THE STONES OF THE CROOKED GLEN

A Halloween story published by The Guardian newspaper reveals how a group of mysterious stones continue to be venerated in a remote Scottish glen.

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Tigh nam Bodach (copyright David Clarke)

The Tigh nam Bodach or House of the Cailliche (Old Woman) is a small rocky shrine perched above a rushing burn deep in the Grampian mountains.

The tiny house or miniature shieling, and its stone family has been described as ‘the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual site in Britain’.

Some believe it is a more recent creation as the earliest written reference to the site was in 1888. Whatever the explanation it is a piece of living folklore that deserves protection.

Glen Cailliche (pronounced KAL-yach), a side branch of Glen Lyon, is home to the house that contains a number of water-worn stones from the river chosen because they have anthropomorphic shapes.

This is a place that has a special significance for me. I first learned of its existence from my friend and colleague the late Celtic scholar Dr Anne Ross, author of Pagan Celtic Britain (1967).

Anne told me that when she visited the shrine with the archaeologist Charles Thomas in 1950 the little house was thatched annually on May Eve (the feast of Beltane) and the stones were brought out to watch over the livestock.

The stone family were then put to bed on 1 November (the feast of Samhain), with the thatch removed and replaced with moss to keep the stones warm for the winter. Dr Ross said that following the death of its last ‘guardian’, she did not know if the tradition continued, although the stones continued to be treated with respect.

Happily The Guardian article suggests the tradition does continue today:

“This weekend, at Samhain the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, according to a modest local custom that may span centuries, the figures will be returned to their quartz-studded shieling – a basic shepherd’s hut – to spend the winter months undercover.”

Back in 1992 I followed directions provided by Anne Ross during the writing of my book Twilight of the Celtic Gods with Andy Roberts. In the book, published in 1996, I describe how:

‘…we arrived after a lengthy trek across a treacherous bog and rushing burn before the ascent into Glen Cailliche brought us to a triangular stone suspect upon a rock outcrop. This was a specially placed marker, pointing towards the lair of the Cailliche. There were in fact not three but six stones in the family, all gazing down the glen, as they have done for centuries…’

The largest stone in the group represents the Cailliche and when I photographed the site in 1992 she was accompanied by the Bodach (Old Man) and a number of smaller water-worn stones.

The Cailliche stone, Tigh nam Bodach (copyright David Clarke)

At one time the tiny shieling was marked by a large quartz stone ‘shining like a seagull’ that allowed visitors to locate the shrine from the surrounding hills. Recent photographs show the quartz rock has vanished but smaller pieces can be seen inside the tiny house.

Tigh nam Bodach appears on the Scottish Sites and Monuments Record where it is listed as ‘a simple pagan shrine’. The entry notes the figures ‘are pieces of sandstone weathered into rough resemblance of human figures’.

It continues ‘…shielings in the area were in use until after 1782 and the inhabitants regularly thatched [the house]…the biennial re-thatching of the shrine continued down to the present century [and] [the gamekeeper/guardian] still puts the figures inside the hut in winter and takes them out in the spring. This action has vague associations with good weather’.

According to local lore, strange and terrible things will happen to anyone who disturbs the lair of the ‘old woman’. In 2011 plans for a hydro-electric power scheme that would have run overhead powerlines along the loch beside the little shrine were dropped after a successful campaign by historians.

As author and story-teller Sharon Blackie writes ‘…in Scottish folklore, the Cailliche isn’t someone you’d want to mess with. She’s a fearsome character with white hair, a dark blue face, rust-coloured teeth and a single eye in the middle of her forehead; she whips up great storms and ice forms in her wake‘.

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Two Podcasts: All About UFOs and Covid-19 folklore

Children’s publisher Usborne have reissued the classic 1977 title All About UFOs from The World of the Unknown series.

Usborne’s reissued All About UFOs

The UFO title is the second in the series to be brought back through popular demand (a companion volume on ghosts was released last October).

Having been a fan of the book since my own childhood I was delighted to be invited to be a guest on the amazing Folklore Podcast for the launch, along with the impressionist and amateur astronomer Jon Culshaw who has provided a foreword for the new edition.

The resultant podcast can be downloaded here and the book is available from Usborne here. All about UFOs is written for young adults but is, in my humble opinion, far superior to any other book aimed at an under-18 audience for this subject matter.

Much like Jon, I was captivated by the idea of UFOs from an early age. This title with its wonderful illustrations and engaging practical tasks – such as how to fake a UFO photograph – fired my imagination.

The text did not pull any punches, introducing youngsters to ‘what [was] known about the flying saucer mystery’ at that time including UFOnauts, radar evidence and the many and varied explanations for unusual sightings.

Missing from the list of topics are the ubiquitous alien abductions (apart from the Betty and Barney Hill story), conspiracy theories and the twin legends of Roswell and Rendlesham that have become the twin pillars of the modern myth. Apart from these more modern obsessions the contents reveal little has changed since 1977.

The text poses some key questions such as where do UFOs come from? Are they spaceships guided by creatures from other worlds? Or are they figments of people’s imaginations?

All About UFOs will make a fantastic birthday or Christmas present for any youngster with an inquiring mind!

On the subject of podcasts Sheffield University‘s annual Festival of the Mind includes a 40 minute programme recorded and produced by me and my Sheffield Hallam University colleague Andrew Robinson on Folkloric Customs in the time of Covid-19.

The 40 minute podcast, available here, summarises our ongoing project that aims to collect and preserve images and personal experiences of new customs, rituals and traditions that have emerged in the United Kingdom since the country entered lockdown in March this year.

A Covid 19 scarecrow from Sheffield, Yorkshire, May 2020 (copyright David Clarke)

The Centre for Contemporary Legend (CCL) based in the Department of Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam is interested in many different manifestations of legend and narrative.

Rituals such as the now defunct #ClapforCarers and the decoration of windows, pavements and scarecrows to thank NHS and other frontline workers are new folklore deserving of scholarly attention and study.

In the Festival podcast Andrew and I discuss older antecedents including the legend of the Eyam plague in the Derbyshire Peak District and we assess the impact lockdown has had on existing calendar customs such as Castleton Garland and Hastings May Day.

Images of new and emerging folkloric and ritual customs can be found on the CCL website here along with information on how to contribute to the project.

