spirits


  1. Let me thread you a story… (1-16)
  2. Sam Hotchkiss is the caretaker down to Shady Groves Cemetery. Sam says as how he likes his job, walking through the quiet and peace,
  3. making sure the residents are happy. Most enjoy the peace as much as Sam. Any that don’t tend not to stay in Shady Groves.
  4. They get up and wander ‘round town and sometimes have to be dealt with by Madame Nimby and her son Rupert.
  5. Others just wander the streets taking in the sights, seeing what old friends and family are up to.
  6. Wanderin’ gets old after awhile—and takes a passel of energy. When they dissipate enough of that restless mojo they go back
  7. to Shady Groves and their sod beds, wrap their grass blankets back around themselves, and rest eternal.
  8. Sam takes particular care of the children there. He feels bad they got cut off so young and didn’t have a chance to live long and prosper.
  9. He likes to leave marbles by their graves so they can have a game now and then. Used to leave stuffed animals, too,
  10. but they tended to get soggy when it rained and the kids didn’t care for ‘em much after that.
  11. Electronic games don’t work for similar reasons. ‘Sides, it’s difficult for the kids to maintain corporeal fingers long enough to swipe and tap.
  12. They do enjoy a nice game of hide n’ seek, sometimes with Sam, sometimes with each other.
  13. Ain’t rightly fair when they play with Sam, though. If he gets too close to finding them, they can just go invisible.
  14. That trick don’t work with each other—spirits can always see other spirits—but Sam is a mere mortal, after all.
  15. Them kids laugh and laugh when Sam seeks and seeks and never finds. “Play fair, you kids!” he’ll call out to them.
  16. But mostly he’s laughing when he says it. Can’t blame kids for having a good time.

This tale can also be found on Twitter @downportalville.
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1. Let me Thread you a story…(1-16)
2. We got us some spooky properties here in town, left over from the days of the Great Spirit Invasion of ’07.
3. Spirits poured into town from all over through a rip in the Space-Time Continuum, taking up residence in homes and businesses.
4. Madame Nimby, town exorcist, & her son Rupert sewed up the rip with existential thread and that kept new ghosts from coming through.
5. But they were so busy exorcising the ones already here they couldn’t keep up. It took a deal of time for things to settle down.
6. Most ghosts was just lost souls sucked through the rip by accident and easily persuaded to move on to a higher place.
7. Some, though, were stubborn & not inclined to persuasion. Folks who had those spirits in their homes & businesses had a tough choice.
8. Either move out or learn to live with haints. Some businesses made deals with the ghosts to stay quiet during business hours.
9. Likewise, some residents made similar deals, asking that the hauntings stop after everyone had gone to bed.
10. Still others just couldn’t live with the ruckus, or the spirits refused to cooperate. But we take care of our own.
11. The town banded together to build new homes & businesses for those forced out. That left about a dozen spooky abandoned buildings.
12. Madame & Rupert laid down salt & warding spells ‘round those places. Kept the bad spirits from wandering.
13. Nowadays our biggest problem is out-of-towner ghost hunters pestering us to do investigations (cuz we got us a ghosty reputation).
14. Some of these are sincere folks just wanting to understand the nature of the universe & we towners got no problem with them.
15. Others seem to see ghost hunting as entertainment. I don’t hold with people who use the lost souls of the dead that way.
16. But ain’t no spells for exorcising dilettantes. More’s the pity.

This story can also be found on Twitter @downportalville.

In April 2008, around the anniversary of the death of my Aunt Maxine, I started seeing 11:11 every day when I looked up at the clock. Not every time I looked at the clock because 11:11 only comes twice a day for those of us on a 12-hour clock, but often I’d feel compelled to look at the clock at this precise time. It went on for over two weeks and became rather unsettling.

What was the Universe trying to tell me? Something significant, or just that random chance sometimes gets stuck, throwing “heads” 85 times in a row?

Then I remembered my Aunt Maxine’s birthday was November 11 and wondered if it was her saying, “Hey, I’m still around. Don’t worry so much.” This was a comforting thought and the creepiness factor went away, although the 11:11’s didn’t. I kept seeing them for weeks after.

So I did what any semi-rational human being would do in such circumstances. I googled it.

Golly. There are a universe of beliefs around the coincidence of seeing 11:11. Yeah, I still (mostly) call it a coincidence, even though my personal anecdote seems to convey meaning, because post hoc theorizing and confirmation bias and because of all the fuzzy and convoluted theorizing I read online.

