September 18, 2016

Defending Your House Against Evil Magic

Do you ever feel like your house is being attacked by evil witches? Do you sometimes think that malevolent demonic forces are targeting your homestead?

I would suggest that healthy skepticism is usually the best defense against these feelings, but the Puritans of New England thought otherwise. They felt the world was a battleground between good and evil, and the Devil and his minions (human and otherwise) were out to cause trouble for the good people of New England.

To keep evil forces out of the home, the Puritans used some very simple forms of defensive magic. Local ministers thought that all magic was evil, but the average New Englander knew that sometimes you needed to fight fire with fire. If your house was under magical attack, you needed some magical defenses. These magical practices lingered well into the 18th and 19th centuries, well after the Puritans had faded away.

These practices tend to focus on doors, windows, and chimneys. These openings were obviously necessary for a functioning home, but they could also allow access to unwanted spirits or witches. I've written a few times before about horseshoes, which were one of the main ways to guard the house against attack, but there were others as well.



For example, a coin put under the door sill would prevent a witch from entering the house. This was pretty simple to do, providing you had money to spare. I suppose the symbolism here is two-fold. Coins obviously represent abundance and financial security, which are things a witch would hate. They are also made of metal, which tends to repel supernatural entities (think of silver bullets and werewolves, or iron and fairies). This type of magic is still widely practiced today. As this discussion on Snopes.com indicates, many people put pennies on their window sills. The practice is now said to be done for "good luck," but has it's origin as protection from witches or demons.

Fireplaces were central to the colonial home. Cooking was done there, and families gathered around fireplaces in the winter for warmth. While chimneys let smoke out, they unfortunately also could let evil beings into the home. People would often enclose shoes in the walls near the chimney to protect it. There is a lot of speculation about why this was done, but the predominant theory seems to be that somehow the witch or evil spirit would get trapped in the shoe and would be unable to escape.

If you were feeling crafty, you might want to carve a daisy wheel above a doorway, window or fireplace. The daisy wheel looks like this:

From a church in England.
Daisy wheels were easily made by carpenters using a compass, and have been found in many old homes in New England. For example, the 1699 Winslow House in Marshfield, Massachusetts has several carved above the fireplace, while the home of Salem historian Emerson Baker has one carved above the front door. They are also known as witch marks, hexafoils, or apotropaic marks, if daisy wheel sounds too silly for you. People aren't quite sure why daisy wheels were supposed to avert evil, but some historians have speculated it is because they represent the sun.

So again, if you really, really think your house is under attack by evil forces you might want to try some of this magic. I do think skepticism is the best defense, but as the days grow shorter and colder sometimes that skepticism is hard to muster.

*****
I found some of this information in Emerson Baker's book A Storm of Witchcraft, and in a few places on the web.

I hope those readers who practice Wicca or other forms of modern witchcraft realize that when I refer to "evil witches" I am referring to how witches were viewed by the Puritans and other early inhabitants of New England. I know that Wiccans and modern witches are not evil!

September 12, 2016

The Woman Who Married An Owl

It's starting to feel like fall here in Boston. The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are slowly dropping. This story from the Passamaquoddy of Maine somehow seems appropriate. A little bit creepy, a little bit magical.

Once upon a there was a beautiful young Passamaquoddy woman. Her father was very protective of her and didn't think any man was good enough for her. To keep men away he set up a special challenge that any suitor needed to meet.

"If you want to marry my daughter," he said, "You must do the following: when you spit into a fire, the flames must flare up. Sounds easy, doesn't it?" But he knew it was impossible. Saliva would dampen a fire, not make it burn brighter. Many men tried to win his daughter's hand, and they all failed.

The father didn't know it, but the Horned Owl also wanted to marry his beautiful daughter. He had watched hidden in the trees as all the other men failed, but he was determined to succeed. He went to his aunt, who was a powerful owl witch, for assistance.

"Drink this," she said, pouring a potion into his beak. "You'll definitely win that beautiful girl!"

After swallowing the potion the Horned Owl turned himself into handsome young hunter. Then he went to the Passamaquoddy father's lodge and announced himself. The father laughed at him.

"You can try," he said, "but you'll never win my daughter. Spit into the flames!"

