Arguably worse than licorice: Black Annis

Happy (almost) Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, we’re going to cover a more traditional monster this month: a good old-fashioned baby-eating hag. Normally I shy away from doing monstrous witches (as I’ve noted on this blog before, the misogyny underlying the myths can get to be a bit much), but this particular witch is so fun that I could not pass up the opportunity. 

That winter skin tone

Blue hag
Like, this, only more blue.

Black Annis (also known as Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes, and Cat Anna) seems, on the surface, to be a witch as stereotypical as a pumpkin spice latte. Hailing from Leicester, England, she’s got blue skin (like a Smurf! …Or a corpse) and a taste for human flesh. But Annis is no basic witch. If you’re looking for costume inspiration for your office Halloween party, look elsewhere. The iron talons replacing Annis’s hands will be difficult to type with, and her skirt of tanned children’s hides will certainly get you in trouble with HR (not to mention how difficult it will be to find a top to pair it with; many depictions of Annis have her with no top at all, which will definitely get you in trouble with HR). She doesn’t have a tell-tale hat or broomstick that would help your office workers guess what you are, and in some descriptions has only one eye.

Even if she doesn’t inspire social acceptable costumes, Black Annis looks pretty awesome. A 19th century poem describes her thus:

“‘Tis said the soul of mortal man recoiled

To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild

Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew

In place of hands, and features livid blue

Glared in her visage, whilst her obscene waist

Warm skins of human victims close embraced…”

There is a wealth of artistic interpretations of her out there, but none with permission to share, so I’ll just link to a few of my favorites here (and here and here and here and here) for you to get a taste.

It’s what you do that defines you

Tanning hide
Like this, only more f-ed up.

As cool as Black Annis looks, for me, monsters don’t come to life just by looking scary. It’s what they do. Here is where Annis gets really fun. Like any good bogeyman, she steals, skins, drinks the blood of, and eats children who wander too far into the woods. But that’s just her baseline. Annis has also been known to get creative, climbing up into trees so that she can jump down on unsuspecting passersby. If not enough people come to the woods, she comes into town. The people of 18th-century Leicester had to build their houses with as few and as narrow of windows as possible, fearing that Annis would wriggle her long, thin arms through any apertures and dig her talons into their children.

If she can’t get human flesh, Annis will rip apart farm animals. She is also a major-league teeth grinder, loud enough that if you are lucky, you can hear her coming and have a few precious moments to hide. Piss her off, and her howls will echo for miles. 

There is an account from 1942 that describes three children running into Black Annis around Christmas time. Just as the sun set, their stepmother sent them into the forest to collect wood. They begged her not to make them go, knowing that their only protection from Annis was daylight (which turns her to stone). But the stepmother insisted, and so into the dark they went. A snuffling noise caught their attention, and, unable to locate its source, they looked through their witch stone to see what it was. Through the hole, they saw Annis’s blue, hideous face leering at them. Screaming, the children dropped their sticks and fled. In her rush to give chase, Annis bloodied her shins on the sticks, and paused to tend to her wounds. Even though that gave the children a head start, and even though they ran with everything they had, Annis still caught them at their cottage door. 

That might have been the end of the them, if it had not been for their father. Hearing their screams, he came out and buried an ax in Annis’s face. Still she did not fall, screaming “BLOOD! BLOOD!” as she stumbled in the direction of her cave. Then the Christmas bells started to toll, and, at long last, she fell down dead.

But apparently not dead-dead, because stories about her persist.

Heeere’s Anny!

Cave
Like this, only with more skins.

Back in her heyday, Annis lived in a cave she dug with her own talons, decorated with (you guessed it!) human skin. 19th-century eyewitnesses described “Black Annis’s Bower” as 4-5 feet wide and 7-8 feet long, having a “ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side.” Nowadays, the cave is filled in with earth, and a housing estate sits on the site where Annis once sat sucking on her bones. But it’s said that a tunnel once connected that cave with Leicester Castle, and that Annis haunts the area still

Where did Annis come from? Some say that she might be inspired by a nun (who really seemed to be an okay person, so idk) that took care of a leper colony in the late medieval period. Others think that maybe Annis was born of a cultural memory of real child sacrifices to an ancient goddess (!). Really, Annis could be based on any number of goddesses or mythical figures (including Hel, daughter of Loki and some time goddess of the underworld). 

Regardless of who thought her up, it’s hard to argue with Black Annis’s efficacy as a bogeyman.This Halloween, let’s honor her by growing our nails out, getting a little crazy with that turquoise eye shadow, and seeing just how deep we can wedge our arm into the couch to retrieve that long-lost, scrumdiddlyumptious Cheeze-It. 

