Folktales: Witches

Cherry blossom by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery has no memory of the group of witches who promised to look after her when she was a baby. The witches live in a magical house called Cunningfoot, with doors that open all over the world. I loved developing the witches’ characters and thinking about what each of them may be like. There are stories of witches in most places in the world, although they vary quite a bit in what they are like and the roles they play in folktales. These folktale witches gave me a grounding for thinking of my witches as a really multicultural group of friends, working on the side of ‘good’ magic. There are seven of them in all. In old stories, the number seven often signifies completion, perfection, or wholeness. I don’t suppose I was really thinking that the witches were perfect, because they really aren’t, but I liked the idea that the fact there were seven of them in their friendship group might have some magical significance.

Cassandra is the first witch we meet in the book. She has long red hair, and wears silken dresses with lace at the cuffs and neck. She’s very pretty, and Avery is taken with her from the moment she meets her. I chose the name Cassandra because there is a witch called Cassandra in Greek mythology. This Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo fell in love with her and so granted her the gift of seeing the future, but when she didn’t return his love he cursed her. Now, when she told anyone what she had foreseen, they never believed her. Cassandra is a tragic figure in Greek mythology, living a cursed life, and dying a sad death. Although my Cassandra is very much a Scottish witch, she too is quite a tragic figure. I’ll say no more for fear of giving away too much!

Mab is another Scottish witch, and one that Avery really doesn’t get on with. Like Cassandra she has long red hair, but she is severe and harsh. Shakespeare uses the name Mab for the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Nights Dream. There are lots of modern ideas around Mab the faery Queen as coming from British folklore, but I don’t think anyone has managed to show conclusively that the idea existed before Shakespeare. Certainly Shakespeare’s Mab is an ambivalent figure, and so is mine!

Ceridwen is a rosy-cheeked witch from the Welsh valleys. I have a real soft spot for Ceridwen because she is based on some of the Welsh women in my family, and their friends. She is loud, has a huge heart, and is an amazing singer. In fact, I have heard she is often to be found of an evening belting out a few Shirley Bassey classics on karaoke nights in her favourite Welsh pubs! Ceridwen is the name of a Welsh witch in traditional tales too, and like my Cerdiwen, she was a good witch. ‘Cerdd’ means poetry or song in Welsh, and ‘wen’ means white, fair, or holy, so it’s no surprise that she was known as a white witch, and was the goddess of poetry, inspiration, and of the cauldron of transfiguration. My Ceridwen has a particular talent for ‘disposals’ which comes in handy in the book, and this talent was inspired by the idea of the cauldron of transfiguration.

Kikimora is a sharp-featured little witch, who comes from Eastern Europe. She was inspired by the Slavic female house spirit called Kikimora, who is also the spirit of spinning, weaving and needlework. She’s a tempestuous spirit who is a loving guardian of children, and helps with the housework if she’s happy, but beware if she’s upset! We don’t see too much of this side of my Kikimora in the book, but I imagined her to have a similarly stormy temperament!

Lilith has big eyes, and wears round glasses. She is from the Middle-East. She was possibly born in what is now modern-day Syria but like all the witches, she is very long-lived, and can’t really remember. Lilith was based on a real character called Lilith who originates in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the first written story. This Lilith appears in lots of places after that, from the Bible, to modern TV series. She is often portrayed as a very dark character, not so much a witch as a demoness. The word ‘lilith’ comes from a Sumerian word, which can be interpreted as wind spirits, night creatures, or screech owls. This idea of Lilith originating from ancient peoples trying to explain the strange noises in the dark really appeals to me. Can you picture them sitting around their campfire, listening…? It would be easy to imagine that the sounds of the wind, or screeching owls, were something supernatural. We have our own version of this idea in Britain in traditional names for Barn Owls like ‘Ghost Owl’ and ‘Death Owl’. In old folktales, Lilith will sometimes strike a deal to be a guardian, usually of a mother and child. This idea chimed nicely with the guardian role my Lilith has for Avery. And the strong association of the original Lilith with owls, gave me the idea that my Lilith might have a special interest in owls too, and so might be a useful source of information for Low in the future

