Lose your Head!

This Week’s Prompt:90. Anencephalous or brainless monster who survives and attains prodigious size.

The Resulting Story:The Body of Veled

Anencephalous is a creature that lacks a head—the connection that has with brainless should be obvious. The notion here seems to be that a creature is not born brainless, but rather executed or in some other way rendered brainless/inert/headless. Decapitation, however gory it may be, is a common theme in myth and legend however—just as surviving is.

The first creature this reminded me of is Xingtian, a man who made war on the Yellow Emperor Huangdi. As is the case with most men who make war on Heaven, he failed and was executed for his rebellion—his head was buried underneath a mountain for good measure. Nonetheless, his body lived on. He formed eyes where his nipples were, a face where his belly button was, and took up his shield and ax to dance in defiance of the emperor still.

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In Hinduism, we have a Rakshasa named Vishvavasu, who began life as a celestial musician—a role he shares with Xingtian, who in one account composed music for the workers in the field. He preformed rituals to earn a boon from Vishnu, and asked for immortality. He then made war on Indra, convinced that he couldn’t possibly loose. Indra struck him with a thunder bolt, sending his head into his body. He was cursed to remain such, until Rama cut off his arms. Some versions say before warring with Indra, he delighted in seducing maidens and attacking monks, drunk on power. He is described as “as big as a mountain, dark as a black cloud, with pointed hairs all over his body and looked fierce with a voice as loud as thunder. He had an eye on his stomach, round and yellow, emitting a glare like a fire-name. Looking wicked he thrust his big tongue out of his huge mouth licking the sides”. After he is freed from his curse, he provides counsel to Rama on the proper direction to take his war with Ravana.

A dread asura had a similar fate. Named Svarbhanu, at the churning of the cosmic ocean he managed to acquire some of the Amirta of the gods. Before he was noticed, he drank it in the darkness and became immortal. While an Avatar of Vishnu was informed by the sun and moon, and with a chakram blow cut Svarbhanu in two—his head and his body. Rahu and Ketu, as they are now known, lived on nonetheless. Rahu in particular became the diety of solar eclipses and meteors, an inauspicious force in astrology.

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Connected to Rahu is Kirtimukha. Once, Rehu was sent to demand that Shiva give up his bride, Parvati, to his immortal master Jalandhara. Jalandhara’s own life is a fascinating story, but the relevant part is his end. Shiva in a rage set forth a bolt from his third eye, that manifested as a terrifying and hungry lion. Rehu begged for mercy, and Shiva acquiesced—the lion was told instead to devour itself. It did so, until only it’s face remained, to be the head of glory outside temple walls.

Continuing our story of vast growth and wars against the gods is Ullikummi. Deaf and blind, Ullikummi was placed by the god Kumarbi to overthrow the storm god Teshub. Ullikummi grew without being noticed, rising off the back of the world supporting giant. This genderless pillar of volcanic material does their job well—Teshub’s thunder cannot harm them as they continue to grow. He abdicates his throne, and descends to Ea, who dwells in the dark waters of the underworld. There, a great and primal cutting instrument or knife is acquired, and used to chop off Ullikummi’s feet, sending him toppling down. Thus the senseless growth of the volcano is curbed before reaching all the way unto Heaven.

Ullikummi’s war with a thunder god and his apparent invincibility, as well as the importance of a cutting weapon in his defeat and volcano symbolism, has lead to parallels with Tyhpon, a regular feature on our discussions. Typhon does on some occasions lose one of his heads—but this is usually a self inflicted injury, as the head becomes a terrible dragon with which to guard Zeus’s wounded body.

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Among the Aztecs, we have a more famous beheading. After the moon and stars were born, the Earth Goddess Coatlicue became pregnant again by a ball of feathers. The moon goddess, Coyolxahqui, became convinced that this sudden and miraculous birth was a dishonor on the family name, and with her four hundred brothers she came to slay the her mother. One of the stars, however, went out and warned the unborn child of the coming battle. The newly born god, Huitzilopochtli, emerged fully armed and armored. He slew his brothers and sister, scattering them in every direction. More than one later narrative specifies that the head of the moon goddess was thrown upward, into the sky where it stays to this day—chasing her brother sun to devour him.

