Polished Silver Distorts The Eye

This Weeks Prompt: 72. Hallowe’en incident—mirror in cellar—face seen therein—death (claw-mark?).

The Resulting Story: All Hallows Night

This prompt brings a few easily linked pieces of lore and understanding—mirrors, faces, and Halloween. We’ve discussed some of these before, mirrors notably here, but there is more to discuss then one post could entirely cover.

The role of the mirror in folklore is often one of truth revealing or deception. A mirror provides a clear reflection, or the clearest we can have, of the world around it. In times of antiquity, these mirrors were rare as well—and often made of silver, making them signs of wealth and the supernatural. It isn’t surprising then that many mirrors were in fact used in scrying and other magic for knowledge.

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The Yata No Kagami

One of the most famous instances in particular of a mirror for truth is the Yata no Kagami, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The mirror, dating back to to before 690 A.D. was used to lure Amaterasu back from her retreat into a cave. Like the other elements of the Regalia, the mirror was gifted to Amaterasu’s grandson when he set about unifying Japan and becoming emperor.

Not far from Japan, the mirror has a special role in Buryat and Mongolian shamanism. The Toli is a specially prepared ritual mirror that is capable of interacting with the supernatural. The mirror is circular, and among the Daur people has notable qualities of purifying water, contacting spirits, and healing wounds. In some cases they even contained the horses of the shaman, and might be layered as symbols of power—the more mirrors accumulated, the stronger the shaman was.

In more mundane uses, mirrors have been used as ways of contacting the beyond. One mirror was carefully made for the purpose as a part of the spiritualist movement—a movement we’ve discussed a number of times—that involves allowing the mirror to face nothing but a black ceiling so the dead may enter. By holding a candle close, users may see their dead loved ones.

Another folklore blog has noted a New England tradition by which one would discover their true love by walking down the stairs and looking into a mirror. Reciting words over the mirror while doing so reveals in it the image of one’s true love—or a coffin, which means they will die soon and alone! Of course, given falling down the stares because your focused and chanting over a mirror…well,I imagine it’d be dangerous for spell casters. 

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An Aztec Illustration Of A Mirror

In more ornate cases of mirror divination, various Mesoamerican cultures made use of obsidian mirrors to contact the world of the dead. The Maya depict their mirrors as tools of kings, and often hand held (although some larger illustrations show mirrors held by dwarfs and servants). The Aztecs believed the god Smoking Mirror observed all the world through his mirror of gold (his idol was made of obsidian, implying perhaps that all mirrors were his eyes into the world—a horror concept if I have heard of one). Spanish forces and authors attributed more to the fear and superstition of mirrors. Bernardino de Sahagun described the following occurrence:

The seventh sign or omen is that waterbird hunters caught a brown bird the size of acrane, and they brought it to Moctezuma to show him, he was in the room they call Tlillancalmecac. It was after midday. This bird had on its forehead a round mirror in which could be seen the sky and stars, especially the Mastelejos near the Pleiades. Moctezuma was afraid when he saw this, and the second time he looked into the mirror that the bird had, there he saw nearby a crowd of people gathered who came mounted on horses. And Moctezuma than called his augurs and diviners and he asked them “Don’t you know what this means? That many people are coming.” And before the diviners could reply, the bird disappeared, and they said nothing.”

One of these obsidian mirrors made it into the possession of famed occultist and astrologer John Dee—and is still in the British Muesum to this day.

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John Dee’s Mirror

Another famed folklore mirror is in the one on the wall in Snow White. Here again the mirror serves as a vehicle of truth and vanity—it does not give the answer desired, but the honest one. The other major mirror I recall from folklore—and more accurately, from an original fairy tale—is the one crafted in the opening of the Snow Queen. This mirror is again related to sight, but this time is related to the distortion of sight. The mirror, upon shattering, splinters the Devil’s work across the world. The mirror causes cynicism and despair in those who’s souls it penetrates.

