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.

A Buried Feast

This Weeks Prompt: 65. Riley’s fear of undertakers—door locked on inside after death.

The Story: A Strange Estate

This prompt returns us to the graveyard—a place that of course we visit for horror often. The named person here, Riley, wasn’t someone I could find, much to my frustration. So instead I will pursue the fear of things that lurk in the graveyards and move about the graves. Things that can lock a door from beyond a grave perhaps. Our focus, the undertaker, has some interesting roots as one who explicitly profits from the dead, indiscriminate of the cause.

We’ve talked about a number of dead creatures that are corpses brought back to haunt the living here and here. We also discussed communing with them here.Today, I want to focus on things that actually reside in graveyards—in mausoleums and near undertakers. And as for the fear of undertakers, one particular fear of those who dig among bodies comes to mind for me. The fear of those anthropophagous creatures that feed on the dead, ghouls and worse that lurk near graveyards.

Ghoul2.png

A Gathering of Ghouls from a Persian text

Ghouls proper are creatures from Arabian and Middle Eastern mythologies at larger. Some traditions hold that a blow to the head will kill them, but a second blow will raise them from the dead. The ghoul lurks at times in the desert, taking the form of animals or people to lure travelers to their death before devouring them. The ghoul is at times taken to be djinn that were sired by Iblis, the Muslim equivalent in many ways to Lucifer in Christian mythologies. Ghouls in Iran were demons that entered heaven after being disbarred at the birth of the prophet Mohamed. These demons are also the source of crocodiles as well. Ghouls may feed on the living as well—in some cases, ghouls cause bleeding on the feet and then drink the blood. Others resist invaders or marchers through deserts and are put to flight or even death by the mere mention of God’s name.

The Ghoul is also the name of a distant star, Algol. The star is the glimmering eye of the Gorgon in Perseus hand in the Greek Zodiac. The star’s flickering nature made it seem inconstant, and it’s red shine might be responsible for it’s association with great violence and bloodshed. The Ghoul creates corpses, you see.

AlgolSymbol.png

The Astrological Symbol for Algol

In Germany, another creature haunts the graveyards—the Nachzehrer. This creature is in many ways like a vampire, feeding on the living after death. However, the Nachzehrer does so in many cases by eating itself—the more it feeds on itself. Like many undead, the Nachzehrer are often suicides, but not always. In some cases, they are the patient zero of a plague, and the continuation of the plague is linked to their persistence. The Nachezehrer is easy to recognize—it holds one thumb in the opposite hand, and it’s left eye is open. By placing a stone in it’s mouth, the Nachezehrer cannot continue devouring itself, and thus becomes ineffectual.

Another spirit, not exactly dead but fond of corpses and graveyard, is the Hindu vetala. The most famous story of the vetala occurs with King Vikram, who had twenty five attempts on capturing the creature. The vetala here hung upside down, and inhabited and animated dead bodies. When captured, the Vetala proves helpful, warning the King Vikram of treachery before he is murdered.

Headless

Not the anthropophagous, but commonly mistaken for them. These are the Akephaloi

A more bizzare cannibal, farther afield then the others from a graveyard is the anthropophage, a strange group who are noted as the most savage and barbarous. These individuals were first reported by Herodotus, expanded on by later authors. Pliny attributes them to dressing in the remains of their victims as well. These lived on the fringe of civilization, where most cannibals are placed in the Western tradition.

While cannibalism continues in other places, I will restrain myself mostly to those who feed on corpses near internment, as opposed to those who eat their enemies.

The other layer of this is the nature of the undertaker—a figure I admit I confused with the grave digger. The role of a mortician in society, so close to death, is variable. In some societies, for example third century China, the mortician was often an exorcist who drove out demons and hungry dead from the place the body was meant to be buried. We may also talk here about the role of propriating the dead and ensuring their passage, as books such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead persrcibes. The mortician must be knowledgable of the dead and of the needs and customs of burial.

