Friday, 31 October 2014

Paint it Black Part Two

Nothing says Halloween like the most famous witch’s familiar, the black cat… The most common superstition in Western beliefs is of the ill fate that will ensue if a black cat passes your path. This belief originates from the Middle-Ages and is linked with witchcraft. At the time a cat, and most commonly a black cat, was seen as a witch’s familiar. There are several other associations between black cats and ill-fate such as the Scottish tale of the cat sìth. This particular tale also recounts the connection with a witch’s ability to transform into a cat. The belief with the cat sìth tale was that cats would steal the souls of the dead before they were claimed by the gods. This ability to shape shift is also mirrored in the 1500s with the English folktale describing a father and son who injure a black cat only to discover an old woman suspected of being a witch limping from the injury the following day. Black cat stories are also popular in American literature from Poe’s The Black Cat to the folktales of The Black Cat’s Message, and Wait until Emmet Comes (Schlosser, 2004). The black cat lore and symbolic representation has crept into popular culture from femme fatale characters to product mascots. 

But cats are not the only ones enable to escape the shadow of urban myths and legends.Spiders have many myths or urban legends caught in their web and conjure images of creepy crawley eight legged beasts weaving their sticky traps to catch their next feast. However, although spiders do have their place as the witch’s familiar the most popular of them all is that black widow spiders whose infamy comes from the belief that they eat their mates. This particular myth is one that has more to do with misunderstanding than a reality. The fate of the males that mate with the female black widow is also dependent on the species of black widow. Southern black widow spiders are above all the most likely to kill and consume their mates. Southern black widow females are also strongly protective of their nests and will be aggressive in defending their eggs. The belief that the female black widow spider always kills and consumes her mate has crossed the species boundary to become the moniker for human women that have killed their lovers and popular culture femme fatales (Marvel Comics).

No Halloween would be complete without a witch’s brew… And what would all this talk of the witch’s familiars be without the iconic species in their incantations. Frogs and toads are the top ingredient in many of these potions, such as the concoction being brewed by the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Round about the caldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under the cold stone,
Days and nights hast thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!”

Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I

While the toad and the frog are the only beings on this particular list that are not quite black, the Catholic church associated the frog with witchcraft. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the connection to witchcraft is made through the toad. And in more contemporary tales of witchcraft, toads and frogs are represented in the Harry Potter series as tasty treats of confectionary (chocolate frogs and peppermint toads).

Of all the animals mentioned in the past few weeks through Paint it Black Part One and last week’s Do you See What I See? there are several positive alternatives views and beliefs of the species associated with witches and witchcraft.

The first positive aphorisms are the idea that a spider on a wedding dress is a good luck omen or the French proverb "Araignée du matin—signe de chagrin; Araignée du midi—signe de plaisir; Araignée du soir—bon espoir" which link spiders and forthcoming human emotions with the time of day (Rolland, 1881, p.241). There are nursery rhymes that connect our reaction to a spider with our own well-being… "If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive" (Wise, 1993, p.141). The positive bend extends to black cats as well…Not all black cat associations are negative. In Japanese, Scottish and English Midlands cultural references the black cat is seen as a good omen from the attraction of suitors for single women to a symbol of prosperity. Now when we look at toads and frogs, the positive twist on the toad or frog come in the form of the fairy tale. So on this Halloween night if you are a Princess seeking her Prince you may not need look any further that to find your own Iron Henry

Rolland, E. (1881). Les reptiles, les poissons, les mollusques, les crustacés et les insectes. Maisonneuve & Cie. France:Paris.

Schlosser, S. E. (2004). Spooky Southwest:Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and other Local Lore. Globe Pequot Press, Augusta:AL.

Wise, D.H. (1993). Spiders in Ecological Webs. Cambridge University Press. New York:NY.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Do you see what I see?

I saw an article this past weekend on the Goliath spider… The link on the page about about the puppy-sized spider that led to a spooky spider gallery is another example that prompted me to feel drawn to exploring the many socially constructed prejudices against species. Oft times these social constructions are mindlessly accepted by society without realising their larger implications. Several stories that we tell children, and especially around this time of year with the traditional Halloween animals, project a concept of fear through the framing of specific species with whom we have less of an ability to empathise. 

Last week, I touched on some the myths and prejudices of black animals in the first part of this exploration (Paint it Black) and I shall finish that journey next week. This week, I was reminded of how we can so easily overlook what it truly means to start this cycle of seeing another through the lens of our own species specific philosophies, the power that we give words, and thus, how they can shape beliefs. Within the larger framework of grouping and labels ascribed to a species I have written about how language shapes our ideas about a species. And so, with the concept of Halloween animals and their creepy, crawly, spooky and scary labels, I would like to introduce you to a few species through a lens of beauty, empathy and endearment….

