LEGENDS OF THE SPECTRAL HORDE

 

Wild Hunt

Franz Stuck’s ‘Wilde Jagd’ (The Wild Hunt), 1889

 

In the early 1860s, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, English antiquarian collector of lore and general know-all, was part of a group of men galloping across an expanse of arid black sand in Iceland. One of his local companions, Jon, shouted out that they were ‘sweeping over the country like the Yule host.’ Inveterate busy-body Baring- Gould’s ears pricked up and he asked for details.

Jon told him of the ‘wild rout of phantom horsemen’ that ride across the country, especially at the winter solstice and at Yule, or Christmas. The Reverend immediately recognized this as the local version of a widespread European tradition and filled the next four pages of his Icelandic travel adventures[1]with his prodigious knowledge of the phenomenon. Baring Gould regaled his readers with the details of the spectral hordes of Norway, Germany, France, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and, of course, England:

‘Gervaise of Tilbury says that in the thirteenth century by full moon towards evening the wild hunt was frequently seen in England traversing forest and down. In the twelfth century it was called in England the Herlething. It appeared in the reign of Henry II and was witnessed by many. The banks of the Wye was [sic] the scene of the most frequent chases. At the head of the troop rode the ancient British Herla.’

He went on to give this version of the legend, featuring the legendary king of the Britons:

‘King Herla had once been to the marriage feast of a dwarf who lived in a mountain. As he left the bridal hall the host presented him with horses dogs and hunting gear also with a bloodhound which was set on the saddle bow before the king and the troop was bidden not to get off the horses till the dog leaped down. On returning to his palace the king learned that he had been absent for two hundred years which had passed as one night whilst he was in the mountain with the dwarf. Some of the retainers jumped off their horses and fell to dust but the king and the rest ride on till the bloodhound bounds from the saddle which will be at the Last Day’.[2]

The story was old well before Gervaise gave his version. Early in 1127 an unpopular abbot arrived at the Peterborough monastery. People soon began to talk of strange and frightening nightly apparitions. Twenty or thirty spectral huntsman, ‘black, huge and hideous’ rode through the town’s deer park and woods ‘on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.’ Every night for weeks on end until Easter, the monks listened fearfully to the sound of hunting horns echoing through the darkness.[3]

On another dark winter night thirty-six years earlier, in 1091, the English monk Orderic Vitalis was in Normandy where he documented an appearance of ghost riders he referred to as ‘Herlichin’s troop’.[4]Other accounts refer to frequent sightings of the hunt at this period.[5]

These unfortunate monks, and many others, were witnessing the ‘Wild Hunt’, an ancient and widespread apparition reported throughout Europe. The hunt is invariably a bad omen, foretelling war, tragedy or other disaster. In many traditions, anyone who lays eyes upon the spectral horde is doomed. The leader of the hunt varies from country to country. In Germany, it might be Woden, or malign figures of German tradition, such as Fraue Holle. In the Scandinavian countries it can be Odin; in Brittany, King Arthur and, in Ireland, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Other European countries have their own versions of the legend, often in diverse forms. In England and Wales, the leader can be any of Woden, Herne the Hunter, St Guthliac, Old Nick or any of a dozen or so other identities, depending on which part of the country the tradition is known.

Another leader of the (mainly) English pack is named Eadric, an historical figure who refused to bow to the Norman invaders in his domain within what is now the English and Welsh border, the Marches. Along these borderlands between 1067 and early 1070 Eadric held out against the invaders in a variety of activities that included attacking Hereford castle and occupying the city of Shrewsbury. He was one of a number of rebel leaders, including Hereward (‘the Wake’), attempting an ultimately lost resistance against the Normans, who named them silvatici, or ‘wild men’. Eadric probably made peace with William in 1070 but may have been involved in another rebellion against the ‘Norman yoke’ in 1075, probably losing his lands as a consequence, and possibly a lot more. There are no further mentions of Eadric in historical records[6], but in the Shropshire and Welsh versions of the wild hunt legend Eadric, sometimes in company with his wife, haunts the night skies. Eadric’s wild hunt has been reportedly seen or heard just before the Crimean War, the First World War and the Second World War.[7]

While the wild hunt seems to originate in the medieval era[8], it has endured into modern times. A German painting on the theme made by Franz Stuck in 1889gh was widely believed to foretell the tyranny of Adolph Hitler and his Nazis. Hitler was reportedly so enamoured of the painting that he purchased it and groomed himself in imitation of its forbidding depiction of the German god of war. There is even a possible connection with the popular country song ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, though that might be drawing the bow a little too long, as the song seems to have been based on a local legend of a fatal cattle stampede.[9]More recently, the anthropologist and historian, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, under her pen name of ‘Fred Vargas’ has used French version of the story as the basis of a detective novel, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec(2013) – and a great read it is.

