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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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Restored And Resurrected

This Weeks Prompt: 87. Borellus says, “that the Essential Salts of animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious man may have the whole ark of Noah in his own Study, and raise the fine shape of an animal out of its ashes at his pleasure; and that by the like method from the Essential Salts of humane dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal necromancy, call up the shape of any dead ancestor from the dust whereinto his body has been incinerated.”

The Resulting Story:Ashes to Ashes Dust To Dust

We are back among the dead! Oh it has been sometime. But here, we are discussing not just the dead, but the act of restoration of life. This is a miracle that Lovecraft here seperates from necromancy, remembering the work of the esteemed chemist Borel. The notion, however, of restoring a body with portions missing is discussed in a number of books and tales. To guide me through this genre of folklore and magic, I will be going through the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, who devotes an entire chapter not only on the tales of these feats, but also the magical theory behind them and related acts.

Cornelius Agrippa

To start with Agrippa’s theory then, Agrippa cites Arabic notions of men who have escaped their bodies and formed higher souls. These men, endowed with divine powers, can compel their bodies to mend themselves. He compares this control over their bodies and their lower souls to two famous pieces of animal folklore: The lion, who rouses dead cubs from death with its breath, and the otter, who’s weeping wife restores them from death as well. Agrippa acknowledges that such powers seem fantastic, but seeks like a proper scholar to back this claim with historical examples that follow suit.

His first example from folklore is a set of Zeus’s children—Tindareous(sic), Hercules, and Palici. Hercules famously has an unclear result after death—he appears to have become deified, but is also found in the underworld as a ghost. This aligns to Agrippa’s theory of two souls, a lower and higher part. The Palici were Zeus’s children by the Muse Thalia, and were a pair of twins. I have yet to find the myth Agrippa is referencing, but it might be a reference instead to Castor and Pollux—half twins by Zeus and Tyndareus’s wife. When Castor died, Pollux asked Zeus to grant Castor immortality, and the two became Gemini. The Palici are referenced, in one source, as being swallowed by the earth after birth with their mother, and then bursting forth as their namesake geysers—a metaphorical death and rebirth then. Tyndareus, in some collections, belongs to a larger group of resurrections in Greece. For in Greece, there was a doctor so skilled at medicine, he had the power to raise the dead. Ascelpius’s staff still marks hospitals to this day, and he himself has a number of famed attributes. Ascelepilus raised so many dead in fact, that he was killed for stealing subjects from Hades, and his staff serves as a mark of the medical profession to this day. I will only briefly note that Ascelpeus learned the secret herb of immortality and resurrection in one version from a passing serpent—one of the two that Agrippa considers early in his writings (the other being the Phoenix).

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Past him, Agrippa next moves to a series of biographers about Apollonius, who became divine after death as well. He mentions again Glaucus—the individual raised by Ascelpeleus—and an Egpytian prophet who placed a herb in a dead man to raise them again. Agrippa theorizes that this proves souls can sometimes stay in bodies after death, and brings to the focus examples of animals that have appeared to come back to life after seeming dead, especially mice. Agrippa concludes briefly that a number of resurrections are actually merely cases of men appearing to be dead, but being restored before they truly pass.

Before going forward, I would like to call to our attention another resurrection we discussed once—the restoring of a Romani hero. I gave an abridged version before, but the story in full can be related here. The son of the deceased emperor is sent to slay dragons, and kills all the dragons in a household—except the youngest. The youngest he defeated, but sealed inside a jar. His sweetheart, a maiden, warned him he had done a wicked thing to leave it alive. And indeed he had. One day, his mother was visiting him and his sweetheart. She happened to hear murmuring from the jar—and opened it. The dragon asked only for some water for a favor—and the favor was the dragon’s love, an offer to be the dragons wife. The Empress accepted, and the two conspired to kill her son. Here follows a series of similar episodes—the Empress fakes illness, sends the hero to some dangerous place to find a cure, and the maiden sends him with advice and a many winged horse. The challenge includes a cannibal sow, a beating apple tree, and murderous clouds. After he succeeds, the dragon and the Empress conspire again, and this time ambush him at cards. The mother binds his hands behind his back, so tight his wrists bleed—and, as an aside, this game is described as “the sort she played with her husband” which is more insight into royal love lives then I care for—and the dragon emerges and kills him. Sending him off on his horse, the two rejoice.

