Archive for the 'Spirits' Category

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 produced 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 an 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 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.

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MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Poludnica

Poludnica

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.

DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests

Art of a medieval German mine

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot Men of the Mountains

PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Last week I talked about how in certain parts of Europe, the belief in dwarves introduced by the Vikings blended with pre-existing local beliefs in fairies, but that was hardly an isolated incident. Europe is host to many, many spirit-beings that are similar to dwarves. In some cases, a Norse influence is clear. In the first article of this series I mentioned a British dwarf called a duergar, a hostile being generally regarded as some sort of fairy or goblin, whose name is linguistically derived from the Norse term for a dwarf. In other cases, though, there’s no relation. The ancient Greeks believed in beings called dactyls, little men created by the titan Rhea, who lived under the mountains and taught humanity the art of metalworking. They sound very similar to dwarves, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of them being culturally related. Two different cultures just happened to come up with similar ideas.

There’s a lot of grey area between these two extremes. When a belief is introduced to a new culture, it can become almost unrecognizable as it fuses with other beliefs or gets spun off into unprecedented variants. Without direct linguistic or historical evidence, it’s hard to say which dwarf-like beings in European folklore evolved from dwarves, and which ones, like the dactyls, were created independently. Still, in Northern Europe, where the Norse influence was strongest, we can reasonably assume that similar traditions are probably related. Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests’

DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Dietrich fängt den Zwerg Alfrich by Johannes Gehrts

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.

The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)’

DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

King Svafrlame Secures the Sword Tyrfing

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

In Norse mythology, the world was created when the primordial giant Ymir was murdered. His blood became the oceans, lakes, and rivers, the dome of his skull the heavens, his bones the mountains, and his flesh the earth and soil. There are two different accounts of how dwarves came into being during this violent rebirth. The eddic poem Völuspá says they sprang from the blood of Ymir and the bones of another giant named Bláin. Snorri Sturlusson, however, says that dwarves were originally a sort of maggot, who burrowed through the earth-flesh of the dead Ymir. The gods decided, for reasons of their own, that these maggot-beings should gain awareness. They became dwarves, and continued to live in the remains of Ymir’s corpse, dwelling inside rocks and beneath the ground.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains’

DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dwarfs_at_Work.jpg

Like elves, dwarves have become a staple of modern fantasy literature. Also like elves, this is largely due to the influence of JRR Tolkien, and it’s his version that dominates. These dwarves, despite being short, are brawny and tough, with big beards and big axes.  They are champion smiths, miners, and architects, living far beneath the earth in underground cities. That’s the common version, but the history behind it is more complex.

Elves and dwarves both have their roots in Nordic mythology, but where Tolkien mainly based his elves on Celtic lore, his dwarves are very Norse indeed. Tolkien’s dwarves use Nordic runes for writing, often use axes as weapons (very popular amongst the Norse, especially the Danes) and epitomize a certain gruff manliness commonly associated with Vikings. Beyond that, they stick very close to their mythic predecessors in that they are master smiths and craftsmen, sometimes have an unpleasant greedy streak, and live underground. Still, there are significant differences as well, and Tolkien (as well as many other writers) have drawn on dwarf traditions that evolved through the centuries.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’