Mythical Monday: St. Elmo’s Fire by Mae Clair

A weather phenomenon known to sailors, St. Elmo’s fire has older roots in folklore. Often seen dancing among the riggings of a ship, these “spirit fires” or playful lights were seen as signs of heavenly intervention and a portent of the future. Occurring before storms when the air was super-charged with electricity, the lights appeared blue, violet, or bluish-white in color.

sailing-ship on moonlit ocean during storm with lightningAccording to legend if one light danced in the rigging, the ship was headed to a stormy death, but if two shone brightly, the winds would fade and the sea quiet. Another belief said descending flames meant disaster while ascending meant fair weather. Some sailors believed the lights to be the souls of departed comrades come to forewarn of danger. If a light danced upon a man’s head, he was most certainly doomed.

The ancient Greeks named a single jet of fire, Helena, and a double jet, Castor and Pollux. In the Philippines, the phenomenon is known as Santelmo, and has been rumored to chase people.

Because of the electrical charge present during instances of St. Elmo’s fire, compass readings often went awry which may be one reason why the flames were sometimes viewed as an ill omen among sailors. It’s interesting to note that the name is also derived from St. Erasmus of Formia, the Italian patron saint of sailors. For this reason, the manifestation could also be derived as an omen of good will, a sign the saint was watching over the seamen on their journey.

A plasma charge in the air, St. Elmo’s fire can also be seen on land, flickering about elevated objects such as lightning rods, streetlamps, spires and even chimneys. It’s occasionally mistaken for ball lightning, and like many elements of superstition and awe, can be viewed as favorable or ominous.

I’d love to know if you’ve ever witnessed this phenomenon.

Folklore Friday: The Wreck of the Old 97

I normally blog about myths or writing, but I have a passion for history and folklore too. Today, I couldn’t resist sharing an old tale that recently caught my attention.

I love trains, especially old steam locomotives. I don’t know much about them, but I’m always eager to learn more. Like old clipper ships, they are symbol of a bygone era, often viewed in a romantic light. In truth, working for a railroad was gritty, dangerous business.

folk n skiffleNot long ago while scouring digital music on Amazon, I happened upon a folk ballad, The Wreck of the Old 97 performed by Skiffledog. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it’s been recorded, re-recorded, and recorded some more by all manner of artists.

The ballad tells the tale of “Old 97” a train that will forever live in the annals of American folklore due to its spectacular derailment in the fall of 1903. In those days, the post office had a standing contract with the railroad for the delivery of mail. Unlike passenger and freight trains, Old 97 routinely ran at a high rate of speed in order to ensure timely delivery. Dubbed the “Fast Mail,” she had precedence over all other trains. Passenger trains and freight trains alike were required to clear the track ahead of her; passenger trains by ten minutes, freight trains by a full thirty minutes.

Southern Railway—the company that owned her—was penalized for every minute she ran behind, but received a hefty chunk of change from Congress when she arrived on time. She was highly lucrative for Southern, thus the “old” in her name didn’t relate to age, but rather Southern’s glowing pride in their beloved Fast Mail. Perhaps that is why her destruction has resonated so strongly down through the decades.

On September 27, 1903, Engineer Joseph A. Broady (known as “Steve” to his friends) took charge of the train in Monroe, Virginia. According to the ballad, he was given the following instructions (note “38” relates to an elite passenger train Southern also ran):

Well, they gave him orders in Monroe, Virginia,
saying “Steve, you’re way behind time.”
This is not 38, it’s Old 97,
you must put her into Spencer on time.

In reality, Southern Railway gave Broady “run late” orders, dictating he had to arrive in Spencer forty-five minutes late, allowing him to make up only twenty minutes during his run from Monroe (the train was already an hour late when it arrived from Washington D.C., and lost another five minutes of time as Broady and his crew took over).

Steve had never run Old 97 before, but he was an experienced engineer.  According to legend he vowed to put the train into Spencer on time, or “put her into hell.” The route was a track that included elevation changes, sharp turns, and steep grades. Because of the high rate of speed he maintained, it’s believed Broady did something called ”whittling”—applying his airbrakes too frequently without giving them ample time to recharge. When he needed to slow down dramatically on an approach to Stillhouse Trestle, they failed him.  From the song:

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And Lima’s on a three-mile grade;
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
You can see what a jump he made.

Photo of the Wreck of the Old 97 , courtesy WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Photo of the Wreck of the Old 97 , courtesy WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Interestingly, Broady had run the track countless times prior to that fateful September day, but never with Old 97. Intimately familiar with the terrain, including its danger points, the route should have been without issue for him. Many believe his error in judgment was a result of his unfamiliarity with a light four-car train like Old 97. Broady was accustomed to running larger, heavier freight trains, which responded differently when the engineer applied the brakes.

