Again no photograph because we were on the road, and while I wasn’t driving I wasn’t going to get my camera out in near enough time for this. But the tall highway sign promised the place was the “House Of Cigar”, just like that. Just as if it were a 1960s-style Chinese Restaurant that had somehow got things really quite wrong. Or as if it were yet another Little Pig harassed by the Big Bad Wolf, who huffed and who puffed and reduced his house to an enormous and unpleasant blue stench rolling through the village. There’s no way to know, I guess, except by standing next to that friend who’s always going on about how They’re just ruining fairy tales by taking out the graphic violence and horribly abusive behavior. Get in range of that friend for maybe fifteen minutes and they’d explain all about how there used to be, like, Fifteen Little Pigs before Disney’s cartoon suppressed a long folkloric tradition. Like, there’d be a house of cigars, and a house of ice, and a house of matchsticks, and a house of muffins, and a house of floppy old boots, and a house that’s just a bunch of guys with really long necks huddling in a circle, and on and on and they all got cut because it made the cartoon run too long and we don’t ever hear about them anymore. Anyway, if you find this friend and can get a report about the pig with the house of cigars thing I’d appreciate it.
I was with a friend at the local hipster bar. I mean my local hipster bar. We weren’t anywhere near his. I know I talk about it a lot as the local hipster bar, but please understand. Their new logo is a rendition of their raccoon puppet, holding a couple of fireworks and a can of beer that’s labelled “Ham”. It’s a fine place and they’ve started having glazed-pottery nights.
My friend got to mentioning something or other coming up, and how he hoped it would go, knock wood. And he knocked on the bar. To this extent all seems well. I’m pretty sure the bar is wood and his knocking was in fine mid-season form. He carried off the knocking with no injuries and no dryads left stranded on base.
It got me thinking about the custom of knocking wood. It’s a good-luck gesture. It’s supposed to work by getting the attention of the wood-spirits who overheard you. You can see why that would work. Gumans drawing the attention of supernatural spirits has worked out well for the human according to every legend ever. “Well,” say many humans in these legends, “drawing the attention of that naiad or whatever it was sure has cured my problem of not being turned into a grasshopper!” Or else, “I used to think there was no way I would wake up chained every morning to be torn apart by hyenas. Then I stumbled into that pooka drinking party!” “I didn’t ever used to have a ferocious lightning-beast living in my belly button. But then thank goodness I fell through the wall of that Shinto shrine!”
Still, apparently the knocking of wood does help, if we can take any guidance from how rarely people at hipster bars get their eyes dipped in magic nectar so they can see the fairy creatures and then have their eyes gouged out so they can’t see the fairy creatures anymore. It did get me to thinking about one of those little cross-cultural differences. The English, I understand, merely touch wood, tapping the nearest piece lightly, rather than rapping sharply on it.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a dryad. And I couldn’t find any to interview before deadline. I have to think if I were one, though, I’d be more inclined to do favors for someone who tapped me rather than knocked on me. It’s got me wondering about the cultural differences. Why should Americans figure the best way to get a magic spirit to do what you want, or at least leave you alone, involves punching it?
Well, because Americans are good at punching, I admit. Look at the great legendary figures of 20th Century American Culture: Popeye, Superman, Dwight Eisenhower, Muhammad Ali, Mary Richards. They’re all people who punch through problems. Even Captain Kirk only used his phasers when he couldn’t punch for some reason. And they’re all pretty successful so maybe they have something with their punch-based plans.
At least they look successful. But, like, if you watch the cartoons Popeye gets shipwrecked a lot. Probably that’s because he has more chances at shipwreck than the average person. Someone in, say, Havre, Montana, who never enters a body of water bigger than a coin fountain might expect to be shipwrecked only eight times in her life. Popeye must run a higher risk. Still, you have to wonder about if he shouldn’t pass up on sailing in favor of a punching-based lifestyle.
