April 13, 2014

Don't Be A Jonah: Bad Luck On Ships and Boats

I am not a sailor.

My brother loves to sail. My father loves to sail. I come from a long line of Nova Scotia fishermen, but somehow I didn't get the sailing gene. Instead I got the "I get seasick even riding a bus" gene. Maybe I inherited that one from my mother's side.

I'm still interested in nautical lore, even if I'm not a sailor. There is quite a bit of it in New England, naturally, and much of it concerns what might bring bad luck to a ship.

A person or thing that brings bad luck to a ship is called a "Jonah." The term of course comes from the Biblical prophet of the same name. Jonah is best remembered for being swallowed by a whale, but that's only part of his story, which goes something like this: Jonah was commanded by God to go preach in the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but refused to go. Instead he boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction. He wanted to put as much mileage between himself and Nineveh as possible. God wasn't buying it, though, and sent a terrible storm which threatened to sink the ship. The sailors on board determined that Jonah was to blame for the bad weather and tossed him overboard. The storm abated and the ship reached its destination safely. (Jonah meanwhile was swallowed by a whale and eventually went to Nineveh).

"Sorry Jonah, but you gotta go!"
Similar stories appear throughout European literature and folklore. For example, in Shakespeare's play Pericles, the hero's wife dies in childbirth while at sea. A huge storm threatens to sink the ship, but the sailors calm it by throwing her body into the ocean. Don't be sad - since Pericles is one of Shakespeare's late romances there's still a happy ending. In folklore, mermaids often cause storms to delay or sink ships carrying handsome sailors they want to marry. The storm can only be stopped if the sailor throws himself overboard into the mermaid's waiting arms.

So apparently if you're on a ship carrying a reluctant prophet, the corpse of someone who died in childbirth, or a handsome sailor you will experience bad weather. If it's carrying all three just swim back to shore right away!

Here in New England, the following were considered bad luck:

  • A man carrying a black valise on board will bring bad luck and should be shunned.
  • Anyone carrying an umbrella on board brings bad luck.
  • It is unlucky to pound nails on a ship on Sunday.
  • Hawks, owls and crows will bring bad luck it they land on a ship.
  • Dropping the hatch into the hold is bad luck.
  • Never watch a ship sail out of sight, because it's the last time you'll see it.

Some men were also just considered naturally unlucky. A new crew member on a fishing boat will be blamed and labeled a Jonah if the boat brings in a small catch on his first trip. Stories are told of men who hexed three ships in a row with their bad luck. Time to pursue a new profession!

All is not grim, though, and there is light at the end of the voyage. Here are some things that bring good luck:

  • Dropping a cake of ice overboard before leaving port
  • Bees or small birds bring good luck if they land on the ship.
  • A horseshoe nailed into the mast will protect the ship from witches.

Now I just need something to prevent motion sickness on the MBTA bus!

April 06, 2014

A Haunted Country Store, and Mountain Lions in the Smallest State

If you're up near Lake Winnipesaukee this summer,  you might want to stop by the Ellacoya Country Store in Gilford, New Hampshire. Or maybe you won't, depending on how spooked you are by ghosts. The owners claim the store is haunted.

According to manager Lisa Giles, the store has been haunted since it opened. Employees have glimpsed the ghostly shape of a man standing in the doorway, while others have heard a man whistling while there was no one else in the room. Some people have feven elt a hand touching their shoulder. The Ellacoya Country Store is in a building that dates from 1745, so I suppose a lot can happen to attract a ghost over 269 years.

The spooky shenanigans reached a crescendo on March 10. Employee Hedi Boyd was alone in the store and went into one of the side rooms. She heard a crash, and came out to find the lid of a glass cake dish had fallen on the floor. She didn't think much of it until she saw the surveillance video, which shows the lid being thrown onto the floor by unseen forces.

The video caused quite a stir when it was released, and was featured on New Hampshire's WMUR-TV and the Huffington Post. Debunkers have argued the lid could have been pulled over by a string drawn through a window behind the cash register, but it turns out the window doesn't open.

A psychic medium and a parapsychologist investigated the store on March 27. The medium said she felt a heavy presence, possibly that of an older woman. The parapsychologist was more noncommittal, saying only that something mysterious was going on. They plan to investigate further.

If this had happened in the 17th or 18th century people would blame it on a witch. If it happened in the 1970s and there was an unhappy adolescent around, we'd call it poltergeist activity. Our current explanatory framework is focused on ghosts. For myself, I'll just agree with the parapsychologist that something mysterious is happening!

