Friday, 27 February 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY: The Wyvern of Wonderland

The green and pleasant lands of Britain are full of delightful flora and fauna. However if our folk tales are to be believed, this ancient land was once haunted by creatures far more fearsome than the usual well-loved woodland favourites. For according to legend, many counties in England harboured larger wildlife than just badgers, bunnies, foxes and squirrels, with old tales telling of great worms that roamed the countryside preying upon all and sundry. And no, not the kind you get in the garden! In European folklore, a worm is monstrous serpent or dragon, a term derived from the Old English: wyrm, the Old High German: wurm, and the Old Norse: ormr, all which mean snake or serpent. And the North-East of England seems to have been something of a favoured habitat for these monsters, home to famous legends such as the Lambton Worm, and the Laidley Worm of Bamburgh. However one lesser known beast has had a curious literary legacy, spawning a monster more famous than the worms of Lambton or Bamburgh. 

If you venture to the southern reaches of County Durham, you find the mighty River Tees. And not far from the little town of Croft, this North Eastern river takes something of a wandering path, almost going into a complete loop, and forming a patch of land known as the Sockburn peninsular. A few miles from here is the market town of Darlington, and on the heraldic arms of the borough one can see a shield, supported on one side by a lion and on the other by a wyvern with a falchion - a type of  medieval sword - embedded in its neck. Now this is no mere heraldic symbol or decoration, for this scaly beast is the legendary Sockburn Worm which terrorized the area back in the Middle Ages.

Borough of Darlington coat of arms

The Sockburn area is the seat of Conyers family, and according to old manuscripts this noble house was founded by one Sir John Conyers, who lies buried at Sockburn church. And while most of the church is now in ruins, a portion known as the Conyers Chapel is still standing and the tomb of Sir John, complete with his effigy in full armour, can still be seen there. And a further relic can be seen at the Treasury of Durham Cathedral - Sir John's own falchion. Originally housed at Sockburn Hall, until the late 18th century the falchion was used in a ceremony when a new Bishop of Durham entered the bishopric for the first time. The Lord of Sockburn would present and hand over the falchion to the newly appointed bishop on the bridge at Croft. This little ritual symbolised the noble family recognizing the authority of the incoming Prince-Bishop, and while there are many similar historic customs where a token is passed to show fealty to a ruling authority, in this case the falchion was more than a symbolic prop. For this ancient weapon was the foundation on which the nobility of the Conyers family was built upon. 

Historians believe that the Conyers originally came over to England during or just after the Norman conquest of 1066. However the family were not ennobled and granted lands until several centuries later, at some point between 12th or 14th centuries. However according to tradition, it was Sir John who won these honours. For back in those dark days, a monstrous worm was ravaging the lands of Sockburn, devouring both livestock and people. The Sockburn Worm was not only highly ferocious and but it  was also very toxic, for like many European dragons, rather than breathing fire, its breath and bite were lethally poisonous. Sir John, then just a humble knight, undertook to challenge the beast. What happened is documented in the Bowes Manuscript - 
Sr John Conyers, Knt. slew yt monstrous and poysonous vermine or wyverne, who overthrew and devoured many people in fight, for that ye sent of yt poison was so strong yt no person might abyde it. And by ye providence of Almighty God this John Connyers, Kt, overthrew ye saide monster, and slew it. But before he made this enterprise, having but one sonne, he went to the Church of Sockburne in compleate armour, and offered up yt his onely sonne to ye Holy Ghost. yt place where this great serpent laye was called Graystane; and as it is written in ye same manuscript, this John lieth buried in Sockburne Church in compleat armour before the Conquest. 
So then the Conyers gained their lands and title from Sir John slaying the Worm of Sockburn, and indeed it is the brave knight's falchion that we see on the coat of arms of the Borough of Darlington. And while the Conyers family is long gone, the custom of handing of Sir John's falchion to the new Bishop of Durham was revived in 1984, with the Mayor of Darlington handing over the ancient blade and intoning the time-honoured words - 
My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.
The Conyers Falchion

However was there ever really a Sockburn Worm, and if so what exactly was it? Some historians have suggested that the beast was a symbol for Viking invaders, and that Sir John actually slew a ferocious marauding Norseman. The theory goes that the worm legend was inspired by the carved dragon heads that adorned Viking longships. However as the Northern counties abound with first hand accounts and handed down tales of such raids, it seems unlikely that in this case Viking pillagers should be transmogrified into a reptilian monster. And then there is also the additional problem that Sockburn, Croft and Darlington are a fair way from the seas, around twenty-five miles away in fact. 

Furthermore we should not jump to the conclusion that the Worm was a dragon. Now the account quoted above uses the term 'wyvern' which refers to a specific type of dragon - namely one with wings and two legs. And indeed this is how the Sockburn Worm is often depicted, for example it  is seen on the Darlington coat of arms. However this classification comes from 17th century heraldry rather than folklore. And while the manuscript account quoted above is thought to have been written in 1600s, the tale is prefixed by the author stating that "In an ould Manuscript wh I have sene of ye descent of Connyers, there is writ as followeth..." Therefore "wyverne" is very likely to have been used in an older sense of the word, one derived from Middle English, in which it meant simply "viper".

