Growing On Trees

This Weeks Prompt: 97. Blind fear of a certain woodland hollow where streams writhe among crooked roots, and where on a buried altar terrible sacrifices have occur’d—Phosphorescence of dead trees. Ground bubbles.

The Resulting Story:George and the Generous Tree

Today, Mr. Lovecraft brings us to another familiar locale—one that might border those strange and poisonous worms we discussed last time. Here we have a forest, marred by some recent and unnatural tragedy—one that makes people avoid it out of fear of the poison it seems to breath. Perhaps Mr. Lovecraft meant to conjure the image of Satanic witch gatherings or folk druids or, in the colonial folklore, those wild places where Satan’s minions gathered. And there is something of that folklore here, contrasted with the more scientific terms of phosphorescence.

A Basque story, which involves a conspiracy among the sons and daughters of Heaven to murder a maid in the woods, makes mention of the Evil One’s arrival. He comes with the great beating of wings, and a foul smell spreads in the air. Poison falls into the rivers and trees begin to die at his arrival, even for a moment. This association, with poisoning of the land and monsters of Hell—such as the devil, but also more common ones like worms and dragons—is common in folklore. The presence of evil plagues the land itself, laying it to waste by merely existing.

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Another set of stories comes to mind for this tale, however. That is the folktale of the Demon Tree. This tale type has a number of variations, which we will discuss, but in a way taps into the notion Lovecraft presents of an ancient sort of worship. The basic premise of the Demon Tree story is a man comes across a tree that is possessed by a demon. He goes to cut it down—only when he goes to strike it, the tree speaks and begs he stay his hand in exchange for wealth or power. The man obliges, only to return later seeking more gold and power under threat of the axe. How the story proceeds from there is the source of a number of variants.

A Slavic version, for instance, has the man ascend the ranks from cottager to mayor to lord to lord lieutenant, each time growing hungrier and hungrier for more power. At last, he demands the tree—specifically a lime tree in this case—make him the king. The tree however, begs he wish for something else or rescind the wish. It reveals that while all the other posts are assigned by men, the post of emperor is of course divinely appointed and thus cannot be given over by a tree spirit. The man insists—and the tree warns him that all he has asked for now will be lost, since he has reached too far in his hubris.

Carob Tree.png

Another instance, however, has the man worry about his worship of the tree for gold. In this case, he had first come to the tree as its worshipers were sitting in his field and preventing his grass from growing. He goes to chop it down, but is offered gold to let it stay. What moves him to reconsider, however, is the sudden spike in deaths at his manor—household staff and family members begin suddenly dying. Eventually, he consults the Sanehedrin—the tribunal of the Jewish people. They advise he cut down the tree, sell whatever he bought with its gold, and all will be well. Sure enough, after doing so, his crops produce a great yield and he finds gold beneath the trees roots!

An instance of this story occurs in China—although the story is from a Persian text—with a Sufi finding people worshiping the tree. This tree is unlike any other—it is a direct descendant of the trees in Eden, it is vibrant and young while still venerable, and it is so wise and holy it can speak! The Sufi reproves the people for worshiping it, and goes to chop down the tree as a false god. The tree offers him gold every day in exchange, and wins the Sufi’s patience. One day, however, the tree stops paying. The Sufi returns and says that now that there is no reason to keep it alive, he will kill it. The tree reveals in turn that this is a lesson—that what brings good can bring harm, and that one should take the good and bad in life without lashing out crudely. It thus survives the tale, as one of the rare holy speaking trees.

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Another story placed in China, but originating from Arabia, concerns a tree. At the ‘far end of China’ live a group of rather unwise people. A farmer has planted a tree in the mountains, and it has grown so magnificent that the people have started worshiping it as the Israelites worshiped the Golden Calve. The devil sends a jinn to possess the tree and speak from it. A wandering Sufi comes across this situation, and like before, sets about to destroy the tree before being paid off. The tree eventually ceases paying, however, and the Sufi returns anew. This time, however, he finds the Devil less afraid—before he came for righteous intentions, now he comes out of greed.

