Category Archives: Myths and Legends

myths and megaliths

The British countryside is littered with the enigmatic remnants of its ancient past, there are somewhere in the region of ten thousand pre-Roman standing monuments. Modern archaeological techniques and science may be helping us to understand such sites today but once upon a time the people who lived with them found other ways to explain their redoubtable presence. Dating back thousands of years, monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, burial mounds (round and long barrows), stone rows and other such megalithic remains, provide a wealth of folklore as answers to the how, why and who questions of the past.

There are many tales to be told but the following is simply a selection of some well known and some not so well known.

One of the most well-known megalithic sites in Britain is that of Stonehenge with its own fair share of fantastical tales attached. In the 12th century Stonehenge was referred to as the ‘Hanging Stones’ because they appeared to float in the air. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the same century declared that Merlin (of Arthurian fame) was responsible for the building of the stones, something which was taken as fact for many centuries.

In Geoffrey’s account the king Aurelius Ambrosius told Merlin he wanted to raise a monument for his nobles who had been killed at Amesbury by the Saxon invader Hengist. Merlin tells the king to fetch a circle of stones in Ireland called the Dance of Giants that had healing properties. Aurelius went to Ireland with an army and fought the local Irish who did not want to give up the Dance of Giants eventually winning. On seeing the size of the stones, they found it impossible to move them, but Merlin was at hand who with the use of ‘his own engines, laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe’.  

Of course, we know through scientific endeavor that the largest stones come from nearby Marlborough Downs and the smaller blue stones are from the mountains in Wales, not Ireland. However, it is interesting that there did still seem to be some knowledge, a folk memory, that a part of Stonehenge came from far enough away to be a wonder. It is also of interest that these stones were believed to have healing qualities, as new theories suggest that there was strong connection between healing and the presence of the blue stones in the early phases of construction. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that they washed the stones and poured the water into baths ‘whereby those who were sick were cured’.

The healing power of certain stones is an enduring feature of the tales associated with them. The most well known is that of Men-an-Tol in West Cornwall, here there is a round upright stone with a hole in it situated between two small uprights. Children were passed through the hole as a cure for rickets; it was also believed to be good for a ‘crick in the neck’ and was sometimes referred to as the Crick Stone – having personally struggled through the aforementioned holed stone, it can be suggested that it causes the ‘crick in the neck’ rather than cures. At Horton in North Somerset there is a similar stone known as the Crick Stone.

Men an Tol, West Cornwall.

In Scotland, at the chamber tomb of Carraig an Talaidh, the portal stone is known as the Toothie Stane as a result of local people who were suffering from toothache would drive a nail into the stone. The idea being that in causing pain to the stone their own would cease. At the Rollright Stones it is said that they confer fertility upon women who touch them with their bare breasts at midnight. In addition, they are offer the power of prayer for the sick a boost if the prayers are said at the center of the Kings Men (the stone circle). The Kings Stone has a peculiar kink as result of the practice of chipping off pieces as good luck charms and amulets against the devil.

One of the most enduring tales associated with stone circles and standing stones is that of dancing. The Merry Maidens, a stone circle near St Buryan in West Cornwall, is said to be a circle of young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. In field nearby are several standing stones known as the Blind Fiddler and the Pipers who were playing music for the dancers and when they saw their fate, they tried run but God struck them down turning them into stone. A similar tale is told of the Nine Maidens, also in Cornwall.

The Merry Maidens, West Cornwall.

A common theme in the folklore of standing stones is of people who broke the Sabbath being punished by being turned to stone, something which would have been encouraged by the Church at the time. The stones represented the pagan and ungodly past, any idolatry of such places was to be discouraged. A classic example of the pagan vs the Christian can be seen in the story of Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria. It was the wizard Michael Scott who when passing the place saw it was a witches sabbath and turned the participants into stone – the use of magic in this instance would appear to not sit comfortably alongside Christian beliefs but then if it is used to do God’s work.  

Long Meg and Her Daughters (photo by Simon Ledinghal, http://www.geograph.org.uk).

In some cases, Christianity has taken an active role in the creation of the folktales surrounding sites. For example, the Long Stone near St Austell in Cornwall is said to once have been the staff and hat of the Saint Austell. The tale states that the saint was one day walking over the downs when his hat was blown off by a sudden violent gust of wind, he thrust his staff into the ground and chased after it. Unfortunately, the violent wind turned into an equally violent storm, driving the saint back to his home without both his staff and his hat. On returning the next day to retrieve his hat and staff he found that the Devil had turned them into stone.

The Devil also features in a legend regarding the Rudston in Yorkshire, this huge monolith stands tall in the local churchyard and the story says that the Devil was up to his usual tricks of throwing stones at Christian places. Picking up a large stone he hurled it at Rudston church, but his aim was lousy, and he missed. The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge consists of three stones and is all that remains of what would have been a very impressive stone row. Legend says that these stones were bolts thrown by an irate Devil aiming for the town at Aldborough and as we have already established his aim was lousy…

The Rudston Monolith, Yorkshire (photo by Paul Glazzard http://www.geograph.org.uk).

An example wrong doer being turned to stone comes from Gwynedd in Wales. The Carreg Y Lleidr stone is said to be a thief who stole some books from a neighboring church and was turned to stone along with the sack of books slung over his shoulder. Here folklore is being used to deter would be thieves and encourage moral behavior.

The connection between dancing and standing stones can also be seen in the notion that at certain times of the year certain stones are reanimated. Thus, Wrington’s Waterstone comes to life and dances on Midsummer’s Day but only when it coincides with a full moon. The previously mentioned Nine Maidens are said to sometimes dance at noon. On Orkney the Yetnasteen, a standing stone in Rousay, comes to life on New Year’s morning when it goes to the Loch of Scockness for a drink. Whilst at the Rollright Stones, the Kings Men are said to resume their human form on occasion, hold hands and dance to a nearby spring to drink.

The Rollright Stones (Oxfordshire) have their own creation myth associated with witches and magic. The name itself refers to a group of megalithic structures which includes a circle of seventy-seven stones called the King’s Men, a trio of standing stones which lean together and are called the Whispering Knights and a single standing stone called the King Stone. The legend first recorded in 1586 in Camden’s Britannia tells of how a king was once heading off in an expedition to become the High King of England. When he and his men reached the site where the stones are today, the owner of the land, a formidable witch appeared and told the king:

The Rollright Stones – the Kings Men circle (photo by Ron Strutt, http://www.geograph.org.uk).

‘Seven long strides thou shalt take,

And if Long Compton thou canst see

King of England thou shalt be.’

Determined to do just that, he strode forth but as he took his final step a large hillock appeared magically, hiding Long Compton from view. The witch then said:

‘Rise up, stick, and stand still stone,

For King of England thou shalt be none,

Thou and thy men hoar stone shall be

And I myself and elder tree’

Thus, the King and his men were turned to stone and between them up sprouted an elder tree.

Although the elder tree is no longer present, its inclusion in the tale is significant as it represents the pagan aspects of the site. Elder trees were regarded as the most sacred of trees and there are many superstitions and folklore associated with them. The Whispering Knights are said to either be knights who were plotting against the king or praying for him depending on who you talk to. A local legend tells of women who question the stones, leaning in close to receive their wisdom. The King Stone was known as the meeting place of Long Compton’s witches but was also believed to mark one of the entrances to the fairy halls under the circle.

