Mythical Monday: Corpse Roads by Mae Clair

Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.

These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road. This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale. Photo courtey Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.

Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.

In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.

There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.

Coffin Stone at Town End This stone is beside a 'corpse road' along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald's Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.

Coffin Stone at Town End. This stone is beside a ‘corpse road’ along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend tells of a funeral procession which bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. The procession paused to rest, setting the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket is struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determines God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent it.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken back to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?

Mythical Monday: The Van Meter Visitor by Mae Clair

During autumn of 1903, the sleepy village of Van Meter, Iowa experienced three nights of strange visitations from a creature they believed had crept from an abandoned mine shaft. The bizarre occurrences began on September 29th when Ulysses Griffith, a traveling salesman was heading home after a business trip. Around 1AM, Mr. Griffith spied an odd light that appeared to “hop” from rooftop to rooftop. Intrigued, he was nonetheless tired after a long day of travel, and promptly headed home to bed.

The next night, September 30th at approximately the same hour, Dr. Alcott, the town physician, was drawn awake by a shaft of bright light streaming into his bedroom. Thinking a burglar lurked outside, he grabbed a firearm and headed outdoors to investigate. What he found was a gargoyle-like creature endowed with large bat wings and a blunt horn on its forehead from which light poured. Horrified, Dr. Alcott shot the beast five times, but the bullets had no effect.

The third resident to spot the creature was local banker, Clarence Dunn. On the night of October 1st at approximately 1AM, Mr. Dunn was camped out at his bank when a bright light suddenly flowed through the front window. He heard a strange wheezing and spied a shadowy figure skulking outside. Like Dr. Alcott, he shot the creature, firing directly through the window. But when he went outside to investigate, the beast had vanished, leaving a three-toed print behind in the dirt. Mr. Dunn later made a cast from the footprint as proof of the visitation.

On the same night, O.V. White spied the creature perched on a telephone pole. He fired, but the beast merely shone its light on him, then used its large hooked beak to clamber down the pole. There it encountered another resident, who estimated its height near eight feet. The creature hopped off like a kangaroo, flapping its wings as if attempting to take flight.

Finally, that same night, a group of men working a late-night shift heard strange sounds coming from an old mine shaft. When they investigated, two of the creatures abruptly appeared, one smaller than the other, and promptly winged off into the night. Determined to destroy the beasts and remove the threat to Van Meter, the men returned to town and organized a posse. Armed with rifles, the group trekked back to the mine and waited for the gargoyles to return.

The pair flew back to their lair just before sunrise where they were greeted by a deadly hail of bullets. The barrage “would have sunk the Spanish fleet” but it had no effect on them. The men found themselves engulfed by a putrid odor—perhaps the creature’s only defense?—before the winged beasts vanished into the mine shaft, never to be seen again.

There are plenty of tales about cryptids, but what gives this legend particular credence is the reputation of the men who reported seeing the monster. Most were prominent professionals and businessmen who couldn’t afford to be viewed as crackpots, yet they willingly attached their names to reports of sightings.  It has prompted many to believe this particular legend carries merit.

the-van-meter-visitor-bookAuthors Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Nelson have penned their own account of those three days in autumn of 1903, thoroughly investigating the circumstances surrounding the sightings. Their book, The Van Meter Visitor is available for purchase from Amazon or direct (autographed copy) from the authors’ website. This one has been on my reading list for some time and I hope to indulge in it shortly.

I find it curious that although the creature was no doubt terrifying in appearance, not once did it act in a threatening manner. Repeatedly shot at, chased, and generally sought for slaughter, it never defended itself. Only when the smaller creature was with it at the mine—perhaps a mate or offspring?—did it respond defensively. Even then it was only to release a “putrid odor” rather than attack. Surely a beast of that size with a long hooked beak, horn, and enormous wings could have inflicted damage if it chose.

It makes me think that the Van Meter Visitor may have been a peaceful creature. What’s your take?

Mythical Monday: The Brown Mountain Lights by Mae Clair

Brown Mountain is a low lying ridge tucked into the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For hundreds of years (some say longer) a phenomenon known as the Brown Mountain Lights has been observed by countless witnesses. The illumination, which appears as multi-colored balls floating above the mountain, has even resulted in two surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Society–one in 1913, the other in 1922. Many believe the Cherokee Indians observed the lights as far back as the 13th Century.