A tale from Burma tells of another possessed tree—in this case, a man after death becomes a tree spirit and goes to a tree to inhabit it. Once he arrives, however, he finds its already inhabited. The two spirits decide that who ever comes and worships them first will have the tree.  The man went and appeared to a friend, asking him to come and worship the tree so he would win. In exchange the man would make him rich. The friend agreed, and the man won—but forgot his promise. The friend thus brought an axe and nearly cut down the tree. The man then promised quickly to make him rich, by turning into a horse and winning races for him. However, the horse only wins the first race—the friend loses everything on the second and third. Next the man turns into an elephant to be sold—but again, things go amiss. The elephant begins to shrink, slowly turning into less worthy animals before vanishing.  This gets the friend imprisoned by his customer. When he is finally free, he goes and chops the tree down—only for the spirit to have long abandon it.

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Other forest spirits to avoid, however, can come to us from the Slavic regions. There we find the Jezinkas, a group of forest spirits that tormented shepherds. Taking the form of young maidens, these spirits would come up to shepherds and other travelers offering an apple. Those who ate it fell asleep and awoke to find their eyes stolen—kept in a pile in the lair of the sisters. Eventually a young man came and resisted the offerings of the Jezinkas, extorting from them the eyes of his elder. Two of the spirits died in the river for refusing to find the proper eyes, but the youngest survived—albiet fleeing to some other haunt.

The Wood Lady is another such spirit, although her danger is difference. She danced with a young girl in the forest, distracting her from her work but entertaining her all the same until the sun went down. The young girl’s mother was enraged that she hadn’t finished her spinning—until, after the third day, she revealed the Wood Lady’s presence. The Wood Lady had sent her home with a gift this time. The basket she gave appeared to be leaves, until she got home and found them gold. We learn then from the Mother that it is fortunate the girl met her, and not one of her brothers—wood ladies are not kind to young boys, and dance them to death when they met them.

I feel there is some subtext there, but I’ll leave it be.

All of these stories, however, play with the notion of the woods as a place of both temptation and dread. It is a source of things—we can consider, for instance, that both worms and the trees effect the production of the world around them. While I’ve focused on trees here, instead of the woods as a whole, I think the presence of an unnatural or strange tree—especially one possessed in the way the demon trees are—is a good source for the strange and haunted nature of the landscape. The bargaining for power provides some tensions and conflict—the benefit of the individual vs the community, especially if the trees gifts are not as innocent as they seem.

I think we have an excellent source of a story about greed, community, and bargaining. I think the basics are rather straightforward and somewhat satisfying with this story—but how the specifics take shape Oddly, the stories I found remind me of a more recent and somewhat noxious child’s story, the Giving Tree.  I do wonder if Shel Silverstien had heard one of these tales when writing that one. It does somewhat remind me of the Lime Tree in the Slavic tales, albeit with no comeuppance.

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Bibliography

Kushelevsky, Rella. Medieval and Oral Variants of the ‘Tree Demon’ Tale Type (AU 1168B): Literacy and Orality in the Study of Folklore.  Taylor Francis LTD. Folklore, Vol. 124, No. 2, August 103.

Monteiro, Mariana. Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People. New York, New York. F.A. Stokes 1891.

Wratislaw, Albert Henry. Sixty Folk-Tales From Exclusively Slavonic Sources. London. E. Stock,1889.

 

It’s Alive!

This Weeks Prompt:64. Identity—reconstruction of personality—man makes duplicate of himself.

The Resulting Story: A Certain Preponderances of Witnesses

The creation of an another form of life is a pursuit that humanity has pursued for a long time. While the intentional creation of a doppleganger is not well known—such things tend to form by chance or anomaly when they occur, and grim visions at that—the idea of continuing on or creating something without a partner is not novel. The horror that can come from these often alchemical projects is vast as well, especially as some are horrific or humorous folklore tales.

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The most common example of the formed individual is the alchemical homonculus. The creation of life in this manner was the goal of alchemists as much as the philosopher stone was; in fact, in the Middle East it superseded transmutation as the primary great work. The Western version, found in Parceleus, seeks to create a new living man by use of an artificial womb—specifically a horses womb. After forty weeks, the child is born and can be fed blood to bring it to the fullness of life, albeit diminutive life. The significance of such an event has been noted by other researchers as an attempt at the recreation of life as done in Genesis.

