Yakuyoke

Keep my safe

In this stranger’s room

Now my own

I arrived in the gloom

When rain was falling

Over the rice fields

When my body was tired

From nights on mountains

And all I had healed

 

A Japanese country house
Image my own

 

No locks on the doors

No light in the halls

Paper cranes on the table

Handprints on the walls

What happens here

Will never leave

Old feelings linger

Spirits in eaves

 

Image my own

 

Keep me safe

As the rain falls

As I sleep

When the moon is hidden

And my dreams are weak

No locks on the doors

Yet I will not fear

We have told the thresholds

Only good may enter here

 

yakuyoke shrine charm from Japan
Image my own

A yakuyoke is a type of omamori (charm) which you can purchase from shrines and temples in Japan. There are many kinds of omamori. Maybe you need help finding love, or nurturing your current relationship. Or some support for coping with a health condition. If you’re going on a trip, get a travel safety omamori and tie it to your bag. Looking to attract positivity? Get a luck or happiness charm. Whatever your needs, there will be an omamori suitable for you. Put it somewhere you can see it every day, and never open it. As it becomes old and worn, you will see the harm it has saved you from in its fraying edges and loosened knots.

The above image is of a yakuyoke charm I took at house I stayed in in Kamikawa-cho, a rural part of Hyōgo Prefecture. A yakuyoke is for protection against evil spirits. This one hung above my bed. It was an old, mysterious house. Over a century old, made of wood, glass, and paper, with no locks. The washroom was a tiny cupboard with a stool and a cold tap in it. I boiled saucepans of water and took them in with me to wash with. There was a dusty parasol hanging from the ceiling, between the kitchen and a side room with a sunken area which I guess used to hold an irori (Japanese fire pit). My friends and I sat there wrapped in blankets, eating combini cookies & listening to the rain, and singing to mask our nerves at being alone in this peculiar place. I was as scared as I should have been, arriving in the dark to somewhere so isolated. But I soon felt at peace. The walls were happy. They held memories. The yakuyoke would let me sleep. The mountains would watch over us.

Read more about omamori on #FolkloreThursday in this article by Kim McGreal.

 

Solstice in the City

It’s Solstice in the city

my heart is not still

I climbed a mountain

and let my hair down

in the wind’s chill.

I walked very far

on streets I know well

I was tired but smiling

so no-one could tell.

 

View of Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags
Edinburgh, taken from Salisbury Crags. Image my own.

 

I’m wearing a crown

of sunflowers and straw

It doesn’t mean much, really

but I couldn’t ignore

this glowing, this summer

beginning today

in the colour of stones

wherever I stray.

 

Image my own.

 

When later I wonder

where all the light went

I’ll look at the flowers,

memories have such strength,

when your heart is not still,

and needs reminding

of what it loves,

of how to be filled.

 

 

Japanese Folklore: Sacred Trees and the Takasago Pines

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Essex’s Myth Reading Group to run a session on Japanese folklore. The group is part of the university’s Centre for Myth Studies, which aims to support and promote the study of myth.

For the past two terms, the Myth Reading Group has been focusing on trees in mythology. My session was about sacred trees in Japanese culture and the story of the Takasago pines, which I previously explored in the article I wrote for the Centre for Myth Studies blog earlier this year.

Old man and woman sweeping pine needles
19th century fukusa (type of Japanese cloth) depicting the Takasago pine tree story. Image in the public domain – source

The Takasago story is a popular noh drama (type of classical Japanese theatre) about two pine trees which were planted by the kami (Shinto deities) from the same seed. One stands in Takasago, and the other in Sumiyoshi. A Shinto priest visiting Takasago meets an elderly couple beneath the Takasago pine and asks them about the tree. They tell him about it being related to the one in Sumiyoshi, and that the man travels between the two places to care for the trees and be with his love. The distance between them is insignificant, because their hearts are the same. They also tell him that pine trees are special, because they are unchanging. Where other trees turn brown and shed their foliage in the autumn, pine trees remain evergreen. The priest then asks the couple for their names, and they reveal that they are really the spirits of the Takasago and Sumiyoshi pine trees temporarily in human form.

The priest meets the couple again in Sumiyoshi, and they have a feast to celebrate the relationship between humans and kami.

Aerial view of Takasago town
View of Takasago from Mount Takamikura

In Japanese culture, pine trees are revered as symbols of longevity and believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. You can often find them in the grounds of Shinto shrines, where visitors will tie omikuji (paper fortunes) to their branches. If the fortune is bad, the pine tree will help to negate its effects. Some larger shrines also mark their perimeters with pine trees to keep out negative energy.

Two ancient pine trees stand in the grounds of Takasago Shrine. They are nicknamed ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba’ (loosely translates as ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’), and many couples visit them to ask for blessings for a long and healthy relationship.

Image from the Centre for Myth Studies Twitter

Some of the trees around Shinto shrines are especially prestigious. These trees are called ‘goshinboku,’ which means ‘god trees’ in English, and they are trees where kami are believed to live. You can tell a goshinboku because it will be marked by a shimenawa (rope made from woven rice straw) and shide (lightning bolt-shaped strips of paper).

As well as living in goshinboku, kami also use these trees to travel between the heavens and the earth. Some, like the pine trees in the Takasago noh play, are also reported to have been planted by kami.

Before shrines were built, places of worship were merely natural sites were it was believed kami were present. These were often groves of trees or mountains, called yorishiro. Also, the kanji for shrine 社 (jinja) and forest 杜 (mori) are very similar. It’s possible that they could have been used interchangeably or meant to mean one and the same thing.

Tree with rice straw rope and paper lightning bolts tied around it
Goshinboku in Nara

In her story ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ Grace James writes in slow, dreamy prose about a pine tree planted by a kami on the beach in Takasago. It becomes home to a host of nature spirits, and also dark, mysterious creatures from Yomi which is the underworld in Japanese mythology. As the wind blows through the tree’s branches, it disperses the voices of the spirits and positive energy which draws lovers to it. The end of the story repeats this imagery, implying that it is a never-ending cycle of the tree sending out this mystical wind and drawing more positivity to it. The story is only one small part of its steadfast, evergreen life.

