Taboos and Makutu

This Week’s Prompt: 110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.

The Resulting Story: The Island of Curses

 

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For this week’s research, I decided to try and examine things as locally as I could—albeit I misremembered this prompt as specifying Polynesian, when it only says Pacific. Still, a vast region to examine, and one where zooming in on a specific culture can be greatly beneficial. This prompt to me seems clearly one of the many that lead to the Call of Cthulhu—although in this case, the Cyclopean Ruins are the center of the cult, and are there all year round instead of rising and falling into the ocean. To supply some ideas and inspiration on the matter, I decided to look into witchcraft and sorcery of the region.

Witchcraft and sorcery are topics that often have broad similarities across the world, and thus it is in the details that things grow interesting.  In the reports I have, witchcraft is again associated with lower class and elderly, often the feeling of envy. Shamans and traditionally knowledgeable members of the community also faced witchcraft accusations—although colonial authorities justified the criminalization of such acts not because of feared harm of witchcraft itself, but the belief that traditional medicine was leading to neglect and death in the communities who had few alternatives.

The sources I stumbled upon were focused on Maori descriptions of witchcraft, specifically makutu. Makutu is a form of magic that takes many familiar forms—often it is employed by those who have been wronged against others. One thing of particular note is that the practitioners of makutu can pass down these powers to others through objects—and that in some cases, secret societies are rumored to form around these objects and their usage. The topic is not one commonly discussed, by all accounts, meaning my most common sources were either old or very specific.

But more to our interest, is a report by one S. Percy Smith. Here we are told that the origins of witch craft—the various forms of which include death dealing lizards, gods of withering flesh, and more from the power (mana) of Miru. These powers included the ability to send invisible bullets with the tip of the tongue, the power to render objects and water sources taboo, and to render environments taboo. Those who drank from the waters made taboo or trespassed on islands were attacked by horrific sea monsters called taniwha. The natures of these creatures is unclear to me, although a connection to sharks was mentioned in one article. Some witchcraft could be passed on in taboo places, others were unable to be passed one at all.

Taniwha A

An artist rendition of a taniwha, which looks more lizard like.

A separate source claimed that the origin of witchcraft was with a defeated god, Tane, who wished to keep his mother and father close together and the world forever darkness. In order to wreck revenge on the world, he created all the ills of the world—he in a way poisoned it to make it inhospitable to human beings. He taught, as one of these efforts, witchcraft which is among the worst dangers.

Those who practice these spells do so with a proper incantation, and then let an invisible bullet fly from their tongue. Their victims die, sometimes in gruesome shriveling ways as their arms shrink or wither away. Sometimes in more sudden ways, as if quite literally shot. Afterwards, that it was a wise man who did so is apparent, although which isn’t for sometime.

But makutu is not limited to murder or invisible bullets. Envious sorcerers who are rejected by women may drive them mad in response. These women would tear their garments and go naked, able to see the sorcerer’s spirit and describe it to others. Other victims of sorcery could see the sorcerer in wicked dreams, and recognize him. I wonder if this had the effect of spreading dread, or dooming the sorcerer’s endeavors.

Taniwha B

A sculpture of a taniwha, from the side.

Objects could also work sorcery—particularly carved objects of stone or wood. A sorcerer might attack someone with a gift, which if not returned within five years, will cause untold suffering. Objects stolen from a sorcerer likewise attract the ire of a sorcerer, who may send the taniwha to retrieve it and murder the thief.  Carved stones and objects can be rendered taboo—and in some cases, those marker stones from ancient times have truly terrifying creatures guarding them. For this reason, these stones are left unmoved, least the creatures beneath murder those who would move them. Many of ancient places left such terrible wards behind according to an informant, infecting the whole world with wickedness that even plants might bight back against a man who picked them.

Perhaps the most destructive use of this sort of magic is when a sorcerer wants to kill a community. He first must find the ceremonial center of the community. By burying a prepared piece of wood in the ground here where none saw him, a makutu practitioner can murder an entire people if not stopped. Those first affected dream of the cause, and if they alert a healer, the object can be dug up and swallowed.  Those first afflicted will still die, but the community as a whole will live.

