Birds the Likes of Which God Hasn’t Seen

This Week’s Prompt:127. Ancient and unknown ruins—strange and immortal bird who speaks in a language horrifying and revelatory to the explorers.

The Resulting Story:

Avian lore is not an unfamiliar branch of study for the Undead Author Society. Our most recent delve into the birds of feather can be found here—and in fact, given the emphasis on the voice of the bird here, much of it is still applicable. That said, there are still a number of strange and interesting birds to examine in the folklore and mythology of the world.

One of note is the Luan bird—a bird that in some ways resembles the phoenix or Feng Huang. This bird is a bright red bird, with a rainbow plumage, resembling a pheasant. One of it’s most notable characteristics is its song—a song that often is described as piercing the clouds or heavens. The bird is known for its vanity in folktales, as well for it’s singing with joy upon seeing another of its kind. Over time, it gained further associations with a longing for freedom in the sky, as opposed to captivity—and such associations tied it neatly to those Daoists who transcended all things, as well  as the Queen Mother of the West. The bird’s association with gentlemanly behavior and proper action, as well as linguistic ties to the Emperor’s banner, are also worthy of note.

The luan in the article I read was glossed as “simurgh”—a bird that we have neglected somewhat so far. The Persian Simurgh is a great bird that lives in the forested third heaven, and raised the hero Zal. Zal took with him one of the feathers of the bird down with him, and its feathers healed all wounds when applied. It is also a creature that brings the rain with it’s wings, and scatters all the seeds of the world from its island roost.  Next to it sits Carmosh, who catches seeds that fall from the roost and takes them all over the world. When enemies invade Iran, Carmosh eats the men as a bird eats corn—a horrifying and powerful bird indeed!

The other bird that comes to mind when examining ruins, to me, is the Roc or Rukh. This bird is perhaps the most famous massive bird these days, appearing in videogames and tabletop roleplaying games, but rooted ultimately in Arabic folklore and travel tales. There the Rukh has a few stock stories—the most common of which involves a group of sailors shipwrecked on an island. Here they find the great bird, who feeds upon elephants, whales, and great serpents.  Sometimes the storm that caused their misery is from the Rukh itself, sometimes it is just a chance storm. In one variation, the Arabic sailors carefully leap from a tree to grip the feet of the flying rukh—and are transported to a mountain top. Upon finding a shepherd, they realize their in India—and gradually make their way home.

Another version has the men coming across a vast egg—and breaking it open, stripping the baby Rukh of its feathers, and cooking it with sticks they found in the tree. Either the flesh of the Rukh or the twigs—which are actually the tree of Youth—restore their age and beards. When the mother bird returns, however, they are scattered and have to flee the island or suffer the terrifying bird’s wrath. They do keep the feathers of the baby rukh, however

The article I read suggested a relation to another bird that was supposedly worshipped in Pre-Islamic times, called the Anqa . This bird lived 2000 years, and took a wife every 500 years. This bird features in a tale about King Solomon. King Solomon spoke often of the will of God and the destiny of birds, to the Anqa’s objection. The Anqa asked how Solomon could know the will of God—and Solomon prophesized that two lovers, one in Africa and one in China, despite being raised far apart, would come together as proof of god’s will. And so the Anqa and the owl set out to upset fate—the Anqa flying off and kidnapping said girl while she was but a babe.

Briefly, the Anqa’s description is a tad unusual—for it is as large as a camel, but with the face, fingers, hands, and breasts of a woman. This brings to mind a harpy, in a way, more than a Rukh. Regardless, the Anqa took the baby to a great mountain in the middle of the sea, atop a large tree. This tree provided all things the girl would need, connecting to the great tree of life the Rukh nested in.

Meanwhile, the boy grew up to be a great king and avid hunter—and having hunted everything on land, he moved to hunting on sea. And there, God sent a wind to his ship, sending it towards the island of the Anqa. Even from the sea, the tree of the Anqa was entrancing in its beauty. So they landed to investigate the wonder that towered from the high mountain. At this time, the girl who had never seen a man came down to see the ships—and the two fell in love. But they needed a scheme to be together—and the king proposed he would hide in the corpse of a horse, and be carried up by the Anqa to his beloved.

The plan worked, and the two made love that night. The Anqa, embarrassed and ashamed, fled to the west to never be seen again. The Owl, their conspirator, hides at night for this exact reason as well. Its name even hints at this fate, being the bird of the west.

On the more mundane, but still fantastic level is the Peacock. The peacock is an amazing animal, with a number of interesting folktales about it—and one of the most fascinating ones to me is about how the dissonance between its voice and appearance happened. There was a king who promised a fortune to whoever could teach his mute son to speak. A rogue wished for the riches, and learned from an old man that all he needed to do was find the most beautiful bird song and ask the prince to sing what the bird sang. And what bird was that? The peacock.

Alas, the peacock prince of the birds was tricked into this task—and was outraged when he traded voices with the mute prince. The king was pleased his son had such a voice, but did punish the rogue for his trick. While the rogue received food and riches, the room of wonderous clothes that he had been offered were given to the peacock instead. And thus the peacock got its wonderous coat.

This reminds me of a story of the crow, which I’ll link here, where the beautiful crow lost much of its brilliance to the sun as it flew.

The stories of these island birds are very similar—had I known about the prevalence of a large tree, I might have tied this into the last one! Still, I think three stories dealing with the same framing device would have been a bit …much. For this story, we do have an island, some ruins, and a strange speaking bird—strangely, none of these birds resemble the most famous speaking bird, the parrot. Hm. Regardless, we covered that sort of story here a few months ago.

Our current story would then have to do with either the discovery of an ancient talking bird that speaks in terrible revelations—or perhaps the aftermath of such an encounter. The symbolism of the bird is interesting in this respect, tied to life in many ways, freedom, and soaring into the heavens. One angle we could approach is that of an alien life form, mistaken for a bird—a reverse of the Flatwood monster, an owl mistaken for an alien. This might give it’s revelations a strange pertinence.

One issue as a writer is making these revelations truly horrific—Lovecraft often simply left them unsaid, and personally that always undercut the potential impact. Forbidden knowledge or knowledge that drives one mad is difficult to write. That I think is the challenge I’ll undertake this week—to give the voice of the bird a genuine horror to speak.

What stories of talking birds have you heard?

Bibliography

Al-Rawi, Ahmed. “A Linguistic and Literary Examination of the Rukh Bird in Arab Culture.” Al-‘Arabiyya, vol. 50, 2017, pp. 105–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26451398. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Nair, P. Thankappan. “The Peacock Cult in Asia.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1974, pp. 93–170. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177550. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Suhr, Elmer G. “The Phoenix.” Folklore, vol. 87, no. 1, 1976, pp. 29–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1259496. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Fruit of the Sea

This Week’s Prompt: 126. Castaways on island eat unknown vegetation and become strangely transformed.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

This weeks prompt points to a very classical inspiration—that of the witch Circe and Odysseus’s crew.  While Odysseus was sailing back to Ithaca, his ship came ashore on Circe’s land. She invited the crew to a feast, offering them many dishes. And after partaking, the crew are transformed into pigs while still possessing the souls of men. Now, the prompt refers merely to “vegetation”—unknown vegetation at that. This implies an intended raw food experience, instead of the intentional preparation of the meal. So we’ll be an examining both here, when feasts and food cause a transformation.

The Circe Episode is not the only episode of the Odyssey that comes to mind.  There is also the Lotus Eaters, an island where eating lotus’s causes forgetfulness and bliss. This is an island that Odysseus must drag his crew away from, in order to continue going home. This image has become exceptionally common in stories ever since, with places that lure in the trouble with promises of forgetting their cares and responsibilities only to consume them being a particularly common trope.

There are other consumptive plants. Hungry grass, for instance, occurs in parts of Ireland. This grass does not just consume persons—rather, they ensure whoever steps on them becomes hungry for the rest of their lives. These plants would bring about strange transformation, certainly—at least one author has suggested the stories began during times of famine.