Mirror Snow Queen.png

Another story from Granada deals with revealing of the truth by a mirror—the mirror is held by the barber, to find a potential wife for the king. The mirror will reveal blemishes of the soul on the silver of the mirror, helping the barber find a proper wife no matter rank or birth. This of course has the intended effect, and a proper but lowly wife is found. You can find the story here.

Delving a bit backwards for a moment, and dealing with a mirror that effects apperances and horror, we can consider Perseus. Danae, Perseus’s mother, was cast to sea after giving birth to him—long story, involves Zeus and a prophecy about Perseus murdering his grandfather—and upon washing ashore in Serifos, they were taken in by a fishermen and brother of the King. The King of Serifos desired Danae, but Perseus was a danger to his advances. At a party, Perseus rashly promised the king anything he desired—and the King asked for the head of the Gorgon Medusa, who’s form was so frightening that she turned men to stone with fright. To abbreviate the story, Perseus slays the monster with a mirror shield, avoiding directly gazing on the gorgon. Placing her head in a satchel, and ignoring the two creatures that spring from her neck (Pegasus and Chyrsoar), Perseus heads home to complete his story—which bears little relevance to our prompt.

Perseus.png

The prompt does remind me of a particular Lovecraft story—The Outsider, a Gothic horror story of a man who has spent all his life in a castle. The story follows his escape from isolation and entrance into a world that was naught but stories to him. The story’s conclusion and final twist I’ll not spoil (you can find the story in full here). Other instruments of viewing—such as glass of Leng—stick to the theme of revelation and truth.

The story here more reminds me of the child hood activity of dares—daring someone into the cellar on Halloween night, to gaze upon a mirror in darkness. It’s comparable to the idea of Bloody Mary, who appears by gazing into a mirror in the dark by candle light. Or the Blue Baby story, which poses another legend of a haunted mirror. I think that some combination of the two–the revelation of identity in the mirror and the dare of children–could make for a compelling case.  

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A Buried Feast

This Weeks Prompt: 65. Riley’s fear of undertakers—door locked on inside after death.

The Story: A Strange Estate

This prompt returns us to the graveyard—a place that of course we visit for horror often. The named person here, Riley, wasn’t someone I could find, much to my frustration. So instead I will pursue the fear of things that lurk in the graveyards and move about the graves. Things that can lock a door from beyond a grave perhaps. Our focus, the undertaker, has some interesting roots as one who explicitly profits from the dead, indiscriminate of the cause.

We’ve talked about a number of dead creatures that are corpses brought back to haunt the living here and here. We also discussed communing with them here.Today, I want to focus on things that actually reside in graveyards—in mausoleums and near undertakers. And as for the fear of undertakers, one particular fear of those who dig among bodies comes to mind for me. The fear of those anthropophagous creatures that feed on the dead, ghouls and worse that lurk near graveyards.

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A Gathering of Ghouls from a Persian text

Ghouls proper are creatures from Arabian and Middle Eastern mythologies at larger. Some traditions hold that a blow to the head will kill them, but a second blow will raise them from the dead. The ghoul lurks at times in the desert, taking the form of animals or people to lure travelers to their death before devouring them. The ghoul is at times taken to be djinn that were sired by Iblis, the Muslim equivalent in many ways to Lucifer in Christian mythologies. Ghouls in Iran were demons that entered heaven after being disbarred at the birth of the prophet Mohamed. These demons are also the source of crocodiles as well. Ghouls may feed on the living as well—in some cases, ghouls cause bleeding on the feet and then drink the blood. Others resist invaders or marchers through deserts and are put to flight or even death by the mere mention of God’s name.

The Ghoul is also the name of a distant star, Algol. The star is the glimmering eye of the Gorgon in Perseus hand in the Greek Zodiac. The star’s flickering nature made it seem inconstant, and it’s red shine might be responsible for it’s association with great violence and bloodshed. The Ghoul creates corpses, you see.

