Monday, 26 May 2008

A Bit of the Old Antiquarianism

I got to do a bit of the old antiquarianism yesterday so I thought I'd log it here as it seems, albeit very vaguely, relevant (I mean, people who are into folklore often seem to be into standing stones and the like, and standing stones often have stories about wierd goings on, or associations with a particular flibbertigibbet attached to them).

I'm visiting my parents in Northern Ireland for a week and we drove up the Antrim coast road - which I think is a particularly scenic part of the countryside over here. I noticed there were a few neolithic sites mentioned on a map of the area near the Vanishing Lake, so we took a detour west into the hills to take a closer look.

It's a particularly warm and sunny May in Northern Ireland this year, and as a result the Vanishing Lake had vanished, which was a shame as it's far more picturesque with water in.

The monuments were accessed by taking the Ballypatrick forest drive (£3 at time of writing) - which is quirky and very attractive - it's essentially an old and somewhat overgrown pine lumber farm by the looks of it, with a tarmac covered path to drive around on in a winding one-way system that takes in a ford under a bridge, dozens of picnic areas and (on the day we were there) some sort of Q&A contest open to fans of cartoons who rally drive minis (?!).

Included in the itinerary of Ballypatrick Forest Drive are the remains of a "double-court tomb" (as the Gazetteer of Irish Prehistoric Monuments say), or "double-horned cairn" (as the signs in the forest would have it), or a "chambered grave" (as the ordinance survey tell it). According to the Gazetteer of Irish Prehistoric Monuments 'The more northerly (three-chambered) gallery of which still retains two of its roof-stones (one of them large and displaced) and only two of its court-stones. Only one court-stone of the other (unsegmented) gallery survives.' The chambered cairn was noted as being a mesolithic tomb about 2,000 years old. My father, a keen gardener, was pleased to notice a number of spotted orchids growing the vicinty of the the graves.

After seeing the cairn and the rest of the park we wandered up to Cloch na h-Uaighe, disturbing flocks of sheep as we did so (which always makes me feel a little guilty). This is a menhir nearly six foot in height. The south face is (to quote BS Johnson on the Rollright Stones) "made lovely with lichen" (this is a very good phrase to remember if you want to wax lyrical about the appearance of big lumps of basalt that have been stood in the earth for millennia), whilst the north was quite barren but for a few chisel marks (it's nice to think that they were made by the tools originally used in the excavation, but I doubt it somehow - the chips looked rather too neatly cut to be the work of sharpened antlers or stone axes). Local legend has it that the stone was meant to mark the grave of a chieftain, and it is also supposed to be about 2,000 years old.

I didn't take any photographs, as I was expecting to find some nice images on the web to illustrate the article with (and, without wishing to sound like a hopeless old hippy, I always find snapping away at menhirs and tombs somewhat disrespectful). No such luck, the sites don't have an entry in the County Antrim Section of the Modern Antiquarian or anything, that'll teach me to be lax about taking a camera with me.

On reflection it probably is a bit crap to bang on about standing stones and the like with no photos - won't do it again.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Skriker Performance on YouTube

This is part of a performance of the Skriker that was at the Dallas Hub Theater in October 2005. Directed by Robert Neblett.

This is one of my favourite sections of the play, the creature with the Hurdy Gurdy machine at the start is Yallery Brown - the dancer who pays him money is meant to keep bopping throughout the rest of the performance (I suppose that this is to represent the way Yallery Brown is said to punish those who show him gratitude).

Lily encounters the Skriker disguised as a vagrant and shows her some affection, for which she is 'rewarded' with the ability to cough up money as she talks.

A man becomes obsessed by a Green Woman - have never been able to work out exactly what this is meant to symbolise, though there are plenty of examples of people in folktales who have had a relationship with a fiary that has been lost, and they have gone on to pine to death. The Green Children is a tale where one of the green children pines and dies after being separated from it's home land. Also green is a colour often worn by the fairies and is associated with fairy royalty.

The final scene is shown in a bar where the Skriker, in the guise of an American tourist, tries to get Lily to explain such concepts as aeroplanes and television to her (presumably the Skriker has not been paying too much attention to human affairs in the past century or so).

