July 31, 2018

On The Road: Elves in Iceland

Don't tell anyone, but last week I actually left New England. I know - it's shocking! I went to Iceland. And while this blog is called New England folklore, I thought you might enjoy reading some of the strange stories I heard while I was there.

In geological terms Iceland is a relatively young place. The wind and water haven't had much time to wear down the strange rocks and lava fields that have been created by Iceland's multiple volcanos. The country has a very dramatic landscape.

In cultural terms, Iceland is relatively young too, at least for a European nation. People have only lived there since 874. But in the last 1,100 years the Icelanders have developed lots of stories about their landscape. Some involve historic figures or famous artists, but others are about supernatural beings like elves.

For example, while driving on a bus across the Snaefellsnes peninsula our tour director pointed out a low cliff abutting the road. "A group of elves are said to live in those cliffs," he said. "Elves like to live in cliffs. I'll tell you more about this later." He never got around to telling us why elves like to live in cliffs, but we did learn that they also live in other rock features like boulders. Their homes are invisible to the human eye. It is perhaps because of this that they are called the Hidden People.

When I think of elves I tend to think of cute little Christmas elves, but the elves of Iceland are taller and more beautiful than humans. Another tour guide told us the belief in elves is a survival from the country's pagan past, and that the elves come from one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology. We were also told that the elves in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings were inspired by the elves of Icelandic and Norse mythology.

Perhaps the most elfish place we visited was Asbyrgi, a large horseshoe-shaped canyon in northern Iceland. Geologists say the canyon was probably created by a glacial flood, but local tradition claims it is a hoof print of Sleipnir, the god Odin's eight-legged horse. The canyon is enclosed by tall imposing cliffs, and is said to be the capital of the Icelandic elves. The cliffs contain the elves' homes, concert halls, and cathedrals. Forests are quite rare in Iceland, but a lush one fills the canyon at Asbyrgi, as does a small but beautiful lake. The lake is said to be a good place to hear music from the elves' concerts.

According to legend, two young humans who lived nearby fell in love and wanted to get married, but before they could they had to save an Asbyrgi elf's lover who had been enchanted and transformed into a hideous monster. The humans saved her lover, and the grateful elf blessed their wedding.

Not all elf stories are so romantic or set in the past. Some are more down-to-earth and more modern. As we were driving towards the town of Selfoss our guide pointed to a rocky field next to the highway. Several years ago a politician was driving on the highway when his car slid off the road. It came to rest gently against a boulder, and the politician believed he had been saved by elves who lived in the rock.

Time went by, and it was decided that the highway had to be widened. The rock would need to be destroyed. Remembering the elves who saved his life, the politician hired a psychic to communicate with the elves. Through her, the politician asked the elves if they would be willing to come live with him at his home on the Westman Islands. They agreed, as long they could have green grass near their home and a view of the ocean.

The politician arranged for the boulder to be moved to his home by boat. When he boarded the boat he paid his fare, but the ticket agent stopped him and said "I've heard about this boulder in the news. You say it has a family of elves living in it. How many?" The politician explained that seven elves lived inside: an elderly couple, a younger adult couple, and their three small children.

The ticket agent performed some calculations in his head. "OK, you only need to pay full fare for the younger adult couple. The old people and the kids travel for free." The politician paid. Sometimes you pay a price for believing in elves. 

July 19, 2018

Encountering Fairies at Mount Monadnock

One of the many nice things about this blog is that people tell me stories about the strange things they've encountered. I've heard quite a few ghost stories, but it is very rare that people tell me stories about fairies.

Very rare, but it does happen. The other day some friends came over for brunch, and I showed my friend James a copy of Magical Folk, a book about fairy folklore to which I had contributed a chapter.  In response, James told me the following story.


A few years ago James, his spouse Kevin, and one of their friends went camping near New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock. The campground at Monadnock State Park has around thirty standard campsites close to parking lots, plus five remote campsites that can only be reached by hiking. James and his companions chose to stay at one of the standard campsites.

