SHip of fools Pieter_van_der_Heyden_Die_blau_Schuyte_1559

Ship of Fools – Pieter van der Heyden  (fl. 1551–1572)

In our current era of globalised stupidity it seems fitting to take a look at the folklore of fools. Pretty much every culture has them and the same tales of their stupidity often turn up in different traditions. The Turkish Hadji, the Italian Bastienelo, the Cambodian Kong, the Chinese Wang and the Arabic Djuna typify this class of heroism, which seems to be largely restricted to males. Hmm.

Numskulls, as these characters are often known, characteristically perform foolish tasks through misunderstanding a verbal communication or taking one too literally. The English Lazy Jack simply does whatever he is told, regardless of the circumstances. The Drongo is the Australian nincompoop, a heroically stupid figure who interprets whatever he is told literally. When the boss tells him to ‘hang a new gate’, the Drongo takes the gate out to the nearest tree and hangs it in a noose.

Jean Sot is a character in French and French diaspora lore. In the Louisiana French versions Jean is a fool who usually misunderstands instructions and shoots the cow instead of milking it. Or he may take what he is told literally and throw a dog named Parsley into the broth instead of the herb parsley, as his mother has requested. On other occasions Jean may remove and take with him a door he has been asked to guard and sometimes makes a fortune when he accidentally frightens off the robbers who have stolen it.

Some cultures have so many fools they have to keep them all in areas or towns designated for the purpose. In ancient Greece those who lived in the province of Boetia were treated as hopeless hayseeds and hicks. The English town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire has been the focus of numskull tales since at least the fifteenth century. One story told of the Wise men of Gotham is that twelve of them went fishing in a boat but returned in a state of great despair believing that one of them had drowned. They knew this because they could each only count eleven fishermen: each forgot to count himself.

Other fooltowns include Chelm or Helm in Poland, where even the intellectually-challenged Berel the Beadle seems like a mental giant; Altstätten in Switzerland, and Emesa in what used to be Persia. Other towns of clowns are found in Pakistan (Buneyr) and Sri Lanka, (Kadambawa), as well as in Japan, Finland and elsewhere.

In German tradition, the inhabitants of Schwarzenborn and Mutschingen are said to be foolish, as are those of the mythic German town of Schild. Here, the people were so stupid they built a council house without windows but were unable to understand why it was so dark inside. Eventually they realised that no light was able to enter the building, but instead of putting windows in, the people of Schild tried to carry beams of sunshine into the building. This did not improve the lighting and so they next took the advice of a passer-by to take the roof off, richly rewarding him for his assistance. This was fine and the people of Schild were very happy – until it rained. They had to replace the roof and consider what they might do next.

Groping around in the darkness of the council house, one of the fools noticed a small beam of daylight lancing in through a crack between roof and wall. After looking at the light for a while and giving the matter a good deal of thought, he suggested to the others that it might be possible to brighten the building by adding some windows. After considering this suggestion for quite a long while there was general agreement that it just might be worth a try.

Many of these tales are more or less affectionate and the characters in them often much loved. What is there to like about stupidity? Perhaps folk fools are reflections of ourselves. With rare exceptions, few of us are actually fools, we just sometimes do foolish things. It’s all part of being human and if we can find a way to weave an enjoyable and witty yarn around foolish deeds of trivial as well as gargantuan dimensions, we will, just as we have done for thousands of years.

What a pity that foolishness seems to have now broken out of folkloric fantasy and into reality.


William Wallace Denslow’s illustrations for Three Wise Men of Gotham, from a 1901 edition of Mother Goose






Landscape with Swagman (also known as The swagman’s camp by a billabong), painting by Gordon Coutts, oil on canvas, 35.6 x 45.7 cm stretcher; 55.0 x 65.2 x 7.7 cm frame : 0 – Whole; 35 x 45 cm Art Gallery of NSW


Sometimes said to be the world’s most recorded song, the origins of Australia’s accidental anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, has troubled historians and folklorists for a century or so. Just when was it first composed. In what circumstances, where and by whom?

