Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When The May Rain Comes



This time last year, I wrote a post on the magical properties of water on the summer solstice (St. John's Eve.) I wasn't able to gather any this year, but I still have a good store of the rainwater that happened to be falling just in time last summer. I use it sparingly, for anything in need of extra cleansing or strength. When a potted plant is losing its luster, a splash of St. John's water will bring it right back around.

I had intended to write a bit last month, but life actually got in the way for once. You may have noticed that, in general, I don't do a lot of how-to's or instructional posts. (I tend to feel that I'll be old and gray before I really have any personal lessons worth sharing.) However, I happened to recall a bit of lore imparted to me by my mother: stand under the first rain of May, and you can make a wish. The "why" of such a belief is interesting to consider; I would put my money on some kind of Marian logic operating here, given that the month of May is sacred to her, and that my culture associates her with sunshowers in general. (We associate sunshowers with witches, too.)

In any case, it got me thinking about the talismanic potential of water in general. We generally accept that the magical qualities of herbs depend, at least in part, on the hour and season in which we harvest them. I don't see any reason why the same wouldn't be true of other natural substances. Aside from herbal baths, teas, or fluid condensers - in which water is a medium for herbal properties - water could be used to make use of whatever temporal or astrological quality you wanted. If you filled a jar with the first rain of May, you'd have wish-water on hand for the rest of the year. Consider also the lore that advises washing one's eyes with morning dew on the first of May (to gain the sight), or on midsummer (to gain beauty.) That's what I'm talking about here. And, in a pinch, you could imbue water with any prayer or intention, at any time, and asperge accordingly. As for the source of this water, the general consensus seems to be that rain and dew are the most pure. But there's no reason you couldn't experiment with other sources.

[ETA - Fall Equinox 2014]: After writing this post, I received some questions about how best to gather and store rain. Personally, I just leave out two or three large bowls, which can get me up to a gallon of water with medium rainfall. I then store it in whatever leak-proof container is available, leaving it in a cool place. If you live in a house, and you want to get more heavy duty, a rain barrel installed under your gutter will collect and store water securely, with a handy spigot for access. They tend to cost around a hundred dollars or so, and some are designed with built-in planters, too. If you live in an apartment - or if you just happen to be an aesthete - a rain chain is a very elegant tool for this purpose, and could be hung from a balcony. The copper rings and cups catch falling droplets so that they pool into a shallow basin. The chain also functions at an incline, should it be necessary. These can cost anywhere from thirty to a hundred dollars, though it wouldn't be at all difficult to make your own. You may need to experiment. In a pinch, I wouldn't judge you for rigging up some funnels and duct tape.

Also, please keep in mind that in some regions of the U.S. and other countries, it may actually be illegal for you to gather rainwater, due to private corporations who have purchased all-encompassing water rights. I consider this nothing less than a human rights violation, but what you do is up to you. Make sure you are well-informed about any legal risks you may be taking.

* * *

Something else I wanted to mention is a story that Mr VI alerted me to soon after my last post, about the Wizard of West-Bow. It was generally believed that the home of Thomas Weir had long been torn down. (All the sources I looked at attested to this.) However, it was recently discovered that his old quarters still stand, having been incorporated into - of all things - a Quaker meeting house. The article tells us that this revelation came as a total surprise to the building's current operators, although it sounds like they were well-aware that Weir had lived in that spot. "...one of my staff some years ago said he had seen Weir walk through the wall. If Dr Bondeson is right, Weir’s house is in our toilet, which seems appropriate."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Jean and Thomas Weir: Sibling Sorcerers

"Sure Major Weir, or some sic warlock wight,
Has flung beguilin’ glances owre your sight."

The Ghaists: a Kirkyard Eclogue
The narrow winding streets and dark cavernous closes of Edinburgh can feel eerie enough at night as you walk alone. But listen out for the wrap of a cane on the cobbles and look out for a dark shadowy figure for it may be the ghost of Major Weir - the Wizard of the West Bow!
-ScotClans.com

You may remember Jean Weir, the 17th-century school teacher who sat at her spinning wheel, from my "Fairy Tale Familiars" post. She was approached by an old woman who offered to make a pact, on Jean's behalf, with the Queen of Elphame.

