0

The Easter Bunny or Hare…

“Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.”

As we approach Easter and small children look out for what the Easter Bunny has brought, let us consider its cousin..the Hare. The above quote underlines a common belief of the Hare in British folklore. In Cornwall a legend tells of a white hare which would be seen as a warning to some sort of fishing disaster, the hare being the embodiment of a love-lorn widow!

Even in India an account from 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, a William Black noted that:

“it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”

Often witchcraft linked with hares. This account in Edward Rainsberry’s Through the Lychgate. He notes:

“There is a story told that many years ago three young lads from Long Compton named Will, Jack and Lewis were out netting rabbits down by Barton’s Grove. They saw a white hare run behind a hedge, then a little later running in circles across a gateway. The lads carried on with their trapping but every time they looked up the hare seemed to be drawing nearer to them in decreasing circles. Despite the moon it was now getting dark, so they decided to finish for the night and get along home. Following the footpath back through the fields, they looked round-the hare was following them. When they stopped, it stopped; when they ran, it ran also. Eventually there were running as fast as they could and get back to the village along Duffus close. One of the lads lived in a cottage on the main road, so the three jumped across the stone wall into his back garden. He tried to open the back door but the key would not fit; glancing round before he forced the door open, he saw the white hare sitting on the garden wall.”

In the trial of Julian Cox in 1663, a witness stating:

 “A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”

Yet despite these associations with harbingers and witches the Hare became an important figure at Easter. An Easter Hunt by the Mayor and dignitaries, perhaps significantly from a place associated with Black Annis near Leicester and the famed Hare Pie and Bottle kicking from the same county cement the animals association. Choosing the hare for a cult figure was of course significant considering the wider associations with the time of year. The high fecundity made it a suitable beast which to associate with the change in the apparent fertility of the land. Whether or not the deity of Eostre existed, the Venerable Bede apparently is the only source; it would make perfect sense to have a deity in the form of the ubiquitous hare. As the rabbit became more common across Europe thanks to a wide spread introduction ‘programme’ for food by the Vikings, the tradition of fecundity slipped to the rabbit. This later manifested itself as the Easter Bunny. A tradition built upon by the Americans from their German ancestry and like many traditions imported back across much of the English speaking world..

0

The Bunyip

“I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf … I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail.”

Such was a description of one of the most famous folklore creature of Australia. A creature which lived in rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps and of course billabongs! A creature which captured the imagination of the European settlers through the 19th century recalling accounts either personally witnessed or picked up from the native settlers.

The Bunyip ranged in its appearance. W. Westgarth in his 1848 Australia Felix notes it had a:

“round head, an elongated neck with a tail and body resembling an ox.”

To Once a week (1895) to:

“bigger than an elephant, in shape like a poley bullock, with eyes like live coals and tusks like a walrus.”

Whilst the Wagga Advocate in 1872 states it was:

“was half as long as a retriever dog… its body was jet black.”

Yet a description from the Murray River Moorundi people state it

“ Its most usual form … is said to be that of an enormous starfish.”

This description aside if we considered adding all the main features together it appears to either had a dog face, a crocodile head, dark fur, a horses tail, tusks, horns, duck bill and flippers! The one unifying theme being that it had a loud voice and was big! In The Narrinyeri Rev. George Taplin stated that a Lake Alexandrina ‘booming and explosive’ sounds were bunyips although more rational people claimed they were the more down to earth booming bittern. However to be fair to the native people as Robert Brough Smyth notes in Aborigines of Victoria of 1878 stated:

“in truth little is known among the blacks respecting its form, covering or habits; they appear to have been in such dread of it as to have been unable to take note of its characteristics.”

Of course such unknown creatures they incited fear, native people stating that it meant ‘demon’ and that the devoured humans, creeping up on them and pouncing!