Having worked in Takasago, I can definitely vouch for the importance of pine trees in this city. I often found myself picking fallen needles out of my shoes, and many of the local mascots were based on pine cones. During school events, some poor teacher or student would draw the short straw of wearing the pinecone mascot costume and parading around the track in 80% humidity (thankfully never me!) It’s wonderful to see how the story of the pine trees shapes the identity of Takasago, and has made it a place of cultural and folkloric significance.

Pinecone mascot
Takasago Senior High School’s mascot

It was a joy to share this topic at the Myth Reading Group. Thank you to Pietra Palazzolo, executive of the Centre for Myth Studies, for inviting me to do the session. Also thank you to the Myth Reading Group members who attended, and for your enthusiasm during the discussion. It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope to attend more of your meetings in the future!

Sources

Japanese Folklore: Sakaiminato’s Yōkai Road

Tottori may be Japan’s least populated prefecture in terms of people, but if it’s yōkai you’re counting then it will come out on top. In the city of Sakaiminato, they have taken over the streets with their somewhat disturbing charm.

In Japanese folklore, yōkai are mischievous supernatural creatures akin to spirits or demons in Western culture. The artist and writer Mizuki Shigeru brought them into the limelight with his 1960s manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎). Shigeru’s work tells the story of a boy named Kitarō, who fights to make peace between the worlds of humans and yōkai, along with his… unusual allies. Most notably Medama-Oyaji, an anthropomorphic eyeball who is also the reincarnation of his father, and Neko-Musume, a young girl who can alter her facial features to resemble a sinister-looking cat.

Mizuki Shigeru Road yōkai
My new friends: Neko-Musume (left), Kitarō (right), and Gashadokuro (giant skeleton waiting patiently to drink my blood)

Mizuki Shigeru spent his childhood in Sakaiminato. To celebrate his work, the area around JR Sakaiminato station and the main road leading off of it has 153 bronze statues of yōkai. You can purchase a guidebook at the station (in Japanese only), which lists each one with some information about it. There are also spaces for collectable stamps, found outside of shops and restaurants along the road. Already being an avid collection of Japanese train station stamps, I was so on that! More so than the elementary school children I frequently found myself queuing with…

I took photos of some of the statues, which I shared on Twitter with the hashtag #dailyyōkai during the summer. For those who missed it, here’s a recap. Just click on the images to make them bigger. All images my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mizuki shigeru Road yōkai shrine

In Japanese folklore, it’s sometimes hard to define where yōkai ends and yūrei/obake (ghost) begins. Strictly speaking, the term yūrei should only be used for human spirits and obake for things which are possessed (like the chōchin-obake in my photo above). But in reality, these terms are often used interchangeably and there is much overlap of attributes between all three. This difficulty with defining them makes yōkai a subjective set of creatures, adding to their mystery and appeal. Each has their own identity, composed of their own power, purpose, and motivation. This makes yōkai very relatable – when we are stressed at work we can blame the isogashi, or when our bathroom needs cleaning we can wish for an akaname to appear. And I am sure after a terrible date we can sympathise with the Hari-Onna!

Mizuki Shirgeru Road yōkai
Street art of Kitarō with his yōkai allies

After living in Japan for a year, I thought I was impervious to the stranger sides of Japanese culture. I caught myself watching this Funassyi video and not even flinching; a giant fairy pear running through a minefield seemed perfectly normal. But after visiting Sakaiminato, I’ve discovered that there is still a lot left in this country capable of making me wonder ‘why is this even a thing?!’ Like the sagari – Ghost horse heads which spontaneously drop out of trees and scream at people? Okay. It’s Japan. Don’t question it. Embrace the insanity.

What’s your favourite yōkai? Tweet it to me @amyelize

For more about yōkai, read my tsukumogami post. These are a specific group of yōkai comprised of possessed household objects. Watch out for the boroboroton!

 

Scottish Stories: The Selkie Folk of Orkney

North of Caithness, on the islands of Orkney, the ocean is a magical place. The seals are its people. Those angels, who fell from heaven and landed amongst the waves.

Sometimes they come ashore to moult or have pups. Sometimes, on the night of the solstice or during a full moon, you will catch a glimpse of them dancing upon the sand.

Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

Their sealskins will be laid upon the rocks, and their bare, human skin will shimmer in the half light. You will probably hear their laughter before you see them; soft and mellifluous, like the tinkling of seashell wind chimes.

Find somewhere to hide. Hush, now. Watch them dance. Hands clasped, damp, salt-matted hair flowing. The deceptive, lithe grace of their legs could make you believe they always had them.

But the selkie folk always return to the water…

Seals on Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

Maybe you will fall in love, and be tempted to snatch one of their skins…

Aye, peedie selkie. Come with me, to my house, on the land…

You reach out and grasp the closest one, clutching it to your chest. But the selkie folk have seen you… they scatter, and within seconds have disappeared into the ocean. All except one. She searches, spinning around and around, looking under the rocks and amongst the seaweed.

Oh, where is it? My skin, my precious skin!

Then she sees you.

Come with me…

And of course she will come; what other choice does she have? In time, she will learn to be content. She will cook and clean and sew, and be a good mother. Although be warned, your bairns may have webbed fingers and toes.

But let me warn you, such marriages never have happy endings…

Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

No matter where you hide it, one day that selkie wife will find her sealskin. Then she will run, out of the house and along the beach, her last human footsteps pressed into the sand the only trace of her left to follow. They will lead to the shore, where she will stand and gaze upon the place of her human life. She will smile; a smile which is a thank you and a goodbye and an I love you all at once.

Then, she will slip into her sealskin. Even after so many years, it’s still a perfect fit. Hands and feet turn into flippers. Eyes turn glossy black and beady. A splash, and she is gone. The selkie folk are the people of the sea, and they always return to the water.