For instance, there’s this guy:

Um. I did scurry to my tarot to see what card was 11. It’s Justice. I thought, “If it’s the Hanged Man I’m going to mess myself.” Because for me that relates to 9/11 and I just didn’t know if I could stand that. The Hanged Man was 12.

Mr. Fuller is right about it being more important for me to find my own answers, but I looked online for more data points.

Uri Geller has a lot to say on 11:11 but I can’t tell you all of it. I fell asleep about halfway through his article. In all fairness to Mr. Geller, this strange phenomenon happened to me on more than one article on 11:11, which doesn’t always coincide with clear and concise theorizing.

Of course, no consideration of 11:11 would be complete without this:

However, some of the folklore surrounding 11:11 is charming, like the idea that if you look up to see it your wish will come true. Or when you see it repeatedly it means that you are beginning to “awaken” spiritually, and 11:11 is the indicator that you’re on the right path. Some believe it’s a sign that your angels are listening and you should ask for their guidance.

Other beliefs are darker, like the theory that 11:11 is a portend of great earth changes or history on the brink of something momentous…Actually, I don’t want to think on that one too hard, given recent seismic events in politics. I much prefer the belief that when you see 11:11, you should stop and consider the significance and importance of the moment in which you live. Of the moment, in the moment.

But Maxie, if that was you, I love ya, babe.

Random quote of the day:

“The microscope shows you the creatures on the leaf; no mechanical tube is yet invented to discover the nobler and more gifted things that hover in the illimitable air. Yet between these last and man is a mysterious and terrible affinity…”

—Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni

 air4WP@@@

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

torches

The purpose of this post is mostly to call attention to this fascinating and readable academic article by Katharine Luomala from Pacific Studies, 1983. Ms. Luomala does a thorough—and nonjudgmental—investigation of the widely perceived phenomena of Night Marchers, torch-bearing spirit processions which are still being perceived today in the Hawaiian islands. These processions seem to share similarities with the trooping fairies of Ireland, as well as other marching “beings.” There may also be something of the Wild Hunt in this mythology, as well.

The Night Marchers, however, are distinctly Hawaiian, incorporating in their processions the ritual of taboo, where it was on pain of death that ordinary people looked upon the being of sacred chiefs.

As Ms. Luomala explains:

The most sacred chiefs and chiefesses were carried in litters because their feet would taboo the ground. They seldom went out except at night, thus preventing the disruption of daily labor and the chance of a polluting shadow falling on anything or anybody. A taboo-breaker might be killed or seized for a sacrifice at a high chief’s heiau (place of worship). Sometimes the penalty was extended to the violator’s entire family group.

Even in spiritual form, it is widely believed, if you look upon the Night March, you will die—or be kidnapped and forced to march with them for eternity. Whenever you see a line of torches flickering in the distance and dark, folk of the islands say it is best to run as fast in the opposite direction as you can. If flight isn’t possible, hide—but by all means, do not do any curious peeking from your hiding place or you are doomed. If even hiding is not possible, prostrate yourself on your face on the ground and do not look up until you have heard the sound of marching feet pass you by and disappear in the distance.

Here’s the testimony of a limpet picker from 1970:

Suddenly I heard the sound of a conch shell blowing in the distance. Keoki heard it too. I thought it was the wind. Then a little while later we heard it again. This time it was a little louder. It was spooky because we didn’t see anything. Then we heard it again. We looked toward Ka-wai-hae side and then we saw it. It looked like a procession. At first we saw a line of torches in the distance. The procession was moving along the coastline. The conch shell blew again.

I took out my knife and Keoki got the rifle. We went seaward and laid down on the lava rock. We knew about night marchers from other fishermen. We knew you aren’t supposed to look upon the marchers and to lay on the ground face down. We did this. The marchers passed about fifty yards in front of us on the sand path. As they passed we could hear the sound of a drum pounding beat by beat. We didn’t look up until they were farther down the coast. All we could see now was the line of torches, and all we could hear was the far away sound of the conch shell. We didn’t know if they were going to come back that night, but we didn’t want to stick around and see.

Ms. Luomala recounts many such reports—from native islanders, tourists, European explorers—and places them within the context of Hawaiian belief. Like I said, a fascinating article.

