A true tale for Halloween

Happy Halloween, ghouls and boils! A treat for patrons: a very strange experience I had a year ago + the 1930s tragedy I only found out about last night = the reason I was too spooked to go to bed.

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Folklore Thursday: Teeth. Teeth. Teeth.

Untitled (Ghost Teeth), 2008 Manuel Ocampo Acrylic on canvas

Untitled (Ghost Teeth), 2008
Manuel Ocampo
Acrylic on canvas

I have most of my baby teeth in a box somewhere. One of them took too long to wobble its way out of my mouth, so I used my mum’s car keys to gouge it out. I was a very metal seven-year-old. One by one, they ended up under my pillow in exchange for 20p from the Tooth Fairy, who was a tightfisted little madam in my household.

I don’t really know why I still have my teeth. I keep thinking I’ll make some jewellery out of them. You can’t just bin your own bodyparts, you know? But I’ve always liked teeth. The shape, the various colours, the way they feel, like little irregular pearls. And if you have a pearl, how do you tell if it’s real? Rub it against your tooth.

Teeth and the state of them are badges of age, class, and beauty. Our first tooth may end up in a keepsake box, and our last may help to identify us after death.

At the Wellcome Collection’s recent Teeth exhibition, I got up close with Victorian dental teaching dummies like eyeless Cenobites,1940s toothpaste ads featuring cheerful squirrels, and ancient hand-cranked drills reused in the power cuts of the ’70s. What big teeth you have, grandma. It’s little wonder that, as objects, teeth take on special qualities in the anxious netherworld of folklore.

Western dream dictionaries usually say a dream of losing one’s teeth is a manifestation of the fear of losing control, whereas the Chinese interpretation is that the dream heralds a sad event in the family. But in Maori folklore, if someone grinds their teeth during sleep, it is an omen of abundance for the community. To make a child’s teeth grow and put an end to teething pains, a charm would be recited:

An eel, a spiny back,
True indeed, indeed: true in sooth, in sooth.
You must eat the head
Of said spiny back.

One 1856 source tells of another Maori charm for teeth:

Growing kernel, grow,
Grow, that thou mayest arrive
To see the moon now full.
Come thou kernel,
Let the tooth of man
Be given to the rat
And the rat’s tooth
To the man.

And then there’s tooth worms. That pain in your gums, up until the 18th century, could be explained away by the presence of evil little worms. And it isn’t surprising when so many death historical certificates will simply list ‘teeth’ as cause of death that so many people – there are accounts of this even up until the 20th century – believed hideous burrowing monsters could sneak inside their mouths. Tooth worms could be smoked out with henbane, excised with a hard poke from a literal chopstick, or just yanked out. After all, exposed nerves do look a lot like worms.

toothworm

Positioning of teeth in the mouth can denote character, a la physiognomy. Norweigian folklore has it that someone with teeth packed close together will never stray far from home. The USA took it one step further, that a man with teeth overlapping would always live with his mother.

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Of course, if your teeth are bothering you and you wish to ask for help from someone other than a dentist, you could take a tin effigy of your offending peg to the local church. In South America and southern parts of Europe, you may come across churches festooned with these tiny offerings in the shapes of different body parts hanging from ribbons. More folk custom than strictly Christian, the sight of scores of these glistening Milagros is something you won’t forgot.

Teeth make good amulets. Queen Victoria kept a collection of tooth-set jewellery. Most of the pearly whites came from her children, but some were hunting trophies, including a gold necklace set with forty-four deer teeth, inscribed with dates of death and the words ‘all shot by Albert’. In nineteenth-century Bavaria, deer teeth on watch chains or pinned to the brim of hats were said to bring good luck to aspiring hunters.

Deer tooth amulet, Pitt Rivers Museum

These are a few of the toothy tidbits I collected while writing Pseudotooth. Throughout the novel, Aisling carries with her a rotted tooth she finds in her aunt’s cellar. It’s a talisman of sorts, tied to her fate as much to its previous owner’s. When we first meet Aisling, she is fully immersed in the sterile medical world. Aisling’s internal landscape is all wanderlust and scrapbook anthropology. She’s muddled; banished from her own body and her place in the world. The tooth felt like a fitting motif to take along with her. Teeth store information on our pasts. They can be weapons in times of desperation. But most of all, teeth – a single tooth – are incredibly intimate objects.

When Aisling feels the urge to tell the doctor about the witchdoctors of Tahiti who would take a shark’s tooth to release bad blood, of course, she doesn’t dare. She doesn’t exactly believe in it… but she doesn’t exactly not. Nothing in Aisling’s life is as simple as physical cause and effect. Like the tooth worms, the Milagros and the strange destiny of physiognomy, there are anxieties beneath the surface, bargains to be struck, and rhymes to be whispered when the road ahead is unclear.