Other stories of island plants include the legends of the coco de mer. This nut has an…unusual shape, and a few unusual stories. A particularly common one is that they are actually grown under the sea, on great trees that sometimes rise to catch boats. When the trees catch the boats, a great bird emerges to devour the sailors and ships.  This creature was sometimes referred to as a garuda, a terrifying bird that has other mythic roots we discuss here. The trees are so large they even rise above the water with their branches, and the area around these trees pulled at ships as they passed. Sadly, I can’t dig much into this particular form—the only source I could find on it is a newspaper article from 1906.

Of course, strange foods transforming the eater are not limited to witches. We have, for instance, the food that binds the seasons in Greek Mythology. For those unfamiliar, Persephone was wandering out in the fields when Hades erupted from the earth in a chariot and kidnapped her, at the suggestion of his brother Zeus. After this, her mother could not find her—and grew inconsolable, refusing to allow the green of the world to grow. This became unbearable, however, and so Persephone was sent back to the world by her husband—but not before eating six pomegranate seeds, ensuring that she would remain below for six months. And thus the seasonal shift from spring to winter is established.

Now eating the food of the dead or the underworld often has strange effects. We read last time of an undersea land in Donegal Bay where eating the food would trap one among the fae for all time, and it is hardly alone. Off the shores of Bofin there lives a very lovely fae who will kidnap beautiful girls, and if they eat food while held in his castle they are prisoners until the end of time.  Another place, illuminated by rainbows and suns, bound its prisoners for seven years—and nearly overcame it’s hero, when a woman flew from Donegal bay to save him.

The dead in the Philippines, the ghouls, also have a tendency to share their food. By this means, they turn others into ghouls—a process of spread cannibalism that we discussed more here.  These creatures of course are kept at bay by other foods, and we discussed more of the aswang here.

Moving from the land of the dead, there is of course the eating of food at the beginning of things. The most obvious story—one that lacks a sailor but was transformative—is the Garden of Eden myth. The actual result of the eating of those fruits varies.  One of my preferred versions is the change in shape from the first couple—the loss of sharp, horn-like skin and a cloud of glory that covered their forms. Adam shrunk from being as tall as the heavens to merely being three hundred and seventy-five feet. The serpent went from king of animals, upright like humans and capable of finding all manner of wonderous stones, to the lowly and cursed creature we know today, the moon was darkened, and all manner of cosmic changes occurred.

While not exactly the same, there is a story of misfortune on a cosmic scale, brought on by feasting. This comes from Maori stories. Here Maui fished up the first of the islands, having grown tired of living conditions on the open sea. He instructed his brothers to not eat any of the food on the island until he returned—and yet like Odysseus’s crew they proved incapable of listening to basic orders. As a result, the perfect island was distorted—great mountains rising from the ground and land becoming rough. Such is sadly the way of the world.

There are other strange plants to consider. There is the Zaqquam, the devil tree, who’s fruit resembles devil heads. Those that partake in this fruit, often sinners, have their flesh ripped off and their bodily fluids spilled out. Others have their stomachs boil, while others suggest that the tree itself is grown from the seeds of evil deeds.

Further afield there are the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The exact nature of these nymph tended and dragon guarded apples varies—they  are attributed as being both the apples that distracted Atlanta and the source of Eris’s apple of discord. These apples were given to Hera, in many legends, as a marriage gift by Gaia herself and planted near where the sunsets.

The apples of course remained there for most of history, stolen supposedly only twice—by Hercules and Perseus. They were deployed in other myths, but where inevitably returned to the island even after the dragon Ladon was slain. I haven’t found other stories that follow the strange island, but they presumably still remain there at the Western edge of the world.

Setting aside the cosmological for a moment, many of these islands not only  have strange fruit, but fruit that traps those who consume it. Whether as a metaphor for the dangers of luxury on a journey, distracting from the actual end goal, or as the dangers of losing your connections to your home while travelling long distances—in case we forget, food is what brings people together in many places—the fruit ties those who eat it to where they acquired it.  

The fear of becoming someone different in your travels—worse, of a wanderer becoming hostile and strange to those they love—is at first glance a rather conservative fear. However, I think it’s roots are not in xenophobia perse, but in the fear of loss of identity. Certainly, being changed by new experiences, especially travel (as rare as it is in current conditions) is overall for the better. But at the same time, it is becoming something unknown, other, and unfamiliar. It is becoming in away a part of the places you see.

Of course on the other hand there is some simple B-Movie fun in a castaway story where the local fauna or flora in this case are more than they seem. That alone is a horrifying idea, and the idea of being overtake by moss and fungus and other decaying horrific things is enough to write a story on.

What stories have you heard about the food of the sea? The fruit of the sea? Besides seafood, of course, which we have in abundance.

Bibliography

“Most Famous of All Palms Coco de Mer” (PDF). New York Times. January 28, 1906. Retrieved 2010-04-28.

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.

Westropp, T. J. “A Study of Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland (Continued).” Folklore, vol. 32, no. 2, 1921, pp. 101–123. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1255238. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

Under the Sea

This Week’s Prompt: 125. Man abandon’d by ship—swimming in sea—pickt up hours later with strange story of undersea region he has visited—mad??

The Resulting Story: The Sea Dane

This week’s prompt returns us to familiar waters for the Undead Author Society: Strange and terrifying sights beneath the sea. We’ve touched on undersea creatrues, regions, and even peoples before. We talked about the most famous, Atlantis, here. We discussed undersea bishops and mermaids here.

Now, this recalled to my mind another flooded ancient city of Northern Europe—specifically, Ys. When I first heard the story of Ys, I was traveling in Ireland. The tour guide told a version that said Ys was sunk by druids to protect it—and if anyone found the golden keys to the city, they would inherit its power and it would rise again.  The key was under an unmarked grave in Ireland, and hadn’t been found yet!

The version I was able to find more documentation of is slightly different. Ys is found off the coast of Brittany. The King of Is or Ys is Gradlon, with his daughter Dahut. The city is built on reclaimed land, with the golden keys to the dykes holding it fast during the day. Gradlon’s daughter Dahut takes the keys, in most versions, and opens the dykes to flood the city. The reason she does so varies—in many versions, she is impressing a flatterer or lover, and drunkenly mistakes the dykes for her palace. In others, a man with a red cane and beard has come to the city and stolen the keys to flood the city. As the city floods, a saint or holy man comes and tells the King to flee—offering his horse to escape with. As he flees, his daughter jumps on the horses back, and the horse stops. And only be throwing her off does he escape.

Some versions suggest she in turn became a mermaid, bringing us to a full circle of our story from the Netherlands. To this day, at low tide, the ruins of the city can still be somewhat seen. The ruins are again attributed to Roman builders at times, at others to ancient sources. At least one suggests the devil danced on the dykes, mocking the king with his keys. A source I couldn’t confirm (it is in French) has Dahut build the city with korrigan aid and command sea serpents to serve every citizen of the city, building wealth with raids and oceanic diving. This wealth made them cruel, and soon they drove beggars and others out of their homes and streets. And so they were buried by the sea. It is said, in some versions, that that Is or Ys will rise again, and the first to hear its bell toll will become king.

A comparable Welsh tale modifies things somewhat. The drunkard is now the steward, and there are references to an overflowing well instead of the sea that creates a lake around the city. Still, the King escapes and is the sole survivor.

Bomere pool was likewise formed from a flood. The village that once stood there turned back to idolatry and the worship of Norse gods, only mocking the Christian faith. When the priest warned them of God’s wrath, fish bones were sewn to his cassock and children pelted him with stones. This did little to dissuade the priest, and his endurance won over a few back to the faith. However, in December the rains began to fall.

The priest, walking one day, saw that the dykes were about to burst. He ran down to warn the feasting pagan people, but was dismissed for his kill-joy croaking. One might expect, when the flood came on Christmas Eve, he and his followers would be safe on their hill. But no—the waters hit them first, rising over the altar, and washing away the entire village. You can still, they say, hear the ringing of the Sanctus bell over the pool.

