The Last of His Kind

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

This is another citation that, with some work, can be directly sourced. Photious provides a catalogue of books, including the following entry under Damascius:

Read a work by Damascius in four books, the first of which, in 352 chapters, is entitled, On Incredible Events; the second, in 52 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Demons; the third, in 63 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Souls that have appeared after Death; the fourth, in 105 chapters, On Incredible Natures. They all contain impossible, incredible, and clumsily invented tales of wonderful things, foolish and worthy of the impious and godless Damascius, who, while the light of the true religion spread over the world, remained steeped in the thick darkness of idolatry. The style is concise, clear, and agreeable, which is not usually the case in such stories.

This is the only information I could find on these texts—although I’m amused at the fact that genre fiction was listed as a writing reference even a millennia past. So instead, I turned to Damascius’s own writings. Looking over Wikipedia, there were a few routes to pursue. Damascius himself was a Neo-Platonic writer—and one who was “irreligious”, neither mystic nor paying head to holy texts. His summation of God then was as an infinite and indivisible being—and thus an incomprehensible one. The traits we attribute to the divine are only made by inferences from its actions, not from understanding its true nature.

Damascius’s life highlights a few other interesting facets. He was the last head of the School of Athens, before being fleeing to Persia to escape persecution by Justinian the First. He spent a year in Persia before returning as part of a peace treaty between the two emperors of the known world. Much of his work is lost, of course, and while he taught students, he did not found a school outside of Athens. His commentaries on Plato seem to deal with, from the excerpts linked on Wikipedia, the inherent immortality of the soul as a source of light—comparable to how fire is a source of heat in Platonic thought.

He also briefly met with a politician, named Severianus of Damascus. This man is mostly know through Damascius, and lead his own varied life in politics—as a governor, a strict and draconian one at that, then returning to Athens. Emperor Zeno offered him a high post on the condition he convert. Instead, he helped a pagan  murder plot on the Emperor, which failed.

Pseudo-Dionysius

This alone is enough for a cosmic horror story—but I wanted to go a bit further. Wikipedia notes that one researcher has suggested Damascius is the author of a collection of works called the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. This collection of works has import to the history of the church that drew my attention for further investigation with this quote from Wikipedia:

“All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow.”

Creation and definition by lack—the void itself as divine, empty of anything but silence, ignorance, and darkness was a striking image counter to popular descriptions of the divine as a light from heaven, a source of revelation, and heavenly choirs. Reading through his descriptions of the Celestial Hierarchies, we see that this isn’t precisely the case. Angelic minds have something of a knowledge of God—and they in turn seeking deifying knowledge, so they may better imitate God’s nature.

He describes these hierarchies as dancing around the center throne of god, in a way that reminds of me the image of Azathoth around whom elder gods and musicians dance. He goes on to note that the comparison of angels to flame is due to the presence of flame in all things, moving between all things easily, hidden for most of it’s existence—here we must note that there is flame and there is fire, and that flame appears to mean the elemental flame that might erupt from any moment. Heat might be a better, more modern term for the sensation and energy he describes.

He enumerates natures of various implements, and their symbolic meaning—angels have human heads to indicate they are thinking, they where geometric garbs to show both wisdom and the foundations of creation, they wield weapons to divide, they hold scepters to unite. Each of these are key symbols in the perception of the divine.

So we have the last of a pagan school of philosophy, discussing either an incomprehensible god or, if we grant the Dionysian corpus, a god that is defined not by the heraldry of angels but instead the darkness of night. And one who’s interest lied, at one point, in the Platonic theory of the immortal soul that goes through cycles of reincarnation. This covers, I think, the appearances of the dead, but what of the notion of demons?

A daimon of good fortune in the shape of a snake.

Demons in this context perhaps better refers to the Greek daimon, which acted as an intermediary between gods and men. The meaning of this term of course changed with time, but it was generally understood that they were not divine exactly—nor were they visible. Demons were thus forces at play, invisible intermediaries and divine presences. In some works, the constructions of shrines were done so that they would not wander far—and they would keep their blessings nearby. Other cases posit them as the souls of dead men from the Golden Age, now guiding humanity—a characterization that resembles, in part, the fate of the Nephilim in some rabbinic texts—and thus positive. In royal cults, whether Alexander the Great or Augusutus, it was this daimon, this numen, this divine nature or spirit that was revered as opposed to the specific person (although the distinction blurred often).

The change into demons as we understand came from translation of the Septugaint from Hebrew to Greek—and thus changing the word shedim to daimon. This connected the name with wicked spirits, and this in turn lead to the quite literal demonization of such beings. Still, in some texts we see that the idea wasn’t entirely new. In Pythagoren works, they prove capable of infecting others with dieseases and misfortune, while the Platonic ideals gave them a moral character—that some were allotters of wicked fortunes, others good fortunes.

The stories of Damascius then would draw on a tradition of invisible spirits, allotters of fortunes, both wicked and wonderful. Or perhaps of a lost age of heroic peoples, now wandering the world at the will of Zeus. Either way, of beings invisible and ancient—although, unlike Mr. Lovecraft, not altogether malevolent. Indeed, one suggestion for daimon’s popularity in Plato is to bridge the gap between the unintelligible Divine Forms and stars, and mortal person experience with divine. So, what do we do with this?

Well there are a few routes I think. One is to center on the lost works themselves—in the same way that art in Lovecraft is often a window into secret knowledge with the paintings of Pickman and the play the King in Yellow, so too could these lost works be gates to powerful and forbidden knowledge of some dangerous sort. Of course, dangerous knowledge itself is…not a trope that I am exactly fond of. It needs more elucidation.

Another path is to take up the idea of invisible spirits that act as messengers for an incomprehensible being—servants and whisperers of the universe. They might bring messages to our character, stir up fortune or misfortune, acting like a living curse or blessing for those that disturb their shrine or home. The fact that some daimons remained at shrines as a sort of home leads me to consider the destruction of such an ancient place, unleashing an angry and powerful invisible spirit. Not one that is mortal, or mortal as we understand it, but from some bygone time out of time.

Knowledge of such things then might become the cure. A man hunted by a spirit forgotten by all must seek out these lost works, to learn how such a thing can be appeased or dispelled even as it harrows and haunts him. That I think gives us a better grip for how to use the knowledge angle of this prompt then the cursed knowledge.

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Birds of Pray

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Resulting Story: Bird of Old Feather

Birds have come up a few times in our work, most notably here. But we certainly didn’t explore this in it’s entirety—there are still many more stories of the nature of birds, especially long lived and speaking ones.

A common motif found in stories of birds in the Balkans is the nightingale, who’s song completes a mosque. The first example is the story of the Nightingale Empress. The Nightingale Empress is sought after by a king to finish his majestic mosque, sending forth his three sons to find it. Two of the sons are common heroic types, but one is bookish and well read. They come to a path with three routes, two of which people have returned from and one which none have returned from. The heroic brothers take the routes men have returned from—and they in time gave up and took on trades, before heading back.

A common nightingale. I don’t know what an imperial nightingale looks like.

The bookish brother, however, was scholarly and wise in the ways of the world. He went down the path none came back from, and meet a number of monsters. He met a wild woman and gave her a comb so that she wouldn’t have matted hair, getting guidance further. He met a Lynx and his wife, and by teaching the wife how to make bread without burning her paws he escaped her husbands hunger. He was directed to a lion and lioness, both blind, to learn of where to go. The lynx told him to pretend to be their child, accept their caresses and comb the lion’s hair. And so he did, and went further down until three mysterious birds assaulted him. Fending them off, he came to a home where a old woman warned him her three man-eating daughters were returning. So he hid, and found the birds  had become daughters. They agree to take him further, so long as he serves them each for a month.

And so at last he is taken to the place where the Empress Nightingale is: the palace of the vila queen. The palace was guarded by five hundred men, a wolf, a lynx, and a lion.  Most of these protections, however, are bypassed by the aid of the eagle sisters. At last he returns to his brothers…who on the road back attempt to kill him by abandoning him in a well. The eldest then comes home, and claims to have found the bird.

But it won’t sing.

In time, the vila queen arrives however. She wants to know where the bird was found and, when the eldest claims it was in a cypress tree, she is infuriated. She insults him so badly that his subjects turn on him and beat him with sticks. The middle son reveals the truth of the matter, and the youngest bookish brother is rescued from death. And so the Nightingale Empress sings, and the bookish brother marries the vila queen and is named heir.

Then there is a tale from Serbia, about a humble bird catcher who produces a similar nightingale. While he was out catching birds, he caught an old crow—the crow promised to aid him in exchange for its life. The bird catcher, having no use for an old crow, agreed. He tricked other birds into being caught by the bird catcher, drawing crowds over time and bringing attention. The next day, the emperor asked that the bird catcher bring him three nightingales to complete his mosque, on pain of his life. The crow guided the bird catcher—and sure enough they were lured into cages.

