research, Writing

Folklore of the Cursed Aye-Aye

In Madagascar, a highly unusual endangered nocturnal lemur is associated in regional as taboo or fady. The bizarre habits, secretive nature and distinctive appearance of the aye-aye fills some Madagascan peoples with the horror and dread at the sight of it. This has often lead to the slaughter of aye-ayes.

In other regions of Madagascar, it is considered fady to eat certain lemurs, which means that local taboos can actually shield and protect specific species. The aye-aye’s most striking features likely lead to its persecution.

Aye-ayes are medium-sized nocturnal lemurs and are mostly black but have large, highly mobile ears for tracking minute sounds. They’re also the only primate with continuously growing incisors which make them look rodent-like. Most notable of the aye-aye’s unusual physical features is it’s long, thin middle finger which is used to tap rapidly on decayed wood where their sensitive hearing helps detect insect larvae beneath. They then gnaw holes into the wood with those rodent-like teeth and use the long, skeletal-like finger to skewer and scoop out insect larvae.

According to the local views of fady, anyone who has an aye-aye point its long spindly finger at them, will be met with ill-fortune.

But the aye-aye’s eating habits may also contribute to their unpopularity with rural villages. Aye-ayes raid common Madagascan crops like coconuts, lychees, and mangos. This has led to viewing the aye-aye as a crop pest. But aye-ayes also eat seeds from the ramy tree (Canarium spp.) which grow tall and undisturbed near tombs in the Samanioana region where it is considered fady to cut them down. Aye-ayes are found in the peaceful sacred burial sites and surrounding forest, nesting and foraging without much human disturbance. Unsurprisingly, the aye-aye’s preference for the areas surrounding tombs may have inadvertently caused villagers to associate them with death and bad luck.

Other regions only consider the aye-aye fady when it enters a village.  Locals feel uneasy about an animal intentionally displacing itself from its home in the forest to enter a village. Essentially the unnatural act of entering a “human space” from the forest is what creates the bad omen.  They believe the only reason an aye-aye would display such unusual behavior is to foretell illness as the harbinger of death.

The degree of fady varies from village to village and the response to an aye-aye sighting. Regardless, fear is ingrained into this fady. In some northern regions of Madagascar, locals fear any sightings of an aye-aye. If an aye-aye is spotted in the forest, locals believe someone in a nearby village will fall sick and possibly die. If an aye-aye is found in the village itself, sometimes the entire village is abandoned as everyone living there won’t risk sickness and death. Unfortunately, the most common response to seeing an aye-aye is to kill it, hang the carcass or tail from a pole by a crossroads hoping that by moving the aye-aye further from the village, it will protect everyone from sickness or death. There’s also belief that passers-by may unknowingly carry the bad luck away with them when travelling past the carcass.

Aye-ayes are an essential part of Madagascan biodiversity. The challenges of habitat loss, persecution as a crop pest and the damaging effects of fady accelerate their declining numbers. Because aye-ayes are very rare, sightings of one only reinforce the fady through storytelling. One conversationist intended to rewrite that story.

The late primatologist, Dr. Alison Jolly, authored a children’s book titled, “Ny Aiay Ako” (Ako the Aye-Aye) with the book distributed to children’s schools throughout Madagascar to teach and inspire a love of these lemurs. The book’s protagonist, an aye-aye named Ako, transforms fear into fascination and children are inspired to protect this unusual lemur. In fact, the success of the first book led to a six book series, each about a different species of lemur.

Today, the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) continues Dr. Jolly’s work with the Ako Project. A set of 21 Ako Lemur Lesson Plans and accompanying Ako Educator’s Guide were designed to highlight the biodiversity of Madagascar. Educators can use activities featuring characters and themes from the Ako book series to teach about lemurs and their environment. Each teaching kit includes all six of Dr. Jolly’s storybooks and the materials needed to inspire a love of lemurs and encourage conservation action in Madagascar. The Ako Project is now worldwide with all lesson plans and materials available to download free on LCF’s website at http://www.lemurreserve.org/ako-project/. For conservationists, this project is the first step to dispelling the damaging folklore by empowering children with knowledge and empathy for the aye-aye.

References:

Folklore Thursday, Madagascar Superstitions & Taboos: Fighting the Aye-Aye Fady, https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/madagascar-superstitions-taboos-fighting-the-aye-aye-fady/

Duke Lemur Center https://lemur.duke.edu/discover/meet-the-lemurs/aye-aye/

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The Old Dragon’s Head

Publisher’s Description

Constructed of stone and packed earth, the Great Wall of 10,000 li protects China’s northern borders from the threat of Mongol incursion. The wall is also home to a supernatural beast: the Old Dragon. The Old Dragon’s Head is the most easterly point of the wall, where it finally meets the sea.