A variant of this story exists, however. It was placed back in the Roman Empire’s reign. In this version, the warning comes from a Roman soldier, sent by God to the town. However, only the daughter of the governor will listen to him. The rest of the town beat him and mock him, as they did the priest in the other story. The soldier would have married the Governor’s daughter, but it was not to be. On Easter, devastation came to the city—a flood so massive it wipe the city out entirely. It is said the Sun rejoiced and the cattle prayed to God in thanksgiving. The solider was spared, but his love was not. He can be seen when the church bells ring, rowing a boat looking for his lady love to this day.

Amusingly to me, one version of the story sets an even pettier reason for the flood—that a farmer was harvesting grain on Sunday.

There are stories in Shropeshire where greed is the ultimate cause: Ellesmere was once a great meadow, with a well of pure water in the center.  People came from all around for the drink, until a churlish man purchased the land and demanded payment for the water. The next day, his wife found the meadow turned into a vast, worthless pool. And the price the man had to pay was kept high, for his poor conduct. 

Donegal Bay has a number of tales of sunken and undersea cities as well. A castle, with fields of cattle, is said to be visible in the morning—and that its inhabitants dress in old and strange clothing. When a marquis went to reclaim some land, he found the sight and ceased all work on the project—if it was due to the beauty of the city or something else we don’t know.

Another nearby castle emerged for reasons that are by now familiar. The local chief was holding a feast and advised by a saint to invite the poor as well as the rich into his hall. When he refused, the saint cursed him and the waters flowed up from the well and over the city, drowning it—in another case, the wicked chief held the saint prisoner and the well water rose up to over take them.

Another Donegal Bay story tells of a visit to the undersea, but not how it came to be. A man was riding at sunset towards a lake, when he found himself on a mirrored surface. He continued until he came to an underground room, and was asked by many hosts there to eat and drink. However, for once, our hero remembers his folklore and flees—seizing a bottle as proof. He emerged onto shore and was so frightened by what he had experienced he died within the year—but he had proof.

Another hero did not listen, however, when he pursued his sheep into an undersea kingdom. Here he married a red headed woman and lived a happy life—before deciding after three days to return and tell his family. Sadly, he learned that time is different under the sea—and he had been gone three thousand years.

Moving away from the British Isles, we can find underwater kingdoms farther abroad in Nubia. Here we have the Aman Naltah, river inhabitants who live in castles beneath the Nile. They will regularly, reportedly, drag persons down into their world and gift them with divining powers upon returning them. They also cause halluncinations or amnesia by dragging people beneath the river, aid in exorcisms, and so on. But they are not the only inhabitants of the Nile.

There is also the Aman Doger. These creatures also inhabit the Nile, but are much more tangibile. They have donkey like legs, log tails, big ears, and burning vertical eyes that are the only visible sign of them during sun rise and sunset. They do attack people, particularly women, to acquire gold for their taxes in their home country or to gain food. Robbery is not their only trick—they will lure people to the shore by calling their name, and then suck breath and blood from their nostrils, draining their strength. Being nocturnal and terrifying creatures, they prey on children of course. And most terrible of all, they will break vehicles and steal dates.

The more fascinating part for our purposes is the purported origin of the creatures. In one instance, a travelling sufi was rejected by pagan peoples. He cursed them to a terrible form as punishment, in a way familiar to the above. In some cases, this was the fate of all the original inhabitants of Nubia. Another, more modern-set origin says that when the British colonized Sudan, one tribe would not pay their taxes and rebelled. Sadly, they lacked gold and guns—so they made use of their sorcery to become river beings. Tragically, their sorecery was their undoing—they lost not only their wits and appearance, but became forever hungry and in need of wealth to pay their new overlords beneath the waves.

At least one story has such a spell lifted by a sword being cast through the Aman Doger, who afterwards retursn to Sudan to take up work as a merchant. It should be noted that, as a bewitched tribe, the sorcerers of the region have power over them. And as monstrous creatures, the appropriate verses of the Koran will disperse them.

Further from the Isles still is a tale from Micronesia. The handsome son of the chief of the Lugenfanu on Losap was on a boat to Truk when they came to a group of whales. However, these whales were actually girls in disguise and one of them, taking a fancy to the boy, knocked him overboard. The men on the boat did not notice, and so he was left swimming.

At least one text refers to them as dolphins, which is more reasonable and thus less fun.

He preformed some diviniation magic to learn which direction was preferable for him to travel. When it favors none, he asks if diving down would be best—and the magic says it is. So he dives down beneath the waves. There he found a clean and wonderful island, with a large pool in the middle, deep and wide. He hid in nearby bushes to see if anyone would come to the pool and bath. And soon the whales came, and each leaped into the pool from the salt water and removed their skin, revealing themselves to be beautiful girls.

Now, this story being an animal bride story (in a way), the boy finds the skin of the prettiest and steals it, for he is intent on making the prettiest of these whale women his wife. Unlike many such thieves, however, he quickly reveals he has the skin and that he hid it so the two of them could talk. After learning his story, she invites him home—sorry that she was the whale to knock him overboard.

At the home, her sisters arrive. The woman hides the boy, promising to keep him safe. The whale girl in turn ask why they can smell a foreign human in their home—with some agreeing to be his friend if he is a boy, others saying they will hate them regardless of boy or girl, and others promising to beat and murder him.  At least the first time—the second time they ask, they agree to be friends or even marry him.

So they all marry him, and agree that one will stay with him at all times while they are about. And in this time, the boy teaches them cooking for they did not know how to cook meals and hade been eating raw fruits. AT last, the prettiest girl’s turn comes again and the boy asks to be taken home again. The sisters are deeply unhappy, but they hold a feast to send him off and teach him how to revive dead whales, should they awash on his shore.

The undersea realms are thus places of many wonderous magics, where one can drift without being entirely aware. It is not surprising that shipwrecked sailors might dream of them—we have comparable cities in stories of the Flat Earth, where lineages of magicians have dwelt beneath the sea.

Our story would then follow the mad sailors story, their descent downward into this realm of magic and wonder, and their eventual return to the surface. Would it be a land of fish men, sorcerers, fae, or even the dead? What world will he return to? What treasure or proof will he steal? Come and see next time!

Bibliography

Doan, James. “The Legend of the Sunken City in Welsh and Breton Tradition” Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1981), pp. 77-83. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Kennedy, John G. “Aman Doger: Nubian Monster of the Nile.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 83, no. 330, 1970, pp. 438–445. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/539665. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Meehan, Helen. “Underwater Worlds of the Donegal Bay Area.” Béaloideas, vol. 71, 2003, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20520823. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

Mitchell, Roger E. “The Folktales of Micronesia.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 32, 1973, pp. 1–276. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177461. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

Left Hand Left Behind

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Resulting Story: A Lost Limb

This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a  moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.

In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain. 

In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.

We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well. 

On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?

One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities. 

The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.

There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.

Each light represents a sleeping member of the family.

In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.

In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?

Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.

I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.

So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find. 

The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives. 

Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts. 

What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time.  We will have to see.

Bibliography:

Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html. 

On Display

This Weeks Prompt: 123. Dried-up man living for centuries in cataleptic state in ancient tomb.

The Resulting Story: A Night At The Museum

The prompt here is one of the rare ones that genuinely frightens me—the thought of being buried alive has always unnerved me, and more than once I have looked up what to do if you were buried alive and needed to escape. And here we have something…even more terrifying. Not only being buried, but trapped in an ancient tomb as a mumfiied state.

We can consider this a sort of inversion of our sleeping figures we discussed here, or perhaps an extreme extension of sleep paralysis. Here we have a man alive in this state—a state induced by supernatural means, as obviously a cataleptic state does not stop the need for food or water—as time passes away in an ancient tomb.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Catalepsy is a state in which one has a wax like rigidity—limbs stay where moved, but can be moved—and a numbness to pain. While some body functions are slowed, such as breathing, the sort described here takes things to an entirely new level. The theme of catalyepsy leading to being buried alive is a recurring one in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher and the Premature Burial both address these.