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The Astrological Symbol for Algol

In Germany, another creature haunts the graveyards—the Nachzehrer. This creature is in many ways like a vampire, feeding on the living after death. However, the Nachzehrer does so in many cases by eating itself—the more it feeds on itself. Like many undead, the Nachzehrer are often suicides, but not always. In some cases, they are the patient zero of a plague, and the continuation of the plague is linked to their persistence. The Nachezehrer is easy to recognize—it holds one thumb in the opposite hand, and it’s left eye is open. By placing a stone in it’s mouth, the Nachezehrer cannot continue devouring itself, and thus becomes ineffectual.

Another spirit, not exactly dead but fond of corpses and graveyard, is the Hindu vetala. The most famous story of the vetala occurs with King Vikram, who had twenty five attempts on capturing the creature. The vetala here hung upside down, and inhabited and animated dead bodies. When captured, the Vetala proves helpful, warning the King Vikram of treachery before he is murdered.

Headless

Not the anthropophagous, but commonly mistaken for them. These are the Akephaloi

A more bizzare cannibal, farther afield then the others from a graveyard is the anthropophage, a strange group who are noted as the most savage and barbarous. These individuals were first reported by Herodotus, expanded on by later authors. Pliny attributes them to dressing in the remains of their victims as well. These lived on the fringe of civilization, where most cannibals are placed in the Western tradition.

While cannibalism continues in other places, I will restrain myself mostly to those who feed on corpses near internment, as opposed to those who eat their enemies.

The other layer of this is the nature of the undertaker—a figure I admit I confused with the grave digger. The role of a mortician in society, so close to death, is variable. In some societies, for example third century China, the mortician was often an exorcist who drove out demons and hungry dead from the place the body was meant to be buried. We may also talk here about the role of propriating the dead and ensuring their passage, as books such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead persrcibes. The mortician must be knowledgable of the dead and of the needs and customs of burial.

In one of his better stories, Lovecraft introduces his own race of ghouls. These creatures resemble dog-headed individuals, and move between dreams and waking worlds. Appearing first in Pickman’s Model, the ghouls are terrifying creatures that the artist observes as a sort of changeling tale. The Ghoul as a sort of liminal character, capable of moving between the boundaries of living and dead and dreaming, is an interesting take on the matter.

Saturn

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Fransico de Goya. The work appears in Pickmans model as an example of the painters art.

Whne it comes to the actions of corpses—that of gravediggers and robbers—Lovecraft has at least one story that hits the mark that will not be one I’ll be following on. Partially because it seems ill suited for the prompt, which is about the shock of the dead being awake and denying you passage, and partially because…well. Mr. Lovecraft’s Reanimator story is one that descends from a decent idea into shocking levels of racism by all accounts. For those curious, you can read it here. The story has had a number of movie adaptations, which I admit I haven’t seen.

Another story from the Cthulhu Mythos work of Mr. Lovecraft that touches on grave robbing is of course The Hound, which deals more with grave-robbing then preparing. It is, however, notable as the first appearance of the Necronomicon, and deals somewhat with the ghoul-dog association of Lovecraft’s. You can find it here.

Approaching then the key point in the prompt: the locking of a door from the inside. This speaks to some sort of reanimation as well, although it might be a fail safe from said creatures. If the coffin or mausoleum is locked from the inside it follows rather obviously that it is because someone living inside wishes to keep something out. We know what they are keeping out—our undertakers and cannibals. But what dealings does our formerly deceased have, that has convinced him of the existence of such creatures? Has he seen the ghouls in the night, stalking between grave stones?

Further, who is our main character here? I will say that the dead man and the ghouls are probably not likely. While exploring either head space would be fascinating, I’m not sure if it would be productive or frankly that easy. A monster’s or a corpse’s head space can be difficult to examine. So some of the living must be on hand. Given the principle discovery—the door is locked from the inside after death—the occurrence should happen after the funeral. Which means either a friend or family member, perhaps staying near the graveyard.

Near the graveyard, or in the town at least. Perhaps having inherited the manor of the deceased, our visitor takes up residence. There, he learns in the basement of the dark happnings that have attracted ghouls and undertakers to his family estate, and to that most recent grave. This gives a bit of gothic tinge to our story—and borrows from the Lovecraft story Rats in the Walls a bit. That story also invokes cannibalistic husbandry, breeding human beings to sate the lust for flesh in a family line. Attaching a ghoulish character in this mannr to the story, I think, will wait until later. I suspect—and consulting both Wikipdia and the list this is confirmed—that there will be better times for indulging in the sins of the family as feeding on the dead so directly.

