Tag Archives: Story

Words Are Magic


A sorcerer can invoke a magic incantation and enchant you with a spell. All they need is to speak some well ordered words, give voice to a crafty verse and the tale is told. I am not speaking figuratively, I mean it literally.


In Old English a spell meant a “story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable; discourse or command”. A speller was somebody who read out words and the title was most often applied to preachers who would read the “good spells”, or good stories, which became the God spells and finally the gospel. It is from the action of “spelling”, reading out the story word by word, that the term changed it’s meaning and became attached to the letters rather than the narrative.

An open book exuding energy and power.

Being enchanted is also far less weird than you are probably thinking. The “en” means “in”, the “chant” bit is just that, some poetic words. Chant goes back through French and latin all the way to a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word: *Kan- meaning “to sing”. This is pretty easy magic to be honest, all you have to do is sing a well known song and if people join in then they have become “sung in”, you have enchanted them.

An incantation, for all its portentous sound, is exactly the same thing, “in” and “cant” having come from the same roots as “en” and “chant”; it is another “in song”. To “invoke” it you only have to speak it, or put it “in voice”.

But what about magic? There is a postulated PIE root *Magh-, meaning “to be able, powerful”. By the time of the early Greeks we have “Magos”, a noun which means “a learned person of the priestly cast”. The powerful capability lies in the learning but you can only get access to that knowledge if you are born in to the right tribe. The power this tribe of capable people wielded became known as “magike” and, since they weren’t sharing, it was obviously very mysterious.

I realise I have just explained where the word “magic” comes from but not what it actually is. Bear with me and I shall unravel this final part of my spell. There is another Proto-Indo-European root I would like to introduce you too: *Ser-, which has survived in our own words series, serried and sermon amongst others and means “to line up, put in a row, or thread together”. It has also come down to us through the Latin for “one who influences fate or fortune”, which in English is a Sorcerer. So, somewhen between these two ancient lexical points, someone was exerting influence on things, effecting change, by putting something in order, by arranging something in lines.

Given everything we have just been talking about, it seems clear to me that the magic power of the bygone Magos was sorting secret symbols in to charms and spells. Yes, charm is another word from that *Kan- root. Or to translate from magical language into mundane: the mystery capability of the first sorcerers was lining up letters to make words and arranging words into songs and stories. The carefully guarded learning of the earliest magicians was poetry, storytelling, writing and reading.

So if you sometimes yearn for a more mystical life, remember you too can type some terms in to a tidy row or organise some expressions in an exciting order then speak or sing your scintillating spell, who knows what effect you might have?
Words are magic, in every sense, and in every sense magic is words.

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

The Travelling Talesman

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Use Your passport While You Can


It is a curious factor of ghost lore that they are geographically limited. After our spirit is freed from the confines of its fleshly vehicle one might imagine that we would enjoy the liberty, the new found flying ability and ineffectiveness of walls, fences and other impediments to movement. I can readily imagine that one might undertake a lengthy world tour to catch all the sights missed during a life too busy and financially restricted to have involved the Taj Mahal and so forth. It would not surprise me at all to find myself in the company of several other freshly released souls, breezing lightly past the queues and gaily wafting through turnstiles. But no, it appears that those of us who stay on this earth after our physical demise remain quite specifically restricted by the boundaries of the material world.

Although there are one or two ghosts that are seen in coaches or on horses (usually headless) riding about on the roads, they don’t seem to make use of the extensive connectivity of the road system, their nocturnal journeys being proscribed, like spectral trams, to a specific route. The odd deceased monarch is inclined to show up at more than one of their previous homes, though they seem to manage without haunting the transport systems in between. The great majority of ghosts very rarely roam beyond the confines of a single house, in fact their spatial limitation is often to a solitary room or even a specific spot in one room. Some don’t even get a room but are doomed to an eternity in a corridor, which probably explains the moaning.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. In japan you can be anywhere in the country and still encounter Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman. She waits for lone pedestrians in dark and narrow alleyways then steps in front of them and asks the rather forward question
“Am I beautiful?”
She will have her mouth covered, back in medieval times she used a fan or a scarf but nowadays she hides her face with a surgical mask like those worn by many health conscious occupants of modern Japanese cities. Regardless of the answer she will then reveal her jaws, along with the gruesome mouth-to-ear gashes from which she gets her name, and ask what you think now. If you answer yes she will produce a butchers knife or a pair of scissors and cut your cheeks to match hers. If you answer no she will walk away but secretly follow you home and stab you in your sleep.

The story is that her samurai husband found out she had a lover and used his sword to cut her face in to its hideous grin asking “who will find you beautiful now?” Then he decapitated her but was soon filled with remorse and turned his sword on himself.

Quite why Kuchisake-onna is not subject to the laws of locus that bind so many other spooks I do not know. Thankfully, whilst she can waft at will around the Land Of The Rising Sun she doesn’t appear to have found her way beyond its shores. Maybe she is restricted to a location after all, just a very big one. So visit this world while you can because it seems that when we don’t move on completely we don’t move at all.

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Who becomes a ghost? Nobody!


You can’t beat a ghost, literally. You can try, but since a ghost is an NCB (Non Corporeal Being), it has no physical body and does not respond to being whacked with weapons. Now if people come back from the dead in their own body, that is a different matter. It is also a different thing, not a ghost but a… any guesses? No? You know me too well!

