December 30, 2014

Weeping Turtles and Flying Souls: John Josselyn's World of Wonders

Sometimes when I read some weird old text or strange witchcraft narrative, I think, "Did the world operate by different rules in the past? This doesn't sound like the one I live in."

I first read about the concept of the past having different rules in John Crowley's book The Solitudes, the first in his fantasy fiction quartet Aegypt. The Solitudes tells how an unemployed historian named Pierce Moffet becomes stranded the small town of Blackbury Jambs. Moffet is hired by a wealthy resident to write a biography of a local writer of historical fiction. But as Pierce researches the writer's life, he begins to question whether the laws of physics and reality have been stable across time. Perhaps, he thinks, there was a time when magic really did work and the world was stranger than it is now.

The book that most recently brought this idea to my mind is non-fiction: John Josselyn's An Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674). Not much is known about Josselyn, an Englishman who traveled to New England in 1638 and 1663. His life story is unknown, but in addition to An Account, he also wrote New-England's Rarities Discovered (1672). Both books contain extensive lists of New England flora and fauna, and historians speculate that Josselyn may have been trained as a surgeon. But although he was interested in science, sometimes the New England he describes just doesn't sound like the one we live in.

For example, he describes a deer-like animal called a maccarib, which has two horns "growing backwards along their backs to their rumps" with "another horn in the middle of their forehead, about half a yard long, very straight but wreathed like a unicorn's horn..." I don't think there are any three-horned deer in North America, or ever were. He also tells how the local Indians would pick up a live rattlesnake with one hand, strip off the flesh with their teeth, and eat the snake whole. It sounds unbelievable, but then again he also claims the Indians spoke in rhymed verse and that his English neighbors in Maine encountered angry mermen, ghosts, and a ship crewed by female witches.

Josselyn makes our region sound like Narnia or Wonderland, and the ocean was just as strange as the land. Here's something Josselyn experienced on his trip across the Atlantic from England:

July the Sixth: Calm now for two or three days, our men went out to swim, some hoisted the shallop (a small boat) out and took diverse Turtles, there being an infinite number of them all over the Sea as far as we could ken, and a man may ken at sea in a clear air 20 miles. They floated upon the top of the water being asleep, and driving gently upon them with the Shallop, of a sudden they took hold of their hinder legs and lifted them into the boat... When they were brought aboard they sobbed and wept exceedingly, continuing to do so till the next day that we killed them, by chopping off their heads.

I do believe that animals feel emotions and fear, but I don't think that turtles can shed tears and sob. Maybe sometimes their eyes might get runny, but that's not what Josselyn is describing. He's describing a boat full of sad turtles crying because they know their going to be eaten. I'm reminded of the talking animals that fill fairy tales and children's books.

I don't find myself believing all Josselyn's tales, but they are still compelling. Did the world really operate by different rules in the 1600s? Maybe, but maybe he's just describing how the world should be, or how the world feels. After all, I'm sure turtles don't want to be eaten, and would probably cry if they could. I doubt there were any maccaribs wandering around, but it probably felt like there could be to an Englishman standing on the coast of a vast new continent.

Other stories are expressions of ancient metaphysical theories about the human soul, like the following:
Near upon twenty years since there lived an old planter at Black-point (now Scarborough, Maine), who on a sunshine day about one of the clock lying upon a green bank not far from his house, charged his son, a lad of 12 years of age, to awaken him when he had slept two hours. The old man falls asleep and lying upon his back gaped with his mouth wide enough for a hawk to shit into it. After a little while the lad sitting by spied a humble-bee (i.e. bumblebee) creeping out of his father's mouth, which taking wing flew quite out of sight. The hour as the lad guessed being come to awaken his father, he jogg'd him and called aloud "Father, Father, it is two o'clock!" but all would not rouse him. At last he sees the humble-bee returning, who lighted upon the sleeper's lip and walked down, as the lad conceived into his belly, and presently he awaked. 