So our plot then will be an individual attending to the house of his dead relative, and over time becoming aware of the strange nature of the gravediggers nearby. I suspect we should have a cast of three characters among the living then—the main character, a friend or neighbor, and the undertaker proper. The creatures at work, the strange ghouls or the hungry Nachzherer serve as characters, but less refind in their form and narrative purpose then the other three.

Works Cited

Harper, Donald. “A Chinese Demonography of the Third Century B. C.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1985, pp. 459–498. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2718970.

 
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What’s In a Name?

This Week’s Prompt: 63. Sinister names—Nasht—Kaman-Thah.

The Resulting Story: The Brand of Nasht

We begin this week with an interesting pair of names that are of note in the world of the Mythos: Nasht and Kaman-Thah are the priestly guardians of the Dreamlands of Earth, preventing the unworthy from journeying there in slumber. This role lacks the sinister overtone that Lovecraft has here described; all accounts point to Nasht and Kaman-Thah being beneficent forces of caution. Digging around the paragraphs or so dedicated to them in the Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath, we find a few suggestions of where to go. They wear crowns of Egypt and have at the center of their temple is a pillar of fire that seems to reference Zorastrian fire shrines. Mr. Lovecraft’s interest in magicians of the middle east—hardly a unique topic for his time—is well noted.

However, the use of names might provide more of a resource. Names are things with no small amount of power. The real name of an individual can grant power over said person. Isis gained power over Ra by means of learning his true name. Ra in turn formed the gods from naming of his limbs, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These names can be invoked for the safety of the travel into the world of the dead. The name of a god invokes their power—it is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost that Catholic and Orthodox rites are preformed, for instance. The inability to name or create image of the Abhramic God is precisely because of this power wrapped up in names.

TheFuries

The Kindly Ones

This power of names and the divine extends further into mystic and magical arts. Writing the name on pieces of lead and burying it in the ground was a common way to lay a curse on someone in Greece and Rome. The recitation of names is key in conjuring forth demons in the Goetic arts. In the Odyssey, the name of Odysseus has to be learned for the curse of Polyphemeus to lay hold on him. Without the name, the curse couldn’t find its mark and be grounded in the world. Names are often changed for the sake of politeness: The Friendly Folk and Kindly Ones (the fae and furies, respectively), are named not so much for accuracy as for appeasement.

The names of children are of special importance. Many cultures take pains to wait to name the child, especially in regions with high infant mortality. The role of Christening in some countries doubles as protecting the child and marking the child as a social being. The child becomes more real when named. Naming a child after an ancestor honors the deceased and builds protection. The Netsilik and other Inuit people invoke lengthy names, therefore, so that a newly born child has a number of protectors. New names are added to the child’s birth name as life goes on, helping further protect them.

Abraxas

Abraxas

Amulets in particular often have names inscribed on them, in order to ensure the protection of the depicted figures. Amulets may have gods themselves, saints, and so forth. The most memorable of such entities, for me, is Abraxas. Abraxas is a rather strange entity, a god or demon or aeon or perhaps the God, who we know chiefly through amulets that display his form: a man with a rooster’s head and snakes for legs.

The Olympian Spirits—not to be confused with the Olympian Gods of Greece—also provide power by engraving their names on objects, granting long lives, familiars, and other mystical powers. With proper preparation, these strange entities are formidable tools of magic indeed. Sadly, whatever tradition they belong to appears lost to history.

The Sigils of the Olympic Spirits

Symbols of the Olympian Spirits, for use on amulets.

Other times, the actor takes on the name and role—and thus power—of an entity by assuming their name and a mask. This role, often taken up by priests, could give insight into our ensuing plot where one becomes the named entity for a duration of time.

