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.

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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.

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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.

 

The House on the Hill.

This Week’s Prompt:95. Horrible Colonial farmhouse and overgrown garden on city hillside—overtaken by growth. Verse “The House” as basis of story.

The Resulting Story:

It’s been a while since we’ve indulged in Mr. Lovecraft’s poetry. The particular poem he references, which will provide a bit more guidance to our research, seems to be one of two by Edward Arlington Robinson. One is “The House on the Hill”:

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Edwin Arlington.png

The other is along the same theme, is “The Haunted House”:

Here was a place where none would ever come
For shelter, save as we did from the rain.
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again
Each wondered why the other should be so dumb;
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain
Where thrift, outshivering fear, had let remain
Some chairs that were like skeletons of home.

There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere.
But there was more than sound; and there was more
Than just an axe that once was in the air
Between us and the chimney, long before
Our time. So townsmen said who found her there.

Both of these stories point us towards our ultimate topic—a haunted house on a hill, overgrown with time, in the United States. The term Colonial is a bit more limiting. I suspect Mr. Lovecraft was thinking of houses in New England in particular, but have expanded my research into the ghostly and and haunted to other house up through the eighteenth century. Not that the Americas have a shortage of haunted homes and houses.

Starting with the northernmost examples I have, we have tales of ghosts from Nova Scotia. A peddler murdered in a half-way house in Halifax haunts its top most room, and sounds of burial can be heard while sleeping there. In Digby, a local doctor’s collection of skeletons are haunted—and disapprove of a worker who set them up like dominoes and knocked them over. A ghost returned to his family, haunting them for three days before a priest compelled him to speak. The ghost then revealed he needed a shave before entering St. Peter’s gates.

In Indiana, there are number of old haunted homes. A number of houses are haunted by coffins not yet buried. A millionaire named Tess preserved the love of his life, even buying a fan to blow her hair and having a private generator keep the blue lights on in the room. Poor Tess seems to have lost his mind, hoarding coffins not only of his loved ones but of cats as well. In Medora, a similar story plays out with one Aseop Wilson, who’s mother insisted he not serve in the civil war. Aesop did, and of course died in battle—his body however was sealed in casket of charcoal at his mothers request, and not buried until a pyschic made contact with him years later. Despite the eventual burial, the delay appears to have attracted unseemly sorts as the house, as white wraiths still appear and moan in the old decaying ruin of the place.

TerreHaute

Downtown Terre Haute, the town home to the Preston House (well. Whats left of it.)

The Preston House has a number of ghosts ascribed to it. One is of a woman, who came with a man from New Orleans. When she refused to divorce him, she went missing on a trip to her family—the servants at the house were convinced she had been buried in the walls. Another group of ghosts came from the Underground Railroad—although the informant claims the railroad was literally underground. As a number of slaves were escaping, the tunnel caved in on both ends. The house’s owners tried their best to excavate the tunnel, but needed to move slowly to not draw the authorities attention. Sadly, all the slaves died—and their spirits still lurk in the house, chains shaking as they wait.

In Koleen, a rotten woman died when her hair caught fire—the product burned fast, and her shouting fed the flames to burn faster. To this day you can see her burn once a year, an event marked by increasingly ominous signs and weather until the day of.

The Hill House of Rockville is probably the most relevant of the houses in Indiana—and perhaps the most humorous. The owner, a wealthy man judging by the size of the house, passed on. And as they say, where there is a will there is a long line of eager relatives. His entire extended family came and spent the night before the funeral there. The next day they awoke and learned that all of their clothes had been removed, and placed in the high branches of the trees outside. Truly a terrifying experience!

The Shoals of Maine provide many haunted ruins as well. A pair of violent drunken pirates argue along the shore, in the burnt ruins of a home. A woman waits still for her husband, who left for the sea ages past. He promised to return, but alas, if legend is believed it was none other then old Teach, Blackbeard himself! She wanders on the shore still, her clothes flowing behind her and mumuring darkly at any movement on the waters. A hanged man walks the shore as well, in a bloody butchers apron and with a long knife. This set is made complete with a monk. The monk, a black robed hooded figure, only appears when the sea growls and the wind blows—a gale is coming, and he prays along the shore for those men who will join him in the here after.

