Here’s the amazing Dark Morte interviewing me about one of my anorak subjects: Medieval Revanents.
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.
1942 was a terrible year for snow. RAF Davidstowe Moor records a significant spike in crashes wrecks due to bad weather. It was a dark time for the allies, but for one anti-aircraft gunner, time weren’t just dark. They were haunting.
Private Jack James was heading back for his bed, looking out over the moors, when he saw a mass of black spots. They were a long way off, but moving quickly, cutting across his path, lapping over one of the rolling white fields. Sheep and cows were a fairly common sight on the Cornish moors, but herds didn’t move so quickly or purposefully as that. This something much more dangerous than a herd, this was a pack.
Yell Hounds. Yeth Hounds. Wish Hounds. They’ve got many names and they appear all over Britain: in the North of England, Sussex and the West Country. Strange hounds with glowing eyes, baying on the Moors. Bringing back the kind of primal fear that we British have now forgotten: the fear of being outnumbered by predators, cornered and taken down. The fear of being forcibly returned to the animal world.
1533 and Britain was entering the first stages of the Reformation. The Priory at Wherwell, Hampshire, had escaped relatively untouched by the reformers. Unfortunately for them, something far darker was hatching.
Down in the vaults of the Priory’s Minster, the Prior’s aged cockerel, nearing the end of its life, had found a cool, dark place to lay an egg. There in the darkness it laid a single yolkess sphere, with a tough skin like a serpent’s egg, and quietly expired. Serpents and toads made their homes in the cool damp of the chapel’s crypt, strangely drawn to sit on and incubate the egg… and all too soon, it hatched.
Instantly a terrible poisonous vapour started to seep out of it’s mouth and nostrils, killing the crypt rats and driving everything else out of the chamber. The Cockatrice, barely six inches long, feasted on the days old body of the Cockerel, hissing at the footsteps of the unsuspecting monks above it.
It was a nightmare thing: standing on two upright legs, like a chicken, with the feathered upper body and beak of a bird, a crown of wattles on its head. It’s lower body was a long, writhing serpent-like tail. It ate anything it could: carrion, scraps, corpses and other serpents. And it grew.
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.
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.
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 of Wales (Gerald the Welshman)
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.