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25 years ago: Alien film a FAKE says movie wizard

25 years ago crowds gathered to see the world premiere of the ‘alien autopsy‘ film at an international UFO congress held at Sheffield Hallam University.

Still from infamous alien autopsy film (copyright S. Melaris)

At the time I was journalist at the Sheffield Star and according to expert Philip Mantle,  author of the definitive history of the legend, it was my exclusive story that tipped off the international media to what became a huge ‘silly season‘ story.

The weekend of 18-19 August 1995 saw the first public showing of the film in Hallam’s Pennine Lecture Theatre during the British UFO Research Association’s 8th international congress. Tickets sold out and TV news crews from around the world were camped outside in Hallam Square eager to interview the key players in the breaking story.

UFOlogist and author Philip Mantle who wrote the definitive history of the ‘alien autopsy’ film, photographed at his West Yorkshire home in March 2020 (copyright David Clarke)

As anticipation grew one week later a segment from the footage was broadcast in the UK as part of the Channel 4 Secret History documentary series. From that moment onward it became part of one of UFOlogy’s cause celebres, the ‘Roswell incident’. Today, images from the autopsy film are now a part of the pop culture UFO mythology.

Many continue to believe the US government has successfully covered up the crash of an alien spacecraft near the New Mexico town in 1947. In The X-Files era, the search was on for hard evidence to confirm this belief – and what better confirmation could there be than actual footage of the autopsy carried out on the alien pilots?

The Alien Autopsy legend became the source of a British-made movie starring celebrity comedians and TV presenters Ant & Dec, currently hosting Britain’s Got Talent and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. For more on this film, read my accompanying blogpost Won’t Get Fooled Again? a summary written with Andy Roberts to coincide with its release, first published by Fortean Times in 2006.

Some continue to believe the footage really was shot in Roswell in 1947 and for years the film continued to attract a small but noisy group of proponents. My exclusive story, published on page 1 of the Sheffield Star 18 August, 1995, did not reveal the author of the hoax but it was prescient in identifying the source: someone within the movie special effects industry:

———————————————————————————————————-

ALIEN FILM A FAKE, SAYS MOVIE WIZARD

SPECIAL effects wizards today dismissed a film claiming to show a dead space alien as a fake.

Hundreds of enthusiasts and dozens of TV crews from around the world are heading to Sheffield Hallam University for the sell-out congress organised by the British UFO Research Association this weekend.

But today experts at Pinewood Studios who create effects for big-budget Hollywood films said they found the ‘alien’ was really ‘a very good fake body’ when they examined the footage.

Believers said the grainy black and white film showed a top secret US army autopsy on an alien pilot killed when his flying saucer crashed in the desert at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

The program for BUFORA’s 8th international congress, UFOs: examining the evidence, where the alien autopsy footage was first shown publicly in 1995 (David Clarke)

Channel 4 are planning to use the film as part of a worldwide TV probe into claims that the US government secretly recovered a crashed spaceship and have covered up the truth for 50 years.

Cliff Wallace, of Creature Effects at Pinewood said experts could see evidence of a seam down one arm of the creature which suggested it was a life-like model.

They also picked out the words ‘VIDEO TV’ written on parts of the wreckage claimed to be from the crashed saucer.

‘This film is a fake – there’s no doubt about it,’ Mr Wallace told The Star.

‘It’s been done very cleverly by someone probably within our profession and there is no possibility that it could have been filmed in 1947.’

War of Words over flying saucer film: my inside story, published on p6 of the Star, 18 August 1995

Mr Wallace, whose company made a lifesize model of Sean Connery for the film First Knight, said he believed the film had been made as a publicity stunt for a forthcoming movie on the UFO mystery.

Today, London businessman Ray Santilli, who has been trying to sell the film to TV companies across the world, was not available for comment.

He has claimed he bought it from a retired US army photographer, now aged 82.

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In his definitive account of the story, Roswell Alien Autopsy: the truth behind the film that shocked the world, Philip Mantle writes (p39):

‘The first the public was to learn about the film was on January 14th, 1995, when [Reg Presley, the late lead singer of The Troggs] was interviewed on a BBC Breakfast TV show. He surprised everyone by announcing what he had seen – a film of “real, live aliens”. There was no great reaction to this announcement as the show in those days did not have a big audience. In the meantime, I having now seen the AA films, asked Santilli if he would show it at a British UFO Research Association conference I was organising in Sheffield for August that year [1995]. Surprisingly, Santilli agreed. Shortly after this I received a phone call from local journalist and long-time UFOlogist David Clarke, of the Sheffield Star – one of Britain’s biggest newspapers. Clarke was writing a small article for the paper about another local UFO researcher and asked for a few quotes on the proposed August conference. I gave him a few lines and and, as an off-the-cuff remark, noted that an ‘alien autopsy’ film was to be shown as an exclusive. 

‘Clarke published his article and I was subsequently contacted by White’s Press Agency in Sheffield. They wanted to know more about the AA film and I answered their questions – never expecting anything to come of it. Within hours of White Press Agency sending their story out around the world [my] phone began to ring off the hook.

Philip Mantle’s definitive book on the alien autopsy film, revised edition 2020

‘The story was out. The conference sold out in no time and Santilli was besieged by journalists, UFO researchers and TV companies…’

Mantle’s book documents the origins of the legend and examines the trail of evidence that exposed the hoax in forensic detail. Roswell Alien Autopsy: The Truth Behind the Film That Shook The World (Flying Disk Press 2020) is available from Amazon.

You can also watch a four-part documentary Alien Autopsy: The Search For Answers that follows Mantle’s investigation of the film, available from Amazon Prime and I-tunes.

Coincidentally this summer also marks the centenary of another set of faked images – in this case black and white stills – that became a legend and part of Yorkshire’s folklore.

In August 1920 two cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, took three of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairy photographs‘ in and around the beck behind Elsie’s family home at Cottingley, near Bradford in West Yorkshire.  These three images complemented two others, produced in 1919, that convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that fairy folk really did exist.

In 1975 Elsie, then aged 74, in a TV interview, said: ‘I have told you they are figments of our imagination and that’s what I’m sticking to’.

It was not until 1982, sixty years after the story broke,that the two women confessed the photographs were drawings of ‘fairies’ that had been cut out of popular magazines and held in place by hatpins. Even then, Frances continued to maintain they had seen fairies and the girls took the photographs as proof that would confound their skeptical parents.

