August 29, 2012

A Moon Charm

This month we are lucky enough to experience a blue moon, which is the term applied to the second full moon to happen within a calendrical month. The first full moon in August was the Full Sturgeon Moon on August 1; our second full moon happens on August 31, and according to The Old Farmer's Almanac is the Full Red Moon.

So, our blue moon is also the red moon? A little confusing perhaps, but not if you remember two things:

1. Each full moon has a name, based on things happening in the natural world. The moon names are mostly derived from Algonquin names. For example, the full moon in January is called the Full Wolf Moon, because hungry wolves were out prowling through the forests in the winter looking for food. March is called the Full Worm Moon, because the ground would have thawed and the worms were starting to become active. The full moon in August is called the Full Sturgeon Moon, because at this time the sturgeon would be running in the rivers, but it was also sometimes known as the Full Red Moon, because the moon appeared red from the summer haze. Since we have two moons in August, The Old Farmer's Almanac gave the first one the traditional sturgeon name, and the second one the Full Red Moon label.

2. If you have two full moons within a month, the second one is always called a blue moon.

In honor of the blue moon Red Full Moon, I wanted to share this moon charm I found in Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England.

Look at the moon some night and say, 

"I see the moon, the moon sees me; 
The moon sees somebody I want to see." 

Then name the person you wish to see, and in a day or two you will see that person. 

 I like it. It's short, sweet, and to the point.

August 26, 2012

Aleister Crowley's New Hampshire Vacation

School will be starting up again soon, and I wonder if kids are still asked to write essays about what they did on their summer vacations. I suppose most kids write about similar things: trips to the beach, playing Little League, family vacations, etc.

I wonder if any kids write about practicing ritual magic? That's what Aleister Crowley did on his summer vacation to New Hampshire in 1916.

Aleister Crowley has a very sinister reputation, which he actively cultivated, but I don't think it is entirely deserved. Crowley was born into a well-off British family in 1875, and even as a very young child he questioned his parent's devotion to fundamentalist Christianity, which resulted in his mother calling him "the Beast." The name stuck, and when he was an adult he called himself the Great Beast 666 to signify his opposition to Christianity.

However, Crowley was not a Satanist. While he was attending college in Cambridge he became a bisexual libertine, and also became interested in occultism and ritual magic. After college he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, an order of ritual magicians in England that included notable members like W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, and Sax Rohmer.

The Golden Dawn eventually splintered apart due to conflicts between members, and Crowley founded his own magical order called the Argentum Astrum after he had been contacted by a divine being called Aiwass while he was living in Cairo. Crowley felt that he had come in contact with the Godhead itself, and was able to converse directly with the Holy Guardian Angel that guided his life. It's not entirely clear if he thought this angel was an external being or part of his deep subconscious.

Before his death in 1947, Crowley founded even more magical orders and lodges, went through a string of male and female lovers, preached about the end of Christianity, and became addicted to a lot of drugs. Crowley felt there was no such thing as bad publicity, and reveled in being called the Wickedest Man in the World by the British press. Even in death he generated controversy. The physician who was attending Crowley died exactly one day after Crowley did, and the press claimed the magician had put a curse on the doctor.

With such a busy life, you can see why Crowley might want an occasional vacation, and in 1916 after leaving New York City he spent the summer on the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Pasquaney. In his book The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, he describes what he did on his summer vacation. He did not play Little League.

Before leaving New York, he drank a special potion to restore his youthful vigor. The effects didn't kick in until he reached New Hampshire, where he found himself unable to focus on any intellectual work and instead chopped down an enormous tree to build a wharf for his canoe. He claims that "Passers-by spread the story of the hermit with superhuman strength, and people came from all parts to gaze upon the miracle."

After the effects of this potion (which sounds like some type of amphetamine to me) faded away, Crowley decided to clear his mind of the remnants of his parents' Christianity by ritually crucifying a toad.
The result was immediately apparent. A girl of the village, three miles away, asked me to employ her as my secretary. I had had no intention of doing any literary work; but as soon as I set eyes on her I recognized that she had been sent for a purpose, for she exactly resembled the aforesaid toad. I therefore engaged her to come out every morning and take dictation.
While in New Hampshire, Crowley also had a vision of the universe, which he called the Star Sponge Vision.
 I lost consciousness of everything but a universal space in which were innumerable bright points, and I realized this as a physical representation of the universe, in what I may call its essential structure. I exclaimed, "Nothingness with twinkles!" I concentrated upon this vision, with the result that the void space which had been the principal element of it diminished in importance; space appeared to be ablaze, yet the radiant points were not confused, and I thereupon completed my sentence with the exclamation, "but what twinkles!"

