Superstition in the Dark Ages

It’s Friday the 13thAlthough we have left a lot of our superstitions behind in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still many people who will not be travelling today (or doing all sorts of other things), simply because of the date.

Which got me to thinking: would the people of 7th Century Britain be superstitious about this day, too? And if not, why not? What might they have been superstitious about that we are not?

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First of all, let’s start with a definition. Google the word and you will find a couple of definitions:

  • excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.
  • a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

I have written before about how differently people in 7th century Britain saw the world, compared to us. For them there was no separation between the religious and the secular. Everything related to God (or the gods) and everything you saw, especially in nature, had a deeper meaning beyond itself. It’s very hard for us to enter into this mindset, almost impossible, but not completely. It means turning off your rational, scientific brain, which is hard for us to do. But seeing as there are plenty of superstitions that still survive today, including the one about Friday the 13th, it’s not impossible for us, it seems!

So in one sense, the 7th century people of Britain were superstitious about everything. But it is interesting to dig into the research and find out some specific things that they may or may not have been superstitious about. Here’s just a few for you to ponder on this Friday the 13th:

Friday the 13th – funnily enough, although the people of 7th century had plenty of superstitions, this particular one was not one of them.  People became superstitious about this day as being one in which bad things might happen because it combined two things that people were superstitious about: Fridays in general, and the number thirteen. In Christian history Friday was seen as a day in which bad things happen because Christ was crucified on a Friday (paradoxically called Good Friday, because of the results of that crucifixion was salvation being made available to all, which is a Good Thing). The number thirteen was an unlucky number because there were thirteen people at the Last Supper (Jesus, plus the 12 disciples, and the “13th man” is generally said to be Judas). However, it seems that neither of these superstitions were evident before the 13th century. So, our seventh century friends were not too concerned about Friday the 13th. And realistically speaking, they weren’t too concerned about what the exact date was in general. Calendars were more for monks (or the pagan priests) than for ordinary people. The monks kept track of the feast days and the high holy days of the year, especially Easter. In the pagan world, the Druids and the pagan Saxon priests would certainly pay attention to, and track, the Solstices. But having to know the exact date of other, ordinary days, were not too important to the general population.

Black cats – this one is a little more tricky, but in general, in the 7th century in Britain, black cats would not have been seen as unlucky, or as witches’ companions or consorts of the devil. Those ideas again come from a later time period, specifically from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America in the 17th century. Therefore the idea of the black cat being unlucky is far more prevalent in America than in European folklore. In many parts of Britain, black cats were seen as bringing good luck rather than bad (in other words people still had superstitious beliefs about them, but not in a negative sense). The Celts, including the Scots and the Irish, did have a legend surrounding the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe, which was a fairy that shape-shifted into a black cat with a white patch on its chest. This cat was feared because they believed it would steal the soul of a recently dead person before the gods (or God, in the Christian era) could claim it, so they would have special distractions during the wake to keep the cat away before burial, such as leaping and wrestling, catnip, and forbidding fires in the room the body was laid (as we all know cats are attracted to warmth).

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Doyle based this famous Holmes story on the legends of the black dogs common in Britain

Black dogs – the black dog is a much more fearsome being in British folklore than the black cat ever was. Stories of large, black dogs, often with blazing red eyes, are common throughout the British Isles, and more common there than anywhere else. They are often seen as being harbingers of death or even directly harmful to those unlucky enough to encounter one. Due to its prevalence in the British culture stretching back just about as       far as we can track, superstitions about black dogs would definitely have been part of 7th century life.

Knocking on wood (or touching wood) – this is another superstition which goes back a long way. Both the Celts and the Saxons saw trees as sacred objects, and the practicing of knocking or touching wood after good fortune could have been a way to rouse the spirit of the tree to protect someone so that their luck wouldn’t turn, or to scare away evil spirits which might come around seeking to reverse your good fortune. Add to this the reverence for the cross of Christ and you can see why this particular phrase and action got so embedded in western culture that it has survived even to this day. However….there are some researchers that scoff at this explanation and trace the practice back to a 19th- century children’s game called “Tiggy Touchwood”, which was a type of tag where a player was “safe” if they touched some piece of wood or tree. So I’ll let you decide on that one!