In Northern Europe, we have other headless creatures. We can consider, for example The Green Knight who’s head game has been mentioned before (here and here). The Celts had a reputation as head hunters in the Mediterranean but the exact meaning of their decapitations is still disputed.

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There is also the recurring image of the saint who carries their own head (a Cephalophore). Some simply walked off with their lost heads. The most famous, St. Denis, picked up his own decapitated head and wandered off—he preached for a time about the nature of penance, before finally moving on. Many more saints followed suit—most went to a local church or holy site, preaching as they went. A few mounted a horse or camel and spoke with lost relatives one last time, before finally leaving. This form of decapitation survival calls to mind the final fate of Orpheus—Orpheus, who was decapitated by the Maneads, and sent down the river. He sang the whole way down, until passing into death. Like the Saints, parts of Orpheus were stored in temples.

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The beheaded seem to have a knack for disturbing the existing order then—in some cases for good cause, in other cases for their own wicked ends. For instance, we can consider Chhinnamasta, another Hindu goddess, beheaded herself to feed two of her starving handmaidens while they were bathing in the river. In another instance, her beheading was after a battle with demons, ripping her head off to sate her rage and drinking her own blood.

A slightly stranger bodiless head is that of Hun, father of the Maya Hero Twins. When a princess of the dead spoke with him, Hun impregnated her with spit. When later on, the Hero Twins descend to deal with the lords of the dead, they have a more comparable experience. Here, one of the tests is to stay in the Bat House—and they succeed almost the entire night in their shelter, until Hunpahu peaks out. His head is removed by a passing bat god, but all is well—it is replaced with a gourd. The two go out and have their ball game match the next day, retrieving Hunpahu’s head before it can be used as the ball.

And there is the most famous of the Talking Heads, Mimir. Mimir is a Norse god of wisdom of the Aesir family. During the Aesir-Vanir war, he is beheaded but stays alive and gives Odin secret counsel. Some versions specify that Mimir and another god were sent as hostages to the Vanir. However, when it was discovered that the strong and handsome Hoenir needed Mimir to be of any use, the Vanir beheaded Mimir in rage. Odin then embalmed the head of Mimir, worked magic on it so that it could speak, and kept it for counsel. Mimir is recorded elsewhere as drinking deep from his name sake well of wisdom, at the root of the world tree.

There is also, as we discussed at length in a patreon article, the Brazen Head. These contraptions are replicas of heads without bodies, powered by occult machinery and able to answer any question asked of them. A number of scholars have possessed one—but few have finished them or made use of them.

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We can also consider that lacking a head is of course a sign of death—in Journey to the West a dragon holding his own head serves as a frightening image to the Emperor, when the Emperor failed to ensure the dragon’s safety. In Ireland, the Dullhan carries its own head as a lantern and the spine of a human being as a whip. On it’s black horse, it rides until it finds someone doomed to die. Calling their name out, their soul is pulled from their body. The Dullhan thus acts as something of a horrific pyschopomp…although one that according to some accounts can be kept away with a flash of gold. In Germany, some versions warn away hunters from their accidents, while others hunt capital offenders with fire tongued hounds.

A more noble headless horseman comes from India—Jhinjhār. These warriors often lose their head when fighting off cattle rustlers—but fight on anyway. A lotus springs from their neck, and eyes grow on their chest like our other earlier immortal warriors. Sadly, after freeing the cows and returning home, he is still in the grips of fury. The woman of the town therefore must scatter indigo dust over him, sending him at last to death’s waiting grasp.

The miraculous power to stave off death then, is connected with is an almost senseless nature. Our champions are warriors, but often ones who pursue the impossible or are trapped in a state of violence. They are something like a human being, without the guiding mind, often lost in rage—yes, they lost their head, get the pun out of the system.

Our story then is about a creature of singular appetite who never ceases to grow, then. In some respects, this resembles our discussions of a mindless and senseless creator. Something large and unreasonable, that seemingly cannot stop. It is note worthy, I think, that those who don’t replace their head perish in a reasonable manner—the Saints, for instance, live without their head but not indefinitely. The many warriors and the hero twins either replace the head with another object, or convert their chest into a head. I think that what we have here is…interesting.

