myth and meme month

The Death Coach

myth and meme month

I’m becoming more interested in the ways that European folklore traditions were brought over to the States and integrated into American folklore traditions. Many of the stories are effectively the same, or similar to where the stories are told in the same way-just-different-locations. I don’t find that off-putting, I like seeing how the stories were reworked to account for different environments.

I was reminded of the death coach (Cóiste Bodhar) while watching Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry this weekend. An off hand comment is made to the phantom coach. Set in Vermont, it’s suggestive that the story was familiar enough in New England at least as late as the 1950s to make it worth a passing mention (I can’t be the only one who notices stuff like this).

(Completely unrelated, The Trouble With Harry is a wonderful, adorable movie with just enough black humor and death to make it enjoyable for a horror fan, but definitely a comedy and definitely not one of Hitchcock’s heavy movies. Perhaps not a family film, but much more lighthearted than what people think of when they think of his catalog).

The phantom/death coach legend is both lingering and fairly straightforward. The coach is a harbinger of death; those that see it will either die or experience a death close to them. The coach is suggested to not be able to return to the other side empty-therefore, someone -has- to die in order to fulfill its obligations when it enters the mortal plane. The story has evolved over time to begin to include versions and/or related legends about driver-less or cursed motor vehicles that fill a similar role. Further, both the car and the coach are often described as black. Where there seems to be the largest departure between the car and the coach variations of the legend is that the coach, depending on era of telling and location where the legend is set, is driven by the dullohan (a type of faerie known for its decided lack of a head). Alternatively, the Devil Himself drives the Death Coach I’ve not heard of a version set in the States with a headless driver (though the headless entity motif is definitely present in the New York folkloric tradition), but if someone knows of one, let me know.

The Coach seems to be a fairly low level, underground legend in the States, with a lot of passing mentions and “oh yeah, it’s around here” types of transmissions. I’ve seen references to the coach in New York, Vermont, and West Virginia. There’s very little in the way of concrete information on the presence of the coach in specific regions, which may (or may not) suggest that it’s an old oral tradition.

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The Scorpion and the Frog

myth and meme month

This isn’t a new tale, nor is it a terribly uncommon one, but I like fables.

My favorite version of this fable comes in song form (Prick! Goes the Scorpion’s Tail, sung by the Painted Doll in The Devil’s Carnival). The darkness of the story lends well to it being one of the fables that repeats throughout popular culture-even if the delivery varies from retelling to retelling.

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A scorpion is trying to cross the river.

Scorpions don’t swim.

Along hops a frog, also attempting to cross the river. Frogs, in fact, do swim.

The frog sees the scorpion but says nothing, knowing the ways of the scorpion. The frog starts to hop into the water when the scorpion says,

“Hey. Pal. Take me across, I’m not heavy. It’ll be no extra weight or work for you. We’ll both be happy in the end.”

The frog says,

“Do I look stupid or ill? You’re a scorpion. Scorpions sting.”

“No.”

Scorpions sting, but it turns out they’re also sweet talkers, and after a longer period of time than what it would have taken the frog to just hop in the river and swim across, the frog reluctantly agrees to take the scorpion across. The scorpion’s main argument here is that the frog would drown, which would drown the scorpion, which means that stinging the frog is of no use to the frog-ensuring that the frog stays safe.

They make it halfway across the river when the scorpion suddenly stings the frog.

The frog, and the scorpion, both start to the drown and the frog says,

“What was the point of that?!”

The scorpion replies,

“Point? There is no point. I’m a scorpion. Stinging is what we do.”

You can ask a great many things of a person…just nothing outside of their own nature.

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There is a less fatal, and grumpier, version of the story involving a turtle. The turtle, having a hard shell, is fine and puts the scorpion on the ground and yells at it for harming those wishing to aid it (and pointing out that the only thing saving -it- is the nature that the gods/God gave it, with the shell). The scorpion’s reaction is a fairly cranky reaction amounts to so? What did you expect? I’m a scorpion.

To balance out the turtle, there’s another version where the scorpion makes it across, and kills a man. Because…you guessed it…scorpion.

Storm Hags

myth and meme month

It was 85 degrees when I left work tonight. Well past sundown. In September.

I am so ready for this to end. The mums I bought this weekend are already dying from the heat. I am slowly going mad, and not just for want of my normal fall behaviors (I am due an Operation Autumn update, I know).