Any number of competing and conflicting theories have been put forward in what seems to be a never-ending flow of books on the subject. Now, W Benjamin Lindner has come up with the most definitive answer to date. Applying the forensic skills of a criminal barrister and a rigorous historical approach to a decidedly ‘two pipe problem’, as Sherlock Holmes might have put it, Lindner’s detective work has convincingly solved the case. It’s all in his Waltzing Matilda: Australia’s Accidental Anthem. A Forensic History (Boolarong Press, 2019).

Not wanting to spoil the story, I won’t give away his conclusion, so you’ll need to check out the book to find the answer. Despite its deep engagement with archival records and the other dry-as-dust stuff that historians like to engage with, it is a good read. While it sets out to prove a particular and important chronological point about the composition of the song, it necessarily tells the human stories of the people most closely involved with it, at the time, and later.

These are, of course, the two main characters, A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Christina Macpherson. Paterson thought so little of his dashed-off lyric that he sold the rights to his publisher for five pounds and hardly ever talked about it again. Repurposing a catchy Scots tune, often said to be one of the most recorded songs of all time, Christina Macpherson, mostly got lost in the condescension of posterity.  But now she is confirmed in her proper place as the composer of our national song.

And there is a supporting cast of often-colourful other characters who were in on the original events behind the song, as well as later writers who put their efforts towards working out exactly what happened when and where. These include Sydney May, the first person to take an interest, starting seriously in the 1940s. He was misled by some of the accounts he collected but gets the credit for setting the Matilda hunt waltzing.

Then there was the no-nonsense bushman, Richard Magoffin, raised near the legendary site of composition, Dagworth Station. With a commendable disdain for academic historians and the complex copyright issues surrounding the song, he doggedly pursued Matilda through Queensland, across Australia and, ultimately, to the USA. Magoffin made a number of important contributions to the song’s history, though as Lindner shows, like most Matilda researchers, he got one or two things wrong as well. Nevertheless, his work has also been the basis of the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton, dedicated to preserving and representing the history of the song.

Folkies will be familiar with another important figure in the debate. The late and much missed Dennis O’Keeffe advanced the story by investigating family traditions about the song and linking it closely with violent events of the 1890s shearers’ strike in his Waltzing Matilda: The Secret History of Australia’s Favourite Song (2012). Lindner’s own findings mean he isn’t convinced by that argument but acknowledges the value of O’Keeffe’s contribution to the scholarship of the song.

Many others have also had a crack at solving the mystery, putting forward various theories and speculations. But Lindner aims to avoid supposition and myth in favour of cold, hard facts.  Not too much escapes his steely eye. He combs old train timetables, ships’ passenger lists, letters, diaries and even considers a skull in the Queensland Police Museum to build his case. From all this evidence, he establishes a chronology for the creation and early diffusion of the lyrically sparse and – let’s be honest – pretty silly ditty about a swaggie knocking off a sheep and throwing himself in the billabong when the squatter and the cops turn up.

The rudimentary lyric of our great song is one of its many intriguing characteristics. I once had a literary colleague who studied the words of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and concluded that it was nearly empty of semantic content. It was such a minimal story, told in so few words, that it was – almost – meaningless. We can take this either to mean that it’s one of the slightest pieces of literature ever scribbled, or that Paterson was a genius of narrative compression. Whatever, in my view, this is the secret of the song’s lyrical success. It is such an empty vessel that, like a cliché, it can be filled with just about any meaning we care to pour in – or out, as many have.

But that’s just my take on the song’s curious appeal. Lindner has nobbled the facts on behalf of us all. Apart from those invested in the tourism appeal of ‘Matilda country’ and a handful of researchers, not many people will give a flying jumbuck about his findings, alas. But anyone with even the faintest interest in the intriguing history of this amazingly durable ditty should ‘grab one with glee’ from any good bookshop or from the publisher.