Elsie Wright and the leaping fairy, one of the Cottingley photographs from August 1920 (source: Wikipedia)

Much like the alien autopsy film, the story of the Cottingley fairies continues to capture the popular imagination today. There have been dozens of books about it, two Hollywood movies and numerous TV programmes and documentaries. The story is often described as one of the greatest photographic hoaxes of all time.

But is hoax the most appropriate word to use when you are dealing with matters of belief? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hoax as ‘a humorous or mischievous deception with which the credulity of the victim is imposed upon’.

What I have learned over 40+ years investigating extraordinary beliefs and experiences is that when people believe in something so strongly – whether that’s belief in fairies or aliens – individuals will interpret what emerges from the camera as confirmation of their beliefs.

Seeing isn’t believing – believing is seeing!

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Won’t Get Fooled Again?: The alien autopsy film (2006)

This piece originally appeared in the Flyingsaucery column of Fortean Times 210 (2006) to mark the release of the movie Alien Autopsy.

Alien Autopsy film (2006) – credit Amazon

UFOlogists are always keen to play down the amount of hoaxing that goes on within the subject and to be fair, hoaxes only account for a small proportion of UFO reports. But many of the central planks of the subject such as ‘good’ photographs, contactees and ‘leaked’ Government documents containing evidence of secret conspiracies are rooted in hoaxes of varying complexity. It is only now, after more than a decade, that one of the most complex and influential UFO hoaxes has finally begun to unravel.

On 5 May 1995 a large group of people, mainly UFOlogists but also representatives of various religions, journalists, MoD minions and others gathered in the hushed darkness of the Museum of London’s film theatre. They were there at the invitation of video entrepreneur Ray Santilli, to view a film that would change the face of UFOlogy for more than a decade. A film showing an autopsy on a non-human creature possibly, it was hinted, from the infamous 1947 Roswell Incident.

Santilli later related how he had been offered the film whilst on a visit to the USA to buy up film of Elvis Presley and other early rock’n’roll stars. When a retired military cameraman showed him the special film he had harboured for over 40 years Santilli was indeed all shook up. It was too good an offer to turn down and so he raised the cash and brought the film, all 22 reels of it, back to the UK where it was edited down into usable material and the rest is history. Until now.

Santilli’s story, and the subject matter of the film came at just the right time for UFOlogy. The hit TV show The X Files was making cultural waves and clueing the general public into the possibility that alien craft really had really crashed and were in the possession of the military. Conspiracies were everywhere and the western world was primed and ready for some actual evidence. Santilli’s film appeared to deliver just that.

Despite warnings issued by more wise and experienced UFOlogists the mass media saw the film as easy, punter-grabbing copy. The AA film (as it became known) was seen by an estimated 1.2 billion people across the globe. It was splashed across a thousand newspapers and eventually turned into a mega-selling video.

Since 1995, UFOlogy has been arguing over the film’s authenticity and some diehards have been desperately trying to shoehorn the footage into one of the many ‘crashed saucer’ scenarios.  Along the way, a number of professionals and experts from the fields of model making, forensic pathology and other disciplines came out in vocal support of the film being the real thing. But none of their questions could be answered because Santilli consistently refused to allow the film stock it to be properly analysed and changed portions of his story over the years.

Time passed and during 2005 rumour had it that Santilli was involved with making a movie about the AA film. Not a “serious” movie but a comedy directed by Jonny Campbell starring the UK’s answer to Pinky and Perky, former child actors Ant and Dec (Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly). Surely not? Why was the man who discovered The Greatest Story Ever Sold considering selling out by making a comedy – even one billed as being “based on true events.” The reason soon became clear, Santilli was finally going to reveal the real ‘truth’ about the AA film and it could be no coincidence that this ‘truth’ was to be revealed just two days before the comedy hit the cinemas. More worryingly, both these events were taking place days after the most important date in the hoaxer’s calendar, April 1st!

Sheffield Star 18 August 1995

Santilli had conspired with the incestuous TV industry to feature on a programme called Eamonn Investigates…The Alien Autopsy film. The Eamonn in question, former Breakfast TV anchor man Eamonn Holmes, revealed the ‘truth’ at 8.00pm on April 4th [2006] on Sky One, playing the part of a hard nosed investigator, keen to learn the truth about the AA film. This was post-modernist docu-comedy at its best, with all parties clearly in the know and hamming it up to create yet another ‘truth’ about the AA film.

But what lay behind the alien on the autopsy film itself? Well, it’s not so much what lay behind as what lay within – sheep’s brains in jelly. No prizes for guessing that the alien, the autopsy and the hype surrounding its 1995 was a hoax. However, Santilli didn’t like the word ‘hoax’. He much preferred the term ‘restoration’, for the simple reason that whilst his film had been a mock-up there really had been a real AA film after all! What?  Santilli was patient with Holmes (no Sherlock, this one) and carefully explained that there had been an original AA film and there had been a genuine military camera man.

Eamonn Holmes, TV anchorman, who investigated the AA film for Sky One (copyright: SkyNews)

Nevertheless, by the time Santilli and co had raised the cash to buy the film stock it had deteriorated, so the only way to show the world (and recoup the investment of course) was to make ‘restoration’, the kicker being that tiny parts of the Santilli AA film were from the original AA film. ‘How much?’ asked Holmes. ‘I don’t think any of us knows anymore,’ smirked Santilli’s sidekick Gary Shoefield. ‘Less than 5%,’ Santilli smirked back. Santilli and Shoefield did more smirking than was strictly necessary as they told the story of how they made shed loads of money from human gullibility. It’s their apparent glee at making money from the gullible that will cast a shadow over their hoaxing achievements.

It emerged that the AA film was shot in flat in Camden’s Rochester Square, using a manikin built by a model maker in just three and a half weeks. This was sculptor John Humphreys, the unsung hero of the AA film, who explained how he made the model and packed it with bits of dead animal spare parts, all bought from Smithfield market. Sheerluck Holmes duly questioned the butcher who had sold Humphreys the meat. He cheerfully ‘fessed up that he knew it was for making the model of an alien. Humphreys also played the surgeon in the AA film, so he could be sure that his model was treated like the cosmic cadaver it was supposed to be. But the blood on the knife as he sliced the critter – how did he do that? Glad you asked. Quite simply he smeared animal blood on the unseen side of his surgeon’s knife which trickled off as he made the ‘cut’, giving the illusion the blood came from the newly opened body.