The maiden finds the hero in this condition and weeps, before killing a pig. She takes the flesh of the pig and patches up the wounds left by the dragon. Running water over him, she restores him entirely. She then places an apple in his mouth—and he comes back to life! This in many ways resembles Agrippa’s archetype, of restorative food. The story proper ends with the lad tying the dragon and his mother to the stake and burning them alive.

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Comparable in that regard is the descent of Inanna to the Underworld. She too is slain, after being disarmed—more precisely, she loses all of her garments of power to the seven guardians of the underworld. Left dying in the underworld, her servant goes forth to the halls of heaven and to the many gods she asked for, and begs they help her. When none do, the servant goes to Eridu and asks Enki weeping—Enki, who knows the food and water of life. Enki then fashions two creatures, both without sex, who carry the food and water of life. As she leaves, a number of demons follow her, offering to ‘precede her’ into the cities and worlds of mortals. They demand that someone take her place among the dead—and after passing over her mourning servants, they set upon her husband with Inanna’s permission. The husband’s fate is continued in later poems.

To leave briefly the nature of food and life—hard as it is, as folklore is rich with times you should and shouldn’t eat, from death, to fae, to even immorality—we can also consider the reconstruction of Osiris. Osiris, after being named Re’s heir, was butchered by his brother Set. The exact nature of this death is unclear, although some versions explain that Osiris was lured into a sarcophagus and then cut to pieces. The motive is likewise variable—from adultery to vengeance for an earlier slight.

His parts were then tossed into the river, and scattered about the Nile. Eventually, Isis restored him, stitching his parts back together—these parts sometimes numbering exactly 42. The two copulate, and Horus is conceived. In later versions by Plutarch, Osiris isn’t entirely restored—Horus is conceived  before the restoration.

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Agrippa proposes next that longer resurrections may be the case of exceptionally long sleeps. He gives many examples of slumbering individuals, including those who have slept for almost two hundred years—the Seven Sleepers. These seven youths in Ephesus entered a cave to escape persecution by the Emperor Decius, refusing to bow to pagan idols and instead taking up worship in a cave. There they fell asleep. The Emperor found them, and ordered the cave sealed. The youths were thought dead, until two hundred years later, a king more friendly to Christianity had the cavern opened—and out emerged the seven youths, convinced that they had slept only a day. One even went to town to buy food using their old coins, gaining the attention of merchants and eventually the bishop. This story was repeated not only in Christian Hagiography, but also in Qur’an. The Qur’an adds the detail our other account didn’t, of a loyal dog keeping watch over the sleepers.

A more extreme version of this is Muchukunda. Having spent a heavenly year defending the gods while they searched for a commander, he was given a rest as long as he pleased as reward—should he be disturbed, his gaze would turn the disturber to ash! As it happened, this trait was useful for disposing of a later Yavanna invader—Krishna lured him into the cave where Muchukunda slept. After destroying the disturber, Muchukunda paid homage to Vishnu and was granted any celestial pleasure he wanted.

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These wonders are considered another way that man might appear to be raised from the dead—and Agrippa notes that there are cases were even deprivation of food and water can be ignored. If this were the case, a body could slumber indefinitely, and then be made to rise from the dead by all accounts.

Interestingly to me, Agrippa doesn’t deal with Christian notions of the Resurrection or the ascension of Saints—it might be that these methods were deemed outside a magicians power, or that they were unique miracles of God compared to the holy sages he starts with. Likewise, Enoch’s being taken up by the Lord isn’t included in this section, although the exact meaning of his departure might have something to do with that. Likewise, Elijah’s ascension to Heaven without death is somewhere between ‘dying’ and ‘becoming more’. The main difference here, that I think connects to Agrippa’s first notion of higher powers compelling lower ones, is that such saints often have supernatural bodies in the waking world, such as relics or icons.

