Quite the monkey on your back: the Myling

Happy (almost) Halloween! To best illustrate the topic of today’s post (and in the spirit of the season), let’s start off today’s post with. . .

A spooky story

full moon
OooooOOOOOOoooooh!

Late one fall night in Norway, some 300 years ago, a man (let’s call him Daniel) decided to take a shortcut through the woods. He was familiar with the path–the way was not long. He had spent all day in the next town over, and wanted nothing more than to wrap himself in a blanket in front of his own fireplace, and to sleep in his own bed.

The trees stood quietly as Daniel made his way down the path. Finding the soft noises of the night to be peaceful, almost soothing, Daniel paused for a moment to enjoy them.  

A dark shape jumped out at him from the corner of his eye. Daniel looked up.

A child stood in the middle of the path. It was a little girl, no more than two or three years old and badly underdressed for the cold. She sucked on one knuckle morosely.

Daniel started to take a step forward. “Are you alri–” he stopped. Something was wrong. Her skin tone was off–gray, patchy; her hair was limp and matted; her eyes were too large, too flat, as if she were–

Dead. Daniel’s stomach dropped; he tried to scramble away, but the girl moved faster. With fantastic agility, she leapt onto his back. Daniel screamed and struggled to get her off, but she clung on tightly, clammy arms wrapped around his throat so that he could barely breathe.

“Take me to a cemetery,” she whispered into his ear. “Please, a cemetery, please.”

Daniel bellowed, feeling like his eyes were straining out of this head. He stumbled a few steps forward. The girl’s grip tightened.

“Hurry,” she said.

The nearest cemetery was i the next town over–Daniel’s hometown. The trip should take no more than 30 minutes, less if he ran. Daniel saw no other way out. He started to run.

The trouble was that the girl was much heavier than she looked, and with every step, Daniel swore that she was getting heavier. Though he was an agile young man, it wasn’t long before he was sagging under her weight. Daniel panted, and then wheezed. Still, he pressed forward.

Then his left foot sunk deep into the cold, muddy earth, and he nearly toppled over. The girl’s weight was literally driving him into the ground. Heart richoteing off his ribcage, Daniel pulled his foot out and lumbered forward. If he stopped, he was worried that the ground might swallow him entirely.

The trees were getting thinner now–he could see patches of the field by the church in the pre-dawn light. The church and its cemetery were right at the edge of town. He could make it. He had to.

But now every step sunk him deeper into the earth. Daniel cursed as he struggled to pull free his feet, then his ankles, then up to his knees.

They came out of the trees, into the field. A lone bird began to sing as the sky slowly brightened. Headstones loomed up ahead. They were so close. The girl’s arms tightened around his throat. She weighed as much as another man, as a horse, as a–Daniel’s ankle twisted, and the incredible weight on his back made something snap.

Daniel screamed, black dots crowding his view of the headstones and grass.

“Hurry,” the girl whispered.

“Hold on,” Daniel sobbed. “Please, I just need a minute–”

Light shined over the curve of the hill–the first rays of the sun.

“Too late,” the girl said. She gripped the sides of Daniel’s head and twisted. Daniel heard a pop, and the sun went out.

graveyard with sun

What in the Sam Hill?

We have Scandinavian folklore to thank for this one. A Myling is the vengeful spirit of an unbaptized or abandoned child that seeks to be buried on consecrated ground. Many encounters look like the one in our Spooky Story–Mylings latch on to unwary travelers and demand passage to a graveyard before sunrise, or else. Other stories feature them haunting the homes of their mothers, leaving behind bloodied corpses, and otherwise seeking revenge on those fortunate enough to have parents that kept them.

In all cases, the Myling is roughly the same age as it was when it was abandoned, and appears not nearly as decomposed as it should. It is often very large, very heavy, or both, and only gets heavier as you attempt to get it to consecrated land.* If by some miracle you succeed, it will leave you alone.

Otherwise, you can kiss your head (or innards, or whatever) goodbye.

GuiltTM

The Myling are born from a practice that no one wants to talk about. Back in the day (and still in some places today), if a woman had a child out of wedlock, she could be faced with severe punishment, even death. (No word on any punishment for the man who made up the other half of the equation.) As such, incriminating babies were sometimes left out in the cold. Ditto for children born to families who didn’t have the resources to feed them.

