Most of us have at least toyed with the idea of a voodoo doll, but we wouldn’t really curse someone… would we? The people of the ancient world weren’t so shy, and have left us a lot of their ill-wishing to study. The things that made them angry enough to curse someone aren’t so different from the things that annoy us now: lawsuits, theft, property damage, infidelity, stealing someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend, and so on.
The sleep of reason produces monsters; inversions, caricatures of what we know to be right and sensible. Sometimes the fancies of the night seem more substantial than the sober thoughts of daytime. The dreams of a folklorist are especially subject to this kind of inversion. Consider two magazine pieces published by that Victorian litterateur, Grant Allen of Haslemere. One is a serious contribution to folklore scholarship, while the other is its dark parody. But the night-time version is far more revealing. It says a great deal about the mind of its author; but it also tells us something about a hidden strand in twentieth-century paganism.
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She-Wolf: a Cultural History of Female Werewolves, ed. Hannah Priest. Manchester UP, 2015
The Wolf-Man, and other movies, told the story of a man who was cursed to transform into a wolf every full moon, but in modern times female werewolves have taken their place on stage, in everything from movies to books to role-playing games to songs by Shakira. She-Wolf, a one-stop shop for all things feminine and lycanthropic, covers all these and more.
The death of Bridget Cleary, killed for being a changeling, brought together many different strands of politics, folklore and literature. It made literal the folk culture that Revivalists like Yeats and Lady Gregory were studying, but in a horrifyingly realistic way – a woman burned and beaten to death because of the “fairy-faith”. Or was it a perversion, as Yeats and others argued?
Here’s a great ghost story for you from Vince Roche that I recorded in the kitchen of the house we were staying in Branch in rural Newfoundland on the 30th of April this year. Vince called to the door at 9.45pm with a present of some moose and in the usual fashion we started to chat about places that were haunted locally and shared stories from Wexford and Newfoundland. This particular account is about a fairy woman who would be heard screaming in a spot in Branch and is similar to the many stories I heard growing up in Wexford. Vince tells a first hand account but also adds that others heard her scream here too.
This was recorded holding the camera on my knee and you can hear our kids playing in the background which adds to the reality of the whole thing. This is how real folklore and stories exist – in real situations, in real life and it was in these kitchen spaces that I encountered these stories growing up In Wexford. What’s special here is we are 3000km plus away from Ireland and these stories are well and truly alive in the minds of certain people from Newfoundland even though their people left the South East of Ireland centuries ago.
Silvanus was a popular god in Rome, up there with Jupiter and Mercury in terms of altars and other devotional evidence. As a god of the common people, he had a large audience, and soldiers, slaves and freedmen to spread his cult abroad.
His popularity worked both ways, too: a British craftsman explained his god Callirius as Silvanus, and many of the other examples in this post could have worked the same way.
The Roman god Silvanus may not be the best-known, but he was popular with the people. He had no official cult or priests dedicated to his worship – his was a cult of country people, farmers, labourers and slaves.
Historically, the interpretatio has been diverse. In late sources, Silvanus and Faunus were equated, as indicated by Peter Dorcey in his Cult of Silvanus (1992, 34). According to the same scholar, Augustine’s reference to a childbirth ritual in Civitas Dei intended to ward off Silvanus may also derive from a confusion between Him and Faunus, but I’ll get to that later. Earlier sources are no less complex, since they appear to refer to the two gods interchangeably, but then there are also cases of distinction: Martial mentions altars to Silvanus and trees of Faunus (
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I know I tend to write about goddesses more than gods, but the slightly mysterious god Condatis has a special place in my heart, because I used to live in Durham. He seems to be a local god, with three altars dedicated to him dotted around the county. A further one was recently unearthed in Cramond, Scotland.
It’s a well known fact that the Celts – and later the early Christians – in Ireland were extraordinarily creative people, regularly expressing their philosophies, beliefs and histories through art. At first this was done through stone carving, metalwork and most likely wood. Celtic society revolved around the concepts of war and wealth, so they spent much of their time creating intricately decorated weapons and jewellery from bronze and gold, to show off their fighting prowess and status in society. They were also a highly spiritual society with an astronomical and seasonal calendar, various ritualistic festivals throughout the year, and revered burial practices. At sites where these ceremonies took place stone monuments were very common and often featured elaborate carvings, sculptures and the like.
And here for the image at the top