I guess Crowley overall had an eventful summer vacation in New Hampshire - he even had a ball of lightning follow him into his cottage during a thunderstorm, which he wrote about in a letter to the New York Times. However, there is one small catch to the stories he told about his vacation: there's no such place as Lake Pasquaney in New Hampshire. (Thanks to Joseph Citro and Diane Fould's Curious New England for pointing that out.)

The cottage where Crowley vacationed.

 Well, according to the site Atlas Obscura and a book called The New England Grimpendium by J.W. Ocker, Crowley actually spent his vacation in Hebron, New Hampshire in a cottage on the shores of Lake Newfound. The cottage (photo above) was owned by Evangeline Adams, a well-known astrologer in the early 20th century. Adams and Crowley collaborated on several books together, but eventually had a falling out over who should get authorial credit.

Evangeline Adams

Crowley only has bad things to say about Adams in his Confessions, so maybe this is what motivated him to invent Lake Pasquaney. He clearly enjoyed his time at her cottage, but perhaps didn't want to give her any credit for loaning it to him. Crowley also enjoyed creating an air of mystery around himself, so that was probably part of the decision as well.

One more interesting vacation tidbit. Hebron is very close to where Betty and Barney Hill were abducted by UFOs, and Crowley once had an encounter with an entity named Lam that looked much like the aliens who abducted the Hill. This site has some speculation about connections between the two. Read at the risk of your own sanity.

August 18, 2012

Provincetown's Haunted Guesthouse

I just came back from visiting Truro and Provincetown. It was so relaxing my mind has been emptied of almost all thought - but I do still have some folklore rattling around in there.

Topographically, the outer part of Cape Cod is an amazing place, with huge dunes, dense forests of scrubby pines and oaks, and, of course, the rough and stormy Atlantic Ocean. It's beautiful, magical, and weird, so it's not surprising there's a lot of interesting folklore from this part of Massachusetts, like the Black Flash, the haunted Martin House, and the enigmatic Jenny Lind Tower.

If you want to have an exceptionally magical and weird experience while you're out there, you might want to stay at the Carpe Diem Guesthouse in Provincetown. It's reputed to be haunted!

According to Mark Jasper's book Haunted Cape Cod and the Islands, employees at the guesthouse have reported recurrent paranormal activity in several areas of the 19th century building.

For example, a housekeeper working alone in the basement heard someone whisper in his ear and then touch his back, but couldn't see anyone when he turned around. Creepy. His experience was later confirmed by a guest using the outdoor hot tub, which is near a basement window. The guest asked the desk manager about the man and woman walking around in the basement wearing Victorian clothing. When the manager descended into the basement to investigate he found no one there. A housekeeper who lived in the basement has also claimed he saw a shadowy figure walking into his room.

Each guest room at the Carpe Diem is named after a famous writer, and the one named after William Shakespeare has also seen its share of strange occurrences. One employee often felt a watchful presence in this room, and a guest who spent the night there said she heard a voice telling her to "Get up and get out!"

The owners of the guesthouse think one of the ghosts may be a former manager named Kevin, who liked working there so much he decided to stick around after death. They don't know who the other ghosts are, but since the building was a 19th century funeral home I am sure there are plenty of candidates.

The ghosts at the Carpe Diem sound pretty mellow, and there no bleeding walls or glowing eyes staring in the window. If you want to have a gently creepy experience it sounds like a great place to stay!

August 10, 2012

Fortune Telling with a Key

Here's an exciting word for today: cleidomancy. It means using a key to predict the future. If any reader is studying for their SATs, remember that word. It might be on the test!

Cleidomancy originated in Europe, and was practiced here in early New England. Reverend Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, fulminated against it in his book Angelographia, saying cleidomancy and other forms of fortune-telling had invited evil spirits into the colony.

For all I know cleidomancy may still be practiced here, but I think in our modern consumer society New Englanders are more likely to use something designed specifically for divination like Tarot cards or the I Ching rather than a key. If you're feeling folksy or are broke, though, cleidomancy is pretty easy.

We don't know exactly how early New Englanders did it but here is what modern practitioners suggest. Tie a piece of thread to the loop of a key, and dangle the key from your hand. Ask the question you want to know, such as "Will I marry Joe?" or "Did Sheila steal my iPhone at yoga class?" If the key starts to move, you have the answer to your question. Cleidomancy works best with yes/no questions. Lots of modern psychics and witches use small crystal pendulums to tell the future, and this is basically the same.

