Folklore Thursday: The Island of No Return

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.

We’re continuing with the unknowable and the macabre this week with an examination the urban legends of the haunted island of Poveglia, and the face of a figure whose very presence inspires fear and revulsion to this day: the mysterious, ominous plague doctor.

But first, an introduction to urban legends.

Urban Legends

According to the textbook definition, urban legends are, “humorous or horrific stories or pieces of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”

Urban legends spread a lot like folk traditions. Almost no one you talk to can pinpoint an exact source. They may tell you they heard it from a friend, but it’s not very specific, or that it happened to someone they know. However, some are sparked by a rash of crimes (like the clowns in the woods in the Carolinas last year). There may be more than one version of the story, but here is one that is a local favorite in my home town, San Antonio.

A school bus stalled on a set of train tracks south of Mission San Juan in San Antonio, and was struck by a train. Every so often, rumors would surface in my home town that so-and-so parked their car on the tracks (as the area is a popular artist haunt, and San Antonio is a tourist town, heralded as the most haunted city in Texas). They would leave their car in neutral on the tracks in the dead of night and wait. People would report that they could hear voices of the children, or that their car would mysteriously roll forward, off the tracks, and the next day, you could see small hand prints on the dust on their car. As the story goes, the children’s ghosts would try to push the car off the train tracks.

A front page section of a newspaper from The San Antonio Express News in 1938. The headline mentions that the death toll of the school bus accident continues to rise.
It seems in 1938 there really was an accident involving a bus and a train.

It doesn’t help that it appears to have actually happened. However, whether or not the ghosts of the children killed in the crash actually push your car off the tracks is unknowable.

Lydia the Phantom Hitchhiker from North Carolina is another popular one. On a family trip to St. James Island for Cousins Week, my ex’s mother’s cousin told us she had actually seen the ghost of Lydia on her way home one night. The story goes that Lydia died in a car accident on Highway 70 South in North Carolina. In a book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand documents over eleven different variations on the story circulating in North Carolina. However, the story seems to be as old as time itself. According to the book, hitchhiker disappearances were a real problem in the US, and almost every state in the Union has a story about a ghost girl who died in a car crash and who is trying to get back home.

Most urban legends today are being fueled by the speed with which we can now access and spread information. In the 1970s, the girl’s name was not Lydia. One usually heard “Mary” or another common name. It is only in recent years that not only has the ghost girl been given a name, but people have actually nailed down a destination called “Lydia’s Bridge” on Highway 70 south between Raleigh and Greensboro. Never mind that, according to research, it’s not even a bridge, but a culvert.

As Lidia says with a shrug, “Details.”

Other urban legends have sprung from pop culture. It is easy to confuse urban legends with pop culture, as sometimes one doesn’t know where the urban legend ends and the source begins. For example, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was popular in the 1990s, and documented several urban legends into print, including “The Hook” in which a couple decides to make out at Lookout Point. A radio announcer warns people that a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose, just across the wood from where the couple is parked. Though the boyfriend blows it off, the girl becomes nervous and begs to be driven home, which the angry boyfriend does. When they arrive at her house, they discover a hook dangling from the car door. The story may have first appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, and news stories of teenagers going into the woods for some necking and getting slaughtered would have set whole neighborhoods on edge.

Though printed officially, and now out of the realm of the urban legend, it seems the legend is as old as the 1950s, and serves as a cautionary tale about teenage sex. In the story, the boyfriend guns the engine in anger and tears off into the woods, explaining how a bloody hook has come to be stuck to the car door handle. The couple narrowly escapes dying in the woods. In the instance of this story, the girl’s refusal to have sex saves them both from being murdered.

A more recent example of pop culture’s influence over our urban legends is a site called Creepypasta. It’s a user-generated content site designed to share frightening art and stories from around the world, a form of social media for the artistic and chronically bored. It is from a similar wellspring of daytime distraction called Something Awful that the Slender Man was born.

A black and white photo of an abnormally tall, faceless creature holding the hand of a young girl in a forrest. Slender Man
This is the Slender Man, originally a Photoshop contest entry that took on a life of its own.

The Slender Man was supposedly a tall figure in a pinstripe suit with no face. A few photographs of him holding the hand of a young girl were entered as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful. A video game in which you had to solve his riddles cropped up, followed by a slew of reaction videos on YouTube. In May of 2014, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend out into the woods of Wisconsin and stabbed her nineteen times. She was able to crawl to a nearby roadside, where a biker rendered aid. She was able to recover, but it was the Nation who would spend the next several years reeling in shock. The girls claimed that they stabbed the other girl to please the Slender Man.

Though not originally an urban legend, the Slender Man took on a life of his own on the Internet in a frenzy of hysteria that led to actual crime, and ever since, children all over the country warn against traveling too deep into the woods, lest they fall victim to the Slender Man.

Urban legends can often be mistaken for folklore, but because they are not tied to any one particular group and often take their source from pop culture or the media, they are not classified as folklore. Television shows on networks like Scyfy and The Travel Channel perpetuate unsubstantiated claims and scripted descriptions of haunted places, mixing urban legend with fact, weaving a dizzying narrative to excite and frighten. There is no place on Earth that could possibly exude the kind of harrowing, nightmare aura and downright evil spirit, steeped in the blood of thousands talked about on The Travel Channel. There is no place on Earth quite like the small Venetian island of Poveglia.

Influences on the Legend of Poveglia

In the Venetian Lagoon there sits a small island. It is uninhabited, and has been so since 1968, after a sanitarium and long-term care facility had officially been abandoned. Several attempts were made by the Italian government to sell or lease it, hoping to revive the island.

A lagoon vista at sunset, with pastel light. The island of Poveglia's bell tower is plainly visible.
The small Venetian island of Poveglia, seen from a distance. The bell tower is plainly visible.

But, as urban legend would have it, apparently the island of Poveglia is accursed indeed.

What dark secrets lurk behind the crumbling walls and packed earth of Poveglia? Why has ScyFy’s Scariest Places on Earth dubbed Poveglia, “the Island of No Return”?

The Rich Occult History Of Venice

According to The Scariest Places on Earth, pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Venice was awash in blood. At the epicenter of the cultural revival, rebirth, upheaval, and wealth, Venice, according to myth and popular imagination, was fueled on the life blood of dark energy.

Much of this might be boiled down to urban legend and myth–and let’s all remember that television shows like Scariest Places in the World rely heavily on dramatic representation. There is even a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warns that some reproductions are purely for dramatic effect. Translations can be made to say anything that suits the show’s purpose. Despite the unreliability of most made-for-tv documentaries, a resurgence in ceremonial magic during Renaissance Humanism may point to a prevalence of a sort of cognitive dissonance that allowed for both the belief in the ritual of the transmutation during the Eucharist and pagan ceremonial magic. Side-by-side, they don’t seem terribly different. By definition, ceremonial magic involves a complex ritual to produce a magical effect. What could possibly be more magical than a piece of bread and some wine turning into the body of Christ as it enters you? Among the wealthy and bored, even magical practices banned under canon law held much Romance and allure, such as chiromancy, or palm reading, which became popular during the Renaissance with the influx of Romani into Europe.

There are other aspects of Venetian life in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italy that point to the hint of licentious activities, and that was the cultural norm of mask-wearing. The “bauta” was the most common. It covered the whole face, and had a protruding bottom half that tapered, allowing the wearer to eat, drink and talk. Mask-wearing was generally accepted only by the elite.

A person of unknown identity stands in a black tricorn hat and black robe wearinga white bauta mask during Carnival.
An example of the full “bauta” costume and mask, popular now during the Venetian Carnival.

However, if a pauper or low-class person donned the mask, it was incredibly objectionable to force them to identify themselves. Mask-wearing was culturally inviolate. There was too great of a risk that one might offend a peer. Often this was how lower classes mingled with the wealthy. More specifically, the bauta also refers to the style of costume worn along with the mask, involving a tricorn hat and red cape. It is only too easy to wonder what darkness lay at the heart of a culture that reveled in assuming alternate identities.

