Episode 161: Shell GameLore
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- 4 Jan 2021
Folklore is often born in moments were answers and hope seem lost, and few situations like that have generated more stories than the crucible of human conflict.
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Some tombs hide more than just bodies or treasure every now and then, there are more important discoveries waiting inside, although it can often take months or years before those secrets are revealed and in one case, over a century.
Everything about the grave in Birka, Sweden, spoke of war and conflict when they opened it up in 1878, they found the remains of a 10th century Viking and along with it, a treasure trove of weapons, a sword, a small axe, lances and shields and a fighting knife.
There was even a cluster of armor piercing arrows that were probably just as valuable in life as they were to the researchers who dug them up nine centuries later. Conjure the best image you can of a Viking warrior standing on the battlefield with an arsenal of deadly weapons at their disposal, striking fear into the hearts of their enemy.
And you might be getting closer to the truth, except for one thing that is a secret that those old remains only gave up to modern researchers in 2017.
A mighty warrior in the old Viking grave was a woman. The researchers who published the findings were quick to point out why the mistake had been made decades ago, many archaeologists made assumptions about gender based on the contents of the grave and that mountain of weapons and other gear associated with battle and war seemed to have lulled the 1878 team into assuming the rest of the story.
And they got it wrong. Life, just like Viking graves, is often full of surprises, but one thing is certain warriors have always lived lives of pain and suffering and death. Every battle had the potential to be their last.
And when faced with all that risk and fear, those warriors found ways to cope often through the stories they shared. And yes, those stories from the battlefield can be frightening and sometimes even drove people mad. But if we want to dig into them, we need to be aware of an undeniable truth. Sometimes the darkest places to look for folklore are also the most dangerous. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. War, what's it good for, however modern those lyrics might be, they're nothing more than one more echo of a question that dates back thousands of years.
Humans have been around for a very long time, and because of that, so has war. Like any other dependable, constant part of life, war has attracted its fair share of superstitious beliefs.
And it's easy to understand why, if you view everything from the perspective of a solitary soldier in the middle of battle, war presents a real threat to their survival, flipping the switch on a near constant flow of anxiety and fear and that sort of environments can take a toll on a person's mind. There's also the unpredictability of war. Sure, both sides go in thinking that they'll be the ones to walk away. But reality rarely plays a long war fills the confidence with doubts and the courageous with fear, injuries, agony and the likelihood of death all have a way of changing someone.
Enter folklore, because if there's one thing humans are better at than war, it's finding ways to cope with the uncontrollable and for thousands upon thousands of years, that's exactly what we've done. All we have to do is look at one of the oldest cultures on the planet, ancient Egypt, to see that in action.
The same Egyptians who built the pyramids and buried their dead in elaborate tombs also saw a deep connection between war and the spiritual realm, their god of war. Montu was constantly in a struggle with Mott's, the goddess of harmony, peace, law and order.
Mantu was typically depicted as a man with the head of a hawk and over the centuries involved into one of the main deities worshiped by the pharaohs. Of course, if I say the phrase God of war, most people conjure up images of the Greek God Herries today, that's probably thanks to a series of video games by the same name. But for a thousand years or more, Greek culture was a pillar of classical education. A hundred years ago, few people would have known who Montu was.
But if you ask them who the Greek God of war was, Herries would have been on their tongue in a heartbeat. But the Greeks did something different with their views on war. They believe their own human conflicts had supernatural counterparts in the world of the gods as they were fighting on the fields and hills of their earthly world. The various gods were duking it out high above them, and the outcome of that battle could determine their own. As a side note, it's worth mentioning that Eris wasn't necessarily worshipped by everyone in the Greek world.
His followers were actually few and far between. But there were pockets of temple cults that did focus on him. One culture that held him in high regard, though, was Sparta, who tried to earn his favor before battle by making sacrifices to him. According to Greek historian Passiveness, the preferred animal for that sacrifice was a puppy.
As the world became bigger, so too did the ideas people had about the connection between human warfare and the supernatural realm. We get a clear view of this idea in the mythology of the Nordic people, where gods like Odin, Thor and Loki ruled everyday life. But when it came to battle, no figure was more significant to the common everyday soldier than one the Valkyrie. Put simply, the Valkyrie were the choosers of the slain. They served Odin by soaring above the earth upon their flying horses, looking for those who had fallen in battle if they died nobly.
Those soldiers were taken to Valhalla to feast and fight at Odin side for all eternity. And so connected are the Valkyrie to the Nordic concept of war that many of their names from mythology became interchangeable over time with the word for battle.