Happy Halloween, everybody. 

What brand of umbrella would be best to shield oneself against a full-grown witch dropping out of a tree? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: Marc Palm for the ogress; Ser Amantio di Nicolao for the tanning hide; David Quinn for the cave.

All I want for Christmas is human flesh: Hans Trapp

Happy holidays, everyone! To celebrate the season, let’s talk about a flesh-eating scarecrow that sometimes maybe hangs around with Santa Claus.

christmas scarecrow
Flawless execution.

Hans von Trotha (who now is better known as Hans Trapp) was a real 15th-century figure who lived on the woodland  border between Germany and France. He was six and a half feet tall–which is tall even now, but at the time was near monstrous–and had a reputation for being kind of salty.

A high-ranking official gifted Hans two castles. The first was a piece of uninhabitable junk, but the second was Berwartstein, an impressive fortress on a hill. Berwartstein technically belonged to a nearby monastery, but Hans didn’t care. He loved the castle and hated the monastery’s abbot from a previous dispute over a church fine. So Hans accepted the gift and moved in, essentially giving the abbot a giant middle finger.

So was born a conflict that would end with Hans becoming a boogeyman on par with Krampus.

Hans Trapp: The Monster

I’ll tell you the mythology first. The story goes that Hans became greedy and power-hungry to the point of being insatiable–he even made deals with the devil to consolidate his wealth. When the church found out the extent of his godlessness, they excommunicated and put sanctions on him.

Hans retreated into the woods, where the solitude (and his growing dependence on Satanism) drove him slowly insane. Along with insanity came the desire to feast on human flesh, specifically (because this is a Christmas story!) the flesh of children.

Hans Trapp
Just trying to blend in.

Hans concocted a brilliant plan to trap his first child: He would disguise himself as a scarecrow and lay in wait in a nearby field. Passing children would never realize who he was until it was too late.

Sure enough, before long a 10-year old boy came wandering past, oblivious to the presence of a madman under the stuffed shirt and straw. Hans stabbed him with a stick and then merrily carried him back into the woods, where he salted and roasted him. Hans was just lifting the first bite to his lips when a lightning bolt shot out of the sky and into his skull, killing him on the spot. God had had enough of his crap.  

Coincidentally, Santa Claus happened to spring up in the same area around the same time. Santa took on silly, reanimated Hans Trapp as a helper–one who would not-so-subtly reinforce the dangers of being naughty. Now Hans travels with Santa each year, always reaching for–but never quite getting–that first bite of flesh he so badly desires.

Hans von Trotha: The Legend

Berwartstein Castle
The sexy castle everyone was fighting over.

If you’re like me, you got caught on Hans’s property tiff with the church, and then called B.S. when suddenly there were stories about him being a flesh-hungry Satanist. Of course it would be in the abbot’s interest to spread stories like that–he was pissed off that Hans had taken over his castle. It’s a throwing around of political power so that you hear about so often in history that it borders on becoming stereotypical.

So what actually happened?

It turns out that while (perhaps) not being a flesh-eating monster, Hans was still a dick of legendary status–enough to make everyone even outside of the church hate him. Not only did he refuse to give ground to the monastery that had once owned his castle–he built extra fortifications on it, and then, when the conflict reached its head, dammed the river leading to the town the monastery was in, completely depriving it (and all of the innocent townspeople) of water.

The abbot complained, and complained again, and then finally Hans said “careful what you wish for” and unleashed the water without warning, completely flooding the town and devastating it economically.

So there was no love lost between the townspeople and Hans. It was even said that he was a “robber baron”–a landowner that would tax roads inappropriately and kidnap  people for ransom. By the time the abbot escalated the fight to the pope and Hans was excommunicated and sanctioned, the townspeople might have been a step away from storming the castle themselves with torches and pitchforks.  

Hans Trapp
Hans Trapp coming through the window like a creep.

Hans survived the sanctioning, however, and died of natural causes in the walls of his beloved Berwartstein less than a decade later. The excommunication was posthumously lifted, but the townspeople didn’t fear him any less. In addition to the scarecrow Hans Trapp legend, they cast him as a “Black Knight” (not the Batman kind) whose spirit restlessly wandered the forest hills. They also passed around a story about him trying to rape an innocent virgin.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that even if things get a little tense between you and your neighbors this holiday season, do your best to de-escalate. You don’t want a little argument over who gets the best seat on the sofa to end in an accusation of eating babies.

