Friday, November 16, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

It seems that in colder climates such as the far north of Europe, Slavic lands and Native high points on our modern maps like Canada and my stomping ground, Alaska, concern for children lost or abandon to the elements is particularly high. In Alaska, for instance, there is a mythology surrounding people - and children in particular - lost in snow storms. They are reported to be seen again and again, calling silently for help. But when the observer looks away, they disappear into the dark, or the endless white of snow. A chilling experience for loved ones still searching for their lost family member.

These visions often hold a sinister promise as well: many of them are consider harbingers of the observer's own demise.

In Siberia, for instance, the legend continues of snow children known as the navky. These are the spirits of children who, under the cover of darkness provided by the dead of winter, were killed by their own mothers, often by starvation or exposure. These stories tell of travelers on cold roads seeing spectral and skeletal children dangling from the branches of leafless trees. They extend their bony fingers to the living and cry out for justice, squealing their mother's name over and over in a deafening, otherworldly voice. The traveler, should he chose not to take up the navky's request and kill the woman named, is doomed to die himself. After Christianity took a firm hold in the area, unbaptized infants were added to the ranks of the navky. In this case, their mothers are just as much at fault and their miserable wailing is just as deadly.

To the west, in the land of the Vikings, stories are told of the utburd. These children were also the victims of infanticide, having been exposed to the winter elements due to deformity, illness or simple lack of care. Utburd, according to Fallen Angels by Robert Masello, actually means "a child carried out" in the ancient Norse language. These dead creatures, like the navky, turned vengeful. But unlike the navky, the utburd are prepared to take action themselves.

Stories tell of an utburd entering its family's dwelling at night. Locks have no meaning for them as they can shape shift to carry out their deadly mission. As smoke or mist they enter through cracks, chimneys or pipes. Once inside, their first order of business is to kill their mother. The utburd is often envisioned as a blue, frozen replica of the child it was. Its strength and ability to do harm is more akin to that of an adult, however.

Once the creature has dispatched its mother, it would return to the place where it had died. There, it would attack any passer-by with speed and terrifying strength. The utburd was said to first call out, like a child in distress, to attract attention. Then, when the curious traveler came near, the spirit would encircle him or her, pulling the unfortunate down into the earth with it. The only hope for those who heard the call of the utburd was to cross running water before it could touch them, or produce a piece of iron. Otherwise, one was doomed just like the vengeful "child carried out."

Child ghosts who have been killed by evil and/or greedy adults can also become a form of psychopomp. The little princes of Tower of London fame, who were said to have been dispatched there so that another could sit on England's throne, are one example. Another less well known but equally dreaded vision is the so called Shivering Boy of Triermain Castle. Located in Northumberland, England, the castle is now mostly a ruin. In earlier times, however, families who inhabited it feared the touch of a child's hand or the sound of a shaky little voice saying: "Cold, cold, forever more." The experience was thought to be a sure sign of imminent death.

A terrible story hid behind the legend of the Shivering Boy. He was said to be a six or seven-year-old orphan set to inherit the castle and its lands some time in the Middle Ages. His father's brother was made ward to the young heir and, wanting the lucrative estate for himself, he locked the boy up and starved him. When the poor thing was too weak to move, his uncle carried him out to the village commons on a stormy winter night. Leaving the child in the blizzard to die, the uncle later told those who found the body that the boy had run away. Thereafter, the Shivering Boy either appeared to those about to die, whispered his complaint to them, or touched them with his icy fingers. Until the castle was abandon, he became its own personal banshee of sorts; an unwelcome portend shunned both in life and death.

Header: The ruins of Harbettle Castle in Northumberland from via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Wow. There are lots of good ideas for horror movies in this post, Pauline...

Pauline said...

And wonderful ghost stories, too :)