MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Rawhead & Bloody Bones

Rawhead

When you’re five years old, you don’t question the existence of monsters. You know, on some primal level, that there are things in the dark waiting to grab you. You might not be able to put a name or a face to such dangers, but you’re certain they’re out there all the same. Your parents will come into your room and show you that there’s nothing under the bed, or in the closet, or outside the window. They’ll put on the night-light and insist there’s no such thing as monsters. While you’re reassured, as you drift off into sleep you still harbor doubts. It’s at the edge of such thoughts that Rawhead and Bloody Bones lives.

Britain has produce a lot of fantastic bogeymen (a class of monster I’ll elaborate on in future articles), but Rawhead is unquestionably one of their champion contributions.  He’s also known as “Rawhead Bloody Bones”,  “Old Bloody Bones”, “Tommy Rawhead”, “Tommy Rawbones”, or just plain “Bloody Bones.” Stories about him seem to have originated somewhere around Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, or Lancashire, and he dates back to at least the seventeenth century.

He takes his name from his appearance, which is suitably ghastly. He’s a lean, naked giant, with pale skin and great, grasping hands. His head is a mangled nightmare, all pulped flesh and wide, staring eyes, rivulets of blood running down his face and dripping on his chest. He has a den, hidden somewhere, piled high with the gnawed bones of children, where he sits and waits, his long arms clasped about his long legs, which he keeps tucked under his chin. When he senses prey, he unfolds his limbs like a waking spider.

Every bogeyman has some gimmick. Perhaps they stuff you in a bag and carry you off to god knows where, or lurk in dangerous places your parents told you to stay away from, or maybe they punish certain bad behaviors. Old Bloody Bones has all of these traits, but he has a certain directness and simplicity the others lack. He comes for children who lie or say bad words. He can lurk anywhere, from the basement to the attic, from the stagnant pond to the crumbling old well. Most of all he favors dark cupboards, especially if they’re located under the stairs. Nothing can keep him away. You never know where he’ll appear, and once he does those long, pale hands can slip through any crack or keyhole, and their grip is as hard and cold as iron.

For such a simple monster, Rawhead is particularly enduring.  During the English Civil War, there was a folk song that compared the murderous Colonel Thomas Lunsford to the monster with the line: “Made children with your tones to run for’t/As bad as Bloody Bones of Lunsford.” John Locke wrote about him, warning parents not to tell stories of him to children. In more recent years, he inspired the titular monster of Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex movie, and the band Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote a song about him:

His most notable influence, though, is on his cousin, the Rawhead and Bloody Bones of the United States. This Rawhead is very different, and his stories are told mostly in the southern U.S., especially in places like the Ozarks and the Appalachians, regions settled generations about by largely British immigrants. In these stories, Rawhead starts out as a big, ferocious boar, who is kept as a pet by a strange old woman, often reputed to be a witch. Usually Rawhead is caught by a butcher or hunter and gets slaughtered, but his bloody bones and skinned head are left behind. Either through the powers of the old woman (who is in fact a witch in this take) or through his own terrible will, Rawhead comes back to life. His bones rearrange themselves into a standing position, and place the skinned head on top, and then he takes off into the woods, where he acquires the teeth of a mountain lion, the claws of a bear, and the tail of a raccoon from various corpses and attaches them to himself. Rawhead Bloodybones then hunts down the men or men who killed him, murders them, and then collapses into a pile of bones and meat or escapes into the wilderness to kill again.

The influence of the British Rawhead is obvious in the American version, as both are sinister monsters lurking in the darkness, each with a mangled head and the same name. The pig element is strange, though. It’s nowhere in any of the British folk traditions. It might be the result of Rawhead getting conflated with the Black Sow, a Welsh bogeyman who takes the form of an anthropomorphic, murderous pig, during his transition from Britain to the colonies. The Black Sow is a pretty good monster in her own right, inspiring this old episode from Tales from the Darkside (though it makes her Scottish, for some reason):

As you can see from all of this, Rawhead’s reach is long. I think his’s great strength as a monster is his simplicity. It’s basic enough that you can easily spin him into new variations, and he embodies very powerful, basic fears. The distorted human form, danger lurking in dark places, the threat to children, and most of all an implacable nature that you can’t hide from or escape. You can pick him up, adjust a few basic traits, and plop him down in any culture, place, or time, and he works just as well as ever. I’ve been longing to work him into a story for ages. For now, he lurks at the corners of my mind, and hopefully now he’s lurking in yours as well.

Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The quote above is from the three witches, the Weird Sisters, in MacBeth. It reflects a genuine belief in folklore and tradition that magic sometimes required the use of obscene, gruesome ingredients. We have accounts of this from second hand sources, and also from sources written or even used by magic practitioners. However, there’s one particular page of papyrus written in Greek, dating from the 4th century AD that sort of pulls the pants down on this whole notion.

In a column on the left it lists assorted strange or gruesome spell components supposedly used in witchcraft and magic. In a column on the right it lists what each one actually represents. You see, according to the anonymous authors, their local magicians were filthy liars.

