Sunday, 16 November 2008

What The Devil's Dictionary Teaches Us About Folklore - Part 1

I am a devotee of the philosopher, wit and fine moustache wearer Ambrose Bierce and his Devil's Dictionary, a caustic collection of alternative meanings for words we think we understand.

Here are a couple of short and sweet entries to get you into the frame of thinking:

BEGGAR, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.

BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Like most people of wit and learning Ambrose has a fine appreciation of folklore and I plan to copy the relevant entries here for easy reference.

A - G

BASILISK, n. The cockatrice. A sort of serpent hatched from the egg of a cock. The Basilisk had a bad eye, and its glance was fatal. Many infidels deny this creature's existence, but Semprello Aurator saw and handled one that had been blinded by lighting as a punishment for having fatally gazed on a lady of rank whom Jupiter loved. Juno afterward restored the reptile's sight and hid it in a cave. Nothing is so well attested by the ancients as the existence of the Basilisk, but the cocks have stopped laying.

BELLADONNA, n. In Italian a beautiful lady, in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two languages.

CENTAUR, n. One of a race of persons who lived before the division of labour had been carried to such a pitch of differentiation, and who followed the primitive economic maxim "every man is his own horse". The best of the lot was Chiron, who to the wisdom and virtues of the horse added the fleetness of man. The scripture story of the head of John the Baptist on a Charger shows that pagan myths have somewhat sophisticated sacred history.

CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance — against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance. Cerberus is known to have had three heads, and some of the poets have credited him with as many as a hundred. Professor Graybill, whose clerky erudition and profound knowledge of Greek give his opinion great weight, has averaged all the estimates, and makes the number twenty-seven — a judgment that would be entirely conclusive is Professor Graybill had known (a) something about dogs, and (b) something about arithmetic.

CURSE, v.t. Energetically to belabor with a verbal slap-stick. This is an operation which in literature, particularly in the drama, is commonly fatal to the victim. Nevertheless, the liability to a cursing is a risk that cuts but a small figure in fixing the rates of life insurance.

FAIRY, n. A creature, variously fashioned and endowed, that formerly inhabited the meadows and forests. It was nocturnal in its habits, and somewhat addicted to dancing and the theft of children. The fairies are now believed by naturalist to be extinct, though a clergyman of the Church of England saw three near Colchester as lately as 1855, while passing through a park after dining with the lord of the manor. The sight greatly staggered him, and he was so affected that his account of it was incoherent. In the year 1807 a troop of fairies visited a wood near Aix and carried off the daughter of a peasant, who had been seen to enter it with a bundle of clothing. The son of a wealthy bourgeois disappeared about the same time, but afterward returned. He had seen the abduction been in pursuit of the fairies. Justinian Gaux, a writer of the fourteenth century, avers that so great is the fairies' power of transformation that he saw one change itself into two opposing armies and fight a battle with great slaughter, and that the next day, after it had resumed its original shape and gone away, there were seven hundred bodies of the slain which the villagers had to bury. He does not say if any of the wounded recovered. In the time of Henry III, of England, a law was made which prescribed the death penalty for "Kyllynge, wowndynge, or mamynge" a fairy, and it was universally respected.

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

He saw a ghost.
It occupied — that dismal thing! —
The path that he was following.
Before he'd time to stop and fly,
An earthquake trifled with the eye
That saw a ghost.
He fell as fall the early good;
Unmoved that awful vision stood.
The stars that danced before his ken
He wildly brushed away, and then
He saw a post.
—Jared Macphester

Accounting for the uncommon behavior of ghosts, Heine mentions somebody's ingenious theory to the effect that they are as much afraid of us as we of them. Not quite, if I may judge from such tables of comparative speed as I am able to compile from memories of my own experience.

There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or "in his habit as he lived." To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grip on the very tap-root of this flourishing faith.

GHOUL, n. A demon addicted to the reprehensible habit of devouring the dead. The existence of ghouls has been disputed by that class of controversialists who are more concerned to deprive the world of comforting beliefs than to give it anything good in their place. In 1640 Father Secchi saw one in a cemetery near Florence and frightened it away with the sign of the cross. He describes it as gifted with many heads and an uncommon allowance of limbs, and he saw it in more than one place at a time. The good man was coming away from dinner at the time and explains that if he had not been "heavy with eating" he would have seized the demon at all hazards. Atholston relates that a ghoul was caught by some sturdy peasants in a churchyard at Sudbury and ducked in a horsepond. (He appears to think that so distinguished a criminal should have been ducked in a tank of rosewater.) The water turned at once to blood "and so contynues unto ys daye." The pond has since been bled with a ditch. As late as the beginning of the fourteenth century a ghoul was cornered in the crypt of the cathedral at Amiens and the whole population surrounded the place. Twenty armed men with a priest at their head, bearing a crucifix, entered and captured the ghoul, which, thinking to escape by the stratagem, had transformed itself to the semblance of a well known citizen, but was nevertheless hanged, drawn and quartered in the midst of hideous popular orgies. The citizen whose shape the demon had assumed was so affected by the sinister occurrence that he never again showed himself in Amiens and his fate remains a mystery.