[x]
A brother of Jean, one Thomas Weir, is mentioned fleetingly in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. ". . . literate Scottish cunning man Thomas Weir (East Lothian, 1670) always wore a cloak, which was 'somewhat dark', and carried a staff which was 'carved with heads like those of satyrs'."

Although Wilby refers to Thomas as a cunning man (implying that he served as a magic worker for his community), this is somewhat misleading; no mention is made of the fact that it was only after a sudden illness, late in life, that he began to confess to diabolic acts of witchcraft. Though there were some who claimed to have observed strange phenomena occurring in his presence - such as the sight of his cane hopping before him of its own volition, as he strolled down the lane - these confessions came as a shock to the community at large, who knew him as a religious orator, renowned in his strict Presbyterian community for his piety. Authorities remained skeptical of his claims, suspecting dementia, until his sister corroborated all his accounts of satanism and venery, without hesitating to add her own sins to the list of crimes. She was quite open about the sources of their magic; in addition to her pact with Elphame, she claimed to have inherited magical powers from their mother - Lady Jean Somerville, who was herself known as a clairvoyant - and that her brother's powers came from his evil walking stick, given to him by the Devil. (Popular tradition asserts that this staff was made of blackthorn.)

I uncovered a lot more about the Weirs in Thomas Wright's "Narratives of Sorcery and Witchcraft." Now, I'm not sure what it is about this story that affects me - maybe it's the imagery, or the urban setting - but this is one of the most chilling accounts of witchcraft and spiritual phenomena I've ever read. Wright doesn't ascribe any truth to it, but see if your blood doesn't run cold by the end:
the Weirs' fiery, spectral coach
This man had distinguished himself by his extraordinary zeal in the cause of the covenant, and had been appointed, in 1619, with the rank of major, to command the city-guard of Edinburgh. He lived in a retired manner with a maiden sister [Jean.] Both professed in their utmost rigor the severe doctrines of the party whose cause they had espoused, and the major, who always appeared in his ordinary behavior reserved and melancholy, was especially endowed with the gift of prayer, which made him a welcome visiter to the side of a sick-bed. After the restoration, the melancholy of the major and his sister appeared to have become more and more sombre, until it settled into a kind of lunacy, and they believed themselves guilty of the most revolting crimes which disgrace humanity. The major now began to make extraordinary confessions to his friends, declaring that his sins were of that character that he had no hopes of salvation, unless he should be brought to a shameful end in this world. His presbyterian friends did their utmost to restrain him, alarmed at the scandal that Weir's conduct was likely to bring on their religion; but the affair soon reached the ears of the royalists, who were just as glad to seize upon any occasion of hurting the cause of their opponents. Major Weir and his sister were arrested, and both made what was called a full confession, involving crimes of a degrading character. As these were most of them vices which the king's party had long been in the habit of ascribing to their religious adversaries, we are perhaps justified in believing that they may have taken advantage of their state of mind to suggest to them some of these self-accusations. They found two or three witnesses to those parts of his story which were most improbable. His sister declared that he had a magical staff, which he always carried with him, and which gave him eloquence in prayer. She said that once a person called upon them at noonday with a fiery chariot, visible only to themselves, and took them to visit a friend at Dalkeith, where her brother received information, by supernatural means, of the event of the battle of Worcester, and that she herself had intercourse with the queen of the fairies, who assisted her in spinning an unusual quantity of yarn. 
There was a woman who lived in the West Bow, at no great distance from Major Weir's house, who gave the following evidence. She was a substantial merchant's wife, and "being very desirous to hear him pray, for that end spoke to some of her neighbors, that when he came to their house she might be sent for. This was done, but he could never be persuaded to open his mouth before her — no, not to bless a cup of ale; he either remained mute, or up with his staff and away. Some few days before he discovered himself, this gentlewoman coming from the castle-hill, where her husband's niece was lying-in of a child, about midnight perceived about the Bow-head three women in the windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. The gentlewoman went forward, till just at Major Weir's door, there arose, as from the street, a woman about the height of two ordinary females, and stepped forward. The gentlewoman, not as yet excessively feared, bid her maid step on, if by the lantern they could see what she was; but haste what they could, this long-legged spectre was still before them, moving her body with a vehement cachination — a great, immeasurable laughter. At this rate the two strove for place, till the giantess came to a narrow lane in the Bow, commonly called the Stinking-close, into which she turning, and the gentlewoman looking after her, perceived the close full of flaming torches (she could give them no other name), and as it had been a great multitude of people, stentoriously laughing, and gaping with tahees of laughter. This sight, at so dead a time of the night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all what they saw to the rest of the family, but more passionately to her husband. And though sick with fear, yet she went the next morning with her maid to view the noted places of her former night's walk, and at the close inquired who lived there. It was answered, Major Weir; the honest couple now rejoicing that to Weir's devotion they never said amen." 
The accounts of their resulting execution are similarly haunting. They were set to be hung and burned. Thomas "would not hear any minister pray to and for him, telling, his condemnation was sealed, and now since he was to goe to the devil, he would not anger him." When bid to pray for forgiveness as they hung the noose around him, he protested, "Let me alone - I will not - I lived as a beast and must die as a beast." His weird cane was thrown into the fire with him. It's said that it took an abnormally long time to burn as it twisted eerily in the flames.