Crow

Then the emperor asked for the mistresses of these birds, and the crow again advised him on how to lure her out. Captured, the empress of nightingales becomes the emperor’s bride. She is bitter about her capture, however.  She attempts to have the bird catcher killed—first she sends him to find the broken piece of her ring, which the crow finds using copious oil. Next, she skips right to the chase. She will not formally marry the emperor until the bird catcher has died.

So the emperor tells the bird catcher jump in a fire. The crow gives him advice—first to beat his wife and drive her away. Then to coat himself in the foam of a horse before entering the flame—and doing so, he survives and appears all the younger. Seeing this, the people call him to be released—and the emperor declares the bird catcher will be his vizier. Asking how he can be young, the emperor learns the trick…but it doesn’t work. Instead, he burns alive and the Bird catcher becomes the young emperor and marries the empress of nightingale.

There are more amazing birds found among the Ainu, who tell of great birds and diabolic owls. One such being is a great eagle that soars through the sky, and lives even higher beyond that. Occasionally, this eagle drops large golden feathers—if stored properly, these feathers have magical powers for three years.

A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

It was mentioned in passing that some birds—the cuckoo, the woodpecker, the nighthawk, the goatsucker and the owl—use their cries to betwitch people wherever they go. The owl has some mixed associations besides. Some owls guide hunters to their prey, while others are mischevious makers. Yet even the mischevious little owls know a wicked man from a good one, just from a glance.

The owl in the Avesta is a divine creation. Called the Asho-zusht, this bird recites the Avesta and prevents the nails of dead men from being used as weapons by fiends. Other wonders persist in Perisan lore—eagles, for instance, earned a life span of a century for shading the prophet Mohammed.  In Zorastrain times, the solar crow provided healing presence to Zoraster, when he suffered a curse. The feathers and bones of the raven grant victory—and that is yet accounting for the famed Simurgh. Half-bird, half-beast, it granted Rostam three feathers. Should these be burned, the great bird would arrive and display its power.

What power is this? The great birds wings from clouds and cause rain—and when he takes flight, he scatters seeds and twigs all over the world, restoring crops. That is the might of this great bird!

Thai statues of the Garuda battling Naga

The scale here implies something else to me, however. It reminds me of some descriptions of the Garuda, especially in Buddhism, where the bird has similar scope and understanding.  Its wings are cosmic in scale, golden, and beat with hurricane force. The Garuda, sometimes a singular being and sometimes an entire species of bird beings, are always at odds with the Naga.

And there is of course the crowning example of birds that live forever: the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a Greek description of a common motif—a bird that is reborn in fire and ash. According to Herodotus, the story comes from Egypt, and yet the bird comes from Arabia—rising in the East it seems, to die in the West. It comes every five hundred years, covered in myrrh. The color of this bird varies, but it is generally the size of an eagle—although sometimes it resembles a peacock.

The Bennu Bird

But is there an Egyptian bird that resemble the phoenix? There is! The Bennu bird, a self created deity that existed before the rest of the world. At least one text has this great bird flying over the waters before the world, landing on a stone, and demanding the world be made! The Bennu, like the Phoenix, is associated with the sun. Bennu is the inner soul of Ra, and rises into the air with the sun every day. While it does not die like the phoenix, it is a solar bird of immense age that travels across the world.

North there is another bird that perhaps resembles more the Simurgh. The Konrul appears as a peacock so big it can carry off a cart,  with chimeric features. Sometimes it is a bird-dog hybrid, other times it has a dog head sometimes a dog head with human face, sometimes lion claws. Like the Garuda, it has an enmity to snakes. It lives near large sources of water, and like the Simurgh gifted a hero three of its feathers—in this case for saving it’s children.

A common thing with ancient birds, then, is the sun, song, and dominance over the skies. The bird as a beautiful creature that is treasured for its song and wisdom—especially crows—is fairly common. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the longest living bird, and the longest lived parrot (since of course, parrots are famed for their mimicry of human speech).  The three current contenders are all almost a hundred years old—but the oldest bird is one named Cocky Bennett, a cockatoo that exceeded a century in its life time. While not mythic in proportion, a century old bird feels appropriate for a story where secrets are revealed by a strange bird.

This story’s prompt actually reminds me, strangely enough, of our story of the feline who wrote in her owner’s voice from beyond the grave. The idea here I think is very much similar—and Cocky Bennett’s story of being passed on in inheritance feels like the actual start to a story. A bird from a dead and strange relative, that whispers and repeats strange things at night. And sometimes, of course, just speaks with the voice of a dead man.

Bibliography

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.

Marshall, Bonnie C. Tales from the Heart of the Balkans. Libraries Unlimited Inc, Englewood Colorado, 2001.

Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 212. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.

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

We actually rewrote the last story on birds on our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/late-january-24921428

Through the Looking Glass

This Week’s Prompt: 118. Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.

The Resulting Story:The Empty Windows, Part 1

I think Mr. Lovecraft must have had a strange architectural road trip, given the number of stories that have focused on being stuck in a home and seeing horrible monsters and sights—and checking his timeline, March 1924 was when he moved in with his girlfriend to New York. Which is around the time this prompt is recorded.

Unlike the last few times of circling haunted houses and locked basements, I thought I would look into the specific nature of windows. Windows in many places act as points of entry for unbidden and unwanted spirits. Vampires and foul creatures fly into the homes here, and so they are often critical to protect. Some examples of strange windows that I found include a common architectural design in Vermont, the witches window.

This window, placed at an angle, was supposedly used by witches to fly out of…or to remove coffins from the second story. The windows are placed at an angle, to catch a witch flying—she can’t enter, because the windows would catch the broomstick. This example might be catch Lovecraft’s eye, given his interest in architecture and witches and New England. The validity of such a window being ‘to catch witches’ seems…unlikely, given that it is not the only window in the house. Likewise, a coffin going up the stairs is unlikely—it seems more likely a  body would be brought be back down.

A more fearsome example would be Black Annis—a hag, with a blue face and iron claws. Black Annis was known for eating pets, children, and sheep. She was entirely nocturnal, and would no doubt be a terrifying and fearsome creature. Except she had a habit of grinding her long, white teeth against each other.  This gave everyone time to bolt their doors and run inside—and in fact, windows in the area are too small for the hag to enter. Fire was often located near the windows for the same intention, as when fire was too far from the window she would reach in and steal children. And if both of these failed, the grinding could be heard from five miles away—giving time for farmers to place herbs and skins over the windows

A more fantastic story comes from Grimm. There once was a princess who every day would visit the top of a tower with twelve windows to look through.  From these windows she could see anything in the kingdom. From the first window, she could see more distinctly than any other human in the world. Further, each window made her window sharper and sharper until the twelfth window. Being a haughty princess of such supreme skill, she insisted that she would be married to no man unless he could hide from her view—and further, that if a man should try to hide and fail, he would be beheaded and his head stuck on a pike. Ninety-nine men took such a risk, and lined the castle walls.  Three brothers decided to try their luck. The first hid in a limepit and…well, was found instantly, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The second hid in a cellar was seen from the second window, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The youngest begged that he be given three chances instead of one—and he was so handsome and charming, that the princess agreed to his terms.

The brother meditated on how to succeed, and thinking of nothing else he went hunting. He spied a raven, raised his gun, and was about to shoot. The raven cried out that he would help the youngest brother if he was spared.  He went down to a lake saw a large fish—and the same scene repeated. And so on with a fox.

The next day, he set out to hide—and asked the Raven for help. And the raven thought for a time, and opened up an egg shell, and placed the youth inside it. And this went well—it took the princess until the eleventh window to see him. And she had the raven shot and warned the man that he had two more chances.

Then the man went to the fish. The fish swallowed the man and went to the bottom of the lake, and there hid from the princess. And this time, it took until the twelfth window for the princess to spot him. And she had the fish killed, and warned the youth again. One more chance, she said—no doubt nervous—that he had one more attempt.

And then the man went to the fox. The fox took the man to a spring, and bathed in it’s waters—and became a stall-merchant. The youth washed himself, and became a sea hare. And the merchant that was a fox took the hare that was a youth and displayed him to the whole town. And the beauty of the youth was carried over to the hare, and all the town came to see—including, in time, the princess. And the fox warned the youth—when she goes to look at the window, climb into her braids.

In case, like me, you’d imagined a sea hare as an adorable fish-bunny.