The horror of the situation is apparent, but the scale of time makes it strange. The shock of awakening, unable to move, and the slow and inescapable decay of the mind. But centuries are vast and terrible oceans of time—it is hard to convey their passage in a few thousand words. The alternative is that such a man, living in his state, is discovered and manages to somehow awaken.

St. Dionysius of Zakynthos

The pharsing dried up does separate this state from the more common states of eternal rest or life, where a person has explicitly not decayed. I think, for instance, of walking saints of Greece. These saints are entombed, but they remain there—and they supposedly are free to wander the earth for quiet some time. There are other states that are comparable—the state of a princess in Balkan stories of vampires resembles a cataleptic state. She remains apparently both dead and alive, but rises from her tomb to feed on those left to guard her. It is only the advice of another vampire or a saint that spares the hero of her predations.

Indeed, perhaps the fate of this individual is to be at first mistaken for a corpse, put on display like many others. Then he could be revived from his slumber, freed of his state somehow—if not in the physical, perhaps in the unseen realm. Dreaming or projecting his consciousness outward, using the same secrets that preserved him for millenia—trapping someone else in his body. This would fall into the grotesque acts of hypnosis that we have seen earlier this year.

A slightly amusing work might look at the obsession with illness, fainting, and general…death appearance that the Victorians had and play with that here, given our gentleman resembles a corpse or death itself in a far crueler way. 

I couldn’t find a good Creative Common images of the Buddhist Mummy

I’m reminded of something….else as well, a bit outside of folklore. There was a story on a number of websites of the discovery that a Buddhist statue actually contained a monk who had self mummified in an effort to become a living buddha.  A special diet was undertaken to make this process easier—food was eaten to strip fat and moisture, toxic liquids were drank in order to repel insects, and so on. But a number of post mortem practices were preformed on the meditating monk—the replacement of organs with paper, for instance. Some Buddhists believe that the meditating monks are not dead but are, like our own subject, in a deep state of consciousness.

This concept has a bit more pop culture pull then might be expected, as a similar concept appears in Dark Soul’s Monumental, beings who have become meditating guardians and statues like stone. These beings spend their time pushing back against a terrifying, existential creature of fog and lost perception—the Old One, a Lovecraftian entity as old as mankind itself.

A similar fate befalls the immortals in Death’s Master, who after gaining immortality lose all drive and will—and slowly become so stagnate that they are overcome by coral as their city sinks into the sea. One such man is returned in Night’s Daughter to a much stranger disposition on life. Another man becomes one with the stones, for very similar reasons—having lost all drive and passion for the world, he slowly mummifies in a cavern atop a large column rock. His name I’m afraid escapes me, although I remember he was in love with Simmu. I believe he was in Night’s Master.

Peder Winstrup, the Swedish Mummy in question.

While looking into that story, the story of another preserved pair of bodies in Sweden. Here, illness preserved the bishop’s body, along with the cold of winter at the time of his burial. However, more fascinating was that he was not alone in his coffin—underneath his body was a still born child. Why such a burial was preformed is unknown as of writing—perhaps it was in hopes that the child would reach heaven with the bishop, as they died unbaptized. Perhaps it was to hide the child’s existence.

There is a story that appears to have sprung from this prompt: Out of Aeons features a very life like mummy and a metal cylinder being brought to a museum in the 1800s. After being placed in a museum, it attracts attention as relating to a little known myth about a man going to see the gods and becoming a statue. This leads in time to attempts at a robbery, which ends…poorly.  You can read the story in full here.

There is another pulp story that this calls to mind, which is the story The Hour of the Dragon where a mummified ancient sorcerer is revived for a plot to overthrow the king of Hyboreia, Conan.  Conan triumphs in the end, with unexpected allies saving him both from execution and the supernatural might of tyrant from the past. You can read the story here. While seemingly only tangentially related, Mr. Lovecraft and Mr. Howard were correspondents. In fact, references between the two bodies of work have only grown. And it does play into the genre tropes discussed—associations with mystical power and the inevitable danger of such a body reanimating. Granted, there is a world of difference between a monk and bishop and a wizard out of time. But given our nature as a horror blog, perhaps the distance between those two poles of knowledge can be lessened somewhat.

I think the story’s basic beats—the discovery of a mummy, the attempted robbery from a museum before something terrible happens, and then the discovery of its true nature—are fairly strong. I think of course that merely rewriting the story is a bit…much. Zooming in on the robbery will keep the story focused, I think, and while something of the surprise at a body becoming animate is lost, not much of that remains anyway. This does make the story something of a bizzare mummy’s curse story. The Mummy’s curse is often laid on those who disturb its tomb, where as here it seems the robbers are the ones to fall victim. Perhaps including a bit more of that to the beginning, the mysterious deaths surrounding the mummy might even be a motive to rob it.  A curator, realizing that such a thing is cursed and bringing doom upon those around it, might wish such an image “tragically lost” from the museum’s collection, for instance—or perhaps the employer of the theft wishes ill upon its recipient and hopes to pass the curse onto them.

What do you think? What long preserved corpses would resurrect?

Mapping the World

This Week’s Prompt: 122. Horrible things whispered in the lines of Gauthier de Metz (13th cen.) “Image du Monde”.

The Resulting Story: The Foundations

It took more time than I’d like to admit to track down a digital copy of Image du Monde in English. Even then, I found a prose version—not a poem. Still, I think the main points of the poem are kept intact. It is a summary of all the kingdoms, animals, plants, places, and so forth of the world. The poem explains in the first the beginning of the world, posits some theories on why the world and heavens are formed the way they are, and then moves onto to describe the inhabitants of the three continents it recognizes (the poem refers to India, Africa, and Europe—but India is better understood as “all of Asia”).

The book examines both the real and the fantastic—and sometimes both. For instance, it describes the repeated story of a lion restoring their young with tears, and it’s description of a tiger—a blue furred cat with clear or white spots—is strange. At the same time, it endevors to explain customs and beliefs elsewhere, although through a Christian centric lense—the author makes no secret his opinion of those who confess their sins in public and think fire caries them to Heaven, for instance.  There are other allusions to classical works—we even have reference to the tale of Atlantis, struck down by God in this case.

The book has some peculiarities—most of which are apparent and outlined in the introduction I had. One key difference is the break with where the center of the earth is—most books and bestiaries of the time place Jerusalem as the center of the earth. Here instead we have the city of Arym or Aaron, a city with round walls. This city has some Islamic mythical roots as the city where Iblis dwells—although to my frustration I couldn’t find another source on this that I could access. If anyone else can find a copy of what this references more directly, I’d be happy to review it.

There are otherwise a number of fantastic events. People cursed with tails for mocking a saint by tying fishtails to his clothes, for instance. And we are told that Aether, the element of the stars, shines because it is too pure to be gazed upon by those with sin. Which of course, all men are presupposed to have. We have stories of unicorns, manticores, basilisks, and others. Amazons and other fighting women are accounted for. Going through each would be a bit tedious, so I will present a selection of them here. We are informed of how long Adam has been walking towards Heaven, a journey he began after Eden (a few thousand years left).

We are also told that the founders of the liberal arts foresaw the coming deluge and a second destruction of the world by fire, and so they raised up two pillars. The first of iron to withstand the waters, the other of brick to withstand the flames, and on these they wrote down the ancient knowledge. This I think has plenty of Lovecraftian echoes of strange wall writings and the like—although the preservation of such knowledge by human hands is a bit rarer.

Magog and Gog are accounted for, the great giants who were sealed away by alexander and who’s tribes fight to this day. Also accounted for are nations of cannibals, sun worshipers, and men that are part beast. One nation is called out as especially fearsome, of men with the heads of dogs who have terrible claws that they can slay any they get their hands on. They have the voice of dogs, yet are notably clothed—these fierce men are then more akin to wild men then beast.