Jean went to her death the next day. Wright tells us that as she was brought to the gallows, she cried, "Many weep and lament for a poor old wretch like me; but alas! few are weeping for a broken covenant." Wilby tells us that "Jean resolved 'to die with all the shame she could,' and to this end she 'cast away hir mantell, hir gown-tayle, and was purposed, as was sayde, to cast off all hir clothes before all the multitude; bot Baylie Oliphant, to whom the businese was intrusted, stoped the same, and commanded the executioner to doe his office.' But Jean did not give up her efforts, for when the executioner 'was about to throw hir ovir the leather, she smote the executioner on the chieke' and continued to resist him until the very end."

As often happens with such memorable persons and events, local legends abound concerning the Wizard of West Bow - along with the ghost of Major Weir himself, it's said that his staff can still be seen roaming the neighborhood at night. The Weirs' abandoned home was long reputed to be deeply haunted, remaining uninhabited for more than a century. In Edinburgh and the Lothians, we read, "At midnight the house flashed with light, sounds of ghostly revolt echoed within the deserted walls; the noise of dancing and spinning incongruously mixed with howling fell on your affrighted ears. Anon the Major would issue from the door, mount a black horse without a head, and ride off in a game. Again a magic coach and six, in grim parody of fashion, would call for him and his sister. The magic Staff loomed ever larger, improving on its early record. It ran messages, answered the door, acted as linkboy for the Major o’ dark nights as he went about his unholy errands." Traditions of Edinburgh relates that the house was eventually bought in 1780 by an ex-soldier, William Patullo, and his wife. On their first night in that home, they were visited, in the dark, by the apparition of a lamb, walking into their room on its hind legs, who stopped at the foot of the bed and simply stared. They didn't wait until morning to flee the scene.

Aside from all such legends, and the tragedy of their fate, I'm intrigued by the cultural aspects of their story. One element to consider, in terms of lore, is the fact that the Devil was sometimes consort to the Queen of Elphame in popular Scottish belief - albeit she was given to take any mortal man she liked as a lover. On that note, I came across an online archive on the House of Vere (Weir), into whose family Lady Somerville was wed and, interestingly enough, has historically claimed the fairy Melusine as an ancestor. The webmaster has no qualms about taking this literally - being the author of a book called The Dragon Legacy, which is just what it sounds like - and espouses a notion of "elven" lineage running throughout his family history. In any case, like all such theorists, he seems to have access to some interesting historical sources...whatever they might be. (I'm not asking for formal citations, but come on.) Now, all those qualifications out of the way, he writes of Thomas Weir as "Sorcerer, King of the Witches of the Lallan [Lowland] and Elven Prince Consort to the Queen of Fairy or Elphame - or as some say - 'The Queen of Hell.'" I don't have the slightest idea of where such  come from, but it's not as unlikely as might sound at first - readers of this blog should know of another wizard who enjoyed such intimate company with the Queen of Elphame, and Thomas himself said that the Devil appeared to him in the shape of a beautiful woman. I still haven't seen any evidence to suggest that there was any community awareness of the Weirs as sorcerers before their confession. However, accusations of witchcraft - and prosecutions against cunning folk - were "rife" across Edinburgh and East Lothian in the preceding century. Maybe it was one such practitioner who first approached Jean and inducted her into an especially hardcore society; Jean claimed that her brother possessed a witch's mark, and she herself was shown to have evidence of a horseshoe having been nailed to her head.