Later, there will be two of them, reunited, frolicking in the sunset-stained waves. You will stand on the shore with the children, watching. Smiling.

Thank you. Goodbye. We love you.

 

Sources

Japanese Stories: Ise Grand Shrine and the Thankful Dog

It is said that dogs are our best friends, and if this story is to be believed then that is certainly true. In the city of Ise, on the south east coast of Japan in Mie Prefecture, you will find many shops selling little charms in the shape of dogs. You will also see people walking their dogs along the path to Ise Grand Shrine, and well-kept water bowls outside most establishments.

These things are homage to the Okage Inu (thankful dog) of local legend, who it is said made a pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine in his master’s stead. Whilst visiting Ise, I found a small booklet of this story and managed to translate it into English (Japanese reading skills level up!) Generic writer disclaimer – I have added some of my own details to flesh things out, since the translations are very basic and more like a list than a story. So this is my own version of it. As far as I can see, this story is not well-known outside of Japan. So I am happy to share it!

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own

犬のおかげ参り – The Dog’s Thanks

What to do, when you live deep in the country and your husband is gravely ill? When you want to visit the shrine to pray for his health, but you cannot leave his side? When your old bones creak when you walk, and the shrine is so far away…

A wag of a tail. A sloppy, affectionate lick on his master’s feverish cheek.

ワンワン!ワンワン!*  I will go, I will go!

Send the dog. Problem solved.

Carrying a banner proclaiming his mission, the faithful dog set out for the shrine. Not just any shrine, either. He was bound for Ise Jingu, the soul of Japan, the most sacred Shinto shrine of them all. It is there that Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun and the Universe, is enshrined.

It was a long journey, but that is not a problem for a Shiba Inu’s spirit. His enthusiasm and loyalty would carry him all the way.

Shiba Inu
Shiba Inu Kazumi by Maja Dumat. CC BY 2.0

He did not stray from the road – no chasing rabbits, or exploring thickets (I’m sure that those of you who have walked dogs will know what a feat this is – their attention spans are not always the most reliable…)

On the way, the Shiba Inu befriended many travellers. For who doesn’t want to stop and pet a sweet, lonesome dog? People donated money to help him, too. He was given a meal, and somewhere to stay for the night.

Finally, he reached the city of Ise. On he padded, through the streets, beneath he torii gate, over Uji Bridge, and along the gravel path all the way to Amaterasu’s house. He bowed (but of course he couldn’t clap, as it is customary to do at Shinto shrines. I am sure Amaterasu understood) and barked his prayers, and in return he received an ofuda (paper amulet) to take home.

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own.

With his mission complete, it was time to begin the homeward journey. Maybe this time he stopped off for some celebratory rolling in grass, or something else dogs do for fun (if it had been my dog, she would not have made it out of the city for stopping to lick everyone’s feet…)

Upon arriving back home, after being made a great fuss of, he presented the ofuda to his master and mistress. Soon his master’s health improved, and the three of them lived peacefully once more. Although, after such a long trip, I am not sure that the Shiba Inu asked for a walk ever again!

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own.

* Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, pronounced like ‘wan wan!’ In English it would be ‘woof woof!’

Read more about Ise Grand Shrine and regional Japanese folklore in my article about the ama divers and sea demons on #FolkloreThursday.

 

Update

So thrilled that this story has now been published by the lovely folks over at Do You Know the Story? and is accompanied by an beautiful illustration by my friend Kimberley Ford. Support them by following on Facebook and Twitter to discover and share amazing stories and artwork from around the world.

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog

 

Japanese Ghost Stories: Himeji Castle and Okiku’s Well

Where there are castles, there are also stories. Himeji is no exception. This vibrant, serene city is also home to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.

Japan has hundreds of ghost stories, known as 怪談 which is pronounced kaidan. Living near Himeji made it was impossible not to learn a kaidan called ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Its English title is ‘Okiku and the Plates,’ and there are many versions of it throughout Japan. It is often performed as kabuki, which is a traditional style of Japanese theatre.

Himeji castle is one of the most commonly cited locations for ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Let me take you there, and introduce you to Okiku…

_____________________________________________________________________________
DISCLAIMER:
As I have said, there are many different variations of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ The one I have written here is taken from the plaque in the grounds of Himeji castle, which I visited and studied myself. In no way do I claim that this is the ‘proper’ version, or that it is my own.
_____________________________________________________________________________

Himeji castle has many names. For over 400 years it has stood, dominating the cityscape with its calm, gleaming white walls. It is called ‘white heron’ or ‘egret’ for its beauty, and ‘miracle’ for its longevity. But for all their majesty, castles are dangerous places for love. They are filled with secrets, and peril. In the 16th century, Himeji was no exception.

Himeji castle
Himeji Castle is famous for its beautiful white walls. Image my own.

Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.

Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself.

Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled.

And indeed it was.

Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one.

The only thing awaiting the traitor was death.

Okiku ema boards at Juunisho-jinja
The ema at Juunisho-jinja in Himeji feature pictures of Okiku. Ema are small wooden plaques which people write prayers on and hang in the grounds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Image my own.

Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot.

It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped!

Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets.

Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared.

But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again.

No, no, I will not marry you!

Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family.

It is easy to frame a servant for theft…

All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in?

Only the servants, my Lord.

What were they doing?

Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates…

Who dusted the plates today?

Okiku, my Lord.

And where is she now?

Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found.

Okiku's ghost
Painting of Okiku by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1890. Image in the public domain – source

Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance.

Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name.

But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath…

No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you.

Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer…

Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her.

Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse…

Somewhere like… a well?

Yes, the well!

Okiku's well at Himeji castle
Okiku’s well in the grounds of Himeji castle. Image my own.

Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well.

Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground.

Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered.

In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city.

Juunisho-shrine, Himeji
Jūnisho-jinja in Himeji. ‘Jinja’ means ‘shrine.’ Shrines are Shinto places of worship. Image my own.

As for the well…

Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman.

For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave.