If you have come back from your grave it may well be that you were buried alive. With the dubious medical practices of the past, live burial was not entirely uncommon. To offer a last chance to those who were not only at Death’s door but had been neatly nailed in a box and delivered to his lobby, it was standard practice to place a string in the deceased’s hand and attach the end to a bell on a stand above the grave. In this manner, if you did come round in a wooden overcoat under several feet of earth, it was possible to be “saved by the bell” and become a “dead ringer”. It also made you a “revenant”. A revenant is someone who has “come back”, from the French “revenir”: “to come back”, and was particularly used for those who had come back from the dead. A significant feature of a revenant is that they have come back to life; they are alive, unlike vampires.

Far from being handsome or sparkly, the original folkloric vampire of eastern Europe was a fat, fetid, dead person with matted hair and dark or purple skin, wearing a shroud, that rose from the graveyard to feed on the living. These it seems, were largely the result of hysterical fear of the dead combined with confusion over the stages of decomposition. Someone would have a bad dream or a fevered vision and the most recently deceased person would get the blame. On being exhumed to see if they were leaving their grave in the night, their body would be found plumper than when they died, possibly gurgling, and with fresh blood dripping from their mouth. Clear signs that they were wandering about and drinking blood! That these symptoms are pretty much what one would expect as bacteria fill the dead body with gasses and this forces “purge fluids” from any openings, wasn’t well known to your rural communities at the time. The classic methods of dispatching these foul creatures, A stake in the chest or decapitation, are both good ways to deflate a gaseous, bloated corpse.

In 1819 a bloke called John Polidori wrote his book “The Vampyre”, a while later Bram Stoker nicked his ideas and wrote a slightly more famous book. Thus the newly pale, cultured, attractive and un-dead vampires put on evening wear and took over stately homes, conveniently leaving an empty space in our graveyards, and our fears of walking corpses, for the zombies to move in. Zombies (you knew they’d turn up eventually) entered our language, and our imagination, from Africa and the Caribbean in the 19th century. These post life perambulators are corpses re-animated by witchcraft, a meat puppet, and as such are still technically dead. A zombie is in some ways the exact opposite of a ghost, in that it is a body with no spirit.

Revenants are rarely heard of these days, Vampires are getting ever more glamorous and even the zombie-come-latelies are not the shambling foot draggers they used to be. Ghosts, however, remain ghosts. Unchanged by the years, the disembodied spirits of the dead still float around the sites of their demise, moaning and groaning, or unwittingly repeating some long-finished task, unable or unwilling to pass over to the other side. In these uncertain times it’s nice to know there is someone you can rely on, even if there is actually no body there.

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The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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Didn’t We Tell You That?


We all have little things that trigger our anger and frustration causing outbursts that leave the person who has unwittingly pushed our pedant button shocked and baffled. One of my current triggers is people saying “well that’s just a story” or similar. Everything is a story! Some stories are factual and others less so but if you are being told it by another person, either through speech or the written word, it is a story. Now some may contain facts and some may not. Even as late as the 14th century there was no difference in meaning between the words “story” and “history”, both come from the same French word meaning the relating of events from the past, yet we accept one as true and the other as dubious. The stories I deal in are, as I hope I have illustrated over the years, full of truths and histories are equally full of distortions and sometimes even outright lies.

For some time I have used the death of Robin Hood as my example of a forgotten truth buried in a story and considered an exaggeration. The story goes that on his death bed Robin Hood shot an arrow saying “bury me where this arrow falls”. The distance between Kirklees Priory, where the outlaw spent his final hours, and the site known as Robin Hood’s Grave has for many years been considered too far for even an Olympic archer to shoot and the whole episode written off as “just a story”. However, the excavation of the Mary Rose brought to light long bows with a draw weight well in excess of current sporting maximums. It was soon agreed that a professional archer of the middle ages who had been shooting since their youth, armed with a bow of such power would have been able to make the shot. Story 1 – Common sense 0.

Recently I have found a new tale to tell of forgotten truth hidden in a story. In the middle of Australia there is a valley that has palm trees growing in it. Now, palm trees’ seeds are quite large and only travel any distance from the parent tree if they fall in to water. So palm trees in nature are either found next to each other or next to water. The valley in Australia is neither. The nearest palm trees are two thousand miles away and the sea is slightly further. Since their presence was a bit of a conundrum a scientist looked in to it. After getting a genetic profile of the valley’s palms he checked it against other Australian palms until he found their nearest relatives and with some archaeology and other clever work he was able to put together the story of the palm trees that shouldn’t be there: The seeds were carried from the north coast of Australia, 2,000 miles away, by people and planted in the valley 30,000 years ago. It was a quite a big thing and a bit of fuss was made in the Australian media. When the Aboriginal Australians heard about this they were rather surprised that such a fuss was being made. They said “Didn’t we tell you that story? I’m sure we must have done. The one about the gods who carried the seeds to the middle of the country and planted the palms in the valley? We must have told you… We’ve been telling that story for 30,000 years!”

That’s Robin Hood out of a job then. I now have a scientifically proven fact preserved in a folk tale for 30,000 years, which makes me wonder what else might turn out to be true and how long it may have been hiding. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether turning the seed carriers in to gods is an acceptable exaggeration over 30,000 years or whether the scientist needs to adjust his version in light of the new evidence… unless you think it’s “just a story”.

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

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Send In The Lifeboats


One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

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

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