Episode 167: DeviationLore
- 1,407 views
- 29 Mar 2021
Death is one of life’s certainties, and the final chapter in each of our stories. And yet throughout history, there have been reports of those who have broken the rules—and the brave few who rose to the challenge to stop them.
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Funerals are easy to imagine. We've all seen enough depictions in television and film to know what they look like. And while those practices and traditions have changed over the millennia and differ from one culture to another, those changes happen slowly, making it easy to define what normal was at any given point. But there are always exceptions in the world of archaeology, they are referred to as deviant burials when the grave of a long dead human is found but doesn't fit the expected conditions.
The skeleton might be arranged in a particular way or missing parts or both. And it's believed burials like this were designed as a sign of disrespect. Some deviant burials in ancient times were performed because the person died by suicide, while other times it was one less punishment for a convicted criminal. If society viewed their life or death with suspicion and disdain, a deviant burial was a likely choice. But sometimes those unusual burials happened for other reasons. One grave site that was excavated in the 1980s in the Czech Republic revealed a Stone Age man who had been pinned in the grave with a large post in a 2000 year old Greek burial on the coast of Sicily.
Two skeletons were found with great weights on top of them. And in medieval England, some were buried with millstones on top of their grave. But the most common deviation from the norm in burials around the world is a simple, yet obvious change in body position. In most cases, the skeletons are found face down rather than on their backs. As one might expect. Archaeologists call them prone burials, and the reason behind them is much less rational. These were burials driven by fear, fear that the person might come back to life.
Like I said, it seems like in a rational motive, swapping out respect and reverence for supernatural fear, but if you spend any amount of time flipping through the pages of history, one thing becomes clear. They had very good reason. To be afraid. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. The Walking Dead have always been popular, not the TV show, mind you, but the larger concept behind it. And not only that, but the notion that the dead can somehow return to the land of the living is a truly global one, too, no matter where you go in the world.
There's a very good chance that the people there have stories about the dead who return. And because of that, there's no way I could possibly discuss them, all right, now, these are stories that span history from ancient Babylon and Egypt to the countries of Europe and the U.K. But a great place to start would be China. Stories of the change have been around for centuries in print, but probably date back much further in oral tradition. And what I love about the folklore surrounding this creature is just how much of our modern concept of the undead it seems to shatter.
And that all starts with how they are created. Legend says that a change she has given life when a cat jumps over a dead body, but it's also possible to find stories of travelers who die too far from home for a proper burial and therefore become coerced to return from the dead. No matter the cause of their creation, though, it's easy to spot them with their glowing red eyes, long claws and pale green skin and hair. The feature that I think I love the most about the Cenci is how their bodies are often described as rather stiff, leaving them unable to move most of their joints.
They apparently get around by hopping with their arms held out straight in front of them in case they trip and fall. I have to imagine this makes them pretty easy to see or hear coming. In nearby India, there are stories of the vitalii, these stories are of evil spirits that have the power to slip inside a dead body and reanimate it like a person changing clothing over and over. Oddly enough, the bodies they inhabit are often described as taking on a greenish tint, and they hunt for victims among the most vulnerable in the community.
The very young, the sleeping and the drunk. In Western Africa, along the Atlantic coast, the people of Ghana tell stories about the ads, a creature that typically has multiple shapes. In most situations, the ads hunts for blood in the form of a firefly or a glowing beetle. Similar to the European story is a fairy lights. But if lured with coconut milk and palm oil and then captured, they will transform into their human shape, revealing them to be the dead returned.
Some of the most creative undead stories, though, come to us from the Emerald Isle. It seems that Ireland has no shortage of legends involving creatures connected to death, although I need to offer a caveat before we talk about them. You see, many of the stories told about them today attempt to attach specific origin stories to them with persons names and dates and places, but no real evidence to back it all up. So while the names and fear of these creatures are clearly old and traditional, their modern origin stories should be read with a few grains of salt on hand.
One common Irish undead creature is the direct duaa. It's often described as a pale woman who is spotted in graveyards at night. Like the siren of Greek mythology, these creatures lure men with their beauty, and when they kiss, they drain their victim of all his blood. It's said that the only way to get rid of them is to find their gravesites and then pile stones on top of it, which sounds a lot like many deviant burials found in the UK.
Another Irish creature has taken on a false reputation as being the inspiration behind Bram Stoker's Dracula, all thanks to its name, the Dracula is supposed to haunt a castle in County Kerry, although there's no actual evidence to back up this belief. There are not a lot of details about this creature, but I've seen it described as a sort of blood drinking fairy. Over in Scotland, there are stories of the on SIFF, like in other tales, this creature is usually described as a woman and again said to have pale green skin and clothing legend says that they are the reanimated corpses of women who died in childbirth and have a strong taste for blood.