The Rollright stones also have a connection with King Arthur; the tale of King Arthur finishes with him and his knights lying in an underground chamber waiting for time when Britain is in great need. Where this is exactly is of course left to the imagination but for Oxfordshire locals the chamber is located beneath the Rollrights. There are many sites around Britain which attest some connection with the legend of King Arthur, far too many to go into detail here (may be in another post). Suffice it to say that there are very few counties that do not have a stone or two attached to the name Arthur.

As mentioned before Christianity has on numerous occasions used the presence of stone megaliths to demonstrate their own power of good over evil and the importance of being pious. However, they do not always have it their own way. It was the practice of the early church to build their churches on sites of pagan significance, not always with good results. In Scotland near Garioch there is a site called Chapel o’ Sink stone circle, so named because once there were attempts to build a chapel within the stone circle but each night the walls would sink into the ground to such an extent that work was eventually halted, never to be resumed. There are several other similar legends connected with stone circles in Scotland – those called the ‘Sunken Kirk’.

There are also numerous tales of folk who have interfered with the stones much to their own detriment. Death and sudden illness were not uncommon, acting as a deterrent for those who respected the legends. Animals in particular, are said to be affected by changes made to megalithic sites. When the sites of Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall and the Cairnford stone circle in Grampian were threatened with destruction the local farm animals all fell ill – in time when your livelihood depended on those animals this was a disaster. Another tale tells of two stones being removed the Mains of Hatton stone circle in Scotland and being used as gate posts, they had to be replaced as the horses refused to go through them. Similarly in Scotland a stone was taken from the Grenish circle and used as a lintel over the entrance to a cow shed, but no animal would enter from that day on.

Lanyon Quoit, West Cornwall on a wild and wet day…

At the Rollrights there are also tales of farmers trying to take the stones to use in farm buildings; one farmer in particular, tried to use the capstone from the Whispering Knights as a mill dam, but every night the uncooperative stone returned to its proper place.

The final site type to consider is that of the barrow. A barrow is in essence a burial mound, some look like pimples on the face of a smooth landscape and others are long mounds built as a statement, many have long gone under the plough and only archaeology can tell they are there. They can range in date from the Neolithic up to the Anglo-Saxon period. The most common stories associated with these types of sites associated these places as the entrances to the Otherworld, a place where the fairy folk abide. Perhaps recalling the stories of the Tuatha De Danaan who were said to have retreated underground on their defeat by the Milesians.

A barrow in the churchyard at Tintagel in Cornwall.

In Tyne and Wear there is a barrow that goes by the name of the Fairies Cradle, it is said that on moonlit nights it is a favorite spot for fairy parades and celebrations. Near Carmyle in Strathclyde there is another barrow called the Fairy Folk Hillock where similarly revels are held by the fairy folk. These are just two examples of the many stories relating to fairy revels at ancient burial sites.

In Humberside the story goes a bit further, here there is a Neolithic long mound called Willy Howe. A chronicler writing in the twelfth century recorded how a man passing the mound found a doorway open on the side, curiosity got the better of him and peered in to find a brilliantly lit chamber in which a gathering of fairies were enjoying a feast. However, he was soon spotted gaping at the door and invited in. His hosts offered him a goblet of wine – anyone who knows anything about the fairy world knows that accepting food or drink there will seal your fate – but not wanting to offend his hosts he accepted and whilst they were not looking emptied the wine onto the ground, fleeing with the goblet. When his story got around, and the goblet inspected no one could identify the metal it was made from. The last recorded location of the goblet was when it was in the possession of Henry II.

Willy Howe, Yorkshire (photo by J Thomas http://www.geograph.org.uk)

The theme of treasure in these enigmatic humps in the landscape is highlighted by the stories of a King Sil and his treasure who was believed to be buried under Silbury Hill in Wiltshire or the gold horse and rider also said to be under Silbury. There are many tales of gold or treasure within the barrows, often such tales resulted in unscrupulous people digging into the mounds in search of such treasure but also tales of the retribution of the fairy folk for those who would dare to interfere with their sacred places. The traditional guardians of hidden treasure are the Spriggans – they would wait whilst the treasure hunter had dug a substantial hole before appearing threatening the would-be robber. Their appearance is said to be so ghastly that the mortal would depart with haste, and should he return later he would find his hole filled in. The stories tell how Spriggans had the ability to grow in size at will and in other tales they are referred to as the ghosts of the ancient giants.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire.

On Dartmoor there is a triple stone row at Challacombe and at its northern end is Chaw Gully, said to be a ‘dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirits, where rumors of buried gold have led many greedy treasure hunters to their doom’ (A Burnham ed The Old Stones – A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland).

In Fife there is a hill named Largo Law where it is ‘said that there so much gold buried in it that the wool of sheep turned yellow through eating the grass that grew upon it’ (M Alexander A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain 2002). But there is also a rhyme that warns against blowing a horn at Largo Law – something a young man named Norrie failed to heed. Norrie blew his horn, no sooner had he finished then he fell down dead, buried where he lay and covered by a cairn now known as Norrie’s Law. Interestingly, a silver hoard was found nearby in 1819, giving some credence to the legend of treasure.

A piece from the Norries Law hoard – silver Pictish jewelry.

As we read and listen to the stories connected to these ancient monuments we begin to see the world as it may have been to those who came before. The need to explain their presence in the landscape, to understand how they were built and why within a world view that was perhaps much narrower than ours. Even though the number of fringe explanations in todays world would suggest otherwise – the continued insistence that Stonehenge was built by aliens etc is but one example. Telling stories is an integral part of the human world, often as a way of teaching morals and histories, the difference between right and wrong. Thus, whilst some might dismiss folklore as simply fantastical stories they do provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of our ancestors, helping us to understand the past in different ways, to give the past color and multiple facets.

witches and magic in cornish folklore

A recent discovery (and purchase) of three booklets in a local charity shop is my inspiration for this post. Folklore, legends, customs and superstitions have always interested me and if it they have anything to do with my favourite place in the UK – Cornwall – all the better. Reading through them I became aware that perhaps on an unconscious level such stories may have influenced parts of ‘The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne’. In particular, the character of Nan who is a practitioner of the craft in her own very personal way; the West Penwith landscape and places such as Zennor and the great granite tors.

What follows is a brief look at some of these stories, but first an introduction to the person who recorded them over a hundred years ago.

In 1865 Robert Hunt wrote ‘Popular Romances of the West of England’ as a result of a period of convalescence where for ten months he wandered around Cornwall and up to the borders of Dartmoor listening to ordinary people and recording their stories. In his own words, “drinking deeply from the stream of legendary lore which at that time flowing as from a well of living water”. He recorded many interesting and quirky tales, some about giants, some about the fairy folk, some about the enigmatic megaliths and some about witches and magic.

As mentioned above, witchcraft and magic are very much part of my writing, thus for the purpose of this article lets look at some of these tales of witches in Cornwall…

Zennor Charmers

One of the first stories to grab my attention was the tale of the Zennor charmers – afterall, Sarah’s Nan lives in Zennor as did her ancestors. According to Hunt it is said that the men and women of this parish had the ability to stop blood, however fast it flowed. But it seemed that the charms were closely guarded secret and not even amongst themselves would be shared. People travelled from miles to have themselves or their children charmed for things such as ringworm, pains in the limbs or teeth and ulcerations. Hunt recorded that a correspondent of his wrote of ‘…a lady charmer, on whom I called. I found her to be a really clever, sensible woman. She was reading a learned treatise on ancient history. She told me there were but three charmers left in the west, – one at New Mills, one in Morva and herself’.

