Growing On Trees

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

The Resulting Story:George and the Generous Tree

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

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

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

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

Carob Tree.png

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Bloodsucking Bodies from the Balkans

This Week’s Prompt: 92. Man’s body dies—but corpse retains life. Stalks about—tries to conceal odour of decay—detained somewhere—hideous climax.

The Resulting Story: Something Gnawing Inside

We have discussed the restoration of corpses before, but for this one I would like to examine in detail a particular case—one that we discussed towards the beginning of our work here at the Undead Author Society. To limit our discussions, I will focus on living corpses of the vampiric kind, from Slavic and Balkan areas. In particular, this calls to my mind the story of a man and his vampiric brother, both in the attempts to hide the bodies nature and its attempts apparently to maintain its life.

The story goes that a woman died, leaving her husband and son behind. The husband remarried, but the woman was—as often is the case in these stories—a wicked woman who loathed the son. She demanded he be driven out and out of love for his wife, the father agreed. So the son went out into the world with twelve dinars.

As he entered a new town, he found a body, that people cursed and spat on. When he asked why, he learned the man died with many debts. A compassionate soul, he spent his little money paying the debts and arranging a proper burial. Leaving town, he passed the cemetery where the man was buried. The man, now a vampire, approached him in disguise, and offers to help him along his travels.

At the next town, they learn of two tragedies! One, the Turkish pasha’s daughter has passed. Two, every guard who holds wake over her body is found dead the next day. The vampire-brother gives the young man a holy scripture and tells him to focus on it every night, or he will die. On the third night, he reveals what you dear reader already suspect—the woman was a vampire! He tells the young man to lie in her coffin when she rises—and when she returns and cannot move him, the curse is broken and she is freed. The pasha, delighted, gives the young man his daughter’s hand in marriage(the other daughter, presumably).

Vampire Woman

Then the young man heads home, without his vampire assistant or wife. Along the way, he stops at a coffeehouse and is convinced by the two men there to begin playing cards. He loses everything rapidly, and is forced to become a cowherd. However, the vampire and wife head out to find him—and the vampire sees and understands all their tricks. He wins everything back from his fellow vampires, and restores the young man.

Returning home, the vampire asks to divide everything he’s earned between them. This is done easily, as most things are split with a saber. But when the matter of the young man’s wife comes up, it becomes a bit more difficult. For the young man. The vampire splits her in two anyway, and kills the serpent that emerges. Given his dialogue, listing the good deeds, it seems probably that the wife was restored before the vampire returned to the land of the dead on his fortieth day.

A similar story comes from Ukraine—here a rich man gives a poor man a loan on the advice of an icon of St. Michael. The rich man’s herds and land are blessed, but he is unhappy until he recieves the loan back. When he learns the poor man has died in debt, he gouges out the icon of St. Michael’s eyes and beats it—until it is bought by a young man passing by. The young man in time travels with his rich uncle merchants, and comes to a czardom where the princess has fallen ill. No manner of healing can help her, and every man sent to pray over her in the church is devoured down to his bones.

The Icon of St. Michael however advises the simple young man, telling him to lay pears in baskets around himself to keep the vampire princess at bay. When she attacked, he tossed the pears on the floor—and had enough baskets to keep her at bay until the cock crowed. Each time he threw the pears she pursued, until in the end it was her doom. This happens the next night as well, but with nuts. On the third night, like his companion in the Balkans, the young man enters into the coffin—although he is covered in holy water and incense. This time, however, he does leave after she promises to be her consort.

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The two are found the next morning praying, and the princess is baptized again to drive out the unclean vampire holding her body. In this case, we have an incident of a woman possessed—and in a coffin—but not dead yet. But the stories are otherwise so close that one can’t help but wonder about them.