The princess did buy the sea hare, and took him up to the tower. And as she failed to see him in every window, she slammed the window shut with so much force that it broke every one of the windows and shook the castle. Feeling the sea-hare in her hair, she tossed it in a rage and shouted for it to get out of her sight. So the hare that was the youth obliged and ran back to the merchant that was a fox—and the two became themselves again. And the youth thanked the fox, that he truly knew how to hide. And came home, married the princess, and became king. Never once did he tell her how he accomplished all of this, so she believed he had done so by his own talents and respected him. A rather dastardly end, I suppose.

The Formorians, who’s king Balor had a baleful eye.

A few stories from Ireland caught my attention with windows when I went digging. Some are versions of stories I’m unfamiliar with—such as suggesting that Balor gained his evil eye from witnessing the creation of a poison by sorcerers through a window. The witnessed poison infected Balor’s eyesight. A host of dreadful monsters likewise seeks to enter homes through the west windows—ones that may be the restless and numerous dead or something far worse, depending on the origin. These Sluagh resemble great hosts of blackbirds, and seek at night to steal the souls of the dead before last rites. They were sometimes once people, sometimes merely monstrous fae. Their battles caused not only terror, but death and plague—they might sweep a mortal up with them to sow havoc and despair throughout the land. Clearly, not guests one wants to receive.

I know there is also a tale from Lorraine, France of a window that holds victims still…but sadly, I cannot find a translation of the story to know much beyond that (and I know that only from the myth motif index. That said, I think we have quite a bit to work with here. A window is something that lets eyes in and out, and has all the implications of ‘witnessing’ that implies.  And given the imagery of the prompt—an oriel window, looking out and over a plain, a street, or something else from above—I think that is the crux of the story. Something our narrator has witnessed.

Perhaps it is another place—another time. An alien world or a past time or something else that leaves a ghastly impression. The house or room sits on the edge and only the window can see into the other side. I have not yet read House on the Borderlands, but that seems a wide space to explore. The Aleph, by Borges, delves into the power to view far away vistas and strange places deeply.

There is of course the idea that seeing something changes you—that perhaps seeing something lets that thing see you. That vision is a two way process, and while God may have shut the door…perhaps he opened the wrong window. Things seeping in, leaking in through a window from the beyond seems like a fascinating story in it of itself.  

Windows are ways to observe the world, and I am fascinated by the idea of a set of windows that show something or somewhere more precisely—allowing one to see new and strange vistas, each it’s own little story. That concept is perhaps too long for what we are given here, but perhaps for another time.

Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

“Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare.” Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grimm’s_Household_Tales,_Volume_2/The_Sea-Hare.

Noyes, Amy Kolb. “What’s The History Of Vermont’s ‘Witch Windows’?” Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, 2017, http://www.vpr.org/post/whats-history-vermonts-witch-windows.

Religion, / Atlantic. “’Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls.” The Atlantic Religion, 9 May 2014, atlanticreligion.com/2013/08/17/sluagh-sidhe-and-hidden-folk-the-host-of-souls/.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

The Beast Must Feed

This Week’s Prompt:117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Resulting Story: The Family Business

This prompt resembles another prompt we covered some time ago, about secret rooms in castles and homes. There might be some overlap in what we discuss here and what was touched upon there. There is the creature of Glamis Castle we discussed then—a monstrous, vampiric or amphibian offspring that was kept in a secret chamber apart from humanity. There was the strange beast that guarded the castle Orlando fought. Both of these strange monsters lurk in secret around the castle, but they are not so often described as being “fed”.

For that, the first creature or entity that came to mind was  a spirit from Chinese folklore—a gu . This is a creature, often a centipede, that is created by trapping a number of poisonous insects and animals in a jar, and waiting to see which one emerged victorious. This creature is the most venomous, having absorbed the venom of all the dead creatures it has killed. These creatures could appear, disappear, cause lights to appear, infect food and drink, and in some cases control the souls of dead victims. They resemble all sorts of insects and toads and serpents. More pressingly for us, they were able to shift a victims wealth to the sorcerer who created them. In many stories, this monstrous spirit had an appetite that had to be maintained, so that the family’s prosperity could continue.

Symbols for the Gu poison and Jincan (Golden Silkworm, a related creature)

A comparable sort of spirit was documented in Wales. Some of them are more akin to ghosts, but one knight by the name of Sir David Llwyd had a familiar spirit bound in a great book. He once left home without taking the book with him, and realizing his mistake, sent a servant home to fetch the book. The child, curious as young boys are, opened the book after which the spirit appeared and demanded orders. The boy, in shock, told the spirit to go and toss stones into the river—and the spirit obeyed, filling the air with stones the boy had to dodge, until the river was full. Then, it came back demanding more orders—and so the boy in desperation asked the stones be thrown back where they came from. Luckily, this delay in the books delivery has caught Sir David’s attention and he arrives on the scene, commanding the devil back into the book, ending the chaos as he closes it.  While this demon required no feeding, it is in need of constant  supervision.

Sometimes, these hideous beings do not wait to be bound, but instead bind another.  A lady in the woods was apparently infamous for this behavior, bewitching a man named Einion with illusions such that his wife, Angharad, seemed a decayed old hag, and the spirit the most beautiful of women. He split their wedding ring in two when he departed with the spirit, taking half the golden ring with him. As he wondered under her spell, he by chance looked under his ring, and saw on the horizon that which he desired most. He decided then to put the half the ring under his eyelid to see that spot forever—and while he was trying to do so, a man in white with a staff rode up to him. Hearing his plight, the man offered to take him back to his wife. When Einion got on and looked behind him, he did not see the Lady of the Woods, but only vast hoof prints in the ground. The man in white asked if he wished to see the Lady of the Woods, handing him his staff with which to see the goblin. And the Lady of the Woods was a horrifying repulsive witch of great size. As he screamed, the man cast his robe over him, and took them both to the hill near Trevelir.

The Lady in the Woods, meanwhile, had taken on the shape of a young knight and made love to Angharad—having told her that Einion was dead. And they prepared to marry, as the Lady of the Woods promised to make her the most noble woman in Wales. At the wedding, where everyone had gathered, there was a contest to play  a harp that Einion had left behind, the best harp in Wales. None could play the harp, but at last Einion arrived—appearing to his wife as a decrepit old man—and offered to play. And this won Angharad’s heart, although she could not break the illusion—even with the ring restored. So Einion granted her the staff and she saw the goblin’s true shape. After she was revived from fainting, the illusion ended, the banquet and pageantry vanished, and they returned to happy lives.

A more classical beast in the castle story comes to us from Italy. Here, we have a lady with only one son. Oh how she loved her son. Once, while her son and his companions were out hunting, she was visited by a strange lady. The lady asked to put her horses up with the ladies—who refused, as her horses would mix with no others. As she turned to leave, however, her son and his companions returned. The mysterious woman was in fact a fairy—and she bewitched the entire company to become satyrs. Satyrs, brutish and monstrous until the lady could find one who would marry him as he was.  In the meantime, he and his companions had to stay in the stables away from home.

As  his mother failed to find marriage in the land, the prince waited in the stables for rescue. And espied one day, in the gardens near the stables, the daughter of a duke. With a hand he beckoned her over, because like most satyrs he had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a goat. She drew near, but seeing his form, was disgusted and ran off.

The next day the same pattern repeated, as he asked if she wished him well and she protested she did not despite her approaches. The narrator informs us that she cannot yet say she loves him, and in fact goes to her mother about the affair. The mother warns her daughter to stay away from the monsters, and she does so for a month—before at last returning. The prince entreats her so sweetly that she is moved—or perhaps it is his promise of suicide if she rejects him. At last, she say she wishes him well—and at last the fairy comes forth and breaks the spell.

Which I admit confuses me, as the fairy swore only when he was wed would the curse be lifted. I suppose the prince was especially fortunate his fairy was fickle.

King Zahak is a more royal example of a hidden hunger. A man of spectacular charisma, but little self control and wisidom, the devil Ahriman advised him to murder his own father and become king of Arabia. Then, the same devil became his cook—and an excellent one at that! For his service, Zahak asked the cook what gift he would want. And the cook asked only to kiss Zahak twice—on each shoulder. Zahak allowed it, and from the kisses sprang two black serpents who attacked and bit at Zahak. The cook took his leave, not seen again as Zahak struggled with this curse. The snakes could not be cut free—they simply regrew whenever they were cut off. Eventually, a doctor came—again Ahirman in disguise—and revealed to Zahak that the only cure for his affliction was to eat a dish prepared with the brains of two men. And so, Zahak turned to grotesque cannibalism.

Zahak, consulting about those snakes

In time, the Emperor of Iran fell out of favor with the people. Zahak arrived to them as a savior, and with a great army drove out the emperor, chasing him down and eventually executing him by sawing him in half. However, his hunger did not abate. His agents find two men each day to give him. Two heroic men, Armayel and Garmayel, seek to rescue these victims by becoming royal cooks and replacing one of the human brains with brains of a sheep. The saved man was sent away to the mountains to live.  In time, after centuries of tyranny, Zahak was overthrown—but that is a story for another time.

