Folklore/Myth

Church Grims

It is known as the Church Grim or the Kirk Grim in English, Kyrkogrim in Swedish, and Kirkonavki in Finnish. No matter where you may hear the story the lore surrounding this particular creature is fascinating. Church Grims are popular in both English and Scandinavian folklore. Despite its ominous and frightening appearance many believe the Church Grim is an attendant spirit, sent to oversee a church.

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Although they are an attendant spirit, Church Grims are not some dapper gentleman dressed in clothes of old or a gentle animal. Instead, Church Grims usually appear as intensely fierce black dogs ready to protect the church. In some stories, the dogs can also be rams, horses, roosters, or ravens. In Scandinavian legend it is also said that they can also appear as pale, human-like ghosts who were once parishioners.

The Church Grim may not be as cute and cuddly as our beloved Greyfriars Bobby, it does not call forth evil. Instead, the Church Grim’s one goal is to protect the church safe from the devil. It is a guardian spirit and some people believe this was because early Christians may have sacrificed animals when a new church was built and bury them on the north side of the land. Why would they do this? Well, it was once assumed by several different religious traditions, including early Christianity, that whoever was the first and/or last being interred in the Church’s cemetery would be forced to serve as its guardian for all the years to come. So that this tough existence wouldn't be granted to some poor soul at random, an animal was sacrificed and buried in the churchyard or on the church grounds. Some of the more gruesome traditions suggest that the animal would be buried alive.  

However good its intentions may be, you don’t want to bump into the Church Grim. Church Grim’s are often an omen and herald doom and death to those who witness it.

Thanks to Luke C for the suggestion!




The above image is unrelated to the story and is by Flickr user Matthias Ripp. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


The Nain Rouge

The Nain Rouge, also known as the Red Dwarf, a legend that has shaped Detroit, Michigan for decades. The Nain Rouge is also known as the ‘The Demon of the Strait’ and is believed to be the first bad omen for an upcoming disaster. One of the most infamous encounters of the Nain Rouge was when the founder of Detroit, Cadillac, found him sitting on the bank of the Detroit River. Suddenly, he jumped up and thrust a stick at Cadillac. Frightened, Cadillac drew his own sword in response and beat the creature away until it ran. After his experience he lost his entire fortune, went back to France, lost his trade monopoly, and was bereft of the wonderful benefits that had accompanied him throughout life.

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The Nain Rouge doesn’t just have Cadillac to thank for his French name. In fact, French folklore has long depicted trouble-making creatures that hold a grudge and wreak havoc if disturbed. As the decades wore on and Cadillac’s story was told again and again the Nain Rouge also took on several characteristics of Native American folklore.

It has been witnessed right before many of the city’s lowest times. For example, it was spotted by several people racing through the streets on 1805 mere days before much of the city burned to the ground. It was spotted again in 1812 when the British began bombarding the American forces at Fort Detroit.  When General Hull finally accepted the British unconditional surrender, he reported that he saw the Nain Rouge leering and laughing at him through the fog as it cleared.

He has also been seen in the 20th century during the police raid that sparked the race riots of 1967 and, ten years later in 1977, was seen by Detroit Edison lineman while on lunch break shimmy up a utility pole. They screamed at him to stop and when he reached the top dropped to the ground without a scratched, leered at them and ran away. The next day a historic ice storm left roughly 400,000 residents without electricity.

Detroit has been an American city that has seen more downs than ups during its long and storied history. However, much of this is blamed on the Nain Rouge. So much so that for over a decade the city holds a parade to banish the Nain Rouge for another year. “He’s a necessary villain,” said Shane Stroud, one of the marchers from Dearborn, MI. She continues, “He takes the blame for us.”

Interestingly enough, the Wall Street Journal notes in a 2016 article, “The Nain-bashing has coincided with the city’s recovery. While much of Detroit is still troubled, pockets of the city are starting to see new life. Detroit’s downtown, where visitors could once see trees growing on the rooftops of abandoned office towers, has begun to flourish with restaurants and businesses locating there. Investment is pouring in, and in some neighborhoods, rents and home prices are rising.”


Thank you Brad L for the suggestion!

Representation of "Le Nain Rouge", or "The Red Dwarf", the mythical figure that haunts Detroit and is cause for all of the problems that plague the city by Fujiwara06. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.


Ghost Lights: An Overview

From centuries-old folklore to contemporary sightings, ghost lights seem to play a part in many paranormal experiences and remain a constant thread of unexplained phenomena through the ages. They have been reported around the world and remain a constant and haunting element whose purpose and intent we can only guess at.

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Many of the earliest mentions of ghost lights call them Will-o’-wisps. These are phantom lights that hover in the wilderness, specifically away from human settlement. Many popular stories of Will-o’-wisps take place in the moors and bogs of England. Will-o’-wisps are simple things - they are balls of light typically described as blue, although red and yellow have also been reported.

Will-o’-wisps, despite their whimsical name, seem to have quite dark and evil intents. They are said to appear as a beacon to lost travelers or children lost in the woods. The victims, thinking they may have found another soul in the marshes or a nearby village, follow the light. However, the light almost always leads them to a deep hole, a deadly muddy part of the bog, or just deeper into the woods leaving them more lost than over. In some cases, the lights are carried or controlled by vicious fae who plan on taking the follower captive in their kingdom.

In addition to being misleading signs of hope, it is also said that these Will-o’-wisps act as powerful omens and warnings of tragedy and death.

Today, they aren’t called Will-o’-wisps as regularly. There are several popular places in America alone that are notorious for ghost lights - Marfa, Texas, Brown Mountains, North Carolina, and the Paulding Lights of Michigan!

The mysterious lights of today seem to move in a similar way to Will-o’-wisps - they bob, change their speeds, weaving through the air, and are rarely still or are on a clear path. They have also been assigned new names like spook lights and corpse candles.

But what are ghost lights? Are they the same vicious fae of Will-o’-wisps lore? Are they intent on confusing travelers? Or, are they something else? Some theorize that they may be ghosts or even UFOs. On a skeptic level, many believe it is methane gas that has caught fire and appears to float due to fumes rising or headlights of cars that have been distorted..

Thanks to Kimbery G. for the suggestion.

The above image is from The Public Domain Review and is  entitled will o the wisp. It is licensed under the public domain.


Hungry Grass

Hungry Grass, also known as Fear Gortach, is popular in Irish folklore. So, what makes it so different from normal grass? Well, it is said to be indistinguishable from a normal patch of grass, but if you stand in a patch of hungry grass you’ll immediately be overtaken by hunger, sleepiness, and you may even faint.

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What causes hungry grass to spring up in otherwise normal fields? Some say that it arises when someone dies violently, others say it happens when someone starves to death. Even more, believe they are the victims of the Irish famines. In reaction to these painful realities, the land responds.

Another theory of hungry grass springing up is it is a fairy curse. Recently, I was learning about Fairy Paths. Fairy Paths typically connect the various places where fairies frequented, including their hills, raths, gathering places, and meadows. People tended to avoid taking these paths, building on them, or otherwise obstructing them. If you did obstruct them or even walk there, the fairies might get upset and punish or play with you. Perhaps the hungry grass is a reaction to those messing with common fairy paths?