GNOME, n. In North-European mythology, a dwarfish imp inhabiting the interior parts of the earth and having special custody of mineral treasures. Bjorsen, who died in 1765, says gnomes were common enough in the southern parts of Sweden in his boyhood, and he frequently saw them scampering on the hills in the evening twilight. Ludwig Binkerhoof saw three as recently as 1792, in the Black Forest, and Sneddeker avers that in 1803 they drove a party of miners out of a Silesian mine. Basing our computations upon data supplied by these statements, we find that the gnomes were probably extinct as early as 1764.


The Gorgon was a maiden bold
Who turned to stone the Greeks of old
That looked upon her awful brow.
We dig them out of ruins now,
And swear that workmanship so bad
Proves all the ancient sculptors mad.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Fairies in Rock Music - City Hobgoblins

A number of Fall songs deal with the subject of folklore, at least implicitly. An admitted fan of science fiction and horror literature, singer Mark E Smith also strikes me as knowing his Boggarts from his Bugganes. H P Lovecraft and Aleistair Crowley are influences MES returns to time and again for subject matter, and he also claims to possess a degree of precognitive ability, having "anticipated" such events as the newsworthiness of Terry Waite (just prior to his kidnapping in Beirut) and the IRA bombing of Manchester's Arndale Centre.

As usual I will plant my flag in the sceptical camp over such matters - I think if you comment regularly enough and abstractly enough on popular culture you're bound to look as if you've predicted something with eerie accuracy every now and then. Even so the Terry Waite thing strikes me as impressive.

City Hobgoblins is the B-side of the Fall's classic 1980 single "How I Wrote Elastic Man".

Tap, tap, tap, tap
You think it's the pipes
But who turns on the lights?
Our city hobgoblins
Ubu le Roi is a home hobgoblin
And at nights all ready
Our city hobgoblins
Infest my home at night
They are not alright
Ten times my age
One-tenth my height
Our city hobgoblins
Buzz of the all-night mill
Ah but evil
Emanates from old green glades
Pretentious eh?
Our city hobgoblins
They'll get yer
So Queen Victoria
Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester
Our city hobgoblins
And they say
We cannot walk the floor at night in peace
At night in peace

As with most Fall lyrics the meaning of the song is highly abstracted and contains a number of bewildering and probably entirely tangential asides. There is a theme to the song though, it apparently refers to a gang of street toughs who plagued the area of Collyhurst, an inner-city area of Manchester, about 1 mile from the City. I once read an interview with Morrissey were he talked about how the song referred to "the Collyhurst Perries", who all seemed to be somewhat diminutive as a result of breeding or poor nourishment. The Perry Boys website gives some further information.

The Perry Boys wore many Mod styles, but it was the Fred Perry logo that eventually provided a brand with which to label them. People feared Perries, but they were a rare sight in the mid-70s, favouring night-life over day, Soul over Glam-Rock and music over football. Despite the obscurity, they were feared as nasty lads, very insular and ready to strike at anyone who looked at them, full stop. They were the Perry Boys. They knew who they were, even if you didn't. They proved to be a prototype for much that evolved after and their offspring, the Boys, declared undying war on the Merseyside Scallies.

So really, with typical precognition, Mark E Smith turned his attention to the malign phenomenon of chavs some twenty years before the mainstream media caught up with the idea.

Identifying people from "another tribe" as maliciously inhuman and/or supernatural is something that has probably gone on for all of history. Often because of a technological or military imbalance (think of the Aztecs viewing Spanish Conquistadors as gods, or the Huns seen as "a scourge of God") or just to demonise invaders, opponents or immigrants.

City Hobgoblins is not the only Fall song to deal with gangs of yobs and the supernatural, Squid Law (sometimes known as Squid Lord) seems to be an invocation to Cthulhuesque god-monsters to do away with a particular gang who seem to have caused Mark E Smith some grief.

Good man, lend a hand
Help me to deal with some scum
Who are only in their late teens
But I hate their existence
They think 3 on 1
A normal thing
Network 7 encouraged them
But tonight they picked the wrong man

Squid Lord
His intelligence

Number One squat with grey turnup jeans
Stuck up white hairstyle
Obviously sheep shag mill town
Squid lord revenge
Just his intelligence vast

The second one is a streak of piss
Leave me alone with him
His blindness will be fun
But it won't make a difference

Squid Lord
His intelligence

The third one stood behind
Held my arms
But in the hospital
His bed will be in a draught
A geriatric germ-well
I curse his family and wish them poor
But he'll have time to dwell
On squid revenge, cooped-up
In 3 months of pure Hell

Squid Lord
His tentacles

Good man, lend a hand
Help me clear this mess
Give me back the law it took from my life
Give me back the pride of my class
This scum are just a morass

Squid Lord
His intelligence