In New York state, we have the Sutton house. This house fits our description almost perfectly, as a shambling house that cannot be seperated from the woods around it. The house was home to a family of three—the mysterious Mr. Sutton, his wife, and his daughter. They lived apart from the rest of the commmunity, and rumors persisted that Mr. Sutton abused his wife. Shortly after their arrival, Mrs. Sutton died of an illness—and had a closed casket funeral. Her daughter vanished, to live with an aunt in England (although others suspected she too had been slain by her father). Mr. Sutton persisted for some time, but he too vanished. The story continues, that as the place fell into ruin, women were seen walking the grounds with their throats slit. On the anniversary of Mrs Sutton’s funeral, Mr. Sutton’s form was seen digging a grave. A distant relation did eventually move into the house after the Revolutionary war. As the day was short, he stuffed all his belongings into a small room and went to bed. On his first night, his sleep was disturbed by the sounds of a great and terrible struggle. It sounded as if china was being shattered in a struggle between a man and a woman—but no damage had been done to his good. He learned, however, from some letters that the room his cookery was in was the room the young Ms. Sutton stayed—and at last the fate of the girl was confirmed.

the Schoharie hills

Schoharie village, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Schoharie hills, New York, we have other stories of hauntings. One informants mother was asked to watch the house of a suspected murderer. The old man was accused of having done away with several peddlers and others. On her first night, a strange image of a dog appeared. Next one of the man’s victims appeared, headless. He demanded to be buried—his body was under the floor boards—and to see the man hung. This ghost had the decency to make his court date as well, and testify. Another house had a room of such fright, that any animal placed in there fled or perished.

For each of these I’ve mentioned, I’ve ommited about a dozen others. The tales of hauntings are very similar—doors fly open, loud sounds with no origin, sudden bursts of light and fire, strange headless apparitions. Often they are the sight of a heinous crime, other times merely…present. Some even occur before the death of their victims!

So we know what a haunted house looks like, sounds like, feels like. We know that sensation, late at night, on the edge of sleep, and hearing a strange creaking sound not far off. And it isn’t hard to build a story of all sorts around a haunted ruin—places of palatable dread and uncanny, that are somewhere between wild and constructed. That ruins are haunted is nothing new. Sumerian demons dwell in those great collapsed buildings unprotected. But the hill poem asks an interesting question. What makes us stop and pause?

The poem calls out the lack. There are no lights, no specters, no sounds. There is a profound nothing. No one is left, and we don’t even have the nature of these nobodies. Why then do we stop and stray, at this ruin on the hill? An answer might be for treasure buried deep or for thrills. Maybe to find shelter in a storm. There are many reasons to end up in a place we don’t want to be.

This doesn’t feel like a monster story. This doesn’t feel like a story with jump scares and shaking buildings. This is a more atmospheric piece. Perhaps, our narrators are looking for someone, something. Some closure at least. Who knows why one might end up, like the nameless Sutton, in an old family home.

And find no one there.

This reminds me of one other haunting—one I discussed here. I will have to think on it some, to build this one. What stories of the dead places have you heard?

Bibliography

Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Indiana University Press. 1982

Beck, Horace Palmer. The Folklore of Maine. J.B. Lippincott. 1957

Garner, Emelyn Elizabeth. Folklore From the Schohaire hills, New York. University of Michigan Press. 1937

Fauset, Arthur. Folklore of Nova Scotia. New York, American Folk-lore society, G.E. Strechet and Co. 1931.

Pryer, Charles. Reminiscences of an old Westchester homestead. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.

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Off the Map

This Week’s Prompt: 93. A place one has been—a beautiful view of a village or farm-dotted valley in the sunset—which one cannot find again or locate in memory.

The Resulting Story: Yonster Over Yonder

This week, we are covering a concept or topic that came up before briefly when we discussed lost Irem: lost and hard to find lands. However, this time, I’m going to focus specifically on the nature of the place as unfindable, and discuss places long sought or supposed that have entirely vanished or been moved into the world of metaphor.

Stories of cities of luxury and wonder, just over the horizon, have existed since the conception of stories. But there was certainly an explosion of such cities during the colonization of the Americas. One of the most elaborate stories–especially tracing the changes in narrative over the years and the telling–is El Dorado.