Looking for evidence

Several pieces of evidence have been produced. In 1818, Hamilton Hume and James Meehan found in Lake Bathhurst, NSW, some large bones said to resemble a manatee or hippo. Sadly they were never fully recovered. George Rankin a bushman discovered in the 1830s some large ox like fossils in Wellington Caves which was identified by Sir Richard Owen as a Nototherium and Dirpotodon.  Then in 1946 a skull was found on the Murrumbidgee River in NSW which apparently was identified as a Bunyip by natives. Despite reaching some sort of celebrity through its display in the Australian Museum of Sydney it too was debunked by Professor Owen as the deformed foetal foal or calf skull.

What is the Bunyip?

Heavelmans in his On Track of Unknown Animals believes it to be an unknown aquatic marsupial. Gould in Mythical monsters notes:

“The people that have seen this animal in the lake maintain that it is not a platypus, but twice as large and much darker; but as it has never been plainly seen, and considering the difficulty in seeing of any sea animal getting as far as the lake I think undoubtedly be a very large platypus.”

One theory is that the Bunyip were seals. Certainly the flippers and dog face suggest so and seals have found themselves into freshwater bodies, certainly the Murray and Darling rivers. Indeed, R. Brough Smyth reported in the Aboriginals of Victoria in 1878 that the name Bunyip was attached to two species of seals – eared and sea leopard. Supporting this is the sound recorded by Bunyip which resembles that of seals and for landlocked groups unfamiliar with the sea perhaps another name was need.

Although the Tasmanian Bunyip was recorded in the 1870s as having dog like animal with flippers was reported in the high lakes of the central plateau nowhere near the sea. Although if they are the same it seems unlikely that the species would be the same as that which was feared!

A more exciting possibility is the Diprotodon, a prehistoric rhino sized marsupial, long extinct but may have survived into early settlement to create race memory, however the fossil record does not support this view. Alternatively it might be their response to finding fossils of these creatures. Certainly Professor Owen identified the Rankin skeletons as such! Whatever it is one could understand how those dark and mysterious waters could breed a giant monster.

1

The Ground Hog…a spring time harbinger

Two days time, if you are reading it when I post it, is Groundhog Day. This is an annual event focused around the folklore of an animal – the Groundhog which may be familiar to some from the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.  The groundhog (Marmota monax) is a large rodent  in a group called ground squirrels.

It’s Groundhog Day!

Groundhog day is celebrated widely across the US. In Pennsylvania, there are Groundhog lodges where a feast, speeches and plays are performed. What is interesting is that only a German dialect is allowed to be spoken at the event…and any English spoken is penalised by a nickel payment.  It is celebrated as far south as Irving Texas centred on the University there. It has even crossed the boarders into Wiarton Ontario and Shubenacadie Wildlife Park in Nova Scotia (both Canada)..when it got as far north as Alaska, the lack of groundhogs converted it to Marmot Day! Of course the most famous of all Groundhog days is that held at Punxsutawney Pennsylvania with its star..Punxsutawney Phil.

The basic folklore is that that the groundhog emerges from his burrow as the sun rises and if he sees his shadow there is six more weeks of winter. No shadow spring is around the corner!  This custom in the US can be traced back to the 18th century. However, the earliest written reference is from an 1841 diary entry:

“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which…..the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

One piece of folklore is that Phil himself has been giving weather predictions since 1887…very unlikely as groundhogs have an average age of six years. This means they would have been just over 21 ground hogs doing the honour. Another piece is that the Phil speaks only to the Club president in Groundhogese and then he translates it to the world! A neat way as it’s difficult to see a shadow on the rostrum where he is revealed!

But why groundhogs? Why the 2nd of February. Well the date is easy to explain. It is the old Pagan holiday of Imbolc, which was seen as the traditional start of spring – the earliest when spring births, such as goats and sheep could happen. This later was converted to the Christian Candlemas and the Germans are the source. German folklore believed that hedgehogs who cast a shadow on this day it was stated snow into May!

The custom is also found in Serbia but moved to the 15th February (Candlemas before the Calendar change) and the transferred to the bear which if sees it’s  own shadow is so scared it runs into its den and sleeps for another 40 days.

Whether he’s good for the weather

The Groundhog Day organisers, clearly justifying their existence suggest that Phil is between 75-90% accurate which sounds incredible…however a study made suggests that in the last 30-40 years he’s been only 37% accurate. However, that was Canada…perhaps no one in Pennsylvania wants to really find out!