Jezebel is a witch from Texas in the USA. She has purple hair which she piles up in a column on her head, a bit like Marg Simpson. There aren’t any folktales that I know of, of witches from Texas. Jezebel was a real product of my imagination. The name ‘Jezebel’ comes from the Phoenician princess Jezebel who marries King Ahab in the Bible. The writers of the Bible describe her as a bad ‘un and she is commonly considered a witch in popular culture, even though there isn’t anything about magic in the Bible story. It’s a difficult story to read for modern women. The biblical Jezebel comes across as clever, beautiful, and not prepared to change herself for anyone – qualities that I tend to admire. Ahab on the other hand sounds weak and a bit of a flannel if I’m honest, so you can see how Jezebel might have thought, ‘right, looks like it’s up to me to rule this country then.’ On the other hand, the writers of the Bible are clear that the worship of the god Baal, which she brought to Israel, involved sacrificing children, and if Jezebel’s contemporaries could see that was wrong, it suggests we can’t really excuse her with, ‘oh they did things differently in the past’ either. Funnily enough it turns out murder has always been wrong. She should really have known better!

My Jezebel is an entirely different kettle of fish to the Biblical Jezebel, and the only link really is the name and the biblical origins. In my mind, if my Jezebel was going to come from anywhere, it had to be one of the Southern states of the US. She is based on a mixture of several female country artists who I love – expansive, generous, down-to-earth, and someone who never goes out without her nails freshly painted and half a can of hairspray on her hair.

Baba is the witch who becomes closest to Avery and Low in the book. She has a halo of short white hair, wears layers of giant cardigans, and flaps around in over-sized granddad slippers. The name Baba comes from the Slavic witch Baba Yaga, who was supposed to appear as a deformed, ferocious-looking woman, and lived in a hut which stood on chicken legs. Baba symbolises traditional wisdom, and the wild magic of nature in folk tales, which is closely aligned to female agency and knowledge. She’s wise, powerful, and kind, but also cruel and capricious at times – much like nature itself. These deep symbols are the elements of the traditional Baba Yaga character that I have taken for my Baba.

In contrast to the frozen Russian forests, my Baba comes from the Caribbean. I am so inspired by the folktales from the Caribbean and couldn’t help but conjure up a character from what I had read. Due to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, African traditions met European ones in the Caribbean, creating a whole new melting pot of ideas and stories. There are lots of witch stories for example, from animal witches to blood-sucking vampire witches. Baba probably most closely aligns with traditional stories I’ve read of Gang Gang Sara. My Baba isn’t this character at all, but I do have a sense of Baba having raised her own family like Gang Gang Sara, and that there is deep sadness in her past. For Avery and Low she adopts an almost mother-like figure with special knowledge of wild and ancient magic. She is also a keeper of memories – of wisdom and traditions that mere mortals may have long forgotten, though her memory does go a bit AWOL in the book!

So, there we are, we have reached the end of my folktales series. I hope you have enjoyed it. It is Midsummer next week, so happy Midsummer to you all. May it be filled with magic and merry dreams, though hopefully no Shakespearian donkey transformations 🙂

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Folktales: My Baddies

Peat Hags. Image used under Creative Commons License.
Real Peat Hags!

At the beginning of my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery has a horrible feeling she is being followed by something not nice… and it turns out she’s correct! There’s a few baddies in the book, and my ideas for them came from Scottish Folktales.

First up are, the Badoch – the creatures who are following Avery at the beginning of the book. Mab, the witch, describes them like this:

“They’re shapeless beings that can merge together to make themselves more powerful when they’re on the hunt. They come from the Mamores mountain range, north of Kinlochleven. They’re creatures of shadow, nasty things. You had a lucky escape.”

In Scottish folklore there is a character called the Bodach, a little old man, who is thought to foretell the death of members of a clan. My Badoch aren’t like the Bodach at all, but I did pinch the Bodach’s name, swapped a couple of letters, and made it my own. Otherwise the Badoch are pretty much my own invention – snarling shadowy creatures with long claws that try to creep out and grab you. Fortunately you only need to worry about them if you live in Scotland, as they rarely venture south of the border!

In the book, magic is on the wan in Scotland for various reasons, and this is allowing nasty creatures with malicious intent to spread more widely. One of these creatures is the Sluagh. In Scottish folklore, these are the unforgiven dead. I don’t describe them in my book, but in my mind they appear as flocks of winged, goblin-type creatures, with lamp-like eyes, sharp teeth, and claws. They tend to congregate in giant murmurations around rocky outcrops – Black Cuillin on Skye being a favourite haunt.