Poor, poor Jean. I wonder where her ghost is.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hollow Hills



Ancient earthwork forts and barrows 
Discreetly hide their secret abodes 
The most fearful hide deep inside 
And venture not there upon Yuletide 
For invasion of their hollow hills 
That music hold and Oberon fill 
Is surely recommended not 
For fear of death, in fear of rot 

Hollow hills 

Baleful sounds and wild voices ignored 
Ill luck, disaster, the one reward 
Violated sanctity of supermen's hills 
So sad, love lies there still 

So sad 
Hollow hills 

Witches too, and goblins too, and speckled sills 
Lament, repent, oh mortal you 
So sad
(Hollow hills)
So sad

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mother's Night Crosspost

click here for the transparent version

For a while now I've been wanting to make some simple, easy-to-proliferate images of the Matres or Matrones, a matrix of Germano-Celtic goddesses whose votive images are found in Germania, Gaul and Northern Italy. Some Norse pagans identify the Matres with the ancestral disir honored on Mothers' Night. Their cult was pretty inclusive (one pillar explicitly includes the mothers of Africa along with Italy and Gaul), and some of the inscriptions are pretty wild; the Warlike Mothers, the Mothers of the Ancestral Homelands, the Sagely Mothers, the Fatherly Mothers, etc. Eventually I'd like to do a bunch of variations based on these different ideas. Meanwhile, feel free to use the above image in any way you wish.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Familiar's Abode.


"Once Upon a White Night," Masaaki Miyazawa [x]

You may remember a witch named Elizabeth Francis, and the white cat she called "Sathan," whom she received from her grandmother. When I wrote of her last, I assumed that Sathan was probably a normal cat in every other respect - as in, a corporeal creature who slept in a basket like any domestic feline. However, not long ago I came across a bit more information in A History of Witchraft in England. After passing this familiar on to her neighbor, the latter woman's testimony informs us that Sathan was capable of residing in other kinds of containers, and of taking various shapes:
Mother Waterhouse was now examined. She had received the cat and kept it "a great while in woll [wool] in a pot." She had then turned it into a toad. She had used it to kill geese, hogs, and cattle of her neighbors. At length she had employed it to kill a neighbor whom [36]she disliked, and finally her own husband. The woman's eighteen-year-old daughter, Joan, was now called to the stand and confirmed the fact that her mother kept a toad. She herself had one day been refused a piece of bread and cheese by a neighbor's child and had invoked the toad's help. The toad promised to assist her if she would surrender her soul. She did so. Then the toad haunted the neighbor's girl in the form of a dog with horns. The mother was again called to the stand and repeated the curious story told by her daughter.
Further investigation revealed more details. The familiar appeared as a large black dog to Waterhouse's eighteen-year-old daughter when she first called upon the familiar's help. (She had seen it previously in her mother's hand as a toad.) This canine apparition emerged, she reported, from her mother's shoe under the bed, and spoke to her in a human voice, and she found it very frightening. She sent him to harass Agnes Browne, a girl of twelve, to whom he appeared as a dog with horns. (The intimidation in the report attributed to the victim is subtly, relentlessly nightmarish - the infernal hound appearing to her day after day with strange objects in his mouth, demanding offerings from her, calling the name of Christ evil, asking her if she was dead, etc.)

