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

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Choo choo: The Snallygaster

 

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Ambient creepy image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the deep cold of February, 1909, a group of men near Sharpsburg, West Virginia crowded around a homemade incubator, close enough to feel its heat. They might have held their hands out for warmth, but I doubt any of them would have gotten too close. Carefully hidden away from the eyes of the town, that incubator housed a egg the size of an elephant. The gentleman were attempting to hatch the spawn of the Snallygaster, dreaded terror of the Middletown Valley.

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One of the said seven-point stars.

Though its name sounds like an invention of Lewis Caroll, for generations of folks living in the hills around Washington DC and Maryland, the Snallygaster was no laughing matter.  In the 1730’s, German immigrants reported a dragon-like schneller geista “quick ghost”–that came out of the sky with tentacles and a metallic beak to suck men’s blood or carry them away. The beast was half-reptile, half-bird, and had teeth sharp enough to part flesh like butter. It kidnapped children and decimated poultry. The Germans painted seven-pointed stars on their barns to keep the Snallygaster at bay; you can still see some of those stars today.

Tales of the Snallygaster seemed to abate in the late 1700’s, but reappeared, weaponized, less than a century later when white settlers wanted to scare away freed slaves. People offered the “Snallygaster” food sacrifices and hid their families indoors, but the carnage continued. For decades, white countryfolk blamed the racial atrocities they committed on the creature. That would shortly come back to bite them, as by 1909, the legend had got out of their control, and the Snallygaster began to appear and attack in places they hadn’t meant it to.

Now the Snallygaster roamed the countryside, large as a dirigible, wreaking havoc wherever it went.  It could change shape, but one man summarized the consensus that it usually had “enormous wings, a long pointed bill, claws like steel hooks, and an eye in the center of its forehead.” It passed through the sky silent as a cloud, and then would swoop down to attack with a whistle “like a locomotive,” or, as another man put it, like a “cross between a tiger and a vampire.”*

The creature left footprints in the snow of New Jersey, and scared the bejeezus out of a man who found it hanging out near his kiln. It was shot here, found roosting in someone’s barn there, seen drifting through the sky, tentacles writhing, always huge, always “headed this way.” Then there were the eggs. The Snallygaster’s eggs were the size of horses–of small cars!–and were found laying around where Snallygaster was known to have passed. Our friends from the beginning of this post never did manage to get that egg to hatch, and that’s probably a good thing for them. They might have ended up like Bill Gifferson, found drained of blood with a hole in his neck.

By now the sightings were so common (and such a nuisance) that the Smithsonian put a price on the Snallygaster’s hide to the tune of $100,000 a foot. Teddy Roosevelt himself thought about coming to collect, but then sightings of the creature abated again. Finally, the Snallygaster reportedly drowned and was subsequently exploded in a 2500-gallon vat of moonshine. Fitting dramatic end to a dramatic life, right?

You forgot about the eggs.

This is where things really get weird. In 1932, the Snallygaster (or rather, one of its children) decided to give a local resident an existential crisis. The poor man reported seeing the creature swoop down from the sky on a penny-farthing, wearing water wings and shouting Balance the budget!” Later, in 1973, the Snallygaster appeared as a land-bound ape-thing that screamed bloody murder in the middle of the night and made a mess out of the heads of cattle. After several sightings, an extensive hunting party set out to find the creature with tranquilizer darts and a large steel cage. They returned empty-handed.

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Not Eastern Racers, but alarming enough nevertheless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where is the Snallygaster today? There doesn’t seem to be any recent sightings. Certainly the horrors that inspired it are still around–racial violence being the obvious one, but also the nasty clusters of Eastern Racer snakes (which apparently can get up to five feet long and move quite fast) that might have made people see tentacles. The last real Snallygaster sighting was over 40 years ago, and as I’ve heard tell that the Snallygaster’s lifespan is 20 years, it might be gone for good. But it’s difficult to say for sure.  Feel free to go out and try to find one, if you like.

I’ll stay here and look out for any suspicious clouds.  

 

 

Have you ever seen something strange in the sky? What do you think a “cross between a vampire and a tiger” sounds like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*I’m not quite sure what this means, as the sound my mind conjures for “vampire” is “slurp.”