Whatever causes hungry grass to spring up, almost unnoticeably, once it does the grass becomes predatory. Anyone who walks across it feels a deeply insatiable hunger, even if they just ate. People who live near known patches of hungry grass try to keep some extra food on hand for those walking and who don’t know to avoid certain parts of the meadow.  

Today, the threat of hungry grass seems to have abated. However, a common phrase is "The fear gortach is on me", which means ‘I’m very hungry!’ so it isn’t wholly missing from cultural consciousness.

Thanks to Brenden K. for the suggestion! This image is entitled “Mowing grass at Bridge-end Pasture The path from Crook Hill Farm provides some splendid views of the Hope Valley, Snake Pass and Derwent Edge (On a clear day !)The conifers on the right are at the edge of Hagg Side Plantation. Forestry Commission have just started major tree-felling work here” by Peter Barr and is licensed under cc-by-sa 2.0

Thanks to Brenden K. for the suggestion!

This image is entitled “Mowing grass at Bridge-end Pasture The path from Crook Hill Farm provides some splendid views of the Hope Valley, Snake Pass and Derwent Edge (On a clear day !)The conifers on the right are at the edge of Hagg Side Plantation. Forestry Commission have just started major tree-felling work here” by Peter Barr and is licensed under cc-by-sa 2.0

Japanese Bathroom Beings

One thing Japanese folklore is famous for is having dozens and dozens of ghosts, spirits, and demons that inhabit people’s everyday lives and can be anywhere from a bridge to your very own home. One area of the home you might want to be specifically aware of? The bathroom. There are a few characters from Japanese folklore that are specifically bathroom (or even toilet) orientated: the Kawaya no Kami, Akaname, and the Noppera-bō.

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Let’s start with not just a mere spirit or a ghost, but a god. Kawaya no-Kami is a Japanese toilet god. What makes him a toilet god? Well, his origin story certainly helps. It is said Kawaya was born from the excrement of Izanami, who is the goddess of Earth and darkness in Japanese folklore.

It is particularly interesting that he was born from Izanami because, if you think about it,  toilets are quite dark places buried into the earth. In fact, some believe that Kawaya’s existence in the folklore is representative of the issues with pre-modern toilets - they were dark, deep, and could actually be quite dangerous. Kawaya offers protections against the danger of toilets.

He is typically depicted as an old, blind man and is usually pictured hiding at the bottom of toilets and clutching a spear. It is for this exact reason you should make your presence known before you sit down, or else...Don’t worry, you don’t have to announce or worship him before, usually, just a polite cough will do.

To thank him, some people would decorate their toilets or bathroom-areas as a way to say thank you. If you want to anger Kawaya, make sure your bathroom is dirty. Kawaya had so much power that it is said if you don’t properly respect him you will have ugly children. Human waste was also a popular fertilizer so he was also sometimes worshipped during the harvest.

Another reason to keep your bathroom clean is to avoid the Akaname, aka the ‘Filth Licker.’ Akaname is summoned from human filth and scum left in the bathrooms. Late at night, Akaname appears in unkempt bathrooms and licks the filth. He is often described as having a red body and quite a long and large tongue. In some versions of this story, the Akaname is rumored to have poisonous or acidic saliva (which is how the grime is removed) although it does not seem to have a negative effect on humans.

Although Akaname would no doubt be quite alarming to see, it does not seem the creature does anything evil. The presence of Akaname should be a wake-up call to anyone who has let their bathroom go too long.

Finally, we arrive at the Noppera-Bo whose appearance might be the most frightening of the bunch mentioned here. Noppera-Bo looks like any other person until you see its face. The Noppera-Bo’s face is completely smooth.

The Noppera-Bo haunts specifically public restrooms and seems to have a particular preference for ladies bathrooms. Unlike the other two beings mentioned above, the Noppera-Bo doesn’t seem to care much about the cleanliness of the bathroom and its main goal is, well, scaring the crap out of people. They are not limited to the bathroom, although it seems it is one of their favorite haunts. It is unclear their motives for spooking people but, perhaps, they feed off of human fear and scaring people generates energy or food.

If you know anything about Japanese bathroom beings you might be questioning why I left off Hanako-san. The Japanese equivalent to Bloody Mary is Hanako-san. I left it off because I plan on writing a comparative piece later on...stay tuned!

Dieter Sieger, Sieger Design. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


The Gray Man of Pawleys Island

As Hurricane Florence barreled towards landfall in the south strange murmurings of the Gray Man began to resurface. The Gray Man is an eerie spirit said to appear on the shores of a beach, particularly Pawleys Island, right before a historic storm. If you see the Gray Man, you should heed his warning and evacuate.

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As some people view Mothman as a warning of doom (instead of the harbinger of doom), the Gray Man is seem quite similarly. Although he is haunting and eerie to witness, he acts as a warning to those close to the coast in order to warn and protect them.

While there are a range of origin stories of who the Gray Man was before death, most people seem to settle on a tale of love lost.

This story takes place on Pawleys Island, South Carolina in the early 1800s. A young man is excitedly getting ready to visit his long-distance love. He has not seen her in some time because he has been out at sea. However, the day has finally come for their planned visit. She lives on the other side of Pawleys Island and decides that on this visit he will finally ask her for her hand in marriage. The young woman is equally excited as she busies herself cleaning the house, preparing for his arrival, and wondering if he’ll finally ask the question she’s been dying to say yes to.

He heads out on horse with a friend but the man is getting antsy and wants to get to his beloved faster. He decides to part with his friend to take a shortcut through the marsh while his friend decides to stay on the road.The shortcut proves useful for sometime but as the sun is setting his horse stumbles and he man is thrown violently into the marsh. The water, mud, and marsh all weigh him down and drag his further and further from the surface.

Hours later, the young women grows nervous when her lover doesn’t arrive. The next day, the news of his tragedy travels to her. She is devastated and decides to take a walk alone to help settle herself.

The walk settles her so much she begins to make evening walks a regular part of her evening routine. Weeks pass and she notices a man, dressed all in gray, standing in her usual path. Even from a distance she could tell there was something familiar in the way he stood. As she got closer and closer her breath was taken away - it was her lover’s face. But how was this possible? He had been dead for weeks. Approaching him even faster, dying to ask him how he had survived, he told her to leave the island immediately. It was not safe. He disappeared before she could even utter a word.

More distraught than she had been since that fateful night she rushes home and tell her parents what had transpired. Unwilling to hear reason she is determined to heed her lover’s advice, even if it was from beyond the grave. They decided to leave the next morning for the mainland.

And thank god they did.

When they returned a few days later the island had been devastated. There had been a hurricane. Only one home survived the storm: hers.

Ever since there have been reports of this somber Gray Man warning those on the island to head for the mainland whenever a big storm is on the horizon.

