Man-Wolf, Snake-Woman: on Clinical Lycanthropy

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There hath indeed been an old opinion of such like things; For by the Greeks they were called λυκανθρωποι which signifieth men-wolves. But to tell you simply my opinion in this, if any such thing hath been, I take it to have proceeded but of a natural superabundance of Melancholy, which as we read, that it hath made some think themselves Pitchers, and some horses, and some one kind of beast or other: So suppose I that it hath so viciat [damaged, tampered with] the imagination and memory of some, as per lucida interualla, it hath so highly occupied them, that they have thought themselves very Wolves indeed at these times: and so have counterfeited their actions in going on their hands and feet, preassing [attacking] to devour women and barnes [children], fighting and snatching with all the town dogs, and in using such like other brutish actions, and so to become beasts by a strong apprehension, as Nebuchadnezzar was seven years: but as to their having and hiding of their hard and schellie sloughes [scaly skins, like snakeskin], I take that to be but eiked [fabricated?], by uncertain report, the author of all lies.

Daemonologie of King James, 1597 (I modernized the spelling)

Medical descriptions of clinical lycanthropy — the delusion that one has turned into a wolf or other animal, along with corresponding animal-like behavior — date back to classical antiquity. As far back as the second century AD, the Greek physician Marcellus of Side described lycanthropy sufferers as melancholics who “roam out at night and mimic the ways of the wolves or dogs and mostly loiter by the grave monuments until daybreak.” Marcellus considered them harmless, both to themselves and others.

Arab physicians expanded on the Greek concept of lykanthropoi, splitting it into two. The harmless kind they called qutrub, after a type of jinn or ghoul who haunted graveyards and ate corpses. They also described another condition, mania lupina, a more violent malady whose sufferers behaved wildly and wolfishly, and often could only be restrained with shackles.

Volkodlak znamka 0Stories of humans transformed into various animals, including wolves, appear in Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, but the werewolf as we understand it today probably had its origins in Nordic mythology. From Scandinavia the motif spread, showing up widely in the rest of Europe by about the 14th century, not just as folktale or legend, but as superstition. In Western Europe werewolves were associated with witchcraft; in Eastern Europe, with vampires (according to Baring-Gould the Serbian term vlkoslak denotes a creature both werewolf and vampire).

Given the association with sorcery, werewolf trials did occur during Europe’s witch hunt period (roughly the 15th through 18th centuries), but the view of lycanthropy as a mental illness also overlapped the superstition, as shown in the quote from Daemonologie that began this post — and James was pretty credulous about the existence of demons and witches. Even during the witch trials, the courts sometimes recognized self-confessed werewolves as mentally ill, rather than demonic beings [1].

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In Search of: Robin Hoods of the World

Every country has its Robin Hood… — Lawrence G. Green

Ah, but is that really true? My husband called me from work the other day; the question had somehow come up with his colleagues, and he turned to me, as the closest thing to a “folklore expert” he knows. It sounds like a statement, that ought to be true, doesn’t it? So far, I’ve only come up with a few, but this seems like a great question to throw out there into Bloglandia….

Robin Hood shoots with Sir Guy

Source: Wikimedia

By Robin Hood I mean primarily someone who is alleged to have robbed the rich to give to the poor, or at least defended the poor in some extralegal way. A folk hero is preferable: someone who was supposed to be a historical person (or maybe more than one; Wikipedia lists several people who might have been the “real” Robin Hood). For this list, I’ll accept fictional characters, especially if they are based on historical persons. In either case, I’d like someone who has in some way entered his country’s popular “folk” culture, in the way that Superman or Davy Crockett have entered the folk culture of the United States.

So here’s my list, so far, of international Robin Hoods. I’m hoping my readers can contribute more.

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A Meta-Fairytale: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Curious, If True

Almost 160 years before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill began The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, social novelist and ghost story writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote this atypical (for her) piece of metafiction. An Englishman journeys to France to research his Calvinist roots, and a case of mistaken identity gains him entry to to an unusual party….

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Ever wonder what happens to all those fairy tale characters in their happily ever after? Now you can find out.

You can read “Curious, If True” here.

I’ve added links at strategic places in the text to the relevant fairy tales; for the French tales, usually Andrew Lang’s retelling of Charles Perrault’s version. How many of the fairy tales can you identify before clicking on the links?

Even if you do recognize all the references, I recommend that after you finish Gaskell’s story, you click through and re-read the originals anyway; you’ve probably forgotten a lot of the details. In particular, one story has an entire third act that is omitted from popular renditions; I’m not sure I’d ever read it before, myself.

Some additional notes, hopefully not too spoilerish:

  • The English fairy tale Tom Thumb is not the same as the French tale Le Petit Poucet, although Andrew Lang translated Perrault’s title in a misleading way. According to Wikipedia, Perrault’s story is often known in English as Hop o’my Thumb.
  • “Gilles de Retz,” aka Gilles de Rais, was a historical person. Some believe he is the inspiration for a famous fairy tale. You can read a little bit about that here.

Enjoy!


Image: The Chateau of Neuchatel at dusk, with Jura mountains beyond by John Ruskin (1866). Source: WikiArt

Christmas Eve

This winter tale offering isn’t a traditional Christmas ghost story — there isn’t a ghost to be found. But it’s just the kind of story I like.

