Demoted


Demons. I have never tackled a subject with so many accreted layers of mythic literature featuring so many famous names. Each layer, from Enoch to Crowley via Solomon, Dante and Milton, completed with an obsessive desire to include as many demon names as possible and academically categorise them. Unfortunately none of them had the same dedication to spelling or consistency causing their many subjects to bifurcate, mutate and multiply in a shocking fashion.

The predominant story is that the demons who now inhabit the lower realm originally came from heaven and were once angels. Now, I’d imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the version where a war in heaven precipitates the expulsion of those who picked the wrong side. In the Christian tradition these angels are flawed and fall from grace due to their deficiency. It’s a narrative that pervades a host of books, films and TV series, almost as numerous as the demons that are their subject matter. Many of these depictions use the prophesied round two of angels versus demons to provide both suspense and a (literally) apocalyptic climax.

This is not the original rendering though, in the so called Enochian texts the angels that descend from heaven are not pushed but rather jump. They are willing volunteers who give up a life of bliss and come to the realm of humanity to teach us the arts of civilisation. While they are involved in this process they become enamoured with human women and it is acting on this infatuation that loses them their angelic status. 

I find it quite interesting that alongside the various gods of assorted pagan nations that have been re-cast in a demonic mould, as we saw previously with Beelzebub, there should be this throng of Abrahamic good guys gone bad. I can’t help wondering if they too, were once gods, part of a pantheon, before one of their number was given exclusive top billing and the rest were downgraded.

It must be frustrating for them. Gods are generally requested to do good things for their followers via prayer or offerings and are under no obligation to respond if they are feeling a touch ineffable. Whereas, if one has the knowledge to mark the correct symbols on the floor and recite the appropriate formula, Demons can not only be summoned but compelled to do one’s bidding then banished afterwards. Quite why this should be the case when they are beings of great power I do not know. 

Forced to work in hellish conditions with no free time and the worst customers one can imagine. Constrained to receive and commit atrocities and torture, being at every bodies beck and call, it seems there is a heavyprice yo pay when you are demoted.

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Off We Go Again Then


For several years near the beginning of my storytelling career I used an old gag about a hedgehog as my encore number. It explains the origin of the well known phrase for getting on with a task: “Off we go again then, as the hedgehog said to The Devil”. I first learnt it as a short filler story for a guided Performance Archaeology walk at Lechlade. Between the very interesting historic town centre and the very interesting historic riverside tower, there was quite a long section of footpath past garden fences and allotments which was very uninteresting. However, we needed an excuse to stop and let the audience catch their breath and whilst they did so it was somewhat incumbent upon myself and my archaeologist compatriot, as walk leaders, to entertain them while they did so. That, to a fair extent, being the point of the exercise. 

The thing with guided walks is that your location is part of the show, it is both the inspiration and the backdrop, the set and the subject. Having chosen a specific site to build one’s performance on, it is rather a requirement that said performance be site specific. Unfortunately at this particular pause in forward locomotion the only landscape features available to talk about on the otherwise flat, floodplain fields, were a hedge and a ditch. Neither of these could be conclusively proven to have historical provenance, so it would obviously be the storyteller’s job to fill the yawning chasm with excitement. The brief then, was to tell a short story somehow connected to the aforementioned hedge and ditch, and since the majority of the history on the walk was from the Middle Ages it should preferably be a medieval story… about a hedge or a ditch. I expect I don’t need to elaborate on the unsurprising paucity of material in the ‘Hedge and Ditch’ genre of medieval folktale. Oh the conundrums we contrive for ourselves!