Other reports indicate that a star appearing visible during the day has been sent by a sorcerer to curse a victim. Some sorcerers instead dispatch the less visible bird to make their ill will known. In either case, reciting a proper prayer can reverse the harm, sending the doom back to the sorcerer.

Some of these are easily stopped—the use of lizard gods to cause illness, for instance, is relatively easy to end for priests who specialize in such matters. And charms to keep sorcery at bay are common knowledge for many. But others are more direct and harder to stop, moving to quickly to be caught.

Even death may not end these torments. Reports from the 1950s indicate that some practitioners could pass on their skills and talents, or even that such dead practioners still rode the wind. Whether these are exaggerations of practice or not is hard to say—the documentation reminds me of claims of witch practices in the countryside, and the language of the documentation is…of its time.

Location Ryleh

For those wondering where Lovecraft’s pacific island was, here are approximate locations of Ryleh.

So where does that leave us for this prompt? I think there’s something very interesting about the assertion of a house from which all evil things originate—one source even said that the first people to bring these powers into the world sacrificed one of their own to keep the powers permanent—that is considered by all taboo. The idea of ancient stones and places that are filled with something like a poison is fascinating.

The other notion that strikes me is the passing down of powers through generations to endow mastery and greater powers beyond. The writer of that section suggested the stories came from or were related to the old testament stories of Elijah and Elisha—and that may be the case. But for a narrative that traces itself back to a truly ancient time (antediluvian being before the great deluge that wiped the world clean), such notions of continuity are important. Which brings us round to what sort of narrative we are working with here.

We are given here a location more than a narration. The Cthulhu story has this strange island rising, and being stumbled upon by nearby sailors who interrupt the waking creature by ramming it. Yet, I don’t think I want to repeat that particular idea of just ‘stumbling across’ such a hidden and dangerous place. One idea is following someone to their first meeting of a horrific conspiracy—or perhaps being dragged back there, in a case of mistaken (or misplaced) identity by someone fleeing the conspiracy. The idea of vengeance or having wrong the witch or sorcerer in question is a common one that I think could also play into the idea. The question at the root then is what is the horror about: Being inducted into this conspiracy or being the victim of it, when one is dragged to this island of horror where even the trees try to bite at anyone who sets foot on them?

 

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Bibliography

Palmer, G. Blake. “TOHUNGAISM AND MAKUTU: Some Beliefs and Practices of the Present Day Maori”. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (June, 1954), pp. 147-163

Voyce, Malcom, “Maori Healers in New Zealand: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907”. Oceania, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 99-123

Smith, S. Percy. “The Evils of Makutu, or Witchcraft.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 30, No. 119 (1921).  Accessed here: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_30_1921/Volume_30%2C_No._119/The_Evils_of_Makutu%2C_or_witchcraft%2C_by_S._Percy_Smith%2C_p_172-184/p1

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.

TalkingFish.png

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

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

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

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

Realeasing the Djinn.png

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

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

ThorFishin.png

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

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

SeaBishop.png

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

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

UtsoBune.png

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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Bound Beneath The Earth

This Week’s Prompt:59. Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.
The Resulting Story: The Many Doors of the Dead

We find a man in a room, underground, with only one exit. He may stay in this room. Or he may try and force his way out. When he goes and tries to escape his isolation, the onrush of the outside world, a miasma of chaotic waters, kill him. We do not know if he was pulverized or drowned. But had he not forced open that door of antiquity, he would be alive.

I say antiquity, because that is what the metal bronze conjures. It is a metal deployed in phalanxes or on chariots, not in the knightly arms of medieval warlords or the rifling of a modern man. It is a material of a bygone age. And as such, we might discuss some of the metaphor that seems at play in this story. For, pushing the bounds of the world and meeting catastrophe is a common theme in Mr. Lovecraft’s work.

Plato's Cave.png

We can consider the lightless room or cave to be a maker of the cosmos. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who put Socrates’s words to writing, used a similar metaphor. In the Americas, a number of South Western people’s describe the emergence of humanity into the world as coming from a series of caves. Both the Navajo and the Hopi include stories of humanity emerging into this world from one’s deep below. In the myths of Maya and Aztec people’s, cave play the special role as connections to the underworld and ancestors. In more modern times, there are of course notions that we are within a hollow shell,the inside of an egg waiting to be born.