The very first species is the spider…

I start with spiders as the Cobalt Blue Tarantula is the one whom I saw an image of earlier in the week. The beauty of the vibrant blue colouring of this being further inspired my idea to follow this thread of an opposite lens through which to see a species to that of the tendency of fear based framing. However, the Cobalt Blue Tarantula is not the only colourful arachnid… There are various shades of Tarantulas and other spiders that are a marvel to the imagination with the intricacies of their markings and lively colouring.  

The next concept of is that of empathy…

The mention of rats probably does not connect one's thoughts with the idea of empathy. Yet, more and more studies are revealing pro-social behaviour among rats as seen in the earlier research being done at the University of Chicago. More recently, Mason’s research has explored kindness in relation to rats... The nature/nurture and social bias debate is an interesting one with rats and kindness… It gives a whole new meaning to the idiom “smells like a rat”!

And lastly, but certainly not least is the endearing panda bat from Sudan… This little fellow will melt anyone's heart...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Paint it Black Part One

The wonderful part of writing is all the learning… 

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I do a fair amount of research when I am developing a character for my stories. I recently had a discussion about the naming of characters with a group about my own process. Even just the simple method of determining the best name for a character is a rigorous endeavour. The way in which I choose a name for a character begins with examining the beings' origins and the meaning of the prospective name to correlate with the ideas I am trying to convey with each specific story. 

This past month has been a flurry of activity as I returned to work after the delay of the starting school year, and so, I have not had the chance to post as I would have liked to this month. That said, I write a monthly piece for a group and given the upcoming month’s end I will share it with you here as well, as it pertains very much to the goals I have in my writing whether it is academic or creative nonfiction. I will begin with the winged beautiful creatures…

Corvids have been a fascinating creature for me for several years. I always held a deep curiosity for them, their behaviour and an awareness of their complexity. Jet is one of the characters that has been the most difficult to develop in that respect, as I have been overwhelmed with all that I want to say about his species through the tapestry of the narrative that I weave for William’s journey. This month I explored the myths that we as humans hold about a variety of black animals for the project I mentioned above. My own deeper connection with corvids was not from the stories I mentioned that shaped my beliefs and bonds with other than human nature, but rather began when I met a delightfully learned professor at one of the first conferences at which I was a presenter. My own enthrallment with corvids was further cemented after having reviewed Esther Woolfson’s Corvids: A life with Birds.

And so, without further ado, I share with you the origins of some of our prejudices toward two black winged creatures.

I will begin with on of the most common mascots for the season which is also a witch's familiar, the bat. The most notable correlation with prejudice would be with the vampire species of bats. Interestingly, of the over 1000 species of bats, only three fall into the category of vampire bats, the rest are vegetarians… Additionally, due to the similarity of bats to rats; despite the fact that they are more closely related to humans and that they spend an enormous amount of time grooming, they have been associated with the spread of disease in the Middle Ages and currently today with the spread of Ebola. There was a strong belief in witchcraft at the time of the Middle-Age and bats also became to be associated as the messengers between witches and the devil in rural parts of England and Scotland. Stoker’s Dracula is a brilliantly constructed narrative further perpetuating the myth of the interspecies shape-shifting and links with ominous characters of ill-doing. The inspiration for the story was said to have been from an article that retold the story of a victim drained of their blood by a vampire bat. The bat, much like corvids is also a symbol of the trickster in Indigenous cultures and hence will appear in various cautionary tales. While Western cultures hold a sinister view of this animal the flip side is the Eastern beliefs about bats as symbols of happiness and longevity. Furthermore, if one is to witness a grouping of five bats it is seen as a blessing of a virtuous life filled with prosperity, longevity, health and ending in a natural death (Wigington, 2014).

The other winged black species are corvids and the connections with death. The complexity or ambivalence of the relationship that crows have with death will vary as it traverses cultures. The link with death and corvids most likely originates from their diet of carrion from being seen eating human remains. There are equally some interesting connections with corvids and lore; such as a crow upon the roof of a home with a red thread in its beak is a signal that the building is about to take up in flames. Much like bats, corvids equally have less sinister affiliations, such as the romantic correlation of sighting a crow and the wish fulfillment of one’s heart. But, like many of the superstitions and stories of lore, there are caveats to the rule such as the time of day and direction of flight when the crow is sight. But with crows and ravens, even the linguistic monikers to describe a group of these birds has a negative descriptor (murder of crows and for ravens, an unkindness). Yet, the myth and lore that follow corvids are not all about doom and gloom, many Indigenous cultures associate crows with wisdom or as a trickster. Odin (a Norse god) was accompanied by crows that observed the world and who were the embodiment of thought and memory. 

In closing, the comparison between humans and crows is best expressed by the American writer Henry Ward Beecher with “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows” (Beecher, p.176).

Beecher, H. W.  Tulatin River Watershed. Retrieved September 28, 2014 from:

Wigington, P. Bat Magic and Folklore. Retireved September 28, 2014 from:

Please come back on the 31rst to learn more about beautiful black creatures that walk, jump and crawl…

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