For a horror story, the uses here are many fold. The idea of an ancient evil awakening to the world, restored to power, is not novel. However, I appreciate the motive implied by the quote—that the resurrection was not a part of an evil scheme to restore some forgotten king by a cult, but rather an incident of curiosity. In a horror notion, this curiosity is dangerous. Restoring to the body and mind someone or something long beyond the world is startling—especially if, perhaps, the actual humanity of the dead is more in question. This formed the basis of the story of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, which contained the most important Lovecraft quote on magic: Do not call up what one cannot cast down.

Come and see who was brought back with the bread of life next week!

Bibliography:

Agrippa von Netteshiem, Henry Cornelius.  Three Books of Occult Philosphy or Magic. Hahn and Whitehead. Chicago 1898.

Kramer,Samuel Noah. Sumerian Mythology, a Study in Spiritual and Literary Achievement. The American Philosophical Society.  Philadelphia 1944.

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There Is Nought But Chaos

This Week’s Prompt: 80. Shapeless living thing forming nucleus of ancient building.

The Resulting Story: The Shifting Temple

This week we are given a topic that we have, in the past, covered with some detail. The notion of a living core of an ancient structure bares a resemblance to notions of shapeless forces we discussed regarding Azathoth—we will be re-discussing some of those here, with greater detail and focus, as well as some other forms of living structures.

There are two parts to this prompt, each worth review in equal part—the shapeless and the center. That is, there are creatures and stories of things who’s shape cannot be known, and of things that support buildings and worlds. Both will be discussed—particularly when they overlap at the end.

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First we will discuss the most fantastic—the shapes at sea that support entire camps, and resemble islands from afar. This is actually the origin of the Kraken, a creature recorded in biology texts from the eighteenth century. There is another such creature in Norse tales, the hafgufa. Recorded as a giant whale, the hafgufa resembles an island from afar—in some tales, its nose is so massive that it suffices for an island!–and it is noted both for its taste in ships and men, and its peculiar means of attracting prey. The hafgufa is a species of two in some texts—and both are infertile, otherwise the ocean would be over run by false islands. In some texts, the hafgufa is also called the Kraken—albeit a whale not a squid. You can find more of it here.

Medieval Bestiaries produce another whale like creature—or sometimes turtle—who is so big, it’s back ridge has trees growing on it and valleys form around it. The aspidochelone is sometimes more sinister however—its appearance of false life and safety are an allegory in one text for the Devil and demons, who seduce the desperate.

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In Ireland, the stories of Saint Brendan the Navigator tell of a strange beast that appeared as an island and breached his boat. The Saint here is safe—the whale sinks after a fire is lit on it’s skin, much to the shock of the crew but little harm.

In Chile, there are stories of a similar creature—although it is more commonly in lakes, the Cuero is a danger to sailors who draw near it’s lure. Sometimes the shape is like a cow hide, sometimes an octopus, sometimes a stingray. Here is a more in depth article on not only the legend, but histories of it’s recordings

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Then there are those supports that are much wider and vaster then a mere ship. The World Turtle, for instance, carries…well, the world on its back. Sometimes this is a literal and direct holding. Kurma, for instance, supports the world directly in Hindu stories. Other stories, such as when Nuwa repaired the sky, have the turtle shell as a form of architecture somewhat removed. Turtle Island refers to this imagery as well—the notion that the Americas are on the back of a great mythological turtle. Other stories—the most obvious being Discworld—suggest the world is on the back of four great elephants, and then on the back of a turtle.

Bahamut is another supporter of the world, albeit a fish with a great bull on its back. Found in Arabic sources, Bahamut is more terrifying then others. The bull on its back has a hundred legs and horns, and Bahamut itself is so vast all the worlds oceans would fit into its nostrils like a mustard seed. It is also the farthest removed of all the great beasts—on its back, the bull; on the bulls back, a ruby; on the rubys back, an angel; on the angel’s shoulder, the world.

arabic world map

The map of the world here is rotated on it’s side–Bahamut is the fish

Of course, there are also non-sentient living supports. The World Tree can be found in cultures around the world. The famous Norse Tree Yggdrasil holds the nine worlds in it’s branches—and is echoed in the Volsung saga, were the house of the Volsung’s has a great tree holding up its roof–the tree is called Barnstokkr. There Odin—well, a stranger who resembles him greatly—places a legendary sword, that begins their undoing. Further south, we can find the world tree in Zorastrian stories. The Gaokerna is one of many great trees—its fruit is immortality, and will be key to the recreation of the universe. Beside it grows the Tree of Many Seeds, where all plants have their origin.

