Friday, October 31, 2014


Editor's note: the conventions of the modern American fireside ghost story tradition are under-studied by academic folklorists, so far as I can discern, but have been in place since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. In honor of Halloween, I figured I'd tell one.

"Of course you all know the rules on how to pee in the woods. We've all heard them, and they're important, so let's not be too embarrassed to review."

There are instructions for a lot of things about camping. I knew them already, because this was not my first year at camp, but the refresher was always helpful. We were getting ready for the annual overnight backpacking trip where we would spend a few nights sleeping under a tarp with our sister cabin, and there were many things we had to know. We had a brief refresher in leaving no trace, and we learned the essentials of camping skills - like how to use the bathroom when you're out on the trail.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Michigan Dogman: a case study in myth-making

Where England has its Black Shuck and the pine barrens of New Jersey have the Jersey Devil, Michigan has the Dogman, a creature said to resemble a dog or a dog-human hybrid that is sighted in years ending in 7. Sometimes it is thought to change shape, like a werewolf. Like these other cases, it seems probable that cultural legends shape how people perceive the spooks of the darkness which the idle brain generates from misunderstood or imagined stimuli - but in the case of Michigan, we know precisely where the legend comes from, and so we can see the myth-making process in action.

There is no reality hiding behind the Dogman. The entire legend was created in 1987 as an April Fools' joke.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Big Bad Wolf

"The worst sort of wolves are hairy on the inside..." - Angela Carter, "The Company of Wolves"

Fairytales, as we know them today, hit their stride as a genre at the French court in the 17th century, coinciding roughly with the Maunder Miminum - a period within the Little Ice Age when sunspot activity pushed European temperatures to the coldest they have been in recorded history. As this is also an era when werewolves are often put on trial in France, and when German superstition holds that charms may be bought to repel wolf attacks, perhaps it is no surprise that one of the most famous and memorable folkloric villains to come out of the fairytale tradition is the Big Bad Wolf.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dogs and Death in European Mythologies

Many pre-Christian European mythologies contain a dog or dog-like creature which is intimately associated with death, and in particular with the land of the dead. It is likely for this reason that a large black dog has often been claimed, in more recent centuries, as an ill omen, and they persist in similar forms in folklore to the present day.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


The death of a wolf in the French countryside in 1767 put an end to a town's fear that it was a victim of witchcraft, of a lycanthropic sorcerer, or of the depredations of a demon come out of Hell itself. But the three years of vicious attacks which spawned these theories remain a source of speculation and fear to this day. It's also one of the few examples of cryptozoology in the most literal sense - an animal whose true nature remains hidden to scholars.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wolves and the Weather

In 1450, a pack of wolves entered Paris through a gap in the city walls and ate 40 of the citizens before they were killed. France records a number of prominent predatory wolf attacks on humans in the 18th century. In Germany, beginning in the late middle ages but reaching a zenith in the early modern period, we find records of the Wolfbann, a magic charm spoken to cause wolf wolves to attack a particular intended target, and the Wolfsegen, a charm to ward off such attacks. It is in the same period that werewolf trials are at their peak, and we find the character of the Big Bad Wolf developing in fairy stories from the seventeenth century.

It's almost as if something was making Europeans more concerned about wolves for a couple hundred years.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Werewolves of Early Modern Europe

As Marie de France tells us, a werewolf as traditionally understood is "a savage beast when the fury's on it" - and, if we follow the reading where his wife's powerful fear of angering him is a telling one, her werewolf meets this description as much in his untransformed state as in his transformed one. But part of the point of the folktales typed as AT449 (which includes both Marie's "Bisclavret" and the Arthurian tale of Melion, which it greatly resembles) is the fact that they present the werewolf as victim rather than as monster, whereas Marie's prologue makes it clear this is an unexpected reversal.

What did a medieval audience expect from a werewolf tale?

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Lai of Bisclavret

Since I'm making lais, Bisclavret
Is one I don't want to forget.
In Breton, "Bisclavret"'s the name;
"Garwolf" in Norman means the same.
Long ago you heard the tale told--
And it used to happen, in days of old--
Quite a few men became garwolves,
And set up housekeeping in the woods.
A garwolf is a savage beast,
While the fury's on it, at least:
Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,
Living and roaming in the deep wood.
Now I'll leave this topic set.
I want to tell you about Bisclavret.