By all accounts they had a real laugh making the AA film, even when the first ‘alien’ didn’t work and they had to create a new one. A ‘fun atmosphere’ was how Humphreys described the experience, which also involved some of Santilli’s work colleagues playing other roles. The recreation of this sequence in Campbell’s film Alien Autopsy really is the highpoint of the movie, with its farcical depiction of dotty relatives, actors slipping on gore and extras fainting on the set.

A model, some genuine instruments, shaky film and lots of raw meat, all obvious now you think about it. But at the time, when seen together in the context of the prevalent Roswell myth, well, it all seemed to make sense to a great many people. UFOlogical sleuths were quickly on the case in the late 1990s seeking to track down the original cameraman, as he held the key to the whole story. Only he could back Santilli’s claims up and give his story the authenticity it needed. And lo, Santilli came up with the goods, organising a TV interview with the cameraman who, obviously, supported Santilli’s story of the film’s provenance and subject matter (played effectively in the movie by Harry Dean Stanton). UFOlogists not being too bright this put them off the scent.

Actor Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017) who played the role of the US army cameraman in the 2006 film Alien Autopsy (source: Wikipedia)

In Eammon Investigates the elusive snapper was revealed to be yet another twist in the Santilli created hall of smoke and mirrors – just a bum picked up off the street and given lines to speak to camera. Another hoax, but one which put ufological sleuths off the scent of the real cameraman. Confused? Well you should be keeping up then!

Was any of this contrived expose true? Who can tell. The AA film is surrounded by so many layers of falsehood and deceit that it would be unwise to take Eamonn Holmes’ ‘investigation’ as the final word. That the AA film was a hoax is about all we can deduce for certain. And whatever you may think about hoaxing and hoaxers credit must go to ray Santilli and his chums for being shrewd, highly manipulative masters of popular culture who had the Big Idea, the cash and, most importantly, the cojones to carry it off, fooling and making millions along the way. The Never Ending Story, with its tantalizing promise that genuine alien footage still exists will allow them to milk the easily gulled for years to come, whilst adding yet more layers to the mish-mash of disparate elements that comprises UFOlogy.

In the early days of their attempts at marketing the film the hoaxers approached a number of tabloid newspapers, all of whom offered them largish sums of money to tell the film’s story. The News of the World offered the most, a rather tempting £50,000 and Santilli was all set to go with it until the editor revealed that he would want the film verified first and payment wouldn’t be forthcoming until after publication. Oddly – or perhaps not – Santilli severed further communication and decided to market the film himself, largely through dupes in the UFO field.

UFOlogists, for all their self styled investigative rigour had been waiting for years for something like the AA film which, at last, give them the credibility they craved. The British UFO Research Association’s (BUFORA) Sheffield conference in 1995 was largely given over to promoting the film to UFOlogy and to the media. Unfortunately the media, whilst happy to sell papers on the back of the AA hype, decided the AA film was risible and the film’s corrosive influence set serious UFOlogy back many years and was effectively the beginning of the end for BUFORA. The media once again associated UFOlogists with cranks, crackpots and people desperately seeking something.

The program for BUFORA’s 8th international congress, UFOs: examining the evidence, where the alien autopsy footage was first shown publicly in 1995 (David Clarke)

All in all there was a lot of talk and little analysis in Eamonn Investigates. Forteans, when they see the program, will be mulling over what it tells them about the power of the media and human credulity, which is seemingly limitless. The expose also spoke volumes about the degree to which we put our faith in so called ‘experts’ when they tell us that a rubber mannikin, sheep’s brains and buckets of animal blood compose an alien and that ham-fisted Londoners are trained military autopsy personnel.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the UK’s Philip Mantle, UFOlogical maven and one of the unwitting pawns in Santilli’s game, who did much to help publicise the AA film: “After watching this tonight I can honestly say that I do not believe one word of either Santilli or Shoefield and I have no doubt that the film is nothing more than a complete fake. There is and never was any original film and there is and never was
any US military cameraman. Santilli & Shoefield had little credibility as it was but now they have none.”

Caveat emptor!

Alien Autopsy was released in UK cinemas on 7 April 2006.

Text copyright 2006 David Clarke and Andy Roberts

 

 

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Britain’s Ritual Protection Marks

Witch marks‘ is a relatively new term popularly used to describe a range of ritual protective marks and charms that are carved and etched into the structure of churches, grand buildings and caves in Britain and elsewhere.

I have summarised the most recent scholarship that added to our knowledge of these mysterious carvings in the May 2020 issue of Fortean Times (FT392). Some have been dated to the late middle ages, such as those identified on wooden beams in the National Trust property at Knole in Kent.

Others such as the ubiquitous double V or ‘Marian marks’ have been identified in both pre-Reformation contexts and more recent locations – dating to the Victorian era – when it was used as a more generic evil-averting symbol.

Apotropaic carvings, counter-witchcraft charms and the folklore that surrounds them will be the subject of my next book currently in preparation. My PhD, completed in 1999 at the University of Sheffield, examined carved stone faces and heads that performed a similar function in buildings and archaeological sites across the British Isles. The word apotropaios means ‘to turn away’ and reflects their evil-averting function.

Thousands of these secret charms have been identified by folklorists and archaeologists during the past two decades. The marks were largely ignored by architectural historians before this century because they were so common and easily dismissed as graffiti or masons marks.

An example of a so-called ‘Marian mark’ or apotropaic symbol carved on the wall of a medieval rock shelter at Stanage Edge in the Peak District National Park (copyright David Clarke)

The subject hit the national headlines in February this year when a huge collection of markings, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, were discovered at Creswell Crags on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the English midlands. The crags already had an international reputation as the site of the only confirmed Ice Age art in the British Isles.

Earlier this century similar examples of marian marks and other apotropaic symbols had been identified in the Cheddar cave complex in southwest England.

Brian Hoggard completed a thesis on charms and runs www.apotropaios.com that provides a database and clearing house for new examples. His book Magical House Collection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft (Berghahn 2019) lists the principal ‘charms’ found in buildings and archaeological contexts as so-called ‘Witch Bottles’ or Bellarmines, concealed shoes, dried cats, horse skulls, written charms and ‘protection marks’ (the so-called Witch Marks). The gazetteer contains hundreds of examples from across the British Isles and parts of the northeast USA.