And they didn't just observe things. Know the Valkyrie were believed to also get involved. If Odin wanted a battle to swing in a certain direction, it was the Valkyrie who made it happen, interfering in the physical world below them.
And because of that, warriors would appeal to Odin and the Valkyrie, begging them through devotion and ritual to favor them over their enemy. I'm telling you all of this for a couple of reasons. First, I hope that you can see the threads, how elements of many of these ancient beliefs are still present in our modern world. Today, for example, we hear echoes of Mantha, the hawk shaped God. Whenever we refer to a great general as a hawk of war, old things rarely fade away completely.
But the other reason is to show you just how much those beliefs evolved over time from the earliest stories of distant gods who failed to notice us, humans slowly began to tell stories of gods who brushed a little closer to our lives until occasionally they broke through the veil to help us out.
And for a soldier standing on the field of battle, surrounded by death and pain with no certainty that they wouldn't be the next to fall. The notion that some supernatural force was there to help. Well, you can see how attractive that idea can be. But like I said a moment ago, old things rarely fade away, even if they look a little less civilized to our modern sensibilities, even the warfare of the last two centuries with all this mechanization and advancements hasn't chased those ancient beliefs away.
In fact, if the stories are true, they've only gotten darker. The conflict had been a long time coming. Tensions had been building between the supporters of King Charles, the first known as royalists, and his enemy, the parliamentarians, for a very long time. But on October 23 of 16, 42, all that angst was unleashed at the battle of Edgehill. The first chapter of the English Civil War was also too close to call. Both sides incurred such massive losses that most modern historians are in agreement that no one was victorious over the other.
It was a draw, but that bloody battle left its mark in more ways than one. Two months later, in December of sixteen forty two, some shepherds were working in the field where the fighting had taken place when an unusual noise took them by surprise. They described it as the sound of horses screaming in pain, followed by the distinct clatter of metal weapons on metal armor. And when the shepherds looked at the field around them, they were paralyzed by fear.
A ghostly battle was playing out right before their eyes. More reports of similar experiences there began to be whispered across the countryside and eventually made their way to King Charles himself curious. He sent officials to investigate the stories and their findings were revolutionary. Not only were the investigators able to witness the ghostly battle for themselves, but some of the king's men who had participated in the battle of Edgehill claimed they recognized fallen friends among the phantom faces. Clearly, war puts us closer to the world beyond our own, more than just about any other activity.
And while ghostly reminders of bloody battles are a common tale in the world of folklore, it goes beyond simple reenactments. To some, it's a sign that the supernatural world is right there waiting to help and protect them. One of the most common forms of battlefield folklore is premonitions and visions. A great example comes to us from an article in an 1886 edition of The Detroit Free Press written by a former Confederate soldier. It tells the story of how one morning, while making coffee around the fire with a few of his fellow soldiers, one of the men claimed to have had a dream the night before.
In it, he saw something that convinced him that he was destined to die in battle that day. I look down upon a sheet of water, the frightened man had said, whose surface was covered in bubbles, and amidst them I saw my own dead face. I shall be shot before night, he claimed. Of course, his friends told him it was nothing to worry about. But later that day, during a skirmish with union troops, an enemy cannonball rocketed across the battlefield, cutting that very same man in half as it struck him.
In the same article, the author also discusses another type of folklore found within the theater of war charm's. According to him, a common object found on a chain around the neck or in the pockets of his fellow Confederate soldiers was a rabbit's foot. Some of the men even made a small business out of it, making and selling them to the most desperate and frightened among them. Decades later, in the midst of the First World War, another charm would become equally popular.
They were a type of stylized doll known as a thumbs up. The name comes from the pose. They were fashioned in a wooden head on a metal body with arms raised to show two thumbs up. Over time, thumbs up became thumbs up. Some soldiers knocked on the wooden head of the doll for good luck, while others carried them in their pockets or packs at all times. Early pilots even painted images of them on the sides of their airplanes.
Charms like these represented the human desire to control things, just put a rabbit's foot in your pocket and you'd be OK, right? It's an understandable practice, especially in an environment where so much was out of their control. But battlefield superstitions went beyond good luck charms. And some of the most common tales involve something much less physical, ghostly assistance. One such story comes to us from a battle that took place in Serbia in 1912 during the first Balkan war, in it, the Serbian army was stationed at the foot of a mountain while their enemy, the Turkish troops, had taken up a position above them inside an ancient castle.
It was a fortress closely associated with a Serbian national hero, a 14th century warrior king named Marko. Initially, orders from the Serbian command were that their troops were to hold their position at the base of the mountain and wait for artillery fire to weaken the Kastles wall. But before that could happen, the soldiers there had a mass vision. They each claimed that Markoe had appeared before them, sword raised, commanding them to advance and take back his castle.