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Wunderkammer: Heinous and Unnatural

the-witch-poster-e1440010251515If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’ve been excited about The Witch for weeks, and finally got to see it on Saturday. I loved it – loved it in a slightly manic, unreserved way, grinning in the dark for two hours despite the man behind me getting vocally upset because a film marketed as being disturbing turned out to disturb him.

In summary: Puritans are awful, New England is awful, children are awful, that man sitting behind me who thought he’d come to see a Pixar film is awful… but goats just want to have fun.

witchesbabiesAmid all the jolly goat-related devastation, some scenes reminded me of certain folk tales and cases of bizarre phenomenon I’ve taken to my heart over the years. In the spirit of Folklore Thursday, gather round and clutch your protective sprig of rosemary…

I Saw Sister Procter Canoodling With The Devil

There have been cases of mass hysteria throughout history in all sorts of cultures and scenarios. Especially potent in close-knit communities like boarding schools, mild cases of mass hysteria can lead multiple individuals to laugh unstoppably, faint, contract an imaginary virus, or become convinced of a conspiracy. When the paranormal becomes involved, as the Salem witch trials show, things get rather more interesting.

One case in 1491 saw a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands overrun with ‘possessed’ nuns. The sisters ran around like dogs, jumped out of trees pretending to be birds, and clawed tree trunks, miaowing. (Did the cat-nuns chase the bird-nuns, I wonder?) Devilish familiars were blamed, and over the following centuries, dozens of similar mass hysterias cropped up in convents all over Europe. Screaming, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, nuns would confess to carnal relations with devils and attempt to seduce those sent to exorcise them. For a bored nun who fancied her priest, succumbing to hysterics probably looked quite appealing. Or perhaps demons, like poltergeists, work best amongst stifled young women.

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Your Honour, I Put It To You That Donkey Is Evil

As every good churchgoing medieval serf knew, Jesus drove a pack of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs subsequently hurled themselves into a river to drown. So it’s understandable, then, that animals were sometimes suspected by early modern humans of being up to something wicked. A Swiss cockerel in 1474 was burned at the stake for committing the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg. Such a disruption to the natural order had to mean Lucifer was playing tricks through the medium of breakfast food.

Animal trials sometimes involved actual courts, judges, and juries. In 1750, a donkey caught in the act of copulation with her human master was found innocent by the townspeople because she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature”. The man was executed. In the French town of Savigny in 1457, a sow was put on trial for trampling a child to death. The sow was hanged from the same gallows tree as the town’s human criminals, but her piglets were exonerated due to lack of evidence.

Questions of free will clashed with theology in these animal trials – were animals empty vessels capable of being controlled by devils, or were they creatures with as much  character and virtue as a man?

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They Came From The Forest

Woolpit (meaning ‘the pit of wolves’) is a nice little village in Suffolk where I used to spend weekends with my aunt. She had a twelfth century house there with witch marks on the ceilings – long ladders and ave marias traced in tallow smoke. If you’ve driven through Woolpit, you’ll have noticed the peculiar village sign depicting one of the wolves the village is named for alongside two children, hand in hand, painted green.

Around the time my aunt’s house was built, a boy and a girl emerged from the woods. They spoke an unknown language, and both had green skin. The children would only eat beans, and the boy soon died. When the girl was taught enough English to communicate, she claimed to be from a world of eternal twilight called The Land of Saint Martin. They were wandering through a cave, she said, when they blundered into horrid daylight and were discovered by a gang of Woolpit reapers. They did not know how to get home.

The girl took the name Agnes, married, and lived a relatively normal life, eventually losing her green colouring. Various theories abound – that the children’s greenness was caused by Hypochromic Anemia, that aliens had landed, or that they were indeed faerie children from a sunless world.

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Bugganes and Breeches

While faeries have it in them to be friendly on occasion, goblins err on the side of goatish bloody-mindedness. The Buggane, in particular, embodies this attitude. These pre-Christian goblins were known to set up camp in old chapels to prevent parishioners preparing leaky roofs and dangerous staircases. Able to change shape at will, Bugganes favoured the form of monstrously large black rams; the horns enabled them to actively rip down roofs so congregations were rained on during services.

One Buggane did just that when monks failed to ask permission of the faeries before building their church at the foot of Greeba Mountain on the Isle of Man. No matter how many times the roof was repaired, something gigantic would tear it off again, and soon no one dared worship there.

The destruction prompted a local tailor to make a bet that he could stay in the goblin-infested chapel long enough to make a pair of breeches. At midnight, the Buggane tired of the tailor’s company and appeared in its horned form, ready to give him its customary gigantic demonic ram welcome. The tailor was quick, however, and when the Buggane realised it couldn’t catch him, it ripped off its own head and flung it at him. As you do.

The chapel – St Trinian’s – remains a roofless ruin to this day. And horned farmyard animals remain peaceable and cuddly and only casually acquainted with Lucifer.

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