Tag Archives: Story

Man’s Beast Friend


While the deeper meanings of a story remain constant the details and mechanics are often effected quite strongly by the medium. This is never more obvious than the change wrought on werewolves by the cinema. Almost everything we think we know about werewolves: their connection to the lunar cycle; their immunity to all but silver bullets; their un-controllable blood lust; the weird feud thing with vampires; that a bite will will make you one too… were all popularised by movies and are all wrong.

In pre-Victorian folklore the moon doesn’t play a part in werewolf stories at all, they have no crossover with vampires whatsoever and getting bitten by a werewolf may be painful, or even fatal, but it is not transformative. Werewolves die as easily as any other mammal and only a few of them are hell bent on destruction. In the old folktales it seems that being a werewolf is a purely physical condition. The person of evil intent will become an evil wolf whilst the good and civilised person will remain equally domesticated whilst in their furry skin.

Those who are wicked and have the ability to become a wolf are frequently repeatedly violent, not always when changed either. The renowned folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote a book called The Book of Were-Wolves” which is actually primarily about serial killers. He appears to be making the case that the werewolf trope arises out of the monsterfication of the multiple murderer. In folktales and history bad werewolves get killed of course, usually with a fairly standard sharp implement such as a spear or a knife, or dancing at the end of a rope if the law has caught up with them.

One of the things about the good werewolf is that they don’t have a big problem with being a bit doggy; running off in to the woods is just a thing they have to do now and then. There are even stories in which the ability to transform is given as a gift or reward. Any problems that they have stem from other people’s reactions. It is often getting past society’s unwarranted negativity that creates the conflict in the story. In one French tale (France has quite a high density of the afflicted), a dissolute Abbott called Gilbert falls form his horse in the forest whilst drunk, cutting himself in the process. The smell of blood attracts some wild panthers who are about to make a meal of him when he is rescued by a werewolf. The werewolf follows Gilbert back to the abbey, despite Gilbert’s repeated and ever increasing attempts to shoo it away, and later turns out to be his Bishop who lectures Gilbert on the Christian values of judging people by their actions rather than their appearance.

Unlike many other beast genres in folktale, the climax of the tale rarely involves the werewolf becoming permanently human, the condition is not one that gets cured. The more gentle and well behaved werewolf can mostly avoid the terrible terminations of their murderous cousins but is still generally the same amount of canine at the end of the story as the beginning. The wedding that is the resolution in so many fairytales is totally absent as well, the werewolf’s marital status being neither here nor there unless it is their spouses attitude to their lupine nature that causes their problems. What the good werewolf can generally look forward to as their “happily ever after” is acceptance of who they are, however big their eyes, ears and teeth are.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Truth Be Damned


Robin Hood’s ‘grave’ could be bulldozed and covered in concrete”!

Screams the headline. Well, the site is called Robin Hoods grave, there has always been some controversy over it and when a TV programme investigated with ground penetrating radar they found no sign of bones under the grave stones. The absence of Robin’s remains may not surprise some, there is quite a lot of evidence available to suggest he was always a fictional character and never had a body to start off with. The question therefore is: does it matter if they concrete it over?

Robin Hood is a folk hero with better than average geographical specificity. He is undeniably English, his adversary is unarguably the Sheriff of Nottingham and he is inextricably linked with Sherwood Forest. We also have unusual clarity about what he did: anybody you ask will tell you he was a champion archer and he lived outside the law with not one version of the tales making him a part time magistrate who was handy with a frying pan. The thing about him that is most uncertain would appear to be his basic existence… and I say it matters not one jot!

What is important about the guy who stole from the rich and gave to the poor is not who he was, it is who the rich and the poor were. The earliest written reference to our hero is from 1377 so his stories were in common usage before then and probably had their genesis much earlier. During the three hundred years since the Battle of Hastings, the general populace of England, the Anglo-Saxons, were heavily subjugated to William’s conquerors. The Normans were rich because they took all the land and the Saxons were poor because that was an easy way to keep them under control. The Normans considered themselves a separate and superior race and all Saxons slaves. The oppression of the Saxons was systemic, violent and total. The outlaws of our early medieval folklore, like Hereward the Wake and of course Robin, were not just poor people getting by, struggling with one despotic official, they were freedom fighters, the rebel resistance, battling for their country against a tyrannical occupying force. A quick look at the top movies of the last thirty years will show you how powerful a story that is, even if it happens in a galaxy far, far away.

The Robin Hood story as we know it is part of what UNESCO call our Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is our story, it shapes how we think about ourselves as a nation and feeds into our attitudes to morality, authority and personal freedom. Like King Arthur, Luke Skywalker or even Jesus, arguments against their factual, historical actuality are largely irrelevant; how we relate to the story emotionally and psychologically is the important business.

Would it matter then if, in pursuit of further wealth, the rich and powerful in collusion with the local authorities destroyed the probably invented resting place of a possibly fictitious character?

Simply, yes.

Much as it is the psychological resonance of the stories deep inside us that determine our behaviour, physical items and locations connected with a story reinforce and amplify the re-telling of the tale. Those who feel threatened by a story will seek to denigrate (“It’s not really his grave.”) and eradicate (“Therefore we can bulldoze it.”) these foci. Those who are comforted or inspired by the story will rally to defend them.


As indeed they did. It turns out that the Telegraph’s article is no more factual than the green clad cop-dodger himself. The plans have already been changed to leave the site of the tomb untouched. In a time of idealogical austerity, with the rich avoiding their taxes, I can see Mr. Hood’s merry band returning to the forefront of the folkloric cannon… whatever the truth of the matter may be.

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

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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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