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Tag Archives: folklore

The wonderful world of Urban Myths.

hitchhiker

“I went to that new Chinese place last night. Lovely meal.”

“Oh you don’t want to eat Chinese.”

“Why ever not?”

“Mate of mine, he had a friend went for a Chinese meal. Started choking. Rushed to hospital, they found he was choking on a bone.  When they got it out, it was a rat bone it was.”

Many people may recognise the above story in another guise.  Sometimes it is a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it is Indian. Sometimes it is a rat bone, and sometimes the bone came from a cat.  Sometimes the individual concerned survives, and sometimes he chokes to death.

The fact is there never was a restaurant, of any ethnicity.  There never was anyone choked, was rushed to hospital, or died. There was never any bone, be it from a rat or a cat.

This story is an urban myth; one of the most fascinating and entertaining forms of modern folklore.  And all the more so because so many people believe it and are all too willing to pass it on, maintaining that it is absolutely genuine.  Indeed, when I pointed out the fallacies in this tale to one woman once, she became quite irate and adamant that it really did happen.

This type of urban myth is known as a “FOAFtale”; being the acronym of “Friend Of A Friend”.  The narrator of the story never knows the person the incident supposedly befell. It is always a friend-of-a-friend, a friend’s brother, sister, mum, dad, third-cousin-twice-removed.  There is never any newspaper, police or medical evidence to back the story up.  It just gets started by some fantastical storyteller, passed by someone gullible enough to believe it without checking the facts, then because human beings can be gullible, it takes off from there.

It is not lost on me that the bone in the Chinese meal / curry tale has racist connotations.  It is not the only such tale.  Another one is of the couple driving in an old-style Volkswagen Beetle through an area with a large black population.  They are set upon by a bunch of black men and the boyfriend hits the gas and guns the car away with one black guy hanging on to the back until they get away from him.  When they get home and the boyfriend is examining the damage to his car, he finds four severed black fingers in one of the vents of the Beetle, which of course is always white, cut off by the engine fan.  Firstly, a grown man could not get his fingers into the vents in the back of a VW Beetle.  Secondly, even if it were possible, he would have to have really long fingers to reach the engine fan.  Thirdly, if the fan cut the fingers of, then logically they would not be stuck in the vent, as the fan would come between the two.

The above story is in fact a racist twist upon a 1960s urban myth which was equally bigoted against hippies.  The original has a guy driving past Stonehenge in England in a Ford Zephyr, or similar fast car of the time.  He sees a hippy standing trying to thumb a lift by the side of the road. He slows down to give the hippy a lift, then notices a mad look in his eyes, and suddenly speeds up and drives off, noticing the hippy waving and gesticulating wildly in his rear view later.  A little later he pulls in for petrol and the pump attendant, about to fill the car, either recoils in horror or faints. Wondering what is wrong, the motorist gets out and finds the hippy’s fingers or hand wrapped around the passenger door handle.

Prejudice in urban myths stretches across the English Channel to France and other countries on the continent (readers outside of Europe more than likely have their own regional variations).  There is the story of an English couple whom a friend knows or is related to who are travelling through France with their dog, which being France, has to be a poodle.  They are hungry and finally find a restaurant who will admit them and their dog.  Knowing little french and enjoying a glass of wine while perusing the menu, they don’t want to leave their pampered pooch out of the meal.  So pointing to the dog, they try to ask the waiter to feed him too.  After a look of misunderstanding, the waiter leads the dog into the kitchen, where they think it will be fed.  A little later the waiter comes back with a huge tureen, which he lifts the lid off to reveal, yep, you’ve guessed it, the cooked dog.

It is quite easy to poke holes in this story immediately.  Why would an English couple knowing little French ever try to travel through that country?  This story comes from the days before “pet passports”, so how would they get their dog across the Channel at a time when there were strict border controls on dogs in the first place?  Of course, one would hard pressed even nowadays to find any restaurant which would admit any dogs unless they were guide dogs.  Finally the actual cooking of the dog is nothing less than pure anti-French bigotry.  In this story one can see clear parallels to the bone in the Chinese meal / curry FOAFtale.

Another story is of a British family (friends of a distant aunt’s close friend, etc) touring the continent.  In this case the elderly grandmother is with the family. Somewhere in France, Italy, Spain, or some other corner of the continent, they find the old lady has died in her sleep.  Wishing to take her home to Blighty to have her buried, the manager of the hotel / guest house agrees that the family can wrap her in the bedroom carpet, which they do, and string the body to the roof rack of the car.  Driving back across the continent, they stop somewhere for lunch one day, and when they go to continue the journey, somebody has stolen the carpet – complete with granny inside.