On a different note, my post about the Winchester mountain lion generated a lot of conversation, and several people people mentioned mountain lion sightings in Rhode Island. It's a small state, but apparently not so small it can't hide a big cat. Here's an email I got from Karen, who lives in Mantunuck, Rhode Island.
On Saturday, July 30, 2011 at about 7:15 p.m., I was working in the vegetable garden in my front yard when I looked up and saw an animal looking at me. It was no more than 50 feet away. It had come into the yard from behind some overgrown vegetation. It looked straight at me for five or ten seconds, and then turned and ran back where it had come from…

The animal I saw was the height of a very large dog. It had a cat-like face. It was light tan in color. I got the impression that it was not an adult. It had the sort of heavy, blocky legs you see on a puppy. I have seen coyotes and I am sure it was not a coyote. I looked at photographs of bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions on the National Geographic website and I am sure what I saw was a juvenile mountain lion. I later learned that a number of other people in Matunuck, the area of South Kingstown where I live, also have seen mountain lions, have seen mountain lion tracks, and have found hidden caches of mountain lion meals. At least one person photographed a mountain lion. The year after my sighting, my next door neighbor and her son saw an adult mountain lion in front of their house. Again, there was no question about what it was.

Another mountain lion was sighted in Mantunuck just a few weeks ago, but local officials say the proof (scat and footprints) are inconclusive. Thanks for the tip, Karen! Now I know not to go hiking around Mantunuck. I'm a vegetarian and I bet the mountain lion would find me tasty.

March 30, 2014

Fairies at a New Hampshire Inn

Lots of witches and ghosts lurk in New England folklore, but not many fairies. Why is that?

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere ... It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind." He also claims that any fairy beliefs found in New England were brought here in the 1700s by Irish Presbyterians.

That quote is from Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, which was published around 1866. He then goes on to provide a story to prove the Irish brought the fairies with them.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807 - 1892.

In the early 1800s, a surly, unhappy man decided to open an inn in New Hampshire. Business suffered because of his dour personality and "poverty came upon the house and its tenants like an armed man." The man's wife, who was of Irish descent, remained hopeful despite the dire financial situation. A better day would come, she told her husband and daughters.

The inn's business did improve, but for an odd reason: a troupe of fairies took up residence in the building. Although they were invisible to mortal eyes, their quiet, squeaky voices could be heard by everyone who visited the tavern. It was noted by several visitors that they spoke in a distinct Yankee/Irish dialect.

Word spread throughout the area about the fairies, and curious crowds gathered to hear them speak - and to spend money on food and drink. Life was good for the innkeeper, his wife, and three daughters.

Gradually, though, people began to question the reality of the fairies. Why had they taken up residence in New Hampshire? How come no one could see them? Whittier claims these doubts arose because fairies just weren't part of New England culture:

Had the place been traversed by a ghost of disturbed by a witch they could have acquiesced in it very quietly; but this outlandish belief in fairies was altogether an overtask for Yankee credulity. As might have been expected, the little strangers, unable to breath in an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion, soon took their leave, shaking off the dust of their elfin feet as a testimony against an unbelieving generation.

Some skeptics said the fairies weren't even real. The skeptics claimed some men from Massachusetts had come to hear the fairies and pried away a board in the ceiling - to reveal the innkeeper's three daughters upstairs speaking like the fairies. The skeptics also claimed that once the hoax was revealed the fairy visitation stopped. The innkeeper's wife dismissed this rumor, claiming instead that the fairies had simply gone back to Ireland.

I have a few rambling thoughts on this story. It does seem Whittier was correct that New Englanders were happy to believe in supernatural beings, but only if they were scary and malevolent. The witchlore and ghost stories from this area are full of gruesome creatures and grim situations. You don't encounter too many playful magical creatures in the folklore of this area, but there are a few exceptions.

Whittier doesn't name the town where the inn stood, but only gives the first letter of its name: S. There aren't many New Hampshire town names beginning with S, and since Whittier lived most of his life in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts I suspect the inn was in southern New Hampshire. Maybe it was in Salem, or possibly Sandown?

Southern New Hampshire does seem to have a stronger fairy tradition than other parts of New England. You can see my post about Tisenetto, the Derry fairy, here. Some people also claim this little green man seen in the 1950s was another version of the Derry fairy. You can find some more speculation on the topic of fairies in New Hampshire here.

March 23, 2014

UFO Statistics, Mountain Lions, and Colonial New Year in the News

Here are a few folkloric things that have been in the media recently. I write a lot about the past, but strange things are still alive and well in New England!

UFO Statistics for 2013

MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, has released their data on the number of UFO sightings in the year 2013. You'll be happy to know that although New England is a small region we still reported a sizeable number of strange things in the sky. Here are the number of UFO sightings by state:

Maine: 51
New Hampshire: 42
Vermont: 25
Massachusetts: 106
Rhode Island: 21
Connecticut: 73

It all adds up to a grand total of 318 UFOs seen here last year. The numbers from states like California, Texas and Florida are much higher, but on a per person basis New England fares really well. Maine and Vermont have some of the highest number of sightings per person in the United States. Spherical objects were the most commonly reported in New England, except in New Hampshire where people reported more star-shaped UFOs. This infographic from OuterPlaces explains it all:

I love reading about UFOs, but don't really have a firm opinion about what they are. Extraterrestrial craft? Ancient gods or fairies in a new disguise? Omens of the End Times? Manifestations of the collective unconscious? Any of those sound interesting to me. UFOs are still fascinating even if many of the sightings are hoaxes or misinterpretations. After all, what does it mean that we are willing to believe there just might someone (or something) out there in the universe?