The Peat Hags are another group of creatures spreading as the magic weakens. Hags are widespread in Scottish folktales but Peat Hags as mythical creatures are entirely my own invention. True peat hags are a type of erosion which occur in peat bogs as a result of a flow of water, or where fire or overgrazing has exposed the peat surface to dry out and blow, or wash away. Peat bogs are special wildlife habitats, and really important carbon sinks, but they are under massive threat. I’m passionate about the environment, and feel very worried about the destruction we humans are wreaking on the earth. When I talk about creatures like the Peat Hags, I am anthropomorphising the awful consequences of our lack of care for natural habitats. Again, I don’t describe my Peat Hags in any detail in the book, but in my mind they are troll-like creatures with enormous yawning mouths. They live in underground burrows, and are generally slovenly, cruel and rude. They wear brown sacking cloaks smeared in leaf-mould, out of which foul-smelling, toxic fungi grow. My Peat Hags come from the peat bogs of the Cairngorms. In the past they were kept under control by traditional practices.

The last baddie to talk about is Bean Nighe, and this is a bit of a trick one to include here really. Here’s the moment Avery and Low meet Bean Nighe properly for the first time:

“As they rounded the corner, who should be standing between the park’s iron gates but the woman in the long brown coat and big brown boots. Lank grey hair trailed down to her waist and she stared out at them with hollow grey eyes.”

Bean Nighe is a Scottish mythical female spirit. Bean Nghe literally translates as ‘washerwoman’ or ‘laundress’, and she is often to be found near rivers or streams. She is regarded as an omen of death and as a messenger from the Otherworld. My Bean Nighe isn’t really a baddie but Avery and Low briefly think she is. I couldn’t help but portray her as fairly miserable looking because, well, wouldn’t you be miserable if you only ever got to give out bad news? In fact, although Bean Nighe is warning them about something about to happen, she also passes on some very important information to Avery and Low. Not all bad then. Most baddies aren’t.

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Folktales: Hearthfolk

Domovoii by Ivan Bilibin, used under Creative Commons license.
Domovoi

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery meets a character called Knuckle. He is broad-shouldered, with hands the size of teapots. He has black freckles clustering his shoulders, arms, and hairline, and every time he sneezes, sparkling embers shoot up into the air. He describes himself as a Hearthfolk, whose job it is to keep the home fires burning.

The idea for Knuckle came from Slavic traditional beliefs about the Domovoi, house spirit-guardians, who usually live under the stove or the hearth. The domovoi are mainly concerned with maintaining order and peace in the home. More often than not, they are heard rather than seen, but when they are seen, they tend to appear as a small, hairy, grey-bearded human. If you’ve read anything I’ve previously written about my more than slight obsession with belonging and home, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I love this idea of a creature who is intent on keeping the home together! 

The word ‘hearth’ isn’t apparently related to the word ‘heart’ at all, but in the past hearths really were the heart of the home. This is symbolised in old Dartmoor tradition when moving house. Burning embers from the fire are placed in a tin can and carried from one hearth to the next. In modern homes with central heating it’s hard to imagine how significant the home fire was, but we all know how nice it is to cosy up around the dancing flames of a bonfire or wood burner. Hearths were so important in the past in fact, that in early population censuses, they didn’t count houses, they counted hearths. Even in a medieval peasant’s one-room dwelling there would be a central hearthstone or flat rock, upon which a fire was laid. Then an iron pot with a rounded bottom would be hung over this. Peasants could put in any vegetables that came to hand to make a traditional soup called potage, keeping it on the go from day to day. 