The Horned Owl spit into the flames. His aunt had spoken true. As soon as his saliva hit the fire, it roared upwards towards the ceiling of the lodge, out through the chimney hole, and high into the night sky. The father scowled, but he gave his daughter to the Horned Owl. The beautiful woman was happy, though. This mysterious young hunter was quite handsome after all...

The Horned Owl brought the woman to his lodge, and they consummated their relationship. They both fell asleep afterwards, but in the middle of the night the woman woke up. A feeling of dread overcame her as she gazed at her husband in the firelight. Huge, feathered ears protruded from his hair, and his eyes were half-open even though he was deeply asleep. As she stared at his eyes his pupils shrank to narrow slits. Her new husband had the eyes of an owl.



Realizing that her husband was not human, the woman fled from his lodge in terror, screaming as she ran back to the safety of her father's home.

The Horned Owl was quite angry, but determined to get his wife back. He once again turned himself into a young hunter, but with a different appearance. He killed many moose and deer and brought them to the woman's village.

"Hello!" he said. "I'm a lonely hunter wandering through these woods. I have plenty of game to share. Can I become a member of your village?"

The beautiful woman and her father were suspicious, but the other villagers dismissed their fears. This hunter looked perfectly normal to them, and he seemed very generous. And who doesn't like free food?

The villagers cooked the game and had a big feast. Everyone had a great time, and as the night wore on they took turns telling scary stories. Eventually it was time for the beautiful young woman to tell the story of how she married an owl.

"This story is really scary," she said, "so I don't want to speak too loudly. I need to whisper. Can everyone pull their hair away from their ears so they can hear me better?" She looked pointedly at the young hunter.

Everyone exposed their ears, except for the young hunter, who refused. The villagers teased him and yelled at him  until finally he pulled back his long hair. He had huge, feathered ears that stood up like horns. The villagers fled in panic back to their homes, screaming.

In dejection the Horned Owl flew home. He thought he'd never get to see his wife again. His witchy aunt had other ideas, though.

"Nephew be patient," she said. "In time she will forget her fear, and when that time comes you will lure her to you with music." She handed the Horned Owl a magical flute that played irresistibly beautiful sounds. He took the flute. Then he waited...

The beautiful woman and her father moved their house to the center of the village because they knew the Horned Owl was lurking somewhere out in the forest. But as the weeks passed the woman became less cautious. She hadn't seen any sign of her sinister husband. Perhaps he had moved on to other prey? Over time she slowly began to venture towards the outskirts of the village, until finally one day she went out into the forest itself.

After walking through the forest for a while she stopped to rest under a big tree. As she sat there she thought she heard a flute, softly at first and then louder and louder. It was the loveliest music she had ever heard, although somehow haunting. It seemed to be coming from somewhere high above her.

"I would willingly go with whoever is playing that flute," she said. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."

As soon as those words passed over her lips she heard the sound of huge wings above her. The Horned Owl flew down and grabbed her gently in his huge talons. He carried her off to the village of the owls, where she lived happily for the rest of her life.

*****

One of the many things I like about American Indian folklore is that animals are fully developed characters. They speak, they have motivations, and they have relationships with each other. They also have relationships with humans. Still, this story is a little creepy. That Horned Owl just won't get the hint. 

I found this story in American Indian Myths and Legends, which my in-laws gave to me recently. (Thanks Guy and Phyllis!) I think it also appears in Charles Godfrey Leland's book of Passamaquoddy stories from the 1800s.

September 06, 2016

Spider Gates Cemetery: Portals to Hell and College Kids in Robes

Labor Day. The end of summer.

We could have gone to the beach.

Instead we went looking for... the Eighth Gate to Hell!

We didn't find it. Or at least I don't think we did.

The trail leading to Spider Gates.

The eighth gate to Hell is supposed to be located somewhere in Friends Cemetery in Leceister, Massachusetts, a rural town just outside Worcester. It seems odd that a Quaker burying ground would host a portal to perdition, but that's only one of the strange things about this cemetery.

