Bee Folklore and Superstition: Telling the Bees

Image by Bernd Buchfeld from Pixabay

Bee Lore

Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica.  There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee.  It is this species that this work mostly refers to.  Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies.  This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs.  Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.

Bee Products

Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used.  Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more.   They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system.  An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted.  Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.  

Telling The Bees

It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in.  This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed.  Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld.  The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought  bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife. 

Deaths

There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper.  This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.

When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly.  Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.

Image by Charles Napier Hemy – Public Domain

An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune.  In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,

“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; 

Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)

Whereas in Germany the song was, 

 “Little bee, our lord is dead;

 Leave me not in my distress.” (2)

In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees.  Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person.  Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.

Funerals

Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees.  Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.

In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive.  Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.

In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died.  Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.

Weddings

In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings  and happy events  as well as funerals.  A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees.  A Scottish  newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive.  A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.

Messengers of the Gods

There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung.  Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.

Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity.  Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the  pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth. 

Importance of Bees

Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases. 

© 19/08/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

Collection of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image by Edmund PatrickCC BY-SA 3.0

A Very Peculiar Practice

Footwear such as shoes have been part of folklore and folktales for centuries and there are many tales and rhymes that refer to them.  For example Cinderella’s glass slippers, The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Anderson, the nursery rhyme of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and I am sure you can think of many other examples. There are also many traditions and customs concerning footwear and a very strange practice of concealing them in buildings.  Presented here is a brief discussion concerning this very peculiar practice of concealment.

Hidden Footwear

In many parts of Europe and other parts of the world footwear has been found concealed in the  structure of buildings for many centuries. They are often found hidden in parts of the structure such as under floors, in ceilings, roofs, chimneys and other structural cavities.  The reason for this is unclear.  Some people suggest  they may be lucky charms intended to bring good luck or ward off evil supernatural beings such as ghosts, witches and spirits. 

Another suggestion is that they were intended to bring fertility to the females in the home and may have been an offering to a household deity.  This may have been a deity or spirit of some kind such as Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home, the family, domesticity and the state.

Footwear has been found concealed within the structure of many different types of buildings.  For example, some but not all, public houses, country houses, a Baptist church and a Benedictine monastery and many other ordinary and less ordinary buildings have been discovered to hold hidden shoes.   

The Concealed Shoe Index

The English town of Northampton has a strong tradition of shoe making.  The local museum keeps a Concealed Shoe Index that has collected 1900 reports of findings of concealed shoes by 2012.  About half are believed to date from the 19th century.  It appears the majority of  finds had been worn or repaired and strangely most finds were of single items, rather than pairs and approximately half were children’s shoes.  The practice of concealing footwear  appears to have faded out during the 20th century.

Spiritual Middens

Since the late Middle Ages it was quite a common practice to hide different objects in the structures of buildings.  Many different kinds of objects have been found including such peculiar items as horse skulls, witch bottles, dried cats, charms written on paper and many other strange objects.  There is an idea that the items were intended as lucky charms to ward off evil or perhaps attract good luck. Hidden caches of such items are sometimes called spiritual middens.

Modern Practice

After 1900, the practice seems to have tailed off. Although it is rarely practised, documented, or  admitted today, there have been a few instances in recent years of such concealments.  The shoe manufacturer, Norvic deliberately placed a pair of women’s  boots in the foundations of its new factory in 1964.  More recently, after finding an old court shoe behind wood paneling, at Knebworth House, an English stately home in Hertfordshire,  it was replaced by one of the estate worker’s shoes to maintain custom.

Location of Finds

The custom of shoe concealment seemed to have been more prevalent in Europe and the USA, especially in New England and northeastern states.  There were many immigrants to these areas from places where the custom was practiced such as East Anglia, in England and other European regions.

A study by June Swann a British footwear historian,  revealed the Concealed Shoe Box Index, in Northampton Museum showed 22.9% of items found were hidden ceilings and floors and the same number accounted for roofs, while 26% were hidden in chimneys, fireplaces and hearths. Other places of concealment were around doors and windows, under stairs and buried in foundations.

Footwear has been found concealed in many different types of build used for many different purposes.  For example, thay have been uncovered in public houses, factories, warehouses, ordinary and stately homes and even in the Oxford colleges of St. John’s and Queen’s.  An English Baptist Church in Cheshire, England and a Benedictine monastery in Germany have also rendered up concealed footwear.  The earliest known find was discovered in Winchester Cathedral at the back of the choir stalls dated from 1308.

