Faeries, Faeries, quite contrary

flying pixie manDuring research for one of my WIPs I came across this lovely book “Faeries, Elves and Goblins – The Old Stories” by Rosalind Kerven, a National Trust book published under their Folklore banner. It not only has beautiful illustrations by Arthur Rackham and other acclaimed artists but also contains a very interesting collection of stories and a wealth of information about the Little People living under hills, in meadows and ancient groves.

I had never realised how wicked some faeries, goblins and elves could be – just read King Herla’s story or the plight of poor farm boy Tom Tiver, when he meets goblin Yallery Brown, and you’ll know what I mean!

Not all of these nightly creatures are wicked though and some are rather helpful to humans, provided said men, women and children are deserving of their magical interference. I also didn’t know how many different kinds of faeries existed in the folklore catalogue of mythical creatures populating the British Isles – there’s a veritable legion of them.

fairy on islandThanks to J K Rowling we all know about Cornish Pixies, and if you aren’t friends with Hermione Granger it’s probably not a good idea to invite a Cornish Pixie into your house for tea. But did you know there were pixie populations in Devon and Somerset, too? Would a Devon Pixie have a different accent than a Cornish one? Would a Somerset Pixie offer you a pint of scrumpy if you asked nicely?

Do you know what a Greenie or Grey Neighbour is or have you ever come across Henkies, Hobs or Hogmen before?

Hands up, who’s heard of Phynnodderees, Portunes or Trows? Ever come across the Siofra, Spriggans or Grogachs after a particularly boozy night out?

I’m especially intrigued by the stories that mention faerie folk living under hills and mountains, for it ties in with my research on Arthurian legends – not the medieval 12th and 13th century romantic versions we usually get to see on telly or on the silver screen, but the “real” 6th century AD legendary King Arthur and Merlin characters mentioned in various historical documents (which may be fictional accounts and not about real people at all but hey, us folklore fanatics take what we can get).

To me, faeries belong to the Dark Ages, the time when the Romans had left the British Isles and Britons had to fend for themselves – and according to legends, Arthur and Merlin were probably the last remaining defenders of the Celtic way of life, before the invading Saxons and their nasty new-fangled religion destroyed the magic that had once permeated every aspect of Brythonic life. King Herla’s story in particular stands out – it’s almost as if the storyteller is referring to the Romans, making them faerie folk who promised a land of golden opportunity, patronage, friend-and kinship and then simply vanishing into thin air.

excalibur out of waterSo if you want to learn more about these mischievous creatures of the night, these laughing, chanting, giggling dancers and musicians with their gem encrusted halls, their faerie gold and silver bells, their colourful clothes and strange sense of humour, have a peek at Rosalind Kerven’s book. It’s perfect night time reading material.


(source for animations: heathersanimations.com)

It’s not just Hamlet who’s got the Hump

While I bravely struggle on with the next chapter of “Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts”, I’m still researching motives ghosts might have for haunting the living. Denmark seemed an unusual choice for the un-dead, but when I started reading up on one of Northern Europe’s most haunted places, I realised it wasn’t just Hamlet who had the hump with his castle existence.

Dragsholm Castle, which was converted into a hotel in the late 1930s, proudly boasts no fewer than three regular ghosts.

Two lady-ghosts who appear to remind us, I think, how terrible life was for women in days gone by and one male ghost, who was imprisoned in the dungeons at Dragsholm and has ever since had a question mark hanging over his high-born head: how did he actually come to meet his end?

Did he commit suicide during his imprisonment because he’d lost his marbles after five years of solitary confinement or was he murdered? The hapless man was none other than the 4th Earl of Bothwell, married to scheming Mary Queen of Scots, who herself was a thorn in the flesh of Queen Elizabeth I.

English: Dragsholm castle in Winter

English: Dragsholm castle in Winter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With such a family connection…who needs enemies? Every birthday card might contain explosives, every pair of Christmas socks might be spiked with poison and every visiting day might bring an assassin to the dungeon’s gates!

If you’d like to find out more about Dragsholm Castle’s history and its former occupants, head over to http://mariathermann.com, my regular writer’s blog. Leaving royal madness out of the equation for the moment, I feel the other two ghosts have legitimate reasons to haunt the living and may serve me well as inspiration for my own ghost story.

The “Grey Lady” ghost at Dragsholm is allegedly the ghost of a maid who once worked in the 800-year-old castle. Treated well when suffering from horrendous toothache and surviving her ordeal, she clearly has every reason for returning to repay her dentist in kind.

