Yonster Over Yonder

This Week’s Prompt:93. A place one has been—a beautiful view of a village or farm-dotted valley in the sunset—which one cannot find again or locate in memory.

The Prior Research: Off the Map

I have never been to Yonster, but I know every road by now. Last night I woke up, and could tell you that the library of Yonster is situated on Main Street and Elephant—Elephant has it’s unusual name from a zoo at the end of street and a foolish twentieth century attempt at advertising through civic infrastructure. There have been movements to change the street name but none have managed to get past the current Mayoral family, the Straubs, who find it quaint. And like many things in Yonster, quaint seems to hold it together.

The dreams about Yonster have been going on for a few weeks now. Just bursts of facts and trivia. I know that Ms. Madeline Alba, who is recently widowed, makes her pie with an dash of vanilla with the raspberries to enhance taste. She learned that the local Starbucks did something similar with their hot chocolate, and thought it was a great idea. She has green eyes.

I keep notes on it, figuring it’ll make a great book someday. Yonster seems like a nice place to visit, but a quick search on Google Maps and nothing. I mean I got a few Youngsters and the like, but yeah. No city, no small town with a population of 2000.

I’m not even sure where it would be—the people there speak English I think, but I can’t read in dreams. I’m not even sure what the dreams are. Sometimes, I’ve got this nice little house that’s a far cry from my cramped apartment. It’s been in my family for generations. I work in town, although on what I’m never sure. It requires a suit, but things are old fashioned in Yonster, so that could be anything.

Small Town Maine yonster

Yonster’s architecture is, outside of the city square, fairly old fashioned. I’d call it Parisian, but I’ve never been to Paris. The buildings are all family homes, and a number of them have tile roofs. The streets aren’t built for cars, although a few people have one. I myself prefer to walk, and enjoy the roadways.

The dreams have gotten more common as I’ve been handling my dad’s work. He’s selling his house—which I won’t lie, stings a bit. But with Mom gone…I can’t blame him for wanting to get out. We brought in some people to clean it, and I’ve started going through the stuff to sell. He can’t stand doing it himself. My therapist thinks the dreams are an escape. I can’t really disagree—seems like it, easy to slip somewhere were things never change when your dig through your parents old stuff.

It was while digging through that cardboard maze that I found it though. A old note book, in my dad’s nightstand. Time stood still as I read the first page.

Small Scottish TownGreen.png

“There’s this place called Yonster…”

I was thinking, when I read, that maybe he’d read me stories about it when I was little. But he’d kept dates—small, at the top of the page where I could miss them at first. First one was when he was nineteen. The whole book was filled with details. Bits and pieces, talking about people and places. I didn’t know Alba’ s mother-in-law didn’t trust their marriage. And given what my father said about George, I didn’t blame her. Marriage and father hood really shaped him up. And the bar down third, where the boys played—that had been a church once, but they’d moved into a new building.

There’s only so much coincidental detail that one man can believe is circumstances. I could believe remembering stories of Yonster—I could even believe maybe imaginging some changes. But the swerves were so…mundane. So normal, so bland. No one shipped off to join the army, no one ran for office and was mirred by scandal, no one had any affairs at all. I had no relations either. There were no long lost grandparents who left me an elaborate mansion. If this was the fancies of childhood—where were the fancies?

My father lives on his own, mostly, but he still manages to keep odd hours. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon, after I’d poured over every detail of the books. Coffee made me jittery and sickly as it faded. It burned at my stomach and made my hands shake. It made my neck feel soft and my head heavy, slumping a bit. But it kept me awake, and I didn’t really want to sleep right now. Something seemed sinister about my inherited dreams.

“Yonster…that’s…hm. Was that were Mary ran off to with Ronald? The one who was an architect.” My father said, stopping with two mugs in hand.

“No, no that was Yonkers.”

“Right, Yonkers, Yonkers. No, don’t think I wrote much about Yonkers.” He said, holding one out.

“No, right. I mean, do you remember visting Yonster? Nice place, had a few hills. You might have known the—there was a statue in town. A big one, of three guys on a horse?” I said, scratching my head. It was a monument to some local heroes during the Civil War—I’m not sure what Civil War, but they had horses and sabers, and they were local heroes. Everyone was related or married into their families. I think that limits the time of the Civil War, maybe two centuries ago? Three? Maybe longer—horses and sabers are as old as steel at least.

“Well, three? Like, three on three horses?” He sipped and frowned. “There’s a lot of those down in London. That what your thinking of?”

“No, no, it was one statue—one place thing. With three men on one horse.” I said, breathing deep. “Does any of that sound familiar?”

“…Are you alright, Justin? You seem worked up about this.”