Comparable in some ways to Zahak, but also to Bluebeard, is the story of Prince White Pig. Here a boy traveling on a road insults an old fairy while traveling. For this, he is cursed to be a pig by day (although the most handsome prince by night, which…I’m unsure such curses work as intended). His father builds a stone enclosure for him to live in. The prince decides to marry, and a bride is found. Of course, when the pig-groom who has spent all day wallowing goes to kiss her, she slaps him back. The prince than devours her. And a second bride, who undergoes the same ‘trial’. The third bride is kind to him, and thus lives long enough to see his handsome princely nature by night. She must not reveal this fact about her husband, however, or she will need a steel dress and steel shoes to find him again.

Of course, to the surprise of none, the taunting of her mother becomes too much and she reveals at last the real nature of her husband.  Eventually, with the aid of fairies, she finds that her husband is back to being a prince and about to marry a princess.  With the help of a servant, she saves her husband from the princess who was drugging him every night. After they speak, they go to the king, who lets them leave as husband and wife.

Which, I mean, he did eat two other human beings for slapping him, I’m not sure he’s exactly husband material.

There is also of course the  ancient Minotaur. For those unfamiliar with the story, Poseidon once sent King Minos a snow white bull as confirmation of his king ship—on the condition that it be sacrificed to the Earthshaker. King Minos, however, found the bull to beautiful to sacrifice and kept it. In revenge, the god of the sea made the queen Pasiphae fall in love with the bull—and the queen had the inventor Daedalus devise a way for her to make love to the bull. The result of this was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.

The minotaur was a fierce being and, being neither man nor beast, had no natural source of nourishment. So he fed upon human flesh, and thus had to be contained. Daedalus was again employed to create a labyrinth to contain the monster, and every seven years offerings, Athenian youths were offered to the beast. 

There seems to be a common line with these monsters however. These creatures that demand blood and must be imprisoned give or are correlated to an ascent to power. Zahak receives power from Ahriman—and receives his hunger from Ahriman. The bull secures Minos’s kingship…and brings the Minotaur. The gu demon brings wealth but also threatens the family and is used to feed on the populace. Even the pig and satyr princes derive from uses of power and rudeness—and in the case of the pig, turn literally from man-eating monster into heroic prince like night and day. Sir David’s familiar granted him extreme power and knowledge—even if it cost him his curacy—and the lady of the woods took the shape of noble ladies and knights in her travels.

To keep the old power alive, the old monster must be fed sounds like the basis for a gothic horror story indeed. We will see what sort of monster dwells in the old house next time…but until then. What stories of beasts in the basement have you heard?

Bibliography

Busk, Rachel Harriette, 1831-1907. Roman Legends: a Collection of the Fables And Folk-lore of Rome. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1877.

Carrière, Joseph Médard. Tales From the French Folk-lore of Missouri. Evanston: Northwestern university, 1937.

Pang, Carolyn. “Uncovering ‘Shikigami’: The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 99–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41955532. Accessed 25 Aug. 2020.

Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends And Traditions. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1880.

Waterfalls

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This Weeks Prompt: 115. Ancient castle within sound of weird waterfall—sound ceases for a time under strange conditions.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

Waterfalls are the source of a number of strange spirits and stories, often based on what is just behind them.  Given the description of an ancient castle, we will begin our examination of the spirits here with a few European creatures. The first ones I found in my searches were located in Northern Europe, especially Iceland. A mighty troll in Arrow-Oddr’s Saga from Iceland, named Ogmunder, has a mother who is all the fiercer (a hold over or comparable example to Grendel’s mother). She is described as fanged and with long claws and a mighty tail, each holding a sword. Her shout was enough to kill five men, and before her slaughter ended, she slew sixty men.  This grotesque transformation is defeated by the hero, using a magic Irish shirt and dwarven arrows, but for our purposes its important to note the power of sound and that Ogmunder’s mother dwelt under a water fall.

The Fossegrim are a type of spirit, more alluring then the trolls, that live beneath waterfalls in the North of Europe. These spirits perhaps fit the description Howard wanted even more—they play a fiddle beneath the waterfall, with wind and water as the source of their sound. They can play so well that furniture and trees will dance to the tune. If one makes an offering to the spirit of sufficient quality, they will teach this talent for music to the supplicant, such that the student can play so well the trees will dance. If the offering, a he-goat or some mutton stolen from a neighbor, is not sufficient they will only the pupil how to tune the instrument. That might be better in any case—the instruction of a Fossegrim involves pressing the fingers to the strings so tightly that they begin to bleed.

A more dangerous creature in Norway, however, is the Nok. The Nok is a greedy water spirit, demanding human sacrifice every year. It can transform into any number of valuables, and those who touch it in this form fall under its power. At least one lived under a water fall, and caused the death of many persons until at last a priest arrived. Journeying into the river with four stout men, the priest managed to seize the Nok and drive him into a nearby stone mound—and the creature has bothered none ever since.

Moving away from one island, we’ll cross to a place where it is wealth that hides behind the waterfall. In Bohol, during the war between the Americans and Filipinos (narrator’s statement, not my own), a tree was found growing in front of a water fall—an indescribable language covered the tree, and behind the waterfall dwelled a wealthy spirit.  This spirit gave a poor girl money and jewelry, under the condition she told no one where she got it. Her mother however eventually forced her to reveal the origins of the wealth—and soon it was entirely gone.  When the Americans went to find the treasure themselves, it was impossible—the weather turned against them, even if it was sunny out. This follows a tradition of lost treasures in the Philipines.

In Sagada, we have another story of waterfalls—one that is a bit more comical. Here a man and a woman, who are waterfalls, dwelled for sometime. They irrigated Sagada, pleasing the people and rice fields of the area—but not the inhabitants of Tetep-an. They were a jealous people, and so would go to the water falls and drop pots and cigarettes and other things into the waters.  The waterfalls tired of this, and the wife asked to move—the husband waterfall agreed, and they moved to a secluded place called Todey. However, this didn’t please the wife. Here she could not be seen! What was even the point! So again they moved back. And again, the Tetep-an dumped trash in them, until the lady waterfall was again asking to move. Now, the husband was tired of moving and did not want to break their new lease—yet the wife persuaded him with several blows with a heavy club. The pair then moved to Tadian, where they remain admired for miles around to this day. From afar, you can still see Mr. Waterfall’s hunchback from the last bout with his wife.

In Japan, there is a story that I haven’t been able to find an English text for. This story is centered around the Joren falls of Izu. A wood cutter was sleeping near the falls when he awoke to find spiderwebs around his legs. Confused, he placed them on a nearby tree—and the tree was torn into the waterfall. The spider spirit there, a jorōgumo, had meant to ensare him. The man told the village of this, and most people sensibly avoided the place. One day, a foreign wood cutter came and chopped axe near the falls—only to lose hold of the axe and drop it into the watery basin. AS he left, despondent, a beautiful woman with dark black hair appeared and returned it to him. She warned him, however, to never tell anyone of what he’d seen. The man kept the secret for a time, but eventually it wore on him. He got drunk at a banquet, and revealed it to the whole crowd.

The man went to sleep…and never awoke. In another, more nightmarish version, he was pulled outside by an unseen string—and was found floating near the falls. This is the bad ending. Another tale from the same area has the man fall in love with and visit the beautiful black haired woman—but each visit he grows weaker and weaker. A nearby priest realized he was taken in by the spider woman, and proved so by reciting some sutras to keep her strings away. Nonetheless, the man went to ask the local tengu, as lord of the spirits of the mountain, for the woman’s hand in marriage. The tengu denied him, but the man went back to his spidery lover and was never seen again.

Our final story set comes from Niagra Falls and it is a set I’m…suspicious of. The first one tells a story about a cave behind Niagra falls. The Seneca were suffering greatly—first crop failure, then an epidemic.  One day a young Seneca girl was bathing in the waterfall, when a large rattlesnake attacked her and she stumbled into the rapids, down into the cataracts. The water swirled her into the Cave of the Winds. Here she found the Good Spirit of Thunder of lightining who created mists and clouds. The spirit told her the Evil Spirit of famine and starvation also lived here, and commanded a great water snake. This snake was poisoning the water that the Seneca were drinking. The spirit told the girl that they must move away from the falls to survive. The Good Spirit would follow, and strike down the Evil Spirit and the Water Snake if they followed. And when the tribe arrived at their new home, they found the dead water snake behind them and the evil spirit hanging from a pole.

