Better hope for a bird, or a plane: The Sluagh

Thanks to Tommy Hansen (at Wikimedia Commons), for this lovely mood-setting image.

Happy 2016, everyone! Welcome to a new year, one full of possibility both bright and dark. I’m currently reading John Crowley’s famous Little, Big, and enjoying it so much that I decided to theme this month’s post similarly (though, as always, with a bit more horror). So, here we are. Let’s talk about fairies.

Even if they aren’t versed in old Fae mythology,  most people know that not all pixies acted like Tinkerbell. Characters like Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream remind us that there were more frightening imps than she; yet most depictions barely scratch the surface of just how bad those counterparts could be. Our monster this month will help us dig deeper.

As early as three thousand years ago, Irish and Scottish peasants looked up with fright as the sun went down. Retreating from the open sky, they hid in their houses–barred them shut–, and if they heard a gentle knocking at their door or scratching at their window, closed their eyes and prayed they would survive the night. The feared creatures flew in from the west on leathery wings, huge flocks (or murders) on the Great Hunt. They were the darkest and most terrible of the fairies, and then, after the advent of Christianity, sinners too vile even for hell. They were the Sluagh, (pronounced SLOO-AH), and if you just experimented with that word aloud, congratulations! You’ve called them to you.

Cursed never to walk the earth, they’ll swarm, screaming,  through the sky. Once they were human. Now they are little more than winged skeletons, with loose, flapping skin; a few wisps of hair; long, claw-like hands; and a mouth described variously as beak-like, with gnarled protruding teeth or a gasping, toothless, sucking pit.  If you never go outside after dark for the rest of your life, maybe you’ll make it. But if they find you, the only way to save yourself is to put someone else in their path. Who would take your place? They Sluagh will loom over you, shadow stretching over your heart, obscuring your eyes. You’ll hear a soft whispering, and then feel a terrible pull as your immortal soul is torn from your body. Once they have you, you are doomed to fly with them for the rest of eternity, just as anguished, and just as feared.

Does that thought depress you? Be careful not to give yourself too much to despair, because that will call them, too.

Even on nights when they weren’t hunting some idiot, the Sluagh would fly out in search of souls, blotting out the stars and appearing, from afar, like an enormous, pulsing flock of birds. They targeted people on the brink of death, victims who had yet to be given their last rites who would find their soul stolen before the priest could deliver the words. The dying were far easier targets than those still healthy, but if some errant soul were out for a night walk, he would do as well. Dark copper birds followed the flock, ruining crops and killing animals with their poisonous breath. Hell hounds, too, stayed at their heels, replacing sleeping babies with monsters and wreaking havoc.

If you listened closely, you might sometimes hear the Sluagh advancing and retreating as they fought their battles in the sky. Afterwards, in the cold light of morning, you might find their dark bloodstains on rocky meadow floors. If you saw the flock itself, some said, death would visit within a year. Others warned that the Sluagh could control men’s minds, using them as puppets and making them fight like dogs.

It was best, people decided, to just stay inside after dark. To bar the windows, especially on the west side of the house.

Still, some casualties could not be avoided. Sometimes the Sluagh would victimize people dear to their communities, such as the case where a child was taken, soul extracted, and body dropped to slam into his parent’s back yard. More often, however, the Sluagh were blamed for the disappearances of just the sort of people you might expect to be out at night: petty criminals, drunkards, outcasts. People of the sort that even if their neighbors noticed their absence, they would simply shrug, careful not to look at the sky. Some historians point to this selective disappearance as oddly convenient for those who wanted to clean up the town. Equally convenient was the fact that the most ostensibly malicious nights of the Sluagh hunt coincided perfectly with the nights Christian leaders wanted to discourage people from participating in pagan rituals. Were the Sluagh a mindless menace, or a political tool? If they originated before Christianity (and by all accounts, they did), what experience birthed that first, terrible story?

