Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.

The Canine Mystique

BlackDogAnyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.

Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.

Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.

World of Color


Albinism occurs across species. In human beings, suspicious and superstitious lot that we are, it’s sometimes an excuse for prejudice. I’ve confessed in the past to reading Weird N.J. (Long story.) When we first moved to the Garden State a series of stories ran about rumors of albinos in a secret town, probably deep in the woods. Don’t scoff—there are deep woods in Jersey! Typical of stories in the zine, people—mostly of the teen variety, I suspect—would write of driving around late at night, discovering these albino enclaves, and being chased out by people lacking pigment and tolerance for strangers. Average juvenile behavior. I had no idea at the time that people with albinism are actually seriously mistreated. This is particularly a concern in Malawi. A story in the Washington Post by Max Bearak describes how albinos are murdered for body parts because of a rumor that, among other fabrications, they have gold in their bones.

As someone who has a love of folklore (and it’s more puerile kin—thus Weird N.J.) this is deeply disturbing. Folklore often focuses on the strange, unusual, or uncanny. Let’s face it, there’s not much of a story to tell when everything’s normal. Humans have the natural predisposition to tell tales when something is out of the ordinary. Our saving grace is that we recognize stories are just stories. When we start taking fiction for fact, we’re all in trouble. Many the night before Snopes I cowered under the covers because of some urban legend spreading by however ideas spread before the internet. There were killers on the road at night, and hiding under your car in the parking lot. At the same time, I could separate truth from the stories my step-dad told of jars of buffalo nickels buried in the woods behind our house. Nobody wants to be thought gullible.

In the sad case of those who are killed for being different, the Post article cites a United Nations specialist stating, “The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit.” Poverty. Market forces. Profit. A new kind of clarity. Violence comes in many guises. One of the most insidious is that which some specialists call “slow violence.” Systems set up to exploit, drain, and yes, enslave others to one’s own benefit. And it’s perfectly legal. The plight of those born with albinism in a nation where their differences plainly show dolefully demonstrates a side of human nature that we would rather hide. Those who have control of resources place others in situations where they contribute to their personal bottom line. We call it business as usual while those who observe closely call it by another name. Witchcraft.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.

Supernatural Quest

SupernaturalTwo things we’re told about the supernatural: one, it doesn’t exist and two, it can’t be studied. Of course the vast majority of people in the world don’t buy into number one and hardly care about number two. Both, it seems to me, could be wrong. As Jeannie Banks Thomas says in her introduction to Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal, belief in the supernatural is not declining. In fact, the more we’re told by cocksure scientists that all of reality is quantifiable and material, the more we become aware of the many exceptions to the rules. Of course, “supernatural” may be a misnomer. It could be that anything sloughed off into that category is simply not understood well enough to be empirically studied. Thinking back over the history of science I find it ironic that the very system that had to convince people that something couldn’t be seen (many gases) could be deadly. Now if it can’t be seen it can’t exist. We certainly don’t want any deities hanging out around here.

But back to the book. Putting the Supernatural in Its Place is a folkloric study of place. The contributors to the volume look at popular beliefs, some serious, some not, that accrue around certain places. As I’ve often stated on this blog, we are aware as humans that some places are fraught with meaning. Scientifically we know this shouldn’t be true, but we feel it when we approach any space of significance. The contributors to Thomas’ book look to some very interesting places: New Orleans, Salem, St. Ann’s Retreat, Lily Dale, Japan, and even movies and the internet. If any of these places aren’t familiar to you, it’s worth picking up a copy of this accessible book to learn more. Supporting folklore is a very good thing. Folklore, after all, is the wisdom of the people.

The places in this book are rumored to be haunted by ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, and even fairies. Folklorists, of course, don’t try to prove that beliefs are true. Like any academic they study and analyze. The main form of exploration for the non-academic is the legend quest. Many of us have gone legend questing from time to time. A place where something happened is said to have a certain feel or manifestation, so we go to see what it’s all about. If such trips are given religious sanction we call them pilgrimages. We want to see. But more than that, we want to experience something that the past has left behind. In the part of the year when each night grows longer than the last, my thoughts turn to what is usually termed “the supernatural.” And I, for one, am glad to have able guides along the way to make the simple voyage into a quest.