I shouldn’t confess this, but I have a terrible addiction to junk TV. I saw a recent episode of Ghost Asylum, one of the stupider ghost hunter shows on the air. They did an investigation of the abandoned Coco Palms resort, reportedly built over one of the well-known pathways of the Night Marchers of Kaua’i. Many locals believe the resort was cursed from the start and is badly haunted. They won’t go there after dark, and say Night Marches are common on the property. It was destroyed by Hurrican Iniki in 1992 and never rebuilt. Some locals say this was a curse visited on them for the sacrilege of building on sacred land. But…developers are currently planning to tear down the Coco Palms and rebuild a new, grander resort. This would bring much needed jobs to the island, but local sentiment is mixed. It’s not for me to say whether development on a sacred site is a wise plan or just more developer hubris, but the investors have pledged to respect the land. They also brought in a shaman to do a blessing, just in case.

supernatural

When I was reading Graham Hancock’s book, Supernatural: Meetings With the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, he talked about the hallucinogenic vine called ayahuasca. The name means “Vine of the Soul” or “Vine of the Dead,” and shamans in Amazonia have been using it since way the hell back in order to make contact with the ancestors. The drug derived from this plant is illegal in the U.S. and Britain, but in Amazonian countries it is protected under the laws of religious freedom as it is integral to the religious practice in many indigenous cultures.

Hallucinogenic plants are used for similar purposes in all cultures around the world, but what I found so fascinating about ayahuasca is that the leaves of the plant are rich in a chemical—Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)—that the human brain secretes naturally in minute quantities. Normally, substances which contain DMT are blocked from absorption into the body by a naturally-occurring enzyme in the human stomach. The vine part of the ayahuasca contains a chemical inhibitor for this enzyme, thus the shamans must cook both leaves and vine together in order for the hallucinogenic effect to happen. This is a fairly arduous process of cooking and layering and recooking that goes on for hours. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Peru features a segment on this process, if you happen to catch it some time. (Good episode—well, except for the guinea pig segment.)

I’m left wondering, first, how the shamans discovered the particular chemical interaction going on here; and, second—as I always wonder in the cases of non-technical societies discovering complex processes for making Thing A become Thing B—how the hell they figured it out in the first place. The shamans say that the plants themselves told them how to do this and what effects would happen. Similar explanations occur in other parts of the world: the gods told us how to do this; the plants did; the spirits whispered in our ear.

Take, for instance, the olive. It takes an ungodly amount of complex processing to take the hard, bitter, inedible nut of the olive tree and soften it so that it is not only deliciously digestible but, more importantly, pliable enough to crush and extract the olive oil. Greek legend maintains that Athena came down from Olympus to clue mortals into this process. Western scientists prefer to say that it must have come about through trial and error.

Even so, that’s pretty mind-boggling. Who was the first person who said, “Gee, I bet this thing that looks, feels, and tastes like a rock would yield a delicious condiment and extremely useful cooking oil if only we put it through a series of brine baths for days on end to soften it up”? Who was the first shaman who said, “Wow, I bet if we take this incredibly foul-tasting vine and pound it for hours until it’s fibrous, then boil it with its leaves and layers of other stuff for hours more that at the end we’ll get one of the foulest-tasting liquids known to human taste buds but a kickass vision of the Otherworld”?

The skeptics would say it occurred because of a series of accidents and was more cause-and-effect than messages from the spirit world. But human ingenuity is still a wondrous thing, is it not, whether or not you prefer the mundane explanation or the talking plant explanation?

brownie-sm

Illustration by Jean-Baptiste Monge

There’s always one in every crowd. You know, you’ve got a good thing going and that one guy or gal pushes things too far and ruins it for everyone. This is no less true when dealing with fairies.

I was reading R. Macdonald Robertson’s Selected Highland Folktales and he told the story of “The Fairies of Pennygown.” If any of the townsfolk of Pennygown needed help with a task, they brought the work of an evening to a certain nearby sithean, a lovely green fairy hill. By morning, the task would be nicely completed: spinning, weaving, repair, mending, you name it. One villager, though, kept leaving more and more difficult things, pushing it.

One night he left by their hillock a piece of driftwood which he had picked up on the sea-shore, with instructions that it was to be made into a ship’s mast. When the villagers came next morning to collect the property left overnight, they found none of the tasks executed. This last request had angered the fairies so much that they had left their hillock, in disgust, for good.