The Gray Man typically appears to 2-3 to people and rarely to groups. He seems to take a special interest in couples. For example, a young, newlywed couple were enjoying their honeymoon on Pawleys Island in 1954. Very early one morning during their honeymoon someone knocked on the door. They sleepily answered and were greeted by a man dressed plainly, although somehow out of place, in gray. He told them in an even tone they needed to leave the island because a deadly storm was coming. One look out the window showed a clear morning was breaking. Before they could question or contest he disappeared before their very eyes. Terrified and confused the couple left that day. Just a few days later, when they should have still been on the Island, Hurricane Hazel swept through the island ruining many homes and even killing several people.

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, several people have reported seeing the Gray Man themselves warning them to get away.

Rian Fontaine told Yahoo News, “It’s a story I heard growing up...I think everyone in the low country has heard the story, especially when hurricanes or tropical storms begin to form around our area. It’s always something you hear people bring up. He’s a friendly entity. … Not that it’s a good thing to see him, but when someone does claim to see him, it gives us locals an idea of what we’re dealing with.”

Whether you not you believe you see him or think your eyes are just playing tricks on you, be sure to heed the Gray Man in hurricane season.

The above image is from Hunter Desportes on Flickr. It is titled 127 Black and White (1964) Pawleys Island, South Carolina, ca. 1964 and liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Draugr

In Norse Mythology, Draugr (also known as Draug and Draugen) are the ghosts of Vikings that rise from their graves to walk the world. It is said they first appear from the graves as wisps of smoke and have the cloying stench of decay. In addition to the smell and reanimation, Draugr also retain superhuman strength and the ability to increase their size at will.

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The Draugr were believed to be propelled from their graves to physically attack the living out of anger and envy. Regardless of how they were in life, in death, they were only murderous and vengeful monsters with a thirst to attack humans at every chance. Like contemporary zombie myth, it was also said that those who are killed by Draugr were destined to become Draugr themselves.

However, unlike contemporary zombies, they aren't mindless. In fact, they are usually depicted with human-level intelligence (except imbued more deeply with anger and hate) and also had some magical powers. As mentioned above, they could grow at will and, in some versions of the myth, were able to shapeshift into animals or pass through walls and other obstacles without impediment. Their only goal in their undead-life seems to be to attack and kill humans. In addition to turning their victims into more Draugr, they also reportedly enjoy the taste of blood. Additionally, it was sometimes believed that they stole treasure to hoard back at their graves. They didn’t just attack humans, they also attacked livestock (as this makes the living’s lives a lot harder). While roaming, they’d often make a snack out of the countryside creatures. This meant that shepherds were also popular targets for the Draugr.

They also delighted in suffering. It is said that they loved causing trauma and pain to their victims and they weren’t just quick killers. In some stories, they sit on the chests of their victims bringing them just to the brink of suffocation over and over again.

In the Eyrbyggja saga, a famous Norse tome, the Draugr of Thorolf had swollen to the size of an ox and his body was so heavy that it could not even be moved without levers. The Eyrbyggja saga says about Thorolf, “[Thorolf] was buried near Þórólfr. Of all the sheep in the valley, some were found dead, and the rest that had strayed into the mountains were never found. Whenever birds landed on Thorolf’s grave, they fell down dead.”

So, how do you kill an undead being? Well, it’s quite difficult and they seem as difficult to exterminate as cockroaches. One of the surefire ways to rid yourself of Draugr is to cut off their heads, burn their bodies, and throw their ashes into the sea. Another way to prevent the Draugr from wreaking more havoc is for a hero to wrestle it backs to its grave and remove its head.

To prevent the threat of Draugr it is suggested that big toes be tied together with needles driven through their feet. This should prevent them from being able to walk once they become undead. Large boulders could also be placed on the grave (or directly on the corpse) to further prevent this from happening. Archaeologists have even found evidence of the weapons buried with Vikings were rendered impossible to use when they were put into the grave.

Like many tales of the dead coming back to life, it is believed that Draugr folklore is born out of a fear of dead bodies and the powers they held. Dead bodies are not only frightening and grisly reminders of what happens to all of us someday, they also carry disease and can be harbingers of death themselves.

This is a photo of VISIT TO GLASNEVIN CEMETERY IN DUBLIN [FIRST SESSION OF 2018]-135050 by William Murphy. It is unrelated to the story (except for the fact that it is a graveyard). It is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).


The Hidebehind

One thing I recently realized was lacking in the blog? American Folklore! So, today we remedy that with a short tale about one of the little known creatures of 19th century American Folklore, the Hidebehind. Tales of this creature seem to spring up around lumber communities and particularly with lumberjacks. 19th century lumberjacks had a lot to worry about - physical injury, bears, falling trees...and, of course, the Hidebehind.

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According to the lore, the Hidebehind got its name from how it stalked its prey - hiding behind it. It hid behind trees in the forest and stalked its prey as it concealed itself amongst the forest. Whenever someone’s back was turned, it would creep closer. When it finally was close enough to its victim it would instantly gouge out the stomach and intestines of the victim. The Hidebehind would then feast on the raw meat. Assaults by the Hidebehind were so instant that even if not completely deadly, the victim often died of fright alone.

The Hidebehind’s physical description is hard to nail down, as it is so rarely seen. However, those who have glimpsed this horrid creature describe it as wraith-like and vaguely humanoid. The body of this creature was undeniably slender, though, as it was able to conceal itself behind a whole variety of trees. Additionally, one would have to guess that it has fearsome claws in order to eviscerate its victims instantaneously.

How could one possibly evade the Hidebehind if it was fast, sneaky, and armed with claws? Well, drinking helps. No, seriously. According to most accounts, the monster hated the smell of alcohol. If it hated the smell, it sure didn’t want to eat something chock full of it. So, the lumberjacks drank as a way to protect themselves when they thought they might be on the hunting grounds of a Hidebehind. However, many saw this solution as an excuse to drink more.

So, where and why did these tales arise? As mentioned above, these stories took place in logging country in the USA (Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan) which were pretty wild places in the 19th century. Being a lumberjack was a taxing job with a myriad of dangers to contend with every single day. Perhaps the Hidebehind was a story to keep men vigilant for bears and other wild animals that may be lurking in the woods. Or, perhaps, this isn’t an animal specific threat and just a grander reason and reminder for lumberjacks to stay vigilant at all times in order to avoid vulnerability.

However, it might also be a way to deal with mysterious disappearances and deaths of fellow lumberjacks. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth describes the creature as "A predatory cannibal beast that lurked around the loggers' camps until one was alone long enough to be grabbed and carried away to be consumed." Perhaps this creature was a way for logging camps to deal with the fear of accidental kills, lost men, and fallen friends.

The above is an image of Federal Forest Highway 13, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan by Jim Toomey. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

Moll Dyer

In 17th century Leonardtown, Maryland there was an infamous woman named Moll Dyer. Although no direct historical record has been found of her existence, a road, a stream, and a large rock all bear her name. But who do we think she was?

