South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

In many places in the South Seas there is a myth of origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and its nut.   It is a popular and well known tale in Oceania with many different variations found from region to region. Names and details vary from region to region but there is a similar structure and story-line in many of these tales.   It should be noted that in the folklore of the people of Samoa there is a legend they call “Sina ma le Tuna” which tells of the origin of the coconut tree and in the Samoan language, “Tuna,” means, “eel.” (1) Presented here are two versions of folktales that deal with this myth.  The first is from the island of Savai’I, Samoa and the second comes from American Samoa.  

The Savai’l Samoan Version

This folktale begins with a girl named Sina who was famous around the South Seas for her loveliness.  The King of Fiji, who was known as the Tui Fiti, heard of her beauty and was intrigued.  Although he was much older than Sina he decided he had to meet the beautiful one in person to see if all he had heard was true.  Calling on his Mana, which is his own personal magic, he transformed into an eel and swam to the island home of Sina.  Discovering the village pool was used by all the villagers as a communal bath he slithered into its waters hoping Sina would come to bathe.

Concealing himself at the bottom of the pool he waited patiently hoping she would enter the pool.  Many of the villagers came to the pool to bathe but he remained hidden knowing that these were not the beautiful one he sought. Eventually, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen or imagined entered the pool to bathe.  Immediately he knew it was her for such outstanding loveliness could only belong to the famous Sina, the beautiful one, he sought.   He lay at the bottom of the pool staring up through the water at her lovely face.

Eventually, Sina felt a peculiar sensation and noticed the eel staring at her.  Taken by surprise she became angry, shouting in Samoan, “E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo!” which means, “You stare at me, with eyes like a demon!” (2). However, after the initial alarm Sina noticed the eel did not look dangerous or aggressive.  In fact it actually seemed very nice and friendly so she took it home for a pet.

Many years passed and the King of Fiji lived happily as Sina’s pet enjoying the love and attention she unknowingly lavished on him as an eel.  Nevertheless, the king was growing older and with age his magic weakened and he found it harder to keep his eel form.  Therefore, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity and explain himself to her. 

He told her how he was the Tui Fiti, the King of Fiji, who had heard of her great beauty and come to see it for himself.  To make the long sea journey from Fiji to Sina’s island home he had transformed himself into an eel so that he could swim the great distance. In this way he could wait in the pool until she arrived and he could see her.  Once he had seen her he fell in love. 

Realizing he was too old and she would rightly reject him he had kept his eel form so that she would not recognize him as an old man.   He had been overjoyed when she had taken him as a pet because he would remain always near her and enjoy her love and care.  Sadly, because of his great age, his magic had grown weak and he could not keep his eel form much longer and would die.  Therefore, he wished for her to plant his head into the ground near her home. Sina had loved him greatly as her pet and was heartbroken when he died and granted his wish.

From his head there grew the first coconut tree.  On a coconut there are three round marks which look like two eyes and a mouth.   When the coconut is pierced to drink the milk through one of these holes the milk is taken through the pierced hole through the drinker’s mouth.  According to the legend, whenever Sina took a drink of coconut milk from a coconut she was kissing the mouth of the eel.

In Samoa in the village of Matavai, in the district of Safune on the island of Savai’i,is a fresh spring pool. This pool is called, Mata o le Alelo, from the words that Sina first spoke to the eel and is still strongly associated with the legend.

An American Samoan Version

Another version from American Samoa tells how the King of Fiji, heard heard of the beauty of Sina and decided he wanted her for his wife.  However, she lived on a distant island so using his magical power he transformed himself into a young eel and swam all the way from Fiji to Sina’s island home (3).

One day as she was out foraging for shellfish along the seashore she noticed the young eel looking at her from a rock pool.  She thought it looked harmless and had a friendly face and being quite small would make a nice pet.  Therefore, she caught it and put it in the container she used for her shellfish and took it home.

She kept it in a bowl in her home and carefully nurtured it and it became very placid and affectionate towards her.  Under her care it soon grew too big for the bowl so she placed it in a spring near her home.  However, the eel soon grew too big for the spring and she did not know what to do with it.  She asked her mother who suggested she put it in the large freshwater spring the villagers used as a communal bath.  Sina thought this a good idea as the large pool would give the eel space to grow and be free so she placed it in the pool and it hid its self at the bottom.

All the villagers used the pool to bathe but none of them ever seemed to notice the eel. It would come out of hiding to greet Sina as soon as she stepped into the water.   It grew very long and big but was always very affectionate towards her and very playful with her yet no one seemed to notice its presence.  One day the eel became too boisterous and playfully wrapped itself around Sina in a loving embrace.  This frightened her and after that she would not bathe in the communal pool.

From then on she bathed in the small spring near her home.  This was fine at first but somehow the eel found out where she was bathing and appeared in the water as she bathed.   Still no one else could see the eel and its behaviour alarmed her and began to make her angry and frightened.  

Determined to escape the eel, one morning just before dawn, while her family still slept, she quietly left her home to walk to the next village.  It was good distance and she would stop at a spring along the way for a refreshing drink and to cool down and rest.  To her dismay at every spring she stopped at the eel would appear staring out of the water at her.   This terrified her and she continued journeying from village to village trying to escape the eel.  Each time she stopped at the springs along the way it would appear.  Where ever she went the eel appeared and it was growing longer and longer and to her fear and bewilderment, no one else could see it.  

There came a time when it left a pool she had found it in and wriggled onto the land and followed on behind her like pet dog.  Wherever she went it followed her and still no one else could see it.   On her wanderings she came across a group of people having a meeting.  In desperation she ran and sat between the two lead speakers. 