After describing this Josselyn goes on to talk about how bad the mosquitoes are in Maine, as if the bee story were just an everyday occurrence like mosquitoes. But the bee story is really interesting, and not just because the sleeping farmer's mouth is open wide enough for a "hawk to shit into it."

As  Horace Beck points out in his book The Folklore of Maine (1957), the bee story is actually quite old and was well known in the Middle Ages. It was believed that the human soul could leave the body while a person was asleep, usually in the shape of an animal. In most stories mice or snakes emerge from the sleeper's mouth, but a German story tells how a bee flew from a king's mouth while he was asleep. The king's guard followed the bee as it flew to the king's secret treasure trove. The guard killed the bee, the king died, and the guard became a rich man. Happily, nothing so dramatic happened to the Maine farmer.

Beck claims this tale had disappeared from Europe by the seventeenth century, so it's interesting it shows up in Josselyn's book. Old beliefs about the human soul are behind a lot of New England witchcraft stories, and the bee soul appears again in a story from the late 1800s about a Cape Cod witch. For John Josselyn, New England was a land of wonders where an old farmer's soul could fly free during a sunny afternoon's nap. For the Puritans and their descendants, these wonders were exiled to the dark realm of witchcraft. The rules that ruled their world were different.

We still live in a world dominated by a Puritan worldview about the supernatural, not John Josselyn's. Our supernatural world is dark, not sunny. New England is ghost-haunted, witch-haunted, Devil-haunted, monster-haunted, etc. Name something spooky and we have it! We can't change history, and our region's eerie history is part of its charm. Most people, myself included, have affection for New England's residents of the dark.

But wouldn't it be nice to bring some of those spirits out into the sun now and then? Wouldn't it be nice to lie out in a sunny field and let your soul buzz around like a bee? Maybe just briefly the world could be a place of wonders instead of terrors.

And on that note: Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2015 is full of wonders for you, and only as much spookiness as you want. And if you do fall asleep in a field, don't open your mouth too wide.

December 22, 2014

America's First Christmas Tree?

The Christmas tree is an old, possibly even ancient, Germanic tradition. But how did it get to America?

Historians know that the wife of England's King George III brought the tradition to England. She was German nobility, and decorated the British royal home with fir trees at Christmas-time. Queen Victoria, who was George's granddaughter, popularized the tradition in England after she married Germany's Prince Albert. By the mid-nineteenth century Christmas trees were well-known throughout Britain.

It would make sense if the Christmas tree arrived in the United States from Victorian England, but that may not be the case. The tradition may have been brought here by a radical German reformer - who was also a gymnast.

Karl Follen was born in 1796 to well-off German family. Follen studied theology, but was also a political radical who supported the agenda of the French Revolution. After fleeing Germany (he was accused of assassinating a conservative politician) Follen went to France, where he met the Marquis de Lafayette. The Marquis, who pops up in so many surprising places, helped Follen move to America.

Charles Follen, 1796 - 1840.
Follen changed his first name from Karl to Charles, and in 1825 got a position teaching German at Harvard University. Oddly, Follen also introduced the sport of gymnastics to New England and supervised the first college gymnasium in the United States. The gymnasium was at Harvard.

Before we get to the Christmas tree, just a brief note about the whole gymnastics thing. The sport of gymnastics was created in Germany by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 - 1852), who created it as a way of improving morale among German men after their defeat by Napoleon. At first Jahn was supported in his efforts by the German nobility, but they soon learned he was a radical political reformer who wanted a unified German state. Jahn fled Germany, but not before teaching gymnastics to a generation of German men, including Follen.

OK, now on to the Christmas tree. While teaching at Harvard, Follen met local Transcendentalist writers like Longfellow and married Eliza Cabot, a member of Boston's wealthy Cabot family. But despite his success Follen remained a political reformer at heart, and became involved in the movement to abolish slavery.

In 1835, an English journalist and fellow abolitionist named Harriet Martineau visited the Follen's Cambridge home on Christmas Eve. She had come to discuss politics with Charles Follen, but while there she witnessed the Follens set up a Christmas tree for their son Charley:

The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls and other whimsies glittered on the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it... I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy....