Not far away from the Zorastrian myth, we have the world tree of Kabbalah—a tree that, I have heard at least, is often depicted upside down. The Tree of Life here holds many worlds, as the light of divinity is refined downward from the undivided Ein Soif into this world. Kabbalah as a tradition is rich in symbolism and complexity, and should have more of an article at some point. The interesting point to me, however, is the suggestion of a reverse tree–a Tree of Death, that runs counter to the virtues of the Tree of Life and is made of the shattered remains of an earlier world. 

pakal tomb

The top portion of the World Tree found on Pakal the Great’s tomb.

Maya world trees are commonly depicted in artwork—the tree runs from the underworld into the heavens. Like the tortoise shell of Nuwa, the tree was constructed after a flood—the destruction of Seven Macaw and the end of the wood people—and like stories of Ymir and others, it is fed by the blood of gods. Some link it’s form to the visible Milky Way in the sky

All of this brings us slowly round to the most literal form of the shapeless center—Chaos, Khaos. Beginning with the most literal, the Greek conception of Chaos is the source eventually of all things. The form or force that precedes all the rest of existence, Chaos is gloomy and far away—and not terribly relevant to most stories. Chaos is the origin directly of Night and Darkness, and sometimes the foundation of reality itself.

Chaos is not the only strange and shapeless originator in Greece are concerned. There was the strange shape in Demophon’s casket, which was the first topic we discussed discussed (and which was rewritten on our Patreon here). Chaos in other cases contains all elements. When Milton depicted King Chaos in Paradise Lost, he maintained this for the realm of Limbo, where elements fly about.

Biblical starts of Genesis refer to an abyss of water from which the world was made—using the terminology that neighbors used for Tiamat, a vast sea monster that was also eventually the root of all things and truly varied in shape. What this abyss was is a topic of much debate, especially in esoteric circles.

Chaos can be joined by Hundun. Hundun is a Chinese character, a faceless wanderer that is the originating chaos of the world. I recall best a story of Hundun from the Taoist, Chuang Tzu: The Emperor of the North Sea and the Emperor of the South Sea once met with Hundun. Grateful for his generosity as a host, they offered to repay him by giving him the seven holes all men have (eyes, nose, ears, mouth). Each day the bore another hole in Hundun’s face.

On the last day Hundun died.

Hundun has other comparable descriptions, often like a lump of clay and making a sound like thunder. It is malleable, sudden, and terrible perhaps. Or just hard to see, touch, or discern except by its overwhelming presence.

Taoist notions of a shapeless root of the world are common in Chuang Tzu’s writing. We can consider the story of the Shaman and Hu Tzu. Hu Tzu, a sage, changes his complexion and diagnosis at every meeting, culminating in this one:

The next day the two came to see Hu Tzu again, but before the shaman had even come to a halt before Hu Tzu, his wits left him and he fled.

“Run after him!” said Hu Tzu, but though Lieh Tzu ran after him, he could not catch up. Returning, he reported to Hu Tzu, “He’s vanished! He’s disappeared! I couldn’t catch up with him.”

Hu Tzu said, “Just now I appeared to him as Not Yet Emerged from My Source. I came at him empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about `who’ or `what,’ now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves – that’s why he ran away.”

That the ultimate origin of reality is shapeless and indeed perhaps unable to be shaped is not unique to these presentations: Ein Sof, the infinite roots of the Tree of Life, is beyond definition as a being. The Prima Materia is less sentient, but the raw potential of creation that can—in theory—be shaped into just about anything that’s desired. These forces of chaos are also vitality—they are shapeless and thus support all shaped things. They are the raw stuff at the very core of life in the world.

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I couldn’t figure out how to cut this properly, so enjoy the image of the Prima Materia or alchemical mercury–the cubes are the mercury.