In both cases, burials in Christian cemeteries were out of the question–not only could they be expensive, but to have a funeral, you would have to be willing to explain how your child died in the first place. Yet without a proper baptism or burial, the unwanted child’s soul could never be at rest. Hence, Mylings.

Ugly practices beget ugly monsters. A lot of angry spirit myths are born out of shame and tragedy, and this is no exception. Out of all of the Scandinavian ghosts, the Myling is said to be the most malevolent. Only they are willing to finish the business that the living are too cowardly to tie off.

On a less heavy note, you’re welcome for trotting out the creepy child trope.

creepy child
Yippee!

Happy Halloween!

 

 

When running to the nearest cemetery with a malevolent child ghost on your back, what is your first choice for footwear? Is arch or ankle support more important? What kind of tread works best for off-roading? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

Special Message: Happy 50th, everybody!

In addition to being 2018’s Halloween post, this is our 50th post to this site overall. I think that merits some kind of celebration. Monster Meet is what I like to call a (Very) Slow Blog, but it has been a pleasure to return to these three years. I appreciate those of you who have stuck with it throughout. Here’s to the next 50 posts (which at this rate we’ll celebrate sometime in 2023…HAHAHAHA)!

 

 

*And good luck if you don’t know where the nearest cemetery is. Is there an app for that?

PHOTO CREDIT: All thanks to Wikimedia Commons! Moon by Katsiaryna Naliuka; Graveyard by Parrot of Doom; Creepy child by psyberartist. Thanks, all! Long live Creative Commons!

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Let’s Go For a Swim: Matthew Hopkins – Witch Pricker

Hey monster lovers! This month features a guest post by the esteemed Paul Karle, who is covering for me while I am away at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In it, he covers a bit of a different kind of monster–a man who was depressingly real. I hope you enjoy; I’ll see you on the next full moon.

***

The year is 1645.

You’ve been arrested and locked inside a stinking cell. You aren’t allowed to eat or sleep for hours. You are stripped naked and your body is closely examined. All hair is violently shaved from your body and your head so that nothing can be hidden. There seems to be no concern for your privacy–in fact half the town is watching.

The man leading the investigation isn’t a member of local law enforcement. He’s an out-of-towner. Mild-mannered, perhaps a bit bookish, but obviously smart and perceptive. He points out a blemish on your arm. It’s the devil’s mark, he says. A clear sign you’ve made an unholy covenant with Satan.

You try to argue that it’s just a mole, a mark you’ve had all your life. There’s nothing sinister about it, but you’ve been kept awake for hours, your mind is muddled and your words incoherent.

scottish_witchpricker_needle
Witch pricking needles. Necessary tools of any Jacobian charlatan. Perfect for kids 10 and up.

The investigator orders you restrained. You feel the prick of a needle being stuck in your arm. There is a gasp from the crowd. He finds another mark, this one on your thigh. He jams the needle in. You gasp in pain.

Finally, he examines the bottom of your foot and finds another mark on your heel. He slips the needle into your callused flesh. To your relief you feel almost nothing.

The investigator seems pleased. He explains that a ‘devil’s mark’ doesn’t feel pain like the rest of your body. This is all the evidence he needs to prove that the mark truly is supernatural.

This is a very common sign of witches, you know. It’s how they feed their familiar. Their magical animal companion. The creature sucks blood from the mark as a child would feed from its mother.

A signed confession would seal your fate but you still refuse to provide one. You’re returned to your cell and kept awake for days. You can feel your mind breaking as you sink deeper into exhaustion.

Eventually you will do anything just for a little sleep. Sign anything. Confess to anything. Even if it means your death.

Your shaking hand scrawls out your barely legible confession. The witchfinder watches you with a satisfied expression. He’s the cat who caught the canary. He’ll be collecting his pay shortly; twenty shillings plus expenses. Not a bad price to rid your town of evil.

Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder.
Hopkins trying his best to look pull off the Quaker Oats look.

This man was the star of the English witch hunts of the 16th century. Matthew Hopkins: self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. A total, murderous fraud.

You’d spit in his face and curse him if you could, but that’s hard to do from the end of a rope.

The spark that launched Matthew Hopkin’s career was struck by King James VI of Scotland–a monarch uniquely obsessed with the study of witchcraft. This guy was seriously into witches. When he became king Shakespeare wrote MacBeth in his honor. He was sure to include three nasty witches right in the first act. That’s some next level fanservice right there.