And finally, in the cold waters between Ireland and England, the Isle of Man is home to Tales of the Lion share. These very women, like their cousins in Ireland, use their beauty to lure men to their death. But it said that they drain their victims much more slowly than other creatures. And this delay gives their human prisoners time to escape, but only if they can find someone to take their place. And like I said before, I could go on and on, it seems that no matter where you go in the world, stories of the undead are lurking in the shadows, ready to cause fear and panic, which makes sense, I suppose, if there's one thing every human culture throughout history has had to deal with its death.
And it's only natural that stories have risen up to explain all that suffering and loss. But they're just stories, after all, legends whispered in the dead of night to entertain children and thrill an audience, oral folklore that kept the idea alive that the dead could return to haunt the living, but no one actually took them seriously. Right. Well, that's not entirely true, because for one man, at least, there were some stories that couldn't be dismissed, and because of that, they were preserved in the public record stories that come with a claim of truth and accuracy, no matter how frightening they are.
He stood out among his peers, William Parvaz was born in the early days of the 12th century at a time when England was still adapting to the arrival of William the Conqueror a few decades earlier. And unlike most people of his day, William was highly educated. Although he was born in Yorkshire, he spent most of his life in Newborough, where he received a deep and comprehensive classical education, we're talking history, theology, literature, the classics, you name it.
William of Newborough studied it and that equipped him for a big project later on in his life. It was an assignment, really, a local Abbott had asked him to write a history book, and William responded by creating a massive work known as the history of English Affairs. It spans five big volumes, beginning with the Norman invasion in sixty 66 and covers English events up until 11 ninety eight. And William really tried to make sure his readers knew he was there to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He even dismisses commentaries from other history books as pure fantasy stories like The Legend of King Arthur, for example, before detailing actual history as he sought. It's a not so subtle way of saying what you're about to read is entirely true. And that's what makes some of the stories included in his work so amazing, because there are a number of tales that involve a particular topic, the undead. Now, William's original Latin uses the word prodigy, which means wonders.
But scholars are united in the use of revenants as a better term because they are stories of the dead who returned. According to William of Newborough, there were actually too many to include in his book if he were to write down all the instances of this kind, which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, he explained the undertaking would be beyond measure, laborious and troublesome. Thankfully, though, he included some like this one passed on to him by Stephen, the Archbishop of Buckingham.
According to the story, a local Buckingham man had recently passed away. But the night after his funeral, he returned to visit his wife. The undead man apparently climbed into bed with her and I quote, nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body. Or two more nights, the man returned to see his wife, but she eventually drove him away. So after that, he paid a visit to his brothers. Thankfully, they had been warned ahead of time and quickly fought him off.
After that, the dead man resorted to terrorizing the livestock. At this point, the people in town were terrified of leaving their homes, the dead man was said to even roam the streets in broad daylight, desperate. The archbishop asked the bishop for advice, and he was told that such things had often befallen in England. And the best way proven to stop the attacks was to dig up the man's body and burn it. Stephen, though, was apparently afraid of desecrating a corpse, so instead he wrote an official letter of absolution from the church and then laid it on the dead man's body.
And oddly enough, that did the trick. If only things were as easy for another community described in William's book, The Village of Baric, around the same time that the dead man was terrorizing Buckingham, another the body of a man described as a great rogue, was seen wandering through Barek at night, and everywhere he went, he was chased by a large pack of dogs. And that combination of the walking dead and the constant barking was enough to drive the townsfolk crazy.
So the people took matters into their own hands. They found 10 young men renowned for boldness and gave them the task of digging up the man's body, cutting it into pieces and then tossing it all into a fire. After that, the dead man never returned to bother them again. But few stories recorded by William of Newborough are as terrifying as the tale of the hound priest, he was called that because, one, he was a priest and two, he enjoyed hunting with the help of dogs.
Honestly, Hound Priest, was it the most creative of nicknames? But it does the job. We are told by William that this priest was very much not the typical man of the cloth. He enjoyed the finer things in life and rub shoulders with all the nobles in the area around his community of Melrose in what is now southern Scotland. In fact, thanks to a friendship with one noble woman in particular, this priest became quite wealthy during his lifetime.
