Friday, 27 March 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Fairy Finds II: The Fairy Coffins of Edinburgh Part 1


Just outside Edinburgh, and over-looking that fine Scottish city, is a huge hill, Arthur's Seat, the time-worn remains of an ancient extinct volcano. Like many notable places in these isles, it is named after the legendary King Arthur and has been proposed as the site of Camelot. And over the years, alongside providing spectacular views of the city, Arthur's Seat has accrued a fair amount of folklore. There are tales of visions, healing waters, stones that brings fertility, and witches' gatherings all associated with this towering mount. However perhaps the strangest tale of all is that of the Fairy Coffins discovered there. 

In June 1836, a curious find was reported in the distinguished newspaper The Scotsman - some boys were larking about on the slopes of Arthur's Seat, looking for rabbits. While on their hunt, they noticed several sheets of slate wedged against the hillside, and on removing them discovered a tiny cave. And inside the little grotto were seventeen tiny coffins, containing wooden figures, roughly carved and about two to three inches long. But boys being boys, the careful processes and procedures of archaeology were roundly ignored and instead they made sport with the mysterious little figures. And sadly not all survived these shenanigans, with the Scotsman reporting that “a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.”

However some did make it down the mountain. The Scotsman describes them thus -
They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.
The coffins ended up displayed in a private museum owned by a South Andrews jeweler named Robert Frazier. In 1845 the contents of the museum were auctioned and the Fairy Coffins passed into the hands of private collectors. However in 1901 a lady named Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire generously gave a set of eight coffins to National Museum of Scotland where they have remained until this day.


Now then we should first note that we cannot actually be sure that the eight Fairy Coffins we have on display today are  the originals. While it seems very likely that they are, considering the nine day wonder that the original discovery prompted back in 1836, we cannot rule out that these may be replicas or even deliberate fakes made to sell to collectors of curiosities. Certainly over the years, the mystery of the Fairy Coffins has continued to intrigue the public. Indeed over the years, more details of the find have been uncovered...

A Notes & Queries piece on the affair, titled 'A Fairy Burial?', published on 4th April 1863, claims that the discovery was made at the foot of the Salisbury Crags on the north side of Arthur's Seat and had a dramatic account of the discovering with a mildly imperiled climbing lad accidentally dislodging the slate door of the tiny tomb while scrambling for a foothold. However another Edinburgh newspaper the Caledonian Mercury, in an article published on 5th August 1836 claims the find was made on the south side of the hill. And in its 'Continuation Catalogue' a scholarly journal, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland #36 (1901-02),  furnishes us with the additional details that one of the slate stones covering the cave was “rudely shaped like the headstone of a grave” that revealed “an aperture about twelve inches square in which were lodged seventeen Lilliputian coffins, forming two tiers of eight each, and one on a third, just begun!”

And there were further revelations to come, for the Edinburgh Evening News in 1956 provided the most detailed account yet, which revealed  the exact date of the discovery (25th June 1836), the dimensions of the cave (a foot in height and 18 inches wide), and that the surviving coffins we now have, were retrieved by the boys' teacher a Mr Ferguson, and presumably from this schoolmaster the Fairy Coffins made their way into both the newspapers and the hands of Mr Frazier.

Now it is important to note that none of these later accounts took to the trouble to do anything as useful as list any sources for these revelations. Therefore given the growing amount of details that have no historical documents to back them up, these later reports of the find may well be an example of a tale being embroidered with each retelling over the years. And therefore we must be careful, and pick away any rogue 'facts' from the bones of the case.

One recurring offender is the oft repeated claim that the coffins had been placed there one by one over a period of years. In fact, we can sure of no such thing. This claim is based on reports that the lower tiers of coffins were decayed, and drawing on the possible dubious claims of the way they were stacked in two piles of eight with a third seemingly just begun. Now it is true that looking at the eight surviving coffins we can see that some are more rotted than others. However this could just be a result of those particular coffins were the ones placed on the bottom tier and hence were more prone to decay and water damage. And while forensic analysis of the existing coffins has yielded some interesting result,  it is impossible to say if they were all interred at the same time.