The name then has mystical and magical import built into it. But the problem is greater here, in that theses names we are given are sinister, left handed and wicked. What does it mean for a name to be sinister? Is it a wicked sounding name? In all likelihood, that is what Lovecraft meant, but that is a boring answer so I’ll ignore it.

Hephestus

Hephaestus, the occasional employer of the Dactyls.

As a brief aside, while digging for information on name invocation, I came across an oddity. Now, its fairly well known that sinister has its roots in the Latin for left handed(sinister). The act of theurgy, sorcery, and demonic invocation traces itself back, etymologically, to the left hand Dactyls. This connection, while tenuous, seems like it could be built on. After all, Egypt and Babylon have sorcerer connotations to some (we discussed the implications of that here, in case your wondering). Names then could wrack strange effects on the world.

Another answer is that these names are emblematic of wicked or dangerous powers. These are sinister names, in that they are names not meant to be said or they will draw unwanted attention when invoked. A curse or a demon swear. The names, when given or spoken or taken, work some disturbing change on that which they touch. We can consider the various names that mustn’t be said in this category. Hastur’s supposedly dangerous name, for instance, is in this category.

Another possiblity is that the assumption of this name brings about something sinister. By becoming, in a very real way, Nasht or Kaman-Thah, the person becomes wicked or inclined to wickedness. They become something like a demon by taking on the mantle of long lost powers.

That leaves what has happened. We could do a story that tells how these ancient names became sinster—what force or history made them so corrosive? Alternatively, the names are inscribding on a tablet, a piece of paper, an amulet of some sort that afflicts the people who behold it or touch it. The names themselves are inciting and powerful implements, if mostly passive agents in the world. What effects they cause, what curses they bear are matters to be worked out.

I think I will take a different route. Instead of dealing with the horror at first and straight ahead, it would be better to come at the invocation and evocation of these dread names as things of the past. The utterances or history of these names, written and embodied in the world.

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Dredged Up From The Depths

This Week’s Prompt: 60. Fisherman casts his net into the sea by moonlight—what he finds.
The Resulting Story: The Sacred Fish

We’ll need a bigger boat for what can be dragged up with this corpse. Ignoring the moonlight for a moment, fisherman have a habit of finding strange things, from the medeterrain to Japan, and everywhere in between. If we put on our symbolic lenses, the reason might be apparent. The sea is a chaos and potent place. It is where anything can happen. And so, sometimes, everything happens.

A common fisherman catch is, unsurprisingly, fish. However, strange and rare fish are easy to find. A tale from Albania tells of a golden fish, which when caught and prepared, made a woman and a horse pregnant. Both children had a star on their brow, and go on to be fantastic heroes, marrying a shape-shifting gender bending moor and a djinn woman, blinding armies with their star-marked brows, and eventually confronting the treacherous king. In Japan, a species of mermaid if caught and eaten provides immortality but misfortune. Probably because of it’s all too human looking face. In Ireland, the Salmon of Wisdom provides…well, wisdom if eaten properly.

JapaneseMermaid

A German tale, recorded by the Brother’s Grimm includes a fish that grants wishes for it’s freedom in much the same way a genie might. An older version has the Yugoslavia version, where the fish gets caught so many times it accepts its fate and instructs him to cut it into six pieces, giving two to his wife and two to his horse and burying two in the ground after granting him a castle and gold. The result is two golden boys, two golden foals, and two golden lilies. A Greek version changes it to trees. The one brother goes out to make his fortune, the other stays at home. The adventuring brother pretends to be a robber and woos a maiden, and gets married. Then, he goes to hunt a stag and asked a witch for direction. The witch claimed to know where the stag was, but turned the man to stone. The other golden child came to rescue him and had his dog eat the witch up.

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Fish also have a knack for swallowing important things. Solomon once lost his ring to a fish, and with it control over his kingdom, which was destroyed bit by bit as he was helpless to watch. Another fish swallowed a wish granting treasure(the nature of the item is not specified in my translation of the Tibtean tales). While not swallowing it, a fish does guard the sword of Wild Edric who we covered last week.