Now here's another exciting word: bibliomantic cleidomancy, which means using a book AND a key to predict the future. I don't think that will be on the SAT, but you never know. Ask your key.

Again, we know bibliomantic cleidomancy was practiced in New England because a Puritan minister preached against it. Deodat Lawson delivered a sermon at Salem in 1692 titled Christ's Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan's Malignity, where he condemned people who use "the Bible and Key" to tell the future. (Please note bibliomancy does not require you to use the Bible - any large dense book will do - but it was the most common book in Puritan New England.)

I was a little puzzled by how you might use both a Bible and a key, but I found some interesting instructions from the Association of Independent Rootworkers and Readers (AIRR), a group for traditional folk magic practitioners. Early New Englanders may not have followed these exact same procedures, but probably did something very similar. 

You need a big key for this, like a skeleton key. Find a passage in the Bible that relates to your question. For example, if you're curious about who you will marry, open the passage in the Book of Ruth that reads "Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live." Put your key on that page, with the loop protruding over the top of the Bible. Close the Bible and then wrap it up with string or ribbon (if you're feeling fancy). You should be able to hold your wrapped Bible by the key loop sticking out the top. 

Holding the key with two fingers, begin to ask your questions. For example, "Will I marry John? Will I marry George? Will I marry Sebastian?" You have your answer when the Bible turns or it falls off the key. Bibliomantic cleidomancy works best with multiple choice questions. 

I have to wonder if Tony and I did this correctly, though, since the Bible barely stayed on the key at all. Perhaps we were supposed to hold out the Bible horizontally? That doesn't seem correct either, though, since the instructions say two people should grasp the key using their pinky fingers. According to the AIRR site, children are supposed to be particularly good at using the key and Bible since their hearts are pure. Perhaps when you hit middle age there's not enough purity left to do this right.

If anyone knows the correct way to do this please let me know! I won't ask how pure your heart is.

August 05, 2012

The Possession of Mercy Short

In 1692, a Boston servant girl was sent by her mistress on an errand. En route, she was asked for some tobacco by a poor woman on the street.

The servant girl, named Mercy Short, threw wood shavings at the woman and said, "There's tobacco good enough for you!" The woman cursed at her, and Mercy completed her errand. Just another day in Puritan Boston, right?

The woman who cursed her was Sarah Good, of Salem Village, who was later executed after being accused of witchcraft. When Mercy returned home she was afflicted with fits for several days, but they abated after she fasted. OK, so maybe it wasn't just another day in Boston, but it wasn't so bad. At least the fits cleared up!

Mercy wasn't out of the woods, though. About a year after her encounter with Sarah Good, she once again became afflicted with fits, but this time with a twist: the Devil came to visit her.

He was a wretch no taller than an ordinary Walking-Staff; hee was not of a Negro, but of a Tawney, or an Indian colour; hee wore an high-crowned Hat, with strait Hair; and had one Cloven-Foot. 

The Devil came with specters, who looked like neighbors and people that Mercy knew. They tormented her and urged her to pledge herself to Satan by signing a red-lettered Book of Death. Only then would they stop torturing her. She didn't even have to actually sign - just touching the book with her little finger would suffice for Mercy to give herself to Satan.

Copp's Hill Burying Ground, Boston

Mercy refused, so her fits continued, but in a spectacular fashion.

  • The Devil and his specters blinded her and stopped up her ears, so at times she was unaware of her surroundings and the neighbors and ministers who came to help her.  
  • They pinched her and stabbed her with small pins. Witnesses saw small bloody marks appear on her body, and pulled physical pins from her limbs. 
  • Mercy's hellish tormentors poured a white liquid down her throat, which made her "swell prodigiously, and bee just like one poisoned with a Dose of Rats-bane."
  • Cotton Mather visited Mercy, and witnessed the following: "They would Flash upon her the Flames of a Fire, that was to Us indeed (tho not unto her) Invisible… Wee saw Blisters thereby Raised upon her."
  • Mercy was forced to speak profanely and sarcastically about people she knew and refused to listen to discussions about God or religion. 

In the late winter of 1693, Governor Phips visited Mercy at her request. She told him that the Book of Death, the Devil's book itself, was hidden in the attic of a wealthy neighbor's house. The governor directed one of the neighbor's servants to retrieve it.

When the Servant was Examining the place directed, a great Black Cat, never before known to bee in the House, jumping over him, threw him into such a Fright and Sweat, that altho' hee were one otherwise of Courage enough, he desisted at that Time from looking any further.

