folklorelei: (the siren)


While recently reading American Folklore by Richard M. Dorson, I came upon a passage relating the curious testimony of John Josselyn from 1638. He’d taken ship to New England and upon arriving in Massachusetts Bay, was catching up on news from those he met on shore, including prodigious tales of earthquakes, mermen, monster births. He went on to say:

Mr. Foxwell came forth and related how he had passed a night at sea in a small shallop, hugging the shore but afraid to land; suddenly at midnight a loud voice called him, “Foxwell, Foxwell, come ashore,” and upon the beach he beheld a great fire ringed by dancing men and women. After an hour they vanished, and next morning Foxwell put ashore and found their footprints and brands’ ends on the sand. But no living Englishman or Indian could he find on shore or in the woods.

The passage is odd in itself, to be sure, and although logical reasons might be found to explain it, they are no fun at all. I reject them soundly. I love the fairy-like creepiness of it, and think it’s a good thing Mr. Foxwell was too timid to put ashore. The story really sets my imagination to quivering.

But the passage has extra resonance, extra quiveration, because it reminds me of a more famous passage, this one from Plutarch, On the Failure of Oracles, 17-1:

The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement.

The sea holds many mysteries and dangers, but let’s not forget that strange shores do as well.

You can find the rest of this Loeb Classics Library translation of Plutarch here.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)
One of my favorite books on fairy lore is Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland by Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Eve Green. It's a marvelous book, full of stories, and the lyrical voice of Ireland. Eddie Lenihan is one of the few seanchai, the old time Gaelic storytellers, left, and he's been collecting tales from other seanchai and common folk for decades. Like this little bit from Croom, October 12, 2001:

"I know that the whitethorn is always associated with the sioga.* That's why 'tis called the fairy tree. But 'tis the lone whitethorn in the middle of a field that's the dangerous one. There was a reason why that was left there, you see. No one but a fool would interfere with that.

And this from Drumline, September 19, 2001:

"I s'pose, if a fairy is molested, if you go tampering or meddling with 'em, well, they'll retaliate. 'Tis only kind o' natural, retaliation when you're interfered with. Nearly everyone in Ireland is aware that it isn't the done thing. Was never the done thing. The most ignorant people in Ireland, people that were illiterate, wouldn't bring a thorn out o' them forts."**

And as Mr. Lenihan puts it:

"Country people...would laugh....' 'Tis only children believe in them old stories, that old kind o' nonsense.'

"And yet, later that same night, in the pub, when all the laughing and mocking is done, the serious talk will begin, hesitant at first, then more freely, until at last, many pints of Guinness later, even those who mocked earlier in the night will finally—and not for the first or last time—admit that, yes, 'There's something there, all right. Petey (or Johnny, or Paddy or whoever) is not liar, whatever else he is.'

"And in such unpromising companies, by not retreating from impending scorn, ridicule, I have very often come away with a completely different knowledge of people I thought I knew before.

"And such confrontations have, I think, brought to the surface for some of those mockers, too, something deep, something that may have been forgotten in our hurly-burly world of 'acquire, have, experience, spend'...a lifting of a corner of that veil that separates us from a world that is right beside us, but for most of us as far away as Heaven...or Hell! "

*The fairies.
**Hill forts, of fairy forts, patches of land long associated with fairy activity.

"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