Characteristics of Hidden Footwear

There have been many different fashions, styles and types of footwear found that have been deliberately concealed.  Although the majority were made of leather;  rubber boots and wooden clogs have been found and others made from other materials.  From what has been found 98% appear to have been worn or repaired at some time prior to concealment.

All ranges of sizes have been found from babies to adult footwear. Slightly more female footwear has been found making about 26.5% against 21.5% of male and about 50% accounted for children’s footwear.  It is usually single items that are found rather than in pairs.

Although the custom of concealing shoes may seem quirky, finds do render up important information to archaeologists and historians.  As well as giving clues to what fashions and styles people from another time wore they also tell us about the different types of materials that were available.  They also give clues to the social status of the dwellers or uses of the building and the different types of occupation they were involved in and the local economy.

Explanations

Of course, the big question is why would anyone want to conceal such items in the first place?   There are many answers possible but one is that they were fertility charms.   There has been a long association between footwear and fertility.  For example, there is the custom where a shoe is thrown after the bride as she leaves or tied to the back of her car or carriage. Another example is the nursery rhyme called The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.  There are many versions similar to the one below,

Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-) – Public domain
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. 

In the English county of Lancashire when a woman wanted to conceive she tried on the shoes of another who had successfully given birth.  This practice was called smickling.

Witch Traps

There is an idea that the hidden footwear was deliberately placed to act as a protective charm against supernatural beings such as demons, ghosts, witches and other undesirable entities. There was an old belief that witches were attracted to the human odour found in used footwear and attempt to enter the shoe.  However, once they entered they became unable to turn around or go backwards to get out and were trapped.

Another idea is that shoes had protective powers and may be associated with an unofficial 14th century saint named John Schorne.  He was the rector of the English Buckinghamshire village of North Marston. He was a very devout and godly man who was credited with a number of miraculous cures including toothache and gout.   According to legend, one year during a particularly bad drought he discovered a  well whose waters had wonderful curative properties.  He was renowned for his piety and dedication to God and there is a tradition that he trapped the devil in a boot.   Nevertheless, the idea of trapping the devil in a boot or shoe existed long before Shorne and gout was also sometimes called “the devil in the boot.”

Household Deities

Archaeologists and historians think that the custom of hiding footwear in buildings may be connected with ancient pagan deities and spirits and the legend of Shorne may relate to the protective power footwear was once seen to hold.  Therefore an old shoe under the floorboards or buried under the fireplace may be seen as an easy and prudent tactic to thwart malevolent beings just in case.

Substitute for Sacrifice

Another idea is that the hiding of footwear was a substitute for sacrificing something live such as an animal or even a child.  In some places around the world babies and children were sacrificed or placed in foundations.  From  Geofrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-history, “History of the Kings of Britain,” we learn when King Vortigern was looking to build a stronghold the walls kept collapsing. His wise men advised the sacrifice of a child to put a stop to this.  The child chosen for this sacrifice was the young Merlin who persuaded the King there was an underground pool that held two fighting dragons.  Vortigern excavated the pool and found the dragons. Merlin was set free and went on to fame and glory with King Uther and King Arthur, while Vortigern had to find another site.  Certainly an offering of footwear is much more humane than a human or animal sacrifice and leather is an animal product.

The Essence of the Wearer

There may also be another reason.  Many types of footwear adapt shape to suit the wearer.  It is not unusual for new shoes or boots to have to be “broken” in by the wearer before they feel comfortable. They are seen as containers and were believed to contain some of the “essence” of the wearer possibly guarding against evil but perhaps also preserving that essence for the future.  Nevertheless, the concealing of footwear in buildings is still very much a mystery and will probably remain so.

© 12/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Russian Folklore: The Domovoi – A Spirit of Hearth and Home

Russian folklore: Domovoi   

In Russian and Slavic folklore a domovoi or domovoy, was a household spirit.  Domovoi are usually small bearded males who sometimes have bodies covered in white fur, or hair and  sometimes they are affectionately called “Grandfather” or “Master.”  Sometimes they appear as the miniature double of the head of the household and sometimes, but rarely, they have a female companion.

According to tradition there are two kinds of domovoi.   One kind lives inside people’s houses and the other, called a dvorovoi, lives outside in the yard or garden and can only be found in the country. Sometimes they have a wife and are considered less friendly and more dangerous than a domovoi especially to animals and livestock that have white fur.

