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.

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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.

Hold on to the Handrail: Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Let’s face it: monsters can be pretty complex. A lot of them tend to shapeshift and do contradictory things. They kill us in all sorts of troubling ways, and remind us about aspects of ourselves that we’d rather leave buried. This year alone, we’ve covered monsters whose mouths open sideways, monsters that can electrocute you, force you to carry around a human leg, and that incite otherwise sane, normal people to kill each other. It’s spring now. It’s been a whirlwind few months. Let’s take it easy and get back to the essentials: a straight-up, crap-your-pants boogeyman.

RawHead (or, somewhat confusingly, “RawHead and Bloody Bones”) is about as basic of a monster as you can get. And I’m not talking pumpkin-spice-latte basic. I’m talking horror so distilled that its legacy has stuck around for at least 450 years.

under the stairs
A different point of view.

Imagine you’re a child again (or, if you are still a child, hello! We would have been best friends growing up.). As a child, you usually have an adult around, but not always. Sometimes you have to do things by yourself. This can be exciting, but there are some things you wish you didn’t have to be alone for, even if that makes you a baby. Things like crossing by a silent, black stretch of water. Things like going up or down a dark set of stairs.

Now imagine you are in England in the 1500’s (or, if you’d rather not, don’t…the story will end the same). You are descending the stairs. You know there is a space beneath them, like many staircases. You hate the way the boards creak over that space. You wish there was a light down there, just to scare away, you know. Mice.

You know you should go quickly–just run and get it over with–but as you reach the middle of the stairs, you cannot escape the thought that there is something down there, waiting under your feet. It would be easy to look at check…there are gaps between each stair. You could do it right now. You do do it right now.

It’s dark, but something glistens in what little light makes it through the gaps. It is a slick dome, a wet mess of red and white with eyes that turn up to look at you. It is a man whose head has been peeled of skin. He sits curled up on a pile of human bones. Child-sized bones.

The man smiles, and then reaches up to grab you.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Steals naughty children from their homes,

Takes them to his dirty den,

And they are never seen again.

pile of bones
Topical photo!

Or so the rhyme went. Parents and nurses warned kids about Rawhead and Bloodybones from a young age. If you swore, he’d get you. If you misbehaved, he’d get you. If you went too close to a pond, or to a dark cupboard, he’d get you. He was the monster du jour (or rather, du siècle) to frighten kids into doing what their caretakers asked.

I imagine that those threats worked, but many worried that the medicine was worse than the disease. John Locke himself implored caretakers not to invoke Rawhead’s name, saying:

“Such bugbear thoughts, once got into the tender minds of children, and being set on with a strong impression from the dread that accompanies such apprehensions, sink deep, and fasten themselves so, as not easily, if ever, to be got out again; and whilst they are there, frequently haunt them with strange visions, making children dastards when alone, and afraid of their shadows and darkness all their lives after.”

In other words, “please don’t scar the children.”

Skinless dude
Rawhead says “go to your room.”

Obviously, parents didn’t heed his plea. Rawhead not only endured, but came to the United States along with British immigrants. Our melting pot made him even stranger. He took root in the south, not as something that lurks under the stairs, but as a bipedal zombie with the head of a razorback boar.

The story goes that that boar was beloved by a witch and then slain by some supremely shortsighted hunter however many centuries ago. The witch brought her friend back to life, and in a terrible way. In some tellings, the zombie Rawhead collapses back into a pile of bones after eating the hunter alive. In others, he’s still wandering the woods.

Rawhead’s bare-boned (see what I did there?) terror has inspired people for generations. Clive Barker wrote a short story about him, which was later turned into a B-movie. Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote an appropriately creepy song. It’s all glorious.

There’s something almost comforting about such a simple monster. Care bear. Bug bear. It’s one in the same to me.

Has your foot ever gotten caught between the stairs? Have you spotted any mysterious piles of bones in your cupboard? Share your story in the comments below.

Photo credit props:

Stairs: Henry Söderlund at Flickr.

Pile of bones:  Indofunk Satish via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Muscle man:  Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt

Thrill of the chase: The Wild Hunt

Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.

It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.

An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.

oskorei-bild
Turns out there a buttload of classical paintings for the Wild Hunt. This one is by Franz von Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.

The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.

cordeswildejagd
All images in this post are going to be large and in charge, because the details are awesome (looking at you, lower right corner). Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons

The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt.  One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.

Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?

Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.

Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Houseguests from hell: the Kallikantzaroi

Happy holidays, everyone! December’s darkness is upon us: the nights lengthen while the days grow stunted and gray, the air is so cold that it hurts, and the lines at every store are long enough to make you ready to sell your soul just to reach the cashier. Regardless of what traditions you do (or do not) practice, you’ve got to admit that there is something both magical and frightening about this time of year.

As the northern hemisphere prepares to enter into the long winter, all the old traditions of families banding together for survival come blazing back to life. But, as we all know, even the most dire circumstances cannot entire drive away intra-family squabbles. This year, in the spirit of the season, I’d like to put all those annoyances in perspective.

fire-917411_1280
Gather around, everyone.

Let’s talk about the Kallikantzaroi, Greek goblins who will make you yearn for Aunt Purse-Gin and Uncle B.O.. Unlucky witnesses often describe them as short creatures: half-man, half-devil, and mean-looking, with long tails and an abundance of black body hair. They are mostly blind, speak with a lisp, and (outside of what they steal) eat only worms, snails, and frogs. 353 days of the year, the Kallikantzaroi lurk deep underground, sawing away at the World Tree (that plant that holds the whole earth together) with the intent of bringing it down. But when Christmas comes around, they forget their task and scramble into the world of mortals.

kallikatzaroi
Kallikantzaroi going to town on the World Tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Slipping between carolers and strings of colorful lights, the Kallikantzaroi dart through the night and try to ferret into your home through whatever opening they can–doors, windows, chimneys, cracks in the walls and floors. Once inside, they drink all your liquor, eat all your food, break everything breakable, piss in your flowerbeds, and generally make your life miserable. Think of your worst possible houseguest, and then times that by a magnitude of 12: the Kallikantzaroi go all in on their destruction, and will keep at it night after night until the 12 days of Christmas (December 25th through the Epiphany on January 6th) are over.

Then, at last, after the the sun starts to shift and the days grow longer and the priest comes by to bless your home, the Kallikantzaroi scurry back under the earth. There, grumbling and bickering, they’ll resume their quest to cut down the World Tree, only to find that in their absence, the trunk has healed. They’ll have to start all over, only to be thwarted again at the last moment next year, when the call of the winter-wrapped mortal world comes anew.

kallikatzaros
Charming portrait of this month’s subject courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While not actively evil (at least, according to some), the Kallikantzaroi are frightening and irritating enough that it’s worth a little effort to avoid them. The simplest method is to burn a Yule log–traditionally one of prickly pear or wild cherry–heartily in the fireplace for the entire holiday, so that nothing can come down the chimney. You can even throw a little salt on the fire so that the crackling and popping will scare them away. You can also hang up a pig jaw, paint a black cross on your door, or set a colander on your doorstep (this latter item will trip the Kallikantzaroi up, as they cannot count past 2 [since 3 is a holy number] and will stay up until dawn trying and failing to count the holes in the bowl).  None of these are as fun as my favorite method, though, which is to take the oldest, foulest shoe you can find, and burn it in the fireplace. The smell will drive any Kallikantzaroi far away, with the added benefit of driving everyone else–landlords, bill collectors, loud neighbors, irritating family members–far away, as well.

Where did the Kallikantzaroi come from? Greece is not the only place with a legend like this one, and there are a number of tales about how the creatures came to be. One interesting origin story is that children born during the holidays have morphed into the monsters because their birthdays threatened to upstage Christ. (Pro tip: to avoid your December child becoming a Kallikantzaros, bind them in garlic cloves.) More prosaically, the masked revelers in the ancient Roman Bacchanalia festival might have had drunken shenanigans so legendary that they scarred generations. Your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother might have told stories of the Kallikantzaroi simply as a way to illustrate how annoying drunkards can be and advise on ways to keep them at bay (are you picturing a drunk person trying to count the holes in a colander yet? Now you are.).

Any way you cut it, the prospect of a goblin visitor makes the holiday season a little more colorful. Though the Kallikantzaroi were more of a real concern before the dawn of electric lights, some people in Greece (at least according to the Internet) still carry out the traditions of protecting against them. I might too, this year, just to be safe. I’ve got a few old shoes I need to get rid of, anyway.

What is your worst holiday guest experience? How do you think “Kallikantzaroi” is pronounced? Share your story in the comments below.

Hot diggety dog: Black Shuck

I lived in England for a few years when I was little, and had an imaginary friend. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you might remember the Shadow People and the nightmare that scared me so badly. This was the counterpart to that. Some kids imagine happy-go-lucky playpals; I had a silent jaguar made of shadows. He was so real to me that I could almost make him out if I squinted in the dark.