Hearths have proved useful in revealing evidence of 10,000-year old meals in the excavation of a Mesolithic house in Northumberland. This house had several hearths in it – shallow depressions filled with charcoal and burnt nutshells. The sheer volume of nutshells in the hearths suggests that this house was used to gather and preserve large quantities of food, probably so it could be kept in to the winter months when food was hard to find. It’s an exciting excavation because it shows that people lived in this house continuously for over 100 years. Previously researchers had thought that people in Britain at this time were always moving from place to place. It’s tricky for us to really understand ancient sites like this, and whether Mesolithic peoples would have called it a ‘home’ in the way that people nowadays tend to think of home as a fixed place. It’s too easy to assume that people in the past thought in the same way as us, especially when you consider how ideas of home have changed even in recorded history. You can read a bit more about that by seeing what Dr Lucy Worlsey has to say about the history of the home HERE

Still, whether the words hearth and heart are connected or not, I do like to think of everyone’s home having a heart. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a hearthfolk like Knuckle in your home, quietly working away in the background to make it a peaceful and harmonious place. It’s probably worth checking the boiler cupboard now and again, and you just might catch sight of him or her!

You can read more about the excavation of the Mesolithic site called Howick House HERE.

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Folktales: Giants and Standing Stones

Stones of Callanish - apologies, I couldn't find anyone to credit for this image, or who to contact to see if it was okay to use. Let me know if it is you! :-)
Stones of Callanish

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery journeys to a circle of standing stones in Orkney called the Stones of Callanish. She is surprised to find that the stones can come to life, as a band of craggy giants, playing Scottish folk music deep into the night. Giants in European folktales are often cruel and stupid, but in Britain, giants tend to serve other purposes. In some stories, their behaviour is used to explain the presence of certain landmarks, for example Goram and Vincent who are supposed to have formed the Avon Gorge in Somerset. In others, giants represent deep memory, and the old way of doing things, such as in the story of the Welsh giant Gogmagog, who is beaten by Brutus of Troy. And in other stories, giants are associated with ruins of past places, acting as a metaphor for impermanence, and the ravages of time itself. Giants in British folktales challenge our modern ideas of progress and knowledge.

The Stones of Callanish in Orkney are a real set of standing stones, constructed some time in the late Neolithic era. One of the oldest sites like this in Britain, they are believed to be some 5000 years old. Some of the stones weigh ten or more tons! Despite archaeological work and investigation we still don’t really know why they were erected, though there are lots of theories encompassing ideas of meeting places, sites for social rituals, showing off and status, and sacred sites in which the ancestors were honoured. Some researchers theorise that the stones were arranged on an astronomical formula, to show the extreme rising and setting points of the sun and moon, showing that the ancient peoples of Britain understood the world in cycles and opposites, for example, day and night. Other researchers argue that the purpose of the standing stones is to be found in the stones themselves, often beautiful specimens in their own right, full of ripples and patterns. Perhaps their purpose was to celebrate the patterns found in the earth, not the sky?

But I love this idea from Gail Higginbottom of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The “stones represented watchers of this great spectacular sky show and of the seasons.” It reminds me of my giants beside their bonfire, tapping their feet along to the fiddle music underneath the swirling constellations of a Scottish night sky in the deep north. 

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Folktales: Crannogs and The Crannog – Monsters in the Landscape

Crannog islands on the Lake of Menteith by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
The crannog islands on the Lake of Menteith

In my book, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, there is a great monster, kept in an enchanted sleep in a cavern under Edinburgh. The creature is called a Crannog. A crannog is not really a monster at all, but when I heard the word, it leapt into my imagination and was too good to let go.

A crannog is in fact, a man-made island. These sorts of islands are found throughout Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, usually built in estuaries or lochs. Recent evidence shows that some of these crannogs are older even than Stonehenge, some dating back 5,300 years. Crannogs varied in their construction. Some were originally timber-built roundhouses, supported on piles or stilts driven into the loch bed. You can see a reconstruction of one like this at the Scottish Crannog Centre in Perthshire. Take a look at their website here: https://www.crannog.co.uk. In other places, big rocks were piled onto the loch bed to make an island on which a stone house was built. Nowadays crannogs look like tree-covered islands or are stony mounds hidden under the water.

There is still lots that archaeologists don’t fully understand about crannogs, such as, why they were built or what they were used for. They look like they might be dwellings, but divers in Loch Arnish found Neolithic pottery in the water around the crannog there, suggesting that crannogs might have been special places where perhaps, people made offerings, or used sacred vessels that couldn’t be brought back with with them for some particular purpose. It’s all a bit of a mystery and we’ll probably never know for definite. 