But you can find out now live wherever you are in the world via their live link!

http://www.groundhog.org/

 

0

An animal for Christmas – Robin redbreast

[a+christmas+robin+IX.jpg]

“The robin and wren

Are God’s cock and hen.

The spink and the sparrow

Are the devil’s bow and arrow.”

He is a familiar bird, the Robin Redbreast, I say he, for of course the red breast is the male – the female is a drab brown! Perhaps no bird is as synonymous with Christmas as the Robin.  Its association with Christmas is cemented by his presence on cards, wrapping paper, jumpers and Yule logs. A considerable amount of folklore has arisen around him, in particular to explain his red-breast. The main associates him with Christ on the cross. Several reasons are given one that he attempted to remove his nails or thorns, or else ease his wounds or simply sing to make the torment of the cross less. Whichever, the Robin is said to have touched the blood of Christ as he hung there and gained his red colouration. However, another view is that he burnt his feathers journeying back from hell to help souls who needed water. A further version tells how the wren stole the fire from heaven to bring it to earth and all the birds helped wren get new feathers but the robin became too concerned and got too close and caught fire! Certainly, the caring nature of the Robin is also highlighted by its association with the Babes in the wood legend, the ballad stating that:

“And when they were dead. The robins so red, Brought strawberry-leaves, And over them spread.”

This association with Christ emphasises its importance to Christmas and of course the fact that the bird is a visitor to gardens around the winter. A poem on the Robin and Christmas states:

“Legend tells how a robin,

On the night of the first Noel

Braved the frosty winter night

So the baby might sleep well.

 

Throughout the night, the small grey wings

Did flutter for all their worth

And fanned the fire that warmed the Christ

His first night here on Earth.

 

In the heat of stirring the lonely fire

The shepherds have it said

The Robin wears with honor

A breast of Christmas Red.”

Again showing its helpful nature. It also meant that the bird could not be harmed and this is the focus of two pieces of belief. The lesser known now belief that if a Robin dies in your hand your hand would shake uncontrollably. The second of course is the legend of ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’:

“”Who killed Cock Robin?” “I,” said the Sparrow,

“With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.”

“Who saw him die?” “I,” said the Fly,

“With my little eye, I saw him die.”

“Who caught his blood?” “I,” said the Fish,

“With my little dish, I caught his blood.”

“Who’ll make the shroud?” “I,” said the Beetle,

“With my thread and needle, I’ll make the shroud.”

“Who’ll dig his grave?” “I,” said the Owl,

“With my pick and shovel, I’ll dig his grave.”

“Who’ll be the parson?” “I,” said the Rook,

“With my little book, I’ll be the parson.”

“Who’ll be the clerk?” “I,” said the Lark,

“If it’s not in the dark, I’ll be the clerk.”

“Who’ll carry the link?” “I,” said the Linnet,

“I’ll fetch it in a minute, I’ll carry the link.”

“Who’ll be chief mourner?” “I,” said the Dove,

“I mourn for my love, I’ll be chief mourner.”

“Who’ll carry the coffin?” “I,” said the Kite,

“If it’s not through the night, I’ll carry the coffin.”

“Who’ll bear the pall? “We,” said the Wren,

“Both the cock and the hen, we’ll bear the pall.”

“Who’ll sing a psalm?” “I,” said the Thrush,

“As she sat on a bush, I’ll sing a psalm.”

“Who’ll toll the bell?” “I,” said the bull,

“Because I can pull, I’ll toll the bell.”

All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,

When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.”

Alternatively it was also unlucky to bring a Robin into the house and this remained a belief and possibly still is a belief into the age of card sending. Some people refused to have it on the card suggesting a death in the family would arise as result! The Robin a bird with such a legendary reputation and one considering the imaginary dating from far beyond Christianity. A sacred bird and a welcome colourful visitor in the cold winter months…Merry Christmas!