In every era, a Dragon Master is born. Endowed with the powers of Heaven, only he can summon the Old Dragon so long as he possess the dragon pearl.

It’s the year 1400, and neither the Old Dragon, the dragon pearl, nor the Dragon Master, has been seen for twenty years. Bolin, a young man working on the Old Dragon’s Head, suffers visions of ghosts. Folk believe he has yin-yang eyes and other paranormal gifts.When Bolin’s fief lord, the Prince of Yan, rebels against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, a bitter war of succession ensues in which the Mongols hold the balance of power. While the victor might win the battle on earth, China’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with a Mandate from Heaven – and the support of the Old Dragon.

Bolin embarks on a journey of self-discovery, mirroring Old China’s endeavour to come of age. When Bolin accepts his destiny as the Dragon Master, Heaven sends a third coming of age – for humanity itself. But are any of them ready for what is rising in the east?


*** I received an ARC in exchange for a voluntary review ***

Review

I recently read The Old Dragon’s Head by UK author Justin Newland.

The Old Dragon’s Head follows protagonist Bolin, a worker on mending the Old Dragon’s Head, a part of the Great Wall associated with the head of Old Dragon who embodies the wall. But Bolin has an ability to see ghosts and prophecies, including the loss of his fiefdom’s Prince of Yan in battle.

To restore the balance of power in China, the Emperor’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with the aid of the true Old Dragon, Laolong. Eventually Bolin accepts the reality and responsibility of his supernatural gifts and becomes Dragon Master to help protect China’s Empire from the coming war.

Final Thoughts

The Old Dragon’s Head explores a fascinating era of Chinese history and the use of historical fantasy elements works well – the supernatural invading reality and threatening to drive Bolin into madness. Unfortunately, the writing style lacked immediacy and engagement, characters feeling two-dimensional. The world-building and historical knowledge was exceptionally well detailed though.

Conclusion

A recommended read for those who enjoy historical fiction, historical fantasy, alternate history and strong paranormal elements. A detailed historical read.

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Isle of Skye: Fairy Glen

The Isle of Skye is rich in fairy lore. One of the most magical-looking is the miniature landscape of grassy, cone-shaped hills and whimsical rock spirals of Fairy Glen.

There is no documented folklore linking the landscape to the realm of myth, and there have been no actual sightings of fairies, Fairy Glen is rich in folklore. You can easily imagine the the fairy folk in this landscape.

There is another explanation for the rock formations found at Fairy Glen. The geological formations are the result of a landslip, triggered by volcanic activity on northern edge of the Isle of Skye about 60 million years ago. The resultant lava flow that would have covered northern Skye was 1,200m thick.

To many, this otherworldly landscape was created by the fairies. There’s belief the fairies still live here, hiding in the crevices…Remember it’s important to leave Fairy Glen as you found it: the fairies are watching you.

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Legend of the Pussy Willow


“The Legend of the Pussy Willow”

In an old Polish legend, many springs ago, a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river where her kittens were drowning.

The willow at the river’s edge longed to help her, so they swept their long graceful branches into the waters to rescue the tiny kittens who had fallen into the river while chasing butterflies.

Each of the kittens gripped tightly to the willow branches and were safely brought back to shore.

According to the legend, each springtime since, willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung.

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Scottish & Irish Werewolf Folklore


The Scottish Wulver

Unlike the French loup garou, not all werewolves terrorise humans giving into their blood lust. The Scottish wulver of the Shetland islands, just north of the Scottish mainland, is a benevolent werewolf.

The wulver was thought by the ancient Celts to be its own species between a man and a wolf.

Folklorist Jane Saxby wrote extensively about the wulver. It was described as being covered with short, brown hair with the body of a man and the head of a wolf. Unlike the typical werewolf, the wulver could not shapeshift and was considered a gentle, kind-hearted being.

The wulver was solitary, living in a cave dug out from a hillside. Unlike its western European cousins, it wasn’t aggressive as long as left alone. When it did interact with people and was known to be generous and helpful, particularly to those who were lost, guiding travellers to nearby villages and towns.

The wulver was often seen fishing from a small rock in the deep water known as “Wulver’s Stane/Wolf Stone”. The wulver was known to leave a supply of fish on the windowsills of poor families.