This surprised everyone but the eel had now grown as long as a person. Now everyone could see and hear it and all sat terrified at the strange creature.  It slid through the crowd to rest before where Sina was sitting between the two speakers.   Raising itself up to look her in her eyes the eel said,

“Sina, my beautiful one, please forgive me!   Know now that my true shape is that of a human.  I am the King of Fiji.  I have used my magic to attain this eel form you see me in now.  I took this form when I first heard of your beauty and grace that I might swim the great distance from Fiji to your home on this island to see you for myself.

My intention was to woo you and win your love but I now see that the form I took frightened you and I am sorry.  After so much traveling and keeping this form my magic and power is all used up.  I am tired and my death draws near. Before I die I wanted to explain these things to you hoping you would think better of me. 

In compensation for alarming you I have a valuable gift to offer you.  When I die cut off my head and plant it outside your home.  It will soon grow into a tree that will be of great value to you and your people.  It will have long green leaves that can be used as a fan to cool you in the summer’s heat.  

These leaves will also provide good covering for the roofs of your homes.  The leaves, bark and wood you will find will have many uses that will be of great service to people.  It will also bear a nut that gives food and a nourishing drink.   The nut will have three marks that resemble human features.  To drink from the nut puncture one of these holes and you will pour its milk from its mouth!”

With that it died.  Sina felt sorrry for the King of Fiji and thought perhaps if she had known the full story in the first place things might have turned out differently.  She did as he had asked and planted his head.  As he had foretold a tree grew from it bearing long green leaves and a large nut.  The tree and the nut proved to be extremely useful to humans and became an important part of their lives.  It spread beyond Sina’s isle to neighboring islands and beyond often carried by humans and some times carried by the sea.  The same tradition of kissing the eel when drinking from the coconut applies to this legend as well.

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY ZTEVE T EVANS

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

ANANSI TALES: CRYING FOR NOTHING!

Anansi the Spider

AFRICAN FOLKTALES

Presented here is a retelling of an Anansi tale found in West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair. Anansi the spider is a trickster who has many roles in the folklore and traditions of West Africa, Jamaica and throughout the African diaspora. He features in many roles in many tales sometimes as a hero bringing knowledge and benefits to humans or as a villain. Anansi tales explore human nature and very often by contrasting his behaviour with that of other characters or situations in the story important lessons are found as is the case in the following story.

ANANSI AND NOTHING

Anansi lived in a rundown shack and his nearest neighbor was someone called Nothing who was exceedingly rich and lived in a grand and luxurious palace. One day Anansi and Nothing decided to go into town with the purpose of both finding a wife.  They set off and as they were walking along Anansi became aware of the great contrast in their appearances that revealed their financial status for all to see.  Whereas he was dressed in ragged old cotton clothing, Nothing was smartly attired in fine velvet and satin.  Anansi was dismayed.  He knew there would be competition between the two and women would want to be the wife of the smart and affluent Nothing instead of himself.

After carefully considering the situation he came up with a plan. Nothing liked to be flattered so he told him how smart he thought he looked today.  As he expected Nothing was pleased and very flattered. Anansi then gently and very politely asked Nothing,  if he may try on his clothing to see what it was like to wear such fine apparel.  He promised he would give it back before they reached town.

Again Nothing felt flattered and allowed Anansi to wear his clothes on the condition that they put on their own clothes before they entered town.  When they reached the outskirts of town Nothing reminded Anansi of his promise.  Anansi made many excuses on false pretexts not to change clothing and refused to comply.  All of  Nothing’s pleas fell on deaf ears so he had to continue wearing Anansi’s old cotton rags, much to his displeasure and ire.

ATTRACTING A WIFE

At last they arrived in the town center where it was the custom for people to gathee to show off their finest clothes and parade up and down hoping to attract a spouse.  Anansi, wearing Nothing’s fine clothing of velvet and satin soon came to the attention of the women.  They flocked around him and he had the pick of the best.  He was greatly admired and could have had as many wives as he wished but he chose just one knowing he would somehow have to support her.

In comparison, Nothing dressed in Anansi’s old cotton rags was being ignored and worse still the subject of much derision by the women.  Eventually, one woman saw more to him than his clothes and offered to become his wife.  All the other women laughed and taunted her for wanting to be the wife of such an impoverished and raggedly man as Nothing appeared to be.  However she was a woman who knew her own mind and very wisely ignored them.

Anansi chose the most beautiful woman of the many who flocked around him, making the others madly jealous. With the matter of marriage now decided, Anansi and Nothing accompanied by their respective wives, went home.  However, when they reached the point where the road split into two paths which led to their new husband’s homes the two wives were in for a surprise.

ARRIVING HOME

When Nothing reached the path to his grand house all the servants ran out to greet him and his new wife.  All around the house the servants had decorated it in bright colors and inside had prepared a lavish wedding feast for the couple to enjoy.  Nothing’s new wife was happily surprised as they dressed her and her husband in fine clothing and escorted them singing and dancing along the path into the house. Anansi, to the shock of his new wife, led her up his path which was but dirt and ashes to his tumbledown shack. There was no one to greet these two newlyweds, no food, no decorations and no servants singing happy songs.

Nothing’s wife was well rewarded for her perceptiveness and judgement.  Instead of being the wife of a pauper she was the wife of the richest man in the entire district.  She lived in a grand and luxurious house, ate the best food, wore the finest clothes and lived like a queen. In comparison, the wife of Anansi lived in a tumbledown hovel. She was forced to eat the cheapest food and had to wear old cotton rags for clothes.  

Nothing’s wife was a generous and compassionate woman. Despite having been subject to taunts and derision by her initial decision to marry the seemingly poor Nothing, she invited Anansi’s wife to visit her.  Not because she wanted to get her own back or gloat but because she was kind and generous and wanted to help her. 

