folk tales

The Folklore of Weather

9669421775_2e78ea2c50_zIt’s said New Englanders have several past times, one being eternal love for the Boston Red Sox. The other? Pontificating on or predicting the weather. We all seem to be armchair meteorologists who rely on wives tales, patchy memories or achy joints to ramble on about the weather. From the wooliness of bugs to the height of beehives, the folklore of weather spans generations and continents.

In an Indiana newspaper article, a Huntington University professor tackled the idea of weather, science and folklore. One such example of weather folklore according to Dr. Linda Urschel is the woolly worm, telling the Huntington County Tab, “The more black they have on them, the harder the winter is going to be.” The basic idea follows that someone observe an animal, a plant or natural phenomena and then attaches it to the later meteorological event.

Here in New England I am habit to see the sunset and utter, “Red sky at night, sailors delights. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” With a strong sea-faring tradition in Massachusetts its a natural folk saying picked up and retained over the generations.

The folk traditions about weather and its connection to flora and fauna are covered by comprehensive list created by NASA. Some of the historic weather folkloric traditions include:

North Carolina- “An old proverb says that a house that is overarched by a rainbow will soon experience a disaster or if you walk through the end of the rainbow, your family will experience a disaster within a year.”

Germany- “It was commonly believed in old times that Old Mother Frost caused snow by shaking the feathers from her bed. These feathers would then fall to Earth as snow.”

Australia- “An aboriginal myth says that frost comes from the seven stars of the Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters. The sisters once lived on Earth but were so cold they sparkled with icicles. They flew up into the sky and once each year they pull off their icicles and hurl them down to Earth.”

From the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society comes these folkloric rhymes:

“When clouds look like black smoke a wise man will put on his cloak.”

“If salt is sticky,  And gains in weight; It will rain Before too late.

For NASA’s full, continent by continent list of weather folklore check it out here.

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© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Did Fire Kill the Night and Birth Storytelling and Religions?

With the flick of a switch and by the glow of a smartphone screen we have finally chased away the lonely, terrifying darkness of night. The portable access to light, to entertain and occupy, like the incandescent light bulb, have changed how we deal with and interact with the night. The night was once communally conquered by a bonfire where food was prepared and stories were exchanged. The fear of the unknown that lurked at the firelight’s edge was chased away by tales whispered by the lips of man.

For the better part of 40 years University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiesner studied the Kalhari Bushmen, specifically their communication habits and content. Wiessner examined the content of conversation between Bushmen during the day and night. What she found was particularly fascinating- daylight conversations were mundane or gossip filled. While when the sun set and flames rose stories became supernatural and deeply personal.

According to the University of Utah press release:

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

Wiessner goes on to note:

“firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.”

Wiessner’s idea that civilization and community were born over a roaring fire is both brilliant and complex. The role of fire in ritual and worship is an important and continuing connection to those bonfire communes of pre-history. Viewed through Wiessner’s thesis the role of fire there is renewed and complexity to the birth of faiths and myths. If we look at the fire as deified symbol the Burning Bush perhaps started as a communal spiritual experience and turned into a solitary prophetic action that helped codify a faith. In Zoroastrianism fire takes on sacred complexity, with Atar, or holy fire as the “source force which is the source of all energy and the symbol of truth and righteousness,” according to University of Derby Multifaith Centre. From Hinduism’s Agni to Maori ahi tapu, or sacred fires, the role of fire of faith punctuates every continent and culture. And it starts with tinder and a story.

For the full University of Utah press release, read here.

Magic in New England’s Fields: People of God in the Devil’s Lands

There was a magic in the woods and glens of Colonial New England. Puritan settlers while quick to eye the forests and mountains with suspicion and fear of maleficium, they just as easily looked upon fellow men and women of God-fearing English stock with fear. The Natives of the region, exemplified by the Abenaki of the northeast, practiced their own form of ‘magic’ in land’s that Puritans believed was once the Devil’s dominion.

