Imagine the scene: you’re a medieval Geordie making your way back from the pub one night, feeling the toll of a hard day’s work and a hard night’s drinking, when you spot a perfectly good horse stand there at the roadside. Now, horses can be treated like bikes: there are places where someone can tie them up with some food and water, and go do their own thing. This, however, isn’t one of them. This is the roadside, not an inn or a stable.
So, you do the only thing you can do: you look both ways, call out feebly, and claim it for your own.
The beast behaves well. It walks well, it’s well fed and looks healthy. You decide to take it for a turn around the pond on your way home … which is where things start to go wrong.
As soon as you get near the water the beast tenses up, twitches, and bucks you straight into the pond. You splash and flounder in the water, coughing as you rise to the surface. What you see is a thing from your future nightmares: a shaggy, black, donkey-like thing with flaming blue eyes the size of saucers. You thrash to get away from it, but it turns tail and runs into the night, laughing an eerie, human laugh.
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.
There is no single Halloween. The name itself, Halloween, comes from Hallowtide, also sometimes called Hallowmass, encompassing the festivals of All Souls’ on the 31st of October and All Saints on the 1st of November.
The ancient Celts celebrated it for three days before and after the part of the year that is now November 1st, and the Elizabethans observed Hallowtide from October 31st to just after November 5th, eventually all but combining the whole thing with their celebrations of bonfire night. But even that isn’t the whole story.
You might have heard Halloween called Samhain, or Sowan.
The quaint idea leaps to mind of a dark Pagan festival, brought from prehistory and forced to hide in Christian clothes… and the festival was dark: this was the dying of the summer, when the leaves started falling and food would become more scarce.
Most importantly, the night would come gathering in.
Darkness was a frightening thing before the era of streetlights: a moonless night was effectively blackness.
Even walking abroad could be fatal with travellers being killed as they fell down embankments and into ditches, without the predation of wolves and bandits. Strange shapes and noises would haunt the darkness.
As the world ground to a halt the ancient Celts needed something to get it started again, a ritual act that would kick the world’s momentum back into gear.
This was the night of the 31st.
In Ireland, folklore insisted that all fires would be extinguished for the night. Ulstermen and women would gather together, clustering around the leaders and kin.
In their crowded fortresses of light they would drink and dance in defiance of the darkness.
Nature’s slowing momentum meant that the world of man was weaker than ever.
A fragment written at the time says, “Any Ulsterman who did not come Samhain night to Emain (a fortress of the Irish Kings) would lose his reason and his… tomb would be and stone would be erected the next morning.”
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.
Samuel Pepys was a civil servant living in London during some extremely important times: he witnessed the Restoration and the Great Fire of London. He saw the Enlightenment take hold, lived through the Great Plague of 1665, and the second Dutch War where the English burned the island town of Terschelling. He knew important people like King Charles II and the Earl of Sandwich. What people know less about was his fascination with the paranormal…
He Collected Spells (And Stories Of Them Being Performed)
Despite being a man of the Enlightenment, Pepys was partial to a few of the magico-medical charms that were popular at the time. The end of his diary of 1664 contains a few, including a charm for ‘stanch of the blood,’ one for the pricking of a thorn, one for ‘the clap’ and one for what he only calls ‘the burning’ (considering how much of a philanderer Pepys was this might also be something against VD.) He also kept a lucky rabbit’s foot to ward off the colic, which he didn’t entirely believe in but found pretty effective nonetheless. Pepys even remembered the collector Elias Ashmole telling him about rains of frogs and insects in 1661, saying that they fell out of the sky fully formed.
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.
Famous around the Welsh borderlands (particularly Monmouthshire and Herefordshire), he’s a magic user of a very different kind to Faustus and Sylvester.
While their magic is capable of horrible wonders, Jack’s is more the magic of the stage magician.
In the play ‘John a Kent and John a Cumber’, by the playwright and spy Anthony Munday, Jack appears much more like a stage magician than a devilish sorcerer.
His arsenal of tricks includes disguising himself as a Jesuit friar, producing magical music and strange mist.
His main interest in the whole plot (which is a fairly typical play about couples wanting to marry for love instead of money) is to harmlessly agitate the lovers while amusing himself by battling rival magician John a Cumber (who seems to be almost identical to Jack, except from Scotland.)
Even in this play, however, he seems to have real power.
Hags. My first Hag was either the Russian witch Baba Yaga, or the Annis Hag from 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Baba Yaga is the most interesting. I can’t recall much about the Annis Hag. The had a middling number of hit dice and a relatively uninspiring special attack.
Baba Yaga is weirdly great. Like many authentic myths there are aspects of the Baba Yaga myth that function by the rules of dream logic: in some versions of the story she flies around in a giant mortar (mixing bowl for crushed herbs or compounds), using the pestle as a rudder. Her house moves around on chicken legs (unless you’re in Poland, where it only has one and presumably hops.) One young girl is enslaved by her ala-Cinderella and only escapes by the kindness of a magical talking gate. Other times there are three Baba Yagas and they aid questing heroes, giving them the thing they need to complete their quests.
Her role in mythology is generally of antagonist, a complication along the way, aiding the hero by inadvertently giving him something he needs, or giving him the chance to prove his mettle. Again, in Poland, Baba Yaga is the original witch in the Gingerbread House, luring handsome blonde twins to their cannibalistic doom. She kills the unkillable and knows the unknowable. Baba Yaga, it’s safe to say, kicks ass.
Britain has it’s own great hag. The D&D Annis Hag might not have been my favourite monster (I preferred Rust Monsters, which I always found adorable) the mythological Hag Black Annis not only scares the pants off me, but she also gets about a bit. In Cornwall she causes storms, wrecking boats and killing mariners. In Leicstershire she eats babies on the Dane Hills before popping over to Yorkshire. Continue reading “The Evil of the Hag”
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.