It’s been speculated that the wulver folklore may be based on a medical condition like hypertrichosis (‘werewolf syndrome’) characterised by excessive hair covering the entire body. Another belief is that the wulver is an immortal spirit protecting and watching over the lost and poor of the Shetland Islands.

The Irish Faoladh

Similar to the Scottish wulver, the Irish werewolf or faoladh, differs from the typical western European werewolves and the faoladh was often considered “good”.

The faoladh is a man or woman that shapeshifts into a wolf, and is often a protector or guardian of others rather than an unthinking, bloodthirsty creature.

Wolves were hunted into extinction in Ireland but the country was once called Wolfland up until the Middle Ages, due to the amount of wolves roaming there. They feature prominently in Irish folklore with stories of people transforming into wolves passed through the generations.

In some folklore, the faoladh were that of the Laignach Faelad. These were not doomed, kind-hearted or guardian werewolves, but vicious werewolf warriors mentioned in a medieval Irish text called the Cóir Anmann. Here, a tribe of man-wolf shapeshifters were from what is now known as Tipperary Island, followers of the bloodthirsty Irish god, Crom Cruach (the Bowed God of the Mounds.) These ancient mercenary soldiers would fight for any king willing to pay their price. Their brutality in battle made them desirable to any ruthless and desperate king willing to hire them. The price for their services? Not gold, but the flesh of newborns they would feed on.

References: Folklore Thursday, Werewolves that Fish and Fight in Battles: The Scottish Wulver and Irish Faoladh in Folklore

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Folklore of Bluebells

The feared fairy bell and impending death


According to English folklore, Bluebells were often used to call fairies…If you “rang” a bluebell like you would any normal bell, it was believed fairies would come to you. But fairies are notoriously dangerous bargainers and the need to call fairies for aid must be great to risk the summons.

There is another folklore that states if you hear a bluebell ring, somebody close to you will die. Bluebells growing en masse in a field were best avoided.

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Horseman

Publisher’s Description

Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows about the Horseman, but no one really believes in him. Not even Ben Van Brunt’s grandfather, Brom Bones, who was there when it was said the Horseman chased the upstart Crane out of town. Brom says that’s just legend, the village gossips talking.

More than thirty years after those storied events, the village is a quiet place. Fourteen-year-old Ben loves to play “Sleepy Hollow boys,” reenacting the events Brom once lived through. But then Ben and a friend stumble across the headless body of a child in the woods near the village, and the discovery makes Ben question everything the adults in Sleepy Hollow have ever said. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?


Review

I recently read Horseman by US folklore and horror author Christina Henry.

Horseman is set several generations after Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and the infamous headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow. The protagonist is Ben, the grandchild of Brom Bones. While playing deep in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, Ben overhears the discovery of a deceased child, head and hands missing. Soon, Ben becomes aware of a malevolent presence in the woods around Sleepy Hollow.

Although determined to uncover the truth behind the murders of children in Sleepy Hollow but all the while, the dark being from the woods is hunting Ben. Tangled deep within the mystery of murdered children, headless horseman and a malevolent force, Ben discovers a terrible family mystery.

Final Thoughts

Horseman is a dark delight of folk horror and literary reimagining. Christina Henry has created a new legend for the tales surrounding Sleepy Hollow and its folklore.

Conclusion

Horseman is a great read for those who enjoy folk horror. An intriguing blend of the Sleepy Hollow story, a family mystery and dark folklore. Highly recommended!

research, Short Fiction, Writing

Reimagining Alice in Wonderland


I was invited to write a story for a dark speculative fiction anthology inspired by Alice in Wonderland and reimagined for an adult audience. One of the most influential characters for me was the Cheshire Cat and his luring of Alice through Wonderland, and not necessarily for the better. In writing a dark version of my own Alice story, I wanted to incorporate a Cheshire Cat-like character while delving into the social inequalities and injustices many women faced in Victorian times.

In reimagining a darker atmosphere for the Cheshire Cat, I became fascinated by Celtic folklore of the Cat Si, a fairy cat capable of shapeshifting between cat and human form. As a cat, they are described as being a back wild mountain cats with a white star-like pattern marked on the chest.

A gaslamp fantasy, where the Victorian era exists alongside magic, seemed the suitable to incorporate fey shapeshifting cats and Victorian social issues. The dark undercurrents of the story developed through the restrictions of freedoms for women where I focused on the ability to choose whether to marry and whom. In keeping with the nature of Alice’s curiosity in the original Alice in Wonderland, this took a dark path into a romantic relationship based on inequality and injustice. Here, it is the Cat Si who leads adult Alice astray through a darker wonderland than she could have imagined.