Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:
This post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.
With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…
Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.
I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.
From the year 1563 to 1736 Scotland saw almost four thousand witch trials, with as many as 67% of the accused being executed by fire.
Two of the greatest concentrated periods of witch trials occurred under the stewardship of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who would come to succeed the English Queen Elizabeth in 1603. That year, lawmakers in London would also draft a new witchcraft act that created a two-tier system of trials, dramatically increasing the number of death sentences for the most serious categories of witchcraft.
Take a look at the image at the side of the article here. It’s a woman, draped at the feet of a man wearing a cloak. It has a touch of the 1970s about it, like the cover of a fantasy novel that makes you wonder if the artist should have stopped for a cold shower. Except the closer you look at it, the more WRONG you see: for example, yes, she’s naked, but she doesn’t look happy… in fact from the way she’s grabbing onto his arm, it might almost be as if he’s dragging her by the hair. Oh, and then there’s her face: ‘not happy’ is an understatement, she looks like an early version of Munch’s The Scream.
So, who is this woman, what’s going on?
It’s simple: she’s a Selkie, a beautiful and innocent water spirit, what’s going on is that she’s being dragged off into a life of sexual and domestic slavery. Not the good kind of slavery, where there’s a safe word and lots of special equipment ordered off the internet, this is the full Fritzl: the Orkney Islands story of Goodman O’Wastness is a great example.
Bit of weird personal information from me (this might be more than you really want to know:) I never really properly knew either of my grandmothers.
From what I remember, though, one of them (on my father’s side) was awesome and probably contributed the genetic material that made me turn out how I am.
When hearing that my mother was pregnant again, she immediately started taking her out to a series of walks in Cemeteries, Crematoria and derelict lunatic asylums (well… I might have made that last one up).
That’s why it’s a bit strange that I remember hearing about this monster from my Grandmother, despite the fact that the numbers don’t really add up.
On the other hand, from what I know of her, I can imagine her telling this tale to a baby squalling in its crib:
“When the world was young, there were a race of giants with only one arm. They also had only one leg, and only one eye. In fact they lived as if they were split down the middle, with all their guts hanging down one side. Imagine what that would be like.”
That’s the story, imagine my surprise decades later when (in the course of my daily weirdness) I find out it’s a real thing. Or at least, an authentic piece of folklore, rather than Grandma trying to warn me that I might get my arms and legs chewed off.
This week’s spooky creature is the Alp-Luachra, or Joint-Eater. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about weed. This rather unpleasant faerie won’t be munching on that sweet nail of Aunt Mary you cool cats have been burning up on (as you can see, I’m down with the kids). No, this creature will get under your skin, breed inside you body and starve you to death.
To understand why something would do this, particularly an intelligent creature like a faerie, presumably capable of reasoning, morality and abstract thought, we need to go to the manuscript of a Scottish priest named Robert Kirk, writing in 1691. Kirk’s book, called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, talks about the society and ecology of the fair folk, explaining how they live, why they live as they do and what it means to us.