0

The Grey Man of MacDhui

“I was returning from the cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. Every few steps I took I heard a crunch, then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I said to myself ‘this is all nonsense’. I listened and heard it again but could see nothing in the mist . As I walked on and the eerie crunch, crunch sounded behind me I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it I do not know, but there is something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui and will not go back there again by myself I know.”

So speaks J. Norman Collie, a noted climber in 1925 some 35 years before of the Am Fear Liath Mor or the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, perhaps Britain’s only claim to the Bigfoot lore.  Outlandish at it may appear, he is not along a long list of climbers have claimed to have experienced or ‘seen’ the beast.  The earliest is poet James Hogg in 1791 fled home in panic leaving the sheep he was tending described it:

It was a giant blackamoor, at least thirty feet high, and equally proportioned, and very near me. I was actually struck powerless with astonishment and terror.

When he returned he noticed the beast was back…something I will refer back to later. .

Some people had an even more frightening experience, such as that of Alexander Tewnion who writing in the 1958 copy of  The Scots magazine relates:

…In October 1943 I spent a ten day leave climbing alone in the Cairngorms… One afternoon, just as I reached the summit cairn of Ben MacDhui, mist swirled across the Lairig Ghru and enveloped the mountain. The atmosphere became dark and oppressive, a fierce, bitter wind whisked among the boulders, and… an odd sound echoed through the mist – a loud footstep, it seemed. Then another, and another… A strange shape loomed up, receded, came charging at me! Without hesitation I whipped out the revolver and fired three times at the figure. When it still came on I turned and hared down the path, reaching Glen Derry in a time that I have never bettered. You may ask was it really the Fear Laith Mhor? Frankly, I think it was.

All in all very strange. But what is the Grey Man?

No one appears to have seen him directly – but is described as a tall man covered in short hair.

The rarefied atmosphere of the mountain could claim to wrong foot climbers – the cold, the reduced oxygen, the elements can make a deer sound unworldly too.  However some may not be convinced:

…tell me that the whine was but the result of relaxed eardrums, and the Presence was only the creation of a mind that was accustomed to take too great an interest in such things. I shall not be convinced. Come, rather, with me at the mysterious dusk time when day and night struggle upon the mountains. Feel the night wind on your faces, and hear it crying amid rocks. See the desert uplands consumed before the racing storms. Though your nerves be of steel, and your mind says it cannot be, you will be acquainted with that fear without name, that intense dread of the unknown that has pursued mankind from the very dawn of time.”

Two brothers heard the footsteps atop Ben MacDhui in 1904:

“slurring footsteps as if someone was walking through water-saturated gravel.”

When they returned to the Derry Lodge they were told

“That would have been the Fear Liath Mòr you heard,”

Yet significantly no photographs of the Grey Man have been taken yet some footprints were found and photographed. These prints were:

…were running across a stretch of snow covered moorland, each print 19 inches long by about 14 inches wide and there must have been all of seven feet between each “stride”. There was no differentiation between a left and a right foot, and they preceded in an approximately single line.”

This is according to John Rennie’s Romantic Strathspey when he saw the prints in the Spey Valley which was 15 miles from Ben MacDhui but was thought to be related.  However, later this piece of conclusive evidence was debunked by the author. He stated:

“In that moment I knew that the Wendygo, Abominable Snowman, Bodach Mor, or what have you, was forever explained so far as I was concerned.”

Why? For he saw these footprints form again due to the action of precipitation – they were a natural phenomena. What is interesting about the Grey man is that he is never really seen but experienced suggesting a more natural explanation. One of these being a meteorological effect when one’s own shadow is stretched by an inversion or gap in the clouds –called a Brocken Spectre. One of the key locations where these phenomena can occur is Lurcher’s Crag which significantly is where many sightings occur.  This would also explain why James Hogg experienced it when returning of course!

So sadly with no firm sightings, no photos, no physical evidence it seems that the Grey Man is a bit grey in the evidence front…but he continues to be ‘spotted’ and ‘felt’ and adds to the tales climbers tell!

