homilies, spancels, procrastination, folklore, and nábrókarstafur

September 11, 2011 at 3:31 am (Uncategorized)

A while back I posted inquiring about the lore behind TH White’s mention of Morgause capturing Arthur’s affections with the magical spancel, a sort of tape or ribbon made from the skin of a dead man.  I got a few alluring tidbits from well-read passers-by,* though I have yet to do much with this tradition, as I’ve been a bit busy tracking down some really cool, weird, and gross stuff from some Old English homilies that owe a hell of a lot (imo) to Celtic Christian influence.  Unfortunately, my advisor doesn’t think my translating a homily and saying “hey, check this weird stuff out!” is quite enough for a chapter, so I’m at a bit of an impasse right now (but the whole point of blogging is to avoid thinking about the damned dissertation anyway).

When I was a kid, my family would travel over to Florida to visit my great-grandmother, who had a wicked sense of humour, a vast collection of local legends (many of which she made up herself), and a trove of sayings that rivaled the Cotton Maxims in range (and sometimes the Kalevala in obscurity).  One of the stories with which she regaled the younger generations was of the Seacanamarampus – a huge sea-creature of great age but uncertain parentage that lived in Pensacola Bay mostly, except for when it took short tours to other areas of the Gulf Coast.  To this creature were attributed the odd melancholic blasts of sound that drifted over to her house on foggy nights (most of us grandkids had no idea what a foghorn was).  It’s no wonder I grew up and joined MEARCSTAPA.

Many of her tales were doubtless told to deter us from wandering beyond a certain distance from the house, or to otherwise keep us out of trouble.  One particularly effective tale was her grim assurance that if we wandered over into the empty lot a few blocks away, we could count on being snatched up and absconded with like [fill in name of probably-fictional, long-dead-or-disappeared-neighbor-kid]; the culprits were hobos who would take us and sell us to the gypsies, or perhaps the gypsies themselves, who would steal us and poke out our eyes with red hot pokers, or else maybe the Apple Lady, who would put us into a sack made of human skin, sling us over her shoulder, and cart us off to who-knows-where.  Perhaps my great-grandmother’s tale-weaving and embroidery of local legends accounts somewhat for my lifelong interest in folklore, crypto-zoology, and accoutrements made out of human skin. (Am NOT warped for life.)

But if you, like me, are interested in such gruesome oddities (and especially if you, like me, wait to catch up on your blog reading until you have several pressing deadlines on matters that will determine your fate or at least the course of your life over the next few years and you can’t muster the courage or energy or optimism to do anything about them except cower and whinge)** then you might appreciate this little tidbit.  Journey on over to Got Medieval for the context surrounding Necropants.

Yes, I said Necropants.   While this gruesome item doesn’t involve love magic, it does require, like the spancel, flaying the flesh from a corpse in one continuous piece. I quote Wikipedia:

“Nábrókarstafur – Necropants, a pair of pants made from the skin of a dead man that are capable of producing an endless supply of money.”


Unfortunately, from the account at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, it sounds like once you step into the pants, they must be worn continuously in order to work, so in that aspect they are a bit more of a drag than the spancel.


* Including Eamonn Kelly! As in, National Museum of Ireland Eamonn Kelly! How cool is that?  And you can read a story involving the spancel in Matthew Archdeacon’s 19th century  Legends of Connaught (see “Fitzgerald” around pp 85-86), courtesy of Google books.

** Those pressing matters with pressing deadlines would be, er, the job market, my unwritten statement of teaching philosophy and unwritten job letter draft ANDTHEJILCOMESOUTNEXTWEEKOMGSHOOTME and, oh, the small matter of the two dissertation chapters I need to have written in the next two weeks which, er, aren’t written and apparently aren’t being written since I’m studiously catching up on blog posts rather than chapter-writing :/


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