The bauta may be best recognized by it’s use in, arguably, the greatest metal band in the world right now, Ghost, who brought back the bauta for their first and second incarnations. Ghost’s major selling point is that no one really knows who each of the band members actually is. Revealing their true identities, even among fans, is likely to get you ostracized and banned from groups on Facebook (I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen it before–Ghost fans are protective). It is a gimmick that is as highly favored among Ghost fans. Even Papa Emeritus (the Pope one) is actually wearing a mask.

Papa Emeritus wears a papal Mitre and black and green robes. His mask is painted to resemble a skull face. The Nameless Ghouls are dressed in black robes with cowels and bauta masks.
The band, Ghost, at Coachella in full regalia. Papa Emeritus is in the center, surrounded by the Nameless Ghouls. Notice the masks.

But of all the ways in which Italy may be steeped in a horrifying history, none is more horrifying than the toll taken upon the land during The Black Death.

The Black Death

According to History.com, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death (or what we refer to these days as “The Plague” or “The Black Plague”) arrived in Europe by sea in 1347, though by the time the Plague reached Messina in Sicily, rumors were already spreading of a pestilence carving a swatch through the East and Middle East.

The Black Death was the single most devastating epidemic to ever strike humanity. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus outbreak killed 22,620 people in West Africa in 2014, and still pales in comparison to the 20 million deaths across Europe attributed to the Black Death. Death by Plague was horrific. According to the History channel, one could lay down to sleep a healthy person, and be dead by morning. Poet and writer Boccaccio wrote, “the mere touching of the clothes appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The Black Death was indiscriminate and efficient. The streets were lined with corpses of the fallen, family members fled the homes of plague victims, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the piles of corpses.

And out of the rising smoke of pyres and treading lightly over the fallen stepped a creature with the face of a bird beneath a wide-brimmed black hat and cloak that came to gloved hands and trailed the feet.

The Plague Doctors

Though long-since debunked, The Plague Doctors were not considered harbingers of doom during the Black Plague. They were revered, respected, and admired for their courage. For many they were a symbol of hope. It is through science that we discover that they were perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Standing in a camp site, Jeremy cuts an impressive figure in his black leather hat, cloak, and bird face mask. He is not holding his cane in this picture.
Jeremy Shoemaker dressed as a plague doctor for The Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, Texas. How many people can say they have a fairly recent picture of a plague doctor?

In medieval times, it was believed that disease was transmitted in the air, a school of thought called miasma theory, which states that air smelling foul due to decay also carried disease, and that by purifying the air and making it smell good, one could dispel the diseased air. This lead to the bird-like beak of the plague mask, which was far from the nose of the wearer and stuffed with perfumes and herbs to purify the air the plague doctor breathed. Unfortunately, that was useless. We now know that illness and disease are spread by germs. Their black oilcloth cloaks that were worn under the mask, hat, and gloves were perhaps far more useful. However, it has been surmised that the disease was spread even if one touched the clothes of the infected. The plague doctors moved among plague victims freely, though they often prodded them with a stick to avoid contact. They truly were doctors–well some of them. Others were hack doctors hoping to make a little coin. Many were looking for a cure, but with every victim they came into contact with, they carried the contagion with them on their clothes. And as there was no treatment that worked, they often simply helped their victims into the grave. A common joke at the Renaissance Festival my friend attended was to ask for a picture, then flee the scene, afraid to catch the plague. Others took pictures from a distance. They did not want to bother him, but we joked that they were afraid he was bringing the plague with him. From a historical standpoint, that’s not even remotely funny.

Two plague doctors stand over a fire of burning bodies.
Did someone call a doctor?… No?

Folk Traditions of Poveglia

There are two very persistent tales of Poveglia.

The first is the Plague quarantine. Poveglia is situated right in the Venetian lagoon. It had formerly been an abbey or convent, and so it was equipped with a church and outbuildings to serve as a quarantine. Plague doctors would take shiploads of plague victims out to the island to keep them away from the populace. Unfortunately, the Plague killed so quickly that victims who were supposedly shipped out never returned. If the urban legend is to be believed, there were over 160,000 people buried or burned in plague pits (mass graves) on Povegelia.

The second tale is that of the doctor at the sanitarium. In real life, Poveglia’s structures were converted into an asylum. There, it is said, that the dark energy and spirits of the damned drove the doctor who worked there mad. He began lobotomizing and torturing the patients that came into his care, adding to the blood spilled on the island.

Let that fire your imagination for a bit.

Deep in the ruins of Poveglia appears to be some round apperature leading into a chamber. Rumor has it this is the crematoria of the mad doctor.
Part of the ruins of Poveglia island’s asylum and outbuildings.

It is rumored around the world that no sane Italian will set foot on Poveglia, and that ghost hunters have brought back poundage of definitive proof of supernatural activity on the island. Rumor also has it that those brave souls who dare enter the island at night never return.

But how true is any of this?

For Italian-born film director Emanuele Mengotti, the island of Poveglia proved to be a constant source of wonder. Growing up on the island closest to Poveglia, Emanuele was always full of curiosity regarding its dark legends.

“I have to say that to me, more than haunted, I felt attracted to that island since I was a kid with my parents,” he said in an interview, “I used to go there and my dad, telling me ghost stories about it, and it was very exciting for me!”

Contrary to the rumor that no Italians will visit the island, Emanuele has made many trips to the island.

“I loved to spend my time there and explore the island, sometimes even by myself! I was always getting lost and having to find my way back.”

A hallway in what is ostensibly one of the hospital buildings on the island, now fallen to ruins. Vines and shrubbery covers the left wall, and parts of the celing and windows have caved in.
Nature seems to be reclaiming Poveglia, wiping the stain of man from its face.

Drawing on this inspiration, Emanuele set out to create a stunning piece of cinema that at once inspired thrilling terror while exploring the old legends of Poveglia and the plague doctors who have gained the reputation of heralds of doom rather than benevolent rescuers. Emanuele is reinventing a vision of Italy and Poveglia through the lens of one who has walked where others dare not tread, though he does keep the pragmatic mindset of a local expert.

A man dressed in tall hat and white plague doctor mask stands in the waves on the coast, a strange vision indeed.
A still image from the concept preview of Emanuele Mengotti’s film The Plague Doctor.

“Unfortunately the info that you can find on the web are wrong. The interesting thing is that we are witnessing the origin of a Legend…twenty years ago the island was so different. You were still able to find old books–now its just ruins!”

According to historical accounts, that Emanuele was kind enough to confirm for me, Poveglia once served as a small quarantine base for ships bearing confirmed cases of the Black Plague. In the early twentieth century, some of the small buildings were re-purposed into a mental health facility, and it was again used sometimes as a quarantine for plague victims. There was a section meant for the mentally ill, but no mad doctor.

Still, the dark atmosphere and pervading sense of dread persists regarding Poveglia. It is this dark energy that Emanuele hopes to capitalize on as he brings his film to life. Emanuele says that many people still do believe the island to be haunted with the ghosts of plague victims. He says the atmosphere of the island is “creepy” and that it is, in fact, abandoned. Like many of us who are enamored of their own homeland, Emanuele is comfortable both with the historical facts of Poveglia and with the dark legends that fuel his imagination.

Conclusion

Urban legends may not be the modern equivalent of folktales, but they spread roughly in the same way and may sometimes take their sources from historical fact or popular culture. In the case of the Italian island of Poveglia, the remnants of the Black Death frighten and wrap the unwary tourist in a web of Romanticism and gruesome flights of fancy. Like the Alamo here in Texas, there are two sides to the same story. One just happens to be significantly more interesting than the other. Frankly I’d rather dance a jig with the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo than walk among the restless spirits of 160,000 plague victims, but it seems history would have us recognize that Travis and Bowie probably don’t haunt the Alamo anymore than the rampant poltergeist of a mad doctor haunts Poveglia. Legend has it that all 113 men died at the Alamo. History says prisoners were taken, including Crockett, since he was a congressman, and therefore a political time bomb. Why listen to history books when the tales of death and destruction during the Black Plague are far more entertaining?

