Friday, 28 November 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Who Killed Cock Robin?

The humble Robin Redbreast, or Erithacus rubecula melophilus if you're given to outbreaks of Latin, is one of Britain's favourite birds, making its home in woods and hedgerows, and is a frequent visitor to our gardens. Unlike their European cousins, British robins are rather tame, having forged a friendship with humankind many centuries ago. When a garden is being dug, a robin will often be close by, watching for any juicy slugs or worms unearthed by the spade. They soon learn which households will put food out for them, and furthermore will learn what time the food regularly gets placed on the bird table, appearing in good time for the day's offerings. Robins will even come into your house or feed from your hand with very little coaxing. 

And our long friendship with the robin is commemorated in our folklore. To begin with it was considered very unlucky to take robins' eggs or to disturb or damage a robin's nest. In many parts of Britain,  it was said that if you broke a robin's egg, something of your own would be broken soon after, and local lore in many places asserted that it would be not just a beloved item, but your arm or your leg. While in Dorset, it was believed that stealing robin eggs would cause your fingers to grow crooked. 

Not surprisingly then, it was also considered extremely unlucky to kill a robin. To begin with ill fortune would be yours, often taking the form of maladies in your livestock, such as cows giving bloody milk or litters of animals being born dead. In Hertfordshire and other counties it was said that much like breaking an egg,  killing a robin would result in a broken arm or leg. In Ireland, folk belief held that he who killed a robin would never have good luck ever again, even it was said, if they lived to be a thousand years old.

And if such misfortunes weren't enough, it was also claimed that harming a robin would mark you for life. In parts of England, it was said that if you killed a robin, the hand that did the deed would shake forevermore. Over in Ireland, it said that the offended hand would developed ugly red weals or boils, while in the county of Shropshire it was claimed that the hand that did the bloody deed would actually drop off!

And it gets worse. An old English folk rhyme states -

"The blood on the breast of a robin that's caught, 
 Brings death to the snarer by whom it is caught."

In some places it was said that whatever method was used to slay poor robin would become the way you yourself would meet your demise. Therefore the Sparrow who slew Cock Robin with his bow and arrow in the old nursery rhyme could expect death by archery in his near future.

This belief that harming robins was bad luck was very common throughout the British Isles, and furthermore has persisted into modern times. In 1974 when the showjumper Ted Edgar was asked by a reporter why he wasn't having much success that season, Edgar wryly replied "I must have shot a robin, mustn't I".

So why is the robin so revered? Well, it should also be noted that robins were believed to be, quite literally, ominous birds. For across the length and breadth of the British Isles, there are folk beliefs that cast robins as omens or messengers of death. In the northern counties, it was believed that if a robin came and tapped three times at your window pane, death was near for someone in the household. While in other many regions it was said that a robin entering a house foretold a death to come soon within that household.

Even the robin's warbling song could bode ill. While the redbreast's singing is usually cheery and bright, it has been noted that the song becomes more wistful and even sad sounding in the winter months. And so, in some places, to hear a robin singing mournfully was considered to be unlucky, particularly if it came sadly singing to your window or doorway. For example, in Devon it was thought that if a robin lands upon the roof of a cottage and  "utters its plaintive weet", a baby inside was to die.

Hence the folk reverence for robins could well stem from the idea that it would be most unwise indeed to harm a bird that was in touch with, or perhaps is even an agent of, the mysterious forces of fate and destiny. But it has also been suggested that that the reverence for robins is linked to other old folk beliefs, which we shall be exploring in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

HYPNOGORIA 05 - Zombi Zombi Part V

In this episode of the Zombi Zombi series, Mr Jim Moon heads to 1970s Spain to explore one of the legendary Eurohorror franchises. Created by director Amando de Ossorio, The Blind Dead saga is a quartet of movies featuring blood drinkin', horse ridin', sword wavin' undead Knights Templar, who hunt by the sense of sound! We discuss in depth all four movies in the sequence Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), Return of the Evil Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975).