For a start in most counties across the globe, and certainly in Europe, a death certificate would be required.  As it was a sudden death, an autopsy may have to be carried out.  And what callous bastard would be insane enough to wrap their grandmother in a carpet and strap them to the roof rack?  What hotel / guest house manager would even allow that without contacting the police?  As totally absurd as this story is, it still does the rounds to this day and there are people gullible enough to believe it.

There is an older variant of this tale which has a family travelling across Europe and a female family member (always female for some reason), either a grandmother, mother, or more commonly a daughter takes ill with either a contagious disease or poisoning in a hotel and dies in the night.  The family go off to get the authorities but when they come back there is no sign of the daughter, the room she was staying in has been completely redecorated and the hotel staff all deny any knowledge of ever having seen met any of the family ever before.  The parents go to the room they were in to show police their luggage in there.  Except their keys don’t work and when the manager uses the pass key, that room too has been redecorated and there is not one piece of luggage or clothes in the room.  Alternatively there is a further twist to this story in which one policeman spots an earring lying on the floor, he lifts it and turning to the mother, she is only wearing one earring matching the dropped one.  The manager then confesses to disposing of the body to save the reputation of his hotel.

It is believed that the above urban myth can be traced to an obscure horror story, which has been retold at some point as fact.  And it is not the only time this has happened.

In the USA there was the story of a man in old fashioned clothes suddenly appearing in the middle of Times Square, New York City in 1950.  Looking around himself in astonished wonder, the man suddenly appreciates the danger he is in with the bustling traffic, attempts to get to safety but is knocked down and killed.  His body taken to the city morgue, the police go through his pockets and find a beer token for 5 cents from a saloon (which subsequently is unknown even to older residents), a bill for keeping a horse and washing a carriage from a livery stable on Lexington Avenue which is not listed in any address book, $70 in out-of-date yet crisp banknotes, business cards with the name Rudolf Fentz giving an address on Fifth Avenue, and a letter sent to the Fifth Avenue address dated June 1876.  A Captain Rihm of the NYPD goes to the Fifth Avenue address and finds it is a business.  Further tracking leads him to a Rudolf Fentz Jr, whom he subsequently discovers has died but his widow is still alive in Florida.  When he contacts her, she tells him that her husband’s father, Rudolf Fentz Sr, had gone out for a walk one day in 1876 and never returned.  A subsequent search of missing persons for the year 1876 shows that a record for a Rudolf Fentz tallies exactly with the man killed in Times Square in 1950.

The above story is was believed by a great number of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, for many years.  Some even claimed to have seen Rudolf Fentz appear and being knocked down in Times Square in 1950.  With the UFO flap years of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it appeared in many books and was held up as proof of a timeslip, or an eddy in the space-time continuum.  It still makes the rounds as an urban legend and in paranormal literature to this day.  In fact, the entire story was from a short story I’m Scared by American Sci-Fi author Jack Finney, and was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 15 September 1951.  Yet such is the gullibility of mankind, there are people to this day will quite adamantly tell you that the Rudolf Fentz case was genuine.

If any readers have never encountered the oldest urban myth of them all, then I will assume you have been living in caves all your lives, because it can easily be reckoned everyone has encountered it in one form or another; the phantom hitch-hiker.

One of the most common versions of the story is that a driver on a lonely road sees a teenage girl trying to hitch a lift by a crossroads.  Being the gallant type and afraid for the girl’s wellbeing, he stops and offers to drive her home. While driving along she shivers and the driver gives her his sweater which she drapes around her shoulders.  At her house, she thanks him and says he need not come to the door as her parents would be angry, and runs off.  The following day the driver realises that he never got his sweater back and sets out for the girl’s home.  When he gets there a woman comes to the door and he explains the situation to her.  The woman suddenly breaks down in tears and says “That was my daughter.  She was killed at the crossroads a year ago yesterday.” Incredulous and not believing her, the mother leads the man to the nearby graveyard, where her daughter is buried.  And there, draped across the girl’s gravestone is the man’s sweater.

The phantom hitch-hiker takes on a great many forms.  In some of these there is the horror story of the girl in the car while her boyfriend goes to get petrol who suddenly hears thudding on the car roof.  Then lights suddenly goes on and a voice on a megaphone tells her to get out the car slowly then run to the light.  When she does so, she reaches police and an ambulance and turns to see a maniac on the roof of the car, thudding on it with her boyfriend’s severed head.  A campfire ghost story, sure.  But you would be amazed just how many people think that it actually happened.

