January 14, 2019

Super Blood Wolf Moon: Science, Folklore, And A French-Canadian Werewolf

This month New England will experience the super blood wolf moon. 

Say it out loud: "Super blood wolf moon."

Howl it to the cold night sky: "Super Blood Wolf Moon!"

It sounds like the name of a metal band from the early 2000s, doesn't it? "Hey bro, I hear that Lustmord is opening for Super Blood Wolf Moon at the TD Garden. I need to get my tickets." It also sounds like dialogue from a horror movie. "If you kids know what's good for you, you won't go to the witch's grave during the super blood wolf moon!" Too bad no one ever listens to old geezers in horror movies...


Well, the super blood wolf moon is a real thing. It starts on January 20 at 9:35 p.m. Eastern Time and ends on January 21 at 2:50 a.m., and it shows you how amazing life is when science and folklore come together. It's as  amazing as heavy metal and horror movies combined but quieter and with a lot less gore. 

The super blood wolf moon is the official name for the full moon in January. I'll break the name down piece by piece:

1. SUPER: A full moon is called a super moon when the Moon is at its closest point to to the Earth. It appears larger than normal in the sky. There are often 3 or 4 super moons in any given calendar year. The most recent one was on December 22.

2. BLOOD: A super moon sounds kind of fun, but a blood moon sounds ominous. Don't worry though. It's not as bad as it sounds! Although the Moon will turn blood red on January 20 - 21, it is not an omen of doom. It is actually just a lunar eclipse caused by the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth. "Blood moon" is a piece of folk terminology; astronomers just use the term "lunar eclipse." 


3. WOLF: The Moon has a different folk name each month. For example, November is the Beaver Moon, December is the Cold Moon, and January is the Wolf Moon. Here is the complete list of names used by The Old Farmers Almanac:

Wolf Moon (January)
Snow Moon (February)
Worm Moon (March)
Pink Moon (April)
Flower Moon (May)
Strawberry Moon  (June)
Buck Moon (July)
Sturgeon Moon (August)
Corn Moon (September)
Hunter Moon (October)
Beaver Moon (November)
Cold Moon (December)

These names are supposedly derived from those originally used by the Algonquin tribes of the Northeastern United States. Different naming systems are used around the world, but this seems to be the most common one in the U.S. and has roots here in New England. Each name refers to what happens in the natural world during that month. Worms become active in March, flowers bloom in May, and in January the hungry wolf howls. Game is scarce at this time of year, and the Algonquins could hear wolves howling outside their encampments in the icy woods. 

So there you have it - Super Blood Wolf Moon! Hopefully it seems less ominous to you now, although I find the idea of hungry wolves more than a little spooky. Which brings me to my special bonus story this week - a tale about a loup-garou, the French-Canadian werewolf. 

There aren't many werewolf stories from New England. It was said the local Algonquin shamans could send out their souls in the shape of animals, but they didn't specialize in wolf forms. The same was true of the witches in local Puritan folklore. They could assume the shape of birds, dogs, cats and even horses to torment their victims but they didn't usually turn into wolves. 

Still from The Howling (1981)
However in the late 19th century many French-Canadians moved to New England to work in the region's textile mills. They brought their folklore with them, including the following story of a loup-garou, or werewolf. It comes from Rowland Robinson's 1894 book Danvis Folks, which while fiction incorporates folklore that he heard in Vermont. Happy Super Wolf Moon!

*****

Many years ago on a dark snowy night a man left his warm house and hitched the horse to his sleigh. His wife was ill, and maybe close to death, so he was going to get the local Catholic priest.

As he rode down the forest road, all he heard was the hiss of the sleigh's runners and the thudding of the horse's hooves. The snow was good for sleighing and soon he was near the church.

Suddenly, the horse slowed down and the sleigh barely moved forward. The man whipped the horse, but to no avail. It was as if the sleigh was suddenly burdened with a two ton load.

Looking back, the man saw a large black wolf standing on its hind legs. It had its front paws on the rear of the sleigh and was preventing it from from moving forward. The wolf's yellow eyes burned bright in the darkness.

Fear gripped the man's heart. No ordinary wolf was strong enough to stop a sleigh. This was something far worse! It was a loup-garou, a man who had sold himself to the Devil in return for the power to transform into a wolf. Sometimes the loup-garous just ate corpses, but sometimes they liked their meat to be fresher. 

The creature jumped fully onto the sleigh, and the sleigh shot forward as the horse pulled harder than ever. The loup-garou walked to the front of the sleigh and put its front paws on the driver's shoulders. The monster was so heavy the man thought he would be crushed.

