Folklore Thursday: Harvest Spirits ~ Black Earth

In the autumnal glow of Folklore Thursday’s Harvest theme, here are a few Slavic spirits of the grain

POLEVIK

Polevik

(Also known as Polewiki. Polevoy. Polovoi.)

The Polevik is a strange spirit of the grain fields. they are usually masculine though some accounts mention females and children of the species. The Polevik is described as a rugged dwarf with dark earthy skin and grass for hair. They are frequently dressed in white and each of their eyes is a different colour. It is sometimes claimed that their feet are cloven like those of goats.

When in a jovial mood, Polevik may amuse themselves by killing wild birds or by causing travellers to become way-led and confused in surroundings which may normally be familiar to them. In their more aggressive moods, which accounts for most tales about them, they are violent, dangerous creatures.

They do not like idlers, and lazy field-workers may be lucky just to receive a hefty kick from a Polevik, for if they chanced upon someone drunk and asleep in the fields they would strangle the person to death. Like the Rye Wolf and the Poludnitsa, tales of the Polevik may be told to children to stop them playing in the cereal fields and risk damaging valuable crops, but legitimate workers may too feel ill at ease working with a Polevik presence looming. Therefore it was hoped that they would be appeased with an offering of two eggs and a cockerel that could no longer crow, placed in a ditch alongside the field. The Polevik were most active at noon and dusk, so it was desirable not to be in the fields at those times.

It is said in Russia that the Polevik shrink to the size of chaff or stubble when the harvest is nearly complete and will hide in the last few stalks and be taken in to the sheds. As it is also claimed that the Polevik causes disease amongst those who displease him, it is possible that he is symbolic of Ergot fruitbodies. Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is a fungus that infects cereal crops, especially Rye, sometimes with calamatic effect. Whilst its hard dark purple fruitbodies are quite apparent it can still get get into the food supply as it is not noticable when ground and cooked. If ingested by people or animals it can result in poisoning called Ergotism. Rather than kill the toxicity baking the grain may strengthen the effects.

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Rye Mother

(Also known as Rye Grandmother. Rugia Boba. Zalizna Baba. Rzhana Baba. Zhytnia. Zalizna Zhinka – The Iron Woman.)

The concept of a Corn Mother was prevalent in the faiths of many cultures across the world. She may have often had a dark side relating to her association with the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth, yet in Slavic and also Germanic lore her sinister side is most prevalent.

Manifesting as a sinister old crone, she hunts for children with her iron hook, and once captured she will take them to suckle upon her iron breasts, yet it is not white wholesome milk that the children will drink but black poison that will sicken, madden and perhaps kill them. In this dark aspect she is not the personification of the nourishing grain but perhaps the embodiment of the toxic fungi, Ergot (see also Polevik).

Whilst the causes of Ergotism or Holy Fire were only officially recognised by science in the 16th Century, it can be assumed that peasants whose lives depended on the land would have known the cause and effect of the dark smut growing on their crops, if only by the resulting condition of the consequences of their livestock having eaten infected grain. Superstition may have also developed blindly around Ergotism as when cooked in human bread it is not visibly discernible. Obviously good grain would be used in favour of bad, but in hard times it may be a choice of either starvation or eat infected crops – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Alas in bad weather when yields may be low already, the climatic conditions are also better for Ergot to grow. In the Little Ice Ages (1150-1460 AD and 1560-1850 AD) ergotism outbreaks were prevalent across Europe. In Russia in 1926-27, approximately ten thousand people were reported with Ergot poisoning

Also in harsh times wolves may be more inclined to move closer to human habitation, if coupled with the hallucinatory effects of the Ergot, then it is possible to see how tales of werewolves may have evolved, it is noteworthy that Rye also has a supernatural association with wolves and in some regions the Rye Mother would be accompanied by a wolf. Ergotism outbreaks have been debatably associated with the Witchcraft panics in various countries, though the ‘Burning Times’ never really descended upon the Slav countries, though witches were certainly not unknown there. Ergot may be associated to the Witch-like figure of the Rye Mother by a number of factors. The word Baba means both the last sheaf of crop and witch. Her hard dark poisonous nipples may be indicative of Ergot fruitbodies and ergotism can be transferred to a child if the mother’s milk is infected. Also the decrepit Rye Mother may be seen as a failure of fertility, both in the crop and in people, as Ergotism can also cause infertility and can cause abortions of foetuses, indeed it was used deliberately in folk and traditional medicine for this purpose.

