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

THE SUN

This Week’s Prompt: 94. Change comes over the sun—shews objects in strange form, perhaps restoring landscape of the past.

The Resulting Story:The Green Sun

Oh, this is a timely story. I’ve just returned from visiting family in the Valley of the Sun. Growing up in Arizona, I think, made the notion of the Sun as a deity rather easy to grasp—a vast, often hateful daystar that sapped life and will from everything it saw. If I wanted, I could ramble for hours on the unconscious cosmology I had from growing up in Mesa Arizona, but that is for another time. Today, I want to talk about the Sun. The strange stories of the Sun as well as the more familiar ones.

One of the more familiar stories of the sun is that it rests where it sets, and a hero sets out to find or visit it. A few Dine stories deal with the children of the Sun. The first is a son born of an unmarried woman, for the Sun had grown jealous of a chief he had never seen. This son was brought up among his own people, and at fifteen was told by a white fly that his father was the son. Shortly after he was taken to his father on a rainbow, and was taught every game that existed. The Sun conspired to win every turquoise from the chief and people that he could using his own child. And the son in turns becomes such an amazing gambler, he not only wins the turquoise but also wins the people themselves, the spirits of rain and corn, and the chief! The greatest prize he wins, however, is a turquoise the size of man with feathers sticking out of it. When the Sun descends to collect the turquoise, his son refuses—instead offers to gamble for it.

The Sun then went out and had another boy—this one grew to adult hood in fifteen years. He was then brought up and shaped by his sister to into a duplicate of the first child, the Great Gambler. He is sent out to offer gifts to various beings—the bat a buffalo hide, the snake a pair of red stones, a shell to the brown rat, some ground stones to a little breeze. These all help him, either by sabotaging the Gambler or confounding his spies, until at last the people are freed. The Sun claims the turquoise, and takes the Gambler skyward.

SunImage.png

Another Dine story tells of the Sun seeking a bride—particularly the daughter of First Man and First Woman, White Bead Girl. He arrives first while she is alone, on a white horse, as a man dressed all in white. He then visits her for four days at night, unseen, and she in turn gives birth to twins. These twins prove hard to keep at home, going out and finding spies of the monsters that roam the world. They also learn, by a strange fly, that their father is the Sun.

They then journey East—and come to a land of nothing but sand. There they are warned by an old man to use some of his vomit when the Sun offers tobacco—because the Sun is dangerous and kills with many weapons. They then reach the Sun’s turquoise, and meet his mother. She hides them when the Sun returns, with his jealous wife, on a turquoise horse. The sun tests them—first with a pipe, which they smoke four times. Then with a sweat lodge, again heated four times. He offers them gifts after accepting them as his sons, and they reject each in turn. At last he offers to give them anything, and they ask for his lighting bolt arrows. They then succeed in answering his questions of the mountains, and descend down to fight the monsters that plauge the world. They do their own work from there, not relevant to ours.

AZ Sunset.png

The Sun grants another child to a mother in Greece. She asks to have the child for twelve years, and after that the sun can have them back—so the Sun gives her a pretty girl named Maroula. When the Sun returns twelve years later, he tells the little girl when her mother will give what she promised. Her mother tells Maroula to claim she forgot—and after that fails, she doesn’t let Maroula out of her house. Eventually she grows bold, and sends Maroula out for water. The Sun finds her and takes her away to his palace,and the great garden outside it.

Maroula, however, misses her mother and cries. And her tears during the day cause the garden to wilt. The Sun asks every night why she cries, and she claims two animals were fighting and she was scratched while separating them. At last, when she reveals the source of her grief, the Sun promises to send her home. He first calls lions to attend her—but they will eat her flesh and drink her blood if they grow hungry. As do the foxes. But the deer will eat only grass.

