In The Depths of the Earth

This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.

The Resulting Story:

The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.

We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.

Pima1700

Akimel Oʼotham (sometimes called Pima) territory, circa 1700

The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.

The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.

Zuni River.png

They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.

Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.

Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.

Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.

Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.

Basque Mountains.png

There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).

Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners.   At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.

Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.

Kobold2.png

In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.

The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.

In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.

These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?

 

Biblography

Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.

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

O’Bryan,  Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Smithsonian Institute, 1955

Collcott,E. E.  “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”.  The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883

Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.

Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.

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Salem

This Week’s Prompt: 99. Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.

The Forthcoming Story:

This prompt continues our haunted and disturbed houses of New England—a tour that has gone on for almost a month now. Here, however, Mr. Lovecraft has grounded us in a very particular historical tragedy—the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The story of the Witch Trials is an infamous one, but one where the details are sometimes lost. So I will describe the chronology in brief here.

The Witch House

The Witch House, former home of Judge Johnathan Corwin, is the last building standing from the Witch Trials .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_House

At the center of the witchcraft outbreak are two girls, Elizabeth and Abigail Parris, daughters of Reverend  Samuel Parris, and their mixed race servant Tituba. According to documents, Elizabeth and Abigail learned tricks from Tituba during the winther of 1691-1692. Other girls are documented as possibly being there. A time after this, it is reported that the children began acting strangely—they spoke in tongues, crawled into holes and walls, and others acted foolishly. The local doctor could not identify the cause of this behavior,  and proclaimed them bewitched. This of course attracted local interest, including a gathering of Ministers to determine who had bewitched them. Tituba and her husband offered their skills at finding witches—but were accused of witchcraft themselves by the children. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn were also accused.  All were found guilty, and executed. Shortly after there were waves of witchcraft accusations in the area around Salem—A total of 151 people were accused, most but not all women. At least 20 were executed. Most of towns accused one to three individuals, and often only held one trial that year. Most of the accused follow expected trends—they were usually of low means, mobile, old and asocial. Those of greater means were rumored witches or accused before hand, and often new arrivals. After 1692, the hunt ended as the commission founded was dissolved. Numerous suggestions have been made for why—the targeting of less stereotypical

Recurring incidents associated with witchcraft and the trials are appariations terrorizing their victims, often to compel them to sign a book; the pricking or draining of blood; the appearance of people far from home; and the unheard speech of witches, often taken as cursing. This is not particularly new for witchcraft. In fact, one of the reasons Salem has attracted attention is not do to it’s bloodiness—it is far from the largest witch hunt—nor its symptoms—witchcraft symptoms, being based on witch hunting guides often enough, are very similar.  The only new notable symptoms is the betwitched cannot say the name of God, nor read the Puritan catechism, but can read it and say the Quaker and Catholic ones. Which indicates a curious and genuinely frightening notion for a community so defined by its religious convictions—that some force has compelled them into the hands of the enemy. But that is for the end.

Salem Trial.png

No, the primary point of interest with Salem is that it is very late in the history of witch hunting, and in a community that was not prone to it. Popular imagery of the story has suggest the Puritan Witchhunter as the most common participant in these massacres, but historically that does not bare out entirely well. The sum of Salem is a strange aberration in time and space, fitting into a common narrative of history during it’s era and until to this day—that as one moves farther in space, one moves backwards in time. So far from the continent, it is no wonder such barbarism occurred.

Certainly, the witch hunts have a character about them that lend themselves well to horror stories—they are a gothic horror for New England, remembered well by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. Here the witchcraft trials serve as a strange, spectral ghost that haunts the landscape and the characters. From the echoes of the accusations in the Scarlet Letter to the haunted images and manuscripts in The Devil in the Manuscript  and Edward Randolph’s Portrait. Given his admiration for Mr. Hawthorn, such an interest is not surprising for Lovecraft.

They are also a frequent stand in for the notion of a paranoid and superstitious community turning on its own—Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the trials as an allegory for the MacArthur era of anti-communist witch hunts, for instance. Again, Mr. Lovecraft’s own lurking fear of tradition—his fear that the so called enlightened era of humanity was a mere moment, and soon darkness would descend in its old way—makes the connection rather clear. It is at times the use of authority to establish itself over the mob and quell progress—a line with more than some truth—and other times presented as the mob calling for blood and at best moderated by the priesthood.

Beyond these older sources, other media has of course taken on the notions of the witch trial in the new world—if not Salem itself, then certainly it’s presence. The Blair Witch, for instance, is also accused by children of her nefarious acts and haunts a nearby woods. The online series Catghost enters into these notions of magic and witchcraft—and even goes so far as Lovecraft’s witch house, crediting to the witches there some true knowledge of the universe beyond mortal ken. VVitch is a more direct example, featuring a Puritan family and being within a century of the witch hunts themselves.

MoreWeight

Giles Corey, one of the men executed for witchcraft, famously said “more weight” before dying by being crushed to death with stones.