Finally in March of 1693 a good spirit appeared to Mercy and told her she would be delivered from the Devil's torments on Thursday, March 16. On that Thursday, the spectres came but were unable to harm Mercy, no matter how hard the Devil exhorted them. They departed and Mercy was free.

It's an amazing story, and similar to many demonic possession stories across the centuries, but Mercy had a traumatic experience before her possession that helps shed light on it.

In March of 1690, Mercy and her family were abducted from their home in New Hampshire by Wabanaki Indians. Mercy's parents and several of her siblings were killed, and Mercy was held captive in Quebec for eight months before being sent to Boston. It seems likely that her possession was a way for her to deal with horrific experience she had. It's no coincidence that Mercy saw the Devil as an Indian. Living in a society without psychological concepts like trauma and PTSD, Mercy dealt with her experiences using the ideas available to her.

D. Brent Simmons, in his book Witches, Rakes and Rogues, notes that in 1694 Mercy married a man from Nantucket, but the marriage didn't last. Mercy was found guilty of adultery and excommunicated from the Puritan church. She returned to Boston, and her gravestone can still be seen in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End.

In addition to Simmons' book, I found my information in Cotton Mather's narrative about Mercy Short, A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning.

August 01, 2012

Black Dogs, a Swamp, and some UFOs

I enjoy writing about old folklore, as a quick glance at my blog will show. But all the weird stuff in New England didn't suddenly stop in 1900. It's still going on. In fact, sometimes the same weird stuff has been happening for hundreds of years.

For example, a a few years ago I posted about the Black Dog of West Peak, a spectral dog who foretells doom on a Connecticut mountain. Stories about this sinister pooch were collected in the 1800s, but eerie black dogs are a staple of folklore in Europe and America. One of the most famous is the Black Shuck, a terrifying black hound who haunts East Anglia in England. (Many of the early Puritan settlers actually came from East Anglia, so maybe they brought their monsters with them.) In Irish folklore, a fairy called the Pooka sometimes also appears as a black dog - with a terrifying grin.

The Pooka and Black Shuck sound so quaint, like creatures from a fairy tale, that it's hard to believe people encounter phantom black dogs in modern New England. But they do.

In his book Mothman and Other Curious Encounters, Maine's own Loren Coleman relates two such encounters.

The first is from 1966. One spring night a group of people drove from Portsmouth, New Hampshire up to Eliot, Maine, where many UFOs had been recently seen. The Portsmouth folks parked their cars in a gravel pit where they had an unobstructed view of the starry sky.

They didn't see a UFO, but instead saw something even stranger. As soon as they got out of their cars an enormous black dog bounded past them through the gravel pit and into the woods. It was the largest dog they had ever seen, and they decided to follow it into the dark trees. As they ran after the dog the person bringing up the rear noticed an odd smell.

He stopped, and saw a murky form gliding towards him. The weird odor was coming from the from. Even though it didn't speak, he knew the form wanted him to follow it.

Wisely, he didn't! Instead he ran back to the parked cars, and his friends followed after him. After hearing his story they decided to leave the gravel pit. As they prepared to leave the man who saw the form was filled with an uncontrollable urge to run off into the woods, and had to be restrained by his friends as they drove away.

It's an evocative if cryptic story, and Loren Coleman quotes it from a letter written by Betty Hill, one of the world's first alien abductees, which makes it even weirder.

This isn't the only story where a black dog is associated with UFOs. In his excellent book Daimonic Reality, English writer Patrick Harpur mentions a UFO abductee who saw a black dog inside a UFO, and Loren Coleman's second New England black dog story comes from southeastern Massachusetts' Hockomock Swamp. This area is called the Bridgewater Triangle by paranormal researchers, and is a hotbed for UFO sightings and other unusual activity.

In 1976 Coleman investigated reports of a large black dog that terrorized the town of Abington, which is inside the Triangle. A local fireman who owned two ponies had gone to check on his animals, and was horrified to see them lying dead on the ground with a huge black dog chewing on their necks. The dog disappeared into the woods.

The Abington police searched for the dog but were unable to find it. In the following days they received thousands of phone calls from concerned residents. Children were kept inside during recess, and local homeowners stocked up on ammunition in case the monstrous canine should attack.

Finally, after several days, police officer Frank Curran sighted the dog walking along some train tracks. Curran shot at the dog, but it ignored him and his bullets and walked off. The dog wasn't seen in Abington after that.

Once again, the story is spooky and inconclusive. Why do these dogs appear, and where do they come from? There's no way to know, but I bet people 100 years from now will be asking the same questions.