It is the legend and myth of a place that will stay with you long after you get home and take off your bauta mask or coonskin cap. Myth, legend, and folktale. Don’t care how many times Emanuele Mengotti may say the place is only creepy, you won’t catch me out on that island anywhere near dark.

 

African Folk Traditions, Ethnic Stigma, and Taboo

THe word "Taboo" written in block seriph letters across the open ocean at night, a common motif for the series.
Official logo for the FX Network television series, Taboo.

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

This Folklore Thursday is taking a dark turn as we delve into the rich history of African religious and folk traditions, though we will then turn our attention to the Western stigmatization of pagan cults through the lens of the new FX television series, Taboo.

 West African Voudo and Juju, and Ashanti Obeah

Voudo and Juju

I’m keeping to the Western or Gold Coast for the purposes of exploring the major folk traditions of the Africans who were captured and sold into slavery during the Atlantic Slave Trade, as these are the ones who were most likely to be encountered by Western Culture, and whose magic is most closely associated with the television show, Taboo.

Voudo was largely practiced on the Gold Coast among tribes that belonged to what we now call Nigeria and Ghana. Voudo came to the United States through the slaves traded into the Carribean first–Haiti and Jamaia. It was later carried to Louisiana,the Carolinas, and Virginia, and is now unlovingly referred to as Voudon or Voodoo. However, Voudo does not always have the haunting and evil repugnance assigned to it by Christian slave owners of the Antebellum South. Voudo refers to the monotheistic religion that stems from Mesopotamian traditions centering around a single Creator with two aspects, the moon (female) and the sun (male) along with a pantheon of lesser spirits (Loas).

Voudo worshipers believe the gods of Voudo appear in their every day lives, and that pleasing the gods with small rituals will ensure health and prosperity. Though the manifestations of the Loas can sometimes occur, it is only under certain ceremonial circumstances along with the necessary offerings. Author Gail Z. Martin explores Voudon traditions among the Gullah people of Charleston, South Carolina in her Deadly Curiosities novels, Deadly Curiosities and Vendetta.

There are evil or dangerous spirits among the Loas, particularly the Guédé family headed by Baron Samedi, or “Saturday”, the Evil Doer. This group of Loas is closely associated with the dead. Baron Samedi can be ritualistically summoned with proper offerings of tobacco and rum.

Baron Samedi stands in what appears to be a Louisiana Graveyard, standing with his traditional staff and top hat, smoking a cigar. He has a boa draped across his shoulders.
Cosplayer Rick Lacour depicting the dangerous Haitian and Creole Loa Spirit, Baron Samedi, who is the traditional Loa of the Dead, and head of the Guédé family Loa, part of the overall Voudo pantheon. Photo by Matt Barnes.

Juju is often mistaken for Voudo, but the two words are not interchangeable. While Voudon worshipers believe in a spiritual connection to the gods and Loas that can be accessed through ceremony and offerings, Juju is the practice that binds or forms the pact, or agreement, enforcing compliance. The witch who practices good or bad juju can bind spirits and elements to amulets and talismans for use for against others. This is where the image of the Voodoo doll comes from, though it is in fact not at all related to Voudo.

Ashanti Obeah

It is the from the Obeah traditions that Southern white plantation owners came to fear the power of African magic.

Obeah is still commonly practiced among Western Africans and their descendants. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of Western Africa were of the Akan ethnicity that formed the Ashanti state, Asanteman, and were the geographical neighbors to the Dahomey and Fon tribes that went on to become the caretakers of Vodou in the Caribbean and Gulf territories of the United States. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of what is now called Ghana were some of the only Africans to successfully repel British occupation.

Obeah and Voudo are fairly similar. The practice of Obeah is second part of the two-part magic practiced by the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, and then later among the Jamaicans and Gullah practitioners of the Carolinas. The first part is an herb-based medicinal practice. Among the Gullah and in Jamaica, these are sometimes called “Root Workers”. It was purely for treating bodily ailments.

An African-looking man squats before a thatch hut. Though African in appearance, this photo was more than likley taken in the Carribean islands, where many Gold Coast Africans were sold as slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
An Obeahman, sometimes called a “Root Worker” by Carribeans and the Gullah practitioners of South Carolina. Photo by Vlad Sokhln.

Obeah targets the spirit of the person. The Obayifo worked to heal spiritual wounds and ailments inflicted by witchcraft. The Obayifo traditionally had access to two spirits, one evil, and one neutral. Failure of the Obayifo to stay vigilant could result in the complete takeover of his body, which would require cleansing by another Obeah man.

But the Obayifo has a darker side to it. Among the Ashanti, an Obayifo can make pacts with the spirits, including the Sasabonsam, or Asabonsam, an evil spirit that was commonly connected to the Obayifo. This association has given rise to the belief among scholars and folklorists that the Obayifo is the root of the legend of the vampire. Several of the depictions I discovered included a creature who could hang upside down. According to Scribol, the creature was said to have wings that could be as wide as twenty feet. Other depictions include an simian type creature, like the one below from deviantARTist Darrel Tan.

Two clearly African warriors are stalked by the Asabonsan vampire, a creature who could hang upside down from a tree buy it's feet and fed off the blood of the living. It is unclear whether or not the creature was supposed to resemble a simian creature, or if this is a common trope assigned by Western folklorists.
A deviantART depcition of Asabonsam, the evil spirit that may have given rise to the legend of the vampire, most closely associated with the Ashanti witch, the Obayifo, who could form pacts with this spirit. Art by Darrel Tan.

According to  John L. Vellutini, author of the Journal of Vampirology, the Ashanti Obayifo (whose name is sometimes synonymous with the Sasabosnam or Asasabonsam), shares many similarities to the European vampire, though the literal vampire is not often found in African tradition. It was common among white slave owners to free Obeah men that were enslaved to keep them from practicing their black magic against the slave owners who bought them.

Other African Magic Systems

Witchcraft takes on many forms in African folk traditions, varies from tribe to tribe, and seems to have a very definite gender designation. For example, an old anthropology paper draws comparisons between the Nupe and Gwari tribes and their adherence to witchcraft, with women always as the witches (gacic), and the male possessing the power to see and deal with witches (eshe). Some central tribes believe that the witch lays in the belly of a person and controls their actions. The Zulu and Bantu use “witch smellers”, and they are always women.

But it is perhaps the Obeah from the Ashanti on the Gold Coast that loaned some of their witchs’ evil intent to the one “sworn to do very foolish things” in FX’s new television show, Taboo.

But first, a quick primer on British occupation.

What British Occupation Meant at the Close of the Eighteenth Century

It’s important to start off a comparison to Western pop cultural appropriation of African culture with the hefty reminder that much of what Western Civilization considered “magic” in the eighteenth century stems from the heavy stigmatization of pagan religions, though not just African religions. It is also important to note that religious and magical traditions among African slaves was actively suppressed. Not only did it further marginalize the already enslaved black people under British rule, but it can also be surmised that suppression also prevented the kind of fear that spread throughout the Colonies and Britain before the Enlightenment and that resulted in the European witch hunts. Not to mention that there was indeed a superstitious streak among white slave owners. If I had been a slave owner, I’d probably be a little afraid of the resentment that stemmed from enslavement that might drive a person to witchcraft.

In a grossly oversimplified reduction, by the end of the eighteenth century, the British empire was well on its way to colonizing much of the globe. The new television sensation, Taboo, opens on the story of James Delaney, who left home in 1800 on a purchased commission in the widely prosperous monopoly, the Honorable East India Company. This colonization, and the rape of the cultures unfortunate enough to fall under British occupation, came with a lovely Conversion to the Christianity best favored by the monarch of the time. In the year of our Lord 1802, when James Delaney sets out for Africa, that is King George III, who lost the Revolutionary War to the disloyal British colonists in New England in 1783, and who practiced Protestantism through the Church of England (Anglican church), which kept up a network of churches known as the Anglican Communion throughout the British colonies–with possibly the exception of the US. By 1814, when James Delaney returns to England under George III’s prince regent, George IV, the 15 United States were not doing anything England was doing.

