Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 1: Nature's Gods

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 churchesWiki:
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:
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.
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.

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.

Happy Hallowe'en!

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.

If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.


  1. Wonderful post; wonderful images! I can't read about yew trees without Sylvia Plath's poem coming to mind though.

    The Moon and the Yew Tree

    This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
    The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
    The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
    Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
    Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
    Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
    I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

    The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
    White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
    It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
    With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
    Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky ----
    Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
    At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

    The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
    The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
    The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
    Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
    How I would like to believe in tenderness ----
    The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
    Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

    I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
    Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
    Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
    Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
    Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
    The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
    And the message of the yew tree is blackness -- blackness and silence

    - Sylvia Plath (from Ariel)

    Thanks for your amazing "countdown"!

  2. Thanks Dia, glad you liked the countdown and thanks for the Plath poem. She always has that electric power to unsettle. I wonder if we read more into her words ('white knuckle' or 'blackness and silence') because of what happened to her with Hughes, etc. etc.

    1. Yes, well, suicide tends to taint things, doesn't it? But, in Plath's case, I think critics tend to over-emphasize Hughe's - himself a great poet - role in her demise. I think her despair, so evident here, was completely and uniquely her own.

      In a sense, that's probably why the holiday of Halloween holds special appeal for those of us with inner Goths... on the surface the holiday now has a sort of cartoonish, spooky attractiveness... but it masks a more deeply-rooted fascination with death.

      For this reason, Plath comes across as the genuine article in her poetry... unsettling, because she didn't merely flirt with death - she took the plunge.

  3. PS Synchronistically, this just arrived in my mailbox today:

    "October 1962 was her mensis mirabilis, the stretch that gave her nearly all the best poems in the volume published posthumously as Ariel."


  4. It's fascinating and yet distressing. I prefer stories of great artists who have fantastic output and then retire comfortably to the country.