Mythical Monday: Of Horses and Superstition by Mae Clair

Two days ago I do what I do every year when the first Saturday of May rolls around—I look forward to enjoying the Kentucky Derby. I have several friends online who know a great deal about horses (you know who you are :) ). I actually know very little, just that I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a kid. What little girl doesn’t dream of owning a pony? To this day, there is a tradition in my family when anyone has a birthday and is preparing to blow out the candles, we all say “Wish for a pony!” This comes from the number of people in my family who wanted ponies when they were kids (as it turns out, one of them ended up with several horses).

But I digress.

Back to the Derby.

Hubby and I had a quiet Derby Day at home this year. We grilled, enjoyed the beautiful weather and relaxed with mint juleps on our back porch. It was the first time we’ve made them. Probably the last, too, as neither of us liked the simple syrup that goes into the drink.

For the running of the roses, I chose American Pharaoh as my pick.

Now before you say I hopped on the popularity bandwgon, I always pick my horse based on its name. Yeah, I know…real scientific and all that. What can I say? I love names and had a reason for picking this one. I watched both Gods and Kings and The Ten Commandments over Easter, so I was focused on the Pharaoh thing.  Turns out American Pharaoh was the favorite coming in and ended up winning the Derby. YAY!

Casual photo of Mae Clair

Derby Day Fun

And although I didn’t have a fancy Derby Day hat to celebrate, I did wear a floppy spring hat in honor of the event. (Yep, that’s me at the right. Loved the hat; hated the Julep).

So why all this focus on the Kentucky Derby? Because one of the things that stands out for me as a kid was seeing Secretariat take all three races of the Triple Crown in 1973.  Do you realize no horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978? Quick math: that’s thirty-seven years!

I really want to see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. Desperately. So every year I watch each race in the Crown event and hope it will happen. It’s kind of like seeing Haley’s Comet or something.

What does all of this have to do with myth? Nothing really, except that I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the superstitions associated with horses and racetracks. As an example, did you know that the color of a horse’s feet plays into superstition?  One white “sock” on a horse is considered good luck, but four is considered bad. There is even a short verse to that extent:

One white foot, buy him.
Two white feet, try him.
Three white feet, be on the sly.
Four white feet, pass him by.

Here are some other superstitions related to horse racing and jockeys:

Peanuts are extremely bad luck and are banned in barns

Never name a horse after a family member

Don’t ship a broom from one track to another

A streak of gray in the tail is a sign of good luck

A black cat at a racetrack is a sure sign of bad luck

And some old superstitions related to horses in general:

A horse’s tail, if placed in water, will turn into a snake

If you lead a white horse through your house it will banish all evil

A horseshoe hung in the bedroom will prevent nightmares

Changing a horse’s name is bad luck

If a horse stands with its back to a hedge, it’s a sure sign of rain

If you see a white dog, you shouldn’t speak again until you see a white horse

Spotted horses are magical

Gray horses are unlucky

As with most things superstitious, I’m sure there are plenty more. Do you know any I missed? How about the Kentucky Derby? Were you cheering on American Pharaoh, too? Have you been lucky enough to see or remember a Triple Crown winner from the past? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Mythical Monday: Krampus, the Christmas Devil by Mae Clair

Although I am attending a tech conference today, it’s been far too long without a new Mythical Monday, so . . .

Who could forget the song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? How about the lyrics “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Well, apparently, if your name is etched on Santa’s naughty list, there’s a chance you could end up with a lot worse than a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

Recently, I discovered a tale from Germanic folklore in which good ole’ St. Nick has an enforcer named Krampus for his dirty work—a nasty looking fellow with horns, cloven feet, and a ginormous forked tongue. Half-goat, half-demon, it’s the job of this nightmarish creature to mete out discipline. He hulks about trailing bells and clanking chains, creating an ominous racket. Decked out with a bundle of birch sticks, he uses the switches for whipping naughty children. His victims are beaten, then stuffed into a basket and carted to the underworld where they are served up as dinner, or perish in flame.