And considering the serpentine forms of other Northern Eastern monsters, and indeed many British dragons, it would seem likely that the original tale is speaking of a monstrous serpent rather than a winged and clawed traditional dragon. Indeed when one considers the accounts of these monstrous worms found all across Northern Europe, which are all are oddly consistent with each other, it is tempting to wonder if there is perhaps some truth behind the old tales... However that is a subject for another day.

Whatever the true nature of the Worm of Sockburn, the beast has sired some notable spawn. Firstly after the Conyers line died out, the Sockburn estate came to the hands of the Hutchinson family. And in 1799, Thomas Hutchinson and his family had some famous visitors come to stay, the poets William Wordsworth and Thomas Coleridge. It would prove to be a memorable stay for all concerned - Wordsworth fell in love with Mary Hutchinson, who he would married in 1802, and Coleridge found romance with her sister Sara. In his ardor for Sara, Coleridge wrote the poem Love and both drew inspiration from, and made allusions to, the local legend and the effigy of Sir John in the chapel.

However this isn't the only literary progeny of the Sockburn Worm, for about forty years later another literary luminary was in residence in the district. In 1843 a new clergyman and his family took up residence in the rectory at Croft-on-Tees, and the eldest son, then eleven years old, was one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - a boy who would grow up to follow in his father's footsteps as an Anglican deacon, but also become a noted mathematician, a logician, a photographer and ultimately become better known to the world as Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice in Wonderland books.

Dodgson remained very fond of Croft and the North East, and often came back to stay for long periods throughout his entire life. And it was on one such trip back to Croft in 1855 that he penned a short poem that he entitled Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. It went like this...
Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe
...And I'm sure that most of you will recognise those lines. For a little later Dodgson was to expand this verse, one that would eventually appear in Alive's second round of adventures - Through the Looking Glass (1871), as the classic poem Jabberwocky.

The Jabberwock by Sir John Tenniel

Now over the years it has often been thought that given Dodgson's love of the North East, Jabberwocky, must have been inspired by the tale of the Lambton Worm. However it is now generally agreed that the legend of the Sockburn Worm is most likely the sire of the dreaded Jabberwock. Firstly while the beast itself, now one of the famous monsters of literature, is clearly a draconic horror, and may appear to be different from the Sockburn Worm, it is consistent with the latre wyvern depiction that Dodgson would have been familiar with.

Furthermore however this celebrated piece of nonsense poetry has the hero slaying the Jabberwock with a special sword, a vorpal blade. This clearly parallels Sir John and his falchion, whereas the Lambton Worm required a more arcane means of disposal. Finally of course, given Dodgson's close association with the church and Croft, he would have certainly known the Sockburn legend. Indeed when the Dodgsons' took up residence at the rectory, the last falchion ceremony would have still been within living memory. Interestingly Carroll scholars have suggested that 'vorpal' is an amalgam of 'verbal' and 'gospel' - an allusion perhaps to Sir John's prayers and pact with the Lord to gain victory over the beast? 

The final clue to the Sockburn link is perhaps the most obscure, but is also possibly the most interesting, for it sheds a new light on the literary nature of Jabberwocky itself. This hint lies in the title of the seed version of the poem - Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. For while most writing on the Sockburn legend these days dates the tale to around the 14th century, based upon the real Sir John Conyers dying in the early 1400s, accounts in books from Dodgson's era mention that it was then believed that the events of the tale occurred far earlier. For example, Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire published 1890 has this to say on the dating of the Sockburn Worm story -
This story, as handed down by tradition, is very much out of harmony with the recorded facts of chronology. The ancestors of the Conyers came to England in the train of William I., at the time of the Conquest, and an effigy, said to be that of Sir John Conyers, the hero of the Worm story, now in Sockburn Hall, whither it was removed at the demolition of the old church, represents a crosslegged knight of the 13th century, clad in chain armour, with his feet resting on a lion engaged in a deadly conflict with a winged worm or griffin. But the exploit, according to the tradition, occurred before the Conquest. 
And so, suddenly the title of the original short poem suddenly makes a lot more sense. Whereas we think of the Sockburn Worm as a medieval story, folks of Dodgson's time considered it a legend from the Dark Ages. And in this light we can clearly see the nonsense language of Jabberwocky, rather than being just linguistic tomfoolery, is also a deliberate echo of the archaic spellings, phrases and cadences of pre-modern English, not dissimilar the kind of language found in the original account, recorded  in the Bowes Manuscript. Many of Carroll's poems are deliberate parodies of other poems, and so considering the Sockburn inspiration for Jabberwocky, it is possible that the nonsense wordplay of this famous poem is in fact a humorous approximation of the tongue of the Dark Ages, a form of speech halfway between Middle and Modern English. 

All in all then, whilst it remains one of the lesser known British dragon stories, the old Sockburn Worm has proved to be a most remarkable monster, inspiring literary greats such as Coleridge and Carroll and fathering one of the great legendary beasts of literature. Long may it continue to burble in the tulgey wood and seize our imaginations with its claws that catch! 

Effigy of Sir John Conyers at Sockburn Church, with a dragon at his feet

A reading of Jabberwocky by Mr Jim Moon

Friday, 20 February 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Mermaid of Zennor

In the wild, windswept moorland of Cornwall, not far from Land's End and on the coast road to St Ives, is the little village called Zennor, and there you can find the church of St. Senara. Every year, hundreds of tourists flock to this quiet coastal village just to visit St Senara's, for it is home to a famous folkloric artefact, the Mermaid's chair. Displayed in the southern side of the church, the Mermaid's chair is an old wooden seat. It is believed to have been constructed from old bench ends, and its ornate carved sides are believed to be around 600 years old. It is adorned with a thin cushion with a pattern of fishes, and one side has a beautiful but unremarkable intertwining pattern. However on the other is a carving of a mermaid, which is said to commemorate an ancient local tale.