“I’m fine, I just. I just found some writing about it in your place, and was wondering about it. It seemed, you know, familiar.” I said.

My father didn’t know anything else. And the sixth cup of coffee looped back around on me. I felt my bones weaken, and only with force of will got home. I fell onto the couch, and slept. And dreamed.

Small Town Scotland 2Green.png

The sun over Yonster is clearer than anywhere else I’ve seen. The cicadas buzz with the spring’s arrival, and the river runs clear. It’s thinned lately, but winter snow was arriving. It was swelling, and green was growing again. A good time of year, as the rains came in, for drinking tea outside and slipping in doors. The rains are always calming in Yonster.

I figured I had…something, between my memories and my father’s forgotten ones, to place Yonster on a map. Somewhat. The terrain, the style of the saber, the way the buildings looked. The problem wasn’t ‘were’ such a place could be—it was that those places had maps. Yonster looked like it had rolled out of an English Romantic pastoral, but with electric lights.

And England was mapped.

England was mapped. Ireland was mapped. Maine was mapped. And it wasn’t like Yonster was small. I had known a friend in college, who claimed all over the south were unmapped and unmarked farms and villages waiting to take up guns against the federal government. I still think that’s a load of crap, but even those imaginary secret armies were small. But Yonster was…probably a few hundred people.

I narrowed it down over a few day. It was probably an abbreviation—chester became just ‘ster’ over the years, putting it somewhere in the Isles. I even worked out the etymology, although no one in Yonster was impressed—that fortress, or fortress over yonder.

I must have looked bizarre on the train from London. I told people I was hiking out in Scotland for a few days, map in hand and note books in my pack. The landscape looked right for Yonster, and Alba was a Celtic name—shared with a Latin one.

The Scottish countryside feels like a place you could hide things, as you move farther and farther into the highlands. It was a good place to start—even if it wasn’t as known for horses, I don’t think, as Yonster was.

I spent six months walking towards Yonster. I knew that I was getting close, even as I circled back and came around. Even as I started running low on cash, as the leaves changed. I told anyone who asked that I was going back to visit some friends out in Yonster—no one asked much after that, although I had plenty to tell them. I don’t know how I got back every day, every night rain or shine I was there. It was always Spring in Yonster, and the people always patient and kind. It kept me warm on days full of cold, and full when I slept hungry. For six months, I chased the phantom through hills and dales, in valleys and near cliffs.

Small Town Maine yonster

And then I found it—the old road to Yonster. It was smaller than I remembered, but what did that even mean really. The road was dirt, overgrown mostly. The buildings were small and few. There was maybe a dozen old houses, empty houses—no not quiet empty. But no one lived there. It was nothing like I imagined, but it was Yonster. I could feel it in my bones.



This story took some work to come up with an ending for—I wasn’t satisfied with leaving it as utter delusion, or having it really be some paridisal home. So I opted for something in between. On a revisit, I think expanding some of the search would be warranted—or perhaps changing Yonster from a sort of small town idealism to a more fantastic setting like the folklore had.

Next week, we leave the invisible and soar into the heavens! Behold, the Sun!

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A Witch’s Best Friend

This Week’s Prompt: 88. Lonely philosopher fond of cat. Hypnotises it—as it were—by repeatedly talking to it and looking at it. After his death the cat evinces signs of possessing his personality. N.B. He has trained cat, and leaves it to a friend, with instructions as to fitting a pen to its right fore paw by means of a harness. Later writes with deceased’s own handwriting.

The Following Story:After the Funeral

Well this story just makes me sad. We’ll go over the full implications of this as a narrative at the end, but I’m almost touched by the notion of a friend finding their dead colleague still persisting in their pet. I half wonder if this is meant as a horror story at all. We’ll discuss that a bit later, after going over the ideas of horror.

The use of hypnosis is an interesting note, one we will go over in more detail when we can—the power of the gaze and hypnosis was often invoked during Lovecraft’s time to explain magical powers in the world. The philosopher here is therefore somewhat in the vein of a wizard or witch, albiet more scientific. The use of it on a cat is more fitting then—not only to continue the legacy of the familiar but because hypnosis was for a time known as “animal magnetism”. It’s also worth noting we did discuss cat’s before (here).

The animal familiar of a witch is a common feature of magic stories, often possessed in someway by the genius of their witches. One of the most famous non-cat examples, in my research, was that of a serpent. In particular, there was a large rattle snake that supposedly attended the Queen of Voodoo during her life—the creature slinked off into the swamp after her death, and had not been seen since. At least one informant claimed his magic came from the skin of said serpent, but whether this was honest belief or blustering and boasting for a credulous writer is difficult to say.