When I visited Inchmahome, the crannog island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith in Stirlingshire, I couldn’t get over how odd it looked: a funny rocky outcrop in the middle of the water, with trees poking up all over it. It reminded me of a drawing in a book I’d seen, where a shipwrecked sailor is sitting on a desert island, unaware that he is actually sat on top of a sea monster’s head, the rest of the monster under the water. And then my imagination started to whirr and spin… What if the crannogs weren’t man-made islands, but something else? Perhaps the remains of some long dead creature – a huge and ancient creature? And maybe, gradually, over time, soil had started to gather on the hump of the creature’s rotting back, and then trees and plants began to grow? Perhaps the base of the island wasn’t rocks like the real crannogs, but bones – the monster’s skeleton? And maybe, at the very dawn of time, there were many creatures like this, their remains now dotted in lochs and estuaries all over Scotland, Wales and Ireland??? And slowly, in my imagination, the crannog island became a Crannog monster, the last of its kind, asleep under Edinburgh!

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Folktales: Scottish Faeries and ‘othering’

Faery Mounds by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).
Look out for those faery mounds!

I’ve written in my previous post about the Cat Fae element of Avery’s character in my book, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. For those of you who don’t know, one of Avery’s secrets is that she is a Cat Fae. For a quick re-cap: a Cat Fae is a creature I made up – someone who is part cat and part human. Avery has a tail, and many of the special characteristics of a cat, such as being able to see in the dark, and being very agile. This idea was partly inspired by the Scottish folktales of the Cat Sith: supernatural, black, big-as-a-dog, cats from the Scottish Highlands. 

The word Sith conjures up Star Wars images but it is actually the anglicised version of the gaelic word Sidhe. Sidhe forms part of the word Aos Sidhe which means faeries or the fae-folk. Not long after Avery arrives at the witches’ house in the book, she meets her first faery. His name is Ghilli Dhu (inspired by another Scottish folk character if you fancy looking him up!), and later travels to the faery capital at Inchmahome. 

Sidhe means “mound of earth”, so the gaelic word for faery, Aos Sidhe, translates as “People Of The Mounds”. When I was writing Avery Buckle I was absolutely fascinated by this literal meaning, and the origin of the phrase. Did it mean hills, or mountains? Was there an historic idea of faeries coming from particular topographic features like that? It turns out there are plenty of mounds or hillocks, right across the UK, with faery associations – take the Pixie’s Mound at Stogurcey in Somerset for example. The interesting thing about these hills with faery, elfin or pixie associations is that they tend not to be naturally occurring hills, but rather ancient burial sites or barrows.

The late, great children’s author, Alan Garner writes captivatingly about his experience of uncovering a Bronze Age burial site associated with faeries, almost by accident, after following the detective trail of an oral story passed down through his family. His ancestors had lived at Alderley Edge in Cheshire for generations. The story he grew up with ran along the lines of the old Sleeping Hero myth, i.e. a king asleep under the hill who will rise up on a day of great danger and save everyone. There are versions of this story across the UK, and Europe. Alan’s family’s variation of the story particularly referenced features of the landscape around Alderley Edge, including one feature known historically as “Elfgrenhoks”, meaning “the sandy ridge of the elves”. The story told the journey of a farmer taking his white horse to market, being stopped by an old man keen to buy the horse. The farmer wanted to get the best price for his horse so he refused the old man. The old man replied that should he change his mind, the farmer could find him by following a path through various landmarks around Alderley Edge. The farmer was unable to sell his horse at market so on the way home he followed the route to find the old man, and you can probably guess who the horse was for. The Sleeping Hero!

The thing that piqued Alan’s interest about the story is that the route the old man told the farmer made no sense in modern day terms at all. It seemed to wobble about and come back on itself, all over the hill. So Alan started to investigate the landmarks themselves, and discovered, much to his amazement, that beneath each reference, there were Bronze Age sites. From a Bronze Age perspective the route would have made complete sense.

We so easily dismiss stories as made up things, don’t we? Science is, in contrast, about establishing a sufficient body of the correct sort of evidence collected in the correct way, and until then, understandably, the details of a particular phenomena are discussed cautiously, and in qualified terms. Yet, the family story identified Bronze Age finds that no scientist had ever thought to look for. Alan Garner says:

“Archaeologists appear to have become afraid of speculation in this area, and I am not the one to blame them. On all sides, if they listen, they are threatened by Old Straight Tracks, blind springs, New Age mystics, dragon roads, and space suits. But I am not an archaeologist, so it does not matter if I make a fool of myself.”