The short version goes like this. The choristers of St. Senara have always been famed for their singing, however once upon a time they had a truly exceptional talent - a handsome young fellow called Matthew Trewella, whose voice was so beautiful that every service at the church would close with him singing the last hymn solo. His singing was so enchanting that people came from far and wide just to hear him. But other stranger folks were listening too. And his performances were so enchanting that a local mermaid would creep out of the sea and into the church to listen. However one day, the handsome Matthew noticed his mystery admirer, and being as enchanted with her as she was with him, after one church service, he decided to follow her. And so he followed her as she made her way down to the sea, to Pendour Cove, and there, so the old tales say, both vanished beneath the waves and never to be seen again. And hence, the carved chair in St. Senara's is the very seat where the mermaid would sit and listen to Matthew singing...

Or so the local legend says. However modern folklorists have theorized that actually the carving probably inspired the story and not the other way around. And in favour of that argument are the following facts. Firstly the carving dates back at least five hundred years whereas the earliest version of this fishy tale that we have heard, comes from the 19th century. Secondly, while at first it would seem unusual to find a representation of a mermaid in a church - after all, alluring ladies who are half fish and half naked aren't normally the first thing that springs to mind when contemplating the teachings of Christ - actually mermaids have a long history in church iconography. here in this marvelous round-up of church merfolkAt various times in history they have been used to represent vanity (hence appearing with combs and mirrors), the dual nature of Christ (with his human/divine nature symbolized in the mermaid's ability to live in the realm of air and the realm of water), and of course, given their famous beauty and scanty wardrobes, as warnings about the temptations of lust.    
On the flipside however, we must also note that we don't actually have too much folklore dated before 1800s, as quite simply it wasn't until the 19th century that people began documenting folk tales and local stories. Hence the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor may have been in circulating for untold years before it was recorded by Mr William Bottrell in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Volume 2 in 1873.  So then, exactly how old the story actually is, it is impossible to say. Secondly, while the carving's depiction of the lady from the waves has her holding a comb and mirror, which suggests a medieval reminder on the sins of vanity, we should also note that this was also the traditional way mermaids were depicted. Indeed the Greek goddess Aphrodite was often pictured as a mermaid holding a comb and a quince - and in ancient depictions of mermaids there is some confusion as to whether the round object they are holding is a mirror or a fruit. The point is however, that medieval artwork was very stylised - with artists recreating an accepted set of images and symbols rather than crafting personal visions. Hence if the villagers of Zennor had instructed a woodworker to carve them a mermaid to commemorate the tale, it is highly likely a mermaid in the classic pose with mirror and comb would have resulted anyway.

So did the tale inspired the carving or the carving inspire the tale? Well as is often the case with folklore, it is always worth having a look at the original source to see what light it can shed on the matter. And so here is what William Bottrell  recorded in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Volume II (1873) -
Hundreds of years ago a very beautiful and richly attired lady attended service in Zennor Church occasionally—now and then she went to Morvah also;—her visits were by no means regular,—often long intervals would elapse between them.
Yet whenever she came the people were enchanted with her good looks and sweet singing. Although Zennor folks were remarkable for their fine psalmody, she excelled them all; and they wondered how, after the scores of years that they had seen
her, she continued to look so young and fair. No one knew whence she came nor whither she went; yet many watched her as far as they could see from Tregarthen Hill.
She took some notice of a fine young man, called Mathey Trewella, who was the best singer in the parish. He once followed her, but he never returned; after that she was never more seen in Zennor Church, and it might not have been known to this day who or what she was but for the merest accident.
One Sunday morning a vessel cast anchor about a mile from Pendower Cove; soon after a mermaid came close alongside and hailed the ship. Rising out of the water as far as her waist, with her yellow hair floating around her, she told the captain that she was returning from church, and requested him to trip his anchor just for a minute, as the fluke of it rested on the door of her dwelling, and she was anxious to get in to her children.
Others say that while she was out on the ocean a-fishing of a Sunday morning, the anchor was dropped on the trap-door which gave access to her submarine abode. Finding, on her return, how she was hindered from opening her door, she begged the captain to have the anchor raised that she might enter her dwelling to dress her children and be ready in time for church.
However it may be, her polite request had a magical effect upon the sailors, for they immediately "worked with a will," hove anchor and set sail, not wishing to remain a moment longer than they could help near her habitation. Sea-faring men, who understood most about mermaids, regarded their appearance as a token that bad luck was near at hand. It was believed they could take such shapes as suited their purpose, and that they had often allured men to live with them.
When Zennor folks learnt that a mermaid dwelt near Pen-dower, and what she had told the captain, they concluded—it was, this sea-lady who had visited their church, and enticed Trewella to her abode. To commemorate these somewhat unusual events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean-home—carved in holy-oak, which may still be seen.