The number of alleged sightings, along with the diffusion and duration of this powerful legend gives it a creepily convincing character. The legend is not going away any time soon either. It features in the best-selling ‘Witcher’ fantasy novel series byAndrzej Sapkowski,later turned into an award-winning and widely successful video game, ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, bringing an ancient folk tradition to the digital generation.

 

NOTES AND SOURCES:

[1]Sabine Baring Gould and Alfred Newton, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, Smithe, Elder and Son, London, 1863, pp. 200 -204.

[2]Baring Gould, pp. 201-202.

[3]Garmonsway, G.N., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Dent, Dutton, 1972 & 1975, p. 258.

[4]Harold Peake, ‘17. Horned Deities’, Man22, February 1922, p. 28.

[5]Map, Walter. Master Walter Map’s book, De nugis curialium (Courtier’s trifles). trans. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924, at http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/map1.html, accessed November 2018. Map was writing towards the end of the twelfth century.

[6]Reynolds, S., ‘Eadric Silvaticus and the English Resistance’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical ResearchVol LIV, No 129, 1981, pp. 102-105.

[7]Westwood, J., Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, Granada, London, 1985, pp. 300-304. Also Hutton, Ronald (2014). ‘The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath’. Folklore. London: The Folklore Society. 125 (2): 161–178.

[8]Though Jacob Grimm, who produced the first scholarly study of the tradition in 1883, located it in pagan belief.

[9]Composed by Stan Jones and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949, and by many since. For the local stampede legend, see Fairweather Lewis, ‘Stampede Mesa: The Story Behind ‘(Ghost’) Riders in the Sky’ at https://fairweatherlewis.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/stampede-mesa-the-story-behind-ghost-riders-in-the-sky/, accessed November 2018.

 

ANZAC: The Birth of a Nation

 

Sandakan Boyup Mar 25 056

Sandakan death march memorial, Boyup, Western Australia

 

This post briefly outlines the origins, development and significance of the Anzac legend for Australians[i]since 1915. The initial reception of Anzac as symbolizing ‘the birth of a nation’ is followed by an outline of the development of the concept during the First World War and over the decades since. The current identification of Anzac with popular perceptions of national identity is briefly highlighted and the article concludes by noting the early and continuing legislative proscriptions surrounding the use of the term ‘Anzac’ and its continuing acceptance by many Australians as the central element of national identity.

Introduction

Although the Anzac tradition originated in 1915, there was little serious scholarship on the subject until the 1960s.[ii]  Since then there has been ongoing interest by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and creative artists.[iii]While Anzac was widely said to be losing its popular appeal from the late 1960s, in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an unexpected upsurge of community interest in the Anzac tradition – or ‘legend’, ‘myth’, ‘spirit’ – it is called all these things – and scholars have sought to understand this.[iv]Today, Anzac is very much a popular Australian institution and observance, with thousands of Australians journeying to sites of related significance around the world to commemorate its day or to visit the places in which it was created and developed. It has been described as a secular national religion,[v]an indication of its cultural power. As well as having a popular dimension, Anzac has long been the subject of political and official interest, intensively so in the lead-up to the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in 2015.

‘The Birth of a Nation’

Anzac has become a central aspect of Australian national identity and military history since the term was coined in 1915. An acronym of ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’, the exact circumstances of the word’s origin are murky, with claims for its invention made by and for Sir William Birdwood (1865-1951), General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton (1853-1947) and a Lt A.T. White RASC. Whoever invented it, the term rapidly came into wide use during the Gallipoli campaign.[vi]It has remained in both official and popular parlance ever since.

The term moved beyond its origin as a military and clerical convenience to become a signifier of Australian nationhood and cultural identity in association with the reception of the Gallipoli landings from April 25, 1915. A combined Australian and New Zealand force began landing on the Gallipoli peninsula at the start of the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign at dawn on April 25. Although under British control, this was the first large-scale military action of the Commonwealth of Australia, formally constituted from a number of separate colonies in 1901. When press reports of the achievements of the Australians and New Zealanders reached Australia, they painted a glowing picture of courage and sacrifice expressed in the conventional views of the time about nationhood and military glory. On May 8, 1915 Australian dailies published a report of the Gallipoli landings by the English journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1881-1931). He had witnessed the landing from a ship out at sea but nevertheless provided a laudatory report that read, in part:

‘There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights, and above all, the holding on whilst reinforcements were landing. These raw colonial troops in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle. …[vii].