The Skriker isn't the only fairy in the scene, to the left of the screen a Kelpie can be seen trying to pick up a date (he will later go on to drown and eat her).

There is a hint about something that might be bothering the Skriker in this scene, as she accuses Lily of poisoning her. This is probably a reference to environmental damage - something Caryl Churchill has said is one of the themes of the play. There are other, more obvious references to damage to the environment later in the play - but this is the only time the Skriker seems bitter about it. As an "earth spirit" the Skriker may have felt some personal injury as the result of environmental damage - hence the angry accusations of poisoning.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Fairies in Rock Music - Sit Down by the Fire

Sit Down by the Fire can be found on Should I Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues, the LP was their biggest chart success (reaching #3 in th UK charts and #88 in the US) and spawned their most famous song (and - FACT! - best popular Christmas song of all time) - Fairytale of New York. Anyway, Sit Down by the Fire seems to be very well informed as to certain aspects of fairy folklore (and has a nice bit of rude bathos at the end).

Sit down by the fire
And I'll tell you a story
To send you away to your bed
Of the things you hear creeping
When everyone's sleeping
And you wish you were out here instead

It isn't the mice in the wall
It isn't the wind in the well
But each night they march
Out of that hole in the wall [1]
Passing through on their way
Out of hell [2]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you [3]
Down the Boreen [4]
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill [5]
Up at the top of the field

And they dance on the rain
And they dance on the wind
They tap on the window
When no-one is in
And if ever you see them

Pretend that you're dead
Or they'll bite off your head
They'll rip out your liver
And dance on your neck
They dance on your head
They dance on your chest
They give you the cramp
And the colic for jest [6]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you
Down the Boreen
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill
Up at the top of the field

They play on the wind
They sing on the rain
They dance on your eyes
They dance in your brain [7]

Remember this place
It is damp and it's cold
The best place on earth
But it's dark and it's old
So lie near the wall
And cover your head
Good night and God bless,
Now fuck off to bed

[1] The holes that can sometimes be found in planks of wood are occasionally referred to as elf-bores, reflecting the belief that a piece of wood from which the knot has dropped out was the operation of the fairies. It is sometimes said that to look through an elf-bore is to view fairy-land (and such voyeurism was not considered wise).

The elf-bore features in one famous folktale in particular, commonly known as The Boggart, in which one of the children teases the creature repeatedly by shoving a shoehorn through “a large knothole” in a closet wall “behind which the Boggart lived”. This action angered the Boggart so that one day he took the shoehorn and threw it so violently at the young man that it “hurt him badly” and (according to his father) “almost killed” him.

[2] Fairyland is often thought to be part of an underworld that also includes Hell and fairies sometimes seem to have a symbiotic relationship with Hell, or are indebted to it in some way. This indebtedness leads to the teind – a payment the fairies have to make every seven years to the devil. A variety of reasons are given for this, including theories that fairyland might be an area of hell that the Fairies had loaned off of the devil.

Another reason could be the common belief that fairies were fallen angels, Wikipedia has the following to say on the subject:

A third belief held that they were a class of "demoted" angels. One popular story held that when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates shut; those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became devils, and those caught in between became fairies. Others held that they had been thrown out of heaven, not being good enough, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a "teind" or tithe to Hell. As fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subject of the Devil.

[3] Certain fairies are described as cold, especially those who have something in common with ghosts. The Cauld Lad of Hylton strikes me as a particularly notable example. In fact it is a gift of clothes that finally exorcises him. A summary of his story can be found on wikipedia.

[4] A boreen is an Irish term for a narrow, rough, unsurfaced road, or a small, narrow urban road.

[5] I’m not too familiar with any obvious links between rings of trees and fairies, though obvious links between mushroom rings and fairies exist, or stone circles and fairies.

Having said that, the few times I have visited ancient earthworks on hills they have been notable for having trees upon them, whilst often the surrounding land is rocky and barren. I suppose that when earth is moved onto an otherwise barren hill trees and bushes can take root there whereas the surrounding earth is too shallow for them. So perhaps this line might infer an old barrow or hill fort.

Quite besides that it seems fitting for a natural landmark, such as a spinney, to provide a home for the fairies.