0

The Great Roc or Rukh

The great roc's egg as seen in Sinbad

The great roc’s egg as seen in Sinbad

All feathered things yet ever knowne to men,
From the huge Rucke, unto the little Wren;
From Forrest, Fields, from Rivers and from Pons,
All that have webs, or cloven-footed ones;
To the Grand Arke, together friendly came,
Whose severall species were too long to name.”

Michael Drayton 1604

When I was younger, I loved the Sinbad films, especially the 7th, where he and his crew arrived on an unknown island, find the egg of giant bird which they break open and roast the chick- only to find its bigger mother arrives!  The account in Sinbad, being actually in the 5th voyage, states:

“”When I had been a while on shore after my fourth voyage; and when, in my comfort and pleasures and merry-makings and in my rejoicing over my large gains and profits, I had forgotten all I had endured of perils and sufferings, the carnal man was again seized with the longing to travel and to see foreign countries and islands.” Soon at sea once more, while passing a desert island Sinbad’s crew spots a gigantic egg that Sinbad recognizes as belonging to a roc. Out of curiosity the ship’s passengers disembark to view the egg, only to end up breaking it and having the chick inside as a meal. Sinbad immediately recognizes the folly of their behaviour and orders all back aboard ship. However, the infuriated parent rocs soon catch up with the vessel and destroy it by dropping giant boulders they have carried in their talons”

Similarly, Marco Polo in around 1268 tells of:

“A bird of enormous size, bulky body and wide wings, flying in the air; and it was this that concealed the body of the sun and veiled it from the sun.”

This Rukh or Roc had 8 yard feathers and 16 yard wing span. The wind was the rush of its wings and its flight was said to be lightning. It’s egg was 50 yards in circumference and it was said to be capable of carrying off an elephant and killing it by dropping it from a great height! Antonio Pigafetta located these great birds in the China seas and other told of them being on desert islands. The idea of the roc captured the imagination of writers and illustrators write through to the late 1500s with many showing the bird clutching that elephant such as in Tommaso Aldrovandini’s 1599 Ornithologia.

023_sindbad_10

The foundations of the Roc

What was the roc? The stories of birds carrying off lambs was and still is a common folklore motif and as such this could have been embellished over the years. In actually it would appear that the legend could be based on a combination of two accounts of Madagascan birds – albeit fossils.

One of these is the Malagasy Crown Eagle, a species which could have survived into the folk memory of people. It was certainly capable of carrying of its prey which were often pygmy hippopotamus significantly. However, this would not explain the other feature the egg. Fortunately, there is another ‘bird’ big whose fossil egg remains still litter the island in considerable numbers. Furthermore it was called the Elephant Bird or Aepyornis.

However, this bird could not fly, but it was the tallest bird ever living, being three metres tall, so it was impressive. So were its eggs, the largest of any bird, being 1 metres in circumference. Unlike the Eagle, the bird probably survived into the period of the great explorers such as Sinbad and certainly into the folk memory of reporters of the 1600s. A 1178 account of Zhōu Qùfēi gives credence to this theory stating that on a large island off Africa were birds whose feathers were used as water reservoirs and it is said raffia palm fronds were presented as roc feathers to the Kublia Khan. All conclusive evidence? However, there may still be out there a bird which covers both parts of the legend and if there was it must have been pretty frightening.

 

0

Here be dragons? The worms of the wells

“The worm shot down the middle stream
Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
In rainbow colours bright.

But when he saw the armed knight
He gathered all his pride,
And, coiled in many a radiant spire,
Rode buoyant o’er the tide.

When he darted at length his dragon Strength
An earthquake shook the rock
And the fire-flakes bright fell round the knight
As unmoved he met the shock.

Though his heart was stout it quailed, no doubt
His very life-blood ran cold
As round and round the wild worm wound
In many a grappling fold.”

So write a local Poet of perhaps the most famous British dragon legend. The story dates from the 14th century, where the heir to Lambton Hall instead of attending Mass would fish. One particularly Sunday he said to have secured a fine fish. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells accounts:

“he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.”