 

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Sailing Away

This Week’s Prompt :57. Sailing or rowing on lake in moonlight—sailing into invisibility.
The Resulting Story: The Wind Blew Out From Bergen


Moonlight and invisibility are strong themes of these last few prompts. If I had the money to acquire a copy of Mr. Lovecraft’s letters, I’d wonder what possibly prompted this set of thinking or line of inquiry. As it is, we will press on. This prompt does have the benefit of being distinct from those before in at least one respect. The invisible no longer haunts us, nor is it revealed. Rather, we see the visible become invisible.

The beginning notion of sailing or rowing into invisibility, being lost to the sight of humanity, has some interesting parallels in the border space of folklore and urban legend. The basic premise is not too strange. After all, the sea is full of strange monsters, of sirens calling out to drown men, of ancient rebels against the gods, and more. But disappearances at sea? Those are old.

The most famous disappearance locale for American’s is actually far more recent then you might suspect. The Bermuda Triangle’s record only begins in the 1950s. But if there is a place more synonymous with “lost at sea” in the modern day, I’ve not heard of it. The triangle has it’s points at Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico. It’s reputation of consuming ships is famed enough that I will stop here to say that in all likelihood, the probable cause is the sheer number of ships traveling those waves.

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The related Devil’s Triangle in Japan is another recent notion of seas that enjoy sinking ships. It too has only been reported in the early 1950s, as has the notion of twelve of these paranormal vortices. While no doubt these can be sources of inspiration, their newness ought to be remembered.

Even ignoring these paranormal sightings, sailing to the land invisible is not so unusual. Odysseus did so, and found even stranger lands in the journey there. And funeral barges of Vikings and Egyptians alike were supposed to go on to the dead. King Arthur was sent out sailing to an unseen land, attended by three women. Like wise Väinämöinen built a ship of copper, with an iron bottom, to leave the land and sail to the heavens, out of the mortal(visible) world. Quetzacouatl left the realm of the living, in some versions, on a barge or boat of snakes! Such are the strange contraptions needed to reach the heavens.

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But outside the realm of myth, folktales from various places talk of the dead as invisible sailors. Near Brittany, some report the dead are gathered in great invisible boats to be taken to the Isle of the Dead. On the Breton coastline, skiffs come out manned by the invisible dead. This is typically an ill omen. A German folktale reports that these dead voyages can do what is implied by the prompt, and fly towards the moon. Rabbi Amram asked, reportedly, to be placed in a coffin and allowed to flow wherever the river took him. The coffin, much to the world’s surprise, floated up the river!

And if it is rending ships invisible by their sinking, then the Devil must have his due. Multiple demonic forces or malicious spirits are thought to sink ships when angered or displeased. The devil himself was once sighted at sea with a sword in hand. Other times, demons take the crew themselves!

The devil, according to a story from Schleswig-Holstein,still ferries people across Cuxhaven bay. He does this to liberate himself from the consequences of a certain compact.He had procured a ship for a certain captain, the latter to yield himself up with the ship, which was to be kept busy so long as there was a cargo. This Satan tried to find, so as to keep the vessel cruising until the compact expired, but the was outwitted at the end of the first cruise by the captain’s son, who crowded sail on and let the anchor go. The fiend tried to hold the anchor, but went overboard with it.” Reports Fletcher Basset, citing an older text (Schmidt-Seeman Sagen, which I did not have time to check).

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We then can consider also those ships that are now invisible, having made the journey. The Flying Dutchman, who made a deal with devil long ago and now serves as a sort of sea-bound Wild Hunt, has been mentioned before. But let us look at him at length. The Flying Dutchman is a man-of-war, a terrifyingly vast warship that emerges from the storm to assault ships as bad weather strikes. Another name for the ship is Carmilhan, with the goblin Klabotermen as it’s pilot. The ship has no crew except invisible ghosts, no sails but rags, and hounds ships to the end of the earth. Other times, the ship is a former slave-ship, which was struck by the tragedy of the plauge.

