Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.
This week I visit encounter gifts from feathered friends, so look into the imagery of feathers; I ask – what is sorcery (maleficium) ? And discuss how you should you use sorcery in your fantasy and fiction project. I ask, what is an existential crisis? New science about vampires. Wild flower: Primrose
What I’ve Been Up To – Sparrow Gifts
Last week I encountered a very odd, perhaps magical, certainly charming and mysterious, experience. Out from my conservatory window I have been watching, each day, some cheerful little birds, house sparrows, that congregate in a hedge just outside my windows since the emergency began. I have been confined in my self-isolation for a bit longer than others because I had already been shaking off flu-like symptoms that I caught four weeks ago (it’s fine, by the way, and, anyway, self-isolation it’s the reality for any author – probably any artist, actually – we are very used to being confined in a “cell” for long periods with just our imagination to preserve us) so the house sparrows bring me a little dose of cheer each day. They tend to chatter and fuss non-stop, which is why they’re so much fun, and they play and flutter in the hedge (which is no more than about 12 inches from my window) and I’m fairly sure they can see me as much as I can see them.
But last Friday, something odd happened. I had been putting out some bird-seed for them (and experimenting with different feeders) because I’d noticed that sparrows will not go to feeders… I have some other feeders, about 10 metres from the hedge, that attract a whole load of birds… but never the sparrows… they seem content in chirping and cheeping in the hedge. But during the early part of Friday morning, they began to bring white feathers to the hedge.
Lots of the birds brought white feathers with them. And all the feathers they brought to the hedge were white, even though sparrows are grey-brown, flecked, but mostly hazel brown. The individual birds then began to stick the feathers on prominent bits of twig, as if they were putting up little flags. When I first observed this curious behaviour, I thought maybe they were collecting the feathers as nesting materials and were checking the size, softness and fluffiness of the feathers before abandoning them because, for whatever reason, they were unacceptable for nests.
But, very oddly, by noon the same day, although the sparrows had gone (they tend to play most in early morning) they’d left a huge amount of white-feather flags. I counted thirty, there may have been more.
I researched what this might mean and was surprised to find that, in some First Nation (native American) cultures, there’s a belief that a feather “sent from heaven” is a “gift” and that someone “up there” is saying “thanks.”
Of course, feathers (and perhaps especially white feathers) mean so much, from travel to spirit… because birds represent freedom and inspiration and have a connection with the limitless skies and the limitless beyond. That’s why Native American and Aboriginal tribes use feathers in their sacred ceremonies; feathers are a symbol of giving thanks and appreciation and, because birds are associated with “the heavens” and become consorts of the gods and goddesses – they might be able communicate messages to “those above.” Many cultures use feathers to lift their prayers and intentions to the gods. Is that why angels are portrayed with “bird-like” wings that have feathers?
In Celtic culture, Druids wore ornate feathered robes. Druids wore feathered robes in ceremonies that helped them understand the celestial realm. Ancient Celts believed that wearing the feathered cloak would allow the Druid to transcend our earthly plane to enter the ethereal [ETH EAR REE ALL] realm.
There’s also a (modern) idea that unexpectedly finding a feather, especially a white feather, is a message from our dearly departed. Perhaps it’s because feathers, once released, are no longer bound by the heavy burdens of this world so, like a spirit, they soar free into heaven. And might be used to communicate between realms. Feathers, as a symbol of the soul, are free to ascend. Artists have often used the symbol of a white dove to represent the holy spirit.
If you believe that feathers are a communication tool used by God or by the lesser gods, then their appearance is, perhaps, a reminder that we ought to listen to a bigger voice or a higher authority.
But I have another explanation, no less amazing, and it’s this. On Saturday morning all the white feathers were gone. Every single one. They haven’t come back. My guess (though I can’t prove it) is that the house sparrows had got up before I had and they’d taken all the feathers away, off back to their nests (that are under the gutters of out house.) That’s when I came-up with a possible scientific explanation for their white-feather gift giving that might be a bit more rational than the idea they were giving me messages; It’s this: were they sticking those feathers onto twigs to dry them out? A bit like hanging sheets and blankets onto a washing line, were they drying the feathers overnight? Once properly dry, were they then able to use the dry feathers to line their nests?
If this scientific explanation is true, (who knows?) it’s no less impressive and wonderful than believing that the sparrows were leaving little “gifts” for me, as a sign of their appreciation / thanks for putting seed out for them, is it?