Then there is the story of the Maiden of the Mist. I have two sources for this, both primarily online. The first is frankly a conversion story—it claims the Iroquis regularly sent people over the falls in canoes as offferings to a water spirit. A French explorer and missionary protests the sacrifice of the Chief’s maiden daughter, but is ignored. The maiden is sent down over the falls—and to the shock of all, the Chief in grief followed her in a canoe. The two then became spirits so pure that the roar of the falls was like music to them. The maiden became the Maiden of the Mist while the Chief became the ruler of the cataract.

There is then the story of the Maiden of the Mist presented on the Niagra falls website. This one says a suicidal widow drove her canoe over the edge, praying to Heno the Thunder Spirit, who dwells in the falls, that her courage would not fail and that she would pass quickly. As she went over, however, Heno caught her in his arms and took her to live with him and his sons. She eventually married one of them, and lived beneath the falls, having a young son. She wanted, however, to see her people again.

Heno then tells her, one day, that a great serpent had descended down to poison her people’s water and devour them until they are wiped out. The Maiden requests one hour with her people to warn them, which Heno grants. The serpent, seeing the people were gone, tried to pursue them upstream. Heno, hearing it hiss, killed the serpent. The body of the serpent, vast as it was, redirected the falls and caused the water to rain directly into the god’s home. So he and his family ascended up to the sky—there Heno thunders like he once roared in the falls.

These stories…well, they feel off to me. The idea of a thunder god beneath the falls and a watery serpent makes sense, but on the other hand a maiden sacrifice to a poisonous water snake is close enough to Continental folk stories that I’m suspicious of it.

Regardless, for our story, what do we have? Well, we have the idea of sacrifices to the water. The noise of a water fall, either a roar or musical tone, stopping seems to indicate displeasure. And certainly, a silent waterfall would be unnerving. The nature of music in Lovecraft—as something that the outer gods communicate with—might lend an otherworldly-ness to the affair. But we don’t need to go that far. The waterfall contains a few elements at its base here: a treasure (either a spirit or a literal treasure) that is a secret from most, a sacrifice that is made to the waters, and the danger of its loss if someone learns the truth. Placed near a castle, perhaps we should expand to a family secret or rite, at the base of the water or in the cave hidden behind it. Perhaps also keep the strange and otherworldly spirit that lives there, just out of site.

Biblography

 Benjamin ThorpeNorthern Mythology: comprising the principal popular traditions and superstitions of Scandinavia, north Germany, and the Netherlands, 3 vols. London: Lumley, 1851–52, OCLC 656592812, Volume 2 Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions,

Kelly, Piers. “Excavating a Hidden Bell Story from the Philippines: A Revised Narrative of Cultural-Linguistic Loss and Recuperation.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 53, no. 2, 2016, pp. 86–113. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jfolkrese.53.2.04. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Puhvel, Martin. “The Mighty She-Trolls of Icelandic Saga and Folktale.” Folklore, vol. 98, no. 2, 1987, pp. 175–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259977. Accessed 20 July 2020.

Scott, William Henry. “Sagada Legends.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 74, no. 291, 1961, pp. 57–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/538199. Accessed 20 July 2020.

“Jorōgumo.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 May 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jor%C5%8Dgumo.

“The Original Legend of the Maid of the Mist.” Niagara Falls Reporter, Niagara Falls Reporter, 13 Dec. 2014, http://www.niagarafallsreporter.com/Stories/2014/DEC16/MaidLegend.html.

Welker, Glenn. “Niagara Falls.” Indigenous People’s Literature, 8 Feb. 1996, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/niagara.htm.

Welker, Glenn. “The Sacrifice at Niagara Falls.” Indigenous People’s Literature, 8 Feb. 1996, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/sacrific.htm.

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Death Lights on the Marshland

This Week’s Prompt: 114. Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.

The Resulting Story: Marshlights

Strange lights floating over wild places are well accounted for in Northern Europe and beyond—the dancing will-o-wisp or Ignis Fatuus is a rather common trope around the world. A number of countries ascribe their origins to the dead stuck wandering the world—they are in Sweden the dead who have left unfinished business, in Denmark they are spirits of unbaptized children seeking baptism by leading to water. In parts of England they are torches carried by lantern men or by the famed Robin Goodfellow. Stories of their origins however are varied.

One from England tells us of a man named Will who spent a life time of wickedness as a smith—yet when a traveler was in need of a new wheel for his cart, Will quickly repaired it. As luck would have it, the traveler was none other than Saint Peter, who granted any wish Will wanted. Will asked to live his life again and—instead of repenting—lived another life of debauchery and wickedness. Having now finished two lives of sin, he expected hell’s gates to open for him. But they were barred. The Devil told Will that, with his experience in sin, he would easily overcome the Devil were he let in. So he was sent back. Of course, such deeds barred him from Heaven as well—and so Will now wonders the world, with only an ember of Hell to keep him warm on the swamp lands.

A comparable tale—traveling Saint Peter, blacksmith given wishes, banned from Hell—comes from Thuringia, Germany. This time, Saint Peter granted him three boons—as long as he didn’t “forget the best”. The man asked for two magical powers, that none could enter his house without his permission except through the keyhole and that any who climbed his pear tree couldn’t come down without his permission. And for his third wish, rather than eternal happiness, he asked for a never ending bottle of schnapps that granted eternal youth. And with these, he trapped both Death and the Devil and lived happily. That is until all his neighbors and friends died. He then went to Heaven’s gates, but Saint Peter rejected him for not asking for the Best—that is, eternal happiness. This smith then dwells under the mountain with the Emperor, shoeing his knights until they return.

In Wales, a man named Sion Daffyd made a deal with the Devil, on the condition that if he could cling to something successfully the Devil could not take him. The Devil eventually came and seized him—but Sion begged he be allowed to taste an apple to wet his lips for hell. The Devil consented, and predictably Sion clung to the tree for dear life. The Devil relented. Heaven however still banned him, and so Sion became a fairy.

A similar Jack exists in Nova Scotia, Canada—perhaps unsurprising given the colonial origins. Here, notably, the Devil is the one to grant the wishes instead of Saint Peter. Still, the effect is the same—the devil is bound first to a spot, then up a tree, and then told to transport sand from one side of the counter to the other, one grain at a time. At last, he gives up in frustration and casts out the all to clever Jack.  He gives him a lantern to roam with, ever after.

In Cambridgeshire, in the Fens, there is a particular kind of will-o-wisp. This apparition appears to be a man on horseback, running and holding a lantern aloft. We can find also a strange fiend here called the Lantern Man. While it’s not specified that this particular marsh fiend glows, his name associates him with the other foolish lights. Hunters keep some distance from the creature, as whistling for dogs will attract him and the only way to escape his wrath is to lie face down and fill your mouth with mud so that the fiery fiend will pass you without incident.

In Nova Scotia, there are stories of strange balls of fire—flames of unknown origin, more often then just the dead. A man walking home once saw a rabbit on his foot, and when he kicked it, it erupted into painless fire. The man was then struck by an immense weight until he managed to get home.

The Lantern Man connects us to a more distant group of ominous fires. In Trinidad, we have a variant of the demon tree story, associated with local witches. These witches, as we mentioned here when discussing swamp creatures of Louisiana and the surrounding region, shed their skin at night to take the form of flying balls of light and gather blood for their patron held in a tree. Louisiana itself has another strange swamp creature, Nalusa Falaya whose young are said to resemble children and float glowing in the swamps to lead travelers astray. They manage to float by removing their innards, allowing them to be perverse balloons. The Nalusa Falaya’s face is so dreadful that, if seen, it will knock a grown man unconscious. And while they are fallen over, the fiendish shadowy creature will put a curse on them to spread to all they meet.  

The Choctaw also tell of the Hashok Okwa Hui’ga in traditional stories. This being can only be seen at night, and even then only its heart can be seen. It lives near swamps, and attempts to lure people astray. In order to avoid being trapped, one must look away immediately upon spotting the glow. Otherwise, you will wander in circles without end.

Back to Wales, we have another swamp light—a creature called the Ellylldan. This creature lives on the edges of swamps, and glows with light. As it passes, nearby swamp creatures grow silent—and its light fades as one approaches, reappearing brilliantly as one moves. Often these creatures dance in the marshes and put men to sleep, and at least one account claims they are the same as the Pooka. This creature appears often in stories, mischievous and cruel. For our purposes, he too carries a lantern and leads travelers astray—often to high cliffs, near rushing rivers, where they nearly fall in before he escapes laughing.