Origins of the Domovoi

Some people think they have originated before Christianity and were part of an ancestor cult.    Another tradition  tells that they were once malevolent spirits who were thrown from the skies.  Some of these spirits landed in human dwellings and overtime grew to like people in the dwellings and grew less evil.  They still retained the ability to cause mischief when they wanted if they were not adequately placated, or were treated disrespectfully.  However,  overtime as they got used to humans they became more benign and helpful.  They can grow fond of people who take care of their home environment and will help maintain it but dislike those who neglect it and begin causing trouble.

The Shapeshifting Domovoi

There have been claims that domovoi can take on the appearance of the owner or householder of the home.  Witnesses have claimed to see the owner of the home outside in the garden or yard when in fact he has been sound asleep in bed.  They are also thought to have the ability to change their shape into replicas of the cat or dog of the home and even rats and snakes.  The voice of the domovoi is said to sound rather harsh and hollow.

Domovoi Folklore

By tradition every home has its own domovoi.  Although the middle part of the home is said to be their domain they also live under the threshold, or under the stove, stairs, or sometimes outside in the chicken or cattle shed.  Every human house, cottage, apartment, flat or dwelling of any kind large, or small, has a domovoi to look after it and its human dwellers.

The domovoi can sometimes be a trickster or maker of mischief and sometimes tickles people when they are asleep.  He will also knock on the walls and throw crockery and pans for the sake of making mischief.  Usually he will be friendly and on good terms with the domovoi next door but if they start stealing from the home he protects he will defend the property from his neighbour.

The domovoi is the guardian of a home and it is wise to keep him happy by leaving rewards such as salt, porridge, bread, milk or tobacco.  If he is kept happy he will guard the home and maintain order and peace and will help with household chores and outside jobs, but a word of warning.  If a domovoi is disrespected or abused, or the homeowner becomes untidy and slovenly the domovoi can become angry and bad things start to happen.  He becomes like a poltergeist making objects move and fly through the air and things happen that should not, though he will rarely harm humans directly. 

Sometimes when the domovoi is producing unhelpful or unwelcome behavior this can be called barabashka which means knocker or pounder.  The domovoi can become greatly offended at times and will abandon the home and family.   This was something that caused great concern as his presence usually ensured a benevolent and harmonious atmosphere in the home prevailed.

Foretelling the Future

It was believed that the future could be foretold by the behaviour of the domovoi.  If the domovoi was laughing and joking, or singing and dancing, then happy times can be looked forward to.  When he sweeps his thumb up and down a comb like he is strumming a guitar a wedding is pending.  The touch of the domovoi can also dictate the future. Good luck will abound when his furry hand feels warm but when it feels cold then beware because bad luck is on its way.  Beware when a domovoi becomes visible, puts out the flame of a candle, or cries in the night. These are signs of an impending death of someone in the family and very often the head of the home.

Respect Your Domovoi!

All in all, according to tradition, a domovoi in the home can be of great benefit to the homeowner.  To keep him content they must respect, reward and placate him in an appropriate manner and do their utmost to maintain the home environment in a clean and tidy state.  If these things are done then the home will be a happy and harmonious environment for all.

© 05/08/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright August 5th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Feather of the Firebird

The Fabled Firebird

The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.  

According to tradition it  appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition.  However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength.  He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through.  In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent  position in the world.

Finding the Feather

In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather.  For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them.  To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear.  When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar.  From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.

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The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa

The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world.  Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth.  If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back.  Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa.  Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.

Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them.   Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.

Animal Helper – The Horse of Power

As with other Firebird stories our hero has a  wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest.   In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.

Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth.  The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses.  It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place.  As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.

So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake.  He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his.  On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.

While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar,  His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should.  Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.

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© 01/07/2020 zteve t evans

Scottish Folklore: The Battle of the Sea Mither and Teran

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

The Northern Isles

The Northern Isles of Scotland generally refers to the two archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland.  The islands have been inhabited since very early times and have many ancient archaeological sites with human activity going back to the Mesolithic Age.  There are still many Pictish and Norse influences which have combined to create a rich tradition of mythology and folklore on the islands.

Folklore and Tradition

One such tradition tells of an annual battle between the forces of summer and winter for supremacy.  This battle is expressed in folklore with summer being represented by a mythical female spirit called the Sea Mither, or Mither of the Sea.  Her opponent is called Teran, a mythical spirit of the winter who sends the wild waves, storms and high winds at sea and the death of vegetation on land.  Both spirits are invisible to humans directly but their force is experienced in the weather and seasons around the islands that play an integral part of island life.