 

Japanese Ghost Poetry

For another take on Okiku’s story, have a listen to my poem about her.

 

Japanese Folklore: Sea Demons, Pearls Divers, and Ise Grand Shrine

Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.Salty wind, sandy toes, and the scent of seaweed are my home. Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Mie Prefecture on the east coast of Japan. It is a reserved, quaint place where the ocean’s influence is inescapable. Here is the city of Ise, home to the most sacred Shinto shrine Ise Jingu, and the Ise-Shima Peninsula, which is famous for the ama divers and abalone shells.

During my trip, I learned stories of sea demons, underwater dragon palaces, and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. I also got off the beaten track and visited a community of ama divers and a sea folklore museum, which was a fascinating and poignant experience.

I wrote an article about my time in Mie and Japanese ocean folklore, which was published on #FolkloreThursday.

Ama divers, Mie, Japan
An ama’s catch. Image my own.

 

Deer Folklore: Faerie Cattle, Sacred Sika, and Our Wild Sides

I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.

Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.

Deer in Scotland

Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.

If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.

Glencoe deer
Deer in Glencoe, Scotland. Image from Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’

In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.

Deer in Japan

In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.

Kasuga Shrine deer painting
Silk painting of a Nara deer at Kasuga Shrine. Image in the public domain – source

The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!

Nara Park deer
Sika deer in Nara Park, Japan. Images my own

Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?

I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.

Kasuga Shrine
Torii gate at the entrance of the path leading to Kasuga Shrine, and my deer o-mikuji (thankfully it was a good one!) Images my own

Deer in Fairy Tales

In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.

Arthur Rackham Little Brother and Little Sister
Little Brother and Little Sister by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.

Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.

Nara Park deer
Me feeding a sika deer in Nara Park. Image my own.

Sources

  • John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
  • Fairy Women & Their Deer‘ on The Faery Folklorist
  • Jo Woolf, ‘Ossian’s Cave in Glen Coe‘ on The Hazel Tree
  • Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ available online here
  • Heidi Anne Heiner, ‘Annotations for Brother & Sister‘ on SurLaLune

 

Meinichi: Remembering and Loving, Forever

August 26th. From 2009 onwards, I am able to tell you what I was doing on this day every year. Every summer, for those twenty-four hours, I’m sixteen again and wondering how life can be so cruel.

In my hometown, the summer after high school is all about exam results, first jobs in beach shops, firework displays, and long walks home by the sea because you missed the last bus. Usual teenage stuff. What’s not on the list is to lose one of your close friends forever.

‘Cancer.’ Only six letters. Two syllables. Just another word in the English language, nothing more. But that is enough to destroy. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what Cancer was. I knew it was an illness and that it could be fatal, but I didn’t know what causes it or how it is treated. And why should I have known? I was young and healthy, and no-one I knew had been chronically ill before. It wasn’t part of my world. When Laura was diagnosed, I just assumed she would get better. Okay, it might take a long time, and she would have to go to hospital a lot so I wouldn’t see her in school as often, but then eventually she would be okay and things would return to normal.

I sent her letters, and messages on Bebo with pixelated hearts. We talked about all the things we would do when she recovered – sleepovers, day trips to London, and what colleges we wanted to go to. This Cancer business was just a blip; a mark on the present which would soon go away.

When I got the phone call, I didn’t answer it because it was a private number. Laura’s mum left a message and asked my mum to call her back. I thought that was strange, but didn’t worry too much. Parents talk to each other all the time, right? So I gave mum my phone and went back to Photoshopping pictures for dA and singing along to anime soundtracks. Then I got the second call to come downstairs.

When mum told me the news, I didn’t know how to respond. Is there even a correct way? I didn’t cry, or say anything. I just stood there in the kitchen, trying to make sense of what I had heard. Mum hugged me, and was stroking my back and saying ‘oh darling, it’s okay’ but it never is, is it? I think I was in shock. Mum told me I didn’t have to go to work that evening, that I should stay home and give myself ‘time.’ But I felt okay. I felt nothing. If I stayed at home, what good would that do? The shop was busy, & my colleagues needed me. So off I went.

Two hours later, it hit me. I locked myself in the staff toilets, then curled up on the floor and cried.

Melted candle

Six Augusts have passed since then. For every one, I have lit a candle for Laura and sat for a few moments to remember her, and tell the universe how much I love and miss her. For this seventh year, I’m in Japan. Here, death anniversaries are called ‘meinichi,’ which literally translates as ‘life date.’ It is customary to mark meinichi by visiting graves, temples, or shrines to pray and burn incense for the deceased. Shinto shrines are some of the most serene, inviting places I have ever come across, so finding one to do my annual reflection seemed like a wonderful idea.

At the weekend I was visiting Okayama, a calm, peach-filled city in southern Japan. I had a bike and a fabulous tour guide, who led me to Munetada Shrine. The entrance was on a bustling main road, but inside the peace I’ve come to associate with shrines was there nonetheless. I’m sure that torii gates are portals, because every time I pass through one it’s as though the outside world ceases to exist. Even the sticky summer heat seemed to relent.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Torii gate at the entrance of Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Firstly, I went to the fountain and performed the cleansing ritual, tearai, which involves using a small bowl on a stick to wash your hands and face. From there, walked to the front of the shrine and tossed a coin into the donation box. Then I shook the rope to ring the bell, bowed twice and clapped twice to greet the deities, then sent them my thoughts. Please, send my best wishes to Laura. Let her know that I’m thinking of her still. Carry my love to her.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
The fountain with the wash bowls at Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Another bow, and then I sat on a bench beneath a tree. I remembered her smile, and us singing to Hannah Montana songs. It struck me how much things change. Exactly seven years ago, I was just out of high school and unsure of my future. In the time since then, I’ve been through college, university, and moved to a foreign country. Before I moved, I met up with most of my other friends from high school; renewing bonds after years of growth and change. They’re all doing their own amazing things – studying, working, travelling. Some even have children of their own. We’re all women now, twenty-somethings taking on the world. But Laura will always be sixteen. I couldn’t help wondering what she would be doing, if she were still here. What would the last seven years have given her? Maybe we would also have sat in Starbucks, exchanging gossip over fruit coolers and Nutella cookies, before I boarded my plane.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Donation box and bell ropes. Image my own.