In previous centuries any ailment, no matter how small, was potentially lethal. A tooth infection, which was likely to have been the cause of the maid’s pain, could have killed her within a matter of days. The lovely girl’s still returning today to thank people for their kindness it seems…on the other hand she may still be owed wages, which she’s trying to collect.

English: Building connected to Dragsholm Castle

English: Building connected to Dragsholm Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “White Lady” ghost at Dragsholm Castle is a romantic apparition that doesn’t seem to be out for revenge but wants to highlight her plight, while she is still looking for her long dead paramour. Playful and charming in life, she simply wanders the corridors now that she’s dead.

As a girl of noble birth and the daughter of a former castle owner, she fell for the charms of one of the serfs working there. When her father found out about the long-standing affair, which the two lovers had kept secret, he was so angry he ordered his servants to brick up the poor girl in one of the castle’s most substantial walls. According to the legend, every night the White Lady returns to Dragsholm Castle in search of her lost lover.

The spooky twist in the last story is that during restoration works in 1930 several old walls needed to be opened up to allow for modern sanitation and plumbing to be installed. During the process workers found a small hole in one of the thickest walls; peeping through, they discovered a petite skeleton wearing a white dress cowering in a recess. A true story apparently and well documented by witness statements taken at the time.

Here’s a ghost with good reason to haunt the living daylights out of any tyrannical father who happens to cross the threshold of Dragsholm Castle Hotel in search of bed and breakfast and a family he can oppress! Yet, she chooses to be mindful of everybody’s bed rest and just glides along the deserted hallways like a wistful cloud.

The legends of the two ladies lead me to believe ghosts retain most of the characteristics they had when still mingling with the living, an interesting fact I’d like to use in my novel.

Anonymous. James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney a...

Anonymous. James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and Shetland, 4th Earl of Bothwell. 1566. Oil on copper. Diameter 3.70 cm. Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the two lady-ghosts do their haunting on foot and rather humbly, the male ghost is quite a show-off and still insists on his noble birth right today. Arriving with a horse-drawn carriage in the castle courtyard, where apparently prisoners received their judgement in the 16th century, the 4th Earl of Bothwell’s aristocratic horses clip-clop about with so much noise on cobbled paving, the castle’s guests are forced to reach for their ear-muffs night after night.

Bothwell could have just turned up in his frilly nightie and haunted the dungeon’s tour guide after the 4.00 o’clock tourists have left or taken it out on the night porter in the foyer or meddled with the guests’ food in the banqueting hall. Instead, he chooses night after night to dress up in full 16th century garb and arrive in “state” with a carriage and horses.

What does the Earl want? To tell us he was murdered or to complain about his unjust imprisonment? Or is he merely trying to book into the most appropriate inn in the Zealand neighbourhood?

Maybe his madness is the reason for his return – a caged mind rattling round and round in a tiny prison cell for five long years? Perhaps the echo of that unspeakable torture still reverberates through the castle today?

Once a sighting has taken place, the living start spinning the tale and it is hard to know what the real reason might be for the dead to return. Ghost story writers like Sheridan Le Fanu or Wilkie Collins might not be inspired by the Grey Lady, but I’m rather touched by her story; perhaps there are other kindly ghosts out there, like the Petermännchen in Schwerin I wrote about last week.

Sheridan Le Fanu

Unfinished business and revenge may be the reasons behind the Earl’s and the White Lady’s nightly appearances, but there’s no unfinished business or vengefulness behind the Grey Lady’s apparition. She merely wants to reassure herself that all’s well with the citadel’s inhabitants. Just like Schwerin’s Little Man Peter she’s retained her kind nature in death – an important point that I shall use in “Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts”.

Perhaps it is the fear of death and the process of dying that prompts the living to ascribe sinister motives to every ghost?

I for one feel rather comforted that there may be ghosts who, unlike Hamlet, haven’t got perpetual murder on their mind but would like to look after those they were fond of in life and still associate with a specific place.

At this point some of you will cry there’s no such thing as ghosts! Show us some proof!

Indeed Hamlet, as writer Michelle Barber from Loony Literature’s Lab will tell you, was not even a ghost but a Shakespearean Prince of Denmark whom countless generations of actors have killed for to portray on stage.

To my mind that makes him a ghost, as his attention-seeking, petulant spirit still haunts us today. Didn’t he tempt David Tennant to leave Dr Who…surely sufficient proof of a malevolent spirit being at work? Today I read on Twitter that Merlin’s alter ego young Colin Morgan wants to go back on stage…undoubtedly he’s the next Hamlet-victim in the making.