The Sea Mither

The Sea Mither brings growth, renewal, rebirth and harvest.  The  word “Mither” is the Orcadian way of saying  “mother” so she is the mother of the sea in the sense she gives birth to all living creatures in the sea.

It is the power of the Sea Mither that reawakens the world after the harsh, barren wilderness days of winter, driving out darkness and bringing warmth and light.  She brings growth and fertility to the sea and land giving life to all living things and calms the stormy seas.  

Teran

Her enemy, Teran, brings the cold and dark and causes the winter gales and winds.  It is he who causes the waves to rise wildly and dash against the rugged coastline of the islands and it is his voice who rises above the wind in anger that the islanders hear in the winter gales.

 Vore Tully – the Spring Struggle

Around the time of the vernal equinox, about mid-March, there begins a titanic struggle for supremacy between the Teran and the Sea Mither when she returns to challenge him.  For weeks the seas all around become a frothing, churning cauldron as the battle between the two foes ensues.  Finally Teran is overcome and the Sea Mither confines him to the ocean’s depths.  Every so often he attempts to break free which manifest as spring and summer storms.  

During this period the power of the Sea Mither quells the storms and seas allowing growth and renewal to take place all around.  The continued stress of keeping Teran confined and  maintaining the summer seas and weather  begins to wear down the Sea Mither.  

 Gore Vellye – The Autumn Tumult 

Around the time of the autumn equinox when the Sea Mither is at her weakest and Teran has regained his strength the conflict is renewed.  He breaks free from his prison and challenges the Sea Mither to regain supremacy and gain control of the weather and seas.  The Sea Mither having used up her strength in renewal, calming the seas and keeping her foe in check is defeated and Teran rules the seas and the weather.  

The Cycle

However, as was the case with Teran, defeat is temporary.  Come the vernal equinox she will be ready to take up the fight again and win back the sea and land and spring and summer will come again.

It is in the battle of the Sea Mither and Teran that the local people made sense of the forces that brought the changing seas and weather.  To personify these unseen forces makes them easier to understand and to come to terms with.  It is a tactic that is used all around the world by many different human cultures in an attempt to explain the invisible forces that bring such dramatic and crucial changes to their environment.

Balance and Harmony

This cycle was seen as important because although it is natural to want continuous and permanent summer that is not how nature works.  Neither does it work by providing continuous and permanent winter.  Each has its time of precedence and decline which comes in cycles and is necessary to provide balance and harmony to the earth.  In their own way one is essential as the other to the well-being of the Earth and life on the planet.   Although  lacking modern science and technology, the ancients knew this making sense of it and giving it due respect in their own way.

© 17/06/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 17th, 2020 zteve t evans

Orkney Folktales: A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

by Childe Hassam – National Gallery of Art – CC0

Orkney and the Finfolk

Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago that is part of the Northern Isles. It is situated off the north coast of Scotland  consisting of about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited.  Over time the islands evolved their own folklore with Scottish, Celtic and Norse influences. An important part of that folklore are the tales of the Finfolk who have an underwater city named Finfolkaheem.  They were said to spend the winter in Finfolkaheem and summer on a  magical hidden island paradise called Hildaland.  The Finfolk were a dark mysterious race of humanoid amphibians who moved easily between sea and land.   The following is a retelling of an Orcadian folktale from various sources listed below that tells of a strange encounter an Orkney boatman had with one of the Finfolk that he would regret for the rest of his life.

A Close Tongue Keeps a Safe Head

In Kirkwall, on Mainland, the main island of the Orkney archipelago, the Lammas fair was a popular event that brought people together from the other islands. Many, many, years ago at one such gathering a local boat owner named Tom, struck a deal with a tall, dark morose-looking stranger.  The stranger wanted him to ferry a cow to somewhere east of another island called Sanday. Maybe Tom should have insisted the stranger be more specific in his destination but as he offered twice the normal fee he was pleased to accept. With the agreement concluded and to the surprise of the boatman the stranger, without hesitation, easily lifted the cow off the ground and carried it on to the boat. Tom was astounded by the strength of the stranger but once all was ready set sail as was agreed. 

Tom was an amiable, affable person who liked to chat.  To begin with he chattered away to the stranger who simply glowered back in silence. Eventually he growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Tom was staggered at his rudeness but he was getting a good price so he ceased trying to be friendly and sociable and concentrated on sailing.  The sullen stranger was not good company and he began to feel embarrassed and uneasy.