However, it's the rough edges to this first account of the story that are most intriguing. For later versions would add several key details - for example many versions now give our mermaid a name - Morveren. One oft-repeated version even adds an epilogue in the form of the claim  that the sound of Matthew singing was frequently heard from beneath the waves and taken by the locals as a reliable warning of storms and rough seas to come.  While another very common version adds even more - that sailors over-heard the mermaid calling down to Matthew to attend to the children, and hence connecting the two incidents beyond doubt and smoothly rounding off the story. And all of this seems somewhat strange if the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor was supposedly inspired by the carving on the chair. 

For stories are much like stones on a beach, for the retelling of stories has an action upon them like that the tides, slowly wearing away the jagged edges and rough spots, and after several generations, all that is left are rounded shapes with smooth curves. And as any explorer of folklore will tell you, generally the more recent the version of the tale, the smoother the story runs. One just has to compare our modern fairy stories with the first versions recorded - one finds they are often a good deal crueler and darker and in many case missing many details which make them what we would now consider to be a well-rounded tale. So there is - if you'll pardon the pun - something fishy going on here. 

Now in the original account above we appear to have in effect two stories, both which bear the same rough textures as many other authentic bits of folklore recorded in the 19th century. Possibly they were originally two separate local tales that over the years have been have linked together, with the second becoming in effect an explanation for the first. And it is only after the story is published in the 1870s that the process of storyification begins to take place, with the two strands of the account given by Mr Botterell become united into a whole cohesive narrative with the expected beginning, middle and an end. A  similar process can be seen in the evolution of other well-known tales, for example in the earlier versions of Red Riding Hood, no woodcutter turns up to save her and the story ends with the little girl being eaten.  And much like the original Red Riding Hood story, both parts of the Zennor tale as recorded by Mr Botterell are not traditional fairy stories, instead they are more fragmentary. They are not well-rounded tales meant to entertain, rather they are reports of incidents which are meant to be cautionary, with the first part of the Zennor tale being a clear warning about following strangers, while the second is a more general caution to heed the appearance of literally ominous unnatural things. 

Now in general, churches do not really go in for recording well-loved local stories as part of their décor. Usually any artwork or decoration is either symbolic or commemorative, and hence we find in church artworks allusions to local history and the expected Biblical symbolism. However it is not unusual for certain church features to have legends attached to them, often after their original meaning has been forgotten.  And bearing all of this in mind, I would say the best guess about the origin of the Mermaid’s Seat, would most likely be that actually that either one did not inspire the other. But rather an independently existing tale - the story of the disappearance of Mathy Trewella, was later linked to a second local story of sailors encountering a mermaid in Pendour Cove, and once this connection was made and two stories began being told as one, a further connection was made to the medieval mermaid carving in the church at Zennor. 

But possibly there is a grain of truth in the legend too. That is to say, there was a real life disappearance of a local fellow, which later on was "explained" by another odd event. And it is even possible, given the propensity of local history to find its way into church décor, that  either the disappearance or the sailor’s sighting (and indeed or both stories taken together as one) was commemorated by the carving of the mermaid seat. 

It is worth bearing in mind that he seating in in a church, traditionally in England. was traditionally often very bound up with local families.  Indeed it was often the case that well standing locals would pay for the installation of benches and pews, and their decoration. You may heard the old phrase “gone to the wall” and this actually relates to this ancient church custom. For when a family could no longer pay  for the upkeep of their bench or pew  in the local church, they would have to stand with the rest of the congregation at the back of the church. And their only form of seating would be to lean against the church walls. Hence if a family lost its fortune, it was said to have - you guessed it - gone to the wall.

 Now in great many English churches various carvings on benches and pews have a significance for a local family and hence I wonder whether it was the family of the missing man or the family of sailors that commissioned the mermaid carving. However bearing in mind the family connection to church benches, it is also equally possible that the mermaid was a heraldic device for some forgotten wealthy  family  who paid for the making of the Mermaid’s Seat. Certain mermaids do feature in many coats of arms, and were popular symbols for sea-faring businesses, and so this possibility is I think highly likely. And hence long after this family were gone, this carving was associated with emerging stories of local disappearances and sightings of mermaids. 

We will probably never know the truth, but there is one possibility that might shed some light on the matter. Perhaps it is time some enterprising soul searched the parish records in search of Mathey Trewella... So far researchers have established that Trewella is a common old Cornish name, and indeed there are Trewella documented as living in the local area.  But the further back in time you go the less complete the extant records are, and so far a Mathy or Matthew has not been discovered.  But if he could be found, that would give us some indication of the age of the tale. And it would be most interesting to discover that if there was such a person, if he did indeed disappear in mysterious circumstances....

The Mermaid of Zennor by John Reinhard Weguelin (1900)

Saturday, 14 February 2015

HYPNOGORIA 08 - The Origins of Valentine's Day

In a special surprise episode, Mr Jim Moon breaks out the debunking  shotgun and delves into the mysteries of St Valentine's Day, attempting to sort the fact from the fiction about the origins of this celebration of romance!

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  HYPNOGORIA 08 - The Origins of Valentine's Day

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Completing the trilogy of World of the Unknown books, Mr Jim Moon, in a predictably over-excitable fashion, voyages back to the 1970s to take a look at  All About UFOs (Usborne 1977)


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Friday, 13 February 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Valentine's Lore

Well it's that time of year when the shops are filled with hearts and flowers, love is in the air, and there is much rejoicing among card manufacturers! And thus it ever was, all the way back to Roman times, or at least so the received wisdom would have you believe. However as ever in the shifting world of folklore, things are not always what they seem. Now according to a slew of articles and puff pieces that surface every February, St. Valentine's Day is a Christianization of an ancient festival held back in the days of Classical paganism.