This I think could be the source of our horror story—instead of merely discovering a shapeless core at the center of the world, we could present a story where that shapelessness is vital to the world and its movements. And if that shapelessness collapses—if like Hundun, it dies on contact with the five senses—then there is a tragedy at play too. By discovering the truth of the world, something about the world’s vitality is lost. I could go on about how defining something restrains it, and so on and so on, but I’ll leave that for the musings of the story.

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We Can Dance If We Want To

This Week’s Prompt: 77. Unspeakable dance of the gargoyles—in morning several gargoyles on old cathedral found transposed.

The Resulting Story: The Harvest Moon Shines Down

The power of dance is one of the most primal things in the history of the world. I don’t mean that in a dismissive sense—dance is sophisticated, and its uses in religion and folklore will be discussed down below in a moment. What I mean is that dance is probably, along with song, one of the forms of entertainment that can be found everywhere—it requires no instruments, only a body with which to express itself. The dance of the gargoyles will thus lead us into something of a deep dive into dance, from a number of places. I will note that for gargoyles in particular, such dances are probably meant as a part of the Witches Sabbath. But we’ve already discussed that.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Witch’s Sabbath, there is the whirling Dervish. A mystic Muslim tradition, Dervishes seek to approach God from experience and personal virtue—their dances are often long and strenuous, seeking to reach a state of religious ecstasy and connection in their straining. These dances bring the dervish into a trance, allowing for the experience of god directly. As with many mystic groups, dervishes also swear a vow of poverty and have a reputation in many parts of the world as miracle workers.

Following the dervishes east, we come to India. I feel obliged to note that with a week to do research, Hinduism’s many many practices and tales are not able to be entirely or thoroughly examined. This is at best a summary.

The largest, and most famous form of dance regarding miracles and statues here is the Tandava—the dance done by Lord Shiva on the dwarf demon of ignorance. Doing so maintains the balance of knowledge and ignorance, while at the same time symbolically re-enacting all the cosmos: creation and destruction in one hundred and eight fluid motions.

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This dance is not the only dance of course—there is the famed dance of Kali. While Kali has a poor reputation in the West from a certain movie, her role as defender of the world and destroyer of demons is more prevalent. However, in at least one tale, she grows too eager in her efforts. Dancing on the bodies of slain demons, and rampaging without fear, she begins to destroy the world until her husband—Shiva, Lord of the Dance—throws himself beneath her feet, calming her.

Kali and Shiva, along with other deities, are key to the practices commonly called Tantra—a collection of practices that sadly I do not have time to delve into beyond a mere note of its existence as a group of rituals in Hindu and Buddhist traditions that seems interesting.

Moving from India, we go north now to Tibet. Tibetan dances include the Cham Dance—a ritual that seeks to promote prosperity and destroy evil spirits. According to legend, the ritual was invented to allow the construction of a monastery in the 8th century, which was delayed do to the presence of wicked spirits. The dance can last as long as fifteen days, and is as much theater as visual performance. It culminates, ultimately, in the destruction of dough effigy—symbolically the three enemies of Buddhism: Ignorance, Jealousy, and Hatred.

Tibet also plays host to the Snow Lion Dance—a tradition that has spread over China, Japan, and Tibet. The Lion Dance in Tibet takes the form of two boys dressed as snow lion, accompained by musicians who play as they dance from house to house at New Years. The Snow lion is a symbol in Tibet of regional and divine power, snow lionesses raising some of the greatest folk heroes and snow lions serving as the mounts of mountain gods.

The Lion Dance in China has a different origin—according to legend, during the reign of the yellow emperor, a lion stopped a great monster from harassing a city. The monster was not slain, and promised to return the next year. With no lion to defend them, the people of the city made a false lion to trick the beast. And so the Lion Dance was born.

Moving south to Bali, we have another dancing creature that at a glance resembles a lion. The story here is more complex, however, as the dance recreates the battle between Baronga and Rangda. The story goes that Rangda, the mother of Erlangga, the King of Bali in the tenth century, was condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits in the jungle, the leaks and the demons, to come after Erlangga. A fight occurred, but she and her black magic troops were too strong that Erlangga had to ask for the help of Barong. Barong came with Erlangga’s soldiers, and fight ensued. Rangda casted a spell that made Erlangga soldiers all wanted to kill themselves, pointing their poisoned keris into their own stomachs and chests. Barong casted a spell that turned their body resistant to the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won, and Rangda ran away.