In my Fortean Times article I list the major categories of ritual protective marks identified in the British Isles. These include:

An example of a ‘daisy wheel’ or hexafoil carved on a beam inside a medieval barn in Derbyshire (copyright David Clarke)

  • Daisy wheels, hexafoils or triskeles – based on an ancient solar symbol, these geometric marks were sometimes cut with compasses. Examples have been found in many Tudor buildings in plaster and wood.
  • Pentagrams – the five pointed star was described as a potent protection against demons in ancient texts and is mentioned in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Examples are much more difficult to find but have been identified in a number of secular and religious buildings.
  • Marian Marks – the VV symbol is probably the most ubiquitous example of protective charms in the British Isles. The mark invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary, ‘virgin of virgins, mother of Jesus Christ’.
  • Mesh Marks – these are often found etched into secret places in old buildings and functioned as demon traps to ensnare evil spirits in an endless maze.
  • Burn Marks – these were made with a candle or taper as a form of protective magic that aimed to expose timber to a deliberate flame to protect wooden buildings against disastrous blazes of the type that were common in the past.
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Going ‘out there’ in SoCal: Fortean Traveller

One year ago, in June 2019,  I spent a week on the road in southern California  with friends Dr Tom Clark and Professor Chris Bader seeking out UFO contactee cults, quirky museums and modern ghost-hunters. Our account of the trip, written with Tom and my wife Carolyn, appeared in the Fortean Traveller section of Fortean Times  388 (January 2020).

Roadtrips in the first half of 2020 have been postponed thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. So here for your enjoyment is an account of our memories from last year, in anticipation of future adventures and reunions with good friends.

Giant Rock in the Mojave Desert, California, where George van Tassell hosted his ‘Spacecraft Conventions’ from 1953 (credit Carolyn Waudby)

Most people visit Southern California for the sunlit white beaches and Hollywood celebrities. But with a population of well over four million, it’s not surprising that there’s a whole host of options to interest the Fortean traveller. We set off with our host, Professor Chris Bader – author of Paranormal America – to investigate a number of infamous alien visitations, hauntings and as much weird Southern California as we could fit into a week.

We set up a base camp near Professor Bader’s office at Chapman University in a quirky little guesthouse called Ruta’s Olde Town Inn. With three rooms, as much breakfast as we could eat, and an interesting display of vintage childrens toys and ephemera, it was located in something of a ghost hotspot, with a number of haunted houses nearby. On the edge of Anaheim in Orange County, it was a perfect base to begin to explore SoCal.

And there’s the thing. Los Angeles is huge. Its freeways are like spaghetti, its intersections constant and choked with traffic. It has flyovers that frequently soar into the sky before slamming you down into a NASCAR-like race to the next turn-off. It is also rightfully notorious for its poor public transport, so it’s worth taking the time to understand both the Amtrak and Metro systems. Before you plan your schedule consider whether you’d be better off hiring a car and steady yourself for a white-knuckle ride.

Distinctive interior design in the Unarius Academy of Science in El Cajon, California (copyright David Clarke)

But once you’ve gained your bearings, SoCal is hugely rewarding. After a brief sojourn to the Church of Scientology bookshop in Santa Ana, we began our trip by visiting The Unarius Academy of Science in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego and about a two hour drive south out of Los Angeles. Unarius is an acronym for the ‘Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science’.

It was founded in 1954 as a kind of galactic consulate by Ernest and Ruth Norman who had built up a small following through their psychic readings and channelled messages from space people. Its purpose is ‘to advance awareness of the inter-dimensional science of life as based upon principles of fourth-dimensional physics’.

Ruth styled herself as the Archangel Uriel and after the death of Ernest in 1971 she became its public face. Her channelling work stepped up a gear, as did the production of her gowns and Norman predicted a mass-landing of flying saucers in 2001 on a piece of scrubland near the Unarius headquarters.  When this failed to happen the Unarians concentrated on their past-life channelling that continued after Ruth’s death in 1993.

With colourful murals that still adorn the walls, the World Teaching Centre hosts on-going workshops that are designed to help its students understand the continuity of consciousness. In pioneering a new science of reincarnation, they continue to use ‘past life therapy’ to channel those lives into the written word. With no Karma that it cannot overcome, the likes of Napoleon, Yamamoto, and ‘the last Inca, Atahualpa’ have all been channeled into biographies that can be purchased from the bookstore. But not all past lives are as memorable. When we asked our guide who he had been he said, ‘yeah, I was a Russian painter, what’s his name…? Hell, it doesn’t matter!’

Dinosaurs still walk the Earth at the Creation and History Museum in Santee, where exhibits aim to prove that our planet is only 10,000 years old (copyright David Clarke)

For a different sort of religious experience, just a few blocks away in Santee is the ‘Creation and Earth History Museum’. Originally opened by the Institute for Creation Research its exhibits are largely aimed at proving that the Earth is, in fact, only around 10,000 years old. Among other claims, it provides ‘evidence’ to suggest that the world was indeed created in just six days, that the Grand Canyon was formed in a matter of weeks, and, perhaps most surprisingly, that dinosaurs were present on Noah’s Ark (but, given their size, only young ones).

Without any hint of irony, it is suggested that over a number of generations the dinosaurs later died out because they weren’t well adapted to the world after the flood. There’s also a surprising assertion that Karl Marx was ‘(according to some) a Satanist in college’, and a diorama that encourages children to sit with a fluffy sacrificial lamb and ‘reflect on the ultimate sacrifice – Jesus the Lamb of God’ in front of a scene that does indeed depict the sacrifice of a lamb.

To continue with our contactee theme, we ventured out into the heat of the Mojave desert to visit The Integratron near the tiny town of Landers, California. This unique circular structure was built by George Van Tassel, a former aircraft mechanic who lived in a house under the Giant Rock – a massive seven story granite boulder – three miles drive away. The subterranean ‘house’ beneath the rock was excavated by his buddy, German immigrant and prospector Franz Critzer. But during WW2 Critzer came under suspicion of working for the Nazis and was blown up when dynamite store exploded during a police siege. Van Tassel bought the property in 1947 and opened a café but few people ventured out to this remote place before the flying saucer craze arrived in SoCal.