In Graeco-Roman times, according to some, young folks had marriages set up by drawing lots: names were placed in an urn and picked out at random, pairing up the lads and lasses. And according to others, as well as this romantic lottery, this was part of a wild festival celebrating werewolves. Now as appealing as both these sound, sadly both of these claims are what we historians call - confusing technical terms alert! - "poppycock", "claptrap" and "flapdoddle". For both these claims are at best wildly inaccurate and their connection to the origins of Valentine's day suspect at best.

Now there was a Roman festival, held from the 13th to the 15th of February, called Lupercalia. However it must be noted that this was very much a local custom, a festival held pretty much exclusively in Rome as there are only scant references to Lupercalia being held anywhere else. Therefore it wasn't a custom that spread throughout the Roman Empire, so it couldn't possibly be the seeding a proto-Valentine's day across Europe.

Lupercalia's purpose was thought to be to cleanse the city of evil spirits and usher in the spring, however there is a good deal of mystery about it. Often it is said that its name was from derived from a Lycaean god Lupercus, a god originally worshipped by shepherds and identified with the better known Roman deity Faunus and the Greek Pan. However as this was a set of customs peculiar to the city of Rome, it has also been claimed that it was a celebration of Lupa, the she-wolf who according to legend suckled that ancient city's  founders, Romulus and Remus. Furthermore many other gods have been referenced as part of the celebrations such as Juno, queen of the Roman gods, and the afore-mentioned Pan and Faunus. Also often invoked in Lupercalia was Februus, a god of purification from whom we get the name February.

Indeed it is thought that Lupercalia grew out of imported Greek practices fusing with different aspects of local cult worship around the core of an earlier festival honouring Februus, called Februa. Hence these celebrations held on the Ides of February were not dedicated to the worship of any one god or spring solely from one religious tradition but were actually a folk amalgam of many different rites. Interestingly this festival was so old that even Classical writers of the time were not sure of its history - much like our own folk festivals that survive today, its origins and exact meaning had long been forgotten by the Romans although the practice still continued.

The main event of Lupercalia was the sacrifice of two goats and a dog. Young men of the city were annointed with the blood of the animal, and then led by the priests and dressed in goatskins and/or going naked, ran round the walls of the old city, presumably to scare off the afore-mentioned evil spirits. They carried freshly cut strips of hide from the sacrifices and playfully whipping the ground and the spectators with the newly cut thongs to purify them. It was considered good fortune to be whipped, and for ladies it would ensure fertility and easier births, for it was a common belief in the ancient world that if one was purified, one would be healthy, happy, fortunate and fertile. 

However by 1 AD the festival was largely a somewhat rowdy drunken affair, with Lupercalia appearing to have more in common with the kind of beery, bawdy mischief that football teams get up to than a serious religious festival. Indeed for this reason, it was outlawed at the end of the 5th century as it was felt the festival was something of a public disgrace. So then, while undoubtedly there was a link to fertility and the spring in the festival, Lupercalia had little or nothing to do with Roman marriage customs, and in its later centuries appears to have been about as romantic as a fraternity kegger. More damningly however, no Classical source mentions any custom of drawing of lots for romance or marriage or just for fun. Furthermore there are no archaeological discoveries of artifacts used in such practices, and no frescos, statuary or artworks depicting the custom either. So while it is a quaint story, without any historical evidence that is all it is.

Now then as for the werewolf festival claims, I'm afraid that as fun as this sounds, this too is without historical basis. Or rather its alleged historical basis is actually the result of sloppy research. This lycanthropic origin for Valentine's Day appears to have surfaced only relatively recently in the last few years but has taken root on the internet. So now it gets gets bandied about every February, with all sundry being too busy making "Happy Horny Werewolf Day!" cracks to bother to check any sources.

The first alleged link is a misunderstanding of the nature of the god Lupercus. While his name is linked with wolves, he wasn't a lupine god at all. He was portrayed as a satyr i.e. a figure half man, half goat, hence his identification withe the Greek Geek and the Roman Faunus.  Now you can go a long way in history and folklore by analyzing the etymology of words and names, however simply equating two words or names as the same as they sound similar is doing a half a job at best. So simply equating "Lupercus" with the word for wolf "lupus" does not suddenly make him a wolf god or werewolf deity without a shred of any other supporting evidence. The consensus among historians is that his name actually means "he who protects from wolves" - which makes more sense for a pastoral goat god originally worshipped by shepherds.

Lupercus/Faunus - clearly not a werewolf

Similarly some writers peddling the werewolf festival line have pointed out that Lupercus was identified with Pan, who was sometimes referred to as Pan Lycaeus. Now "lycaeus" is derived from the Greek word for wolf and hence these unwise fellows have assumed that this meant that Pan, another goat god, had a wolf form In fact several Greek gods sported the tag 'Lycaeus' such as Zeus and Apollo, but it actually refers to Mount Lykaion. While its name in Greek means literally 'wolf mountain', this location in Greece is very important in Classical myth, and hence these gods all had their own mythological links to it and shrines to them built on it. Therefore "Lycaeus" is usually interpreted as a geographical honorific, with a secondary school of thought taking the alternative view that it means "Protector against wolves". Either way, Classical scholars are very sure it does not denote a wolf form of these gods, and certainly is not a sign of divine werewolvry! Other dubious claims of wolvish links are made with the detail of a sacrifice of a dog, alleging it was a substitute for a wolf. However according to Classical scholarship, dogs were a standard animal to sacrifice in many Roman rites, and if there was any symbolic significance for the choice of sacrifices in the festival of Lupercalia, it is thought that the sacrifice of two goats and a dog are thought to represent a flock and its protector.