According to eye witnesses, the lights usually begin as a red ball which transitions to white before vanishing altogether. Sometimes a single orb will divide into several before reforming. Witnesses have also reported seeing blue, green, yellow and orange orbs, most lasting only a handful of seconds before fading or winking from sight.

A stony overlook extending into a treed gorge in

Overlook at Wiseman’s View in Linville Gorge, NC, one of the best vantage points for viewing the Brown Mountain Lights.
Photo of Wisemen’s View by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The phenomenon is so consistent there are specific mile markers within the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook designating from where they are best viewed.

Usually “spooklights” of this sort occur in swampy areas where decaying plant matter produces methane gas. This in turn spontaneously ignites, causing mysterious light manifestations. There are, however, no swampy areas where the Brown Mountain lights materialize, and unlike gaseous orbs, those of Brown Mountain appear concentrated with the ability to maneuver about the mountain.

Naturally, theories have developed. Many involve ghosts, energy beings, UFOs and even aliens. Older folklore relies on stories passed through generations. One tale dates back to the year 1200, when a bloody clash took place on the ridge. According to that legend, a fierce battle between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians claimed the lives of many braves. That night, grieving for their fallen warriors, Indian maidens scoured the mountain by torchlight, searching for bodies. To this day, that eerie torchlight can still be seen flickering on the ridge as they continue their endless hunt for the fallen.

Another tale speaks of a cruel man who butchered his wife and child then buried the bodies on Brown Mountain where he thought no one would find them. Not long after he completed the grisly deed, lights began to appear and hover over the graves. The mysterious illumination drew others to the site, enabling them to discover the murder victims. The killer fled before he could be punished for his crime, and was never seen again. Perhaps the forest enacted its own fatal justice.

Whatever the source of the Brown Mountain Lights, they have been captured on film and video and witnessed from miles away.  As for the surveys conducted by the US Geological Society, investigators concluded witnesses mistakenly reported the oncoming headlights from trains and autos as something more mystifying.

In direct counterpoint, locals reported seeing the lights before autos and trains descended on the area. Additionally, in 1916, a flood wiped out area transportation routes for a full week. During that time the lights were still active and observed.

Fast forward to 1982, when a man named Tommy Hunter claimed to have touched one of the lights. Supposedly it bobbed up to the ridge where he was standing and hovered several feet off the ground. A few times larger than a basketball, it appeared yellowish in color, and gave him an electrical shock when he extended his hand. The light dimmed slightly at the contact, then floated off into the woods.

If you would like to know more about this puzzling phenomenon, check out Joshua P. Warren’s free booklet, The Brown Mountain Lights:Viewing Guide available for download in PDF.  As someone who has always been fascinated by spooklights, I found it mesmerizing reading!

Mythical Monday: The Snow Maiden by Mae Clair

I’m cheating today by reblogging a Mythical Monday post I ran in December of 2012, although I think this will be new to most of my readers. Given the craziness of the holidays and the writing projects I’ve been juggling (final edits for my publisher on MYTH AND MAGIC (releasing June of 2015) and trying to wrap up my Mothman mystery so I can submit it), I neglected to come up with a Mythical Monday post today. I hope you don’t mind this trip down memory lane . . .

~ooOOoo~

As much as I love warm weather (and wouldn’t mind living somewhere tropical year round), I’ve always held a fascination for stories set in cold climates. A few of my all-time favorite novels have earned that distinction because the author employed a winter backdrop. Snow settings can be beautiful and magical, but also claustrophobic. THE RINGED CASTLE by Dorothy Dunnett (book 5 of the Lymond Chronicles) is an amazing read set in 16th Century Russia that conjures all three of those feelings.

Beautiful young woman in dressed in old fashioned winter furs and pearlsRussian folklore is also where I found the legend of The Snow Maiden, a short poignant fairy tale.  There are several variations but all agree on the basics—a woodcutter and his wife, lonely and childless, decide to amuse themselves one day by fashioning a snegurochka, a maiden from snow. Taken with their creation, they fervently wish her to be a daughter they can love and cherish. Their desire is so strong it weaves an enchantment that brings the snow maiden to life. She appears in a robe and cap of pale ivory that is embellished by pearls and trimmed in white fur. Overjoyed, they take her into their home as their own child.

