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.

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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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All Walled Up

This Weeks Research: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.
The Resulting Story: The Bride and The Bridge

There are few fates more terrible then being buried alive. The paranoia about being buried alive has gripped entire cultures. Victorians laid bells and viewing glasses, so that the living might distinguish themselves from the dead. Modern day variants include being buried with a cellphone, in case that dreadful fate occur to them. But this prompt is about a far older practice: Immurement .

Burying a live victim into the foundations of a building is an old and common practice. Bridges in particular often have some buried in the stone in order to appease those spirits into whose domain they cross. River gods, you see, frequently asked for brides or attendants. An immurement was a more permanent payment, that the strength of the spirit maintain the bridge and appease the spirit.

The Balkans have stories of a morbid, Gothic character of a spirit demanding first two twins (who’s names are Strong and Sturdy). When this fails, the spirit demands a wife of the community: Not a stranger, not a widow, not an orphan. No, it must be the wife of the chief mason or the nobility. The wife is taken, often laughing until she is placed in the hole. Then, realizing her fate, she begins begging for freedom, then turns to cursing her kin, until at last she asks that her right side (Her arms, hand, and face) be left free, that she may gaze upon her newborn child. And this is done, and she nurses her child for another week (or longer, as sometimes the bridge still produces breast milk to this day).

The variations in this story sometimes make it more tragic. In the first place, sometimes the woman is decided by a promise among the three lords: whoever brings the workman their food first will be sacrificed. However, the first and second nobles break their code of silence and warn their wives. The youngest and noblest stays to his word. Come morning, the older women avoid bringing the food down. And the youngest, realizing what has happened, tries delaying the younger woman’s descent. She curses them all as she is walled up by the masons.

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This deception is similar to the Greek story of Iphigenia. Here, Agamemnon is told that for the winds to rise and the thousand ships Helen launched to sail, his daughter must be sacrificed. Unlike our other stories, this sacrifice is commanded because Artemis has been offended by the king—he killed a deer in her sacred grove, and thus must compensate blood for blood. He conspires with his brother to tell his wife to send his daughter—Iphigenia—to the camp, where she will wed Achilles, supposedly. When she arrives, she is brought to be sacrificed—sometimes she is saved by Artemis.

This older myth is still, however, about crossing a body of water by sacrificing a young woman. While Iphegenia is not yet a mother—a requirement of the other stories for the sacrifice—she is generally the same form as prior sacrifices to raise a bridge. Later on, we will examine the broader sacrifices of maidens to monsters of rivers and seas—Andromeda comes to mind—but for now Iphegenia’s particular tragedy is enough. There is no monsterous serpent that will kill her. She is slain by her own family.

The practice is also reminiscent of those done in Japan during bridge building, termed hitobashira. These pillars, marked by human sacrifices below, serve as a prayer that the building never suffer do to natural causes, such as floods or storms. The examples I have also include incidents where such deaths were averted by clever sacrifices, who outsmarted or gambled their lives back. Again, they are marked as an appeasement to river deities, a class of entity we’ve touched on before. The rivers power of devastation might be lost sometimes, but the flood waters can devastate populations.,

Other methods of immurement include burying a man or woman or dog in the corner stone. A passerby might be interned by accident if their shadow passes over the spot for the stone, and many of those buried haunt the place after. A church grim is a specific canine breed of this ghost. In Yorkshire lore, it is not the person buried beneath the church that becomes the grim, but rather the first buried in a graveyard that guards it against the devil and defilers.

According to a prominent if false urban legend, the Great Wall of China had men buried in it. This would have been foolish, as the decomposing corpses would have defeated the purpose of a wall. A more accurate burial of human sacrifices would be those in the tomb of the first Emperor, who were buried that their knowledge not escape the Emperor’s life. Such procedures to avoid tomb robbers have been practiced in many regions, with mixed success.

A case of near immurement occurred in a recorded story from Morocco. The worker fell ill, and the sultan decreed he would be buried in the wall as punishment for slowing the construction. When a passing saint, al-Yusi, is asked to intervene he opposes the sultan, until he is banishd. Al-Yusi settled in a nearby graveyard. The sultan rode out to drive him out, only for his horse to begin to sink into the graves until he repented, nearly buried alive himself.

Immurement beneath houses is equally common, for similar reasons. By placing the ancestors beneath the floorboards, you could ensure their help to the family for years later. An intentional, benevolent haunting of the house if you will. This practice is well observed as a secondary burial, found in various regions as well. Prehistoric burials have been found with the body placed in a pot beneath the floor boards, just in case.

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Leaving folklore behind for a moment, there is also the horror tradition at work here. We must consider a pair of Edgar Allen Poe stories for burial while alive: The Black Cat—which provides the strange second clause of this prompt, of course—and the Cask of Amontillado, where a man is buried alive in a wine cellar. In fact, the latter story seems oddly similar to the stories from the Balkans, with the laughter before a silent end. Arguably, his classic, the Tell Tale Heart, is a similar end, with a burial under the floor boards—albeit a dead one that pretends to be alive.

The story we stitch together then has some strong thematic routes and pathos. It will evoke betrayal, desperation, and of course fear. Not only is being buried alive claustrophobic, it is quite literally confronting the ultimate fate of things early. I think keeping the divine call for a sacrifice. I’m torn between the point of view of the sacrifice or the sacrificer. The sacrifice has the most sympathetic view, but shrinks our horror to a few hours walk, and is ambushed by the burial. The sacrificer, meanwhile, is well aware of the deception. The happiness, the innocence of the lamb lead to slaughter is all the more poignant when you are the butcher.

The other end of planning is doing knife twisting properly. A constant melody of ironic statements, of poignant phrases that mount misery on misery would get as boring as a never ending description of how truly horrifying this or that monster is. The writing here needs balance and relief from the pain, in order to function properly. If the hand is over played, then the horror and tragedy will become schlocky and overwrought. A thing I do try and avoid at times.

 

Biblography

Amster, Ellen. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Butler, Thomas. Monumenta Serbocroatica: a Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century. Michigan Slavic Publ., 1996.
Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. Songs of the Serbian People From the Collections of Vuk Karadzic. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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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).

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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.

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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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