The stranger would only speak to direct the boatman to sail to the east of each island they passed. At last the boatman, puzzled by the route he was being instructed to take asked exactly where he was taking them. The stranger turned his dark glowering eyes upon him and  growled,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Once again, although upset by his abruptness, Tom thought of his fee and decided to keep quiet and follow the  instructions of the surly stranger.

After a while they came into a thick fog which persisted for some distance and then quickly lifted.  As it lifted Tom saw before them a magical island that basked in a shimmering light.  He could hear the sweet singing of the mermaids who had sensed the presence of a human male and the possibility of a husband.   

As he eased his boat towards the shore the stranger insisted on  blindfolding him. It  dawned on him that the silent stranger was none other than one of the feared Finmen of local legend and he asked if that was so.  The strange gave his usual surely reply,

“A close tongue keeps a safe head.”

Wanting to fulfill his contract with the stranger as quickly as possible Tom agreed to the blindfold but as it went on he noticed how the mermaids stopped their beautiful singing and began shrieking and wailing. 

The blindfolded boatman could not see how easily the Finman lifted the cow from the boat and placed it on shore before returning to drop a bag of coins beside him.  The Finman then turned the boat widdershins against the course of the sun and against all sea lore and with a mighty shove pushed it out to sea.  No human mariner would have done such a thing and Tom was angry at the Finman for breaking the lore of the sea.

 When he took the blindfold off he found the enchanted island was gone but found the bag of coins by his side.  When he reached home he checked the bag finding the money was exactly what was agreed though all the coins were copper.  The Finmen will not part with their silver.

Twelve months passed and Tom again visited the Lammas Fair at Kirkwall.  To his surprise he was approached by the same stranger he met the previous year at the fair and invited him to drink a jar of ale with him. 

 “I am happy to see you again!”  

said Tom cheerfully to the stranger taking a long draught of ale. The stranger’s gloomy face grimaced and he growled, 

“Indeed, did you ever really see me?  Be sure you will never see me again!”

As he was speaking, he took out a small box containing a mysterious white powder.  Puffing his cheeks he blew some into the eyes of the stunned boatman.  After promptly downing his ale the stranger left.  The powder covered the eyes of Tom and from that day on he was blind and for the rest of his life bitterly lamented the day he had met the dark, sullen stranger.

© 20/05/2020 zteve t evans

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Copyright May 20th 2020 zteve t evans

English Legends: The Strange Life of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton was one of the most famous soothsayers in Britain and a familiar figure in English folklore and traditions. Stories about her were published in chap-books from the middle of the 17th century onward. These were usually embellished and exaggerated but succeeded in capturing the public’s attention even though many of her prophecies only appeared after her death. 

She was believed to have been born in the time of King Henry VII, in Knaresborough, Yorkshire in 1488 and named Ursula Sontheil.  There are several variant spellings of her surname. Her mother was believed to have been a poor single girl about fifteen years old named Agatha. According to legend she gave birth to her during a violent thunderstorm in a cave near the River Nidd. Despite being forced to appear before the local magistrate Agatha refused steadfastly to name the baby’s father. She appeared to have no family or friends to support her and lived alone in the cave bringing her baby daughter up the best she could. Eventually after two years the Abbot of Beverley heard of her plight and she was taken to a  distant nunnery. Baby Ursula was taken in by a local family but in the nunnery Agatha lost contact with her daughter and later died. As an adult, Ursula became known as Mother Shipton and the cave became known as Mother Shipton’s Cave and today is a popular tourist attraction.

Baby Ursula

According to tradition, Ursula was a very unattractive baby to such an extent that no one wanted to nurse her.  Eventually a foster mother was found who lived on the edge of Knaresborough.  Strange things happened around baby Ursula.  One legend tells how one morning her foster mother discovered she and her crib missing. She roused several neighbors who set about searching the home for clues to her whereabouts.  According to this legend the neighbors were attacked by strange ape-like imps and other unearthly entities that pricked and scratched them. Eventually, to the shock of all, baby Ursula was found still in her crib but suspended in mid-air halfway up the chimney. Eerie events of this kind happened on many occasions as she grew up.  Plates, crockery and ornaments would fly around the room and furniture would slide across the floor to a different position.  As she grew older her power of prophecy began to develop. 

Marriage

Unfortunately for Ursula, as she grew into a woman her looks did not improve and all descriptions of her are terribly unflattering.  With a thin and sharp face covered in warts and a large hooked nose she became the archetypal image of a witch. Despite her unfortunate appearance she was said to have married a carpenter from York named Tobias Shipton at the age of twenty four. Sadly, he died a few years later and the couple had no children. 

