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”
If you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)
Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.
However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.
As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.
In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.
Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years. Continue reading “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)”
The artefact is just 6.4cm high, with a beautiful sapphire stone. It has a loop at the top for use as as pendant, with a compartment, possibly designed to contain some sort of healing relic. The rest of the Jewel’s design is linked with its purpose: an extract from the Latin mass, a scene from the crucifixion, and the word ‘Ananizapta’, a charm against epilepsy.
The idea of magical talismans for medicine was a mainstay of medieval medical thought. After the Crusades, a wave of culture came from the Middle East: works of philosophy and science previously lost had been perfectly preserved and developed upon in the Muslim East. The City of Toledo became a cultural melting pot, translating works of Hermetic Philosophy and Arab medicine into Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.
One of my favourite things about the medieval supernatural is the general strangeness: not silly strangeness – like bananas with fangs – but proper, John Carpenter’s The Thing, level strangeness. The strange and supernatural have a dream (or nightmare) logic that you never quite get if you just sit down and try to create something horrible with your conscious creative powers.
With that in mind, here are some of my favourite strange and disturbing creatures.
The Thing That Heralded The Great Fire of London
There were supposed to have been a lot of strange occurrences around the Great Fire of London: there was a pyramid of fire seen above London from St. James’ to Whitehall, it rained fish in Kent, and a group of apocalyptic anti-monarchists called (paradoxically) the Fifth Monarchists even predicted a fiery apocalypse on September 2nd, when the Great Fire started at 2am on that very day.
None of them were as strange as what the Spanish Ambassador to London said had been born up on Cornhill, only a few months before the Great Fire itself:
“A deformed monster… horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of him yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of a camel, a long body and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse. Such monstrous prodigies are permitted by God to appear to mankind as harbingers of calamities.”
Shapeshifting Medieval Spooks
As I’ve blogged before, the medieval dead are much more interesting and deadly than the ghosts of Victorian horror stories.
The ghost in the 1963 film The Haunting will hammer at your door, play tricks on you, and possibly drive you mad, but a revenant from Medieval England will kick its way in, drag you out of bed and beat you to death with its bare hands.
One of the other things the medieval revenant does is change shape prodigiously. M R James, my favourite writer of ghost stories, was no stranger to physically aggressive ghosts. The spook in ‘A Warning To The Curious’ isn’t trying to drive anyone mad. It finds the archaeologist who dug up its crown, stalks him, and gives him the kind of lethal violencing you’d reserve for someone who mugged your grandmother.
One of the other things that medieval revenants are good at is shape-changing disturbingly, which was something else that M R James knew all about. He was a Professor of Medieval Literature, and actually translated a collection of 14th century ghost stories now known as the Bylands Manuscript.
The ghosts here appear in a number of strange shapes: one appears as, “a horse standing on its hind legs, holding its front legs high up in front of itself…” which changes shape so that, “…it appeared in the shape of a rolling bale of hay, with a light glowing at its centre.”
The same revenant later turns itself into a goat, while another tells a human witness about a spirit that appears in, “the shape of a bullock without a mouth, eyes, or ears, and no matter how often he is sworn to confession, he is not able to speak.”
A Vampire that Robert Pattinson Couldn’t Play
The strangest supernatural/folkloric creature that I’ve heard about recently is flagged as a Vampire in Claude Lecouteux’s book, The Secret History of Vampires.
The story comes Schmitz, Germany, in 1565:
“A woman… gave birth to a diabolical being that had no head or feet. On its chest, near the left shoulder it bore a mouth, and near its right shoulder, an ear. It had suction cups instead of fingers, like a frog of toad; its entire body was the colour of liver and shook like lard or jelly. When the midwife set this being into a tub seat or basin to wash it, it emitted the most horrible cries… On the orders of His Lordship, Vratslaus, the aborted child was exhumed, placed on a cart, and given to the executioner to burn outside the village. Despite the enormous quantity of wood burned, it proved impossible to annihilate this diabolical mass; even the clothes in which it had been swaddled remained damp despite the heat of the raging flames, until the executioner cut it into tiny pieces and destroyed them in fire with the greatest difficulty.