The State Demon

It’s the time of year for seeing things. I suppose that’s why there have been two supposed sightings of the Jersey Devil flying around the internet this past week. The credulous take these kinds of things for evidence, and the posters claim complete sincerity and who doesn’t want to believe? Still, the photos and videos fail to convince. It’s the time of year when we want to see monsters.


While the origin story of the Jersey Devil is one of the main strikes against it for sheer impossibility: Mother Leeds, who had twelve children, finding herself pregnant with a thirteenth, wished that it would be born a devil. The cursed child, meeting motherly expectations, came out a devil, flew up the chimney, and has haunted southern New Jersey ever since. The folklore elements are thick in this tale: the thirteenth child, the exasperated mother, devils in the woods. This doesn’t, however, suggest much confidence in the literal truth of the story. This traditional tale circulated in the same region where legitimately strange things were seen, especially around the turn of the last century. Every now and again the devil reappears in a present-day venue. At one time the Jersey Devil was even the official state demon of New Jersey.

The ease of use of photo-altering software has taken us further and further from the truth. It is an impoverished world that has no mystery to it, but the easily hoaxed world of Photoshopped monsters will cast doubt on all contenders, I fear, forevermore. We can no longer trust the veracity of the lens. Our world has become an electronic illusion. The creature spotted in the Pine Barrens can be more readily believed without photographic proof. The sober, shaken witness who can’t explain what s/he saw one dark night is more believable than a goat with wings or a stuffed animal on a string. Our religious sensibilities urge us to believe in the impossible. Our cameras urge caution. After all, internet fame is often the only kind available to those whose videos and photos go viral. The devil, they say, is in the details.

The Lure of Lore

SleepyHollowOne of my doctoral advisers, Nick Wyatt, has become a friend over the years. I’m sure he would agree that he is often called a maverick, but in the best possible way. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever known. When it was time for his Festschrift to appear, I had been unceremoniously tipped out of academia and left to my own devices. Being his first doctoral student, I had to contribute a piece, and so I settled on one I had written about an Edinburgh ghost story that seems to have roots in ancient Sumer.  Nick is the kind of scholar who can appreciate such ventures. This paper came to mind while reading Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley by Jonathan Kruk.  Kruk labels himself a storyteller, and that was a venerable role in ancient times.  In fact it was a priestly one.  Kruk draws out the many tales of headless horsemen and other spirits mentioned in Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nothing is proven here, but that’s not the point.

Headless ghosts were a staple of nineteenth-century lore not only in the Hudson Valley, but also in Scotland and Germany, as well as in many other locations.  How a spirit became decapitated is generally part of the draw to such ghoulish stories, and Kruk convincingly points to the tradition of the Wild Hunt as an element in Ichabod Crane’s famous ride.  The point is that stories often contain a truth that facts can’t match.  Case in point: the legend of Sleepy Hollow is alive and well. There have been periods, and will likely be more periods, when interest wanes, but we keep coming back to the story because it teaches us something about ourselves.  Empiricism is all fine and good until you find yourself facing a headless phantom on a nighttime highway.  Experience all of a sudden takes the wheel.

What does this have to do with Professor Wyatt?  My Festschrift article was reviewed, at a much earlier stage, by the journal Folklore.  I received a very sniffy rejection letter, citing, among other scholarly infractions, that I had referred to a popular publication (say it isn’t so!) as a source of the Edinburgh ghost story text. Where else was I to find it?  What scholar would bother to replicate an obviously—let’s just say it—uneducated tale?  Isn’t it beneath scholarly dignity? The stories we tell, I’ve always believed, make us who we are. It may be that materialists will have the last laugh.  When they are carted to the graveyard, however, I can guarantee that there will those among the common mourners who will be able to make a believable tale that their lives meant something after all.