To wrap up, I thought I’d leave you with something from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a medical text that comes to us from the Early Medieval period. In a previous post I explained that this is a compilation of many remedies for all sorts of injuries and diseases, most of which comes from the medical knowledge handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But there is one section which contains a lot of strange and wonderful “cures”, many of which are very superstitious sounding indeed.

Here’s an example:

Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.

Ok. First of all, what exactly is “elf-disease”? The Anglo-Saxons believed in elves, and that they interfered with humanity with often malevolent results. Sudden pains in the body were seen as being the result of elf-shot; in other words, that an elf has shot you with an arrow. So conditions such as arthritis or even growing pains could have been explained that way. There are remedies for being elf-shot in the Leechbook. So, perhaps elf-disease is something similar? Who knows?

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Some historians believe that finding obsidian arrow heads (like this one, made into a necklace) left behind from the ancient people who populated the British Isles was the origin of the idea of “elf-shot”. Photo from wikicommons

I suppose that is exactly the point. While the medical practitioners of the day knew quite a bit about wounds, infections, broken bones, and things like childbirth, etc, they didn’t know about germs and what might cause something like cholera or even the plague. So some vague sickness that had no obvious external cause would have been a mystery to them. So, elf-disease was as good as an explanation as any, right?

All the rigmarole about the plants and the masses and the prayers and the holy water speaks to the desperation of the patient and the physician alike to “do something” to fix someone when they are ill. According to the Christian faith, we are called to pray for those who are sick, and in some instances anoint with oil. The other practices detailed above were definitely not mentioned in Scripture. So where did they come from?

Somehow simply praying for someone doesn’t seem enough, especially if you contrast that with the magical charms and rituals that the pagan culture around you would have been using when faced with mysterious illnesses. So to avoid the people turning to those more pagan remedies, the monks and other Christian healers would have felt much more comfortable with adding these more Christian practices to their healing repertoires when simply praying for someone didn’t seem as spectacular in comparison.

We all know the power of the placebo…and while that connection would not have been immediately understood by the healers of the time they may have seen times when these types of “cures” actually worked, either through the patient believing they were going to work or just simply the body fighting off whatever was ailing it, and so these practices became worthy of inclusion in the Leechbook.

Superstition? Yes, of course. But you can understand where they come from, when you live in a world where terrifying things happen that have no logical cause that they could see.

I hope you have a great day today, Friday the 13th and all! I’d wish you good luck, but that would be superstitious….

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Fiction Feature: Life for Life

I aim to share more of my writing on the blog, hopefully once a month. We’ll see. Seeing as my novel-in-progress features elves, of a sort, I find that I have quite a few stories floating around in my mind about elves and the mythology surrounding them. The elves in this story are a little more traditional than the ones in my book. It was a fun one to write. I hope you enjoy it, at any rate. Any comments welcome. 


Life for Life

We broke from the trees, the mountain rising before us like a juggernaut, lazy mist swirling around its flanks. I grew cold at the sight. At the base of those rocky slopes I had lost all I held dear, and now I returned, to get it back.

Gruff snarled beside me, and I motioned him to quiet.

His large head swung towards me, lambent yellow eyes glowing, ears twitching.

I let out a breath, which ghosted silver around us. “Not far now.”

He smiled, showing snaggled teeth, the hatred of his kind for the elves sharp in his eyes. “Elf-blood. Soon, Lady, soon.”

I set my jaw. “Perhaps,” I cautioned. “But be wary. Their Charms are powerful, I know it full well. If they use magic we must fight. I will get my child back, or die trying.” My hand fell to the knife at my side and I squinted at the sky. “We must away. I would not fight the Elves at night, with the moon to aid them.”