Just to let you know, by the way, that luckily (and before they took all the feathers away) I had already taken a short video of the phenomena and some still shots of the white feathers in situ on my hedge. Go to my site neilmach all one word dot me and go to my show-notes to fin the evidence. Or type sparrow feather into my search box.
Good luck with your period of self-isolation and let me know if you’ve experienced anything odd, weird, fantastic, curious, or supernatural during your period of confinement. Tweet me @neilmach and I’ll share.
Myth & Magic News
There’s been news this week about a study published in the journal titled “Current Biology” into relationships formed by VAMPIRE BATS which tends to prove what we speculative fiction fans have known all along: Vampires “French kiss with blood” to form lasting bonds between partners.
Researchers have observed the mammals “kissing with blood” and have stated this sharing behavior appears to be an important aspect of their pair-bonding.
Prof Gerald Carter, author of the study and behavioral ecologist at Ohio State University said “Food sharing in vampire bats is like how a lot of birds regurgitate food for their offspring. But what’s special with vampire bats is they do this for other adults…”
He added that bats would “groom even after their fur had been cleansed, suggesting that the behavior was not just an issue of maintaining hygiene.”
Vampire bats are the only mammals to feed entirely on blood, which they get by biting larger animals such as cattle.
The flying creatures can drink up to half their weight in blood a day, unlike their other bat relatives, which generally dine on fruit, nectar or insects.
International researchers had recently analysed both the genome of the vampire bat and its microbiome – the microorganisms that live inside the gut.
They found that genome size was similar to that of other bats but the genome contained more “jumping genes” (DNA sequences that change position in the genome).
These were found in areas involved in immune response, viral defence, and both lipid and vitamin metabolism, suggesting they played a key role in the evolution of the bat’s specialised diet.
There are three kinds of Vampire Bat native to the Americas : common, hairy-legged and white-winged vampires. Vampire bats hunt only when it is fully dark. In addition to using low-energy sound pulses, it’s thought the bats also detect their prey, or the warmest spot on their prey, using thermoception (infrared detection.)
It’s thought the English word “vampire” originates from the Slovak verb “vrepiť sa” (to stick into or to thrust into) and so upír is to “thrust” and the notion of vampirism has existed for millennia and runs across cultures, from Ancient Greeks and Romans to northeastern India and Africa. Virtually all Slavic cultures have rich folk mythologies and customs around vampires. Yet, clearly, all these cultures would not have known of or ever encountered a Vampire Bat until the European colonization of the Americas in the 15th century (Christopher Columbus in 1492.)
What is sorcery and how does it work?
SORCERY aka Maleficium (malevolent sorcery) is an act of witchcraft that’s performed with the intention of causing damage, injury or harm. The association of sorcery with the Devil made Western witchcraft unique and differently experienced to witchcraft found in Africa and the Americas. From the 14th to the 18th century, witches that practiced sorcery were believed to repudiate Jesus and to replace his “love” with worship of the Devil and to make pacts with the devil.
Charges of maleficium are often prompted by little more than suspicion. It’s often just one person blaming another person for misfortune that’s been dealt to them. After the blatant ethnocentrism demonstrated by Trump during last week, towards the peoples of China, you might expect some kind of accusation (coming soon) that the Chinese people or government hid (i.e. they disguised the readily discernible early signs & symptoms of the coronavirus) from the outside world: in other words: something bad happened to us that cannot be readily explained, and if we feel that the Chinese don’t like us, we might also therefore suspect them of harming our society and all that we stand for, by occult means. It’s bound to come: and it’s an allegation of malevolent sorcery.
In France in 1022 a group of heretics in Orléans were accused of orgy, infanticide, invocations of demons, and blasphemy. They were part of a broad pattern of hostility against certain marginalized groups. It’s worth noting the role women played in such heresies which is why we stereo-typically think of “the witch” as female.
Methods of sorcery include:
* Incantations, i.e. chants that invoke evil spirits to do their work
* Divination, to predict future events
* Producing amulets or charms, to ward off evil spirits or guard against harmful events
* Making potions, to give cures against ills, or provide super natural powers
* Production of dolls & poppets (to represent enemies) to hold power over others
During the 13th century, sorcery was involved in many deaths. These were thought to be done through magic, but were probably more usually a result of poisoning. In 1324, there was a famous case involving Lady Alice Kyteller and a series of events caused by sorcery, in Ireland. A contemporary author wrote, “Lady Alice Kyteller was charged with performing magical rites, having sexual intercourse with demons, attempting to divine the future, and poisoning her first three husbands...”
