Sunday, 28 October 2012

The dispersal of Halloween through American media

One of the most interesting things about folklore, I find, is how it disseminates throughout a region and why certain alterations occur depending on the location. Throughout history, one of the most effective ways for folkloric traditions to cross country boundaries was through invasion. War and settlement of new cultures in a culture brought with it stories, deities, spirits and rites that are incorporated into the country that has been invaded. When the Vikings came to England they brought Odin, who the Anglo Saxons knew as Woden or Wotan and the legend of the Wild Hunt. During the subsequent invasion of England by the Roman Empire, the polytheistic gods that were worshipped as a result of the Norse settlement were vilified and denounced as devilish by the now Christian invaders. We now have a stewpot full of different folklore beliefs as a result of these invasions, but in a modern world where empires are no linger rising and falling, can folklore still be incorporated into different cultures?

I've written before about the origins of Halloween, which has a rich and interesting history. The Celtic tradition of Samhain has evolved into the Halloween we see now, and while it's always been observed in the United Kingdom, it's the United States of America that now has the monopoly on this ancient festival. Around this time of your you can't move for the Halloween specials on TV, showcasing America as a country that's fanatical about putting on masks and going trick or treating, and it's precisely American television that is responsible for dispersing Halloween to other cultures.

Croatia is just one of the countries that has recently begun to embrace the tradition as a result of American media. It's mostly the children who have taken to Halloween, going from house to house enthusiastically crying "ńĆasti ili pati!" meaning "treat us or suffer!" while dressed in costume. Croatia may have already been primed to embrace the tradition because of the existing holiday Poklade, a holiday in which people wear masks and costumes and host flamboyant carnivals in its honour.

In Italy there has been a history of the Catholic Church suppressing anything connected to All Saints Day, a tradition derived from paganism. In the 1990's Halloween started to become popular in Italy due to American shows like The Simpsons with their Treehouse of Horror episodes.

Similarly, Halloween has seen a surge in popularity since 2005 because of programming like the Disney Channel airing Halloween specials. Unsurprisingly, the tradition isn't recognised by the Orthodox Church, but has been embraced by the country's youth.

Disney could have had something to do with the rise in popularity of Halloween in Japan, where Tokyo Disneyland puts on special Halloween celebrations. In recent history Japan has become more interested with Western culture in general and it's not uncommon to see Halloween decorations in the high street. However, trick or treating is not practised and costume-wearing is generally limited to private parties and bars.

We can see that media has an effective way of transmitting folklore traditions such as Halloween to wider cultures throughout the globe. Media could well be the modern equivalent of the invasions of old, where America takes on the role of the Vikings who settle their empire using TV, movies and the internet instead of brute force.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ghost Week: The Headless Horseman of Onecote

Today we're off to Staffordshire, home to many a ghost legend, including the headless horseman that's said to haunt the small village of Onecote.

It was first recorded in 1900 that a farmer, on his way home from Leek market at night found himself whisked up on the back of a phantom horse, seated behind a headless rider. It is said that the horse effortlessly bounded through fields and over hedges. Then, the farmer was flung to the ground close to his home and succumbed to his wounds a few days later.

After further reports of headless horseman activity, including one man, who, after experiencing the terror of this phantom rider witnessed the death of his horse an dog, the clergy set out to banish the demon. However, the ghost could not be exorcised so is still said to roam the lonely country roads.

Writing in Folk-Lore (1942) W. P. Witcutt gives a couple of explanations as to the origin of the decapitated rider. Either it is the ghost of a pedlar who was killed by robbers and his headless body was left to ride off on his horse, or it could be the ghost of a knight who died in battle against the Scots. His white horse bore his headless body back home. 

Folklorists Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson have pointed out that these explanations are probably more recent, since headlessness tended to be just a sign of the supernatural, rather than a reflection of how the person had died.

There is another explanation given for the horseman, that it was one of the four spirits that were cast out of heaven and forced to roam the Earth until the Biblical Day of Judgement. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ghost Week: Temple Newsam House Ghosts

Welcome to Ghost Week, where I'll be looking at poltergeists, grey ladies, headless horsemen and other tales of things that go bump in the night.