Old 97 derailed when Steve Broady approached a ravine spanned by Stillhouse Trestle. That framework rose forty-five feet in the air from the ground below. According to the song :

He was going down grade, doing ninety miles an hour,
When his whistle broke into scream,
they found him in the wreck, his hand upon the throttle,
he’d been scalded to death by steam.

Many people who heard the train and/or saw it approaching, recall the horrible shrieking sound of the whistle. Broady obviously knew the train was in trouble as he never let up on the whistle. Because Old 97 was classified as a passenger train, he was required to slow to fifteen miles per hour on the trestle. Even at twenty-five he should have been able to make it across, but survivors, and those who witnessed the wreck, estimate he was doing sixty to seventy-five when he hit that point.

The train jumped the track and plummeted into the ravine. killing eleven of the eighteen men on board, all others suffering serious injuries. Among the fatalities were Joseph “Steve” Broady and his fireman.

“The Wreck of the Old 97” is a new book by historian Larry G. Aaron.Such a tragic tale, especially when you realize Broady had made up only two minutes of the twenty he was allowed by the time he reached the trestle. At first glance, I’m sure many would view Broady as the “villain” in this tale, but there is so much more involved. I highly recommend historian Larry G. Aaron’s book, THE WRECK OF THE OLD 97 for anyone who might like greater insight to the tragedy that occurred on September 27, 1903. Written in an easy to follow style, it brings the event and the people affected by it vividly alive. I couldn’t put it down.

As Mr. Aaron said in his book…Joseph “Steve” Broady was barely in his thirties when he died in the wreck of Old 97. Had he not run the train that day, he probably would have lived out his life, and no one would have ever heard his name. As it turned out, Steve Broady the engineer has become a folk legend, and one must always wonder which fate he would have preferred.

Source:  THE WRECK OF THE OLD 97 by Larry G. Aaron
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Mythical Monday: The Cold Ghost of Gilsland Castle by Mae Clair

I’m closing out my ghostly Mythical Monday posts for the month of October with the tale of an unfortunate boy who met his demise in Gilsland Castle, a forbidding stronghold located in northern England. What the poor lad did to deserve punishment has long been forgotten, but as a lesson for some misdeed, he was locked away in an empty upstairs room. Perhaps the austere atmosphere of the fortress itself was to blame, as you have to wonder about the type of parent or disciplinarian who would forget a child.

Sadly, the boy was kept in that frigid place too long, and froze to death.Castle Steps

For centuries afterward people have told of seeing a small nightgowned figure who roams the hallways, stopping at each chamber and seeking entrance. Still freezing, his teeth chattering and body trembling, the boy endlessly searches for an open door. When he finds one, he has been known to hover at the bedside of the occupant, whimpering softly as they sleep.

Should the person be ill, he is quick to end their suffering. Placing a small cold hand upon their flesh, he whispers “Cold, cold, forever cold. You shall be cold forever more.”  With these words, and the ghostly touch of the child, the sufferer peacefully surrenders, eased from pain by the Ghost of Gilsland Castle.

Perhaps he worries they have been forgotten and neglected too…

Werewolf Folklore by Mae Clair

Wolf in silhouette howling at full moonI am in a werewolfy frame of mind today. My friend, Carmen Stefanescu, invited me to her blog, Shadows of the Past.

A native of Romania (yeah, Dracula territory), Carmen has a very cool hangout, rich in folklore and all things catering to writers.  In the spirit of Halloween, I am sharing a post with her about werewolf folklore. Drop by and say “howl-lo” while you’re roaming the blogosphere. :)

Mythical Monday: Sendings, Ghostly Assassins by Mae Clair

In keeping with the approach of Halloween, I’m staying focused on ghostly apparitions for the remainder of this month’s Mythical Monday posts. October and spooky just effortlessly go hand-in-glove. When it comes to ghosts, we tend to think of them as spirits who are reluctant to move on, or who have left something unfinished when torn from the earthly realm. But there is an additional type of specter, or at least one that makes an appearance in Icelandic folklore.

If legend is to be believed, a ghost can be magically conjured from a human bone. I find the idea pretty ghoulish—imagining some wrinkled  sorcerer or necromancer crouched and chanting over crypt bones—but apparently ghosts can be useful If you’re an unethical practitioner of magic.  In this case, the wraiths are known as “sendings” and were often employed as murderers or dispatched to perform grisly deeds. It makes you feel sorry for the poor soul whose bones were unearthed by an unscrupulous wizard!

The good news (if you were the mortal target of said unscrupulous mage) is that sendings were not without weakness. As a case in point there was once a comely widow who many men sought to marry. She refused all offers—I can’t help thinking the husband she lost was her only true love—but that didn’t stop the men who coveted her, and her land holdings, from pursuing her.Comely young woman, grieving over grave

One day as she was preparing supper a strange sixth sense came over her, warning of danger. Turning toward the doorway she spied a shadow on the threshold, velvet black but for an odd white spot at its center. As the terrified woman watched, the shadow crept toward her, inching nearer across the floor. Snatching up a knife, she struck the apparition where she sensed it was most vulnerable—the odd white blossom at its center.  Instantly, the shadow vanished, her knife claimed along with it.