In a panic he searched his pockets for his knife. If he could cut the loup-garou its devilish magic would be dispelled and it would turn back into a human. But in the dark night, distracted by the monster's hot breath on his face, he couldn't find his blade. Death seemed imminent.

At this point the sleigh reached the church. Hearing the commotion the priest opened the front door. When he saw what was happening, he said a brief prayer. Instantly the monstrous wolf turned back into a man, who fled into the forest with a whimper.

Luckily the priest had a good supply of whiskey to calm the man's nerves. The priest returned to the man's house and prayed over his wife, who recovered soon afterwards. 

January 09, 2019

"Something I Wasn't Supposed To Be Looking At..." A Recent UFO Sighting

I often write about UFOs in January. I'm not sure why. Maybe the cold, dark skies at this time of year remind me the Earth is just one little planet in a vast teeming universe. I see stars when I leave the house in the morning and stars when I come home at night. Who knows what else I might see?

Well, I might see a large diamond-shaped craft hovering in the sky. According to the National UFO Reporting Center (NURC), that's what a woman saw while driving home from work on Route 5 in Easthampton, Massachusetts on January 3, 2019. The sun had set and she was approaching the Easthampton/Northampton line when she noticed something unusual:
I saw three stationary bright white lights hovering over the Connecticut river between Mt. Tom and Skinner Mt. The lights were in a straight row, with the 2 outer lights being slightly larger. Of the three lights, the center one was strobing slowly which I thought was odd since planes usually have the lights on their wings flashing. This was a pure, bright, white light, not a yellow light that incandescent bulbs emit. The center light was level with the other two and was pulsating separately. The center light emitted a more "rainbow" like light, similar to a moonstone, but was mostly white-passing.
The witness pulled over to better see what was happening. Whatever she was seeing was about half a mile away. At first she thought it might be a plane landing at a nearby airfield, but these lights were not the normal lights usually seen on a plane. She then considered that it might be a helicopter, since it seemed to be stationary, but it was much too large. Maybe a drone? Much, much too large for that. 

The witness was able to see the bottom of the craft once it tilted and began to fly away. 
There were 4 identical sized pure white bright lights emitting from the bottom of the craft in a square/diamond shape. In addition, there were 2 more of the smaller center-strobing lights beneath the craft, below where the center one was seen when I first saw the craft facing toward me. I turned off my radio and lowered my window to hear if it was making any sound, but I didn't detect that it was.
Well, that certainly doesn't sound like an airplane to me. The witness provided some drawings of the craft to the NURC. See below. Large, rectangular, silent flying objects don't seem normal to me. 


The witness felt that this might not be a natural phenomenon and that the craft (if that's what it was) was aware that she was observing it. If she could see it, then could the beings inside see her?
I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at, as it only changed course after I had pulled off the road and started intently staring at it. I was shocked no one in front or behind me had pulled over to witness it with me. After about 1 minute of direct sight with the craft, it began travelling away from me, following the river north/northeast, I decided I wanted to head home as I was scared about the actuality of what I had just seen. 
It was not my first time seeing a UFO, but it was the first time I had seen one this close up.
I really like this phrase: "I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at..." It's ambiguous and very evocative. Was she seeing something secret that no one was supposed to see? She seems to imply the giant craft (which none of the other motorists even notice) flew away when its pilots realized she could see them. It's as if for a brief moment she was able to see behind the curtain - and saw one of the things that hover in our skies normally unseen. It was almost like a religious experience. Perhaps the craft wasn't even a physical object at all, which might explain why no one else seemed to witness it. 

"I felt like I was looking at something I wasn't supposed to be looking at..." That phrase could also be interpreted to mean she was looking at something that wasn't supposed to exist. Large diamond-shaped craft that hover silently in the sky aren't supposed to exist, at least according to what we know. It was something inexplicable and beyond the normal rules of our world. Overall, just a strange and beautiful UFO account. 

December 31, 2018

The Witch Who Loved Satan in The Shape of A Bear

Most people are familiar with the Salem witch trials, but there were many other witchcraft accusations in early New England history. Some of these stories are quite interesting, like the following. 

In the year 1660 William Holmes of Scituate*, Massachusetts learned that a rumor was being spread about his wife. The rumor claimed Goodwife Holmes was a witch, and it was being spread by one of the Holmes's neighbors, Dinah Sylvester. 

Goodman Holmes was outraged and took Sylvester to court for slander. It took about a year for the case to come to trial, but finally in May of 1661 Sylvester testified as follows:

Magistrate: "What evidence have you of the fact that William Holmes's wife is a witch?"

Sylvester: "She appeared to me as such."

Magistrate: "In what shape did she appear?"

Sylvester: "In the shape of a bear."