The final misunderstanding and the one central to the werewolf festival flapdoodle, is the erroneous idea that the dressing in the skins of the sacrifices was some specious ritual transformation into wolves. Now this would be a reasonable assumption... if they were wolf pelts, in a wolf ritual, to honour a wolf god. But as it was goatskins donned, it was clearly to emulate the satyr gods of Lupercus, Faunus and Pan. Furthermore in a festival linked to shepherding and farming, the idea of celebrating wolves, never mind werewolves, is nonsensical at best. Again there is no mention of wolves, let alone werewolves in contemporary Classical sources, and the iconography for the festival found in surviving Roman statuary and the like, clearly shows a strong ovine theme, with rams and ewe heads and not a wolf insight. All of which rather definitively slays the werewolf festival myth.
Roman representation of Lupercali from of the end of the reign of Trajan

So then having debunked these two modern myths, where did these oft repeated Graeco-Roman origin claims come from? Well, they actually appear relatively late in the day, in an 18th century work Lifes of the Principal Saints. The author Alban Butler writes -
To abolish the heathen, lewd, superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the 15th of February, several zealous Pastors substituted the names of Saints in billets given on that day. 
Now while Februata Juno is thought to be a confused reference to Lupercalia and the earlier festival of Febra, as we have established, there is no mention in Classical sources of this custom of drawing lots. However being a respected source, Butler's claims have been repeated without question for many years and it is only relatively recently that scholars began to question his claims. Now as we have established there is not historical evidence for this alleged Roman custom, but as generations of historians, scholars and folklorists accepted Butler's account  thus the modern erroneous myth of a Graeco-Roman origin for Valentine's Day was born. 

However it is some truth in what Butler says. And that is that as far back as the 15th century, romantic matches were being made by lottery in mid February in Europe. Given the prominence of Classical origins in many of our old customs, Butler perhaps can be forgiven for attributing Roman roots to what was a common medieval custom.

From sources that document this tradition, it would appear that this wasn't necessarily a serious practice - back in those times marriages were carefully arranged affairs to consolidate land, titles and power. Rather it seems to have been a playful game popular in the courts of kings and nobles. It was so popular and widespread that later the custom spread down through society and down through the ages, to the extent it was still being played in 19th century - with Scottish poet Robert Burns mentioning choosing a valentine by drawing lots in the song Tam Glen. Indeed rather than betrothal by lottery, it appears to have been more cross between a party game and a sort of loose form of divination. 

But having debunked the Roman origins, where does this curious custom of romance by chance come from, and why the association between romance and mid February? Well it would appear we can blame Chaucer for this. Actually that is possibly a little unfair - rather it is in a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer that we have the first recorded instance of an odd medieval belief that was to set this romantic ball rolling. In Parlement of Foules, thought to have been penned around 1382Chaucer writes -

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

And for those of you who don't speak Middle English that means -

For this was on St. Valentine's Day, 
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
Yes, in medieval lore there was said to be an exact day when our feathered friends paired up for the year, a date for the annual marriage of the birds. And this is the seed of both the drawing of lots custom, and later of Valentine's Day itself.

Now some scholars have questioned whether Chaucer's "seynt Volantynys day" actually refers to February 14th. They claim that later an astronomical process called the precession of the equinoxes would have changing the date of the start of spring, and therefore when Chaucer was writing it would be too early in the year for birds to be mating. So then, it has been suggested that perhaps he was referring to the later celebration of another Valentine, the feast of Valentine of Genoa which falls on May 3rd in the liturgical calendar.

However the idea he might not have been referencing February 14th is based on the underlying assumption that Chaucer is referring to an actual belief concerning the nature of birds. But examining scholarly interpretations of the poem, this marriage of the birds is often considered to be a poetic invention for his narrative. Partly this is due to there being no other written precedent for this belief, it is only every mentioned in other poems by John Gower, Otton de Grandson and Pardo of Valencia. And difficulties in dating all these worthy gentlemen's verses make it impossible to say whether they were written before or after Chaucer put quill to vellum. Either way it would appear to be a poetic conceit rather than authentic folklore, for the mythic tone and themes of Parlement of Foulesrather suggest it is a legend invented specially for the narrative of the verse.

But if we are to entertain the possibility that  Chaucer was documenting actual contemporary lore, which have have lost other sources for, it would still be most unwise to assume that folks of his time believed in an actual marriage of birds occurring on a set day. Firstly bear in mind that the people of Chaucer's day lived in an agrarian society and were far more aware of the habits and life cycles of local wildlife than us modern townies, and hence they were very unlikely to believe such a whimsical idea. Furthermore medieval people, very much at the mercy of the whims of the British climate, would know very well that despite the vernal equinox marking the start of spring in astronomical and calendar terms, in reality spring coming was a variable event, dependent on the local weather. Some years it would come early and birds indeed may start nesting in February, but in other years February might be lost in swathes of snow, still in the depths of winter. Therefore there could have been no real expectation that spring would actually have to start on any arbitrary date. 