One note I came across that interests me about these lights is the gradual decline of the creatures, as bogs and swamps are drains. In Wales and Manx, the cultivated field of the farmer explicitly made the region difficult or impossible for the fires to survive in. They thus have something of a tragic quality, as their environment is consumed. In Cambridgeshire, an observer noted that the loss of the bog and the increase in light pollution meant there were less and less will-o-wisps seen these days. There is, perhaps, a metaphor for the retreat of magic from modernity in that image. The fools light was dangerous and mischievous, but perhaps missed in the current times.

But beyond that, the nature of these lights from European lore seems durable. They are alluring lights, often of dead men but not always, who strive to lure you away from your path and often to your doom. Many are nefarious, wicked creatures—some the remains of men so clever and wicked that even the devil himself couldn’t match them. They live in swamps and often traveled but uninhabited places, and are often knowledgable in some way. Very few stories, strangely, mention actual deaths resulting from the lights. They are a nuisance more than a menace, which means drawing horror from them might require some stretching and creativity.

I have excluded two other mysterious lights for now, as not being exactly, well, marsh related. One is St. Elmo’s fire, a sea born anomaly where parts of a ship appear to be aflame. More extreme and out of my normal study—although not too far out—is the appearance of lights as UFOs. Most famously, there are the Foo Fighters (ah, not the band) who were sighted by World War II bombing crews. The idea of fairy concepts being repurposed into alien imagery is not without precedent—there has been research and discussion of how alien abduction and changeling or other fae stealing stories are markedly similar in details and distribution.

The other thing is the phrase “death lights” and the alluring, transfixing nature reminds me of Stephen King’s It, where the Dead Lights preform a similar role. In It they are of course more malevolent, consuming forces instead of mere tricksters—they drive men mad and consume their soul! There is also one of the most famous lights in Lovecraft, that haunts a blasted heath—the Color Out of Space, which is dangerous to have contact with and behold.

Bibliography

Bushnell, David I. “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw.” American Anthropologist, vol. 12, no. 4, 1910, pp. 526–535. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/659795. Accessed 7 July 2020.

Cashen, William. Manx Folklore. Published by Douglas Johnson, 1912.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

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

Lives Well Lived

Before getting to this week’s story, I wanted to take a moment to address the recent events in the news. Police violence and systematic racism has resulted in the death and imprisonment of countless innocents, the destruction of properties and futures, and produced irrevocable damage. At the Undead Author Society, I try to mostly focus on folklore and horror stories, mentioning politics only when they intersect with the material. But it feels wrong not to say this clearly: Black Lives Matter. You can find links to donate at the end of the research, in place of our normal Patreon link.

This Week’s Prompt: 113. Biological-hereditary memories of other worlds and universes. Butler—God Known and Unk. p. 59.

The Resulting Story: The Lives of Sam Dedric

I do love when I get a precise page number from H.P. Lovecraft, it can narrow these quotations down immensely. The section in question by Butler posits that the memories of an entire species might be traced backwards from a single member—and that the memories may lead to apparently unrelated places. In the same way two leaves on a tree appear to have no relation, if we remove the branches and trunk, so too could worlds and creatures appear utterly distant without the fossils and time between them.

This notion ties into ideas that some in Lovecraft’s circle, and Lovecraft himself, professed interest in. In particular, the interest in past lives and memories of earlier forms of humanity owe a great deal to Theosophoy. The Lovecraft story this most reminded me of was one that was, in part, written by a Theosophist, Through the Gates of the Silver Key. In this story, Randolph Carter makes contact with a being outside of time and learns the entity and he are the same—the entity is the Supreme Archtype, of which Randolph is a mere facet. In recognition of Randolph’s accomplishments in earlier stories (I suspect particularly The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). Randolph asks to visit another world that he has dreamed of recently, and the entity grants this wish, sending him into the body of an alien wizard. However, Randolph forgets his symbols and rituals that would allow him to return to normal. Instead,  he ends up trapped in the body of an alien wizard, detesting each other. Eventually, he does find a way to maintain power over the body and arrives back on earth to acquire the sigils and rituals, and disgusies himself as an Indian man to attend his own funeral. The results of the story I won’t spoil, but it is…interesting to say the least.

The idea here and in general lead me to a text I had in my collection for a long time but never actually sat down to read—a collection of stories about the past lives of the Buddha. I wasn’t able, of course, to read the book in it’s entirety in the week or so I had—I managed about a third of all the text. The concept of the text is that the Buddha is instructing others on life lessons, based on experiecenes he had in prior lives. These lives range from being born a merchant to a prince to an elephant and so forth. And some tell rather incredible stories.

A favorite of mine has a man who seems determined to not learn the value of money. He begins rich, and is on the verge of being rich enough to leave home when his mother sends him to a monastery. There, he spends a year listening to the master teach, but comes home none the wiser. His mother again tries to stop him from leaving—but the man strikes her dead and leaves on a trade vessel the next day. On his journeying, he comes across many wonders at sea. He comes across a series of fabulous palaces, inhabited with supernaturally beautiful maidens, and delights in their company until they fade away after a week or so. He arrives at last at the Ussada Hell, a place that to his deluded mine appears to be a great city. Walking through it’s streets, ignorant to the torment, he comes to a man city with a great wheel of blades cutting into his head. The man, the king of the city, also slew his mother and is relieved to see our merchant friend. The merchant mistakes the blades for a splendid crown—and demands an exchange. The king is happy to do so, even after warning the merchant. It is only when he dons the crown that the Merchant learns the truth and is struck with horror. He then meets the past life of the Buddha, who happened to be in town—and in a set of stanzas, the punishment is made clear to the man, who bemoans his folly.

Another story tells of a wise man who knew the seas well in his youth—yet the spray of salt made him blind. None the less, his hands remained perfect for knowing the nature of things—and so he could ascertain the history of a horse from a touch or an elephant from gracing his hand along it.  Eventually, he grew tired of his work for a king—which paid very little, and in fact was unfufilling. So a group of merchants hired him to guide them on their journey—for he alone was wise to all the seas. Over his protests, the blind man went with the merhcants. And a good thing too! For the merchants quickly found themselves ina  sea where the fish had the bodies of men and razor snouts, and lept out of the water to slay men who sailed near them.  The wise man knew that this ocean had diamonds on the floor—and if the told the merchants of this, they would sink the ship to get to the gems. So he advised they lighten their load, while tossing his own net behind and trawling up diamonds for himself. Soon they came to another ocean, one that blazed like the sun. The merchants were afraid, but the wise man gave them the correct advice and they again passed through—and the merchant grew richer, for this ocean had gold. Next was a sea of milk, full of silver, and a sea of grass full of emeralds. At last, however, they come to a sea they cannot cross—for here the sea churns into a whirlpool, the waves rising like walls around an endless abyss. The wise man steps forward then and, with an “Act of Truth”, transports them back home to where they began. Richer for the journey, it seems.

Leaving the oceans for a moment, we can find lives of the Buddha among the nobility in a few fantastic stories. In one, a man establishes a tradition of almsgiving , and for this his next life he becomes the king of the gods. For five generations, his children do the same—they become in turn the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, and so forth. At last, the sixth son ins greedy—and in fact tears down the almsgiving house and gains a reputation for being a nuisance. So the five incarnations descend, and take the form of beggars. They then go about testing their descendant, and find him wanting—and

Another story of family issues in incarnation deals with a man name Kamsa. This man is told that his sister’s son will in time destroy him, and so he seeks to lock her away—but alas, her maid servant allows a prince to visit her, and a child is conceived. The brother promises to kill him if he is a son, and the mother too—and so the gods ensure that the child is switched with the maid servants daughter. And so the ten sons are born to the maid servant, each with prostigous gifts. They became a nuisance, bringands the lot of them, and soon the king attempts to have them humbled and defeated by summoning a pair of wrestlers. The ten sons easily over power the wrestlers, and kill them—and the king, with a chakram. One wrestler, however, calls out that he will be reborn a “goblin” of the woods and devour the man who killed him.

The group of ten then go out to conquer all of India, running into difficulty only with a city that was inhabited by “goblins”. One “goblin” would take the form of an ass and wait near the city—seeing an invading army, he would bray. The “goblins” would then lift the city out to sea, and wait for the enemy to retreat before returning it. The ten brothers, in frustration, finally captured the donkey after determining from a teacher that it was the source. The donkey gave instructions for how to prevent the cities escape, and it was captured.

The brothers then divided the kingdom into 10 parts—one member declined his share and gave it to his sister. Here however the story gets…confusing for me to follow. We are told that people lived 10,000 years during this time—and certaintly, that is a common trait of previous epochs—but there is a reference to them dying and passing their throne down to their descendants, who engage in a cruel test of a wise man and kill him. And then are themselves killed by their parents.

In the end, the goblin of the woods and a hunter finish off the last of the sons, and only the daughter remains ruler of the world.