Related is Falkenberg, who sails the world and played dice for his soul with the devil. In some cases, Falkenberg is the Dutchman himself.

One amusing tale tells of a group of pirates that, in the stylings of Scooby Doo, pretend to be the Flying Dutchman, only to be assailed by the real thing. As the storm blows in, the demon ship is unflatered by it’s rival and engages in combat. The results are sadly one sided, as the demon ship lays them to waste with ease.

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But the Flying Dutchman is not the strangest of it’s kind. There is still the Bewiched Canoe. Yes, a magically canoe. From French Canada comes the story of a huntsman who so enjoyed the hunt, he made a pact with the devil to continue it forever. Not only is he in a canoe, but the canoe flies through the air.

Larger than these, is the ship Chasse Foudre, a French vessel that takes seven years to tack. It is so vast, it shifts all wild life around it. Her nails along the hull allow the moon to pivot, and climbing her masts take lifetimes. She is crewed by men so large, that their smallest pipe is the size of a frigate. A Swedish ship of similair size, the Refanu, is so big that horses are used to relay orders. Her crew is thus of a relatively normal size, as opposed to giants that lumber about other such world ships.

More strange vessels under sail include one recroded by Ibn Battuta, the Lantern Ship. Once the ship was a demon that, on occasion, demanded sacrifices. It has since lost it’s powers, and is forced back by recitations of the Quran by local visitors or a priest.

All these vessels then serve as the start for our own. But what start is that? I think the two more modern moments that this prompt calls ot mind are from Tanith Lee’s Darkness’s Master and H.P. Lovecraft’s own Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. In both, there is a celestial voyage to the heavens aboard a special craft. And I think, for both, the journey is more of an atmosphere of wonder or fear then it is a narrative. If we are to go to the moon, to the invisible world, a horror or fantasy that is mainly derived from strange monsters or explicit dooms is not the best. Better, I think, for something tinged with dread. A glimpse of the invisible, that unfolds. Something subtly moving, something just a little out of place. Of course, such writing is difficult. It’s not what I am used to, frankly, and doing something with subtly is not my strength.

Still, a story of a slowly vanishing ship under the moonlight, perhaps draped in mist, needs something more subtle then perhaps I would normally do.

Bibliography:
Basset, Fletcher S. Legends and Superstitions of the Sea Throughout History. Marston,Searle, and Rivington, 1885

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Drowning Deep

Trigger Warning: Suicide

The Relevant Research:The River Runs Deep

This Week’s Prompt: 38. Drowning sensations—undersea—cities—ships—souls of the dead. Drowning is a horrible death.

Silver light settled around the bodies beneath the bridge, a ghostly corona around a corpse homage to the moon above. There was a total of ten identifiable bodies resting there, waiting. Gazing upward at me, pupils rolled back to reveal pallid with dots among the bloated flesh. All drowned.

“Could be a serial killer?” Dorothy next to me said as the various smarts started trying to figure out how to haul up this mass with damaging much.

“Could. Be the weirdest yet. I mean, I guess he could just drown them, but seems like people would have heard something.” I said, squatting down to look. “Can’t be group body disposal, though. The one at the bottom’s rotted quite a bit. What’s the underwater version of a maggot?”

“Fish?”

“Funny. Anyway, if they were all dumped at once, they wouldn’t have rotted so weirdly.”

“Different drops then.” Dorothy said with a shrug.

“Yeah, but I’m not seeing any wounds. Look, no cuts, no lacerations on the top one. No blood at all.” I said, frowning and looking to either side of the bridge. “Plus, you’d think someone would have noticed, right? Like on a morning jog? River’s been clean most of the month.”

“Clean, but how many people look down into the rivers these days. Maybe he dead weighted them?” Dorothy said, shining her flash light towards the feet. Nope. Completely bare of rope.

“Suicides?” I ask, thinking for a moment.

“All in the same spot?”

“I mean, it would explain the lack of bonds or wounds. But your right…wouldn’t they see the bodies? And if they did, why would they…I mean, seems like a weirdly private mass suicide.”

