Category Archives: Autumn

…and Things that go Munch in the Night


It’s that time again, as darkness falls upon the land and the dead rise from their crypts to walk amongst us, reaching out with cold, unfriendly fingers to suck life from the living… though I hope my previous wafflings on this subject have shown that the dead are exactly that and can do us little harm beyond spilling our cocoa in mild surprise at their re-appearance. It was a noticeable feature of several of the stories that I came across in my research for last year’s “The Raven and other Underworld Journeys” that the doors to the land of the dead are firmly shut and once you get down there you are not coming back. If the conditions are right you might be able to get a phone call through though.

Originally the late October feast, Samhain (pronounced Sawain) in the celtic language of the Britons back before the Romans came here, was a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of the years labours; the storehouses were full from the harvest and the year’s work was done. At the death of the year and the thinning of the veil between past present and future, it was also a time to give thanks to and commune with the ancestors, an opportunity to seek advice from late Uncle Jack or Grandmother Jane. With the coming of Christianity the tradition of talking to deceased relatives went from normal to dark and terrible. Since then our low mortality rates and hurried funerary practices have distanced us from death to such an extent that we no longer have the psychological means to deal with it, our collective terror of death being so great that we have demonised the dead themselves. The result of this is a vast mountain of zombie flicks in which the touch of the dead can transform even our nearest and dearest in to ravenous fiends hungry for our brains, at least one of the gang of plucky survivors having to pull the trigger in the face of their best friend or closest relative.

Our fear of re-animated corpses and ghosts is all in our minds, a projection of our fear of death and could be easily laid to rest by accepting deaths inevitability and celebrating the lives of those that have passed on before us. Needless to say I will be leaving the waking dead for the movies to deal with. If you want something to be scared of, and it would appear that many of you do, then I would choose the living.

For the spooky season this year I shall be concentrating on beings far more likely to creep in to your bedroom under cover of darkness and fasten their fangs in your goose-bump covered flesh than zombies or ghosts. My Halloween tour takes me from Evolution in Exeter on the 18th October, across the country to London and back with eleven gigs on the way ending on November the 9th at the Skittle alley of my local pub, the London Inn in Morchard Bishop. My entourage for this spine chilling venture will be “Goblins, Ghouls And Long Legged Beasties”… all of them very much alive!

 

Goblins, Ghouls and Long Legged Beasties tour poster

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Filed under Autumn, Halloween, October, Samhain, Spooky, stories

An Underworld Journey


It is no surprise to me that amongst the earliest writings yet found we find a version of one of the most widely spread and evocative stories known to man. In marks made with a stick on clay tablets by the inhabitants of the first cities, in the land of Sumer (where Iraq is today) roughly five thousand years agois the earliest known Underworld Journey. In this Sumerian myth Inanna, the goddess of fertility, sex and war, travels to the the land of the dead from which no one can return.

I dare say many of you will be familiar with the Greek tale of Persephone who is abducted by the god of the Greek underworld, Hades. She is eventually rescued by her mother, Demeter (the goddess of the harvest) but has to return to Hades for a number of months each year due to the incautious ingestion of several pomegranate seeds.

Whilst there are similarities between Inanna and Persephone, both tales involving a subterranean excursion and both having an ending that explains the annual cycle of growth and decay, the differences are more interesting. Inanna is no hapless victim. This goddess once declared war on the mountains because they did not bow down to her; and won! She goes to the underworld, ruled by her sister Ereskigal, by choice: “From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below.” What is more, she knows it is a dangerous mission and briefs her trusted minister, Ninsubur on the extensive and painful mourning ritual (involving the laceration of eyelids, nose, ears and buttocks) she must perform to restore Inanna should she fail to return. Inanna descends through the seven gates of the underworld and at each gate has one of her symbols of earthly power taken from her. Thus naked and stripped of everything, she stands before her sister but still has enough power to take Ereskigal’s throne for herself. Here we come to one of the chief points of this tale, “The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.”

The Underworld has laws that hold sway even over the most powerful of divine beings.

Ninsubur, follows her instructions to the letter and Inanna is restored to life, not through force or magic but through sympathy, for it is only by sympathy that those who have entered the darkest depths can be reached. Although alive again, the laws of the Anuna, the underworld judges, still hold her and she is only permitted to return to the light if she finds someone to take her place. Inanna does not let the Anuna take anyone who has mourned her absence but eventually finds her husband, Dumuzid showing no signs of remorse and gives him in to the demons hands. Dumuzid’s sister begs them to take her instead so it is decreed that they will share the job with each spending half the year below. In typically contrary fashion Inanna mourns for the six months Dumuzid is away thus giving us the seasons.

Many scholars would have it that this is just a vegetative myth, that it is a ‘primitive’ explanation for the cycle of winter and summer, but I think that is merely a side effect of the main event; the bit that resonates for us is the descent, the search for… something in the darkness. It is the sense of loss or depression, of something hidden beyond our grasp, that drives us in to the doorway to the underworld. For Inanna and many other travellers in the great below, there is no material gain, only the experience which brings with it some intangible wisdom, a knowing that only those who have walked beyond deaths door and been to the home of darkness may have. When it comes to the Underworld it really is the Journey that matters.

