Posts Tagged 'Nature Spirits'

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.

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 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’

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’

MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Animal-People

790px-Detail_of_antlered_figure_on_the_Gundestrup_Cauldron

While this blog is often about exploring well-known mythical creatures in fiction, sometimes I’d like to shine a light on ones that don’t get so much attention. With that in mind, today I’m introducing a new feature, Monster of the Week, which focuses on underused or little-known spirits, monsters, and supernatural beings.

I’m sure you’re familiar with werewolves, but around the world, there are many similar stories of were-leopards, were-bears, were-crocodiles, and so on. Really, so long as there was a giant predatory animal around, our ancestors fantasized about becoming it. There is, however, another side to this coin, which is when instead of people becoming animals, we have stories of these sorts of animals becoming people.

Continue reading ‘MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Animal-People’