James even wrote a book on the topic: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince. Despite it’s long-winded title, it managed to create a public fascination with the topic, inadvertently creating the perfect market for Hopkins.

He seized the limelight when he published his unofficial sequel, The Discovery of Witches. He one-upped James’s text by filling it with his ‘personal’ experiences in the finding of witches. It was filled with tall tales that would make a modern day reader roll their eyes.

In one anecdote Hopkins told how he’d spied on some witches in a wood near his house and heard them mention the name of one of his neighbors. He’d tattled to the local authorities and had her arrested. After four days of interrogation she not only admitted to being a witch, but also provided the names of her familiars.

matthew_hopkins with witch familiars
Matthew feeling awkward around some witches and their adorable familiars.

These familiars, it turned out, had some pretty silly names and descriptions. One was Vinegar Tom, a greyhound with the head of an ox. Another was a chubby, legless, spaniel-like creature named Jarmara. After four days without sleep, she was probably just thinking of the family cat.

Hopkins took his show on the road. He journeyed from town to town, investigating any suspected witchcraft through highly questionable methods.

He was at first very fond of the swimming test in which the suspected party was tied to a chair before being thrown into water to see if they would float. Anyone who failed to sink like a stone was clearly guilty. Hopkins explained that witches rejected their Baptism, which meant that all bodies of water would reject them.

Fortunately, even the impressionable public of this time had problems with the swimming of witches. There were obvious risks in being tied to a chair and thrown in the water. It was something that anyone, witch or not, might be concerned about. The practice was eventually abandoned.

Sleep deprivation and ‘witch-pricking’ became the Witchfinder General’s bread and butter instead. He would often stab a needle into a suspect’s ‘devil’s mark’ to see if it bled or caused pain. These days, experts speculate that Hopkins and his ilk may have even used retractable trick needles to sell the illusion. What fun!

Usually the needle was simply inserted into any blemish that looked suspicious in search of one that showed no sensitivity. That’s right–they’d go around sticking needles all over your body to see what kind of reaction they could get. It’s also worth noting that torture had supposedly been outlawed in England at this point. Ahem.

witches_familiars_1579
“Here you go, have some freshly squeezed human-juice. I drained it out of the weeping sore on my arm just for you. Drink it while it’s hot!”

These supposed devil’s marks were a particularly damning piece of evidence. According to Hopkins ‘research’ these marks weren’t just to show your Satanic allegiance. They were also a kind of infernal nipple from which your familiar could suck blood for nourishment. Apparently a legless spaniel can’t survive on Purina alone.

Hopkins blazed a bloody trail across England, his investigations leading to the deaths of an estimated 300 women in just two years. He became a minor celebrity from his witch hunts, but he also amassed a huge amount of criticism. Even Parliament was reticent to give him full recognition, refusing to bestow his self-chosen title of Witchfinder General officially upon him.

As the public fervor surrounding witchcraft faded, Hopkins faded into history. His reputation diminished, and in the eyes of many he became known a ‘fingerman’, an old-timey word for someone who lies and slanders on behalf of the authorities.

Legend says that Hopkins was eventually accused of witchcraft himself and drowned after being subjected to the ingenious ‘swimming’ test. Sadly, this story is nothing more than a hopeful bit of legend. Hopkins succumbed to tuberculosis in his own home, which probably sucked almost as much as drowning.

His legacy lived on across the pond where his book helped inspire the abortion of justice that was the Salem witch trials. Fans of pulp fiction will no doubt recognize him as the inspiration for Robert E. Howard’s puritan witch finder Solomon Kane, though he was truly closer to a Jacobian Joseph McCarthy.

It’s no coincidence that the modern term of witch hunt describes a trumped-up, unjust investigation against an innocent party.

If this sparked your interest in Matthew Hopkins, I recommend you check out the 1968 Vincent Price film: Witchfinder General. This sensationalized account of Hopkins career is cult movie gold. You really can’t go wrong if you’re looking for something morbid to watch.

 

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Photo of Witch-Pricker by By Heinrichkramer.

Code brown: the Lady of Raynham Hall

When I was about 5 years old, my family squeezed into a minivan and took a trip through the English countryside. I have a lot of scattered memories from that vacation, among them mist, cobblestones, and seeing this picture on the back of some tourism brochure and being scared sh*tless by it.

Raynham_Hall_ghost_photograph

I never knew the story behind the photo–to be honest, had forgotten about it entirely–I until this week, when happened upon it again by chance. I knew then that I was fated to write this blog post.

