“Paps! Paps in the landscape!”
Many years ago I interviewed Cheryl Straffon, a Cornish witch, and she was describing the female qualities of the two hills near Land’s End. As a lifelong acolyte of folklore, magick and the supernatural, it felt like an entirely natural thing to be discussing. And it gave a sensual new angle to my conviction that the landscape is a living thing.
I’ve often seen folklore described as something intrinsically linked to the British rural landscape of times gone by. To do so is to underestimate folklore and overestimate one country’s importance. Folklore is universal – every culture, every country on the planet, is rich with it. The urban landscape and the present day are full of folklore. The tradition is as alive as the environment on which it feeds.
The Universe, our planet, nature, the reasons for our existence – are awe-inspiring, frightening things. Humans need explanations for why things happen, and story-telling traditions are one way to achieve this. Folklore is, I think, a more extreme version. It has been defined as a ‘widely held but false belief’ or ‘unofficial knowledge’  and much of it makes the world even more frightening, although its structure – particularly as far as superstition is concerned – may in the past have given people some semblance of reassurance – don’t do this, avoid that, don’t let it into your home, and you’ll be safe. Weather, animals and insects, the sea, earthquakes, floods, crop failure, death and the question of What Comes After – have had huge effects on our lives, throughout time. No wonder people have needed explanations and the hope of avoidance.
I question, however, whether folklore is necessarily a series of false beliefs, or whether in some cases, is in fact knowledge that has been forgotten over the aeons , making it ‘unofficial’, but nonetheless true. By unofficial, I mean ‘non-scientific’. And by non-scientific, I mean anything that relies primarily on belief and the testimony of ordinary people rather than proof, as measured and accepted by professionals.
For instance, tales of giants in ancient times are prevalent in many cultures. Now and again finds are made of huge fossilised human footprints or massive human skeletons, but giants are still described as folklore or legend rather than history. Why is this? Perhaps because to accept the one-time existence of giant humans may question our current theories of evolution – and that’s too much for us to process right now. But I see it as a possibility. My home in Cornwall is full of stories about giants. Some were fierce, some benevolent. Some even played bowls with the boulders on Trencrom Hill – which is why a stray one lies by the side of the road near the bottom of the hill. One of my favourite stories from childhood was of the huge stone figures on Easter Island. The stone men were living creatures and lived in harmony with the humans on the island, until one catastrophic day when a volcano erupted. The humans managed to run to their boats and escape, but the stone men were caught by the lava flow as they lumbered down the mountain. Trapped, they’ve spent thousands of years looking out to sea. This melancholic tale planted a seed, blurring the lines between folklore and what I later found out to be Gaia; the belief that the Earth is a living thing.
I’ve spent more than a decade surrounded by the relatively undeveloped wildness of West Cornwall and am intensely aware of how alive the land is. There is some science to back this up; the chalk cliffs so beloved of English romanticism were formed from the shells of microscopic sea creatures. The standing stones of Avebury – one named the Vulva Stone because of its shape – have been shown to emit energy, sounds and other strange phenomena. To me these are signs of life – just one experienced in a different way to our present knowledge of it. Science is changing its opinions all the time – it wasn’t long ago that the concept of multiple Universes would have been purely the stuff of fantasy fiction and mystics. Recent experiments by scientists appear to prove their existence.
Folklore tells many disturbing stories and it is right to do so. Nature is not benign; the Devil may well have carved valleys in the landscape, thrown great stones at churches and made terrible deals with humans. The land has seen so many lives (not just human, of course) come and go over the ages that I wonder how could it not be haunted, infused with their essence? But we can work with it. Touching wood will give us the blessings of tree spirits. In China, bat pendants are worn to ensure the wearer a long and happy life. Better to function with the possibility of help from spiritual forces rather than have them against us.
Many stories are set in the past, in a countryside that was full of hidden, fearful things. But the creation of folklore is continual – my own lifetime has seen new tales appear, both urban and rural. The Enfield Poltergeist caused me great consternation in the 1970s; a Council estate in an outer London borough was the setting for a family to be terrorised by an angry spirit which focused upon one of the young girls living there. In the same decade, the Owlman first appeared by a church in Mawnan, Cornwall and was sighted as recently as 2011. Half man, half bird of prey; the childish sketches of him made by witnesses are unsettling. These things quickly pass from being quirky news stories into folklore. Even stories eventually known to be hoaxes, such as the Cottingley Fairies, take on the hue of the possibly true, although this can work the other way – Jack The Ripper, the very real and horrific murderer who terrorised the East End of London in the late 1880s, has become an almost demonic myth about a London that has virtually disappeared. Again, all cultures will have their own recent versions in both urban and rural landscapes.