Magistrate: "How far off was the bear?"

Sylvester: "About a stone's throw from the highway."

Magistrate: "What manner of tail had the bear?"

Sylvester: "I cannot tell as his head was towards me."

Sylvester went on to tell the court that Goodwife Holmes was not the only one near the highway in the shape of a bear. The Devil was there as well, and he too was in ursine form. And the Evil One was feeling frisky; he and Goodwife Holmes were making love as only two bears can. 


Apparently Sylvester gave explicit details of the lovemaking she saw by the side of the road, but they were blacked out of the final records. The court didn't seem to find her story convincing, and not just because it was so outrageous. Laws at the time specified at least two people needed to bear witness against a witch, and no one else came forward to support Sylvester's testimony.

The court did find Sylvester guilty of slander, though, and sentenced her to either pay Goodman Holmes five pounds (a huge amount of money at the time) or be publicly whipped. They also offered a third option: she could publicly acknowledge that she lied about Goodwife Holmes being a witch. She took the the third option. 

Aside from the Satanic bear sex, there are some interesting aspects to this story. One is the location. Scituate was at the time part of Plymouth Colony, which included not only the modern city of Plymouth but also Cape Cod and most of Southeastern Massachusetts. Plymouth Colony was founded by the Pilgrims, and they seem to have been a little mellower than the other Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut. Although there is a lot of witch folklore from Plymouth Colony, there were only two trials involving witches. Sylvester admitted she lied in the trial involving the bear, and in the other case the woman accused of witchcraft was acquitted. Compare that to the many witch trials in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, which led to the execution of more than 30 people. 

Dinah Sylvester is another interesting part of this story. She appears in several court cases from that time. In 1666 she and her brother were accused of attacking a town constable who was arresting their mother. She was later accused of fornication (having sex while unmarried), and in 1669 is mentioned in a case against Elkanah Johnson, whom Sylvester claimed was the father of her baby. 


*****
* Older sources say Scituate, modern sources say Marshfield. I think this is because parts of Marshfield used to belong to Scituate, but I am not sure.

Sources: Elizabeth Renard The Narrow Land (1934), Frederick Freeman The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County, Including the District of Mashpee, Volume 1 (1858),  and James and Patricia Scott Deetz The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (2001).

December 22, 2018

Christmas Reading for The Folklore Fan

Amid all the holiday festivities sometimes it is nice to just sit quietly and read a good book. Here is some suggested reading to get you in the Yuletide holiday spirit, particularly if you like folklore and strange Christmas stories.


The Dark Is Rising
Susan Cooper
1974

Illustration by Alan Cober for the 1974 edition. 
This novel is aimed at young readers and I loved it when it came out way back in the 1970s. Many other people have loved it since. The Dark Is Rising tells the story of an eleven-year old boy who becomes involved in a battle between the ancient forces of light and darkness during the Christmas season. I’ve re-read the book as an adult, and the first chapters still wonderfully evoke the excitement of the holiday season and the uncanny dread of the oncoming darkness. The Dark Is Rising is set in England and full of British folklore, but author Susan Cooper has lived in Massachusetts for many years and was partially inspired to write the book by the marshy landscapes of the South Shore.



The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday
Stephen Nissenbaum
1997


Ever wonder why Americans celebrate Christmas the way we do? Nissenbaum’s book traces the development of our modern child-focused and gift-focused holiday from the raucous holidays of the past. Several chapters in The Battle for Christmas focus specifically on early New England – why the Puritans hated Christmas, who people celebrated Christmas despite it being banned, and how capitalism shaped the holiday. Christmas used to be a multi-week drunken orgy when the lower classes extorted food and liquor from the wealthy. Nissenbaum explains how it became a holiday where we sit around Christmas trees and exchange presents.



A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clarke Moore
1823



Do you exchange presents at Christmas time? Do you incorporate Santa Claus into you celebrations? Do you spend the holiday with your family? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can thank Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was a prominent New York City clergyman who was annoyed at the drunken Christmas celebrations that kept disrupting his family’s peaceful home. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823 to encourage a gentler, sober and more familial holiday. And it worked! Moore’s poem permanently shaped the way Americans and much of the world celebrate Christmas.


The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft
1923

 

A man returns to his family’s ancestral Massachusetts home for their traditional Yuletide festivities. Since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story, tradition doesn’t mean candy canes and stockings hung by the fire. Moldering grave yards, strange subterranean realms, and sinister cultists all play a role in the festivities, as does that famous book of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. If you think your family has a weird holiday you need to read “The Festival.” Although the story is set in Kingsport, a seaside town “maggoty” with subterraneous evil, Lovecraft based the setting on Marblehead, a town whose Colonial-era architecture he loved. 