It was another nine days before Australia heard from the official war correspondent, Charles Bean (1879-1968). His account had been held up by military red tape but it confirmed the glory already admired by Bartlett. All the more so as Bean took part in the actual landing: ‘They all fought fiercely and suffered heavily; but considering that performed last Sunday, it is a feat which is fit to rank beside the battle of the heights of Abraham.[viii]

An Australian public, largely eager for news of their troops generally received these glowing accounts rapturously. The idea that this event was the real ‘birth of a nation’ was immediately established in the public discourse and organisations and communities began searching for ways to signify the moment and the meanings they attributed to it. To some extent, pre-existent attitudes derived from the pioneering era, including an emphasis on masculine prowess, manual labour and anti-authoritarianism, provided a cultural basis for the reception of the Gallipoli landings.

Soon, groups and committees in suburban and regional Australia embarked on memorial projects to mark the magnitude of the landings and the new concept of Anzac. A memorial was erected in South Australia in 1915. Early in 1916 an ‘Anzac Cottage’ was erected on donated land and with donated goods and labour in a Perth suburb through the efforts of the local council. It was for a returned ‘Anzac’ and his family to dwell in.[ix]Soon, a ‘homes for heroes’ movement was in full swing in many parts of the country, together with a wide range of usually patriotically inspired activities in support of the Australian troops, inspired by widespread commemorative sentiment. This was fuelled by pride in the reported actions of Australian troops, by personal and family mourning and by many community activities in support of the war effort by churches, charities and other groups.

As the war progressed and casualties mounted on the Western Front and in the Middle East, these meanings of Anzac became increasingly acute. More and more families lost loved ones, became involved in the ever more intense war effort and, like all civilian populations of the various theatres of combat, became enmeshed in the new realities of total war, even if in Australia’s case, at a considerable distance from most of the fighting.

Development through the Great War

A central figure of the Anzac tradition soon evolved in the shape of the civilian foot soldier, known from 1917 as the ‘digger. Roughly synonymous with the French ‘Poilu’ and the British ‘Tommy’, the digger is an idealised Australian infantryman who conflates the tough but usually compassionate soldier and the mythic aspects of the bushman and larrikin. The bushman image derives from the frontier pioneering experience and is a stereotype white, male manual bush worker of independent spirit. These attributes are overlain with those of another stereotypical Australian figure, the larrikin. Primarily a phenomenon of developing cities from the mid-nineteenth century, the larrikin image was that of a rough, fun-loving and irreverent working class male youth.

While the realities of the bushman and larrikin figures were often less than positive, their romanticised attributes quickly became fused in the digger image, particularly through popular literature, illustration and in folklore. The outcome was a characteristically ambivalent figure who was not a soldier yet fought hard and well; did not take military rank and hierarchy very seriously and was more than a bit of a gambler, brawler, drinker and womaniser.[x]Despite these pardonable blemishes, the digger was a genuine ‘rough diamond’ who represented and actualised all that was believed to be best about the typical Australian character. The essential equation was simple but powerful: the digger was Anzac and Anzac was the Australian spirit, ethos and identity.

In the unprecedented experience of total warfare, arguably sharpened by the effects of large distance, Australians remaining on the home front immediately sought to find ways to recognize and to commemorate the sacrifice of their ‘boys’ in faraway Europe and the Middle East. The first attempt to publicly acknowledge the significance of the Gallipoli landings took place on October 1915 when the South Australian (Labor) government decided to change the Labour Day celebration into ‘Anzac Day’. This was followed in 1916 by official commemorative events in London, among serving Australian troops abroad and around the country in citizen-generated memorial services, marches and related events. In 1917, 1918 and 1919, April 25 was increasingly observed at home and abroad. Through these acknowledgments, the digger became an increasingly potent symbol of Australia and its most cherished ideals, aspirations and myths.

The loss of over sixty-one thousand soldiers and the wounding of almost 170 000 more had an especially broad impact in Australia. Very few families were unaffected by these tragedies and, in many cases, the ongoing burdens of repatriation. While the digger was in his contextual origins a military figure, his links with the legend of the busman and the larrikin and his primarily civilian status (all Australian troops were volunteers), also made him a civic figure. In essence, a culture hero whose warrior features dovetailed with the contemporary need for a heroic national stereotype.

This figure conveniently combined the young country’s need for military glory with existing popular notions of national and cultural identity, derived from historical experience and folklore. In his official and military guise, the digger appears as a tough, no-nonsense soldier exemplifying the Australian versions of combat courage, loyalty, sacrifice and duty. In his folkloric form, the digger is an offhanded, anti-authoritarian rascal, uncaring of military discipline and etiquette and with the attitude of an average ‘bloke’ just getting on with the job of fighting wars on behalf of the national population rather than the generals and the politicians.