In one of his better stories, Lovecraft introduces his own race of ghouls. These creatures resemble dog-headed individuals, and move between dreams and waking worlds. Appearing first in Pickman’s Model, the ghouls are terrifying creatures that the artist observes as a sort of changeling tale. The Ghoul as a sort of liminal character, capable of moving between the boundaries of living and dead and dreaming, is an interesting take on the matter.

Saturn

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Fransico de Goya. The work appears in Pickmans model as an example of the painters art.

Whne it comes to the actions of corpses—that of gravediggers and robbers—Lovecraft has at least one story that hits the mark that will not be one I’ll be following on. Partially because it seems ill suited for the prompt, which is about the shock of the dead being awake and denying you passage, and partially because…well. Mr. Lovecraft’s Reanimator story is one that descends from a decent idea into shocking levels of racism by all accounts. For those curious, you can read it here. The story has had a number of movie adaptations, which I admit I haven’t seen.

Another story from the Cthulhu Mythos work of Mr. Lovecraft that touches on grave robbing is of course The Hound, which deals more with grave-robbing then preparing. It is, however, notable as the first appearance of the Necronomicon, and deals somewhat with the ghoul-dog association of Lovecraft’s. You can find it here.

Approaching then the key point in the prompt: the locking of a door from the inside. This speaks to some sort of reanimation as well, although it might be a fail safe from said creatures. If the coffin or mausoleum is locked from the inside it follows rather obviously that it is because someone living inside wishes to keep something out. We know what they are keeping out—our undertakers and cannibals. But what dealings does our formerly deceased have, that has convinced him of the existence of such creatures? Has he seen the ghouls in the night, stalking between grave stones?

Further, who is our main character here? I will say that the dead man and the ghouls are probably not likely. While exploring either head space would be fascinating, I’m not sure if it would be productive or frankly that easy. A monster’s or a corpse’s head space can be difficult to examine. So some of the living must be on hand. Given the principle discovery—the door is locked from the inside after death—the occurrence should happen after the funeral. Which means either a friend or family member, perhaps staying near the graveyard.

Near the graveyard, or in the town at least. Perhaps having inherited the manor of the deceased, our visitor takes up residence. There, he learns in the basement of the dark happnings that have attracted ghouls and undertakers to his family estate, and to that most recent grave. This gives a bit of gothic tinge to our story—and borrows from the Lovecraft story Rats in the Walls a bit. That story also invokes cannibalistic husbandry, breeding human beings to sate the lust for flesh in a family line. Attaching a ghoulish character in this mannr to the story, I think, will wait until later. I suspect—and consulting both Wikipdia and the list this is confirmed—that there will be better times for indulging in the sins of the family as feeding on the dead so directly.

So our plot then will be an individual attending to the house of his dead relative, and over time becoming aware of the strange nature of the gravediggers nearby. I suspect we should have a cast of three characters among the living then—the main character, a friend or neighbor, and the undertaker proper. The creatures at work, the strange ghouls or the hungry Nachzherer serve as characters, but less refind in their form and narrative purpose then the other three.

Works Cited

Harper, Donald. “A Chinese Demonography of the Third Century B. C.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1985, pp. 459–498. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2718970.

 
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Bound Beneath The Earth

This Week’s Prompt:59. Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.
The Resulting Story: The Many Doors of the Dead

We find a man in a room, underground, with only one exit. He may stay in this room. Or he may try and force his way out. When he goes and tries to escape his isolation, the onrush of the outside world, a miasma of chaotic waters, kill him. We do not know if he was pulverized or drowned. But had he not forced open that door of antiquity, he would be alive.

I say antiquity, because that is what the metal bronze conjures. It is a metal deployed in phalanxes or on chariots, not in the knightly arms of medieval warlords or the rifling of a modern man. It is a material of a bygone age. And as such, we might discuss some of the metaphor that seems at play in this story. For, pushing the bounds of the world and meeting catastrophe is a common theme in Mr. Lovecraft’s work.

Plato's Cave.png

We can consider the lightless room or cave to be a maker of the cosmos. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who put Socrates’s words to writing, used a similar metaphor. In the Americas, a number of South Western people’s describe the emergence of humanity into the world as coming from a series of caves. Both the Navajo and the Hopi include stories of humanity emerging into this world from one’s deep below. In the myths of Maya and Aztec people’s, cave play the special role as connections to the underworld and ancestors. In more modern times, there are of course notions that we are within a hollow shell,the inside of an egg waiting to be born.

