folklorelei: (the siren)


I love crows. Yes, I know. Crows are a hard sell to many people, but I am unrepentant. I’m fascinated by their intelligence, their creativity, and that look of presence when their eyes meet yours. So I was eager to read this book.

It surprised me when it arrived: a thin volume, only 113 pages including the index, but unusually weighty because it’s lavishly illustrated (every other page) on high-quality, heavy paper and beautifully put together. It takes great advantage of the space between the covers, cramming in so much information that the weightiness of the book seemed as much from the information as the heavy paper. Using it, I was able to verify that, yes, that exceptionally large dominant crow hanging around my house was indeed a crow and not a raven; and I was able to pick out the adolescent packs and understand their behavior better. Also what some of those screaming matches were about.

Their intelligence and resourcefulness make it easy to understand why crows have become such an integral part of so many mythologies, so much folklore. Their association with the trickster mythology is so ancient that it is shared in both Australian Aboriginal mythology and Native American. Considering how long these populations must have been isolated from each other and from the rest of the world, that’s rather impressive. There are trickster associations in European mythology as well.

But they aren’t just viewed as tricksters and evil omens. In some Buddhist traditions, they are regarded as protectors of the Dharma—cosmic law and order, among other things. In Hinduism, they are considered to be embodiments of the recently deceased, and to be messengers and information-givers. This echoes the Norse idea of Huginn and Muninn, the ravens who constantly brought information to Odin. And in some American Indian tribes, crows are considered not only tricksters, but creators of the world.

Ms. Savage covers various mythologies concerning crows, the latest scientific research, as well as keen observations of crow behavior throughout the ages. I guarantee you’ll have a different appreciation of these wise guys once you’ve read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Did you know—?

Crows are the only non-primates who make tools. Other critters use what they find around them as the occasional tool, but crows will actually take what they find and reshape it to accomplish tasks. They have complex social organizations and their own languages (topping 64,000 different calls). They love, they hate, they grieve, they practice deceit as well as bravery, they reason, are tender and harsh. They hit all the standards we declare are solely-human characteristics. They’re not only as amazing as I always suspected—they’re more amazing.

An excerpt:

[Avian researcher Carolee Caffrey] was observing a nest through a spotting scope when the breeding pair returned to feed their nestlings, only to discover that their nest had been raided by a raptor in their absence. “In all my life, I’ve never heard such horrible, bloodcurdling screams as the crows made at that nest. The male flew away after a minute or two, but the female stayed behind and, for the next four hours (until Caffrey reluctantly left), tended a surviving but injured nestling by nuzzling it, picking up its neck, and preening the side of its head. All the while, the crow uttered mournful-sounding oohs.

Another, more lighthearted one:

Scientists wanted to test the reasoning ability of some captive crows so they devised a complex series of boxes, some of which had bait inside, many that were empty.

[The crow named] Hugin figured out the rule on the first morning of the trials…His companion Munin, by contrast, couldn’t even be bothered to look. Instead, as the dominant bird in a group, he preferred to bide his time until Hugin found the food; then he would muscle in and gobble up one or more of the tasty tidbits….Socially subordinate though he was, Hugin was no pushover. On the first afternoon of the experiment, he came up with a countermove. When Munin began to press in on him, Hugin would interrupt his foraging, fly over to one of the unrewarded clusters, and start opening empty boxes. He kept at it, opening and opening, until Munin came to join him; then, as soon as he saw his rival nosing around the wrong cluster, Hugin would dash back to the rewarded boxes and take advantage of his head start to grab a few extra morsels.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)


I have posted elsewhere about the sleep paralysis I experienced while living in an apartment in Venice, California. That was only one of the strange things that went on there, and my ex-roommates and I have often wondered what lay at the base of it all. One of our theories was that a ghost followed my friend, L., home from her mother’s house.

It all started when L’s grandmother Helen died. L’s parents, Jean and Vaughn, went back to Ohio to settle Helen’s estate. They spent a couple of weeks clearing out the house. The night before they returned home, they slept in Helen’s bed. Jean heard the closet door—which she’d firmly closed—squeak open. She said she’d never heard that door squeak before and it scared the hot holy hell out of her. She didn’t get out of bed to investigate because Vaughn was sound asleep and she didn’t want to disturb him, but she didn’t get much sleep after that, either.

As soon as it was daylight, she got out of bed and went to the closet. Looking inside, she noticed that part of the closet wall showed a gap that hadn’t been there before. When she peeked inside the crack, she saw it was a secret compartment with something inside. She pulled the compartment open and found some old letters and, more importantly, the picture of a little girl about ten or eleven. On the back of the picture was written “Velma” with birth and death dates. This girl turned out to be Vaughn’s older sister who had died at about the age shown in the photo and before Vaughn had been born. Helen was so distraught by her daughter’s passing that she wouldn’t let anyone talk about her and for years Vaughn hadn’t even known she’d existed. Jean and Vaughn were glad to find this picture. She said, “I guess Velma didn’t want to get left behind or Helen didn’t want us to forget her.”