When she arrived she was very impressed by the luxury and good life Nothing’s wife lived.  Furthermore, she saw how wrong she had been to judge a person by the cut and splendor of their clothes.  She begged Nothing’s wife for her forgiveness and told her of her miserable impoverished existence with Anansi.  Nothing’s wife told her she was welcome to stay in her home if she did not want to go back to Anansi.

REVENGE

When his wife did not return and he discovered why Anansi was very angry.  He blamed Nothing and decided he would take revenge by murdering him.  He tried several times but without success but then hit on a plan.  He persuaded some rat friends of his to dig a deep tunnel just before Nothing’s front door.  After they had dug the hole he lined it with knives, spikes and broken glass and finally smeared oil upon the front step to make it very slippery.  Then he hid himself in the garden and waited until it grew dark and those in the house had gone to bed.  Softly he called through the window for Nothing to come out into the garden to see what was there.  

On hearing a voice in the night Nothing got up to investigate but his wife, using her good sense and judgement dissuaded him from going outside.  This was repeated for several nights running with his wife stopping him going outside each time.  Eventually, he grew angry with the voice when it called again and would not listen to his wife.   Angrily, he marched out the front to confront the voice but as he stepped out he slipped and the ground fell away below him and he tumbled into the trap Anansi had set.   

His wife and servants heard him cry out and rushed to the front door but his wife stopped the servants from rushing out.   Carefully opening the door and looking this way and that she found him dead in the hole pierced by many spikes and knives and cut by broken glass.

CRYING FOR NOTHING

His wife was heart-broken by his death and grieved greatly.  In the hope of alleviating her grief, she followed the local tradition of cooking and sharing yams. She took them around to each of her neighbors and especially the children so that they might help her to cry out her grief.  This is why when you ask why a child is crying you will often be told, “They are crying for Nothing!”

© 18/06/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 17th 2021 zteve t evans

Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: The Devil and the Doctor

The People of Longdendale

According to tradition there has always been a high interest in the magic arts among the dwellers of Longdendale. There is an old saying referring to the people of Longendale as being too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell. The following is a retelling of a folktale from Legends of Longdendale, a collection of folktales from the area, by Thomas C. Middleton, that allegedly explains its origin. 

A Conjuror of High Degree

A rhyme by an unknown author tells a little of one such dweller,

“Long years ago, so runs the tale,

A doctor dwelt in Longdendale;”

“Well versed in mystic lore was he—

A conjuror of high degree;

He read the stars that deck the sky,

And told their rede of mystery.” (1)

From the verse we see that the dweller was a doctor who was skilled in magic, mysticism and astrology.  He was able to predict and understand the mysteries of the movements of the stars and how they would affect us here on Earth.  In his day he was someone who possessed great knowledge and power and these attributes are great gifts if used wisely and for the benefit of humanity.  

To be fair he did use his skills to the benefit of humankind. However,  power corrupts and even those with great knowledge and wisdom there can arise the desire to increase their blessings.  This is exactly what happened to our good doctor.  He began to yearn for more power and deeper knowledge of the secrets of the universe to enable him to do more good in the world.  

Power Corrupts

To begin with he put  aside this desire realizing that there are some things that are best left unknown.  However, once the tiniest yearning for power manifests in a person without the utmost care it can grow silently inside until it takes over the reason.  Again, this is exactly what happened to our good doctor and it drove him to take a daring chance and make a deal with the Devil.

He had delved into  books of ancient lore in search of the secret of increasing his abilities.  After many years of long, lonely study and dark and dangerous research he came to the conclusion there was but one way he could achieve his dream. He knew others had tried it and each one failed and  forced to suffer the most appalling consequences.   Nevertheless, he was hooked and  could not put  aside the temptation and at last he decided he must take the terrible chance. 

The Ultimate Test 

Therefore, he prepared himself for the ultimate test of his power and knowledge which would be to raise the Devil.   He had thought long and hard about it and put it off time and time again but it was the only way.  No one else could give him the power and knowledge he craved.  He knew the price Satan would demand but did not want to pay it.  Nevertheless, the craving for power made him think he could reach a more amicable agreement with the devil and he decided it was worth a try.Therefore he set about making  his preparations. He learnt the right spell.  Collected all the materials he required and readied his equipment in preparation.  

The Midnight Hour

With everything prepared and the approach of the midnight hour the doctor entered his chamber of magical experimentation.  After making special signs and uttering a brief incantation he set  up a lamp  upon the table and over a flame he hung a small cauldron.  Into the cauldron he poured certain liquids of dark properties and dropped various powders and items of dubious qualities.  Some of these items were too gruesome to name.  The powders and liquids were of undoubtedly odious origin possibly even human but he alone knew the true source of these materials.

Raising the Devil

With his brew bubbling he then uttered further incantations.  He continued to repeat the spell over and over while beseeching the powers of darkness for their attention.   He continued like this for over an hour with no sign any dark power or spirit had heard.  However, he persisted and at last his persistence was rewarded. 

The flame beneath the cauldron sprang and flared red then extinguished but the mixture within the cauldron continued to bubble.  Soon a vile vapor rose thick and fast and spread rapidly throughout the chamber.  In the center of the chamber there hovered a thick and unwholesome fog which was darker and denser than the rest.

The Devil’s Answer

Inside the fog the vapors were whirling and twisting forming a dark terrifying figure.  From that form there came a terrible voice that spoke in whispers that cut through the fabric of reality shaking and terrifying the doctor. “Who dares summon Satan from Hell? Step forward and speak. Tell me thy heart’s desire!”

The doctor was almost overcome with fear and awe but managing to master himself stepped boldly forward and said, “It is I that has summoned you for, I would have certain powers that you and only you, can endow.”

The Devil looked into his eyes and knew immediately what powers he yearned for.  