So we are within the world. And there is a door, made in ages past of bronze. It is the only way out, it seems, from our comfortable room of known existence. This door of bronze perhaps could be taken as the understanding of the world our ancestors had. It is a limiter, beyond which we cannot see anything—the chamber is after all subeterranean, and who would force open a door that they knew had a vast expanse of water on the other side. By pushing past these ancient limits, we encounter something new, or at least vast. The waters, who’s symbology we have discussed before, are a vast life giving force that overcomes the fool that releases them, creating a minature deluge. The man dies for his curiosity.

The metaphor points generally to a sort of terrified conservatism that defines Lovecraft to a point. We can recall his famous opening of the Call of Cthulhu:


“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. “

That being the case, we must consider how to wring more out of this then mere dread. Watching a man slowly go insensate before making a fatal mistake, unknown and unmourned by the world at large in his tomb is…dull. I am sure there is some way to make such a story intreasting. But on it’s own, existential dread is an easily dismissed horror. No. A better trick, I think, is that of memory. To recollect, as one stumbles through the strange cave, life before this darkness. What it is that lures the fatal, doomed choice of opening that ancient door.

King in the Mountain.png

Places literally underground are not uncommonly full of dangers. We have talked about the threats of some of these creatures before, such as kobolods and grootslangs and Typhon who was buried under a mountain in Sicily. Other stories that are more than relevant here include those things of the deep that hold ancient knowledge. The dead are the most common, but not only example. In Russian Folklore, we have a giant of a man named Svyatogor who is trapped beneath a mountain and yet lends advice where he can to the knights of the Rus. In Arthurian myth and Charlemagne romances, Merlin often ends up beneath a tree or within a tree despite all his wisdom. And of course, there is the King In The Mountain, Barbossa being the most famous literal version. Some of these imprisonments, however, are only that. While a traveler might find such strange nobillity here and there, they aren’t dwelling so much as sleeping.

We can also consider creatures that are more serpentine in nature, as was touched on here. The great naga princes of tibetan folklore often dwelled in dreamworlds of the deep, resembling the fae we’ve come to know in many ways, including their power of many forms and their multiplicity of gifts, and a bit of their penchant for trickery.

In Maori folklore, Maui’s blessings come from his mother and father who live in the depths of the earth. Maui further presents an intreasting example of the sort of hubris Lovecraft would give to the man of science. Maui heads out to earn man’s immortality, by defeating his ancestor. The result is rather predictable, if bizarre. He heads within his ancestress while she sleeps, warning the nearby birds not to laugh. One very young bird does, and his stirring ancestress kills Maui.

The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh likewise ventures underground, following the flames of the sun in order to reach the place where immortality might be found. He also fails, although he survives the encounter. His test is rather wakefulness, and in another time we will discuss the motif of death and slumber. 

To return to how this might shape our narrative, the cavern is as much a character as our prisoner. It is a character in shapes and form, eliciting memories and moods. I think a landscape like those the dragons once dwelt in will work well. An abandoned faerie castle, the ruins of a great dragon’s kingdom, a landscape that is more than darkness and shadows wandered through forever and ever. It also might give the bronze door some more menace, if it is the only worked metal in the cavern of wonders. The only plain, unadorned thing, in a forgotten land.

City of Brass.png

A good reference for this material would be the story “City of Brass” from the 1001 Arabian Nights. The story follows travelers through a series of barren wastelands and tombs, full of strange sights, desiccated corpses, imprisoned demons, and odd devices. It has a rather clear moral to it about attachment to material goods, but at the same time there are undercurrents of cosmic horror as the will of God so portrayed is not always knowable. The story also features several instances of characters dooming themselves by ignoring clear warnings, which falls neatly into what might be waiting for our prisoner. The city itself is slightly off from the prompt, sadly, being of brass instead of bronze. But the visual cue is close enough I believe.

Bibliography:

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

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