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Poludnica

(Also known as Polednica. Pryzpotudica. Psezpolnica. Polednice. Poludnitsa. Pudnitsa. Pscipolnitsa. Potundiowka.)

Known across the Slavic countries and neighbouring territories from Siberia to Moravia, the Poludnica is the Midday Spirit or Lady Midday that brought terror to the people. Because of her strong affinity to the fields and the assertation that in some regions she manifests as an ugly old hag, there may be association between the Poludnica and the Rye Mother; however she is also reported to assume the form of an adolescent girl with a whip whose lash will lead to a short life. More frequently she will appear as a tall, beautiful woman dressed in a white cloak or gown brandishing a scythe, sickle or shears. Her beauty however may only be skin deep as there is a cruel streak to her nature, yet ironically her presence is in some regions deemed healthy to the vitality of the crops.

The Poludnica deems that noon time is sacred to her to wander the fields and should she venture upon a man whom is not taking rest at midday, she will pull their hair and tickle or twist their necks, if they do not desist working there and then and return home she may continue tickling them until they die or strike them down with madness. For this reason she is considered the embodiment of sunstroke.

Yet in some regions there are other bizarre and sinister tales told of the Poludnica. If the weather were stormy she would sometimes suddenly appear in the peasants cottages; the uncomfortable inhabitants would have to sit out the storm on their very best behaviour lest they offend their strange, uninvited guest.

She may also appear in a sudden gust of wind or dust storm and kill anyone in her path, or approach people and ask them questions or riddles and if their answer is not to her liking she would inflict them with illness, misfortune or insanity.

At other times she would either lure children to become lost in the grain fields or kidnap ones who have been left unattended at harvesting time. She would sometimes also kidnap women in childbirth and keep them captive for a year, or assault women and children who were not at home at noon. In parts of Poland she was said to hunt down the children and women with a pack of seven large black dogs. She was often utilised in the words of parents to stop their children wandering in lonely places or strong sunshine, to keep them away from valuable crops and if they were generally being naughty – “Behave or the Poludnitsa will get you!”

from Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld by Andrew L. Paciorek

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Available to purchase from – https://www.blurb.co.uk/user/andypaciorek

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Art of The Beautiful~Grotesque

Andy Paciorek

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Seen in Half Dreams: The Fairy Investigation Society Interview Andy Paciorek

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Andy, thanks so much for agreeing to talk. First of all, can you just tell us something about your background and how you became so interested in fairy art?

Hi, thanks for asking me to talk. I have had an interest in strange and mysterious subjects and have also compulsively drawn since I was a child, so it was probably inevitable that I would someday end up drawing fairies. As a very young child I think I saw stuff, that I never really thought anything of at the time – faces in the trees and one time I remember playing on the fields at the back of my house with an unfamiliar child who was very pale with white hair and I think white clothing. Nobody else seems to have seen him or knew who he was, which was odd as it was a small village where most people knew each other. I think he said his name was Samuel. I never thought he was a ghost, angel, faerie (though some theories identify faeries as either being ghosts or fallen angels) – just a kid. He wasn’t an imaginary playmate either as I only ever saw him the once. As I got older I became more and more interested in supernatural subjects but paid little attention to faeries as still then I had the Tinkerbell impression of them.

So what changed things?