I have little doubt that the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England. 

Martineau was right, but sadly Follen never lived to see the Christmas tree tradition spread widely. He was denied tenure at Harvard because of his radical views and moved to Lexington, Massachusetts where he became a Unitarian preacher. He also traveled to lecture about the abolitionist movement. On January 13, 1840 the ship carrying Follen back to Massachusetts from a New York lecture caught fire and sank. Follen was among the many passengers who drowned.

Follen Community Church in Lexington

I don't want to end a Christmas post on a sad note, so I'll note that Follen's church in Lexington still stands today. To carry on his work, each year the church sells Christmas trees and donates the profits to social outreach programs.

Was Charles Follen's tree really the first Christmas tree in America? It's hard to say. I suppose there may have been earlier trees that were undocumented, but Follen's story is an inspiring one, and sometimes that's what we need at Christmas.

I got the information for this post form Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas.

December 14, 2014

How to Predict Snow

The first official day of winter is coming up fast. With winter comes snow. Some people hate it, some people love it (like me), but we all want to know when the white stuff is going to fall from the sky.

Modern New Englanders have satellite technology and the Weather Channel to help us, but our regional forebears weren't so lucky. They had to rely on almanacs and their own senses to predict when snow was coming.

They also had a storehouse of folk knowledge to draw upon. For example, it was believed that you could predict snow by looking at the bottom of your tea kettle when you took it off the stove. Snow was on the way if the bottom was white. Similarly, you could be sure a snowstorm was coming if the wood in your fireplace hissed a certain way. Sadly, there's no record of what that certain way is.

The logic behind those two methods is a little murky to me, but these next three seem more practical:

1. When it starts to snow, look at the size of the snowflakes. Large flakes mean the storm will be over soon. Small, fine flakes mean the snow will continue for quite a while.

2. If the snow on your roof melts off, the next storm to come will be rain. If the snow on the roof blows off, the next storm will be more snow.

3. In the same vein, if the ice on the trees melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it is blown off by the wind, more snow is on the way. 

Unlike the kettle and firewood methods, these three seem like they're based on some empirical fact, which is the air temperature. If the air is warmer, the flakes will be bigger and the snow will melt off trees and roofs. It's still no guarantee the next storm will be rain, though, because a new cold front could always move in.

Of course, you can always throw practicality out the window and indulge your irrational side. It was believed that if you make a wish on the first snowflake your wish will come true. And if you're the betting type, writing down the date of the first snow storm will guarantee that you'll win a bet sometime that winter.

I culled this information from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896). It looks like 1896 was a good year for folklore books!

December 07, 2014

The True Story of Mary Sibley and Tituba

I've just started to watch the TV show Salem. It premiered last spring, but I don't get the channel it was on so I'm watching it now through Netflix. I'm only a couple episodes into it, but I'm already compelled to comment.

The show is a historical horror fantasy set in Salem during the 1692 witch hunts. Although we all rationally know weren't any real witches in Salem, just political turmoil and personal grudges, the show turns that on its head. Salem's premise is that although the people executed for witchcraft were innocent, they were framed by the town's real witches, who operated unseen and undetected.

This idea was also the premise of a 2008 comic book, Salem: Queen of Thorns. In that comic the real witch was a huge supernatural tree-monster (the Queen of Thorns), but in the TV show Salem people who really lived are being portrayed as Satanic witches. I have to say, it's a little weird. Weirder even than a giant tree-monster witch.

Salem: Queen of Thorns.

The leader of the witches is Mary Sibley, the wife of George Sibley, the wealthiest and most influential man in Salem. Mary was once in love with heroic soldier John Alden, but when he didn't return from war she became bitter, gave her unborn baby and her own soul to the Devil, and entered into a loveless marriage with George Sibley. Oh, and she controls George with a toad-shaped familiar that she placed in his stomach. That all happens in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode.

