Tag Archives: death

The Last Place You Want To Go


If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.

The Baba Yaga’s home by Thomas Denmark

The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.

Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?

Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin (1902)

There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.

In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.

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Filed under Russian folktale, Witches

…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

“Death cometh, soon or late”


This week it has come to one of our beloved cats and our broadband router. Each case bringing it’s own particular suspension of time and normal activity; one through tears, reminiscence and digging; the other tortuous trouble-shooting and inaccessible e-mails.

Black hooded, scythe in hand, one skeletal finger pointed accusingly at the salmon mousse, the medieval European reaper has pretty much eclipsed all other psycopomps, those who guide our souls to their final resting place. Valkyries and angels occasionally wing their chosen ones away to a blessed afterlife but consensus of popular culture (the very definition of folk-tale) is that our last breath will be harvested by a cloak full of bones with a voice like tombstones and a good line in dry humour.

But where will Mr. Grim take us? Let me transport you across time and space to the shores of ancient Japan which, Shinto myths tell us, were brought into manifestation from primordial chaos by Izanami and Izanagi before they too took physical form and stepped down from the high heavens. These divine lovers then populated the world with the spirits of earth, wind, mountains, trees, and so on until, whilst giving birth to the spirit of fire, Izanami was burnt sufficiently badly to cause the first death in their new world and retired to Yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi, bereft without his dear wife, heads to the underworld to bring her back. At the back door of the mansion of the dead he speaks with Izanami who explains that she may not be allowed to return as she has eaten the food of Yomi, but she will speak with the divine spirits in charge. She solicits assurance that Izanagi will wait outside and not attempt to look at her. After waiting for a day, Izanagi gets bored and goes searching through the mansion for her using a tooth from his comb as a torch. Eventually he finds his beloved but is horrified by her decaying, maggot ridden corpse. She is deeply angered by his betrayal and sets the Hags Of Yomi, several thunder spirits and a thousand dead warriors on him. After an exciting chase, Izanagi reaches the land of light and blocks the exit with a big bolder, thus ensuring that the dead stay down there, and the enraged Izanami becomes their goddess.

A picture of a large rock

The actual physical place, with the actual physical rock that blocks the exit of Yomi.
Seriously, you can go there.

My reason for telling you this tale is that it neatly illustrates a peculiarity which is common to the great majority of mythologies. whilst there is much detail of the creation of all that is above ground no mention is made of the creation of an underworld; yet, when Izanami becomes the first dead being ever, Yomi is already in existence, fully functional, complete with staff, hosts of dead warriors and hags. It seems that no action is needed on the part of the progenitors: the underworld simply appears spontaneously in response to the existence of the world above. In most cases these underworlds accommodate both good and bad where the former live in bliss, reunited with their dearest while the latter have to wade in rivers of spears and get eaten by snakes. Going up to live with the Gods above appears to have been added later as an exclusive option for the elite. The conditions for a beatific winged courier to carry one’s soul in to the sky are generally pretty stringent, however, the tickets to the eternal re-union parties of the various underworlds are simply attained by not stealing or committing murder and generally being kind.

So when the day comes, as certainly it will, and you feel a bony digit tap you on the shoulder, and you are somewhat behind on slitting the throats of goats whilst telling your chosen deity how fab they are, do not despair, all may yet be blissful.  I look forward to seeing our little tortoiseshell kitty again.  The router I’m less fussed about.

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Filed under Death, Shinto, Underworld

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