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Mystery of the Morris Dance

24 Jun

Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers. The earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dance is dated to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. Further mentions of Morris dancing occur in the late 15th century, and there are also early records such as visiting bishops’ “Visitation Articles” mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as mumming plays. While the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had adopted the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century. The name is first recorded in the mid-15th century as Morisk dance, moreys daunce, morisse daunce, i.e. “Moorish dance”. The term entered English via Flemish mooriske danse Comparable terms in other languages are German Moriskentanz (also from the 15th century), French morisques, Croatian moreška, and moresco, moresca or morisca in Italy and Spain. The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century. It is unclear why the dance was so namedas with many folk customs, the origins are hidden in the mists of time and coloured by later perceptions, which may or may not have been correct.

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The Whitby Witches

18 Mar

Whitby is a town on the North Yorkshire coast that is perched between two supernatural thresholds – the moors and the sea. This area is rich with extraordinary history, stories of the magical and mysterious, of shipwrecks, sailors, superstitions and the supernatural, of wild adventure and impossible happenings. The 17th century abbey here made Whitby one of the key foundations of the early Christian period, and a centre of great learning, though little interfered with the fishing community which scraped together a living on the harbour banks of the River Esk below. For a thousand years, the local herring boats landed their catch until the great whaling boom of the 18th century transformed the fortunes of the town. Melville’s Moby Dick makes much of Whitby whalers like William Scoresby, while James Cook took his first seafaring steps from the town in 1746, on his way to becoming a national hero. Tourism started in Whitby during the Georgian period and developed further on the arrival of the railway in 1839. Its attraction as a tourist destination was enhanced by its proximity to the high ground of the North York Moors National Park, its Heritage Coastline and by its association with the classic horror novel Dracula. There are also stories of a horrific black hound that prowls the streets of Whitby by night, tales of unexplained supernatural phenomena at the Pavilion Theatre and reports of paranormal activity in virtually every room of an historic Georgian manor that is now a guest house during the tourist season.

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M R James’s Suffolk

18 Feb

The macabre beneath the landscape is not dispelled by nearness to the sea. What Henry James knew, and described in English Hours (1905) – the strangeness present on a flattened seashore – M R James (no blood relation, although the two were acquainted) expressed in two of his best-known ghost stories: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (scrambling over the groynes around Cobbold’s Point at Felixstowe, on a bleak, seemingly wintry, evening) and A Warning to the Curious, which leads to a remorseless killing on the beach near Aldeburgh’s martello tower. In his brief excursion to Aldeburgh in 1897, in “the glimmering of a minute,” Henry James responded to “the conditions that, grimly enough, could engender masterpieces.” MRJ was massively more a scholar than a fiction-writer, the settings of his stories were usually authentically antiquarian. But their “engendering” was perhaps as much instinctive as academic.  “A very pleasant man he is,” wrote MRJ of HJ, “talking just as he writes with punctilious effort to use the words he wants.” As with Henry James, MRJ’s greatness was recognised in his own day by the award of an Order of Merit.

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Boston By Night

15 Oct

Boston is an old city, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the Americas, and it has long been fertile ground for superstition, myth and folklore. The woods of New England and upstate New York have a certain reputation for having been haunted by devil-worshippers, witches or creatures of the night during the time of the pilgrims and the later colonies (the Headless Horseman, for instance). But the strands of fate binding the region aren’t all bad. The city did spawn the Boston Tea Party, which helped to create a new nation dedicated to freedom and liberty. The city also saw the Salem Witch Trials. It’s the city where Ben Franklin grew up, and the place where the infamous Strangler stalked. In other words, it’s a place of potency. New things are created daily at MIT, while Harvard graduates figure out how best to steer the course of society. Boston is a city of secrets, layered with history. Buried under the weight of the past, secrets from Boston’s pre-colonial and colonial history promise profits and threats to visitors. The Massachusetts woods creep over forgotten ruins and strange colonies. Boston proper is a layered city, where the sediment of past cultures pack into a bedrock that isn’t easily dislodged by the passing fads of the 21st century. Europeans came here with agendas that were variously devout, venal, hopeful and strange. Once Boston was a revolutionary city, full of ideas and promise. Its possibilities have been fading, lost in a mire of apathy and the frantic pace of too-rapid change. What legacies continue to reach forward, out of history, to continue to affect the present? These legacies not only give Boston’s past an identity but also serve, through means both mystic and mundane, to define its future. Along lonely roads, in deep woods and on the grounds of isolated and ancient houses, strange things lurk. Boston and its surroundings have long known the tread of those who walk in other realms – centuries-long hauntings, spirits both benign and malevolent and creatures unknown to either science or superstition, just to name a few. Let’s take a look at the city of Boston and its environs with all its old, witchy New England atmosphere .