The most common of these dead rises in the forty day period between death and arrival at the afterlife. In this case, the creature somewhat fails our materialist prompt which specifies only the body remains. The body and soul are seized by the power of the devil, and compelled to stay together—in some sources this is explicitly a lower or more base soul. The animated body then pursues its own kin, either as an animal or as a human, drinking their blood. Such a creature has a loathsome fate, for the rituals that remove the devils own power over the soul/body and annihilate it entirely. Such a terrible fate befalls only a select few: Those who die a violent death suddenly; those who’s burial rites are preformed improperly; those who die due to curses by parents or themselves; those who die unbaptized; stillborn children born on Christian holy days; those who participate in sorcery; those who eat the flesh of a sheep that was killed by a goat; those excommunicated; and those who’s body is, during burial, past over by a cat. Unlike the uncorrupt dead—sometimes called vrykolakoi, a term elsewhere reserved for vampires properthese creatures are extremely predatory. The lack of decay in a corpse is thus sometimes a mixed blessing—generally one has to look at the health around such a body. If people begin to suffer and grow exhausted, its a vampire. If nothing happens, a revenant. If oils are produced, perhaps the dead has become a holy saint.

Killing A Vampire

This physical tie, between corpse and soul, relates partly to the description and understanding of Death in some rural parts of Greece. Here, the angel of death descends and slits the throat of the deceased—taking their soul to judgment. The blood is splattered on the family and their clothes—which must be set aside and not worn for several days after. The body achieves its final point of judgment upon fully decaying. However, before that time, the devil can seize the body. And just as the flow of blood out released the soul, the return of blood forces it back into the body. Drawing it into an intolerable state. Removing this creature requires pouring boiling oil into its grave and reading an exorcism over it. Others suggest the more famous staking or even hamstringing the creature in it’s grave to prevent its return.

A story out of Montegro reports that a pair of lovers were seperated against their will—the woman forced to marry her foreign betrothed. The man died of despair and returned as a vampire nightly. While most vampires are corpse like, this couple had a child that was identical to the deceased man—and his distance meant resolving the manner was nearly impossible.

Another story tells of a group of four siblings—three brothers and a sister. The story goes that the four siblings set out into the world, as their parents could no longer support them. After nine years apart, they came home. On their way home, the three brothers spend their earnings from nine years ransoming animals from torturers. The sister, however, comes across a curious trade: A hedgehog buying iron teeth from a mouse. She buys herself a set, and after testing it on an oak tree, buys a whetstone from another mouse. With sharpened teeth, she finally arrives home.

Once home, the siblings celebrate—the brothers, with their animals, assume their sister has simply made a small fortune. The celebrations are cut short however, as their father dies just a bit later. The brothers decide to invest in the land, setting three horses to work with a plow. However, the first day they set to work, they find one of the horses almost entirely devoured. After nights of watching, the elder sees a pale creature coming at night to feed—and determines its his sister! Not long after, proof comes when the youngest brother stays behind without the sister’s knowledge. Spying, he sees her devour their mother, all the way up to her head. She sets out in pursuit of the other brothers, not finding the youngest.

A strange omen follows her chase—a kettle of boiling water became blood, and as she grew closer and closer to the brothers, the bubbles rose faster and faster. As she gave chase, however, she was purused by the youngest’s dog, and chased against a tree. The brothers, seeing her coming after them, did not stop the dog from tearing her to shreds.

Weird Vampire

A more esoteric form of Vampire, from the Slavic regions, is not the body of a dead man but rather his shadow. This version was attributed to Muslims in the region, as well as Romani, and also was supposedly able to breath fire from its mouth. Other vampires of the region rise from the dead as strange things of water or jello, that scatter when bitten by a wolf or banished by a magician.

Serbian vampires sometimes hold weddings in mills—they find wandering and lonely travelers and give them a bottle made of a horses head. This brandy, of course, makes the victim instantly sick—especially if they are struck with it. Such behavior is more innocuous then other vampires, that appear like roaring winds and mists on the ground. Serbian vampires are also longer lived, lasting sometimes for three months, instead of the Greek forty days.

In both Balkan and some Slavic areas, vampires cause a variety of nuisances—they break tiles, lurk in attics, tire out horses, and so forth. While in some regions they are absolutely predatory, the more common fear is their attacks on small domestic animals such as sheep. These vampires of all types strangle and murder with glee.

