folklorelei: (the siren)

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Hunt for the Skinwalker: Science Confronts the Unexplained at a Remote Ranch in Utah by Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp

I’m not placing this book with the few UFO books in my possession, nor with the books on the occult or science. Not even with the books on folklore, although it contains all those elements. I am firmly placing this with my growing collection of books on the trickster—although I suppose it would fit in just as well with my collection on Faery. Although the authors mention the Native American myth of the skinwalker (or shapeshifting witch) in the title that’s just a convenient moniker taken from the Ute Indians of Utah who live near that “remote ranch” in an attempt to put a name on the phenomena occurring there.

In the religion and cultural lore of Southwestern tribes, there are witches known as skinwalkers who can alter their shapes at will to assume the characteristics of certain animals. Most of the world’s cultures have their own shapeshifter legends….In the American Southwest, the Navajo, Hopi, Utes, and other tribes each have their own version of the skinwalker story, but basically they boil down to the same thing—a malevolent witch capable of being transformed into a wolf, coyote, bear, bird, or any other animal. The witch might wear the hide or skin of the animal identity it wants to assume, and when the transformation is complete, the human witch inherits the speed, strength, or cunning of the animal whose shape it has taken. The Navajo skinwalkers use mind control to make their victims do things to hurt themselves and even end their lives…

Given the nature of the phenomena reported at that remote ranch, the idea of mind control seems a kind of refrain in the book. Fully half the book details the wealth of high strangeness that takes place, first to the Gorman family, then to the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) researchers. The area had been known to the Utes and Navajos for generations as a wrong place, an abode of skinwalkers, and simultaneously a sacred place, where this world and the otherworld intersect. The white family who bought the ranch came from out of state and didn’t know the ranch’s bad reputation. They just knew they were getting it cheap and that finally they had a shot at making their cattle-ranching dreams come true. Unfortunately, the dream turned into a nightmare, replete with strange lights in the sky and buzzing “craft,” incursions of sasquatch (which the local Utes think are sometimes Bigfoot and sometimes skinwalkers posing as Bigfoot) and other weird and impossible animals. The Gormans were further plagued by cattle mutilations, poltergeists, and sabotage—a veritable state of siege. After three years of that and more, dreams shattered, the Gormans sold the ranch to NIDS so the scientists could do a thorough investigation. The scientists themselves soon came to feel as if they were the ones being investigated, toyed with, and made to confront the limits of science.

As I said, fully half the book recounts the frustrating experiences of the Gormans and the researchers on the ranch. Interesting at first, this section got repetitive. I enjoyed the drama of the first section, where the Gormans were faced with the onslaught of high strangeness, and I enjoyed the final section wherein the authors engage in philosophical and scientific discussions about what might be causing all this. Theories abound, but hard science does not.

If there is an intended message or lesson in all of this, what could it possibly be? Needless to say, everyone who played a part in the investigations has logged many a sleepless night while pondering this central question, without arriving at a satisfactory answer.

Whatever was happening at this ranch (and is still reportedly happening) seems to have more in common with quantum physics than Newtonian, giving an uncomfortable glimpse into the very strange universe we inhabit, one that changes shape depending on who is observing it. Not only is it stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)

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Coyote Trickster, Santa Fe by Kelly Moore

This book is a comprehensive overview of parapsychology and the paranormal. Scholarly and dense—definitely not light reading—it is nonetheless well thought out and approachable. Hansen’s exhaustive research of the field shows clear but strange patterns. The paranormal, or psi, is more than the “hoax or delusion” argument with which skeptics often dismiss it, but not quite as true believers portray it, either. Like light particles in the world of quantum physics, the paranormal seems to change its nature based on who is doing the observing. It is most comfortable working in the world of the outsider, the marginalized and liminal, artists, mischief makers, magicians, the social pariahs and anti-establishment types—and in this, shares many of the characteristics of trickster deities throughout the world.

