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Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ferrebeekeeper features an otherworldly creature or legend from Irish Folklore.  From lovable (?) leprechauns, to the malevolent Sluagh, to heartbreaking romances between mortal and faerie, these mythical tales from Eire are written in the indelible colors of fever dreams and ancient appetite. And, speaking of appetite, this year’s Hibernian apparition is animated entirely by hunger: the fear gorta or “man of hunger” is a famine spirit. 

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These spectral entities are said to take the form of impossibly emaciated corpses begging for alms or food.  Although seeing a fear gorta wandering around in the human world was regarded as a harbinger of famine, interacting with them on an individual level was not necessarily thought of as a bad thing (like say getting caught up with a Leannán Sídhe).  In accordance with ancient fairytale rules, treating a fear gorta respectfully or offering them food, compassion, or alms could be pathway to unexpected good fortune.

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The origins of the fear gorta were shrouded in supernatural mystery.  Although an obvious interpretation was that the specters were the ghosts of famine victims or hapless starved wretches, other sources spoke of them rising autochthonously from eldritch patches of “hungry grass.”

As you might imagine, the fear gorta has a special place in the mythology of a nation whose defining crisis was the great potato famine of 1845 to 1849 (“an Gorta Mórin Gaelic ).  The failure of the potato crops during those years was caused by the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which is an oomycete that attacks plants of the  nightshade family (oomycetes are eukaryotic microorganism which straddles the facile taxonomical divide between the great kingdoms of life).    

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Whatever the biological causes of the crop failure, the Irish blamed the resultant famine on the stern new laissez faire capitalism of the United Kingdom’s Whig masters.  “God caused the blight, but the English caused the famine!” was a popular rallying cry.  We need to talk more about blights, famines, and pestilences—both within human history and within the paleontological record of life (it is hard to understand the place that viruses, bacteria, and pathogens hold in the microhistory of living things, since they are so fugitive in the fossil record, but we have critical clues).  For the moment though, I wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  I really hope you don’t see any fear gortas out there in the plague-haunted mist (although, given our own misadministration from the top, it would hardly surprise me), but if you do, please make sure to be super friendly and offer them some of your provisions.  A big pot of gold never hurt anybody…well, except for the Rath of Armagh…but that is a story for another St. Patrick’s Day.  In the meantime, celebrate the quarantine with some beer and potatoes and take care of yourself. Sláinte! We will get through all of this and build a better world!

Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes.  During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo.    Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans.  The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation.    For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies.  Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers.  Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death.  The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.

Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs.  The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh.  These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story.  If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo.  After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold.  No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up).  Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.

It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled.  In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders.   Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions.  Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos.  The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.

If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream.  A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature.  What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?

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