What the Middle Ages did have in copious quantities were stories about The Devil. I say, The Devil but I should say “devils”, plural. Although the hellish antagonist is mostly referred to as “The” singular, one and only, definite article “Devil”, the plots have him killed off or permanently confined to the flaming pits of the nether regions too often for us to be able to accept the entire trope as the single saga of one solo demon. A quick shufti at the sources of some of his many names will also demonstrate that we are looking at more than one. For instance Beelzebub was a pun used by the early Israelites to insult a Philistine god called Beelzebul. Beel meant “Lord”, Ze can be read as “of the” and Bul translates as “heavenly home”. Bub on the other hand, meant “flies”. Leaving the dubious humour of the pre-biblical authors aside, it is clear that this is not the same fella who sat at Yahweh’s right hand until he got too big for his boots and had his wings clipped.

The obsessively Christian society of the Medieval period was beset by a plethora of devils. One of the problems of a monotheistic religion is that one has to do something with all the other deities that are hanging around. The obvious solution is to deny their heavenly status and send them to hell, to quite literally demonize them. Since there is only one god the general populace tend to simplify the over subscription of hell by assigning the activities of numerous underworld denizens to the one primary evil doer. The attributes of the foremost fiend are transferred the other way and all manner of newly ex-gods find themselves sporting horns, tails and hairy legs as they are forced to conform to the stereotype.

Amongst the great pile of devil related tales of the time I managed to find “How The Hedgehog ran The Devil To Death” which has a hedge and, more importantly, a ditch in it. I was going to tell it to you but I have been sidetracked by devils and demons, not unreasonably since they will be the subject of my autumn tour. Maybe if you come along I will tell it you then, in the meantime I must get back to my research. 
Off we go again then…

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A Tail of Time


A long time ago in galaxy far, far away and as it happens a parallel universe of a different dimension, a pilgrim set out to seek The End Of The World. No longer in the first flush of youth yet not old enough to have slowed down too much for a long journey, he felt that the time was right to make his search. This took a good deal of time, as you might imagine. Eventually, you may be surprised to hear, with great jubilation and wonder, and some relief since his feet were quite exhausted, he did indeed find what he sought. There followed the all too brief period of satisfying rest that pilgrims enjoy before their inherently restless nature sets them a new goal.

During this time he frequently enjoyed the view from The End Of The World, sitting on the last rock, dangling his grateful feet over the edge and watching the faint twinkling of distant turtles swimming through space with their plate like worlds upon their backs*. Although there was a certain peace in this activity it also brought with it a heightened sense of the passing of time. Watching space go by, and the shifting patterns of the planets, turtle powered or otherwise, tends to do that since, as Einstein realised, time and space are pretty much the same thing.

Despite the successful achievement of his challenge and partly because of it and the time it took, his hair having turned from black to grey on the journey, the pilgrim began to feel a desire for more time, a pressing need to slow down its rapid transit. Looking down from his precarious perch one day his eye was drawn to the nearest visible object in the firmament: the scaly tail of the turtle upon which his world sat. As he watched it swing majestically from side to side a thought formed in his head, and so his new project began.

Day by day he cut trees and harvested hemp until he had fashioned a device of prodigious size. A pole-snare on a pivot mounted on the edge of the world. With this he reached out and down far further beyond the limits of the land than any person had ever done. He swung the great pole and, after many attempts, caught the tail of the enormous turtle in the loop of rope at its end. Quickly he hauled on the longest rope ever made and brought it tight, then applied the principles of leverage to the rod so that it began to pull back on the tail of the immortal diapsid.

Do you think it worked? Is it possible to halt the progress of time, or at least slow it down just a little bit? If it is possible anywhere then a world which really does have an end, one that overhangs the rear of a vast cosmic reptile, is surely the place to give it a try. If you have ever wanted to stop the world and get off, even just for a bit you will be very much on the side of the old man as he heaves on the landward end of his audacious device.

Far, far away, a whole world away in fact, diametrically opposite where the old pilgrim was tugging on the tail of time, a youngster, desperate to be free of the constrictions of youth sat on a rock. Their feet dangled over the edge of the world. In their hands they held a stick, and tied around the stick was a long, long string, on which a carrot dangled in front of the face of the great turtle.