Map Big.png

The first reports of El Dorado were in fact accounts of a ritual for the new chief of the Musica, not a city itself. This ritual involved an offering to the gods and a dive into a nearby lagoon. Afterwards, the new king was adorned with golden dust–hence the name, El Dorado. The Gilded Man.

After the Spanish conquered the Muscia, and found their gold supplies mostly imported, the legend moved somewhat. It became not merely a single man, but an entire city made of gold. These cities were supposedly isolated from the world. The city of gold was believed perhaps to recognize Christians (a tell tale sign of a European origin), and numerous map makers added it’s location to their maps (leading to a few failed attempts to reach the confirmed city).

Map ElDorado

El Dorado on the above map–note that Manoa is another name for El Dorado.

Part of El Dorado’s origins come from reports by Hernando Cortez, that claim there lies in the West of the Aztec Empire a province more populous than Spain and richer than the recently plundered cities. These rumors played into the notion of seven legendary cities of gold in the Americas. These cities were located in the southwest, among the Zuni, and of course contained no gold. Six of these cities were ransacked by the Spanish, desperate for gold. The seventh  city, sadly but not unsuprisingly, did not exist and has never been found.

Cortez’s writings also contributed to the stories of La Ciudad Blanc. This region in Hondaras was vaster than Mexico, and had as many inhabitants and far far more riches. This region was multi-cultural, with a number of native language groups living there. The conquistadors never found evidence of such a place, although lost cities have been found in the rainforest since then.

In South America, two of these cities are recorded. One is the City of the Caesars–this city was of course rich in gold, silver, and diamonds. Unlike others, we have more detailed descriptions of what it looks like–it’s between two mountains, one of gold and one of diamonds. Some accounts have the city moving to avoid capture. Inhabitants of the city range from ghosts, lost Spanish survivors, exiled Mapuche, giants, and the remains of the Inca Empire! Some believe that stories of the Empire of Peru inspired the legend itself!

The other city is the Lost City of Z–a city that contained a temple with hieroglyphics, statues, and arches. Pursuit of this city was put off do to World War II. Still, the city was the most recent to be pursued to my knowledge.

The French reported a similar city in the North. More accurately, they claimed to record an Iroquois legend of the land of Saguenay. This was a land to the north, with great silver and gold mines and inhabited by blonds, who loved furs and had them in abundance. This of course was never found, and was perhaps a lure to get more settlers into Canada.

Atlantis

Back across the Atlantic, Europe was no stranger to imaginary lands. The most famous of course gave the ocean it’s name–the island of Atlantis. Described first in Plato’s dialogues, the city was founded by Posiedon’s children and, generations later, began an expansionist conquest. The island itself was paradisal, and about the size of Anatolia, if not larger. The hubris of

Further north is most distant Thule, a land where the sky meets the sea. Early descriptions say the land has no air or water, but rather something like a jelly consistency. It is six days north of Britain’s northernmost edge and where the Sun goes to rest. Some sources point to Iceland or the Faroes, others Britian itself (some quotes about Pictish blood support this understanding) and others say it is ice-locked beneath the polestar.

The land of Prester John is in the other direction. Prester John’s kingdom was rumored to be in Asia, at first specifically in India. Supposedly, the kingdom was founded when the disciple Thomas visited India, and was a land of plenty and wisdom. Prester John was sometimes a descendant of the Three Wise Men who visited the birth of Christ. Later reports even claimed that his grandson, King David of India, was conquering Persia during the Fifth Crusade–an inaccurate report of the very much Tengri Ghengis Khan. Over time, Prester John’s kingdom was moved closer to Ethiopia (the term “India” referred to a wide number of places, including Ethiopia). It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that notions of the Preseter John were dispelled.

Cockaignee.png

Cockaigne was another lost utopia, although much more clearly allegorical. It’s roads and houses were made of pastries, everything was free, roasted pigs wandered the streets with knives in them already. The only location it was ever ascribed, jokingly, to London (as the land of Cockneys). Brittia, a place between Britain and Thule in many descriptions, was a similar paradise ruled by a Frankish king.No taxes were paid, and no labor required except manning the boat that brought the dead over.

Moving farther along we can find in Egypt Zerzura. Zerzura is a white city built around an oasis, guarded by giants at all times. Its front gate is carved to resemble a bird At the center of the city is a sleeping king and queen. A traveler who touches the beak will achieve entrance into the city, and find the great treasures within–a story that reminds me of narratives of the City of Brass.