Of all of these, vampires play a number of predatory roles. The number of women that emerge as vampires—particularly daughters in either far away places or returning from their travels—is interesting. The fact that vampires are, in a way, both foreign and familiar in these stories perhaps links to their liminal nature as dead and living things. The corpse here is a similar sort, given it’s detention. While perhaps Lovecraft meant something more like a revenant, those corpses are less troublesome and not nearly as retained. We’ll see what our body gets up to, after the angel of death visits and makes its lethal cut.

Bibliography

Du Boulay, Juliet. “A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death”, Man, New Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1982), pp. 219-238, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Durham, M. Edith. “121. Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans”.Man, Vol. 23 (Dec., 1923), pp. 189-192.Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

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

Perkowsky, Jan. Vampires of the Slavs Slavica Publishing Inc. 1976

 

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The River Runs Deep

This Week’s Prompt: 38. Drowning sensations—undersea—cities—ships—souls of the dead. Drowning is a horrible death.

The Resulting Story:Drowning Deep

To drown is to die a bad death. This prompt invites us to consider many aspects, many things that one might see down among the inky black of the sea. The image of an underwater city brings to mind fantastic locales of Atlantean ruins, but more directly brings to my mind (perhaps do to the morbidity of the rest of the subject matter) to an old Poe poem, presented here in abbreviated form(Because Poetry is Amazing).

City In The Sea
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne 
In a strange city lying alone 
Far down within the dim West, 
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best 
Have gone to their eternal rest. 
There shrines and palaces and towers 
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!) 
Resemble nothing that is ours. 
Around, by lifting winds forgot, 
Resignedly beneath the sky 
The melancholy waters he. 

The poem ties the deep, undersea city with elements of hideous horror, of time, and of Satan. All topics we’ve discussed before and one’s that provide plenty of room for horror. But we’ve done them before. We also covered the notions of some nautical myths in our talk on Rhode Island, although a few more regarding ships and the souls of the dead need mentioning.

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There is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, made famous in the most contrasting roles I’ve seen: Davey Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Spongebob Squarepants. The Flying Dutchman is a continuation of sorts on the themes of the Wild Hunt Infernal: The Crew is condemned forever to plow the waves and skies. Davey himself seems to have a sordid past, either a devil himself or Jonah damning sailors yet. The souls of unfortunate sailors descend to his place, and in this way he holds all three of the elements as one.

Chilean Folklore presents another ship, however, manned by more then the dead. The Caleuche is a phantom ship at sea that contains not only the dead, but also gives instruction and transport to warlocks. To access the ship, a warlock must summon a Caballo marino chilote, a golden horse with a fishes tail. The King of The Sea would then permit transport to the ghostly vessel.

Of course, not all such water horses were kindly. The Scottish waterhorse would rather ride into thnae lakes and drown it’s rider than provide mystic aid. A plethora of drowning entities follow this route. The Siren sings to drown, as we’ve said before. Slavic Vodyanov and Rusalka drown those near their rivers as well.

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My favorite drowner, as of late, is the Ahuitzotl. The river dog, as it is sometimes known, will lurk in the river and then drag you below with the hand behind its tail. After drowning, the little beast will eat the finger nails, eyes, and teeth. And oddly specific sort of animal.

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These drownings provide a better plot, I believe, then the undersea city itself. There is something awful and personal about drowning: It is a death that kills and isolates inequal measure and rapidly. It is also often, to my mind, associated with suicides. It is hard to kill a man by drowning intentionally, as opposed to by poison or by a simple knife. It is a death that often involves much struggle or none at all, betokens either great force or a void of anything.

I think the story will take the form of a mystery then. A series of drowning, along a canal. The same spot. But is it, our inquisitive detective will wonder, the work of a murderer? Is the place now a nexus of despair, a self perpetuating site like some bridges become? I don’t want to say too much, as I have little to say. Come by next week to behold the horror that lurks beneath the surface.

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