The Price

“Indeed, I can  bestow thee with these powers but you know there is a price to be paid.  Are you willing to pay it?” sneered the Devil.

The doctor faltered and quailed for a moment but quickly mastered himself and asked,  “Name your price and we shall see!”

“Ha! You know the price!” whispered the Devil, “There is only one price and the terms are not negotiable.  Agree that price and I will grant you the powers of your heart’s desire.  Be warned I shall return seven years from today and call upon you to deliver up your very soul to me.  Do you agree?”

The Contract

“Surely that is too high a price,” replied the doctor.

“It is the only price and the terms are not negotiable.  What do you say?” demanded the Devil.

The doctor hesitated realizing trying to bargain with him was hopeless  and said, “Then I must pay that price. I agree to the contract and the price!”

The Devil produced two sheets of paper.  With his long, sharp fingernail, he slit the wrist of the doctor causing blood to seep forth. Dipping his quill into the oozing wound he wrote the contract out on both pages using the doctor’s blood for ink.  With that same quill and ink the doctor signed.  With a look of extreme satisfaction, Satan placed the contract in his cloak and declared,  “Thy wish is granted, enjoy to the full what time you have left it will not be long enough.  Be sure seven years from now I shall return for my fee!”

There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning and the Devil was gone.  All that was left behind was the doctor’s copy of the  contract written and signed  in his own blood and the mocking echo of the Devil’s laughter.

Repentance

The Devil was true to his word and from the beginning of the agreement the doctor received all the powers he had yearned for.  He used them to further his own knowledge and skills but instead  of using them to benefit humankind he used it for his own pleasure and leisure.  His life was everything he wanted it to be with power, knowledge, riches and great acclaim.

However, time passed and after a couple of years he still thought he had a long time to enjoy his powers.  Three years passed and then four and he realized that time was passing too quickly.  Five years passed and then six and he was now getting nervous.  Despite his power and knowledge he knew he could not hold or alter time.   Therefore he began to repent his contract with the Devil realizing he had been foolish and selfish and searched for ways of avoiding paying the price.  Seven years passed and he knew he had to come up with something quick but could not think what.   

A Crazy Chance

At last he came up with something, it was but a glimmer of a crazy chance yet it was a crazy chance that might just work.  He consulted his books on astrology and charted the movement of the stars and came to the conclusion it could work.  That afternoon he purchased the fastest and best horse in Longdendale. That evening, as he knew would, Satan appeared before him in his chamber of magic. Satan duly arrived with his usual theatrics but the doctor remained calm as he faced him.

“Are you ready to fulfill the contract,” demanded the Devil.

“Indeed I am, but I am wondering if you are not open to a little wager first?” he asked nonchalantly knowing the Devil loved to gamble.

“Hmm, now just what have you in mind?” asked the Devil his interest aroused.

“I thought maybe a race on horseback to the crossroads. It is one mile to the crossroads and the first to pass the center wins.  If you win you take my soul.  If I win I keep it and you leave me in peace.  But … perhaps, you are not up to such a gamble and I have the fastest horse in Longdendale,” taunted the doctor gently.

Indeed, Satan had a fine black horse that was faster and stronger than any ordinary horse. He loved to race it and he loved to gamble, though it never really was a gamble because he would always win.  He would lay any odds on his horse winning against any challenger.

“A race it is, be outside on horseback in 30 minutes and the race will begin!”  cried the devil excited at the prospect.

The Challenge

The doctor saddled his new horse and waited on the road. Thirty minutes later the Devil appeared by his side mounted on a magnificent black stallion the like never before had been seen on earth. 

“Ah! A truly magnificent steed, but surely you are breaking the spirit of our race by riding an unearthly steed.  No earthly horse could surely match one born and bred in your realm, the challenge cannot go ahead.  You best take my soul here and now!” said the doctor.

The Devil had been looking forward to the race and was disappointed.  He could rightly have taken the doctor’s soul there and then but believed he would have it after the race anyway.  He so loved to race and gamble but rarely got the chance and his face dropped.

The doctor, seeing the look of disappointment on his adversary’s face said,  “Tell you what! How about if you give me a half mile start?”

To begin with  the Devil was not having it.  After some very subtle provocation and a play to his vanity from the doctor he accepted.

“You realize, it is not my normal practice to allow the terms of the contract to be changed, especially when I can rightfully claim payment?  Never before have I given a single minute’s grace when collecting my payment, let alone listen to further proposals to extend the period in the hope of saving their souls.  I have never before accepted any change in terms or payment.  Still, today I fancy some sport and will make an exception in this case.  Therefore, I accept. Let the race begin as soon as you are ready.  The signal shall be a thunderbolt!” said the Devil.

Race With the Devil

So while the Devil remained at the start line the doctor trotted a half mile ahead.  As soon as the Devil saw the doctor had reached the half mile he let fly a thunderbolt that flashed and crashed mightily and the race began.

The Devil spurred his mount forward using all speed while the doctor, determined not to be complacent by the half mile start, spurred his own horse on.  This was just as well for the Devil set off at unbelievable speed and was fast gaining on the doctor.  He reached the half mile point with the doctor not quite making the three quarter of a mile point.  

The Devil was now excited and enjoying himself. Uttering wild shouts and cries he spurred his horse forward, second by second gaining on the doctor.  His opponent, his face grim and set and ever looking over his shoulder encouraged his own steed forward.

With less than a quarter of a mile to go the Devil was but a few yards behind and whooping wildly while the doctor, casting anxious glances back, continued to press his own steed. He desperately wanted to beat the Devil to the ford where a fast flowing stream of water flowed over the road but the chances of this were now slim. 

As the Devil came up fast behind the doctor’s mount he reached forward laughing with glee and grabbed the tail of the doctor’s horse giving it a viscous twist.  The terrified horse cried out in shock and pain and  surged forward.  