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Similarly to the Bell Witch, we aren’t quite sure what exactly her origins were before her title of ‘witch.’ Most sources seem to agree that she was a woman that lived in semi-isolation on the edge of town. Her origin was unknown to many of the townspeople and this created a hotbed of speculation - some believed she was an Irish noblewoman on the run, others believed she was running a way (or even killed a husband), and some believed she had been run out of her hometown. As noted before there was no record of a ‘Moll’ Dyer, but there were several Dyers in the area at the time and ‘Moll’ could have been a nickname of one of them, or that her birth certificate was never created or otherwise improperly filed and lost to the archives of time. Her story wasn’t recorded until the 19th century when a local writer, Joseph F. Morgan decided to write the story down.

In addition to her isolation, it is believed she practiced as a healer. Like many healers during the 17th century as soon as a series of misfortunes took hold of the town Moll was blamed and labeled a witch. During a particularly cold winter, the townspeople arrived at her small house and ran her out. Some stories says the townsfolk came to her door dramatically - torches and pitchforks in hand. Others say that their intent was just to scare her enough to get her to move. Moll, unbelievably, escaped this small but angry mob. She ran from the fire of her home and it was believed she ran in the dead of a cold, cold night until she fell upon a large boulder. It was at this boulder that she died. Several days later, a young boy came upon her corpse. Her body was frozen and one of her arms was allegedly stretched towards the heavens, perhaps in a last ditch effort for her or as a way to curse her tormentors.

How do we know this? Well, it is rumored that the imprints of her hand remained burned into the rock for hundreds of years. This boulder is so important that the local historical society had it moved and placed in front of their building. It is also said that at the original site of the rock the fields were strangely barren for years after her passing.

However, her curse had more effects than leaving behind handprints and making a few fields barren. It was said that the men responsible for leading the mob to Moll’s door all had bouts of horrible luck. Their lands became barren, their livestock died, they got sick, and their families suffered.

It should also be noted that some people believed Leonardtown and the story of Moll Dyer partly inspired the being and energy in The Blair Witch Project.


The above image is unrelated to the story it is by Aleks G and is liscensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
 

The Kikimora

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you’ll know I (Tess) have a soft spot for household spirits. I’m not what draws me so much to the lore of these creatures, but I find them hopelessly endearing (especially the curmudgeonly ones). One I recently learned about was the Kikimora. Kikimora is a female house spirit in Slavic folklore. Unlike some household beings, though, Kikimora does not often make life either.

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Kikimora strongly resemble humanoid chickens, with a beaked mouth and nose, clawed fingers, and chicken feet. She is typically dressed in a housedress with a headscarf tied around her scraggly hair. She is often depicted spinning flax with evil intent. Looking in her the eyes should be avoided at all costs - in fact, children were even advised to stare at their pillows or out their windows if they felt she was in the room.   

How does a Kikimora get into your house? Well, through the keyhole of course. It is for this reason that many Slavic women kept their keys in the keyholes or stuffed keyholes with small pieces of cloth or papers to stifle the entrance of a Kikimora. Kikimoras usually appear along with life-changing bad news like death or the loss of a child. If these events have not occurred, she is also believed to be a messenger of bad fortune. It is said that if you lay your eyes upon a Kikimora, your death will be swift.

These creatures, like many household beings, prefer to live in nooks and crannies. The Kikimora are said to prefer staying behind the hearth, near stoves, under the floorboards, in cupboards, and in attics. If she is displeased or wants to make her presence known it is said that she makes noises similar to a mouse. If she is offered food, some believe she will leave the house and stop disturbing the inhabitants.

Interestingly enough, Kikimoras are often linked to troubles at night, specifically sleep paralysis, terrifying nightmares, or accidents that happen in the night (livestock being killed, food spoiling, etc).

New Jersey's Devil Tree

Sacred trees can be found in ancient origin stories all the way to the popular world of fiction with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents. Trees, stretching all the way back to ancient times, is a universal symbol of growth, fertility, and transformation. There are trees where people travel for pilgrimage, perform rituals, worship, and celebrate around. But are there haunted trees?

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According to many locals of Bernards Township in New Jersey, there is at least one haunted tree: The Devil’s Tree. The Devil’s Tree does appear fairly ominous, but at its surface there seems to be nothing unique about this solemn oak tree. The Devil’s Tree presides over a field in Somerset County and is, according to local lore, surrounded by loss, evil, and blood.

Like any local legend, the origin story of The Devil’s Tree isn’t readily apparent. One of the most pervasive origins of the evil surrounding this tree has to do with New Jersey’s branch of the KKK. Bernards Township with the focal point of KKK meetings in New Jersey. Because of this, many demonstrations, meetings, and even lynchings happened near the field and in the surrounding area. Many believe the malignant feeling the tree emits is due to the spirits of innocent African Americans who were so brutally murdered in its branches.

Although the KKK brutality and hate seems to be the most popular theory, it is not the only one. The tree is in a secluded and private field, far from the view of curious eyes. For this reason, it is also the alleged site of several suicides. One of the most curious cases is a nearby farmer who murdered his entire family. Unable to live with what he had done, he went to the tree and hung himself. It is believed that his deeds, hate, and malice have permeated the wood of the tree, tainting. Of course, no name or even year can be provided for sleuths looking to find out the identity of this man. Local lore alleged that those who pluck up the courage to touch their hand to the tree have oily, black stains appearing on their hands...and they are not easy to remove.

It seems that the pervasiveness of tree lore also enters into the paranormal realm as well. Stories of devil trees, which seem popular all over the USA, seem to pervert the hallowed symbol of the tree into something to be feared - surrounded in local lore, rumors, and an impretable sinister feeling.

Today, there are pranksters and thrill-seekers alike who venture to the tree. Another rumor that has cropped up is a car that ‘chases’ the would be tree vandals. There are reports of a big pick up truck that will barrel towards you and will chase you down away from the tree, its headlights blazing. But, when you turn around or go to confront the car, the headlights are gone and the car has inexplicably vanished. The Devil’s Tree is such a popular destination that locals have constructed a wire fence around the base of the tree, in an effort to ward off vandals.

A the Weird NJ article (linked above) quotes a local citizen who did not wish to be identified as saying, “The inherent unholiness of the Devil’s Tree is the result of the evil that men do, and should not be blamed on the Devil.”

Do you have a local devil tree’s lore?

 

 

The above image was provided in creative commons from wikimedia commons. Photographed by Daniel Case 2006-07-27

Vrykolakas

The undead dead have always been an interesting aspect of global folklore. Many cultures seem to have at least a few folkloric creatures or mythic beings that are near to a Vampire. However, each culture seems to have its own “twist” on the common creature. One of my favorites is the Greek Vrykolakas - whose journey from human to vampire, and their life afterwards, is totally unique.

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One doesn’t become a Vrykolakas by being bitten, in fact one can become a Vrykolakas fairly simply. It is said that if you live a sacrilegious life, were excommunicated, or were buried in unconsecrated ground that you run the risk of joining the undead. Of course, there is one more strange way to become a Vrykolakas...by eating mutton that was previously eaten by a werewolf.