City Locations

One of the suggested locations of Biringan City.

Moving off to the Philippines, there is Biringan City. This city, according to some accounts, pulls people in a trance–against their will to an elegant city. Some reports indicate that fisherman and drivers will end up in this city by mistake–fishermen especially when their catches go poorly. The spirits that dwell there sometimes abduct the soul of those they love, leaving behind only a lifeless corpse. These creatures, engkantos, are also responsible for skin diseases and can change their appearance at will.

Circling up again, we can find another lost and unmarked land in the Pacific. Here, we find two versions of a strange mountain. In China, it’s called Mount Pengali. It is the home of the Eight Immortals, and knows no misery or sorrow. Here there are fruits that grant everlasting youth, and summer never ends. There are even wines that will raise the dead that the First Emperor sought out. To contrast that is an account of Mount Horai from Japan–an island who’s atmosphere is made of thousands and thousands of dead souls, which if inhaled grant wisdom of the dead. The inhabitants here are childish–odd, given the presence of the dead–and no nothing of wickedness. The island’s winters are cold and harsh.

Moving to the mainland and across to Tibet, we come to our last group of unseen and unmarked lands.  Mount Kunlun is on such place–a place inhabited again by divinities and animals. The Queen Mother of the West has made her place her, with fruits of immortality, trees of jade, and more. Immortals regularly visited, while a river circling it that pulled all things down into it kept out the unworthy.

Shamballah.png

Not far away, we move from Taoist influenced missing lands to Buddhist ones. Shambhala is also located in Tibet. The land is in some case ruled by the future buddha, and the capital city is shaped like a three dimensional mandala. Other texts, particularly Hindu ones, point to it as the birthplace of the last avatar of Vishnu. When the world has reached its end, and the wheel must begin again, it will begin again in Shambhala.  This paradisal place will be the seed that grows into a new world.

All of these paradises seem primed for a story about journeys and obsessions. A metaphorical attempt to attain the past–to reach back to something felt of the past. Something dimly remembered and distant–we should consider that, for many of these European stories, physical distance was the same as temporal distance. These far away places were often equated to earlier times in the past–they were places that could hold a secret Eden. What place do you remember, distantly? That you can’t place where exactly or even when?

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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.

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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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A Deep, Cold Sleep

This Weeks Prompt: 91. Lost winter day—slept over—20 yrs. later. Sleep in chair on summer night—false dawn—old scenery and sensations—cold—old persons now dead—horror—frozen?

The Resulting Story:A Long Night

The fear of being frozen alive is a rather common and profound one. We have here that, combined with the common fear of sleeping in—albeit more extreme then my nightmares of waking up and missing a class I’ve never registered for. We covered a large amount of sleeping stories fairly recently in our research, so for this time around I’m going to focus on creatures of frost and avatars of winter.

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One of the most famous of these is Father Frost. His most famous story stars the classic trio of a stepmother, stepdaughter, and daughter. The daughter is mistreated and sent out into the cold alone, and encounters Father Frost, who lowers the temperature around her. As he does so, he asks again and again if she is comfortable. The daughter says she is, no matter the chill—and her perseverance and kindness touches Father Frost’s heart. He thus leaves her with many gifts, beautifully dressed and alive.

The stepmother, seeing this, grows enraged and tries to get her own daughter the gifts. However, her daughter—as is tradition in these stories—is cruel and rude to the terrible embodiment of the Winter itself. So she freezes to death, and the wicked stepmother learns it was due to her own envy.

A similar story comes from the Brothers Grimm, who tell instead of female spirit. Like many spirits, this Mother Holle lives at the bottom of a well. The daughter in this story arrives when she chases her mother’s pin down after being dropped. There she is instructed to fluff a pillow, until feathers fall out and cause a blizzard to occur in the real world. Like the Father Frost story she receives vast rewards for her good service—and her sister receives wicked treatment for her laziness, covered in pitch. In both these stories, an animal announces the arrivals.