So they took the picture back to California, framed it, and put it on a shelf in one of the bookcases they had in a small library alcove in their house. One day when Jean returned home and walked past the alcove, a bird was suddenly there, fluttering frantically about in panic. With great difficulty, Jean directed it across the room and out the sliding glass door. The alcove did have windows, but they weren’t open, and thin louvers even when they were, so it was a great mystery how the bird got in that out of the way alcove, of all places. Then one night they were sitting in the living room, about ten feet from the alcove, and Jean mentioned the bird incident. They heard an enormous thump on the floor and hurried into the library. A heavy book which had been shelved above Velma’s picture had somehow worked it’s way out of the bookcase and landed five or six feet away. The title of that book: The Myths and Superstitions of Great Britain.

There were other incidents regarding books in that alcove, but the coup de grace for L. was the day she visited her parents’ house to feed the cat. L. started thinking about Helen, and all of a sudden the room filled with the scent of Helen’s perfume. She fed the cat and got out the hell out of there real fast.

Eventually, Jean—who had felt closer to Helen than her own mother—got concerned that Helen (or maybe Velma) was earthbound. She hadn’t ever felt afraid of the presence in the house, but she didn’t want anyone to be stuck here. She said to the general cosmos inside her home, “I want you to know, Helen, that we’ll never forget you and we’ll never forget Velma. And it’s okay if you want to move on to wherever you need to go.” There really weren’t any more incidents after that.

But then L. started having weird things happen at her own apartment, and shortly after that we moved in together to yet another apartment. Weird things started happening there: keys or books or knick knacks went missing and wound up in odd places, strange noises and disembodied footsteps, a number of prankish things. We decided it might be Velma who had followed L. from place to place, for no other reason than that the things happening seemed childish in nature. I remember opening a cabinet door wide with the door flush against the wall. I dropped a plastic bottle on the floor, bent to pick it up, and when I raised up, the door had been moved to where my rising head smacked it hard. I yelled, “Velma! That really hurt! It’s not funny!” The pranks stopped after that.

But other, darker weirdness continued.

There was that sleep paralysis syndrome thing. It lasted through my tenancy in that apartment. I had one more incident within weeks after I moved—a farewell performance—and have never been troubled by it since, thank the gods.

None of us rested completely easy in that apartment. We all had troubled dreams and woke in terror. Heard things. Felt things. Saw things out the corners of our eyes and when first waking from sleep. Maybe there was something there.

Or maybe it was the power lines that ran directly over the roof of the apartment giving us EMF hallucinations. Maybe it was mold hidden in the walls poisoning the air we breathed and affecting our minds. Maybe it was psychic contagion—my roommates picking up on my nightmares and having their own—or an atmosphere of shared ghost stories seeping into the unconscious. All possible rational explanations.

But rational explanations are rarely as satisfying as the idea of Something There. That’s the thing about folklore and folktales. They satisfy some deep craving in human beings because they have a depth and resonance that science rarely achieves. After all, they come to us from the deep and dark archetypal chambers of the heart. All science has going for it is the sunlit mind of reason and sanity.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)


There’s a fascinating book that I would half-recommend: Running With the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion by Dennis Gaffin. The first half of the book worked quite well for me, but I didn’t think the latter half of personal testimonies from people who believe they are reincarnated fairies or actual fairies in human bodies quite jelled. I support people believing whatever they like—and it harm none—but I had a problem with their adamant insistence that there is no such thing as a dark side to the fairies. All is sweetness and light in their Universe. Which flies in the face of millennia of human folklore and experience which sees the fairies as a tricksy lot, often inimical to humanity. The believers in this book put that down to superstition and ignorance, but I’m not so certain. People in past centuries may have been superstitious and ignorant, but in general were no more clever or no more stupid then we are. And they had a much vaster experience of the dark side of nature than most of us do these days. It’s easier to discount that chthonic world when you have electric lights and indoor plumbing. If there are such things as fairies, there may indeed be good ones, but I suspect most are at best ambivalent towards humans, and some may actually be malevolent.

But anyway, Dennis Gaffin. He’s an academic (a Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York College at Buffalo) who has done something quite rare: a serious study of contemporary Irish fairy belief. Academics are big on doing serious studies of the folk traditions of Buddhists or South Seas Islanders or Native Americans, et al., but there’s a prejudice against turning that same eye towards Western folk beliefs. It’s an inherently racist stand, I think, that Those People and their Quaint Beliefs are okay to study, but somehow Western belief structures must be dismissed as silly trash. It’s as if the people who are doing the studies have decided that First Worlders are “too good” to have such ideas, that they must be ruthlessly derided and suppressed by Western academia so we can preserve our collective First World reputation.