Because tricksters are so often comfortable in the culture of the shunned, it is almost a given that academia will run from psi as a priest from that which is unclean. Serious and impartial study becomes difficult because to engage in it, academics must overcome rigid social taboos and embrace unconventional thought paradigms. Academia is no more immune from societal pressures and conventional thinking than any other human institution. As Hansen himself states, “The widespread, subtly negative attitude toward fantasy, imagery, and the imagination indirectly acknowledges its power and the need to keep it constrained.” There is also the very real danger of becoming so drawn into the subject one loses one’s ability to tell fantasy from reality. Loss of objectivity comes in many forms.

I don’t think any summary I achieve here could do justice to the amount of researcher Mr. Hansen has laid out in this book, encompassing a multiplicity of disciplines from physics to anthropology, psychology to deconstructionism, lab parapsychology to professional magic. For a meticulous and original view of the field—its history, current trends, and deeper philosophical meaning—The Trickster and the Paranormal cannot be beat.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)

brownie-sm

Illustration by Jean-Baptiste Monge

There’s always one in every crowd. You know, you’ve got a good thing going and that one guy or gal pushes things too far and ruins it for everyone. This is no less true when dealing with fairies.

I was reading R. Macdonald Robertson’s Selected Highland Folktales and he told the story of “The Fairies of Pennygown.” If any of the townsfolk of Pennygown needed help with a task, they brought the work of an evening to a certain nearby sithean, a lovely green fairy hill. By morning, the task would be nicely completed: spinning, weaving, repair, mending, you name it. One villager, though, kept leaving more and more difficult things, pushing it.

One night he left by their hillock a piece of driftwood which he had picked up on the sea-shore, with instructions that it was to be made into a ship’s mast. When the villagers came next morning to collect the property left overnight, they found none of the tasks executed. This last request had angered the fairies so much that they had left their hillock, in disgust, for good.

Any reasonable being would be put out by such oafish behavior, it’s true. But it’s also true that helpful fairies are a tricky lot. They can have goodwill towards humans, but it can also turn on a dime. If they’re insulted, they can get mischievous and mean. Some say poltergeists are fairies who’ve become insulted by a householder and take it out in spite.

They also have sometimes exacting standards of what constitutes insult. Brownies and hobs, for instance, will gladly help out with the housework, usually at night like the Pennygown folk. However, they don’t want to be seen, and don’t want payment, or even expressions of gratitude. They will, though, accept gifts, mostly in the form of food, especially porridge and honey. If a householder starts taking them for granted, openly thanks them, or considers the food “payment”—or if they try to get a glimpse of them—the brownies will forthwith abandon the house, never to be seen again or lend their help.

There are other European versions of such beings: tomte in Scandanavia, domovoi in Slavic countries, Heinzelmännchen in Germany, Haltija in Finland, many others. Some have even made the trip over the Atlantic to the Americas. But in my (admittedly limited) investigation of helpful fairy folk, I’ve only found one non-European example of work-helpful fairies, the koro-pok-guru of the Ainu people of the Northern Japanese islands.

These beings would hunt and fish for the Ainu in exchange for little gifts, leaving the goods overnight. Like the brownies, they hated being seen. Of course, one Ainu loser couldn’t leave well enough alone and blew the gig for everyone. The young man in question waited by the place where the gifts were left, determined to see a koro-pok-guru, and laid hands on the first one to appear. It was a beautiful koro-pok-guru maiden, but she and her people were so angered at this affrontery that they disappeared, never to help the Ainu or be seen again.

Very strong parallels with the European myths, but that isn’t entirely surprising. Ainu are racially distinct from the Japanese. Recent research suggests Okhotsk origins and there is still a small population of Ainu in Russia. They share that pan-European ancestry, so they share those ancient pan-European stories.

But as I said, I haven’t found anything else like it around the world. Good and bad spirits aplenty, but none who will pitch in to do the work for humans in exchange for small gifts. I am far from an expert on this, so if anyone knows of such a tradition in a non-European context, I would love to hear about it.