What more proof could there possibly be – ghosts do exist! Well, Danish ones at any rate.


Medieval Cooking for Vampires (Beginners Part 3)

While I’m not in favour of advocating fast food for humans, this culinary concept is not always a negative one.

Reading up upon medieval spells and remedies I was surprised to learn a medieval person’s diet was actually quite different from what I thought it would be. Far from all the yummy ham, capons, chickens and roasted piglets we see King Arthur, his knights and Queen Guinevere consume in the BBC’s Merlin series, most medieval people didn’t eat meat very often and getting a protein rich diet would have been quite rare for an average girl like Willow the Vampire.

Cooking lessons for humans would have been very different from today. For a start, carrots were either white or purple but not orange (not introduced until 17th century), no doubt pretty confusing for colour-blind witches and warlocks at the time. How do you tell such ingredients apart from radishes or mandrake?

Parsnips, onions, turnips (of Blackadder’s Baldric fame), apples, wild garlic, watercress, cabbage, beetroot, leeks, beans, eel and various cheap dried meats would augment a meagre diet that consisted mostly of “gruel” type broth made from barley, acorns, rye or buck wheat.

Even in the 10th century, a full four centuries after Arthur had first complained to Merlin about the outrageous practice of serving salad to his meat-loving king, bread as a daily household ingredient was relatively rare – grinding wheat was time-consuming labour for women and in any event, most households were grindingly poor.

Health issues in general were addressed with a haphazard approach. If it didn’t kill you and you survived the cure, the “healer” would be set up for life and make a good living. If you died, the healer was probably going to die too – at the stake, accused of sorcery! The remedy might not actually do you any good, but survival often depended on faith rather than the physician’s skill. With regard to food production, a medieval Vampire Council was particularly concerned about the high death rate among human infants and their mothers.

Caesarean births were surprisingly common – although the mother rarely survived. The method was mainly applied to save the child so it could receive baptism before death occurred. The understanding of conception was still a rather muddled affair and some bewildering, often occult remedies existed to help childless couples. Childbirth in general was a risky and confusing issue in medieval times:

Charm One: “To make a woman pregnant give to drink in wine a hares rumnet (NB: they probably meant rennet) by weight of four pennies to the woman from a female hare, the man from a male hare and then let them do their concubitus and after that let them forbear; then quickly she will be pregnant and for meat she shall for some time use mushrooms and, instead of a bath, smearing (NB: anointing with oils), wonderfully she will be pregnant.”

It seems hares were generally associated with fertility – personally, I suspect the consumption of wine might have done the trick…although the stink resulting from not washing might be rather counterproductive (pardon the pun). Hare’s tonic aiming to produce a male child consisted of a dried hare’s belly being shredded and then eaten by both partners, washed down with a drink.

Charm Two (for women whose foetus is found to be dead): “The woman who may have a dead bairn (child) in her inwards, if she drinketh wolf’s milk mingled with wine and honey in like quantities, soon it healeth.” An alternative method was to use the heart of a hare which, dried and pounded to a pulp, was mixed with frankincense dust and presumably also washed down with wine. In either case, the woman was more likely to die than be cured.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charm Three (for women who lost children early in infancy): “Let the woman who cannot bring her child to maturity go to the barrow of a deceased man, and step thrice over the barrow, and then thrice say these words:

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome late birth

May this be my boot

Of the heavy swart birth

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome lame birth.”

All manner of bizarre remedies existed for ear problems, bladder troubles, chapped lips in winter or year round baldness among men. I particularly like the recipe for getting rid off dandruff by mixing watercress with goose fat and smearing it on one’s head…I also like the advice, how to get rid of insects in one’s ears:

Collect the juice of green earth gall, or juice of horehound, or juice of wormwood, whatsoever of these you choose. Pour the juice into the ear, this will draw the worm out. If there’s dinning (NB: buzzing) in the ears, take oil, apply on to ewes wool, and when going to bed close up the ear with the wool. Remove it on waking.

Don’t you just love the last instruction? You can just imagine dozens of medieval peasants shouting at each other, because they’d stuffed their ears with ewe’s wool and forgot to remove their worm remedy).

Bladder troubles and kidney stones were cured by Dwarf dwosle or Pennyroula, which was pounded and mixed with two draughts of wine. The sufferer would drink this stuff and any stones the sufferer might have would be “forced out” and the healing process would begin in a matter of days.