To  earn a living she appears to have taken on a role as a cunning woman and made potions and remedies out of herbs and flowers to alleviate health problems for local people.   She began making  prophecies and her fame spread far and wide and she became known as Mother Shipton.

Her Prophecies

There were many prophecies attributed to her including  events like the Spanish Armada in 1588,  English Civil War from  1642–1651,  Great Fire of London of 1666 and many other important events.  She was said to have prophesied her own death that occurred in 1561 at the age of seventy three.  One of her alleged prophecies that did not come true was the end of the world,

“The world to an end shall come

In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

Like other prophets her predictions were placed in verses, rhymes and riddles that were difficult to interpret and ambiguous.  However, this technique did make them suitable for many  kinds of events and situations that arose. 

False Prophecies, Fake News

It was many years after her death when the first publications in the form of books and pamphlets appeared in 1641 and later in 1684. It is believed that the writers of these publications were creative in the use of facts and events and many events that happened after her death  were made to look like she had  predicted them.   

It may be that predictions sell and what is novel and unusual can strike a chord with the public who become eager for more information.  This increases the chances of writers and publishers making money which increases their creative juices to flow, while inventing new stories to sell to the gullible public.  Fake news is not a modern invention!

Richard Head who edited the 1684 publications was believed to have created her life story and the  descriptions of her on existing legend and folklore. This had been passed on orally and possibly twisted, embellished and exaggerated along the way. Although this makes it difficult to get to know the real person, or even if there was a real person behind the legends.

Mother Shipton’s Cave

The cave where Ursula was born and later lived is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, or sometimes Old Mother Shiptons’s Cave.  It is situated near the River Nidd at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Close by is the Petrifying Well that has been visited by paying sightseers  since 1630 making it the oldest entrance-charging tourist attraction in England.  The water in the well is high in carbonate and sulphate and immersed objects  eventually become encrusted in stone.

Mother Shipton’s Legacy

We will probably never know the real truth and full story of Mother Shipton or Ursula Sontheil and very often the truth turns out more interesting than the fiction. In many ways she is the archetypal witch with her strange and  lonely ways and her unfortunate physical appearance. All around the British Isles there are cases from history of women such as her who made a meager living from selling potions, telling fortunes or perhaps delivering babies. Sometimes they were known as cunning women or perhaps the local wise-woman.  Although they often lived on the edge of society they performed important roles that could not be done by those within.  In many cases the different behaviour they displayed might see them as being part of the autistic spectrum or perhaps some psychological disorder.  Nevertheless in her life, she seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of success with stories of how she could find lost or stolen objects and predict the future with some success. It seems that after her death her reputation was exaggerated and embellished by others to suit their own purposes and some scholars doubt she ever existed.

© 13/05/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 13th May 2020, zteve t evans

Folklore, Superstitions and Customs around Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Image by Chris Reynolds – CC BY-SA 2.0

Puddingstone Folklore

Hertfordfordshire puddingstone is mostly found in areas of England in the county of Hertfordshire and  Plumstead Common in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London. It is a conglomerate silicrete composed of pebbles embedded in a mass of silica making it very hard and enduring.   There are different types made of different materials from different regions. Here we look at the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have become associated with Hertfordshire Puddingstone.  

Supernatural Qualities

In folklore and tradition Hertfordshire puddingstone was believed to possess certain supernatural qualities and local people long believed it protected against witchcraft.  According to the parish records of the village of Aldenham in 1662 a local witch had a piece of puddingstone placed upon her coffin lid before it was covered over to prevent her from returning from the dead (1). Because of the supernatural connotations it was also given various names reflecting this. For example it was also known as Witch stone, Hag stone, or Woe stone.

However, there was a less sinister side to puddingstone, though arguably more bizarre.  Although geologists are not in exact agreement how puddingstone was formed local people believed it grew from the ground and gave birth to new stones which also grew and gave birth. Proof of this was seen when it was split open revealing many smaller pebbles and stones stuck together inside and was called the Breeding stone.  Because it appears out of the ground and said to grow it was called the Growing stone. A piece of puddingstone was given to the happy couple at weddings possibly to promote their fertility and bring luck.

This tendency for it to appear from the ground made it troublesome for arable farmers who can damage their ploughs upon it but its association with breeding makes it a good luck charm for dairy farmers  and it was believed to increase milk production. Pieces of it were kept in the milking shed for this purpose.

