The trail was only rugged until the woods—then it began to grow smooth. The remains of old Roman roadworks were visible—rocks and bits of blocks sticking up with increasing frequency. The rain…the rain had swelled the dirt. The orange dirt looked dark red in the twilight, clay pushing up against the rocks and stones. The road was better kept as I went—the stones sealed together better.

The forest was alive with lights—the great bonfire that was raging raced down occasionally, in great columns of light. And the sounds—the sounds that night. There was music, of course, drums and pipes and trumpets. A cacophony of noise, unearthly but not unpleasant noise. Except the braying—there was the occasional bray of some no doubt terrified donkey.

As I wound my way up the path, small candles—their wax dripping over stones—came into view. At the base of these candles, carved in strange shapes and colors, votives were left by guests. I saw portraits and coinage glimmering in the darkness. The exact details were unclear—but the shapes were strange, and some had writing or scars drawn on them. I stopped at one. It was a young man, with a nail driven into the portraits eyes.

As the noise grew louder and I drew closer, I was tempted to leave the road—I was not looking forward to being seen here. But the woods now seemed to alive. A thin film floated in the air, a membrane invisible that none the less divided the woods and winds from me.

At the edge of the road, just as it wound to the flame, I was assaulted by an foul odor. It was rot and burning hair and sulfur. It nearly drove me to vomit, like walking into a sewage filled slaughterhouse. Swallowing, I turned the corner—and what dreadful things I saw.

The Fiery Monolith.png

There was that roaring many colored fire—and in it’s center was a monolith. The flames made it hard to see how it was raised—it looked like a singular stone finger. And atop the monolith was a bestial thing, a man with the head of goat. Serpents came from his cheeks, as he stood with arms spread out. A woman was on all fours, a great iron cauldron resting on her back. Clouds of incense and smoke rose from the cauldron.

As I was agap at the sight, I felt hands grab me. Turning I saw a porcelian mask with tusks jutting from the mouth—the scarlet dancer pulled me in a line of dancers. Feathered veils and dresses whirled around—leonine heads and bleeding eyes. I felt the coils of serpents run up my arms and around my back as I was pulled every which way. I wanted to scream, but something choked my voice.

The Ritual Goat.png

There were other moniliths. Other men with masks of great birds of prey, of skulls, of bulls with snakes fangs lining their mouths. The dancers continued. At the gesture of the scepters and staves, they sang in bestial tones. A wicked harmony they compelled—even my own voice became rough and formless. An ectasy took hold. They dragged me into the fire’s cold grip. Up, up the winding monolith.

I saw the face of the altar, as the goat-headed priest grabbed my hand. I saw the priest’s familiar eyes. As the hands guided me, the entire crowd cheering—they lowered me into the cauldron. It burned. It hurt.

It hurt as it filled my lungs, with boiling tar.

It hurt.

*

I woke up in the small, drab room in town. I ached all over as I rolled out of bed. I stumbled a bit, pulling my coat on. It was morning—my head was pounding and my skin…my skin felt strange. It felt…heavy, like a layer of dirt was on it. I shook it off and buttoned up my jacket. It was cloudy out—an iron gray sky. The window showed a town full of mist. Slowly blinking my eyes, I went down the stairs.

The road clicked as I walked along, absently buying some bread for breakfast. I’d take it on the hill today, I figured. The rain hadn’t started yet, and a breakfast inside would give it too much of a chance. And the rain—well, it was autumn and cold winds were coming. The rain would be a fever or mold on my clothes. I’d rather avoid that.

The students piled in, and sure enough the rain started to fall. In the distance, a fire was doused. The chalk on the board blurred beneath my touch. I coughed—and blinked as a black feather came out of my mouth.


 

I’m not super fond of the ending–I ran out of time, and had to rush something to happen to Peter. But overall, I like how this story turned out. I got to write some old fashion purple prose description, for good or ill. It was a bit slow at first, and could use some  expanding. Maybe next year it’ll be voted as a rewrite at the Patreon, who knows?

Next week! Research into gargoyles and guardians of churches! Come and see!

 

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