Dead baby jokes: Lamashtu

This month, let’s talk about old fear. Ancient Mesopotamian religion kicked off as much as 6 thousand years ago, but the spirits of its deities can still be recognized today: Tammuz, god of food and vegetation; Dagon, god of fertility; Enlil, god of breath. All were thought to be like humans, but immortal, shining so bright that they could not be looked at. They were not mystical beings, but masters that humanity should obey and fear.  Most of them were good, or at least chaotic-neutral. One of them was not.

Lamashtu was a deity that destroyed lives. She did it not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was distinct in that way from her peers, who might be destructive, but were so under obligation, or with some purpose other than destruction for destruction’s sake. Lamashtu personified a fear as old as the human race: fear of losing a newborn. She took the already bloody, dangerous process of delivery and made it that much worse.

Known for her signature move of ripping babies from breasts to slurp their blood and gnaw on their bones, Lamashtu appeared as a mythological hybrid with a hairy body, a lioness’s head, donkey’s teeth and ears, a set of long fingers and fingernails, and sharp bird talon feet (what is it with female monsters and taloned feet, anyway?). She was often depicted standing on a donkey, simultaneously gripping snakes and nursing a pig and  a dog. When not terrorizing the living, she traversed the underworld in a boat. Her name meant “she who erases.”

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Lamashtu’s name in cuneiform, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The style her name was written in signaled her power and deity status. 

Beyond kidnapping, Lamashtu’s rap sheet included (but was not limited to):

  • Killing children
  • Killing unborns
  • Killing infants
  • Torturing/attacking mothers and expectant mothers
  • Eating men and drinking their blood
  • Disturbing sleep
  • Bringing nightmares
  • Killing foliage
  • Infesting rivers and lakes
  • Bringing a lot of disease/sickness
  • Bringing death
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The plaque in question, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Lamashtu appears at the bottom center. Pazuzu is the dude to her left, as well as the guy grinning over the whole scene like a Disney villain over the front of a 90’s VHS tape.

Understandably, the Mesopotamians were terrified of Lamashtu and did everything they could to discourage her visits. Expectant mothers wore amulets with the sign of Pazuzu, Lamashtu’s husband/rival who was not super great in his own right (he tended to bring famine and drought), but was the only person who might get her to stop. Amulets are hardly the only protective artifacts we’ve found, however. Especially in the first millennium, anti-Lamashtu paraphernalia was everywhere. Fun tip: there is (or was recently) an actual Lamashtu exorcism plaque on display at the Louvre (field trip, anyone?). It depicts the exorcism scene with Pazuzu watching. The patient reaches out in pain; priests in the fishskins of the god Ea crowd around him. Lamashtu appears large and terrible at the bottom, barely held back by Pazuzu. The inscription describes her as furious and cruel, a dazzling goddess; she is a she-wolf; she snatches the young man on the path, the girl at play, the child from the arms of his nurse.”

I’ll leave you today with an ancient Mesopotamian ritual and incantation against Lamashtu-induced illness. Those of you who fear for your family’s safety–or who see long, strange fingers peeking around your doorframe when you’re lying sick in bed–perhaps will find the information useful. The ritual goes as follows:

  1. Procure a Lamashtu figurine. (This is stumbling block #1. Good luck.)
  2. Place a sacrifice of bread before the figurine, and pour water over it.
  3. Put the figurine on the back of a black dog.
  4. Have the black dog carry the figurine to be placed at the head of the sick person for three days.
  5. Stuff a piglet’s heart in the figurine’s mouth, and leave it there for the duration of those three days.
  6. Offer further food sacrifices, and recite your incantation thrice daily:

Great is the daughter of Heaven who tortures babies

Her hand is a net, her embrace is death

She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory

A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven

She touches the bellies of women in labor

She pulls out the pregnant women’s baby

The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers

With no child of her own.

Her head is a lion’s head

Her body is a donkey’s body

She roars like a lion

She constantly howls like a demon-dog.

7. At dusk on the third day, take the figurine outside and bury it near the wall.

Easy-peasy, right? At least the stakes aren’t life or dea–oh, wait. Yes they are.

I’ll leave you to it.

How many dead houseplants and brutal sinus infections can you blame on Lamashtu? Share your story in the comments below.

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.