Gruff nodded, and I gestured him forward, my purpose hardening. I would not fight the Elves at all. That way led to doom. But I kept that from the ogre for reasons of my own. I followed in his wake, the icy ball of fear in my gut growing with every step, no matter my boastful words.

My husband is dead, my family scattered since the Wars. My child is all that was left to me, and I would retrieve him, no matter the dire warnings, the mutterings about the Elves and their trickery. I had thought long, though, and come up with some trickery of my own. I could only pray it would be enough.

Two hours later we came to the riling brook that was the border to Dayladel. We had been watched for some time. I felt their eyes upon me, their mild regard. They had no fear of a human and an ogre, why should they? Their magic shielded them. The same magic that separated me from my babe last year, their songs and enchantments drawing me here, deep into the woods, my son strapped to my back as I stepped across the brook. When I awoke the next day he was gone. They left me with a changeling, a mewling misshapen creature that I brought back, weeks later. When they ignored my plea I left it there to die.

I shook the memory from me. The noonday sun sparkled on the water as I lifted my chin, my hands fisted at my side. “Raleadon!”

My voice was strong enough to startle a bird into flight nearby. The mist swirled among the trees, and beyond the brook I could see but little.

The ogre growled deep in his chest, a low rumbling noise, as a figure appeared through the mists, walking slowly towards us, a high, thin song floating with him.

That song twined around us, the melody elusively complex, carrying with it hints and promises, glimpses of Dayladel, where the dancing Elves wore garments of moonshine and lace, shimmering in a silvery glow….

Beside me, Gruff roared, his foot stamping the ground and my eyes flew open. I staggered as I checked myself–one foot was in the brook. Heart pounding, I leapt back. My cheeks flushed under the cool regard of Raleadon’s violet eyes. So easy it was to be Charmed.

I must act now, or never.

“Gruff!” The word tore out of me and Gruff roared again, lifting his arms and shaking his spear, taking one step towards the Elf.

Suddenly there was a twisting in the air around us. The mist swirled around the ogre, obscuring him from my eyes. Then I blinked, for where Gruff once stood a twisted pine lifted it’s branches to the sky, throwing a spiky shadow.

I swallowed back my surging elation and faced Raleadon. “I’ll have him back. My son is no Elf. My blood has rights on his.”

One thin eyebrow lifted as Raleadon’s eyes flicked over me. “We traded you life for life, and you rejected it. The matter is done. And as you see, we cannot be forced.” He turned, to leave me.

“Nay, it is not. You tried to trick me, thinking my love would blind me to the flaws of the creature you left me with. ‘Twas no true bargain. I want my son back.”

He turned back, his face serene. “But you have nothing to give in exchange.”

I gestured at the pine. “Life for life.” I held my breath, hoping against hope it would be enough. For Gruff I felt but a twinge of regret. He held no claim on me, none at all.

Raleadon’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the tree, and then a wide smile split his face, the cold beauty of it dazzling to my human eyes. “Ah, you prove more interesting than most.” He gestured, and two other figures materialized out of the mist behind him; one wreathed in song, the other, a child.

It took everything I had not to cross the brook. I would not be trapped there again.

The Elves’ magic had done its work; it was no toddler but a young lad that surveyed me with wide eyes. His father’s eyes. With a slight push Raleadon sent him towards me, and he splashed across the water to my open arms.

The Elves turned and faded back into the mist with nary a glance back.

I had won.

A tremor ran through me, and for a moment I placed my hand on the pine’s knobbly trunk. Life for life. It was the deepest magic, the only thing that could sway the Elves. “I won’t forget,” I whispered.

The boy looked up at me with his father’s eyes and my heart swelled. I took his hand, and together we turned our back on the mountain, towards home.

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Image from suwalls

Feature image: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion.

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

 

Elves and Fairies and Yokai, Oh My!

“Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

 – J.R.R. Tolkein

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them. These are the Tolkein elves,for the most part, which is not surprising, as his LOTR saga was based on Norse mythology.