Hardly what you think about around Christmas-time.

Lots of old legends have a grim twist to them, many focused on children who are eaten or worse, but I thought this one appalling. Maybe because it’s centered around Christmas, which is supposed to be a time of good will.

The legend of Krampus is centuries old and is still shared in many Alpine countries. Some places even host parades in which men dress up as Krampus and roam the streets.

Traditionally, Krampus appears on “Krampusnacht” also known as Krampus night. This is the evening before St. Nicholas Day, December 6—a time when you definitely want to ensure your name is on Santa’s “good” list.

dsI discovered this chilling legend through a book I read recently, THE DARK SERVANT, by Matt Manochio. The title showed up on one of my email subscription lists and I was intrigued enough by the blurb to give it a go. Part thriller, part horror story, part YA novel, THE DARK SERVANT has Krampus showing up in modern day New Jersey and snatching several high school kids with bad attitudes.

The protagonist of the book is the sheriff’s seventeen-year-old son. Billy begins to put the pieces together and soon realizes the abductions have been perpetrated by a hulking, hairy monster with a nasty talent for inflicting pain. Too bad for Krampus he’s snatched Billy’s brother because Billy isn’t about to let Krampus haul him to the underworld—even if the adults are clueless about the true danger.

This was a page-turner, and I do recommend checking it out if this type of read appeals to you. I loved it! Personally, I love almost anything with a creature on the loose, especially when said creature gets to rampage in a modern-day setting.

I can’t say, however, that I have any desire to meet Krampus in the flesh. Fiction and folklore is much more preferable.

What about you? Have you ever heard of this “Christmas Devil” before, or is he new to you, too?

Mythical Monday: Ravens, Rooks and Crows Revisited by Mae Clair

Good day, friends! I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to borrow from a post I ran in 2012 for today’s Mythical Monday. I have a rare day off work and hubby and I are taking a short trip to a neighboring town known for its eclectic shops and microbreweries. My normal writing time this weekend was gobbled up preparing A THOUSAND YESTERYEARS (my Mothman novel) for submission and clicking “send” (more on that in a later post, I hope).

So I’m cheating today and rerunning an old post that not many people saw. I’ve trimmed this down from the original and tweaked a bit. I no longer have the car mentioned toward the end (it didn’t do well in northern winters, so I traded it for an SUV), but I do recall the fun I had on Twitter tweeting about the events in this post. Mostly how my car was used in a murder.

Curious? Read on . . . :)

A crow perched on a tombstone at night in a spooky cemeteryHow do you feel about birds associated with folklore and superstition?

Ravens have a long-standing kinship with mysticism. In addition to being portrayed as a familiar to witches and wizards, they were also known to be extremely divining. Many Native American tribes regarded them as “Keeper of Secrets,” wise ones who safeguarded the teachings of magic.

Raven, a man with the head of a bird, brought light into the world and taught its inhabitants how to care for themselves. On the flip side, the raven was also a Trickster initiating change, not always pleasant. I find it interesting the term “rook” made it into our slang as a reference for being swindled. A rook is an old-world type of crow or raven. In reality, these intelligent birds are clever mimics that have been known to learn human words.

In the Bible, Noah sent a raven from the ark in search of ground, but it flew back and forth, unable to find a place to land in a world deluged with floodwaters. Later, he sent the dove which returned with an olive branch. Ravens were also commanded to feed the prophet Elijah and, in the gospel of Luke, we’re reminded that God feeds the ravens though they don’t sow, reap, or have storerooms or barns.

Would I know the difference between a crow and a raven if I saw them? Probably not. I know that ravens are larger and prefer less populated areas, while crows are more apt to hang around cities and urban spaces. Even cars.