Any reasonable being would be put out by such oafish behavior, it’s true. But it’s also true that helpful fairies are a tricky lot. They can have goodwill towards humans, but it can also turn on a dime. If they’re insulted, they can get mischievous and mean. Some say poltergeists are fairies who’ve become insulted by a householder and take it out in spite.

They also have sometimes exacting standards of what constitutes insult. Brownies and hobs, for instance, will gladly help out with the housework, usually at night like the Pennygown folk. However, they don’t want to be seen, and don’t want payment, or even expressions of gratitude. They will, though, accept gifts, mostly in the form of food, especially porridge and honey. If a householder starts taking them for granted, openly thanks them, or considers the food “payment”—or if they try to get a glimpse of them—the brownies will forthwith abandon the house, never to be seen again or lend their help.

There are other European versions of such beings: tomte in Scandanavia, domovoi in Slavic countries, Heinzelmännchen in Germany, Haltija in Finland, many others. Some have even made the trip over the Atlantic to the Americas. But in my (admittedly limited) investigation of helpful fairy folk, I’ve only found one non-European example of work-helpful fairies, the koro-pok-guru of the Ainu people of the Northern Japanese islands.

These beings would hunt and fish for the Ainu in exchange for little gifts, leaving the goods overnight. Like the brownies, they hated being seen. Of course, one Ainu loser couldn’t leave well enough alone and blew the gig for everyone. The young man in question waited by the place where the gifts were left, determined to see a koro-pok-guru, and laid hands on the first one to appear. It was a beautiful koro-pok-guru maiden, but she and her people were so angered at this affrontery that they disappeared, never to help the Ainu or be seen again.

Very strong parallels with the European myths, but that isn’t entirely surprising. Ainu are racially distinct from the Japanese. Recent research suggests Okhotsk origins and there is still a small population of Ainu in Russia. They share that pan-European ancestry, so they share those ancient pan-European stories.

But as I said, I haven’t found anything else like it around the world. Good and bad spirits aplenty, but none who will pitch in to do the work for humans in exchange for small gifts. I am far from an expert on this, so if anyone knows of such a tradition in a non-European context, I would love to hear about it.

giant veg

You’ve heard about the giant cabbages once grown in the poor, sandy soil of Findhorn, Scotland? Some people believe that was made possible by the intercession of nature spirits who, in conjunction with the mystic, Dorothy Maclean, wanted to demonstrate to the world what was possible when humankind cooperated with the spirits who ruled the natural world. In fact, the Findhorn Foundation website still tells the story:

Dorothy discovered she was able to intuitively contact the overlighting spirits of plants – which she called angels, and then devas – who gave her instructions on how to make the most of their fledgling garden. She and Peter translated this guidance into action, and with amazing results. From the barren sandy soil of the Findhorn Bay Caravan Park grew huge plants, herbs and flowers of dozens of kinds, most famously the now-legendary 40-pound cabbages.

But where does this notion of nature spirits as guardians and helpmeets of plants come from? It’s an important question because it underlies much of the philosophy of the New Age movement. However, it turns out to be a pastiche of things taken from here and there.

Once, long ago, in a post from 2012, Dr. Beachcombing of Dr. Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog wondered if this popular contemporary notion of nature spirits was a survival of old folklore beliefs or merely a modern interpretation. (It’s a interesting post. You should read it.) None of his correspondents (myself included) came up with what you would call conclusive proof that this was a belief of the common folk, or that it had anything like a long history in traditional magics. In fact, it was probably a belief amongst scholarly occultists rather than something a local cunning man or woman might adhere to.

Owen Davies in Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History explains this divide between folk magic and philosophical magic:

In the historiography of magic a distinction has usually been made between high or learned magic and low or folk magic. Learned magic is generally defined by its sophisticated theoretical, philosophical and ceremonial structure. It can be further broken down into two main categories, demonic and natural….Natural magic was considered by many intellectuals to be a branch of the sciences, as it dealt with the occult powers within nature. In our period [15th c. onward] it was primarily influenced by neoplatonism, which held that the universe was suffused and ruled by a hierarchy of spirits. All matter was interconnected by these spiritual influences, and sympathetic relationships governed all matter. Stars and planets possessed evil and good aspects, and radiated their benign or malign influence upon the earth like ripples across water….

Low, popular, or folk magic is usually characterised as a rich medley of indigenous beliefs, practices and rituals, some of them dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps even earlier, perpetuated largely through oral transmission. The use of “low” does not necessarily indicate that this type of magic was confined to the “low” elements of society, but those who employed it had no lofty pretensions about what they were doing….