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Hypnogoria 05 - Zombi Zombi Part V

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Friday, 21 November 2014

MICROGORIA 07 - 30 Years in the Box of Delights

On the 21st of November in 1984, BBC One screened the first episode of a lavish television adaptation of John Masefield's children's book The Box of Delights - a series that has gone on to be become a beloved classic and part of many folks' Christmas traditions. To the mark the 30th anniversary of its showing,  Mr Jim Moon revisits the series with some new thoughts on this old favourite.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Microgoria 07: 30 Years in The Box of Delights

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Friday, 14 November 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Jack Frost Nipping At Your Nose

Jack Frost by Arthur Rackham

Winter is here once more and old Jack Frost is back up to his old tricks, a-nipping at our nose once again. But what actually do we really know about this frosty sprite? For despite Jack Frost being a familiar figure in the popular imagination, he is something of a mystery. Consider for example, why do we have no clear image for him? Sometimes he's an old man, sometimes a boy and sometimes some species of icy goblin!

Now if you were to do some causal digging here and there, you will find the popular wisdom on the subject is that the figure of Jack Frost is derived from Norse mythology. From a minor demi-god named Jokul Frosti, son of Kari god of the wind to be precise, and whose name means literally "icicle frost". However there are a few small problems with this theory. Firstly there is no "Jokul Frosti" to be found in Scandinavian mythology. There is indeed Jokul who was the son of a wind deity, but he bears no resemblance to the Jack Frost of popular lore. Closer to the mark there was a Frost Giant named Frosti but details about him are scant, and this wintry titan had no special duties regarding winter weather either.

Jack Frost by Eric Kincaid

Of course we should also note that the Vikings didn't have any ruddy glass windows on which famously Jack Frost paints his marvelous icy arabesques! Hence we should rightly discount this dubious Norse origin claims and move along before we catch a chill!

So where does Jack come from? Well Jack Frost first appeared in artwork on October 5th, 1861. It is a cartoon by Thomas Nast, which appeared Harper's Weekly. It has the caption - OUR NEW MAJOR-GENERAL, and refers to a speech made by Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, who stated "Our faithful old Ally of the North, GENERAL JACK FROST, shall come and clear away the Malaria of the South, and we shall march Southward from this place, and there shall be no footsteps backward until this Rebellion is crushed out of this Union." At the time in the Civil War, there had been outbreaks of cholera, and it was hoped the coming freezing winter weather would kills of the infections hindering the war effort. 

However later, much like that other other winter icon Santa Claus whose popular image he helped create, Nast would later draw another less bellicose version of Jack in non political contexts, such as the genial wintry fellow presiding over the scenes presented in the illustration Central Park Winter in 1864. However you wouldn't necessarily recognise them as the same fellow. Indeed Central Park Jack, if it weren't for the caption you very well might take for another Nast version of Santa. 

Also in the 19th century, poet Hannah F. Gould penned a much anthologised poem named Jack Frost and these verses presents the essence of the character we know today, a supernatural character who is responsible for freezing weather, who paints frost patterns, and displays a sense of mischief too - 

by Hannah F. Gould

The Frost looked forth, one still, clear night,
    And whispered, "Now I shall be out of sight;
    So through the valley and over the height,
      In silence I'll take my way:
    I will not go on with that blustering train,
    The wind and the snow, the hail and the rain,
    Who make so much bustle and noise in vain,
      But I'll be as busy as they."

    Then he flew to the mountain and powdered its crest;
    He lit on the trees, and their boughs he dressed
    In diamond beads - and over the breast
      Of the quivering lake he spread
    A coat of mail, that it need not fear
    The downward point of many a spear
    That hung on its margin far and near,
      Where a rock could rear its head.

    He went to the windows of those who slept,
    And over each pane, like a fairy, crept;
    Wherever he breathed, wherever he slept,
      By the light of the moon were seen
    Most beautiful things - there were flowers and trees;
    There were bevies of birds and swarms of bees;
    There were cities with temples and towers, and these
      All pictured in silver sheen!

    But he did one thing that was hardly fair;
    He peeped in the cupboard, and finding there
    That all had forgotten for him to prepare -
     "Now just to set them a-thinking,
    I'll bite this basket of fruit," said he,
   "This costly pitcher I'll burst in three,
    And the glass of water they've left for me
      Shall 'tchich!' to tell them I'm drinking."