And so they go to take her home adorned with gold coins—and when they grow hungry, they place her in a willow tree. A nearby witch, a drakena, has sent her own daughters nearby to draw water. One sees Maroula’s face and thinks it’s her own. This repeats with each daughter—until the drakena herself comes and tells Maroula to descend and let her eat the young girl. Maroula distracts her by telling her to bake bread—and then escapes on the back of dear, sending mice to distract the witch as she flees.

The Sun as a dangerous force to humanity can be seen further in a Cherokee story. Enraged that people can’t look at her, she sends waves of heat to kill humanity from her daughter’s house in the sky. Humanity consults the little people for advice on what to do—how to escape this misery, they concluded they must kill the sun. So two serpents were sent to wait at the daughter of the sun’s house, fangs ready to bite the Sun’s ankle. The snakes, however, are blinded by the sun and flee—and the deaths continue, with everyone knowing at least one person who perished to the threat. So the Little People changed one man into the great Uketna (who we discussed here) and another into the Rattlesnake. The rattle snake got a head of the great horned Uketna and bit the daughter of the sun in his eagerness. He then returned, as did the enraged Uketna who was convinced he had lost his glory.

When the Sun saw that her daughter was dead, she went into mourning. The heat death stopped, but the sun never rose again—and this eternal darkness was untenable. So the Little People sent men with special bread and a box to the land of ghosts in the west to find the lost daughter. In the land of ghosts, they would find her dancing in a circle. The men where to strike her with sticks, causing her to fall down. Then they were to put her in a box and bring her back—never opening the box even a little. The men did so, and when returning west the daughter returned to life. From her box, she called out first for food, then for water, then air. This third one worried the men, who thought she might be dying. She escapes as a redbird—and this failure means none can be brought back from the living. Her mother the Sun nearly flooded the world with tears of grief—but was stopped by the new song of the drummer.

Amaterasu From the Cave.png

The Sun’s retreat is similar in many ways to Amaterasu’s retreat. Long ago, Amaterasu’s father, Izangi, sent her brother the storm god Susanoo away for his arrogance. He returned, and offered his sister a game of god shaping—each took an item from the other and created deities from it. Amaterasu created five goddesses from Susanoo’s sword, while he made three gods from her necklace. A dispute arose over who had won, Amtaresu claiming the gods her creation as they came from her necklace. This escalated until Susanoo rampaged across the world in his rage, and hurled a flayed pony into the weaving room of Amaterasu, killing one of her handmaidens. Enraged and grieving, Amaterasu retreated into a cave.

The result was darkness and terror over the land—a situation that the gods sought to resolve. First they brought out roosters to signal the dawn and lure her out. Then they brought mirrors and jewels from a nearby tree, hoping to catch some of her light. At last, the goddess of dawn danced atop a great drum naked, to the laughter and delight of the gods. This noise brought Amaterasu’s attention, and lured her from the cave. The gods quickly sealed off the cave, and she has remained in the heavens ever since.

Khepra.png

Of course the Sun’s daily retreat through the sky is most famously remembered in the story of Ra’s voyage through the kingdom of night. This journey, which is in fact the funeral of Ra, crosses many regions, some strange, some dangerous, many serpentine–here for instance, Ra faces Apep. The sun is of course reborn at the end, rising in the dawn as the scarab headed god Khpera. Below is a video summary.

 

Only once was this voyage interrupted or changed—when the goddess Isis took some of Ra’s saliva and created a serpent from it. She placed it in the sun’s path, where it lept out and bit Ra’s ankle. As the poison bore some of Ra’s nature, it actually afflicted him. All the gods of medicine came to help Ra, but none could cure him—until Isis came, and asked for his hidden name to undo the power of the snake. Isis then puts this power to use to cure pain and potentially raise the dead!

On the other end of the Sun’s Daughter tale, the Sun as a dangerous and horrifying enemy is apparent in both Greece and Mesopatmaia. The god Apollo, while now associated with the sun and music, began his history in the Illiad as a god of plauge and healing. A comparable god was Nergal, who was the lord of the noontime sun and the summer, dry season sun. Nergal in time became a god of war and the dead, his role as a bringer of misery aiding his conquest of the underworld. The healing aspects of the Sun persisted in Shamash, who we briefly touched on in the discussion of exorcists.