Even after his research and writing epic, Lindner is still interested in the song, noting that ‘the history of the origins of Waltzing Matilda remains incomplete’, and is keen to hear from anyone with something to contribute to its ever-expanding mythology. He can be contacted at .You can also follow developments on Facebook at W.Benjamin Lindner, Author .






hound-baskervilles 2

Here’s a good topic for the hinge of the year, the end of one calendar and the start of another. Have you been thinking about hellhounds lately? No? Well then, read on…

Oversized, red-eyed, shaggy, stinking and generally monstrous dogs have been with us from at least the era of ancient Greece. Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the underworld is pretty well-known. Less-so is the Norse equivalent of Garmr, among other canine creepies.

The infernal associations of ‘hellhounds’, as these apparitions are usually known, are also found in many legends heard in the traditions of Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Sometimes hellhounds appear in the form of ghostly predators shadowing travelers along lonely roads (and, very occasionally, protecting them from something worse). Sometimes they are associated with spectral hordes, such as ‘the Wild Hunt’ (see previous post on this).


But the most frequent form of hellhound tradition features, as Arthur Conan Doyle lastingly put it, ‘a gigantic hound’, that bays chillingly then appears at the imminent death of a member of a local aristocratic family, the basic premise of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle seems to have added a family curse to sex up the atmosphere a tad). The creator of Sherlock Holmes said little about his inspiration for this enduring literary spectre, beyond a casual reference to hearing about something similar from a friend. Most commentators have subsequently suggested that Doyle was probably referring to the legend of seventeenth century Devon squire, Richard Cabell.

Cabell did enough dirty work in his life to gather an impressive, if improbably evil, reputation. He was alleged to have murdered his wife (though she seems to have outlived him), made a pact with the devil and to have died while hunting down a maiden across Dartmoor one stormy night.  And it gets better. The locals were reputedly so afeared of him that they built a structure over his despised burying place and placed a large block of stone over his grave to make sure he stayed in it. Whether he has or not, the church was afflicted with lightning, Nazi bombs and arson, and is now a ruin.

The historian Mike Dash has also done some sleuthing on a little-known Scots version of the hellhound tradition. This one is a stonker, complete with clans, a loyal hound and a mysterious dark island in the middle of a loch. The story has a murky history – of course! – but was given flesh by Iain Thornber in a 1980s magazine article. Read all about HERE, where Dash spins the filaments into a fascinating yarn.

For blues fans, the primal music of Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ (1937) evokes a haunted, hunted atmosphere that draws from this tradition and invokes broader African American spooky lore. This includes meeting with the devil at the crossroads and the exploits of the badman, Stagolee (variously spelt), hero of another classic blues and a considerable body of folktale and supernatural – as well as bawdy – lore.

For those who like to take their legends with a drop of analysis, hellhound stories seem to be closely linked to their localities, even if the basic motif is widespread. They can also accrue other motifs, such as Faustian deals with the devil and membership of the Wild Hunt, as in the case of badass Richard Cabell’s tradition. The Scots ‘Grey Dog of Meoble’ also has an element of the loyal hound tradition, probably best-known in the Welsh Beth Gellert tale and also in a modern legend. Hellhounds may also shape-shift into different animal forms, though whatever their species, their function remains the same.

Dark wind rising

Blood moon hangs in troubled skies

Thunder, lightning, hail and rain

Hellhound baying, someone dies



Mike Dash, A Blast From the Past blog,

William Henderson, Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, The Folk-Lore Society, London, 1879, pp. 273ff.

Howard Williams, Archaeodeath blog,



Michael Rockefeller in the U.S before his disappearance.


New Guinea’s river-riddled southwest is the home of the Asmat people. Under the control of the Netherlands for many years, it was not until the 1950s that officials and missionaries finally made contact with the fierce Asmat, confirming that they practiced cannibalism as part of their spiritual and warrior culture. The waters of the Arafura Sea fringing their territory became known as ‘the cannibal coast.’

In the early 1960s, a young adventurer from the wealthy Rockefeller family came into contact with the Asmat during an anthropological filming expedition. Impressed with their culture and fascinated by their way of life, the 23 year-old Michael Rockefeller organised a return trip to study the Asmat more closely. Rockefeller was seeking adventure and also anxious to experience one of the world’s rapidly disappearing frontiers as well as documenting the customs and beliefs of an indigenous tribe.