Charms are a common form of magic found in the relatively recent past, most have a religious element invoking angels and the use of holy water – possibly as a means of not upsetting the religious sensibilities of the community who would suffer their presence provided they were not openly subversive. Others use more natural elements such as the ash tree, the moon and even fire (ie candles) – a reflection of older pre-christian beliefs but still acceptable providing no harm was done. Their use is mainly used as a curative for various ailments or to find love. There are those that could be used to harm others but these are rare and fraught with danger as often such things have been known to rebound on the user in unimaginable ways.

Granny Boswell – a well known Cornish wise woman. Photo my own from the Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle (for more on the Museum follow the link – here)

Charmers (also sometimes called pellars) were the more acceptable face of magic – tolerated by the church and society in general – unlike the witch or sorcerer…

The village or churchtown of Zennor (Zennor by Philip Halling, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

How to Become a Witch

Here we find that the mysterious granite rocks play a part.

“Touch a Logan stone nine times at midnight, and any woman will become a witch. A more certain plan is said to be – to get on the Giant’s Rock at Zennor Churchtown nine times without shaking it. Seeing that this rock was at one time a very sensitive Logan stone, the task was somewhat difficult” (Cornish Legends p27)

A Logan stone is simply put a large slab of granite which is perched so perfectly on top of another, with only a single point of contact, that it rocks when touched and does not fall. There are several examples of Logan stones in Cornwall, the most famous is found at Treryn Dinas, the headland beyond the village of Treen. This particular one features in our next tale of Cornish witches.

The Witches of the Logan Stone

In his descriptions Hunt speaks of the ‘wild reverence of this mass of rock’ by Druids and people of the past. But it is the peak of granite just south of the Logan Stone, known as Castle Peak that he tells has been the place of midnight rendezvous for witches. He refers to them as the witches of St Levan who would fly into Castle Peak on stems of ragwort, bringing with them the things necessary to make their charms potent and strong.

From this peak many a struggling ship has been watched by a malignant crone, while she has been brewing the tempest to destroy it; and many a rejoicing chorus has been echoed, in horror, by the cliffs around, when the the witches have been croaking their miserable delight over the perishing of crews, as they have watched man, woman and child drowning, whom they were presently to rob of the treasures they were bringing home from other lands.

Cornish Legends Robert Hunt 1865 p29

The latter paragraph seems to confuse the witches of St Levan gathering at a dangerous stretch of Cornish coast with a band of wreckers, the similarities are obvious. Perhaps the stories were spread by the those who would not wish for anyone to pay to close attention to a particular locale.

The Logan Rock near the village of Treen. (Photo by Jim Champion / This way to the Logan Rock…)

Pengersick

There are many tales told about Pengersick Castle near Praa Sands. It is particularly well known for its many ghostly stories, I myself have had several odd encounters in and around the castle which you can read about online at The Celtic Guide (Halloween edition 2014). Hunt however, wrote of the first Pengerswick and his desire to improve his familys status. It seems that an ‘elderly maiden’ connected with the very influential Godolphin family wished to marry the elder son, a match his father encouraged. Unfortunately, the son could not be swayed, even when love potions brewed by the Witch of Fraddam were used. Eventually she married the old Lord himself.

Now the witch had a niece call Bitha who had been called upon to aid the lady of Godolphin and her aunt with their spells on the son, however she fell in love with him too. When the lady of Godolphin became the Lady of Pengerswick she employed Bitha as her maid. Yet the lady was still infatuated with the son and soon this turned to hate and then jealousy when she saw him with Bitha. In her bitterness she attempted all manner of spells but Bitha’s skill learnt from her aunt kept him safe. Eventually, the young man left Pengersick only returning on the death of his father.

During his absence the mistress and the maid spent a great deal of time plotting and counter-plotting to secure the wealth of the old Lord. When the son returned from distant Eastern lands with a princess for a wife and learned in all the magic sciences, he found his stepmother locked away in the tower, her skin covered in scales like a serpent as a result of the poisons she had distilled so often for the father and the son. She eventually cast herself into the sea, ‘to the relief of all parties’. Bitha did not fare much better, her skin had become the colour of a toad due to all the poisonous fumes she had inhaled and from her dealings with the devil.

Rod Allday / Pengersick Castle

The Witch of Treva

Once upon a time, long ago, there lived at Treva, a hamlet in Zennor, a wonderful old lady deeply skilled in necromancy. Her charms, spells and dark incantations made her the terror of the neighbourhood. However, this old lady failed to impress her husband with any belief in her supernatural powers, nor did he fail to proclaim his unbelief aloud”.

Robert Hunt ‘Cornish Legends’ p42

All of that changed one evening when the husband returned to find no dinner on the table. His wife, the witch, was unrepentant merely stating ‘I couldn’t get meat out of the stone, could?’ The husband then resolved to use this as a way of proving once and for all his wife’s powers. He told her that if she could procure him some good cooked meat within the half hour he would believe all she said of her power and be submissive to her forever. Confident she couldn’t accomplish such a thing, St Ives, the nearest market town was some five miles away and she had only her feet for transport, he sat and watched as she put on her cloak and headed out the cottage door and down the hill. He also watched as she placed herself on the ground and disappeared, in her place was hare which ran off at full speed.

Naturally he was a little startled but sat down to wait, within the half hour in walked his wife with ‘good flesh and taties all ready for aiting’.

Trewa, The Home of Witches

Not to be confused by the previous Treva (both pronounced ‘truee’) this particular place is now known as Trewey Common. Situated high on the moor between Nancledra and Zennor, it is landscape dotted with the remains of the ever present mining industry sitting alongside great outcrops of granite, some used in the construction of ancient monuments. Hunt described the scenery as ‘of the wildest description’, he is not wrong – even the modern mind can run wild with imagination in the evening twilight or on a moody day when the sky is as grey as the granite.

Hunt tells us that regardless of what local historians may say local tradition says that on Mid-summer Eve all the witches in Penwith gather here, lighting fires on every cromlech (quoit or tomb) and in every rock basin ‘until the hills were alive with flame’. Their purpose was to renew their vows to the ‘evil ones from whom they derived their power’.

It seems there was also another much larger pile of granite known as the ‘Witches Rock’ which no longer exists, having been removed quite some time ago. It was the removal of the rock which caused the witches to depart.

“…the last real witch in Zennor having passed away, as I have been told, about thirty years since, and with her, some say, the fairies fled. I have, however, many reasons for believing that our little friends have still a few haunts in this locality.”

R Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’

Hunt did go on to say that there was one reason why all should regret the removal of the Witches Rock, it seems that touching the rock nine times at midnight was insurance against bad luck…

Cornish Sorcerors

Sorcerers were the male equivalent of the witch, however with the addition that the powers were passed from father to son (more a reflection of the patriarchal nature of society at the time).

“There are many families – the descendants from the ancient Cornish people – who are even yet supposed to possess remarkable powers of one kind or another.”

Robert Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’

Unfortunately, apart from mentioning the family of Pengersick (which had by this time died out) and alluding to their wicked deeds he does not go into any great length about any of the other ancient Cornish families. Perhaps wisely, for if these unmentioned families did have remarkable powers it would not pay to offend…

Final Words

It is perhaps not surprising that certain parts of the Cornish landscape is given to fantastical tales of giants, witches and the fairy folk. The many ancient monuments, the craggy granite outcrops and the vast expanses of moorland lend themselves to an active imagination. The stories also serve as a caution against unchristian behaviour. As in the case of the witch of Treva who it is said when she died a black cloud rested over her house when everywhere else it was clear and blue. When the time came to carry her coffin to the churchyard, several unusual events occurred such as the sudden appearance of a cat on her coffin. It was only with the parson repeating the Lords Prayer over and over were they able to get her to the churchyard without any further incidents until they paused at the church stile and a hare appeared which as soon as the parson began the prayer once more gave a ‘diabolical howl, changed into a black unshapen creature and disappeared’.