[6] The infliction of various ailments was often blamed on fairies, and cramp and colic are particularly associated with them. Fairies are described as inflicting aches, pains and ailments on people by pinching or by flinging small sharp stones known as elf-shot.

[7] Hallucinogenic visions and mental illnesses are also associated with fairies. They seem to me to have long been blamed for the effects of eating the wrong variety of wild mushroom, or for things like dementia, alcoholism, post-natal depression, strokes and suchlike.

And - at the end of the day - Shane MacGowan is currently about as close as a human gets in terms of sound and appearance to some sort of Bogle or Hobyah, and he parties like a Cluricane. Huzzah for the Pogues!

Friday, 2 May 2008

Folklore Alive and Well - Black Shuck

Another attempt to provide a bit of evidence to show how certain folk tales (if not folk beliefs) are very much with us even in the twenty first century.

Black Shuck is East Anglia’s contribution to the Black Dog legends that come from all over the British Isles. In fact he is the most famous of the Black Dogs, though he has a lot in common with regional variations such as Padfoot, Skriker, Barguest, Shagfoal, Guytrash and others.

Black Dogs in England often fit the same pattern: large (often compared to a calf in size), black and shaggy fur, large and glowing eyes, portent of death (should you see one you or someone close to you will soon die).

Wikipedia gives the following information about Black Shuck:

For centuries, inhabitants of East Anglia have told tales of a large black hellhound with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green. They are described as being 'like saucers'. According to reports, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a horse.

The legends of Black Shuck roaming the Anglian countryside date back to the time of the Vikings. His name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon word scucca meaning "demon", or possibly from the local dialect word shucky meaning "shaggy" or "hairy". The legend may have been part of the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Sometimes Black Shuck is referred to as the Doom Dog. It is said that his appearance bodes ill to the beholder, although not always. More often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives.

One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On the August 4, 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.

The encounter on the same day at Bungay was described in "A Straunge and Terrible Wunder" by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:

“This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) runing all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.”

It does seem that, around East Anglia sightings of the dog are still regularly recorded, a lengthy list of them can be found on the Shuckland website (great site that gives a detailed analysis of Black Dog sightings and features a few myth-busting articles as well).

In recent years Black Shuck has provided the inspiration for a reasonably well known rock song and a book of poetry.

Black Shuck: The Ghost Dog of Eastern England by Martin Newell is a poem about the Black Dog, it follows Shuck on a journey through both time and space in an attempt to follow in the phantom dog's tracks through the half-forgotten villages and lanes of North Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. The poem begins with the theory that the dog was brought (metaphorically speaking at least) over with the Vikings - the hound of Odin (a theory that the keepers of the Shuckland website are quick to be dismissive of, by the way, and they wouldn’t be impressed with Newell’s use of the word 'Snarleyow' either). The theme of Shuck as a death portent is heavily referenced in the poem, and one sequence were a warplane jettisons spare bombs over a village is particularly memorable.

Better known, of course, is the song by the Darkness (who were a British hard rock band active a few years ago that took their light-heartedness seriously, or their seriousness with a light-heart, it was hard to tell). Their song Black Shuck was a decent enough blend of pyrotechnical lyrical ability, and largely concerned the Blythburgh church incident.

In a town in the east
The parishioners were visited upon
By a curious beast
And his eyes numbered but one and shone like the sun
And a glance beckoned the immediate loss
Of a cherished one
It was the coming of the
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

Flames licked round the sacred spire
And the congregation's last line of defence
Was engulfed in fire
As the flaming priest stepped into the firing line
On the business end of a beam of despair
God, he took his own life
During the coming of the
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

A nimbus of blue light surrounds a crimson paw
As he takes another fatal swipe
At the Blythburgh Church Door
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

Not quite as literary as the Newell effort, of course, but with a charm of it's own I'm sure you'll agree. To the right there is an image of the 'claw marks' left on the Blythburgh Church Door (a larger image can be seen on the Shuckland website).

There are plenty of other recent references to Black Dogs in literature, such as The Skriker and a number of Shagfoal apparitions in Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire. Black Shuck seems to remain the most popular manifestation by far though.