It has also proved difficult to ascertain if the Fairy Coffins were made in a one batch or over a longer period of time. For example one coffin is lined with paper made with rag fibre, a process which dates it from a time after 1780. However the clothes of another has stitching with cotton thread - and cotton thread only replaced linen thread from 1812 onwards. Other figures have two ply thread in their garments which again pushes forward the date of manufacture, while one has three ply thread that textile historians claim only came on the market in 1830. Hence taking into account all the details of the kind  materials used, alongside the extent of the decay, experts have concluded that it is most likely the coffins were interred at some point after 1830.

We should also note that the description of the figures as being corpses laid out in funeral dress is also somewhat erroneous. What clothes they are wearing do not indicate funeral dress or shrouds, being simple one piece coverings that do not resemble any form of dress, funerary or otherwise. And as for their appearance, they are depicted with their eyes open rather than closed in the sleep of death. All the figures are male, and have more or less identical facial features. Some figures have arms and some do not, and those that are without have clearly lost limbs rather than having been designed that way. They show signs that they previously had hats, the carving of their legs suggests knee breeches and hose, and their feet appeared to have been painted black. From their poses and the fact that they appear to need some sort of accessory to hold in their hands to stand upright, expert analysis has concluded that in all likelihood they were originally toy soldiers, made in the late 1700s, with their clothes being later additions. Therefore we can deduce that these figures were re-purposed for their strange burials.

Another interesting detail is that while the figures are made of white wood, the coffins are carved from Scottish pine. Analysis has also revealed that they were not the work of a carpenter or wood carver, but judging from the knife marks and materials used, they were likely to be the work of an amateur using the tools of the trade of a leatherworker or cobbler. Also the coffins come in two styles, one square, one rounded, which suggests that either there were two makers at work, or that their creator changed and/or refined their style as they were being made over a period of time.

However as enlightening as all this may be, these facts revealed by modern science still cannot answer why the Fairy Coffins were buried or what they were meant to achieve. But there have been plenty of  theories put forward over the years, and we shall explore the various explanations for them next week!  




Thursday, 26 March 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #02


A paperback edition from 1966 from Arrow Books of a collection of weird tales by Bram Stoker, first published in 1914. Stoker is of course best remembered as the creator of Dracula, but he also wrote several other novels and a great many cracking short tales. This volume of strange thrills features some of the best, collecting together several tales that had previously appeared in magazines alongside some that  had never been published before. It includes -

Dracula's Guest (1914)
The Judge's House (1891)
The Squaw (1893)
The Secret of the Growing Gold (1892)
A Gipsy Prophecy (1914)
The Coming of Abel Behenna (1914)
The Burial of the Rats (1914)
A Dream of Red Hands (1894)
Crooken Sands (1894)

Dracula's Guest is famously a tale closely connected to his masterwork, indeed an eerie adventure for Jonathan Harker which was cut from the original novel. But there's more to this volume than just vampires, The Judge's House is a wonderfully sinister tale and The Squaw is a fantastic story about the infamous iron maiden, and both have appeared in many other anthologies. And there's many treasures in the lesser known stories here too, with The Burial of the Rats being my top tip for an undiscovered gem. 

A reading of Dracula's Guest by Mr Jim Moon can be found here

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

COVER ARTOCITIES #3


PUBLISHER - Ok, we've got here a cosmic horror SF novel that's actually discussing many deep philosophical themes and exploring the limits of human consciousness...
ARTIST - Giant purple head on a heap of pebbles then?
PUBLISHER - Nailed it!!!!


Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Saturday, 21 March 2015

FROM THE GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS - The Invisible Man


This week we catch up once again with that most unusual of amateur detectives, GK Chesterton's Father Brown. In this episode, Mr Jim Moon presents a reading of one of the little priest's most celebrated tales, the curious case of The Invisible Man

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  FROM THE GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS - The Invisible Man

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Friday, 20 March 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Embrace of the Iron Maiden


Casket? This was no casket. Caskets do not stand open and upended. Caskets do not bear upon their lids the raised, moulded features of a woman's face.
Caskets were not spiked inside.
Recognition was simultaneous with horror.
This was the Iron Maiden!
From The Skull of the Marquis de Sade by Robert Bloch 