Early in 1953 George Adamski, a Polish émigré, stunned the world with his account of a meeting with the angelic pilot of a ‘scout ship’ from Venus that landed near Desert Center. Soon afterwards, whilst meditating, Van Tassel began to channel messages from space people and was ‘astrally transported’ to meet the Council of Seven Lights. From 1953 he hosted annual ‘Spacecraft Conventions’ in the shade of the Giant Rock that attracted up to 10,000 saucer fans eager to hear the latest wisdom from Ashtar and legions of other entities with unpronounceable names. Adamski and all those who followed him to create what Greg Bishop and Adam Gorightly call the ‘Golden Age of Contactees’ spoke here at one time or another.

During the ‘60s the LSD-soaked desert scene attracted Keith Richards and Gram Parsons, who reportedly tripped out on mushrooms whilst skywatching at nearby Joshua Tree National Park. But the only evidence of visitors that we could find was UFO graffiti on the remains of an airstrip and nearby rocks.

The Integratron, built by UFO contactee George Van Tassell in the Mojave Desert, California (copyright David Clarke)

Van Tassel claimed the space people taught him a method through which he could rejuvenate the human body and, using his new-found knowledge and funds provided by Howard Hughes, he designed and built a cupola-shaped structure that could harness the EMF energy necessary to effectively recharge the cells in your body as if they were an electric battery. Unfortunately for Van Tassell this was not enough to save him from a heart attack in 1978. But his Integratron survived plans to turn it into a disco and today it is a listed building in the US National Register of Historic Places.

Its new owners adapted it to offer ‘sound baths’ to locals and passing tourists and the small gift shop stocks a range of flying saucer-themed clothing and trinkets. The ground floor of the Integratron has wall displays on local history and the saucer conventions plus a small library of UFO books.

These days you can join fellow pilgrims for a ‘soun-bath’ inside the Integratron (copyright David Clarke)

The leader of the sound bath ceremony makes a number of large quartz drums ‘sing’ so that they reverberate around the dome-like structure until it produces an all-encompassing sound. We were invited to climb into the roof space and relax on mats arranged in circles facing the curving walls.

Fellow pilgrims were a mixture of young yogis and older dudes and, given the New Age vibe, we were surprised to hear a potted history of ‘50s contactee stories before the auditory experience began. We found it impossible not to feel immediately relaxed, so much so that a warning was issued to those prone to snore not to spoil the moment for everyone else.

Within seconds of the first low G-note there was some very loud snoring from an unidentified source but the ambience was ruined only temporarily. Sound baths are proving very popular so if you want to experience the delights of the Integratron we recommend you book ahead here.

Perhaps the most unusual ‘haunted house’ in SoCal: the RMS Queen Mary offers regular ghost tours and paranormal investigations (Copyright David Clarke)

For those who like their more Fortean adventures to be more ghostly, SoCal is also home to a large number of haunted houses. Perhaps the most unusual is the RMS Queen Mary, now permanently docked at Long Beach. Once the flagship of the Cunard and White Star Line, and a former holder of the Blue Riband, the cruiseliner took her maiden voyage in 1936 and remained in service through WW2 until 1967, when she was converted into a floating hotel.

With such a distinguished past – and a reported 50 people are reported to have died on board – perhaps it’s not surprising that it picked a few ghosts along the way. Indeed, the ship has been voted as one of the top ten haunted places in the USA and now offers both ghost tours and paranormal investigations.

Opting for full immersion, we enjoyed an entertaining evening in the bowels of the ship staring blankly at EMF meters, taking EVP recordings, and generally looking for any sign of ghostly activity. Whilst our host appeared certain that there was ‘something’ on at least one of the recordings, we were less convinced.

What was undeniable, however, was that two of the security guards were seriously spooked and reported having their own weird experiences whilst on patrol. One young man in particular clearly believing that he had heard his name being called behind him. His fellow guard, a grandmother who worked in a hospital by day, admitted there were parts of the ship she didn’t like venturing into.  ‘There’s good ones and there’s bad ones,’ was her summing up of the RMS Queen Mary’s ‘spirit’ presence.

Leaving the ghosts of the Queen Mary behind, we then did what all LA tourists do and took a trip to Hollywood. But whilst many people walk up, down, and around Hollywood Boulevard looking for the names of famous stars they might recognise, just around the corner on Afton Place lies the Headquarters of the Aetherius Society, an international organisation that is dedicated to using and spreading the teachings of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences.

Once inside we admired the immaculately tended flowers and garden, iron gates with a shimmering star-scape engraved into the metalwork and a crystal-ball topped fountain inscribed with the words ’Service To Humanity Through Protection’.

The HQ of the Aetherius Society in Los Angeles (credit: Carolyn Waudby)

The ‘society’ or New Religious Movement was founded in the mid-50s by an English contactee, George King, a London taxi driver, who began his journey as a psychic medium and yoga master. After reading Adamski, he swapped the Great White Brotherhood for the Space People and in 1954, whilst washing the dishes in his Maida Vale bedsit, a voice announced: ‘Prepare Yourself! You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament!’

In the verdant gardens outside the Aetherius Society HQ (copyright: David Clarke)

This was the first of hundreds of messages King received from Cosmic Masters including an extraterrestrial called ‘Aetherius’ who, it later emerged, lived on Venus. Over the next 30 years, King would continue to commune with Aetherius and other disembodied entities from Mars, Saturn and elsewhere in our solar system.

On one occasion he was ordered to go alone to a hill in Somerset where he met the Master Jesus who landed in a flying saucer. In 1958 King moved his HQ permanently to downtown LA and a number of his followers continue to live out their lives in a small community based around King’s former bungalow home. The shop sells Aetherius Society literature and tape recordings of King’s channelled messages from the Masters.

All these contacts led King to develop his New Age religion to spread enlightenment, selflessness and ongoing action protect the Earth from a range of threats from outer space and, more recently, climate change. But Greg Bishop notes that in 1997, soon after King’s death, the mass suicides of followers of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in nearby San Diego caused both the Aetherius Society and the Unarians to open up and explain ‘why they were not all like that bunch’.

As it happened we chose to visit on a day that most of the congregation were making their way up Mount Baldy, one of the society’s Holy Mountains. These are used for ceremonies that store spiritual energy as part of the society’s ongoing battle to save us from all kinds of natural disasters. Little did we know that, just over ten days after our visit, SoCal would be rocked by an earthquake that measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, the largest tremor to strike the region in 20 years. The epicentre of the quake was the town of Ridgecrest, 240 km north of Los Angeles,and sparked fears of further devastating quakes along the San Andreas faultline.