Male baldness, an affliction the medieval Brit seems to have been particularly cursed with (no change to today’s specimen), was apparently treated with the juice of nasturtium and watercress. Bizarrely, this concoction was not smeared on the balding head, but on the man’s nose…which finally explains why men over forty have such an abundance of nasal hair.

These latter three remedies were excerpts from  Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, collected and edited by Revd Oswald Cockayne in London 1864 (fragments republished in Harriet O’Brien’s book “Queen Emma and the Vikings”, Bloomsbury 2005, where above charms also appear. NB: Revd “Cockayne” was cearly an early advocate of drugs, who had a sense of humour).

Reading about the diet and remedies prevailing in medieval households, I began to wonder, how vampires substituted their meagre pickings. Blood would not have been as nourishing as in later centuries, when vampires like Buffy’s Angel, Drusilla or Spike thrived in Sunnydale.

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight Volume One, written by Joss Whedon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen years on from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer bloodsuckers have reason to complain about their diet once more, given the high fat, sugar, salt and protein content in human blood. Human fast food outlets and lonely microwave meals in front of the TV are to blame, but humans themselves are not responsible for the introduction of a fast food concept. Vampires might loathe to admit this, but obesity among the fanged community today goes back to a time, when an early medieval Vampire Council introduced a new concept to change their fellow fanged ones’ culinary experience.

Early medieval bloodsuckers were endlessly complaining about the scarcity of decent food. Firstly, because there weren’t enough humans around in a largely rural landscape, which meant the gap between meals could be rather long and secondly, because medieval human blood wasn’t very nutritious and it took several kills to get a satisfactory meal.

Later in the 10th century, when England had been fully Christianized, a network of nunneries and cloisters was erected across the country, a development greatly supported by the Vampire Council. Feasting became much easier and, as far as vampires were concerned, the concept of fast food chains was born.

Just knock at a cloister door, pretend you’re a pilgrim and hey presto, you get an instant meal in the shape of some delicious young novice or a Mother Superior showing off the whiteness of her wimple and the crispness of her neck.

International fast fang outlets such as “Murder King”, “MacDrainers” and “Starsucks” were created to cater for the travelling vampire in a hurry. This revolutionary concept made it possible for fanged communities to cover vast distances without worrying where to get their next meal (“Mine’s a double nun with French friar to go. Hold the garlic and relic bones. Extra mustard, if you please”).

The introduction of fast fang outlets helped to preserve vampires to this day. It explains, how 19th century vampires reached Sunnydale in California and later established a colony in Los Angeles, close to Angel’s old hotel.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com, photographs of Llandaff cemetry & Cathedral by Maria Thermann, Buffy book cover photo credit Wikipedia)

What Creature of the Night would You want to be?

While I was writing Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, I kept thinking how writers through the ages have been fascinated with the transformation of humans into some form of animal – from werewolves in horror and gothic stories to bats and wolves in vampire fiction, from geese, fish, hawks and other critters in T H White’s The Once and Future King (published 1958, written between 1938 and 1941) to the big black dog and rat in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books, where wizards can change their appearance.

So what creature of the night would I be, if a Merlin-type magician came along and granted me that wish? Hm…probably a cat…not because I’m so vain that I regard myself as sleek, elegant and graceful enough to fill the paws of such an animal, that’s for sure!

If anything, I’m rather the opposite of everything cats stand for…plump, middle-aged and probably a little scruffy, given that I’m a full time writer with little time to spare for dressing up or money in the bank to stay on top of the latest fashions.

No, it would be because cats lead such interesting lives. Cat owners who have fitted miniature cameras to their cats’ collars have been amazed how large a territory our kitties patrol during their nocturnal ramblings. Forever curious about the world, cats investigate everything in their path and never get bored. Every day is exciting.

Domestic cats that have gone feral can have huge hunting territories of a 25 km radius or more. They hunt rabbits as big as themselves and far from living a lonely hunter’s life often team up with other feral cats and live in a “pride” like lions.

Any cat owner who’s ever tried to outstare their cat will know that it is impossible. What are these enigmatic beasties thinking about? Do they dream? Have they formed their own philosophy about life, the world and us?

Since ancient Egyptians first domesticated cats in their grain stores and temples, the cat has been our reluctant companion. Becoming a feline for just one night might explain to me why my own cat loved to sit on my keyboard the very moment I settled down to do some work or why she couldn’t find a better place to sharpen her claws on than the folder with my latest work, or my leg, my chair or writing desk. Was she trying to tell me she didn’t like my writing or was this just a little teasing to get my attention?

If you bumped into Merlin or a fairy godmother with a wish to grant, what creature of the night would you like to be?