If you’re thinking of using sorcery in your fantasy fiction novel, keep in mind the implicit malevolence of a sorcerer. For example, in the tale of Snow White (based loosely on an ancient Roman legend, by the way) the Evil New Queen (the witch-queen) practices divination and incantation “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” and administers a potion (the poisoned apple).
Also keep in mind the symbolism of certain articles and their implications, and possible interpretations. For example, in the Snow White tale we have the colours white (purity) red (blood or communion wine) and black (darkness) we have the apple (the woman Eve was seduced by the devil /serpent into eating forbidden fruit, seen as the apple) and also the awakening of Snow White when a prince offers the freedom (through love) of resurrection.
By the way, in a damsel in distress story there’s often a hero who must embark on a quest to liberate the damsel from an evil spell set by a sorcerer.
Magic Word of the Week: Existential crises
More of a term, I suppose, than a word, an existential crisis, in its simplest form, is when an might individual question whether his or her own life has meaning, purpose, or value. Many of us, in the coming weeks and months, might face our own existential crises… unless we have something spiritual, ideological or transcendental to cling onto. Or, if you are a humanist, and believe with conviction that the value and agency of human beings is not determined or dictated by some unseen supernatural force or entity, you might want to look at philanthropy: becoming directly involved in initiatives, for the public good, that focus on quality of life for other citizens, to make any sense of the emergency we are currently living through.
What is the point, meaning and purpose of human existence if we live life alone and we die? That’s the type of question that folk have been asking for millennia. And during a life threatening emergency or if we’re faced with unprecedented trauma, isolation, or he fear of losing those people (or things) we love most (for example, the notion of freedom) we are all most likely to fall into EC
psychologists and philosophers have long held that most of us will suffer some kind of existential despair if we are unable to handle unexpected and/or extreme life-experiences… that’s why so many folk hold onto or make a new leap-of-faith into the notion of an abstract belief, a spiritual being, or a religious / pseudo religious concept: if one believes in the existence of a reality beyond our limited world-view, it’s easier to “make sense” of things and we can think beyond any trauma we might endure. This is true even if the leap-of-faith is into an irrational belief, and probably intangible and empirically unprovable, nevertheless, it offers comfort and solace. For example, during the plague, folk believed in Talismans (and Abracadabras) and wore protective charms to protect themselves from catching the plague. And you’ll see for yourself, in news reports, that various people (even President Trump, who suggested drinking quinine last week) will try to tell you that “magical” cures might offer salvation and hope.
The collapse of consumer culture will probably accelerate EC in all our societies and will probably bring about more “faith adventures.” Watch this space!
Wildflower of the Week – Primrose
Last week, out for a little walk before lock-down, I saw a little primrose by a wall (photo on the show-notes). Also known as Easter rose or butter rose, it’s a symbol of the hope brought by Spring and the hope of heaven too (the rose-shaped blooms are often described as “stars” by poets) And the “prim” bit of the name means “early” or “first” i.e. prima (not proper, as you might have thought) thus: the first rose of the year. The Latin name is the same: Prim Ula.
In Ireland, the wildflower is known as the SAMHAIRCIN (aka The May Flower) and is considered the harbinger of Spring. Thus, etymologically speaking, it’s shares a connection with Samhain with its Celtic pagan origins and connections with protective and cleansing powers, and rituals involving spirits or fairies. Nevertheless, churches tend to decorate their interiors with Primroses, certainly at “Mothering Sunday” and at Eastertide.
The flowers and leaves of the Primrose are edible, the flavor is said to be like lettuce but perhaps more bitter. The leaves can be cooked into soup and used to make tea, and the young flowers can be made into primrose wine. They are said to have painkiller (analgesic) qualities.
Because they resemble roses (although they are not roses) primroses became a symbol for Rose Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and also, therefore, a symbol of the “mother church” as well as mothers in general. Through this, they are connected to the holy mother: the Blessed Virgin Mary whose symbol is roses.
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Main Image: Witch Queen from Sneewittchen, Scholz Künstler-Bilderbücher Public Domain