And amazingly, it worked, despite having the protection of those high walls, the Turks were defeated by the Serbian forces. Of course, they were still lectured afterward by their commanding officers. When asked why they disobeyed a direct order. The soldiers relayed the story of the ghostly vision of King Marco. I can't find a record of their commander's response, but honestly, I'm not sure that's important. After all, they won. But not all visions were of fallen soldiers or long dead folk heroes, sometimes the ghostly help came in a much more religious package.
A great example of this can be found in a letter written by a British soldier to his mother back home in Sussex in May of 1916, in the midst of the First World War, he wrote home, describing something miraculous that happened during a recent battle. A cross had appeared in the sky above the fighting. Not just a flash, either. This cross was said to have stayed visible for a full 15 minutes. It was a scene later immortalized in a painting called The Cross in the Heavens Above the Trenches, which was published by the illustrated London News.
And it wouldn't be the last. During the war, countless paintings, etchings and illustrations appeared all throughout Europe depicting Christian imagery, some, like the story I just told, showed the cross shining above one army or another. Other images showed Christ himself standing among the soldiers, and a few even included the Madonna, not the pop star, mind you, but Mary, the mother of Jesus. But the most common reports of all were of something witnessed in nearly every country across Europe, no matter what side of the battle a soldier found themselves on.
It seems that visions of this otherworldly protector were never that far away, and it was hard to miss them to, thanks to their glowing presence and the wide span of their wings. No, not the Valkyrie. Angell's. It had been a full century since the boots of their soldiers had tread on European soil in the early days of the First World War, Britain had stayed outside the fray, watching from the sidelines and planning for an unpredictable future.
But of course, that's the way of war, isn't it? Coping with things we cannot control with human lives hanging in the balance. In August of 1914, all of that changed 100000 troops from the British Expeditionary Force landed in France to help hold back the oncoming wave of German invasion. If you read about them, you'll hear them described as professional soldiers. And some people assume that means battle hardened and experienced, but it just means that they weren't enlisted.
Men called up weeks before most of them had never seen combat in their lives. However green they might have been, they were still a welcome sight, they were cheered by fishermen when they landed and praised as they passed through the countryside on their way to the front. Their help was badly needed and so were their guns. Their destination was an old mining town called Months, which sat alongside a canal, from what I can tell, months was chosen because the canal had to make a few sharp bends around the town, creating a little peninsula that gave the French and British a strong tactical view of the oncoming Germans.
But the British failed to use that position to their advantage. They made a few mistakes in setting up first, even though a number of bridges connected months to the German side of the canal. No one destroyed them. And second, that wide view of the other side turned out to have a number of blind spots where hills of mining debris blocked their view. And lastly, yes, that peninsula of land offered them a great position. But if the Germans managed to sneak around behind them, they'd be trapped.
Details of the battle itself depend solely on the soldiers who survived when the Germans finally showed up and said that they marched toward the canal in a parade formation like one massive sea of bodies, the British had set up heavy machine guns and made quick work of that initial wave, mowing them down like a field at harvest time. After that, though, things became much less controllable. Up and down the canal that stretched out from their flanks. The French troops collapsed quickly and began to retreat deeper into the countryside.
Behind months, the British held on as best they could, though, but that's when their failure to destroy the bridges came back to haunt them. As the Germans advanced, they took bridge after bridge surging into months. The battle was over and the British made a hasty retreat following after their French allies. That's the battle of months as we know it, but there's more because as those soldiers began to return to the safety of French territory, stories began to leak out, not just one or two, mind you, but a whole chorus of whispers all describing the same thing.
It seems that the reason the British were able to hold on for so long was that they had been protected by an angel. Most of the stories contained the same details to all throughout the afternoon and evening of the battle, a figure could be seen amongst the British troops. It was described as glowing brightly with a golden light and seated upon a white horse. One later description by a soldier who was there says it best. We all saw it first, there was a sort of yellow mist sort of rising before the Germans as they come to the top of the hill.
The next minute comes this funny cloud of light. And when it clears off, there's a tall man with yellow hair and golden armor on a white horse holding his sword up and his mouth open as if he were saying, Come on, boys, I'll put the kibosh on the devil's. How that figure was interpreted varied from soldier to soldier, some assumed it was an angel, while others were convinced it was St George, the French soldiers who witnessed it believe the ghostly figure was none other than Joan of Arc.