What then should be done?  The prompt presents us with a rough timeline of events: A witch trial, followed by the search of her house, in which terrible things are found. This is a profoundly bad outline—there is no clear surprise, except to subvert the modern expectation that the victim is innocent. I do not believe we are in need of a story where the witch was really a witch. Alternatively, perhaps this is meant as a less direct version, akin to Dreams in the Witch House. Here, it becomes something again like a haunted house. And certaintly, there is a tradition of ghostly witches and associations between witches and necromancers. Here the history of the house comes to grossly manifest into the new inhabitants lives. And something could be done with that sort of horror.

One author suggested that the witch trials, and Salem itself, stand for the intervention of a spiritual evil in a material world. They are the imposition and manifestation of a very non-‘whig’ or modern sort of horror. They are the ancestral sin of the region—one of many perhaps. This then becomes a collapse of history in two ways. First, the most literal—the victims of the past refuse to stay dead and quiet literally disturb the modern world. Secondly, the means of this disturbance is not in the methods the modern world would permit—it is not an avenging family member descended of the witches, it is not some structural or biological secret lost from beyond the grave, it is instead a horror like those older horrors. It is a specter, a phantom, a shadow that lives.

If we wanted to go in a different direction then a simple Lovecraft haunted house, where ancestral guilt and fears stalk a new victim, we could play with the notions of memory and history that crop up in researching Salem. A major difficulty for those investigating Salem is the lack of proper documentation at times. Not all court documents are preserved, not all the accused have court documents, and so on. Things have simply been lost, some recovered in poems and stories, but most abandoned. Things that perhaps should not have been forgotten, for forgotten things still remain.

How would you approach a horror story about a witch’s cottage? Was she holding back something in the basement, now unleashed by foolish clergy men? Was there no horror before, but the tragedy has invited it in?

Bibligoraphy:

Latner, Richard. “The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chornology and Collective Violence in 1692”, Journal of Social History. Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall 2008. Oxford Universtiy Press.

Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692: Together with some account of other witchcraft trials in New England and elsewhere. North Shore Publishing, 1892.

Stock, R.D.. “Salem Witchcraft and Spiritual Evil: A Century of Non-Whig Revisionism.” Christianity and Literature Vol 42 No. 1, Autumn 1992.  Sage Publications Inc.

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Rhode Island Ghosts

This Week’s Prompt: 98. Hideous old house on steep city hillside—Bowen St.—beckons in the night—black windows—horror unnam’d—cold touch and voice—the welcome of the dead.

The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING

This prompt was tricky—the experience of research in this case was very similar to a much earlier attempt to track down a specific name. A brief internet survey for a haunted Bowen Street turned up a restaurant in Texas—here we have  a rather polite ghost, who turns the lights off at around midnight when she wishes to be alone. Fittingly, the article doesn’t record any particularly nasty acts of violence or misery inflicted upon Mrs. Bowen or her family.  The timeline isn’t quite right either, so I began my search elsewhere.

There is another Bowen Street, that seemed more likely—Bowen Street, Providence Rhode Island. As the home  I first consulted my existing material on Rhode Island—which included a number of haunted places that I will go over in a moment—but found nothing on Bowen Street. Internet searches again revealed nothing on the street, except a ghost tour and a number of apartments. I did, however, find another haunted building and the Lovecraft story that this prompt is based on. And that is the ominously named Shunned House, on the Benefit Street.

The plot of the Shunned House is a plot based on obsession with a strange and unfortunate house. The narrator and his uncle attempt to discern the nature of the century old curse, bringing with them some exceptional weaponry and scientific equipment. When they spend the night there, however, they are visited by strange lights, ghastly faces, masses of mold, and other bizarre sights. I will not spoil the final twist of the story, but it is an unusual ghost story in that it lacks the blood, pale visions.

It is possible that our prompt instead served as the basis of The Unnameable or The House in the Mist. Either way, we are back among the lands of the dead, and the Shunned House begins us in a rather strange position.  We can find one of the historic sources of the Shunned House with the Stephen Harris House. The House was constructed over the graveyard of French Huguenots in the eighteenth century, a sure recipe for a haunting.

The actual Shunned House—the Stephen Harris House in reality—has a similar origin. It is built atop a Hugenot graveyard. A wealthy merchant, Stephen Harris, and his wife built the house, and afterwards became horribly cursed. Ships began to sink, children died, and other tragedies.  The legend goes on to say that Mrs. Harris eventually went mad, no doubt in part with grief. Most famously, when she was confined to the attic, she was heard shrieking in French—a language she didn’t know.  The house stayed in the family, falling into decay and decrepitude as the house failed to sell. By the 1920s, the street had become a slum with the haunted and crumbling house on the hill.

This is of course not the only haunted house in Rhode Island. As I’ve alluded to before, all places are haunted in the end. One along the ghost regards a Mr. Jackson. He was traveling with one Captain William Carter in the winter 1741, intending to take some furs to Boston. The captain murdered Mr. Jackson for his furs, and stuffed his body beneath the ice at Pettaquamscutt Cove. The body was eventually discovered by an eel fisher, and the good captain was brought to trial for it.