Some places are very proud of their phantom hitch-hikers.  On Unst in the Shetland Isles, Scotland The White Wife is described as an apparition of an old lady who stands by the road late at night, trying to wave down a lift, always from young male drivers.  Once she gets in the car she sparks up a conversation with the young man, telling him things about his life and family which only he could know.  Startled, when she stops speaking, the young man will turn to look at her – only to find an empty seat beside him.  The White Wife is so famous that Valhalla Brewery named one of their strong ales after her.

As I have said, the phantom hitch-hiker is the world’s oldest urban myth.  European versions of it can be traced back to the 1700s, and involving horse-drawn carriages, and the illustration attached to this article is a wonderful 19th century cartoon based on the subject.  It is thought however to be Chinese in origin, with a man encountering a woman or girl who asks him to accompany her home, but insists she walk behind him. When they get to her home, she has disappeared.

Reading these stories, the reader must think that people were completely gullible in the past.  Human nature however does not change.  The internet hosts more hoax stories than we have ever had in the past.  Even a quick trawl through Facebook any day is almost certain to throw up one story or another which are blatant hoaxes.  Some are harmless enough in their own way, such as saying something is bad for you when it is not.  Others are downright cruel and the products of sick minds, including stealing pictures of sick children, and even children who have subsequently died, and putting them on spurious posts saying if they get 1 million “likes” then the kid will be cured.

Investigative pages such as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer have done little to nothing to convince people that they have been had, with the result that many of these tales are destined to become urban myths in their own right.  Indeed, when I recently pointed someone on Facebook to a Snopes page refuting their post that the energy drink Red Bull was dangerous, they angrily rounded on me and insisted that Snopes must be wrong.  Some people not only prefer to be fooled, they would happily shoot the messenger who points out the fallacies they believe in.

Is that however so surprising?  The entire phenomenon of urban myths and FOAFtales shows us that not only the vast majority of people gullible, many want to be fooled.  There are a great many people in the world who have what I call “Fox Mulder Syndrome”; like the poster in the office of the character in the TV show The X Files, they want to believe, and woe betide anyone who dare to question that belief.  We live daily surrounded by misconceptions of “well known facts” and as well as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer, TV shows such as Mythbusters and QI have done nothing to ever change that.

Urban myths have been with us since time began.  They will be with us until time ends.  And love them or hate them, they all make up part of our wonderful tapestry of folklore.

A pointer to this fact is the story that every year the average person swallows six spiders while the y are sleeping.  That story was in fact a deliberately created myth started by two scientists who posted it on the internet to see how far it would go.  Sorry folks, but that latter part, about the two scientists, is in fact just another urban myth – or is it? 😉

 

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William of Newburgh (1136-1198) is considered to be one of the more reliable early English historians. certainly not a man given to flights of fancy but one who worked from reliable sources.  He even once went as far as to criticise Geoffrey of Monmouth for his fanciful Hisotria Regnum Britanniae.  Therefore, when William wrote of one of the most perplexing stories in English history, we really have little reason not to believe him.

In a chronicle William of Newburgh wrote about the reign of King Stephen (King of England 1135-1154) of a fantastical tale of two children with green skin being discovered in the village of Woolpit in Surrey.  William wrote;

Nor does it seem right to pass over an unheard of prodigy, which, as is well known, took place in England during the reign of King Stephen.  Though it is asserted by many.  Yet I have long been in doubt concerning the matter, and deemed it ridiculous to give credit to a circumstance reported on no rational foundation, or at least one of a very mysterious character; yet at length I was so overwhlemed by the weight of so many and such competent witnesses, that I have been compelled to believe, and wonder over a matter which I was unable to comprehend, or unravel by any powers of intellect.

In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities called “Wolfpittes”, that is in English, “Pits for wolves”, and which gave their name to the adjacent village (Wulpet).  During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from their excavations.

These two poor children were apparently terrified and crying.  They attempted to run away but were caught by the villagers.  They apparently did not understand the villagers nor could make themselves understood.  The villagers took them to the home of their feudal lord, Sir Richard de Calne, who took them under his protection.  It is here that another chronicler, Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative;

No-one could understand their speech.  When they were brought as curiosities to the house of a certain knight, Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes, they wept bitterly.  Bread and victuals were set before them but they would touch none of them, though they were tormented by great hunger, as the girl afterwards acknowledged.  At length, when some beans just cut, with their stalks, were brought into the house, they made signs, with great avidity, that they should be given to them.  When they were brought, they opened the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew.  When those who were present saw this, they opened the pods and showed them the naked beans.  They fed on these with delight, and for a long time tasted no other food.