The photo’s subject is a spirit called the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, so named for her customary 18th-century brown brocade dress. It’s not surprising that I stumbled across her (I’m embarrassed I haven’t covered her already); her photo is among the most famous paranormal images in the world.  

lady_dorothy_walpole
Dorothy in life.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our most fearsome lady is reported to be Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of the first Prime Minister of England and 13th child of a Whig member of Parliament. Dorothy fell madly love with one Lord Charles Townshend, who loved her in return. But when Dorothy asked her father for permission to wed, he refused, fearing that people would assume he had arranged the marriage for his own monetary gain. So Lord Townshend went off to marry someone else, leaving Dorothy alone.

Lord Wharton
The notorious rake, apparently.

Enter Lord Thomas Wharton, a politician and rake “void of moral or religious principles.” It’s unclear if Dorothy actually had an affair with Wharton, or if their relationship was nothing more than a mild flirtation. It’s possible that she went for it–after all, she’d lost the man she loved and Wharton was a smart, charming dude willing to comfort her. But Wharton was married and kind of a douchebag, and theirs could not have been a long-term thing.

Then Lord Townshend’s wife died, and suddenly he was available again. He hadn’t heard about the business with Wharton, and asked Dorothy to marry him anew. Dorothy’s father was no longer around to get in the way, and she gladly accepted.

Now, I feel obligated to mention that contemporary sources–as well as recent documents uncovered by the descendents of the Townshends–indicate that the two’s 13 years of marriage were happy and normal. But if crime television has taught us anything, it’s that a cheerful facades can hide terrible secrets. According to legend, the Townshends had terrible secrets.

Lord Townshend, love of Dorothy’s life, was none too happy when he finally discovered that she’d hooked up with Wharty-poo (never mind that he himself had abandoned her to bang another woman). Some versions of the story go that she was still hooking up after she and Townshend had married, which would have been a bold move, considering her husband’s violent temper. However it went, Townshend took his revenge by locking Dorothy away, refusing to let her even see her children.

Eventually, she died. Officially, the cause was smallpox. Unofficially, people wondered if Townshend hadn’t pushed her down the stairs, or worse, if the funeral was a sham and he wanted her to die alone, shut up in Raynham Hall. Either way, no one would ever see Dorothy alive again.

raynham_hall_1937
Raynham Hall.

About a century later, one of Townshend’s descendants held a Christmas party at Dorothy’s old estate. As they headed to bed, two guests were surprised to see a woman standing at the end of the hall, wearing a very dated brown brocade dress. Before they could approach her, she faded out of sight.

They might have assumed that they had been seeing things. But then, the next day, one of them ran into the woman again, this time face-to-face. Her pale skin all but glowed in the dark, and her eyes had been replaced by dark, gaping holes.

When this story came out, several servants quit and abandoned the premises. The legend of the Brown Lady had begun.

There were, of course, detractors. One was author Frederick Marryat, who decided to stay in the haunted section of Raynham Hall to prove how bunk the ghost stories were. Here’s his daughter’s account of how that went:

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.

The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses. My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.

I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham.”

candle_in_the_dark
Ambience!

And so it went. King George himself visited the property at one point, and woke up to find the lady standing over his bed, hair disheveled, eyes wild. He fled immediately, swearing to “not spend another hour in the accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to god I never see again.”

Now we come to the famous photograph. In September 1936,  London-based photographer Captain Hubert A. Provand visited Raynham Hall along with his assistant Indre Shira with the aim of capturing property photos for Country Life magazine. According to their account, they were setting up a photo of the stairway, Provand with his head under the camera’s fabric, when Shira spotted a vapoury form coming at them down the stairs. He cried at Provand to take the shot. The photo that resulted is the one that the world wonders at today.

Since then, the Lady has not been seen much. Doubt is back in style. People maintain that the Country Life photograph could be easily faked–that there is damning evidence of double exposure and maybe even prop placement with a Madonna statue. I could also point out that Marryat’s story was doubtless exaggerated–not only did Marryat write fiction himself, but his daughter (who wrote the passage I quoted above, which is often quoted by people telling the story of the Lady) also wrote sensational novels, in addition to being an ardent Spiritualist. Between the two of them, it would be hard not to embellish.