Uses for Puddingstone

Puddingstone was used in construction of the Church of St John the Baptist. (2), During Roman times it was used as a millstone for grinding corn.  It was later built into the walls of a number of Hertfordshire churches such as the tower of the church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.  Nevertheless, it was not widely used for building because although it was a good material it was scarce. 

Puddingstone was used for grave markers and coffin stones and it was placed on top of the coffin to protect the deceased from evil spirits.  It was also used in this way to ensure witches could not come back from the dead. In the churchyard of Great Gaddesden there are still large pieces of puddingstone marking the graves.

 Despite having an unattractive  surface similar to concrete when it was sliced and polished it became something very attractive and desirable.  After it had been sliced and highly polished the sliced surface displayed a variety of multicolored pebbles turning it into a very attractive and beautiful material.  In Victorian times it was made into ornaments, jewellery and small table tops (3).

Lucky Charms

There are many superstitions centered on puddingstone and local people often used pieces of it for a good luck charm.  Because of its associations with good fortune it was also placed in doorways and gate posts. People also carried a small piece in their pockets for luck.

Names of Puddingstone

As well as those already mentioned, Puddingstone has many alternative names that reflect the use it was put to.  For example, to ward against witches it was called Witchstone or Hagstone. For good luck and positive purposes it was called Angel stone. It was also known as Plum puddingstone because it looks like a plum or Christmas pudding when sliced.

© 08/4/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Snow-White Inari Fox

Snow-White Fox by Shiokawa Bunrin – Public domain

The following is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Love of the Snow-White Fox, from a compilation by Frank Rinder called, Old-World Japan: Legends of the Land of the Gods.  The story is set in Old Japan in in the province of Izumo.  In these times evil ninko foxes, who with ogre-like creatures called oni, haunted the night.  Ninkos were invisible spirit-like foxes  that possessed humans but could only be sensed after possession had taken place. Any wandering man, child or maiden who had the misfortune to cross their path at night became their prey.  They robbed their poor victim of all they had, bewitched the maidens and carried off the little children.   All who dwelt in Izumo feared the night.

There were also other foxes who were not evil.  These were the rare snow-white Inari foxes that were good and kind.  The Inari fox was the enemy of the oni and the ninko foxes. Both Inari and ninko foxes were a type of Kitsune which are supernatural spirits or yōkai in Japanese folklore and mythology.

The snow-white Inari foxes guarded  the poor peasants, protected the little children and came to the aid of the poor, bewitched, maidens.  They were the servants and messengers of Inari, the spirit-god of fertility, fecundity agriculture, rice, sake, tea, prosperity and success.

The Love of the Snow-White Fox

This story begins many, many centuries ago when there lived a most beautiful Inari. She was snow-white with intelligent and piercing eyes and was kind and good and loved by all the people who looked forward to her visits.

She would take turns in whom she visited. The people would eagerly listen out at night for the knocking of her snow-white tail against the window and jump to let her in.  As soon as she was given entry she would play with the children and make a great fuss of everyone present. They would offer her a share of their humble fare which she would gratefully eat and then disappear into the darkness.  The Ninko foxes hated her because she protected all those who were kind to her. There were also hunters who wanted the blood of the beautiful, snow-white Inari. Several times she had come close to death at their hands.

On fine summer afternoons she would meet up with other foxes and they would frisk and play together in the sunshine.  One afternoon as she was playing with her friends two evil men caught sight of her and instantly wanted her blood.  They had fast dogs and themselves were fleet of foot. They unloosed their dogs whose yelping warned the Inari of her peril.  She bolted as fast as she could with the dogs and hunters hot on her trail. They expected her to make for the open plain but she took a different course.  She led the hunters on a long and difficult chase through the forest. Just as her strength was giving out she came to the Temple of Inari Daim-yojin and dashed inside seeking refuge under its hallowed auspices. 

Inside the temple was a young prince by the name of Yaschima.  He was of the most noble house of Abe and he was deep in meditation.  With her pursuers close behind and her strength failing fast she ran to the prince and took refuge in the long folds of his robes where she lay trembling in fear.

All though he was astonished Yaschima spoke kindly and softly to the snow-white fox promising he would protect her.  She looked up at the prince with her bright, intelligent eyes and understood. The prince went to the temple door just as the two hunters approached.  “Have you seen the white Inari?” they asked, “We believe we have one cornered in here and we want its blood.”