Who would win in an epic rap battle: Krampus or Hans Trapp? Share your opinions in the comments below.

IMAGE CREDIT GOES TO: AdinaVoicu on Pixabay for the scarecrow sunset; Ji-Elle (of Wikimedia Commons) for Hans  in the corner, and Ulli1105 (also of Wikimedia Commons) for the castle shot. The last fantastic illustration (or print?) is courtesy of the public domain.

Hey! My eyes are down here: The Blemmyae

I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad in Spain a few years ago. It was a great time in general, but I especially enjoyed going to museums and seeing the variety of weird medieval stuff they had on display. The description placards rarely satisfied me–though I might learn plenty about what materials were used to build something or when the creator was born, I would be left squinting at depictions of brightly colored monsters on somebody’s dresser or what have you for ten minutes at a time, wondering, what the f— is that?

Imagine my delight on recently happening upon an image like this, then:

Royal 15 E.VI, f.21v
“…oh hey…”

…next to an actual explanation!

The Blemmyae–or Blemmyes, or akephaloi–are pretty old mythical beings–older than Christianity. They first show up as far back as Herodotus’s Histories (440 B.C.): unnamed headless humanoids spoken of in the same breath as horned asses and men with dog heads who lived together on the “exceedingly mountainous and wooded” Eastern edge of Libya, on the outskirts of the “civilized” world. From there on out, the Blemmyae would be confined to outskirts, even as the world expanded and the definition of outskirts changed.

Mela (the earliest Roman geographer, first century A.D.)  was indirectly responsible for giving them their name. He wrote that there was a tribe near Nubia with the name “Blemyae,” and then Pliny the Elder (the guy who wrote the first encyclopedia) turned around and said that that tribe was the one that might be described as “[having] no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts.” His is the description that has defined the Blemmyae since, and led to many an amusing illustration.

blemmyes
“My belly hair starts at my lip!”

Mind you, there was an actual nomadic kingdom of people in that area called the Blemmye that existed in Nubia from around 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.. They were a subset of the Beja people (who are still around today), and had entirely ordinary heads. Modern commentators guess that the rumors of their “headlessness” might have come from unusual hairstyles, shields with faces on them, or an ability to raise their shoulders high and lower their head as they marched forward into battle. That, or Pliny was just xenophobic and making stuff up.

Pretty easy to see through, right? You would think that people would have figured that out and let the idea die, especially as knowledge expanded and it became apparent that most everyone’s neighbors were just regular people. There was also critical physiological questions that hadn’t been answered: if the Blemmyae’s faces were in their chests, where were their brains? Their other organs? It was all a little suspect, but the idea of people with faces in their chests turned out to be stickier than simple explanations or common sense.

The Blemmyae appeared in writings in the 7th or 8th century, and then again in 1121, where descriptions now have them at 12 feet tall and 7 feet wide, and of a golden color for some reason. These were incorporated into the Alexander Romances, where they were shrunk back down again to 6 feet tall and then 30 of them captured to be shown to the world.

Then they spread. Medieval maps showed them further east into India and the the area north of the Himalayan mountains. They appeared in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville described as “folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders” on an island in Asia.  Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, claimed that they were also in South America: “eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders.”

So they were everywhere–just nowhere where Europeans could easily go and see them with their own eyes. And at first they were just a morbid curiosity, something to be frightened by only because it’s different looking.

Then came Shakespeare.

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3: “It was my hint to speak—such was my process—And of the Cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

Here is why we learn to be careful with sentence structure, ladies and gents. Ole’ Billy meant that the Anthropophagi were the cannibals, and that then there was a separate group (the Blemmyae) with heads beneath their shoulders. Instead, people heard that and went, “oh wow. Monsters with faces in their chest that eat people! Gee willikers!”

Which is how Blemmyae images morphed from this into this.

These days, the Blemmyae themselves don’t seem to be in style so much as the Anthropophagi-Blemmyae combination does. Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series seems to have something to do with it that…researching this post has made me put his books on my reading list. Still, though blood-soaked cannibals are great fun, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for anything that looks like this:

blemmyerschedelsche_weltchronik_d_012
“Ladies.”

Just can’t say no to that kind of charm.

Has excessive slouching led people to believe you might be one of the Blemmyae? Do you think it would be harder or easier to brush your teeth if your mouth was in your chest? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

ALL IMAGES: Courtesy of Wikimedia commons, and people long dead.