But the priest eventually passed away and his body was soon laid to rest in a grave at his own church, and not long after that, noblewoman was visited by his dead body, which moaned and mumbled in the darkness of her bedroom. And it happened more than once, putting this woman into a state of panic and despair. So she asked the other local priests for help. And these guys were smart. They knew that this woman's donations kept the church well funded, which would continue as long as she was happy.
So they assembled a team of men to watch over the dead priest's grave to local strongmen and to priests. And that night, the men gathered in the churchyard, sitting in a tight circle near the priest's grave. From sunset to midnight, nothing happened and it wasn't a warm night either, so they decided to leave one man guarding the grave while the other three went inside to get warm. And that's the moment when the corpse of the priest decided to break free from the grave.
Startling the lone watchmen. Grabbing his hand axe, the man struck out at the dead body, walking toward him, cutting a vicious wound in its chest after a short struggle. The dead priest was said to have fallen back into the grave, which closed up around him, bringing an end to the commotion, but not before the other three watchmen arrived to see what was going on. After hearing the man's story, the rest of the group decided that something more needed to be done, so they set about digging the grave open, partly to make sure that the priest was still in there, but also to stop the undead for good.
But after removing all the soil and opening the coffin, what they found left and reeling. The priest body was right where it should be, but all of them could tell that something was very wrong with that blood covered the front of the dead man's clothing and had spilled around the body, blood that flowed from one large injury, a massive gash in the dead man's chest. The older the story, the easier it is to dismiss think of the level of trust you feel about the accuracy of Greek mythology compared to accounts of the civil war, the wider that Gulf of time becomes, the harder it is to trust that all the details are factual and true.
So while the story is written down by William of Newborough are frightening, there is a certain level of safety thanks to how old they are. But even in modern times, there have been stories that make us stop and wonder, like the one that took place in 1875, preserved thanks to the work of a man named Augustus Hair. He was a writer in the latter part of the 19th century, focusing mostly on travel guides, family histories and biographies of prominent figures, but one story he shared cannot be ignored.
And it took place in the northwest of England, in the county of Cumberland. And while his friends say that he shared the story often among them, it was finally published by him years later. The story tells of a family of siblings who rented a cottage in Cumberland in the early months of 1875. They were a trio, two brothers and a sister, all in their early adulthood. But despite the additions and edits that have taken place over the century and a half since the story was first published, we don't actually know their names.
What we do know is that the cottage was small, just one story tall, with a pair of bedrooms. And after settling in, the siblings spent the winter getting to know the people of the village. They were outsiders, but everyone seemed to welcome them in and said that these newcomers were kind and well-mannered. So life was good. Winter soon gave way to spring and then the heat of summer arrived one day, according to the story, the brothers spent most of their day reading books in the shade of trees in the yard while their sister set up camp on the small veranda overlooking the property.
You know, those sorts of sweltering summer days and how easy it is to get nothing done. This was one of those days. As night fell, the sister retreated to her bedroom in an effort to keep the heat out of the house. She closed the glass windows but left the shutters wide open so that she could see the night sky. But as she rested on the bed, staring off toward the dark tree line that separated the cottage from the nearby churchyard, two lights appeared near the ground and then started to slowly make their way toward her.
As she watched, the lights seemed to move up and down the low hills of the property disappearing behind trees, only to reappear a moment later. But what was certain was that it was drawing nearer. And then when she was sure that it was headed straight toward her window, it seemed to vanish to one side of the house, a traveler, nothing more, she told herself. But in the silence of her room, she began to hear an eerie sound.
It was the sound of scratching, slow and deliberate from somewhere nearby. Then she saw it, the withered brown hand pressed against the glass of her closed window. And as she watched, a face came into view beside the hand the ancient wrinkled face of a corpse, a corpse with glowing eyes. For a short while, the sister took comfort in the fact that the window was locked, but soon a new sound began to come from the creature. It was more rough and it shook the glass.
To her horror, she realized that whatever the creature was outside, it was scratching away at the lead between the glass panes. It was making a way inside. And soon enough, the glass Paynesville free and that same brown, bony hand reached inside and turn the lock, and before she knew it, the window was open and the thing, whatever it was, was climbing in and walking toward the bed where she lay toward her.
Crossing the room in a matter of seconds, the creature grabbed the sister by the head, tangling its bony, twisted fingers in her hair and then dragged her to the edge of the bed. Then with her neck exposed, it leaned down and bit into the flesh of her throat. And at that onset of pain, she finally screamed out for help. Within moments, her brothers had both rushed to her locked bedroom door and broken in to respond to her cry as they did, they saw the dark shape of the creature slipping out the window with their sister thrashing on the bed, blood pouring from her neck.