Those who could not be converted spiritually where often converted permanently by way of an unmarked grave. Only those who converted served any purpose to the Crown. This was no exception to the Western African merchants who were only too happy to sell their native traditions out for a cut of the profits in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Some Representations of African Magic in Western Art

Magic from the Dark Continent has been a source of fear and confusion for centuries. There are two references to African black magic in Western culture that I can name off the top of my head.

The first is not actually Western. The OVA adaptation of Kota Hirano’s Hellsing originally included the ultimate villain of season one as a magician from the Dark Continent, Incognito.

Incognito, the African Vampire, confronts the English vampire Alucard in the Tower of London. He holds a machine gun pointed at Alucard, straps and gold chains hang from his naked, tatooed body.
The sexless demon or vampire Incognito is clearly modeled after the Ashanti Sasabonsam. Here he holds a machine gun full of depleted uranium shells. Alcuard unlovingly makes fun of his “magic from the Dark Continent” as “quaint”. Full images of Incognito also show warped legs, as if he might be able to hang from a tree. On the backdrop of London in this anime, this is incredibly racist.

This plot line was never followed through, as it derailed too far from Hirano’s original plot involving the rise of a Fourth Reich, not to mention the fact that it involved a very “colonized” view of Africans. The fact that this anime was set in England did not help matters. Hirano was a miserable writer at best, but one thing he did manage to get right is that the England’s natural enemy was not Africa, but rather Germany.

Another example of the biased representation of African folk traditions comes from the Father of Contemporary Horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft had no love, pun intended, for immigrants of any kind. He had even less love for the people of color he was forced to live with in Brooklyn while in exile following the failure of his marriage to Sonia Greene. Lovecraft had zero problems lashing out at those immigrants he despised in several stories, though the one most closely associated with African folk traditions is “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn.”

In Lovecraft’s story, Arthur Jermyn is the descendant of the decadent line of Jermyn, whose great grandfather had ventured into Africa and taken a strange wife that no one had ever seen from a tribe who seemed to have some strange obsession with an ape princess–Lovecraft was indelicate at best. It is discovered that Jermyn is related to this ape princess, who was mummified and brought to England for him. When he discovers the unwholesome truth of his bloodline, he douses himself in oil and sets himself on fire.

Though not a comprehensive list, this is definitely a pair of examples that best illustrate the overall stigma associated with anything that has come from Africa. Of course, it is much easier for white colonists to enslave blacks if they are first dehumanized and stripped of dignity, even in their religious beliefs. It is this dehumanization that manifests in the absolute hatred and terror that strides on confident legs through London in the early nineteenth century. His name is James Delaney.

Western Stigma: African and Native American Traditions in Taboo

Tom Hardy wearing a suit and hat in the style of Regency England. He is white and ashy, with crackeds in his face paint, and he has a red triangle down one cheek. "Taboo" runs down the image long-ways.
Tom Hardy stars in the FX television series, Taboo.

H. P. Lovecraft says that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Naturally the British and Westerners Civilization as a whole were wary of anything they could not easily and quickly understand. Like the Borg, it was easier for the Empire to assimilate first and ask questions later. I’ll touch on how the empire more than likely used the folklore of the African people to dehumanize them and make it easier to enslave them in my review of Taboo at the end of the series, but right now I want to focus on the stigma surrounding James Delaney.

There are two notable points of disgust regarding James Delaney’s reception by the East India Company and his own relatives: unbeknownst to most, Delaney is half Native American; James Delaney spent a great deal of time in Africa. According to the social norms of Regency England, neither of things are good.

The first point to pick apart is the Native American lineage. Delaney’s mother was bought from the Nootka tribe of Vancouver Island. I’ll get to the importance of this particular setting in my full review, but for now, it is important to remember that in the second episode, Delaney’s mother was insane and committed to Bedlam. No word yet on how this will be further treated in the show, but the trope of mixed-race children going or being born half-insane or fully-insane is not new territory. Author Larry McMurtry often employed villains and madmen and madwomen of mixed-race or racial ambiguity, a sort of stab at a perverse Manifest Destiny that white men are the only thing capable of stabilizing the Western Frontier.

An Indian man, a Comanche, sits in a baren yard. H wears blue coton and has long hair. He is Blue Duck, son of Buffalo Hump. He spread terror across the Great Plains of Texas in Lonesome Dove. Here he is depicted in the prequel, Comanche Moon.
Blue Duck is the son of the Commanche war chief, Buffalo Hump. In the Lonesome Dove saga, he spreads terror and mayhem across the Plains. His mother was Mexican. He is one of the several examples of insanity or madness among mixed race characters in Larry McMurtry’s novels. This is a still from the film adaptation of Comanche Moon.

Where Taboo derails from this norm is the fact that though considered mad by many, Delaney is not insane. Director Anders Engstrom and Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Tom Hardy, Edward Hardy, and Steven Knight take care to differentiate Delaney’s cruel nature, hardened soul, and worldly knowledge from true insanity, unlike writer Larry McMurtry of the 1990s, for whom most of his mixed race characters were cut and dry and possessed no redeemable qualities.

The second point: James Delaney’s venture into Africa.

Ventures into Africa were ill advised and dangerous in Regency England and her Empire, as well as highly stigmatized. Trade with Africa was limited to Egypt and slave trading. Only the insane traveled into Africa. Taboo it set in 1814. Real exposure of the African interior did not begin until 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton began his many dangerous expeditions to Mecca and the African lakes that brought renewed sense of wonder and fancy to a largely ethnocentric English market. Sir Richard nearly died in Africa, which won the continent no points.

What is Really Taboo about James Delaney?

Though Delaney’s time in Africa isn’t the only taboo featured in the show, his character is largely fueled by the events leading to his return to England.

Rumors fly of unholy rituals performed with powers conferred on Delaney during his time in Africa, which it seems the East India Company was at least aware of. Word of Delaney’s secret doings in Africa traveled annoyingly fast in Regency London. A madman, Old Delaney, standing on the banks of the foreshore of the Thames calling to his son in Africa is bound to stir up gossip. Delaney’s half sister accuses him of eating flesh. Delaney has little interest in confirming or denying any of it.

The accusations of his eating flesh no doubt stem from the folk traditions of the Gold Coast who claimed the creature Asabonsam stalked the woods. Knowing a little of African folk traditions, it’s easy to see where some of the images from Taboo have their source. At the end of Episode 2, we see Delaney savagely rip out the throat of the Malaysian assassin sent to kill him with his teeth, validating accusations from Zilpha that her half-brother ate flesh in Africa (this is the half-sister that is also the other reason why this show is called Taboo). Though it is unclear where this will lead in the show, it is not too hard to imagine that Delaney embodying some version of Sasabonsam.

Tom Hardy is naked and standing in the middle of a shallow stream. He holds a spear. His body is tattooed.
Tom Hardy stalks the jungles of Africa. Notice the similarities to James Delaney’s tattoos and Incognito’s.

We can see that Delaney’s behavior is a sort of backwards hegemony, in which he has been driven to a hatred of half of his own lineage, the white Anglican, by a deep-seated guilt and rage that comes from the treatment of the people he becomes kindred to, and from being mixed-race himself. He embraces the African traditions and turns his black hatred on England, possibly to avenge the people he has seen enslaved, and possibly to avenge his mother, a purchased Native American in exchange for trading rights in the Nootka Sound.