Louisiana RattleSnake.png

The same book—and the issues of researching Vodou/Voodoo/Hoodoo will be discussed at a later time, believe me—refers to one wizard making use of a crocodile to work his magic, marked by a read handkerchief. Both creatures have stories of being sources of magic themselves—tools by which their owner cast spells as well.

In Scotland, we can add the toad to this set of wicked beings that aid in witchcraft. The toad is said to have been perhaps of more value dead then alive, however. The head of the toad supposedly contained a stone, and as we discussed in our witchcraft article, there are multiple rituals in Scotland and Nova Scotia that rely on feeding a toad alive to an anthill. One exception is from the end of the sixteenth century in Flanders. Here, a man tried to escape his threatening landlady by boat, but found the boat could not move. When he asked some soldiers for help, they too could not move the boat. At last, they suggested checking under the vessel—and there was a massive toad with fiery eyes. The soldiers stabbed the creature and threw it out. When the man asked after his landlady letter, she was found near death from unknown wounds.

The cat in Scotland has some significance—most prominently when it has a large white star on its chest. One source named these elfin cats, and claimed they were witches in disguise—not, as might be guessed, simple faerie cats. Others take the form of great tigers in Orissa, red deer in Cumberland, and in many parts of Europe a hare. Beyond this, Scotland has superstitions regarding cats as prognostics—washing their heads to indicate fair weather for instance—or as potential witches. In the same way that the earlier toad could be possessed by the mind of a witch, so too was there a story of a cat possessed by a witch. A rancher had lost a number of cattle, and determined he was bewitched. Seeing a cat nearby, who had been following his cattle, he hurled a red hot iron at the cat. By chance, a neighbor broke her leg that night.

Cat Sith 2.png

In North Germany, to tie in a way back to the witches sabbath, a miller became convinced that witchcraft was being done on his mill—every year, on Christmas Eve, the mill burned down. At last he convinced a solider to stand watch. As he makes a bowl of porridge, in comes a long troop of cats—and they discuss where to sit, as they plan to burn the mill down again. The young man hurls the porridge at one of the cats, and cuts off her paw with a saber. The rest vanish—and the next morning, the millers wife is found to be missing one of her hands.

A strange Flemish story of a man who went to tell his mother that she was now a grandmother follows. The grandmother already knew by some means, and on his way home he was swarmed by cats. Not just swarmed, the determined felines stole all his silver and pushed him into a brook! A local priest learned of this and warned him to not give anything to anyone who begged at his door. He held out for a time, until a piteous old woman with child begged for bread. When he gave the bread, both his wife and child died in…rather gruesome ways.

Japanese Bobtail

I couldn’t find Ainu art of a cat, so I present the Japanese Bobtail, one of two cat breeds native to Japan.

Ainu lore places the origin of cats, sometimes, with a strange demon. The demon conspired to kill a mole god, by tossing him in the fire. He ingratiated himself as a guest, and then tossed the god into the hearth. However, as he left, the god appeared at the entrance. Before the demon could speak, the mole god seized him and tossed him in the furnance. The mole god stopped him from becoming smoke or breath—but the demon’s life could not leave his ashes. So instead out emerged the first cat and fox to escape, and live on to do ill in the world. (For those interested in the power of dead shamans and demons emerging from burnt corpses, it is a reccruing theme in our research on mosquitoes and ticks you can find here on patreon). In a strange reversal of this story, there is a notion among the Ainu that ghosts of dead cats may possess their murderers. They slowly drive them to imitate the cats, wasting away their bodies until they die. Mewling.

That is, frankly, horrifying.

Of course, there are ways to avoid such things. One is to eat a part of the cat killed—this will keep the spirit at bay. Another is to find, kill, and eat an unrelated cat—this helps with cats that are simply lurking around and sending strange visions and manipulations to their victim.

The Black Cat has some saving graces—for instance, they were considered to be insurance by sailors wives. This made them very valuable indeed—and often stolen or wandering into homes on their own. Connected to this, throwing a cat overboard was considered a way to provoke a storm by sailors. The works on witchcraft by King James also note a ritual using a corpse and a cat to provoke storms by witches in Scotland.

But that seems rather far a field from our intentions—we are after all dealing more with possession, transformation, and transference then we are with black magic. So, what sort of story do we have in this prompt? The first thing that is apparent to me is the description of our philosopher—they are lonely. A lonely scholar kept company by their cat. They aren’t friendless—they have a friend who takes care of their cat afterwards. A cat that, I’m sure, would already be a living reminder of a departed friend. A new pet with new habits, new routines, used to the old owner in many ways.

And then, it starts making motions towards the pen. Or paper. Pawing at it. And the friend examines some of the contents of the box, and finds a curious crude contraption—a pen fitted for a feline leg. And then…its as if his friend is writing again, on the paper, starting to explain things.