While the graveyard's formal name is Friends Cemetery, it's probably better known by its nickname, Spider Gates Cemetery. It got that nickname because of these distinctive iron gates:


They do sort of look like abstract spiders, don't they? Maybe? From what I've read the gates are actually supposed to be images of the sun, with its happy connotations of life and rebirth. They don't really look like the sun to me, but then again they also have too many legs to really be spiders either.

Weird structures in cemeteries often give rise to weird legends. A strange-looking statue? It must be murderous. An inscription that seems out of place? It must be a warning about a curse. A strange slab? It's there to keep a witch down. Usually the weird structure has just one weird story attached to it. But at Spider Gates, there are many, many strange stories.

For example, it is said that the eighth gate to Hell is located somewhere in this cemetery. Or perhaps if you pass through seven gates at the cemetery the eighth one will lead you into Hell. It's little unclear, as good legends often are. I didn't even know there were eight gates into Hell, so it's always good to learn new things. There are only two formal iron gates (one large and one small) at the cemetery, but there are smaller openings in the stone walls throughout the woods. Maybe they all add up to eight?



The iron gates clearly gave rise to the gateway to Hell legend, but where did these ten other legends came from?

1. There is an oak tree with a rope hanging from it known as the Hanging Tree. Someone committed suicide here and their ghost still haunts the cemetery.

2. A demonic creature has been heard roaring in the woods.

3. Near the cemetery is a cave where a young woman was murdered many years ago.

4. Across from the main cemetery is a secret second cemetery that can only be seen once.

5. Unnatural white ooze emerges from the ground.

6. A haunted house is located nearby. Don't go inside!

7. Outside the walls of the cemetery are many small stones with strange runes inscribed on them. 

8. The nearby river is actually the River Styx, which leads to the underworld.

9. At midnight, walk around the gravestone of Marmaduke Earle (b. 1749 - d. 1839) and then rest your head on it. You will hear him speak to you.

10. Satanists have permission to conduct their rituals in part of the cemetery called the Altar. 

Those are all pretty cools stories, and I think there are more out there. Happily, Tony and I didn't encounter any strange phenomena, and the cemetery actually has a pretty innocuous history. It was established in the 1700s by a group of Leceister Quakers. In the mid-1800s they merged with the more numerous Worcester Quakers, who still maintain the cemetery today. The gates were built in 1895, and have been replaced at least once after being stolen. I think that's the most shocking thing that's ever been documented that happened at Spider Gates.

Earle family graves.
So are any of those legends true? I don't know, but there is at least a kernel of truth behind the Satanist legend. And here's why.

Last week I told a friend that I was going to visit Spider Gates. He said, "I love Spider Gates! I used to go there when I was in college." This friend attended a college near Leceister, and when he was a junior he was initiated into a secret society for seniors. The initiation happens like the this.

First, the senior members decide who they want to initiate from the junior class. Then the seniors don black hooded robes, find the juniors they want on campus, and wordlessly tap them on the shoulder. That tap is the invitation to join the secret society.

Me looking spooked!
Next, to become full-fledged members the juniors go through an initiation process that involves locating the grave sites of the college's founders. This doesn't sound too hard, except that they need to do it at night, in the middle of winter, and under the watchful gaze of the seniors, who silently stand by wearing their hooded robes.

As a junior, my friend had been to Spider Gates at night to find a college founder's grave. When he became a senior, he wore a hooded robe and watched the juniors do the same thing.

"The police totally left us alone," he said. "They knew it was just a bunch of dorky college kids and that we weren't causing any trouble."

Hmmm. Do you see how this initiation could have given rise to the Satanist legend? Someone may have seen the students in their black robes walking towards the cemetery, or maybe even in the cemetery itself. When they reported this to the police they might have been told, "Don't worry, they have permission to go there at night." Over time, a harmless college initiation could become misinterpreted as a dark Satanic ritual.


In reality, practicing adult Satanists are harmless as well and don't go around breaking the law. Think of the Martin Starr character on Silcon Valley, for example! However, the people who might sometimes break the law are teenagers experimenting with the occult or just partying in the cemetery. We did find the remains of a fire in the middle of the cemetery, right on the raised area called the Altar. Lighting fires in cemeteries is disrespectful and illegal, so don't do it! No one is supposed to be in the cemetery at night - not even college kids wearing robes.