The creation of life from clay has the additional version in the mode of the golem. The golem is a creature of Jewish folklore, formed of clay and enlivened by commands through its mouth. As mighty beings of clay, the golem was a staunch defender of the community if a silent one. The golem in the most famous narrative, Prauge, turns out in its own time to be a danger when it turns against the community—reasons vary from rejection to simple murderous impulse to violation of the Sabbath. Either way, the golem is ended by the hand that created it by removing its scrolls or altering the script on its head that gave it life.

GolemofPrauge

A recreation of the Golem of Prauge.

The horror genre has of course a parallel with the golem, shared as part of the origin of science fiction: Frankenstien’s monster. The monster, like the golem, is a recreation of the forming of life that starts out benevolent—to the farm family at least, if not to the creator himself who has fled. Eventually he turns on his creator, and the rest is as they say history.

There are more modern uses that, like Frankenstein, employ electricity. The New Motive Power was an attempt to create a messianic figure out of electricity and metal. Its creator, John Spear, communed with an electrical host of spirits. Intended as one of many inventions—including airships and mass telepathy communication networks—the mecha-messiah was ritually conceived and born to no avail. In many ways, this ritual creation of life resembles that Babalon Working by a pair of occultists a century later. Neither attempt succeeded, to the despair of horror authors.

This physical recreation had influence for a significant amount of time among scientific thought. In the pre-genetics age, it was believed that the sperm carried a miniature version of the eventual human that would be born of it, and if placed in the right conditions it would form the person without need for another partner. Preformatism had some proponents that placed the miniature in the egg instead of sperm. Irregardless, the theory proposed in essence that humanity had been entirely contained in its original parents, a scientific notion that has a resemblance to mystical notions of Adam as the first man.

Then there are more esoteric notions of life creation or duplication. The Finnish for instance had a tradition of guardian spirits that resembled their shamans, going ahead of them and doing as they do. The Buddha was capable of generating replicas of himself in meditation, illuminating the universe. Boddhistavas, as they approach their state, gain the power of multiple bodies to send forth and convert or exhort more individuals. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, multiplied himself in battle and trickery on many occasions. The ability to create many bodies can be found among the rddhi in the Oxford dictionary, allowing for many of the dopplegangers so far referenced.

SunWukonFightsALion

Sadly, I could not find an image with Sun Wukong’s self-duplication. However, this fine print was found at http://www.yoshitoshi.net/alpha.html.

With all this in mind, there is another question to be answered: Why? Why is our nameless man trying to create another version of himself? Many reasons for making artificial life are given in folklore. Expressions of enlightenment, need for protection, divine emulation, want for a bride, want for a child. All of these have a history at some point in the history of popular media. However, I think the version here suggests that the source is self-centered. What we have here is not just a creation of life but a recreation of the self. The use of such bodies to cheat death is a surprisingly common trope in media for the mad scientist: The illustrious Doctor Doom has used it after a fashion, as did M. Bison, Rick Sanchez, and a host of others.

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The use of clones as back up has a number of interesting implications from a metaphysical perspective—after all, it confirms a belief on the one hand of a consciousness that can be transferred between material bodies without much difficulty, while at the same time an avoidance or refusal to be restrained to that purely incorporeal state. Or, put another way, such a transfer only seems possible if there is something like a soul—whether as the softward that the brain ‘runs’ or pyscho power or something similiar—but an aversion to taking on that immateriality fully. There is an implicit lingering fear in the creation of a second body—that the soul or minds fate will not be a happy one.

An attempt at immortality then seems the ideal one here. Creating a version of yourself that will presist after your gone, perhaps as vengance against your killers or to torment them? Or just to escape fires eternal? Either way, I think we are again more in the land of mystery. Which means…well, half of the idea has been spoiled by writing this article. We’ve given away the means and most of the motive—although their might be more to it then simply avoiding death.

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