Still, Dorothy Walpole’s legend has a nice ring to it, and has survived the better part of 300 years. The current owner of Raynham does not believe the photo was a fake. When asked about his infamous relative, he simply replied: “She isn’t there to haunt the house but she is still there, I know she’s there and I’m glad she’s around.”

 

What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever taken a photo of? Share your story in the comments below.

 

 

All images–except that the candle–were pulled from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The candle photo is by Paolo Costa Baldi [CC BY-SA 3.0], also from Wikimedia Commons

Dogs of war: the Hound of Mons

Ah, World War I: an especially large-scale example of humanity getting itself into way deeper water than it was prepared for. 18-year-olds marched bravely with bayonets, just as their fathers and father’s fathers had done before them, to face enemies with mustard gas and machine guns. Add to that a dash of corpse-clogged trenches, a pinch of aggressive rats, and a heavy dose of feet-rotting mud, and you start to run out of adjectives that would adequately describe the experience. When I think of that war and what it did to people psychologically, I think of this photo:

Shell Shock 1916
A Canadian Soldier in 1916 who is pretty damn far from okay.

So that’s pretty much the baseline for this post. When your world is that inside out, what sort of supernatural monster could keep you up at night?

Let’s situate ourselves in the Belgian city of Mons. Mons was the place where the British entered the war, and the place where its last shot was fired. The official Battle of Mons is nigh legendary, where a group of British soldiers defied the odds and held off a large number of Germans for two weeks before being forced back. During that battle, men reported visions of angelic archers coming to the Allies’ aid. But we’re not here to talk about inspiring things. We’re here for what happened after.

According to Canadian Captain F.J. Newhouse, on November 14, 1914, a man named Captain Yeskes took four men out to patrol no man’s land. They never came back. This in itself was not unusual–”no man’s land” was not so named for its hospitality. But when another team went to recover their corpses, they found them not riddled with bullets as expected, but punctured with teeth marks, throats torn out.

Corpse in Trench
I think this post has the best ambience images yet. (Courtesy of Anders on Flickr)

That was bad enough. Then, a few nights later, as the Allies shivered in the mud of the trenches, an animal howl ripped through the camp. The link between the sound and the bodies was easy to make. They gave a simple name to this new, unknown terror: the Hound of Mons.

Over the next two years, many more soldiers would be found ripped apart among the blackened tree stumps and strings of barbed wire. Cries of pain and that long, terrible howl would echo through dark, either uncomfortably close or at a distance, near the trenches of the Germans. Some reported a grey shadow flitting through no man’s land, fast and low to the ground. It seemed that something had come up from hell itself to frighten the men to death.

And then, without warning, it all stopped. The beast was never seen again.

Civilians looked down on these stories as hysteric fantasy–British propaganda–but Newhouse claimed there was proof that the creature that been real. Secret papers had been recovered from the residence of the late German doctor Hochmuller–notes from an experiment as terrible than the war itself.

According to the papers, Dr. Hochmuller had hunted down and then cut the brain out of a man driven insane by his hatred of the Allies. Hochmuller transferred said brain to the body of a giant siberian wolfhound, abandoning the man to die.  After a few months of training, he let the wolfhound loose on the battlefront. Sure, there might have been some friendly casualties, but by and large, this experiment had been a success. The hound had been the ultimate German weapon.

Now, many have noted that there are issues with Newhouse’s story–his dates don’t line up with historical events, for one. There is no record of Hochmuller ever existing, and Yeskes almost certainly didn’t. Even with today’s scientific advances, a transplant of that caliber is not possible. Yet I don’t doubt that the terror in the trenches was real.

World War I was the first time dogs were used in a large scale, organized manner; one website postulates that the Hound of Mons might be an exaggerated, politicized account of the breeding of the German Shepherd.  It could be that soldiers saw stray dogs eating the corpses of their friends, and lost it.

Even if it wasn’t dogs, the hound could have been a desperate effort to rationalize what was happening with the rats. That is where my money would be. There are accounts of rats as big as cats, fat with human flesh; rats gnawing through up people’s eyes before they burrowed into their corpses; rats attacking and eating injured men who couldn’t defend themselves. Seeing something like that could easily leave a soldier spinning tales about hell hounds as a method of comfort.

In the end, demons might have been preferable to reality.

What’s your favorite type of puppy? Any adorable Youtube recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

WANT MORE HORRIFIC WWI PHOTOS? Check out Anders on Flickr here.