After they set up their tents they decided to go for a hike along one of the trails that led to the more remote sites. The trail led them up away from the other campers and deeper into the park. After hiking for a while they still hadn't seen any of the the remote campsites, but instead found a beautiful clearing in the woods.

James described it as looking like a "fairy dell." There was a waterfall, and a small wooden bridge going over a stream, and lots of lush flowers. It was an idyllic space, but as they absorbed its beauty James became uneasy. Although they were ostensibly alone in the clearing he felt like there was someone there with them. James sensed that they were being watched. His companions began to fell uneasy too and they soon left, making their way back to their campsite.

A beautiful photo of Mt. Monadnock from Wikipedia. 

When James fell asleep that night he had a strangely vivid dream. He dreamed about his mother. She had cooked something really delicious and kept urging James to eat. In the waking world James had a very good relationship with his mother, but something didn't seem quite right in the dream. Although it looked like his mother, James had the uncomfortable feeling that the figure in his dream was not really his mother but was instead someone pretending to be her. She kept offering him food, but he kept refusing it. Finally he woke up.

Over breakfast he told Kevin and their friend about his strange dream. To his surprise, they both said they had very similar dreams that night. They had both dreamed that trusted, loving people from their lives had offered them food, but they both had felt that somehow things were not quite right. Neither of them had accepted the food.


When James finished his story he said to me, "You know, in a lot of traditional stories the fairies try to get humans to eat fairy food. If a human eats it they're trapped in the fairy world forever. I feel like we encountered something in that clearing, and it wanted us to stay there. I'm glad none of us ate the food in our dreams."

I'll try to put James's story into a regional context. When the Puritans first came to New England they said that there weren't any fairies here. The Puritans had mostly come from East Anglia, a part of England that had a lot of witch lore but not much in the way of fairy lore. Unsurprisingly, New England has a lot of folklore about witches. And had a lot of witch trials.

However, the Indian tribes that lived in New England did have a lot of folklore about small magical beings that lived in the woods, mountains and rivers. This folklore became part of the mainstream culture in the 19th century when it was shared with anthropologists and folklorists. European immigrants from places like Ireland and Scotland also moved into New England around the same time, bringing their fairy folklore with them. People began to see fairies in New England. And in the 20th and 21st century, local fairies called pukwudgies gained prominence in the national media.

New England is no longer a place without fairies. Different cultures describe fairies in different ways, but they seem to agree on a few things: fairies live in the woods, fairies are tricky, and fairies try to entice people to join them. Did my friend actually have a fairy encounter in Monadnock Park? I can't say for sure, but his story is definitely part of a long tradition of people encountering strange things in the New England woods.

July 11, 2018

H.P Lovecraft and The Witch from Boston

Rhode Island native and horror writer extraordinaire H.P. Lovecraft liked to incorporate New England history and folklore into his stories. He was particularly fond of local witch-lore, which shows up in many of his best known stories.

For example, Richard Upman Pickman, the crazed artist in "Pickman's Model" (1927), is descended from "old Salem stock" and had an ancestor executed for witchcraft. In "Dreams in The Witch House" (1933), a hapless college student finds trouble when he rents a room once inhabited by a witch, while the title character in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927) discovers through genealogical research that one of his ancestors fled Salem in 1692 due to suspicions about his "queer chemical or alchemical experiments."

H.P. Lovecraft, 1890 - 1937
Those are all fiction, but Lovecraft may have encountered a real-live New England witch in 1929 - or at least someone who claimed to be one. After Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror" was published in Weird Tales he received a fan letter from a woman who lived in Boston. Lovecraft wrote about her to his friend Clark Ashton Smith on March 22, 1929:

By the way - that tale has just earned me an interesting letter from a curious old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She hints at strange gifts and traditions handed down in her family, & asks me if I have access to any antient (ancient) secret witch-lore of New England... I shall answer the letter, & see if I can get the good old soul to relate some of the whispered witch-traditions! A story of Salem horror based on actual "inside dope" from a witch-blooded crone would surely be a striking novelty!