However, Mr. Jackson was not at rest. Nearby indigenous settlements were so harassed by the ghost, the village was moved to avoid him. The roads nearby then reported Mr. Jackson’s presence up until the mid 1930s—well into Lovecraft’s day.

More haunted locales, however, are also common. There is the story of the Ramtail Factory. A dispute between the owners and the night watchmen over pay resulted in the night watchmen threatening that to get the keys, they would have to take them from a dead man. Shortly after, the owners found the factory locked—and breaking in, found the watchman dead inside, hanging from the pull rope of the bell. The bell rang out every night at midnight from  that day forward. Removing the rope would not stop it—and removing the bell lead to stranger mischief, such as running the factory at full speed or turning the mill stone backwards against the water.

Smith Castle

Smith’s Castle, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

A house in Wickford, built by one Richard Smith in 1639 was reportedly more haunted then could be believed. Smith’s Castle, as it is sometimes known, has a long history. Among these many ghosts were a group of indigenous people—the exact nation is not recorded—who had been captured by the settlers. In a fit of drunken cruelty, one of the settlers cut the head off a captive, sending it tumbling into a clock. Another was tarred and feathered before dying. The house had further misfortune, being the site of a suicide later on and a number of other tragedies—a mass grave for forty soldiers is nearby, and one of the owners was beheaded and placed on a pike after King Phillips War.

A strange marker of the dead, attributed to indigenous people, are scrub pines.  Each scrub pine that rises, according to local folklore, represents an unnecessary death. One farmer swore to remove each and every one of these pines that grew up in his field every year—and was warned against it by the living. Pushing on, despite the miraculous growth of some pines over night, the farmer met his end when one of the pines collapsed and fell on him.

A number of places in Providence have specific hauntings, but I’ve yet to locate sources for all of them in folklore—the best list I found was here.  As always, a haunted place is often the site of violence or death. Murders, abuse, and others result in restless dead seeking redress. Cruelty calls to the dead. In our prompt we have a second layer of the dead—one that separates it from a number of these stories. For, from Mr. Jackson to the night watchmen, most ghosts want their domain vacated. They drive people out. But here we have the dead beckoning inward. The dead welcoming, if invisible. The dead are calling.

And nameless—and I think this is key as well to the horror at play here. Most ghost stories remember the name of the ghost. Names are sometimes repeated, represented, or changed but almost all are remembered. The dead here are not only nameless but numerous—perhaps recalling the Huguenots at the Shunned House, who are known as a mass but forgotten as individuals. If anything, the strange beckoning dark reminds me of another house.  A house…well. I have spoken on that house.

H Blue

I think for this story, weaving the weighted, overgrown and ancient house with the image of new life from the scrub pines might be the most fascinating route. The manifestation of ghosts and others in new life and new knowledge is a form of a horror we haven’t done yet—at least not exactly. Plant life in particular—or in the case of the Shunned House, fungus—has a clear connection to the dead. The underworld is often connected with cycles of seasons and other patterns. Persephone and Hades, as an archetypal story, connects food and vegetation with the land of the dead as does the Maya Hero Twin story.

The other bit of lore I find fascinating about the Shunned House, connecting it to a similar collapsed manor story we wrote, is the notion that the haunted house is trapped here, in this family. The curse cannot be gotten rid of, because no one will buy the land and there is nowhere else to go. Roots laid too deep to be entirely removed from the family line.

What haunted houses have you heard of or visited? What ghostly shapes have you seen, beckoning from the windows?

Bibliography

Bourgaize, Eidola Jean. Supernatural Folklore of Rhode Island. University of Rhode Island, 1956.

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Growing On Trees

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

The Resulting Story:George and the Generous Tree

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

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

BasqueForest.png

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

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

Carob Tree.png

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

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

ChinaTree.png

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

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

BurmaTree.png

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibliography

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

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

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

 

The Hills Are Alive

This Weeks Prompt: 96. Unknown fires seen across the hills at night.

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

The hills have eyes of fire. The strange shapes on the edges of towns and building up to dread mountains attract a great deal of attention, both nefarious and wondrous—why is perhaps for another to speculate. They are clearly demarcated landscape features, and often can hold springs, metals, strange stone formations, and hiding behind them lies lord knows what.  At night strange things can happen in the hills. By day great fortresses rise to their defense. Sometimes these are intertwined, such as in Tyrol, Austria.

In Tyrol, there is this story. An old lady visited the castle, and found its courtyard full of nobles and servants. One of these servants granted her a gold coin, and the scene vanished. As she left, she was met by a solider with a single match and holding his own head at his side. The solider warned her—tell anyone of this, and evil would befall her. The woman tried her best, until a magistrate learned of the gold she had. When the magistrate pressed her on the matter, and forced her to speak, she is whisked away and never seen again. Later, a young nobleman heard this tale and decided—being a knowledgeable sort—to see for himself what was atop the mountain. As he and a servant ascended, six times an unknown voice told them to desist. The solider was there again, and demanded to know who came—the nobleman declared “It is I!”. When asked who “I” was, the nobleman asked for his sword. But a terrible horseman with no head rode out, seized him, and vanished with him into the country side. The solider drove away the servant with his sword.