Browsing for a monster interesting enough for a Halloween post, I came across a British phantom not unlike my long-lost companion. Given that this full moon is the Hunter’s moon, I figured the topic would be especially appropriate. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Black Shuck.

blackdog
Liza Pheonix’s artist depiction, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (CC license 3.0)

There’s quite a bit on ole’ Shuck out there, as he’s been haunting Britain’s East Anglia (just northeast of London; coincidentally the area I lived in) since at least 1577. On August 8th of that year, during one of the worst storms in memory, an enormous black dog burst into a crowded Blythburg church. Racing through the panicked congregation, he killed two people and then made his escape, leaving scorch marks on the door. Almost at the same time in Bungay (a few towns over), the scene repeated itself with another black dog and another church and more of the faithful slaughtered. There’s a lovely rhyme that goes with the legend:

“All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.”*

The countryside erupted in terror. Was this demon canine a manifestation of the devil? Retribution for everyone’s sins? The Black Shuck obsession was born.

Though Shuck may have existed before–black dogs were common additions to the dark party of the Wild Hunt, and people accused of witchcraft were said to have called upon beasts much like him–after Blythburg, the legend really took off. For the next five centuries, people would see horrible hounds lurking in churchyards, blocking crossroads, peering out of bushes, bearing down roads. Shuck didn’t enter a church again, but seemed to be everywhere else. Anyone who laid eyes on him was doomed to death or misfortune. The fear was common enough that Conan Doyle picked up on it for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Those unfortunate enough to behold Black Shuck described him as a hellhound. As his name suggests, he was entirely black, with ragged, matted fur (‘shucky’ colloquially meant shaggy or unkempt) and big, shining, red (or often red) eyes. He was usually large (could get as big as a calf), and was sometimes accompanied by clinking chairs or curling mist he might float on. Some people heard or felt him without seeing him directly. He surprised others by appearing without a head.

Mike Burgess’s site Shuckland analyzed 261 accounts of the creature (comprised of legends and actual encounters), and found that in most cases, Black Shuck would first appear to witnesses in rather ordinary (if creepy) ways. This included crossing their path, coming up behind them, or just appearing on the horizon, watching them get closer. Burgess notes that in such cases, people might not immediately realize what this black dog was, especially if his eyes weren’t glowing and he wasn’t floating or missing a head. Many times Shuck would ignore the witness entirely, but now and then he would follow them or become suddenly hostile.** Shuck’s exits were what really marked him as supernatural: he would stand unharmed as a car ran through him, or vanish into walls or shadows, or simply disappear into thin air.

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Abraham Fleming’s original 1577 description, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Black Shuck sightings do still happen now and again, but not with the regularity that they used to (encounters peaked in the early 20th century and then again in the 1970’s). Those who don’t believe in monsters blame the birth of his legend on a mishmash of leftover Nordic myths*** and tales spread by 16th-century clergymen looking to put a little fear of god in their peers. But recently surfaced evidence suggests that at least at one time, Black Shuck may have been terribly real.

In 2014, the bones of a very large dog–we’re talking 7 feet high on his hind legs–were unearthed in a shallow, unmarked grave under an abbey just a few miles from the original church attacks. Analysis revealed that the dog would have weighed over 200 pounds, and could have been buried  between either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920 (I know…I’m not sure how carbon dating works, either). All signs pointed to Shuck. Who so hastily buried this beast under the church? What damage was done before they could?

This Halloween, I wish you a new pet at least as exciting. I hope he does all kinds of tricks. Be it the shadow-jaguar of my childhood or a floating, headless hell beast, may your friendship be lively and your nights very, very long.

Happy haunting.

What sort of imaginary friends did you have as a child? Has any animal ever stuck to you a little too close? Share your story in the comments below.

*Presumably the author of this rhyme meant “fire” to signify either lightning, church candles, or an ethereal glow; as for “quire,”my guess would either be the bible or a literal “choir” (just spelled rather differently).

**Shuckland has a marvellous wealth of encounter descriptions; if you have a few hours to kill, I would recommend checking them out.