Running Water

The Devil kept a grip on the poor beast’s tail trying with all his might to hold it back.  They were approaching the ford where a stream of running water flowed over the road.  Had he seen this, things might have turned out different, but the Devil, being intent on holding on to his challenger’s horse’s tail did not see it.  The terrified beast surged forward again and its tail broke and the horse free from the Devil’s grip took one mighty leap clear over the running steam of water.

The Laws of Magic

The Devil was forced to pull up abruptly.  By the laws of magic and sorcery which even the Devil is obliged to adhere to he could not cross running water in pursuit of a victim.   This law applies to all witches, evil spirits and the like and it must be obeyed.  The doctor raced on to the crossroads to win the race and keep his soul.

In mockery of the Devil the doctor turned and waved joyously at his adversary who was fuming with rage. He now saw how the doctor had tricked and goaded him into the race with this outcome in mind.  He howled with rage at his own gullibility and the doctor’s cleverness.

Too Bad For Heaven, Too Clever For Hell!

Nevertheless, despite his anger there was nothing he could do except ride off on the wings of a storm back to Hell in disgust.  He swore an oath that no mortal from Longdendale would ever again be allowed inside his domain for they were too bad for Heaven and too clever  for Hell! 

© 17/12/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 17th, zteve t evans

The Curious Tale of Van Wempel’s Goose

Presented here is a retelling  of an old folktale from the days when the great city of New York in New York was known as New Amsterdam.  It is from a collection of early American folktales and traditions collected by Charles M. Skinner in his book,  The Isle of Manhattoes and Nearby Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Volume I and called Van Wempel’s Goose.

Nicholas Van Wempel

The hero of the story is Nicholas Van Wempel, of Flatbush who was almost as wide as he was tall though he was not very tall. Nevertheless, he was of a mild and timid nature which led to him being badly henpecked by his wife, Vrouw Van Wempel.   Despite his timidity he  remained unruffled despite, or perhaps, to spite her and was renowned for being something of a harmless fantasist.  To be fair to his good wife her husband had a fatal flaw that if not kept under strict control would land him in all sorts of trouble. Therefore,  she did her best to moderate it for his own good.

He was a fairly well off man but his greatest pleasure was to escape into the comforting arms of schnapps.  He sure loved his schnapps and this was his fatal flaw!  Sadly for him his wife kept tight control only allocating just enough cash to get her groceries or to buy himself clothes.

The New Year’s Goose

On the eve of the New Year of 1739 she called him to her.  Placing ten English shillings into his hand she firmly instructed him to hurry down to Dr. Beck’s store to procure a fat goose she had ordered for their New Year’s Day celebration dinner.  As he waddled through the door glad for a bit of respite the errand would bring she gave him one last instruction, 

“Do not under any circumstances go near, walk by or stop at the tavern! Stay away, stay clear, do not enter and keep out of the tavern.  If you enter the tavern for any reason my wrath shall fall upon you like a ton of bricks from a great height! Just bring back the goose! Do you understand?”

In a shrill voice she then threatened a number of other dire and deadly consequences should he dare to disobey.

“Do you understand?” she barked again, glaring at him with a look that could curdle vinegar. Indeed, Nicholas understood perfectly and shot her a weak smile in acceptance as she sent him scurrying down the path.

“As if I would ever dream of entering the tavern of all places!” he called back in answer.

Outside, the snow had fallen in the night and it was a cold, icy day.  As he struggled along against the biting wind a sudden gust lifted his hat clean off his head and rolled it into the doorway of the forbidden tavern.  Had he but allowed it to lie and passed it by things might have turned out very different, but it was a bitter wind that whistled around his ears.  He also thought he could hear someone calling to him from the doorway, but dismissed this.  He thought it was just the icy wind on his neck and decided he needed his hat back.

The Tavern

Alas, as he bent to pick it up a strong aroma of beer, booze, tobacco and schnapps assaulted his nostrils along with the sound of merry voices and a tinkling piano.  It was a heady mix!

He remembered his promise and all the dire and deadly consequences that would befall him.  Well, it was icy outside and the wind froze to the bone and inside the tavern was warm, hazy and friendly. He was sure he heard someone inside calling  his name and after a few minutes of staring at his feet they gave him permission to enter.  

Inside he met an old friend who called him over and treated him to schnapps.  They chatted and laughed reminiscing about old times and it only seemed right that he should return the treat and bought his friend and himself another schnapps.  

To his surprise and delight more of his old friends appeared who treated him and of course he returned the treat.  His friends knowing of the dominance of his wife in his life teased him in good nature.  They urged him to stand up for himself and put her firmly in her place.

Slowly but surely the goose money left his pocket to find a new home behind the bar in the till of the landlord.  Realizing his money was gone he thumped the bar. Loudly he declared that it was his money anyway and he would spend it however he saw fit without leave of his good wife.  

Snores

The last thing he remembered was standing by the bar with his friends cheering and applauding  him wildly for his heroic stand.  After that the world seemed to merge into snores.  When he came round he had his head on a table at the back of the tavern. He could hear the sound of low voices talking over the far side of the bar.  

Sleepily he opened his eyes and saw two strangers deep in conversation with each other.  He saw they had black beards and rings in their ears and around their foreheads they wore brightly colored bandanas.  

He pretended to be asleep but carefully listened to what they said.  They were talking of gold hidden on the marshes at the tide mill.  Before he could fully grasp what his ears had heard through his schnaps sodden mind the idea had worked its way beyond reason. With a sudden burst of more energy and enthusiasm than he found in years he jumped to his feet and left the tavern.

“Gold …” – “the marshes …” – “tide-mill …”

These words revolved round and round in his schnapps sozzled brain.  Fueled by these and the schnapps he crunched through the snow back to his home.  

