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Since I was little (and perhaps Disney is at least partly to blame) I was interested in fairies, goblins and mermaids. What I didn't realise, until I read this book, was how much these ideas have shaped our history and spiritual beliefs.
Fairies, Ghosts, King Arthur and Hounds of Hell by Robin Melrose delves into the origins of our belief in mythical creatures such as these. It touches on Iron Age burials, some of which might show certain ritualistic treatment of the dead. Why were humans buried with animals? Why were some bodies buried with their heads removed and repositioned? And why are there gnawing marks on some of the human bones found? As a period for which we don't have a great deal of the written word to help us along, these findings are hugely significant and tell us about Iron Age attitudes and potential spiritual beliefs.
The Roman period has more written evidence, in the form of stone tablets and some written curses that would have been flung into a well to cast revenge on a thief, or someone who had otherwise wronged you. You'd leave it there and let the gods do their work on your behalf.
From here, the book moves around Britain - Wales, England, Scotland and touches on Ireland, too. We hear about the miracles of saints that have been performed here, along with the tales of fairies, mermaids and pixies, some stories being enthusiastically reported as recently as the last years of the nineteenth century. There are also water-horses, strange underground fairy lands and inside the hollows of hills, and secret fairy treasure. Ghosts, shape shifters, hell hounds and demons are also discussed, referring to accounts made by the people who claim to have seen them.
But this book isn't a version of Grimm's Fairy Tales for history geeks like me. It's a very detailed reference book, and it's very well researched and annotated. I love the personal touches - the retelling of stories in the original words, the emphasis on place names and their significance and the discussion about what these stories meant and their interpretation by people at the time. For me, the tales of mermaids or water horses tempting (or grabbing) humans into the water to their death sounds like a tale dreamed up to stop children playing too close to rivers or ponds. For others, it's a little less obvious. Some links to Christianity are discussed, and also some which could be simply moral warnings, where the human usually makes a mistake or breaks a promise made by a fairy or pixie and is then severely punished for it. Moral of the story? Don't mess with the fairy folk.
This book is hugely relevant as we try to understand the place of ghosts, mermaids, fairies and demons - and other spiritual beings in culture throughout history. It's important then to any study of British social history, whether that's relating to saints, historic abbeys and churches, the Reformation, the cult of King Arthur or the history of the general population. And it's a book I'll be referring to often, especially as I do my own local research on places and the people that lived there. I'm already planning trips to quite a few places mentioned in the book to see these sites for myself.
But I'll keep away from the water's edge, just in case.
Fairies, Ghosts, King Arthur and Hounds of Hell is available in booksellers and also on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle ebook.