Interesting, I thought. There are plenty of confessions that seem to involve living animals; cats, toads, dogs and weasels are all easy enough to keep as household pets, and many amphibians are small enough to keep in bottles. But this being had to be incorporeal, since it was capable of taking on any sort of shape at will - or by request. Mother Waterhouse said she called on the familiar's help by reciting the Lord's Prayer in Latin, and it was by this means that she asked her familiar to transform, having need of the wool that made the cat's bed: "...at length being moved by povertie to occupie the wol, she praied in the name of the father, and of the sonne, and of the holy ghost that it would turn into a tode, and so kept it in the pot without woll."

Shapeshifting familiars are common enough in witch confessions. And as Wilby relates, "Trial records contain references to demon familiars living in glass or leather bottles; crystals; baskets; boxes; earthenware pots lined with wool kept under the stairs or by the hearth; under borders of 'green herbs' in the garden and under the roots or in the hollows of trees." As it would be quite impossible to safely keep a live animal in many of these containers, I would assume that their inhabitants were not physical beings. But I wanted to know more, so I went through the records in Early Modern Witches to see what I could find. In a bit of social satire by Sir Richard Steele in the 1700s, mention is made of a supposed witch who "by spirits locked in a bottle and magic herbs drew hundreds of men to her." If that sounds like a literary jape, one may observe a rather hysterical Chelmsford trial, where a young man testified that his mother kept familiars in just such a fashion:
Besides the sonne of this Mother Smith, confessed that his mother did keepe three Spirites, whereof the one called by her greate Dicke, was enclosed in a wicker Bottle. The seconde named Little Dicke, was putte into a Leather Bottle: And the third termed Willer, she kepte in a Wolle Packe. And thereupon the house was commanded to be searched. The Bottles and packe were found, but the Spirites were vanished awaie.
What did they expect to see if the spirits had remained? Visible apparitions? Animal parts? Carved figures? I wonder. I suspect the latter may have been what seven-year-old Annis Dowsing described when she was questioned about her mother:
The said Annis saith, that shee is of age of vii. yeeres the Saturday before our Lady next, and shee being asked whether her mother had any little things, or any little imps, she saith, that she hath in one boxe sixe Avices or Blackbirds: being asked of what colour, shee saith, they be white speckled, and all blacke, and she saith, that she hat in another boxe, vi. spirits like Cowes (being asked howe big) shee saith, they be as big as Rattes, & that they have little short hornes, & they lie in the boxes upon white and blacke wooll: and she saith, that her mother gave unto her one of the saide Cowes, whiche was called by the name of Crowe, which us of colour black & white. and she saith, yt her mother gave to her brother one of them, which she called Donne, & that is of colour red & white. And she being asked wherewithall se had seene her mother to feed the Avices & blackbirdes, she saith, she hath seene her feed them somtimes wt wheat, barley, somtimes wt otes, & with bread & cheese, & the Cowes yt were like beasts, somtime wt wheat straw, somtime wt barley straw, ote straw and wt hey, & being asked what she gave them to drinke, she saith, sometimes water & sometimes beere, such drinke as they drunke.
Dowsing also said that her brother, "somtimes seeing them the Avices and blackbirdes, to come about him, saith, that he saith they keepe a tuitling and tetling, and that then hee taketh them and put them into the boxes." Considering the age of the informant, and the leading nature of the question put to her, it seems just as likely that she was simply describing an imaginary game, played with small toys. She didn't testify to any maleficium being performed with these "little things," and her mother emphatically denied owning any cattle named Crowe or Donne.

Another search through the Witching database turned up one Joan Cunny, who confessed that she visited a field and traced a circle on the ground, calling upon Satan, thus receiving two familiars whom she called Jack and Jill.
Two Sprites did appeere vnto her within the said Circle, in the similitude and likenes of two black Frogges, and there demaunded of her what she would haue, beeing readye to doo for her what she would desire, so yt she would promise to giue them her soule for their trauaile, for otherwise: they would doo nothing for her. Wherupon she did promise them her soule, and then they concluded with her so to doo for her, what she would require, and gaue the~selues seuerall names, that is to say, the one Iack, and ye other Iyll, by the which names she did alwaies after call them. And then taking them vp, she caried them home in her lap and put them in a Box and gaue them white bread and milke.
Amusingly, Jack and Jill were sent to steal her neighbor's milk, but kept it for themselves without giving her any. Mischievous things. Anyhow - Cunny's frogs receive a similar diet to Annis's so-called imps, and also reside in a box. Even if the latter were just wooden playthings, it seems safe to say that the concept of spirit vessels was common or well-known enough that her investigators were looking for anything that could have resembled such a thing.