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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…
There have always been people who led the way in science and thinking: Issac Newton led the way by thinking up the theory of gravity that we still use (until someone discovers that it’s all just magnets buried by aliens.) Plato and Newton both put forward pretty accurate theories about the Earth’s core, and Aristachus of Samos put forward a fairly accurate picture of the Solar System about three hundred years before the Crucifixion.
On the other hand, the world has changed: in the modern day politicians still want to screw you, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re doing it because it’s necessary, because they’re keeping you safe, or because if they don’t communism will take over. They’re less likely to say, “The universe works this way and therefore I should be in charge because… umm… God.”
In the days where that was more common there was one type of person who always eventually fell under suspicion: people who asked questions. What kinds of people tend to ask questions? Philosophers, Magicians and Scientists. That might sound like three very different groups, but for most of human history they were one and the same. The problem is that when someone in charge stands to lose out from people knowing too much, the people who know too much fall under suspicion.
William of Newburgh, a 12th Century monk, wrote that although it was hard to believe that zombies existed, they were an essential warning. He told a story about a dead guy in Buckingham who crawled out of his grave and tried to go back to bed with his wife. When friends and neighbors intervened to stop the corpse, it went mad and started biting chunks out of people.
And that’s not an isolated story. Walter Map, a Welsh Courtier from the 12th Century wrote a book about the people and places in the world around him, and he also commented on how England sure had a lot of zombies.
He talked about a local knight called William Laudun who came to his lord asking the strangest advice:
“Lord, I take refuge with you seeking advice. A certain evil Welshman quite recently died irreligiously in my village, and immediately after four nights he took to walking back to the village each night, and will not stop calling out by name each of his neighbours. As soon as they are called, they take ill, and writhing three days they die, so that already very few are left.” — De Nigus Curialium
How does the brave knight eventually solve the problem? Yeah, decapitation followed by fire.
And those aren’t the only zombie tales. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk, wrote about a nursemaid who was looking after her master’s children in his book Dialogus Miraculorum. She saw the animated corpse of a pallid woman with tattered clothing wander out of the cemetery. The creature stared over the fence, moaned, then wandered into the neighbors’ house for a while before going back to her grave and peacefully de-animating. Continue reading “The Walking Dead, Medieval Edition”
Prophesy has always been a big deal here in Britain. In the run up to the Great Fire of London (and, of course, afterwards) the world was full of portents: In August 1666 the Spanish Ambassador claimed that a ‘deformed monster’ had been born in London. “[It was] horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of in yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of camel, a long body, and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse.”
This wasn’t the only horrendous thing born of woman in troubled times: Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire said that a ‘human monster’ was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, divided from the waist up with one half the upper body of a man and the other half the upper body of a woman (although this does sound rather more like a simple case of conjoined twins than anything in any way supernatural, especially since they became an accepted part of the community and lived until they were eighteen.) This unfortunate but mundane genetic abnormality/Satanic Hellbeast (probably the former) was seen as a portent of the Black Death.
An English poem form the time shows us the mood of the time:
“The rysing of the comuynes in Londe,
The pestilens and the eorthequake,
Teose threo things, I understand, betokenes the grete vengance and wrake,
That shulde falle for synnes sake,
As this clarkes canne de-clare,
Nou may we chese to leave or take,
For warnynge have we to ben ware.”
— A Warning to Beware, Anonymous, 1380.
Thomas Wimbledon preached at St. Paul’s Cross in 1388, saying that Armageddon would come in 1400, continuing a tradition stretching back to the earliest foundations of Christianity that the world was going to end really soon, and Christians would get the best end of it. Continue reading “Merlin: The Welsh Prophet”