Friday, December 7, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

The idea of the return of the dead has always gripped the imagination of human beings. We're afraid of the dead and dead bodies, even in 1st world countries where death and dying are separated and sanitized. Movies about sparkly vampires aside, the popularity of shows like "The Walking Dead" prove that something in us, something primal and outside our technological cage, still understands that those things, those rotting reflections of our own mortality, could rise up and kill us all.

It seems that these kind of thoughts and the stories of ghosts and ghouls that they breed, are more prevalent - or at least more interesting - in the cold, dark climates of the far north. No one tells scary dead stories quite like the descendants of the Norsemen. Here are just two...

In Iceland, where the combination of Viking and Native cultures has spawned some of the scariest monsters imaginable, whispers still flow through communities of things known only as Sendings. These creatures, which are more puppets than self-propelled dead bodies, are made from the bones of the dead. They are put together piecemeal, like Frankenstein's monster, and then sent out to do the bidding of their master. More often than not, that bidding is to kill.

The most famous story of a malicious Sending revolves around a handsome widow who lived comfortably on the sheep ranch left to her by her late husband. Though courted quite seriously by several men in her village, the widow had no interest in remarrying. Time and again she tactfully, but firmly, said no. Then one day she said no to the wrong man.

The notorious wizard of the area set his cap for the widow and, receiving the same answer as every other suitor, he went home to brew up revenge.

One afternoon in autumn the widow was preparing dinner for her ranch hands. Stepping into the dark dampness of her cold room to retrieve some butter, she suddenly felt the hair on her arms stand straight up. The widow turned, and there on the fieldstone wall was a large, black shadow that looked eerily like a spider whose legs were made of human arms. In the very center of the shadowy abomination was a white spot. The thing hissed at the widow but, undaunted despite the racing of her heart, the good woman knew what to do. She pulled out the knife she kept in her apron pocket and stabbed the thing directly in the white spot at its core. The monster squealed out an ear-piercing scream and then scurried through the open door.

An hour later, when she had finally calmed her jangled nerves with a cup of mead, the widow rang the dinner bell and her hands hurried in to their meal. One of them stopped before sitting down at the long table and spoke directly to his employer: "Isn't this your knife, ma'am?" He pulled something from his pocket and it took a moment for the widow to realize what it was. There was her knife indeed, plunged deep into the arm bone of a human being.

These stories have a curious connection with the Scandinavian tales of the ghost in the ground. Unlike the Sending, these creatures are staked down in lonesome areas that people rarely pass. The long wooden poles that hold them to the ground are sometimes encountered by wayward travelers. Thinking the stick might help their walking or serve as a fishing pole, the unsuspecting man or woman will try to pull the pole from the ground. When they do, they invariably hear a quiet voice encouraging them in their chore, although no one is nearby. Listening to the voice is at the very least foolhardy; pulling the pole out of the ground releases the vengeful, hungry ghost, who will of course take the unsuspecting traveler as its first victim.

Such tales in turn bring to mind the mysteries of the so called Bog People. These highly preserved bodies from the far north of Europe almost always appear to have been ritually sacrificed and then dumped in peat bogs or marshes. Many, however, were not just allowed to sink. They were staked down with long poles. One has to imagine to keep them from coming back to prey on their executioners.

Header: Hel's Embrace by Sash-Kash via Deities and Demons


Timmy! said...

Very cool post, Pauline! Zombies (or the undead... whatever they happen to be called in a given culture) are always fascinating... to me at least.

Pauline said...

Me too. Our continuing obsession with life after death devolves into the living dead. How awesome is that?

Do chimpanzees dream of undead apes?