“They’re not all cults, Jim.”

“Most, most are cults.”

“Could have been a pact?” Dorothy said, frowning sat the water. I shook my head.

“Pacts are smaller, usually. Plus, now that I think of it, if this was organized—a”

“The rot would all be the same.” Dorothy finished.

“Guess we’ll have to see what the guys find.” I said standing up. My knees audibly cracked. I slipped the flashlight into my jacket, and tipped my hat to the boys trying to figure out how to lift the bodies out without them disintegrating.

Suicide wasn’t exactly new to Windgift. There was a joke around the department, ever since the factories and railroads made the city big, that one in every two murders was really a suicide by criminal. But it had exploded lately, near the waterfront. This was the first pile but the concentration was the only thing that separated it from miles of river shore.

I wandered down the raised and fenced coast line. There was an occasional shimmering fish swimming up its waters. I wondered if they knew when people died here, if they started up and up to feed on the remains. If they were gathering for a feast. Wonder what kind of fish ate only the fingers and toes.

The bodies were ruled a suicide, with a probably corpse desecration by a surviving member or by the scum who’d set them up for it. Lawyers were watching their wills, vultures watching a limping cow to find it’s hunter. There was no revolutionary firebrand to collect, though. And if the wealth made its way to some singular cult leader, it did so through a venerable hydra of untraceable transfers and shells of human beings. It was an epidemic, a plague.

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I looked at the pristine, perfect pale river. A disease that, by all efforts of our fine municipality, had no healers at the moment. Not enough. So they had, failing to cure the disease, put someone to stand out as to prevent the systems.

I sat at my chair atop the iron tower, watching the iron fences around the bridge from behind metal bars. The first guy ‘fell out the window’, so they built a railing. The second hung from the railing, so they added spikes. Next bit the wounds and leapt out. So they finally put in bars. And, premptively, they removed the rafters and anything that might serve such a purpose from the room.

I even got a nice new uniform that was a too elastic to hang anything from, and entirely lacking a belt. I hadn’t exactly been happy to receive the job. Even without the collapse rate, preventing self destruction wasn’t what I had signed up for. I mean, yeah, you always had to watch the occasional drunk. But this wasn’t the robber and gangster filled apocalypse I wanted to be the watchman against.

I had already shouted scripted warnings out onto the bridge three times that night. Once I had to use my tranquilizer for a fool who had nearly scaled the fence. It wasn’t lethal within four shots, and it made a loud cling on the third to signal for back up in case the shot had been self aimed. Hard, given the length, but there was no need to risk it.

As night began to rise and the clouds lost the little light that escaped them. It was another dark night, with stolen stars lining the streets and glittering in the river, giving it an outline of dull gold. Occasionally a thin veneer of oily waste rolled down its way, distorting the shape like a large serpent slithering just beneath the waters.

It was beneath one of these persistent blights on the face of the river that I first saw it, between those bars. A languid form, a second ripple working its way out of the oil drifting on the surface. It was a spiny thing, with a longing, flicking extension like a tail. I didn’t see it properly yet. It caught my eye as a strange disturbance and nothing more.

Following it there was a clatter of steps on the bridge. Bolting up, I saw someone leaning against the iron nailed planks. Her ear was pressed up against it, listening intently. I leaned over in my chair, impulsively reaching for my rifle and my megaphone.

She was staring straight ahead with this blank stare, focused. She took a step back, staring now at the barricade, almost stroking it.

“Get away from the barricade ma’am.” I shouted through the megaphone. I don’t know if she heard me, entranced by something invisible. She stepped back, and took off her shoes. Then her socks, then her gloves.
“Ma’am, step away from the fence!” I shouted a second time. No signs of her making a move but bizarre behavior on the bridge could not be tolerated. She started rapping a rhythm on the rough wood. I frowned, listening for a tune.

And I heard it. I heard it first in the rapping, but then in something else. A sound that wasn’t there before. A soothing melodic sounds, a melancholic sound coming from the river. Gripping my rifle, I turned out the window. And there I saw it, coated in oil. The head of a great dog, a scaly hide behind it. It swayed as it almost howled out a siren song above, calling to the woman. Calling to me, to join it in the river and be free.