Since the Great War

In the immediate postwar years, Anzac evolved into Australia’s most important cultural discourse. Once politicians – at first slowly – realised this, the tradition became politicised. It evolved along with the modes of commemoration felt to be appropriate for the observance of Anzac Day as a national public holiday, with the building of the elaborate shrine and museum known as the Australian War Memorial. Returned soldier organisations, notably the entity now known as the Returned and Services’ League (RSL), also played a central role in the evolution of Anzac, particularly in controlling participation in public observance of the tradition and in proselytizing a particular version of it in schools, the community and, for a considerable period, among state and federal governments.[xi]There has also been ongoing military interest in a valuable symbol of fighting spirit, mobilised again in World War 2 and in every conflict in which Australia has since been involved. Despite the official appropriation of Anzac, it also – incomprehensibly and regrettably to some[xii]– remains a popular manifestation of national sentiment.

Despite ups and downs in Anzac Day attendances and numerous controversies in the years since, Anzac has generally retained this popular understanding and appeal, reinforced through school curricula, the annual observances on 25 April, the central institutional presence of the Australian War Memorial and endless speeches, articles, books, films, television shows and other effusions. Anzac Day has become a de facto national day for many, perhaps most Australians. While these developments have expanded and intensified since the end of the war, the basic significance of Anzac was initiated between 1915 and 1919, by which time Australian troops had been finally repatriated.

Because the casualties and aftermath of World War 1 had such a deep impact on Australian society, a large number of Australians with no direct connection to the experience of World War 1, or even World War 2, have discovered links with these pasts through the burgeoning family history movement. An Anzac ancestor has become as prized an antecedent as a transported convict in the popular discourses of national identity.

Conclusion

The intriguing ambivalence of Anzac has been briefly outlined here, mainly in its origins and the first few years of its existence. A full appreciation of its significance for Australians requires a longer view than can be given within the chronological framework of the First World War. However, the importance and continuing power of this cultural tradition can be indicated through some actions of the Commonwealth government. From 1916, the term ‘Anzac’ was officially protected from unauthorised uses for commercial, partisan or other unsuitable purposes. This legislation has been amended from time to time since, always with the intention of strengthening it.[xiii]Anzac thus remains an official term and concept as well as a popular focus for what many Australians continue to understand as their national identity. And it remains controversial.[xiv]But despite the best efforts of historians and other scholars to divest Anzac of its considerable mythology, broad community acceptance of these myths ensures its continuing touchstone for a particular but potent idea of Australian cultural identity.

 

Selected Bibliography

Beaumont, Joan: Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Sydney, 2013.

Butler, A.G: The Digger: A Study in Democracy. Sydney 1945.

Cochrane, P: Simpson and the Donkey: The Making of a Legend. Melbourne 1992. New edn. 2013.

Ely, Richard: The First Anzac Day: Invented or Discovered? in: Journal of Australian Studies17 1985.

Fewster, Kevin (ed):Gallipoli Correspondent: The Frontline Diary of C.E.W. Bean. Sydney 1983.

Flaherty, C. & Roberts, M: The Reproduction of Anzac Symbolism, in: Journal of Australian Studies24, May 1989.

Gammage, Bill: The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. Canberra 1974.

Gammage, Bill: The Crucible: The Establishment of the Anzac Tradition, 1899-1918, in McKernan, Michael  & Browne, Margaret (eds), in: Australia Two Centuries of War and Peace. Canberra/Sydney 1988.

Gerster, Robin: Big-Noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing. Melbourne 1987.

Inglis, K.S: The Australians at Gallipoli, parts 1 & 2, in:  Historical Studies14:54, 1970 – 14:55 1970.

Kent, David: The Anzac Book and the Anzac Legend: C.E.W. Bean as Editor and Image-maker. Historical Studies21:84, April 1985.

Robertson, John: Anzac and Empire: The Tragedy and Glory of Gallipoli. Port Melbourne 1990.

Peter Stanley: Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Sydney, 2010.

Thomson, Alistair: Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne 1994.

Winter, Dennis (ed):Making the Legend: The War Writings of C.E.W. Bean. St Lucia 1992.

 

References

i Used here in the lower case form that denotes the term’s distinctiveness from its originating upper case acronymic form of ‘ANZAC.’ Some argue passionately that the word should always be completely capitalised, another indication of the importance of all things ‘Anzac’ in Australian society.

ii Anzac is also important for New Zealand history and culture, if in a less acute form. See Hopkins-Weise, Jeff: Blood Brothers: The Anzac Genesis. Kent Town SA 2009.