But what was agreed upon was that something was seen and its presence gave them hope. And this is what we talked about a little while ago, in war with so much fear and anxiety weighing down upon them, it has always been easy for soldiers to grasp for anything that might give them hope, a rabbit's foot, a stylized doll or an odd shape in the clouds. I've even read stories of soldiers hiding little scraps of paper in their uniforms, papers that contain significant quotes, holy scripture or notes from loved ones.
But most of the time, folklore turns out to be a lot like the Wizard of Oz. You can see him standing there, but he's really just an illusion controlled by someone else behind the curtain. And when it comes to the story of the angel of months, that analogy holds true because it seems something else was going on behind the scenes.
It turns out that almost all of the reports of the ghostly golden figure seem to arrive in the summer of 1915, nearly a year after the battle itself.
Now, granted, the war was still going on and a lot of those soldiers were too busy fighting elsewhere to tell their stories right away. But it creates an interesting timeline. Interesting because of what had happened back in England months earlier. In September of 1914, the London Evening Times published a short story by a man named Arthur Mochan, he was a well-known author whose book, The Great God Pan, has been cited as deeply influential to writers like Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as modern storytellers like Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King.
But this new short story called the Bowmen, had an altogether different sort of influence. In it's a group of English soldiers are taking intense artillery fire from German troops and just at the moment when they believe all hope is lost, an electric shock seemed to flow through the English troops at that moment. They looked up to see a line of ghostly figures on their side, each with a shimmering bow in hand. At once, the bowmen released their arrows into the Germans, helping the English win the day.
That story was published just when news reports of the battle of months were sweeping into England. And because so much of Markand story sounded similar to the real life events, the two seem to have become confused in the minds of the general public. And, well, I think we can see the results. A century later, historians and experts in folklore are still unsure what happened to create the legend of the Angel of Months, but it's clear that Mochan story and the news reports eventually blended.
It was a tale that the English wanted to believe was true. And much like a fake social media post that rides to viral status on the wave of gullibility, most people swallowed it as fact. True or not, the results of the story's impact are clearly documented. It went on to become a major piece of British propaganda during the First World War and a sign to the English at least, that their cause was the just one that unified people, whether they were on the battlefield or not.
And it gave them hope. Exactly what folklore is supposed to do. I'm not going to lie to you, folklore can sometimes feel a bit like a shell game, you know, the truth is in there, but there are so many moving pieces that it's easy to pick the wrong one and get tricked into a mistake. When it comes to the folklore of the battlefield, there are centuries of beliefs and rituals to sift through and each one of them felt like a safety net to someone along the way, whether it was American soldiers in World War One clipping pages from the POW wowing grimoire, the long lost friend into their clothing, or Spartan soldiers making sacrifices to areas before battle.
Every soldier seems to have leaned on superstition at some point in their life. What we see in the story of the Angel of months is the power of hope and belief, and not just in the notion that a company of doomed soldiers were somehow given protection by a supernatural force. You see, the rumors of what happened in months seemed so connected to Arthur Mochan story that the public began to refuse to believe that the latter wasn't inspired by the former. People from all across the UK wrote to Mark and asking him to reveal his sources for his historical account, ministers read his work from the pulpit.
People everywhere clung to it as a sign that some otherworldly power was on their side. Belief had become more powerful than truth. And no matter how many times Mochan told his growing fan base that the parallels between the two stories was nothing more than coincidence, they refused to hear him. For one man, though, that coincidence seemed just a bit too strong. In 1915, at the height of the rumour mill, journalist Harold Begbie set about researching the events that months and the stories that followed them, hoping to nail down a definitive timeline.
Did the events in months somehow without his knowing influence markets work? Or did his short story give life to a belief that the public was primed and ready to believe? It seems that there was one report that stood out from the rest, a lance corporal with the British Expeditionary Force had reported seeing something unusual during the battle. And while there were some differences in his telling, key details were still there during the fighting, when all hope seemed to be lost, this soldier looked up toward the German line, moving toward them and saw a light.
As he watched this light began to take on shape three shapes, actually, although two never fully materialized. The third, however, did. And this soldier described what he witnessed with eerie language.
The figure he claimed shown brightly it had wide outstretched wings and most significantly of all was adorned in golden armor significance because of when the report was made just five days after the battle and a full month before Arthur Mochan published his legendary tale, August 28th, 1914. As I mentioned earlier, battlefield superstitions are ancient and vast, and they have a way of evolving over time and adapting to the specific situation the soldiers are in. And with that in mind, I have one last story to tell you that is absolutely fascinating and more than a little disturbing.
Stick around after this brief sponsor break to hear all about it.