Ainu stories, recorded granted over a century ago, include the notion of fish that contain magical properties and must be proprieties after they are caught. They share this notion with the Netsilik of Northern America. Further, fish caught may belong to a creature recorded as Konoto-ran-guru, and must be returned. A creature lurking in the middle of the sea, given to him is power over all sea devils and ill currents. He prefers his subjects, the malformed fish of the sea, be returned to him.

More malicous creatures arise from the sea of course. In the Maori story of Tawaki, a race of amphibous creatures kidnap and enslave the heroes mother, spending most of their time in the sea, and sleeping on land. When dawn comes, they must return to the sea or they will die. Tawaki slays them by decieving them about the time, with help from his captive mother.

And then there are the objects that are dredged up from the sea! In another story relating to King Solomon, a bottle containing a djinn is tossed into the sea and fished up later. The poor fisherman who dragged that up died of fright when the djinn emerged. This occurred in the City of Brass story mentioned last week as well, where it was a rather regular occurrence (funnily enough, those djinn thought Solomon still lived).

Realeasing the Djinn.png

Maui, that great Polynesian super man, washed onto the shore after his mother tossed him out. He, a fisherman in his own time, brought forth the arch-typical island from the sea on a fishing trip after his wives bothered him about his lack of fishing. He warned his brothers not to eat anything on the island, and not to disturb the island. Had his brothers not disturbed it, all islands would be perfect. But they did, and the island shook irritably, generating mountain ridges. It was a titantic and terrifying effort, ruined by a bit of carelessness.

Comparable, at least in part, to the fishing trip of Thor, where the thunder god nearly lifted up his own doom, the Jomundur serpent. The fishing expedition was one of frightful experiences for the giant involved, to say the least, who then tried to kill Thor and of course failed.

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Then there are the things from the sea that come of their own accord. The sea has an odd tendency towards spirituality! First there are the sages of Mesoptamian myth, who rise from the fresh water of Abzu, bringing law and culture with them to human kind. These fish-like sages further saved humanity from the flood, before being banished back to Abzu by Marduk. Japan features the prophetic Amabie who can see when bloody war is coming.

Then there are those strange monks and bishops in Europe. The Sea Bishop was reported in Poland in the 16th century, and was held captive by it’s king for many days. After a time, however, a visiting Bishop came across the creature, and it managed to communicate it’s want for freedom. The bishops released it and, before going below, it made the sign of the cross. Another was captured in Germany, but died fasting for three days and three nights.

SeaBishop.png

The washing up of strange creatures, such as whales and giant squid, sometimes unearth terrible things in the real world. The sea, chaotic thing that it is, spits forth monstrous things every now and then onto the shore. And sometimes with horrific consequences (such as when a number of people learned not to dynamite a whale carcass, video here).

Of course, this mythology is reinforced by the reality that happens with shocking frequency. Fisherman pull up strange and bizarre catches, which make their way into museums or conspiracy theories. From ancient remains to modern technology, the sea holds many wonders strange and bizzare hostages. Again from Japan, there is a strange craft with a woman and a small box, which fishermen found in the early 19th century. They deduced that the woman was an exile from a foreign land, and as her health was failing, they returned her to her reconstructed craft and set her to sea again.

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A fascinating horror story, of things washing a shore from the depths of the seas, can be found in the story The Thing that Drifted Ashore, a short horror comic that I found here. It has some interesting notions that are often found with the sea: dreams, the dead, tragedy, and horror. I won’t spoil it here, but Junji Ito is an artist and writer that you should make a point to check out.

Our own story will no doubt begin with the discovery of the strange and sequestered item from the sea. The item or fish will have some mystifying effect, transforming the community that finds it in some subversive or disturbing way. And then it will be discovered, and perhaps suffer Innsmouth’s fate. Or alternatively, we will end with some ultimate horrific and tragic act.

Batchelor, John. Ainujin Oyobi Sono Setsuwa. KyōBunkan, 1901.
Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.
Elsie, Robert William. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture. New York University Press, 2001.

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the Maori. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1974.

Megas, Georgios A. Folktales of Greece. P, 1970.

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

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