A modern analogy would be having a white Christmas - that is what is depicted in our seasonal imagery, and what we hope for, but we know that it is not guaranteed, or timetabled to snow at the end of December. The medieval world view was one that was rich in symbol, allegory and metaphor, and hence if February 14th was popularly held to be the date of the marriage of the birds, it would be understood as a symbolic event marking the coming of spring, and not as biology or natural history. Therefore we can safe assume that Chaucer meant the usual date, and as further evidence will confirm.  

Geoffrey Chaucer - it's all his fault 

But no matter where it originates, whether as poetic fancy or a genuine lost piece of medieval lore, the link between St.Valentine's Day and romantic love had been made. And thanks to its appearances in poetry, the idea soon gained popularity. This was after all the age when 'courtly love' was all the rage, and poets like Chaucer were its standard bearers in literature. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that Valentine's Day was to become the focus for romantic activities. Now as to which St. Valentine's Day Chaucer is referring, confirmation that it was the usual date comes around two decades later. For King Charles V of France held an event named 'The Court of Love' on the 14th of February in the year 1400, which featured feasting, jousting and competitions in writing amorous verse. This is widely accepted to be the very first St. Valentine's Day party. 

Further into the 15th century, we have the earliest valentine love poems appearing, and into the sixteenth century we have Chaucer's bird tradition and the love customs now fused together, with poets Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick referring to the avian lore in their love poems To His Valentine and To His Valentine On St. Valentine's Day. And so Valentine's Day has been a tradition since the 15th century, and rather than emerging from a Christian whitewash of surviving Graeco-Roman pagan activities as Butler suggested, it would seem that our Valentine's customs are more the product of the culture and literature of courtly love that flourished in the Middle Ages. Indeed even the legends attached to St. Valentine that link him to the practice of sending cards are an addition to his mythology that appear well after the courtly love culture had invented and popularized Valentine's Day. And so despite having a saint's name and feast day, our Valentine's customs have their roots in literature and court entertainments rather than religious rites, pagan or Christian. Essentially it is a product of medieval pop culture! 

The first printed Valentine card from 1797

However the traditions have shifted and changed over the centuries. Most recently, in the latter years of the 20th century, Valentine's Day has became increasingly a couples' carnival - indeed to the extent it is regularly joked that old St. Val is now the patron saint of making single people feel like shit. But in centuries past it was more a day for finding love than celebrating an established relationship. And while love tokens were sent out to win hearts, it was also a day for a spot of romantic divination. So then let's round off with a look at some of the various charms and rites you could use to find yourself a valentine. 

Some were not dissimilar to the Valentine lotteries detailed above, allowing the forces of random chance to reveal your romantic destiny. For example, there was this common custom - you could write the names of possible beaus on strips of paper, wrap them up in clay, and then drop the clay pellets into a bowl of water - which ever roses to the surface first would reveal the name of your true love. 

In the poem The Shepherd's Week (1714) in the section Thursday, or The Spell, John Gay mentions another Valentine's folk belief (alongside many more similar charms and rites)  - 

Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind,
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find,
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas'd the stars away;
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should house-wives do).
Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of Fortune, shall our true love be.

Yes, from the 17th century right up to the 1920s, there was the superstition that the first person of the opposite sex you see on Valentine's Day morning was to be your valentine for that year. Regardless of who they were - the only stricture was that they were single. Unsurprisingly there are reports of an attendant tradition of young folks going about blindfolded or staying in indoors on Valentine's Day!

In a similar vein, and in a thankfully less arbitrary fashion, there also was folklore regarding the meaning of the first thing you saw on Valentine's Day morning. In Derbyshire, it was the custom to peep through the keyhole of the front door and divine your romantic prospects from what you saw - if you saw a single object or person, then you would be single for the rest of the year. If you saw two things or people together, you would be destined to meet some one special in the next twelve months. And if you spotted a cock and hen together, you would be married before the next Valentine's Day came around.

Keeping on the avian theme, and tying in nicely the old Chaucerian ideas of the bird "marriages", it was also said that the first bird a young lady saw on Valentine's Day morning was an omen of her future marriage prospects. There are several variations as to which bird means what but common ones are as follows - if it was a robin, she would marry a sailor, a blackbird signified a clergyman. A sparrow promised wedding a poor man but a happy married life, while a goldfinch presaged a wealthy husband to come. But a woodpecker meant you would forever stay single and never marry.

For the more adventurous, it was said that if you went to a graveyard at midnight the night before Valentine's Day, and ran round the church twelve times, then the ghostly shape of your future lover would appear before you. And finally if you had a very strong stomach you could try the following ritual to invoke a vision of your lover to be on Valentine's Eve. It starts simply enough - gather five bay leaves and pin them to your pillow, one in each corner and one in the middle. According to some versions, you must now sprinkle it with rosewater. Next take an egg, and hard boil it. Then slice it in half, remove the yolk and fill the cavity with salt. Yes, all of it! Then before going to bed you eat this specially prepared egg. And again - all of it! Yes, including the shell! Then after this highly unusual supper, before going to sleep, you recite the following charm - 
"Good valentine, be kind to me; In dreams, let me my true love see." 
And provided that a) you aren't up all night suffering with hideous indigestion, and b) can actually get a wink of sleep for bay leaves poking your face, you will then - allegedly - see the face of your one true love  in your dreams.