* There are universes with flat earths that do not require the services of testudines to facilitate their locomotion but this is not one of them. The intermediate elephants that are often part of the arrangement are, however absent in this iteration of creation.

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The Monkey’s Wedding


I was sure I had heard a story about it. It happened the other day. It rained while the sun was shining,  
“Oh look, it’s a Monkey’s wedding!”

Someone said. It’s a phrase I know but there were several there who hadn’t heard it before.
“Where does that come from then?”
I was sure, long ago, I had been told a story about it.
“India, I think, possibly a Hanuman story, he’s the monkey god… I know I’ll hunt it out and write about it for Folk Tales Corner.” I said. “Someone told me the story once, might have been my Mum.”

I checked my books.
It wasn’t there.
I checked the internet.
It was not there either.
I put out a request on the Society For Storytelling Facebook group. All I got back were the pages I had already found listing the various assorted creatures nuptials that are connected to ‘Sunshowers’ which includes Jackals, foxes, werefoxes, hyenas, leopards, witches, devils, a tiger and a fox, a monkey and a donkey, and the jackal and the wolf’s wife… but no story.

I put out another request, this time amongst my own friends, some of whom are quite scholarly and widely read. This brought me a couple of ancient collections of fokltales from India. I thought 
“Now I’m getting closer!” 
I was not. 
I searched and skimmed through these great and wonderful anthologies reading any story with a monkey in it. I now know how red bottomed monkeys got their ruddy rumps scraping their behinds on a tree whilst escaping from the tiger, how baboons got their black faces and how the monkey got it’s tail… but still not why it rains in the sunshine when they get married. There are plenty of yarns about monkeys and humans setting up a wedding but the only ones that make it to their vows are the monkeys that turn out to be enchanted princes. Apparently a fruitarian diet puts most human brides off.

So if I ever was told a story about a monkey king who wanted the gods to bless his marriage and travelled to heaven; If I ever did hear how the gods offered him a bath with beautiful hot water that would magically flow when he called for it and how he lost track of time playing and relaxing in the heat, how he had just asked for more water when he heard the wedding music floating up from the world below and ran off in a tearing hurry, without telling the water to stop, so that all of heaven was flooded and the water ran over the edge and fell down on the wedding below while the sun shone… If that telling ever happened, it is looking likely that my mother (or who ever it was) simply made it up. 
Well, a story has to start somewhere I suppose. 
If only I could remember how it went so I could tell you.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure. 

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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A Rose By Any Other Name…


In a global culture it is obvious that the name of a thing has little bearing on the nature of the thing itself: whether you call it un gant, ein handschuh or a glove it will keep your digital extremities exactly the same amount of warm. Naturally mythology and folklore, regardless of linguistic origin, are bulging with yarns which stand or fall on specific nomenclature. 

Starting at the beginning, creation myths are almost exclusively about the naming of things, sometimes to the extent that speaking names is the method by which the progenitor deity summons the elements of the universe in to being. Even in those myths where all the living things are hand made out of mud or clay, the divine sculptor doesn’t release their inventions into the wild without giving them a handy descriptive label. The implication in these naming stories is that the god given moniker describes and contains the underlying primal nature, the essential essence of the being or thing it is attached to. 

The god themself however, produces their magnum opus under a pseudonym. Often they have several. The Norse crafter of the universe, Odin, uses a series of aliases, often taunting a rival with a selection of them (the full list runs over a couple of pages of A4). Behind these sobriquets their true name remains hidden. This is because the very power to generate beings and shape reality resides in the creators own name, it is a potent cypher, a resonant sound, a word of power! Numerous creators have names so powerful they should not be spoken. In a story about the Egyptian originator god who we know as Ra, Isis tricks him in to giving her his secret name and so gains power over him. 