 A stranger is said to have remarked that he had never seen such a creature and said it was like an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth and that he had caught the Devil himself.  However, the worm remained forgotten in its well until one day it emerged, having outgrown the well and moved to the river where it lay during the day around a rock and by night around a hill, causing it to become stepped as a result of its twining. The hill remains called Worm Hill.

Such a beast then terrorised the area, eating lambs, chasing cattle and suckling cows’ milk. When it reached Lambton Hall, where the household was terrified, the young son was no-where to be seen and so the steward rose to the occasion. He ordered that a trough should be filled with milk and every day the beast would drink the milk and cause no harm returning to their resting places. This happened every year for seven years until the son and heir returned. He was a wiser and more mature man and seeing his land’s desolate took to a local wise woman to ask what to do. She at first scolded him for his wasteful life and bring the beast to the parish, but realising that he was repentant, told him to wear a suit of thickly studded with spears. He stood on the rock in the river with his sword and he was warned that should he fail – nine generations of the manor would not die in their beds! A tireless fight ensued between the worm and the heir in which a number of blows did not stop the beast but finally as the beast wrapped around him he made a body blow severing the beast in two. These two sections were separated and floated down the river…never to be united.

Not far away, is Long Witton’s Thruston Wells which were guarded by dragon, a winged serpent who valiantly  fought Guy, Earl of Warwick too, but each time he was wounded  the creature would dip his tail into one of the wells and was healed. Soon Guy realised this and leapt before the well and speared it through the heart blocking the beast’s ability to reach the well.

There are many other such serpent and well stories. Why? From a biological background the description of the Lampton Worm is interesting…it sounds like a Lamprey, and perhaps as this was a Royal fish, peasantry did not often see it. Mix this with discovery of fossils – often found exposed near water perhaps – and the imaginary of Pagan vs Christian and you have the Dragon.

0

Searching for a mermaid – Jenny Haniver

1024px-Jenny_Haniver_MHNT

“Taking a small dead ray, curling its side fins over its back, and twisting its tail into any required position, a piece of string is tied round the head behind the jaws to form a neck and the ray is dried in the sun. During the subsequent shrinkage, the jaws project to form a snout and a hitherto concealed arch of cartilage protrudes so as to resemble folded arms. The nostrils, situated a little above the jaws, are transformed into a pair of eyes, the olfactory laminae resembling eyelashes. The result of this simple process, preserved with a coat of varnish and perhaps ornamented with a few dabs of paint, is a jenny haniver, well calculated to excite wonder in anyone interested in marine curios.”

Dance Animal Fake and Frauds

Mermaids have captivated people for centuries and whilst today would are very skeptical – yet to people over a hundred years ago evidence for mermaids could be easily found – the Jenny Haniver, which the author above describes how it is made.

JennyHaniver-Besler-port-150x150

The name is an interesting one, many sources state that it derives from Anwerp young person, jeune d’Anvers, as it was off the Belgium coast that the Mermaid would be found or that the sailors would fashion them.

Gesner1-port-150x150

However, the name Jenny is a common name for a water sprite or creature, the best known example being Jenny Hern and Yonde, found at a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. Another creature here, or possibly another form of the same one, had large tusks and swam in the water. So perhaps the name Jenny has another origin.

Monstrorum-historia-port-150x150

These strange dried creatures were very popular in the mid 16th century and continued to be made until the early 20th century. However, even in the 1500s, there were sceptical people. Most noted of these was Konrad Gesner, a Swiss naturalist, who noted in Historia Animalium vol. IV  that they were dead rays! However, others thought it came from a separate fish called the Devil’s Fish. Another view what that they were the remains of the fabulous basilisk, a creature no person could look at…and thus hence as no one had seen it this must be one! However, the cold light of reason finally and the common skate or ray identified as the source. Sadly, now as these are slowly disappearing due to fishing practices..Jenny Hanivers are even rarer!

0

The Thorny Hedgehog

hedgehog-bl-2-001

 “The fox knows many things,

the hedgehog but one,

but it is enough.”