Animals in British Superstition

This post was first written as an article for the ‘Celtic Guide’ some years ago and is now posted here for your enjoyment – for more articles and information about the ‘Celtic Guide’ follow the link.

According to the Oxford Dictionary superstition can be defined as a “belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; fear of the unknown and mysterious; a religion or practice or opinion based on such tendencies.” 

Certain animals are often at the trench face of superstition – cats are the first to spring to mind- the following article is a brief overview of a few of the many British superstitions surrounding our furry and feathered friends.

Cats

The range of superstitions surrounding cats varies widely depending on where you are and what type of cat you have.  Black cats in Britain are believed to be good luck and white cats are unlucky however in any many other parts of the world the reverse is true, whilst tortoiseshell cats are said to be particularly lucky.  Even within the Britain there is some variation on the aforementioned luck.  Generally speaking it is believed that if a black cat enters your home uninvited this is very lucky but you must not shoo it away or disaster will befall the house.  But in East Yorkshire, the opposite is held to be true.

The cat has long been associated with magic, witchcraft and superstition – maybe because it lives on its on terms – the phrase ‘dogs have owners, cats have staff’ rings true…

For some occupations cats can either be a hazard or blessing.  Both miners and sailors avoid using the word ‘cat’ but for sailors it is lucky to have a ships cat (preferably completely black).  In contrast, in Cornwall if a cat wonders into a mine all work would stop and it would have to be killed before work would continue.  In the world of theatre it is considered very fortunate to have a resident cat, so long as it did not wander onto the stage during a performance.

There are also some strange tales of the healing power of a cat tail.  For example, a cat’s tail drawn across an eye will cure a sty and in a variation of this the tail of a tortoiseshell could cure warts when stroked but oddly only in the month of May…

Cats do not need to be alive to provide protection either.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall has several displays of dried, mummified cats which have been found in the roof spaces of old buildings.  It is thought they were placed there after death as protection against not only rats and mice but also other misfortunes and evil spirits.  At the Church of England school in Chelmsford (built 1887) ‘cat paws bricks’ were used in the walls as protection against witches.  These bricks had imprints of cat paws on them.

A mummified cat on display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.

In Celtic myth there is a fairy creature called the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe.  This creature is a large black cat with a white spot on his chest and is a common feature of Scottish folklore and occasionally Irish folklore.  It is said that the Cat Sith will steal a persons’ soul before it was claimed by God by passing over the corpse before burial.  Thus the corpse would be watched day and night to keep him away.  But like so much in folklore and myth the Cat Sith is not all bad.  At Samhain he would bless a house if a saucer of milk was left out but woe and betide those who did not – the house would be cursed and their cows’ milk would run dry.

Dogs

Unlike cats there are not as many superstitions surrounding dogs, perhaps as a result of the unique friendship humans have had with dogs unlike cats which are far more contrary creatures.  A dog howling at midnight is seen as a foretelling of a death, in fact it seems howling of any kind would appear to a prediction of a death.  Other superstitions associated with dogs include a dog to running between bride and groom on their wedding day was a bad omen or a completely black dog crossing a traveller’s path, but this may well be associated with the stories about supernatural hounds such as Black Shuck, Barguest and others which were always black, ferocious and terrified travellers.  

By Nbauers – Photo taken in 2018Previously published: Rural Rambles Round Bungay, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77202164

Horses and Sheep

The horse was a vital part of the economy for thousands of years and much of the superstitions which arose did so to protect them.  There are a variety of charms to protect your horse from evil ranging from plants such as birch to amulets worn by the horse (these later became horse brasses).  Different counties would have different superstitions although in general it was considered bad luck to see a white horse, to offset the bad luck you need to cross your fingers and not uncross them until you see a dog.  In Devon white markings above all four hoofs was considered ill but one white stocking was okay.

Horse using brasses as a charm/amulet. By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/1b/d7/3c1f5ba9d6cbb144f194e7199f9b.jpgGallery:

Superstitions associated with sheep involve cures for various ailments.  Whooping cough was in the past a common childhood ailment and one of the cures involved breathing in the breath of a sheep and if that didn’t work you could find a piebald pony and do the same.  Consumption was also common and relief could be found by walking around a sheepfold or inhaling the breath of a horse, any colour or type would do.

One of the many remedies for pneumonia was to attach the lungs of a slaughtered sheep to the feet of the person taken ill – the idea was that the infection would be drawn down and into the sheep lungs.  Offal was also useful in removing a witches curse – first take the heart of a sheep, stick pins in it, then roast it at midnight and the curse is gone.

Hares and Rabbits

Many of the superstitions associated with the hare seem to be some form of Christian propaganda against the pagan symbolism of the hare.  Most are concerned with bad stuff happening – to dream of a hare was either a warning of enemies or a foretelling of a death in the family.  Should a pregnant women see a hare then her child would be born with a hare-lip or similarly to the dog if a hare was to cross in front of a wedding procession…well, who knows what would happen (all references to this particular superstition were strangely silent on what exactly would happen). 

In Cornwall white hares were believed to be maidens who had died of grief over ‘fickle lovers’ who then haunted the very same men.  Witchcraft and hares are closely connected as it was believed that witches were able to transform themselves into hares.

Rabbits on the other hand were more kindly treated, the most obvious is the use of rabbit foot for good luck (not so for the unfortunate rabbit), originally it was a hares foot which provided the charm though.  For the traveller it was considered good luck if a rabbit crossed in front of you but not so much if they crossed behind you.  If you would like your month ahead to go well say the word ‘rabbit’ three times on the first of the month before you say any other word.  However, do not say it when visiting Portland Bill in Dorset, to utter the word ‘rabbit’ is to invite misfortune.

Rabbits in the medieval period seemed to get a fairly bad rap given the way they were often illustrated in some texts. Although this is more to do with allegory than superstition (I do like the drawings though).

Birds

Not all birds have superstitions attached to them, only a select few can make that claim, mainly crows, owls, robins and magpies.

Crows in particular have got a very bad rap over the centuries; their appearance is enough to put a superstitious mind into gear.  Basically it is unlucky to see or hear a crow, so for example a crow on his own is very bad and to hear a crow cry from the left in the morning is also bad.  Crows flying around your house is not good for the inhabitants either…They even have their own rhyme which would suggest not all was doom and despair.

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a letter, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Magpies also have their own predictive rhyme:

“One’s for sorrow, two’s for mirth,

Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,

Five’s a christening, six a death,

Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,

And nine’s the devil his own sel’”

Generally speaking the magpie is regarded as a bird of bad luck and to avert the bad luck the sign of the cross would be made.  As with crows many such superstitions involved death and dying, having said that, in some places it was believed to be good luck to see two magpies provided you acknowledged them by bowing. 

Owls don’t get off lightly either, firstly it is unlucky to see an owl in the day and they are often regarded as harbingers of death (even here in New Zealand the cry of the Morepork, our native owl is regarded as a portent of a death in the neighbourhood).  Interestingly, the hooting of an owl in Welsh villages is said to indicate a girl was about to lose her virginity.

Robins on the other hand are seen as an auspicious bird as a result of the tradition of how the robin got its red breast.  Christian folklore tells of how the robin pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and in doing so was stained by the holy blood.  Later traditions also have the robin covering those who have died in the open with leaves.  To kill or hurt a robin was considered very bad luck and to break a robins’ egg meant something of value of yours would also be broken beyond repair.  Unfortunately, the robin could also predict death, by either tapping at the window of sick person or entering a church and singing.