The "spirit houses" in the collection at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle present an opposite sort of question. The diverse contents and construction of these containers are apparent. (One recurring aspect in the glass containers is a layer of sand or eye-catching pebbles.) But there doesn't seem to be much information about the spirits who resided in them. In any case, one can conclude from these artifacts that they were never intended to house live animals, nor do any of them appear to contain animal remains or figural objects.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Post-script: Anatolian Ancestors, and Fortean Fomori?

"The paranormal" isn't necessarily considered a kosher topic of discussion for Reconstructionist-types, but as I was putting the finishing touches on last week's post, my dear Jack happened to be enjoying himself as he went through the Fortean Times backlog. He drew my attention an article about a very eerie phenomenon in Siberia, involving prehistoric metal domes that are said to cause wild vegetative growth, and seem to leave passers-by with all the usual signs of radiation exposure. Local Evenks and other Yakut peoples generally seem to consider them bad juju.

It all sounded fascinating and unsettling, but the part that really got my attention was the testimony of a particular Evenki hunter. "In 1971, he claimed to have found an 'iron burrow' in the ground in which he saw the bodies of skinny, black, one-eyed beings in 'iron costumes'." I'm not drawing any conclusions, but...wow, that's kind of specific.

And on Monday, I caught a tweet from Celtic Scholar linking to a story from BBC News on a recent study of ancient skeletons, intending to trace the genetic history of modern Europeans. "The team's results show that indigenous hunter-gatherers in Central Europe were edged out by incomers from Anatolia (modern Turkey) some 7,500 years ago. A majority of the hunters belonged to the maternal clan known as haplogroup U, whilst the farmers carried a selection of genetic lineages characteristic of the Near East." Another scorepoint for medieval Irish historiographers!

...I'll write about actual magic soon. I promise.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

(The Other)world, Part 2


[x]

Early this year, I became curious about a custom that exists in my parents' homeland. On several holidays, but especially during Lent, the Feast of John the Baptist, or on the Feast of Saint James the Apostle, celebrants enjoy the appearance of a type of festival demon called a vejigante. They are so called for the vejiga, an inflated cow bladder that was used in festivals past to whack and taunt the onlookers. (This tool of mischief may sound familiar to anyone who's read up on traditional May Day customs in Britain.) Depending on the region, the face of the vejigante may be constructed of coconut shell or papier-mâché, brightly painted and sprouting horns in every direction, their accompanying costumes bat-like and medieval. Other characters in this festival include a knight who drives away the devils, a trio of old men, and a trio of madwomen, all capering about humorously. The vejigantes dance, sing, and ask children for chocolate. They are meant to frighten and tempt people towards sin, but, like the Halloween ghosts and goblins so enjoyed in the United States, the people have an abiding affection for them. They are happy creatures, after all.

Both in cultural literature and in oral teaching, I was given to understand that these characters, while devilish in appearance, were originally meant to represent Morrocans or "Moors." After living under Mauritanian rule for generations, the Moor became the ubiquitous symbol of wickedness in Spanish culture, and a constant figure in poetry, song, art and drama. This alone was easy for me to understand, but the idea that the Moor had evolved into such a monstrous being - twisted, infernal, hardly human - was upsetting to me as a child. I didn't understand how such a medieval concept continued to endure with such ferocity. People in my own family have hurled the word moro at one another with derision, for the darkness of their appearance. What a ridiculous insult, I thought.

participant in a Festival of Moors and Christians, in Lleida. [x]