The next morning she found the knife in the yard, pinioned through a human bone. Her quick thinking and her bravery had saved her life, and from that point forward she was bothered no more.

A strange HEA, but kind of cool nonetheless, and it speaks to my personal belief that some people have only one soulmate. What do you think of this tale?

 

Mythical Monday: The Neck, Water Men, and Nixies by Mae Clair

Last week for Mythical Monday, I ventured into the forests of Germany and Scandinavia for a look at the earthy Moss People. Today, I’m mired in the same region of the globe, but wading into a watery domain with Nixies and the Water-Men of Germany.

Tales vary depending on the branch of folklore you happen to be pursuing. In some legends, the Water-Men are human in appearance but have green teeth and favor green hats. They often mingle with humans in marketplaces where they do their shopping. For the most part they dwell on good terms with men, and even aspire to friendship. Their women are beautiful and ethereal, commonly called Nixies.Fantasy girl taking magic light in her hands, standing on edge of pond at night

In other legends, they appear human-like with amphibious features such as gills, webbed feet and hands. Many claim they are shapeshifters who have no true form.

In Scandinavia, these same creatures are known as Necks, a male water sprite who dwells in rivers and streams. Master musicians who favor the harp and violin, they prey on unsuspecting women and children by luring them to the water to drown. The music they weave is magically enchanted, much like that of a siren, too beautiful for mortals to resist. Pregnant women and unbaptized children are especially susceptible to their bewitching melodies.

In most tales the Neck is doomed, but in some, he is a creature who fervently craves redemption.

A timeworn legend tells of a priest who came upon a Neck as he played along the riverbank. Spying the creature, the priest rebuked the Neck harshly. “Look at this dead staff,” he said, displaying the withered piece of wood he used to aid in his walking. “This piece of rot will put forth green leaves, before your soul is saved.”

By Ernst Josephsson (1851 - 1906) (Swedish) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Josephsson (1851 – 1906) (Swedish) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hearing the cruel denouncement and fearing his soul beyond redemption, the Neck burst into tears. He threw his harp aside and buried his face in his hands, mournfully bemoaning his fate.

Satisfied, the priest left him  weeping, but as he walked away, guilt twisted his heart. He had not gone far when his staff abruptly surged with green sap, putting forth a bounty of twigs and leaves—a message from the great I AM that all creatures belong to God. Deeply ashamed, the priest retraced his steps. He found the Neck still sobbing, and humbly begged forgiveness, showing the heartbroken creature his staff. Seeing the change that had overtaken the withered piece of wood, the Neck rejoiced. Reclaiming his harp, he burst into song, his music so utterly beautiful that the river itself echoed with his sweet melody.

As someone who adores a happily-ever-after, I love that tale. I can imagine the old priest rejoicing with him, sitting down on the river bank and sharing his bread and wine.

Have you ever heard this legend before? Were you familiar with the Neck?

Mythical Monday: The Moss People by Mae Clair

I feel like I’ve taken a leave of absence, and I guess I have. I was on vacation all last week, enjoying an end of summer fling at the shore. Now I’m officially ready to embrace fall, just in time for another Mythical Monday.

Dense forest with moss-covered treesWith the trees starting to turn color, I thought I’d creep into the forest where they grow in abundance, and spend some time with the Moss People or Wood Folk.

Germanic in origin, Moss People are a type of fairy, often compared to dwarves or elves. They have a strong affinity to trees and the forest. In many tales they are pursued by Odin during the Wild Hunt, and seek shelter by entering trees that have been scored with a cross—a sign a woodsman has marked the tree to be cut down. Some tales describe Wood Folk as gnarled and gray, covered with moss, in others they are said to be comely, endowed with wings like a butterfly.

An unassuming and shy people, they occasionally borrow items from humans, but compensate for any loan generously. Above all, they prize a gift of maternal breast milk from a human woman, something they covet for their own children as a remedy for all ills. Timid by nature, it is hard for them to beseech such a boon, perhaps the reason they choose to reward such generosity in abundance.

Legends of the Moss People are most popular in the forests of Bavaria in southern Germany, and parts of Scandinavia. In closing, this description of a Moss Woman is taken from “The Moss Woman and the Widow,” a tale of southern Germany, shared in The Fairy Family, a series of ballads related to fairy mythology:

“A Moss Woman!” the haymakers cry,
And over the fields in terror they fly.
She is loosely clad from neck to foot,
In a mantle of moss from the maple’s root.
And like lichen grey on its stem that grows,
Is the hair that over her mantle flows.

Her skin like the maple-rind is hard,
Brown and ridgy and furrowed and scarred;
And each feature flat, like the mark we see,
Where a bough has been lopped from the bole of a tree.

As unassuming as she seems, doesn’t it make you wonder why the haymakers flee?