I thank god the bars caught me before I did anything, that the railing spikes stabbed my leg shaking me out of it. I carefully lowered my long rifle down between the bars. Looking down the scope I fired a dart at the beast. It yelped but carried on.

I fired again, this time down the throat. It banged on a tooth and lead to a grimacing, ducking thing that still skulked near the surface, howling at me. The woman at the bridge was banging on the wooden barricade.

I fired the third time, the loud ding of the rifle matching the dart’s sinking into it’s right ear. It howled at me, and sunk beneath the waves. It was utterly gone when I looked for it. My darts floated on the empty water, and the woman, shaken by a fellow law officer, moved along.

I scribbled a note on the paper before leaving.
“Shoot singing river dogs on sight.”

I doubt anyone will take it seriously, but it now joins the one about beautiful lake women and swans. I fear, honestly, that our river has become sort of gathering place for things like that dog. Next time, I think, I’ll aim for the bloody eye.

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The River Runs Deep

This Week’s Prompt: 38. Drowning sensations—undersea—cities—ships—souls of the dead. Drowning is a horrible death.

The Resulting Story:Drowning Deep

To drown is to die a bad death. This prompt invites us to consider many aspects, many things that one might see down among the inky black of the sea. The image of an underwater city brings to mind fantastic locales of Atlantean ruins, but more directly brings to my mind (perhaps do to the morbidity of the rest of the subject matter) to an old Poe poem, presented here in abbreviated form(Because Poetry is Amazing).

City In The Sea
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne 
In a strange city lying alone 
Far down within the dim West, 
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best 
Have gone to their eternal rest. 
There shrines and palaces and towers 
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!) 
Resemble nothing that is ours. 
Around, by lifting winds forgot, 
Resignedly beneath the sky 
The melancholy waters he. 

The poem ties the deep, undersea city with elements of hideous horror, of time, and of Satan. All topics we’ve discussed before and one’s that provide plenty of room for horror. But we’ve done them before. We also covered the notions of some nautical myths in our talk on Rhode Island, although a few more regarding ships and the souls of the dead need mentioning.

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There is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, made famous in the most contrasting roles I’ve seen: Davey Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Spongebob Squarepants. The Flying Dutchman is a continuation of sorts on the themes of the Wild Hunt Infernal: The Crew is condemned forever to plow the waves and skies. Davey himself seems to have a sordid past, either a devil himself or Jonah damning sailors yet. The souls of unfortunate sailors descend to his place, and in this way he holds all three of the elements as one.

Chilean Folklore presents another ship, however, manned by more then the dead. The Caleuche is a phantom ship at sea that contains not only the dead, but also gives instruction and transport to warlocks. To access the ship, a warlock must summon a Caballo marino chilote, a golden horse with a fishes tail. The King of The Sea would then permit transport to the ghostly vessel.

Of course, not all such water horses were kindly. The Scottish waterhorse would rather ride into thnae lakes and drown it’s rider than provide mystic aid. A plethora of drowning entities follow this route. The Siren sings to drown, as we’ve said before. Slavic Vodyanov and Rusalka drown those near their rivers as well.

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My favorite drowner, as of late, is the Ahuitzotl. The river dog, as it is sometimes known, will lurk in the river and then drag you below with the hand behind its tail. After drowning, the little beast will eat the finger nails, eyes, and teeth. And oddly specific sort of animal.

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These drownings provide a better plot, I believe, then the undersea city itself. There is something awful and personal about drowning: It is a death that kills and isolates inequal measure and rapidly. It is also often, to my mind, associated with suicides. It is hard to kill a man by drowning intentionally, as opposed to by poison or by a simple knife. It is a death that often involves much struggle or none at all, betokens either great force or a void of anything.

I think the story will take the form of a mystery then. A series of drowning, along a canal. The same spot. But is it, our inquisitive detective will wonder, the work of a murderer? Is the place now a nexus of despair, a self perpetuating site like some bridges become? I don’t want to say too much, as I have little to say. Come by next week to behold the horror that lurks beneath the surface.

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