Houyi the Archer.png

And while we’ve talked of the death or endangerment of the Sun, there is one instance to mention from China. Here, there were once ten suns who each took turns rising—until all ten decided to rise at the same time. The people asked for relief, and so the great archer Yi was sent down. He tried to shoot arrows near the suns, to scare them away. They defied him still, and he grew angry. Drawing back his great bow he fired at one of the great orbs of fire—and the spirit of the sun fell to earth as a three legged raven. He did so eight more times—and the fireballs they carried fell to earth to form a great island, where the endless sea and rivers evaporate upon contact.

Another instance of control of the Sun comes to us from the Maori. Maui, tired of rushing to finish his chores before the sunset, persuades his brothers that it must be taught a lesson. After much warning that it will burn him, blind him, or give him sunstroke, Maui moves ahead with the plan. The party goes and finds the hole from which the Sun rises. They lay a trap over the hole, a great noose of rope. When the sun rises through it, unawares, they pull the Sun down. When he struggled, Maui struck the sun with his magic jaw bone. Maui commanded the Sun, so captured, to move more slowly across the heavens.

Maui and the Sun.png

The light of the Sun is and always has been then a mixed blessing—it is sometimes flighty, always needed, but often jealous and painful. Here we have the use of sunlight as a sort of revelation—a connection that links all the way back to our first story of Demophon. Here we have the Sun restoring and rebuilding a landscape, perhaps revealing its hidden face. What if, and I consider this regarding our story of Amaterasu, the sun we know is the one still in the cave. Alternatively, what if the sun suffers the fate of the Aztec Suns, and is replaced by a new god on the throne? The light of the sun itself changes, and the world becomes in a way inhospitable or more hostile then it was before. Our story seems to move more cosmic by its nature, but grounding it in the experiences of one person might help with that—I’m reminded of the Twitter story/account “the Sun vanished”, which likewise has as a start a strange and horrific cosmic change. What stories about the Sun do you know?

Bibliography:

Megas, Geogrios O. Folktales of Greece.  University of Chicago Press, 1970.

O’Bryan Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Smithsonian Institution, 1955

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Bloodsucking Bodies from the Balkans

This Week’s Prompt: 92. Man’s body dies—but corpse retains life. Stalks about—tries to conceal odour of decay—detained somewhere—hideous climax.

The Resulting Story: Something Gnawing Inside

We have discussed the restoration of corpses before, but for this one I would like to examine in detail a particular case—one that we discussed towards the beginning of our work here at the Undead Author Society. To limit our discussions, I will focus on living corpses of the vampiric kind, from Slavic and Balkan areas. In particular, this calls to my mind the story of a man and his vampiric brother, both in the attempts to hide the bodies nature and its attempts apparently to maintain its life.

The story goes that a woman died, leaving her husband and son behind. The husband remarried, but the woman was—as often is the case in these stories—a wicked woman who loathed the son. She demanded he be driven out and out of love for his wife, the father agreed. So the son went out into the world with twelve dinars.

As he entered a new town, he found a body, that people cursed and spat on. When he asked why, he learned the man died with many debts. A compassionate soul, he spent his little money paying the debts and arranging a proper burial. Leaving town, he passed the cemetery where the man was buried. The man, now a vampire, approached him in disguise, and offers to help him along his travels.

At the next town, they learn of two tragedies! One, the Turkish pasha’s daughter has passed. Two, every guard who holds wake over her body is found dead the next day. The vampire-brother gives the young man a holy scripture and tells him to focus on it every night, or he will die. On the third night, he reveals what you dear reader already suspect—the woman was a vampire! He tells the young man to lie in her coffin when she rises—and when she returns and cannot move him, the curse is broken and she is freed. The pasha, delighted, gives the young man his daughter’s hand in marriage(the other daughter, presumably).

