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The Legend of Stingy Jack

18 Oct

People have been making jack-o’-lanterns – pumpkins with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles, which are a sure sign of the Halloween season – for centuries. The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as early canvasses. In fact, the name, jack-o’-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

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Lupercalia

15 Feb

More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying. Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. The origins of the festival are obscure, although the likely derivation of its name from lupus (Latin: “wolf”) has variously suggested connection with an ancient deity who protected herds from wolves and with the legendary she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. As a fertility rite, the festival is also associated with the god Faunus. The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, took on elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman, pagan holidays. Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century AD, at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries. There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.

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The Curse of La Llorona

19 Jan

La Llorona is a legendary figure with various incarnations. Usually translated into English as ‘the wailing woman’, she is often presented as a banshee-type: an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children, whom she has killed. The infanticide is sometimes carried out with a knife or dagger, but very often the children have been drowned. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever. To some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to scare children into good behaviour. This folk story has been represented artistically in various guises: in film, animation, art, poetry, theatre and in literature aimed at both adults and children alike. The legend is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and among the Chicano Mexican population of the United States. The legend of La Llorona has supposedly haunted Mexico since before the Conquest. Her story is one of violence, much like the country whose suffering she is often taken to represent. So beware the woman in white…

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The Beast of Gévaudan

25 Aug

Legends of werewolves have haunted the wilderness of Europe since the Middle Ages and the origins of such stories go even farther back in our shared mythos across the world. But no story comes as close to the terrifying reality of an animal (or animals) that became known as the Beast of Gévaudan. The creature, which to this day has not been fully identified, began a campaign of terror on the people of Gévaudan, a small province in southern France during the 18th century. The mysterious and gruesome killings became the most fatal series of wolf attacks in the history of the country. Creating mass hysteria and eventually catching the attention of the highest levels of the government, and even the king himself. Almost three hundred deaths were attributed to the beast’s attacks, most with their throats or chests ripped out by something with sharp teeth and claws. News of a murderous monster grabbed the public’s attention. The press reported extensively on the attacks, describing the beast as a wolf-like creature with russet and black fur, a wide chest, a huge mouth and very sharp teeth. The monster’s first victim was Jeanne Boulet, a 14-year-old girl watching her sheep. Her death was followed by others, almost exclusively women and children. Throughout 1764, the brutal attacks—victims with their throats torn out or heads gnawed off—riveted France. The violence was so shocking, news of it traveled from the countryside all the way to the royal palace in Versailles. What was this beast of Gévaudan, and who could stop its reign of terror?

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What became of the Bunyip?

24 Mar

Australia is famous for its huge swathes of untouched wilderness and for the unique, often deadly animals that wander there. You wouldn’t expect that a nation with the likes of the platypus and the killer box jellyfish would need to invent a new creature to add to its allure, yet reports of a mysterious, massive creature lurking in the waters of Australia abound. This creature, the Bunyip, is as much a part of Australian culture as any of its other fantastic beasts. The Bunyip (translated in Aboriginal Australian to mean devil or evil spirit), also known as the Kianpraty, is a creature of Aboriginal mythology. It lives in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds and waterholes all over Australia. The Bunyip has many descriptions. Some say it has a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill. Others think the creature has an appearance similar to a snake with a man and a beard. Some even think that the Bunyip is actually the prehistoric marsupial, Diprotodon australis, that managed to escape extinction. But the figure of the Bunyip was part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, while its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations of the creature known as the Bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Europeans recorded various written accounts of Bunyips in the early and mid-19th century, as they began to settle across the country.

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The Many Faces of the Bogeyman

20 Jan

The Bogeyman is an imaginary creature commonly used by adults to scare and terrorise children into submissive behaviour by telling them that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them. The Bogeyman has no specific appearance in its stories and conceptions about it can vary drastically per nationality or household. Instead he is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror, whose goal depends on what purpose needs serving. Bogeyman tales first made their appearance around the 16th and 17th century. The word “bogey” is probably a variation of the German word bogge, which in turn is a variant of the Middle English bugge, meaning “a frightening spectre”. The earliest modern form of the word was “bogle” (definition: ghost), which was popularised around the 1800’s in English literature and based on the similar Scottish word attested around 1500. The Bogeyman has no specific appearance and conceptions vary drastically by household and culture, but is commonly depicted as a masculine or androgynous monster that punishes children for misbehaviour. Bogeymen may target a specific act or general misbehaviour, depending on what purpose needs serving, often based on a warning from the child’s authority figure. The term “Bogeyman” is sometimes used as a non-specific personification or metonym for terror, and in some cases, the Devil.

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Ghosts of Kernow

23 Sep

Kernow is an ancient name for an ancient place: the English county of Cornwall. When D H Lawrence wrote that being in Cornwall was “like being at a window and looking out of England,” he wasn’t just thinking of its geographical extremity. Virtually unaffected by the Roman conquest, Cornwall was for centuries the last English haven for a Celtic culture elsewhere eradicated by the Saxons – a land where princes communed with Breton troubadours, where chroniclers and scribes composed the epic tales of Arthurian heroism, and where itinerant men from Welsh and Irish monasteries disseminated an elemental and visionary version of Christianity. Primitive granite crosses and a crop of Celtic saints remain as traces of this formative period, and though the Cornish language had ebbed away by the 18th century, it is recalled in Celtic place names that have grown more exotic as they have become corrupted over time. Another strand of Cornwall’s folkloric character comes from the smugglers who thrived here right up until the 19th century, exploiting the sheltered creeks and hidden anchorages of the southern coasts. Cornwall has long been branded the most haunted place in the UK and there are quite a few spooky places you can drop in to see why – if you dare…

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The Battle of Uluru

19 Aug

The immense, mountain-sized rock called Uluru, some 1,300 feet in height and with an enormously broad base, occupies a prominent place in the central Australian landscape. Visible from far away, Uluru (or Ayers Rock) dominates the surrounding territory and is the most sacred site of many Aboriginal peoples. At this holy place, potent crossing point of countless dreaming tracks and song lines (the paths connecting sacred sites), legends say that two snake peoples once fought for supremacy during the Dreamtime (the age of the world’s dawn) and the rock itself still bears witness to their epic struggle. The area around the formation is home to an abundance of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings. Uluru is sacred to the Aboriginal people who live in this varied landscape, the Pitjantjatjara Anangu. According to the Anangu, the world was once a featureless place. None of the places we know existed until creator beings, in the forms of people, plants and animals, traveled widely across the land. Then, in a process of creation and destruction, they formed the landscape as we know it today. Aṉangu land is still inhabited by the spirits of dozens of these ancestral creator beings which are referred to as Tjukuritja or Waparitja.

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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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