The second episode also seems to suggest that Delaney’s close identification with the African tribes he mingled with is fueling an incredible sense of guilt and obligation, especially towards those slaves who were lost on the slave ship he was sailing on, bound for Antigua and the US, upon which he ostensibly died. We see this in episode two as Delaney, tattooed, sweating, his nerves rattling, possibly with what we call PTSD, uses a ritual to cleanse the hold of a ship he has purchased that formerly transported slaves.

James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy, squats naked in the hull of his ship by lantern light. His tattoos are clearly visible, and he is visibly upset. He has just finished carving a rooster into the hull of the ship in a ritual.
James Delaney huddles in the hull of his newly acquired ship after he cleanses it and performs rituals, ostensibly for those who had been carried as slaves on the ship.

We’ll be able to see in practice that the show’s writers knew that Delaney’s time in Africa would have impaired his judgement by Western Standards. Delaney’s time in Africa is half of the resentment from everyone associated with the Delaney Trading Company, inherited by testate will and by the laws of primogeniture in England. In addition to whatever supernatural powers Delaney possesses as a result of his time in Africa, the Eighteenth-Century implications of what he is are much more mundane. Rumors that he ate flesh further discredit him in the eyes of British society and in the eyes of the organization hoping to take what is rightfully the property of the Delaney bloodline.

I wonder what will happen when the general public is made aware that he is also half Native American…

Conclusion

Though not all African traditions are steeped in blood, it is easy to see how the East India Company and Western slave owners latched onto the darker traditions of the Africans they enslaved. Angry and in pain, it is no wonder that perhaps some of those trafficked into the British Colonies turned to their darker spirits to aid them against the whites that did them harm. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, some of those dark traditions now form part of the overall African folk traditions of the Gulf Coast and Antebellum South of the United States, many of which persist into the Twentieth Century. The new television show on FX Network, Taboo, capitalizes on some of those dark traditions that circulated in back-room rumor and parlor gossip. The popularity of shows like Taboo illustrate that we as a Western society are still drawn to the strange and unfamiliar, as horrifying as it may be.

I will conduct a detailed post-colonial viewing of Taboo in my review following the close of the first season.

TL;DR: African folk traditions are rich and abundant and vary from tribe to tribe, and some of those traditions made it all the way to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern.

Folklore Thursday Guest Blog: Snegurochka The Snow Maiden

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious (and in some case, institutional) influences.

This Folklore Thursday, Lidia Plaza leads the discussion on the Eastern Orthodox Christian folk tradition of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, and illustrates her interpretation of the mythic figure through the contemporary folk tradition of Cosplay.

Snegurochka: the Snow Maiden

Lidia Plaza

For many people, Christmas is essentially over, but for most Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmas has not yet begun.  Due to the quirky differences between the Julian Calendar (followed by the Eastern Orthodox tradition), and the Gregorian Calendar (followed by the majority of other Christian traditions), when we in the West are finishing celebrating Epiphany (if we do celebrate it), those in the East will be preparing for Christmas on January 7.

While Christmas in the West means Jelly-Bellied Santa, Red-Nosed Rudolph, and, more recently, an obnoxiously-situated Elf on the Shelf, for Eastern European countries Christmas means the tall, staff-carrying figure of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost or Father Frost), and his beautiful, pale granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).  Yet just as Rudolph and Elf on the Shelf are more recent additions, Snegurochka was not always a part of the Christmas tradition.

A figure in blue robes trimmed in white fur stands on a snowy field holding his ice scepter, the depiction of Slavic "Father Christmas" Ded Moroz
The tall and imposing winter wizard, Ded Moroz, of Slavic tradition.

Origins of Snegurochka

It’s not entirely clear when or where Snegurochka originated.  Some believe she has roots in Slavic pagan beliefs, while others argue that she came from folktales outside of the Slavic world.

A model poses in a snowscape as Snegurochka, the Russian Snow Maiden. Her headdress is beautifully trimmed in pearls and beads, and her hair is snowy white.
Photograph of a depiction of Snegurockha. Photograph by Viona Ielegems.

In any case, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev first published the story of Snegurochka in the mid 19th century as part of his multi-volume collection of Russian folktales. In Afanasyev’s version, Snegurochka comes to life from a little snow doll made by two childless peasants, Ivan and Marya.  One day, some girls invite her to walk in the woods, and when it gets cold, the girls make a fire.  As part of a game, they take turns jumping over the fire, but when it is Snegurochka’s turn, she evaporates in a small cloud.

Three girls look on in dismay and surprise as Snegurochka evaporates into a vapor as she joins their game of jumping over the fire. Image is an oil painting.
Some girls invite Snegurochka to play a game by jumping over the fire, but Snegurochka evaporates. This version first appeared in Afanasyev’s Nineteenth-Century folklore compilation.

In other versions, she is the daughter of the gods Father Frost and Mother Spring, but she lives with an elderly, childless couple.  She grows attached to a young man, but finds she is incapable of love.  In an act of pity, Mother Spring gives her the ability to love, but when she does, the warmth of her heart causes her to melt.

Snow Maidens of the World

Of course, Snegurochka is not the only snow child in the tales and myths of the world.  The Germans have the Schneekind (Snow Child), a boy who melts, although in earlier accounts, the boy’s origin and fate are not so enchanted.  In one version, a man returns to his wife after a two-year absence, and his unfaithful wife explains her newborn son by saying she became pregnant when swallowing a snowflake while thinking of her husband.  The husband raises the boy until he is old enough to be sold as a slave, and explains the boy’s absence by saying the child melted in the heat.

An actress recreates Yuki-Onna in the in a very loose gesture of the Kabuki style of Japanese theater.
Though not an accurate representation of Yuki-Onna or Kabuki theater, here is a depiction of the snow spirit that steals the breath from sleeping travelers and leaves only blue corpses.

The Japanese snow maiden, Yuki Onna, is a much more supernatural character who lulls unfortunate souls to a deep, permanent sleep and uses her icy breath to leave only a frost-covered corpse behind.  However, not all spirits of the snow are so malicious. While not a child, the snow-person most of us are familiar with today is, of course, Frosty the Snowman.

Snegurochka and the Persistence of Folk Traditions

Yet while these snow-characters are understandably associated with winter, the association with Christmas is less obvious.  In the case of Snegurochka, it was ironically the spirit of Soviet anti-Christmas that sealed her fate as a Christmas character.  In the nineteenth century, just as the character of Santa Claus was becoming wrapped up with Christmas in Western Europe, Ded Moroz became synonymous with Christmas in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the popularization of Snegurochka.  In 1873, Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play “The Snow Maiden” was performed at the Moscow Imperial Theater with music written by Tchaikovsky.  Five years later, the folktale became a ballet thanks to composer Ludwig Minkus’ “The Daughter of the Snows.”  Finally, the story became an opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1881, “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale.”  By the turn of the twentieth century, Snegurochka figurines could be found adorning fir trees and every children’s New Year’s pageant had a Snegurochka.

All of these traditions, as well as many others, were ended during the Soviet anti-religious campaign.  Yet, just as the French had discovered in one of their own revolutions, it wasn’t so simple to just abolish religion or secular traditions.  As a kind of compromise, New Years celebrations were allowed starting in 1935, along with the Yolka (New Year’s tree), Ded Moroz, and Snegurochka.  New Years Eve remains the winter holiday for many living in post-Soviet countries, though now the holiday season has been re-injected with traditional Christmas themes and iconography.  Modern Snegurochka and Ded Moroz (who, through various adaptations of the story, became her grandfather) live in Veliky Ustyug, but during the New Year’s celebration they deliver gifts to good children.

Dead Moroz and Snegurochka stand on a blue-lit stage dressed in winter blue finery. Presentation is by the Moscow Theater.
Father Frost, Ded Moroz, and his Granddaughter, Snegurochka, live on stage at the Moscow Theater. Ded Moroz rose to fame following the popularization of the folk tradition of Snegurochka.