HillsTyrol.png

In County Durham, England, there is another haunted and wretched hill. There is a strange story of a hill in Scotland, named after a dread worm. There was an heir of the Lambton family, some six hundred years ago, who ignored his obligations to God and humanity alike. Every Sunday it was his habit to go out fishing, and one such day he was raving about his woes to the local servants when his line was tugged. Thinking he’d caught a grand fish, he pulled and pulled—only to find a horrific, pale worm with many hooked teeth and eyes. Horrified, he fought with the thing—which would not let go of his wire. At last, after speaking with a stranger, he tossed it down a well. Where it grew.

And grew, and grew, until it was too big for the well. The worm rose out and grew so large it was able to circle a nearby hill three times—the hill thus named Worm Hill. The creature then laid waste to the countryside. The household of the heir worked hard to find a solution, the heir himself having repented and gone to wage some foreign war—perhaps service in the crusades.  The creature cannot be stopped until seven years later the heir returns. Taking advice from a local sibyl, the heir places a suit of armor filled with spears near the great worm. The sibyls only demand was that he promise to kill the first thing he came across on his way home, or a curse would lay on his family to never die in their own bed for nine generations.

Lambton Worm.png

The heir did so and the serpent assaulted his armor. But the spears struck into its pale flesh, even as it wrapped tighter and tighter.  At last, it bled so the entire river ran red, and the heir struck the creature dead. He sounded his horn in victory, and his father ran out to greet him. The heir was struck, and could not bring himself to kill his father. So he sounded again in terror, and killed the hound that ran out. But the curse held true.

Another hill in the Northern Counties held a poisonous winged creature, that frequently flew out and wrapped itself around Wormington—hence the name. This creature lived in a cave in a hillside.  The panic the creature inspired was so great that villages ten miles away considered abandoning their homes.  At last a champion stepped forward, and after his normal weapons failed, took some peat covered in pitch and shoved it down the beasts throat. The worm suffocated and its death contractions still mark the hill with spiral patterns.

A mountain in Italy bears lights for a terrible tale—one that I feel ought to have been exhumed from our work with the devil. Pietro Balliardo is the origin of this strange flame on a hill. This man had gained divination powers and command of the devil from a small bookshop. One of the first things he does is get revenge on a woman who refused him—she is found one night, burning atop a Mount, and all who pass by must stir the flame regardless of their will.  He did other outrageous acts, a small Faustus of Italy who in his time repented his ways.  I am sad to say he does not typically die, although he does beat his breast with a stone until he bleeds

Spook Light Hill in Indiana is a particularly haunted hill it seems, with strange ghostly lights. One source of these lights is an old man, looking for his daughter’s head—his daughter took a nasty horse-and-buggy crash a while back, and her head was cut clean off. Another explanation, related, claims it was a farmer who fell off his plow and somehow cut his own head off on the plow. Yet another story says it a ghost of a father from the 1800s. He wouldn’t let his daughter date, until one night she convinced him to let her date a solider. The solider apparently killed her, as her body was found outside the next day and the man is still hunting.  Another story says instead it is from an old couple. One night they went out looking for a lost cow and her calve. The next morning the woman fell into an open grave and died—years later the man died of natural causes. And yet they are still seen looking for the old cow.  The lights, however, remain and won’t say why.

Hills England.png

From Cambridgeshire, we have hills formed of a dispute between the giant Gog and the giantess Magog. Every day they quarreled in their cave until Gog declared he would kill her. Magog fled at once, and out ran him easily. Gog then took up some nearby earth and threw it at Magog. He missed, creating the first hill. He missed again, making a larger hill. But the third struck home, and buried Magog alive—this made the highest hill yet. Similar stories in Shropeshire tell of giants who made the hills by hurling stones and dirt at each other across rivers and the valley.

From Herefordshire, the story of the creation of Robin Hood’s Butts relates to the old trickster Satan. Having learned the people of Herefordshire were building churches and cathedrals and leaving his way of life, he gathered up a number of stones to level the city of Hereford. A passing monk, however, came across him on the road and learned of his intent. In disguise, he taught him all about the corruption of the church and priestly offices—and convinced the devil to go home, abandoning his stones to from the two hills.  Some versions replace the devil with Robin of Loxely, who has set out to destroy the monks of a monastery with Little John. They come across a cobbler, who tells them that the monastery is too far to ever reach. Little John and Robin Hood give up, again leaving the stones to form the hills.