Not horsing around: the Nuckelavee

It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc.  It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.

Orkney Islands
One of the islands, courtesy of Colin Park at Wikimedia Commons.

Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.

At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.

Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.

Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:

 

***

Night beach
A little mood-setting image that sort of directly contradicts the first line of description of the story but that’s okay–AMBIANCE.

One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.

As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.

Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.

The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.

There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.

Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.

The Nuckelavee
A lovely illustration of the Nuckelavee, courtesy of contemporary James Torrance at Wikimedia Commons.

***

 

Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough.  Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.

Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?

Amirite?

 

Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.

Seasick: The empty deck of the Mary Celeste

We’re going to do something a little different this month. Instead of looking at a specific haunting or mythological figure, let’s talk about a mystery that has scared seafarers for over 100 years.

Painting of the Mary Celeste
Painting of the actual Mary Celeste, back when she was named The Amazon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mary Celeste is pretty famous, though I myself had never heard of her. Built in Nova Scotia around 1890, she was a ship some 100 feet long, rigged as a brigantine (for those of you [like me] who know less than nothing about boats, that means her sails were arranged so that she looked something like her picture to the left here). She set sail first with the name Amazon.

The ship proved herself unlucky almost as soon as she hit the water. Her first captain fell ill and died shortly after supervising the cargo load for her maiden voyage. Then her second captain collided her with a fishing boat. Then she ran into and sank a brig outside of London. Then a storm drove her to shore and damaged her so badly that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. Coming out of that, the Amazon was bought, repaired, upgraded, and christened with a new name: the Mary Celeste.

Another pro tip for us landlubbers: renaming a ship is supposed to bring terrible luck. Considering her already sketchy history, I’m not sure what drove the restorers of the Mary Celeste to tempt fate. But the stigma didn’t stop a flock of new investors, one of which who would become her new captain. His name was Benjamin Briggs.

Captain Benjamin Briggs
Photo of Briggs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Briggs was a devout Christian and father of two children: one son, age 7 at the time, and a daughter, age 2. Briggs had considered retiring from seafaring and starting a business with his brother, but the call of the Mary Celeste was too seductive to ignore. With his wife, daughter, a cargo of industrial alcohol, and a crew of men described as “peaceable and first-class sailors,” Briggs set sail on his new ship for Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872.

“Our vessel is in beautiful trim,” Briggs wrote to his mother before they left. “I hope we shall have a fine passage.”

Genoa was a popular destination; by coincidence, an acquaintance of Briggs named David Morehouse would set sail for it 8 days after the Mary Celeste left port. Like Briggs, Morehouse was an experienced and respected captain. So when, in the middle of his journey across the Atlantic, he spotted a ship with oddly set sails jerking through the water, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

Morehouse hailed the ship. No one replied. He drew closer, and saw that it was none other than the Mary Celeste. The deck lay empty. Morehouse signaled the ship again, and the only response was its irregular bobbing in the waves. Worried for his friend–there were pirates active in these waters, and the weather had been terrible–Morehouse sent his first mate Oliver Deveau over with another man to investigate. What they found still puzzles people today.

The Mary Celeste
An engraving of how the Mary Celeste might have looked upon discovery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There were no obvious signs of attack or fire. The sails were partly set but in poor condition; a few were missing altogether. The rigging was damaged, with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. Something had smashed the glass over the compass, and a makeshift sounding rod (a tool for measuring how much water is in a hold) sat abandoned in the middle of the deck.

Deveau called out. The hull of the Marie Celeste groaned; her sails flapped wetly in the wind. Far away, the crew of his own ship watched expectantly. But there was no response.  

Below, everything seemed to be in order, save for some water that had come in through the open windows to splatter the beds and the floor. Valuable personal items–including the captain’s sword–were all still there, as was a 6-month supply of food. According to some legends, half-eaten breakfasts still lay on the table, untouched by rot or flies.*

But no one was there. No bodies. No signs of violence. Deveau and his companion sloshed through 3 and a half feet of water accumulated in the hold–a significant amount, but by no means fatal for a ship of the Celeste’s size–and searched desperately for the missing crew. But the ship remained quiet. At last they could not escape the awful conclusion: they were on the Mary Celeste alone.