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“Christmas Eve” is from Nikolai Gogol’s two volume collection of short stories, known in English as Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the collection that helped make his reputation. Gogol was born in the Ukraine, and all the Dikanka stories brim with bits of Ukrainian folklore and details about Ukrainian village life. This particular story is full of supernatural hijinks, witches and the devil. However, this devil is more comical than frightening, and the whole story feels a bit like a Chaucerian farce. “Christmas Eve” also has a rather cinematic feel, in the way it cuts back and forth between multiple simultaneous situations. No wonder Wikipedia lists four film adaptations, as well as three or four (depending on how you count) operatic versions. It’s a bit longer than the pieces I usually share, but if you haven’t read it before, it’s well worth it. Continue reading

Hummingbird and Fly: A Keresan Folktale

Next in the hummingbird folklore series, as a followup to our previous story from the Hopi of Arizona: a story from the Laguna (Kawaik), one of the Keresan speaking Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. As in the Hopi story, Hummingbird, this time with Fly, must save the settlement from starvation.

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Long ago, the people lived at White-House, a settlement so vast that they had seven different kinds of shaman to perform ceremonies to bring food for the people, and to cure disease. After many years of success, the shamans became so proud of their abilities that they thought they were more powerful even than Mother Nautsiti, who brought life. In their hubris, they mocked her. She heard, and she got angry. In her anger she hid the rain, and so the crops died. For five years (some say seven), the people starved. Some say the people got so desperate that they even killed and ate their children…

As the situation got more dire, the shamans and the chiefs called a meeting to discuss how to find the Mother, and ask her to bring back the rain and the food. As they met, they remembered Hummingbird, who slept in an opening in the middle of the south wall. In the midst of all this famine, Hummingbird remained healthy and well-fed.

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How Hummingbird Saved the Children: A Hopi Folktale

A new installment in the hummingbird folklore series! This story is from the Hopi people of Arizona. Here we learn about the desertion and subsequent repopulation of the Oraíbi (Orayvi) settlement at a time of great famine, and hummingbird’s role in saving two children — and ultimately, the village.

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The time of great famine began with the frost which killed the corn, just as it began to ripen. Luckily, the people of Oraibi had food stored by from previous years, so that first year, they didn’t go hungry. But the drought began, too, and slowed down the growing of the corn plants, so the ears were just forming when the winter frost came back and killed them. And the third year, with no rain, the corn grew slower yet, and again the frost killed it. The fourth year was even worse, and some of the villagers began to move away, in search of kinder land. By the fifth year with no rain, the corn withered and died almost as soon as it was planted. By now, the food reserves were gone. With no choice, the remaining villagers left; Oraibi stood deserted. Continue reading

East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon

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I recently saw a reference to the wonderful illustrator Kay Nielsen. I didn’t remember his name, but I recognized his illustrations immediately. Gorgeous! And it helps that East o’the Sun, West o’the Moon is one of my favorite fairy tales. Nielsen is almost one of the reasons I love that tale so much.

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The Mbyá-Guaraní Creation Myth

As a follow-up to the previous installment of my hummingbird folklore series, here is a version of the Mbyá-Guaraní creation myth, as rendered by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan. He apparently got this story from an informant he names Cantalicio, the mburuvicha [chief] of Yvypytã (a site loated near Colonia Mauricio José Troche). This is my translation of his Spanish rendering.

In his text, Cadogan gives this myth in the context of his etymology of the term aju’y, the name still used by the people of Guairá for the black laurel (Cordia megalantha, I think). The chapter in his book is titled “La Columna de la Tierra”, which I’ll render “The Pillar of the Earth.”

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The Primitive Customs of the Hummingbird

The fifth installment of my hummingbird folklore series comes from the Mbyá, a Guaraní people who inhabit the southern part of Paraguay in Guairá, parts of Brazil, and the Misiones Province of Argentina. This piece is the first chapter of the Ayvu Rapyta (which means roughly “the foundation of the world”), a book in the Mbyá-Guaraní language that records their myths and religious traditions. The book — full title Ayvu Rapyta: Textos míticos de los Mbya-Guarani — was compiled by Paraguayan anthropologist León Cadogan and published in 1959. This version is my translation of Dr. Cadogan’s Spanish translation.

As in the Ohlone myths of California, Hummingbird (and Owl, apparently) are present at the creation of the world. Hummingbird feeds and refreshes Ñamandú, the “First Father,” as the First Father goes about the task of creation.

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The Devil’s Mother-In-Law

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I’m still working on my hummingbird legends, but in the meantime I thought I’d share this charming tale with you. I found it in a fun 1921 collection called Devil’s Stories: An Anthology by Maximilian J. Rudwin. He intended this work to be the first volume in a series of collections of devil-related literature. Alas, the rest of the volumes never came to be.

The author of “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is one Fernán Caballero, the pseudonym of Swiss-born, Spanish-residing Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber, Marchioness de Arco-Hermoso. “The Devil’s Mother-in-Law” is originally from her 1859 Cuentos y poesias populares Andaluces (Popular Andalucian Stories and Poetry), translated into English as Spanish Fairy Tales in 1881. As Rudwin says, “in her stories we find perhaps the purest expression of mediaevalism in modern times.”

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