Birds the Likes of Which God Hasn’t Seen

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

The Resulting Story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stories of talking birds have you heard?

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

The Beast Must Feed

This Week’s Prompt:117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

This prompt resembles another prompt we covered some time ago, about secret rooms in castles and homes. There might be some overlap in what we discuss here and what was touched upon there. There is the creature of Glamis Castle we discussed then—a monstrous, vampiric or amphibian offspring that was kept in a secret chamber apart from humanity. There was the strange beast that guarded the castle Orlando fought. Both of these strange monsters lurk in secret around the castle, but they are not so often described as being “fed”.

For that, the first creature or entity that came to mind was  a spirit from Chinese folklore—a gu . This is a creature, often a centipede, that is created by trapping a number of poisonous insects and animals in a jar, and waiting to see which one emerged victorious. This creature is the most venomous, having absorbed the venom of all the dead creatures it has killed. These creatures could appear, disappear, cause lights to appear, infect food and drink, and in some cases control the souls of dead victims. They resemble all sorts of insects and toads and serpents. More pressingly for us, they were able to shift a victims wealth to the sorcerer who created them. In many stories, this monstrous spirit had an appetite that had to be maintained, so that the family’s prosperity could continue.

Symbols for the Gu poison and Jincan (Golden Silkworm, a related creature)

A comparable sort of spirit was documented in Wales. Some of them are more akin to ghosts, but one knight by the name of Sir David Llwyd had a familiar spirit bound in a great book. He once left home without taking the book with him, and realizing his mistake, sent a servant home to fetch the book. The child, curious as young boys are, opened the book after which the spirit appeared and demanded orders. The boy, in shock, told the spirit to go and toss stones into the river—and the spirit obeyed, filling the air with stones the boy had to dodge, until the river was full. Then, it came back demanding more orders—and so the boy in desperation asked the stones be thrown back where they came from. Luckily, this delay in the books delivery has caught Sir David’s attention and he arrives on the scene, commanding the devil back into the book, ending the chaos as he closes it.  While this demon required no feeding, it is in need of constant  supervision.

Sometimes, these hideous beings do not wait to be bound, but instead bind another.  A lady in the woods was apparently infamous for this behavior, bewitching a man named Einion with illusions such that his wife, Angharad, seemed a decayed old hag, and the spirit the most beautiful of women. He split their wedding ring in two when he departed with the spirit, taking half the golden ring with him. As he wondered under her spell, he by chance looked under his ring, and saw on the horizon that which he desired most. He decided then to put the half the ring under his eyelid to see that spot forever—and while he was trying to do so, a man in white with a staff rode up to him. Hearing his plight, the man offered to take him back to his wife. When Einion got on and looked behind him, he did not see the Lady of the Woods, but only vast hoof prints in the ground. The man in white asked if he wished to see the Lady of the Woods, handing him his staff with which to see the goblin. And the Lady of the Woods was a horrifying repulsive witch of great size. As he screamed, the man cast his robe over him, and took them both to the hill near Trevelir.

The Lady in the Woods, meanwhile, had taken on the shape of a young knight and made love to Angharad—having told her that Einion was dead. And they prepared to marry, as the Lady of the Woods promised to make her the most noble woman in Wales. At the wedding, where everyone had gathered, there was a contest to play  a harp that Einion had left behind, the best harp in Wales. None could play the harp, but at last Einion arrived—appearing to his wife as a decrepit old man—and offered to play. And this won Angharad’s heart, although she could not break the illusion—even with the ring restored. So Einion granted her the staff and she saw the goblin’s true shape. After she was revived from fainting, the illusion ended, the banquet and pageantry vanished, and they returned to happy lives.

A more classical beast in the castle story comes to us from Italy. Here, we have a lady with only one son. Oh how she loved her son. Once, while her son and his companions were out hunting, she was visited by a strange lady. The lady asked to put her horses up with the ladies—who refused, as her horses would mix with no others. As she turned to leave, however, her son and his companions returned. The mysterious woman was in fact a fairy—and she bewitched the entire company to become satyrs. Satyrs, brutish and monstrous until the lady could find one who would marry him as he was.  In the meantime, he and his companions had to stay in the stables away from home.

As  his mother failed to find marriage in the land, the prince waited in the stables for rescue. And espied one day, in the gardens near the stables, the daughter of a duke. With a hand he beckoned her over, because like most satyrs he had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat. She drew near, but seeing his form, was disgusted and ran off.

The next day the same pattern repeated, as he asked if she wished him well and she protested she did not despite her approaches. The narrator informs us that she cannot yet say she loves him, and in fact goes to her mother about the affair. The mother warns her daughter to stay away from the monsters, and she does so for a month—before at last returning. The prince entreats her so sweetly that she is moved—or perhaps it is his promise of suicide if she rejects him. At last, she say she wishes him well—and at last the fairy comes forth and breaks the spell.

Which I admit confuses me, as the fairy swore only when he was wed would the curse be lifted. I suppose the prince was especially fortunate his fairy was fickle.

