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.

A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.

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.

Friday’s Wednesday

The ultimate stag party?

Mythology never ends. Many people live by it today under its name “religion,” and many in the ancient world endlessly recycled their gods until they ended up looking rather unrecognizable from their earlier forms. I was, therefore, intrigued when a friend asked me about Herne the Hunter. Herne is a mythological character about whom I had not heard. The earliest reference to the stag-antlered deity comes from William Shakespeare, and he has been co-opted by the Wiccan community, nicely tying together many of this week’s posts. So, whence Herne?

Shakespeare seldom invented ex nihilo, but rather adapted. Herne, already an established character, was a wrongly accused poacher who was hanged from a great oak in King Richard II’s England. He had been magically revived after a near-death experience earlier in life and had been crowned with fantastic antlers at that time. The horned head has reminded some Celtic mythologists of Cernunnos, a horned chthonian god attested in mainland Europe but not found in the British Isles. Yet others, by virtue of his being hanged on a tree and the similarity of his name to the epithet Einherjar, suggest Herne may have evolved from Wotan, or Odin himself. Woden was involved in the “Wild Hunt” episode of northern and central European mythology, and since Herne is a hunter, well, isn’t the connection obvious?

Such tales as this are instructive of the way that religions evolve. We know very little of the true origins of the story, but later versions become canonical. The present-day version is perceived to be “historical” and all others are merely coincidence or happenstance. Today Herne is a typical ghost story of Windsor Forest, and those who report seeing him say he still wears his supernatural horns. Those who want to discover his origins are left with a handful of books by publishers of the occult and hundreds of unanswered questions.