This theme of secret or true names holding power over their owners carries on into folklore. Fairies, witches and all sorts of supernatural beings, if asked will give names that are meaningless such as “No one”, or just a description and where they come from, as in “The Witch of Wookey” or the even vaguer “Hag Of The Woods”. 

Then of course there is the secret name story, you know, that secret name story, the one with the deal. It comes in different varieties of course, depending on where you are in the world. In Norway a troll offers to build a church in return for the priests eyes and heart, In Scotland a widow gets her sick pig cured by a fairy in return for her baby, in England an imp spins five skeins of wool each day in return for the queen herself. In each case, and indeed many others, the foolish deal maker can get out of paying the extraordinary price they have agreed to if they can guess the name of their supernatural helper, not that tricky a task if they were called John or Jane but who is going to guess “Rumplestiltskin” if they have never been told a story about him? 

Although the set up and the price may differ the end of the story is always the same: someone visits the debtor and relates a peculiar thing they saw or overheard whilst out for a walk. In every case it is, of course, the troll / imp / fairy in question and in every case they were singing a song which included their name. The visitor remembers the song exactly, and thus the hapless protagonist is armed with the one bit of information that can save them from the results of their own foolishness: their oppressor’s true name. 

It’s an odd story in many ways, often devoid of any morally good character, but it clearly shows the power and value of a name. 

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Sisters


“I know we are not supermodels but ‘Ugly’ is just unkind.” Sister 1 says.
They have asked that their names be withheld, “For the moment we’d really like to distance ourselves from the whole thing,” says Sister 2 “but we think it would be good to put our side of the story out there, you know, get it off our chests.”

I was originally sceptical when they contacted me for an interview but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So here I am in a quiet coffee house sharing a plate of biscuits with two ladies who are indeed not unattractive in the least and exhibit none of the signs of haughtiness or pride that are traditionally attributed to them. S1 let’s out a musical laugh while S2 rolls her eyes theatrically skywards, “Step sisters? No, She just turned up on our doorstep one day!” They both give a ‘What can you do?’ shrug and S1 continues the tale: “She was wearing the most impractical and expensive ‘peasant’ outfit you have ever seen, but back when he was alive our father had done some trade with her father so we sort of knew who she was. Mum said she could stay as long as she did her share of the cooking and cleaning.” They exchange a glance and S2 stifles a giggle. “You’ve never seen anyone so completely useless in a kitchen!” 
“Being a princess, she’d never touched a pan or lit a fire in her life!”
“We tried to show her what to do but practical tasks were not really her thing-”
“-or listening!”
“To be fair she did give it a go to start with, but puffing and blowing in the grate before you have cleared it of ash is always going to end in disaster!”
“She managed to cover herself in soot from head to foot..” 
“… and most of the house!”
“And that’s when she started calling herself Cinderella.”
So it was her joke to start with?
“Oh yes, we all had a good laugh while we were cleaning up the first time.”
The sisters exchange another look, serious for a moment but soon excitedly interrupting each other again.
“As time went on though, she didn’t get any better. We kept on stepping in to show her how something was done and finding she’d wondered off and was singing in the garden-”
“-while we did all the work! So we tried going out and leaving her to it but we really underestimated how far she would go to get someone else to do it for her.”
“She dropped a bag of millet one day and instead of sweeping it up she just opened the windows and let the birds in!”
“It took 2 hours to get the last of the birds out and a week to stop the house smelling of pigeon poop. We were still plucking feathers out of the curtains a month later.”
“We came back one day to find a sheep in the parlour with a broom tied to it’s tail while she was prancing around the pantry with one of dad’s old coats ‘tra-la-la-ing’-”
“-and there were actual squirrels swimming in the sink!”