Quietly and carefully so as not to arouse his good wife, who would surely ask the embarrassing question of the whereabouts of the goose, he crept to the shed.  There  he procured for himself a shovel and a lantern.  With unbelievable speed and quietness considering his drunken state he made his way to the old tide-mill on the marsh.

The Mill

On reaching the mill he decided to start in the cellar and began digging up the floor.  He had been so eager to commence work he had not thought to check if there was anyone else in the building, therefore he did not know there were four men upstairs.

After a short while his shovel struck something hard.  He dug quickly around the object discovering it to be a large, but old, canvas bag similar to what a sailor might possess.

Pirate Gold

Excitedly he brushed the dirt from it and found it was heavy but he managed to lift it out of the hole.   As he did so a shower of gold coins fell from it and cluttered to the ground.   Tying up his trouser legs he filled them and his coat pockets with as many coins as he could.  However, in the floor above he had been heard and four rough looking men came down the cellar steps to confront him.  He recognized two of these as the men from the tavern.

The men saw the lantern, the bag and Nicholas who despite his inebriation realized these were not just sailors but pirates.  His trousers were so full of gold he could hardly move and they laid their hands on him and dragged him upstairs.  They poured for him another schnapps and made him drink to the health of their flag and brotherhood.  Roughly they turned him upside down and shook him vigorously causing all the gold coins to fall from his trousers and coat pockets.  

With no further ceremony they grabbed hold of him and threw him out of the window thinking he would drown in the tide or the fall would kill him.  In the brief struggle he managed to grab hold of something before he was forced out.  

Fortunately for him, the tide was out and his fall was cushioned by the mud of the tidal marsh around the mill.  Finding himself unscathed he held up his hand to see he clutched a plump, plucked, goose which the pirates had stolen earlier for their New Year’s Day dinner.

After the schnapps the pirates had given him he now found the energy to struggle through the mud as the tide began creeping up on him.  Things looked bleak, but perhaps, mercifully, thanks to the power of schnapps, he remembered no more.  

The Wrath of Vrouw Van Wempel

When at last he awoke it was to the shrill voice of his good wife.  She was standing over him loudly berating him as he lay in a snow drift not far from their home.  Opening his eyes and hearing her shrill voice and seeing her formidable form all he could do was smile sweetly.  

“What did I tell you about the tavern? Where did all that mud come from? Where is the goose? “she growled menacingly.

From behind his back he brought forth the plucked, oven ready goose he still clutched in his hand and proudly presented it to her.  Seeing he had at least come back with a goose placated the angry wife diverting her attention from the state she had found her husband in.

Snatching the goose from him, Vrouw Van Wempel,  turned on her heels and marched directly back home. After struggling to his feet Nicholas followed sheepishly behind.  

In later days he tried to explain to her about the pirates and the gold and how he was lucky to still be alive.  She asked why if he had found gold he now had none to show for it?  He would reply that if his story was not true how did he come by the goose after he had spent all of the ten shillings in the tavern but he soon learnt this was a mistake. The very mention of the tavern would cause his good wife to fly into a rage and spend the rest of the day berating him.  

Whenever he got the chance he would slip off to the tavern and tell his story to more sympathetic ears and point towards the old tide mill to collaborate his story.   His friends would just laugh and tease him.  

Nevertheless, every now and then, thanks to the power of schnapps, he would find himself taken off on some bold adventure.  Unfortunately he would be brought back with a bump when his good wife caught up with him.

© 09/12//2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 9th 2020 zteve t evans

English Folktales: The Curious Case of Johnny Reed’s Cat

Image by Gorkhs from Pixabay

There is a very curious tale that comes from a village in the north of England just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne.   It is called Johnny Reed’s Cat and comes from a collection of folktales garnered by Charles John Tibbits, in a book titled Folk-lore and legends: English. Presented here is a retelling of that tale.

Johnny Reed’s Cat

Johnny Reed was the sexton of the village looking after the upkeep of the church and the churchyard.  Sometimes he rang the bells and sometimes dug the graves and kept everywhere tidy and in order.  

He lived in a small cottage nearby that belonged to the church and went with his job.  He had a good wife who kept their home clean and tidy but they had no children.  However, they did have a cat and a very well behaved one at that.  It was a very beautiful cat with a most luxurious jet black coat and as cats go it was as friendly and as loving as any such creatures could. Like all of its kind it kept a fascination for anything that moved or wriggled and could get up to the craziest antics.  Although he could be very playful displaying great bursts of energy at short intervals he would often spend his time sitting and gazing into the fire.  

The cat had been with Johnny and his wife since it was a kitten and they had watched him grow to maturity into a most handsome feline.  He would sit with them in the evenings  keeping them company and gazing into the fire with half closed eyes as if in some distant dream.  

Johnny thought he knew everything there was to know about him but cats can be very whimsical changing with the wind and then back again leaving onlookers baffled.  There was always a faint air of mystery about Johnny’s cat.

Nevertheless as cats go Johnny Reed was more than satisfied  and very fond of him and the cat appeared very loving towards Johnny more so than his wife.  The cat lived contentedly with the couple for many years until a very strange thing happened.

Digging A Grave

Johnny had spent the day digging a new grave for someone who had suddenly and unexpectedly died and was to be buried the next day.  This meant he had to carry on working in the dark so the grave was ready for the morning.  Nevertheless he carried on working by the light of a lantern until he had finished digging and the grave was ready to use the next day.  At last he finished and packed up his tools taking them to store in the shed in the far corner of the churchyard.  He was tired and glad to have finished and looking forward to his supper and a warm fire in his snug cottage with his wife and his cat beside him.  Storing the tools and locking the shed he turned and walked briskly home in the cold dark air.