To Cotton Mather it made sense that the Devil would stalk the lands of New England as where else would he be than among a group who hated him the most, “Where will the Devil show the most malice, where is hated, and hateth the most.” From his Wonders of the Invisible World of 1693 we get a glimpse of the Devil’s power over not just man but the world itself, creator of wars, heresies and storms, ” Once more, why may not Storms be reckoned among those Woes, with which the Devil does disturb us? It is not improbable that Natural Storms on the World are often of the Devils raising. We are told in Job 1.11, 12, 19. that the Devil made a Storm, which hurrican’d the House of Job, upon the Heads of them that were Feasting in it.”

According to a 2012 lecture by Stephen Mitchell, professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, everything which happened on Earth was connected morally and physically in the Puritan mind. These groups saw ship wrecks, storms and infant death with equal suspicion of the Devil’s handiwork as a product of God’s divine plan. Disease or ‘possession’, according to Mitchell, were handled by Puritans through fasting and prayer. These actions further ratifying the connection between the spirit and physical.

Mather wrote of the Natives of Massachusetts at the time of colonization, “The Indian Powawes, used all their Sorceries to molest the first Planters here; but God said unto them, Touch them not!” Mather continued, “The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”

One can imagine the pious indignation Puritan’s experienced when they witnessed Native American ‘magic’ in New England. In 1624’s Good Newes, Englishman Edward Winslow wrote, “The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling up the Devil, and curing diseases of the sick and wounded.” The Powah is the Native “powwow” where priests with special powers of divination were exercised over nature, often for the benefit of man but also as a weapon. According to Winslow’s Newes, which preceded Mather’s work by nearly 70 years, the magic men of Native New England, “can raise storms and tempests which they usually do when they intend the death and destruction of other people.”

The most potent conjurer figure from the colonial period was a Pennacook sachem known as Passaconaway who is said to move rocks and return leaves to life. From a modern perspective Passaconaway was a member of a magic practicing tradition that appears to have a marvelous and intimate connection to nature. Yet viewed with the suspicions of Puritan New England Native sorcerers share talents with the Devil himself.

Roger Williams, theologian and New England colonist leader, viewed the healing actions of Native priests with more nuance, “They conceive there are many Gods or divine powers within the body of the man: In his pulse, his hearts, his lungs.” Instead of pulling from Satan for power, these priests, removed the malignant forces within man, an intimate power connected to a larger ideal. However, Williams did write, “These priests and conjurers (like Simon Magus) do bewitch the people,” going on to say rather contradictory, “most certainly (by the help of the Devil) work great cures.” (For Williams reference of Simon Magus, see Acts 8:9.)

One such skilled practitioner was Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, known for leadership skills as well as magic, Passaconaway oversaw a confederation from northern Massachusetts deep into New Hampshire. Uniting tribes from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to bulwark Mohawk aggression, Passaconaway also is said to have possessed powers as a m’teowlin, ‘deep seeing one.’ or powwow.

The native sachem exploits were chronicled by William Wood in his 1634 work, New England’s Prospect, “(Passaconaway) can make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphize himself into a flaming man.” Going on to describe Passaconaway’s skills, Wood wrote,”in Winter, when there is no green leaves to be got, he will burn an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carry away; and make of a dead snakes skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.” Wood, who said powwow practitioners were imbued with exorcist and necromancer charms, did note that the sorcery talents of Passaconaway may be nothing more than, “deceptio visus” or visual tricks.

Men and women of the m’teowlin, shamans or the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, held a unique place in their communities as healer and shapers of nature. These figures could not only heal, but said to command the course of a river, seeing the future, working with spirits of the departed, aiding in hunts or communal ceremonies. These figures were important mediators with the coursing power around them as their special connection to every tree, rock or animal. One example of the power of shaman is told about the Abenaki at war where a seer consulted with spirits and determined a group of Iroquois foes were on an island and if the Abenaki attacked the next day they would wipe out the opposing force. According to the story, the battle was joined and not a single Iroquois survived, each victim having their head cleaved off and placed on a poll.

An interesting footnote to the belief that New England was filled with heathens thriving in the Devil’s dominion was that when the witchcraft hysteria swept New England in the 17th century Natives were not singled out for punishment. Puritans, it appears, were more suspicious of the Devil working through their fellow English than of the Natives of New England. Even though the New English wilderness contained Biblical evil, Native’s of the region were rarely prosecuted or suspected of maleficum.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. II

burroughs2(Note: The following is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class. For Part I to the article, click here.)