Giant Cat Seen (or Not?) in Winchester, MA

On a more terrestrial note a large cat-like animal, possibly a mountain lion, was seen in Winchester, Massachusetts in late February and again in March.

No mountain lions have been confirmed in Massachusetts for more than 150 years, and Winchester, an upscale suburb only eight miles from Boston, seems like an unlikely spot for such a large predator to appear. However, a mountain lion was killed by a car in Millford, Connecticut in 2011. That animal had been tagged earlier in its life by biologists in South Dakota, so I suppose its not impossible for a mountain lion to make its way to Massachusetts.

The animal left tracks, and police sent them to wildlife experts for analysis. I don't know if the citizens of Winchester were excited or terrified when the police posted on their website that the tracks had been confirmed as mountain lion tracks. Yes, that's right, a mountain lion was stalking around Winchester.

And then things got murky. The wildlife experts claimed they had never said the tracks were from a mountain lion. Instead, they believed the tracks were from a large dog or maybe a coyote. Winchester police are sticking with their story, though.

So, just like with UFO sightings, there's no good resolution. Is that light in the sky the planet Venus or a spaceship? Did people see a large coyote or was it a mountain lion? For the moment we have to be comfortable with uncertainty (and lock up the pets if you live in Winchester).

Colonial New Year

For many years, the American colonies celebrated New Year's on March 25 rather than January 1. Although most of Europe had upgraded to the Gregorian calendar, England and her colonies refused to follow a Papish innovation (even though it was correct) and continued using the older and inaccurate Julian calendar. The Boston Globe has a nice article about how the change was finally made.

March 15, 2014

Moll Ellis's Bee: The Witch's Familiar and the Human Spirit

Here's an interesting witch story from Cape Cod. I think it illustrates how really old metaphysical beliefs survived in disguise until quite recently in New England. The story is from William Root Bliss's 1893 book The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches.


Everyone in Plymouth knew that Moll Ellis was a witch, but no one knew it better than Mr. Stevens. Moll and Mr. Stevens had argued about something (as people in small towns do), and for three years since she had tormented him in small ways with her witchcraft.

Stevens had been able to ignore the years of minor but annoying witchery, but his patience ran out one day when he was hauling a big load of hay in a ox-driven cart. The oxen had just pulled the cart across a stream when something spooked them. They reared up, and the hay fell into the stream and was ruined.

Mr. Stevens stomped over to Moll's house. He barged inside, and found her lying on her back with her eyes shut, "a-muttering dretful spell words." He yelled at Moll that if she every bothered him or his cattle again he would have her hung as a witch.

Frightened to find her enemy inside her home, Moll opened her eyes and apologized. She also said she would never bother him again, but while she was talking to Mr. Stevens something strange happened.

When she was talking, a little black devil, that looked just like a bumblebee, flew into the window and popped down her throat; 't was the one she had sent out to scare the cattle...

That little black bumblebee is Moll's familiar spirit. According to New England folklore, the Devil gives his witches minor devils called familiars to work their mischief. Although sometimes monstrous in form, familiars most often appear as animals like birds, cats, dogs and toads. Insect familiars are rarer, but not completely unknown. In addition to Moll's bee, a witch from Rock's Village near Haverhill, Massachusetts had a familiar shaped like a junebug.

Like a lot of our local witch lore, the demonic familiar spirit is an idea that originated in Europe. But before it even became associated with the Devil and malevolent witches, it was a widely held metaphysical concept. For example, here is a story from a 14th century book about the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect.


Two men were sitting by the side of a river when one of them fell asleep. As the other man watched, a small lizard emerged from the sleeping man's mouth. The lizard crawled along the river bank and then crossed over the river using a branch that extended from one bank to the other. While it was on the other side it crawled in and out of a donkey's skull that was lying on the ground.

The man who was awake moved the branch, trapping the lizard on the other side. As the lizard tried to find a way across the river the sleeping man began to thrash in his sleep. The man replaced the branch and the lizard scurried back into the sleeping man's mouth. When the sleeper awoke he told his friend how he had dreamt he crossed a mighty river and explored a palace that had many entrances and chambers.

The two men were quite puzzled by this and went to one of the Cathar religious leaders, who were known as the perfecti.

"The soul," he said, "resides permanently in the body of man; the spirit, on the other hand, goes in and out of the human body, exactly as the lizard who went from the sleeping man's mouth to the donkey's head, back and forth."
(The story is quoted in Claude Lecouteux's Witches, Werewolves and Fairies (2003).)


The Cathar story is not the earliest version of this tale. Similar accounts appear in Norse sagas, and in a story about King Guntram, a Frankish king who lived in the sixth century. 

Somehow, this belief in an animal spirit that can leave the body survived for more than 1,300 years, finding its way from a story about a king to Moll Ellis, a witch who lived in Plymouth. Over time it became transformed from a neutral statement about human metaphysics to a demonic story to scare children, but it's still exciting to find these little ancient gems hidden in our local folklore.