Sarah Briggs with child
A photo of Sarah Briggs, Captain Brigg’s wife, with one of their children. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They found the ship’s log in the first mate’s cabin. The last entry was dated the morning of November 25, a little over a week previous. According to the coordinates provided there, the Celeste had moved an incredible 400 nautical miles since. The men were flabbergasted. They went back to the deck and noticed that the lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and navigational instruments. They supposed the crew–Briggs and his men, as well as his wife and toddler daughter–must have abandoned the ship in an awful hurry. But why? The Celeste was still sound. What had caused the seasoned, level-headed captain to panic?

The men returned to their own vessel to report their findings. Captain Morehouse, disturbed, decided at length to bring the Mary Celeste in to Gibraltar for salvage. With his crew divided between two ships, it was hard going. I can only imagine what it was like for those unlucky enough to have to man the silent Mary Celeste. When they finally arrived, Morehouse wrote to his wife: “I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe.”

The team’s arrival ignited a firestorm of speculation about the fate of the Mary Celeste, one that has not really died down since. Select theories include:

      • Pirate attack. Unlikely, as (as I mentioned) many food and valuables were still on board.
      • Someone going insane and killing everyone. The person people point a finger at ranges from Briggs to Morehouse to some other member of the crew. Some said that whoever-it-was was fueled by an alcoholic rage (though the alcohol in the Celeste’s hold wasn’t drinkable, and Briggs ran a dry ship).  Fiction writers (the fiends!) helped spread rumors with stories of “survivors” from the Celeste, but, as I mentioned, the evidence aboard the ship did not indicate violent attack. There were some stains on board that looked like blood but turned out (upon testing) not to be; some breaks in the wood initally thought to be ax marks that were more likely natural wear from the sea. Given also that Briggs, Morehouse, and the crew of the Mary Celeste were all known to be calm, even-tempered men, most people eventually dropped violence from the list of plausible explanations.
      • Sea monsters. Giant sea squid! Other horrific things! But if that were the case, how would they have gotten everyone so neatly? And what about the lifeboat and navigational instruments?
      • Water spouts. Apparently there is such a thing as a water tornado. That could work as an explanation, given the battered sails and how everything was soaked in the hold. But again, why jump ship? Did Briggs think it was sinking? Why abandon the relative safety of the larger ship for a rinky-dinky lifeboat?
      • Miscellaneous supernatural occurrences. Ghosts. UFOs. Time warps. Bermuda-triangle-like hotspots hundreds of miles away from the actual bermuda triangle. Other things that cannot–must not--be named. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
      • Exploding cargo. Now we start to get into more sane explanations. Recent experiments have shown that if one of the industrial alcohol barrels leaked and exploded thanks to a large wave (or someone lighting a pipe a little too close by), it would create a big burst of flame but not necessarily burn or harm the ship in any discernible way. If such an explosion happened, Briggs would have been alarmed and gotten everyone off the ship, only to see the Celeste drift away and be lost in the lifeboat at sea. Investigators, not finding any burn marks, wouldn’t have been the wiser.
      • Faulty equipment. Another more sane (but boring) theory where the Captain panics when he shouldn’t: if his compass was off and his water-measuring equipment was also off, leading him to believe that he was closer to land than he thought and that the Celeste was starting to sink when it wasn’t. In this theory, the banality of evil rules all: Briggs could have lost his life and the lives of his family and crew due to simple technical error.

     

  • Whatever the cause, the result was the same: the souls aboard the Mary Celeste vanished for good.
    Ship in a storm
    Dramatic ship painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

    So what happened to the ship itself? After an official inquiry, the Mary Celeste  was sold in a hurry and continued to bring her rapidly changing captains ill fortune. She lost one full cargo of lumber in an accident, and then when she was used to try to ship livestock, almost every animal in her hold wasted away. When yet another captain died prematurely on her watch, her cursed reputation was sealed.

    Finally, a man named Gilman C. Parker bought and ran her across a reef in an attempt at insurance fraud. Unfortunately for him, he and his associates were found out and vilified for it. Parker died in poverty less than a year later. One of his accomplices went to an insane asylum; the other committed suicide. And that was the last of the Mary Celeste, though certainly not the last of the curiosity over her.

    There is an abundance of material to read about this stuff, for those of you who are interested. The Smithsonian has an interesting theory, as do several videos on Youtube. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, I’d start on the Wikipedia page and then go on from there. I myself am deep in it, and will probably never get out.

    What do you think could have clear out the Mary Celeste without a trace? Extra points for fart jokes. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    *This is probably not true, but it does add a nice dramatic flair.

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.