Vampire Woman

Then the young man heads home, without his vampire assistant or wife. Along the way, he stops at a coffeehouse and is convinced by the two men there to begin playing cards. He loses everything rapidly, and is forced to become a cowherd. However, the vampire and wife head out to find him—and the vampire sees and understands all their tricks. He wins everything back from his fellow vampires, and restores the young man.

Returning home, the vampire asks to divide everything he’s earned between them. This is done easily, as most things are split with a saber. But when the matter of the young man’s wife comes up, it becomes a bit more difficult. For the young man. The vampire splits her in two anyway, and kills the serpent that emerges. Given his dialogue, listing the good deeds, it seems probably that the wife was restored before the vampire returned to the land of the dead on his fortieth day.

A similar story comes from Ukraine—here a rich man gives a poor man a loan on the advice of an icon of St. Michael. The rich man’s herds and land are blessed, but he is unhappy until he recieves the loan back. When he learns the poor man has died in debt, he gouges out the icon of St. Michael’s eyes and beats it—until it is bought by a young man passing by. The young man in time travels with his rich uncle merchants, and comes to a czardom where the princess has fallen ill. No manner of healing can help her, and every man sent to pray over her in the church is devoured down to his bones.

The Icon of St. Michael however advises the simple young man, telling him to lay pears in baskets around himself to keep the vampire princess at bay. When she attacked, he tossed the pears on the floor—and had enough baskets to keep her at bay until the cock crowed. Each time he threw the pears she pursued, until in the end it was her doom. This happens the next night as well, but with nuts. On the third night, like his companion in the Balkans, the young man enters into the coffin—although he is covered in holy water and incense. This time, however, he does leave after she promises to be her consort.

VampireWoman2.png

The two are found the next morning praying, and the princess is baptized again to drive out the unclean vampire holding her body. In this case, we have an incident of a woman possessed—and in a coffin—but not dead yet. But the stories are otherwise so close that one can’t help but wonder about them.

The most common of these dead rises in the forty day period between death and arrival at the afterlife. In this case, the creature somewhat fails our materialist prompt which specifies only the body remains. The body and soul are seized by the power of the devil, and compelled to stay together—in some sources this is explicitly a lower or more base soul. The animated body then pursues its own kin, either as an animal or as a human, drinking their blood. Such a creature has a loathsome fate, for the rituals that remove the devils own power over the soul/body and annihilate it entirely. Such a terrible fate befalls only a select few: Those who die a violent death suddenly; those who’s burial rites are preformed improperly; those who die due to curses by parents or themselves; those who die unbaptized; stillborn children born on Christian holy days; those who participate in sorcery; those who eat the flesh of a sheep that was killed by a goat; those excommunicated; and those who’s body is, during burial, past over by a cat. Unlike the uncorrupt dead—sometimes called vrykolakoi, a term elsewhere reserved for vampires properthese creatures are extremely predatory. The lack of decay in a corpse is thus sometimes a mixed blessing—generally one has to look at the health around such a body. If people begin to suffer and grow exhausted, its a vampire. If nothing happens, a revenant. If oils are produced, perhaps the dead has become a holy saint.

Killing A Vampire

This physical tie, between corpse and soul, relates partly to the description and understanding of Death in some rural parts of Greece. Here, the angel of death descends and slits the throat of the deceased—taking their soul to judgment. The blood is splattered on the family and their clothes—which must be set aside and not worn for several days after. The body achieves its final point of judgment upon fully decaying. However, before that time, the devil can seize the body. And just as the flow of blood out released the soul, the return of blood forces it back into the body. Drawing it into an intolerable state. Removing this creature requires pouring boiling oil into its grave and reading an exorcism over it. Others suggest the more famous staking or even hamstringing the creature in it’s grave to prevent its return.

A story out of Montegro reports that a pair of lovers were seperated against their will—the woman forced to marry her foreign betrothed. The man died of despair and returned as a vampire nightly. While most vampires are corpse like, this couple had a child that was identical to the deceased man—and his distance meant resolving the manner was nearly impossible.

