Image Source: Nightmare Kingdom.
Hallowe'en is a reminder that the modern age swept aside beliefs in whole pantheons of natural deities, including some very frightening demons. One of the latter is the Kushtaka. This evil spirit, profiled on Brad Meltzer's Decoded episode about Alaska's mysteries, is so troubling to local native peoples that the site of television interview was purified after Meltzer's crew departed.
Kushtaka, or 'land otter man': "Canoe prow ornament representing Land-Otter-Man, Tlingit, from Sitka, Alaska, USA. Found at Nass River, British Columbia, Canada, in 1918." Image Source: Werner Forman via Heritage Images.
The Kushtaka is a soul-stealer, shape-shifter and otter-spectre feared by the Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples. These days, otters are viewed as people-friendly creatures. Perhaps it is their human expression that made them the subject of shape-shifting mythology. The Kushtaka is rather like the equally malevolent Native American monster, the Wendigo. Kushtakas are also sometimes likened to sasquatches.
It is believed that the Kushtaka lures people away to their deaths in deep waters. It usually takes the form of a person known to its victim, such as a kindly grandmother beckoning to her ill-fated grandchild from the edge of the forest. It will imitate the cries of a drowning woman or baby in waterways to lure would-be rescuers into treacherous rivers. It is also known to call sailors along Pacific American coasts to their deaths. Kushtakas are said to whistle in a telltale, low-high-low tone.
There are some Kushtaka stories online. Kushtakas make war on humans by spreading a plague amongst them in this legend from the Tlingit people. In this story, they take possession of women in a community and incite a bloody conflict. And in this story, a helpful but still spectral Kushtaka haunts a bereaved couple by appearing to them as their dead son and bringing them fish to eat. Those whom the Kushtakas help or harm run the risk of becoming Kushtakas themselves.
"Tlingit Native American, Land otter man, Clan: Ganaaxteidi. Place: Haines." Image Source: De Peper Muntjes Knipper.
A small chapel dedicated to St. Anne, installed inside the eastern yew, trunk diameter 10-11 metres, La Haye-de-Routot, France. Image Source: Gérard Janot via Wiki.
Hallowe'en also reminds us how much ancient traditions persist and evolve, from the deep past into the present. Those traditions arose out of pagan reverence for, and intimate connections with, the natural world. A good example is the yew tree (Taxus baccata), a tree long associated with death, cemeteries and the transition to the afterlife; poisonous to humans, pigs, cows and horses; connected to the Celts and especially Druids; long employed in the casting of spells and protective magic; its wood used for millennia to make poisons and weapons.
This conifer species has been with us a long, long time. It predates the Ice Age; the species' forerunner, Paleotaxus rediviva, dates back to the Triassic period, over 200,000,000 years ago. Jurassic fossils date the yew we know to 140,000,000 years ago. Wiki gives an idea of how long the yew has been significant to humankind: "One of the world's oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a Clactonian yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea, in Essex, UK ... [(now a seaside resort town). The spear head] is estimated to be between 424,000 and 374,000 years old." To put that into perspective, see a table on old world prehistoric cultures, here.
When Christianity displaced older religions in Europe, the Church took over sites dominated by yew trees, which marked former areas of pagan worship. This is partly why yew trees are found in Britain and Europe in and around cemeteries and, by extension, near churches. Wiki:
In Asturian tradition and culture the yew tree has had a real link with the land, the people, the ancestors and the ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who had died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows. The yew tree can be found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs. ...
The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over existing pre-Christian sacred sites for churches. It has also been suggested that yews were planted at religious sites as their long life was suggestive of eternity, or because being toxic they were seen as trees of death.
The eastern yew in La Haye-de-Routot, Upper Normandy, France. The two yews in the town are classed among the country's most remarkable trees. Image Source: Corbis via Ravenbeak.
The tree is symbolically associated with Hecate, the triple goddess, and specifically with her crone manifestation. Because the tree can survive for millennia, the yew has long figured in literature and poetry as a paradoxical symbol of death, evergreen immortality and rebirth. As though it intrinsically can convey the secret answers to these eternal human problems, it commonly features in ghost stories. A living embodiment of the yew's cryptic symbolism is a renowned yew maze at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk, UK, designed and planted in 1846 by William Andrews Nesfield.
Somerleyton Estate yew maze. Image Source: DVH Design.
The Druid Network:
I was reminded of the continued symbolic meaning of the yew as the unfolding Jimmy Savile criminal case in Britain, involving alleged pedophilia of the late BBC television personality, is named Operation Yewtree.The yew tree played an important role in the formation of human culture and consciousness. ... Although the yew tree was revered in nearly every culture of the northern temperate zones, yew trees were destroyed for their utility. Gone from Greece and Rome by the time of Christ, gone from Europe by the 17th century. Today, the remnants are threatened throughout the world because yew bark and foliage provide taxol, the most promising new anti-cancer drug in 30 years.
Finally, the black cat is nearly synonymous with Hallowe'en. The animal has long been associated with good or bad luck, possibly originating in worship of the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess. It is thought that the black cat became linked by the Christian Church with Satanic worship in the 1230s' Papal Bull, Vox in Rama. If witches were really pagans clinging to pre-Christian rituals involving nature-based gods, their black cat familiars became associated with the power that that worship might still have.
Look at Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story, The Black Cat for a twist on this theme. The story can be taken as a warning. It suggests that human abuse of other inhabitants of the natural world reveal the depth of human savagery. You can read the story for free online here.
Below, see the 1934 Universal classic, The Black Cat, which took its name from Poe's work, but followed more typical black cat horror story. The film was a huge success at the time, and stars Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff in their first movie together. IMDB summary: "American honeymooners in Hungary are trapped in the home of a Satan-worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident ..."
The Black Cat (1934) © Universal. Video Source: Youtube. See other parts here, here, here, here and here. You can see the whole film with German subtitles here.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
The Black Cat (1934) is © Universal Pictures and is reproduced here in part, with links provided here to remaining reproduced parts, under Fair Use solely for non-commercial review and discussion.
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