I’m not sure what sort of story this is—while perhaps Lovecraft meant it as a horror story, of animal intelligence or of possession or the like. But honestly, given his love of cats and the general tone of this prompt, it feels more like a tale of wonder. A bit of magical realism, instead of terror.

Bibliography

Campbell, John Gregorson, Superstitions of the Highlands and the Islands of Scotland, J. MacLehose and sons, 1900.

Henderson, Williams; Notes on Folklore of the Northern Counties, The Folklore Society, 1879 

Hurston, Zora; “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 44, No. 174, (Oct-December 1931), pp 317-417. 

King James VI and I, Demonology, Gutenberg Press. June 26th, 2008.

Batchelor, John. Ainujin Oyobi Sono Setsuwa. KyoÌ Bunkan, 1901.

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The Eye

This Week’s Prompt: 83. Quotation “. . . a defunct nightmare, which had perished in the midst of its wickedness, and left its flabby corpse on the breast of the tormented one, to be gotten rid of as it might.”—Hawthorne

The Resulting story: The Magi and King Morgan Pt 2

This weeks quote is from the novel, the House of Seven Gables. The novel follows a number of themes—contrasting old, aristocratic and isolated living with more fashionable and mercantile living. The dangers of superstition, particularly of witch hunts. The futility of the past, the nature of architecture as a haunting, family feuds both within and without, fears of mesmerism, corruption of government authorities. It is a Gothic book in all but name. So, what are we to start with today, with such a wide text?

I am loath to continue with the nightmares and witches. While, yes, certainly there are creatures that I haven’t touched upon regarding dreams and nightmares—Lilith and the lilitu, for instance, or the use of dreams to take on animal forms and combat evil—I suspect those particular topics will be reached anyway. No, I’d rather focus on a different portion of the book and of Gothic literature obsession. The gaze.

In House of Seven Gables, we are introduced to two families. The Pyncheon’s and the Maule’s, a rich and poor family. The Maule’s land is robbed, by means of a witchcraft accusation. This accusation, which carries down the generations, lays at the feet of the Maule’s many supernatural capacities, not the least of which is the evil eye, which we will get to shortly. However, Hawthorne connects the power of the eye to the then modern practice of mesmerism, a science dealing in animal magnetism and hypnosis. The gaze to Hawthorne has the potential to harm—it isn’t merely a passive action, but rather a potentially malicous one.

Vathek.png

This notion of the importance of sight can be found in a number of other foundation Gothic texts. We can consider Vathek, a story that focuses on a wicked Caliph. Among the Caliph’s powers is his gazed which—when enraged—can kill a man with hatred. The Caliph’s story, including as it does demons, magical swords, and a quest to hell, is worth a read for a fan of the Gothic. We can also consider importance of vision in Frankenstien—here the eyes of the monster are what gives away it’s character to the more mortal participants and are the source of horror. Dracula like wise has a commanding stare, as do most vampires in Gothic tales—the Count of Monte Cristo is noted for his eyes, and Dorian Grey’s painting suffers when veiwed at all. The power to see and be seen are dangerous in these stories, to the last. Even the other Great American Horror Author, Edgar Allen Poe, included a fear of vision—the tell tale heart after all stars a most terrible, vulture like eye.

Where does all this fear of vision come from? Well, it is not without precedent. One of the most fearsome folklore ailments is the evil eye. Under various names, the evil eye stretches from Scotland across Europe and into parts of South Africa and Middle East. The evil eye’s effects are almost universal: a person with the evil eye can afflict another with a curse—either misfortune or ill health—with nothing more than a stare and evil intent. Particularly fearsome examples refer to mummifying their targets Often the effect is most feared among children, and so numerous precautions are taken to avoid it.

Evil Eye Protection.png

In Macedonia, clothes were worn inside out to avoid the evil eye. In Palestine, blue glass was used to ward it off. Various charms are described by Etruscan witches to keep it at bay. In Greece, at various times, blue beads and blue string have been used to ward it off from animals and other human beings a like. In Persia, rugs were sometimes woven with complex designs to avoid the evil eye, and for this purpose one author speculated Celtic notes were made to confuse the witches eye.

Who is liable to use the evil eye varies from location to location. In Ethiopia, it was often ironworking artisans who made use of it—particularly against clients who failed to pay or who were more successful then they were. Among the Suk people, one possessor of the evil eye was a rather rich rancher—however, do to his capabilities, he was avoided at all costs.

The evil eye’s spread in the states, and in New England in particular, is documented with the case of one John Godfrey. John Godfrey, as a renowned witch, was accused during one of his law suits of speaking freely of witchcraft in order to shock victims. He would say that the witches merely reported to the devil who had displeased them, and then stare at whatever they wanted dead—cattle, man, child, what have you.

