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Namorodos

Namorodo Spirit (Mick Kubaku, 1971, earth pigments on eucalyptus bark)

Ferrebeekeeper has not written about the undead for quite a while…so here is a terrifying monster from Australian aboriginal folklore. Namorodos (Namorroddos) are a type of evil nocturnal monsters from the mythology of Western and Northern Arnhem Land. Namorodos come from broken lands of rocks and sharp cliff faces. Made of dried skin, gristle, and bones, they fly through the night on howling desert winds. They are desiccated and thin and horrible—desert corpses brought to savage hungry life by supernatural force.

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Mimi Spirits and Namorodo Spirits (Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmira, ca. mid to late twentieth century, ochre on bark)

Like vampires and other undead, namorodos seek to suck the moist insides out of living humans (and thus transform the living into fellow namorodos). As with the horrible Alpine Krampus monster, namorodos seem especially fond of preying on willful children who become lost because they fail to listen. They seem like the savagery of the arid lands personified as a villain: a lesson written in horror.

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Namorodo Flying in the Sky (Wesley Ngainmijra, 1988, Chalk on paper)

Namorodos are also illustrated in the beautiful art of Arnhem land. Look at these disquieting yet elegant pictures of the arid monsters.

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

There are two sorts of dreams. In a figurative sense, your dreams are your aspirations and hopes for the future (for example I dream of getting a paying job, becoming a world famous visual artist, and colonizing our sister-planet Venus). However, in a more literal sense, dreams are a series of unreal adventures which take place inside your head when you are sleeping. Real dreams consist of strange phantasmagoria, troubling psychosexual images, intense emotions and memories as well as and undigested mental odds-and-ends…and horrifying nightmarish fears.

A baku inhaling nightmares

A baku inhaling nightmares

To start off our Halloween week of dreams and nightmares, here is a mythical animal which embodies the tension between both meanings of the word dreams. The Baku is a supernatural entity which devours dreams and nightmares. Apparently stories of the baku originated in ancient China, but these days it is most prevalent in Japan where it plays an ever growing role in folklore and fiction. The baku is a chimera which is said to have an elephant’s trunk, a rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. The creature devours dreams by inhaling them through its sinuous proboscis.

baku

Not surprisingly, the baku’s moral alignment is highly controversial! In traditional Japanese texts it was a pleasant and helpful spirit which ate nightmares and thus provided afflicted sleepers with peaceful & pleasant (albeit somewhat bland) dreams. However in our fractured modern world, the baku has darkened and now it sometimes eats a person’s figurative dreams (although not having aspirations, ideas, or ambitions presumably makes a person an ideal office worker).

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Originally bakus were regarded as completely supernatural, however in recent times they have become conflated with the inoffensive tapirs–which certainly physically resemble the descriptions of the mythical baku. This fact makes the baku even more confusing. It is now both a supernatural dream eating monster dwelling in the ether…and an actual living mammal which can be discovered in the rainforests of Malaysia and South America. I have always liked tapirs a great deal and so I am going to insist they are in no way malevolent. They appear to live exclusively on rainforest vegetation, but even if they did decide to branch out and inhale some human dreams, I am certain they would take our nightmares and not our fondest wishes.

An adorable baby tapir!

An adorable baby tapir!

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

As mentioned in last year’s post concerning pumpkins, the original Irish jack o’lanterns were not carved from the familiar orange gourds (which only made their way to Europe after the discovery of the Americas), but rather were cut from turnips, swedes, or mangelwurzels.   I have illustrated this post with a little gallery of turnip lanterns.   I was hoping to find a mangelwurzel to carve up for an original photo, but it seems like the hurricane has prevented adequate supplies of these medieval vegetables from reaching the city—so that will have to wait till next year.  In the meantime, here is a folktale about how jack o’lanterns originated.

The story of the origin of the jack o’lantern is a stirring tale of greed, guile, and the restless undead.  Jack was a trickster, a fraud, and an unrepentant sinner who roamed around Ireland scamming honest folks and selling mortgage-backed securities & other poorly structured equities.  One day, Jack was running from a mob of creditors (which should immediately recommend the story to contemporary American mores) when he encountered the devil traveling along the bog road.  Jack convinced Satan that it would be to the latter’s advantage to infiltrate society in a more subtle form than that of scary red guy with horns.