[iii]Inglis, Ken: The Anzac Tradition, in: Meanjin24 1965; Serle, Geoffrey: The Digger Tradition and Australian Nationalism, in Meanjin24:2 1965.

[iii]There was some anthropological ethnography of Anzac Day observances in the 1970s and 80s, see Kitley, Philip: Anzac Day Ritual, in:Journal of Australian Studies4, 1979, pp. 58-69; Sackett, Leigh: Marching into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide, in: Journal of Australian Studies17 1985; Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli(1981), the play The One Day of the Year (1958) by Alan Seymour, among many lesser-known artistic representations and productions.

[iii]Scates, Bruce: Returnto Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War. Melbourne 2006; Seal, Graham: Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology. Brisbane 2004; Seymour, Alan/Nile, Richard: AnzacMeaning Memory and Myth. London 1988. Scates, Bruce et al: Anzac Day at Home and Abroad: Towards a History of Australia’s National Day, in: History Compass10: 2012, 523–536. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2012.00862.x.

[iii]Shaw, Brian: Bush Religion: A Discussion of Mateship, in: Meanjin Quarterly12:3 1953; Inglis, Ken, assisted by Jan Brazier:  Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Carlton, Vic. 1998; Seal, Graham:Anzac: The Sacred in the Secular in Paranjape, Makarand (ed), in: Sacred Australia: post-secular considerations. Melbourne, 2009.

[iii]See Bean, C E W (ed): The Anzac Book, p. ix; Joan Hughes (ed): Australian Words and their Origins. Melbourne 1989.

[iii]Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatch was published in Australian newspapers from 8 May, 1915.

[iii]Bean’s report was transmitted through the Prime Minister’s Department in The Commonwealth of Australia Gazette39, 17thMay 1915 ‘… published for general information.’

[iii]Seal, Graham: Remembering and forgetting ANZAC Cottage: interpreting the community significance of Australian War Memorials since World War in Bennett, et al (eds), in: People, Place and Power: Global and Regional Perspectives. Perth 2009.

[iii]Stanley, Peter: Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force. Sydney 2010.

[iii]Hills, L: The RSSILA. Its Origin, History, Achievement and Ideals, Melbourne, 1927; Kristianson, G.L: The Politics of Patriotism: The Pressure Group Activities of the Returned Servicemen’s’ League. Canberra 1966; Ross, Jane: The Myth of the Digger. Australian Soldiers in Two World Wars. Sydney 1985.

[iii]Lake, Marilyn et al: What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney 2010.

[iii]See Anzac Day Act 1995 http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Series/C2004A04877and Protection of the Word ‘Anzac’ Regulations http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Series/F1997B02175, which also contains some details of previous legislation governing the use of the word ‘Anzac.’

[iii]Brown, James: Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession. Melbourne 2014.

 

RIVERS OF GOLD

el dorado raft

Ancient though their origins may be, the world’s many myths and legends have played an important role in history. Frightening fables of unknown southern lands, tales of lost cities and endless rumours of hidden hordes of gold motivated many of the world’s greatest explorations.

Five centuries before the common era, the Greeks knew the world was not flat. It was a globe and so, they reasoned, there must be a large landmass in the extreme south to balance the lands they knew in the northern hemisphere. The Romans embroidered the legend of a lost southern land by imagining it was peopled by strange beings who survived in great heat and necessarily walked upside down.  By the Second century AD it was widely accepted that there was a southern land, probably inhabited, and laying at the bottom of the world – somewhere. It featured on beautifully crafted European maps and charts complete with sea monsters and winged serpents. The Muslim world also produced maps that seem to represent some of Australia’s northern coastline in the Ninth century AD.

Mariners began searching for the southland from early times. It was frequently discovered, the news triumphantly announced, only to be disproved by later explorers. Many voyages undertaken by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British were inspired by the desire to solve the riddle of the mysterious continent. It would be centuries before anyone did, but these many efforts provided the world with knowledge of distant places, unknown seas, new flora and fauna and contact with indigenous peoples previously unknown to Europeans.

Other beliefs also fuelled world exploration. Stories about the ‘River of Gold’, now thought to be the Senegal River, reached southern Europe through contact with the Muslim world from perhaps as early as the Thirteenth century. But from ancient times there had been great interest in the rumoured river. Pliny the Elder and Claudius Ptolemy write about it and the Carthaginians sailed there more than four centuries BCE. A number of Arab expeditions were reported to have sought the river during the Twelfth century. Despite the unknown terrors of sea voyages in that era, people heard these yarns and went looking for the treasure. Most never returned. Or, if they did, we know nothing about it.