We have in the more monstrous category the aforementioned animals—but also the Salamander. Intriguingly, the salamander is mentioned as having wool that if woven into clothes will make one immune fire proof. There is a mythical panther, who’s coat appears painted, and who’s breath is so sweet that it lures along other animals—except serpents, who the breath kills. We have also strange nations marked—the land where Sodom and Gomorrah are, which are noted as barren and uninhabited. After the Amazons, there are mentions of warrior women who’s skin is pale as snow and who have teeth like a hounds.

Fascinatingly, an entire section is given over to Ireland—more than to anywhere else in Europe. We hear of a part of Ireland where men cannot die—and they leave this land when they grow too old and feeble. We have reports of six month day-night cycles—which is astounding and quite unlikely. There is also a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Here, if a man enters and hasn’t confessed his sins, he is liable to wonder forever, never finding an escape.  And if he has, he will escape but feel nothing but misery and woe for the rest of his days. The writer finds this…unlikely, which is somewhat amusing considering the rest. Still, it highlights a belief existent already back then—that once the world was more wonderous than it is now.

The last thing I’ll note is the mention of a river that makes fire “Greekish”, which means it burns forever unless put out by sand. The idea of an entire river of what amounts to napalm is frankly terrifying in a number of ways.

But more interesting to me is the similarities this work has with a certainly unrelated work from China.  The work, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, has a number of similarities, recounting strange creatures, stones, and rites of various lands. While they are distinct in a number of ways—Classic does not recount the start of the universe, and has stories scattered through out in a more regular way—they both attempt  to account for all the world, its strange peoples, practices, and virtues.

Some oddities of the Chinese Classic  in the Western Mountains includes the serpent named plump-remains. This serpent has six feet, four wings, and brings drought wherever it flies. No other animal lives on this mountain. On Mount Smallnext, there dwells a similar foreboding animal. It resembles an ape, with scarlet hands and a white face and brings war wear it goes. Another war sign comes from the Sky God at River Overflow—he resembles an ox with eight feet and two heads. Not far from him (A mere four hundred leagues) is the Great God’s City Here Below, where dwells Land My. He resembles a tiger with a human’s head, nine tails, and tiger claws.

Moving away from the animals, we can see just as strange nations recorded from this end of Eurasia as well. Again, in only the West we have reference to people with three arms and one eye, two headed people who resemble pigs,  and people who ride creatures that look like foxes with horns on their back.  We find fewer mentions of customs or anthropology here—an odd mention on if people eat millet, or if they cook. Frankly, they are more fantastic at times—Satefire country is inhabited by people who breath fire for instance, or the people of Neverdie who…well, you can guess. There are places with archers who shoot snakes, or have no guts.

Of course, there are some shocking similarities. Places with cyclopes, or peoples with only one leg and arm and eye. Places with multiheaded persons, monstrous man eating tigers—or tiger eating horses, and so on. The traits of specific stones and plants are even noted in a more detailed fashion. If I had a longer research period, reviewing the descriptions of what are roughly the same areas and contrasting the styles of presentation seems like it would be fruitful. But alas. This is already late.

So what sort of story does this text provide? Well, it feeds somewhat into the notion of other Lovecraft works, of hidden or suppressed truths known in ancient times. Here, however, I would suggest such knowledge is alluded to and not part of the main text. It instead works better as the catalyst—some sort of shaping or knowledge or perhaps prophecy that has fallen into wicked hands and is now being attempted. Or perhaps the location of a treasure that someone launches an expedition to go find. Perhaps some mystery that by medieval means was unattainable, but by more modern methods and technologies can be unlocked.

Bibliography

Birrell, Anne. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin, 1999.

Caxton, William. Caxton’s Mirrour of the World. Early English Text Society. 1913

The Last of His Kind

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Resulting Story: Seeking Wisdom

This is another citation that, with some work, can be directly sourced. Photious provides a catalogue of books, including the following entry under Damascius:

Read a work by Damascius in four books, the first of which, in 352 chapters, is entitled, On Incredible Events; the second, in 52 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Demons; the third, in 63 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Souls that have appeared after Death; the fourth, in 105 chapters, On Incredible Natures. They all contain impossible, incredible, and clumsily invented tales of wonderful things, foolish and worthy of the impious and godless Damascius, who, while the light of the true religion spread over the world, remained steeped in the thick darkness of idolatry. The style is concise, clear, and agreeable, which is not usually the case in such stories.

This is the only information I could find on these texts—although I’m amused at the fact that genre fiction was listed as a writing reference even a millennia past. So instead, I turned to Damascius’s own writings. Looking over Wikipedia, there were a few routes to pursue. Damascius himself was a Neo-Platonic writer—and one who was “irreligious”, neither mystic nor paying head to holy texts. His summation of God then was as an infinite and indivisible being—and thus an incomprehensible one. The traits we attribute to the divine are only made by inferences from its actions, not from understanding its true nature.

Damascius’s life highlights a few other interesting facets. He was the last head of the School of Athens, before being fleeing to Persia to escape persecution by Justinian the First. He spent a year in Persia before returning as part of a peace treaty between the two emperors of the known world. Much of his work is lost, of course, and while he taught students, he did not found a school outside of Athens. His commentaries on Plato seem to deal with, from the excerpts linked on Wikipedia, the inherent immortality of the soul as a source of light—comparable to how fire is a source of heat in Platonic thought.

He also briefly met with a politician, named Severianus of Damascus. This man is mostly know through Damascius, and lead his own varied life in politics—as a governor, a strict and draconian one at that, then returning to Athens. Emperor Zeno offered him a high post on the condition he convert. Instead, he helped a pagan  murder plot on the Emperor, which failed.

Pseudo-Dionysius

This alone is enough for a cosmic horror story—but I wanted to go a bit further. Wikipedia notes that one researcher has suggested Damascius is the author of a collection of works called the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. This collection of works has import to the history of the church that drew my attention for further investigation with this quote from Wikipedia:

“All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow.”

Creation and definition by lack—the void itself as divine, empty of anything but silence, ignorance, and darkness was a striking image counter to popular descriptions of the divine as a light from heaven, a source of revelation, and heavenly choirs. Reading through his descriptions of the Celestial Hierarchies, we see that this isn’t precisely the case. Angelic minds have something of a knowledge of God—and they in turn seeking deifying knowledge, so they may better imitate God’s nature.

He describes these hierarchies as dancing around the center throne of god, in a way that reminds of me the image of Azathoth around whom elder gods and musicians dance. He goes on to note that the comparison of angels to flame is due to the presence of flame in all things, moving between all things easily, hidden for most of it’s existence—here we must note that there is flame and there is fire, and that flame appears to mean the elemental flame that might erupt from any moment. Heat might be a better, more modern term for the sensation and energy he describes.

He enumerates natures of various implements, and their symbolic meaning—angels have human heads to indicate they are thinking, they where geometric garbs to show both wisdom and the foundations of creation, they wield weapons to divide, they hold scepters to unite. Each of these are key symbols in the perception of the divine.

So we have the last of a pagan school of philosophy, discussing either an incomprehensible god or, if we grant the Dionysian corpus, a god that is defined not by the heraldry of angels but instead the darkness of night. And one who’s interest lied, at one point, in the Platonic theory of the immortal soul that goes through cycles of reincarnation. This covers, I think, the appearances of the dead, but what of the notion of demons?

A daimon of good fortune in the shape of a snake.

Demons in this context perhaps better refers to the Greek daimon, which acted as an intermediary between gods and men. The meaning of this term of course changed with time, but it was generally understood that they were not divine exactly—nor were they visible. Demons were thus forces at play, invisible intermediaries and divine presences. In some works, the constructions of shrines were done so that they would not wander far—and they would keep their blessings nearby. Other cases posit them as the souls of dead men from the Golden Age, now guiding humanity—a characterization that resembles, in part, the fate of the Nephilim in some rabbinic texts—and thus positive. In royal cults, whether Alexander the Great or Augusutus, it was this daimon, this numen, this divine nature or spirit that was revered as opposed to the specific person (although the distinction blurred often).