Perhaps no mammal in European tradition has attracted so much bizarre folklore as the hedgehog. Everyone would have heard of some piece of folklore whether it be milk or apples.  Let’s deal with the milk first. Interestingly, I grew up believing that hedgehogs liked milk (usually with bread) but unwittingly we were killing them! The reason for this stems from the belief that hedgehogs suckled from the udders of cows. Indeed, the Elizabethan parliament 1566 put a three pence bounty on their heads and thousands were killed despite no strong evidence!

The other food myth connects collecting apples with hedgehogs.  This dates back to the first century, wherein Historia Naturalis Pliny the Elder, described how they would climb the trees to knock them down and then collect the apples impaling them on the spines and then roll them off to their burrows. The fact that the hedgehog is carnivorous and does not store food in a burrow does not appear to have dampened down this myth.  A similar view is that they collected eggs, something that physically they cannot open of course!

The most persistent folklore is that they can predict weather conditions.  Indeed the Romans believed the hedgehog was a weather forecaster. Aristole noted that it:

“moved from one wall to another according to the direction of the wind”.

This belief was still current in the 13th century, when a Domincan monk called Albertus Magnus stated:

“The hedgehog, which lives in its lair in the ground, indicates when storms of wind are coming. It makes three or four exits to its lair or dwelling and when it senses that the wind is going to blow from a certain direction, it closes the corresponding hole.”

This belief about weather forecasting of course has transferred to the states with the Groundhog day, but before this upstart stole the hedgehog’s function. It is said:

 “If during hibernation, he (the hedgehog) looks out of his den on 2nd February and and sees his shadow it means there is a clear moon and six more weeks of winter so he returns to his burrow.”

The hedgehog was also said to have medicinal properties, the gypsies believed that cooked hedgehog will stop poisoning, cured boils, baldness, leprosy and blindness and evil spells. It itself is said to immune to snakebites. Konrad of Megenberg, in the 14th century records.

“the flesh of the hedgehog is wholesome for the stomach and strengthens the same. Likewise it hath a power of drying and relieving the stomach. It deals with the water of dropsy and is of great help to such as are inclined to the sickness called elephantiasis.”

Unsurprisingly, the hedgehog was also a figure of worship and legend.  In China it is a sacred and protected species. Its hibernation behaviour, which appeared to equate to rebirth associated it with the Egyptians belief in reincarnation.  To the Babylonians believed it to be a good of war and love, but as a creature of wisdom giving advice to those as wide apart as agriculture and marriage.

The wisdom of the Hedgehog was noted by a number of cultures. It was the original victorious one in the well known race between the hare, which later became the tortoise of course. So highly was he thought of that he is said to helped in creation. It is said in a Romanian folk story that when god had made the earth, he forgot room for the seas so he asked the hedgehog. He at first refused to help saying God was more powerful  but after the bee left was heard saying:

 “God does not know that he must create valleys and mountains in order to make room for the waters.”

In some versions he gets given the body of spines as reward. In another story told by the Buryats of Siberia, that when one of the Gods of Heaven refused the Lord of the Earth to allow him the sun and moon, the Lord stole the lights as result. Consequently, the God of Heaven asked the hedgehog to return them! In another belief found in some other traditional legends, the Hedgehog gave mankind the secret of making fire as well as how to plough the soil.

So there, next time you come across a hedgehog think of what a cultural significance it has had!

0

Sea Serpents…of Kent

sea-serpent-fig2

“Three great fishes called Whirlepools were held and drawn up to Westminster Bridge.”

The following is an unpublished article for Bygone Kent which thought may interest someone, the publication folded before it was ready, although I believe it has been resurrected. I have edited in some new material.

Kent being surrounded on two sides by the sea, has not surprising had a number of  sea serpents have been seen over the years, however, considering how much the county borders the sea, very few have been reported. The earliest recorded is in 1552 on the seventh of October when:

“Three great fishes called Whirlepools were held and drawn up to Westminster Bridge.”

In the July of 1574 a ‘monstrous fish’, the account notes that the he:

“shot himself on shore in a little land called Fishiness, where for the want of water, it died the next day. While it died he groaned so loud that the noise could be heard a mile away. No one would approach it, the boldest fishermen were scared.”

