How often do we talk about the power of stories? Or about having faith? And how often do we act on either - as in a leap of trust? In reading Signe Pike's Faery Tale I came across a woman who had followed the power of stories - and leapt into her own as she went off to search for the Fair Folk.
I had picked up the hard cover a while back, and had added it to my library of faery lore. And I will admit that even as I purchased the book I was a little dubious, since many of the modern books on the fairies tend to be very light on actual lore, and heavy on fluff. Couple that with it being a memoir and I was really wondering if I had spent my money well.
It turned out I had.
It took me a while to get around to the book as other research projects demanded my attention, but now I am sorry I have finished it.
This was more than just a book of fairy lore. Ms. Pike's ability to bring places and people to life on the page is powerful in its own right. And the landscapes of her travels through the British Isles stand out in your mind.
She had studied her lore and history, and she blends that with her personal growth and healing through the book.
At the end you know she is strong in her beliefs, but she doesn't try to come up with any hard conclusions. Not that that would be possible when it comes to the Fair Folk. What is solid is the belief that both nature and history should be respected, and permission asked when a traveler enters these realms.
A few weeks back I had the pleasure to perform at the Sangamon County Historical Society's "Spooky Sangamon." The other two presenters were: Ms. Tara McAndrew McClellan, and Mr Garrett Moffett. Ms. McClellann did a presentation about how Springfield, Il residents reacted to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. And Mr. Garrett Moffett spoke on the possible hauntings of the Lincolns’ Home, and on Lincoln's psychic experiences.
My own presentation was of two traditional ghost stories. As I explained to the attendees, finding folkloric ghost stories in Sangamon County - or even in Central Illinois - were as hard to find as the ghosts themselves. So the criteria for my choices were stories that could be found up to the eastern border of Illinois, and on the western border. One of the stories concerned a murdered peddler (I suspect there are more peddlers' ghosts than there were murdered peddlers). And the other had to do with a ghost who had died with things undone. Both of these types of tales are fairly classic folkloric ghost stories.
One of the things that I have noticed in some modern collections of hauntings is that there is a certain disdain of folkloric ghost stories. In some books there is a sense that they aren't "valid," since the reason behind the stories has been lost in time. And they don't register on electronic equipment.
I liked a comment I read in one book. A book that took a more balanced view. I can't remember the book's title, but the gist of the quote was that, “folkloric ghost stories are cultural artifacts, which reflect the mores and fears of a particular time.”
The two stories I told that evening fit that criteria.
Ghosts of murdered peddlers are represented in stories in just about every state, and some states have more than one. Historical peddlers and traveling salesmen had to be wary. They were often out of touch with family for long periods of time, and they often carried large sums of money, or goods.
Ghosts with unresolved issues are also incredibly common. Murder victims whose bodies were hidden often returned as ghosts. And if money was not revealed before death this offered another cause. Of course, hidden treasures are still a popular fantasy.
Now how can such common ghost stories be "valid?" It does come back to reflecting the concerns of a culture.
I recently read a history book, entitled, The Bewitching of America, by Dr. Owen Davies, which is about American witch belief after the Salem witch trials.
What was fascinating is that he was able to find, often via newspapers, an incredible number of actual witch accusations throughout the U. S.; many occurring in the 20th century. This belief was paralleled in the continued spread of folkloric witch belief, which continued to be renewed with new immigrant populations. Dr. Davies does an excellent overview of the history of the various incarnations of witchcraft in America, and ends with how the view of witches has changed.
Ghosts and witches beliefs have always been lumped together when it comes to the devoted rationalist, and in the 19th century most wanted to claim that such superstitions were on the wan. I suspect this is why there is little documented in the Midwest – because of a belief that if these “superstitions” were ignored they would wither away. However, Dr. Davies, proved, at least for witches, that neither belief, nor the folklore, had really gone away.
So I would argue, when it comes to ghosts, that a tale isn’t “just folklore” to be proved, or disproved, by modern ghost hunting. For me the tale itself is a valid cultural artifact, and should also be preserved.
This week has been blessed with an offering of fascinating, moving speakers. All of whom reminded the listeners of the gifts and sacrifices these individuals had given a nation.
Monday evening the Elijah Iles House Volunteer Appreciation Dinner wrapped up with a performance by Ms. Kathryn Harris as Harriet Tubman. Ms. Harris was enthralling, and educational, as she gave a overview of Harriet Tubman's life. I had known that Mrs. Tubman was a remarkable woman, but I had not realized to what extent. It was hard to conceive of several 3 months to 6 month journeys, mostly on foot, as she led her "passengers" from Maryland to either Pennsylvania or Canada. Or that she was the only woman to lead a Union ambush, and free several hundred slaves. Or that she went on to work for the Federal government, and later ran a "old folks home" - all without the ability to read or write. And that she lived till her 90's.
Then, last night, I attended the Sangamon County Historical Society's (SCHS) Pre-Veteran Day Salute, which was held out at U of I - Springfield's Brooken Auditorium.
I came in a little late, but was able to hear most of Mr. Mark DePue, Director of the Oral History program at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, interview of Mr. Kenneth "Tuck" Belton (WWII veteran), and all of Mr. Bernie Goulet's (Korean War) interview.
As I listened to these two men it was obvious that the experiences in these two wars had not dimmed in their memories. For the listeners it was like hearing of a dire movie come to life - hard to imagine anyone living through such circumstances.
How could you not be moved as you listened to these two men?
Such as when Mr. Belton, who fought with the Resistance in Holland, recounted having to stand by and watch 10 Dutch men being gunned down on the street. The only thing keeping him from reacting was the touch of a young woman's hand - warning him to hold back.
To imagine what it would be like to have to portray a deaf/mute, and refrain from any response when the enemy tested you with a loud sound.
Or when he told how he had to hide in a patch of woods in January. He said that a furry dog came by - that he wished that dog could be with him now - as the dog saved his life. He bundled the dog into his coat, and the two slept beneath those trees, in the snow, that night.
It would have to been a hard heart not to feel the grief as Mr. Goulet told of the company cooks crying when they realized their men would not come back.
Or when the officer who was Mr. Goulet's mentor, was gunned down only a few feet ahead of him.
Later there was a little reception, and I took the opportunity to thank Mr. Belton for his service. I wish I could have spoken with Mr. Goulet too, but he was busy.
And it was hard not to cry - not just at their stories - but at the fact I knew that these men were soon to be woven into the tapestry of history. Bright threads that is true, but soon all we would have is their stories.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.