Well, in my reading I came across Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee and then the books of Hilary Evans and that brought me around to a new way of thinking about faeries, which inherently felt righter to me. On the art side as well as Froud and Lee’s
seminal Faeries, via the Pre Raphaelites and Aesthetic artists I became aware of the Victorian genre of Fairy painting and I became enamored especially with the works of Richard Dadd and John Anster Fitzgerald. There was a dark, mysterious underbelly to their work which really resonated with me.

Jeremy Harte has a very nice comment somewhere: he says that Brian Froud basically took Katharine Briggs’ Fairy Dictionary and drew it.
How does folklore writing inform what you draw, Andy? It is very influential and inspiring. How I came to write and illustrate my own folklore books, however, is a bit of a strange journey. At one point in my life an opportunity arose for me to work on a travelling carnival, so I literally ran away with the show folk for a few years, starting off in Wales and then travelling to the Far and Middle East. There was a girl who worked on the fair with us in the Philippines, who had a sort of a Goth look and one night I heard some Filipinos refer to her as a WokWok. And I asked them what that meant and they said Witch of the Night. I broached the subject with other locals and they informed me that the WokWok was a type of Aswang, a breed of differing vampiric or sinister entities and that piqued my curiosity. Then in Oman on one of the carnival games, the prizes were big Tasmanian Devils – Taz cartoon character stuffed toys and a local pointed at the toys and told me that people like that lived in the interior of the country, so I grew more and more interested in creatures and beings from different world folklore and mythology. Upon leaving the carnival life and returning to Britain I worked for a brief stint temping at Bizarre magazine in London. Whilst there a small filler feature was needed so I wrote a short ‘Ten alternatives to the Bogeyman’ which featured I think WokWok as well as Black Annis, possibly Tonton Macoute (Uncle Hears Me) and I cannot remember who else now but I went on to write about and illustrate far more than ten. I decided to illustrate a series of portraits of strange creatures from British and Celtic folklore. For research I had a massive pile of books scattered around me – Reverend Robert Kirk, W.Y Evans-Wentz, Katherine Briggs, Wirt Sikes, W.B. Yeats and many more and I thought it would be handy to have all this reference in a single book. So not finding one at a time, my proposed series of portraits became that book – Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld containing over 170 illustrations and further descriptions of all manner of mystical beast and beings, many from the Faerie domain. Whilst I was still working on it John And Caitlin Matthew’s Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures came out, which is a bumper reference book. I would have possibly pulled my hair out in despair at the work I’d done, had Harper Collins not contacted and commissioned me to provide interior illustrations in the Encyclopedia. In the end the books have a different feel to them but actually complement each other pretty well.
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And your latest published work?
Well, last year I published Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld, a book I had finished writing years ago but which span over time getting the illustrations done amongst other work I had on. Again, there are a number of Faerie type entities to be found. Slavic folklore is one of the most under-represented in English language or translated books, which is a shame as there is some rich interesting material to be found in those lands. I am pleased I tackled that as a subject and hopefully there will be further material published by other authors relating to that lore. I am tempted to do further Otherworld Field Guides; have a series of them – Japanese, Native American, Oceanic … etc. There is a wealth of possibilities but it is also a lot of work involved.

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As to your drawings I just want to start, if I may, with the phooka, a favourite Irish supernatural creature. How do you go about drawing that?

With Strange Lands, there was a lot of almost automatic-style drawing involved. After reading a text I would just draw with the being vaguely in mind. What was on the page quite often was initially little more than a scribble, but from that I would trace over and the pictures which were in the book. Whilst numerous entities virtually drew themselves, others had a little bit more conscious input from me. I knew I wanted a goat in the book and the Welsh Gwyllion could have also offered that opportunity but of all the shape-shifting forms the Phooka takes, the goat seemed to push itself forward. Brambles feature within the illustration in reference to the superstition that it is unwise to eat over-ripe blackberries as either the Phooka or the Devil himself had either spat or urinated on them. I am pleased I went with the goat aspect of the Phooka as a film of recent years I enjoyed was the Witch with its unlikely superstar of Black Philip the goat. I also prefer the sinister entities and illustrating them so shapeshifting bogies appeal to me.