In a similar vein, Charles Sangster penned a verse for children entitled Little Jack Frost which appeared in New York magazine The Aldine (Vol.7, No.16, 1875).  While Gould's verse has something of the flavour of folk tales to it, Sangster's poem is more a modern nursery rhyme, with younger children in mind. And not too long after Jack would begin appearing in children's fiction -  in 1902 turning up as a character in Frank L. Baum's book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. And from then on Jack becomes linked with both magical stories and Christmas, and has appearing in all manner of books, comics and movies. 

But what of his origins? Well consulting the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary, we discover that the first written reference to Jack Frost comes not  from some Viking saga, or even Merrie Olde English folk tales, but surprising late in the day, in 1826 to be precise. And rather than being in a tome on legends or folklore, it actually appears in the pages of a British journal, The Sporting Magazine when it was reported that "Jack Frost, however, put a veto on our morning's sport". 

Now people have always enjoyed playfully personifying various objects and abstracts, and in England from around the 1500s, "Jack" was a common slang term for a man, usually a funny or clever fellow. And this is not only the origin of words like "jackanapes" (a chap who's a cheeky monkey) and "jack-o-lantern" (a fellow who held a light), but also all the various Jacks in fairy tales, nursery rhymes and folk tales. Also in England, we famously love to talk about the weather and so naturally (perhaps inevitably!) inclement winter weather getting in the way of your day-to-day activities would be talked of as that Jack Frost being up to no good. 

Indeed his first literary appearance, the Gould poem mentioned above, he's not actually mentioned by name, and very tellingly up until the 1920s the poem was often printed under the alternative title of Freaks of the Frost - which rather suggests the phrase 'Jack Frost' might not have spread into common enough usage to make sense as a title for audiences everywhere. So then, it would appear that our wintry sprite emerges not from ancient legend, but from a simple turn of phrase. Now that is not to say that in the lands of myth and legend, there aren't figures who personify winter, but they are tales for another day...

Jack Frost by Arthur Rackham


Last week, we discussed the ritual of the turning of the Devil's Stone in the village of Shebbear, and while geologists have theorized that it was probably deposited there thousands of years ago by glacial ice, others have wondered whether it was placed there deliberately. While clearly not a proper standing stone or megalith, Shebbear's ancient stone is one of many such mystery rocks that can be found in ancient settlements across Britain and Europe. Clearly they were important to communities in times gone by, but what purpose did they serve?


On the Shebbear village website, two theories are mentioned, with the first being that the Devil's Stone was an old village marker stone. Now this is quite plausible as the Anglo-Saxons, and folks before them, were in the habit of placing large natural boulders in significant places to mark boundaries. In the early days of archaeology these were thought to be grave monuments, and indeed some were. However others, in the absence of any burial below them, are now thought to mark where territories began or ended. Hence as the Devil's Stone is quite close to an ancient church, possibly it marks where the church land began. 


However the second theory is far more intriguing - and that is that this ancient rock was a kind of large dobbie stone. And what in the blue blazes is one of those you may well be asking? Well a dobbie stone was a special kind of stone that gave protection against witches, fairies and  (obviously) dobbies. And those of you now making Harry Potter jokes, are actually closer to the truth than you realise. For a dobbie  - regionally varying to 'dobie' or 'dobbs' - is an old English name for a kind of spirit, whose nature and description varied from region to region.


In some places a dobbie was a kind of ghost, in others a faerie sprite. For example, in County Durham the Shotton Dobby was a shapeshifter appearing variously as an unusually large dog,  horse, cow or goose, and delightly at charging at travellers screeching and then promptly vanishing. However it was also said its appearance foretold a death or a birth in the village. In Lancashire, Dobbies were thought to be more ghostly, indeed any ghost seen outside or in the countryside was dubbed a dobbie. And in North Lancashire, it was said that the watery spirits that haunted the caves and coves of Morecambe Bay were dobbies. While in Cumberland, Sussex and some other places, dobbies a playful but helpful faerie that attached itself to a household, and if welcomed would perform useful chores but if annoyed play pranks - and indeed these legends inspired the naming of JK Rowling's famous large eared house elf. At the Pevensey Court Museum, there is a statue of one such dobbie - 'Master Dobbs' pictured here -

No one is exactly sure where the name 'dobby' comes from; some scholars have suggested it may share the same root or be a corruption of 'bogie' or 'bogle' - words that are similarly used to describe a range of supernatural ghosts and goblins. Other students of folklore have suggested it is derived from 'Robin', as in 'Robin Goodfellow' - again a generic name for assorted imps, sprites and spooks in English folklore. And old Goodfellow has previous in this field, with the associated terms 'hob' and 'hobgoblin' coming from Robin being shortened to Rob.  

