Arcadian Folklore

The lost realm of Arcadia was noted for its vast array of folklore and customs. Many unusual tales are at the centre of a rich and diverse research field which has painstakingly assembled a wealth of material from a huge variety of sources. This essay can only give a brief overview of some of the more unusual and seasonal based customs, superstitions and history of the Arcadian realm.

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Spring

In some traditional ceremonies found in Arcadian folklore, it was customary to welcome the dawning of the new spring equinox with the ritual slaughtering of a member of the younger generation. To herald the occasion, many of the older generation were designated as arbiters of the ceremony known as “The Choosing” in which the most intelligent and promising youth among the village families were chosen to lead a procession of shame before being ritually slaughtered with certain forms of knife known as Saviour’s Daggers. The leader of the village known as a Sovereign King took the youth towards the designated place of sacrifice and oversaw the whole of the ceremony donned in a costume of fabrics and lichen.

Not all spring-based Arcadian traditions were, however, so violent. In some other tribal sects of Arcadian youth, many events are detailed around the ceremony of the “stone dance”.  Initially treated as another fertility ritual, the dance takes play in the closing hours of the spring equinox, and was said to deduce future virulence. The dance is set to the rhythmic thumping of old bull-skin drums, euphoria being said to have risen from the pheromones derived from certain herbs and concoctions regularly laid out in the fields that demarcated the place of dance. The ceremony was led by a stone boy and girl, known under numerous names in Arcadian scholarship. Certain, more questionable tribes of Arcadia often incorporated the wearing of white clothing into the various rituals of spring. Initially, some ethnographers thought this to be a symbol of chastity and cleanliness, heralded as coming to an end with spring approaching. But the wearing of white garments, travelling in white painted transportation and even the customary shaving of heads by the younger males has all been linked to the same reasoning as the folklorist Matthew Barnaby explains:

“It is thought that the combination of wearing white upper-body clothing, sometimes bearing various crosses and theological symbols, was meant to represent an unspoken form of comradeship in the great battle between the Arcadians and outsiders. The removal of hair meant the removal of identity.  They linked themselves to what Éliphas Lévi called the Great Arcanum of omnipotence, a failed final pagan uprising that is almost always historically scuppered by the white wearers’ general lack of education in practical matters.” (1938, p.66).

These darker matters did not distract from the general celebrations of the period, however. As the old Arcadian saying goes, “The land of sheeld, maiden and blossom be upon us.”

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Summer

Summer was a strange time for Arcadian tradition. The ritualistic elements died down in terms of public celebrations but personal belief came to the fore. This is surprising to find considering the changes in weather but, as the historian Thomas James writes, “The warmer weather provoked an unusual sense of isolation in the communities of Arcadia.” (1976, p.22). James is renowned as a scholar of Arcadian summer traditions and personal rituals, specialising in what he calls “Sun Observances”. The list of Sun Observances is too long to engage in fully for a general overview of Arcadian folklore but some of the more vivid and unnerving of these incredibly private ceremonies are worth relating. James is at odds with another scholar in general Arcadian ethnography, Ellen Soloman, the rift between their theories derived from their intensely differing views on the Sun Observance ritual known as “Sunning”.

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Sunning was common among Arcadians and involved the painting of the partaker’s face in a yellow substance produced from grounding up especially grown sunflowers. This was done in solitary moments and it was bad practice for Arcadians to be seen in public when adorned with the yellow make-up. Once the face had been covered as such, the partaker would sit in silence for several hours, any movement deemed to be improper and a void to the ritual’s success. James believes that the ritual was meant to evoke immunity to the sun’s weather which, as the years went by, was said to be increasing in temperature and damaging to many Arcadians’ skin. Sunning, according to James, “put the participant in such a state of calm that some believed the ritual to summon up a benevolent skin spirit which was supposed to occupy the Arcadian’s outer skin, almost as a protective layer. The spirit subsequently was empowered by the rays of the sun.” (1976, p.54). Unlike James, Solomon rubbishes this. She contests many of his theories due in part to certain photo-documents actually showing the folklorist himself partaking in a re-enactment of the ritual. Instead, Solomon believes that Sunning is actually a purely sexual ritual that “is far from solitary but in fact a long and complex power-play between pairs of male and female participants.” (1984, p.35). She believes that most Arcadians deliberately shielded the true nature of the ritual due to the one part of the theory that she agrees with upon with James; that evidence of its happening automatically negated its desired effects.