Mary is supported, but perhaps also controlled, by her sinister yet sexy Afro-Caribbean slave Tituba. There's lots of erotic lesbian energy between the two characters, and Tituba often rubs herbs and oils on Mary's naked body and reminders her of her vows to Satan. Again, this all happens in the first first episode.

Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) and Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) in Salem.
I suppose I should just relax and enjoy the show like the Puritan era True Blood knockoff that it is, but somehow I'd enjoy it more if all the characters were fictional.

The real Mary Sibley played a small but significant role in the actual Salem witch hunt. Mary and her husband Samuel (who was not particularly wealthy or influential) were neighbors of Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter of 1691 - 1692, Reverend Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams had been acting strangely. They had made been making odd noises, moving in unusual ways, and complaining of mysterious pains. The local physician thought it might be witchcraft. Reverend Parris and his wife tried to treat the girls' ailments through prayer.

On February 25, 1692, Reverend and Mrs. Parris left Salem to hear a minister speak in another town. Mary Sibley came over to the Parris house and told the reverend's slaves, Tituba Indian and her husband John Indian, to make a cake from the girls' urine and rye flour. Following Mary's instructions, the slaves baked the cake and then fed it to a dog. Mary, Tituba and John then watched the dog to see if it acted strangely.

This type of cake was known as a witch cake, and was method for diagnosing witchcraft. If the girls really had witchcraft in their body, it should also be in their urine. If the dog acted strangely after eating their urine it would be proof the girls were indeed bewitched.

History does not record how the dog reacted, but we do know how Reverend Parris acted. He was furious. All magic was considered evil magic, and he believed Mary Sibley's benign attempt to help the girls had opened the door to greater evil. He may have been right, since after witnessing Mary's magic the two girls began to actually see human forms tormenting them. Previously they had just suffered vague physical maladies. It seems likely that her actions strongly suggested to Betty and Abigail that they were bewitched, and they began to act accordingly from that point on.

Reverend Parris gave Mary Sibley a stern private lecture, and she publicly and tearfully confessed her errors to the Salem Village congregation on March 25, 1692.

Mary fades from history at this point and didn't play any further role in the Salem witch trials.  However, some writers have suggested that her witch cake was the incident that really kicked off the witch craze. They speculate that Betty and Abigail might have stopped their odd behavior if Mary hadn't asked Tituba and John to bake the witch cake.

That's something we can never know, but we do know that things didn't go too well for Tituba and her husband. Tituba was one of the first people accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, and John was accused soon after. Neither was executed, and they survived the trials the same way most others did - by accusing even more people of witchcraft.

When I was a child I learned that Tituba was the person who started the witch craze by telling Betty and Abigail stories of voodoo and black magic. But as I've since learned, this idea was started by historians in the 19th century who wondered why nice rational white people would do something as crazy as hunt witches. Clearly, they thought, the idea of witchcraft must have been introduced into Salem by Tituba, who they imagined to be an irrational black woman. It couldn't have been someone a nice white lady like Mary Sibley.

More recently,  historians have learned that Tituba has been misrepresented. The only act of magic she ever performed was to bake the witch cake, and she executed this piece of traditional English magic at the bidding of Mary Sibley. There was no voodoo involved at all. It also seems likely that she was not black, but was an Arawak Indian from the Caribbean. It had been assumed that her last name was Indian, but the word "Indian" may actually just have been a descriptor. Not Tituba India, bur rather Tituba, Indian.

We've also learned that no race or ethnic group - white, black, Arawak, etc. - is more rational or irrational than any other. Well, I hope we've learned that. But I think that's important to keep in mind if you watch Salem. Rationally, we all know there weren't any witches in Salem. We know Mary Sibley wasn't a witch, that Tituba was framed, and that she probably wasn't black.

But somehow, irrationally we're still entertained by a show where the Salem witches are real, Tituba is a manipulative evil black Jamaican woman, and Mary Sibley suckles her familiar with blood from her thigh. So as you watch Salem, and maybe even enjoy its trashy supernatural melodrama, remember what you're seeing is not true.

And when you shut off the TV just remember: there were no real witches in Salem.