It would be easy to say many of the superstitions surrounding our animal and bird friends are connected to past Christian distrust of that which was not Christian.  Cats, owls, crows, hares, horses and dogs all have deep roots in our pagan Celtic past but the degree of bad luck versus good luck seems to come down to how useful the aforementioned animals were. 

Witchcraft and the fear of it often results in certain animals having a greater number of superstitions such as the hare and the cat (dogs were also known as familiars but there role is played down).  Cats are a difficult case, as their use in controlling the rat and mice population were often overlooked in the zeal behind witch hunts.  In the mid fourteenth century a mass culling of cats has often been cited as one of the reasons for the explosion in rat population and thus the onset of the Black Death.

Horses are rarely bad luck and even though stories of devil dogs abound in tradition, making it into popular culture, such as, Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their usefulness as hunting companions and guardians of the home ensure that dogs never get any truly bad press.  Both horses and dogs are easily trainable, their loyalty a given.  Animals such as cats, hares and birds can be tamed to a degree but will always have that aura of wildness and unpredictability.  It doesn’t require a great deal of an effort for a superstition to take root, no matter how illogical it may seem.

A is for Aoraki

Originally written for the now defunct Mythology Magazine I am unsure if it was ever published…anywho…let this be the first in an A-Z of Maori legends, stories and myths.

A is for Aoraki

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

At 3,724 metres* Aoraki is New Zealand’s highest mountain.  It sits amongst the Southern Alps which in turn form the backbone of the South Island of New Zealand.  Regardless of where you travel in the world there will not be a landscape feature without a story and Aoraki is no different, even if there are a couple of different versions of the story. 

The myth of Aoraki is connected to a vast array of creation myths the Maori have to explain the land they found themselves in.  In most cases the myths and stories of creation have the same essentials but it is often the details which differ depending on whom you talk to and where in New Zealand they are from.  This can make the study of Maori mythology a little complicated.

In the beginning Aoraki was not a mountain, he was a man, the son of Raki* the sky.  In creating the world Raki married Papa, the earth, and they had many children, which is a tale for another time.  Now as it happened Raki had children from another earlier union and as we all know children from previous relationships can make life difficult for the new partner.  Some of these children came down from the sky in a giant waka (canoe) known as Te Waka-a-Aoraki.  Their names were Aoraki, Rakiroa, Rakirua and Rarakiroa and they wished to inspect their father’s new bride. 

When they arrived they found Papa lying in the ocean, a huge landmass, they sailed around her, poking and prodding until they got bored and then off they went exploring into the vast ocean hoping to find more land but all they found was more ocean.  Feeling somewhat disappointed they decided to return to the sky. However, the ritual chant which was needed to send them home was performed wrong* and their waka began to sink, turning to stone and earth.  As it sank it heeled over leaving the western side much higher than the eastern side.  The four sons of Raki climbed onto the highest side and turned into mountains with Aoraki the eldest becoming the tallest mountain with his brothers by his side.  The European names for these mountains are Mt Cook (Aoraki), Mt Dampier (Rakiora), Mt Teichelmann (Rakirua) and the Silberhorn (Rarakiroa).  For the local iwi (tribe) of Nga Tahu Aoraki is the most sacred of the ancestors, its physical form provides a link between the supernatural and nature.

A long time passed with the mountains watching and waiting, eventually a man came to the land, his name was Tu-te-raki-whanoa and his task was to prepare the land for human habitation.  In the north-east where the prow of the canoe had fallen and broken into many pieces forming the inlets and islands we now know as the Marlborough Sounds, he left alone.  But on the east coast he built up the land at Banks Peninsula and his assistant formed the Kaikora Peninsula.  He also planted the land with vegetation.

In much later times it was believed he would visit the east coast on occasion usually in the company of Takaroa.  They would appear as whales in the estuaries and river mouths and their presence was considered to be an important omen.

There is an alternative to this story, in which it is Maui – he who fished up Te Ika a Maui (the North Island) –  who was not only a descendent of Aoraki but it was his task to sail around the waka that Aoraki had left and make it safe for people to live on.  Some even say that the whole of the South Island is Maui’s waka and not Aoraki’s.  Some even go so far as to dispute the whole myth of Aoraki by saying he was a part of the crew of the Araiteuru which was wrecked and he was turned to stone along with his companions.  These alternative storylines do not originate with the Nga Tahu and it could be suggested are a case of Chinese whispers where the story has become distorted as it travels further away from the source. 

*Aoraki was previously measured as being 3,754m but a landslide triggered by the movement of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates knocked off a few metres from the top.

*In the North Island Raki is known as Rangi.

*Or alternatively, the waka hit a reef.

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

Hunting Taniwha

A SHORT STORY

One eye slowly opened and gazed out onto a world barely recognisable. 

Soon, whispered the wind.  

 The word rolled around in his awakening mind. 

Soon, whispered the wind.

The morning bell jangled across the playground, children scattered to their classrooms, some with an enthusiasm that can only come with being new to school.  Others saunter slowly; after all, what’s the rush, school sucks…  Eventually, Tapuhi Primary settles into its morning routine.  In room six Mrs Foster calls the role, ten eager faces, arms and legs crossed, fighting the urge to fidget on the rough carpet tiles. 

“Well, today we have some special visitors.  As you know all week we have been learning about the stories and traditions of Aotearoa. Today we are going to learn about taniwha. Who can tell me what a taniwha is?”

Ten eager hands shot into the air.

“Yes Samantha?”  Mrs Foster smiles.

“ A taniwha is…a taniwha is a kinda’ monster, like a really big lizard that lives in rivers and lakes and is really scary and likes to eat people!”  The words came out in a rush, nine heads nod knowingly in agreement. 

“Yes, you could say that, Samantha.  But there is much more to taniwha then just eating people and being scary.  After morning tea we will be having a visit from The Aunties,” ten little hearts leapt into ten little mouths – The Aunties!

Everyone had heard of The Aunties, most were related to them in some way; everyone listened when they spoke and did as they were told.  Except old Dave who ran the only garage for miles around, but then he was scarier than The Aunties.  The arguments between old Dave and The Aunties were the stuff legends in themselves.  Never mind the taniwha!

The morning flew by quickly.  Morning tea came and went in a flurry of biscuit crumbs and half eaten fruit.  As the children rushed back into class The Aunties were already there greeting each child by name.  The result was instantaneous, the children silently taking their places on the story mat and Mrs Foster briefly wondered if there was any way of bottling that effect…

“Everyone please welcome The Aunties to room six.”

“Kia Ora Aunties,” said room six in a sing song unison.

“Kia Ora children, thank you for having us here today.  Mrs Foster has asked to come and tell you about taniwha and we are happy to do this but first you need to tell us what you know about taniwha,” said the Auntie in the middle.

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the children looked everywhere except at the Aunties.  Speak to the Aunties?  Who were they kidding?  The slow tick-tock of the clock could be heard as the Aunties sat watching the children, waiting patiently, still as stone, their eyes missing nothing and just as Mrs Foster was just about to fill the silence a tentative hand reached up.

“Thank you Wiremu, what can you tell The Aunties about taniwha,” said a very relieved Mrs Foster.  There had been some raised eyebrows in the staffroom when she had talked about asking The Aunties to visit. 

“Umm, taniwha were creatures that lived near water and ate people?” said Wiremu hesitantly remembering what Samantha had said earlier in the day, “and my dad said they’re not real, just stories to scare people,” Wiremu finished quickly.