I'm kicking things off with a local story, namely of the ghosts that are said to inhabit Temple Newsam house in Leeds, England. Temple Newsam house is a beautiful Tudor mansion dating back to 1520, known as 'The Hampton Court of the North'. I used to frequently go there as a little boy with my grandma to visit the farm on its grounds, but I didn't hear about the ghost legends until I was a bit older and more curious about such things. 

There are said to be a handful of spirits haunting the house, but the most well know has to be the Blue Lady. She is said to be the ghost of Miss Mary Ingham (1638-1652) and legend has it that she was travelling back to Temple Newsam after visiting relatives when her cart was set upon by three robbers who dragged her out and stole her possessions. Apparently this scarred her psychologically and from then on she chose to hide her valuables in random places throughout the house. The Blue Lady has supposedly been seen trying to find her belongings again that she hid all those years ago. 

Other ghosts include a monk in brown robes, a knight (in 1155 the area was given to the Knights Templar) , a small boy who climbs out of a cupboard and runs from the Darnley room, and a weird misty apparition. Apparently a young serving girl who was murdered by a footman also haunts the back stairs of the house. 

Local ghost legends are always fascinating, but I do want to make it clear that I don't believe in ghosts myself. There are frequent 'ghost hunts' in the house, especially at Halloween, which is a bit of fun but shouldn't be taken seriously. For me it's the stories that are the most interesting parts, not wondering whether the ghosts or goblins or giants are real or not. It's fine if you personally believe in these things, but for me they are just great stories and wonderful examples of anthropology.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

East Anglian Folklore: Black Shuck and Others

Tales of ghostly dogs and hounds of hell are abundant in the British countryside, with most counties having their own variation on the creature. One of the most famous of these monsters is Black Shuck (or Old Shuck), popularised throughout Norfolk and Cambridgeshire as a "black shaggy dog, with fiery eyes...who visits churchyards at midnight." (Revd E. S. Taylor). 

Throughout the centuries, there have been recorded sightings of Shuck throughout East Anglia, such as from Quaker Amelia Opie, who spotted the hound in 1829 while staying at Northrepps Cottage. In her journal she writes: "Traditions says, that every evening, at twilight, the ghost of a dog is seen to pass under the wall of this is known by the name of Old Shuck".

Some experts say that rather than being a traditional Black Dog, Shuck is a Bogey Beast - a shapeshifter. One of Shuck's variations is Old Shock, which in 1830 was recorded to have been able to transform into a dog or a donkey. Similarly Old Scarf would appear as a goat. Probably the weirdest of all comes from West Wratting, Cambridgeshire, which has its own Shug Monkey. The name 'Shuck' itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'scucca' meaning 'demon'.

According to some accounts, seeing Black Shuck will result in your death within a year: "Such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year." (W. A. Dutt: 'Highways & Byways in East Anglia', 1901.)

As for its origin, Mike Burgess of Hidden East Anglia  has found references to a spectral dog in Dartford, Kent, from the rebel Jack Cade in 1450, who was accused of having "rered upp the Divell in the semblaunce of a black dogge". However, this seems to be more related to witchcraft and familiars rather than traditional Shuck lore, which possibly came about a century later. In 1577 Abraham Fleming wrote that a "black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse" wrought havoc during a storm in Suffolk.

Black Shug and other spectral hound legends persist to this day, with people claiming they have seen it roaming the East Anglian countryside. Here's a short film about Leslie Goodwin, who talks about his experience with Black Shuck in the 60s. There are a couple of photos at the bottom of this article from December 2003 of a big black dog spotted in Norfolk.

Westwood & Simpson, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, 2006
Mike Burgess, Hidden East Anglia,, 2005
Norfolk Coast,

Folklore Slashtag on Blekko

I've recently become a huge fan of search engine Blekko, mostly because it tries to remove as much spam from search results as possible. It does this using slashtags, which are tagged onto the end of a query in order to specifically search a human-curated vertical. For instance, if you were looking for headache cures you could add the /health slashtag to bring back more authoritative results.

With this in mind, I've created the /folklore slashtag. Now, this isn't because folklore is a particularly spammy area on the internet. Instead it's because finding folklore sites can be a bit of a chore. There are some fantastic blogs out there that can't be seen through a conventional Google search on the first few pages so I wanted to create a good list of all the best sites to use for when myself or other folklore bloggers/academics are doing online research.