Another story tells of a group of four siblings—three brothers and a sister. The story goes that the four siblings set out into the world, as their parents could no longer support them. After nine years apart, they came home. On their way home, the three brothers spend their earnings from nine years ransoming animals from torturers. The sister, however, comes across a curious trade: A hedgehog buying iron teeth from a mouse. She buys herself a set, and after testing it on an oak tree, buys a whetstone from another mouse. With sharpened teeth, she finally arrives home.

Once home, the siblings celebrate—the brothers, with their animals, assume their sister has simply made a small fortune. The celebrations are cut short however, as their father dies just a bit later. The brothers decide to invest in the land, setting three horses to work with a plow. However, the first day they set to work, they find one of the horses almost entirely devoured. After nights of watching, the elder sees a pale creature coming at night to feed—and determines its his sister! Not long after, proof comes when the youngest brother stays behind without the sister’s knowledge. Spying, he sees her devour their mother, all the way up to her head. She sets out in pursuit of the other brothers, not finding the youngest.

A strange omen follows her chase—a kettle of boiling water became blood, and as she grew closer and closer to the brothers, the bubbles rose faster and faster. As she gave chase, however, she was purused by the youngest’s dog, and chased against a tree. The brothers, seeing her coming after them, did not stop the dog from tearing her to shreds.

Weird Vampire

A more esoteric form of Vampire, from the Slavic regions, is not the body of a dead man but rather his shadow. This version was attributed to Muslims in the region, as well as Romani, and also was supposedly able to breath fire from its mouth. Other vampires of the region rise from the dead as strange things of water or jello, that scatter when bitten by a wolf or banished by a magician.

Serbian vampires sometimes hold weddings in mills—they find wandering and lonely travelers and give them a bottle made of a horses head. This brandy, of course, makes the victim instantly sick—especially if they are struck with it. Such behavior is more innocuous then other vampires, that appear like roaring winds and mists on the ground. Serbian vampires are also longer lived, lasting sometimes for three months, instead of the Greek forty days.

In both Balkan and some Slavic areas, vampires cause a variety of nuisances—they break tiles, lurk in attics, tire out horses, and so forth. While in some regions they are absolutely predatory, the more common fear is their attacks on small domestic animals such as sheep. These vampires of all types strangle and murder with glee.

Of all of these, vampires play a number of predatory roles. The number of women that emerge as vampires—particularly daughters in either far away places or returning from their travels—is interesting. The fact that vampires are, in a way, both foreign and familiar in these stories perhaps links to their liminal nature as dead and living things. The corpse here is a similar sort, given it’s detention. While perhaps Lovecraft meant something more like a revenant, those corpses are less troublesome and not nearly as retained. We’ll see what our body gets up to, after the angel of death visits and makes its lethal cut.

Bibliography

Du Boulay, Juliet. “A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death”, Man, New Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1982), pp. 219-238, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Durham, M. Edith. “121. Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans”.Man, Vol. 23 (Dec., 1923), pp. 189-192.Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

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

Perkowsky, Jan. Vampires of the Slavs Slavica Publishing Inc. 1976

 

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The Bride and The Bridge

This Weeks Prompt: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.

The Research:All Walled Up

I remember that fateful day, down by the bubbling stream. We left the crumbling remains of stone all the more bitter than before, as bits of men and mortar were washed away again. The command had come down, from the voice of the river herself. The bridge would not rise, until someone had died.

First she asked for a pair of twins, named Strong and Sturdy. I went out, with the King’s ring and funerary pay. I searched in the valleys and fields, in the woods and riverbeds. I went between hill and vale, through moors and mountains, but not a sign of them. The children were gone. Maybe they already lay as corner stones to some other bridge. Or maybe the river was cruel, and delighted in struggle.