The Aunties exchanged a quiet look, once more the middle Auntie spoke, “yes, sometimes that is correct, the stories do sometimes tell of taniwha that eat people but they also tell of taniwha who protected people too.  Like the taniwha Tuhirangi who was Kupe’s guardian and protected the canoes that crossed the Cook Strait or the taniwha Pane-iraira who took the form of a whale and swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki.”

“So they don’t eat people?” piped up Wiremu, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“Ahh, yes some do.  The taniwha Tutaeporoporo he would travel up and down the river eating people, in revenge for being badly treated by the chief of that time.”

“Is he still eating people?”

“No, the great warrior and taniwha slayer Ao-kehu killed him.”

“How?”

“He hid inside a hollow log…” Wiremu who was now thoroughly entranced began to speak again, stopping abruptly when the Auntie held up her hand…“He hid inside a hollow log, the taniwha smelt him and ate the log whole.  But, Ao-kehu was clever and had taken with him an axe which he used to chop first through the log and then through the taniwha eventually killing him.  Inside the stomach of the taniwha they found two hundred of his victims”.

“Eww!” went a collective noise from room six as they settled in for more.

The hour and half between morning tea and lunch sped by as the children were held enthralled by stories of taniwha, the good and the bad.  There were taniwha who could shape shift, there were taniwha who were sharks, whales, dolphins and giant reptiles and even some who were enchanted logs or rakau tipua.  There was some disbelief at the last but the Aunties told the story of Humuhumu the guardian of the Ngati Whatua in the Kaipara, he was a totara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour.  

“But how do you know it’s a taniwha and not just some rotten old log?” Nine pairs of eyes widened in alarm – questioning the Aunties knowledge? Unheard of!

The three ageless women exchanged glances, “because Wiremu Collins, the log moved against the current and if it was not a taniwha how could it do that?” Faced with three pairs of eyebrows raised in a silent challenge, a red faced Wiremu had no answer.

Later, sitting on the hard asphalt of the playground eating warm sandwiches Wiremu’s mind began to wander, thoughts of taniwha filling his young head.

“Let’s go hunting for taniwha for real!” Wiremu’s words came out of the blue, as soon as he said it he knew it to be a good idea.  His mates looked at him, shook their heads and carried on eating their lunch.

 “After school, we head down to the bush and follow the track along the river.  I bet there is a taniwha down there somewhere.  We can pretend we are like the brave warriors from the olden days, it’ll be cool!”

“But Wiremu, what if we actually find one?” piped up one of the group.

Wiremu smiled, “It’ll be ok, remember what the Aunties said, not all taniwha are bad eh? And anyway Dad said they’re not real, just stories, come on…it’ll be awesome!”  Wiremu’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon there was mass showing of hands.

The decision made there was no going back and Wiremu felt his insides clench, part of him wanted to know what he was going to do if he actually found a taniwha and another part of him told him not to be stupid they were never going to find a taniwha because they were just stories – not real just like his dad said.

That afternoon as the going home bell jangled across the school, messages were sent home via brothers, sisters and cousins.  Walking out the school gates several curious adult eyes followed them, some smiled to see the kids off on an adventure, better then wasting time playing video games or watching the box. 

Afternoon sun filtered through the canopy, a bossy fantail followed them along the path flitting from tree to tree, grumpy at being disturbed.  The gurgle of the river calling them down the track to their destination.

 “Well Wiremu?  You’re the boss which way do we go? Up or down?”  Asked one of the would-be taniwha hunters once they arrived at the river.

Wiremu looked up the river and then down, he had no idea.  He closed his eyes.  At first all he could hear was the rush of the river, the wind in the tree tops and the calls of a tui, but then slowly he heard it, thump, thump.  A quiet heartbeat, he turned his head one way and then another – thump, thump.  Wiremu’s eyes flew open and walked off up river, the others scrambling to keep up.

“Hey wait!” yelled one of the others, but Wiremu had heard something and without stopping to think his feet followed the sound that resonated up through his soles.   

Eventually, little legs began to ache and puku’s rumbled as Wiremu’s relentless pace continued.  When the path became little more than a goat track, the merry band of would be warriors mutinied.  Wiremu however, was deaf to their pleas, his head filled with the stories of brave and clever warriors, the thump, thump, beneath his feet calling him forward.

“Wiremu!  Stop!” they shouted, to no avail.  This adventure was no longer fun. 

“Come on lets go back, Wiremu will be fine, it’s not like he’ll actually find a taniwha,” one of the others spoke up. 

The bush fringing the creek was dense and yet Wiremu carried on, unable to stop no matter how hard the bush tried to stop him.  Somewhere along the way he lost a shoe, kicking the other off when he realised.  The sharp stones on his bare feet not slowing him.  He knew he was close. 

Thump, thump, thump…

Eventually the bush stopped getting in his way and a smooth path opened up before him.  Wiremu’s feet stopped moving forward, his mind cleared and looking around for the first time he was suddenly very aware.  He was alone in the middle of the bush, probably miles from anywhere.  Where did everyone go?  His brothers had always said he was a dick.  Wiremu’s heart leapt in panic. 

Looking behind him he saw the dense bush and wondered how he had gotten through in the first place.  In front of him lay an easy path, smooth, wide and gentle on young feet. 

Come.

It wasn’t long before the path came to an end at the edge of a deep dark pool, the perfect place to find a taniwha.  Wiremu shivered.  The bush eerily silent, waiting, expecting.  Wiremu stood at the edge of the pool, his toes touching the cool water.  Looking at his reflection, he saw himself, a small scared boy, his chest heaving.

It is time.

Do taniwha eat people? Some do, some don’t the words of the Aunties echoed around Wiremu’s head.  How wrong was my dad, he thought as he watched mesmerised as the still pool began to churn.  The ground beneath his feet shook slightly, belatedly he realised that his brothers were right, he was a dick.  I am a dick for thinking I could hunt taniwha, I am a dick for not taking the stories of my whanau seriously and now I am a dick because I am about to be eaten by one of those stories.

The warm rancid breath of the taniwha tickled the back of Wiremu’s neck, inviting him to turn around.  Wiremu stood still as a stone gazing in terror at his reflection churning at his feet.

Turn, would be warrior, turn and gaze upon me, it is time.

Wiremu’s heart almost stopped.  Time for what?

The iridescent blue of a kingfisher fluttered past settling on a branch hanging over the pool. The kingfisher and Wiremu looked at each other, wisdom and knowledge in its small beady eyes, hope.  Words filled Wiremu’s mind. 

Ina te rua taniwha!

Pute ona karu

Murara te ohi!

Tau mai te po

Takina te whakaihi

Ki Rarohenga rawa iho

Moe ate Po

Te Po-nui

TePo-roa

Te Po riro atu ai e!

            Wiremu stumbled over the words, nothing happened, the pool still churned, he could almost feel the lick of a tongue. The kingfisher looked at him head cocked to one side, try again Wiremu, you can do better.   Deep breath, his eyes fixed on the bright blue bird, he repeated the words again, stronger, louder.  As he finished, the churning pool subsided, the warmth at his back eased.  Wiremu began to breathe once more.     

“Thank you.”

            The kingfisher flew to another branch, Wiremu’s eyes followed.  There, below the kingfisher a stepping stone path to the other side of the pool.  He didn’t need to be told twice, crossing quickly with wings on his feet he scrambled up the bank on the far side of the pool.  As he reached the top, he glanced over his shoulder amazed that all was still and quiet again.  It could have been a dream, but it wasn’t.  With a shudder he turned his back on the dark pool – time to go home.