The word “Vrykolakas” isn’t strictly vampiric in and of itself, and is actually linked to wolves! It is Slavic in origin and comes from the root words meaning “wolf.” According to ByLightUnseen.net, “he etymological leap from werewolf to vampire is obscure.” The earliest uses of the word seem to be around the mid-1600s. In 1645, Leo Allatius. According to Allatius, “The vrykolakas is an evil and wicked person who may have been excommunicated by a bishop. Its body swells up so that all its limbs are distended, it is hard, and when tapped it thrums like a drum.” It has also been reported, along with the rise of the Greek Orthodox Church, that the Vrykolakas had to do with evil (or the devil) inhabiting a body of the already-dead, causing it to move.

As I mentioned previously, the Vrykolakas does not turn those with a bite. Instead, it would spread death through disease. If you saw a Vrykolakas walking around town, you would immediately know your town was in mortal peril. In order to draw people out, it would knock on doors. Once a person opened the door, they would soon die. To this day in Greece, it is common in some places to not open the door until the second knock. However, it also seems that not all Vrykolakas wanted to kill everyone they came into contact with. Sometimes, Vrykolakas were people who had died unfortunate or violent deaths and had to attend to some unfinished business.

You can get rid of a Vrykolakas much the same way you’d get rid of an Eastern European vampire - a stake through the heart, some kind of impaling, cremating the corpse, etc. However, there Vrykolakas also has some times to poltergeist-like activity and the devil, so an exorcism is also said to work.

One infamous Vrykolakas was called Patino. Patino, before his turning, was a merchant from Patmos, who died while on a trip to Natolia. While being shipped home for proper burial, he was revived. Although his wife buried him with a funeral, he soon began appearing around town assaulting people, damaging property, and generally creating mayhem. In an effort to stop him, an exorcism was attempted and prayer was increases...unfortunately, this had no effect on Patino. Eventually, not sure what to do next, the village had his body exhumed and sent back to Natolia. During his travel back in the coffin, he terrified sailors and they decided to burn his corpse which finally ended the phenomena.

Another story is told by Phlegon, who lived during Emperor Hardrian’s rule.  Demostratus and Chrito’s daughter, Philinnon, died very young. About six months after her death, a strange woman was seen entering the living quarters of Machates, a young guest. Charito, confused, questioned Machates about his visitor. Machates, unaware of his hosts’ recent loss, said the girl’s name was Philinnon. He then went to his room to show the couple the things she had left behind, her breast band and her ring. To their horror, Philinnon’s parents recognized these belongings as their dead daughter’s. The next night, she returned to his room. Desperate to see their daughter, the couple rushed in only for her to regard them coldly and tell them that she had been given three days reprieve of death to visit with him but, because they had interrupted, she had to die again. In front of their eyes, their daughter’s body returned to its corpse-form. Despite trying to keep her return quiet, it was soon discovered and her burial vault was investigated. Philinnon’s grave held several favors from Machates, but no body.

 

 

The above image is unrelated to the story. It is by Henry Hemming, entitled Tomb  and was taken at the Kensal Green Cemetery in northwest London. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Brownies Make Finicky (but useful) Roomates

On the blog we cover a lot of strange things from strange animal evolution to haunting entities that have allegedly scared people to death. Something we don’t cover enough? The sweeter side of folklore. So, today we dive into one of my favorite house buddies - the Brownies

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Much of the Brownie folklore is centered in Scotland, specifically the Highlands and several Islands. Much of this is because there is quite a bit of farmland in these places. You know what kind of residences need a lot of help? You guessed it, farmers! The Brownies main job is helping out these fine folk who have tough days and could use an extra helping hand around the house and barn.

Brownies are usually classed as a kind of Fairy. More specifically, they’re a “Hob”, also known as a house spirit. According to Witchcraft Today: An Encyclopedia of Wiccan and Neopagan Traditions Brownies were said, “to be short (about three feet tall) and ragged, with pointed ears, brown complexions, and brown clothes.” Furthermore, “Brownies are traditionally portrayed as intelligent beings who seek out deserving people to serve.”

They tend towards the most “deserving” families, hard-workers who could use a helping hand. To the households they worked for, they didn’t just help with household chores...they also brought luck to the farm. The happier they were (usually aided by cakes and saucers of milk) the luckier the family would be. However, if they go on the bad side of Brownies...it could get a little hairy. And, Brownies are particular. While they do love sweet treats, honey, and milk they do not like to see this as payment for their actions. In fact, if you try to pay them they might get so upset they leave! It is best to do it naturally and as a thoughtful action instead of a cold transaction.

Brownies are nocturnal and do much of their helpful chores and tasks at night. In fact, some folklore claims “that the cock crows not in order to awaken humans but to tell Brownies that it is time to retire.”

 

If you are interested in attracting a Brownie, there are a few things you can do:

  • Live in a rural area (especially on a farm or near a mill)

  • Live in a place with lots of hiding places for the creatures to sleep durng the day and remain unseen.

  • Make sure your house is cozy

But, before you want to attract a Brownie be wary that they are fickle creatures and that upsetting or offending them can end badly for you. Brownies are loyal creatures and stay at a residence for quite some time. There is one specific Brownie that lived in Leithenhall in southern Scotland. It was rumored that the Brownie had lived at the residence for nearly 300 years and each time someone new took over, the Brownie would present himself and make himself known.

However, once when the residence was changing hands it stood empty for several years. The Brownie, not ready to leave, grew hungry and cold. He was quite sad over the death of the previous owner and longed for busy work and a new family to take care of.

When the new owner finally arrived, the Brownie excitedly presented himself to him. The new owner was quite shocked at the appearance of the unusually lonely and haggard Brownie. He ordered his fleet of servants to get the Brownie new clothes, food, and comfort. Although this was done in kindness, the Brownie immediately took offense and deserted the hall. Shortly after, Leithenhall fell into ruin.

So while Brownies may seem the like the perfect extra roommate you might have to walk on eggshells (and always have a little extra milk) to keep them happy and your luck and life in good standing.

 

This is an image from  title, "Queen's Treasure Series, The Brownie" -- which you can read here! No known copyright restrictions. 

The Witch of the Pine Barrens

The Pine Barrens are home to more than one mystery. Although you have heard our Jersey Devil series and read the old blog post about time travel in the Pine Barrens...you might not have heard of the Pine Barrens Witch (or, at least one of them): Peggy Clevenger.

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Peggy lived in a now defunct Piney town - Pasadena. She lived with her husband, William (Bill) Clevenger during the 1800s and, at one time, helped operate a stagecoach Inn in the late 1800s.