***Burgess disagrees with this theory.

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Fishmen: The Finfolk

Growing up, my bedtime stories were the works of H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Edgar Allen Poe, and Doctor Seuss. This may explain a bit about me). The Shadow Over Innsmouth particularly came to life for me; it left such an impression that I enjoy ocean-centered nightmares to this day. Imagine my delight, then, on discovering a blog post about the Orkney Finfolk, a group of gloomy fish-people who like to steal humans and live in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea (*ahem* Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. I should mention that I’m not the first one to make a connection to the Cthulhu mythos, either). These Finfolk have a lot in common with the fishy villagers of Innsmouth, but are–perhaps literally–several centuries older.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
Something like a Finwife, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, the Finfolk seem kin to mermaids or selkies, but you’d be a fool to mistake them as such. They come in two genders. Finmen at first appear like any other man, but a closer look reveals that their “clothes” are actually artfully folded fins arranged specifically to fool humans. Their faces are dark and gloomy, their eyes black. Finwives, on the other hand, look more or less like mermaids (unless they look like old hags, but we’ll get to that in the moment). Topless in the freezing North Sea waves, they dust themselves with crushed pearls and cry out at fisherman. These are the Finfolks’ natural forms, but really they might appear in any form, as they are accomplished sorcerers and shapeshifters. They might show up as driftwood, as a tree, as someone close to you…

Nothing stops the Finfolk from crossing from sea to land: unlike selkies, they come and go as they please (several sites describe them as “amphibious”). Their motivations for venturing into human territory are two-fold: 1) to cheat or otherwise obtain silver, which they are obsessed with, and 2) to steal humans, whom they will drag away screaming and then force into permanent matrimonial servitude.

Obviously, this latter threat is what the people of the Orkney islands were most concerned with. They told stories all the way up through the 19th century of women disappearing off beaches and men out of boats; spouses abducted onto crafts that flew across the waves with unnatural speed; floating plants bursting to life to snatch a passerby into the cold, grey water. Depending on the season, the kidnapped’s destination was either the magical, vanishing island of Hildaland or the fearful Finfolkaheem, an opulent kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Both are described as Finfolk utopias, though for the human captives, they would be more like hell.

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Underwater Kingdom painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First there is the particular torture of the places themselves. Hildaland is guarded by monstrous whales and hideous tusked Finmen, so good luck getting rescued out of there, never mind escaping it. It’s surrounded by mist; mortal boats might pass straight through it without realizing that it’s there (if they’re lucky). Finfolkaheem is even worse, though it would certainly be interesting to see. Full of massive crystal halls, multicolored seaweed, tiny phosphorescent creatures, and curtains fashioned after the aurora borealis, the Finfolk raise sea-cattle, ride sea-horses, herd whales, and train sea lions within the city’s borders. For humans, it’s a prison of the worst sort: there’s no escaping from the bottom of the ocean alive (no word on how the Finfolk keep them there to begin with. Sorcery?). That deep, the pressure and darkness alone would be enough to drive you insane.

Worse than the supernatural prisons are the Finfolk spouses themselves. Finmen are notoriously cruel and territorial, even to people they’re not married to (for example, they’ll stab secret holes in the fishing boats that cross them, enjoying the panic of fishermen that realize, too late, that the ocean is swallowing them alive). One of the reasons Finfolk prefer to marry humans (as opposed to each other) is because Finwives age much faster when coupled with their own species; I can only guess that this is because Finmen are moody pains in the a** and beat them mercilessly if they don’t bring home enough silver. The ladies aren’t blameless, though…Finwives pummel their human spouses just as cruelly, and for the same reason. Human spouses of either gender are worked to death, helpless in the face of monsters as old as the ocean itself.

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Eynhallow in 1980, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It does look kind of decimated, doesn’t it?

But some people fought back, and that’s why we don’t see much of the Finfolk today. You see, the Finfolk greed for silver can be turned against them: throw a handful of coins away from yourself, and you might outrun your fishy pursuer. The Finfolk also hate pure salt, which one man in particular took advantage of. After a Finman stole his wife, the Goodman of Thorodale  laboriously figured out where Hildaland was, boated out there, out-bluffed the terrifying creatures in the water, landed on the island, took out a bag, and rained salt everywhere. The Finfolk fled screaming into the sea, taking their livestock and prisoners with them. Their fields dried up, and Hildaland ceased to be a magical place. Now it is called Eynhallow; you can visit it today.

The final nail in the coffin for the Finfolk seems to have been the arrival of Christianity. Accounts claim that the Finfolk abhor crosses, and the more that appeared on the islands, the deeper they dove. After the 19th century, there ceased to be much mention of them at all.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still be out there, though. Deep beneath the North Sea waves. Dreaming.

How long can you hold your breath underwater? How about in the face of nameless horror? Share your story in the comments below.