But punching is a cherished part of American culture. One of the leading myths of the early 19th Century Mississippi River valley was of Mike Fink, a bombastic, tough-talking, hyperactive bully who spent his time punching, shooting, or punch-shooting (punching with a gun) everything he could find, especially if it wasn’t a white male. His friends explained he was really a great guy, just you had to understand his point of view, before he punch-shot you. But that’s what friends of sociopaths always say so that they don’t get punch-shot-punched next.
I can’t draw any big conclusions about British touching and Americans knocking wood, though. Most of the differences between British and American cultures were invented by the Tourism Boards in 1958, so that people could share stories of how different things were on their vacations. I’ll bet any number of British people who don’t care about tourists knock wood whenever they feel like.
It still seems risky. I’d stick with touching, or if it wouldn’t be redundant buying the wood-spirits a round. Culture is a complicated thing.
First I should warn it was idle curiosity. My love and I were not looking up werewolf cures out of any need. We’ve had no trouble with the werewolves in the neighborhood. The ones down the block even took down a diseased tree before it could become an eyesore, never mind a menace. It’s left a sad unshaded spot on the street, and it’s enraged the squirrels who were still using the tree as a major traffic route. But it is responsible property management from the neighborhood werewolves. If all our neighbors were like this our neighborhood would be set for gentrification.
What we had done was start idly talking about werewolf remedies. Silver bullets, sure, everybody knows that. But what did people do before they had bullets? And there’s no way that’s a universal cure, because there isn’t even a universal treatment for vampirism. The thing to do with a vampire depends on what cultural tradition the vampire comes from. It had to be the same for werewolves. So I could find some dubiously-sourced, arguably grammar-based explanations I dashed off to Wikipedia. Well, not dashed, because I’m scared of making my back angry again. But off to Wikipedia and I wasn’t disappointed.
And, yes, the silver bullet thing is a modern movie-created thing. Of course it is. Stuff is never as old as you image. The concept of zombies is actually newer than the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The first-ever reporting of the Loch Ness Monster dates to six years after Rerun van Pelt was added to Peanuts. There are no references to the legendary “Jersey Devil” from before March of next year. Most of the spooky creatures of our imagination are the result of scenes padding out Rankin/Bass specials.
Werewolves aren’t so completely new, though, if you believe Wikipedia. I choose to accept what Wikipedia says because that’s easier than doing research. I’m not disappointed.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans, allegedly, “believed in the power of exhaustion in curing people of lycanthropy”. Apparently, if you just put them to a lot of effort the werewolf would conclude it was too much work to go on being a werewolf and they’d go back to human. Or maybe they’d go to wolf, if that’s what they were better at being. I don’t know if the Ancient Greeks and Romans would be fine with a werewolf who stuck to being a wolf. I suspect so. I mean, yes, humans have always gone off hunting and persecuting wolves. But they’ve always gone off hunting and persecuting humans, too. Someone who won’t commit to being human or wolf must be particularly ire-raising. If they’d settle to one thing or another then society would know what to persecute them for.
But exhaustion as a way of curing lycanthropy. It suggests society could handle an invasion by werewolf hordes just by setting them to raking the leaves and painting the houses. We could save society and raise the property values all down the street. Of course I don’t know that the Ancient Greeks and Romans cared about raking the leaves. They got into some weird things, all the weirder when Pythagoras got involved. And now I’m sorry that I don’t know anything Pythagoras said about werewolves. It would surely have been among the ten funniest things humanity has ever expressed.
Wikipedia keeps delivering imagination-capturing data, though. I started reading: “In the German lowland of Schleswig-Holstein” and right there I stop and say, “The German lowland? I wonder what Danish Wikipedia has to say about that! I certainly recognize the territory Otto von Bismarck used as a cats-paw to manipulate Austria out of German unification! Nor have I forgot how the Schleswig-Holstein plebiscite Prussia agreed to hold following the 1866 war with Austria got repeatedly postponed until after World War I!” I’m not a history major. I’m not Danish. I’m not Austrian. I’m a mathematician. I took exactly six credits of history in college and that was all United States history. I have absolutely no reason to care about Schleswig or Holstein. I admit having enjoyed some products of the latter territory’s cows. This is why I wasn’t cool enough to get into the Dungeons and Dragons circle back in middle school.