Because of Laura, I have learned to not to be complacent, to be wary of any and all illnesses, and to live life to the full regardless. There are so many things she never got the chance to do, but in a way, we’re all doing them for her. I know I’m not the only one of my high school friends who keeps memories of her close by.

I don’t know where I’ll be for Laura’s future meinichis, but I know for certain that I will continue to mark them somehow for the rest of my life. Remembering her is an integral part of my summer. Maybe, if I have children, when I’m gone too each August 26th they will light a candle and say ‘mum used to do this every year. It’s a tradition.’ And so, like that we remember and are remembered. With flames and thoughts, bells and bows, and most importantly, with love.

Laura with her poodle, London

Fairy Tales in Chicago: Blogger Meet Up and Colleen Moore’s Castle

A vast, bustling metropolis like Chicago does not seem a likely place to find fairy tales. But there is magic everywhere, if you take the time to look for it. During this trip, it came in the form of a Christmas market and a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry.

The Christmas market was German-style, meaning there was lots of cute wooden toys and lebkuchen (nom!) One wooden hut even had signs made from gingerbread, and inside there was a carousel-shaped display of it. Very Hansel and Gretal! There were also glass Christmas tree ornaments inspired by fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s slipper and Little Red Riding Hood. I had the pleasure of attending this market with Kristin, who runs the blog Tales of Faerie. Her posts are so insightful, and have inspired me a great deal. When I knew I was going to Chicago, we arranged a meet up. We went out for tea and explored the market, and it was lovely to chat in person instead of via email for a change! You can read Kristin’s post about our little outing as well.

Chicago Christmas market

 

On the last day of my trip, I went to the Museum of Science & Industry with friends. Again, a science museum doesn’t sound like a very fairy tale place, but it was here that I found Colleen Moore’s castle. Colleen Moore was an American actress, most famous for her parts in silent films during the 1920s. Aside from acting, Moore had a passion for dolls houses. The castle was made by her father in 1928, and decorated with help from one of Moore’s set designers as well as a host of artists, authors, jewellers, taxidermists, and Hollywood’s most skilled crafters. Moore continued adding artefacts to it until her death in 1988.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

What I found most captivating about Moore’s castle is that everything inside it is real. The miniature bearskin rug is made from real animal fur, and the bear’s teeth are actually from a mouse. The books in the library are tiny novels, written by famous authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. The world’s smallest copy of the Bible is in there, too. The toiletry set features a tiny razor which actually cuts, and the hairbrush has bristles made from strands of fox hair. The princess’s bedroom furniture is adorned with real gold and diamonds, the murals and pictures on the wall were painted by artists and designers (including a portrait of Mickey and Mini Mouse from Walt Disney Studios), the tapestries were hand-sewn by a master needle-worker, and the castle has electricity and running water.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Left: Kitchen. Top right is the grand hall, and bottom is the bathroom.

 

The castle is not short of fairy tale references, either. There are two bedrooms, one for a prince and one for a princess. The princess’s bed linen is adorned with patterns of cobwebs, which is a nice nod to ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ In the entrance courtyard stands a silver coach and horses, all ready to take Cinderella to the ball. Beside it is a weeping tree, reminiscent of ‘Ashputtel’ and ‘The Juniper Tree.’ There are no banisters on the staircase in the Grand Hall, because faeries can fly so they don’t need to hold on. In the kitchen, a mural of a witch decorates the wall behind the pots and pans. On the right-hand wall is another mural of the Three Little Pigs.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Top: The entrance courtyard with Cinderella’s coach and the weeping tree. Bottom left is the prince’s bedroom, and bottom right is the princess’s.

The fairy castle arrived at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry in 1949. It receives an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, and is worth around $7 million. This video shared on the museum’s website shows the castle undergoing some conservation work:

As well as a valuable exhibit and exquisite dolls house, Colleen Moore’s fairy castle is a living manifestation of her dream. She worked hard to create it exactly how she imagined it. Moore and the hundreds of people who contributed to her project are proof that you’re never too old for fairy tales, and if you’re going to follow your passion then you might as well pull out all the stops. Thanks to them, the fairy castle is now alive for everyone to enjoy – children, daydreamers, historians, artists, and fairy tale fans alike.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

 

 

Goodnight, Goodbye: Why I’m Travelling Thousands of Miles for a Band

A couple of months ago, I phoned my mum to tell her I’m going away just before for Christmas. The first thing she asked was “where are you going?” When I replied with “Chicago,” she knew. There could only be one reason for me to go to Chicago in December. She started listing reasons why this is a bad idea, and I could see her points. Yes, it’s very irresponsible and spontaneous. Yes, I might be ill from the exertion of such a big trip, and yes I hate flying. No, I don’t have a lot of money. I know it’s already snowing in Chicago right now, so there is a chance our flight home may be delayed. Sorry, but I’ll have to see grandma and my niece and nephew for new year instead of Christmas.

But despite her reservations, mum gave me her blessing. Because she knows what this trip means to me.

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When I was 15, I discovered a band called Kill Hannah. One of my friends sent me Crazy Angel, and I hated it. But I was feeling adventurous with music at the time, so I looked them up on YouTube and found Lips Like Morphine. I liked that one, and burned it to a CD to play in mum’s car. She liked it, too.

‘All the nights when I was scared, and when it got too weird, it was the songs that saved me’

A few weeks later, I found Scream. I don’t know what it is about this song, but I became obsessed with it. I played it in the car as well. Mum and I turned it up loud and sang. I knew that I had to listen to this band more, and so I bought my first Kill Hannah CD: Until There’s Nothing Left of Us. I imported the American version, because the UK one did not include Scream. That album went in a car as well, on repeat for weeks. I scrawled its lyrics over all my journals.