The change into demons as we understand came from translation of the Septugaint from Hebrew to Greek—and thus changing the word shedim to daimon. This connected the name with wicked spirits, and this in turn lead to the quite literal demonization of such beings. Still, in some texts we see that the idea wasn’t entirely new. In Pythagoren works, they prove capable of infecting others with dieseases and misfortune, while the Platonic ideals gave them a moral character—that some were allotters of wicked fortunes, others good fortunes.

The stories of Damascius then would draw on a tradition of invisible spirits, allotters of fortunes, both wicked and wonderful. Or perhaps of a lost age of heroic peoples, now wandering the world at the will of Zeus. Either way, of beings invisible and ancient—although, unlike Mr. Lovecraft, not altogether malevolent. Indeed, one suggestion for daimon’s popularity in Plato is to bridge the gap between the unintelligible Divine Forms and stars, and mortal person experience with divine. So, what do we do with this?

Well there are a few routes I think. One is to center on the lost works themselves—in the same way that art in Lovecraft is often a window into secret knowledge with the paintings of Pickman and the play the King in Yellow, so too could these lost works be gates to powerful and forbidden knowledge of some dangerous sort. Of course, dangerous knowledge itself is…not a trope that I am exactly fond of. It needs more elucidation.

Another path is to take up the idea of invisible spirits that act as messengers for an incomprehensible being—servants and whisperers of the universe. They might bring messages to our character, stir up fortune or misfortune, acting like a living curse or blessing for those that disturb their shrine or home. The fact that some daimons remained at shrines as a sort of home leads me to consider the destruction of such an ancient place, unleashing an angry and powerful invisible spirit. Not one that is mortal, or mortal as we understand it, but from some bygone time out of time.

Knowledge of such things then might become the cure. A man hunted by a spirit forgotten by all must seek out these lost works, to learn how such a thing can be appeased or dispelled even as it harrows and haunts him. That I think gives us a better grip for how to use the knowledge angle of this prompt then the cursed knowledge.

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Birds of Pray

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Resulting Story: Bird of Old Feather

Birds have come up a few times in our work, most notably here. But we certainly didn’t explore this in it’s entirety—there are still many more stories of the nature of birds, especially long lived and speaking ones.

A common motif found in stories of birds in the Balkans is the nightingale, who’s song completes a mosque. The first example is the story of the Nightingale Empress. The Nightingale Empress is sought after by a king to finish his majestic mosque, sending forth his three sons to find it. Two of the sons are common heroic types, but one is bookish and well read. They come to a path with three routes, two of which people have returned from and one which none have returned from. The heroic brothers take the routes men have returned from—and they in time gave up and took on trades, before heading back.

A common nightingale. I don’t know what an imperial nightingale looks like.

The bookish brother, however, was scholarly and wise in the ways of the world. He went down the path none came back from, and meet a number of monsters. He met a wild woman and gave her a comb so that she wouldn’t have matted hair, getting guidance further. He met a Lynx and his wife, and by teaching the wife how to make bread without burning her paws he escaped her husbands hunger. He was directed to a lion and lioness, both blind, to learn of where to go. The lynx told him to pretend to be their child, accept their caresses and comb the lion’s hair. And so he did, and went further down until three mysterious birds assaulted him. Fending them off, he came to a home where a old woman warned him her three man-eating daughters were returning. So he hid, and found the birds  had become daughters. They agree to take him further, so long as he serves them each for a month.

And so at last he is taken to the place where the Empress Nightingale is: the palace of the vila queen. The palace was guarded by five hundred men, a wolf, a lynx, and a lion.  Most of these protections, however, are bypassed by the aid of the eagle sisters. At last he returns to his brothers…who on the road back attempt to kill him by abandoning him in a well. The eldest then comes home, and claims to have found the bird.

But it won’t sing.

In time, the vila queen arrives however. She wants to know where the bird was found and, when the eldest claims it was in a cypress tree, she is infuriated. She insults him so badly that his subjects turn on him and beat him with sticks. The middle son reveals the truth of the matter, and the youngest bookish brother is rescued from death. And so the Nightingale Empress sings, and the bookish brother marries the vila queen and is named heir.

Then there is a tale from Serbia, about a humble bird catcher who produces a similar nightingale. While he was out catching birds, he caught an old crow—the crow promised to aid him in exchange for its life. The bird catcher, having no use for an old crow, agreed. He tricked other birds into being caught by the bird catcher, drawing crowds over time and bringing attention. The next day, the emperor asked that the bird catcher bring him three nightingales to complete his mosque, on pain of his life. The crow guided the bird catcher—and sure enough they were lured into cages.

Crow

Then the emperor asked for the mistresses of these birds, and the crow again advised him on how to lure her out. Captured, the empress of nightingales becomes the emperor’s bride. She is bitter about her capture, however.  She attempts to have the bird catcher killed—first she sends him to find the broken piece of her ring, which the crow finds using copious oil. Next, she skips right to the chase. She will not formally marry the emperor until the bird catcher has died.

So the emperor tells the bird catcher jump in a fire. The crow gives him advice—first to beat his wife and drive her away. Then to coat himself in the foam of a horse before entering the flame—and doing so, he survives and appears all the younger. Seeing this, the people call him to be released—and the emperor declares the bird catcher will be his vizier. Asking how he can be young, the emperor learns the trick…but it doesn’t work. Instead, he burns alive and the Bird catcher becomes the young emperor and marries the empress of nightingale.

There are more amazing birds found among the Ainu, who tell of great birds and diabolic owls. One such being is a great eagle that soars through the sky, and lives even higher beyond that. Occasionally, this eagle drops large golden feathers—if stored properly, these feathers have magical powers for three years.

A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

It was mentioned in passing that some birds—the cuckoo, the woodpecker, the nighthawk, the goatsucker and the owl—use their cries to betwitch people wherever they go. The owl has some mixed associations besides. Some owls guide hunters to their prey, while others are mischevious makers. Yet even the mischevious little owls know a wicked man from a good one, just from a glance.

The owl in the Avesta is a divine creation. Called the Asho-zusht, this bird recites the Avesta and prevents the nails of dead men from being used as weapons by fiends. Other wonders persist in Perisan lore—eagles, for instance, earned a life span of a century for shading the prophet Mohammed.  In Zorastrain times, the solar crow provided healing presence to Zoraster, when he suffered a curse. The feathers and bones of the raven grant victory—and that is yet accounting for the famed Simurgh. Half-bird, half-beast, it granted Rostam three feathers. Should these be burned, the great bird would arrive and display its power.

What power is this? The great birds wings from clouds and cause rain—and when he takes flight, he scatters seeds and twigs all over the world, restoring crops. That is the might of this great bird!

Thai statues of the Garuda battling Naga

The scale here implies something else to me, however. It reminds me of some descriptions of the Garuda, especially in Buddhism, where the bird has similar scope and understanding.  Its wings are cosmic in scale, golden, and beat with hurricane force. The Garuda, sometimes a singular being and sometimes an entire species of bird beings, are always at odds with the Naga.

And there is of course the crowning example of birds that live forever: the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a Greek description of a common motif—a bird that is reborn in fire and ash. According to Herodotus, the story comes from Egypt, and yet the bird comes from Arabia—rising in the East it seems, to die in the West. It comes every five hundred years, covered in myrrh. The color of this bird varies, but it is generally the size of an eagle—although sometimes it resembles a peacock.

The Bennu Bird

But is there an Egyptian bird that resemble the phoenix? There is! The Bennu bird, a self created deity that existed before the rest of the world. At least one text has this great bird flying over the waters before the world, landing on a stone, and demanding the world be made! The Bennu, like the Phoenix, is associated with the sun. Bennu is the inner soul of Ra, and rises into the air with the sun every day. While it does not die like the phoenix, it is a solar bird of immense age that travels across the world.

