In The Depths of the Earth

This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.

The Resulting Story:

The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.

We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.

Pima1700

Akimel Oʼotham (sometimes called Pima) territory, circa 1700

The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.

The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.

Zuni River.png

They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.

Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.

Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.

Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.

Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.

Basque Mountains.png

There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).

Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners.   At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.

Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.

Kobold2.png

In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.

The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.

In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.

These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?

 

Biblography

Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.

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

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

Collcott,E. E.  “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”.  The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883

Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.

Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

Growing On Trees

This Weeks Prompt: 97. Blind fear of a certain woodland hollow where streams writhe among crooked roots, and where on a buried altar terrible sacrifices have occur’d—Phosphorescence of dead trees. Ground bubbles.

The Resulting Story:George and the Generous Tree

Today, Mr. Lovecraft brings us to another familiar locale—one that might border those strange and poisonous worms we discussed last time. Here we have a forest, marred by some recent and unnatural tragedy—one that makes people avoid it out of fear of the poison it seems to breath. Perhaps Mr. Lovecraft meant to conjure the image of Satanic witch gatherings or folk druids or, in the colonial folklore, those wild places where Satan’s minions gathered. And there is something of that folklore here, contrasted with the more scientific terms of phosphorescence.

A Basque story, which involves a conspiracy among the sons and daughters of Heaven to murder a maid in the woods, makes mention of the Evil One’s arrival. He comes with the great beating of wings, and a foul smell spreads in the air. Poison falls into the rivers and trees begin to die at his arrival, even for a moment. This association, with poisoning of the land and monsters of Hell—such as the devil, but also more common ones like worms and dragons—is common in folklore. The presence of evil plagues the land itself, laying it to waste by merely existing.

BasqueForest.png

Another set of stories comes to mind for this tale, however. That is the folktale of the Demon Tree. This tale type has a number of variations, which we will discuss, but in a way taps into the notion Lovecraft presents of an ancient sort of worship. The basic premise of the Demon Tree story is a man comes across a tree that is possessed by a demon. He goes to cut it down—only when he goes to strike it, the tree speaks and begs he stay his hand in exchange for wealth or power. The man obliges, only to return later seeking more gold and power under threat of the axe. How the story proceeds from there is the source of a number of variants.

A Slavic version, for instance, has the man ascend the ranks from cottager to mayor to lord to lord lieutenant, each time growing hungrier and hungrier for more power. At last, he demands the tree—specifically a lime tree in this case—make him the king. The tree however, begs he wish for something else or rescind the wish. It reveals that while all the other posts are assigned by men, the post of emperor is of course divinely appointed and thus cannot be given over by a tree spirit. The man insists—and the tree warns him that all he has asked for now will be lost, since he has reached too far in his hubris.

Carob Tree.png

Another instance, however, has the man worry about his worship of the tree for gold. In this case, he had first come to the tree as its worshipers were sitting in his field and preventing his grass from growing. He goes to chop it down, but is offered gold to let it stay. What moves him to reconsider, however, is the sudden spike in deaths at his manor—household staff and family members begin suddenly dying. Eventually, he consults the Sanehedrin—the tribunal of the Jewish people. They advise he cut down the tree, sell whatever he bought with its gold, and all will be well. Sure enough, after doing so, his crops produce a great yield and he finds gold beneath the trees roots!

An instance of this story occurs in China—although the story is from a Persian text—with a Sufi finding people worshiping the tree. This tree is unlike any other—it is a direct descendant of the trees in Eden, it is vibrant and young while still venerable, and it is so wise and holy it can speak! The Sufi reproves the people for worshiping it, and goes to chop down the tree as a false god. The tree offers him gold every day in exchange, and wins the Sufi’s patience. One day, however, the tree stops paying. The Sufi returns and says that now that there is no reason to keep it alive, he will kill it. The tree reveals in turn that this is a lesson—that what brings good can bring harm, and that one should take the good and bad in life without lashing out crudely. It thus survives the tale, as one of the rare holy speaking trees.