Some of my journals from the past few years. There’s some Kill Hannah in every one.

 

At 16, my life changed in several ways. By the end of the year, I felt like I had been hollowed out and didn’t know what to fill myself back up with. During this year, Kill Hannah released their third studio album, Wake Up the Sleepers. This joined all their other music to become my soundtrack. Kill Hannah were there when I left high school, they kept me feeling cheerful through a summer spent working nights in a gift shop, and they were there when fate stepped in and did the last thing I expected by taking one of my friends away. She was one of the strongest, brightest people I have ever known, and the thought that I would lose her had never once crossed my mind until it happened. That night, I cried through my shift as I served customers then went home and buried myself under my duvet with my iPod.

I started sixth form the day after her funeral as a sad, anxious mess. Kill Hannah were there then, too. Keeping me awake at 7am when I got the bus each morning. Keeping me sane through the times when I just couldn’t stop crying, when I couldn’t sleep, and when I pulled all-nighters to finish essays. Wake Up the Sleepers went in the car, too. On shopping trips, when I missed the bus and needed a lift, on spontaneous drives along the coast road.

‘Let’s slow dance to our own heartbeats’

Kill Hannah: 2010 tour poster

 

In 2010, I went to my first Kill Hannah show. When I saw them announce a UK tour, I had to go. My older brother made this possible by offering to drive me and a friend to Birmingham and back. From my hometown, it’s a 6 hour round trip. I will never stop being grateful to my brother for volunteering for that journey! We plied him with food and petrol money and off we went.

We queued outside the venue for two hours. Despite being May, it was freezing. We had no coats, because we are hardcore gig-goers. 

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Lead singer, Mat Devine, wore feathers on his head, and Doc Martens. And he held a panda, because why not.

They played Scream. I screamed. Then a crowd surfer went past and kicked me in the head. It was awesome. They also played a cover of Just Like Heaven by The Cure, a song I didn’t know at the time but I will never forget the atmosphere when that acoustic guitar music began.

I bought American Jet Set from the merchandise stall. It went in the car on the way home. We didn’t get back until 3am.

‘And I’m not running anymore, I’ll stand and face it all, I’ll fight for every breath until there’s nothing left of us’

After Birmingham, I joined Kill Hannah’s street team, the Kill Hannah Kollective. I logged on to their website, and instantly received messages from other members. These messages quickly grew into friendships. For the first time in my life, I was part of something. I was astonished how so many people from all over the world had come together just because of a band, and how much love and support we were able to give each other. Apart from a group to promote Kill Hannah, we are a support network, a little corner of the internet where no-one is ever alone. The KHK never give up on anything, ever. When things got tough, I repeated that to myself. Although small, the KHK are an army. I received a KHK wristband in the post as a gift from one of the Generals (yes, we had military rankings! I was the Lt. Colonel for UK East) in 2011 and never took it off. I’m still wearing it now.

This video for the song Home was made by a KHK member, and it says so much more about the strength of the KHK than I ever could. Also, the last clip? That’s me!

I also started reading the lead singer, Mat Devine’s, blog, the Raccoon Society. Not all the posts are live anymore, but it was a community where you could write in and chat to other people and Mat would answer questions and give advice. I loved his style of writing, and how he was able to help so many people. It inspired me to start blogging, in the hope that maybe I could someday do the same. Recently, Mat published a book called Weird War One: The Antiheroes Guide to Surviving Everyday Life which has the best of the Raccoon Society in it. If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, sort you out, and make you smile, then go ahead and read it. You’re not the only lonely heart out there.

I bought For Never and Ever, their first studio album, from eBay. It went in the car. On Christmas day in 2010, mum and I played New Heart for Christmas. By now I knew about New Heart, the Christmas gig Kill Hannah do every year at the Metro in Chicago. I was desperate to go, but when you’re 17, have little money, no confidence, and have never travelled alone before, just going to the next town is a big enough deal never mind a whole other continent. But I consoled myself with the thought that one day I would be able to make it. I put it on my bucket list.

New Heart 9 at Chicago Metro, 2012

‘It looked like the perfect day, in photos we were smiling’

In 2012, I returned to Birmingham to attend another Kill Hannah show (this time driven by my parents, who then drove straight to London afterwards and booked into a travel lodge so I could go to the show in Islington the following night. More eternal gratitude!) This time, I got to meet my online friends and together we paraded through the streets with a banner. I remember how we each held the edge as we walked, so the design could be seen by all. We wanted everyone to know who Kill Hannah were, and what we stood for. I held my head up and smiled at onlookers, fearless, unbreakable.

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Kill Hannah, the KHK, a toga banner, and a lot of Skittles. Birmingham 2012.

Before the show, I got to attend a meet and greet. Pretty much all I remember of this is giggling and my brain going ‘rhgfuigsj dh wdh dkjdhbkjsx’ because I was meeting this band, these people who had produced this music that had become such a huge part of my life. I remember giving Mat a paper raccoon, and lots of Skittles. Then we had group photos, before we were whisked away to queue for the show. We got spots at the barrier, and the sound of our combined voices singing Nerve Gas was enchanting.

I bought The Beauty in Sinking Ships and The Curse of Kill Hannah afterwards. They went in the car on our late night drive.

In Islington, I attended their sound check and felt all tingly when they played Hummingbirds the Size of Bullets. Such beautiful, allegorical lyrics. That concert was one of the best nights of my life. Mum got to go, too. And we managed to drag dad along, even though it really wasn’t his thing! We stood at the back and danced, before I reclaimed my spot at the barrier with the KHK.

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Sound check in Islington, London 2012

Later in 2012, I started university. On my last night in my hometown, I sat on the beach with my dog wearing my brand new purple Doc Martens. I took a photo, and captioned it with a Kill Hannah song.

Kill Hannah Last Night Here
Last Night Here

Kill Hannah were played when my new housemates and I made dinner. They went on my wall when my American friend sent me a signed poster from New Heart. When I moved house and was afraid to sleep in a strange, dark room, I put their songs on shuffle beside my new bed.