Christmas Traditions in Post-Soviet Ukraine

After the fall of the USSR, post-Soviet peoples had to figure out how to revive the old Christmas traditions in a time when most people had grown up without them.  In 1993, my family and I lived in Lviv, Ukraine and I got to witness part of this transformation firsthand.  I was very young at the time and my memories are few and far between, but some things I will never forget.  First and foremost, I was delighted to discover all the new opportunities to receive presents; there was Western Christmas (December 25), New Years Eve (December 31), and Eastern Christmas (January 7).  I will also always remember the first group of carolers that came to our door.  Unlike the rag-tag gang of off-tune singers I’ve been a part of here in America, Ukrainian Christmas caroling is more of an elaborate folk performance, and a cherished part of the Christmas tradition.

A group of Christmas carolers in Ukraine are dressed in traditional Christmas costumes as they demonstrate the majestic pagentry of Eastern Blok Christmas traditions.
These Ukrainian Christmas Carolers make the Fencing Club’s attempts at caroling look paltry and sad, and one year we even had two flutists.

Of course, none of that had been allowed for decades, and as the small group crowded our doorway of our tiny, Soviet-style flat, my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age.

However, what I remember best about Ukraine was the New Year/Christmas pageant put on by my preschool.  I was cast in the role of “The Spirit of the New Year,” at least according to my family’s limited understanding of Ukrainian.  I had to recite a short poem (which I still remember) and I wore a silver dress with a snowflake crown, very much like modern depictions of Snegurochka.

A little girl in a white dress and headdress, backed by six more little ones on a small school stage in Lviv, Ukraine.
A three-year-old Lidia Plaza performs as The Spirit of the New Year in her Ukrainian preschool’s New Year Play in Liviv, Ukraine.

“my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age. “

 

Snegurockha in South Texas

While Santa almost always wears red, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka often wear silver and blue, some say in a Soviet effort to distance the characters from Christmas.  Inspired by an old picture of me in my outfit, I decided to spend some time this Christmas season doing a Snegurochka-type look.

Lidia Plaza stands in her living room after finishing her makeup and costume for Snegurochka. She wears a red blouse, a white wig, and a red beaded headdress.
Lidia Plaza designed the headdress and makeup herself, drawing on both the Eastern Blok depictions and utilizing colors most closely associated with Western Christmas.

The blouse I found at a thrift store many years ago, but the crown I made myself.   It was a bit of a rushed job as the holidays are not exactly a season of free time, but it was a lot of fun and I hope you enjoy it.

About the Guest Blog

Lidia Plaza graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in History and Anthropology. She was the winner of the 2013 Bram Stoker Undergraduate Award in Historical Studies for her thesis on the rise in theft of textiles in Eighteenth-Century England. She is currently seeking positions in grad school where she hopes to bring her unique expertise and eye for detail to the field of artifact conservation. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Squirt and Dottie.

Contemporary Folk Traditions: Texas Renaissance Festival

(As a note, when it comes to pictures, I give credit where it is due, and if no credit is given, it is because I took the picture myself).

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious influences.

Today we’re looking at the contemporary folk traditions of the thousands of patrons who visit TRF year after year.

The round official logo of the Texas Renaissance Festival features the king holding a flagon of ale, or mead, above the tagline, "Life Up Your Cares".
The official logo of the TRF.

Every state has that one attraction that is an absolute must for every group of friends. For Texas, that attraction has been, and perhaps always shall be, the Texas Renaissance Festival. Texas residents who share the love of the renaissance fair know that the TRF is not just any fair, and there are others in Texas that have relatively the same things: there is Sherwood Forest, Austin Celtic Festival, and others, but there is something special about the TRF situated between Magnolia and Houston. Of all the attractions to visit in Texas, the TRF has a certain magic to it that is difficult to place, and after almost eight years of attending, I am still not tired of it.

Camping

A small fire pit and bbq are surrounded by a pair of small tents. This was one of our fist official group outings to the Renaissance Festival.
Lidia and John sit around the remains of the camp fire of our first official group outing in 2009.

The TRF is a wonderful event to attend as a group, which is even better for those who decide to camp. Whether treking out with eleven of your best friends or going as a family event, camping is a huge part of the TRF. Recently, the park had to expand its camping grounds, pushing and reducing regular parking back away from the main road. Camping at the TRF is its own attraction. In previous years, camping also included the large “Boob Tents”, where fire dancers entertained and alcohol did flow. However, as the TRF grew in popularity among families, the Boob Tent was banned, and a new tradition arose: the bonfire. It had originally been a ring of logs around a massive fire that could be seen from all over the camp ground. Unfortunately, the large brush fires of 2011 saw the end of the bonfire as well, as Texas went into a burn ban for the foreseeable future. Now, the bonfire area has a large dedicated wall to protect the surrounding grass.

A fire pit in the center of a group of friends dressed in medium cold weather gear. It is dark, and the grass is wet.
The usual suspects seated around the campfire. This year we sang each other songs. Of course, Lidia brought s’mores. November 2016.

Camp attendance dropped off during the fires of 2011, when the warmest Ren. Fest. season in our memory descended on Texas. With no camp fire, and no camp fun, many park attendees felt little inclination to attend. Camping is part and parcel of the entire experience. Of the few years we all declined to attend the festival, it was mostly because we would not have had time to camp.

Behind our tents this year, someone decided to bring two massive hot air balloon burners. They occasionally lit them, or left them running. The park security allowed this, but only because officers were stationed at the camp site until the evening died down.

The last two Texas Renaissance Festival seasons were cooler, with 2015 being unusually cold for November in Texas. I imagine the cloak tailors made a killing last year. After the rains of 2015-2016, the burn ban has been lifted and we are now able to have fires again. This year, Lidia brought s’mores, and Jeremy brought his small violin.

Not only is camping a huge part of the festival experience, but so is the music. Nothing will ever beat the year all of us brought instruments, and sat around the camp fire singing or playing different songs. I’m not going to say the alcohol did not play a major role in how we sounded, but had we been a cohesive band, we might have attracted a fair number of gawkers.

This year, Zarissa sang us Scottish love songs that her grandfather had written while she played Jeremy’s violin. We were all so entranced with the experience that none of us snapped any pictures. What’s nice about the Renaissance Fair is that “there is always next year.”

The camp grounds feature both weekend adventurers and weekly warriors. Lately, the Isle of Tortuga camp group changed it’s banner to the “Aisle of Tortuga”, as they now occupy one of the old parking lot lanes of the camp grounds.

The castle. That was new for everyone. However, this is just one of the things that makes camping at the TRF special.

Tents line the sides of a large "castle" that had been constructed out of playwood and painted slate gray. The gate "gate" opened toward the "road".
An intrepid group at the TRF built an entire castle in the camp grounds this year.

The Park

The Texas Renaissance Festival is massive. According to the main site, the park sits on 55 acres of park and camp grounds.

Each weekend of the TRF season features a different theme. Our group’s two favorite themes are the 1001 Dreams Weekend (roughly the weekend of Halloween) and the Celtic weekend. This year we changed it up a little and attended the Yule weekend, which was themed Celtic Christmas. The Holiday or Yule weekend is always the last weekend of the season, roughly the weekend of Thanksgiving. This years was our first Holiday weekend attendance, but it far from our last. The park was gorgeously decorated for the event. Large Christmas trees (and large Christmas tree costumes dotted the crossroads of the park.

A guard in the official TRF park livery hitches his thumbs in his belt as I snapped this picture in front of Santa's pavillion at the front entrance to the park. Santa sits in front of a large Christmas tree on a pillared pavillion, greeting patrons and checking his list twice.
A noble guard stands watch, ready to help any attendee who needs it, and also to keep order in the line of spectators waiting to sit on Santa’s lap in front of the entrance to the park.
Patrons gather around one of the pavillions at the front of the park listening to a band perform Christmas carols on violin, flute, tin whistle, and guitar.
One of the pavilions at the entrance to the park, close to Santa’s pavilion, played a series of Christmas carols for patrons as they entered.

In addition to the Holiday theme, there were some major changes to the park this year. The Magic Gardens have been completed at last. One of the major attractions and stopping points in the Garden was the shrine of St. Felix.