King Zahak is a more royal example of a hidden hunger. A man of spectacular charisma, but little self control and wisidom, the devil Ahriman advised him to murder his own father and become king of Arabia. Then, the same devil became his cook—and an excellent one at that! For his service, Zahak asked the cook what gift he would want. And the cook asked only to kiss Zahak twice—on each shoulder. Zahak allowed it, and from the kisses sprang two black serpents who attacked and bit at Zahak. The cook took his leave, not seen again as Zahak struggled with this curse. The snakes could not be cut free—they simply regrew whenever they were cut off. Eventually, a doctor came—again Ahirman in disguise—and revealed to Zahak that the only cure for his affliction was to eat a dish prepared with the brains of two men. And so, Zahak turned to grotesque cannibalism.

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

In time, the Emperor of Iran fell out of favor with the people. Zahak arrived to them as a savior, and with a great army drove out the emperor, chasing him down and eventually executing him by sawing him in half. However, his hunger did not abate. His agents find two men each day to give him. Two heroic men, Armayel and Garmayel, seek to rescue these victims by becoming royal cooks and replacing one of the human brains with brains of a sheep. The saved man was sent away to the mountains to live.  In time, after centuries of tyranny, Zahak was overthrown—but that is a story for another time.

Comparable in some ways to Zahak, but also to Bluebeard, is the story of Prince White Pig. Here a boy traveling on a road insults an old fairy while traveling. For this, he is cursed to be a pig by day (although the most handsome prince by night, which…I’m unsure such curses work as intended). His father builds a stone enclosure for him to live in. The prince decides to marry, and a bride is found. Of course, when the pig-groom who has spent all day wallowing goes to kiss her, she slaps him back. The prince than devours her. And a second bride, who undergoes the same ‘trial’. The third bride is kind to him, and thus lives long enough to see his handsome princely nature by night. She must not reveal this fact about her husband, however, or she will need a steel dress and steel shoes to find him again.

Of course, to the surprise of none, the taunting of her mother becomes too much and she reveals at last the real nature of her husband.  Eventually, with the aid of fairies, she finds that her husband is back to being a prince and about to marry a princess.  With the help of a servant, she saves her husband from the princess who was drugging him every night. After they speak, they go to the king, who lets them leave as husband and wife.

Which, I mean, he did eat two other human beings for slapping him, I’m not sure he’s exactly husband material.

There is also of course the  ancient Minotaur. For those unfamiliar with the story, Poseidon once sent King Minos a snow white bull as confirmation of his king ship—on the condition that it be sacrificed to the Earthshaker. King Minos, however, found the bull to beautiful to sacrifice and kept it. In revenge, the god of the sea made the queen Pasiphae fall in love with the bull—and the queen had the inventor Daedalus devise a way for her to make love to the bull. The result of this was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.

The minotaur was a fierce being and, being neither man nor beast, had no natural source of nourishment. So he fed upon human flesh, and thus had to be contained. Daedalus was again employed to create a labyrinth to contain the monster, and every seven years offerings, Athenian youths were offered to the beast. 

There seems to be a common line with these monsters however. These creatures that demand blood and must be imprisoned give or are correlated to an ascent to power. Zahak receives power from Ahriman—and receives his hunger from Ahriman. The bull secures Minos’s kingship…and brings the Minotaur. The gu demon brings wealth but also threatens the family and is used to feed on the populace. Even the pig and satyr princes derive from uses of power and rudeness—and in the case of the pig, turn literally from man-eating monster into heroic prince like night and day. Sir David’s familiar granted him extreme power and knowledge—even if it cost him his curacy—and the lady of the woods took the shape of noble ladies and knights in her travels.

To keep the old power alive, the old monster must be fed sounds like the basis for a gothic horror story indeed. We will see what sort of monster dwells in the old house next time…but until then. What stories of beasts in the basement have you heard?

Bibliography

Busk, Rachel Harriette, 1831-1907. Roman Legends: a Collection of the Fables And Folk-lore of Rome. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1877.

Carrière, Joseph Médard. Tales From the French Folk-lore of Missouri. Evanston: Northwestern university, 1937.

Pang, Carolyn. “Uncovering ‘Shikigami’: The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 99–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41955532. Accessed 25 Aug. 2020.

Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends And Traditions. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1880.

Calling Up the Dead

This Week’s Prompt:52. Calling on the dead—voice or familiar sound in adjacent room.

The Resulting Story:A Dreadful Tapping

Necromancy is upon us, fellows! Dark sorcerer at last revels itself! But perhaps you are confused…this is about only sights and sounds. How does this relate to Necromancy, which much of popular culture conflates with zombies, skeletons, liches, and the summoning of undead war engines or hordes?
Necromancy, at it’s base, is much simpler then all these things. A necromancer attains knowledge by communicating or contact the dead. The modern word has it’s roots in just that meaning (Necro meaning dead, mantiea means divination). This has a number of cultural ties to be discussed at length here, as it might give insight into the unsettled spirits above. And of course, we are necromancers here aren’t we?