But I know that when the weather shifts, it’s going to shift hard and fast and we’re due a year with November Witches (the storms that come in during late fall on the Great Lakes). To that end, I’ve decided to write about the storm hags tonight-since I’ve finally found reference to them.

My googling skills are odd. Things will show up once and then never show up again for me, if they show up at all. I read one reference to the hags years ago, that placed the hags in Buffalo-I can tell you that in the decade that I’ve been here (give or take a decade, at least) I’ve never heard about this story. Mid has no idea what I’m talking about either, but he did mention a cryptic lake monster. More digging will be needed there.

I think that this is like that photo series that came out last year-maybe not made up completely, but misplaced. Because the storm hag is a myth, though perhaps one born out of modifications to older legends. The way that I heard the legend was a green, fairly angry fairy that rises out of the lake to throw storms at the city.

The way that the more developed American legend goes is that the Hag is a water spirit, green skinned and ugly as dirt who rises up out of the lake (Lake Erie) and drags entire ships down with her. She is not terribly nice, and yes, at least one version of the story links her to faerie, though whether the legend actually intended to suggest that she is a faerie or just to invoke an image that would have been more familiar at one point than it is now, I don’t know. There are multiple faerie like, not entirely nice (there’s that trend again, faeries not being ‘nice’) creatures known for their strong interest in drowning innocents.

The most obvious answer is that the Irish and English who settled this part of the Great Lakes (Buffalo was at one point broken between the Polish, the Italians, and the Irish) brought preexisting faerie belief (mainly in a spirit called Jenny Greenteeth, who meets the same physical description and hobbies as the Storm Hag) and used it to explain weather patterns on a lake notorious for taking down ships, often quickly.

The Lady Mab

myth and meme month

I promised you more fae stuff.

The Lady Mab is an interesting case because she is slowly regaining (or gaining, potentially) popularity. I don’t remember ever running into anyone working with her, but I have encountered at least four people interacting with her in the last two months. It’s not a huge jump, but it’s a name that’s starting to get spoken of.

It is also interesting because she may be a completely fabricated figure. She may not actually have a direct line back into ‘true’ folklore, in that while she is cited as the Queen of the Faeries (which is an actual folkloric figure), she is named by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet but there have been suggestions made that he was playing off of word origins and meanings to create her name, not pulling from existing folklore. Mab, however, began to be used throughout other English works after Shakespeare until she became a fully fleshed folkloric and pop cultural figure, going so far as to be incorporated into certain tellings of Arthurian legend.

At some point it becomes questionable if it matters where the image comes from, if it slowly becomes ingrained.

There is a possibility however that Mab has become the stand-in for -all- Queens of Faerie, with the name being a convenient shorthand to access that type of energy. There are ballads and other folkloric records naming the last queen Oona, so there is an established history of naming a particular individual to that role. The descriptions of the Faerie Queen, which frankly give the whole thing a certain Daisy Fay Buchanan feel for me, give the impression of a woman/entity who is beautiful enough to know the power of it and not really enough empathy to care. This is a creature with her own motives. Mab/the Queen is also in charge of the presentation of the Seven Year’s Sacrifice, the blood sacrifice that keeps the fae out of hell.

There have been suggestions made (only briefly, via Wikipedia, though I don’t know enough about Dianic derived Wicca to say anything in either direction) that Mab/the Faerie Queen’s re-emergence is a development out of teachings from Charles Godfrey Leland and Morgan McFarland. My experiences have found that people working with Mab have also made her a leader of the Wild Hunt, and using a more aggressive energy with her than may be first apparent. She is not necessarily a war or ‘dark’ energy, but practices invoking her seem to pull from a more gray area than a light one.

Into the Mounds

myth and meme month

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

The Hosting of the Sidhe, William Butler Yeats

There’s been increased requests for fae information coming from various areas of my life, so I’ve decided to cheat a little and put together a list (which I’m going to try to keep updated) of the faerie and fae lore that I’ve collected thus far.

Fae folklore is hard, because it’s slippery and often based heavily on oral lore, which means it’s dependent on who is teaching you. A lot of what I know is orally taught as well, so there may be differences between what you know and what I know.