 

Slim Fast: The Pishtaco

Last month’s post on el Sombrerón reminded a couple of my friends of a monster their old high school Spanish teacher told them about. They’d forgotten what the creature was called, but  remembered its legacy well enough for it to still disturb them some ten years later. A quick Google search yielded a goldmine of stories about this monster: the Pishtaco, a  400-year-old Peruvian terror who actually resurfaced in the news back in 2009. In him, we have a magnificent example of how monsters can dramatize the very real nightmares of a community.

Let’s roll back to the legend’s birth. In 1571 Spanish priest Cristóbal de Molina noted a specific revulsion among the Inca: they absolutely refused to bring firewood into the homes the conquistadors; not out of spite, but out of fear. It seemed that word had gotten around that during a battle some fifty years earlier, the Spanish, lacking proper dressing for their wounds, had taken Incan corpses, cut strips of flesh from their backs, and used the some human fat instead.

Now, the Inca knew that their people’s grease must be valuable–certainly it was of a better quality than that of the foreigners, as the Inca grew up with a hardier, healthier lifestyle. Fat was important in their culture; they had a whole deity devoted to it. The Spanish were already exploiting them in almost every other way–why not use that quality fat, as well? The Inca were sure that Spanish were willing to kill them for it to use in their cryptic European medicines.

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A small yet horrifying depiction of Pishtacos in action, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculous? Perhaps not. Funny thing: Europeans really did use human ingredients in their quests for self-improvement, and often. Sure, they often got said ingredients from condemned criminals, but did they treat the indigenous Americans any better? Fat especially was considered a remedy for arthritis and gout, and could be used to speed the healing process. Regardless of whether the Spaniards intended to take it from the Inca or not, Incan fears were not entirely unfounded. Thus the soul of the Pishtaco was born.

This fat-sucking devil appears rather human, and rather European–often he’s even described as having blonde hair. Typically handsome and sporting an impressive beard, the Pishtaco changes his clothing to stay more or less modern with the times. He carries a knife; his eyes flash in the dark. There are stories of him raising a hand to his intended victim, only for the victim to realize that the Pishtaco’s fingers are writhing like worms. As the fingers drop to the the ground, the victim then freezes with terror, giving the creature his opening to attack. This is one of many examples that illustrate how adept the creature is at hypnosis; he doesn’t seem to need more than a command or a look to secure his victim’s fate.

The Pishtaco has been categorized by some as a vampire, albeit an odd one. Though it’s true that in some versions of the legends he eats what fat he extracts, more often he seeks to profit from it, usually by selling it to other foreigners. This role is one of the most fascinating aspects about the creature: he’s an outsider, an invasive species. What exactly the Europeans have been suspected to do with the fat he sells them has changed over the years…first it was incorporated into medicine, then friars were suspected of using it to oil their church bells to make them more sonorous, now it could be used in plane engines or beauty products.

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Human fat, courtesy of Bullenwachter over at Wikimedia Commons. You’re welcome.

So how does he extract the fat from his victims? In the more supernatural versions of the tale, the Pishtaco sucks the fat out through his victim’s skin or inserts a tube to tap them like a woodsman taps sap from a tree. Said to be priapic and rather violent, he occasionally rapes them while he’s at it. Sometimes the victim even survives the procedure, finding a strange gaps in their memory and feeling suddenly lightheaded and weak. In the more literal (and recent) accounts, the Pishtaco is less forgiving. He dismembers the victim entirely, then strings their body parts up to hand over an open flame, bottles lined under to collect their dripping fat.

It was a few of these grease-filled bottles that caused such a stir in 2009. The Peruvian police reported that they’d apprehended a group of men who had been trafficking human lard since the 1980’s. There was video footage of the trafficker’s lab, complete with stacks of  bones and a half-rotted man’s head. One of the men confessed to selling the bottles of fat–which tested positive as human–to the Italian Mafiosi for $15,000 a pop. The police said that this grease was to be used in European skin softener. The legendary Pishtaco had suddenly come terribly to life.

Fortunately, this particular incident turned out to be a hoax: there wasn’t really any fat sold to the Europeans (or at least, no one could find anyone who might have been buying it), and the numbers and locations of alleged victims and perpetrators didn’t add up. Unfortunately, the police were the ones perpetrating the hoax, and had done so to cover up a secret governmental death squad that killed 46 people over the span of two years. This was a horror of its own, and did little to quell Peruvians’ fears. People continued (and still continue) to see Pishtacos everywhere. They are the businessman with his briefcase; the fellow with headphones giving you the side-eye. Some say the Pishtacos are planning an onslaught; some even claim they plan to harvest hundreds of Peruvians to pay off the national debt.