However, whether faerie, demon or spectre, dobbies of all varieties could be warded off with special stones. Normally these were small stones that had a naturally formed hole in them. It was said that these stones could protect you from ghosts and faeries, shield you from hexes and spells from witches, and even repel snakes and serpents. Additionally it was said these stones could be used to prevent or even cure a variety of ailments: nightmares, snakebites, rheumatism and whooping cough.

And this was a very widespread belief, with these holed stones being variously known in different regions as hagstones, adder stones, witch stones and serpent eggs. Furthermore stables, farm buildings and houses up and down the country have been found with dobbie stones hung up in them as part of their construction. Indeed even today, the belief persists - albeit in a watered down form - that it is good luck to carry a holed stone in your pocket.

Quite why it was thought a stone with a hole in had these powers, no one is entirely sure. Their curative properties can be explained as deriving from the associated beliefs that the ailments listed were commonly thought to be caused by the entities the stone also repelled - for example an old term for suffering from nightmares was 'hag-ridden' referring to the belief that witches caused nightmares. But why dobbie stones had these protective properties in the first place remains a mystery.

Possibly the protective powers are linked to another common belief about them - namely that if you look through the holes, you will be able to see into the supernatural world. Hence various places have legends stating that if you looked through the hole in a dobbie stone, you could see the spells woven by witches, the unseen imps up to no good, and reveal the invisible world of the faeries.

The fact that all holed stone traditions are very clear on the point that the hole must be natural and not man-made for the dobbie stone to be effective is surely relevant somehow. Possibly in ancient times it was thought that as these holes were natural wonders, they therefore had the power to reveal other hidden wonders of the world. And hence it is a short step to theorize that a person who could see the invisible world could have power over it. Hence hanging up a holed stone could have been a warning to those unseen denizens of the supernatural realms - a way of saying don't try your tricks here are we will discover you!

In several places in Britain and Northern Europe there are large megaliths with holes in them, the most famous being MĂȘn-an-Tol in Cornwall. However not all of the large rocks that have been employed as dobbie stones have holes in them, and the Devil's Stone falls into this category. However these large non-holed dobbie stones do have a natural bowl-like depression in them, as does the famous boulder of Shebbear. And in times gone by offering to placate the local spirits and faeries were left in these natural offering bowls, usually milk or honey or bread. However scholars suspect that in very early times, these offerings to appease the supernatural powers may have been somewhat bloodier...

And it is theorized that this practice emerged from primitive peoples seeing a stone with a natural bowl shape in it and assuming that the local spirits of the place intended it to be used for offerings. Much like the smaller holed dobbie stones, it is a case of the natural world providing a means to communicate with the spiritual one. And it is interesting to note that the dobbies which give these stones, both large and small, are invariably seen as natural spirits inhabiting the countryside, and more interesting when a dobbie adopted a place and served as house elf, it too was welcomed and placated with gifts of milk and bread left out overnight.

One cannot help wondering that perhaps the practice of hanging up a dobbie stone was possibly derived from an older piece of hedge magic, a way of perhaps binding a dobbie to place, creating a guardian sprite to watch over your home and animals. But whatever the long lost origins of these customs are, should you discover a stone with a hole in it, picking it up and bringing it home may well be a very useful thing to do.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

MICROGORIA 06: The Story of An Evening With Boris Karloff and His Friends

Mr Jim Moon takes a trip into the Vinyl Vault at the Great Library of Dreams to tell the tale of a most seminal spooky record beloved of the monster kids of the '60s which paid homage to the Universal horrors and was hosted by Mr Boris Karloff himself!

