September 27, 2016

Swamp Woman and Other Dangerous Spirits

If you are out alone in the woods please be cautious if you hear someone crying and moaning. It could be Swamp Woman trying to to trick you, particularly if you are a man.

Swamp Woman is a spirit found in Penobscot folklore from Maine. In Algonquian her names are  Swaktemus and Pskegdemus, but most people think both names simply refer to the same being. She should be avoided at all costs whatever name you give her.

Swamp Woman lives alone in the forest, and wears only moss. Moss also grows in her hair, which is so long that it covers most of her body. I think that's a pretty distinctive look, so you'll probably know if you encounter her.

Poor Swamp Woman is lonely, and cries out in the woods for men and children to come live with her. She is particularly fond of hunters, but perhaps they are just the men she sees is the most familiar with. Maybe she would like high-tech nerds or Uber drivers just as much if she encountered them more often. Regardless of their profession, anyone who responds to her call is never seen again. Do they die? Do they live with her forever in her swampy forest home? It's not clear, but it's probably not good either way.

Swamp Woman sounds easy to avoid. Just stay out of the woods, right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. If a man sincerely wishes to see Swamp Woman she will come to him wherever he is, and any man who even pities her will never marry a mortal woman. In other words, not only do you have to avoid Swamp Woman, you have to avoid thinking about her. Ugh. I bet you're thinking about her right now, aren't you? She will also snatch children, and they are often warned to behave lest Swamp Woman come and steal them away.

The Penobscot also tell of another, similar creature called Maskiksu, a.k.a. Toad Creature, who appears as a small dwarfish woman clad in moss. She also seduces men and cries out in loneliness for children. Toad Creature likes to nurse human babies, but any child she nurses will fall into an endless sleep. Again, best to be avoided.

Other beings in New England folklore lure men and children to their dooms too. For example, a while ago I wrote about the Abenaki swamp spirit of Vermont, while further south the Wampanoag of Cape Cod tell tales of Granny Squannit. Granny Squannit's long hair covers her face (which is rumored to be strangely ugly), and she sometimes kidnaps men and young boys. Granny Squannit also has a benevolent side, teaching people about healing plants and feeding people who are shipwrecked. Granny Squannit is probably a modern version of the ancient Algonquian women's goddess Squauanit who was mentioned by Roger Williams in 1643.

Are all these beings distinct entities, or are they just different versions of each other? They sound similar in some ways to those seductive fairies who enchant questing knights in Medieval romances, or even to folkloric fairies like the Skogsnuva, or Wood Women, of Sweden. Fairies are not a laughing matter. Some death certificates from 17th century Sweden have been found where the cause of death is listed as "involvement with a Skogsnuva." My mind also drifts to the succubi of Christian demonology, the demoness Lilith from Jewish folklore, and even the seductive ghostly witch who haunts the Freetown State Forest here in Massachusetts. .

There is definitely a pattern here. Maybe there actually is a supernatural force (or forces) behind these different legends, or maybe the stories just reflect a male fear of female sexuality.The forests and swamps are dark and unknowable, making them a perfect blank slate to project one's fears onto. But still, if you see a long-haired woman covered in moss it's probably safest to run in the other direction.

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 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!