Sir Richard de Calne, who seems to have been a kindly chap for his time, kept the children in his home.  But sadly, the little boy sickened and died.  The girl however thrived, grew stronger and eventually lost her green hue, apparently as she ate a diet more normal to the times.  She also learned to speak English, was baptised into the Christian faith and as she grew older, worked as a servant for Sir Richard for some years before she married a man from King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

Of course, once the girl could speak, there were those demanding answers to questions, such as where did she and the boy come from and how did they come to be in Woolpit?  Unfortunately this is where stories begin to differ as the girl apparently recounted her experience to many people.  However, the basis of the story was that the boy was her brother and that they had come from an entirely green world, inhabited by green-skinned people and lit by a dim, watery green sun.  She went on that one day she and her brother entered a cave they had not seen before and were lured by the sound of bells, which brought them out into the fields near Woolpit.  Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative

Being asked how she came into this country with the aforesaid boy, she replied that, as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished in whose sweetness, they were for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to it’s mouth.  When they came out of it, they were struk senseless by the excessive light of the sun, and he unusual temperature fo the air; and they thus lay for a long time.  Being terrified at the noise of those who come on them, they wished to fly but they could not find the entrance to the cavern before they were caught.

William of Newburgh’s account is similar.  However for once he seems to have wandered into fantasy, which as a medieval man of God, I think we can forgive him for, when he claimed that the land the children came from was called St Martin’s Land, all the people there were Christians and there were a great many churches.

Needless to say, there have been a great many theories down the ages concerning the narratives of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh concerning the children.  Twelfth century rural England certainly would still have retained a lot of archaic pagan folklore belief and there can be no doubt some of the villagers saw the children as elves or other such fairy folk.  It is also worth remembering that the Green Man is the oldest known folklore figure in the history of mankind, so there would be others who would have seen them as the children of such forest creatures.

Some have suggested that a dietary condition, possibly anaemia, may have been the cause of their green hue, and this would certainly have accounted for the girl losing her hue as she ate a more wholesome diet, and may explain the boy dying as well.  Others point out that this does not account for the girl’s account of how she and her brother came to be in Woolpit.

Firstly, no matter how reliable, medieval writers still tended to be somewhat fanciful.  I am not immediately pouring scorn on the possibility of the children actually existing.  It is so well documented that I don’t think there can be any doubt they actually existed.  Yet look at the account of William of Newburgh claims about the Christian St Martin’s Land, which are clearly fictional.  Anything else apart, we are told the girl was baptised into the Christian church.  If she came from a land where all were Christians there would have been no need of this.  There are also several different versions of the girl’s account, which tells us alone that if real, it has become convoluted through time and each retelling.  Do not forget that in the 12th century writers such as William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall were rare indeed in a land where most people, from pauper to gentry, were illiterate, and the vast majority of tales were told in the oral tradition.

More fanciful stories have claimed that perhaps because the children were Elfin, or even aliens as some would have it, is why their language could not be understood.  Although, some other claim that they may have been Flemish and their parents killed in one of many Skirmishes between English and Flemish settlers at the time.  However, if this were so, then why did the girl make no mention of her parents, or of any such skirmish for that matter.

My own view is that the children did indeed exist, and I believe were possibly orphaned.  Left to fend for themselves, they soon took to eating what they could find and this poor diet accounted for their green hue and the subsequent death of the boy.  The matter of them not being understood is quite easily explained without even looking in the direction Belgium, the woods or Zeta Reticuli for that matter.  English as we know it has only been with us since the 16th-17th century when the works of Shakespeare and the Wycliffe English Bible (and later the King James Version) brought the first standardisation of the language.  Before then local areas spoke local dialects, so much so that even the inhabitant from one village may not understand someone from another village.  And let us not forget, this was only around 100 years after the Norman Conquest, when the Anglo-Norman tongue was still evolving, assimilating and overtaking the old Anglo-Saxon tongue.  Think that fanciful?  Even today if you were to put someone speaking Buchan Doric in the same room as someone from Devon or Cornwall, they would have a hard time understanding each other.

Theories abound, with many people claiming they have the definitive answer.  I claim no such thing.  I merely expound my hypothesis of what I believe the most likely explanation for an enigma which is not going away any time soon.