We despaired, until we found a stranger on our roads. Then we delighted, and slipped some belladonna in his drink. So we set about building again, tossing the traveler we found on the road into the hole. He was unawares as the soil filled up around him, and the stones were laid above him, a tomb of strong masonry if nameless. The good Lord would recognize him on judgment day anyway.

The stone bent, the wood snapped as the river roared to life. We saw her then, the ala rising from the waves like a storm swirling out of the clouds. She towered over the three of us, myself the chief mason, the King and the Duke. She made her demands more clear this time.

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“You give us not twins, but one, not a friend, but a stranger, buried in his sleep, that none my know? And you thought by this we would be sated?” She boomed on the winds and spray. “A hundred bones will grid my stones, unless a new offering is brought. Bring us not an old man, not an orphan, not a stranger, not a widow, not an ill man, or grandmother. Bring us a mother, a wife still young that we will hold them close, in the stones of your bridge.”

With that, she crashed as a wave onto the rubble, and washed away men and mortar.And so we three, wind biting at our cloaks, made our way to the hills, clouds hanging round our thoughts. Between us, we each had a young boy, and a wife. I knew in my heart, as the wind as chilled as my blood, that there would be much mourning soon.

“How should we decide,” The Duke asked, examining his nails with his thumb, “who will suffer this terrible fate?”

“If all is to be fair, we should cast lots.” I mused, unable to meet their eyes. My sweet summer flower, buried beneath the stones, weighed heavily on me. It seemed that giving fate the knife and telling her to cut the line would at least make it bearable.

“That is too vulgar for something like this…” The king said, staring back at the river. “Let us give it all unto God, and the masons, so we cannot cheat the river. I will go among them. Whosoever’s wife brings their meal tomorrow morn, they will wall up below.”

We each shook on the arrangements, and made our way, thoughts of doom lingering long over our heads. The fog rolled up the hills, as we all took our beds, for what might be the last time. I smiled at dinner with my Dmitri and Katrina. They had condolences over the failure of the bridge, although by then…well, it was hardly surprising. The stew and bread were warm, and hearty, and dread wore me down to sleep swiftly.

Ah, that dreadful day, when the sun came over head. My flower sweet Katrina woke, and went with the others to fetch water. We came quietly to the masons camp and waited, looking on the horizon. The fog was still there, the dew still wet when we saw her, my lovely wife in white, her head scarf held tight with a basket of bread and a pail of water.

“Sweet Katrina, why do you come alone?” I asked, my heart heavy. She smiled with rosy cheeks as she came down the hill. The masons took their bread, as did the king and the duke. With their iron shovels, they began to dig.

“Ah, her Majesty fell ill. And the Lady Duchess took to bed with a fainting spell.” my sweet Katrina said. “So the work was left only to me. The load was heavy, but I knew the hunger would be heavier for my husband.”

I smiled as best I could. Oh, a fool I was to trust other men with promises of fair play, when their loves and lives were on the line. One of the workman put his hand on my shoulder, a wieght holding my ghost from escaping. In the years since, I’ve not forgotten his words.

“The bridge is ready for the lady.” He said grimly. My smile fell, my face felt hot.

“What’s this? You prepared the bridge again for me?” My sweet Katrina said with a laugh.

“Yes…The river wants a burial.” The workman said. I couldn’t even speak, I just hung my head.

Coward I was, to not set upon them then and there, and fight the call of the tide. I saw the Ala in the winds watching then, waiting. The bridge was still a fragile thing. It would bend and break.

“Oh, and it’s to be me?” My Katrina said with another laugh. The workman nodded, and the two of us lead her to the opening in the foundation. We wrapped around her eyes a blindfold of white, and a red cloth for the angel of death around her neck.

We lowered her gently down to the stone floor. It was a deep, slanted hole in the earth, smoothed walls on every side. As deep as a grave, as wide as three men side to side.

“Well, its not the most comfortable, but the stones have been harder.” My Katrina jested. She smiled up at us for moment…until the workmen shoveled in dirt. She shouted and cursed at the bruises.