The vejigante's mask is popularly thought of as an African or Native innovation (and perhaps so, in terms of its construction and aesthetic.) But the tradition itself originates in Spain. Cervantes mentions the vejigante by name in Don Quixote, and the Moor has appeared frequently in popular festivals since the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. During and after the Reconquista, pageants known as morescas began to proliferate throughout the Iberian peninsula. The Feast of Saint James, on July 25th, was especially significant to this purpose, due to the belief that the saint miraculously appeared to aid the Spanish army against a Moorish force during the fictional Battle of Clavijo. (For this reason, the saint was known in Spain and Portugal as Santiago Matamoros, "James the Moor-slayer.") Many festivals sprang up from region to region, to commemorate their respective dates of liberation from Mauritanian rule. Today, these pageants are celebrated with opposing troops of "Christians" and "Moors," all fancifully costumed for mock battles.

Some historians believe that the Morris dances which developed in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, may have originated from Spanish morescas. Considering the fact that blackface is customarily employed in some forms of Morris, this seems plausible. The statuette pictured at right is one of nine pieces carved by a German artist in 1480. While the rest of the Moriskentänzer are clearly European in appearance, two or three of them happen to be wearing fanciful turbans, just as revelers do in Spain today.

It seems obvious, at first, that nations with a history of subjugation by an outside force would come to author some deeply resentful narratives on the subject. Yet, the sheer frequency with which Moors occur as villains in Hispanic tradition is, frankly, a little odd. Aside from semi-historical tales about battles and political abuses, Moors seem to permeate Spanish folklore right down to the bone. Ask any question, and the answer you receive will be "Moors." Why this proverb, whence this strange carving, who laid this treasure at the bottom of the lake? Moors. The roles played in other countries by fairies or ogres are, unfailingly, played by the Moor in Spanish tales. Abductions, enchantments, lyncanthropy, and all manner of weird phenomena are thought to be their work. The very wind and rain is attributed to the machinations Moors. Although they dwell in palaces and forts - as one would expect of a any government or military official - inexplicably, these abodes are found under hills and beneath ancient oak trees. "True; but the Moors were enchanters, and it was known that they could make subterranean passages which closed behind them so as to prevent their being pursued," says one tale, where a maiden is held captive in a fabulous, enchanted realm that only an unbaptised child can enter freely. Investigating further, I uncovered beliefs about how Moors raised the standing stones, dolmens, and passage-tombs for their homes and magical doorways, and that they can be seen arising from their underground lairs at the summer solstice. As I was doing some casual research for my St. John's Night post, I came across references to "certain pagan gods" who "make themselves visible" on that magical night...

This was all starting to sound a bit familiar.

In Castille (your typical schoolroom Spanish), the word for "Moor" is Moro. In the dialects in which these fairy tales are told, such as in Portuguese or Galician, the word employed in these stories is moura, or just as often, mouras encantadas. Some linguists believe that moura in this context could in fact be a corruption of the Latin mortuus or the Portuguese morto, indicating that these beings are really spirits of the dead. Others believe that it derives from the Celtic mor, which can denote a hazardous spirit, and may be the root word of the Old Irish fomor. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Fomorians, I wrote a bit about them a while back.) Even if there's no direct relationship between mor and moura, it seems just as likely that these beings and their associated lore would come to be confused with the tangible history of occupation by a foreign culture, who just so happened to have a very similar-sounding name.

I was ready to write a post about this back in July. At the time, this seemed like all there was to this particular subject: the face of the Other, superimposed on half-forgotten heathen spirits. It wasn't until later that I came across an interesting side-note.

It can be difficult to dig up anything about the origin of the Fomorians - those primordial beings who settled in Ireland, many generations before the Tuatha Dé Danann. However, a yarn appears in Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland, stating that they were the descendants of Noah's son, Cham:
Neimheadh won three battles on the Fomorians, namely, navigators of the race of Cham, who fared from Africa; they came fleeing to the islands of the west of Europe, and to make a settlement for themselves, and (also) fleeing the race of Sem, for fear that they might have advantage over them, in consequence of the curse which Noe had left on Cham from whom they came; inasmuch as they thought themselves to be safe from the control of the posterity of Sem by being at a distance from them: wherefore, they came to Ireland.
The Judaic traditions regarding the Sons of Noah make up an early ethnology that easily found its foothold in later Western thought: the Jewish people are the sons of Sem (or "Semites"); the Europeans are the sons of Japheth; and Africans are the sons of Cham or Ham.