Christmas in New England
Amy Whorf McGuiggan
2006


Although McGuiggan’s book touches on Christmas’s troubled history in Puritan New England, it’s real focus is on how people have celebrated the holiday here for the last two centuries. Christmas in New England touches on all the region’s Yuletide greats: the many carols composed here, how lighthouse keepers marked the holiday, and the guy from Maine who invented earmuffs. A book to read when you want to feel good about the world.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
Late 14th Century


There’s zero connection to New England in this 14th century poem, but it’s still fantastic reading for the holiday season. Sir Gawain beheads a gigantic Green Knight who has interrupted King Arthur's New Year’s party. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and exits the hall, telling Sir Gawain to come visit him in one year so he can in turn chop off Gawain’s head. Yikes. Being an honorable knight, Gawain departs Camelot the following year to find the unkillable Green Knight’s distant abode, but gets delayed at the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely young wife, where a multi-day Christmas celebration is happening. The Bertilaks play strange and erotic mind-games with Gawain, and a twist ending changes our perception of the entire poem.



Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Stories: Icelandic Folk Tales
J.M. Bedell
2015


Again, no connection to New England, but lots of dark folk stories from Iceland. Many of them are set at Christmas time. The elves in these tales are not cute and whimsical, but instead are strange, dangerous, and often murderous. As are the trolls, witches, and lustful ghosts with shattered skulls who appear. Merry Christmas? This book is holiday reading for those of you who wish every holiday was like Halloween.

December 13, 2018

A Christmas Elf (or Alien?) Sighting in the New Hampshire Woods

Well, it's the Christmas season, which is one of the few times in the year when we are allowed to believe in all sorts of strange things. Flying reindeer? Check. Large man with a sack who sneaks into your house at night but doesn't steal things? Check.

Christmas elves? Check. Lots of people (mostly children) believe that Santa Claus is helped in his yearly labors by a gaggle of elves who live at the North Pole. This is mostly taken on faith, since I don't think there have been many Christmas elf sightings reported around the world. However, one may have been seen in the wintry woods of Derry, New Hampshire on December 15, 1956.

That was the day that Alfred Horne was out alone in the forest, chopping down Christmas trees for the impending Yuletide holiday. As you all know, weird things can happen when you're out in the woods by yourself in any season, but late fall and early winter are prime times for weirdness. The days are short, the sun is low in the sky, and those entities that like the darkness are more likely to make an appearance.

After a while Horne he realized that he was not alone. There was someone (or perhaps something?) standing nearby watching him as he worked. The entity was about two feet high. It had a large head with big floppy ears. In place of a nose it just had two nostril slits, and its eyes were covered with nictitating membranes like a snake's. To make things even stranger, the entity was bright green, stark naked, and had stumpy arms and toeless feet.

Photo from Tumblr (and ultimately Henrik Vind).
Horne watched the entity for twenty minutes. In turn, the entity watched Horne. Finally, Horne decided to capture it. He realized that no one would believe him unless he had the little green humanoid as proof. But as he tried to grab the entity it emitted loud, blood-curdling shrieks. Horne fled from the woods in panic, leaving the little green man behind.

What exactly was this entity? Because it was seen ten days before Christmas, and Horne was out chopping down Christmas trees, I like to think it was a renegade Christmas elf. Perhaps it had wandered down from the North Pole and got lost in the New Hampshire woods, as so many hikers still do.

Alfred Horne seemed to think the creature was an extraterrestrial of some kind. After fleeing the woods that December day Horne didn't tell anyone about the creature until six years later, when he wrote several letters to the astronomer and UFO investigator Walter Webb. The story has appeared in several publications and books since then, including Joseph Citro's Passing Strange, which is where I first read it. 

I still think the little green man could have been an elf, though. For one thing, the line between extraterrestrials and fairy-folk is blurry (at least in my opinion). They both tend to be small, they both often have disproportionately large heads, and they both like to abduct people. But more importantly, Derry, New Hampshire has a tradition of fairy folklore. The town was settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants and they seem to have brought their fairy lore to America with them. Written legends about a "Derry Fairy" date back to the early 20th century. Descriptions of the fairy are vague - in some stories she is a beautiful lake-dwelling fairy queen named Tsienneto, but in other stories a wizened, wrinkled wood nymph appears. So perhaps Horne's little green man was actually a little green woman?

I don't think the strange little entity has been seen again since that day in 1956, but maybe if you stay awake on Christmas Eve this year you might find out Santa's little helpers have eyes like snakes and green skin. Make sure to leave out extra milk and cookies just in case.