In Ireland, a number of old forts were believed to be inhabited by fairies, or perhaps at one point by the Danes—whether these Danes are from Denmark or are simply named the same is unclear, as they are recounted as diminutive red-headed men and woman, something like dwarves. It was said that when these forts were inhabited, and they wished to communicate across long distances late at night, they would light great fires to signal from far away. In at least one circumstance, leveling of an ancient fortress on a hill resulted in the sudden death of every workman who participated in the leveling. Later rumors of great tunnels underneath, where oxen could plow, began to spread. This cemented it as a fairy home.

HillsKenya.png

To end our collection of tales, a more happy, less horrific fire on a hill comes from Kenya. Here we are told a man with a beautiful daughter promised to marry her to anyone who could spend all night in the nearby cold lake.  The lake was not only cold, but apparently the gathering place of man eating creatures and animals. A young man decides to go, despite his mothers pleading—for he is in love. So he goes and sits in the cold water. His mother, however, followed him. On a small hill, forty paces away, his mother placed a pot and started a fire. The light frightened away the animals. When the son saw it, he was glad for his mothers love that saved him. The man, however, tried to refuse the marriage since he claimed the fire had warmed the pot. A brief ruling by a judge, however, settled the matter.

The fire on the hills story then is the source of many strange creatures and activities. I have not even begun to discuss what first occurred to me with fires on a mountain—great and ancient shrines and revels, from Zoroastrian to Celtic in origin. The ghosts and monsters here, the strange fairy fortresses, even the unknown Danes provide us with something uncanny. As I said, hills are often associated with power. What is going on up on that hill? Can you bear to see what is lighting on that strange hill?

Bibliography

“The Fire on The Hill : African Folk Tales : Fable : Animals Stories.” English for Students, http://www.english-for-students.com/The-Fire-on-The-Hill.html.

Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton, New York. 1919

Buck, Rachel Harriette. Roman Legends: A Collection of Fables and Folklore of Rome. Estes and Lauriat, Boston 1877

Tibbits, Charles John. Folk-Lore and Legends, Germany. J.B. Lippincott, 1892.

Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Indiana University Press. 1982

Leather, Ella-Mary. The folk-lore of Herefordshire. Jakeman&Carver, Hereford. 1912

Henderson, William. Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and The Borders. W. Satchell and Peyton Co. 1879

James, Maureen. Cambridgeshire Folk-Tales. The History Press. 2014

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The House on the Hill.

This Week’s Prompt:95. Horrible Colonial farmhouse and overgrown garden on city hillside—overtaken by growth. Verse “The House” as basis of story.

The Resulting Story:

It’s been a while since we’ve indulged in Mr. Lovecraft’s poetry. The particular poem he references, which will provide a bit more guidance to our research, seems to be one of two by Edward Arlington Robinson. One is “The House on the Hill”:

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Edwin Arlington.png

The other is along the same theme, is “The Haunted House”:

Here was a place where none would ever come
For shelter, save as we did from the rain.
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again
Each wondered why the other should be so dumb;
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain
Where thrift, outshivering fear, had let remain
Some chairs that were like skeletons of home.

There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere.
But there was more than sound; and there was more
Than just an axe that once was in the air
Between us and the chimney, long before
Our time. So townsmen said who found her there.

Both of these stories point us towards our ultimate topic—a haunted house on a hill, overgrown with time, in the United States. The term Colonial is a bit more limiting. I suspect Mr. Lovecraft was thinking of houses in New England in particular, but have expanded my research into the ghostly and and haunted to other house up through the eighteenth century. Not that the Americas have a shortage of haunted homes and houses.

Starting with the northernmost examples I have, we have tales of ghosts from Nova Scotia. A peddler murdered in a half-way house in Halifax haunts its top most room, and sounds of burial can be heard while sleeping there. In Digby, a local doctor’s collection of skeletons are haunted—and disapprove of a worker who set them up like dominoes and knocked them over. A ghost returned to his family, haunting them for three days before a priest compelled him to speak. The ghost then revealed he needed a shave before entering St. Peter’s gates.

In Indiana, there are number of old haunted homes. A number of houses are haunted by coffins not yet buried. A millionaire named Tess preserved the love of his life, even buying a fan to blow her hair and having a private generator keep the blue lights on in the room. Poor Tess seems to have lost his mind, hoarding coffins not only of his loved ones but of cats as well. In Medora, a similar story plays out with one Aseop Wilson, who’s mother insisted he not serve in the civil war. Aesop did, and of course died in battle—his body however was sealed in casket of charcoal at his mothers request, and not buried until a pyschic made contact with him years later. Despite the eventual burial, the delay appears to have attracted unseemly sorts as the house, as white wraiths still appear and moan in the old decaying ruin of the place.

TerreHaute

Downtown Terre Haute, the town home to the Preston House (well. Whats left of it.)

The Preston House has a number of ghosts ascribed to it. One is of a woman, who came with a man from New Orleans. When she refused to divorce him, she went missing on a trip to her family—the servants at the house were convinced she had been buried in the walls. Another group of ghosts came from the Underground Railroad—although the informant claims the railroad was literally underground. As a number of slaves were escaping, the tunnel caved in on both ends. The house’s owners tried their best to excavate the tunnel, but needed to move slowly to not draw the authorities attention. Sadly, all the slaves died—and their spirits still lurk in the house, chains shaking as they wait.