North there is another bird that perhaps resembles more the Simurgh. The Konrul appears as a peacock so big it can carry off a cart,  with chimeric features. Sometimes it is a bird-dog hybrid, other times it has a dog head sometimes a dog head with human face, sometimes lion claws. Like the Garuda, it has an enmity to snakes. It lives near large sources of water, and like the Simurgh gifted a hero three of its feathers—in this case for saving it’s children.

A common thing with ancient birds, then, is the sun, song, and dominance over the skies. The bird as a beautiful creature that is treasured for its song and wisdom—especially crows—is fairly common. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the longest living bird, and the longest lived parrot (since of course, parrots are famed for their mimicry of human speech).  The three current contenders are all almost a hundred years old—but the oldest bird is one named Cocky Bennett, a cockatoo that exceeded a century in its life time. While not mythic in proportion, a century old bird feels appropriate for a story where secrets are revealed by a strange bird.

This story’s prompt actually reminds me, strangely enough, of our story of the feline who wrote in her owner’s voice from beyond the grave. The idea here I think is very much similar—and Cocky Bennett’s story of being passed on in inheritance feels like the actual start to a story. A bird from a dead and strange relative, that whispers and repeats strange things at night. And sometimes, of course, just speaks with the voice of a dead man.

Bibliography

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.

Marshall, Bonnie C. Tales from the Heart of the Balkans. Libraries Unlimited Inc, Englewood Colorado, 2001.

Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 212. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.

Wratislaw, Albert Henry. Sixty Folk-Tales From Exclusively Slavonic Sources. London. E. Stock,1889.

We actually rewrote the last story on birds on our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/late-january-24921428

Temptation

This Week’s Prompt: 119. Art note—fantastick daemons of Salvator Rosa or Fuseli (trunk-proboscis).

The Resulting Story: The Empty Windows Part 2

This week from Lovecraft we receive one of our most precise and artistic visions—with a bit of effort I was able to track down the exact painting by Salvator Rosa that inspired this prompt, and while Fuseli proved more difficult I found plenty of monstrous art there. I’ll give my commentary on his work towards the end, since it deals with material we are already familiar with in this society.

Rosa’s Elephantine Demon

The image in question, above, is of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Saint Anthony has two instances of temptation, one on ground and one in the air, and both are regularly represented in fantastic and surrealistic art. His first temptation began when he was young and set about the monastic path—arguably the first such monk in Christendom. The devil, envying such behavior, set about his temptation in the usual way at first. He whispered of the riches of the world, of the love of women, of the importance of family, of the difficulty of the task, of the infirmity of the body—but these trusty weapons failed. So instead, he assaulted him by day and night. So vicious were these assaults that they were visible to all who watched. But the constant attacks, even when the Devil came as a woman, were not enough. And this shamed the Devil’s pride, that he who claimed to be greater than god was rebuked by a simple man. After all of this, the devil confessed defeat, appearing as a small boy.

Later in life, Anthony sought further to conquer himself. He went out to live among the tombs near his village in Egypt, and settled there for the night. He asked that his friend bring him bread in the morning, but otherwise not disturb him. The Devil, already alarmed by the discipline of the man,  was afraid he would bring discipline to the desert. So he assaulted the saint with an army of demons and cut him to ribbons, such that his friend assumed him dead when he came to deliver the bread.  He was carried back home and there was a funeral—but he was merely sleeping. He awoke and asked his companion to return him. His wounds were real, however, and he could not stand. So he prayed as he laid on the ground.

The demons, frustrated, shook the earth and attacked the tomb from all four walls in the shape of many beasts and crawling things. But Anthony mocks them, for both relying on such great numbers and such dreadful forms. And as they gnash at him, the roof opens up and he is healed by a golden light. (As an aside, I can’t help but notice that the demons come from the four directions, but the divine aid comes from above. The symbolism to me reads as the demons being the entirety of the world here…but more on that later).

Next he takes residence in an abandoned fortress—the mere arrival of St.Anthony drives out all the reptiles. With six loaves of bread, each lasting a month, and water from the well.  Here, demons assailed him and cried out for him to leave what was theirs. His acquaintances, who came to visit, heard the sounds of violence and were afraid—but St. Anthony was unafraid and told his friends to make the sign of the cross and nothing shall harm them.

Much later in life, he ventured to a new mountain—called the inner mountain in my texts. Here he remained, and began to farm so that those who guided him there would not exert much effort in order to help him.  And here again demons assaulted him—those beyond heard the crashing of arms and saw that the mountain was full of wild beasts. First hyenas were sent, but they were repulsed. Then a beast like a man, with the legs and feet of an ass came and assaulted him. And he was repulsed.

Saint Anthony preformed other acts of healing and exorcism through out his life—leading to the promotion of monasticism through out the land. There was incident that I couldn’t find in my copy of the Life of St. Anthony, but is recorded in the art of Micahelangelo—here demons assault him again, but this time as he is carried through the air by angels instead of when he is in the desert or fortress or other place of desolation.  The story is the same as the variants above, for the most part.

Saint Anthony’s stories reflect a number of folkloric truths about wicked spirits—that they often take the forms of beasts, they dwell in places of the dead or forgotten places where nothing grows. And they have no power of men protected by the Divine. The artistic imagery of the demons is more fantastic, as the images I’ve included no doubt shows—the lives I have includes at best “the crawling things” and the man with the legs of a donkey. Still, invisible and angry demons serves as fruitful ground.

The story also calls to mind stories from India of Sidhartha’s last meditation. Here we encounter not the Devil but Mara, who attempts to dissuade Sidhartha from meditation and enlightment.  He sends three or five daughters to attempt to seduce him—but he remains mediating. Mara dispatches vast storms of rain and stone, frightening away the gods that had gathered around the Buddha—but this was to no avail either. Then Mara dispatches a great host to destroy him, and he remains untouched. Mara then called out that Buddha’s seat belong to Mara—and his whole host agreed with his claim. When asked for his witness the Buddha touched the earth—and the Earth cried out that she bore him witness. And Mara and his hosts vanished.

While this is the most famous text, it is not the only story of Mara attempting to seduce the Buddha. We find Mara in one text exhorts Sidhartha to go and live, to gain merit, for he is gravely thin. His path is too difficult, too rough to bear. And so he is rebuked by the Buddha for being what he is—and the Buddha counts and numbers his ten hosts that stand before him. Other texts have Mara attempting to lure Buddha away from preaching, either to keep it to himself or to abandon the path of preaching. One amusing temptation has Mara bringing letters from the Buddha’s princes, supposedly, that demand he give up preaching.

The similarities of these stories lead me to wonder if there was some influence on St. Anthony’s story from India. They aren’t the only temptations stories—there is the famous Temptation of Christ, where the devil came to Jesus in the desert, and offered him food and power and proof of his divinity. He rejects these temptations and resumes his preaching with citations from scripture. The idea, however, of being assaulted by demons does not feature in the Gospel story. Only in the stories of Anthony and Sidhartha. And the fantastic creatures are also missing. Given that what drew Lovecraft to this narrative was the image of a elephantine creature, I think the idea of a terrorizing demon serves best.

I think it’s also worth noting that the symbolism in Anthony and Buddha’s narratives paint the evils as deeply rooted in the entirety of the world–while they dwell in places of wilderness, the demons that attack Saint Anthony come from all quarters. They take the form of “baser” things–beasts, not men or scholars or intellectually cunning angels. Likewise, the daughters that approach the buddha are named for temptations, and Mara’s callings point to worldly responsibilities. One divergence I noticed is that, while both appeal to how hard the monastic life is, Mara appeals to the Buddha’s royal obligation, while Anthony has no such appeal that I could find. Perhaps because he never held any office?

Artistically, both works cited by Lovecraft have very physical, monstrous, and bodily feelings. They aren’t as abstract as Dali, but rather concrete and monstrous and menacing things. The piece by Fuseli I could find that closest fit what we have here is this one, of a snake devouring a rider. A consumptive, monstrous thing that was very much made of flesh, not dreams.