On April 14, 1929 he wrote Ashton Smith with a little more information about the woman:

It appears that her forebears were well acquainted with the Marblehead witches Edward Dimond and his daughter Moll Pitcher... & that she herself, through the Easty or Este line, is a scion of the D'Estes of Ferrara, Italy, & a descendant of no less a malign character than Lucrezia Borgia! Some ancestry!

Lovecraft and the Boston woman kept up a correspondence over several years. He wrote about it in an October 24, 1930 letter to his friend Elizabeth Toldridge:

... As for my spectrally affiliated New England correspondents - I have not again heard from the grotesque Maine person, but hear frequently from the old lady descended from Salem witches. She sent several modernly gruesome legends lately, but in general I find it more natural to invent cosmic horrors of my own than to utilize actual folklore incidents. I use actual local colour in treating of geography and customs; but when it comes to actual incidents and types of unreal phenomena, I have so far preferred to invent rather than adopt.

The woman died in 1933, as he indicated in a letter to his friend Robert Barlow:

An old lady in Boston whole I knew - & who died just a year ago - was a direct descendant of Mary Easty, one of the Salem witches hung in 1692 - & therefore a collateral descendant of the more famous Rebecca Nurse (Mrs. Easty's sister), whose ancient house (built 1636) in Danvers, Mass. [near Salem - formerly called Salem-Village] is still in existence...

Unfortunately, to my knowledge Lovecraft never mentioned the woman's name, at least not in any published letters. It would be fascinating to know who she was! Did she really have the ancestry she claimed? It seems unlikely she was descended from the D'Estes of Italy (and therefore Lucrezia Borgia), since the Easty/Esty family of Salem can be traced back to at least 1450 in England; Borgia was not born until 1480. Lovecraft's correspondent could have been descended from Mary Easty though.

Also, did she really have any arcane knowledge, either passed down through her family or even just learned from books? And did she say she actually claim she was a witch? Lovecraft's letters suggest that she was a witch but doesn't make it explicit. The Wiccan/pagan revival didn't really start until the late 1940s, but there were still a few people here and there who identified as witches (including at least one famous New England writer). It's possible this woman was one of them.

If anyone has more information about her please post it in the comments section. I would love to know more about the "curious old lady in Boston."

Lovecraft's grave in Providence, Rhode Island
Lovecraft was a materialist and skeptical of religion and the occult, but while he was alive some people thought his stories were about real occult phenomena. The elderly Boston woman seems to have been one of them, as was his acquaintance William Lumley. Lumley was an avowed occultist whom Lovecraft collaborated with on the 1938 story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer." In a letter to the author Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft noted that Lumley believed Lovecraft and some of his friends were "genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension." Lovecraft thought Lumley was a little crazy...

After his death, an increasing number of people thought that Lovecraft's stories contained real supernatural truths. His work inspired a host of occultists, including Kenneth Grant, Anton LaVey, and a slew of Chaos Magickians. So maybe there was something behind his stories after all? Somewhere, the ghost of an elderly lady from Boston is laughing.


I want to thank two friends for helping me with this post. My friend Steve loaned me issue #31 of Lovecraft Studies, and my friend David Goudsward sent me the text of Lovecraft's letters. David is the author of H.P. Lovecraft in The Merrimack Valley and many other books on interesting topics. 

One additional note: Mary Este was not actually a witch, but an innocent person caught who was unjustly executed. Witches are one of the iconic images in New England folklore, but it's important to differentiate between folklore and reality. 

July 05, 2018

Magical Mullein: Witches, Love and Captain Marvel

Well, summer is in full swing. One nice thing about living someplace with long winters is that I really appreciate all the vegetation when it finally appears in the summer. Everything here is bare for so long in the winter months. Every bit of green looks great when it shows up, even the weeds.

I think "weed" is basically just a derogatory term. Really, a weed is just a plant growing somewhere people don't want it. It's not an actual scientific category. Many of the plants people call weeds have interesting histories and folklore attached to them. Some might even have magical powers. Intrigued? Read on.