One of the brothers agreed to stay and help while the other leapt out the window and gave Chase to the invader. But after following it across the property, it vanished into the trees at the edge of the churchyard. In the days that followed, a doctor was called. Yes, their sister would recover and no, she did not see a monster clearly. The doctor told them a lunatic had escaped from some nearby asylum and just happened to stumble upon her bedroom window.
Random, yes, but explainable. But understanding that she was traumatized by what happened, he recommended that she get a change of scenery. So despite having a seven year lease on the cottage there in Glen Grange, the siblings packed up and headed to Europe, spending the remainder of 1875 in Switzerland. They say the time can heal all wounds, and maybe that was true for the young woman, but in a century and a half since the events took place, many have wondered how they could possibly be true and with a worldview that says that the dead always stay dead.
I can see how that's a natural response to the story, but it also ignores another, more difficult possibility. What if. Warren. We expect the dead to stay in the grave cultures around the world have developed intricate rituals and traditions around the act of burial, and they are a source of peace and comfort for many. But there have always been stories of those who break the rules. Some cultural anthropologist see a layer of social commentary beneath the tales of the undead.
These stories, they say, were meant to warn against anti-social behaviour.
Naturally, the people who were feared in life must also be feared and death. If they couldn't follow the rules of morality and piety, they certainly weren't about to let the grave hold them back. And of course, this is where a lot of those deviant burial practices come in, the prone burials I mentioned earlier where bodies were buried face down had an almost comical rationale behind them. It was believed that reanimated corpses dug their way forward and if they were on their backs, they would eventually exit the grave.
So a prone burial was the safer bet. If they did come back to life, they would just dig themselves deeper. But not all stories have that humorous element, and I think the tale of the siblings of Croggon Grange is one of them. Although let me address one thing first. There's been debate for decades about whether this story is even true. In the late 1400's, there wasn't a village by that name and the churchyard mentioned was in ruins.
But others have pointed out that the story may actually be two centuries older because prior to seventeen hundred, the church was still standing and one of the local farmhouses was a one storey cottage known as Crawlin Loha. And if we approach these sorts of tales as remnants of something true, the legend of Glen Grange has all the tell tale signs. Thankfully, the story of the siblings didn't end with their retreat to Europe, the young woman began to feel much better and had come to terms with the attack.
She was nervous for sure. But she also knew that they had enjoyed their time at Cracklin Grainge. The house and property were a wonderful retreat and the community was warm and welcoming. It didn't help that her brothers reminded her that it was highly unlikely that another escaped lunatic, as they called him, would find her bedroom window again. So they packed up once more and returned to the cottage in the spring of 1876. That didn't mean that they didn't take precautions, though the brothers both kept loaded pistols with them at all times and they swapped rooms with their sister, hoping that's on the astronomically rare chance that it happened again.
They would be the ones to experience the invasion, not her. Sometime in March, as the winter snow was disappearing and new life was emerging from the ground, they retired to sleep for the night. But despite moving to a new room, the sister was awoken by that unforgettable sound of dry fingers scratching on the window. She risked the glance outside and to her horror, she saw the same ancient undead face staring back at her. And this time she did not give the creature time to find a way inside.
She cried out for help, and almost immediately her brothers arrived guns at the ready. Both of the young men ran from the house, chasing the creature out across the property and back toward the trees that had come from one of them even managed to fire a shot, hitting it directly in the leg. Just as before, the undead creature vanished into the trees, but this time the brothers followed when they emerged on the other side, they found themselves in an old graveyard with the church looming tall nearby.
They had just enough time to see the creature slip inside an old vault and watch the door close. And we're left wondering what to do next. What they did was wait until the next day, that's when they returned with a crowd of others from the village to help and witness their next steps with everyone watching the brothers open the vault and then step back to catch their breath inside. All of the coffins had been overturned. An ancient body parts lay scattered on the stone floor.
All but one in the center of the room rested a single, untouched coffin. And while it looked undisturbed, the brothers noticed that the lid was not closed tightly. So both young men approached it cautiously, of course, and slowly lifted the lid to peer inside. It was the undead creature they had chased the night before its ancient brown shriveled body lay motionless in the coffin, but both men were almost certain that this was the thing that had attacked their sister and had returned just hours before.
But the final clue that settled the matter, the clue that justified pulling the body out of the coffin and burning there in the churchyard in front of all the villagers was a small wound on one of the bodies legs. It was a whole. A bullet hole. Stories of the undead returning to the land of the living are nearly as old as humanity itself, and hopefully our tour today, through some of the more memorable tales in history, have given you a better grasp of their true power.