A solitary crow on a post bows its head Case in point:  Two weeks ago while visiting my sister, I walked outside to find six or seven crows camped out on the roof and hood of my Chrysler 300. If I’d had a camera, I would have snapped a picture – large black birds on a solid black car. Turns out there must have been something snagged in the wiper blades. I never did find out what it was, but it had one handsome gent summoning his cronies to investigate. Before I knew it, my car had become the site of a “murder”.

Now I like birds, but not that much. There is something inherently creepy about seeing that many black birds rooted to your car. It’s not natural. By the time I shooed them away, they’d already turned my wiper blades into a gourmet snack.

And, of course, it was raining. That meant I was treated to a firsthand glimpse of the damage on the drive home—my wipers trialing long black strings that looked like ragged feathers. Trickster? Two new wiper blades later, I’d say it’s safe to tack that name onto crows, too.

So, despite having my car become the momentary snack of choice, I haven’t lost my appreciation for these the magical tricksters. How about you?

Mythical Monday: Morning Coffee with the Alp by Mae Clair

Saint Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, brimming with the luck of the Irish, pots of gold, and mischievous leprechauns. Given the playfulness of tomorrow’s holiday, I thought I’d focus on a different kind of imp for Mythical Monday—the Alp.

Did you ever have a really bad nightmare? If so, you can probably blame this nasty elf-like creature who has its roots in Germanic folklore. Alps delight in nothing better than filling the sleep of their victims with ghastly dreams. Some people believe Alps to be the spirits of recently deceased relatives, others that stillborn infants return as Alps. The majority of Alps are male, but their female counterparts are given the name “mare”….as in nightmare.

Photographic representation of painting "The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photographic representation of painting “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Crafty beings, they are able to gain entry to a house through the tiniest of holes. Locking doors and windows does little to deter them once they have selected a victim for their nighttime visit. To protect yourself, plug any keyholes with rags and seal up cavities in walls.

Once arriving, the Alp makes itself comfortable by squatting on its victim’s chest and exerting “elf pressure,” as it grows heavier and heavier. Eventually, the density of its weight drags the victim awake. The person normally returns to consciousness disoriented, terrified, and out of breath. Many believe elf pressure was an early explanation for sleep apnea. But the Alp has more going for it than a single nighttime propensity.

Among its magical abilities, it is able to turn invisible, fly, and shapeshift into a dog, cat, pig or white butterfly. The source of its power comes from a hat it is never without. Whatever shape or ability the Alp elects to use, the hat is always visible. Should an Alp lose its hat, it will offer a great reward for the item’s return.

Those in the old country knew there were certain methods to protect themselves from the Alp through the use of wards. These include hanging an iron horseshoe from the bedpost, placing a mirror on a chest, or a broomstick under the pillow. Burning a light all night and having a cross handy will also protect against an Alp. And—as bizarre as it sounds—if you wake during the middle of the night with an Alp squatting on your chest, invite it to return in the morning for coffee.

Yes, coffee. Can you imagine that conversation?

“Uh…if you could just see your way clear to stop squatting on my chest, Mr, Alp, I’ve got some nice French roast I’ll brew up in the morning.  How does sevenish sound?”

Provide a polite invitation, and the Alp will immediately dash off and leave you in peace. But you’d better have your Keurig ready in the morning as promised, because the Alp will be back, eager for its caffeine treat.

So the next time you have a bad dream, stock up on fresh coffee. Maybe you can convince your particular Alp to leave you alone over a cup of Vermont Country Blend or Keurig Dark Magic.

I’m curious…what kind of coffee would you offer an Alp?

Mythical Monday: Pennsylvania’s Werewolf Tale, by Mae Clair

Wolf in silhouette howling at full moonFor today’s Mythical Monday, I’m sharing a legend from my home state of Pennsylvania. Some of you who have followed my blog for a long time know I have a fondness for werewolf folklore. I used it in my first novel, WEATHERING ROCK, and never tire of the many twists and turns this legend has undergone through the centuries. Pennsylvania doesn’t seem like prime territory for werewolves, but there’s no arguing wolves in general once roamed the state.