All is well until the first sign of spring when the snow maiden tells them she must head north to lands where winter still reigns. Upset at the thought of losing her, the woodcutter barricades the door as his wife wraps the girl in her arms to prevent her from fleeing. As she holds her, the snow maiden slowly melts into nothingness. Overcome by grief, the couple mourns throughout the year. The next winter their daughter returns and their sadness becomes joy. The snow maiden promises to stay the season and return each year after that.

Young women standing in forest as sun breaks through the treesIn another version of the tale, the snow maiden falls in love with a young man from the village. One day they wander into a birch wood where the last vestiges of winter are fading and green shoots struggle to push up from the ground. The snow maiden turns her face to the sun, and with its touch, dwindles into an icy mist that is whisked away by the wind. And so winter must always yield to light and life as winter yields to spring.

I love these old fairy tales. What about you? Are there any special ones that come to mind? Any favorites from childhood that still resonate with you the way snow and winter resonate with magic?

Mae Clair Presents: Gemma Brocato with An Ancient Introduction to Christmas and MISSION: MISTLETOE

It’s always a pleasure to have Gemma Brocato, friend and Kensington/Lyrical Press sister author on my blog. Not only does she have a great post today about the ancient traditions of Christmas, and her new holiday release MISSION: MISTLETOE, but she’s also brought along a special treat.

Gemma’s novella A WINTER WEDDING is FREE today on Amazon! A continuation of her HEARTS IN HARMONY novel, it’s an ideal holiday read. Grab your copy, then make sure you come back to read Gemma’s post and get the deets on her other holiday romance!

A Winter Wedding Free

Saturnalia — An Ancient Introduction to Christmas
By Gemma Brocato

When I first thought about writing my holiday science fiction novel, I knew I didn’t want to make the story about Christmas per se. I wanted to detail a celebration that went much further back. I began researching the Winter Solstice and discovered Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that laid the foundation for our present day Christmas celebrations. It seemed a perfect solution.

Originally a one-day festival, Saturnalia soon evolved to a full week of celebration due to its popularity. The Emperors Augustus and Caligula tried to reduce the number of days, but the mass populace resisted their efforts. The event was more than just fun, feasting and games. It was a festival to honor Saturn, the god of sowing and the harvest. During the banquet, an effigy of the god could be one of the honored guests.

The best part of the festival was the temporary reversal of roles between masters and their slaves. Masters served meals and slaves were granted luxuries such as gambling and lazing around the house for a change. Their style of dressing tended to be more relaxed during the event. Santa’s hat supposedly originated at this time, a peaked woolen cap that symbolized a freed slave. This is also the time the Lord of Misrule made his first appearance in history. A family member was appointed to serve as host for the celebration.

Many of the traditions of the festival are still visible today. Decorating outdoor trees, placing greenery over doorways, merry-making pranks and gift-giving.

particular tree bare of white poplar and shrubs in the branches of mistletoeMy novella, Mission: Mistletoe is set in the future, where religious celebrations have been outlawed, but a festival for the harvest was allowed. So I set the story on a space station in orbit around Saturn, in December. It’s a story about the medicinal properties of the parasitic plant which is one of the symbols our present day holiday celebrations. The plant thrives off the nutrients of its host, usually an oak or apple tree. Kissing under the mistletoe was first associated with Saturnalia. People revered the plant as the bestower of life and fertility. Ancient Celts worshipped the plant for its mystical powers. It was also believed that Loki used the plant to poison Balder, the god of the summer sun, plunging the world into winter. Balder’s mother, Frigga, goddess of love, wept for her son, and it is said that her tears became the sticky white berries of the plant. She managed to bring her son back to life and in gratitude, kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which mistletoe grew.

mistletoe isolated on a white backgroundNow, here’s the sad part. Generally, when you are researching Mistletoe, you’ll come up with sites that display pictures of holly. The holly plant features sharp, pointy leaves and red berries. Mistletoe has white (and sometimes red berries) but its leaves are smooth, elliptical-shaped. So don’t be fooled. Kissing under the holly might be fun, but under the mistletoe, it’s magical.

