Tag Archives: Thanatology

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis 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.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Scottish Folklore, Shakespeare, Strange History, The Devil, Things D&D Got Right, Welsh Folklore, Whole Article

Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric

AOdo_bayeux_tapestry_detailh, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.

I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’

The ‘using blunt weapons to avoid shedding blood’ issue is one of the big non-myths of D&D: everyone Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under English Folklore, Ghosts, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, Things D&D Got Right, Whole Article

Tales of the Doppelgänger

DoppelgangerPossibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.

His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.

Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.

As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.

Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, The Devil, Whole Article

Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)

Photo by flickr.com/photos/timo_w2s/

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

4 Comments

Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, Whole Article

The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.

CannibalsWhy would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.

Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.

It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.

Pope Boniface VIII even released a Papal Bull in 1299 against the barbaric practise of French nobles who were having themselves dismembered and interred in several different sites. Surely, such things can only go to illustrate the terrible decadence of the French? Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, Whole Article

Books Bound in Human Skin

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:

Human Skin Covered Book

“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.’

READ MORE ON THE SPOOKY ISLES

Leave a comment

Filed under From Spooky Isles, Strange History

Stonehenge, Burial Site or Ancient Computer?

Stonehenge, a lonely set of standing stones surrounded by clusters of barrows.

The site appears to have been evolved from around 3000BC to 1600BC.

The earliest version of the site, a ditch and earthwork, might have been surrounded by a wooden palisade, possibly with stones having been brought from as far as Wales to act as grave markers.

After time some sort of cremation building was erected on the site, followed by an avenue that might have been used for rituals marking rising sun during the solstice. In fact, the idea of Stonehenge’s use for astrology is still hotly debated amongst archaeologists, even contributing to the specialised field of Archaeo-astronomy.

The first theory that Stonehenge was a computer came from before 1740 and was still being championed in 1965. William Stuckley, the first archaeologist to suggest that Stonehenge was a tool for tracking and measuring astronomical phenomena, noted that the structure has a north-east facing earthwork called ‘The Avenue’, which terminates with the sun almost rising above a stone known as ‘The Heelstone*’ on the morning of the midwinter solstice (although skeptics point out that the sun won’t rise precisely over the stone until the year 3260AD, which would be a strange thing for neolithic builders to be marking… unless it’s the year day when great Cthulu rises to eat us all). Other archaeologists, like C.A. Newham, put a lot of meaning in a set of postholes (or possibly just the cavities left by tree roots) when the monument’s car park was extended in 1966, believing that they were useful for tracking a number of solar and lunar phenomena.

Other Astro-archaeologists have raised astronomical links with the Station Stones, a vaguely rectangular arrangement of stones just outside the main part of the monument.  Alexander Thom and others have argued that it’s possible to make no fewer than eight astronomically significant sight-lines using the stones, although Christopher Chippendale, in Archaeology, a magazine published by The Archaeological Institute of America, said that modern research has revealed that only three of those sight lines were astronomically relevant, and two of those lines were perpendicular.

One of the most interesting, and macabre, factors of the uses of Stonehenge as an astronomical tool relates to the Aubrey Holes, compacted chalk pits discovered by the 17th century antiquarian John Aubray, who found that there were bodies buried in the pits; a New Zealand-based researcher has also found that the holes – with knowledge of the moon’s movements and how lunar phases affect the sea – can be used to predict tides in the English Channel with uncanny accuracy. Were the dead some sort of sacrifices to the gods of Astronomy, or to the moon?

READ MORE ON THE SPOOKY ISLES

Leave a comment

Filed under From Spooky Isles, Strange History