In April of 1692, with witch trial testimonies in full swing, Thomas Putnam claimed his daughter Ann was visited by the spectral figure of Reverend George Burroughs who proceeded to torture the young girl. A month later, Ann Putnam testified that two apparitions appeared to her. According to Ann they were the wives of Burroughs, allegedly killed by the minister’s own hand. The constant whisper of his mistreated spouses followed Burroughs from his earliest days in Salem Village through his forcible return as witch cabal leader. His second wife, widow Sarah Ruck Hathorne whom he married in 1682, was the sister-in-law of Essex County Magistrate John Hathorne, a man who became deeply involved in the later witchcraft accusations against Burroughs. Sarah Hathorne Burroughs died in Falmouth, Maine in 1689.

Mercy Lewis, a young woman with personal history with Burroughs, then charged the minister with also appearing as a specter to her in May. Burroughs allegedly went to Lewis to get her to sign a pact with the Devil as well as try to recruit other area girls into his diabolic scheme.

It seems clear that even if the barest of historical accounts of Minister Burroughs are accurate, he cut an unusual, potentially fiery and eccentric frontier character. Known for unusual strength, like lifting a long musket with a single hand or hoisting a filled barrel with just his fingers, Burroughs may have also been in conflict with the Puritan fathers over faith.

Accusations of witchcraft further enflamed the war scars of southern New England. Ann Putnam Jr. reportedly told investigators that Burroughs had bewitched the soldiers of Governor Edmund Andros in 1688-1689. Several figures key to the Salem witch hysteria, like Magistrates John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin whose fact finding efforts in Maine may have led to the decision to leave Falmouth virtually defenseless during 1690s mass Abanaki assault, made a variety of mistakes during King William’s War. It seems that war-time shortcomings may have been projected onto Burroughs during the trial. Hathorne and Corwin were the lead inquisitors in Salem and pressed a confession from young Abigail Hobbs who claimed she had been approached by the Devil in the woods outside Falmouth, Maine four years earlier. Hobbs was yet another Casco Bay refugee driven to the Village. The solicitation in the woods was not happenstance as the woods were widely regarded as an evil place.


Was the psychological hysteria of Salem’s young women a manifestation of the stress of war, communal squabbles and frontier life? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a widely accepted psychological diagnosis that could be applied to the accusers. However, the individual nature of PTSD does not properly grapple with the group dynamic that gave credence to the wild accusations. Epidemic hysteria, a physical or psychological manic state manifested by a group, seems to fit the Salem case perfectly. Provoked by stress and nurtured by community values or worries, epidemic hysteria has several recorded instances in Europe, from a Black Death induced mass dance hysteria in German to the French “Barkers” who crawled around like dogs, social stress can spread like a thought virus through a community. Could the young women of Salem, reeling from war and reflecting the spiritual worries of their communities; and personal prejudices of their parents have turned to Burroughs as scapegoat? Was Mercy Lewis, who was familiar with Burroughs unconventional ministerial style as well as intimate to his household, the well from which the prejudice sprung from? Could Mercy Lewis, scarred by war and fallen from a position of affluence, also been witness to or possibly victim of Burroughs reputed ill temper during her brief time as maidservant?

Inarguably an unconventional clergyman Burroughs easily becomes the apostate minster of Satan in New England when portrayed by the vivid imaginations of young women, isolated and near a zone of conflict. Death loomed with each raid, Satan rallied his forces in the treeline and frontiersmen needed a strong spiritual figure to guide them in a time of war. Burroughs was effortlessly painted as a failed, questionable religious leader, with a rebellious desire to live apart from the civility and strict leadership of Massachusetts Bay. When viewed through the critical lens of Salem Village religious leaders, Burroughs became not only an enemy of the village, but the colony and the Puritan faith. The men of Massachusetts had gone to war in Maine and returned with losses, physical and financial. Stung by these defeats, it seems their judgment may have been clouded when presented with a figure as odd and spiritually unconventional as Burroughs. The wayward Burroughs was a casualty at the confluence of personal circumstances, religious prejudices and group psychological trauma that led to his execution as leader of the mythic witches of Salem Village.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.