But it is certainly easier to imagine these things in the countryside. Nature is more obvious here and equally it is cruel and unforgiving. On a family holiday to the south coast of England as a child, we got cut off by the rising tide on our return to Lyme Regis. We were at first stuck in deep mud, then my father had to carry us, one by one, across the most dangerous section of beach. Twice I saw him taken out to sea by a wave, twice he struggled back to rescue us. There was no doubt in my mind even at that age as to how alive the sea was, and how little it cared for creatures like us in its path. Folklore, then, can be tales of wonder but is often understandably linked to horror, with the lines between fact and fiction frequently blurring. Tales of werewolves and vampires may well have arisen to explain hideous physical and mental illnesses; practices to stop those suspected of being vampires rising from their graves (severing the corpse’s head and placing it between its knees) have occurred for several hundred years and as recently as the 19th century. And Father Montague Summers’ The Vampire In Europe (1929) reads like a guide, a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the continent’s monsters.
But is it possible that that’s just what it is?
As mentioned earlier in this piece, I’ve often wondered whether a significant amount of folklore is at least based on real events, from a time when humans were more able to connect with the magical elements of the world . The power of second sight and an acceptance of a different reality may have made life in ancient times a perpetual sensory overload. Since the supposed progress of the Age Of Enlightenment, we have literally been pushing back the darkness. And in the meantime given ourselves plenty of other things to be afraid of. But that’s another piece, for another time. It’s true to say that many things cannot be explained by rational/scientific means – because science doesn’t yet have the technology to measure them. That’s not the fault of the faerie folk, of course. Or anything else in our amazing world that science currently sneers at.
So how does this affect us in everyday life? Not as much as it should do, perhaps. I’m not misty-eyed for a return to the time when we feared more or less everything , but for many of us our connection to the landscape is seriously broken and I’d argue that this is part of why so many of us are so unhappy. Despite our attempts to adapt the world to our needs – rather than continuing to evolve – we cannot escape the fact that we are a part of nature. In death, our bodies return to the landscape and to the air. To re-connect nature would not only be healthier for body and soul, it might eventually re-establish contact with our more ancient, wiser selves .
Despite our best efforts though, some of the old terrors linger. ‘Folk horror’ is an incredibly popular genre. The story-telling continues; it is a safe space in which to explore our fears. But it does not and cannot tame the world – when I’m out in the wilder parts of the country the Life around me brims with energy, both in the wider landscape and in the tiniest details; in the sound of bubbles bursting from limpets’ shells or in the delicate weight of a Blue Tit landing on my hand to take food. At times it’s more ominous, such as the time I was Pisky-led around Sancreed Holy Well, but more and more I revel in the sensuous beauty around me. Paps – signs of the Goddess very much alive but resting – are everywhere! Embrace the land, be it rural or urban. And I mean that literally. Towns and cities have their own sacred sites, their own powerful energies. Some will be positive, some negative. Be open to them – with caution, of course. Wherever you are, lay your hand on the ground. Even through concrete, you might just hear the Earth’s heart beat.
Good reading and references:
 Steve Roud, A Pocket Guide To Superstitions Of The British Isles, 2004.
 Colin Wilson, The Occult; A History, 1971
About Julie Travis:
Horror/dark fantasy writer, compared to Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Catherynne M. Valente, Edgar Allan Poe, David Lynch and Stephen King/Peter Straub. Born in north-west London in 1967, re-located to West Cornwall in September 2002. Worked with performance poet and playwright Joelle Taylor in London’s Poetry Cafe (where actress Katy Darby did a reading of Perpetual Motion). Since then has drafted two novels and continues to write short stories/novellas and occasional folk gig reviews for the local paper (The Cornishman). A ‘born again Pagan’ who spends time at the sacred sites of Cornwall and Dartmoor.
Julie’s Blog: Levanthia
Julie’s new collection “We are All Falling Towards the Centre of the Earth” is released from Wapshott Press on the Summer Solstice (21st June!)