A skeleton propped up on red cushions in an ornate case is a replica of the bones of Saint Felix.
The Shrine to the Saint Felix at Texas Renaissance Festival in the Magic Gardens. The shrine is meant to be a replica of the bones of Saint Felix, who was beheaded as a Christian heretic who would not worship the Roman emperor. He supposedly picked up his own head and walked 30 paces before falling down.
A picture of the ivied garden gables at the Texas Renaissance Fair.
The gardens of the TRF are some magical venues, excellent for taking pictures, and often booked out for weddings.

The parade is another TRF tradition. This year we popped into the leather book store before being rushed out into the “street” at the trumpeted fanfare to greet the parade of vendors and performers who make up the shining spectacle of the park every year. One of the most magical aspects of the park is the sense of ritual. Each year, patrons come expecting things to be the exact same as the year before, and for the most part, they are. It is comforting. Fond memories mix with the expectation of the moment. The parade is one of those rituals that has changed over the years, yet has always been the same.

A large, old looking set of seven-foot-tall puppets mingle with the parade of vendors in costume as they wend their way down the main thoroughfare of the park. They are dressed in red and purple velvet, and appear to be a holdover from the '70s.
The Oversized King and Queen and their court in the TRF parade of vendors in 2009. Image courtesy of Alicia Wright.
The Oversized King and Queen at TRF 2016, coming down a much more cramped thoroughfare, reminding everyone of how much the park has changed over the years.
The King and Queen and their Oversized court at Texas Renaissance Festival 2016. It’s nice to see that some things never change.

Costumes!

So many of the folk traditions at the TRF are subtle, but the costumes are not one of those traditions! Elaborate costumes are a staple of the TRF. Though it was once a taboo to wear fairy wings on any weekend but the 1001 Dreams weekend, costumes of all types have become very popular, and there does not seem to be any sign of that coming to an end any time soon. Though the TRF is technically a “Renaissance” Festival, the costumes are not exactly historically accurate. This can be seen in the number of chain mail bikinis and pirate costumes favored by many patrons. Costume styles are almost cliquish. Groups often come wearing similar fashions, especially for the barbarian and pirate themed weekends. This also has a lot to do with the products available for purchase. Those who dress up tend to get their costumes from the same vendors, which lends a streamlined appearance to the costumes. If we all seem like we planned our outfits together, it’s because they all came from the same place. The Steampunk movement also has a heavy representation at the TRF despite being–in its purist form–a Victorian era fashion.

Many patrons spend years amassing their Renaissance Festival costumes. My own is a sort of “Joker” wench style that I usually layer leggings and long sleeves under with a shawl (it’s not the park that is cold–it’s the walk back to the camp site in the dark that always gets me). Though I did not grab any good pictures of me in my costume for 2016, here is a good picture of my usual costume from 2014.

I am standing between two trees at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in 2014. I am wearing my "Joker" green and purple wench costume consisting of a purple overskirt, green underskirt, and purple bodice. I am fond of wearing black leggings and a black blouse with it, with a shawl of green and purple paislies.
I have been wearing this costume since 2012 or so. This is my Joker wench costume. The bodice is double-sided, and is supposed to be worn with a lavender colored blouse that I actually don’t like. This picture is from the Sherwood Renaissance Festival, but it’s also what I wore to TRF this year.

As I mentioned, costumes range from historically accurate to outlandishly fantastic, and none are more outlandishly fantastic than the character costumes that seem to get bigger with every passing year. One of the stars of this year was the familiar and frightening aspect of Krampus, the Eastern European punisher of naughty children. I dropped a curtsy and allowed myself to be suitably chastised.

I stand between a white faced she-devil that laughed maniacally and a tall, menacing, horned figure of Krampus, complete with red velvet robe, long white hair, and thick bunch of twigs for beating the naughty children.
A familiar piece of Eastern European folklore. I had to get a picture with Krampus. Say hello to my Christmas card. I made a point of dropping a curtsy to the lord of punishment before the picture.

Making another appearance was the Raven Lady, another very familiar face.

The Raven Lady, a lady in a purple and black gown with the head of a raven, walks in the vendor parade every year.
The Raven Lady made several appearances this weekend, and as always, was lavish and resplendent in the vendor parade.

The Bat and the Dragon squared off as if to do battle for supremacy, but because they are only men in costumes on stilts, they hugged it out instead.

On the left, a man in a very large bat costume. On the right, a man in large dragon costume. They both walk upright on stilts, and they are both over seven feet tall.
Two costumed men in stilts masquerade as the Bat and the Dragon. Occasionally they cross paths and square off, but they usually end up hugging it out.

The King and Queen of costumes are actually my two best friends, Jeremy Shoemaker and Lidia Plaza. This year, Jeremy wowed patrons and attendees in his Plague Doctor costume, which he perfected at Halloween and reprised on Saturday. Next year I’m going to make him charge a fee to take a picture with him.

My best friend wore is very elaborate Plague Doctor costume on Satruday at the TRF. Most of the pieces of the costume he had purchased from previous Ren Fair visits with the exception of the hat and mask.
The Plague Doctor stands back and assesses the damage before heading in…to our camp site to break down the camp stove before we head into the park.

Lidia wore one of her regular ensembles–and she has several that she mixes and matches. Lidia is a dedicated costumer with a long history of outdoing her fellow patrons with hand-made costumes. Lidia’s costumes, unlike so many in the park, do tend to be more historically accurate, as Lidia majored in history with a specialization in textiles at UT Austin and plans to go into conservation after grad school.

Jeremy and Lidia stand next to the wall of the Spanish fountain garden. Lidia is wearing a version of the dress she wore for Halloween, and Jeremy is dressed as a very convincing plague doctor.
Lidia stands next to her husband the Plague Doctor–I mean Jeremy. Contrary to popular belief, a plague doctor did not necessarily mean you were not going to get the plague.

Attractions

No matter how many times I attend the Texas Renaissance Festival, the one thing that we never change is our program.

The TRF spans an entire season. It starts in October and runs through most of November. Because of the length of the season, the acts for each season almost never change, and neither does their material. That is totally fine, by the way, as loyal spectators and patrons would not have it any other way.

Dead Bob is a skeletal puppet that uses call and response to lead his audience–when he’s not insulting his audience. Dead Bob is a famous act the world over for his scathing comedy and–dare I say it–dead pan humor. The call is “Hey audience!” who responds with, “Hey Bob!”

Dead Bob is perched on the arm of his masked, "dummy" as he gives his performance.
Though this picture is from the Michigan Renaissance Festival, Dead Bob can also be seen at the Texas Renaissance Festival. Image courtesy of Jason Hynes.

Though we did not see them outright this time, Tartanic is a powerhouse at the TRF. Tartanic is world-famous for its traditional Celtic music. Here is Tartanic on opening day of the TRF in 2016. Tartanic also played us out of the park on Saturday night during the fireworks display. Video is courtesy of Suzanne Chapa.

The acts and performances rarely change from year to year, and their material varies only a little. Veteran festival goers remember, for example, Arsene the magicians old material and appreciate his new material very much–at least “new” material that he’s been performing for the last five years. Sound and Fury are fond of mixing various pop culture references into their material, as they are a vaudeville improv group that draws heavily on the energy of the crowd and mixes Shakespeare’s old baudy humor with Twenty-First century euphemisms for private parts.

It’s not unheard of then, for an act to suddenly shift material a little to reflect the political climate of the time. In this respect, the traditions of the TRF do not vary much from the traditions of Renaissance and late Renaissance performances. If anything, this enhances the sense of ritual that comes with the TRF. The performances say “Renaissance” but the jokes say “Instagram meme”.

The Great Rondini is an escape artist and sword master who makes several appearances in Texas during the Renaissance Festival seasons. I couldn’t get close enough to the stage for pictures with Rondini this last weekend, but fortunately the Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014 offered us a more intimate meeting with Rondini.