That a New Englander would bring such beliefs is not surprising. In every part of England, the evil eye can be found. We have talked before, at length, of the power witches in Shropeshire had. There we have witches who nearly waste away a yougn woman by “overlooking” them, cases of a horse being used to dectet the witch in the case of Kitty Williams, and our man who fixes his enemies in place with a glance. In Lanchshire, there were stories of the evil eye again used on cattle—but frequently tied to other interactions. Outsiders couldn’t use the evil eye if they were avoided, and excessive admiration was thought to also bring on the evil eye through envy.

But the evil eye is not the deadliest or oldest concern with gaze. We can find a more fearsome sort in Ireland, for example. There the evil eye was known as Balor’s eye for sometime—and perhaps was it’s lesser cousin. Balor was a great lord of giants who inhabited Ireland, and had an eye so vast that it took seven men to lift it’s lid (or it possessed seven lids, and each took a great effort to raise). It was said when Balor gazed upon a field it withered, men died, and stone suffered. It is said sometimes that when Balor was slain—and he was of course in time slain—that his eye burned a lake into the ground where it rests to this day.

The other famed European example is the Basilisk or Cockatrice, a pair of related creatures that appear to be either a snake or a rooster. The gaze of these creatures was said to be murderous and paralytic, naturally leading them inhabit vast deserts in Northern Africa.

Corcotta.png

They shared this prowess with a less well known, but equally frightening creature: the Crocotta. This creature was accounted for living in Ethiopia or India, and was believed to have a number of qualities. When it’s shadow touches a dog, the dog is struck dumb. When it gazed on a person or animal three times, it froze them in place. It was also capable of imitating the voices of victims, and was invulenerable to steal weapons. Later additions in Medieval bestiaries added gem-eyes that, if held under someones tongue, could provide visions of the future.

Moving to the Americas, we find a number of comparable creatures. Here we enter a difficult space—I did contact a modern member of the Cherokee to confirm these stories, but my abillity to find linkable sources was hamstrung. The one I’ll focus on is the Uktena, a horned serpent—the description I found said it was as wide as a trunk, with deer antlers, and a fire jewel in it’s eye. This jewel has a number of traits: it is magical, oracular, and if a hunter looks at this jewel, they are blinded and run into the serpents mouth. Other traits include that the Uktena can only be slain by firing an arrow at it’s seventh stripe—beneath which sits its heart and life. And impressive for our discussions, looking at the Uktena will kill not the hunter, but his entire family. Combined with the creatures poisonous breath, and the Uktena is a terrifying creature to find in the woods. Nonetheless, there are stories of a man managing to slay one, and making off with the jewel.

From the Cherokee to the Lakota, we have a very distinct water creature with deadly vision. The Unk Cekula is one of a pair with Unk Tehi. The two creatures came from the north, and proved hazardous—if they reproduced, they would endanger the entire world (an origin that resembles some stories of Leviathan). So one was slain. The creatures properties are notable: She has eyes of fire, skin of stone, and claws of iron—this last trait a post-colonial addition I think—and to look upon her was death. First a victim would go blind, then mad, and finally die. Like Uktena, her weakness relates to the number seven (the seventh spot instead of stripe) and she has a magical crystal within her. A pair of brothers slew her, one blind, with the help of a medicine arrow.

Bear Butte.png

Bear Butte, which was created after a fight between Unk Cekula and a great bear.

The Hero Twins of the Dine leave a number of dead monsters behind them, but one that is worth our attention is Binaye Ahani, who slays people with their eyes. These monsters dwell in a cavern shaped like a house, with a great family. When the Monster Slayer arrives, they attempt to kill him with their gaze—the text refering to it as “lighting” shooting from their eyes. The Monster Slayer’s armor, however, protects him. Perhaps it uses the same techniques as mirror armor. Their eyes eventually stretch out with effort, and burn on their own fire. All but two are killed, and the spared youngest become birds of fortune and beauty.

We could go on—the dangers of sight on statues and icons were discussed before, and the dangers of seeing a god’s true form in some mythologies are known. But I’d like to step out of folklore and ask what it is exactly that people fear. Why is staring or being seen dangerous? Why is it assumed envy should have power here?

I think a sincere part of this is that a gaze, a glance, is a connection. To make eye contact with someone or something is to connect with them, to reach out in an unspoken way and show understanding—and that this understanding isn’t always wanted, mutual, or equal. To see something is to interact with it, and by interacting with it, be changed by it. That change can be dangerous, lethal even! Especially with wicked intent.

Our follow up story will incorporate some of this of course—we can easily weave the work of dreams and gaze together, slumber with the trance of mesmerism. The creation of illusions by the wizard and the power of a gaze by his heir seem appropriate to bring together.