Oblivious to the pending threat we did what all tourists do and went off in search of the Hollywood sign, then hit the six-lane freeway back to Orange before LA’s infamous rush-hour began.

Left to right: Chris Bader, David Clarke and Tom Clark outside the Unarius Academy (credit: Carolyn Waudby)

Notes and further reading/watching:

Dave and Tom wish to thank Chris and Sarah Bader and Carolyn Waudby. We stayed at Ruta’s Old Town Inn at Orange and flew to LA by Virgin Atlantic. Ghost Tours of the RMS Queen Mary can be booked online here

Adam Gorightly and Greg Bishop,A’ is for Adamski: The Golden Age of UFO Contactees (Gorightly Press 2018)

Farewell, Good Brothers (Dir: Robert Stone 1998)

 

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Close Encounters (at a distance): the UFOlore Podcast

The first episode of the UFOlore podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and TuneIn.

Art by Tom Voyce used in the UFOlore project has been auctioned on Ebay to raise funds for the NHS emergency

We hope this weekly dose of discussion surrounding the folklore of UFOs and those who see and believe in them will be a nostalgic distraction from the Covid-19 crisis for many like-minded folk who are currently in lockdown.

UFOlore is a joint research project with journalist Richard Wilson and writer Jim Chisem, with assistance from a number of colleagues from the Department of Media Arts and Communications at Sheffield Hallam University and elsewhere.

Earlier in 2019 Jim interviewed me about my work on The National Archives UFO project for the British Online Archives podcast Dr Clarke versus the Flying Saucers. The podcast that resulted proved so popular that Jim approached me with the idea for a more regular podcast – and some YouTube films – that tackled the subject in an educational, non-sensational way.

It was a happy coincidence that TV journalist Richard had already proposed a mini series  that interviewed those who had seen and experienced unexplained aerial phenomena. Work had begun on filming just before the Covid-19 virus became a pandemic in March so this part of the project has been placed on hold for now.

But with the first two episodes of the podcast in the bag we decided to launch on Easter weekend – with apologies for the sound-quality on episode #1.

Future episodes will include a discussion with a retired schoolteacher who observed a triangular UFO over Sheffield city centre and with a special constable who experienced ‘missing time’ during a strange experience in North Yorkshire.

UFOlore also has a Facebook and Instagram page. Please like us and we welcome constructive comments and ideas for future episodes.

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The Truth in NOT in here…

The RAF’s secret ‘X-files’ of reported UFO sightings in British skies are to be placed online for the first time – according to the media.

How the media reported the ‘release of Britain’s X-files’, Metro 27 January 2020

This was the hyperbolic story published by the Mail Online, Metro, The Sun, Fox News and assorted others on Monday, 27 January 2020.

Their source was the Press Association who made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for data on UFO sightings reported to the Ministry of Defence since the closure of their UFO unit in November 2009.

The MoD responded to a similar FOI request from me, on 23 January 2018, as follows:

“The MoD ceased investigating UFO reports after 2009 because they served no defence benefit. Nonetheless, the Department has continued to receive requests for UFO records from members of the public and, occasionally, reports of their own UFO sightings. Therefore, while the MoD does hold information relating to UFOs since 2009, these consist solely of emails and letters from members of the public and the Department’s responses.”

Self-styled ‘former head of the [non-existent] British government UFO project’ Nick Pope is quoted by the MailOnline as saying he is pleased the public are going to be given an insight into ‘our work on these real-life X-files‘.

Sadly nothing could be further from the truth. As the MoD have made clear on numerous occasions, no work has been done on these ‘real life X-files’ since the admin office that logged calls was cut in 2009.

Originally MoD intended to retain any letters received after 30 November 2009 for just 30 days and then destroy them, ‘largely removing any future FOI liability and negate the need to release future files’.

But it seems they overlooked their own ‘Guidance to Record Reviewers’, issued in 2011. This lists records on UFOs as being ‘historically significant’ and protected from destruction. My 2013 blog post UFO Files – saved! explains how this decision came about.

Therefore, the records currently being scanned for release online via a dedicated gov.uk webpage consist entirely of:

a) letters and emails reporting mainly ‘lights in the sky’ received by MoD since the closure of their UFO desk in November 2009, with personal information (names and addresses) redacted. In effect exactly the same type of ‘report’ that can be found in the records released before 2009 available here and here.

b) duplicate copies of a standard letter that is issued in response to public inquiries that blankly states the MoD’s official line on the subject. This says they have no information or expertise on the subject of extraterrestrial life and all their surviving historical UFO records have now been transferred to The National Archives.

In summary, there is definitely nothing remotely ‘top secret’ being hidden away within these records and, as this link to MoD UFO reports 1997-2009 proves it is also not the first timeas incorrectly claimed – the UK MoD has made this type of material available online.

This is just the latest example of the UK media seeking out a story, any story!, about UFOs and aliens, in this case as light relief from the bleak January news agenda full of Brexit, epidemics and other miseries.

As one former Fleet Street journalist once said, “sometimes it just seems like it’s the right time to run another UFO story”.

And if there is no story, then just make one up.

It is of course pleasing that someone, somewhere, in the UK defence establishment is prepared to collate and publish records of this kind.

But missing from these so-called ‘X-files’ is any content that reveals how the MoD and RAF respond to reports of unidentified aerial phenomena reported by military personnel and air defence radar stations.

This material, if it exists, has now been removed from the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. If there are any real journalists out there, this is where you should be looking for a story.

 

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Codename Rendlesham

The Rendlesham Forest incident challenges Roswell as the most influential UFO legend in popular culture.

New documentary Codename Rendlesham premiered January 2020

Next Christmas marks the 40th anniversary of the story that began on Boxing Day morning, 26 December 1980. This marked the beginning of three nights when USAF personnel saw ‘unexplained lights’ in the sky – and near the ground – beyond the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge, part of a NATO complex on the Suffolk coast near Ipswich.

Dozens of books, articles, newspaper stories, TV documentaries (and a forthcoming drama series) have riffed on the basic story that has grown and mutated with every passing year. As the legend moves into its fourth decade there is an ever growing cast of story-tellers and alleged experiencers, all armed with rival versions of the story. Each personality has their own group of followers ready to engage in flame-wars to win the credibility battle with rival story-tellers.