But I'm not done just yet. I have one more historical account that I think you're going to love. And if you stick around after this brief sponsor break, I'll tell you all about it.
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It turns out William of Newborough was on to something, the 12th century was filled with stories about The Walking Dead. If there had been some sort of medieval equivalent to trending topics, you can guarantee that Revenants were on the list. People, if you'll forgive the pun, were dying to read more about them. And another William of the time, William of Malmsbury, wrote about a local bishop who had passed away around the year 2010 and in the days after his burial, it said that the wardens of the churchyard were haunted by shadowy shapes that refused to leave them alone.
So they exhumed the bishop's body, carted it outside of town and deposited in the marsh after the body sank into the wet mud and disappeared. The hauntings went away. That same William recorded another local legend, one about a woman known as the Witch of Berkeley. He doesn't give us a date for this story. So it probably falls deeper into the realm of folklore than history. But it's fascinating nonetheless. And it involves a woman who is known far and wide as a witch, someone who had sold her soul to the devil for great power.
As her death approached, though, she plotted a way to avoid paying her end of the bargain. It said that she told her children that when she finally passed away, they should guard her body carefully because the devil was coming back for it. Following her orders, they were said to have wrapped her corpse in deerskin, sewed it shut, and then placed her in a locked coffin wrapped in chains by the devil, sent demons to remove the chains in the dead of night.
And once all of them had fallen away, the biggest demon of all came to pull the witch's body from the grave, dooming her to ride through the countryside as the undead. Another writer from that period was Geoffrey Burton in his book The Life and Miracles of Saint Madrina from around 1044, he recorded that a group of townsfolk in Burton decided to toss off the leadership of the local abbots and march to the next town over to swear loyalty to a great lord there.
But when the abbot caught wind of it, he prayed to Saint Maduna for help. Almost immediately, the rebellious townsfolk were struck dead and were soon buried. Later that night, though, their undead corpses rose from the graveyard and began their march to the next town all over again. And as they passed through the village, a wave of sickness followed them like a cloud to stop them. The rest of the village was said to have cut off their heads and then given them a second burial, this time of the deviant sorts.
Their heads were placed between their legs and their hearts were removed and burned. After that, the Revenants were seen no more. One final story, this one from a 12th century writer named Walter Mapp, he was a Welshman who wrote mostly historical accounts of King's clergy and the politics of England at the time. But he also wrote about the undead. According to MAP, the story took place in Herford, a city close to the border between Wales and England.
Sometime in the 11 50s, an English knight named William Lodin rode into town and headed straight for the cathedral, asking to see the bishop there. He had a problem and he needed some advice. It seems that a local man had recently died and as far as local guys went to this one wasn't the nicest. He was described as having lived an evil life, although I know that's pretty subjective, given the nine centuries that separate his story from us today.
But it was enough to frighten people and to justify what happened next. The knight told the bishop that this dead man had risen from the grave and for four nights in a row had walked through the village harassing people, Walter Maps story actually makes it sound like the dead man was going door to door and every house he visited soon found themselves dealing with an outbreak of deadly disease. After less than a week of this, a large portion of the village had passed away and those that survived were becoming desperate, so they had called upon Sir William to save them.
And his first step was to ask the bishop for advice. That advice, according to the story, was for Sir William to return to the village, have the dead men exhumed, and then sprinkle his body and the surrounding grave with holy water, which he immediately did. But sadly, it didn't help. The dead man still rose from the grave at night and still tormented the people of the village, only this time, thanks to the holy water incident.
He seemed to have taken notice of Sir William the following night, as William was patrolling the streets to protect the community, the undead man appeared again, and this time it called out to him not knowing what else to do. William gave Chase, drawing his sword to handle the situation in the only way he knew frightened. The dead man was said to have started running back to his grave and whatever protection it might have offered. But the night was faster.
In typical horror movie fashion, just when The Revenant was almost safe, it tripped. And that's when Sir William sprang on it, swinging his sword in a wide arc. He cut the dead man's head clean off and the body fell limp as a rag doll right there on the street. True or not, it's certainly a frightening tale and one that feels both ancient and modern all at the same time thanks to our current obsession with the undead. And that's probably what I love the most about stories like these, because they prove how entertaining our past can be.
Why look for horror on the big screen when we have frightening tales like this waiting for us in the pages of history? It seems that the past, just like the dead, will always rise to the occasion. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Megan de Roshe and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. 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 our shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow this show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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