From "The Pine Barrens by John McPhee" here is a poem about Peggy:

The Pine Barrens once had their own particular witch
Pineys put salt over their doors to discourage visits
From the witch of the Pines, Peggy Clevenger
It was known she could turn herself into a rabbit, 
For a dog was once seen chasing a rabbit
And the rabbit jumped
Through the window of a house, 
And there - in the same instant
In the window - stood Peggy Clevenger

On another occasion, a man saw a lizard
And tried to kill it with a large rock
When the rock hit the lizard, the lizard disappeared
And Peggy Clevenger materialized on the spot
And smacked the man in the face
Clevenger is a Hessian name

Peggy lived in Pasadena
Another of the now vanished towns
Five miles east of Mt. Misery
It was said she had a stocking full of gold
Her remains were found one morning
In the smoking ruins of her cabin, but
There was no trace of the gold.

ver. 2: 

The Witch of the Pines

Pineys put salt over their door to discourage visits
from the witch of the pines - Peggy Clevenger

It was known
she could turn into a rabbit
For a dog
was once seen chasing a rabbit
and the rabbit jumped through the window of a house

There in the same instant in the window
Stood the form of one Peggy Clevenger

Again, a man saw a lizard to kill
Crushing it with a large rock
The rock hit the lizard and the lizard disappeared

There on the spot to smack the man in the face
Stood Peggy, the Hessian Clevenger

In Pasadena, another
Of the now vanished towns
It was said Peggy
Had a stocking full of gold

In the ruins of the cabin there was no trace of the gold
Only the remains of the witch, Peggy Clevenger

 

Peggy clearly has some "classic" with capabilities - like the ability to turn into a hare (you might remember some of the witch/hare lore from our Bell Witch series). Her other likenesses, such as a Lizard, also align with several aspects of witch lore. Not to mention, she allegedly dwelt only a few miles from Mt. Misery, which sounds very fitting for a witch!

Interestingly we enough, we track down Peggy's identity through two articles, from December 1857, about Peggy Clevenger's death. 

The first is entitled "A Terrible Affair" and was published in the New Jersey Mirror 10 December 1857. The article confirms both her location and fiery death saying, " situate on the Old Shore road, about half way between Mount Misery and Cedar Bridge, was destroyed by fire, one night last week, and sad to relate, Mrs. C. perished in the flames."

The article continues on describing her as "Old Mother Clevenger" and also noting her advanced age and the fact that she lived alone. Although her residence was only a one-story cabin, she was "well known to persons in the habit of travelling the road."

The writer also noted an interesting detail about the week preceding her death: "A night or two previous to the fire, her hogs were poisoned and her horses throat was cut." This seems strangely specific and is quite unsettling. 

Despite her rumors to be a witch, the paper did want to see the culprits brought to justice. The guessed reasoning behind the arson was believed to be because she refused to supply "he drunken brutes at the Coalings with liquor." Although, that is just gossip. Furthermore, this article also mentions that it was known she was "in possession of some money" , which the poem also notes.

The following week, the New Jersey Mirror 17 December 1857 was released with a correction to the article from one of the accused party's employer, JW Cox, stating, "I have made as thorough an investigation as I could, and from the facts I gather from her children and others who were present, I am fully satisfied that no one was implicated in the matter—but that the fire originated from the chimney or fire-place. The old lady was in the habit of providing a bountiful supply of fuel, and piling it up near the fire, when about retiring for the night."

Not only does Cox deny that the fire was on purpose, he also discredits Peggy's character saying, "the day previous to the fire, provided herself with a quantity of opium, to the use of which she was much addicted. When under the influence of opium, she was frequently much deranged."

Although we may never know what really happened that night, or how Peggy became known as a witch, it is an interesting story in Piney history.

This image is entitled Pine Barrens 2, Author Jim Lukach. It is licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The Witching Hour

A few days ago there was an interesting question posted on the Facebook Group about the power of 3 (3 knocks, 3 am is the witching hour, etc) and how it came to be. Although I didn't participate...it immediately piqued my interest and I began my research into why 3am is so widely regarded as the Witching Hour.

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The first thing I'd like to dive into is WHEN exactly the Witching Hour is, because some sources don't even say it is 3am at all. For example, Merriam-Webster has two definitions:

1: the time late at night when the powers of a witch, magician, etc., are believed to be the strongest
2: 12 o'clock at night :midnight We arrived home shortly before the witching hour.

So, it could potentially be any time late at night when the powers of magic are supposed to be strongest...and/or midnight.

Okay, but what do other sources say? 

The Collins English Dictionary seems to say something similar:

the hour at which witches are supposed to appear, usually midnight

What about handy-dandy Wikipedia?

In folklore, the witching hour or devil's hour is a time of night associated with supernatural events. Creatures such as witches, demons, ghosts, and gremlins are thought to appear and to be at their most powerful. Black magic is thought to be most effective at this time. In European tradition, the hour between 3 and 4 a.m. was considered a period of peak supernatural activity, due to the absence of prayers in the canonical hours during this period. Women caught outside without sufficient reason during this time were sometimes executed on suspicion of witchcraft

Okay, I think we're finally getting there! It appears that the Witching Hour can vary slightly but MUST be in the middle of the night, sometime between 12-3am. I like to think of this as the "happy hour" approach. Sure, happy hour implies it is only one hour...but on most bar menus you'll see that happy hour really lasts from 4-6, or from 5-8. 

Now that we've slightly defined when the Witching Hour is, let's dive into the folklore surrounding it. 

One of the biggest reasons the Witching Hour is so vitally in the middle of the night (even though it is technically the beginning of the day) is because the liminality that the time offers. This is why, I think, many people focus on midnight just as much as 3am because midnight is the time between two days and many believe that the veil between the worlds is at a weak point, allowing for a heightened level of communication between our world and another. Because the veil is thinner at this time, too  it is the perfect time to swap ghost stories, try to communicate with spirits, and even whip out a ouija board or perform spells (please note that 'spells' here does not mean contemporary witches or Wiccan spells).

Additionally, even back in the centuries ago, the hours between 12-3am are usually when most people are dead asleep. The cover of darkness and the sleeping world allows for witches and other creatures to convene publicly, but without being seen or otherwise persecuted for meeting.

Another thing about the Witching Hour you'll notice is a lot of people wake up around 3am. Although this is said to be in relation to something wicked, Storypick argues that "Generally, you’d be in your REM sleep cycle during the time bracket. Your heart rate, cardiac pressure, breathing rate and arterial pressure becomes irregular at this time which is why you may feel anxious when you suddenly wake up at those odd hours." While this may be true, it is still incredibly interesting that we are irregular and on alert at those hours naturally. Is it a coincidence, or is it an evolutionary tactic developed to better protect ourselves?

 

The above image is cuisine des sorcières Jacques de Gheyn, from the Staatlich museum, Berlin and is liscensed under public domain. 

The Origins of the Tooth Fairy

If you grew up in America, there's a pretty good chance you had at least one run-in with a tooth fairy. But, where the hell did this strange myth come from in the first place? Does it have ancient roots, is it linked with Greek mythology, is it a wonderful myth as old as humankind?

Not exactly. In fact, it's a very recent mythical being with very American origins.

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Let's first address what we know, more or less, about the tooth fairy today. First, a child has to lose a "baby tooth". The baby tooth is then placed under the pillow at night while the child sleeps. The child may also include a note with the tooth, thanking the tooth fairy and asking for some sort of present or wish. Finally, when the child wakes up the next morning there is a small token underneath the pillow, usually money and the tooth and the note are gone!

Now that that has been established, let's get into where this strange tradition started. 

The tradition of dealing with baby teeth is much older than the tooth fairy herself. According to Michael Higston, a reporter from Salon covering the strange history of the tooth fairy, "Every recorded human culture has some kind of tradition surrounding the disposal of a child’s lost baby teeth."