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Biblography:

Abbot Richard. Macedonian Folklore Cambridge, England; Cambridge University Press. 1903

Beech, Mervyn Worchester Howard. The Suk; Their Language and Folklore. Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1911.

Bowen, Barbra M. The Folklore of Palestine. Grand Rapids , Michigan; Wm B. Eerdmans publishing co. 1940

Coote Lake, Evelyn F. “Some  Notes  on the Evil Eye Round the Medterrianian Basin”. Folklore Vol 44, No 1, March 1933, pp 93-98

Demos, John. “John Godfrey and His Neighbors: Witchcraft and the Social Web in Colonial Massachusets”. The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol 33, No 2 April  1976, pp 242-265.

Finneran, Nial “Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and The Magical Symbolism of Iron Working”. Folklore, Vol 114 , No 3. Dec. 2003 pp 427-433

G.H.K. “Stray Donegal Folklore”. The Folk-lore Journal,Vol 5 No 1, 1887, pp 66-68

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

Leland, Charles Godfrey.  Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies. New Hyde Park, New York. University Books. 1963

Vulkanovic, T.P. “Obscene Objects in Balkan Religion and Magic”. Folklore, Vol 92, 1981. pp 43-53

Dealing With The Devil

This Week’s Prompt: 71. Man has sold his soul to devil—returns to family from trip—life afterward—fear—culminating horror—novel length.

The Resulting Story: A Prodigal Son Returns

This month is something of a return to popular topics it seems. Last week, we had the creation of the world out of a person—not that dissimilar to the stories of Leviathan from a few years ago. This week, we return to the archnemesis of mankind and one of the most famed tropes in fiction: a deal with the devil. Through folklore onto plays in Shakespeares day, even into modern television, the Devil is a busy tradesmen and contract writer it seems.

Theophilus Deal With The Devil.png

The first story of a deal with the devil—directly said as such—comes from the early church and Saint Theophilus. Saint Theophilus of Adana was a saint from the early 6th century, who according to the chronicler was a humble man that turned down an appointment to a bishopric. The bishop elected instead refused to give him a post as archdeacon. Now regretting his humility, Theophilus contacted a sorcerer or necromancer, and contacted the devil himself to gain his position. Theophilus renounced the Virgin Mary and Christ, and signed a contract in blood to become a bishop again. The devil fulfilled his end of the arrangement.

Not long later, however, the Saint Theophilus grew afraid for his immortal soul. He fasted for fourty days and prayed for forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. After chastising him, the Virgin Mary went to intercede with God. After another thirty days fasting, she returned and granted him absolution. The devil, displeased, three days later lay the contract on Theophilus’s chest. Theophius takes the contract to a real, non-diabolic bishop, who burns it. The saint then dies of joy.

Codex Gigas.png

This story is among the first we have, but there are many more. Another holy man made a bargain with the devil to complete a bible before dawn in the early 13th century. This holy man had broken his monastic vows, and was in danger of being walled up a live ( a punishment we are familiar with). He prayed to no avail, until at last he called upon the Lord of Darkness. The Archenemy of All Mankind finished the work in an hour, and in memory, the book—now known as the Codex Gigas—contains a large picture of the Devil himself inside.

The greatest holy man to supposedly make deals with the devil was Pope Slyvester II. Pope Slyvester introduced Arabic numerals to the Western Church, and was rumored to have stolen a Arabian sorcerer’s spell book. The sorcerer pursued him, able to see all in heaven and earth by means of the stars, until the man who would be Pope slept atop a bridge in order to evade capture. Later on he used the spell book to summon forth a demonness in order to secure the Papacy, and created a brazen head of bronze that could answer any question posed to it (as long as it was a yes or no question). The demoness or the head warned the Pope that if he gave Mass in Jerusalem, the Devil would slay him—resulting in the pope canceling his planned pilgrimage.

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However, Pope Slyvester II did give a Mass at “The Holy Cross of Jerusalem”. And what happened there is somewhat disputed. One instance says the Pope felt suddenly ill, and requested that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered. Another says the devil did assault the Pope and ripped out his eyes. The Pope, pentient, chopped off his hands and tongue. After death, legends formed—based on a misreading of his tomb text—that his bones will shake whenever a Pope is close to death.

Another man of learning who regular dealt with the devil—although who never lost his soul in the process—was Saemundur Sigfusson. Saemundur’s deals range from transport back to Iceland on a seal, to learning the Dark Arts from the master himself. In each case, however, Saemundur outwitted the devil, often by causing the devil’s end of the deal to become impossible. For instance, the Devil promised to take him to Iceland on the back of a seal in exchange for his soul. Saemundur, wisely, killed the seal moments before it met the shore and walked off.