In Koleen, a rotten woman died when her hair caught fire—the product burned fast, and her shouting fed the flames to burn faster. To this day you can see her burn once a year, an event marked by increasingly ominous signs and weather until the day of.

The Hill House of Rockville is probably the most relevant of the houses in Indiana—and perhaps the most humorous. The owner, a wealthy man judging by the size of the house, passed on. And as they say, where there is a will there is a long line of eager relatives. His entire extended family came and spent the night before the funeral there. The next day they awoke and learned that all of their clothes had been removed, and placed in the high branches of the trees outside. Truly a terrifying experience!

The Shoals of Maine provide many haunted ruins as well. A pair of violent drunken pirates argue along the shore, in the burnt ruins of a home. A woman waits still for her husband, who left for the sea ages past. He promised to return, but alas, if legend is believed it was none other then old Teach, Blackbeard himself! She wanders on the shore still, her clothes flowing behind her and mumuring darkly at any movement on the waters. A hanged man walks the shore as well, in a bloody butchers apron and with a long knife. This set is made complete with a monk. The monk, a black robed hooded figure, only appears when the sea growls and the wind blows—a gale is coming, and he prays along the shore for those men who will join him in the here after.

In New York state, we have the Sutton house. This house fits our description almost perfectly, as a shambling house that cannot be seperated from the woods around it. The house was home to a family of three—the mysterious Mr. Sutton, his wife, and his daughter. They lived apart from the rest of the commmunity, and rumors persisted that Mr. Sutton abused his wife. Shortly after their arrival, Mrs. Sutton died of an illness—and had a closed casket funeral. Her daughter vanished, to live with an aunt in England (although others suspected she too had been slain by her father). Mr. Sutton persisted for some time, but he too vanished. The story continues, that as the place fell into ruin, women were seen walking the grounds with their throats slit. On the anniversary of Mrs Sutton’s funeral, Mr. Sutton’s form was seen digging a grave. A distant relation did eventually move into the house after the Revolutionary war. As the day was short, he stuffed all his belongings into a small room and went to bed. On his first night, his sleep was disturbed by the sounds of a great and terrible struggle. It sounded as if china was being shattered in a struggle between a man and a woman—but no damage had been done to his good. He learned, however, from some letters that the room his cookery was in was the room the young Ms. Sutton stayed—and at last the fate of the girl was confirmed.

the Schoharie hills

Schoharie village, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Schoharie hills, New York, we have other stories of hauntings. One informants mother was asked to watch the house of a suspected murderer. The old man was accused of having done away with several peddlers and others. On her first night, a strange image of a dog appeared. Next one of the man’s victims appeared, headless. He demanded to be buried—his body was under the floor boards—and to see the man hung. This ghost had the decency to make his court date as well, and testify. Another house had a room of such fright, that any animal placed in there fled or perished.

For each of these I’ve mentioned, I’ve ommited about a dozen others. The tales of hauntings are very similar—doors fly open, loud sounds with no origin, sudden bursts of light and fire, strange headless apparitions. Often they are the sight of a heinous crime, other times merely…present. Some even occur before the death of their victims!

So we know what a haunted house looks like, sounds like, feels like. We know that sensation, late at night, on the edge of sleep, and hearing a strange creaking sound not far off. And it isn’t hard to build a story of all sorts around a haunted ruin—places of palatable dread and uncanny, that are somewhere between wild and constructed. That ruins are haunted is nothing new. Sumerian demons dwell in those great collapsed buildings unprotected. But the hill poem asks an interesting question. What makes us stop and pause?

The poem calls out the lack. There are no lights, no specters, no sounds. There is a profound nothing. No one is left, and we don’t even have the nature of these nobodies. Why then do we stop and stray, at this ruin on the hill? An answer might be for treasure buried deep or for thrills. Maybe to find shelter in a storm. There are many reasons to end up in a place we don’t want to be.

This doesn’t feel like a monster story. This doesn’t feel like a story with jump scares and shaking buildings. This is a more atmospheric piece. Perhaps, our narrators are looking for someone, something. Some closure at least. Who knows why one might end up, like the nameless Sutton, in an old family home.

And find no one there.

This reminds me of one other haunting—one I discussed here. I will have to think on it some, to build this one. What stories of the dead places have you heard?

Bibliography

Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Indiana University Press. 1982

Beck, Horace Palmer. The Folklore of Maine. J.B. Lippincott. 1957

Garner, Emelyn Elizabeth. Folklore From the Schohaire hills, New York. University of Michigan Press. 1937

Fauset, Arthur. Folklore of Nova Scotia. New York, American Folk-lore society, G.E. Strechet and Co. 1931.

Pryer, Charles. Reminiscences of an old Westchester homestead. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.

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THE SUN

This Week’s Prompt: 94. Change comes over the sun—shews objects in strange form, perhaps restoring landscape of the past.