Regardless of whether the Sluagh existed or who they worked for, the fear they generated has spanned generations. Some view murders of crows with suspicion even today, and that small, quiet fear of the dark that we all enjoy remains etched in our DNA. It wouldn’t hurt, probably, to shut your window tight tonight.

Especially if reading their name has the same effect as speaking it.

Most definitely hopefully not the Sluagh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Do you have an unreasonable distrust of birds? How many saggy-skinned monsters have you found hanging around outside your window? Dementors? Nazgul? Share your story in the comments below.


Down, boy! The Beast of Gévaudan

Ah, France. The lush pastures; the fluffy, drifting clouds; the high-pitched whinny of a calf-sized monster as it rips out your throat in broad daylight. 18th-century France had many worries, but when something in the remote hills of Gévaudan (modern-day Lozère) attacked 240 people and killed 112,* one threat loomed above the many: La Bête du Gévaudan.

By all accounts, the beast first attacked in the early summer of 1764. A young woman tending cattle in the Mercoire forest found herself suddenly face-to-face with something like a hyena, if a hyena was big enough to stand level with one’s chest. She escaped with her life only because some of the bulls in her herd charged the creature and kept it at bay. The beast wouldn’t be slowed for long: 14-year-old Janne Boulet became its first victim on June 30, followed by two young girls on August 6th and August 8th, and a 15-year-old cowherd on August 30th. From there, things would only get worse.

This creature did not behave like your average predator. The villagers were used to wolves, which, while frightening, at least were killing for survival. Not so for la Bête, which often focused on its victims’ heads and would leave them only partially eaten, if at all. Also, it attacked women and children almost exclusively, and did not seem to have any interest in livestock or goats. Nor did it resemble anything the villagers had seen before, as evidenced from this oft-cited description:

The Beast is a quadruped about the size of a horse. It reminds witnesses of a bear, hyena, wolf and panther all at once. It has a long wolf-like or pig-like snout, lined with large teeth. […] The tail somewhat resembles the long tail of a panther, but it is so thick and strong that the Beast uses it as a weapon, knocking men and animals down with it.

These unusual characteristics led many to believe there was something supernatural about the creature, and fueled a lot of hysteria. As more and more bodies were found–some beheaded, some in an alarming state of undress–local and then national governments began to organize hunting parties with the hope of tracking and stopping the beast. The first large-scale party set off on September 15, 1764, comprised of 57 dragoons who would comb the hills and shoot at wolves, but fail to stop the attacks. As the search continued with no success, officials decriminalized the use of firearms for commoners, and offered more than 10,000 pounds for anyone who could kill the beast.

None of it did any good. On October 8th, two hunters came within ten paces of the creature and shot it twice. It fell, then got up and loped away. This wouldn’t be the last time the beast would seem impervious to gunfire, and it only made the panic worse. On December 31st, the bishop of Mende declared the creature was God’s retribution for Gévaudan’s sins. By then, 27 people had been attacked. 18 were dead

King Louis XV, struggling to maintain the illusion of control, sent world-renowned wolf hunter Jean-Charles D’Evennel into the fray. On April 21, 1765, 10,000 men joined him in combing the hillsides, but–and you’ll notice the pattern here–they had no success. D’Evennel was eventually ordered away, to be replaced by a Mr. Antoine, the king’s personal arquebusier. Antoine threw himself at the task full-force, and on September 21, 1765, shot and killed a 130 pound wolf–the biggest ever on record. The people rejoiced, and the wolf was stuffed and wheeled around in the king’s court on October 1st. Louis chuckled at how the superstitious commoners had made an ordinary wolf into such a monster. Still, he, like everyone else, was just glad it was all over.