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There is no greater nursery for newly born folklore than the battlefield, it might be fair to say that the superstitions of soldiers is one of the oldest and most universal branches of folklore. In the book, desperate times and overwhelming anxiety have helped form some truly amazing stories. But they don't stop with rumours of angels. To find other stories, we need to dig a little deeper, literally, because on many battlefields prior to the 1920s, it was common to find long trenches cut out of the earth.
You see, each side needed a place of safety on the battlefield where they could hide from the bullets and bombs that put their lives at risk. They needed a place to sit and plan to rest and to move from one key location to another. Thus, trenches were dug that allowed soldiers to squat or stand below the ground level. But, of course, those trenches took on their own hellish qualities. They were holes in the ground, so they collected water, which quickly went stagnant.
Soldiers who kept their feet in the water too long suffered from emersion foot syndrome, better known to nonmedical people like us as trench foot. Then there was the filth and human waste and dead bodies that collected there over time, wounded soldiers would slowly die right beside their friends and they were so confining that one didn't need to be claustrophobic, to feel oppressed and trapped. Trenches were in a lot of ways hell on earth, but there was someplace worse because, well, there's always someplace worse, isn't there?
Back in the 13 hundreds, the English had a word for a piece of ground outside the north wall of London where executions used to take place. It was called No Man's Land. But as the centuries rolled by, its usage became more and more focused on military ideas and the term became what it is today, no man's land. It's a phrase that most people have heard before, most likely in the context of the First World War. If you've seen films like 1917 or all quiet on the Western Front, then you have a head start here.
No man's land, in that specific context, refers to the stretch of land between the trenches of one army and the trenches of their opponent. A short distance away, no man's land was where the bullets flew. It's where soldiers ran in formation across the mud and shrapnel to advance on their enemy. And it's where a lot of good people died. So it makes sense that over time, no man's land took on a persona of its own and just months into the First World War story started to fill that dead zone between armies.
That's what people do, right? We fill gaps in our understanding with answers that help us cope whether or not those answers are factual. And No Man's Land received the same treatment. This idea was best described by a British cavalry officer named Ardern Beamon in a book he published after the war was over. He described an experience he had near the marshes of the Somme in France that left him and his fellow soldiers shaken to the core. Beeman writes about the mission they had been tasked with of rounding up German prisoners of war who had escaped British custody.
One day as they were moving slowly through the marshland around the river. One of them scanned the way forward through his binoculars, and that's when they noticed a cluster of trees and a handful of German uniforms hiding among them. Slowly, Beemans teams spread out and surrounded the trees and then made their way closer step by step when they finally reached the location. Though the trees were empty, if there had been a group of German soldiers standing inside them, those men were gone.
Now they had vanished like ghosts into the shadows. Beemans story continues, he and his company went on their way, eventually reaching one of the many devastated towns that dotted the French countryside, and there they joined up with more soldiers from the salvage company. Conversations began and Beamon told the salvage officers what his mission was to explore the wastelands and gather up escape German prisoners. Upon hearing this, though, the salvage company men laughed at him. And then they gave Beamon and the others a warning which says everything we need to know about the fears these men faced each day, thankfully, Beamon wrote it down for us.
They warned us, he wrote later, if we insisted on going further in not to let any men go singly, but only in strong parties as the Golgotha, which is what they called those wastelands, was peopled with wild men who lived there underground like ghouls among the mouldering dead who came out at night to plunder and kill in the night, an officer said, mingled with the snarling of carrion dogs, they often heard inhuman cries and rifle shots coming from that awful wilderness, as though the bestial denizens were fighting among themselves.
Maybe it was just folklore or maybe it was a shadow cast by a truth that was harder to see. Could the wastes of no man's land be haunted by wild men who came out at night to rob from the dead and kill the wounded? Maybe. But it's a lot more likely that these mysterious people were nothing more than deserters, soldiers from every army on the battlefield just looking for a way to escape their hellish existence.
And if that's true, we know why they were so good at hiding. It seems that this region of France is absolutely littered with tunnels and caverns, thanks to the many feet of strong, chalky earth that sits below the top soil. In fact, we know of Germans using larger underground spaces there as camps and that those spaces sometimes extended well into no man's land. So it's easy to hear the Welman stories as cautionary tales meant to keep those men from running away, a caution, it turns out, wasn't as compelling as the need to escape.
In the end, the wild man stories might very well be nothing more than modern folklore invented to feed the fears of desperate soldiers. But along the way, they also managed to hint at the greatest horror story of all. War. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Sam Alberti and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast, though. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video.
Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make an executive produce a whole bunch of other podcasts, all of which I think you'd enjoy. My production company, Grim and Mild, specializes in shows that sit at the intersection of the dark and the historical. You can learn more about all of those shows and everything else going on over in one place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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