One of the most dramatic weeds plants that appears in the summer is mullein. You've probably seen it because it's hard to miss. Mullein has a single stalk that grows up to six feet in height and is crowned by tiny yellow flowers. Its leaves are grey and lightly fuzzy. Mullein is very dramatic. It looks like it comes from another planet.

It doesn't, but it's not native to New England either. Mullein is indigenous to the Mediterranean and over time spread across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. When the Europeans colonized the New World mullein hitched a ride across the Atlantic with them. Its official name is verbascum thapsus, a Latin term whose origin is uncertain but is most likely derived from the words barba (beard) and Thapsos (a name of several Mediterranean cities). It's English name, mullein, probably comes from the Latin word mollis, which means "soft." And just an FYI, it's pronounced "mullen," not "mullane."

There are several varieties of mullein worldwide, but the plant that grows in New England is called "great mullein."' The plant also has several colorful folk names. Some are inspired by its long central stalk: Aaron's Rod, Jupiter's Staff, Peter's Staff and Shepherd's Club. Others come from its soft fuzzy leaves: Our Lady's Flannel, Blanket Herb and Beggar's Flannel. The dried plant was used as a torch, and its leaves as wicks for lamps and candles. Witches were said to be particularly fond of using the plant for these purposes, so mullein is sometimes called Hag's Taper. Very witchy!

Mullein can also be used to repel evil spirits and harmful magic. According to Mrs. Grieves's A Modern Herbal (1931):
Both in Europe and Asia the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to mullein. In India it has the reputation among the natives that the St. John's Wort once had here, being considered a sure safe-guard against evil spirits and magic, and from the ancient classics we learn that it was this plant which Ulysses took to protect himself agains the wiles of Circe.
Mrs. Grieves is referring to an incident in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his men land on an island ruled by Circe, a witch-like goddess. She turns Odysseus's men into pigs, but Odysseus is given a plant called moly by the god Hermes which protects him from her magic.

On an interesting side note, perhaps you are familiar with the exclamation "Holy Moley!" This phrase was popularized in the 20th century by the comic book hero Captain Marvel, who would say it when he was faced with surprising situations.

The creators of Captain Marvel were well-versed in classical mythology; the Captain got most of his powers from the Greek gods when he shouted out the magic word "Shazam." The phrase "Holy Moley" (sometimes spelled "Holy Moly") seems to be older than Captain Marvel comics, though, and it's exact origin is unclear. Some theorists claim it is derived from "Holy Moses," others that it honored Teddy Roosevelt's adviser Raymond Moley, and still others claim it comes from the holy red thread of Hinduism, the mauli. Those are all good theories but I like the Greek mythology explanation the best, even if it is not really true.

And it turns out the great mullein plant probably was not really the one referenced in The Odyssey. Mrs. Grieves's theory has spread widely, but the great mullein doesn't really look like the plant described by Homer, of which he said "The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk..." That doesn't describe the great mullein.

Independent of its connection to Homer people have still ascribed magical powers to the plant. For example, in her 1896 book Current Superstitions, Fanny Bergen recorded the following belief from Newton, Massachusetts regarding mullein:

Twist a mullein-stalk nearly off after naming it. If it lives, he or she loves you; if not, not.

This is an example of the many simple love spells that are found in 19th century New England folklore. Most are aimed at determining if someone loves you. For example, if you think three people might be in love with you, you would take three apple seeds and name them after the three people. Then you would wet them with spit and stick them to your forehead. The last seed that falls off tells you who loves you.

This mullein spell works on a similar principle: the behavior of the plant indicates the intentions of the beloved. You think John Doe might be secretly in love with you. You find a mullein plant and name it "John Doe," and then twist the stalk. If the plant survives it means that John Doe really does love you.

Personally I don't think you should do this. Mullein has such a short growing season and is such an interesting plant. Don't hurt it! If you do want to work some magic with mullein, maybe you can wait until the fall and harvest the dried central stalk. Then you can use it as a torch to light your way to the Witch's Sabbath, which is probably more fun than going on a date with John Doe anyway.


In addition to Wikipedia, my other additional sources were Pamela Jones's Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses (1994) and Paul Beyerl's A Compendium of Herbal Magick (1998).