And I am quite sure that like Mr Bloch's unfortunate narrator Maitland, most of us would have no problem whatsoever in identifying this most infamous of medieval torture devices. For in the popular imagination no torturers' dungeon would be complete without an iron maiden waiting in a corner alongside the other tools of the trade such as braziers, branding irons and a rack. And aside from being a perennially popular feature in museums, castles, ghost trains and assorted other chambers of horrors, it has also provided the name for one of the biggest heavy metal bands of all time

Originating in Germany, where it is known as the Eiserne Jungfrau, the Iron Maiden was a hideous device of both torture and execution. Its operation was as cunning as it was cruel, and as I humbly admit I cannot possibly compete with the descriptive powers of horror legend Robert Bloch, I'll let him describe the embrace of the maiden...
The longest spikes would pierce him first as the lid descended. The spikes were set so to enter his wrists and ankles. He would hang there crucified, as the lid continued its inexorable descent. Shorter spikes would next enter his thighs, shoulders and arms. Then, as he struggled, impaled in agony, the lid would press closer until the smallest spikes came close enough to penetrate his eyes, his throat, and - mercifully - his heart and brain. 
Horrible eh! Our ancestors were a shockingly brutal bunch weren't they! Well actually, modern historians rather suspect they weren't! For while we have all been horrified - and may I add secretly ghoulishly delighted - with tales of the iron maiden, it is currently thought that this terrible device never really existed.


To begin with, once you get past all the gory imaginings of the blood-drenched results of its sadistic operation, and consider the actual design, the dear old maiden starts to look a bit suspect. For would it not be the case that for all those spikes to inflict prolonged pain and suffering and not instant death, wouldn't they have to be adjusted for every individual prisoner? For not every man is the same height and hence to do their evil duties, the spikes would need to be carefully rearranged. Indeed a victim would have to have a pre-torture fitting for the Maiden, to get all the spikes at the right height to pierce the right places.  

However the surviving iron maidens in museums and castles are noticeably lacking in any systems for their spikes to be re-positioned and tailored for individual *ahem* clients. Which leaves us with the unlikely possibility that instead iron maidens came with height measurement signs like you see in the theme parks - "Sorry buddy, you have to be THIS tall to die horribly in this torture device!"

However aside from this mechanical impracticalities, the dread iron maiden has other more serious historical problems. And the major one is that there is no mention of it in any historical records. Now a guidebook printed in 1784 tells of "the iron maiden, that abominable work of horror that goes back to the times of Frederick Barbarossa" which can be seen in Nuremberg. Barbarossa was the King of Germany from 1152 and became both the King of Italy and the  Holy Roman Emperor in 1155, and reigned until his death in 1190. However despite having paperwork from three different courts, we find no mention of anyone executed by the Maiden. And the centuries after are equally void of any mention of iron maidens, let alone any details of evidence gained from their uses in torture or as a method of execution. 

The earliest, and indeed only, reference to the use of an Eiserne Jungfrau dates from 1515, when a coin forger was executed in an iron maiden on August 14th. Now given that records of executions were best-sellers in the early years of the printing presses, and that legal and court records from the Middle Ages still survive,  it is very curious that this is the only mention. 

In fact, it has been thought so curious that now it is widely believed that this reference is in fact a historical hoax. It was discovered by the German philosopher and archaeologist Johann Philipp Siebenkees in 1793, but the original source has never been found. And given the lack of any other records of iron maidens being used, historians have concluded that Siebenkees fabricated it. 


Quite why Siebenkees fabricated this no one is entirely sure. However, as evidenced by its mention in the guidebook quoted above, by the late 1780s, iron maidens were already popular tourist attractions, and their blood spattered alleged history was already well-established. But where does this modern folklore originate from? Well, it is thought that the infamous iron maidens displayed in museums and castles were actually constructed from genuine historical items. 

Historians think that these sinister devices were assembled from medieval punishment devices known as 'shame coats'. Appearing in 13th century Germany these Schandmantel were a sort of mobile version of the stocks or pillory, with wrong-doers sentenced to wear these heavy containers or metal and wood so that the populace could mock and taunt them. And the aforementioned medieval court records that are so silent on iron maidens helpfully tell us that a spell in a Schandmantel was usually handed out to those caught indulging in prostitution or poaching. 