“That’s enough of that! What kind of game is it to throw dirt at a wife?” She said, as the dirt began to cover her feet. She ran her heads on the pit’s walls, but they were smooth. I looked away.

“What civilized wit you have, to make a show of a woman like this. But please, I’m sure the point is past, you can stop now. I’m going to need some help getting out of this.” My Katrina said, the dirt up to her waist, as she pushed up despite the flowing dirt.

“What have I done for this? Please, what have I done?” She cried out, as her struggling arms were covered to the elbow. “What have I done to die like this?”

The dirt rose to her neck, the workman silent as they set stones around her.

“God take you! Should your brothers trod on my bridge, you cowards and monsters, I hope they are smashed into the river rocks and drown! The plague take you by the throat, you and all your kin!” She shouted, full of venom.

TheFoundation.png

“Even if it is your own brother?” The mason asked, the last dirt in his shovel.

“Where is he now?” She hissed back. And then was silent ever more.

The bridge still spans the river, unbroken yet. The ala stays silent beneath, shaking occasionally but no more than from wind and rain. The clouds seem to linger over head, longer than before, obscuring the eye of God from what we have done.

I come to visit her often. I lay flowers by my Katrina’s stone, with my son beside me. I wonder too, where her brother roams. It does not matter. He is too late, and my gifts are too little. She is restless in the earth now. In my dreams and waking hours, I hear her cry out. But as then, I do nothing.


 

This story was fun to right, and figuring the perspective was the most difficult part. It could be expanded–originally the tale ended on a note of vengeance on the deceptive Duke and King, but that was taking too long. At this brief, I think it works well.

Next week, we go to a new prompt! Names of Power and Praise!

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All Walled Up

This Weeks Research: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.
The Resulting Story: 
The Bride and The Bridge

There are few fates more terrible then being buried alive. The paranoia about being buried alive has gripped entire cultures. Victorians laid bells and viewing glasses, so that the living might distinguish themselves from the dead. Modern day variants include being buried with a cellphone, in case that dreadful fate occur to them. But this prompt is about a far older practice: Immurement .

Burying a live victim into the foundations of a building is an old and common practice. Bridges in particular often have some buried in the stone in order to appease those spirits into whose domain they cross. River gods, you see, frequently asked for brides or attendants. An immurement was a more permanent payment, that the strength of the spirit maintain the bridge and appease the spirit.

The Balkans have stories of a morbid, Gothic character of a spirit demanding first two twins (who’s names are Strong and Sturdy). When this fails, the spirit demands a wife of the community: Not a stranger, not a widow, not an orphan. No, it must be the wife of the chief mason or the nobility. The wife is taken, often laughing until she is placed in the hole. Then, realizing her fate, she begins begging for freedom, then turns to cursing her kin, until at last she asks that her right side (Her arms, hand, and face) be left free, that she may gaze upon her newborn child. And this is done, and she nurses her child for another week (or longer, as sometimes the bridge still produces breast milk to this day).

The variations in this story sometimes make it more tragic. In the first place, sometimes the woman is decided by a promise among the three lords: whoever brings the workman their food first will be sacrificed. However, the first and second nobles break their code of silence and warn their wives. The youngest and noblest stays to his word. Come morning, the older women avoid bringing the food down. And the youngest, realizing what has happened, tries delaying the younger woman’s descent. She curses them all as she is walled up by the masons.

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This deception is similar to the Greek story of Iphigenia. Here, Agamemnon is told that for the winds to rise and the thousand ships Helen launched to sail, his daughter must be sacrificed. Unlike our other stories, this sacrifice is commanded because Artemis has been offended by the king—he killed a deer in her sacred grove, and thus must compensate blood for blood. He conspires with his brother to tell his wife to send his daughter—Iphigenia—to the camp, where she will wed Achilles, supposedly. When she arrives, she is brought to be sacrificed—sometimes she is saved by Artemis.