Before discussing where I intend to take this, I thought it’d be wise to mention that this is another story where the “result” is easily found in Lovecraft’s own work. Well, not his work. Chaugnar Faugn is a creature that resembles an elephant with a trunk that ends in a leech like mouth. A repulsive creature imprisoned in a statue form, or perhaps hibernating, it arrived and shaped life on this planet millions of years ago. When awake, it drains the blood of those that draw near. I haven’t read his original story—Lovecraft featured him in the Horror in the Museum, as an aside, but he comes from  Frank Belknap Long. Reading a summary the story is…bizzare, featuring strange rays that send creatures back in time, hidden cults, inorganic life, and the brothers of Chaugnar Faugn.

Our own story will of course be picking up from last time, with our artist having found the final hidden window. There are a number of strange things that might occur—the demon perhaps is literal, descending on this lonely and isolated man form the empty plains. Or perhaps it will crawl from the new window—or merely observe. Something tangible, devouring, and menacing–something there “in the flesh”. Let us see what lonely and fantastic horror awaits, next time!

Bibliography

Athanasius, St., and Robert T. Mayer. St. Athanasius: the Life of St. Anthony. Newman, 1978.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Māra.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 May 2013, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Mara-Buddhist-demon.

“The Buddha’s Encounters with Mara the Tempter: Their Representation in Literature and Art”, by Ananda W.P. Guruge. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/guruge/wheel419.html .

Through the Looking Glass

This Week’s Prompt: 118. Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.

The Resulting Story:The Empty Windows, Part 1

I think Mr. Lovecraft must have had a strange architectural road trip, given the number of stories that have focused on being stuck in a home and seeing horrible monsters and sights—and checking his timeline, March 1924 was when he moved in with his girlfriend to New York. Which is around the time this prompt is recorded.

Unlike the last few times of circling haunted houses and locked basements, I thought I would look into the specific nature of windows. Windows in many places act as points of entry for unbidden and unwanted spirits. Vampires and foul creatures fly into the homes here, and so they are often critical to protect. Some examples of strange windows that I found include a common architectural design in Vermont, the witches window.

This window, placed at an angle, was supposedly used by witches to fly out of…or to remove coffins from the second story. The windows are placed at an angle, to catch a witch flying—she can’t enter, because the windows would catch the broomstick. This example might be catch Lovecraft’s eye, given his interest in architecture and witches and New England. The validity of such a window being ‘to catch witches’ seems…unlikely, given that it is not the only window in the house. Likewise, a coffin going up the stairs is unlikely—it seems more likely a  body would be brought be back down.

A more fearsome example would be Black Annis—a hag, with a blue face and iron claws. Black Annis was known for eating pets, children, and sheep. She was entirely nocturnal, and would no doubt be a terrifying and fearsome creature. Except she had a habit of grinding her long, white teeth against each other.  This gave everyone time to bolt their doors and run inside—and in fact, windows in the area are too small for the hag to enter. Fire was often located near the windows for the same intention, as when fire was too far from the window she would reach in and steal children. And if both of these failed, the grinding could be heard from five miles away—giving time for farmers to place herbs and skins over the windows

A more fantastic story comes from Grimm. There once was a princess who every day would visit the top of a tower with twelve windows to look through.  From these windows she could see anything in the kingdom. From the first window, she could see more distinctly than any other human in the world. Further, each window made her window sharper and sharper until the twelfth window. Being a haughty princess of such supreme skill, she insisted that she would be married to no man unless he could hide from her view—and further, that if a man should try to hide and fail, he would be beheaded and his head stuck on a pike. Ninety-nine men took such a risk, and lined the castle walls.  Three brothers decided to try their luck. The first hid in a limepit and…well, was found instantly, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The second hid in a cellar was seen from the second window, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The youngest begged that he be given three chances instead of one—and he was so handsome and charming, that the princess agreed to his terms.

The brother meditated on how to succeed, and thinking of nothing else he went hunting. He spied a raven, raised his gun, and was about to shoot. The raven cried out that he would help the youngest brother if he was spared.  He went down to a lake saw a large fish—and the same scene repeated. And so on with a fox.

The next day, he set out to hide—and asked the Raven for help. And the raven thought for a time, and opened up an egg shell, and placed the youth inside it. And this went well—it took the princess until the eleventh window to see him. And she had the raven shot and warned the man that he had two more chances.

Then the man went to the fish. The fish swallowed the man and went to the bottom of the lake, and there hid from the princess. And this time, it took until the twelfth window for the princess to spot him. And she had the fish killed, and warned the youth again. One more chance, she said—no doubt nervous—that he had one more attempt.

And then the man went to the fox. The fox took the man to a spring, and bathed in it’s waters—and became a stall-merchant. The youth washed himself, and became a sea hare. And the merchant that was a fox took the hare that was a youth and displayed him to the whole town. And the beauty of the youth was carried over to the hare, and all the town came to see—including, in time, the princess. And the fox warned the youth—when she goes to look at the window, climb into her braids.

In case, like me, you’d imagined a sea hare as an adorable fish-bunny.

The princess did buy the sea hare, and took him up to the tower. And as she failed to see him in every window, she slammed the window shut with so much force that it broke every one of the windows and shook the castle. Feeling the sea-hare in her hair, she tossed it in a rage and shouted for it to get out of her sight. So the hare that was the youth obliged and ran back to the merchant that was a fox—and the two became themselves again. And the youth thanked the fox, that he truly knew how to hide. And came home, married the princess, and became king. Never once did he tell her how he accomplished all of this, so she believed he had done so by his own talents and respected him. A rather dastardly end, I suppose.

The Formorians, who’s king Balor had a baleful eye.

A few stories from Ireland caught my attention with windows when I went digging. Some are versions of stories I’m unfamiliar with—such as suggesting that Balor gained his evil eye from witnessing the creation of a poison by sorcerers through a window. The witnessed poison infected Balor’s eyesight. A host of dreadful monsters likewise seeks to enter homes through the west windows—ones that may be the restless and numerous dead or something far worse, depending on the origin. These Sluagh resemble great hosts of blackbirds, and seek at night to steal the souls of the dead before last rites. They were sometimes once people, sometimes merely monstrous fae. Their battles caused not only terror, but death and plague—they might sweep a mortal up with them to sow havoc and despair throughout the land. Clearly, not guests one wants to receive.

I know there is also a tale from Lorraine, France of a window that holds victims still…but sadly, I cannot find a translation of the story to know much beyond that (and I know that only from the myth motif index. That said, I think we have quite a bit to work with here. A window is something that lets eyes in and out, and has all the implications of ‘witnessing’ that implies.  And given the imagery of the prompt—an oriel window, looking out and over a plain, a street, or something else from above—I think that is the crux of the story. Something our narrator has witnessed.

Perhaps it is another place—another time. An alien world or a past time or something else that leaves a ghastly impression. The house or room sits on the edge and only the window can see into the other side. I have not yet read House on the Borderlands, but that seems a wide space to explore. The Aleph, by Borges, delves into the power to view far away vistas and strange places deeply.

There is of course the idea that seeing something changes you—that perhaps seeing something lets that thing see you. That vision is a two way process, and while God may have shut the door…perhaps he opened the wrong window. Things seeping in, leaking in through a window from the beyond seems like a fascinating story in it of itself.  

Windows are ways to observe the world, and I am fascinated by the idea of a set of windows that show something or somewhere more precisely—allowing one to see new and strange vistas, each it’s own little story. That concept is perhaps too long for what we are given here, but perhaps for another time.

Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

“Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare.” Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grimm’s_Household_Tales,_Volume_2/The_Sea-Hare.

Noyes, Amy Kolb. “What’s The History Of Vermont’s ‘Witch Windows’?” Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, 2017, http://www.vpr.org/post/whats-history-vermonts-witch-windows.

Religion, / Atlantic. “’Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls.” The Atlantic Religion, 9 May 2014, atlanticreligion.com/2013/08/17/sluagh-sidhe-and-hidden-folk-the-host-of-souls/.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.