A later, sweeter story invokes past lives a bit differently. A brahmin’s son died young, and was reborn as one of the gods. The man went and paid tribute to his son every day at the graveyard. The son sees his mourning, and descends down—dressed nobly, but his identity obscured. He tells the brahmin that he has lost his chariot. The brahmin offers to make whatever chariot he needs, but the son asks for a chariot with the moon and sun as wheels—a request the Brahmin rejects as ridiculous, for such a thing can never be made. The son then admonishes his father, for wanting something impossible—to see a ghost or to have an immortal son. He reveals his identity and tells his father to make this an alms day.

Another peculiar story tells of how a man’s past life provided him with a weakness for the future. Two asectics lived in a village. A robber in town decided to hide in the house of an ascetic—the guards pursuing him determines that the ascetic is actually the robber in disguise. At the king’s command, he was to be staked in a cemetery. However, all the stakes that attempt to pierce the man break. Thinking over his past lives, the ascetic concludes that there was once a time he pierced a fly with an ebony stick and thus calls for a stake of ebony to pierce himself with. His fellow asectic comes to meet him, seeing him impaled. He is worried greatly, but the first ascetic tells him he has no ill will to him. None the less, the second ascetic remains at his side—even as the gore of the impaling stains his golden skin black.

Eventually, the king comes by to see that the ascetic is punished—and finds the second ascetic, who proves the first’s innocence. The king tried to have the stake removed, but it can’t be done. Instead, the stake is cut on either end, leaving the first ascetic with a peg in his chest.  This man latter goes forth to cure poisons with recitations, driving out snake venoms when they come into men and more. Here the past life memory not only explains circumstance, but is bodily marked.

These stories work best with past lives reconciling or reckoning with past affairs, past deeds, and guilt. A story of our kind deals with perhaps more extreme notions—the ideas of forgotten roots, forgotten parts of the human species or human family. Memories of lives before this one, ages before this one, worlds separated—worlds perhaps as fantastic as flying cities, palaces of jewels, seas of fire! A story I think would reckon with what these memories lead to. Do they reveal secret treasures? Lost knowledge? Lost people? Ideas and dreams forgotten in the haze?

Let us see, next week!

BIBLOGRAPHY

Butler, Samuel. God the known and God the unknown. London : A. C. Fifield, 1909. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/godknowngodunkno00butliala/page/60/mode/2up June 18, 2020.

Cowell, E.B. The Jataka or stories of the Buddha’s former births. Cambridge University Press, 1895-1913.

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Long Pig

This Weeks’ Prompt: 112. Man lives near graveyard—how does he live? Eats no food. 

The Following Story: Gerald Report

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Cannibalism. The answer is cannibalism. I mean, I suppose we could look into more esoteric explanations, about smuggling food in or feeding off vapors. We might even indulge in the idea that the man who lives near the graveyard is not a man at all—he is some spectre or spirit that is never seen eating because he does not eat. He is something numinous and otherworldly and frankly the simplest answer seems most fitting her. Cannibalism.

Cannibalism has a long history in folklore—I’ve discussed some of the creatures that live near or in graveyards to feed on the bodies interred within here, and the aswang here, and the witches sabbath here, and the nightmare here. I decided to go a bit further afield this time, to see what I could find that involved cannibalism, so today will be a survey of a number of stories and characters associated with cannibalism.

 One story that stuck out was from Swedish Finland, and recounted the fate of a poor girl who was lured into a cave or grotto by a band of robbers. The exact number of robbers varies from telling to telling, but she was married to all of them and forced to cook, clean, and bed them for nine years. Each year she gave birth to a child, and each year, the bandit king cooked and ate the child’s heart. After nine years, they came to trust the girl and sent her on some errand—however, she escaped and told the towns people, who had assumed she was dead.  They went and arrested the murderous robbers, and buried them alive in a nearby wall. The spot is marked with painted hearts, one for each child eaten. Many of the stories mention that the cannibalism was preformed to gain immortality or devilish powers, such as flight.

Ghoul 3

Among the Xam people of South Africa, we have other stories of cannibalistic monsters. One was ||khwai-hem, translated as “All Devouring”. The creature’s appetite was enormous, devouring sheep, then trees, then objects and finally people with a great firey tongue. It was so large it’s shadow resembled a cloud, and was so bloated it’s stomach reached to the ground. It was invited by one of the chief gods to take part in the bounty that resulted from the liberation of livestock. Another such creature from the Xam is the !nu!numma-!kwitƏn, a beast of prey who ate crying children.  While monstrous in appearance, these creatures were not human and thus not “cannibals” in the technical sense. However, their attributes—and the attributes of their more normal relatives, the lion and hyena—were attributed to European settlers by the Xam people during the colonization of West Africa. 

In Russia there are of course the famous cannibals, revenants and vampires. Often the result of sinful corpses buried in the earth, they are restless and may hunger for unwholesome meals. Interestingly, the dead being hungry is not limited to the monstrous—wholesome and clean dead may still be hungry and thirsty for their last forty days on earth. But the unclean dead long for terrible things—flesh, blood, clothes of children. Their monstrous forms can include long tongues that reach to the crown of the head, iron or steel teeth, and large heads. They might sharpen their teeth with a whetstone or grind them together rasping as they hunt their prey, and they caused poor weather near their remains. They in some ways resemble of course the nearby Balkan and Romanian vampires which we covered before–both in the possession of iron teeth and in the draining of vital energy and fluids from not only people but the landscape.  

Then there is of course the Arabic ghoul or ghul, a creature that may be a demon, a male genie, an enchantress,or any of the above depending on the tale. The creature lives in deserts, with cloven hoves and an ugly appereance, and seeks to lure travelers away from the road to murder and eat them. Sometimes this ghoul feared iron, and often needed to be dispatched with a sword to be done in. Many could shapeshift, and some had even more incredible powers—one common one was that a ghoul must be killed with one blow by a sword. Two and the ghoul would survive until one thousand more had been delivered. 

Ghoul 4

A Palestinian folktale has a young farm boy guarding his father’s flock after several sheep have gone missing. When on watch, he catches a ghoul stealing the sheep, and taking them to a nearby well. When he descends the well, he finds many beautiful women and swears at once to save them—striking the ghoul dead and ignoring its please for a second strike. Here the ghoul, like the weather stealing vampire, drains vitality from a region and stores it up elsewhere (see our writings on similar creatures on our Patreon here). Another tale tells how a group of women accepted milk offered by a ghoul, against their friends wishes—alas it was poisoned, and they all perished. 

 However, not every ghoul fed on human flesh. Some provide guidance for humans during their life to achieve their own ends, while others married and lived happily with mortals until they grew homesick. In this way they resemble vampire’s we have discussed earlier—and in fact, some blurring of the two is to be expected. One of the common traits associated with ghouls, that they dig up and devour corpses in graveyards (which I reported above) appears to be mostly an invention of the French translator of Arabian Nights and explains the confusion. Another paper places the confusion in Persia, where the ghoul is the shapeless monster of ruins who feeds on the dead, and is repelled with the name of the prophet–the closeness of this to the notions of the vampire makes me wonder which writer is confused.  The Persian ghoul faces and is defeated by the great heroes of the land, such as Rostam, a hero I must cover in detail some day.

By chance, this week I was reading on Tanith Lee’s Tales from a Flat Earth: Night’s Sorceries, which features  a city of such ghoulish delights. The city’s origins begin with the scheming of cruel vampire lovers in long forgotten tombs, cannibals that fed on the blood of the living and marrow of the dead. They are creatures that think themselves immortal from their cannibalism, and have gained superhuman strength and invulnerability to blades and fire from their feasting. Only their shadow remains vulnerable.  Their children possess even greater strength, and cunning power over the dead. I won’t spoil what becomes of this city of portioners, but it is a fate that is common to those who can only devour.

Ghoul2

Mr. Lovecraft himself presented ghouls in graveyards in a number of stories–most particularly, Pickman’s Model and Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Here we encounter ghouls as graveyard living creatures, very solid in nature, relatives of human kind. Relative enough that they are capable of changeling plots, and traveling between the Dreamlands and the waking world. They are canines as well, recalling the Bendanti who traveled to do battle with the devil as werewolves. 

That sort of grand pulp nightmare is a bit beyond the scope of this story, however. This reads more as a local oddity. In fact, such oddities do appear in British folklore and beyond murderous food stuffs. Dickens gives us reports of men being quietly murdered and baked into sausage, and another of Captain Murderer who resembles in no small part Bluebeard’s more cannibal forms, killing and devouring his wives. Cannibalism and those who feed on the dead are fine nightmarish creatures for a small story I think. We could approach this as an investigative and overly curious lead learning the truth of an otherwise normal but eccentric seeming neighbor. Or we can take the opposite approach than the sedate state suggested, and present the man in the cemetery as a proper ghoul–perhaps hunting for the last heart he needs to attain mystic powers.