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Microgoria 06: The Story of An Evening With Boris Karloff and His Friends

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Friday, 7 November 2014

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Turning the Devil's Stone

Remember, remember the 5th of November... Yes, in the United Kingdom the first week in the eleventh month sees countrywide celebrations involving firework displays and bonfires. Variously known as Firework Night or Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night supposedly commemorates the foiling of a plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. Now I say 'supposedly' for two very good reasons: firstly that old Guido Fawkes has over the years become a bit of a folk hero and is widely, and these days only slightly comically, dubbed "the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions". And secondly there's good reason to assume that the British custom of having great bonfire parties at the start of November is linked to older celebrations originally held at Halloween.

Now the links between Halloween and Firework Night customs are very hotly debated, with many serious historians insisting it is a British tradition born of political events in the early 17th century. However given that there is historically proven traditions of lighting bonfires on Halloween, this view would seem to be somewhat myopic. The tradition parkin - a form of cake - baked and eaten for Bonfire Night would seem to be highly suspiciously close to the earlier traditions of cooking soul cakes at Hallowmas. And furthermore while today we make effigies of Guy Fawkes to burn on the bonfire, in the early days of the celebration revellers actually dressed up as Guido Fawkes and went around soliciting "pennies for the Guys" with a threat of mischief if pennies weren't to be had -  a practice clearly derived from going Hallowmas mumming and going a-souling, the roots of our tradition of trick or treating.

More tellingly however, there are some curious folk customs occurring on November 5th that seem to address the supernatural world growing close to us, something more suited to Halloween, and indeed there are some that have nothing to do with fireworks or bonfires. One such tradition, which may well have had its date moved from October 31st to November 5th, occurs every year in a little village in North Devon.

Shebbear is a small rural community of under one thousands souls but an ancient one. It is mentioned in that great survey of England carried out by William the Conqueror in 1086, the Domesday Book and the village boasts a very beautiful medieval church, St Michael Parish Church, built in 1358. Nearby this venerable place of worship, by an ancient oak tree, is a large stone locally called The Devil's Stone.

Quite how the stone got there nobody knows. Geologists have ascertained that it is not composed of the rock and stone, hence some experts have theorized that it is what is called a glacial erratic, that is a stone pushed from its native place by the growth of glaciers in the Ice Age and deposited miles away. Others have wondered whether this stone was deliberately brought to the area for ritual purposes like the altar stones of Stonehenge. Whatever the truth, the villagers have evidently long recognised the stone was not of local origin and there are several legends accounting for its origins.

Firstly some say the great boulder was dropped by the Devil, while fighting with St. Michael when the Dark One staged his rebellion in Heaven. Another states that the Devil so opposed the building of the church that he threw a great stone at it and missed. A further tale says that the mystery rock was to be the foundation of a church at Henscott but the wily Devil kept on rolling the stone away to Shebbear, and as I can find no trace any church there, it looks like Old Nick won that time.

However the most interesting legend also gives us a curious rite carried out every 5th of November. It is said that the Devil is actually trapped beneath the stone itself. Hence on the night of November 5th, the strong folk of the village process to the stone with spades and pickaxes, and while the six bells of St Michael's are vigorous rang to ward off evil spirits, the great stone, which weighs around one tonne, is lifted and turned over by the locals to keep Old Nick imprisoned for another year.

And does this actually work? Well, in 1913 the villagers neglected their ancient duty and a string of misfortunes befell the village, and only ceased when the stone was turned. Furthermore in 1940, when all the brave menfolk of the village had been called away to fight, the stone was not turned. However as the news from the front turned increasing grim, the stone was at last turned that year and from then on, the ritual has been always carried out without fail...

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

TOMEGORIA 001 - The Girl With All The Gifts

Introducing a brand addition to the Hypnobobs podcast family - Tomegoria!

Every month in the Great Library of Dreams, Miss Odile Thomas will be joining Mr Jim Moon to embark on full and frankly spoiler filled reviews and discussion of  assorted different tomes, very much picking up from their previous team-ups on the Highway to Mars podcast.

And in this inaugural show, our hosts take their chairs by the fireside to discuss the recently released tome The Girl With All The Gifts - a highly impressive post apocalypse novel actually penned by famed famed Mike Carey under the pseudonym MR Carey. WARNING - this is a highly spoilerific discussion of this book, proceed with caution!

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - TOMEGORIA 001 - The Girl With All the Gifts by MR Carey

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