Though there hasn’t been any big news since the police scare, I doubt that the Pishtaco’s story is over. Even if human fat trafficking is a stretch, organ trafficking isn’t. What’s more, the perpetrators in 2009  never themselves claimed to be selling things to cosmetic companies–they were more in the line of Satanic candles, which is a little easier to imagine, so there might have be some truth in that tale. Between all this and the terrible historical context of the Andes, it’s no wonder people are jumpy.

Sometimes, the things that go bump in the night come uncomfortably close to reality.

 

Have you seen (or heard) any Pishtaco-type tales? Did you pronounce the word “fish taco” or “pistachio” in your head, and then giggle uncontrollably? Share your story in the comments below.

The art of avoiding eye contact: Two Face

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

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

Let’s start with a story.

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

“Look!” the stranger cries. “A fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

*Link to Porsche’s work here

Season for Purresents: Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat

Happy holidays, everyone! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Winter Solstice, I hope you’re enjoying these long, dark nights. Doubtless you’ve heard of the horror Krampus, who is making a comeback this year in the public imagination.  We’re not going to talk about him this month, but about another Scandinavian beastie, since that cold, dark area of the world is so ripe with holiday horror. It is my pleasure to introduce the Jólakötturinn, an Icelandic feline with a hunger for human flesh who will teach us the true meaning of Christmas.

Though some claim he’s been around for generations, written accounts of the Jólakötturinn (who in English might be called the Yule Cat, or Christmas Cat) date only back to the 19th century. Said sometimes to live with the terrible ogress Grýla, sometimes to exist on his own, the Yule Cat stalks the Icelandic countryside during the holidays, peering into houses and looking for a human snack. Jóhannes úr Kötlum authored a poem (later adapted by Bjork and translated here from Icelandic) that describes the Jólakötturinn more or less like an ordinary cat, only much larger and with a few exaggerated characteristics:

“You all know the Christmas Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

the two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

to look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

were a terrible sight…”

If the idea of an enormous cat doesn’t scare you, you may want to think twice. How many cats do you know? Sure, they might purr and meow and rub your legs, but have you watched how they treat the odd fly? The mouse? A scrap of wrapping paper? It might very well be that your cat defers to you only because you are much bigger than he; imagine those cute little teeth, those sharp claws, only twenty times larger, with you as the fly, or the scrap of paper. This is the Yule Cat, roaming “at large, hungry and evil/In the freezing Christmas snow.”  Mewling. Moaning. Hunting you.

cat-eating-prey
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In this picture, you would be the bird.

But only if you fit a certain criteria, and this is where the Yule Cat legend gets weird.

While the Yule Cat might have a taste for human flesh generally (with a special emphasis, of course, on children), he can only eat those without a new item of clothing during the holidays. Any article–even as little as a belt or a scarf–could save you from the creature, but if you can’t find one? As the song goes, “you better watch out”–the Yule Cat will come and grab you (or, in milder legends, grab your Christmas dinner, which is not terrifying so much as it is disappointing).

Why the Cat operates with this filter is unknown. Some postulate that he might be acting as sort of macabre fashion police, an incentive for people to keep up with the latest trends. Others wonder if the Cat wasn’t originally an invention of farm heads to encourage hard work before the holidays, promising their employees a fashionable reward in exchange for extra labor. This theme of the Cat inspiring hard work repeats itself: there are accounts of 19th-century women sewing frantically during Advent to make their families new clothes, and the National Museum of Iceland says explicitly that the Cat “helped combat laziness and inertia.” Still today, Icelanders are said to clock in more overtime than most other European nations, and some attribute this to leftover fear of the Cat. But what of those who work very hard, but still cannot make ends meet? Or those unable to work at all?

Because any way you look at it, this monster chiefly tortures the disadvantaged. And that’s where the fuzzy, gooey, Christmas magic comes in: the only way the Jólakötturinn might be  completely defeated is by helping those in need.

Want to avoid seeing your neighbor get disemboweled by foot-long claws? Best wrap them up some socks.

Happy holidays, everyone.

This post is dedicated to Pluto, my beloved droopy-eyed, long-fanged black cat who passed away this December. May he rest in peace, or if he can’t do that, pay us a visit for a true Christmas miracle.