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John Fian was a more recent man accused of making deals with the devil. A Scottish schoolmaster, John was accused and confessed under torture to being a witch who had signed a contract with Satan himself. This deal granted him, if accusations are believed, the power to bewitch town folk—including a botched attempt that resulted in seducing a cow—and raising storms to destroy ships. The schoolmaster did, to his credit, claim to renounce Satan to his face. Sadly, he then attempted to flee authorities and was predictably burned alive after a rather nasty torture involving nails.

John Fian features in the book of the same time, the Demonlogiae, by King James. The book contains a section devoted to contracts with the Devil, who takes various forms to render various services. When curing disease, he appears as an animal. When answering great questions, he possesses the body of a dead man to fortell the future (an example of Necromancy, no doubt). Other times, a devil may take the form of a ring or enchanted item, and elementals—those angels that occupy the air, fire, earth, and water of the world—are also fallen devils. The services of the devil are often ones of revelation—often of secrets King James reckons are not to be revealed, as God has sealed them up, or of secrets that do not require diabolic aid. Further, the Devil’s work is accorded to be no more than illusions—his armies are but strange shapes in the wind, for true miracles only God can work.

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That of course, does not mean deals were made only for lofty goals of intellect. The tradition of a devil’s bridge is far more practical then the Faustian search for knowledge. These bridges are built with a pact of the devil and are often believed to be constructions of antiquity. Some versions it is the mason that gives their soul—in others, it is the first person to cross the bridge to give their soul. While there are many versions of the story, one version contains another saint—St. Julian the Hospitaller. The Saint, however, cons the devil by sending a pig or dog across instead of a human being.

Another case of practical skill is a man in Shropeshire wrestled or dealt with the devil for power over motion in many ways. He supposedly was able to compel a man to return to him after leaving a bar and hold him there in place, cast illness with his evil eye, and other nuisances.

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And of course, there is the most famous case of dealings with the forces diabloical—Faust. Johann Georg Faust is a historical figure attested to in a number of documents, but his legend makes any accurate statements difficult. Often driven out of town on accusations of fraud, Faust or Faustus—who may have been one or two individuals—claimed to be an alchemist, a doctor of philosophy, a doctor of medicine, an astrologer, and magician. His exact activities as he traveled are recorded somewhat:he preformed a astrology for a bishop in 1520, and banished from Nurnberg and Ingoldstadt in 1528 and 1530—on accounts of necromancy and sodomy. In 1536, he received recognition as a more genuine authority, and is last recorded in 1535 in Munster.

The legends around Faust existed in his life time. A man declaring himself Faustus Junior boasted of being able to preform the miracles of the bible. Other accounts credit Faust as boasting of granting the German Emperor victories in battle with magical means. Faust was rumored to have a dog that became a man servant, of flying, of deceiving men into rubbing their faces with arsenic to remove beard stubble, and more. In 1540 or 1541, Faust supposedly died of an alchemical accident. His body was greatly marred, reportedly as the devil had come for him at last to collect. Faust’s spellbooks have been published for two hundred years, the last one in 1691.

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Faust’s deal with the Devil is recorded in The Historical Faust, a German chapbook. The deal occurred in the Spesser Wald. It is recorded as such:

Now the Devil feigned he would not willingly appear at the spot designated, and he caused such a tumult in the forest that everything seemed about to be destroyed. He blew up such a wind that the trees were bent to the very ground. Then it seemed as were the wood with devils filled, who rode along past Doctor Faustus’ circle; now only their coaches were to be seen; then from the four corners of the forest something like lightning bolts converged on Doctor Faustus’ circle, and a loud explosion ensued. When all this was past, it became light in the midst of the forest, and many sweet instruments, music and song could be heard. There were various dances, too, and tourneys with spears and swords. Faustus, who thought he might have tarried long enough now, considered fleeing from his circle, but finally he regained his godless and reckless resolve and persisted in his former intention, come whatever God might send. He continued to conjure the Devil as before, and the Devil did mystify him with the following hoax. He appeared like a griffon or a dragon hovering and flattering above the circle, and when Doctor Faustus then applied his spell the beast shrieked piteously. Soon thereafter a fiery star fell right down from three or four fathoms above his head and was transformed into a glowing ball. This greatly alarmed Faustus, too. But his purpose liked him so well, and he so admired having the Devil subservient to him that he took courage and did conjure the star once, twice, and a third time, whereupon a gush of fire from the sphere shot up as high as a man, settled again, and six little lights became visible upon it. Now one little light would leap upward, now a second downward until the form of a burning man finally emerged. He walked round about the circle for a full seven or eight minutes. The entire spectacle, however, had lasted until twelve o’clock in the night. Now a devil, or a spirit, appeared in the figure of a gray friar, greeted Doctor Faustus, and asked what his desire and intent might be. Hereupon Doctor Faustus commanded that he should appear at his house and lodging at a certain hour the next morning, the which the devil for a while refused to do. Doctor Faustus conjured him by his master, however, compelling him to fulfill his desire, so that the spirit at last consented and agreed.