The Resulting Story:

Oh, this is a timely story. I’ve just returned from visiting family in the Valley of the Sun. Growing up in Arizona, I think, made the notion of the Sun as a deity rather easy to grasp—a vast, often hateful daystar that sapped life and will from everything it saw. If I wanted, I could ramble for hours on the unconscious cosmology I had from growing up in Mesa Arizona, but that is for another time. Today, I want to talk about the Sun. The strange stories of the Sun as well as the more familiar ones.

One of the more familiar stories of the sun is that it rests where it sets, and a hero sets out to find or visit it. A few Dine stories deal with the children of the Sun. The first is a son born of an unmarried woman, for the Sun had grown jealous of a chief he had never seen. This son was brought up among his own people, and at fifteen was told by a white fly that his father was the son. Shortly after he was taken to his father on a rainbow, and was taught every game that existed. The Sun conspired to win every turquoise from the chief and people that he could using his own child. And the son in turns becomes such an amazing gambler, he not only wins the turquoise but also wins the people themselves, the spirits of rain and corn, and the chief! The greatest prize he wins, however, is a turquoise the size of man with feathers sticking out of it. When the Sun descends to collect the turquoise, his son refuses—instead offers to gamble for it.

The Sun then went out and had another boy—this one grew to adult hood in fifteen years. He was then brought up and shaped by his sister to into a duplicate of the first child, the Great Gambler. He is sent out to offer gifts to various beings—the bat a buffalo hide, the snake a pair of red stones, a shell to the brown rat, some ground stones to a little breeze. These all help him, either by sabotaging the Gambler or confounding his spies, until at last the people are freed. The Sun claims the turquoise, and takes the Gambler skyward.

SunImage.png

Another Dine story tells of the Sun seeking a bride—particularly the daughter of First Man and First Woman, White Bead Girl. He arrives first while she is alone, on a white horse, as a man dressed all in white. He then visits her for four days at night, unseen, and she in turn gives birth to twins. These twins prove hard to keep at home, going out and finding spies of the monsters that roam the world. They also learn, by a strange fly, that their father is the Sun.

They then journey East—and come to a land of nothing but sand. There they are warned by an old man to use some of his vomit when the Sun offers tobacco—because the Sun is dangerous and kills with many weapons. They then reach the Sun’s turquoise, and meet his mother. She hides them when the Sun returns, with his jealous wife, on a turquoise horse. The sun tests them—first with a pipe, which they smoke four times. Then with a sweat lodge, again heated four times. He offers them gifts after accepting them as his sons, and they reject each in turn. At last he offers to give them anything, and they ask for his lighting bolt arrows. They then succeed in answering his questions of the mountains, and descend down to fight the monsters that plauge the world. They do their own work from there, not relevant to ours.

AZ Sunset.png

The Sun grants another child to a mother in Greece. She asks to have the child for twelve years, and after that the sun can have them back—so the Sun gives her a pretty girl named Maroula. When the Sun returns twelve years later, he tells the little girl when her mother will give what she promised. Her mother tells Maroula to claim she forgot—and after that fails, she doesn’t let Maroula out of her house. Eventually she grows bold, and sends Maroula out for water. The Sun finds her and takes her away to his palace,and the great garden outside it.

Maroula, however, misses her mother and cries. And her tears during the day cause the garden to wilt. The Sun asks every night why she cries, and she claims two animals were fighting and she was scratched while separating them. At last, when she reveals the source of her grief, the Sun promises to send her home. He first calls lions to attend her—but they will eat her flesh and drink her blood if they grow hungry. As do the foxes. But the deer will eat only grass.

And so they go to take her home adorned with gold coins—and when they grow hungry, they place her in a willow tree. A nearby witch, a drakena, has sent her own daughters nearby to draw water. One sees Maroula’s face and thinks it’s her own. This repeats with each daughter—until the drakena herself comes and tells Maroula to descend and let her eat the young girl. Maroula distracts her by telling her to bake bread—and then escapes on the back of dear, sending mice to distract the witch as she flees.

The Sun as a dangerous force to humanity can be seen further in a Cherokee story. Enraged that people can’t look at her, she sends waves of heat to kill humanity from her daughter’s house in the sky. Humanity consults the little people for advice on what to do—how to escape this misery, they concluded they must kill the sun. So two serpents were sent to wait at the daughter of the sun’s house, fangs ready to bite the Sun’s ankle. The snakes, however, are blinded by the sun and flee—and the deaths continue, with everyone knowing at least one person who perished to the threat. So the Little People changed one man into the great Uketna (who we discussed here) and another into the Rattlesnake. The rattle snake got a head of the great horned Uketna and bit the daughter of the sun in his eagerness. He then returned, as did the enraged Uketna who was convinced he had lost his glory.

