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Roman sarcophagus of Italian marble (ca. 3rd century AD, Getty Museum, California)

Almost every culture has myths and stories about the undead—supernatural beings trapped between the living world and the underworld.  The majority of such creatures are horrible, monstrous, or sad, yet such is their dark hold on our imagination that they reoccur in the legends of many different places.

An ancient Roman cemetery complex along the Via Latina

This year, in order to celebrate Halloween, that special time between seasons when the veil to the underworld if lifted, Ferrebeekeeper presents some of the undead who are less familiar than Hollywood’s smooth-talking vampires and shambling zombies.  Although undead folklore stretches back to prehistory, an appropriate place to begin with our exploration is in the cemeteries and columbariums of Ancient Rome–which were haunted by several sorts of undead spirits. Roman funereal practice changed back and forth from burial to cremation several times (and some families or individuals preferred to stick with the unfashionable tradition).  Cemeteries and funereal monuments were found by the side of thoroughfares just outside of towns and cities.  One can imagine how spooky these unlighted tombs were at night when filled with footpads, desperate fugitives, wild animals, and pre-industrial darkness (even without the various wandering dead whom the Romans believed in).

Ancient Roman Cemetery from Roman Gaul (today at Alyscamps, Arles, France)

The most common Roman apparitions were two sorts of ghosts: the manes and lemures, which were separated by moral alignment.  Manes, the spirits of deceased loved ones, were basically benevolent– although they still enjoyed drinking blood, which Romans provided for them with animal sacrifices and with gladiatorial games (which were originally intended for funereal purposes).  Wealthy Romans held sumptuous feasts to satiate the manes, and even people of more humble means sacrificed and gave offerings to the spirits of the dearly departed. The lemures, however, were not so benevolent.  These were dark and restless spirits who died bad deaths.  Some lemures were forever lost and could not find the underworld.  Others were tied to this world through foul acts or evil temper.  The lemures were imagined as shapeless black forms of malevolence.  Romans tried to placate the lemures with sacrificial offerings of funereal black (most often black beans, superstitiously cast behind—although other black sacrifices are hinted at).

Colombarium of Pomponius Hylas Within The Park On Via Latina (ca. 1st century AD)

Beyond such ghostly revenants, Romans greatly feared witches and the liminal tricks which they could play with life and death.  Anyone who has read The Golden Ass will recall the indelible first story within a story–wherein the wicked Thessalonian sorceresses Meroë and Panthia kill the narrator’s friend, drain his blood, and rip out his heart which they replace with a sponge.  After an agonizing night of fear, debasement, and suicidal thoughts, the narrator is delighted when dawn breaks and his murdered friend is alive (all the night’s horrors merely a dream).  The two men proceed out of town and stop at a spring to drink, whereupon the sponge in the murder victim’s chest falls out and he falls drained & dead upon the sand (The Golden Ass is an unrivaled work of literature, but not for the faint of heart).

The Romans also feared the Lamiae.  According to myth, Lamia was a beautiful Libyan queen who was loved by Zeus, but something went (badly) awry with their affair and Lamia wound up devouring her only child and pulling out her eyes.  Thereafter she roved the dark on a serpent’s tail looking for other children to devour.  The Romans were fascinated by this horrifying figure, and in later Roman folklore the Lamiae are an entire category of monster rather than one being.  These later Lamiae were able to alter their appearance to become fair.  They would then seduce young men and eat their life essence.  The Romans were not the only ones fascinated by this kind of misogyny mythology and the Lamiae outlived the manes, lemures, and witch-cursed victims, to find a place in 19th century poetry and art.

Lamia (John William Waterhouse, 1905, oil on canvas) note the snakeskin wound around her legs

Chullachaqui (painting by David Hewson)

If you are wondering through the great untouched rainforests of the Amazon basin, you will sometimes come across a clearing devoid of all vegetation save for a few trees.  These bare patches are known as devil’s gardens and are said to be the haunt of the fearsome Chuyachaqui (or Chullachaqui), a shape shifting demon which delights in causing misfortune to travelers.  Although the Chuyachaqui’s default form is that of a small misshapen man with one hoof and one human foot, the demon can change shape into a person known to the traveler in order to mislead the latter to doom.