To date, 158 people had been attacked. 71 were dead. Gévaudan remained quiet a few weeks. Then, in December, the attacks started again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This time, the crown wanted nothing to do with it. It had declared the problem solved, and wouldn’t admit to error. The people of Gévaudan were on their own.  Over 1766, the villagers continued to pray and hunters continued to hunt, but 36 more people were attacked, with 18 going to their graves. This was nothing compared to the carnage of the spring of 1767, though, which saw another 38 attacks and 21 deaths between January and June alone.  The nineteen-year-old Marquis of Apcher rallied the people yet again to go into the woods. It would be the last time.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On June 17, 1767, Jeanne Bastide–also nineteen–became the beast’s final victim, found with her throat torn apart. Two days later, during one of the hunts, farmer and innkeeper Jean Chastel came upon the creature, looked it in the eye, and shot it dead. Word has it that he’d forged silver bullets for the job, and had them blessed before going into the woods.

Thus on June 19, 1767, after three years of terror and almost 240 attacks, Gévaudan’s nightmare ended at last. But there were still a few peculiarities that were never solved.

First was the identity of the beast. It was said that the thing Chastel shot was more monster than wolf, but by the time he brought it to king, the carcass had decomposed so badly that Louis had it thrown out. No one knows where they buried it, and the remains have yet to be recovered, so historians have been unable to confirm what exactly the thing was. Based on the descriptions, the closest known analogy is the mesonychid–something like a carnivorous moose–but those were supposed to have gone extinct some 23 million years ago. It could have been a hyena or a lion–or perhaps some kind of hellish hybrid–but those would have to travel pretty far to get to France, wouldn’t they?

Unless, of course, someone brought them there. Oddly enough, it was rumored that Jean Chastel’s son had a few hyenas in his menagerie, as well as a giant red mastiff that bore some familial resemblance to the beast. The Chastels were also apparently at odds with arquebusier Antoine, and were actually thrown in prison for the duration of his stay in Gévaudan–a term which happened to coincide with a decrease in attacks. A few people did report seeing a man in conjunction with the beast, and it is odd that the attacks were so specific, almost as if the beast had been trained.

How did Chastel–a common innkeeper–manage to so effectively shoot and kill the creature, where hundreds of other, highly trained men could not?

No matter. The town erected a plaque in his honor, and he is remembered to this day as the hero that saved Gévaudan from from the 3 year-long nightmare of la Bête.

Chastel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and ​Χρήστης:Βήσσμα.

Here’s to hoping it stays dead this time.

Do you have any meddlesome pets that have got you in a bit of trouble? Feel free to share in the comments below!

*Numbers are approximate, and vary depending on the source. For the purpose of this post, I worked off the most detailed one I could find, located here.

I’m Lovin It: Demons in Your Sandwich, Demons in Your Soul

It might be said that there are a few fears fundamental to every human experience.

The fear of death.

The fear of madness.

The fear of a pointless, meaningless existence.

These terrors monopolized our ancestors’ minds and souls, but now with our bright lights, our computers–our distractions–they have faded to the background. Now a new menace has shuffled forward. He is a pressing dread–one that drives people to financial ruin, emotional despair, to the hospital; a contemporary obsession that is, shall we say, a real heavyweight.

The fear of fat.

Don’t laugh. Fat ruins lives. Sure, diet and exercise works for some, surgery for others–the human race might be doomed if it didn’t. But an unlucky few still remain for which nothing seems to work–poor souls whose enslavement is such that they’ve been forced to seek other, outside explanations for why they cannot escape the groan of the scale.*

What very frightening answers they’ve found.

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license
Courtesy of Wellcome Images by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

A Visit from Beelzebub.

Let’s start simply, shall we? Sometimes the compulsion to eat can be so overwhelming–or so out of character–that it seems to have a life of its own. Sometimes we do not so much feel as if we want to overeat, but are forced to. Like something else is pulling the strings. Like our hands are forced to pick up the fork, even though we know another bite might literally kill us.

And maybe, sometimes, that thing laughs with our face the entire time.