~ooOOoo~

MISSION:  MISTLETOE
Genre: Science Fiction romance
Publisher: Gemma Brocato
Date of Publication: Nov 19, 2014 
Number of pages:
120

Mission_Mistletoe_Cover_CompressedBook Description:
In her quest to find a cure for the disease that killed her father, Rhayne Drake accepts a position as a researcher on a remote space station. Once in orbit around Saturn, she uncovers the true intent of the study: the ruling political party plans to use her research to kill, instead of cure, anyone carrying the genetic marker for the disease. Including Rhayne herself. 

Griffin Cooper, the station’s recreation manager, is charmed when he meets Rhayne. First he saved her from death by cargo-mover. Now he’ll fight to save her from a worse fate.

Set against a Saturnalia, a winter holiday festival, Rhayne and Griffin must find a way to defeat the political Coalition’s sinister plot before it’s too late.

Excerpt:
Rhayne froze as the over-laden Airfloat bore down, her mouth opened in a silent scream. Holy Titan! She’d die on this transport without ever stepping foot on the space station, not to mention Saturn.

Her breath squeaked out in a rush as someone grabbed her around the waist and swung her out of the path of crushing death. Her body went one direction while her briefcase flew the other. The screeching sound of the airbrakes engaging on the cargo float rang in her ears. A cacophony of other sounds erupted—men roared warnings to watch out and glass broke as boxes crashed to the floor with the sudden stop.

Rhayne’s body came to rest between the solid wall behind her and a hard, man-sized body that covered her, protecting her from falling containers and shattering glass. The aroma of Cassini Ale tainted her olfactory cavities, bitter and astringent, as broken bottles released their contents onto the floor in front of them.

“Are you okay? What in Titan’s name are you doing in the cargo bay? This area is off limits.”

The deep voice was velvety smooth in her ear. Warm breath tickled her cheek, and she rubbed the spot as she nodded her head. The large man eased away enough to give Rhayne her first glimpse of his rugged features.

The flow of his face was mesmerizing. From the top of his perfectly-shaped and completely bald head to strong brows, poised over eyes the color of Earth’s sky just before leaving the atmosphere. A shiny gold earring winked on his earlobe, an oddity in a society that had ceased mutilating their bodies with piercings and tattoos generations ago. He was the kind of rebel she’d fantasized about while at university, where she’d been forced to conform to a regimented curriculum with no room for individuality. Sharp cheekbones and a square, stubbled jaw completed the look. This man was beautiful and dangerous. Rhayne’s breath caught. She cleared her throat attempting to appear less awestruck.

“I turned right when I should have turned left. I’m looking for the off-load bay.” Rhayne frowned at the raspy quality of her voice.

Suddenly aware of her rescuer’s body pressed intimately against hers, she put her hands on his chest and pushed. “You can back away now. The danger is past.”

Purchase MISSION: MISTLETOE from Amazon

Author, Gemma BrocatoAbout the Author:
Gemma’s favorite desk accessories for many years were a circular wooden token, better known as a ’round tuit,’ and a slip of paper from a fortune cookie proclaiming her a lover of words; some day she’d write a book. All it took was a transfer to the United Kingdom, the lovely English springtime, and a huge dose of homesickness to write her first novel. Once it was completed and sent off with a kiss, even the rejections addressed to ‘Dear Author’ were gratifying.

After returning to America, she spent a number of years as a copywriter, dedicating her skills to making insurance and the agents who sell them sound sexy. Eventually, her full-time job as a writer interfered with her desire to be a writer full-time and she left the world of financial products behind to pursue a vocation as a romance author.

Connect with Gemma at the following haunts:
Website and Blog 
Facebook
Twitter 

Goodreads 
Wattpad
Google+ 

Also By Gemma Brocato:
Cooking Up Love
Hearts In Harmony
Exposed To Passion
A Winter Wedding 

Mythical Monday: The Wampus Cat by Mae Clair

I’ve been a fan of werewolves since I was a kid, and readily admit to having OCD (Obsessive Cat Disorder), so it should come as no surprise that I was instantly intrigued by the myth of the Wampus Cat.