I assume the fire was lit by teenagers, but who knows? Legends can give rise to imitators, so maybe someone really is out there at Spider Gates conducting abominable rites. It's easy for me to be a rational skeptic here in my well-lit study, but if you put me out in the woods late at night I might become a true believer.


There is a lot of information about Spider Gates out there, but I got most of mine from Joseph Citro's Weird Massachusetts, Daniel Boudillion's excellent page on the topic, and this fun little site as well.  Special kudos to Tony for taking some great photos on our expedition!

August 28, 2016

Weird New England News: A Giant Snake in Maine, A Witch on Trial, and A Witchy Author

There's been some weird stuff happening in New England recently.

First up: is a giant snake on the loose in Westbrook, Maine? It seems like the answer is "yes."

The story began back in early June, when a woman reported seeing a large snake in Westbrook's Riverbank Park. She told the police it was as big as a truck and had a "head the size of a basketball." Snakes in Maine don't get that large, so no one took her claim seriously.

However, on June 29 a Westbrook police officer reported seeing a ten foot long snake feeding on a beaver in the Presumpscot River. A second officer arrived and the two watched the snake swim across the river to the other side, where they lost sight of it. Game wardens investigated but found no sign of the snake.

The summer passed without any further snake sightings, but on Saturday, August 21 a Westbrook resident found a gigantic snake skin near the river:

Photo courtesy Westbrook Police, via The Portland Press Herald.
The shed skin is estimated to be at least 12 feet long. Snakes shed their skin when they outgrow them, so Wessie (as the creature has been named) is bigger than 12 feet and probably still growing...

The snakeskin has been sent for tests to determine what species it is from. Derek Yorks, a wildlife biologist with the State of Maine, said Wessie is probably not indigenous because the snakes native to Maine don't grow larger than five feet. He also said Wessie would probably not survive the winter if s/he is not a local snake species. I don't know - we've have had some mild winters lately...

*****

An animal of another kind created a frenzy in Salem, Massachusetts, but rather than a giant snake it was a dog locked in a car on a hot day.

On Saturday, August 14, Lorelei Stathopolous was arrested by the Salem police for disturbing the peace. But Stathopolous says the police didn't do enough to help a dog locked inside a car on a hot day.

Stathopolous is a witch and owns Crow Haven Corner, Salem's longest-running witch shop. She is also an animal rights activist. On August 14 Stathopolous received a phone call from the manager of Hex, another witch shop in Salem, who told her that a dog had been locked in a parked car in front of Hex. The temperature was around 90 degrees.

Lorelei Stathopolous

Stathopolous called the police and ran down to the parked car. The police officers on duty didn't think the dog was in any danger because the window was cracked open. Stathopolous thought otherwise and urged the police to summon the fire department to free the dog. They refused. Stathopolous then tried to pour water through the window for the dog over objections from the police. When the owner of the car finally arrived Stathopolous urged the police to arrest him. They refused, but instead arrested Stathopolous for disturbing the peace.

Stathopolous will go on trial October 26. You can see WHDH's coverage of the story here.

*****

Finally, if you'd rather learn about the historic Salem witch trials, head to the Boston Public Library on September 20 to meet Stacey Schiff, author of the recent bestseller The Witches: Salem 1692. The talk is free, and will be hosted by Brenton Simons, CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and author of Witches, Rakes and Rogues

August 22, 2016

Seductive New England Witches, Part Two: The Freetown Forest Witch

Last week I wrote about A.O. Spare, the British art world, and witchcraft. This week I'm bringing the witchcraft back to New England for a particularly creepy story.

It comes from Christopher Balzano's Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest. I highly recommend this book if you like your folklore scary and weird. Balzano interviewed people who live near Massachusetts's Freetown Forest and also researched some uncanny occurrences that happened there. The result is a collection of spooky - and allegedly true - stories like this one.

Dave (no last name given) grew up in a rural area in southern Massachusetts. His backyard abutted the Freetown State Forest, and as a boy he and his friends liked to play in the thick woods. The forest has more than 50 miles of unpaved roads and covers more than 5,000 acres, so there was plenty of space for the boys to play.