I am not an archaeologist either, so, perhaps I too may be permitted to speculate, and make a fool of myself…! 

I wonder whether Alan’s family were later migrants creating literal faery/mound stories to try and understand the remains they found, or even descendants of those same Bronze Age peoples passing on a sacred story of commemoration through the generations? The role stories play in helping us understand and make sense of the world can’t be overstated. We all do it, all the time. And so I’m going to speculate some more…

Local to us here in Devon are the remains of several Iron Age hill forts. One of them in particular is thought to have been the site of a decisive battle between the Celtic Devon tribe, the Dumnonii (Roman name), and the incoming Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons successfully occupied the fertile valley bottoms, but the Celts remained in the hills, launching marauding attacks on the Anglo-Saxon villages. Nearby Thorverton has a wide, paved, rectangular area in the centre, called the Bury. It was built as a stockade by the Anglo-Saxons, where animals could be penned in by gates at either end, to protect them from the attacking Celts. But as time went on the Celts were pushed further and further into the uplands, and west into Cornwall. Isn’t it interesting that it’s often exactly these sorts of places where stories of magic, faeries, and elves, tend to occur? Think of Dartmoor, the Lake District, and pretty much anywhere in Wales or Scotland. 

And now I really am going into speculation overdrive…! I wonder if many of our folklore and faery tales, might originate in the Celts, and Anglo-Saxon ‘othering’ stories about them, as the Celts were pushed to both the physical and social fringes of the UK. ‘Othering’ is a term used to describe the sociological phenomenon of viewing, and treating a person, or group of people, as intrinsically different from, and alien, to yourself. This happened overtly during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when people from the continent of Africa, were explicitly described as property that could be owned, no different from a cow or sheep. But it can also happen in more subtle ways that are less apparent but have the same effect of dehumanising people. We can see it in the way that Muslims have been ‘othered’ in the UK in modern times, signalled any time someone says “Those Muslims”. Another example is Donald Trump saying that Mexicans are “drug dealers”, and “criminals”. I’m sure there are drug dealers and criminals in Mexico, just the same as in every other country. However, when Trump implies that all Mexicans are criminals and drug dealers, as if it is part of the Mexican national identity, he is ‘othering’. Othering creates an “us” and “them” divide, and most often happens, when people don’t really know those they are othering. Donald Trump would be much less likely to make such statements if he actually knew any Mexicans.

Othering is also often a technique used by leaders for political ends. We can see how this might have been the case for the leaders of the Anglo-Saxons. If you believe that the people in the land you are invading are fully human with the same values, rights and responsibilities as you, it’s going to be hard to maintain your integrity while you steal their land. In order for the Anglo-Saxons to retain their own humanity as they forced women and children from their homes, they had to be persuaded that those women and children weren’t human in the way that their own wives and offspring were human. Might their leaders have invented stories about the Celts to support their ideas that the Celts were fundamentally different to themselves, just as Donald Trump did about the Mexicans, or the Nazis did about the Jews? Perhaps those stories might have gone along the lines of: “Now mind you don’t ever cross those hills by yourself. They’re strange up there. I knew a young man who took a short cut that way, but the mist came down, and he got lost. He came across a group of them, brewing potions I shouldn’t wonder, and he was never seen again. Only his hollow laughter can still be heard echoing around the rocks. They kidnapped him, I reckon. There’s something different about them up there, just can’t put my finger on it.” And slowly by slowly, those strange people become ‘other’ altogether, elves in fact. The story I’ve just related is a slimmed down version of a Dartmoor legend from Laughter Tor.

I’d love to say I came up with this speculation totally on my own but I heard a similar theory about the idea of faeries in Scotland originating from stories about nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples. I can’t for the life of me find where I read it now so can’t reference it, but the author speculated that post-Ice Age peoples might not have settled down wholesale to farming in Britain all in one go, and there might have been a period of time when some people were settled in farming, and other peoples were still engaged in a more transient life as hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherers might have appeared as strange ‘others’, perhaps only ever seen fleetingly and at a distance between the trees as they came and went. Stories of faeries might have started as a way of making sense of their different way of life. Stories may also have been used to justify ill treatment. A man-made slither of land called Arnmach at the Lake of Menteith in Stirlingshire, is said to have been built by faeries held captive by a local Earl. Might this be a folk remembrance of a real event, in which nomadic peoples were captured and forced to labour as prisoners?