Many legends of elves speak of the Trooping of the Elves, a mysterious night trek of a long line of elves, and woe to the human who spies them! This is referenced in Lord of the Rings, the long march of the Elves as they leave Middle Earth... picture from WikiCommons

Many legends of elves speak of the Trooping of the Elves, a mysterious night trek of a long line of elves, and woe to the human who spies them! This is referenced in Lord of the Rings as the march of the Elves as they leave Middle Earth…
(Photo: WikiCommons)

Fairy rings are said to be the result of fairies dancing on the grass, leaving behind...well, mushrooms, I guess. Fairies are another form of elves, but usually small, with wings. Think Tinkerbell....

Fairy rings are said to be the result of fairies dancing in a ring on the grass, leaving behind…well, mushrooms, I guess. Fairies are another form of elves, but usually small, with wings. Think Tinkerbell…. (photo: WikiCommons)

The Celts elves were different; usually smaller creatures, living in barrows or in the Otherworld. Brownies, goblins, and sprites and the like were the Celtic “others”, the human-like creatures who lived alongside humans, generally causing some mischief of a greater or lesser fashion. But there were other elf-like creatures among the British Celts, too. The Irish had the aes sidhe, the Welsh, the tylwylth teg. Again, they were not seen to be particularly helpful to mankind, and one had to be careful not to be cursed or tricked by them. After the onset of Christianity, the stories of elves (which comes from the Saxon word ælf) took another twist. They were described as some of the angels who sided with neither Lucifer nor God during Lucifer’s great rebellion, and so were cast down by God not to hell, but to earth. No longer angels, but not demons either; something in-between. And again, because of this ambivalent nature, encounters with them were frought with danger – they were just as likely to curse you as to bless you.

Other non-European civilizations had elf-like beings in their mythologies. One could make an argument that the Arabic jinn could be their equivalent of our elf; a tricksy human-like creature with whom of whom you must be wary, especially when you make bargains with them. Aladdin’s “genie” is of this ilk – the word “genie” is the Anglicized form of jinni.  In Latin America we find the duende, a goblin-type creature who either lures people into the woods or helps lost people out of the woods, depending on which tale you hear. In Japan you find the yokai, who can appear in human form, and again, are either malevolent or beneficent.

Alladin and his genie...err, jinni....in Lego! Photo: Jerry Daykin, on Flickr

Aladdin and his genie…err, jinni….in Lego!
(Photo: Jerry Daykin, on Flickr)

A Japanese yokai Picture from Wikicommons

A Japanese yokai
(Picture from WikiCommons)

Interesting, isn’t it, that every culture seems to have stories about these kinds of creatures, the “others” who are like us, but not like us. And in every case they are untrustworthy beings at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

I think the universality of these stories is one reason why elves are so popular in fantasy books and films. Every culture has a mythology which includes these types of beings, and seeing them come to life in a well-told story brings a delicious shiver of familiarity down our spines.

Another reason, from the author’s point of view, is that they are quite fun to write. Anytime you can get a character who is sly, slippery and not to be trusted, you can find all kinds of good story lines. Add a little magic, and the writer has some great elements to make his or her story much more interesting.

The downside is that elves nowadays are seen as a trope – a tired old element of fantasy stories that no one wants to read about any more. Kinda like the grumpy dwarves, the shimmering unicorns, the magician with the pointy hat. Boring. I mean, how can there be anything new to write about in stories of elves?

So, as a writer, you either have to present the tried and true elf in your story and make the story so good that people love to read it anyway, (which is really the goal whether you have elves or any other trope in it or not, but even more so if you do!) or you have to think of a different way to use them in your story.

It’s a fun challenge. I have tried to do that in my books, to come up with a slightly different explanation for the origins of these creatures, to think of a plausible reason for why elf-legends can be found in every culture.

If you want a little teaser….check out “A Sign” , which is a chapter of Wilding, my first book in my Traveller’s Path series. This chapter is the introduction of my main antagonist for the first book, a Pictish nobleman named Nectan, who also happens to be the King of the Seelie Fey…..