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Re-enactments of this dance, which can go on for sometime, are sometimes dangerous. Overly engaged dancers must be carefully restrained from harming themselves with their weapons, and the ceremonial masks are themselves sacred forces. An element of this story that is partially interesting to me is the fact that Rangda may in fact be a re-incarnation of an earlier sorcerer queen, Calon Arang, who destroyed settlements and released plagues on the world.

Moving further a sea, and north to Japan, we have their own lion dances, and sacred re-enactments. These recall the story of Amaterasu’s retreat from the world—a result of her brother’s lack of hospitality. Nothing could get her to return, and in her absence, the world began to fail. Not only from the natural consequences of her absence—such as the failure of crops—but also by the growing presence of demons and other creatures. One of the stories of how she was lured out of her cavern was by the Dawn goddess of dancers, Amenouzume. Her performance, dressed in moss and then in nothing at all, inspired cries and laughter among the gods until Amaterasu came out to investigate.

Kagura dances began in the imperial household, as sacred entertainment. Over time, however, the dances spread out to the general populace and gained a number of variations. All of them are presented are forms of worship, and are pleasing to the gods when preformed. The imperial versions have been preformed since the year 1000 A.D. and many of the folk variations include re-enactments of tales and ritual workings. Some resemble possession dances, others lion dances of China, and so forth.

Moving from the Phillipenes, across the Pacific, we reach Hawaii. Here stories of dance, particularly the hula, are tied to a handful of gods—the goddess Pele, the goddess Laka, and the goddesss Hi’iaka. In some variations, Laka was the inspiration for the dance, in the swaying of the leaves and trees. In other cases, Pele dances the first hula to signify her victory over the goddess of the oceans. And in the cases of Hi’iaka, the dance is done to appease an angry Pele.

Pele Home.png

Wahikpau o Pele

Coming back to the United States, the power of dance was recognized by First Nations for sometime. The one I remember best, however, was a relatively recent development—the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1891. The Ghost Dance was a religious movement, beginning in Nevada, and spreading outward on two seperate occasions. According to it’s practitioners, the Ghost Dance would, when done properly, reunite the world of the living and the dead. The returning spirits would then help drive the colonists out of the Americas, and usher in an age of prosperity and peace. The movement had variations, notably among the Lakota, and other spiritual practices—such as ghost shirts, which would repel bullets. The Ghost Dance movement met its end in an unfortunately predictable way—while some practitioners remain, the US Military considered the movement ‘troublesome’, and at the Wounded Knee Massacre, effectively ended the movement by force.

GhostDance

An interesting aside—the Dene are the only tribe that refused to take part in the Ghost Dance when offered. Speculation varies as to why, but I had always heard it was because “the dead returning” came across significantly more sinister then elsewhere.

Crossing the United States and going north some, we come to Europe. Here there are two traditions to discuss—and then onto the horror story. The first is the Egg Dance. The dance is an old Easter Celebration, potentially pagan before that. There a few variations, but in general the dance involves dancing around or with eggs and attempting to break as few as possible while doing so. In some traditions, as is reported in 1498, if a couple danced among the eggs and no eggs were broken they were instantly betrothed—regardless of parental opinion.

Egg Dance.png

The other dance in Europe I would like to discuss is far more horrific. The Dancing Plague of 1518 is an incident of mass hysteria in the Holy Roman Empire that compelled four hundred individuals to begin dancing for days on end rest until they collapsed—resutling in deaths from exposure, heart attacks, or exhaustion. The plague lasted one month, and is not the only one of it’s kind. Dancing outbreaks in Europe are documented over a one thousand year period—from the seventh to the seventeenth century. Incidents range from around twenty dancers to the four hundred above. Most documents indicate women as the primary participants, although some dancing plagues were predominantly children or even a lone man. Explanations ranged from natural causes of excess hot blood, the curse of St. Vito, the curse of St. John, and demonic possession. Cures were thus various: hired musicians to play, prayers and pilgrimages, exorcisms, isolation and containment. Eventually the plagues simply ceased.