Of course it is all speculation, and wonderful fuel for creating more stories! But it also serves as a reminder of the old adage ‘Words have power, wield them with care.’ When we tell our stories, who do we include or exclude? And why? Do we depict groups of people in ways that emphasise their humanity, or in ways that dehumanise them? How do we educate ourselves so that we can recognise when people in power are telling us stories that ‘other’ particular people. When viewed like that, it’s easy to join my voice to Alan Garner’s when he says, “Coincidence, error, fantasy or folklore: this is a reality. And for this I care.” Glad to be a fool in that case.

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Folktales: The Cat Fae, Girl Power, and the Shapeshifting Motif

Cat image used under Creative Commons license

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, one of Avery’s secrets is that she is a Cat Fae. A Cat Fae is a creature I made up – someone who is part cat and part human. Avery has a tail, and many of the special characteristics of a cat, such as being able to see in the dark, and being very agile. Ideas don’t generally appear out of thin air and neither did my idea for the Cat Fae. It was partly inspired by my own life experiences (I talk about this in some of my events and workshops) and partly inspired by the Scottish folklore of the Cat Sith. According to the old stories the Cat Sith were supernatural, black, big-as-a-dog, cats from the Scottish Highlands. Avery was even originally called a Cat Sith, but we had to come up with something different in case the Star Wars ‘Sith’ caused confusion. We didn’t want readers thinking of Darth Vader every time they read the word ‘Sith’! Given that the word Sith is strongly associated with faeries, and Avery is a magical creature with magical abilities, we decided to change Sith to Fae, and so Avery became a Cat Fae.

The moment of inspiration from the Cat Sith mythology came when I read a version of the stories in which the cat begins life as a witch. This witch would turn herself into a cat whenever she saw trouble coming, but on the ninth time she got stuck. For those of you who have already read The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, you’ll know the number nine is very important, but I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it yet! In one of my early drafts of the book Avery met the first ever Cat Fae, a young witch called Catriona, and learned how the Cat Fae came into being. 

This ability to change into an animal or bird is called Shapeshifting. Folklore and mythology is full of women who shapeshift like the Cat Sith witch, sometimes because they want to and often, even though they don’t! Arachne was a weaver in Greek mythology who was shapeshifted against her will. Her tapestries depicting the gods’ bad behaviour angered the goddess Athena, who turned her into a spider. Another example is the mythical Scottish selkies who can shed their sealskin to become human and live on land. Though both male and female selkies can do this, the stories are usually about a female selkie, trapped by a human man who won’t give her skin back. 

When something occurs many times in lots of different stories but slightly varied, it is called a Motif, and the purpose of motifs is to convey larger meanings. It’s good to watch out for motifs in old stories because they are usually trying to tell you something deeper. A good example of this is the Lady in the Lake. This character occurs repeatedly in different ways within British folklore, and is usually a symbol for mystery and magic. In the selkie stories, the selkie is a symbol for the ‘wild soul’ who can be over-powered for good or ill.

The shapeshifting motif of women in folklore tends to be trying to tell the reader one of two deeper meanings. The first meaning is Punishment, as in the case of Arachne, teaching women that they should know their place or they will be punished. The second purpose is Release, teaching women they can use their talents or take control of their lives, but only if they take a different form. This is usually because the woman’s abilities are not seen as being appropriate for women, and this challenges accepted social structures. I feel there is an element of both meanings in the old story of the witch and the Cat Sith. By turning into a cat the witch escapes persecution or danger, and historically witches were persecuted. Nowadays we know that many of the women who were tried for being witches in the past were actually bright, outspoken women who stood up to the existing authorities when they felt they were wrong, or were simply women with disfigurements or disabilities. In other words they had abilities that were not seen as being appropriate for women. It would have been very handy for a woman like that to be able to escape from unjust treatment by turning into a cat. If you would like to find out more about the persecution of ‘witches’ in the UK, there is a great educational resource from the National Archives here.