On a stage at Sherwood Ren. Fest. Kelsey (left) squares off en piste with the great Rondini (right). Rondini is holding a rapier, but Kelsey is holding an epee, her weapon of choice when we all fenced at university.
Kelsey (the same Kelsey that cosplays Black Widow) shows off her epee skills with the Great Rondini at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in 2014.

My friends and I speculated that at least a few of the acts would be colored by the election results from earlier in the month. We were not disappointed. The Great Rondini made several off-color references to white people chaining a black man and other small references that marked him as a supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He saluted the veterans in the crowd and announced that he would accept no money from his fellow servicemen, and even heckled an audience member. Rondini bent down to have a man test the strength authenticity of his hand-cuffs, but the man seemed hesitant. Rondini exclaimed, “It’s okay. You can touch me. I’m just a black man.”

Under the great billowing canopy of one of TRF's many stages, the escape artist and swordmaster The Great Rondini invites the veterans of the crowd to stand and be recognized and honored for their service.
The Great Rondini invited the service veterans of the crowd to stand. He saluted them and proclaimed that no service man or woman would never accept tips or donations from his fellow veterans.

Rondini performed amazing feats of magic by escaping a chained straight jacket. More than one audience member looked away as he dislocated his shoulder to slip out of the chain looping his back.

Four audience members that assisted Rondini into the straight jacket and chains stand behind Rondini as he makes his way unsteadily onto the platform, preparing to escape from his bond.
The Great Rondini escaped a chained straight jacket, though his method had a few audience members cringing in their seats.

Yet another favored performer who draws more than two hundred spectators per show is the world-renowned whip-cracking performer Adam “Crack” Winrich, who may or may not be sponsored by Axe Body Spray. Adam Crack has performed on America’s Got Talent and has broken 16 Guinness World Records for whip cracking. Whip cracking is not easy, as the whip must be swung in such a way as to cause the tip to break the sound-barrier, which causes the “crack”. He punctuates his feats with his signature, “I know!” as the crowd oohs and awes. Perhaps 60 or 70 percent of the audience has seen his show before, and so the oohs and awes are more of the same call-and response interaction that is customary to TRF shows.

Dakota stands with her hands on her hips, prepared for anything, with a rose poised above her face in her mouth. Adam, playing the harmonica as he goes, snaps the whip, and snaps the rose in half.
Adam cracks his whip over the face of his assistant, Dakota, as he snaps a rose out of her mouth.

He calls Dakota, his assistant onto the stage to demonstrate his precision with a whip, cracking roses out of her hands and out of her mouth. He begins as he always does.

“And if this goes horribly wrong, my name is Dead Bob!”

The crowd laughs, but it seems–to new comers–that he might be serious, so he calls, “Hey Audience!”

To which the crowd replies, “Hey Bob!”

“And that ladies and gentlemen is how you build an alibi!”

Adam stands on the stage, his stance wide, and his signature "I know!" on his lips as he prepares to knock the soda can off of his head with a whip that is on fire.
Adam has removed his hat to avoid catching himself on fire as he performs stunts with is world-famous fire whip.

Adam’s performance is not as audience participatory as some other shows, and this is due in large part to the fact that Adam’s stunts are quite dangerous and require skill and practice. Adam sells a DVD set that will teach the participant how to crack a whip. Try to have an acre of space on which to practice, though.

The last of my group’s favorite acts is Sound and Fury, the improvisation group from California that performs a “pg-13” show in the evening and is trending towards an unscheduled “Dicking Around” after 6 pm. As always, the evening show is “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?”

At the Globe Theater stage, Sound and Fury give their last real performance of the day. From left to right: Ryan, Patrick, and Richard.
Ryan, Patrick, and Richard comprise the trio of vaudeville improv comedians, Sound and Fury.

Sound and Fury is a unique group. Despite the Shakespearian bent to their “plays” the group performs in the style of vaudeville, a form of variety performance that was popular in United States in the 1880s that was spawned from concert saloons, dive bar performances, dime show theater, side shows (or freak shows), and American burlesque. Sound and Fury combines Renaissance style theater material (like the Greek tragedies), with the baudy humor Shakespeare, the vaudeville style of 19th century America, and modern pop culture references. “Testicles: and the Sack of Rome?” often includes references to Trojans (condoms), The Matrix, The Village People, The Wizard of Oz, and a lot more, mixed into the comedy. At the end of the first “act” the trio will perform a one-minute “encore” in any language the audience requests. This year was Gaelic. Patrick and Richard squared off on stage while Ryan acted as “CG” with Patrick yelling a stream of what sounded like Gaelic–which the group pulled off at least moderately well, considering none of them speak it–before muttering, “You piece of shit,” concluding the farce of foreign language. Last year was “redneck”, which had Patrick swinging wildly at Richard yelling, “You better not be one o’ them Obamas!”

Dicking Around with Sound and Fury is a treat. It is far more intimate than the regular show. They regaled the audience with adventures in Dungeons and Dragons (and the audience is usually receptive to this, as a large portion of Renaissance Festival patrons tend to also be members of the Geek Culture). The trio tell stories that may be new to some, but are often the same from the year before, prompting the audience to request stories like the “Collar Bone Story” or “Thwomp” (ask Patrick about “Thwomp”). Sound and Fury push the limits of stage appropriateness with dirty limericks and this year Richard stopped an on-stage improv “kiss” between Ryan and Patrick during a skit about an affair at a soup kitchen by demanding that the audience pony up $20 before he would allow it to continue. $20 was quickly collected (another $10 prompted the Collar Bone Story), and Ryan assailed Patrick with a meaty man-kiss full of beard!

The best part of the TRF is, because of the remote location and huge crowds, cell phone use is virtually nonexistent. It is far easier to make calls from the camp site on most networks, but the lack of information flooding into the park via social media makes it hard to get the news. This is a blessing and a curse, as the atmosphere of the park is lived entirely in the moment, but at a pretty significant deficit of being cut-off from the rest of the world (which is largely historically-accurate–like the way we all smell at the end of the weekend).

This year, Ryan ran out onto the stage at the end of Dicking Around with his guitar and announced to us the passing of Ron Glass, the gentle soul who played Shepherd Book on Firefly. Firefly–for those not deeply immersed in the Geek Culture–is the story of a band of rogues as a Space Opera Western, a phenomena that ended after one season on Fox, had one film, and has never been rebooted, reprised, nor is there even plans of a reunion. FIrefly has a special place in the hearts of many in both the Geek and Popular Cultures, and to hear that 2016 had claimed yet another beloved celebrity had many in the crowd reaching for phones with no cell service in hopes of proving Ryan wrong. Of course, he was not. Having confirmed that at least 60 percent of the audience knew who we was talking about, Ryan led us in a group song to the theme of Firefly. The Texas Renaissance Festival is a place of wonder, and it is one of the last places in the modern world where magic can still be made by one man and guitar on a rickety stage. That night under the canopy of the “Globe Theater” stage, a group of dedicated fans joined the performers in honoring a beloved character and brilliant actor.

In the foreground, Ryan plays guitar while Richard uses his mic to allow everyone in back to hear. Patrick stands at the back, watching, as we all sing the theme song to Firefly.
Ryan played guitar, while Richard lent his microphone to amplify the sound as we all sang the theme song to Firefly in honor of the passing of Ron Glass.

Back to the Modern World

As we packed up our tents and changed back into blue jeans and t-shirts for the ride home, with camp site pickup trucks blaring Twenty One Pilots, we were once again hit with that strange sense of elegy that comes from leaving the TRF and returning to the modern world. It is incredibly strange to leave the campsite and come home to the world of cell phones and social media, and in my case, cars that go very fast. Perhaps that’s why I’m sitting here writing this at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night. I don’t know if I was ready to leave.

Thank you again, TRF! We’ll be back next year! And you can catch the dynamic trio at Sherwood Renaissance Festival in Elgin in February or March, more details coming soon.