By why did keepers of castles and museums invent these devices? Well in the mid 18th century saw the birth of gothic fiction with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1763. Walpole's lurid tale soon spawned a host of imitators, spinning further yarns of European castles filled with depravity and torture. Naturally castles, keeps, and all manner of historic sites and ruins became very fashionable places to visit as the gothic fiction craze boomed. And naturally enterprising caretakers and owners made sure their sites had plenty of lurid history to tell the tourists, and evidently some decided a few props were in order. And hence all manner of alleged medieval torture devices and instruments were being exhibited, and like the infamous maiden many were complete fabrications. 


A miniature maiden produced 120 years ago as a tourist souvenir

So finally, where did the inspiration for the spikes come? Well, there are two possible sources. The first comes from 5th century tome City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo. In it he records the torture of Regulus by the Carthaginians, writing that - 
They shut him up in a narrow box, in which he was compelled to stand, and in which finely sharpened nails were fixed all round about him, so that he could not lean upon any part of it without intense pain; and so they killed him by depriving him of sleep.
But considering the German origins of the iron maiden, I think it possible there was a source closer to home, and very likely a good deal more familiar - German folk tales. In the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm we have a tale sometime called Falada, but best known as from its appearance  as The Goose Girl. And at the end of this story  - 
The false bride said, "She deserves no better fate than to be stripped stark naked, and put in a barrel that is studded inside with sharp nails. Two white horses should be hitched to it, and they should drag her along through one street after another, until she is dead."
"You are the one," said the old king, "and you have pronounced your own sentence. Thus shall it be done to you."
Furthermore in another tale The Three Little Men in the Wood, a wicked stepmother comes to the same bad end -
“The wretch deserves nothing better,” answered the old woman, “than to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails, and rolled down hill into the water.” “Then,” said the King, “thou hast pronounced thine own sentence;” and he ordered such a barrel to be brought, and the old woman to be put into it with her daughter, and then the top was hammered on, and the barrel rolled down hill until it went into the river.
And the same cask and nails fate is meted out yet again to another wicked stepmother in  The White Bride and the Black One. Yes, oddly enough, being placed in a nail studded barrel was something of a common punishment for the wicked in Germanic folk tales! And hence, given its unusual prevalence and the popularity and age of these tales - many of which are thought to date to medieval times - it is perhaps unsurprising that when looking to invent a suitably lurid and eye-catching torture device to impress the devotees of the gothic, these fairy tales heard in childhood were re-imagined as a fake historical punishment. 

Indeed the iron maiden has been able to masquerade as history for so long precisely because it appeals to the same ghoulish glee as the hideous punishments in the tales of Brothers' Grimm. And so then, rather than a testament to the bloodthirsty and brutal nature of our ancestors, the iron maiden is actually proof that folk down the ages all love a good gory gothic story!  




Thursday, 19 March 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #01


Cover art by Chris D'Achille

In 1967, this little anthology of spooky tales for younger readers, expertly assembled by Christine Bernard, was first published. And its mix of classic ghost stories, retold folk spooky folk tales and new tales penned by modern authors would prove to be a huge hit. Indeed The Armada Ghost Book would prove to be so successful that an entire series of Armada Ghost Books followed, with the this initial book being reprinted many times to thrill and terrify several generations of children.

This volume included -

Sandy MacNeil and His Dog (1964) by Sorche Nic Leodhas
School for the Unspeakable (1937) by Manly Wade Wellman
The House of the Nightmare (1906) by Edward Lucas White
The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost (1902) by H. G. Wells
The Giant Bones (1964) by Sorche Nic Leodhas
Prince Godfrey Frees Mountain Dwellers and Little Shepherds from a Savage Werewolf and Witches (1946) by Halina Gorska
The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall (1891) by John Kendrick Bangs
The Red Room (1896) by H. G. Wells
Spooks of the Valley (1948) by Louis C. Jones
The Lads Who Met the Highwayman (1965) by Sorche Nic Leodhas
A Pair of Hands (1898) by Arthur Quiller-Couch [as by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Linked entries will take you to assorted Hypnobobs podcasts containing reading of these tales.


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

COVER ARTOCITIES #2


The rather unusual rendition of the Lord of the Undead here - i.e. crossed eyed, bad beard and head shaped like a peanut - is evidently even baffling the great Mr Holmes by the look of it!

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world