It was theatrics. If you made things seem more weird and gruesome and mystical, more people were likely to think you were legit. Given that many magicians in the ancient world were in it to make a buck, bullshitting of this nature was a valuable talent. It also meant your rivals weren’t sure what sort of stuff you were using, and if you did use weird and exotic ingredients, it meant you had some more mundane stuff to fall back on when supplies were low.

Here’s the twin lists, translated from Greek* (the headers are mine): Continue reading ‘Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level’

Beware Old Man Willow

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The poem in the above picture is, supposedly, an excerpt from a Somerset folk-song. I say “supposedly” because the source is one Ruth Tongue. Ms. Tongue was an invaluable source of Somerset folklore, publishing numerous books, but she was not a trained researcher, she was a storyteller. As a result, it’s hard to tell if some of her works are genuine folklore or her own creations, and I’ve never been able to find a full copy of the song this excerpt comes from.

Nevertheless, it reflects a genuine belief in British folklore that different trees had supernatural properties. Elm trees were thought to grieve for one another; if one elm died, another nearby may as well. Oaks were thought to be vengeful, and a coppiced oak grove, grown from the stumps of oaks cut down by humans, was not a safe place to be, especially if a carpet of bluebells lay beneath it; that meant it might be home to hostile, dwarf-like nature spirits called Oakmen. Willow trees were more dangerous still, uprooting themselves after dark to follow people around, muttering dark threats.

There are many other such beliefs, aside from the ones in this poem. Oaks were also reputed to wail when cut. Hawthrown trees were supposed to be fairy-haunted. Yew trees were associated with death, and nothing was supposed to grow around them; this one might have some basis in fact, as yew leaves are toxic. There’s a story about a sacred elder tree in Borrisokane that if anyone  tried to burn part of it for firewood, their house would be consumed in an inferno.

This is just a sampling of such beliefs. It simply goes to show that cultures that believed in magic saw it everywhere. Modern fiction sometimes presents the world as if there is nature (which functions according to science and physics as we understand it) and then the supernatural (which does not) but genuine magical beliefs tended not to make this distinction. The magic of trees is just one small example of this philosophy.

MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician

Calming a Storm - Wiliam Hole

If I were to tell you, devoid of any other context, about a man who could command demons, cast curses that caused living things to wither and die, or control the weather, then you might be reasonably forgiven for thinking I was talking about a wizard. Of course, these are all actually miracles of Jesus. The line between magic and divine power is a concept you see a lot in fiction—the powers of the gods and the powers of a human sorcerer do not spring from the same source. This distinction has not always been present in human beliefs, and is in many ways somewhat rare.

Continue reading ‘MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician’

MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Poludnica

Barley

One of the more unsettling spirits I’ve read about is the poludnica, also known as Lady Midday or the Harvester of Souls. You find her all across Eastern Europe, under a variety of names. Usually it’s poludnica or poludnitsa or something similar. Most folktales describe her as looking like a tall young woman (though some describe her as an old crone or a child), thin and stately as a stalk of barley.

You see, the poludnica is a harvest spirit. One doesn’t generally think of Russia for its summers, but the heat in the fields can be as dangerous as the fiercest blizzard. During the height of harvest season, in many Eastern European regions, farmers and peasants used to stay out of the fields during the hottest parts of the day, because sunstroke was a very serious risk. The poludnica embodies that danger.

If a person were to go out into the fields during the forbidden hours, they would find her drifting through the grain, dressed in white, sometimes carrying a scythe, sickle, or shears. She seems beautiful and serene, but if she catches you in the fields one of several things (depending on the story) might happen. Often she says nothing. Sometimes she’ll pose you a riddle, or ask a strange and difficult question. If you can’t answer the question or riddle you’ll be in trouble, but if she says nothing you’ll be in trouble regardless. The poludnica can cause insanity and illness in anyone she meets, but more dangerous still is her strength. Though she looks frail as a twig, she is strong enough to twist a man’s head right off his neck, or break every bone in his body with her dainty hands. Afterward, she’ll disappear back into the wheat field.

The poludnica doesn’t appear in fiction that often, though there is a piece of classical music by Dvorak based on her, called The Noon Witch:

In your own writing you could use the poludnica as nothing more than a superstition, convenient for reminding the fieldworkers not to risk the noonday sun and scaring children away from important crops. You could use her as a sphinx, with her blocking a character’s path if they don’t answer her bizarre queries. Or perhaps she’s just a fearsome monster, haunting the fields to punish those who trespass during the sun’s zenith. It might also be interesting to go into who she is or where she comes from; female spirits in Slavic folklore, even the monstrous ones, are often the ghosts of women who died prematurely. The fact that she appears as a child, a woman, and a crone is also reminiscent of many triple goddess figures throughout the mythologies of the world.

Though perhaps it’s best not to delve too deeply into her background. The poludnica is an intriguingly mysterious being, and half the fun is in wondering.

Update Irregularity

I’m sorry that updates have been a little inconsistent of late. Once again I’m working on a longer term writing project (one I hope to serialize for Ogres vs Trolls later on), plus I’m currently looking for work. So, updates are probably going to be a little slower for a while. Luckily, I should have something new for you in a day or two.

LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan. Continue reading ‘LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy’



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