Lemon ants (Myrmelachista schumanni), so named because they are said to have an acidic lemony taste

Scientists were curious about these small bare patches of forest. After carefully studying the ecosystem, they discovered that a force nearly as diabolical as the Chuyachaqui is responsible.  The lemon ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, produces formic acid, a natural herbicide which it methodically injects into the plants in a “devil’s clearing”.  The only plants which the ants leaves alone are Duroia hirsuta, “lemon ant trees” which have evolved a mutualistic relationship with the ants.  The lemon ants keep the forest free of competing trees and plants, while the lemon ant tree is hollow inside—a perfect natural ant hive and its leaves provide a source of nutrition for the lemon ants (which are a sort of leaf-cutter).

A clearing filled with lemon ant trees

Large colonies of lemon ant trees have been found which are believed to be more than 800 years old—far older than the life of any ant colony or individual tree.  It is remarkable to think these ant/tree settlements have been part of the rainforest since before the Mongol conquests.

There are no primary written sources concerning Slavic mythology–no myths written in the original languages, no poems, or songs, or tales of gods and heroes.  The first people to write about the Slavic faith were Christian proselytizer, and their accounts are naturally hostile to the pagan faith. This means that we know tantalizing hints about Slavic deities from archaeology and we have some hair raising accounts from Christian sources (which are probably slander), but we actually know very little.  One of the deities who has gained the most mileage from this dearth of information is the dark accursed god Chernobog (aka Crnobog, Czernobóg, Černobog, Црнобог, Zernebog and Чернобог).

Chernobog!
A German priest traveling among unconverted Wendish and Polabian tribes wrote about Chernobog as a god of woe whose name meant “black god”.  The name also shows up in a smattering of other sources which reveal little–but other than that Chernobog is largely unknown.  While this would be a big problem for a harvest god or a love goddess, Chernobog is an underworld deity and his mysterious nature has made him popular with artists, movie makers, and video game producers looking for a big scary guy who doesn’t talk too much.

Chernabog from Walt Disney's "Fantasia"

The most famous Chernobog appearance was in the Walt Disney film Fantasia, where he starred (as “Chernabog”) in the animated “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. As Modest Mussorgsky’s wild tempestuous music plays, Chernabog, a huge winged demon of blackness, summons forth evil spirits and the restless undead to a lightning scarred mountain top (only to be banished by dawn and the ringing of a church bell).   The sequence made a huge impact on me when I saw it on VHS in music class in elementary school and apparently I am not alone,  Wikipedia had a long list of fantasy writers who have since used the character as a villain (the most intriguing-sounding of which was an alternate history of Russia where a comet impact had caused widespread famine and cannibalism and Chernobog was worshipped as a major deity!).

"Chernobog" (artwork by by Cristopher Erik Thompson)

Perspicacious readers will probably notice I have just written a post concerning deities of the underworld based on almost no real information other than modern fantasy/entertainment–but there is a useful lesson here.  If you are stuck for material Chernobog is your man–his fearsome aura of mystery and dreadful (albeit ambiguous) name will do your work for you.

Aaargh!

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

In the Northern Hemisphere today is the first day of winter.  As always, this change of season occurs on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Last night was actually the longest evening of the year—so I suppose we can now look forward to the gradual return of the sun bit by bit (even as the weather worsens for the true cold of January and February).

To celebrate winter (admittedly my least favorite season), here is a gallery of winter personifications.  Each wears an icy crown and most of them look cold, haughty, indifferent, or cruel.  I am including these ice kings and queens under Ferrebeekeeper’s mascot category even though they are not really cheering for a team or a product.  “Personification” seems close enough to the definition of mascot to ensure that I won’t get in trouble from WordPress (although, as ever, I invite any comments or aeguments below).

Snow Queen (by Vladislav Erko)

Winter King and Queen (Source unknown)

Old fashioned cartoon Ice Monarch

Katy Perry? How did you get in my blog and why are you dressed as queen of winter?

Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз) “Grandfather Frost” plays a similar gift-giving role to Santa Clause in Slavic Cultures

Title Character from “The Snow Queen” by Birmingham Repertory Theatre

The Ice King, a villain from “Adventuretime” on Cartoon Network

The Ice Princess Tatiana from Dolphin Mall in Miami.  She looks like she’s saying “I don’t know where you parked your car.”

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch of Narnia (possible pretender to the throne of winter)

“snow king” card

A snow queen halloween costume available for sale online

From the Illamasqua Art-of-Darkness makeup collection (click for link)

I would hang around and make some funny comments about all of the monarchs of winter but all of the white hair and piercing eyes are starting to weird me out a little (to say nothing of Katy Perry’s vacuous stare).  Have you ever noticed how summer, spring, and fall are not represented as maniacal tyrants with wicked crowns?  I’m looking forward to getting back to those other seasons.  In the mean time have a wonderful winter!

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