Which brings us to the horror aspect of our story. One part of dance that can be horrific is its compelling, instinctive in a compelling way—as silly as it sounds, dancing can invoke a loss of control, especially in a communal context. And losing control is a frightening experience at times. If the dance is the sole source of horror, this would be the place to start. But our prompt points away from this, at first at least. No, our prompt presumes we are witnessing the dance of another—Gargoyles, which here may as well stand in for strange, monstrous creatures. Perhaps Lovecraft meant to invoke the fear of a community of Gargoyles at all. The story The Festival seems the most likely to have come from this prompt—it is an archaic Yule-Tide celebration that involves strange winged creatures, crowds, and a procession. As we’ve seen, dances often recount communal history and celebration, and The Festival in a way centers around such notions.

To make a revelation horrific, it must reveal something horrifying. This is perhaps self-explanatory, but one of the faults of Lovecraft’s writing is the difficulty of such revelations. It can’t merely be “things man was never meant to know”—such secrets feel more of a cheat in these days then an actual horrific reveal. Digging into Lovecraftian and Gothic secrets, there are plenty to choose from. There are revelations about family, about self, about the real nature of the universe—although that one descends quickly into “it was so profoundly shocking I can’t describe it” which is cheating.

Another potential reference is a story from the Dreamlands—here a priest goes up a mountain, to where the gods dance. And there, he encounters more than he bargained for as the gods are joined by more terrifying and powerful gods, who do not take kindly to being watched. This I think—the discovery of the size and breadth of a community of monsters, or the violation of a secret pact and the consequences there of, are perhaps more interesting to examine then simple revelation.

Of course, this is already running longer than normal—and I’ve only barely touched on the nature of dance in folklore and traditions! What are some you know? What meaning or purpose do they have? How have they touched you?

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The Dread Horsemen

This Week’s Prompt: 67. An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering of hooves heard from outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending. [“DISSIPATION?” by Dan McCoy]
The Resulting Story: The Ruins of Dimov

Ah, a good long prompt with something like an arc already backed in. It feels like it’s been a while. We start with a brief scene of the city in peril, and then return after it’s destruction to a number of squabbling men in a small room near an equestrian statue. The statue it seems comes to life, and upon seeing this the story ends. Nice and simple.

Now, I think there are things to be expanded upon. I think the choice of a horse at the center of destroyed city is interesting. Horsemen in mythology and folklore, especially in non-chivalry contexts, have associations with destruction. There is the Wild Hunt, a host of fae or the dead, lead by one of power—the devil, Odin, Eric of Wales, or any other storm power—which pursues its quarry from the sky. The viewer often dies, and war and terror reign for some time after wards.

Horseman of the Apoclypse.png

Beyond this band, there are the horsemen of the end of time—four horses with five riders: Conquest(Not plague, don’t listen to modern authors!), War, Famine, Death, and Hades. These riders, atop multicolored steeds are the heralds of a quarter of the world dying by various means. Found in art and popular culture, these are ruiners of cities and men alike. The Book of Revelation also includes the host of destructive angels who ride out to cause misery on the world again. This locust horde of the abyss that resemble armed horses are terrors onto the world for the suffering.

And then there are the centaurs, Greek creatures that resemble horses but with the upper bodies of men, and who are known for their uproarious and provocative behavior with the sole exception of Chiron. Their most famed conflict was the abduction of the women of the Lapiths in a raid at a wedding—an incident that reminds me in passing of the Satyr’s tendency to cause terror at weddings. Variations include the centaurs of Dionysus, sent by Zeus to protect the wine god, and the centaurs of Cyprus who are horned.

Of course, the Greeks do not have a monopoly on dreadful horsemen. Akin to the centaur are the people of the Kinara Kingdom in India, who’s exact form varies from “horse necked” to hybrids like the centaurs. In the Philippines there’s the Tikbalang, a horse headed humanoid that can be found in the mountains that some reports suggest can be tamed with a piece of it’s own hair. While the Aswang project reports it as generally harmless and a trickster, others indicate that the Tikbalang is more malicious or even cannibalistic, at times resembling the Wild Men type we’ve discussed earlier.