In the Christian tradition (at least so far as legendary witch hunter Peter Binsfield was concerned), Beelzebub (or Baal, depending on who you ask) is the demon responsible for forcing souls to their gluttonous demise. If you’re at all familiar with Christianity, chances are his is a name you’ve heard before. That is because Beelzebub is renowned not only for being Prince of Gluttony and False Gods, but also:

In a way, if you black out and wake up with an empty family size bag of pork rinds, twelve taco wrappers, and a cardboard cake box with nothing but a grease circle and smudge of icing left inside, you should almost consider yourself flattered–it’s possible one of the most powerful demons of the underworld has taken time out of your schedule to make your life a living nightmare.

A Special Ingredient.

Let’s say, though, that you’re the strong type–strong enough even to resist Satan’s right hand man. You’ve never overeaten a day in your life–in fact, you take painful care to eat as healthfully as you possibly can. Fruits. Vegetables. Whole wheat. You exercise. You drink lots of fluid. You do everything perfectly.

Still, your weight climbs.

You cut back even further, trying to starve it off. But instead of getting thinner, you just get fatter. It doesn’t make sense–even your closest friends think you must be lying about your diet, sneaking donuts when no one’s around. You plead that you’re not, but how could they believe you? Your doctor tells you to eat healthier, that you’re on your way to your deathbed, and you tell him that you are, but he does believe you either. You grow further still. The weight is such that it pins you to the floor. You’ve stopped eating all but a few calories a day, and still–you grow.

Have you figured it out?

Word has it that monsters can’t just interfere with the will of the sufferer–they can inhabit the food itself. It’s called demonic tattering–a process in which a demon infests lunch, making those carrot sticks go right to your thighs.

That, you might say, is crazy talk–crazier even than being possessed by a demon the moment you pick up your fork. But (as this Ground Zero Media article points out), there is precedent for demonic possession of food. Heard of the Last Supper? Take a look at this passage from the King James Bible, Book of John, Chapter 13, verses 26 and 27, which come on the heels of Jesus announcing that one of his disciples will betray him:

“Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.

And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.” 

It would seem Satan himself hitched a ride on some soggy bread to work his will on ole’ Judas’s spirit (no word on his love handles, but who’s to say?). But the fun doesn’t stop there.

Ever been to a meal where someone has to say a blessing over the food before anyone can eat it? Ever wonder where that came from? Ground Zero Media claims it’s a habit passed down from our ancestors, who routinely had to purge monsters from their meat and potatoes. The world, you see, has a lot of evil in it, and if you’re not careful, some of that evil–be it in the form of unholy miasma, or a straight up, havoc-wreaking demon–can get into your PB&J.

If you didn’t stop to bless your coffee this morning, now you know why your pants might be fitting a little tighter than usual.


But what, you might ask, is so evil about making someone fat? So far as monsters go, one that gives you a cankles should seem to rank far below one that, say, turns you inside out and then licks you like an ice cream cone. There are plenty of overweight people, and plenty who might manage someday to keep the weight off, be it with better habits, therapy, or medical intervention. But still…what if they couldn’t?

What if you couldn’t?

What if, after scoffing at this article, you went to your fridge for an apple, and found yourself reaching instead for the squeezable chocolate? If you screamed inside, even as you emptied the bottle down your throat? If your hands shook as you tried to stop yourself from grabbing the leftover pizza, only to shove it into your mouth all the more quickly once they got it out? What if you looked down right now and noticed that your chair is buckling, that your sides are bulging out against its arms?

What if you go to stand up, and find that taking even a few steps leaves you exhausted? Your friends will not believe you when you say that it’s not your fault. Strangers will jeer at you. Your family will not recognize you. You will disgust them. You will disgust yourself. And you will move ever slower, ever more painfully. Death will stalk you.

You will not be able to run.

Feeling hungry? Feel free to list your favorite food in the comments below! Can’t decide which one to pick? List as many as you like. We’re all friends here.

* Disclaimer: Compulsive eating and obesity really are serious diseases, and obviously this article is meant for entertainment, not medical advice. I’m not looking at all to belittle anyone’s struggle. If you’re having issues with food, feel free to throw around as much holy water as you like–just so long as you promise to go see an actual doctor, as well.