A legend steeped in Appalachian folklore and Native American culture, the Wampus has been sighted mostly in the south. From Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and even West Virginia, this half-human, half-animal creature inspires rumors often shared in hushed whispers. Standing upright with a long tail and glowing eyes, the Wampus is described as a cross between a human woman and a mountain lion or a lynx. It is said to exude an odor so repugnant—an atrocious mix of skunk and wet dog—that those who encounter it are instantly overcome with nausea.

Preying mostly on livestock, this foul-smelling cryptid isn’t above dining on human flesh when the urge arises, particularly should it come across a lone traveler out at night, or a lost child.

Attractive woman with native Indian Cherokee makeup and feathers in her hairThere are several different variations on how the Wampus Cat came into being, but the most common involves a young Cherokee woman who decided to spy on her husband. In one version of the tale, she is a jealous wife who follows his hunting party from a distance. Cloaked in the fur of a mountain lion, she creeps into the men’s encampment at night to listen as they share stories around the fire even though she knows women are forbidden. It is only a matter of time before she is discovered and brought before the village Shaman for justice. He curses her to wear the skin of the lion forever, changing her into a creature that is half cat and half woman.

In another, similar, version of the tale, she follows the men because she desires to learn the secrets of magic, listening to the sacred rites they share around the fire. Her fate is the same in this account—she is discovered and transformed into the Wampus cat by an unforgiving Shaman for her brazen foolishness.

Yet a third tale, set in West Virginia, describes the woman as an aged witch who lives alone. In the dark of night she slips from her home stealing and killing livestock. Suspecting her of witchcraft, the townspeople set a trap for her.

One night as she creeps stealthily through the dark, several follow her to the homestead of a local farmer. There, she transforms into a cat and slips inside the man’s house where she places a spell on the occupants so they sleep throughout the night. Afterward, she heads to the barn, intent on her nefarious business. As she begins the transformation back to human form, the townspeople catch her, interrupting the change. From that moment on, she remains forever trapped between the two forms—human and cat—vanishing into the woods where she remains to this day.

It is said the Wampus cat possess a chilling hiss and an ungodly scream so the next time you go traipsing through the woods don’t dismiss any frightening sounds. Werewolves and vampires aren’t the only creatures who favor the dark!

Mythical Monday: The Traditions of Saint Lucia’s Day

It’s December 1st, and the month of Christmas is upon us! I get seriously jazzed at this time of year. Between the feeling of goodwill that seems to pervade everything, the festivities of the coming holidays, sharing with family, remembering old traditions, and soaking up the holiness of this beautiful month, it’s hard to remain low-key.

Today, for Mythical Monday, I’m focusing on an old holiday, Saint Lucia’s Day, the Festival of Lights which is celebrated in Sweden, Norway, and Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. Commemorated on December 13th, it is the date which marked the winter solstice in early calendars.  When the solstice moved to the 21st, the date remained as the beginning of Christmas in Sweden and Norway.

Photo courtesy N_Creatures (L1140287) [CC-BY-2.0 creative commons license], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy N_Creatures (L1140287) [CC-BY-2.0 creative commons license], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s rumored that on the eve of the day, the lucky might glimpse Lucia herself, skimming across winter-white snowfields and frozen lakes, a crown of light on her flowing hair. In many towns, torchlight processions were held to summon and rekindle the luminance that had faded with the encroaching winter.

Rising early, young maidens adorned in white robes with wreaths of holly and candles upon their heads would take food to their sleeping elders.

Of Sicilian origin, it is believed St. Lucia met a fiery death in A.D. 310 when she refused to recant her Christianity. According to legend, she encountered an angel when visiting the shrine of Saint Agnes while seeking a cure for her mother’s long-term illness. Moved by the experience, she became a devout Christian, refusing to denounce her beliefs even in the face of Roman prosecution. Burned at the stake, she continued to speak her beliefs as the fire consumed her. One soldier stuck a spear through her throat to silence her, but the grisly injury had no effect. She died only when given the Christian sacrament.

In Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, a girl is elected to portray St. Lucia on her feast day of December 13th. Dressed in white with a red sash (the sign of martyrdom), she leads a procession of other women, a crown of candles on her head. These symbolize the fire that refused to consume St. Lucia at the stake.

It is believed that celebrating St. Lucia’s Day will help one live with plenty of light through the long winter ahead.