You might know if you’ve read my bio, but I work as a tour guide at the Globe Theatre. There are many reasons why I love the Globe, not least of which is that I get to make a living from history – but also because you never know who you’re talking to.
In this case I was at the entrance telling getting people onto tours, when I started having a chat with one of the security guards. We talked about his travels in Eastern Europe and South America, touching on Voodou, Santeria, Brujha and Macamba (none of which I pronounced correctly, despite having studied them). It was inevitable that we eventually got onto the topic of The Devil.
We talked a little about the medieval fear of The Devil when he said, “You’ve heard of the Codex Gigas? The Codex Gigas? No? Look it up later.”
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the Middleham Jewel contained the word ‘Ananizapta’, which was a charm against epilepsy, also known as ‘the falling sickness’ or ‘the sacred disease’ by various parties.
One manuscript where the charm is found suggests that the meaning of the word is “May the antidote of the Nazarene prevail over death by poison! May the Trinity sanctify food and drink! Amen”, while, according to Claude Lecouteux, another manuscript defines it as “May the bitterness of the Nazarene’s death remove us from the verdict of eternal damnation, by the power of the Father, for a harsher persecution,” which is based on the idea that the word is an acronym for Ancient Greek.
Whatever the true meaning of the word inscribed on the talisman, the rest of its construction can be traced back to the rules laid down in Middle Eastern books of ‘Natural Magic’ that made their way to Europe after the end of the Crusades. With these texts came ideas dating back to the Classical world that metals, stones and plants were infused by the power of various planets, which could give them powers to affect magical cures if they were properly calibrated. Continue reading “Magico-Medical Talismans 2, A Deeper Analysis of the Middleham Jewel”
One of the most irritating scenes in all of horror is in The Devil Rides out with Leon Greene and Christopher Lee. Green’s character, Rex Van Ryn, touches a leather bound book and shudders. He turns to Christopher Lee who nods sagely and says, “Yes, bound in human skin.” It’s a really annoying scene, because there are loads of books bound in human skin and I have it on good authority that you can’t tell the bloody difference between that and any other kind of leather.
At least unless it has a tattoo on the cover saying, “I love Mum”.
Okay, first myth first: to my knowledge there are no books of magic, black or otherwise, bound in human skin. The reasons are simple common sense: for most of history any form of magic has been really VERY illegal. Necromancers and evokers couched their magic in highly pious and religious terms:
“I do invocate and conjure thee…by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paulmachia… Powerful Princes… and Ministers of the Tartarean Abode … also, I, being made after the image of God, endued with the power from him, and created according unto his will, do exorcise thee by that most mighty and powerful name of God …” – Pseudo Solomon, The Goetia (circa. 1566)
In Necromancy, the procedures for getting divinations from the dead and having conversations with Spirits weren’t called spells, but ‘experiments.’
History wasn’t always as safe as it was meant to be. Whereas now to find scary history you have to come here to The Spooky Isles, in 12th century Britain waiting to jump out and convince you that there were horrible monsters lurking behind every corner.
Respected historians like Geoffrey of Monmouthshire collected tales that claimed Britain was named after a Roman called Brutus who came here and did a WWE/BFG crossover by getting his friend Corineas to wrestle all the giants to death (except two, who stayed alive and fought for him, and who are believed to be buried somewhere under London… although this is more likely to be a confused urban myth than real folklore, the confused memories of effigies used in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.)
Other historians, like William of Newburgh were frostier and kept to the facts – ordinary things like stories of dancing corpses, and an abusive husband who comes back from the grave to crawl back into bed with his wife.
Most of the people reading The Spooky Isles will have an idea who King Arthur is. Whether you’ve read Le Morte Arthur, or experienced the gentler teaching aid of Bradley James’ torso on the BBC show Merlin, you probably know the basics. Arthur’s a hero whose wife sleeps with his best friend, and then he’s killed by kid he made getting with his sister (well… his half-sister, but you can still see why Guinevere decided to explore incest-free relationships.)
The standard post-death of Arthur is well known: he’s taken to Avalon and healed by Morgan/Morgana le Fey. As Geoffrey of Monmouthshire writes in his History of the Kings of Britain, “Then that famous Arthur was mortally wounded, who from there, the river Cam, was taken to the island of Avalon for the healing of his wounds.”
Where is Avalon?
R.S. Loomis points out that the Irish world Ablach means ‘rich in apples’ and is used to describe the island home of Manannan, the God of the Sea. It’s also worth noting that in the Welsh tradition Avallach is the name of Moargana’s father, another possible early link between faeries, Avalon and water (a traditional home of the dead in early European mythology. Godfrey of Viterbo, a German writer, recorded a prophesy form 1190 where Arthur would be preserved in the depths of the sea and reign as he had on land.)