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‘Universe, wrap your arms around me. Make me strong, so I can take on anyone.’ Lyrics from Why I Have my Grandma’s Sad Eyes

‘Be my love, and race the dream together’

Also at university, I met someone. He had never heard of Kill Hannah, and as you can imagine I soon changed that. I lent him all my CDs, and he fell in love with their music at the same time as he fell in love with me.

When I saw the announcement for this year’s New Heart, I figured it was no big deal. It was just like any other year – again I didn’t have to means to go, but perhaps next year I could when I’d found a job and some stability. Then I saw it said ‘final show,’ and the last 7 years of my life crashed in on me. All those moments, memories, and lyrics. All that time daydreaming and thinking ‘one day.’ The thought that I wouldn’t ever be at New Heart made me feel ill. Even more, that my partner and I would never get to see them together, I’d never get to be with my American KHK friends, and that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

My partner took one look at me said ‘we’re booking a flight.’ And then we did. And this is one of the most insane things I have ever done. ‘You’re going all that way just to see a band?’ people keep asking. Yes, yes I am. But not just a band. I’m going because teenage Amelia needs to. The dream of attending New Heart kept her sane, and I can’t rip that away from her. I’m going for my partner, so he can see them and we can sing to Crazy Angel together. It’s one of my favourites now. Also, I get to visit a new place and talk to online friends in the flesh instead of through a screen for the first time. Two of the most important things to me are travelling and people to travel with. Because of Kill Hannah, I have both of those. This is about so much more than music.

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I’m not going to get all dramatic and be like ‘this band saved my life.’ Maybe when I was a teenage emo kid I would have said that, but now I just want to say thank you. Kill Hannah gave me a purpose, an escape route when I had nothing. Without them, life would have been harder, and I would have missed out so many wonderful experiences.

‘Stick to the dream and don’t ever give in, even when you’ve got nothing to lose and no way to win’

Saying goodbye to Kill Hannah will be saying goodbye to a big part of my life. But I still have their music, and I am sure that no matter what I end up doing it will be a part of my future. Even after the band have gone, I can’t stop being KHK. We’ll fight for our dreams, until there’s nothing left of us.

Believer
 
(WUTS tour poster from Midlands Rocks, New Heart image from Alex Savage, Kill Hannah image from Metro Lyrics)

Travel: Dragon Hunting in Norfolk

In the East of England, there is a Medieval city composed of cobbled streets, secret gardens, and flint churches. Its castle stands on a hill, one of the only ones in the region, for we are deep in big-sky country. If you go left, you will find yourself in Chapelfield, a gleaming, glass shopping centre where all the classiest brands can be bought. If you go right, you will find Tombland, where the aforementioned cobbles are the most ankle-grinding, and the antique shops and cafes stand in the shadow of the cathedral.
 
Welcome to Norwich. A fine city. Old and new, side by side.
 
This summer, Norwich was invaded by dragons. 204 of them, to be precise. 84 large dragon sculptures were painted by professional artists and placed around the city. Trail maps were provided, and thousands of people came to do some hunting. As well as these, 120 smaller dragons were decorated by local schools and displayed in shop windows, around the city’s library, and in Chapelfield. Officially called ‘GoGoDragons!‘, this event was organised by the charity Break. In October, the 84 large dragons were sold at auction to raise money. The statues were on display from June until August 2015, and free to look at with optional donation points. Based on the amount of fun we had dragon hunting, the insane number of people who descended upon the little, middle-of-nowhere city, and the sheer beauty of the dragons themselves, I am sure that Break must have been received a substantial amount.
What I loved most about dragon hunting was the simplicity of it. Go to the library, grab a map, and you’re off! One dragon in particular had a folkloric connection to Norfolk. Meet Luda, who was stationed in Norwich’s Millennium Library.

 

Luda painted by Kieron Williamson. Image my own.

Luda is painted on either side with images of the Norfolk Broads, including the iconic ruin of St. Benet’s Abbey.

Luda painted by Kieron Williamson. Image my own.

Around 30 minutes outside Norwich, there is a village called Ludham. This is by the Norfolk Broads, where in the past winters were harsh and lonely and superstition ran thick. It is from these old days that the legend of the Ludham Dragon appeared. Kieron Williamson, who painted Luda, was inspired by this legend. Not only is his artwork beautiful, it is also a physical representation of a local story.

A strange, monstrous lizard, covered in scales, with huge wings, was seen in the village of Ludham. It only came out after sunset, so the villagers began to stay inside at night out of fear. The lizard formed a burrow, where it chose to live. Every morning, the villagers blocked up the entrance with rocks. But it was all in vain, for come evening, the lizard tore them away and was free. To the villagers’ horror, one afternoon, the lizard emerged whilst it was still daylight. They watched it move away from the burrow, and then someone dropped a single heavy boulder over the burrow’s mouth. Upon its return, the lizard could not re-enter its home. It screeched and roared in anger, until it finally gave up. The lizard took off, over the fields, to St. Benet’s abbey. Then it passed through the crumbling archway, and dug itself down into the vaults beneath the ruin. And it has not been seen since…

St. Benet' s Abbey
The ruins of St. Benet’s abbey, beneath which the dragon could still be living. Image by Ian Russell, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

Over the course of the summer, my family, friends, and I, managed to locate all 84 dragons. We spent 4 days trailing around the city, and walked so much that we had to spend another 4 days letting our poor legs recover! After a while, it wasn’t just about finding dragons. It was about discovering our city, and helping others. We found places we had never heard of before. We got lost in a place less than half an hour away from our own hometown, and it was fabulous. There were groups of all ages — children, families, teenagers, elderly people — all together for one purpose. We gave and received directions by talking to them, instead of using Google Maps. We used pens and paper to track our progress. We stopped to read sign posts, and bought refreshments at independent cafes instead of chains.