The expedition began in October 1961. Michael and his companions followed a busy schedule of collecting and buying Asmat artefacts, trading for them fishing hooks and liens, cloth, tobacco and axes. He was particularly fascinated by the six meter carved wooden bisjpoles central to the spiritual practices and headhunting of the Asmat. The tall poles represented the ancestors and operated to ensure fertility of the soil and the continuation of human life.

A month later, Michael, together with a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing and two local boys, was travelling in a motorised canoe through the Arafura Sea. Their intended destination was a wild area of southern Asmat country where the European presence was just one missionary. As they crossed the mouth of the Betsj River the canoe was swamped by a large wave. All four passengers were thrown into the wild water. The boys swam for the shore to summon help while Rockefeller and Wassing waited helplessly with the overturned boat, drifting further away from the coast. When it got light, Michael stripped to his underwear and tied two plastic jerry cans around his waist. With the extra buoyancy they would give him he began to swim towards the distant shore.

Unknown to Rockefeller and Wassing, the two boys had reached the town of Agats after many hours struggling through the swamps. They raised the alarm. A search plane spotted the capsized hull later that day and a rescue plane arrived the following morning. Wassing was saved but Michael Rockefeller was never seen again.

A desperate search followed. Did he drown from exhaustion and exposure? Perhaps he was taken by a shark or other predator? Or …? The Rockefeller family hired a Boeing jet and flew media to the area but they were unable to get closer than 240 kilometres to the coast where Michael was last seen. Official and unofficial efforts to find the missing millionaire were made and the event was reported around the world. But less than a week after his disappearance, the Netherlands government declared there was no hope of finding him alive.  A few weeks later the search was ended. But the mystery of Michael Rockefeller’s fate began to grow.

Michael Rockefeller was declared legally dead in 1964 but that did not stop the flow of speculations and dark rumours about the time, place and manner of his death. Or even if he was dead at all. One of the earliest elements of the legend had it that the missing adventurer was alive and living in the jungle, either of his own free will or perhaps as a captive.

In 1968 an Australian smuggler and gunrunner named ‘John Donahue’ claimed not only to have seen Michael Rockefeller but to have spoken with him. Donahue had been pursuing his nefarious business interests in the Trobriand Island group off northeastern New Guinea where he met a bearded and crippled white man being held captive by the Trobrianders. The man identified himself as Michael Rockefeller. He told Donahue that he had managed to swim to the coast from the drifting canoe, wandered through the swamps for several days, then broken both his legs in an accident. He was fortunately rescued – or captured – by a group of Trobrianders who were in the area on one of their regular extended sea journeys. They took him back to their home and were keeping him in their village. Why the Trobrianders wanted to hold this man was not specified. Donahue apparently disappeared before he could provide further details.

Little, if any, credible evidence exists for this throwback to the myths of castaway sailors forming colonies or integrating into local indigenous populations. And there are other stories.

Asmat canoes

Papuans on the Lorentz River in Western New Guinea during the third South-New-Guinea expedition of 1912-13. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.


One popular explanation had it that the Netherlands authorities murdered a number of Asmat people in 1958. Asmat custom called for killings to be revenged and it is speculated that Michael Rockefeller did make it to the coast but swam into a revenge cycle initiated by the murders. The Asmat saw his sudden appearance as an opportunity to avenge themselves against the white men who had attacked them a few years before. In those days, Asmat revenge killings included taking the heads of their victims and eating their bodies.

More lurid versions of this explanation claim that the Rockefeller family hired private investigators to determine the fate of their son. One allegedly obtained three European skulls from the Asmat and, in return for a $250 000 fee, presented these to the family as evidence of Michael Rockefeller’s fate.

The Rockefeller family continues to mourn the loss of this naïve but passionate adventurer. In 2012 Michael’s twin sister published a memoir of her and her family’s struggle to deal with Michael’s disappearance. The enigma is still rehearsed from time to time in films, books, plays and the media.

Many of the Asmat artefacts collected by Michael Rockefeller, together with his photographs can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at The Peabody Museum at Yale University. While the man’s memory lingers on, so does his mystery.


Thomas_Jeffries 2

Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.


[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.