A more memorable wintry god comes from the Netsilik—one Narssuk. Narssuk was born of giants—both his parents fell in battle, and so he remains an orphan. He was so large, even as a babe, that four women could sit comfortably in his lap. He eventually ascended to the sky, and became a wicked spirit with power over blizzards after he was mocked by humanity. It was only by sealing him in caribou skins—which grew loose whenever women kept their monthly period secret—that bad weather could be averted and humanity saved.

South of the Netsilik we have the Chenoo. The Chenoo is notable for a few traits—they are capable of taking on vast and terrible shapes, are skilled in many magics and can see very far, and have a heart of solid ice. Not just ice! Often ice so cold, it must slowly warmed to melt. One story specified that the ice was so cold, it was as cold compared to normal ice as ice was to fire(for those inclined, some quick google suggests that would be…negative 508 degrees F, well below the temperature of liquid nitrogen). In two of the three stories I found, the Chenoo prove at least aware. In one case, a daughter was afflicted with a heart of ice, and as she began to change, revealed to her family that she could be stopped by shooting her seven times. After seven tries, her heart was finally shattered and her body destroyed.

Another common feature of the Chenoo is the notion that female Chenoo are larger and stronger then their male counterparts. The sound of Chenoo fighting, described as a lion’s roar but higher pitched, is lethal to all who hear it. They dislike warmer climates, and frequently head north during summer—in one story they are weakened explictly by the heat. They also regualrly engage in cannibalism—one record accounts for them eating each other livers, while another says they instead eat the icey hearts of their fellows to grow in power.

Back to the Inuit are the Mahaha, a demon that pursues its victims in cold weather. It’s touch is freezing, and it has long claws worthy of a strange demon. It’s method of murder is…well, not that strange given it’s touch is the threat, but it tickles it’s victims to death. Like DC’s Joker, the Mahaha leaves its victims with a twisted smile (I wonder if the name sounding like laughter is a coincidence).

The Yuki Onna from Japan is another snow spirit, although she has various origins and roles depending on the prefecture. The Yagamata prefecture has a tale of her as a lunar princess, who was trapped here when she descended and becomes visible with the snow. Aomari, Nigata, Miyagi prefectures record her isntead as a vampire—and fitting our interest in freezing to death, she freezes her victims and then sucks out their vital energy.

Yuki Onna.png

Also from Japan, there are a pair of related stories about winter and freezing bodies. There is the Tsurara Onna, a woman who comes into being when a man looks at an icicle and wishes for a woman as beautiful as the icicle. And sure enough, a woman of that sort arrives! The two get married and live the winter together—although inevitably, tragedy comes to them. In some versions, the husband draws a hot bath for her or asks her to fetch hot sake and…well, she is an icicle bride. She sadly melts. Another version has her vanish in spring. The husband then pursues another woman and they get married. Unfortunately, his icicle bride returns in winter. Learning she’s been replaced, she lures her husband out to the open—and impales him with a large icicle.

The related spirit is a snow child. Called Yuki Warashi, a child formed by an aging couple. The couple regrets having no children, so makes one of snow. Like a certain other story, the child comes to life. Like the icicle woman, it comes to the couple seeking shelter from a blizzard. And likewise, it stays until spring, where it wastes away. However, in winter, the boy returns, red cheeked and fat—and does so for years after!

And one last Japanese spirit (I found a wonderful resource here on this topic: 7 Snow Monsters of Japan) is the Yuk Jiji, the Old Snow Man. A powerful spirit, Yuk Jiji rides an avalanche down mountain sides and roads. The longer his avalanche, the better the harvests will be when he stops. In other prefectures, he acts as a foe in the forests, attacking and misleading travelers as they try and cross the mountains. In a handful of stories, the Yuk Jiji has his origin in a frozen body, re-incarnated as a spirit.

Our winter spirits are thus a varied lot, but their motives are often oddly similair. While some weaken with winter, many show signs not only of passionate and friendly relationships, but of familial closeness. This informs some of my idea for our scene—a long winter sleep, in a family home, awakening to find all the rest dead. We might do a riff on the frozen cavemen idea (We discussed that one as well here), the dreams in a deep cold sleep, and set the scene in a family gathering.

 

Bibliography

Balikci, Asen The Netsilik Eskimo, Doubleday , Dell Publishing Group 1970

 

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Lose your Head!

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

The Resulting Story:The Body of Veled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aztec Decapitation.png

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

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

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

HeadlessGodess.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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