It’s all quite shocking. I enquire about vegetable transportation to 3 royal dances.
“One ball. We managed to arrange an extra invite for her but she said she was going to stay and clear up the mess she had made that day-” S1 starts. S2 breaks in
“- then she rocked up ‘fashionably late’, making quite the entrance.”
“Pumpkin” says S1, “was the name of the taxi firm. She hired a mini cab for the night, loaded two spare outfits and ran off to change at any point that she lost the Prince’s attention.”
“Pretending she didn’t know us all evening by the way.”
“At the end of the night she made a big show of having to run out before midnight-”
“-the Prince looked a bit puzzled and tried to start a conversation with a table decoration-”
“-so she scrawled our address on the bottom of her shoe, ran back in-”
“-and threw it at him!”
The last line said together, then heads back and laughing. S1 shakes her head 
“They were so mashed”.


So the bit about trying on the slipper is all nonsense then?
“Ha ha! You’d think! But no: the next day there’s the Prince outside calling out that ‘Whosever shall this slipper fit’ etc. and we all have to go through this ridiculous palaver of trying on her 4 inch stiletto.”
“Which might have made some sense if she was a size 11 but she’s a 7-”
“-and so are we. Even mum!”
“Even Mrs. Blewfery from next door!”
Did you say ‘It fits! Marry me!’? They find the suggestion hysterical.
“Good grief no! The Prince is a total fantasist. Him and Cindy are perfectly suited.”

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The Elder Mother


Sitting down to write this months Folk Tales Corner I found myself searching for a subject, then I remembered that I had rather been handed a baton by Country File (not the BBC programme but the short seasonal wildlife column in the local magazine where Folk Tales Corner starts it’s life) with the reference to The Elder Mother in a piece about fire wood. I think they had in mind that I would trot out the story, make a comment on it, job done! As usual it turns out to be much more complicated than that. 

Western society is built fairly strongly on a medieval foundation and tends to see things in a very binary way. There is yes and no, good and bad, my way or the highway. Folklore, especially that which has been around for some time, often steps in to greyer areas, and there is little more ambiguous than the lore surrounding the Elder: She is a witch tree but her twigs will protect you from fairies; if you burn her wood it will bring death to your house but the medicines made from her can bring you back from the brink of death; an elder tree in the garden will keep you safe but having them all round the house will finish you off, though you should never cut one down or it will result in misery, misfortune and shrub related retribution.

The medicinal properties are in fact real. The list of medical preparations that can be made from her bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, pith and roots would easily fill several pages on their own and include diuretics, astringents, febrifuges, purgatives, expectorants, laxatives, pain relievers and sleep inducers. Most of the lore surrounding the Elder is probably a result, one way or another, of it being a veritable hedgerow chemical factory. The leaves for instance could be used to keep rats, mice and flies away as they do not like the smell. This is clearly where it got its status as a protector against fairies, the side benefits of being free from actual small pests getting attributed to being free from diminutive mythological beings. 

With an entire shop full of medicines being available from one tree, the Elder would have been a regular stop for any herbalists or healers. Few trees are as blatant with their fertility as the Elder. Her white blossom and red berries obscuring her green leaves in turn. It is easy to see how such a bountiful bush would be protected by warnings of the danger and loss that would follow any careless damage: sooner or later you would suffer for your sloppiness when the remedy for your malady was no longer available. The Elder Mother then, was a giver of great gifts who should be respected and, like any mother, could bring comfort or comeuppance. 

As the medieval Church defamed all knowledge that was not under it’s direct control traditional medicine became decried as witchcraft, and the Elder went from generous goddess to woodland witch, field pharmacy to tree of terror. It was an easy fit because the Elder Mother, like many pagan goddesses, already had a dark side. It is true that elder wood does not burn well, it spits, smokes and gives little flame, then smoulders in the grate. In doing so it releases many of the toxins from which it’s medicines are made. As the fire loses it’s heat it is more likely that the noxious gasses from the fuel will creep in to the room instead of exiting through the chimney, subjecting the occupants to a strong soporific which would prevent them from awakening while they breath in a cocktail of deadly vapours. If you bring death to the giver of life then you can expect to reap her revenge!

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