Nine Black Cats

He did not have to go far but it necessitated him passing by a gate which opened into a field.   It was dark and as he walked towards it he thought he saw dark shadows and lots of small gleaming fires dancing about.  They seemed like little flashes one might see of a fire through a window at a distance but these moved.  

Johnny was a steady man and perhaps because of his occupation was not one to be frightened easily by queer things that might unsettle others easily.  Therefore, he walked up to the gate and leaned on it peering into the blackness at the dancing lights.  Now that he was nearer the shadows were much blacker and the lights much brighter but as his eyes became more accustomed he realized he was looking not at shadows and lights.  Instead the lights were the eyes of nine black cats and the shadows were their bodies. 

They looked like they were holding court over some important matter.  The largest feline was positioned in the middle of the baseline of a semicircle of black cats sitting before him.  Thinking they were up to mischief he thought to scare them off and made a loud “wssshhhing” sound while clapping his hands loudly.

The cats took no notice whatsoever and carried on their business.  Annoyed by their indifference he sought a stone to throw, not to hurt, but to scare, but it was too dark to find one.  As he searched in the dark he was shocked to hear someone call his name, “Johnny Reed!”

The Black Cat’s Request

Johnny looked but could see no one other than the cats.

“Johnny Reed!” said the voice.

Who is there?” demanded Johnny, not a little vexed.

“Johnny Reed!” repeated the voice.

Image by Schmidsi from Pixabay

“I am Johnny Reed!” replied Johnny, perplexed and growing a little nervous and added jokingly, “Why, it must be one of you cats that is calling me.”

“Yes, indeed Johnny Reed,” said the largest of the cats who appeared to be their leader, “It is I calling you.”

Realizing it was the cat speaking Johnny was bewildered.  Although his own cat could be very expressive in its own way he had never before heard a cat speak in English as plain as any human.  Thinking that these were extraordinary circumstances that he could not explain and did not know how to react he thought a bit of courtesy would not go amiss.  

Therefore, taking off his cap he bowed slightly  to show respect and said politely, “Well sir, pardon my bewilderment you have plain taken me by surprise.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“It is not much I ask of you but it is important you do as I request,” replied the cat.

“And what might that be?” asked Johnny civilly.

“I ask that you tell Dan Radcliffe that Peggy Poyson is dead!” answered the cat.

“Yes sir, I will certainly do that.” replied Johnny totally bemused but sensibly wishing to seem amenable. After all he had no way of knowing what strange power this large black cat and his friends may wield.

With that answer given all the cats disappeared into the darkness leaving Johnny alone in the night wondering who in the world Dan Radcliffe was?  He had never heard the name before, or that of the poor deceased Peggy Poyson.  

Who is Dan Radcliffe?

He ran home getting all hot and flustered in the process.  Rushing through the door to find his good wife sitting by the fire with his supper on the table.  His cat with its eyes half closed sat next to her staring dreamily into the fire.

Bursting in he gasped, “Wife, tell me if you can, who is Dan Radcliffe?”

“Why,” says she, “I have never heard of any such person from these parts or from anywhere else, why do you ask and why are you all a fluster?”

“I must find him and tell him some important news I been given for him!” He replied then told her of his strange meeting with the black cats.  As he told the story his own cat sat staring into the fire looking as snug and cosy as only cats can look.  

When he came to the part where the black cat said, “Tell Dan Radcliffe, Peggy Poyson is dead,” his own cat suddenly jumped up and exclaimed in plain English,  “What? Peggy Poyson dead?  Then I must go!”  With that he dashed out the door that Johnny had left a jar and vanished into the night never to return.

For a long time Johnny pondered the meaning of the black cat’ s message but neither he or his wife could fathom it.  All they could think of was that Dan Radcliffe was none other than their very own cat but who Peggy Poyson was they had no idea.

Mysterious Creatures

Johnny Reed and his wife never did see that cat again although being fond of it they searched all over the neighborhood to no avail. Johnny also searched for Dan Radcliffe to tell him the sad news about Peggy Poyson as he had promised.  Although he asked in his own and neighboring villages no trace could he find of Dan Radcliffe or Peggy Poyson and eventually he gave up.

Indeed, cats are very mysterious creatures! We think we own them and give them names of our choosing but know little of what they get up to at night or while we are absent. Moreover, we know nothing of what goes on in those minds even while they sit dreaming through half closed eyes before the fire.  It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that they may have their own names for themselves and indeed, may have names they give to us. Now I wonder what they call us and I wonder what you think of that?

If you do hear of anyone by the name of Dan Radcliffe do drop Johnny Reed a line so he can fulfill his promise, assuming he has not already done so.

© 26/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 26th zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Butterfly Soul

François Gérard – Public domain

Presented here is a retelling of an old Japanese legend about butterflies and the human soul from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul. In this work it was titled the The White Butterfly.

The Butterfly Soul

In old Japan there was a belief that the souls of people alive or dead could take the form of a butterfly. Therefore any butterfly that entered a house was treated respectfully.  It may be that people whose loved ones had departed this world looked for and welcomed the presence of a butterfly and silently prayed, “Oh, come butterfly and I shall sleep tonight, where the flowers sleep.”

A very old legend tells of a poor old man by the name of Takahama.  His home was just behind the cemetery of the temple of Sōzanji and never seemed to go far from it. Sadly,  it is a trait of human nature that sees people who do not behave in what is considered a normal way to have some degree of madness.  He was by all accounts the most affable and amiable person you could wish to meet and all his neighbors greatly liked and respected him though they considered him a little mad.  This madness appears to have come from the fact that he never took a wife or was known to have considered taking one.  Furthermore, he was wrongly believed to have had no intimate relationship with a woman.  