1642 when in the July another this time ‘terrible monster’ was caught by a fishermen near Woolwich and afterwards exhibited at Westminster. It was described as:

” Like a toad, and may be called a toad fish..hath hands like fingers like a man, being neare five foot long and three feet wide, the thickness of an ordinary man.’”

An account of 1786 reads:

“a fish of the Grampus kind was brought here by a fishing vessel, who found it at sea, floating in the water, almost dead, its mouth was full of thready bones – and the like before the oldest fisher men at the place ( Gravesend ) had never seen.’”

The next strange report comes from 1879 when a group of geologists travelling from Folkestone to Boulogne four miles from the French coast saw

“an immense serpent about a furlong in length, rushing furiously along the rate of 15 or 20 miles an hour.”

It was described as black with a paler behind and its elongate body appeared on the surface of the water.  A much stranger beast was seen in the Thames Estuary in the 1920s. This was seen more towards the Essex coast near Black Deep, a sea serpent was witnessed and described in August 1923. The area had been closed to shipping for eight years when HMS Kellet were surveying the area in the morning. One of the witnesses was the captain of the ship, Captain F. D. B. Haselfoot noted that the serpent was seen at nine in the morning and had a long neck which rose out of the water to a height of seven feet. It then submerged, to re-appear shortly after, again rearing out of the water for a few seconds. It was observed at 200 yards from the ship, and as the captain noted the waters’ were entirely secluded for the private activities of any sea monster’.

The next report is by a 1912 a Mr Stone, who saw a long sinuous body off St. Margaret’s Bay near Dover. Sea serpents appear to like the coasts off the Isle of Thanet, and there are three accounts. The earliest was in  1917, off North Foreland, in the July of that year, the Paramount cruising a mile from long nose spit between it and Margate, saw a snake like creature, which was said to be 50 foot long with scales and a spiny dorsal fin. It was dark olive green in colour. The report described it as:

“gigantic conger eel about 15 feet in length, with a long scaly body, a large spiny dorsal fin and dark olive in colour.”

The ship opened fire on the creature once they were in 300 yards, and one shot hit its dorsal fin. At which it begun to thrash about wildly and violently and sank beneath the waters. This would appear to have been the same as one reported by local fisherman at Seaford which had a seven foot scar in its scaly body. In 1934  there were reports off Herne Bay of a 20ft long monster that was pursued by motor boats. Even travelling at 40mph, they could not catch the sea beast. A big crowd gathered to watch it and some say it had a dark back with a yellow underside.

However it would appear unrelated to the other example seen in the summer of 1950, when two witnesses saw a creature off the coast at Cliftonville. The main witness, a John Handley was swimming when the creature emerged 300 feet away from him. It was described as being two feet wide and had a horse’s head with ears, an interesting description sounding like the Irish and Scottish Kelpies of old lore.

The final case reported was sent by a Mr Wire to the author, Neil Arnold and recorded in his Shadows of the sea from 1999 notes:

“I was fishing off Folkestone Pier with a fellow angler when in the distance we saw a black object. I looked through my binoculars and saw a huge animal that I can only describe as a sea serpent. The creature was roughly 100-feet long and seemed to be diving and then resurfacing. We both watched it for about 30 minutes and it was so ridiculously large that I laughed and did not tell anyone else about it.The animal had a long next, moved very slowly and looked all the world like the Loch Ness Monster plesiosaur that people talk about. It was massive.”

So what are these sea serpents?

Well clearly the earliest accounts refer to Whales and of course many sailors would have unfamiliar with certain rarer species. The horse headed species are perhaps a little more difficult to categorise, unless they record an unknown species of sea horse or pipe fish. However, the majority of other accounts appear to describe an oarfish, a rare visitor to these waters. Although individually currently only get to 36 feet and 56 feet ones have been claimed…but as they are rarely seen we are not sure. Furthermore, like many marine species, overfishing indirectly in this case perhaps, has reduced the size of the specimens. So although they may not be sea serpents, an oarfish is still an amazing sight!