Furthermore, there were specific individuals who straddled the worlds of both learned and low magic, and who were consequently thought to have more knowledge of the occult than those around them: these people were cunning-folk.

(This is a good book. You should read it, as well.)

Eileen and Peter Caddy, the founders of the Findhorn community along with Dorothy Maclean, were influenced by Rosicrucianism, which was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism. So it’s not a far stretch to say that their beliefs—and much of New Age philosophy—come from that root stock rather than folk beliefs.

W. Y. Evans Wentz (himself highly influenced by Theosophy, another Neoplatonist offshoot) says in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911):

In the positive doctrines of mediaeval alchemists and mystics, e.g. Paracelsus and the Rosicrucians, as well as their modern followers, the ancient metaphysical ideas of Egypt, Greece, and Rome find a new expression; and these doctrines raise the final problem—if there are any scientific grounds for believing in such pygmy nature-spirits as these remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages claim to have studied as being actually existing in nature….

All these Elementals, who procreate after the manner of men, are said to have bodies of an elastic half-material essence, which is sufficiently ethereal not to be visible to the physical sight, and probably comparable to matter in the form of invisible gases. Mr. W. B. Yeats has given this explanation:—’Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes. The visible world is merely their skin….’ [From Yeats’ Irish Fairy Tales and Folk-Tales]

Wentz again three paragraphs on:

And independently of the Celtic peoples there is available very much testimony of the most reliable character from modern disciples of the mediaeval occultists, e.g. the Rosicrucians, and the Theosophists, that there exist in nature invisible spiritual beings of pygmy stature and of various forms and characters, comparable in all respects to the little people of Celtic folk-lore.

I find myself imagining some practitioner of the old folkways listening to all this and saying to his or herself, “La di da, la di da,” if not laughing outright. There is nothing inherently wrong with these high blown sentiments, with Theosophy or Rosicrucianism or New Ageism, any more than there is something wrong with the “lower,” more practically-minded folk traditions. But they are clearly different streams fed from the big, muddy river of magics, and wading in one does not necessarily tell you anything about wading in the other.

saint anthony abbot meets st paul the hermit by petrus agricola-sm
 

St. Anthony Abbot Meets St. Paul the Hermit by Petrus Agricola
I admit to enjoying a bit of hagiography now and then—not the sanitized (sanctified?) versions of the Catholic Church online, but the older stuff, full of the outlandish and miraculous, from the early and Medieval church. Some really interesting oddments there.

One of my favorite passages is from St. Jerome’s Life of Paulus the First Hermit, translated by W. H. Freemantle, 1893 (the spelling is Freemantle’s).

St. Antony is living in the desert of the Thebaid region of ancient Egypt and he’s thinking he’s a pretty righteous monk, a near-perfect specimen of hermit. But then in the deep of the night, God says to him, “Nuh-uh, there’s this other dude named Paulus that blows you out of the water. Or the desert, as the case may be.” Maybe God didn’t express it in quite that way, but Antony gets the message and nothing will do but he has to seek out Paulus. Now, Paulus is a hundred and one at this point, Antony is ninety-five, but Antony is determined to make this arduous trek anyway. He doesn’t know where Paulus abides, but has faith that the Lord will lead him there.

So, he’s trekking and he’s trekking and as he’s standing out in the noontide sun wondering which way to go next and he says…

“I believe in my God: some time or other He will shew me the fellow-servant whom He promised me.” He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, “Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living?” The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.

Antony was gob-smacked, as you can imagine, but he went in the direction indicated.

Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooted snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goat’s feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer him the fruit of the palm tree to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this:

“I am a mortal being and one of the inhabitants of the Desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord, and ours, who, we have learnt, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’”

As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fulness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said,

“Woe to thee, Alexandria, who instead of God worshippest monsters! Woe to thee, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters.”

He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away.

Can you blame it? He asks for a blessing and a good word put in for him and his kind to God and he gets a screed. But lest anyone’s skepticism assert itself over this encounter, St. Jerome hastens to add:

Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shewn as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.

He was alive, but apparently that encounter didn’t go so well for this poor, assaulted then salted being.

Antony and Paulus do hook up eventually, though Paulus seems pretty eager to send this weeping and screeding old guy on an errand so he can die in peace. You can read the whole story here.