Anyway. Back to stuff that does not make people want to slug me. Allegedly, a Schleswig-Holsteinian werewolf can be cured “if one were to simply address it three times by its Christian name”. And “one Danish belief holds that simply scolding a werewolf will cure it.” That can’t be all there is to it, can it? Or maybe Danish scolding is particularly chilling. But how are Danish werewolf parents supposed to keep their children in line?
“Jaan Damian Tage, you get in here right — oh, now he’s not a werewolf! Honey, run to the store and get some Lycanthrope Powder.”
“I said, run to the store — ”
“I’m upstairs, Jael, I can’t hear you.”
“Run to the store — ”
“Let me get downstairs, Jael.”
“Oh, now we need a double case! Oh, Radolf, Radolf, Radolf, what are we ever going to — ooop!”
Anyway. I guess this all is why I don’t know any Danish werewolves. I can’t say I’m any wiser for all this, but it’s good to know.
There’s nothing quite like wandering around a garden nursery looking at all the various tiny plants that I’m far too stupid to actually manage. Of course you can say that about many things: there isn’t anything quite like building a multi-use sports arena out of nothing but discarded satellite TV dishes, for instance, unless you count building several single-use sports arenas all close up against each other. But that shouldn’t be counted against the fun of wandering around all these little rows of plants nestled in tiny plastic pots and reading how relentlessly Anglo-Saxon a name they can get, and what sorts of folklore attach to them.
Many plants enjoy these blunt, old-fashioned names that speak of their folkloric origin or of something we were trying to keep secret. Putting the secret right there in the name of the plant doesn’t seem to have worked but bear in mind, before the rise of mass printing where were we going to put secrets instead?
Shunted Gutter-Berrys, also known as King Pym’s Chortles. These are found lining the roofs that other, lesser, plants build to shelter them from the elements and clumsy, plummeting chipmunks. They have become invasive in parts of the country (any country) with a chipmunk shortage, such as the space between eight and twelve feet above the ground and away from all trees or other structures. A post-Columbian Exchange plant, these were first identified by settlers in Connecticut who asked the Indians what they were, and didn’t recognize sarcasm when they heard it. Their flowering between the 30th of April and the 1st of May is considered a sign that your calendar-maker ripped you off.
I found this article in the science section — any science section; I can’t imagine editors turning this one down — about how research has shown that dung beetles can use the Milky Way to navigate. I have to applaud the effort there. That’s more than I ever do with the Milky Way. If you left it to me I’d probably let the whole galaxy clutter up the scary drawer above all the pots and pans, and maybe take it out just enough to feel guilty about how I should be using it more. Navigating would never cross my mind, much less helping dung beetles navigate, so it’s good the beetles seem to have worked that out on their own.
The dung beetle navigation thing finally makes sense of a lot history, which is better than most history does for itself. You always imagined that people looked at Christopher Columbus funny for his refusal to adjust the heading until he’d had a flock of dung beetles on deck during a cloudless, moonless night, but he did all right for himself, and left his beetles in charge of Hispaniola while he was busy getting tried for treason.
But as ever we shouldn’t have been surprised. Folklore’s talked about how animals have astounding abilities for thousands of years now, although folklore also talks about how witches are baking little children and how it’s good luck for the Red-Leafed Arrogating Murderberry Vine to crack your house’s foundation and how this snowstorm is the very first time the university ever cancelled class for anything less than the death of a President, so maybe the trouble is folklore needs to be more selective about what it says. We can’t go listening to everything. There’s too much of it.