DISCLAIMER - The management accepts no responsibility for any ills that may befall you should you try this at home!

Sunday, 8 February 2015

TOMEGORIA 04 - The Haunted

In this episode Odile and Jim go and visit a most benighted residence, with a discussion of Bentley Little's The Haunted (2012)


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Friday, 6 February 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Of Pasties and Piskies Part II

Last week we examined the legends and lore that have grown up around the humble Cornish pasty, and discovered how this pastry delight became the perfect meal for the tin miners in 19th century Cornwall. However the pasty was also popular among the non-human denizens of the mines too...

Cornwall is a land rich in faery lore, and as the Cornish people are descended from Celts they have not only their own ancient language - Kernowek, a Brittonic Celtic tongue related to both Welsh to Breton - but also their own distinct legends and folklore. There are many varieties of Cornish faeries, such as the piskies, tiny faery folk who were mostly benign but sometimes mischievous, and spriggans - ugly beings that were malign, powerful and generally best avoided - haunted old ruins and other lonely places. Generally the Cornish landscape, from the sea, to trees, to wells, and hills was said to be the home of the bucca. Some were good and called bucca gwidden, while more malevolent entities were the bucca dhu, with farmers and fishermen leaving out offerings to stay in the buccas' good graces. 

However the most famous of the bucca are the knockers. They were the spirits of caves and wells, and with the tin mining booms in Cornwall, they also became the denizens of the mines. Their names comes from the fact that miners often heard the sounds of mysterious unseen miners working alongside them in the dark. The sound of tapping and knocking was heard in the dark, and sometimes distant voices were heard singing in the dark of the deep. Of course like most faerie folk, the knockers were prone to mischief - missing tools were often blamed on the knockers. But they also had their own peculiar quirks too, for example, knockers hated people whistling, and if they heard a miner whistling a merry air in the shafts and galleries of the mines, misfortune would follow. 

A silhouette of knocker formed by natural deposits in the Geevor mine, Cornwall

They also hated being seen by mortal folk and this is illustrated by a popular old tale. A rather idle fellow called Barker from Towednack did not believe in the knockers or their powers and to prove his point, he camped by an old mine where the knockers were said to dwell. It was no hardship for the lazy Barker to lie in the sun waiting to catch a glimpse of the famed knockers and soon he heard little voices chattering in the mine. He heard that the knockers worked in eight hour shifts and were soon to finish for the day. Furthermore as knockers apparently enjoyed playing tricks on each other as well as humans, several were discussing where they would find their tools so their fellows could not make mischief with them. 

Well on hearing this, Barker resolved to listen intently and discover these hiding places and steal the knockers' tools for himself. He listen close to the tiny voices emanating from the mine... "I shall hide mine in a cleft in the rocks!" said one, "I shall hide mine beneath a fern!" replied another. "And," exclaimed a third, "I shall hide mine ON BARKER'S KNEE!". And at that very moment, the unfortunate Barker was wracked with pain as a heavy crushing blow from an unseen force battered his left kneecap.  He screamed and scream and fled as fast as he could from the place with the laughter echoing from the mine ringing in his ears. And for the rest of his days, he was to walk with a limp, and the tale is remembered in a common Cornish phrase - "as stiff as Barker's leg".  

However the knockers were also a boon to the miners, for the tin miners of old soon learnt that it was wise to heed the odd noises that were purportedly the knockers working down in the deep. It is was said the knockers' sounds could lead a miner to rich seams, or more importantly give warning of an imminent tunnel collapse. Therefore soon it was considered unsafe to work in mines that didn't have knockers in them, and old mines were never entirely sealed up to let the knockers come and go as they pleased. And to keep in good favour with these mysterious mining spirites, the miners would leave them gifts and offerings. However rather than the usual cream, milk or bread that traditionally one leaves out for the faeries, the miners would leave tallow and candle ends for the knockers' lanterns. But also, the miners would leave a portion of their beloved Cornish pasties for the knockers, with some claiming the pasty's distinctive ridged crust being specially designed to throw into the darkness for the little folk. 

The Cornish mining industry was so successful that soon Cornish miners were in demand overseas, with mine owners across the Atlantic in the USA, and even on the other side of the world in Australia, looking for Cornishmen to come over and bring their expertise. And naturally these migrating tin miners took their favourite meal with them, and hence the Cornish pasty became the world famous dish it is today. However the knockers also came with them, and soon where up to their usual tricks in mines across the globe.

And while over time ideas about what the knockers actually were would change - for example, similar to the Cauld Lad of Hilton, the original concept that they were bucca who lived underground shifted to them being the spirits of deceased miners - belief in these mining spirits would persist well into the 20th century. Not only did the descendants of the original travelling Cornish miners claimed that their luck in finding new seams or dodging tunnel collapses was due to the aid of the knockers, but they also insisted that the old ways were respected - refusing to work if an old mine was totally sealed up. Nor would they to begin work in a new one if the familiar sounds of knocking in the dark had not been heard. And while the old ways of mining are now gone, tales of the knockers persist and these mysterious sprites are still held to be working in old abandoned mines to this very day. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015


In this episode, Mr Jim Moon discovers a lost audio treasure in the dusty archives of the Great Library of Dreams - a rare recording of comedy legend Kenneth Williams performing an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's classic tale of creeping insanity Diary of a Madman.


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