And like every good legend the ongoing debate about what is true and what is false between the believers and the skeptics helps to keeps the story alive and relevant. Whereas debate over Roswell is now stale and moribund, Rendlesham – often dubbed Britain’s Roswell – is full of latent energy, mainly because unlike its great grandaddy all the key eyewitnesses are alive and well, and always ready to intervene in the debate.

It is this debate – concerning the status of the few clear facts and the elaborate legend that has grown up around the rival narratives – that is examined superbly in an intriguing new documentary Codename Rendlesham, released on 28 January 2020.

The film can be downloaded at this link.

Codename Rendlesham is the product of more than a decade of work by film-maker Adrian Frearson of independent documentary makers Chill Factor Films.

It is billed as a deconstruction of the legend and it performs this function very well during the course of one hour running time.

It avoids the more sensational tropes that have emerged more recently, particularly those concerning alleged cover-ups and contactee stories. Instead, it concentrates on the how the story first emerged and how it developed, placing factual evidence under a withering examination.

News of the events began in true urban legend style as a series of rumours spread by the airmen to local resident, and UFO-believer, Brenda Butler. Eventually it reached investigator Jenny Randles and the UFO literature. But even then it took another two years for it to break into public consciousness with the release, under the US Freedom of Information Act, of Lt Col Charles Halt’s famous memo to the British Ministry of Defence.

Halt’s memo was splashed across the front page of the now defunct News of the World in October 1983 and the rest, as they say, is history – or legend.

The headline that broke the story – from the British tabloid The News of the World, October 1983 (Ian Ridpath)

Codename Rendlesham works through the evolution of the legend in satisfying, bite-sized portions, starting with the early investigations and the emergence of the Halt memo and Larry Warren’s story, It provides a clear account of the most satisfying explanation for the events put forward by astronomer Ian Ridpath – who was one of the first to investigate the story on site.

Ian’s theory combines a number of natural phenomena – a fireball meteor and the optical effect of the Orfordness lighthouse, seen from the dark forest. It is simple and consistent with the fact that – as I explain in the documentary – 99% of UFO experiences have been explained as ordinary things seen in extraordinary circumstances.

In the film Adrian spends some time talking to me at The National Archives where I guide him through the contents of the MoD file on the incident – pointing out some of the key problems with the dating and interpretation of ‘evidence’ that has muddied the waters for four decades. I obtained a full copy of the file in 2000 using the precursor to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and went on to become the consultant for the release of the remaining MoD UFO files at The National Archives from 2008-13.

The film also examines the many ‘hoaxes and high jinks’ that have emerged as the legend grew and metastasized.  These include the alleged involvement of the US 67th ARS space recovery unit and, more recently, the April Fool’s joke planted by someone who wants us to believe the whole event was a prank played by members of the British army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) in revenge for their rough treatment at the hands of the US guards at the twin-base complex. This story is still doing the rounds and has been recently resurrected by BBC film-maker Simon Holland in a new YouTube series on Rendlesham here.

Unlike many other more lavishly funded documentaries Codename Rendlesham examines the pop culture background to the legend. It picks out links between the story-tellers from Rendlesham and the plots of science fiction films that were released before the events.

Despite being immersed in the subject of years I found these threads provided fresh and unexpected insights – including the low-budget alien crash/conspiracy flik Hangar 18 and the special edition of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both were showing in cinemas in nearby Ipswich at the time. How many of the young airmen and women at the base saw these films?

Ultimately the story of the Rendlesham forest incident is a microcosm of the UFO myth – a modern myth of things seen in the sky (and, allegedly, on the ground).

Codename Rendlesham reaches no definitive conclusions simply because there are none to be found. But it succeeds in bringing home the sheer Fortean weirdness of the legend and the people who became caught up in it, many of whom have had their lives changed forever.

The idea that visitors from another world – or from our future – landed in the bleak midwinter of a English forest has an everlasting appeal. It triggers something deep within the our imagination and forces us to engage with the deeper mysteries of the universe, which is why myths continue to have such universal appeal.

 

 

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Folklore: 10 things you didn’t know about Halloween

What is the history of Halloween and when was it first celebrated? Why do we trick or treat? Why do we carve pumpkins? 

Dr David Clarke of the Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University, investigates the origins of this eerie autumn festival.

Pixabay: Andreas Lischka

(1) Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. But in fact Hallowtide was created in the 9th century AD by christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints. However, in medieval Britain ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival of All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November. This was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.

(2) There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as Blod-monath (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.

(3) In pre-Christian Ireland 1 November was known as Samhain (summer’e end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Feast of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough (1890) popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead when pagan religious ceremonies were held.

(4) The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory. This was believed to be a sort of halfway house on the road to heaven and their ghosts could return to Earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.

In Mexico Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a three-day festival that runs from 31 October-2 November and combines Catholic and pagan traditions. An account of the 2019 festival published by The Guardian discusses how the festival has evolved from an intimate family occasion when Mexicans remember loved ones who have died into a gigantic public parade, influenced by the opening scene in the 2015 James Bond/007 movie Spectre.

The Day of the Dead parade, credit: Pixabay (Darvin Santos)

(5) Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’ where groups of adults and children wearing costumes visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.

(6) Until the 19th century bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England until the late 17th century.

(7) Love divination customs associated with Halloween spread to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of the Robert Burn poem Halloween in Victorian times. The poem was first published in 1786. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burn gently and then go out this indicated a long and harmonious life together; if they coughed and spluttered or exploded this indicated problems ahead. Apples were also used for divination purposes with the skin thrown over the shoulder or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.

(8) The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin) and using these as lanterns also seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October the children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles, the light shining through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: ‘It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.’

Copyright David Clarke

(9) Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers carried a Mischief Night (4 November) visiting custom to North America where it became known as ‘Trick or Treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘Trick or Treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the children’s film E.T.

(10) The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is entirely a modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films reflect modern fears and terrors. Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions.  Most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun. Modern witches claim 31 October marks an ancient pagan festival and some evangelical christians prefer to believe it is celebration of dangerous occult forces. This explains why folklorist Steve Roud calls it ‘the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented day in the festival year’.

Originally published in BBC History Extra, October 2014.

Link to review of Lisa Morton’s book Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (2019) from The Guardian.

Copyright 2019 : Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University

 

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