The meaning of motifs can change and evolve over time as ideas within human society change. In the past, the selkie story might have been taken as a warning to young men that they shouldn’t marry a wild sort of girl because she wouldn’t make a good wife, but now we might see it differently, and think that perhaps the young man should have tried to adapt to the selkie’s ways instead of trapping her in a human idea of marriage. Perhaps he should have gone to live with her in the sea instead? In the work of modern authors like Sharon Blackie, the motif of the Cat Sith has evolved to take on new meanings. 

Even though we’ve come a long way, there is still a bias against women using their abilities in socially “unacceptable” ways in society. A brilliant study by Moss-Racusin et al., (2012) (which you can read here) found that when an identical job application was submitted by ‘Jennifer’ and then by ‘John’, ‘Jennifer’ was described as less competent than ‘John’ by the people (both men and women) reviewing the application. It is especially difficult for women to speak out and get a fair hearing in the UK if they have strong feminine characteristics, such as a high voice. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the UK, famously employed a vocal coach to help her lower her voice so that she would be taken more seriously by the other male politicians. So, when I use the Cat Sith motif in my story for my female character Avery, I’m trying to tell you, the reader, something deeper. I’m drawing on all the history and stories that link into the shapeshifting motif, and I’m encouraging you to ask questions…

How do we treat those whose talents lie outside of the stereotypical roles we assign to women in our society? Do we steal their sealskin and make them fit the model of the ‘good-wife’ like in the selkie story? Or do we just find other models to squash them into? Make them lower their voices to be heard? Or do we throw the models out of the window, and let them be the ‘wild-souls’ they are – not wrong just different? For every child reading Avery or Low, I hope they will be inspired to find their own way of expressing their talents and their voice, without squashing themselves into existing frameworks or stereotypes if they don’t fit. And maybe then we’ll need less shape-shifting stories as time goes on, because all voices will be welcomed and celebrated for who they are. In the mean time, keep an eye out for those motifs! Here’s one to start you off – The Sword of Power – and then think about the character of Cindy in the book 😉

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May Day

Cherry Blossom by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Today is May Day or Beltane, the traditional British festival in celebration of the coming of summer. Between now and Midsummer – a time of elves, faeries and magic – I’ll be writing a series of posts celebrating the folktales and magic that underpin my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. I’ll be linking them with modern issues such a feminism, morality, class, and landscape. A pre-warning: some of them are fairly lengthy but they are on subjects that I have thought long and hard about, and care deeply about. So, I intend to trespass on your goodwill and patience! Take a break from the blog if you’re not interested (I won’t be offended) but please do come back again! Otherwise, grab a comfy chair, a hot cuppa, and gather round… The first one will be up this Wednesday!

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Sunstones

Low sat up straight. “Er, Avery. Something’s happening to your back pocket.”

Avery turned around, making Sparrow lean again. Low was right. A bright light was streaming out of the top of her pocket. She reached her hand in and pulled out the piece of sea glass.

A ray of light shot out from it, like the beam of a lighthouse, penetrating the clouds far into the distance.

This is an extract from my children’s novel The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. At this point in the story, Avery and Low, the main characters in the book, are riding to safety on a flying tandem bicycle called Sparrow, when a beam of light shoots up, out of Avery’s pocket. The light is coming from a piece of sea glass. The idea for this came from something called a Sun Stone, which Vikings are believed to have used to navigate with. Above is a link to a film I made exploring the background of Sun Stones, and doing some science experiments to see if they might really have existed!

If you know any teachers who might be interested in science resources for KS2, please do let them know about this film, which is all about light and refraction. There is also a school’s resource pack which accompanies the book, with worksheets on this topic and many others, available from my website here.

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Happy Birthday blog!

Birthday cake by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Can you believe it – it’s ten years to the day that I started writing this blog? What a roller coaster it has been! From the Scottish hills, down to Devon, two more children, changes of career, multiple house moves, exploding beer, sinking boats, wildlife spotting, gardening antics, seasonal musing, ups and downs, twists and turns! Some of you are regular readers who have been so kind and faithful, letting me know I’m not just bleating into the wind! Others of you are newer arrivals and you are most welcome. Thank you to all of you. Happy Birthday little blog. Ten years old today!

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