Despite – or perhaps because of – these uncertainties, the legend of the River of Gold grew on the tongues of traders, sailors and adventurers. An expansion of this tale based on ninth century Arab writings claimed that there was not just a river and an island but ‘Lands of Gold’ in the chief city of which gold ‘grew in the sand like carrots’ to be harvested at sunrise. Three centuries later writers were describing the magnificent gold clad horses and gold and silver-collared dogs of the king of this place (probably modern Ghana). His sons boasted gold-plaited hair and lowly pages who hefted swords mounted in gold.

Wild though these legends were, they spurred expansion into new lands, gradually filling the map of the world with facts rather than fictions. We will never know how many adventurers and treasure seekers set out to find the objects of their desire though we can be sure that most of them died in their quests. But in one case we do know the explorer’s fate.

The Spanish began their occupation of South America when Cortez conquered the Aztecs from 1519.  The astonishing amount of gold and other valuables the Spaniards found as they cut their way through the indigenous peoples rapidly established South America as a hot spot of fabled wealth. One of the most potent tales concerned an indigenous community whose kingship ritual involved covering the anointed man with gold dust – El Dorado, ‘the golden one’. Other items in the ceremony were also either made of gold or covered in the precious metal. Together with other valuables, the gold was thrown into Lake Guativita. The king went in as well, washing the gold dust from his body and adding to the riches carpeting the lake floor.

RALEIGH

By the time the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh first heard about El Doradofrom a captured Spanish sailor it was no longer an individual but a place. A city of gold along an Amazonian river in the wilds of Guiana (Guyana). Slowly but steadily the lure of the golden city took hold of one of the greatest scholars and adventurers of the Elizabethan era. Raleigh had long been collecting relevant documents and maps and was well versed in the lore of the great treasure when he finally sailed to Trinidad and then to the mouth of the Orinoco River on his own quest for El Dorado in 1595. Previous unsuccessful attempts had been made from the east coast and Raleigh was not about to repeat the mistakes of others. Nor could he afford to fail.

It was a horror voyage. Raleigh’s passage through the “thick and troubled water” of the Orinoco and its endless tributaries was long, hot and arduous. Raleigh ended his account with a strong promise of untold riches. But the leaden truth was that “I gave among them [the Indians GS] many more pieces of gold than I received.” Raleigh’s quest had been a colossal failure – and he knew it. Although he did not find El Dorado, his The Discovery of Guiana (1596), provided valuable anthropological, ecological and geographic knowledge of the region. Through it he also wrote himself out of immediate trouble with his Queen, Elizabeth I.

Still a believer, Raleigh tried again in 1617. His attempt was another failure and sealed his fate with a new monarch, James I. Soon after his empty-handed return to England the great Elizabethan and earnest seeker of El Dorado was beheaded at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. In his dying speech he admitted to being “a man full of all vanity, and having lived a sinful life, in all sinful callings, having been a soldier, a captain, a sea captain, and a courtier, which are all places of wickedness and vice …”.

Misty and murky though they were, these and the many other legends of unknown lands and golden treasures had very real consequences for individuals and for the greater sweep of world exploration and discovery.

 

BRITAIN REVOKES USA INDEPENDENCE

art colors conceptual fingers

This spoof letter is a piece of modern folklore. It appeared in photocopied and early internet forms while George W Bush was POTUS (2001-2009) and purports to be the work of the famous English comedian, John Cleese. Unlikely though that is, the sentiments expressed were commonly heard at the time. Although it gives a clear view of British prejudices against America, it has an uncanny relevance to the situation from 2017 onwards. Read on, and see if you agree:

To the citizens of the United States of America:

In the light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your Independence, effective today. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint minister for America without the need for further elections.

Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed. To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

  1. You should look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up “aluminium”. Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’, skipping the letter ‘U’ is nothing more than laziness on your part. Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. You will end your love affair with the letter ‘Z’ (pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’) and the suffix “ize” will be replaced by the suffix “ise”.

You will learn that the suffix ‘burgh’ is pronounced ‘burra’ e.g. Edinburgh. You are welcome to respell Pittsburgh as ‘Pittsberg’ if you can’t cope with correct pronunciation. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary”. Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication.Look up “interspersed”.

There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re Not old enough to cope with bad language then you shouldn’t have chat shows. When you learn to develop your vocabulary then you won’t have to use bad language as often.