ChinaTree.png

Another story placed in China, but originating from Arabia, concerns a tree. At the ‘far end of China’ live a group of rather unwise people. A farmer has planted a tree in the mountains, and it has grown so magnificent that the people have started worshiping it as the Israelites worshiped the Golden Calve. The devil sends a jinn to possess the tree and speak from it. A wandering Sufi comes across this situation, and like before, sets about to destroy the tree before being paid off. The tree eventually ceases paying, however, and the Sufi returns anew. This time, however, he finds the Devil less afraid—before he came for righteous intentions, now he comes out of greed.

A tale from Burma tells of another possessed tree—in this case, a man after death becomes a tree spirit and goes to a tree to inhabit it. Once he arrives, however, he finds its already inhabited. The two spirits decide that who ever comes and worships them first will have the tree.  The man went and appeared to a friend, asking him to come and worship the tree so he would win. In exchange the man would make him rich. The friend agreed, and the man won—but forgot his promise. The friend thus brought an axe and nearly cut down the tree. The man then promised quickly to make him rich, by turning into a horse and winning races for him. However, the horse only wins the first race—the friend loses everything on the second and third. Next the man turns into an elephant to be sold—but again, things go amiss. The elephant begins to shrink, slowly turning into less worthy animals before vanishing.  This gets the friend imprisoned by his customer. When he is finally free, he goes and chops the tree down—only for the spirit to have long abandon it.

BurmaTree.png

 

Other forest spirits to avoid, however, can come to us from the Slavic regions. There we find the Jezinkas, a group of forest spirits that tormented shepherds. Taking the form of young maidens, these spirits would come up to shepherds and other travelers offering an apple. Those who ate it fell asleep and awoke to find their eyes stolen—kept in a pile in the lair of the sisters. Eventually a young man came and resisted the offerings of the Jezinkas, extorting from them the eyes of his elder. Two of the spirits died in the river for refusing to find the proper eyes, but the youngest survived—albiet fleeing to some other haunt.

The Wood Lady is another such spirit, although her danger is difference. She danced with a young girl in the forest, distracting her from her work but entertaining her all the same until the sun went down. The young girl’s mother was enraged that she hadn’t finished her spinning—until, after the third day, she revealed the Wood Lady’s presence. The Wood Lady had sent her home with a gift this time. The basket she gave appeared to be leaves, until she got home and found them gold. We learn then from the Mother that it is fortunate the girl met her, and not one of her brothers—wood ladies are not kind to young boys, and dance them to death when they met them.

I feel there is some subtext there, but I’ll leave it be.

All of these stories, however, play with the notion of the woods as a place of both temptation and dread. It is a source of things—we can consider, for instance, that both worms and the trees effect the production of the world around them. While I’ve focused on trees here, instead of the woods as a whole, I think the presence of an unnatural or strange tree—especially one possessed in the way the demon trees are—is a good source for the strange and haunted nature of the landscape. The bargaining for power provides some tensions and conflict—the benefit of the individual vs the community, especially if the trees gifts are not as innocent as they seem.

I think we have an excellent source of a story about greed, community, and bargaining. I think the basics are rather straightforward and somewhat satisfying with this story—but how the specifics take shape Oddly, the stories I found remind me of a more recent and somewhat noxious child’s story, the Giving Tree.  I do wonder if Shel Silverstien had heard one of these tales when writing that one. It does somewhat remind me of the Lime Tree in the Slavic tales, albeit with no comeuppance.

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

 

Bibliography

Kushelevsky, Rella. Medieval and Oral Variants of the ‘Tree Demon’ Tale Type (AU 1168B): Literacy and Orality in the Study of Folklore.  Taylor Francis LTD. Folklore, Vol. 124, No. 2, August 103.

Monteiro, Mariana. Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People. New York, New York. F.A. Stokes 1891.

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