 “I know nothing of a white Inari! I have been here meditating and have seen no white fox,” replied the prince. As they were about to leave one of the men glanced down and saw the white tip of the Inari’ s bushy tail. “Ha, you lie,” snarled the hunter, “stand aside so that we can kill it!”

The Prince steadfastly refused and stood firm but the hunters were determined and attacked him.  In his defense the Prince drew his sword and as he struck out his elderly father appeared. Seeing his son beset by two assailants and despite his own age, he bravely rushed to his aid.  Yaschima struck but he had not seen his father and the blow struck him instead, killing him. Shocked and angry the Prince struck two more mighty blows each one dispatching an assailant.

With the fight finished Yaschima was overcome with grief for the loss of his father by his own hand.  As he grieved he became aware of sweet singing that filled the temple. As he turned, a beautiful maiden came slowly towards him and stood before him.  Looking into his eyes with her own bright eyes she saw he was deeply troubled and said, “Speak your heart!”

Yaschima looked into those bright eyes and told her of the white Inari and the hunters who would have killed her.  He told her of his father and of all the good things about him. With a broken heart and weeping he told her that it was by his hand that his father had died trying to help him.  The maiden spoke low words of kindness and sympathy. As she spoke the soft light of her eyes washed over him and he began to feel comforted.

Yaschima had never met such a maiden before who was so so pure and true and beautiful.  He fell deeply in love with her and begged her to be his bride. She replied,  “I would be your bride for I deeply love you. I know you are brave and your heart is pure and I would bring you comfort for the loss of your father.” The two were soon wed. Although his father remained always in his heart and memory he knew that his lovely wife was with him now and  he gave her all his love and attention.

The years passed and they were very happy together. With his Princess by his side the Prince ruled his people wisely and kindly.  Every morning they went to the temple together to give thanks to the good god Inari for the joy and love they shared. The Princess gave her husband a beautiful baby son and they named him Seimei. They were very happy for a long time but there came a time when the Princess began to take herself off alone and sit and weep for hours on end.  Deeply troubled by her sadness, Yaschima asked her what ailed her.  She shook her head and sadly looked away, her bright eyes dim and full of tears. There came a day when she went to her husband and taking both his hands she looked into his eyes and said,

“My Prince, my husband and my friend our life has been very wonderful together.  I have given you a fine son that you love very much and he will always be with you.  I have heard the voice of my god Inari and he calls me daily. He tells me I must leave you but for you and our son I have no fear.  Inari says he will guard you and our son as you guarded me when the hunters came to steal my blood. You should know that the snow-white fox you shielded and saved, though it cost you your father, was myself.”

One last time she looked deeply into his eyes and with no other word slowly faded before him and was gone. Yaschima, although devastated, gave thanks for the time they had enjoyed together and for his son Seimei.  He brought him up to be good, kind and true and to be respectful of Inari. The people of the province loved the Prince and his son but the snow-white fox was never seen again but her presence remained clear and bright in the heart of Prince Yaschima and his son.

© 25/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 25th, 2020 zteve t evans

Bats in Myth, Legend and Folklore from Around the World

Original photo: אורן פלס Oren Peles Derivative work: User:MathKnight [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)]

This article was first published on #FolkloreThurday.com as Bat Myths and Folktales from Around the World by zteve t evans on 31st October 2019

Strange Creatures

Bats feature in many myths, legends and folklore from diverse cultures around the world, and are often associated with darkness, death and the supernatural. Unquestionably, they are strange creatures, appearing as half animal and half bird, like something from a nightmare world. From this duality and strangeness evolved a reputation of duplicity and threat, appearing as neither one thing nor the other. In fact they are mammals of the scientific order Chiroptera, meaning “hand wing” in ancient Greek, because their forelimbs have become adapted to be wings. Do they really deserve this sinister reputation, or do they play a more important role in the world than feeding the dark human fascination for the spooky and the supernatural?

Presented here are different viewpoints from around the world, followed by a short look at the real significance of bats to humankind.

 Aesop’s Fables: The Bat and the Weasel

The duality of bats is mentioned in one of Aesop’s Fables, which tells how a bat fell to the ground and was pounced on by a weasel. The bat begged to be spared but the weasel insisted that he could not do that because he was an enemy of all birds. The bat said, “Well look at me.  I am a mouse, not a bird!” The weasel looked at the bat and agreed it was a mouse and released it. A little later the same bat was caught by another weasel and begged for mercy. The weasel replied, “No, I never let mice go!” The bat said, “Well, look closely at me.  I am a bird.  See my wings.” The weasel replied, “Well, so you are!” and let the bat go.

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