  1. There is no such thing as “US English”. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’ and the elimination of “-ize”.
  2. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). You will also have to learn how to understand regional accents – Scottish dramas such as “Taggart” will no longer be broadcast with subtitles. While we’re talking about regions, you must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon”. If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire, Floridashire, Louisianashire.
  3. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys. Hollywood will be required to cast English actors to play English characters. British sit-coms such as “Men Behaving Badly” or “Red Dwarf” will not be re-cast and watered down for a wishy-washy American audience who can’t cope with the humour of occasional political incorrectness.
  4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to Get confused and give up half way through.
  5. You should stop playing American “football”. There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your Borders may have noticed that no one else plays “American” football. You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a Difficult game.

Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or  wearing full kevlar body armour like (nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US Rugby sevens side by 2005.

You should stop playing baseball.  It is not reasonable to host an event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside Of America. Since only 2.15% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. Instead of baseball, you Will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders” which is baseball Without fancy team strip, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

  1. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because we don’t believe you are sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you will require a permit if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
  2. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called “Indecisive Day”.
  3. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts. You will Start driving on the left with immediate effect.

At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

  1. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t even French, they are Belgian though 97.85% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called “crisps”. Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat. Waitresses will be trained to be more aggressive with customers.
  2. As a sign of penance, 5 grams of sea salt per cup will be added to all tea made within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this quantity to be doubled for tea made within the city of Boston itself.
  3. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all, it is lager. From November 1st only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer”, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as “Lager”. The substances formerly known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine”, with the exception of the product of the American Budweiser company whose product will be referred to as “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine”. This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.
  4. From November 10th the UK will harmonise petrol (or “Gasoline” as you will be permitted to keep calling it until April 1st 2005) prices with the former USA. The UK will harmonise its prices to those of the former USA and the Former USA will, in return, adopt UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US Gallon – get used to it).
  5. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not adult enough to be independent. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you’re not grown up enough to handle gun.
  6. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.
  7. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to1776).
  8. Last, but not the least, and for heaven’s sake…..it’s Nuclear as in “clear” NOT Nucular.

Thank you for your co-operation and have a great day

John Cleese

See previous posts on The Bullshit Detection Bureau and The Last Great Act of Defiance

 

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PARLARI – THE SPEECH OF FAIRGROUND FOLK

barth-fair

St Bartholomew’s Fair, George Cruikshank

 

The collection of sideshows, amusements and diversions that appear on parks, commons and other open areas from time to time are usually known as fairsin Britain and as carnivalsin America. Fairground folk in Britain have their own language, known as parlari(parleyaree, polari), probably spoken since the earliest formation of travelling fairs.

Strolling players, mountebanks, mummers and other such entertainers, often referred to disapprovingly as knaves,were on the roads of Britain in medieval times. Sometimes difficult to distinguish from sundry beggars and other itinerants, these acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters, rope walkers, actors and the like performed wherever and wherever they were likely to earn a crust, preferably before the local authorities moved them on. These venues might be in properly built or makeshift theatres, at fairs and festivals or just on a street corner.

The nefarious reputation of fairs continued over time. A report from eighteenth century Essex tells of performers being jailed for ‘dancing, conversation pieces, tumbling, and fiddling and, by means of a pretended lottery and other subtle craft, deceiving and imposing on many unwary subjects of his Majesty…’.

The most famous of the many fairs was Bartholomew’s Fair, held several times a year in London until 1855. Southwark Fair was another London favourite, especially popular with sailors. In the seventeenth century it featured monkeys, then very exotic animals, an ass that walked a suspended rope and an Italian dancing girl.

In 1800 a continental visitor described one Bartholomew’s Fair, claiming it was unique in Europe. The booths were many, all featuring a noisemaking crew referred to as a ‘band’. Strolling musicians from the streets added their skills to the din, which was further amplified by the shouting of those who pretended no musical abilities at all. There were menageries, roundabouts, open air shows and theatres, many of them converted local houses, where unusual plays were performed. The Punchy and Judy shows were there, of course, along with crowds of prostitutes. Bartholomew, and other fairs, were also frequented by men and women of the respectable classes looking for a little lowlife titillation. By most accounts, they usually found it. Many fairs of this kind were gradually shut down, or carefully regulated, by concerned local authorities and respectable citizens during the Victorian era.

But travelling fairs have a rich and continuing history in Britain, despite regular predictions of their demise. Writing on the history of fairs in 1874, Thomas Frost claimed that: ‘The Nation has outgrown them and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo’.

Frost did not take into account the ability of show people to adapt to change, a talent that saw them rapidly adopt moving pictures after their introduction in 1896, as well as other good ideas from abroad. The popular fair attraction known as the ‘Wall of Death’, in which motorbikes are ridden in perpendicular fashion around circular walls, derives from the United States where it seems to have originated early in the twentieth century. The close-knit character of the fairground community was expressed in their special language.