Jack’s plan was that the devil should pretend to be a golden coin.  Jack could present this to the angry mob, who would then begin to argue and fight over the coin thus leading them inexorably into the devil’s clutches.  The devil shapeshifted into coin form and presto, Jack grabbed him and stuffed him into a purse with a cross sewn on it (which he had probably stolen from a clergyman or a church-run orphanage).  The devil was unable to escape Jack’s clutches. In order to get out of this predicament, Lucifer had to promise Jack never to collect his soul and take it to hell.

After many financial shenanigans and dodgy schemes, Jack eventually died–as all men must.  His spirit wandered the gray earth in a dark fog, unable to find any succor or happiness in the lands of the living.  At length he made his way to the gates of heaven but he was not wanted there and was chased off by saints and angels.  Jack drifted through different realms but could never escape the chill of death and the inchoate miseries of the grave.  Finally, defeated, he went to hell and begged for entrance.

Turnip lantern by Nathan deGargoyle.

But the devil remembered his promise (and was pleased by Jack’s misery).  Satan barred Jack from hell and sent him on his way, but first he mockingly threw the specter a blazing coal from the inferno–which can never be extinguished.   Jack tried to clutch the red ember and it burned and seared his flesh even though that flesh was ghostly and insubstantial.  Yet the coal was better than nothing, so Jack carried it in his hands even though it caused him agony. Finally in a flash of inspiration, the con-man snatched a turnip from a garden and carved it into a little lamp to hold the coal.

Jack never could find peace–his spirit still roams to this day, but over the different eras his lamp has become an enduring symbol of the Halloween season.  The devil, however, greatly appreciated Jack’s plan to infiltrate society in the form of money and he made many bold innovations in this direction (while being always watchful to steer clear of churches and cleric’s purses).  He’s probably lurking somewhere in my bank balance and in yours too.

Happy Halloween!

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

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?

Baron Samedi is the Voodoo loa of death, sex, and resurrection.  Since those topics represent a substantial and universal chunk of human interests, he is the most instantly recognizable of voodoo spirits. The Baron wears a glossy top hat, a tailcoat, and sunglasses.  He has cotton plugs in his nostrils in the fashion of a Haitian corpse—at least when he is not just wearing a skull as a face.  The Baron’s name comes from his delight in partying on Saturdays and also has a rumored connection to Samhain, the Celtic festival of death and darkness.  In fact, Baron Samedi seems to owe some of his features to the folk beliefs of Irish indentured servants who worked in the fields next to African slaves.

The Baron’s favorite colors are black, white, and purple.  He is extremely fond of cigars, rum, peanuts, and black coffee (particularly the first two).  Baron Samedi is noted for his obscenity and his debauchery.  Frequently represented by phallic symbols he is rumored to attend orgies and seek all manner of congress.  He delights in using a nasal voice to make fun of white people for being uptight—Eek!

The Baron is married to Maman Brigitte, a fair-haired, foul-mouthed white loa who seems to be associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (Maman Brigitte even has emerald green eyes).  A powerful death/fertility loa in her own right, Maman’s symbols are the black chicken and cemetery crosses.  She is noted for dancing the suggestive but remarkably artistic banda dance and for rubbing red hot chili peppers on her…self. Although she is powerful, beautiful, and insatiable, her husband Baron Samedi still chases after pretty mortals.

Zora Neale Hurston recounts that when you make a request of Baron Samedi, you use a cow’s foot extended in place of your hand. When the Baron is ready to leave, he takes whatever he’s holding along with him.  By substituting the cow foreleg, you don’t loose your arm! [Editor’s note: this seemed like a somewhat trivial scholarly point but we decided to include it as a safety tip for motivated readers]

Baron Samedi’s veve (the voodoo symbol which acts as a beacon to loa) is a cross on top of a catafalque with two standing coffins on either side.

Baron Samedi is the leader of the Guédé loa—a spirit tribe who are masters of death magic.  The lesser Guédé spirits dress like the Baron and share his licentious and rude manner. They help carry the dead to the next realm—sooner than anticipated with the right inducements or the wrong dealings.

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