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

Details for October tour dates where you can see the Talesman perform “Inanna In The Underworld” amongst other Underworld Journeys are:

Saturday 22nd London Inn, Polson Hill, Morchard Bishop, Crediton, Devon, EX17 6PQ 7.30pm, £5

Thursday 27th South Hill Park Arts Centre, Ringmead, Bracknell Berkshire, RG12 7PA 7.30, £10 £8 concessions.

Friday 28th The Hyde Tavern, 57 Hyde Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 7DY, 7.30 £5.

Sunday 30th The Elm Tree Public House, 16a Orchard Street, Cambridge, CB1 1JT, 8.00, Free

Monday 31st The Hobgoblin, 2 Broad Street, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 2BH, 8.00

More details available via the Talesmn’s Facebook page, scroll down for the relevant gig and click on the event link. http://www.facebook.com/#!/TheTravellingTalesman

Unsuitable for under 12s

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Filed under Abduction, Autumn, Folk Tale, October, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling, Underworld, Winter

Let’s Talk About Ghosts!


Well, there is not much I can tell you about the festival of Samhain or Halloween that you won’t hear or read elsewhere, in much greater depth than I have space for, over the coming month. There will be programs on the TV about it’s pre-christian origins as a time of remembrance, its Celtic status as the new year celebration, and more besides. The old argument that trick or treat is an American abomination will be (erroneously) trotted out again while a pitiful few of us will staunchly shun the transatlantic pumpkin in favour of our native swedes and turnips (the adventurous might even attempt a parsnip lantern, their long, tapering shape is very effective). However you chose to celebrate it, summer is gone, the nights grow cold and long, the mists rise and the veil between the worlds grows thin…

Let us talk about ghosts.

It’s a funny thing but if you take an average room full of people and ask “do you believe in ghosts?” only a few will say yes. Take the same room full of people and instead tell your story of strange, inexplicable noises in an empty house then one by one the majority will recount their own personal experiences with the not-so-departed.

Oh yes, we’ve pretty much all had at least one brush with the supernatural, or know someone who has. Here in Devon we purportedly have more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the country; a country which has more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the world! If you live down this way and haven’t met one yet I suspect it can only be a matter of time…

The problem for a storyteller is that the vast majority of these spectral interludes boil down to the same two stories:

“We saw a ghost… then we heard someone had died!”

and

“Someone died… now there’s a GHOST!

Frustratingly, nothing else happens. Searching for a ghost story with some action in it, an event worth expounding to an audience as more than conversation (or evidence in the case for the existence of solidity-challenged persons), is a long and repetitive process.

Thankfully some of the folk tales featuring post corporeal people have a bit more to them and, as ever, come with advice for those who care to listen.

The Dauntless Girl* earns her name by taking on a bet to retrieve a “skull bone” from the dead house in the middle of the night. Despite a disembodied voice repeatedly telling her to leave the skulls alone as they are it’s relatives, she achieves her goal, blows out the candle and locks the voice in, before returning to the warmth and light of the farmhouse where she claims her winnings.  The voice, it turns out, was the verger, bribed to scare the girl off, now dead from fear having been shut in with the bones in the dark.

Which brings us neatly to our first piece of advice should you meet with the physically disenfranchised:

1/ Do not be afraid.

Those that expire in ghost stories usually do so as a result of their own fear, not any action on the part of the previously deceased.   As the Dauntless Girl says to the shade of her master’s mother in the next bit of her story “Why should I be afraid of you? You’re dead and I’m alive”. (but I’m getting ahead of myself. Ahem.)

Having proved her worth, the Dauntless Girl is now hired by a rich man whose mother, despite her recent relocation to a subterranean residence very close to the church, is still turning up at the house and frightening away the servants. Since the girl shows no fear, the phantom matriarch can at last reveal the whereabouts of the savings she wishes her son to take possession of and move permanently to the next plane of existence; and the Dauntless Girl gets to keep a share of the booty!

Which marvellously illustrates my second piece of advice:

2/ Ask them what they want.

Frankly, I’m surprised more people don’t do this. It’s obvious the spook is hanging around for a reason so why not find out what it is? At the worst you may find yourself listening to the chilling tale of their horrible murder but you never know, perhaps, if you dare follow the apparition in to the cold, dark cellar with nought but their unearthly glow to light the way, you may be shown their hidden store of gold. Either way, you are going to have a better ghost story to tell than anyone else next time the subject comes up at a party.

Speaking of parties, should you go to one around the 31st October, remember that part of it’s original purpose was to contact the ancestors, making use of the thinning of the veil to glean wisdom from those that have gone before. But be aware: there is a sub set of travelling ghosts, such as the husband murdering Lady Howard who turns up in a coach of bones complete with headless driver, these non permanent residents of the netherworld seem to have a free pass at the gates of Hades and should you climb in to their carriage you will surely be whisked away to an eternity of torment.

So so my last piece of advice for the spooky season:

3/ Do not accept a lift from a dead person.

This may seem to contradict Advice No.1  but there is a line between fearlessness and stupidity, and this is where it is!

*Found in the comprehensive Penguin Book of English Folktales Excellently annotated by Neil Philip

http://openlibrary.org/books/OL9797884M/The_Penguin_Book_of_English_Folktales

http://www.neilphilip.com/Neil%20Philip.html

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Autumn, Folk Tale, Ghost stories, Halloween, October, Samhain, Spooky