These disposal methods, of course, was of interest to many cultural anthropologists and researchers and one such researcher, BR. Townend, even distilled it down to 9 basic forms.

  1. The tooth was thrown into the sun
  2. Thrown into the fire
  3. Thrown between the legs
  4. Thrown onto or over the roof of the house, often with an invocation to some animal or individual
  5. Placed in a mouse hole near the stove or hearth or offered to some other animal
  6. Buried
  7. Hidden where animals could not get it
  8. Placed in a tree or on a wall
  9. Swallowed by the mother, child or animal.

This same question - "Where" and "Why" boggled a professor at Northwestern University Dental School, named Rosemary Wells. She began what would become a career-defining search for the origins of the tooth fairy, going as far as opening a museum of the tooth fairy run out of her home and appearing on major entertainment programs like the Oprah Winfrey show.

So, what year did the tooth fairy officially sashay onto the scene? According to the research of Wells and others, around 1927 is her first print appearance. She is a character in a short, 8 page playlet for children by Esther Watkins Arnold. However, there is some belief that she was mentioned orally as early as the turn of the 19th century. Although, of course, there is not much written record of it.

Her origins are believed to be a cross between two myths. First, the legend of a mouse that sneaks into a child’s bedroom and performs the cash-for-teeth swap - a legend that spans everywhere from Russia to Mexico. The second is the typical “good fairy,” a mainly European figure that crept its way over the Atlantic. This lore mixed the rise of Disney in the mid-1960s and became a cultural explosion of the tooth fairy.

It is believed the tooth fairy has remained in the popular zeitgeist for so long because of the purpose she serves. Losing one's teeth, especially at such a young age, can be quite scary. There is the tension of anxiety of waiting for a wiggly tooth to come out, sometimes a necessary tug, and often blood. The tooth fairy myth offers comfort during this strange and uncomfortable time, promising that the pain and scariness of the event will end in a treat from a magical being. 

So, what makes it so American?

In her article "Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith,” Cindy Dell Clark, another academic researcher, argued that "the use of monetary rewards — and leaving money for each tooth, not just the first one, is another distinctly American invention — helps children transition into the world of adulthood, where cash is a symbol of increased agency and responsibility." Not to mention, the rise in popularity follows at a time of American prosperity. During the great depression, just giving away nickels and dimes would not make sense. However, during a time of more economic prosperity, the tooth fairy myth could flourish.

So there you have it - the strange, slightly convulted myth of the tooth fairy!

The above image is from Flickr user Ginny and is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Astonishing Legends has touched on the terrifying expereince of sleep paralysis in a number of our episodes. Today, I wanted to dig in a little more deeply into the phenomena of sleep paralysis in order to gain a better understanding of what causes it, what happens, and how to deal with it.

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Sleep paralysis seems quite astonishing in nature. In fact, many people report seeing shadow people, hags, demons, ghostly visitations, unexplainable creatures, and even alien abductions. Although these beings are linked to the paranormal, they also frequently appear during sleep paralysis episodes.

First and foremost, it is a sleeping disorder. Sleep paralysis consists, generally, of the feeling of being conscious but being completely unable to move, which can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Often times the vision of some kind of presence will be 'seen' by the victim, although what is seen changes on a case-by-case basis. Some who suffer from sleep paralysis also note physical pressure and even a sense of choking that accompanies a sleep paralysis episode. 

Oh, and sleep paralysis isn't new. In fact, it was recognized in the scientific world by a psychologist, Weir Mitchell, in 1876. In his own words he describes sleep paralysis as:  “The subject awakes to consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearance still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement fraught with acute mental distress; could he but manage to stir, the spell would vanish instantly.”

So, when does it happen? Well, sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up BEFORE REM is finished. Thus, giving the sense of not being able to move. Basically, your body's ability to move hasn't been "turned on" yet.

Another thing most people don't know is that there are different kinds of sleep paralysis. There is hypnagogic sleep paralysis, which is what it is called when sleep paralysis occurs as you are falling asleep. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis happens as you are waking up.

Now that we know a little more about what sleep paralysis is, let's dive into what can cause sleep paralysis. It does not appear that sleep paralysis has one "point of origin", as far as stressors go. In fact, several seemingly common things can bring on an episode of sleep paralysis. For example:

  • Medications
  • Other sleep disorders (like seep apnea or narcolepsy)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress
  • Jet Lag
  • Caffeine 
  • Alcohol
  • Falling asleep too fast (literally - its skipping your REM/bypassing parts of your REM cycle that can trigger an episode) 

The above list is not conclusive by any means. Not to mention, you can expereince reoccurring sleep paralysis or one-off episodes...potentially caused by different stressors.

So, how did the paranormal enter the realm of sleep? Well, in the narrative and mythology of sleep paralysis, it was believed that demons or otherwise evil beings caused sleep paralysis by literally holding people down to their beds, rendering them unable to move or even sitting on their chests - which could further explain why people feel short of breath or pressure.

Additionally, hallucinations are very common during sleep paralysis, causing people to see strange and surreal creatures because during sleep paralysis the brain is still in 'dream mode', and has the ability to conjure up these images. 

So, how can you guard against sleep paralysis? Sadly, there is no set treatment for combatting sleep paralysis. Often, the best way to fight against sleep paralysis is by treating underlying causes, like those from the list above.

If you have only had one or two attacks, taking care of your sleep hygiene could be a potential fix to the issue. However, if you have continuous, reoccurring attacks you might want to visit a sleep specialist (yes, that is totally a thing)!

If you do have an attack...there isn't much you can do to stop it in the moment. Just remind yourself that this is only temporary and soon you feel much better.

The image above is from Flickr user Matt Anderson and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

Ouija: A History

Ouija boards have been around for decades and decades, even Hasbro has gotten in on the Ouija-Board, creating a speciality toy and boxset for the strange, alleged portal to the dead. But, Ouija's didn't just appear out of the ether one day...so how did they rise to such an intense popularity and cultural awareness?

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First, for the uninitiated, a ouija board is a flat board (not dissimilar to an actual board of a board game) made of wood or, in toy reproductions, some kind of cardboard-like material. At the top of the board are "Yes" and "No" in the corner, underneath in a curved half-circle are the numbers 0-9, underneath the full alphabet, and, finally, 'goodbye' printed at a bottom. The board also has a 'planchette' which is a teardrop-shaped item with a small window in the point to view the letters/numbers/words. This is what the spirt uses to communicate with the users. It is used by two or more people who place their fingertips lightly on the planchette, ask questions, and allow the planchette to move freely across the board.

There were some pre-cursors to the actual Oujia board - people had been wanting to communicate with the dead for a long time. The most common way was to call out of the alphabet over and over again and wait for a knock or bang on the letter. This was tedious, took a long time, and, well...it was boring.

Kennard Novelty Company wanted to changed that. Although the board may appear ancient in origin to some, it likely was invented during the 19th century craze surrounding spiritualism. In fact, the board DID appear to come straight out of the ether. Or, well, he Kennard Novelty Company. This company was the first to produce the Ouija board, at least that historians know of.