Faust’s bargain specified that the spirit sent would serve him for period of time. At the end of this period, he would surrender himself to the spirit. He forsook the Christian faith and signed such in blood. In exchange he gained any desire he wished—although not marriage, as that was a sacrament. The spirit appeared hence as a Fransican monk.

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Faust then inquired many things of his spirit guide, flying into the heavens, descending into hell, learning falsehoods about astrology and others. He stayed in the Pope’s palace invisible, slept with the wives of the Sultan while wearing the sultan’s form, and more. He cursed a knight to have antlers, trapping him in a window; he gathered food for a pregnant countess and created all manner of animals; he conjured Helen of Troy to show his talents of necromancy; he encountered sorcerer’s who could chop off their heads and put them back on again.

In the end, Faust’s students begged him to ask for forgiveness. And he tried to. But Faust was convinced his contract damned him, and so could not genuinely ask for forgiveness. And so he met a gruesome end, which I will not repeat here. Faust leaves a will and testament, granting his butler Wagner all of his belongings. (I will note here: the original Faust chapbook, linked here, is shockingly anti-Semetic in many ways.)

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Later versions of Faust include more details—the play of Goethe add a love intreast that might redeem him, and the role of doubt as near conversion is expanded. Goethe also added a happy ending—Faust at the end of Part II is redeemed by the angels as Mehpistophles lusts after them.

More modern takes on the Deal with the Devil focus on an interesting and specific talent and form of expression—music. Folktales about violinists making deals with the devil include: Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), who was rumored to deal with the devil and who was not permitted a church burial upon death; Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), who wrote a sonata based on his encounter with the devil; Philippe Musard (1792-1859), who’s wild conducting style convinced some that he had also made pacts with the devil; Tommy Johnson (1895-1956), a blues musician who’s brother claimed he sold his soul for guitar playing skills; and Robert Johnson (1911-1936), who made a similar deal. And of course, there is the folk song about the Devil going down to Georgia.

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The deal with the devil persist in popular culture, although the cause over time seems to have changed. The major deals with the devil I recall—such as Futurama’s The Devil’s Hands are idle Play Things or it’s later movie The Beast with a Billion Backs— present deals with the devil as matters of passion and love. The Disney movie Princess and the Frog has a non-literal deal with the devil for status and freedom in a more traditional mode, however. The film Anastasia features a reference to a pact with Rasputin in exchange for sorcerous power—in a way reminscent of the Disney film. Generally, however, deals with the devil are lately things of lost hope and desperation—I have more examples, but they are spoilers for shows worth of material. This contrasts the model that folklore presents, where deals are made not to save lives, but to advance one’s station and power over the world or to increase one’s knowledge. And to be honest, that is more tragic to me.

At the end of the day, a deal to save a life is a heroic sacrifice. It’s tragic, and poignant, and sad, but ultimately it’s a failure to think things through or let go or consider alternatives. The deal with the devil plays on character flaws, but often for a goal that is more easily accepted. The problem is mostly these stories are about saving people—not about the heart of the original deal with the devil, which is the loss of an immortal promise for mortal gain. Some deals change this by making the deal with the devil not about the soul itself directly, but about actions that lead to torment and the path of wickedness anyway.

Our story resembles a song I heard once: The Devil’s Train by Lab Rats. Unlike the more famous song, the Devil Went Down To Georgia, this story features a more diabolical assault. The character features an unspecified deal with the devil and…well, you can watch it here:

The Deal with Devil here is for the soul of the man. The question is, what did the man trade for? What did he receive for his immortal soul? For the story to work, we need I think for the stories unsettling terror and growing fear to work the change should be…less spectacular then Dr. Faust. More practical, more pragmatic. As to what a man is like without his soul…well, I think that is the source of dread and uncertainty isn’t there? That there’s something intangiblelly…unsettling about a person. The deal, of course, should be a secret I think. A trip abroad can change someone, and that gives us some cover for the changes in one of our characters.

The relationships at play here are also uncertain. I have been assuming the man is the patriarch of the family, but on reflection the horror might work better with a young man…it is easy to grow so distant from a person that you no longer recognize them. A trip abroad exacerbates that effect. I myself am going abroad soon, so such changes are on my mind…hm. There’s a good deal to think about for this story.

I will note that I intend to ignore the ‘novel length’ suggestion—The story may be long, but certainty not that long.

Works Referred To:

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

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