Odysseus Necromancy.png
The first place to start, although not the oldest, would be the Greek conception. Necromancy here is most apparent in the works of Homer, specifically Odysseus’s voyage to the Underworld, where by blood offering he acquires the aid of a long dead sage. These could be elaborate rituals in later times, and often relied on the conjuring of specific shades for their precise knowledge.
Related to the Greek school of thought is the Jewish and Old Testament relations of necromancy. Necromancy, for a variety of reasons, is forbidden under the Law. It was a Canaanite practice, and further, it disturbed those God had claimed. The existence of shades to conjure was also severely questioned by later Christian critics. However, there is a noteworthy account of necromancy here as well. The Witch of Endor.

Ewoks

Wrong Endor, ya dolts.

The Witch of Endor episode occurs during the book of Samuel, where a Canaanite woman is asked by King Saul to conjure up a dead prophet and judge in order to learn his fate. This resulted in the King being roundly condemned for daring to disturb the dead in his quest for certainty.
Moving farther abroad, the means of contacting the dead are known in China as well as the Mediterranean. More often, mediums are used there to contact the dead then conjuring as we know it. However, the Chinese authorities have perhaps a more elaborate arrangement of the dead, divided into forms based on death (In the way that other faiths might assign punishments). The hungry dead, those derived of ritual, are the primary ones to be kept at bay, while other deceased relatives might provide comfort or aid to their descendants.

MayaBloodLetting.png

Note the bowl of scrolls, which would have been stained with her own blood.

The Maya priests also engaged in a sort of necromancy, consulting the spirits of Xibalba by shamanistic or hallucinogenic rituals and blood letting. They contacted otherworldly spirits this way, in a manner that might seem familiar. Ancestors again were a protective force at times, and knowledgeable about many things.
In the Northern European climes, there are records from a seventeenth century poem of a mother being called forth by her son after death, in order to defend him and free him from his stepmother. The mother adds her son by casting a series of spells to defend him.

BuryatShaman.png

Among the Buryat people today, ancestors are the primary group to be consulted by shamans. After almost a century of Soviet oppression, however, many of the names of these ancestors have been lost. And worse still, several have found the places they inhabited to become nightmarish, with ancestors killed in Soviet prison camps manifesting as tortured and angry spirits barely intelligent to the mortal sense. These ghosts all need appeasements, as the various ills that befall a Buryat household are often ascribed to angered ghosts and displeased ancestors. These rites might involve sacrificial sheep or promises made with a shaman as an intermediary.

I could go on, my fellow society members, but the number of ghosts in the world is vast indeed. The dead are often restless, sometimes manifesting in human forms, sometimes in frightening ones. But to close this portion of research, I might bring attention to the phenomena that Mr. Lovecraft was particularly thinking of : Spirtualism.

Spiritualism2.png
Spirtualism was a movement in the late 18th century, brought on by speculated causes, of conjurers and contractors of the dead. Mediums and seances spread through Europe, claiming to speak with the long dead through various devices they had. Now, whether the craze was built upon the notion of invisible forces as revealed recently by sciences, or the sudden access Europe had to Egyptian, Buddhists, and Hindu manuscripts through it’s vast colonial empire can’t be said. What can be said is that the séance was a common occurrence.
And the remains of these séances are wide spread. The Winchester house might be the most famous. Built by the wife of the inventor of the Winchester rifle, the house was always being built. Why? At a séance, the builder Sarah Winchester was told that she would be haunted by all those who were killed with the Winchester rifle. The house was thus a never ending labyrinth to confuse spirits that sought to harm Sarah, so elaborate that even within the last year new rooms were discovered.

TheWinchesterHouse.png

The Winchester House

Another séance inspired the religion of Spiritism in a young Frenchman, who believed he had come in contact with the souls of ancient druids. While Spiritism proper might balk at being termed necromancy, Allan Kardac’s discovery was of the secret knowledge held by spirits that had past on. The religion spread across the Atlantic and took roots in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, as well as to the French colony of Vietnam. Recently, I read an article detailing how the French movement influenced moral teachings in Iran as well. The faith maintains a following to this day, with thirty five countries on an international council.
This is all to bring context to the scene we have hear. A séance, a contacting of the dead is by it’s nature a strange and uncanny event. But here, we have a contact that was actually achieved. A voice is heard or a familiar sound (in proper tradition, probably some musical notes). So, what is the horror and dread here?
This won’t be a story, I feel, of a great overt horror. No one is going to be dismembered in gory ways. No one is going to go mad in the overt, grand, Gothic sense. A séance may be dripping with Gothic forms, a Victorian melodrama that disturbs the barrier between the living and the dead. But the horror is going to be…different.
Atmosphere seems key to all horror, but I think with something as small as a séance, where the shift is merely a sound, it will be primary. The horror here will rely on who is attending the séance, and who is conjured. And maybe what they say. After all, the voice of the dead might be one full of knowledge. But in a Lovecraftian world….well. Who’s says knowledge is a good thing? Ignorance is bliss.

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