            Three ageless ladies stood watching, silent witnesses.  The words of the karakia still echoed around the pool.  Today had been a close call.  They had seen it in his face at the school.  He was the one.  But not on this day.

            Soon though.  Very soon indeed.

Here be dragons

Taniwha in Maori Myth

Regardless of where you go in the world and what culture you study, stories of dragons are a recurring theme within the stories of any given people. Dragons abound everywhere and every time, even in our modern and increasingly sceptical world the desire to believe is still strong.  Take the stories of the Loch Ness monster or the giant serpents of the Hudson River and other similar creatures that periodically pop up all over the world. The Maori are no different, they too have their myths and traditions involving dragons, of a sort, called taniwha, who are intimately connected with the natural world.

Early drawing of waka – the double hulled waka were most likely to have been used for long sea journeys. (From Rotorua Museum, Wikicommons)

Taniwha are in essence supernatural creatures which can appear in different forms, one of which is dragon-like giant lizard, but they can also resemble sharks, dolphins, whales or even in some instances enchanted logs.  They can be the agents of good or evil and sometimes neither.  Every region of New Zealand has a host of stories about their local taniwha, many of whom came with the first explorers acting as guardians and protectors.  Some are special people who have been turned into taniwha upon their death and others are of unknown origin.

The Maori are descended from the first Polynesian explorers who arrived in the land we now know of as New Zealand approximately eight hundred years ago (give or take a few hundred years…) and there are often similarities in the myths from certain parts of the Pacific, such as the Cook Islands and Society Islands. However, the taniwha of Maori tradition have evolved as a result of the unique environment these early explorers found themselves in. New Zealand’s environment is very different from the island worlds they would have come from. It is after all a much larger world of mountains, deep forests with giant trees, fast flowing rivers and wild coasts.  Even today a person walking in the bush can come across areas, secret places where you feel it would not pay to tarry.

In Maori tradition the first people to arrive came on large seagoing waka and many of the early stories relate to these ancestors and how they adjusted to their new land. In the traditions the waka would be accompanied by a taniwha who would be its protector, such as, Kupe’s taniwha, Tuhirangi or the female taniwha Araiteuru who came with the waka Mamari.  Though there are some traditions which say she travelled with the waka Takitimu and another taniwha called Ruamono.

In the year 2000 New Zealand Post put out a series of stamps to celebrate the year of the Dragon; Araiteuru and Tuhirangi were part of this.

Araiteuru gave birth to eleven sons on arrival in New Zealand, who all went digging trenches along the way, thus creating the numerous branches of the Hokianga Harbour.  It is said that Lake Omapere was created when one of her sons burrowed inland and thrashed his tail around.  As guardian of the Hokianga Harbour Araiteuru dwells in a cave at the south head of the harbour, whilst her companion, Niua, lives in the north head of the harbour.

The taniwha Tuhirangi is said to dwell in the Cook Strait where Kupe left him to guide and protect waka as they crossed between the two islands.  Between 1888 and 1912 a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack accompanied ships travelling between the North and South Islands.  At the time, local Maori believed this was the taniwha Tuhirangi in the form of a dolphin, guiding and protecting ships in this dangerous stretch of water.  A number of years later in the summer of 1955/56 another friendly dolphin appeared, but this time at Opononi in the far north of the North Island.  Nicknamed Opo, the dolphin would play and interact with visitors and many Maori believed Opo to be a guardian taniwha.

A grainy photo taken in 1911 of Pelorus Jack/Tuhirangi.

Tuhirangi and Araiteuru were part of a trio of important taniwha, the third member of this group was a female called Huriawa.  Her home is Te Waikoropupr Springs, Golden Bay. She is regarded as brave and wise, travelling through the earth to clear blocked waterways.  The springs which are her home are regarded as the purest form of water which both the spiritual and physical source of life.  The water is often used for healing and in blessing ceremonies.

Another taniwha which accompanied the ancestral waka of the Tainui from Hawaikii was the whale Paneiraira.  His name means ‘spotted head’ referring to his appearance.  He was last seen in 1863 just before the war broke out between the Maori and the newly arrived Europeans.  It is said he came to warn his people of impending disaster. 

In the story of Pania and Karitoki, their son (Moremore) became a taniwha when his father attempted a ritual to keep his mother form returning to the sea people and failed.  Moremore is a guardian, or Kaitiaki, of the harbour at Te Whanga-nui-a-Orutu.  He appears in different forms, as a shark, an octopus and sometimes a log.  Patrolling the harbour, he would protect the people from danger while they gathered seafood and fished.

A statue of Pania on the Napier seafront.

An important aspect of the people’s relationship with taniwha was acknowledgement by making the necessary offerings or appropriate chants.  The local tohunga might off the first kumara to be harvested or the first birds to be caught in the season.  Travellers when passing by a known lair might make an offering of a green twig whilst reciting a chant.  In 2002, the Ngati Nohu (a hapu of the Waikato area) objected to the construction of part of a highway on the basis it would destroy the lair of their taniwha, Karutahi.  After much discussion and to the satisfaction of the elders, the transport agency agreed to reroute the highway to avoid the lair. 

One of the more unusual forms a taniwha can take it that of a log.  In order to identify the taniwha you would be looking for a log that did behave in the manner of regular log, known as Rakau tipua.  On Lake Rotoiti the taniwha Mataura would appear on the water as a huge tree trunk with numerous branches and covered in water weed, particularly on the death of a high-ranking person. When visiting the Kaipara Harbour watch out for a log moving against the current.  It is believed to be the taniwha Humuhumu, the guardian of the Ngati Whatua. 

Other taniwha can take a myriad of forms, some can be a strange conglomeration of creatures – native lizards such as the gecko or tuatara feature strongly as do bat wings, shark teeth and octopus tentacles.

A modern rock carving of a taniwha on the shore of Lake Taupo – here their lizard like appearance is emphasised.

So far, we have only looked at those taniwha who are kaitiaki, but not all have good intentions.  Some may have begun this way, as guardians of the people, but it only takes one mistake and the taniwha can turn on the people.

“Because of their role as guardians they watched vigilantly to ensure that the people respected the tapu restrictions imposed upon them, and any violation of tapu was sure to be punished. They were usually held responsible for deaths by drowning; the person must have insulted the taniwha by breaking tapu in some way” (Orbell M. 1995)

 In December 1876, a news article in a Maori language paper told of four young girls who went swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa.  Local tradition knew this place to be the lair of the taniwha Taminamina.  One of the girls swam to the far side of the waterhole where she climbed up onto a rock and started to drink the nectar of the red flowers of the sacred Rata tree. Without warning, the girl slipped into the water, one of the other girls tried to save her but failed.  The water began to froth and swirl and the girls believed it was the taniwha.  The elders were of the firm belief that the girl was punished for breaking tapu and drinking the nectar of the sacred Rata.

Southern Rata near Franz Joseph Glacier (Photo by Graham Rabbitts wikicommons)

In 1955, a photograph was taken on the Whanganui River.  It depicts a swirling mass in the middle of the river and the inscription on the back of the photo reads:

“On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui river below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt, just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito point.”

In another story the guardian (Takere-piripiri) of Otautahonga Pa, a hillfort of the Ngati Raukawa would have offerings of food left below his cave.  One day a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who had brought it.  This angered the taniwha and he ate the people instead, unfortunately this gave him a taste for human flesh and he left the pa and went to the mountains where he would prey upon travellers. 

There were though taniwha who were just plain nasty, such as Ngarara Huarau from the Hawkes Bay who just liked to eat people and then there were the taniwha who liked to kidnap beautiful young women to keep as wives.