Sea-On-Land

In Britain, fairground language is often called parlari and has been spoken by show people for as long as anyone knows. In some versions it includes more than a smattering of Romany, Shelta and words borrowed from a variety of western European languages. The fairground itself is known as a gaff, cheap shows being known as penny gaffs. A gaffmay also be a game that is designed to cheat its players, a usage also found in American carny. The gafferis the boss of a fairground, a term that has passed into general English slang and used with the same meaning in American circus talk. A gaff ladis a male staff member resident at the fair and a skippyis a female staff member.

Erecting a tent is a buildup, accomplished with kingpoles, while the top or roof of a tent is a tilt. A paper houseis a performance where most of the audience have been given free entrance to fill otherwise empty seats. A spotis a particular performance or act. A Dobbyor Dobby Setis a merry-go-round with fixed seats, or a galloperif all theseats move up-and-down. Dukkeringis fortune-telling. The word slangmay be used as a verb meaning to perform, or as a noun, meaning a sideshow or circus tent. To spielis to introduce an act or to announce information to the audience. This word also turns up in American carnyspeak and in Australian show lingo.

The close connection between the rumbustious entertainment of the fair and various forms of chicanery was one continued until almost to the present day. Crowds attracted pickpockets, thimbleriggers and other tricksters anxious to separate dull yokels up from the country or unwary townsfolk from their possessions.

 

For more on the rich history and culture of fairs go to the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

 

THE LOST RED RUBY OF BURMA

RubyLandBurma-CrownRuby

Hmm …

 

It is as big as a duck egg, cures afflictions and brings luck to its owner. The priceless red ruby once belonged to Burma’s last king until it mysteriously disappeared in the process of the country’s colonization by Britain in 1885. It has not been sighted since. The story of the hunt for the jewel is a convolution of fact, inference, suspicion and rumour that well demonstrates the enduring power of missing treasures to compel us to find them.

It was November 1885 when the British, worried about the security of their prized Indian possession, brought the Third Anglo-Burmese War to an end by invading the country and deposing its monarch. The king and his family were unceremoniously bundled out of their country to exile on the west coast of India. The monarch never returned to the country we now know, on and off, as Myanmar. Amongst the usual looting of antiquities and treasures that were the customary spoils of colonisers, Colonel Edward Sladen was entrusted with the political smoothing of the monarch’s removal. According to legend, he asked the king if he could inspect the fabled jewel, known as the Nga Mauk, examined it for a while then casually put it in his pocket.

Some claim the 80 caret-plus jewel was returned or that Sladen was simply holding the jewel for safekeeping. Whatever the truth of the matter, the ruby has disappeared. Sladen was knighted several months later. Since then, the Burmese royal family and subsequent generations of concerned Burmese have been trying to trace and retrieve their gem through decades of official obfuscation and indifference.

So, whereabouts is this treasure?

According to some, it is now part of the Crown Jewels shining out from the Imperial State Crown worn by the British monarch on ceremonial occasions. Others point out that this jewel is not the Burmese ruby, but a stone that adorned Henry V’s helmet at Agincourt. Another suggestion is that the ruby was cut into four and then emblazoned the Imperial Crown of India, made in 1911 when George V and Queen Mary were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of British India.

Or there is the story that Sladen simply gave the prize to his Queen. This possibility has generated yet another enigmatic trail in the quest for the Nga Mauk. According to this story, Queen Victoria had the ruby in her personal collection in the form of a bracelet and willed it to one of her daughters, the Duchess of Argyll, Princess Louise. The current descendants of the Princess have no knowledge of the piece and Princess Louise’s will is sealed, as is the practice for deceased members of the reigning royals.

There are many with a deep interest in locating and, hopefully recovering the Nga Mauk. For Burmese it is a vital symbol of a lost past and a continuing identity, which many in modern Myanmar wish to preserve. Wherever the ruby may be, it does not belong there, but to the people of that still-troubled country.

REFERENCES:
Alex Bescoby, ‘Who Stole Burma’s Royal Ruby?’, 2 November 2017 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/who_stole_burmas_royal_ruby, accessed February 2018.

© Graham Seal 2018

WIVES FOR SALE


Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814 
 

Here’s an update on an intriguing folk custom I wrote about in Great Convict Stories.

 

*
A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
 
 
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
 
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.
 

 

SOURCES

The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.

Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/19th-century-wife-selling-in-literature-illustrations-and-practice, accessed August 2018.

The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).

Dance’s Historical  Miscellany at http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/id-sell-my-wife-if-anybody-would-buy-her-wife-sales-in-england/, accessed August 2018.