Archive for October, 2016


“The shipwrecks and the ghosts, from up and down the coast…”

Wyeth has made Halloween a personal Walpurgisnacht, an annual reconnection with the unearthly, with witchcraft and hidden meanings. On that day he is electric with fun. He picks the deformed pumpkins and carves them into jack-o’-lanterns, a long lineage of fantastic death masks summoned up from childhood by the remembered scent of candle-heated pumpkin flesh.

On Halloween night Wyeth sometimes throws open his studio to the Wyeth clan and cohorts. They raid the NC [Wyeth] costume collection and disappear behind Andrew’s store of stage makeup, becoming a pack of ghouls touring the homes of close friends. Sometimes Wyeth in makeup and costume just walks alone in the night through a cornfield. “Marvelous,” exclaims Wyeth. “Getting rid of myself—fifty years after I’m dead, I’ll come walking back in disguise. I’d like nothing better.”

Always he is transported by a sensation of invisibility, of seeing the world through other eyes—revisiting his boyhood orgies of delicious horror. “It’s the eerie feeling of goblins,” he explains, “of witches out riding their broomsticks, dark holes behind windows, the glint of metal, the smell of damp rotting leaves and moisture, the smell of makeup, the feeling of your face under a mask, walking down a road in the moonlight as a child.”

—Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (1996)

“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“I watched you try, try to make that girl cry…”

Yesterday, with a speed that can only be chalked up to witchcraft, an ambulance parked at our local high school turned into Facebook rumors about hearsay about sightings of—well, I’m hardly the first to sound the alarm about the latest existential menace to law and order and basic human decency:

The frenzy was born in South Carolina in late August after unsubstantiated reports surfaced that clowns were spotted trying to lure children into the woods. The craze has since ignited a national phenomenon, with scary clown sightings reported in more than two dozen states from Alabama to Wisconsin. While many were hoaxes, a handful of the incidents resulted in arrests: in Alabama, at least seven people face felony charges of making a terrorist threat connected to “clown-related activity,” Rainbow City Police Chief Jonathon Horton told the Times-Picayune.

The incidents continue to stack up. Just this week, hundreds of students in Pennsylvania State University swarmed surrounding campus streets to carry out a mass clown hunt. A Connecticut school district said it is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror.” And an armed clown hoax temporarily put a Massachusetts college on lockdown.

The issue even made it all the way to the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the phenomenon on Tuesday.

One of the reasons I like being a medievalist is that it helps me distinguish the quirks of specific eras from timeless human folly. The former almost always sharpen into the latter when glimpsed through the lenses of distance and time.

In De Grandine et Tonitruis (“On Hail and Thunder”), Agobard, the ninth-century archbishop of Lyons, describes his encounter with a mob of rustics who had captured some “weather magicians” and were ready to stone them to death. He relates, grudgingly, a popular belief that men from a land called Magonia were stealing crops that had been knocked down by hail, which the weather magicians could summon and control, and flying away with the grain in their cloud ships. He also documents his investigations into a rumor that Duke Grimoald of Benevento, Charlemagne’s enemy, was sending men to sprinkle cartloads full of poisonous dust to kill the local cattle.

Agobard refrains from outright ranting, but his frustration is clear:

This story was so widely believed that there were very few to whom it seemed absurd. They did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust. Such is the great foolishness that oppresses the wretched world.

The situation may be medieval, but Agobard’s inquiry into the ways of weather magicians is an evergreen example of what happens when you hack through hedgerows of rumor in a vain attempt to find the crooked byway to the weed-smothered outskirts of truth:

Often we have heard it said by many, that they knew that such things were certainly done in specific places, but we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things. Once it was reported to me that someone said that he himself had seen such things. With great interest I myself set out to see him, and I did. But when I was speaking to him and encouraging him, with many prayers and entreaties, to say whether he had seen such things, I nevertheless pressed him with divine threats not to say anything unless it were true. Then he declared that what he had said was indeed true and he named the person, the time, and place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at the time.
[translated by P.E. Dutton in Carolingian Civilization: A Reader]

I’d cite more of De Grandine et Tonitruis, but a leering figure just crept from the woods. I could be mistaken, but he’s hauling what seem to be a bag of kidneys and a Mexican rat. There’s a farm across the street; if the cattle keel over, we’ll know who to blame. Like peasants before me, I’ll scan the horizon—and chase floppy footprints through ages of dust.