The art of avoiding eye contact: Two Face

There has been a picture circulating the depths of the internet; perhaps you’ve seen it. A forlorn man stares off to the left, while a strange, shrunken face grimaces from the back of his skull. “Edward Mordrake,” the picture is labeled, and is often accompanied by a sad tale of a man so ashamed by his mutation that he wouldn’t come out in public. His second face couldn’t speak, but its eyes followed those who crossed it, and it leered when Mordake cried. He said that at night, the face would whisper evil, Satanic things to him in a voice only he could hear. Driven to insanity by this affliction, Mordake committed suicide at the age of twenty-three…or so the story goes. The tale became so popular that it was even picked up in American Horror Story.

Though Mordrake has since been dismissed as a hoax, his is far from the first story of a double-faced monster to capture our imagination.  Let’s not talk about the better known ones today–not Batman’s foe Two-face, nor Doctor Jekyll, nor even the mayor from Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s an earlier, more interesting iteration: a creature known chiefly to the Sioux, Plains, and Omaha tribes.  

Let’s start with a story.

A very pregnant Sioux woman stays behind while her husband hunts in the woods. As she goes about her business, a stranger appears and tries to get her attention. Seized by a terrible intuition, the woman does not look at him, but turns her back and continues to work. The stranger becomes agitated. The woman feels heat and smells something burning.

“Look!” the stranger cries. “A fire!”

But the woman does not turn. She puts the fire out without looking at him–without speaking to him–and the man goes away.

Her husband returns, and the woman tells him about the visit.

“You did well not to look at him,” her husband says uneasily. “This man has an evil power over women. Ignore him, and after his fourth visit, he’ll leave you alone.”

The women assents. The next day, the stranger returns. She ignores him; he starts a fire and cries for her to put it out. She does, but does not look at or speak to him. The same thing happens the next day, the stranger’s antics becoming increasingly wild. The woman does not pay him heed. It is easy.

Now it is the fourth day, and the stranger leaves her lodge in a huff. The woman pauses, then rises to spy on him through the cracks in the wall. She wants to know what manner of creature it is that she has successfully escaped.

What she finds confuses her. The man has razor-sharp elbows, for one–an inhuman trait that is hideous enough by itself. Though he’s turned away, a face on the back of his head meets her eye and grins. His head pivots, and the woman sees that there is a face leering at her from the front, as well.

I knew you’d look,” the stranger says, and rips the woman to pieces. 

twofaced
Thank you to Porsche Brosseau on Flickr for this horrifying illustration. See footnote for links to more of their work.

The creature Two-face had as many names as it had terrors associated with it: Hestovatohkeo’o, Héstova’kéhe, Héstóvátóhke, Héstova’éhe, Anuk Ite, Anog Ite, Anukite, Anuk-Ité, Anuk Ite Win, Winyan Nupa. Sometimes people called it Sharp-elbows, thanks to the weaponized joints it used to tear victims apart. Occasionally the creature appeared as a female: The Double-faced woman. Some said it acted alone, others that it was part of a tribe. Some said it was cursed. At times it was a cannibal, but mostly, it just wanted to destroy.

Regardless of the details, the legends repeated the same points: the creature walked among us, trying to get our attention, trying to get us to witness the hideous secret it had hidden on the other side of its skull.  The only weapon against the Two-faced One was inattention and a quick escape. If you met the creature’s eyes, you were good as dead.

A Lakota variation on the legend helps to illuminate what might lay behind the fear of two-faced creatures. This iteration was female, a monster that came to young women in dreams to teach them Quilling. This might seem like an odd detail–why would this two-faced beast spend weeks instructing young women how to attach porcupine barbs to ceremonial robes?–but it makes sense if one considers the importance of the robes, and the difficulty of the task. A good quiller was valuable indeed, but the woman often needed to disregard societal norms to become adept at her art. She would shut herself away, refuse marriage, and sometimes lay with women. In short, by being visited by the creature, young women would develop a covert personality themselves. The Double-Faced One became her natural mentor–someone capable of beauty, but with an edge people didn’t understand.

The metaphor makes  as much sense for her as it does for Doctor Jekyll or Harvey Dent. We’re afraid of what others might be hiding within. We’re even more afraid of finding that thing out–or worse, finding some dark secret within ourselves (looking at you, Mordrake). If anyone discovers that secret, we’re obligated to make sure they don’t spread it around.

And if someone forces his terrible secret on us…well. Watch out for elbows.

Has a bad case of bedhead ever made you concerned about alternate personalities? Share your story in the comments below.  

*Link to Porsche’s work here