However, not all is lost because where there is a threat to the people there will always be heroes.  In this case warriors who used their strength and cunning to defeat the taniwha and protect the people. Pitaka, Tamure, Potoru and Ao-Kehu were all famous warriors known for their prowess in defeating taniwha. Tamure had a special mere (greenstone club) which had the power to defeat taniwha.  He is well known for defeating the taniwha at Piha who had a taste for people.  Interestingly, he did not kill this taniwha but wounded it enough that it could not eat people.  The warrior Ao-Kehu hid himself in a hollow log with a shark tooth club and when the taniwha smelt him he swallowed the log whole. Ao-Kehu then hacked his way out of the log and out of the taniwha killing it in the process.

Photo of a drawing of an unknown Maori warrior by Sydney Parkinson (photo by Szilas at the Canterbury Museum Christchurch)

The earliest stories are those connected with the arrival of the first waka.  These stories or traditions are in the style of creation myths adapted to the local landscape.  Hence, many taniwha are responsible for the sinuous rivers, the many inlets in a harbour or in the case of the Porirua taniwha, Awaru, the flat appearance of Mana Island which she crashed into as she was learning to fly. 

Others are stories which serve to identify valuable resources and offer a means of protection of those resources.  Then there are those which all societies have; sagas that glorify desirable human qualities.  For the Maori, the great warriors used both their minds and their strength to defeat the undesirable taniwha. 

The traditions of taniwha are often complex narratives which serve to enforce what was considered acceptable behaviour within an iwi/hapu (tribe/subtribe), whilst at the same time providing reassurance to the people – reasons for why certain events happened.  If a group of travellers went missing in the mountains, the most likely reason was that they did not make the right offerings and were eaten by the taniwha.  Even today the New Zealand bush is not a place for an inexperienced hiker, accidents can and do happen.  Rivers and lakes are deep and full of hazards, drownings are a far too common event, landslides and earthquakes are a regular occurrence.  We are all familiar with the sense of helplessness, the feelings of not being in control.  Attributing such events to the taniwha, a creature you can placate with offerings, or in some cases can hunt and kill, helps to explain such events and at the same time offers a way to take control once more of their world.

Ureia, a kaitiaki taniwha – carved on a poupou (house post) inside Hotuni, a carved meeting house of the Ngati Maru. The building can now be found inside the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend

A Cornish Mermaid

“The village of Zennor, about a quarter of a mile distant (from Morvah), lies in a wild and stony district.  Within the very interesting church are some quaint bench ends, one which depicts a mermaid…” (The Cornish Riviera 1911)

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The pub and the church – two essentials in any village.

Zennor is a small but perfectly formed village nestled into the rugged landscape of west Penwith.  It has an air of having been around since the beginning of time and a quick survey of the surrounding landscape would seem to confirm this.  The ancient past is all around you in this part of Cornwall, whether it is the stone walls that snake across the land, the portal dolmens dating back to the Neolithic or the remains of circular huts with dates in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

But perhaps the most well known aspect of Zennor is its connection with mermaids.  In the church there is an ancient oak bench, which at one end has carved into it a mermaid holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other (the mirror is sometimes referred to either as a quince or a pomegranate).  As with all matters in this land of stories there is a legend attached to the chair.

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The mermaid chair.

 

“One Christmas morning, long ago, so the local tradition runs, the mermaid came to the church, attracted by the marvellous singing of the squire’s son, a handsome youth, who considered by the ladies of Zennor the most desirable “future husband” in the district.  Moreover, so the story goes, the mermaid changed herself into a beautiful human maid wearing a gown of woven silver filament, which gave off a bright incandescence, and sitting beside the squire’s son she cast a spell on him.  Suddenly a terrific storm raged around the church and several flashes of lightening zigzagged at the windows, filling the church with a blinding glare.  The storm only lasted a few moments, and when it had abated the mermaid had vanished – and so had the squire’s son.” (Cornwall by R. Thurston Hopkins date unknown).

There are a few variations on this version but the essentials stay the same.  In the official pamphlet from the church at Zennor the legend tells “…how a beautiful young woman in a long dress used to sit at the back of the church listening to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. One evening she succeeded in luring him down to the stream which runs through the village.  Together they went down the stream and into the sea at Pendour Cove, now known as Mermaid’s Cove.  It is said that if you listen carefully on warm summer’s evening you can hear the pair of lovers singing together.”

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Detail of the mermaid chair – the comb and the mirror are recurring themes in depictions of mermaids.

It is believed that the carved chair which commemorates this story dates back to the late Medieval some five to six hundred years ago.  Stories of mermaids go back centuries, the first record of a mermaid tradition comes from the Assyrians and in Ancient Greece the mermaid was the symbol of Aphrodite who was not only the goddess of love but also the sea. Tumultuous and unpredictable, both can be said of the sea and love.  In many stories surrounding mermaids they are both beautiful/kind and ugly/evil – the two sides of the same coin.

It is not surprising then to learn that in the churchyard at Zennor there are many unmarked graves of unknown sailors who died during shipwrecks on this perilous stretch of coastline.  The sea can be both kind and bounteous but can turn in an instant taking life without remorse.

“It is a fact that, to this day, the women of the choir at Zennor sit between the male choristers and the church porch, and this, the village people say, is to protect their menfolk from the wiles of seductive “merry maidens”.” (R. Thurston Hopkins)

During the Middle Ages the mermaid appears in carvings at churches around the UK, becoming a symbol for the evils of lust, the fishy tail reminiscent of the scales on a serpent providing a link to the idea of ‘original sin’.  The mirror and the comb features in many depictions and are sometimes regarded as symbols of the mermaids (and thus female) vanity and it is through vanity that sin occurs.

Throughout time men have gone to sea to make their fortune or simply to provide for their families, it is a fact that some have never returned leaving families behind wondering what had happened to their menfolk.  Perhaps the legend is born from a truth – the mermaid is the capricious sea – a beautiful woman who lures men away often never to be seen again.  Is it not said that the sea is a ‘harsh mistress’?

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

The Church  itself is dedicated to St Senara  – the earliest record of a church here dates to 1150 AD but the circular shape of the churchyard and the 6th century saints name would indicate that there has been a church here from around the earlier date.  St Senara is often associated with the legend of Princess Asenara of Brittany who married King Goello.  Her stepmother was jealous of her beauty and accused her of infidelity condemning her to be burnt however when it was found that she was pregnant her gaolers nailed her into a barrel and set her to sea.  It is said the child was born in the barrel and named Budoc, eventually the barrel washed up onto the Irish coast and Asenara and Budoc stayed for awhile.  As in all good stories King Goello discovered the truth of the matter and Asenara returned to Brittany with Budoc via Cornwall. Along the way they founded the parishes of Zennor and Budoc (near Falmouth).

Within the church there are two fonts, one is Norman in date and the other is 13th/14th century in date and is still in use today.

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

In 1270 the church was appropriated by the Provost and Canons of Glasney College, at this time much of it was rebuilt.  The builders were housed in what is now ‘The Tinners Arms’, the local pub which was built in 1271.  In 1450 the tower and north aisle were added to the church.

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One of several stone crosses to be found in the churchyard. These originally marked the path for the ‘coffin way’.

Apart from all the great scenic walks (‘the coffin way’ to St Ives being one) around the area there is also a working water wheel and local museum – ‘The Wayside Folk Museum’.  This is a private museum of rural and local artefacts with everything from stone axeheads dating from the Neolithic to farm implements from the 18th century.

NB – It has come to my attention that The Wayside Folk Museum has closed and was sold recently (2016).