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)

crow

I love crows. I’m fascinated by them, although I never lose track of the fact that although they are intelligent and amazing animals, they are wild, and they are predators as well as scavengers. They survive in the real world any way they can—picking up road kill and pet food left outside, catching smaller birds and critters to eat. Whatever it takes.

In mythology, crows are often trickster deities. As the name implies, these deities exist to play tricks on humankind, but the tricks have a deeper meaning. They put people on alert to the shifting nature of reality, reminding them not to get so caught up in the surface of things, to not always believe what your eyes tell you. Beware. Be smart. Do what needs to be done. That’s how you survive.

It’s a tricky business when a human strikes a deal with a trickster. You may get what you asked for, but it won’t necessarily be in a form that’s any good to you, or it may come at a time when you no longer want it or need it. Knowing this, I saw a crow outside my window one day at work and thought how lovely one of his shiny black feathers would be in an art piece I was working on. So I thought, what the hell? I’ll ask him. (In my mind, of course, so my officemate wouldn’t think I was crazier than she already thought.)

“Mr. Crow, I would like one of your shiny black feathers to use in an art piece. If you agree to send me a feather, I will burn sage and juniper leaves in your honor.”

I waited for my feather. At lunchtime I even walked beneath his tree looking for it. No feather. I laughed at myself, but that night I burned the sage and juniper anyway. No feather. I stopped looking for it.

About three weeks later I was driving down the busy thoroughfare of Olympic Boulevard, late to a doctor’s appointment I absolutely had to make. The boulevard has a wide, parklike strip of green down the middle dividing the eastbound and westbound traffic, but absolutely no parking on that section of the street. I pulled to a stop at a light, not thinking about anything in particular except how late I was and what a hurry I was in. The light turned green and I stepped on the gas—and at just that moment a lovely, shiny black crow feather seemed to appear out of nowhere, blowing along the green strip of grass just beside my car.

In about five seconds flat I had a decision to make: do I stop the car in the intersection and run after the feather, provoking outrage in the cars behind me; or go east to the nearest turn around, come back and search for the feather, provoking the drivers on that side of the boulevard; or do I let the feather go and proceed to my appointment? Most people who have heard this story say at this point, “You should have stopped for the feather!” But in the seconds required to make my decision, I had an epiphany. I had to let the feather go. It was not that I had asked too much of Mr. Crow. He had been willing to give the feather, but wanted me to appreciate his cosmic joke. It was as if he said, “You make the decision whether you want to live in the world, or in the spirit world. The choice is yours, and my feather is the symbol.” On this day, I chose to live in the world, and continued on to my doctor’s appointment.

I laughed long and hard at the splendid joke I’d played on myself. The trickster cannot trick us unless we are willing participants. We are the ultimate cosmic jokers on ourselves. In the years since, I’ve also realized the other part of this lesson is that we sometimes have to let go of our notion that we can control life, nature, the randomness of events. . . anything, really. If we’re going to keep our sanity, we have to reconcile ourselves to this fundamental lack of power, and learn to live with life’s basic unpredictability. We have to be careful not to buy into the illusion of the world, of controlling and bending nature (life) to our will.

And so there came a day I told this story to F. while walking back to Avalon from the Wrigley Monument on Santa Catalina Island. She appreciated the irony and we laughed a great deal when I got to the part where the feather blew in front of my car and I had to leave. At that precise moment, the crows in the eucalyptus trees lining our path joined in, breaking into a loud and raucous cawing as we passed.

And so there came another day when I realized once and for all that a relationship had ended. It was a painful ending to an association that never stood much of a chance, but I’d walked into it with eyes wide shut, believing I could make of it what it wasn’t. On that day, I knew I had to give it up, that it had never really been mine. As I walked back to my car, I thought about the lessons of the tricksters and how very badly I had fooled myself. There on the ground, centered just behind my car’s back bumper, was a lovely, shining black crow feather.

 

Mirrored from Better Than Dead.

folklorelei: (the siren)

PHOTO REMOVED AT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S REQUEST

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.

"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

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