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Secrets of the Pow-wow

12 Feb

Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the tradition is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. Although the name was taken from the Algonquian term for shamans, Pow-wow relates directly to the European culture from which the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came. While immigrants from the Netherlands did make their homes in Philadelphia, the term Pennsylvania Dutch actually refers to immigrants from the Rhine region in Germany (the name being a corruption of the word ‘Deutsch’). These peoples fled religious persecution at home and settled in and around Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th century. The moniker has expanded in modern times to include a broader variety of immigrants from the Germanic region in Europe, especially those who cling tightly to their traditional religious perspectives, as it is a magical tradition that combines Catholic prayers with intonations or inscriptions of mystical words, folk rituals, and recipes to create cures for various ailments and illnesses. While modern Pennsylvania Dutch most often profess little to no belief or practice of the culture’s ancient magic, the traditions have not been entirely lost, and it is still possible to find devotees of the old ways in the city to this day.

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The Kingdom of Hay

15 Jan

The rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county linking most of the places of interest. Plonked in the middle of the county on the Wye is Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned sort of place whose proudest possession, the remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. To the west of Hereford, hard by the Welsh border, the key attraction is Hay-on-Wye, which – thanks to the purposeful industry of its very own self-proclaimed ‘King’ Richard Booth – has become the world’s largest repository of secondhand books, on sale in a score of secondhand bookshops. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held there for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’. But Hay-on-Wye was already well known for its many bookshops before the festival was launched. Booth opened his first shop there in 1961, and by the 1970s Hay had gained the nickname ‘The Town of Books’. On 1 April 1977 Booth proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as king – styled Richard Cœur de Livre – and his horse as Prime Minister. He lives there still, ruling the kingdom of Hay from his very own castle in the hills.

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Sinterklaas

11 Dec

Sinterklaas is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas and is the primary source of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top, and traditionally he rides a white horse. Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colourful attire, often sporting a lace collar and a feathered cap. Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, who as King of the Norse Aesir was a major god among the Germanic peoples, and was worshipped throughout Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin include the fact that Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse (Odin rides the sky with his grey horse Sleipnir); Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children (like Odin gave the rune letters to mankind); Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen at chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas (Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin).

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Video

Lost Hearts

11 Sep

I have been haunted by the writings of M R James since childhood but when asked what is my favourite of all his ghostly tales I’ve never fully been able to answer. Lost Hearts, an early tale which apparently James didn’t much care for, and which only appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to fill up the collection at the request of his publisher, does however retain a special corner in my affections. This was my first introduction to James and ever since I have always been surprised at the author’s seeming negative attitude to this particular story, which remains one of the classic short chillers in whatever guise it has assumed, on the page or on the screen. The plot is well known. Abney, an elderly scholar, reclusive and of independent means, invites his young cousin Stephen, recently orphaned, to live with him. His secret intention is to kill the boy in order to obtain his heart, which he believes will give him magical powers and, possibly, immortality. Two murders have already been committed for this purpose, and the young victims’ corpses carefully concealed, but their whereabouts are frighteningly disclosed to the intended next victim, and their intrusion back into the world of the living occurs in a series of disturbing incidents that culminate in the story’s horrifying denouement.

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Mysteries of the Moor

12 Jun

Occupying the main part of the county of Devon between Exeter and Plymouth, Dartmoor is southern England’s greatest expanse of wilderness, some 365 square miles of raw granite, barren bogland, sparse grass and heather-grown moor. It was not always so desolate, as testified by the remnants of scattered Stone Age settlements and the ruined relics of the area’s 19th century tin-mining industry. Today, desultory flocks of sheep and groups of ponies are virtually the only living creatures to be seen wandering over the central vastnesses of the National Park, with solitary birds – buzzards, kestrels, pipits, stonechats and wagtails – wheeling and hovering high above. But even more than its natural beauty, Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of spectral hounds, and a large black dog, among others. Many landmarks have ancient legends and ghost stories associated with them, such as the allegedly haunted Jay’s Grave, the ancient burial site of Childe’s Tomb, the rock pile called Bowerman’s Nose, and the stone crosses that mark former mediaeval routes across the moor. Dartmoor has also inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. D. Blackmore, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie, Rosamunde Pilcher, and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fictional Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria was even hosted on the moor!

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The Land of Lost Content

17 Apr

For a whole host of children born at the tail end of the 19th century the First World War marked a terrible frontier between innocence and adult worldliness. First-hand experience of the horror of war consigned blissful childhood visions to doubtful memory, and post-war technological and economic changes seemed set finally to dismantle an already crumbling rural culture, leaving much that was good behind. One of England’s most gifted poets, Edmund Blunden, seeing perhaps the cultural and spiritual consequences for the nation of unnaturally accelerated fundamental change, and at the same time trying to make sense of his own terrible war-time experience, sought to bring to mind – to his and ours – what at root really mattered in life. Unsurprisingly, he turned to his pre-war childhood vision of the village of Yalding in the Garden of England, his very own ‘land of lost content’. In his poem Old Homes, it was Yalding that he described: ‘O happiest village! how I turned to you / Beyond estranging years that cloaked my view / With all their heavy fogs of fear and strain; / I turned to you, I never turned in vain…’.

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