This Weeks’ Prompt: 112. Man lives near graveyard—how does he live? Eats no food.
The Following Story: FORTHCOMING
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Cannibalism. The answer is cannibalism. I mean, I suppose we could look into more esoteric explanations, about smuggling food in or feeding off vapors. We might even indulge in the idea that the man who lives near the graveyard is not a man at all—he is some spectre or spirit that is never seen eating because he does not eat. He is something numinous and otherworldly and frankly the simplest answer seems most fitting her. Cannibalism.
Cannibalism has a long history in folklore—I’ve discussed some of the creatures that live near or in graveyards to feed on the bodies interred within here, and the aswang here, and the witches sabbath here, and the nightmare here. I decided to go a bit further afield this time, to see what I could find that involved cannibalism, so today will be a survey of a number of stories and characters associated with cannibalism.
One story that stuck out was from Swedish Finland, and recounted the fate of a poor girl who was lured into a cave or grotto by a band of robbers. The exact number of robbers varies from telling to telling, but she was married to all of them and forced to cook, clean, and bed them for nine years. Each year she gave birth to a child, and each year, the bandit king cooked and ate the child’s heart. After nine years, they came to trust the girl and sent her on some errand—however, she escaped and told the towns people, who had assumed she was dead. They went and arrested the murderous robbers, and buried them alive in a nearby wall. The spot is marked with painted hearts, one for each child eaten. Many of the stories mention that the cannibalism was preformed to gain immortality or devilish powers, such as flight.
Among the Xam people of South Africa, we have other stories of cannibalistic monsters. One was ||khwai-hem, translated as “All Devouring”. The creature’s appetite was enormous, devouring sheep, then trees, then objects and finally people with a great firey tongue. It was so large it’s shadow resembled a cloud, and was so bloated it’s stomach reached to the ground. It was invited by one of the chief gods to take part in the bounty that resulted from the liberation of livestock. Another such creature from the Xam is the !nu!numma-!kwitƏn, a beast of prey who ate crying children. While monstrous in appearance, these creatures were not human and thus not “cannibals” in the technical sense. However, their attributes—and the attributes of their more normal relatives, the lion and hyena—were attributed to European settlers by the Xam people during the colonization of West Africa.
In Russia there are of course the famous cannibals, revenants and vampires. Often the result of sinful corpses buried in the earth, they are restless and may hunger for unwholesome meals. Interestingly, the dead being hungry is not limited to the monstrous—wholesome and clean dead may still be hungry and thirsty for their last forty days on earth. But the unclean dead long for terrible things—flesh, blood, clothes of children. Their monstrous forms can include long tongues that reach to the crown of the head, iron or steel teeth, and large heads. They might sharpen their teeth with a whetstone or grind them together rasping as they hunt their prey, and they caused poor weather near their remains. They in some ways resemble of course the nearby Balkan and Romanian vampires which we covered before–both in the possession of iron teeth and in the draining of vital energy and fluids from not only people but the landscape.
Then there is of course the Arabic ghoul or ghul, a creature that may be a demon, a male genie, an enchantress,or any of the above depending on the tale. The creature lives in deserts, with cloven hoves and an ugly appereance, and seeks to lure travelers away from the road to murder and eat them. Sometimes this ghoul feared iron, and often needed to be dispatched with a sword to be done in. Many could shapeshift, and some had even more incredible powers—one common one was that a ghoul must be killed with one blow by a sword. Two and the ghoul would survive until one thousand more had been delivered.
A Palestinian folktale has a young farm boy guarding his father’s flock after several sheep have gone missing. When on watch, he catches a ghoul stealing the sheep, and taking them to a nearby well. When he descends the well, he finds many beautiful women and swears at once to save them—striking the ghoul dead and ignoring its please for a second strike. Here the ghoul, like the weather stealing vampire, drains vitality from a region and stores it up elsewhere (see our writings on similar creatures on our Patreon here). Another tale tells how a group of women accepted milk offered by a ghoul, against their friends wishes—alas it was poisoned, and they all perished.