There are so many fairy artists out there now and you’ve already mentioned a few. But who do you rate as being among the best? Who are your living inspirations? Who should we go and look for?
Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Charles Vess, all deservedly earned their position of being the successors of a tradition that followed Arthur Rackham, Dorothy Lathrop, Edmund Dulac and the other Golden Age illustrators and before them the great Victorian illustrators and fairie painters, but it is great to see that this tradition is continuing. Amongst those who regularly or frequently illustrate themes associated to Faerie, it is the darker earthier works that appeal to me as they maintain that capricious undercurrent and strange nature of the subjects, so apologies to those I have surely forgot but among the contemporary Faerie artists I admire are Karen Hild, Virginia Lee, Marc Potts, Cobweb Mehers of Eolith Designs, and especially Julia Jeffrey. Julia’s most recent body of work relating to the confessed Scottish Witch Isobel Gowdie is my favourite of her work, very sinister and evocative.
I’ve recently finished editing the Fairy Census 2014-2017. When people are describing fairy sightings frequently – I’d guess five or six times – people say, ‘it looked like a Brian Froud drawing’. What is happening here is modern artwork influencing sightings or is modern artwork taking from reality?

In talking with people about fairy artists, we think those who are ‘seers’ are very apparent. Among those whom I mentioned in the previous question are some whom I know or would expect to be Seers. There is an authentic feel to their work; it is not necessarily from literally seeing with the eyes but frequently just sensing and allowing those sensations to take form. With those who do that, sometimes it is as if the entities are rendering themselves through the conduit of the artist. The reasons for them being seers can vary. With Richard Dadd it could be his madness – he would simply smear paint on a canvas to begin and then paint the faces he saw peering out at him in the
pigment. For John Anster Fitzgerald there is a suggestion that his visions may have come from laudanum or opium half dreams. Some may simply be more sensitive to such things.
Location could also be a factor, Froud lives on Dartmoor which is notoriously ‘thin’, but the reasons why people may report Froud-like creatures is because they are seeing the types of creature Froud also sees. His earthier creatures are completely like those half-seen peering faces that can be found amongst foliage, tangled roots, tree bark and burrs, dry stone walls and such places. There is a stylistic difference amongst individual artists, but it may be that Brian’s work most closely captures the forms that numerous other people have seen. There is also the consideration of archetypes. If a collective unconscious exists, then art and reality will constantly influence each other I think

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Let’s finish with a boring but fundamental question. If anyone is interested in commissioning you for art work or just buying one of your books, how do we get in touch?

My solo books are available mail-order only from

http://www.blurb.co.uk/user/andypaciorek

but books I have illustrated for Harper Collins and other publishers are generally possible to buy from bookshops, Amazon etc. I can be contacted at andypaciorek@yahoo.co.uk
Andy, thanks so much!

This Interview first appeared in Fairy Investigation Society; Newsletter 7. New Series. January 2018

Founded in Britain in 1927. The Fairy Investigation Society has members from many different walks of life with different views about fairies and fairy existence: what ties us together, in mutual respect, is an interest in fairy-lore and folklore.

Read the Fairy Census 2014 -2017 here –  fairy census 2014 -2017

Alongside Darren Charles, Andy Paciorek will be discussing witches, faeries and folk horror at the The Pagan Federation Scottish Conference on Saturday April 21st 2018

Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld

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Following on in the footsteps of Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld, Black Earth guides the curious on a fully illustrated journey into the strange Otherworld of the Slavic nations. Ever wondered whose eyes are glaring at you in the bathhouse or who is lurking in the deep dark birch woods and following you through the golden grain fields? What lies beneath the damp black earth? Wonder no more, let Andrew L. Paciorek guide you into the worlds beyond.
Safe return not guaranteed ….

DEVANA

Fully illustrated throughout – 206 pages

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