When the Sun saw that her daughter was dead, she went into mourning. The heat death stopped, but the sun never rose again—and this eternal darkness was untenable. So the Little People sent men with special bread and a box to the land of ghosts in the west to find the lost daughter. In the land of ghosts, they would find her dancing in a circle. The men where to strike her with sticks, causing her to fall down. Then they were to put her in a box and bring her back—never opening the box even a little. The men did so, and when returning west the daughter returned to life. From her box, she called out first for food, then for water, then air. This third one worried the men, who thought she might be dying. She escapes as a redbird—and this failure means none can be brought back from the living. Her mother the Sun nearly flooded the world with tears of grief—but was stopped by the new song of the drummer.

Amaterasu From the Cave.png

The Sun’s retreat is similar in many ways to Amaterasu’s retreat. Long ago, Amaterasu’s father, Izangi, sent her brother the storm god Susanoo away for his arrogance. He returned, and offered his sister a game of god shaping—each took an item from the other and created deities from it. Amaterasu created five goddesses from Susanoo’s sword, while he made three gods from her necklace. A dispute arose over who had won, Amtaresu claiming the gods her creation as they came from her necklace. This escalated until Susanoo rampaged across the world in his rage, and hurled a flayed pony into the weaving room of Amaterasu, killing one of her handmaidens. Enraged and grieving, Amaterasu retreated into a cave.

The result was darkness and terror over the land—a situation that the gods sought to resolve. First they brought out roosters to signal the dawn and lure her out. Then they brought mirrors and jewels from a nearby tree, hoping to catch some of her light. At last, the goddess of dawn danced atop a great drum naked, to the laughter and delight of the gods. This noise brought Amaterasu’s attention, and lured her from the cave. The gods quickly sealed off the cave, and she has remained in the heavens ever since.

Khepra.png

Of course the Sun’s daily retreat through the sky is most famously remembered in the story of Ra’s voyage through the kingdom of night. This journey, which is in fact the funeral of Ra, crosses many regions, some strange, some dangerous, many serpentine–here for instance, Ra faces Apep. The sun is of course reborn at the end, rising in the dawn as the scarab headed god Khpera. Below is a video summary.

 

Only once was this voyage interrupted or changed—when the goddess Isis took some of Ra’s saliva and created a serpent from it. She placed it in the sun’s path, where it lept out and bit Ra’s ankle. As the poison bore some of Ra’s nature, it actually afflicted him. All the gods of medicine came to help Ra, but none could cure him—until Isis came, and asked for his hidden name to undo the power of the snake. Isis then puts this power to use to cure pain and potentially raise the dead!

On the other end of the Sun’s Daughter tale, the Sun as a dangerous and horrifying enemy is apparent in both Greece and Mesopatmaia. The god Apollo, while now associated with the sun and music, began his history in the Illiad as a god of plauge and healing. A comparable god was Nergal, who was the lord of the noontime sun and the summer, dry season sun. Nergal in time became a god of war and the dead, his role as a bringer of misery aiding his conquest of the underworld. The healing aspects of the Sun persisted in Shamash, who we briefly touched on in the discussion of exorcists.

Houyi the Archer.png

And while we’ve talked of the death or endangerment of the Sun, there is one instance to mention from China. Here, there were once ten suns who each took turns rising—until all ten decided to rise at the same time. The people asked for relief, and so the great archer Yi was sent down. He tried to shoot arrows near the suns, to scare them away. They defied him still, and he grew angry. Drawing back his great bow he fired at one of the great orbs of fire—and the spirit of the sun fell to earth as a three legged raven. He did so eight more times—and the fireballs they carried fell to earth to form a great island, where the endless sea and rivers evaporate upon contact.

Another instance of control of the Sun comes to us from the Maori. Maui, tired of rushing to finish his chores before the sunset, persuades his brothers that it must be taught a lesson. After much warning that it will burn him, blind him, or give him sunstroke, Maui moves ahead with the plan. The party goes and finds the hole from which the Sun rises. They lay a trap over the hole, a great noose of rope. When the sun rises through it, unawares, they pull the Sun down. When he struggled, Maui struck the sun with his magic jaw bone. Maui commanded the Sun, so captured, to move more slowly across the heavens.

Maui and the Sun.png

The light of the Sun is and always has been then a mixed blessing—it is sometimes flighty, always needed, but often jealous and painful. Here we have the use of sunlight as a sort of revelation—a connection that links all the way back to our first story of Demophon. Here we have the Sun restoring and rebuilding a landscape, perhaps revealing its hidden face. What if, and I consider this regarding our story of Amaterasu, the sun we know is the one still in the cave. Alternatively, what if the sun suffers the fate of the Aztec Suns, and is replaced by a new god on the throne? The light of the sun itself changes, and the world becomes in a way inhospitable or more hostile then it was before. Our story seems to move more cosmic by its nature, but grounding it in the experiences of one person might help with that—I’m reminded of the Twitter story/account “the Sun vanished”, which likewise has as a start a strange and horrific cosmic change. What stories about the Sun do you know?

Bibliography:

Megas, Geogrios O. Folktales of Greece.  University of Chicago Press, 1970.

O’Bryan Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Smithsonian Institution, 1955

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