Monday 2 December 2019

The 'man in the oke' and other bugaboos


I love lists. Especially lists of mysterious creatures, like the well-known one by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a book in which he takes the robustly sceptical line that even if witches, ghosts and fairies do exist, most given instances of them are mere superstition and nonsense. ‘One knave in a white sheete hath cousened and abused many,’ he declares. ‘Miracles are knaveries, most commonly.’

But in Chapter XV comes his famous, breathlessly-delivered list of supernatural creatures fit to be believed only by those who ‘through weaknesse of mind and bodie, are shaken with vain dreames and continuall feare’:

In our childhood our mothers’ maids have so terrified us … with bull beggars, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, Kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changelings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows: in so much as some never fear the divell but on a darke night; and then a polled sheep is a perilous beast and manie times is taken for oure father’s soul, specialie in a churchyard…

This may or may not be a true indication of the range of creatures the Elizabethan populace actually believed in - satyrs, fauns, nymphs? really? - but it’s a magnificent rant. It’s as though Scot has thrown together every single supernatural entity he can possibly think of, one suggesting another. The classical ‘satyrs, pans, fauns, syl[v]ans’ run together easily, while ‘Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine’ seem more homely night terrors. While many of them are still familiar, others are not. Bull beggars? Spoornes, calcars? What on earth are they? And it's hard to see how anyone could be frightened by the dimunitive Tom Thumb we know from the fairy tales, but perhaps in the 16th century he was more of a plaguey fairy nuisance like Puck. At any rate his name seems to have suggested ‘Tom Tumbler’ of whom we know nothing.

In her Dictionary of Fairies Katharine Briggs says there is or was a ‘Bullbeggar Lane’ in Surrey which ‘once contained a barn haunted by a bull beggar’. Did it have any resemblance to a bull, or was it some more ordinary bogeyman? ‘Kit with the Canstick’ or ‘candlestick’ is probably a variety of will o’ the wisp, leading travellers astray, but I know of no folktales about it and if I were writing one I'd be tempted to turn it into a domestic spirit, and a sinister one at that. What is a ‘calcar’? I’ve no idea, unless it could by some stretch be a corruption of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’ – divine hag or old woman. What ‘the spoorne’ might be, no one knows. (Spawn?) The ‘mare’ is the night-mare. The hell-waine is the Devil’s wagon in which he carries souls to hell. In my children's fantasy 'Dark Angels' there's a hill called Devil's Edge, loosely based on Stiperstones in Shropshire; it has earned its name because:

Up on the very top ... there was a road.  A road leading nowhere, a road no one used. For if anyone was so bold as to walk along it, especially at night, he’d hear the clamour of hounds and the blowing of horns, the cracking of whips and the rumbling of a cart.  And out of the dark would burst the Devil’s own dog pack, dashing beside a black wagon drawn by goats with fiery eyes, crammed full of screaming souls bound for the pits of Hell.

As for the ‘man in the oke’, Katherine Briggs tells of '…scattered reference to oakmen in the North of England, though very few folktales about them…. Most people know the rhyming proverb “Fairy folks live in old oaks”; the Gospel Oak or King’s Oak in every considerable forest had probably a traditional sacredness from unremembered times, and an oak coppice in which the young saplings had sprung from the stumps of unfelled trees was thought to be an uncanny place after sunset…'

Many, many years ago I tried to write a poem about how it might feel to change into a tree:

I lie on oak leaves
And green, fronded moss:
Colder than new sheets
The earth and the frost.

Tree-roots twine under me,
Lulled, hushed I lie
With open face staring
Into the sky –

Bark sheathes my body and
Oh now I am
Not the tree’s prisoner
But the oke-man.

White sap runs in my veins,
Blood in the tree,
Leaves spout from my two arms,
Green as can be…

There was a vast and ancient Chêne Jupitre or ‘Jupiter Oak’ in the Forest of Fontainebleau when I lived near there in the 1990’s, but it became dangerous and was taken down.

I’m sure Scot's list (which of course he knew) inspired the list of evil creatures named by CS Lewis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe    the ones who gather behind the White Witch at the Stone Table.

Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book – Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horror, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses and Ettins. 

Even more exuberant is a list of supernatural creatures compiled by Michael Aislabie Denham (he died in 1859) a well-read Yorkshire merchant who collected and published various ‘Rhymes, Proverbs, Sayings, Prophecies, Slogans, etc.’ as well as pamphlets and anecdotes. Denham goes even further than Reginald Scot, whose list is incorporated – one might almost say buried – in the midst of his own: many of the creatures he names here appear nowhere else, but one must assume that they were once genuine traditions. Some are ancient. 'Portunes', for example, are to be found only in a single instance in the De Nugis Curialium or Courtly Trifles of 12th century man-of-letters Walter Map, who describes them as tiny fairy creatures like little old men who toast frogs in the hearth-ashes at night.

It's highly unlikely Denham found any live oral tradition about portunes in the mid-19th century, and there's little chance of the name leaking back from the written to the oral tradition, since Map's Latin text was not published until 1850, nor translated into English until MR James's edition of 1914. So Denham is certainly overstating the case when he suggests that 'portunes', at least, were generally believed in ‘seventy or eighty years ago’. At this time, he claims,

... the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, Bloody Bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!

Did you notice the 'hobbits', about two-thirds of the way through? All I can say is that here, indeed, is scope for the creative imagination.

Picture credits:

Witch and familiars: by Arthur Rackham
The fairy 'Yallery Brown': by John Batten
Aslan in the power of the White Witch: by Pauline Baynes 
From 'Goblin Market': by Arthur Rackham


  1. What a fabulous post! I myself, have seen "barguests" and they just might be the scariest ones of all! 8-)

  2. C.S.Lewis: Ok, I better not list all the scary creatures. We know how parents can be, huh? 😊
    Also C.S.Lewis:Oh, but there were definitely incubi!