There was also plenty of space for strange things to happen. One day when he was six, Dave and a friend were in the woods when they heard someone laughing at them. They thought they could see someone hiding in the trees nearby, but when they tried to get a closer look it seemed as though the light was refracting strangely around the laughing figure, making it hard to see. Both boys were terrified and ran home. They kept their encounter secret.

Dave didn't encounter anything strange again until he was ten, when he had a very vivid dream. He dreamed he was an adult male walking through the woods towards a small house. He carried an axe in one hand. When he entered the small house he saw a middle-aged woman with long gray hair making love to a Native American man. In a jealous rage he killed them both, but as he did the woman glared at him not with fear, but with hatred and evil.

OK. Let me just interject to say that's one freaky dream for a ten-year old to have. But more on that later. Back to David's story ...

The Freetown State Forest.
Things got really weird for Dave and the other boys in the neighborhood over the next few years. One day while the boys were out walking in the woods when they came upon the foundation of an old house. Dave recognized it as the ruins of the house he had seen in his dream. This discovery spurred discussion among the boys, and as they talked they all realized they had recently seen the same gray-haired woman. She often appeared outside their bedroom windows at night, begging to come in, while the boys hovered in the space between wakefulness and sleep. They all thought she might be a witch.

Only one of the boys had invited her to enter his bedroom. The results were disastrous. She forced herself on the boy, which terrified him. His parents had to break down the bedroom door to reach their screaming son, who lay in bed as if someone was holding him down. The family eventually moved away from the Freetown State Forest.

Dave had his own nighttime visit from the witch, which he claims happened while he was awake. He sometimes saw a white figure following him in the woods and heard the eerie laughter he had heard years ago. He also told Balzano that he had seen a large black cat in the area. Black cats aren't that unusual, but this one walked on its rear legs.

The witch definitely was scary, but despite this Dave and some of the boys became obsessed with her. They visited the old foundation repeatedly, and one of Dave's friends would wander through the woods trying to find her.

The witchy phenomena quieted down as Dave got older. He hasn't seen the witch for many years. He moved out of his parents' house, and has a girlfriend and a child. He still gets nervous when he goes to visit his parents at his old house near the woods, though.

******

I really like this story. Yes, it's spooky, but it reminds me of the stories I'd hear when I was just a kid, sitting on my back porch in the late summer. Plus, I love a good New England witch story.

First off, let's get something out of the way. Is this story true? I have no way to tell. Balzano says the Freetown Historical Society has no record of anyone living in the woods, but the ruins of the house seem to be real. I also don't recall any famous witch cases from that area, but that doesn't mean strange things don't still happen. 

The Freetown State Forest.
Rather than trying to prove or debunk it, I think it's more interesting to look at what's happening in Dave's story,  For example, it's interesting to compare this story with last week's post about Austin Osman Spare and Mrs. Paterson. Both involve older female witches trying to seduce teenage boys. Austin Spare found the experience liberating and enlightening; Dave and his friends were terrified. Can it just be chalked up to Spare's artistic sensibility? Maybe, but perhaps the Freetown boys were just much more aware that even women can be sexual abusers. 

If I were a Freudian analyst, and not just someone who read some Freud in college, I'd probably make a lot out of Dave's dream where he is an adult male killing the witch and her lover. That feels like some heavy-duty Oedipal symbolism to me. That dream also somehow kicks off several years of unpleasantly sexual witch-haunting as the boys work their way through puberty. The haunting seems to have stopped when Dave and friends reached full maturity. It all seems to make symbolic sense.

Finally, what exactly who or what was this mysterious woman? The boys called her a witch because of her appearance, and the black cat seems to support them. She's also a ghost. I've mentioned on this blog before that witches tend to live on after death, so that's not really surprising. She also reminds me of the rapacious succubi, seductive female demons that appear in Medieval folklore. 

Witch? Ghost? Demon? Maybe the forest just shows us what we're looking for. Balzano writes that "the paranormal is often defined by the people who experience it," so it makes sense that teenage boys who lived on the edge of a big New England forest experienced what they did. 

Tony and I have actually been to the Freetown State Forest. We didn't see any ghostly witches, but did find the woods there kind of unsettling. So if you go looking for the witch use caution. Who knows what you might find there yourself?