It so happened that one bright summer day the most affable Takahama fell sick.  So sick that he sent for his sister-in-law to come and take care of him.  She duly arrived bringing her son with her to bring what help and comfort they could in his final hours.  While they kept vigil over him there fluttered into the room a beautiful white butterfly that rested gently on the sick man’s pillow.  Fearful that it might disturb his final hours the young man attempted to carefully drive it out without harming it. Each time he drove it through the door it returned.  This happened three times as if the butterfly was reluctant to leave the dying man.

At last the young man grew more forceful chasing it out the door and into the nearby cemetery where it fluttered over the tomb of a woman before mysteriously vanishing to where he did not know.

The young man was puzzled and intrigued.  On examining the tomb he found an inscription with the name “Akiko”  and a brief account of how she had died when she was 18 years old.  This indicated her death had happened some 50 years earlier.   The tomb was very well maintained with fresh flowers and water provided.   Intrigued but unsure what he had found the young man returned to the house to find Takahama had passed away.   

The young man told his mother about the butterfly and what he had seen in the cemetery. His mother sat down with tears in her eyes and told him, 

“Not many people know but your uncle was once betrothed to Akiko. He was very much in love with her but just before the wedding day she died of consumption.  Understandably, he was heartbroken and vowed that he would never marry or have any kind of a relationship with any other woman.  

He stayed close to her grave and prayed over it daily, no matter if the sun was shining and the day was fair and pleasant, or burning hot.  No matter how cold the rain or how thick the snow, or wild the wind, he would grit his teeth and pray,  ‘Oh, come, butterfly, come!’

 Maintaining her grave, keeping weeds at bay and ensuring there were alway fresh flowers all through the long lonely years he kept his vow.  In his heart of hearts he kept clean and shining all the loving memories of his only love.  As he lay dying he no longer had the strength to perform his labor of love and Akiko from beyond saw this and came to him.  The white butterfly was her tender, loving soul that came to guide him to the Land of the Yellow Springs where they will be reunited once again.”

***

For Takahama his passing prayer may been words such as the following poem written by Yone Noguchim many, many years later. Just maybe the writer was thinking of the old man when he wrote,

“Where the flowers sleep,

Thank God! I shall sleep tonight.

Oh, come, butterfly!”

© 09/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 9th, 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

Japanese Folktales: The Goddess of Mount Fuji

Public Domain – Source

Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Goddess of Mount Fuji, from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul.

Yosoji

When smallpox hit the village where Yosoji lived it struck down his mother.  Fearing she would soon die he visited Kamo Yamakiko, the magician and begged for his help. Kamo Yamakiko asked Yosoji to describe the symptoms and after listening very carefully told him he must go to the south-west side of Mount Fuji where a stream flowed down its side.  He explained that it was a long and difficult journey and told him, 

 “Follow the stream back to its source.  There you will find a shrine to the God of Long Breath.  You must fetch water from that place for your mother to drink. This is the only cure there is in the world for her.”

The Shrine on Mount Fuji

Therefore taking up a gourd Yosoji set off full of hope to find the shrine at the source of the stream.  It was indeed a long and difficult journey but eventually he came to a place where three paths crossed and he had no idea which one to take. He was tired and hungry and despair washed over him. He thought about giving up but he thought of his mother lying ill and knew he was her only chance and became determined to continue. Nevertheless he still had no idea which way to go, As he pondered upon this problem he was surprised to see a lovely girl step out of the forest.  She beckoned to him bidding him to follow and as he had no idea which way to go he followed her.  

It was not too long before they reached a stream and she led him upwards to its source and just as the magician had said there was a shrine.  As they reached the shrine the girl told Yosoji to drink and then fill the gourd. The water from the stream was cool, sparkling and refreshing and he drank deeply and then filled the gourd.   The girl then led him back to the place they had met and said, 

“You will need to fetch more water for your mother so meet me here in three days time and I will be you guide.”

After she bid him farewell he took the water back to his mother.  The water helped his mother greatly and he also gave some to other people in his village which helped them too. He returned to the sacred shrine five more times for water and each time he met the girl.  After his last visit he was pleased to see that his mother was now back to her normal self and the villagers had all improved marvelously.

Gratitude

Yosoji was made a hero of the village and was greatly praised by everyone for saving them.  Being an honest lad he realized he owed all the thanks to the lovely girl who appeared and guided him to the shrine. Therefore, he went back to find and thank her.

The girl was not at her usual meeting place and after waiting some time he resolved to go on to the shrine.  He was greatly disappointed to find she was not there either. Nevertheless, he still wanted to show his gratitude for helping him save his mother and the villagers.  All he could think to do was to kneel by the shrine and offer a prayer straight from his heart hoping that it would find its way to her somehow.  When he had finished he stood up and looked around and was surprised and delighted to find the girl standing before him smiling.

The Goddess of Mount Fuji

He thanked her for her help from the bottom of his heart  in the most eloquent words he could find and begged her to tell him her name.  The girl smiled sweetly but gave no reply but reaching out a branch of camellia appeared in her hand.  She waved it in the air as if beckoning to some invisible spirit. In answer to her floral signal a small white cloud floated down from the peak of Mount Fuji and settling before her she lightly stepped upon it.

The cloud rose bearing her up and slowly moved up the flank of the mountain before disappearing at the top.  Yosoji was awestruck for he realized that the girl was Sengen, the Goddess of Mount Fuji and he fell down upon his knees.  In his face was rapture and in his eyes light for he knew in his heart that mixed with all the gratitude he felt was a deep love for the lovely girl. As he knelt the goddess looked down and dropped the branch of camellia so that it landed just before him. Quickly, she turned away her face reddening.

From high Mount Fuji,

Camellia from Sengen,

Ah! Goddess blushes

© 20/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 10th, 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

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 20th 2020 zteve t evans