In the 1800s wolves plagued the German settlers of Northumberland County, raiding local farms and carrying off chickens, sheep, and goats.

May Paul was just a child at the time, but she tended her family’s sheep, taking them to graze among the surrounding fields. One day, while going about the chore, she encountered a gray-haired man with a grizzled beard. People in the community routinely gossiped about a hermit who lived in the woods, and had a strange way about him. Her parents had instructed her to avoid the man if she ever encountered him, but May saw nothing wrong in befriending him.

The man didn’t talk much, but he seemed gentle and kind. Over time, it became habit that whenever May took her sheep out to graze, the hermit would appear and watch over her from a distance. Sometimes she spied wolves on the perimeter of the grazing field, but never had to fend them off. While her neighbors’ sheep suffered grisly attacks, any pack that roamed near May’s flock retreated abruptly, as if frightened away by something.

wooden fence in the grass on the hillside near the village at night in moon lightOne night, a farmer heard a commotion in his barn. Fearing a wolf attack, he grabbed his rifle and hurried outside. A grizzled grey wolf raced past, so close, he was able to shoot it cleanly. The great beast loped off into the night, but left a blood trail behind. Wanting to finish the job, the farmer followed the trail a short distance before deciding against the folly of chasing a wounded animal in the dark. The wolf was injured and couldn’t roam far.

Confident he could bag the animal in the morning, he returned to his house, picking up the trail again after daybreak. He followed the blood to the cabin of the old hermit, venturing cautiously inside when he received no answer to his shouts. He found the old man dead in a pool of blood, a gunshot wound to his chest.

When the community got wind of what had happened, locals immediately branded the hermit a werewolf. Hadn’t he always been strange and secretive, living alone, and keeping to himself? They buried his body in the dirt floor of his cabin, christening the spot Die Woolf Man’s Grob, which translated means “The Wolfman’s Grave.”

When May heard the news, she was devastated by the loss of her friend. Turning a deaf ear to the gossip, she steadfastly refused to believe the old man had been a werewolf. But thereafter, whenever she tended her sheep, an old grey wolf would watch from the distance—much in the same way her hermit friend had watched over her.

Wolves continued to raid local farms, but never ventured near the farm owned by May’s family. The old grey wolf stood guard in the distance, driving the rogue packs away whenever they drew near. As decades passed, the attacks eventually dwindled. Wolves were killed or driven off. As for the old grey wolf, it made a final appearance around the time of May’s death.

As I look back over this tale, what strikes me most about it is the bond between May and the hermit/werewolf. Usually werewolves are depicted as killers, but in this case, the creature protected not only May, but her family, and her family’s farm as well. Of all those in the community, May was the only one to show the old man friendship, and he returned it a hundredfold by keeping the packs of rogue wolves at bay.

Are you a fan of werewolf tales?

Mythical Monday: The Valley of Headless Men by Mae Clair

The Nahanni Valley is tucked in the MacKenzie Mountain region in Northwestern Canada, a beautiful place by all accounts, but steeped in in the dusty annals of folklore and myth. First settled nine to ten thousand years ago, the area has since been dubbed “the Valley of Headless Men” due to a series of unexplained beheadings.

Looking up from the ground at spooky trees in a twilight forestAccording to legend, most native tribes avoided the region, believing it to be haunted. Rumors spread of ghosts and devils, of strange creatures that lurked in the forests. The Naha people, an inherently violent tribe, settled there regardless. During frequent raids outside of the valley, they were known to claim the heads of their victims. Their blood-soaked legacy came to abrupt end when the entire tribe inexplicably disappeared. No trace was ever discovered what became of them.

Fast forward to the 18th Century. Prospectors and miners descended on the region, lured by rumors of gold. In 1908, like many before them, brothers Frank and Willie McLeod arrived to seek their fortune. The pair gathered their gear and headed into the wilderness, but never returned. A year later their bodies were found along a riverbank, minus the heads.