Glastonbury has also been associated with the sleeping/dead Arthur. Henry H Payton writes that the association came from a spurious etymology of the word Glastonbury with the eerie fortress of glass mentioned in the poem Preiddeu Annwn.
Monks were even said to have found Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury in 1191, reporting that he was a giant with a skeleton covered in nicks and chips as well as the final wound that ended him. Mallory’s Le Morte Arthur even tried to reconcile the two traditions with the already existing folk traditions of Arthur’s return, saying that he would go from the Isle of Avalon to be healed, and that from there he would be buried in Glastonbury until “he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.” An older source, the Black Book of Carmarthen, contains the line, “Concealed till Doomsday the grave of Arthur.”
But this well known tradition isn’t the end for Arthur. There are a number of folk traditions that make it very clear that the Once and Future King definitely doesn’t sleep…
Gerald was born in 1146, the son of one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon barons of all time. He was educated in Gloucester and Paris before eventually becoming the Clerk and Chaplain to King Henry II. In 1185 he accompanied the King’s son, John, to Ireland, thereby beginning his career with the book Topographia Hibernica. Topographia was a history of Ireland gathered as he journeyed with John’s Entourage. Three years later he joined Bishop Baldwin of Forde on tour in Wales, recruiting for the Third Crusade.
These books are incredibly important for students of history. While they might not be considered reliable history in their own right (William of Newburgh was one of the most reliable historians of the era, and even his methods are suspect by our own standards)they tell us a great deal about the politics and tradition of their time.
He also had a chance to hear about Werewolves and Poltergeists.
The Werewolf story came from Ossory, now known as County Laois. The story went that a priest was travelling from Ulster towards Meath when night fell more quickly than expected. Travelling only with a young man for company, the priest started a fire and they huddled around it, sheltering from the elements.
Welsh people in media tend not to get a good deal. Even the work of Dylan Thomas is full of comical grotesques. When I was growing up, there weren’t many places where I could find inspiring Welsh characters: I think I remember Eastenders having one for a while when I was about 10, and then there was the comedy Welshman in Dad’s Army, followed by the equally comedy Welshman in Doctor Who episode Delta and the Bannermen.
The first Welsh literature I ever found was adopted Welshman Antal Szerb, whose Earl of Gwynmedrl The Pendragon Legend was the first Welsh literary character I ever admired. It was Szerb – a Hungarian who took a year out in London and wrote a gothic, Rosecrucian, conspiracy masterpiece that puts The DaVinci Code in the shade – who led me to meet someone who put me in the orbit of a writer called Arthur Machen.
On 4th August in the Suffolk villages of Bungay and Blythburgh a terrible thing happened. A horrific force of evil was unleashed… but did it end under the wheels of a classic car?
John Stow, the protestant historian who would later write his incredibly important Survey of London in 1603, wrote about the incident in his additions to Holinshead’s Chronicles:
“On Sundaie the fourth of August, Tempest in Suffolke between the houres of nine and ten of the clocke in the forenone, whilest the minister was reading the second lesson in the parish church of Bliborough, a towne in Suffolke, a strange and terrible tempest of lightening and thunder strake through the wall of the sale church into the ground almost a yard deepe, draue downe all the people on that side aoue twentie persons, then rernting the wall up to the vesutre, cleft the doore, and returning to the steeple, rent the timer, brake the chimes, and fled towards Bongie, a towne six miles off. The People that were stricken downe were found groueling more than halfe an houre after, whereof one man more than fortie yeares and a boie of fifteen yeares old were found starke dead: the others were scorched. The same or the like flash of lightening and cracks of thunder rent the parish church of Bongie, nine miles from Norwich, wroong in sunder the wiers and wheels of the clocks, slue two men which sat in the belfreie, when the other were at the procession or suffrages, and scorched an other which hardlie escaped.”
However, the local Rector, Abraham Fleming, had a darker tale to tell. Fleming was a schoolmaster and a scholar, in addition to being the Rector of the parish church of St. Pancras Bungay, wrote a tale of warning about man’s debauchery, atheism and fornication. In a pamphlet called A Strange and Terrible Wunder, published in 1577, he said the events of August 4th were…
A spectacle no doubt of Gods iudgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled…
He told a tale of the villagers gathering for morning mass while a storm of terrible force battered the village, of rain ‘with no less force than abundance’ lashing his parishioners with violent force. Thunder and lightning crashed over the village, ‘rare and vehement’, so that the people of Bungay were huddling frightened and confused in the church.
As they sat shivering with fear, listening to Fleming’s sermon about sin and death, and the dangers of Sodomy (he’s very concerned about sodomy, he mentions it twice in the preface to the Strange and Terrible Wunder whereas every other sin only gets mentioned once) when thunder and lightning started crashing and flashing around the church itself.The air darkened suddenly, so that even with the candles lit the fearful locals could barely see each other when… Continue reading “Black Shuck, Revenant Roadkill?”