So Professor Gaffin runs an academic risk here. True, he’s an anthropologist who’s gone native, so to speak, and now perceives fairies his own self. Which further risks his academic reputation, I suppose, but his point of view straddling both worlds is fascinating to me. I feel a kinship to him.
Have I ever seen a fairy? No. Nor heard none, neither. Do I believe in fairies? That’s a thorny question. I believe in another world that cozies up to this one and sometimes leaks through. I suspect that Whatever takes many forms and some people—otherwise rational and solid citizens—see It as fairies. Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, devas, dakinis, djinn, angels, name your poison. It’s all part of the same bag: That Which Leaks Through.

It’s okay. I know you think I’m crazy. When I say I don’t care, I don’t mean it in a snotty or rebellious way. I mean that I made a conscious decision some time ago to share the things of the spirit as they come to me, in case someone else is having similar experiences and wondering if they’re nuts. I can’t answer the question of sanity, but I do know that I am a rational person who occasionally has trans-rational experiences.

When it comes to belief, experience is the core of it, an emotional heart-to-heart with something beyond the narrow confines of personal ego. It’s not a received wisdom, which is why religion often fails to convince. “Belief cannot be transferred,” says Professor Gaffin, “for it is a function of experience.” These things often seem to go hand-in-hand with a closeness to nature. As we move more and more away from the natural world and more into a mechanized, urbanized environment those experiences become more rare.

Scientific education is a great thing and a fundamentally good way of looking at the world. I highly recommend it. But even scientists (well, the rational ones) will admit they don’t have all the answers. There was a time when I was about ninety percent of the way towards atheist. I called myself agnostic, but I’d come to view the Universe as fairly mechanistic. At one point, I finally said, “Okay, I don’t believe there’s anything else.” The Universe decided to call my bet. Almost as soon as I’d uttered that sentence It sent me an extraordinary experience. Followed by another and another until I capitulated, swept up in what to me was irrefutable evidence of there being something else. Generally, I’ve been a great deal happier in my “defeat” than I was in my “victorious” skepticism.

Why me? Why was I sent experiential data? I haven’t a clue. That’s the thing about the Universe. It’s a big freaking mystery with big freaking mysterious ways. We wander down half-formed pathways with thick fog on either side and every once in a while the mists lift to reveal a dazzling view of sheer cliffs and the dramatic crashing of waves far below. Then the clouds return and we proceed on the path—but once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see that amazing sight. You’ve glimpsed the beauty and the peril lying just beyond the verge. You step carefully from that point on.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)


Odd beliefs cling to the face of the moon—and why not? It hangs above us in splendid glory and from the first blink of consciousness, primates must have gazed on it in wonder and fright and superstition. It’s inside of us, too, its cycles shaping the ebb and flow of our internal tides. The moon is a very powerful object, pulling and deforming the shape of the earth as it rotates around us. Why shouldn’t it also pull and deform the creatures that crawl upon the earth?

Science remains skeptical. Oh, not about the pull of the moon on earth’s tides and geography, but on the claims of its influence on human beings. ER doctors, police, mental health professionals may all come up with strong anecdotal evidence of altered behavior during full moons, but scientists—who require replicable studies to believe things and are no fun at all—find it hard to take such things seriously. Even when they do produce a study that suggests some aspects of moon lore may have a basis in fact, they are quick to point out that a single study must be viewed with a certain amount of cynicism. Sometimes even by those who produced the study.

Take for example the belief that a full moon leads to restless sleep. A study from 2013 suggests there may be some basis to this. Christian Cajochen and his colleagues at the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel decided to do sleep studies on 33 volunteers and found that around the time of the full moon, the kind of brain activity associated with deep sleep decreased by 30 percent, participants took slightly longer to fall asleep than they did at other times, and slept on average twenty minutes less overall. What I find most significant is that their levels of melatonin also diminished during this period. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleeping and waking cycles.

However, when interviewed by National Public Radio, Cajochen was quick to downplay his own study, saying the findings might not hold up in a larger investigation. Other scientists remain adamantly and steadfastly skeptical, demanding more research before they take anything to do with moon madness seriously. Like I said, no fun at all.

A 2014 study at the Max Planck institute found no significant connection between the lunar cycle and sleep.

Research published in March of 2016 of 5,800 children between ages 9 and 11 in 12 different countries found that they slept about five minutes less on nights with a full moon.

So. The search for truth continues. So do the myths. I suspect science will never be able to completely convince those on the front lines of moon madness triage that there is no correlation. As for me, I will continue to “purify” and “charge” my crystals by the light of the full moon. You just can’t be too careful about such things.

This is an interesting overview of scientific studies on moon madness.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

"Because I have heard that for those who enter Fairy Land there is no going back. They must go on, and go through it." —R. Macdonald Robertson, Selected Highland Tales