So, if you take nothing else out of this post (apart from OOOOH PRETTY DRAGONS!), then let it be this: Get out there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being all ‘oh life is terrible these days because kids are all on their iPads and blah blah blah.’ Technology is useful, and whether we like it or not it’s ingrained into our daily lives now. But there is still joy to be found in doing things for yourself, and learning about the places you live in and visit first-hand.

Over those 4 days, I went on a camera rampage and took over 300 photos… oops. Here are some of my favourites. Commence dragon spam!

 

Raptorsfire painted by Jessica Copping. Image my own.

 

Dragons need clothes, too! Aurelia painted by Matt Reeve. Image my own.

 

Dragon or wall? Ascalon painted by Kate Munro. Image my own.

 

The Mother of Dragons painted by Paul Jackson. Image my own.

 

Daisy the Dragon painted by Bridget Parsons. Image my own.

 

Sunbeam painted by Raymond Noakes. Image my own.

 

Drewscilla Dragon painted by Julia Allum. Image my own.

 

Chalk dragons drawn on the streets. Image my own.

 

My favourite dragon of all – GoGoMosaic by Carolyn Ash. So sparkly!. Image my own.

Although they were only around for a short time, the dragons brought colour to Norwich — and also a little bit of magic! Who knows what sort of sculptures Break are planning to do in the years to come, but it seems that they have outdone themselves already. Whatever they choose, I’m sure it will be wonderful. But never quite as wonderful as the year of the dragon.

 

Book Review: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

For some reason, when I edited my blog this review disappeared. Can’t have that, since it’s my favourite book EVER. And I mean EVER EVER EVER, out of ALL THE BOOKS. EVER. So, I’ve written this new review. Which is actually borderline incoherent gushing about witches and Scotland and all of the awesomeness that this book has.

On the surface, Witch Light appears to be a historical novel. It takes place in Scotland in 1692, in the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre. So it is based on real events, and most of the people in it are people who really lived.

In a prison cell in Inverary, a young girl named Corrag is being held for witchcraft. But that’s not all — she was also a witness to the massacre, and had her part to play in the gruesome event.

Charles Leslie, an Irishman trying to uncover the truth behind the massacre, visits Corrag to interview her. She agrees to tell him what happened on the night of the massacre, but only if he will listen to the rest of her life story first. Leslie reluctantly agrees. What follows is a story so wise, humble, and heartbreaking that it obliterates any preconceptions you may have when you initially pick up this book.

Also, just a note before I continue: Witch Light has also been published under the titles Corrag and The Highland Witch. So if you see them all, don’t get confused. They are the same book.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about witches (maybe because I’m certain that I would have been burnt as one back in the day…) I picked this up and thought ‘ah, witches. Magic, then. Some history, cool.’ Two chapters in and I knew I’d gotten way more than I bargained for. This is more than a story about the massacre, or about witchcraft. It’s the story of a girl, who loves and learns and follows her heart. The prose style is bold and charming — okay, a little heavy going at first until the novel settles in to Corrag’s life story, but once it gets there then it takes off and that’s that.

Glencoe Massacre Monument
The Glencoe Massacre Monument. Image my own.

The novel is narrated alternately by Corrag and Leslie, through letters he writes to his wife back in Ireland. This works well, because it offers two sides and in particular, two impressions of the label ‘witch.’ Obviously ‘witch’ was a dangerous thing to be called in the 1600s. As a religious man, initially Leslie is all for burning Corrag at the stake. But as he discovers more about her, his opinion begins to change. He comes to realise that Corrag is a human, and that ‘witch’ does not take that away from her. From Corrag’s point of view, we hear about the prejudice she and her mother face. Judgment is thick is this novel, with undesirable words like ‘whore’ and ‘hag’ following closely behind ‘witch.’ I think this an important aspect, as it implicates society for branding people unfairly. Because Corrag is seen to fit the criteria for being a witch, therefore she is also a whore and a hag because that’s just how witches are thought to be. But, reading her story, we can clearly see that she is neither.

Corrag’s narrative voice makes it very easy to identify with her. I don’t think I have ever connected with a main protagonist as much as I did with her. Her outlook is simple and optimistic, and she values little things like the wind blowing off the sea and how a wolf sounds when it calls. She also has feelings which are easy to relate to — loneliness, fear of pain, longing, and affection. Once in Glencoe, she gives the mountains her own nicknames which really brings the place alive. Regarding setting, I have to say that it’s pretty spectacular. I mean, come on. A place which looks like this is just BEGGING for a story.

Glencoe Scotland
Glencoe Pass by Andi Campbell-Jones

In fact, once I finished this book I lent it to my mum. Once she had finished it, she came rushing into my room and we shared this look that said ‘damn, now we have to go to Scotland!’ Proof of this book’s power right there — if makes you enthusiastic about a 10 hour car journey then it must be good. And we actually did go!

Dad found a little cottage in Glencoe to rent for a week, and when we got there we mentioned Witch Light to the owner. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically, and then told us that Susan Fletcher had rented the same cottage and lived in it whilst writing the novel. Cue the biggest fangirl freak-out of my life!

This is the cottage – the little bit of the house on the right. It had a log fire, deer came into the garden, and we got to look out of the window and see the mist on the mountains every day! Image my own.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this book. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I fell completely, totally, and irrevocably in love with it. I’m ending my review here because I can’t think of coherent words to explain how amazing it is. Just please, go and find out for yourselves. I think that everyone can get something out of this story. If you like historical fiction, you should read this. If you like witches, you should read this. If you like words and paper in general, you should read this. You get the picture. Witch Light defies all genres and definition. Corrag’s words will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and nestled the book onto your shelf.

To end, here is my favourite quote for a little taster:

‘Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.’

For more information about Susan Fletcher, Witch Light, and her other books, you can follow her on Twitter @sfletcherauthor.

Also, I’m curious! I’ve said this is my favourite book, and it is (along with a couple of others which destroyed me around the same amount) If you had to pick just one or two books to be your favourite, could you do it? Why would you choose them?