If I were tempted to write this off an an anomalous idea, a leisurely browse through that famous tale of forbidden love, "The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne," turned up this passage about an enchanted tree, coveted by the Tuatha Dé:
When the Tuatha Dé Danann heard that those virtues be­longed to the quicken tree, they sent from them a guard over it, that is, the Searban Lochlannach, a youth of their own people, that is, a thick-boned, large-nosed, crooked-tusked, red-eyed, swart-bodied giant of the children of wicked Cham the son of Noah; whom neither weapon wounds, nor fire burns, nor water drowns, so great is his magic. He has but one eye only in the fair middle of his black forehead, and there is a thick collar of iron round that giant’s body, and he is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three strokes of the iron club that he has.
Intriguingly, not only is he named as a son of Cham, but his "swart body" and "black forehead" are specifically referred to. His monstrous, cyclopic appearance is typical of Fomorians in other stories. (Though there are beautiful Fomorians as well.) Searban is referred to as "a youth of [the Tuatha De's] own people." He could be a fosterling, or may have a parent from both sides. Neither situation is unusual in the lore, Lugh himself being half-Fomorian. (Maybe that's where he gets his famous curls from, eh?)

In any case, after reading this side-story, I was starkly reminded of the trial of Alice Kyteler, commonly said to have been the first witch prosecuted in Ireland, in the 13th century. Her maid testified that Dame Kyteler regularly met with her familiar spirit at a crossroads. Thomas Wright tells us, "...there was an unholy connection between Lady Alice and the demon called Robin Artisson, who sometimes appeared to her in the form of a black cat, sometimes in that of a black shaggy dog, and at others in the form of a black man, with two tall and equally swarthy companions, each carrying an iron rod in his hand." Again, I'd hastily assumed that this was a typically medieval conflation between foreigners and devils. And it probably is. But could there be something more to it?

The passage from "Diarmuid and Grainne" takes the time to tell us that Cham was "wicked." Depending on what sorts of lessons you got in Sunday school, some of you may be familiar with the "Curse of Ham" (or the "Curse of Canaan"), which has historically served as a convenient justification for various forms political and economic exploitation, such as medieval serfdom, and black slavery. Some of those nations said to be descended from Cham (such as Egypt, Babylon, and the Hittites) happen to have been oppressive towards Semitic peoples at different periods; I think the Jews could have been using myth to express their historical resentments as well. Maybe this can account, in a parallel or roundabout way, for the similarity in the narratives regarding oppressive Fomorians, oppressive Moors, and oppressive Babylonians. The Fomorians were wicked because they raided by sea, and demanded heavy tributes. Did that inspire an identification with African empires of yore, or was there as much truth in that origin story as there are in the tales of Scythian ancestors? (There are DNA results to prove it.)

an impressive mock-battle off the coast of Alicante [x]

In one of my earlier posts on a similar theme, I talked about a history of ideas that equated human "Others" with Otherworldly beings. One detail that I was never able to suss out was where, exactly, the concept of legendary black pygmies really came from. Victorians wrote with such confidence about legends of dark elves (if you will) roaming Britain at the dawn of time, but I have yet to encounter any such story. Diminutive imps, dwarves, elves, and goblins certainly appear in English folktales, but I haven't found any black bogies yet. (I did, however, find dark-skinned fairies told of in Asturias and Cantabria; the trasgu, a type of domestic imp, and the trenti, a sylvan elf who plays innocent pranks.) I rather doubt that the English euhemerists would have accessed any of the information I've mentioned here. Were they just talking out of their asses, as they were generally wont to do? Readers, any insight you might have on this subject would be deeply appreciated.

For lack of anything else to say, I'd like to dedicate this entry to an old friend and co-religionist who is no longer with us. I regret not getting to know you better...hope you're living it up in the greenwood.