Part of the nature of the ghoul, what makes the cannibalistic creature terrifying, is not just that it turns men into meat, flesh into food, but also that it is the spectre of death itself. Rare are ghouls who lurk in safe places–the haunt of caves where the underworld is close by, the graveyard full of corpses, the butcher shop where meat is ever present–all these are the calling cards of the ghoul. The man who tends to the graveyard, the undertaker, is something like this–a man who is familiar with the dead, yet is among the living. I think that familiarity breeds suspicion and distrust, something that might lead to uncomfortable questions if the man is in fact innocent for our tale.

How about you–what strange and terrible tales of cannibals have you heard?

 

Bibliography

Al-Rawi, Ahmed K. “The Arabic Ghoul and Its Western Transformation.” Folklore, vol. 120, no. 3, 2009, pp. 291–306. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646532. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Lindow, John. “Kidnapping, Infanticide, Cannibalism: A Legend from Swedish Finland.” Western Folklore, vol. 57, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 103–117. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500215. Accessed 27 May 2020.

McGranaghan, Mark. “’He Who Is a Devourer of Things’: Monstrosity and the Construction of Difference in |Xam Bushman Oral Literature.” Folklore, vol. 125, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297730. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in The Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 96, no. 382, 1983, pp. 462–470. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/540985. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year.” Folklore, vol. 122, no. 2, 2011, pp. 155–175. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41306584. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Ruins in Alabama

This Week’s Prompt: 111. Ancient ruin in Alabama swamp—voodoo.

The Resulting Story:  Bath Bombs and Abandoned Houses

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Here we have a number of topics that I want to try and plumb. We have first an ancient ruin in Alabama—which to me means something made by the First Nations of Alabama, including the Alabama tribe. Then there is the notion of voodoo brought up again—a topic which I will try and discuss where relevant to Alabama, but which I have done considerably more research on in Louisiana. And then we will attempt to synthesize the two forces with other folklore of Alabama, in order to produce a framework for a horror story next week. Needless to say, this may be more grounded then the horror of the Isle of Curses.

My first stop in research, after reframing around Alabama, was a work titled Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. The notion of voodoo put in my mind to go the Supernatural section. I found only had one reference to voodoo by name—that one could chant the word “modi” at a child, to sap their strength—but a number of supposed practices that seemed similar to popular conceptions of voodoo (and perhaps were called such by Mr. Lovecraft—for more of Mr. Lovecraft’s own reasons for invoking voodoo, see my article here).

For instance, to reverse a hex, one might stick pins in an image of the hexer. One can keep the devil at bay by putting on shoes in the right order. Those born with a caul can see what the author calls “hants”, which seem to merely be a local term for ghosts or “haunts”. Or one can lay jars of nails and urine down to prevent hexes, or grains to keep the devil at bay—these last two remind me of many traditional wards against devils, fae, and night hags. Likewise, with horseshoes or wearing clothes inside out. I admit, scattering red ants to keep away witches is a unique and interesting idea.

Horseshoes

The fire place seems to also be a source of witchcraft in the text—letting fires run long help keeps witches away, and if you wish to find the witch, there is a rather simple ritual to work. Remove each brick of the fire place, repeating the names of suspected witches. When you are done, bury water among the ashes and wait. The first of the named who calls you is clearly the witch.  Placing water bottles in the fireplace or green trees on the chimney keep them at bay as well.  The other ritual for removing witches is to take a piece of wood that’s been heated (a fire place connection again) and connect it to a picture of the witch, and then shoot it with a silver bullet.

The section on the magic is arguably more horrific—a number of rituals make use of black cat’s bones, acquired by murdering the cat and boiling it to get access to the bones. In one case, by running the bones through your teeth, you can find a bone to turn invisible. You can also wear these bones, to gain either good fortune or the powers of a magician. By killing a salamander or lizard in a bucket with the image of a person you can give them a rash, and if you manage to bury a snapshot of the person, they will perish. One could take a crow, cut them open, remove their innards, sew them back up to detect a witch. Anyone who, seeing the body on the road, looked at it curiously was a witch.

Curiously, the only animal use that is not abused is if you suckle on a sow—you might learn to see the wind that way. What this means isn’t elaborated on in the notes. I presume to see the wind is to see the world invisible. One creature I found…interesting was a large insect responsible for sleep—by beating its wings, it set out fairies, who in turn beat their small on the brows of those who ought to rest. I wonder if such fae creatures are allergic to coffee…None the less, a giant insect that is responsible for all sleep in the world, living in the woods, is a tad horrific and wonderous.

Moving on from these practices, we can look into stories of the Alabama people. These stories were collected long after contact with the first settlers of course, and bear clear signs of that (references to fire arms and bullets and so on). The nature of the collection means I’m not entirely certain of their veracity. One of the more interesting stories was of the Bear People. A bear stopped a man traveling in the woods, and asked how many people lived in his village. The man told him. The bear said he would kill everyone who lived in the village if they did not put up a white skin, or in one version, move across to the other side of a river. One story suggests the cause of this violence was a man killing a large white bear that was the chief of the bear people—another seems to make it arbitrary. Some people listen to the man, while others do not. The bears come, and murder all who did not listen, despite their fire arms—a veritable horror scene of bears upon bears, cubs and elders.

Bear Wrestling

Another story details the origin of deer. The first dear was a fawn. It was at first guarded by wild cats…but the wild cats ate it. Then it was guarded by a wolf. And the wolf ate it. Then it was guarded by Panther…and the Panther ate it.  And each time it was revived, until finally, it is guarded by “Bird-that-sits-on-deer”, which eats ticks and flies off from the deer every now and then. At last, as the deer grows big, the bird flies off for winter. When it returns, the deer is gone.

The people then gather to find it, and eventually the wise members of the community determine it is in the south. Then they form many ranks to hunt the deer, and summoned it with a cauldron and song. The deer’s approach shook the earth like a railroad. The men stood ready with arrows, with ghosts behind them, and behind them panthers, and behind them wolves, and behind them at last the wild cats. As the great deer approached, the wildcats fled. The arrows and ghosts proved useless, but the panthers and wolves killed it, with the wildcats ripping out its throat.  Each hair that falls from the beast as humans cut it to pieces becomes a deer, and runs off.  The image of this…wave of deer is also almost terrifying. A great progenitor beast that releases miniature versions of its kin out into the world.

There is a large reptile that is worth mentioning—despite the description, the foot note says it appears as a scorpion with a red mouth. The creature lives in a tree, and is disturbed when a group of hunters start a fire in its hollow, looking for a bear. It chases down the hunters, one by one—and one by one, they grow weaker and are devoured. One man survived by diving into the river, where the lizard could not see him. He later returned with some Shawnee to kill the creature—and they made the land boggy to trap it, killed it with axes, and then put tobacco in its mouth to prevent its return.

There are other stories, but the collection seems to dwell on animal fables that are not…relevant in my opinion for horror stories. We also have stories from voodoo—the most interesting to me was the notion of the zombi, as a man robbed of their wits or soul, and forced to preform labor for another. The victims were often believed to be the homeless or those who deviated from society, although research on the matter can quiet obviously be difficult to acquire. Most of my research was also focused on Louisiana not Alabama, and thus the applicability is…questionable. Still, the banality of having a zombi to man your shop was and has been interesting to me. As more than one person has observed, the fear of the zombi in the New World is that even death is not an escape from subjugation, and the notions I found in the article of entire secret plantations of zombis were horrifying.

With that in mind, what can we make of this? What ancient ruin can we find, that has some voodoo connection?

The obvious answer to Lovecraft I suspect would be to invent a city or settlement of the Alabama or other First Nations of the area (I did not have time to dig into each historically, the Alabama had towns as did many other groups in the Southeast). Or to make some almost pre-human settlement, where dark magics were prevalent. But that seems…hm. Uncomfortable to approach. A more recent ruin, like the plantations that were so fearful of voodoo might be better, but runs into the problem that we had earlier from two weeks ago. Perhaps a ruined house that was were adherents of these traditions lived…we might elide the issue of race in this story by making them white but…hm. Well. It is a puzzle, one I’m sure we can solve. I feel this is a story that is easily grounded. One notion I have is to place this story in the civil war, with a ruin found by Union troops in Alabama—but that would require more investigation into that part of the war.

What do you think could be done here?

Bibliography

Swanton, John R. Myths and Tales of Southeastern Indians. Washington, US government print office, 1929.

Browne, Ray B. Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama. University of California, Berkley press, 1958

Ackermann, Hans-W.; Gauthier, Jeanine . “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (American Folklore Society, Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494

 

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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