So we are within the world. And there is a door, made in ages past of bronze. It is the only way out, it seems, from our comfortable room of known existence. This door of bronze perhaps could be taken as the understanding of the world our ancestors had. It is a limiter, beyond which we cannot see anything—the chamber is after all subeterranean, and who would force open a door that they knew had a vast expanse of water on the other side. By pushing past these ancient limits, we encounter something new, or at least vast. The waters, who’s symbology we have discussed before, are a vast life giving force that overcomes the fool that releases them, creating a minature deluge. The man dies for his curiosity.

The metaphor points generally to a sort of terrified conservatism that defines Lovecraft to a point. We can recall his famous opening of the Call of Cthulhu:


“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. “

That being the case, we must consider how to wring more out of this then mere dread. Watching a man slowly go insensate before making a fatal mistake, unknown and unmourned by the world at large in his tomb is…dull. I am sure there is some way to make such a story intreasting. But on it’s own, existential dread is an easily dismissed horror. No. A better trick, I think, is that of memory. To recollect, as one stumbles through the strange cave, life before this darkness. What it is that lures the fatal, doomed choice of opening that ancient door.

King in the Mountain.png

Places literally underground are not uncommonly full of dangers. We have talked about the threats of some of these creatures before, such as kobolods and grootslangs and Typhon who was buried under a mountain in Sicily. Other stories that are more than relevant here include those things of the deep that hold ancient knowledge. The dead are the most common, but not only example. In Russian Folklore, we have a giant of a man named Svyatogor who is trapped beneath a mountain and yet lends advice where he can to the knights of the Rus. In Arthurian myth and Charlemagne romances, Merlin often ends up beneath a tree or within a tree despite all his wisdom. And of course, there is the King In The Mountain, Barbossa being the most famous literal version. Some of these imprisonments, however, are only that. While a traveler might find such strange nobillity here and there, they aren’t dwelling so much as sleeping.

We can also consider creatures that are more serpentine in nature, as was touched on here. The great naga princes of tibetan folklore often dwelled in dreamworlds of the deep, resembling the fae we’ve come to know in many ways, including their power of many forms and their multiplicity of gifts, and a bit of their penchant for trickery.

In Maori folklore, Maui’s blessings come from his mother and father who live in the depths of the earth. Maui further presents an intreasting example of the sort of hubris Lovecraft would give to the man of science. Maui heads out to earn man’s immortality, by defeating his ancestor. The result is rather predictable, if bizarre. He heads within his ancestress while she sleeps, warning the nearby birds not to laugh. One very young bird does, and his stirring ancestress kills Maui.

The Sumerian hero Gilgamesh likewise ventures underground, following the flames of the sun in order to reach the place where immortality might be found. He also fails, although he survives the encounter. His test is rather wakefulness, and in another time we will discuss the motif of death and slumber. 

To return to how this might shape our narrative, the cavern is as much a character as our prisoner. It is a character in shapes and form, eliciting memories and moods. I think a landscape like those the dragons once dwelt in will work well. An abandoned faerie castle, the ruins of a great dragon’s kingdom, a landscape that is more than darkness and shadows wandered through forever and ever. It also might give the bronze door some more menace, if it is the only worked metal in the cavern of wonders. The only plain, unadorned thing, in a forgotten land.

City of Brass.png

A good reference for this material would be the story “City of Brass” from the 1001 Arabian Nights. The story follows travelers through a series of barren wastelands and tombs, full of strange sights, desiccated corpses, imprisoned demons, and odd devices. It has a rather clear moral to it about attachment to material goods, but at the same time there are undercurrents of cosmic horror as the will of God so portrayed is not always knowable. The story also features several instances of characters dooming themselves by ignoring clear warnings, which falls neatly into what might be waiting for our prisoner. The city itself is slightly off from the prompt, sadly, being of brass instead of bronze. But the visual cue is close enough I believe.

Bibliography:

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

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