This older myth is still, however, about crossing a body of water by sacrificing a young woman. While Iphegenia is not yet a mother—a requirement of the other stories for the sacrifice—she is generally the same form as prior sacrifices to raise a bridge. Later on, we will examine the broader sacrifices of maidens to monsters of rivers and seas—Andromeda comes to mind—but for now Iphegenia’s particular tragedy is enough. There is no monsterous serpent that will kill her. She is slain by her own family.

The practice is also reminiscent of those done in Japan during bridge building, termed hitobashira. These pillars, marked by human sacrifices below, serve as a prayer that the building never suffer do to natural causes, such as floods or storms. The examples I have also include incidents where such deaths were averted by clever sacrifices, who outsmarted or gambled their lives back. Again, they are marked as an appeasement to river deities, a class of entity we’ve touched on before. The rivers power of devastation might be lost sometimes, but the flood waters can devastate populations.,

Other methods of immurement include burying a man or woman or dog in the corner stone. A passerby might be interned by accident if their shadow passes over the spot for the stone, and many of those buried haunt the place after. A church grim is a specific canine breed of this ghost. In Yorkshire lore, it is not the person buried beneath the church that becomes the grim, but rather the first buried in a graveyard that guards it against the devil and defilers.

According to a prominent if false urban legend, the Great Wall of China had men buried in it. This would have been foolish, as the decomposing corpses would have defeated the purpose of a wall. A more accurate burial of human sacrifices would be those in the tomb of the first Emperor, who were buried that their knowledge not escape the Emperor’s life. Such procedures to avoid tomb robbers have been practiced in many regions, with mixed success.

A case of near immurement occurred in a recorded story from Morocco. The worker fell ill, and the sultan decreed he would be buried in the wall as punishment for slowing the construction. When a passing saint, al-Yusi, is asked to intervene he opposes the sultan, until he is banishd. Al-Yusi settled in a nearby graveyard. The sultan rode out to drive him out, only for his horse to begin to sink into the graves until he repented, nearly buried alive himself.

Immurement beneath houses is equally common, for similar reasons. By placing the ancestors beneath the floorboards, you could ensure their help to the family for years later. An intentional, benevolent haunting of the house if you will. This practice is well observed as a secondary burial, found in various regions as well. Prehistoric burials have been found with the body placed in a pot beneath the floor boards, just in case.

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Leaving folklore behind for a moment, there is also the horror tradition at work here. We must consider a pair of Edgar Allen Poe stories for burial while alive: The Black Cat—which provides the strange second clause of this prompt, of course—and the Cask of Amontillado, where a man is buried alive in a wine cellar. In fact, the latter story seems oddly similar to the stories from the Balkans, with the laughter before a silent end. Arguably, his classic, the Tell Tale Heart, is a similar end, with a burial under the floor boards—albeit a dead one that pretends to be alive.

The story we stitch together then has some strong thematic routes and pathos. It will evoke betrayal, desperation, and of course fear. Not only is being buried alive claustrophobic, it is quite literally confronting the ultimate fate of things early. I think keeping the divine call for a sacrifice. I’m torn between the point of view of the sacrifice or the sacrificer. The sacrifice has the most sympathetic view, but shrinks our horror to a few hours walk, and is ambushed by the burial. The sacrificer, meanwhile, is well aware of the deception. The happiness, the innocence of the lamb lead to slaughter is all the more poignant when you are the butcher.

The other end of planning is doing knife twisting properly. A constant melody of ironic statements, of poignant phrases that mount misery on misery would get as boring as a never ending description of how truly horrifying this or that monster is. The writing here needs balance and relief from the pain, in order to function properly. If the hand is over played, then the horror and tragedy will become schlocky and overwrought. A thing I do try and avoid at times.

Biblography

Amster, Ellen. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Butler, Thomas. Monumenta Serbocroatica: a Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century. Michigan Slavic Publ., 1996.
Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. Songs of the Serbian People From the Collections of Vuk Karadzic. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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