However, not every ghoul fed on human flesh. Some provide guidance for humans during their life to achieve their own ends, while others married and lived happily with mortals until they grew homesick. In this way they resemble vampire’s we have discussed earlier—and in fact, some blurring of the two is to be expected. One of the common traits associated with ghouls, that they dig up and devour corpses in graveyards (which I reported above) appears to be mostly an invention of the French translator of Arabian Nights and explains the confusion. Another paper places the confusion in Persia, where the ghoul is the shapeless monster of ruins who feeds on the dead, and is repelled with the name of the prophet–the closeness of this to the notions of the vampire makes me wonder which writer is confused. The Persian ghoul faces and is defeated by the great heroes of the land, such as Rostam, a hero I must cover in detail some day.
By chance, this week I was reading on Tanith Lee’s Tales from a Flat Earth: Night’s Sorceries, which features a city of such ghoulish delights. The city’s origins begin with the scheming of cruel vampire lovers in long forgotten tombs, cannibals that fed on the blood of the living and marrow of the dead. They are creatures that think themselves immortal from their cannibalism, and have gained superhuman strength and invulnerability to blades and fire from their feasting. Only their shadow remains vulnerable. Their children possess even greater strength, and cunning power over the dead. I won’t spoil what becomes of this city of portioners, but it is a fate that is common to those who can only devour.
Mr. Lovecraft himself presented ghouls in graveyards in a number of stories–most particularly, Pickman’s Model and Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Here we encounter ghouls as graveyard living creatures, very solid in nature, relatives of human kind. Relative enough that they are capable of changeling plots, and traveling between the Dreamlands and the waking world. They are canines as well, recalling the Bendanti who traveled to do battle with the devil as werewolves.
That sort of grand pulp nightmare is a bit beyond the scope of this story, however. This reads more as a local oddity. In fact, such oddities do appear in British folklore and beyond murderous food stuffs. Dickens gives us reports of men being quietly murdered and baked into sausage, and another of Captain Murderer who resembles in no small part Bluebeard’s more cannibal forms, killing and devouring his wives. Cannibalism and those who feed on the dead are fine nightmarish creatures for a small story I think. We could approach this as an investigative and overly curious lead learning the truth of an otherwise normal but eccentric seeming neighbor. Or we can take the opposite approach than the sedate state suggested, and present the man in the cemetery as a proper ghoul–perhaps hunting for the last heart he needs to attain mystic powers.
Part of the nature of the ghoul, what makes the cannibalistic creature terrifying, is not just that it turns men into meat, flesh into food, but also that it is the spectre of death itself. Rare are ghouls who lurk in safe places–the haunt of caves where the underworld is close by, the graveyard full of corpses, the butcher shop where meat is ever present–all these are the calling cards of the ghoul. The man who tends to the graveyard, the undertaker, is something like this–a man who is familiar with the dead, yet is among the living. I think that familiarity breeds suspicion and distrust, something that might lead to uncomfortable questions if the man is in fact innocent for our tale.
How about you–what strange and terrible tales of cannibals have you heard?
Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. “The Arabic Ghoul and Its Western Transformation.” Folklore, vol. 120, no. 3, 2009, pp. 291–306. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646532. Accessed 27 May 2020.
Lindow, John. “Kidnapping, Infanticide, Cannibalism: A Legend from Swedish Finland.” Western Folklore, vol. 57, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 103–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500215. Accessed 27 May 2020.
McGranaghan, Mark. “’He Who Is a Devourer of Things’: Monstrosity and the Construction of Difference in |Xam Bushman Oral Literature.” Folklore, vol. 125, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297730. Accessed 27 May 2020.
Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in The Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 96, no. 382, 1983, pp. 462–470. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/540985. Accessed 27 May 2020.
Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year.” Folklore, vol. 122, no. 2, 2011, pp. 155–175. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41306584. Accessed 27 May 2020.