Many Arcadians generally expressed a brief and typical sun observance when first leaving their houses ahead of a day’s work on the land and in the fields. When crossing the barrier of their household doorway, many an Arcadian would cross themselves with a strange movement of their right hand in front of their face and utter the phrase “Sun be praise” or “Prasieth thee sun”. The movement was described by James as a circular motion said to represent the sun encircling the Earth, moving twice around the face and with the second motion being much shorter in circumference to show the closer proximity of the Earth to the sun.

Autumn

In Arcadian autumn, the accumulation of dead leaves was often considered an ominous sign. In early mythology, these dead leaves were seen as akin to dead men’s bones. Children were often warned away from playing in large piles of dead leaves. The leaves of the oak tree especially were greatly feared and a man from each community would be put in charge of disposing of as many dead oak leaves as could be found. If the weather proved too poor to burn these leaves, as it often did as Arcadian weather was notoriously in flux, he would be forced to dig large holes in the ground and cover the leaves with holy earth. He would then be forced to mark the spot so the local people could avoid walking over it, much in the same way as people try to avoid walking over the graves of the dead in the churchyards. These spots would be sometimes called “places of unthanks” which suggests that walking over them would bring misfortune.

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There are very few rituals in the Arcadian autumn by comparison to the other seasons. This was because of a need to gather food in preparation for wintertime but also because of various superstitions and beliefs which superseded other concerns. Several creatures were said to stalk the land during the season. The sociologist and academic, Gertrude Mallarme, studied the many cultures in the country’s most rural areas during the early 1950s and wrote in great detail of the fear which kept many Arcadians in doors. In her masterwork, The Fears and Misnomers of Closed Societies (1954), she delved into what she called a “heightened indoor culture” that occurred in the months of October to December. She relates it as follows:

“Whilst I was staying in a village during the latter period of my research, I began to notice that my relatively friendly neighbours became increasingly hostile and perturbed. The local public house, a place which had bustled with activity only a week or two beforehand, became barren. When I tried asking what had caused such a change in habit and character, the local landlord whose building I was staying in at the time, suggested that it was because of a local legend regarding a certain creature that was said to stalk all rural climes during the periodic change from summer to autumn. When I asked him for further elucidation, he became cautious, even a little aggressive, but relayed that this was not some singular piece of folklore but an accepted fact; that this village was not the only one affected by such a seasonal change and that the creature at the heart of the fear was wide-spread. It was arguably a species of sorts rather than a folk tale.” (1954)

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Even the stronger males at the head of many of the communities dared not tread outside of their abodes after dark, never mind be seen to walk over an “place of unthanks” during the autumnal daytime. When researching further into Mallarme’s studies, it becomes clear that her work cuts off relatively cleanly after her 1954 publication. Several correspondences with her university revealed that, on her last trip in Arcadia, she disappeared during the autumn of 1958. The manuscripts of her research, between the four years from her last published work, occasionally surface publically and several documents are held in a village museum some way out into the rural heart of where south-east Arcadia was demarcated. Folklore professor and editor of the Oxford journal, Humanities and Customs Quarterly, Richard Kempton, has been the most thorough in both the continuation of Mallarme’s work to study Arcadian autumnal psychology but also pivotal in reprinting and simply tracing the rest of the academic’s missing work. When last interviewed, he suggested that he was some way to actually finding the whereabouts of the missing sociologist but suggested that also, perhaps obtusely, this did not mean he was in equal reach of actually gaining access to or recovering the body. In his own words, such a feat would be “virtually impossible” due to the danger – requiring an in depth and ill-advised excavation in the heart of autumn time- and that “it was enough to know that her remains were no longer in absens.” (1977).

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In Kempton’s most recent edition of the reprinted and collected writings of Mallarme, one startling piece of work by the sociologist caused widespread criticism for its fantastical insinuations. The essay was found in a box buried deep in a local hillside though Kempton is reluctant to suggest how exactly he came upon it. The half-completed paper was republished under the title of “Abeyance and Fear of Autumn’s Creatures in Certain Social Climates” and went into detail which suggested that many rural communities in Arcadia were in some way under the psychological influence of a form of creature yet to be properly discovered or classified. Mallarme had collated evidence regarding the conspiracy between these communities and such creatures, though had made great pains to suggest that it was not often conscious to many of the rural folk. She wrote:

“Since on research leave in the Arcadian town of B- I have been examining the potential that, contrary to what my previous research has spent the good deal of twenty years attempting to define as a psychological phenomena, the social fear and its subsequent effect on etiquette is far from any particular piece of folklore or myth. It is in fact concerned with a highly dangerous and aggressive form of being that I can scarcely fathom as to how it has remained incognito for so long.” (appox. 1956).