…It also tends to run much darker than what most people are currently familiar with. There’s a lot to be said on why (and I will be touching on that eventually), but the shorthand is that the Victorians had a lot to do with ‘toning down’ the folklore because it wasn’t child or society friendly-therefore a lot of the darkness was stripped out of the stories. This is why there is a subculture of people working with fae energy and folklore tend to emphasize that no, actually, the fae are not actually creatures of joy and light-the beansidhe is still a faerie, like it or not. It’s like anything else, some are, some aren’t.

I don’t classify a folklore that includes things like ‘turning into dust coming out of the mounds’ and ‘rivers of blood, waist deep’ to be a ‘light’ tradition. As with all things, balance.

I will also include on this list some of the pop cultural pieces I’ve reviewed with a heavy fae influence.

Alp Luachra

Bansidhe

Baobhan Sith

Barghest

Black Shuck

Brownies

Cat Sith

Dullohan

Facen and Saci

Fae (Overview)

Fae in Pop Culture

Glamour

Pooka

Sluagh

Tuatha De Danann

The Whole Victorians and Fae Thing

 

Black Forest

The Faeries of Blackheath Woods

House of Dead Leaves

The Hum and the Shiver

Inhabited

Tam Lin

Simargl

myth and meme month

Forgive my lack of special characters. I don’t know if I have the plug ins to support it.

There is Dazbog, who is the god of light and the god of the sun. There is his brother Czernobog, the black god, who may be one of the ‘dead gods’ in that we know that he existed in the record but that’s about it, and what we do know comes from non-worshippers, so we’re getting -at best- an outsider’s view. There is also who is Czernobog’s balance of the white god but who is most likely a modern invention because he doesn’t actually seem to exist in the historical record-but if my memory serves me, I touched on a similar theme last year so I’ll paraphrase what I believe I wrote there: the age of a deity may not matter so much as what a culture is doing (or did) with the deity since then. Belief doesn’t necessarily carry more weight just because it has a longer lineage, when it comes to the muddy, dirty aspects of belief.

There is then the Zorya, the sisters who guard the moon and the sun. They open the gates for  the chariots that move the moon and the sun through the sky. They are the daughters of Dazbog. Zorya Utrennjaja opens for the sun and Zorya Vechernjaja opens for the moon.

This is a pretty gentle little myth. It seems to follow the ‘normal’ structure for feminine mythology; there’s not much bloodshed, and any aggression seems to take part on the place of the masculine energy in the story (Dazbog, the father, would play that role, right?).

Until we get to Simargl.

It turns out that the Zorya had a -much- larger role to play in the cosmology, seeing as they were the ones that were preventing the end of the world from coming about.

Simargl was a giant wolf or hell hound that was chained into the Ursa Minor constellation. If he were ever to become unchained, he would start devouring the stars around him until he consumed all reality. The only thing stopping this from happening was the chains holding him there-the chains that were held by the Zorya.

Never underestimate the role of a figure in mythology. Roles tend to be slippery and end up in places you don’t expect.

The Death Card

myth and meme month

September is Myth and Meme month, where I look at obscure myths or folklore/social memes that are currently making their way through social media. I have decided this year to also look at things as I find them, themes that I don’t normally write about or have encountered in the past. That will include a certain amount of weird history.

This is a story that I suppose that I did know in passing, but without the history to root it into, I assumed it was a plot point and nothing much else. This symbol shows up in Apocalypse Now, when the soldiers leave behind death cards to prove that they were there.

The Ace of Spades has become the death card in modern symbolism over time-the image is used to suggest a character is about to die or that the card in itself is just plain bad luck. The logic that seems to make the most sense to me is that the spade is a shovel and a shovel digs graves, therefore the card is associated with death. There are more complicated logics than that, but that is the one that in its simplicity strikes me as most likely closest to the truth.

There appears to have been a habit among American troops fighting in Vietnam of dropping the ace of spades behind them after leaving battlefields, or leaving them on corpses, or in other high visibility areas. Part of the logic of the act presumes that the Vietnamese fear the death card more than the Americans, so the card would function as a form of emotional weapon. But that connection seems vague at best, and assumes a certain level of familiarity with folkloric imagery. Many of the theories that I came across surrouding both the start and usage of the cards really does read like stereotypical urban legend development-I didn’t see anything, but I knew a guy who…

It might be that the actual ‘start’ of the act will never be identified fully and something about the image struck so hard and fast that it became a symbol to the Americans more than anything else. It might also not be a terribly common or widespread act, but the wearing of the card-or other usage of the symbol- happened frequently enough to enter into military urban legend.