But how did the company choose such a strange name? Well, the creator's sister-in-law was a known, powerful medium and she said the name "came to her" thus, history was made. Although I have to admit that the popular explanation that it is a mash-up of the French (Oui) and German (Ja) words for "yes" is more interesting.

So, from the 1860s on it enjoyed an interesting importance in American spiritualism as a way to communicate with death. There were few negative associations of it and only a few horrifying accounts of use. That is, until, The Exorcist (1973) and following movies brought it to the culture icon of fear, wonderment, and a door to our world for the dead that we know it to be today.

The above image is from NY Public Library's public domain project

The (True-ish) Stories Behind Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary

When you were growing up, it is likely that you dared (or dared a friend) to go into a locked bathroom and whisper "Bloody Mary" in the dark to the mirror 3-times. The legend was, if done correctly, Bloody Mary herself would appear in the mirror. But where did this strange legend come from in the first place?

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The origin of this strange legend are many, and musings like: it  was inspired by the initiation of a girl's period, a ghost that can show you your future husband (or your dead body, should you be destined to die before you marry), Elizabeth Bathory, and even a witch from the Salem trials. But, let's start with my favorite 'true story' behind the legend is that of the English Bloody Mary...Mary Tudor. 

Mary, sadly, for most of her life was starved for love. She began as the only daughter of Henry VIII and Queen Catherine - unwanted due to her status as female and her mother's inability to produce a male heir. Mary was often separated from her mother and any connection that would provide her with a sense of love and belonging. That mixed with her father's insatiable need for a son put her in direct competition with her future siblings. However, one day, she took the throne. She was married to her suitor of choice, a man 10 years her junior, who was not interested in her.

Her time as Queen and as a newly married woman should have been some of the best of her life. However, her devout Catholic beliefs, numerous fertility issues, depression, and sometimes nasty habits and reactions made her an evil-hag in the eyes of her own people. Oh, and not to mention her intense persecution habits.

That matched with a year-long of pregnancy rumors and mild proof continued Mary's intense depression and, likely, the ultimate feeling of failure to produce an heir and serve England effectively.

This is why some traditions of Bloody Mary have the sayer taunt the mirror to bring her to light by saying "I stole your baby" or, even more gruesome, "I killed your baby".

As a Refinery29 article says, "While her sister became the gilded legend, she became the myth, the witch in the mirror, her arms forever outstretched and empty."

Buuut, we're not even close to done. The thing about Mary is...it's a super common name. And, because of this and the mirror's general sense of dread and tragedy, many 'real' marys can fit this horrifying tableau. 

Take Mary Worth, for example. Fast forward a few hundred years from Mary Tudor and switch to the USA and you'll find her story. She infamously lived on Old Wagon Road in Chicago during the Civil War, slightly outside of the main part of town. She kidnapped children, runaways, and escaped slaves and performed all sorts of rituals and harvested their bodies for her spells - you know, typical witch things. She was later burned at the stake by the townspeople and buried on unconsecrated ground.

As luck would have it her burial place became a farm many years later and no one thought to warn the buyers. A stone, meant to mark her burial, was dug up when creating an oat field. The farmer, thinking it would be a good front door step, unearthed the stone and put it on his front stoop. However, poltergeist-like activity began infiltrating the home and an apparition was seen by their young daughter in the mirror. It appeared as if Mary Worth, her resting place disturbed, had come back to seek revenge.

Although the new owner and his family tried to find the original place where the stone was unearthed, they never could put Mary back to rest and the house eventually burned down. So, Mary Worth is doomed to be called upon incessantly as she has no resting place.

Going back to the past, let's talk a little bit about Elizabeth Bathory, infamous Blood Countess, potential witch, and Hungarian noblewoman who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. It was said she killed over 600 people - mainly for blood - to stay young and and beautiful forever. People think she is behind Bloody Mary as a way to continue getting young girl's blood to maintain her beauty...even in the afterlife.

All the above are fun explanations for an enduring myth that no one is quite sure its true origin. However, the focus on a mirror is a bit easier to track. Catoptromancy is the practice of divination through mirrors or crystal gazing and it has its origins in ancient Greece. Additionally, it is noted that staring too long at a reflective surface, like a mirror or a crystal, in a dimly lit room could lead to hallucination, visual distortion, and, in laymens terms, your eyes playing tricks on you.

Have you heard any other Bloody Mary origin stories? Share them below! 

The above image is from Flickr user John Brucato and is liscensed under  CC 2.0. 

 

The Stories Behind The Stories

If you enjoy astonishing legends, there's little doubt that you've at least looked into the grim (pun-intended) origins of many fairytales. Many believe that fairytales are meant to teach us lessons and do so in the form of exaggeration, magic, and even repurposing historical events into something other worldly. And, there seems to be something strange about utilizing such horrifying, vulgar stories to soothe children and make them subconsciously remember the lessons of Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk. However, are fairytales simply warnings in sheeps' clothing or, are they are a more complicated part of human history?

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In recent times - despite all the technology and seeming lack of wonder left in the world - there seems to be a fairytale resurgence. Marina Warner, a fairytale historian, says that fairytales have so much allure because they are "stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things." And, if one drops the idea that fairytales are only for warnings (and children) i becomes clearer as to why there is a resurgence in the tech age. But how can a fairytale, quite literally something other worldly, hold so much truth about our own world?

Well, perhaps the need to move beyond reality is at the root of that tie to our world. Warner, in her new book, notes that fairytales, "untrue" stories, show a "need to move beyond the limits of reality" in the audience that is captivated by them. Ellen Handler Spitz, a writer for the New Republic, links this to a psychological belief of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel who writes, "Man has always endeavored to go beyond the narrow limits of his condition." So, is the creation and enjoyment of fairytales a way to push our own beings farther and farther away from what we think our limits are?

Perhaps.

Furthermore, the psychological element of the fairytale helps us to understand why we get so involved in the lives of actions of characters who are so under-described. Most fairytales aren't first person perspective, so we rarely get true interiority. In addition to that, many fairytales are lead by the action of the character, not necessarily their thoughts. Their motives appear clear. But what about ours?

Handler Spitz proposes something interesting, "when confronted with texts of this kind, whether scriptural, mythical, or faerie, we are hooked not only by what is given, the positive imagery, but by the very gaps—“the negative spaces”—as we might say in visual arts." So, it is precisely these scant descriptions and closed-interior characters that make fairytales so alluring. They allow the audience, us, to insert themselves momentarily into this fairytale. You might think, "What would I do?", "How would I feel", "Where is the nearest city to this village", "How do fairies fly?", "Where do centaurs come from?" ,"How wonderful!" or "How scary!" - all these thoughts and more dance across your mind when you read a fairytale. It is through this that we become the message-makers and answer-holders.

But we still watch the re-tellings, see the adaptations, read the modern takes on classic tales...because we want to think more about them. We want new and different ways to picture the unimaginable, and, more importantly, more opportunities to place ourselves into the unimaginable. 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0., thanks to the NYC Public Library!  It is an illustration of Cinderella at the Ball!