The folklore which Mallarme refers to is ambiguous, for several of her papers are still missing. Yet Kempton is sure that the sociologist is referring to one particular reoccurring theme in the folklore surrounding Arcadian autumn. In several surviving church engravings, strange figures that at best can be described as only vaguely humanoid, appear around depictions of the autumn equinox, usually accompanied by falling of leaves of which make up the beings’ bodies. Several inscriptions accompany these early forms of local folk art – perhaps more unusual with their placement being upon buildings representative of an entirely differing theology – and often refer back to the lyrics of a folk song whose origin is unknown. The song has several names from “Hold thy leafen hand” to “Thouest made of leaves” and is often sung in the very few social gatherings that occur in the autumn months. The lyrics can generally be paraphrased from Kempton’s own research as a general derivation of the following:

“Don’t walk out my gentle friend,

Into the autumn night,

The leaf’n folk are out astride,

Devourin’ the light.

They take your babe when trees a’fall,

They take your soul divine,

Until your body is out of sight,

And bones are lean and fine.

The leaf’n hand is friend and foe,

Respect the autumn night,

For the time will come to pass,

When leaf’n power’s might.” (Date and author unknown)

Winter

Death hung heavy over Arcadia in wintertime. The fauna and flora of the landscape died back to such a stark degree that many Arcadians considered a yearly apocalypse to have befallen the land.  Many forms of forgiveness ordained to the land gods found their way into homely practices. When fasting was not deemed to be effective enough to appease their winter Gods, Arcadians descended into ceremonies of extreme violence. Most villages had what the academic John Tushing called the “blood meadow”; a shadow version of the village green where, in winter (and only when snow had fallen), the villager’s wise man was taken and subsequently lynched by the four strongest men available. Each man would take one limb of the wise man who was then pulled until each limb was torn out. The blood of the man was deliberately poured over a stone marker in the field which many believed to be in direct linkage to the winter gods but, more disturbingly, evidence suggests that the ceremony was not over until the four men have reassembled the corpse of the man. Ethnographer Rupert Evans describes it as follows:

“Several iron rods are taken along to the ceremony and kept to one side. On the one occasion that I managed to stay at the event before feeling too sickened to leave, the men rammed a rod into each limb and subsequently reassembled the body of the village seer. Once his body was loosely connected again, he was dressed in a ritualistic outfit and stood against a larger pole, much like a scarecrow.  Through this, I later found in my research, the villagers believed that the god would cast aside the snow because the dead man’s blood was said to still pour on the land. However, from what I could tell after revisiting the unfortunate soul some weeks after he was killed, his body had merely frozen and various birds and animals torn away at it.” (1976, p.23).

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Before Arcadian society collapsed entirely, many such ceremonies were recorded and documented.  Such was the desperation caused by the severity of the last winter of Arcadia that many communities took to simply killing as many of the elder folk as was deemed necessary. Great lines of these reassembled and dressed bodies were stood in rows upon several fields. The nickname given to the reassembled man was the “standing man”. Many village children, if not half starved by the time such ceremonies were called upon, would be chosen to tend to such standing men, bringing gifts of small stones and pieces of coal which were laid quietly at their feet. The very last piece of recorded Arcadian folklore documented in the winter time foretells of the oncoming great storm and the last decimation of realm.

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Though it is not known who truly penned the lyrics to the song, Evans writing many years later believed that it was likely to be one of the last village leaders, knowing full well both his own fate in a fast approaching standing man ceremony and the general fate of Arcadia as a whole. Evans writes of the tragedy of this lyric: “It foretells and even accepts the total collapse of Arcadian society in a way that is still shockingly accepting in hindsight.” The song is simply known as “The Winter of Arcadia” and its final verse is its most poignant:

“My body will be torn asunder,

Standing over thy field,

Looking back on Arcadia,

Into a’fate sealed.

Arcadia is over,

Do not weep for our sins,

Our Gods are dead, our land is gone

And none can hear our hymns.”

A documentary film about the history of Arcadia is on general release now.

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