All you have to do is go to Blekko and key in your query followed by /folklore. For example 'Robin Hood /folklore'. If you have other sites you think I should add then please either put it in the comments or shoot me an email.

Happy slashing!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Yorkshire Folklore: Grindylows and Others

Many folk tales spring from stories told to children to warn them of certain dangers. In the Grindylows' case, the story was told to keep them away from water to prevent them from drowning.

The tale goes that Grindylows were water spirits who would drag little children into the depths of ponds, marshes or other bodies of water. It seems that these creatures originate in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but like most monsters of folklore have their roots elsewhere and different versions that are spread throughout the country, such as Peg Powler of North-East England and Jenny Greenteeth of Lancashire. It's not just Britain that has its share of water spirits - the Kelpie (Scotland), Merrow (Ireland), Nixe (Germany) and Kul (Arctic) are just a handful of examples from across the globe.

Painting of a Grindylow

Grindylows and their English counterparts like Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth are likely to have descended from the Germanic superstitions of Nixes, recorded in the epic Nibelungenlied (around 1180) as alluring water creatures with a beautiful humanoid form who would lure men to their depths.

The name possibly stemmed from the Grendel in Beowulf, but the word grindle can be found on Anglo-Saxon charters as reference to mires, bogs and lakes. In fact, Grendel and his mother lived in a bottomless pond the poet called grundleas. Not only that, but the mother was mere-wif or 'mere wife', with mere meaning pool in this instance. You can see, then, where the word mermaid got its name.

The fearsome Grendel

There's a charming little poem about water spirits, or mermaids, by James Bird of Suffolk (1788-1839) that his mother used to call to him:

Make haste and do your errand. Go not nigh
The river's brink, for the mermaids lie.
Be home at five!
 While Eastern counties tended towards the beautiful maiden water-spirit model, the North turned their spirits into something much uglier and much easier to be frightened of. 

According to Augustus Hare in 1876, belief in such creatures persisted up until the latter half of the 19th century.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Making monsters: folklore and cryptozoology

Throughout the ages mankind has created stories of strange creatures, ghosts and monsters that lurk just on the periphery of our senses. From giants to water spirits, someone at some point in history believed these things existed.

So it's little wonder that as a species we're still making monsters that people believe in. The hobgoblin of times gone by have been replaced by the Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and more recently, Nightcrawlers. Arguably every culture has its own modern day folklore creature, or 'cryptid' that occasionally makes the rounds in the press and on the internet.

One of the most interesting things about folklore is discovering why certain communities hold specific beliefs. What is it about Latin-American culture that conjures up the chupacabra and why do rural English communities see Black Shuck? What's also interesting is why this need to create weird creatures has stayed with us up to this day, even to the extent that there are organisations that are formed for the sole purpose of tracking down these enigmatic and ultimately non-existent beasts.

Although I certainly don't believe that cryptids, or at least the majority of them, exist, that's not my concern at this moment in time. What I want to know is why people believe and what re-enforces that belief.

Psychologists like Brian Cronk say the reason people believe in monsters is because, well, they want to: "Many people quite simply just want to believe," said the professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. "The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations." This is a pretty sound explanation. It shows why Scandinavians believed that sleep paralysis was a Mara wraith, or why mutilated cattle in Mexico are attributed to the chupacabra. However, from a folklore standpoint I don't think this explanation is enough because there are some cryptids who apparently exist for the sake of existing.  The Yeti, to my knowledge, isn't a by-product of something that Tibetan people can't explain. In fact, the Yeti is an example of precisely what psychologists might be missing when looking and beliefs in monsters. The Yeti, or Meh Teh, is likely to have come from the god worshipped by the Lepcha people and the rituals of the Bon religion. The rituals consisted of the blood of a "wild man" who was depicted as a hairy ape creature carrying a whistling stone sword. 

In the above example, we can see the reason why the Yeti myth is so prevalent in Nepal. It was ingrained into their culture way before people started uploading grainy footage to Youtube. You can say this for hundreds of folkloric beliefs, such as giants originating from the Norse Jotun. Because of this, Professor Cronk's statement is far too simplistic: there's clearly more at work than a 'want' to believe in cryptids. There are more factors involved and it's up to folklorists and amateurs to try and get to the bottom of it.