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And then there is the Nuckelavee—a creature that resembles a man on a horse, with no skin. It’s head is three feet wide, or sometimes it has two, with a horses head that exudes toxic vapors. It is plague and famine, with it’s breath wilting crops and poisoning wells. It’s eyes are fiery. In some cases, the Nuckelavee is even blamed for the withholding of rain and water, causing massive droughts in addition to it’s personal harassing of those it meets.

Folklore about horses can have more various forms—to ride a horse backwards, for instance, causes illness. A trio of horses of the same color are signs of death, and a dead horse hoof buried beneath the stable secures them against enchantment. Horses that are startled have seen dead men, or the soon to be dead.

The Chinese Classic of Mountains and Seas includes a number of creatures that take the form of the horses. There is the creature called which-lake on Mountain Hiddenabyss, which has a horses body, bird wings, a serpent’s tail, and a human face that enjoys giving humans a lift. On Mount Belt there is the ugly-coars, a creature which resembles a unicorn with a ‘hard grinding shell’, and that appears immune to fire. Twenty of the forty-three of the deities of the Western Mountains are horses with a human face. And on Mount Dam, there is an animal that resembles a horse with four horns, ram eyes, and an ox tails—the appearance of this creature, the far-far, causes a rapid increase in fraud. And so on.

The horse sacrifice is a kingship practice in Hinduism—a horse is sent around the kingdom, and if none dispute it, the horse is returned and sacrificed to secure the king’s undisputed rule. Needless to say many epics include sections of conflict disputing this—the Mahabhrata and the Ramayana both feature these sections for instance, before their climatic battles or wars.

Horses and kings are associated elsewhere. Mythical, many king gods have wondrous mounts—the seven headed horse of Indra, the eight legged horse of Odin, the taltos steed, the mythical horses born of the golden fishes. Poseidon, a god of the Greeks who was supreme for that lost Mycenean age, was lord of horses and earthquakes and islands. The epic hero King Gesar was a horse lord of great prominence, the most important throughout northern Asia. Horse numbers were also prestige markers among the various tribes of the Plains Indians of the American west.

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A more modern equestrian statue, that perhaps was once possessed, is Blucifier. The large Blue Mustang statue outside the Denver airport has brilliant red eyes that give it a diabolic appearance was commissioned in 1993. Meant as a symbol of the wild old American West by it’s artist, Luis Jimenez, the horse’s eyes glow and During construction, the massive statue fell on the man who designed it, killing Jimenez. With it’s appearance and the legacy of a frankly disturbing death by its hand, outcry has grown around the statue. A demon horse indeed.

Within the stories of pulp, this reminds me most of one other story in particular: the Story of the Sword of Welleran by Dunsany, which features a number of equestrian statues saving a city in peril from devastation. You can read the full story here.

Now, as I said at the end of the last story, I feel I’ve drifted more into shock and …well, missed the power of horror in character focused dramas. And here, I think, we have an opportunity to work with character drama. We have a group in a small place, in a tense situation—the clattering of hooves outside could indicate rescuers, or it could indicate surviving looters. We have danger, a small place, and a group of survivors huddled together. We just need a cause of conflict and paranoia for the ball to get rolling.

And for that, I think the associations of ruin and desperation of war could work in our favor. We could infuse the story with some paranoia about survival, as the sounds of war are still heard not far off. I think some sort of set up might be needed: why are people suspicous in the wake of the calamity? Are our characters safe from the horde outside? From each other? Is one a looter, a spy, a traitor? Genuine paranoia is a hard thing for me to write, so this will be good practice. I think the most difficult part is forcing a reason for our characters to come together. If they are distrustful of each other, why not split apart? An outside danger might solve that particular problem, but I think some greater pressure is needed to compel a group of strangers inside then the lingering threat of raiders and pillagers in a dead city.

How about yourself. Do you know any devil horses, steeds of Diomedes, or terrors that lurk in desolate cities? What would you write?

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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.

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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.

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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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