Another prospector, Martin Jorgeson, burned to death in his cabin in 1917. When his skeleton was found among the charred remains, his head was missing. In 1945, a miner from Ontario was discovered dead in his sleeping bag. Like the others, he had been decapitated. In all cases, the missing heads were never found.

Had the ghosts of Naha warriors returned to inflict retribution on those who ventured into their domain? Whoever—or whatever—the culprit, the legends of beheadings left a permanent mark on the valley. Macabre place names are common. Headless Creek, Funeral Range, Deadman Valley and Headless Range, all speak of the grisly tales from which they sprang.

But unexplained beheadings aren’t the only unsolved occurrences to plague Nahanni. Many people have simply vanished without a trace. Others fortunate enough to return speak of an unseen presence, constantly watching. Rumors of mysterious lights, Bigfoot sightings, and UFOs are common. Some whisper the Nahanni Valley is a thin spot—a rare location where dimensions are easily breached by crossing through a fragile veil. Others believe the region may harbor a secret entrance to the Hollow Earth.

Riddled with hot springs, caves and gorges, this rugged terrain is frequently shrouded in mist. Perhaps a warning to stay away. Despite the gorgeous scenery, the “Valley of Headless Men” certainly isn’t a name to encourage tourism.

Hmm…would you venture there and risk the wrath of the Naha warriors?

Mythical Monday: The Pukwudgie, by Mae Clair

Before I lope off into Mythical Monday land, I wanted to mention that Dane Carlisle and Ellie Sullivan of my romantic mystery, ECLIPSE LAKE, are doing a character interview today at Jennifer Lowery’s blog. If you’d like to stop by and say hello, you can check the interview out here.

Now, about the strange creature in the title…

Interesting name, Pukwudgie. For some reason it makes me think of gremlins, or gnarled forest imps. Actually, those descriptions aren’t too far off base.

The Pukwudgie can be found in the folklore and myths of the Wampanoag people, Native Americans who occupied southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning in the 17th Century. Legends describe the Pukwudgie as human in appearance but with a large nose, fingers and ears. They stand about two to three feet high, and have bodies covered in thick hair. Their skin is ashen or bluish-gray, and they favor natural materials which lend to camouflage for clothing—items like grasses, moss, tree bark, and reeds.

Despite its diminutive size, the Pukwudgie is a powerful being able to conjure the forces of magic. It can vanish at will, summon fire, and shoot flashes of light from its body. It also has the ability to shapeshift, its most common form that of a porcupine which walks upright. It delights in mischief and will often snatch children from unsuspecting parents. It also favors arrows tipped with poison that quickly cause a victim to sicken and die. Worse, those who perish at its hands remain trapped in its control for eternity.

3d Digitally rendered illustration of a Will O' the Wisp carrying a lantern through a misty swamp with dead treesThe Wampanoag call these departed spirits “Tei-Pai-Wankas.” Spheres of light, they are similar to the will-o-wisp and are used by the Pukwudgie to lure unsuspecting humans to their deaths. Those who follow a Tei-Pai-Wanka are mesmerized by its glowing form, unable to turn away. Easily enticed into swamps riddled with quicksand or compelled to walk off sheer cliffs, they suffer a grisly fate. If all else fails, a Pukwudgie is also able to inflict harm on a person simply by staring at them.

So how do you protect yourself against these nasty troll-like beings? (Supposedly, there are still Pukwudgie sightings today).

The best defense is to ignore creature and pray it won’t trouble you further. If that doesn’t work, you can recite the Lord’s Prayer, spread salt, or arm yourself with iron. Much like European Faeries, the Pukwudgie is repelled by all three defenses. You’re most likely to encounter one in New England or the Great Lakes Region, so be wary when travelling.

And at the very least, you might want to think twice before following any spheres of glowing light!  ;-)