Mythical Beasts of England
"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?"
Well in answer to William Blake's question penned in his unofficial English national anthem, who knows? maybe? Probably not though. It is a land of story and there are far more tales of claws gracing those pleasant pastures than there are of sandal-clad messiahs, who knows what else could have walked upon those mountains green. Blake certainly has my vote for England's national anthem, he was no stranger to drawing a beastie or demon himself and I would enjoy the idea of England's national anthem being named after a contentious region in the middle east, America should follow suit and crank Toto's "Africa". Blake also shares the same view of the "dark satanic mills" (mentioned in verse 2) that pulled people from their pastoral homelands into the crowded, polluted, cramped industrial cities to play a wonderfully fun game called capitalism, which I'm sure we can all agree has been a smashing success, with absolutely no downsides. What can we say except Pink Floyd warned you. Luddites get a bad press, if you need some help with the rebrand guys holla at ya boy.
Sorry wrong meeting.
We're here to talk about fun and strange stories of Mythical Beasts, not to try and remodel the world. But my word it's ready for an overhaul, right guys?
Sorry, sorry....... Mythical beasts!
We've included a couple from the original "Mythical beasts of the British and Irish Isles" map, because, well, there are only so many times I can read someone shouting about "missing" the Lambton worm or Black Shuck in the comments section. Hopefully one day we will release a book and get to talk about more of the beasties that lose out on the battle for space.
Thanks as ever for your support and for keeping this project going. To pick up a copy of the new map please visit the shop.
All the best
Neil and Charley
I'm so glad we get to start here as it contains one of those delightful "why?!?" moments that make up so many great folklore tales. So.... up in beautiful Cumbria, replete with its majestic lakes and rolling hills we have the lovely Bella (or Belle) a sweet rural girl, who adores her beloved lamb. We can leave right here and rest assured nothing bad is going to happen to that lamb right? I mean, why would it? It's not like the lamb is a symbolic reference to innocence and gentleness, right? Well..... obviously the lamb is killed, torn apart by a fox to be precise and discovered by a distraught Bella. And here we get the "why?!?" moment. I think we can all agree that when you discover your beloved pet torn to shreds there is only one thing you can do. Drink its blood. You were thinking to bury it and mourn for a bit? What's wrong with you sicko? No, the correct response is to drink its blood. Obviously. Predictably this had a strange effect on sweet, bizarre Bella, the next full moon she transformed into a beast that was half human and half sheep (a "were-sheep" if you will), filled with cravings for yummy, yummy sheep blood she slaughtered her way through the herds of the area before her palette matured sufficiently to gore, mutilate and eat people. Innocence dead, gentleness given to slaughter, becoming the thing you hate, I think Nietzsche would smugly remind Bella of his famous quote "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster". In Cumbria, the abyss was having a good old oggle.
Black Annis was on the initial map but has made a come back simply because she's a figure I keep coming back to. I have redrawn her several times since my initial encounter with her story. Blue-faced Hagg with iron claws which she used to carve out her cave, hangs the skins of her victims from a tree outside her house, or went full Ed Gein and turned the human flesh into clothes, all lovely stuff. As well as having a penchant for decorating she also affected local architecture, houses in the area were built with deliberately small windows so Black Annis could only get one arm in. That is the power of folklore.
One of England's most famous legends, and even though it was on the first map if I didn't include it on this one I knew the comments section would be an ordeal of people yelling "Black Shuck", "You missed Shuck", "call this a map of mythical beasts, hasn't even got Black Shuck, do your research!". I haven't got time for that, so here is, yet again Black Shuck. I'd be more tetchy about it but...well...it's Shuck init. I was tempted to include one of the other Black dogs, the Barghest, Padfoot, and Shock, so many black dogs, but Shuck is the Daddy of them all. I won't go into the description because well, we all know, or if not look at the illustration, tis why I do them. Instead, I will hit you with Shucks' greatest hit, his Superbowl, his swansong, his crescendo. The day is August the 4th 1577, Parishioners are singing Hymns, saying their prayers, and generally churching it up at Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh when ya boi smashes the door into the sound of thunder, runs straight up the aisle past the congregation and mauls a man and boy to death in front of the horrified onlookers. As this is happening the steeple collapses through the roof, and Shuck turns and runs out leaving scorch marks as he went, which can still be seen to this day. Inexplicably "back in black" by ACDC is playing. To up the stakes, he repeats the same process at ST Marys Church in Bungay, earning him press, infamy and a few articles for momma shuck to stick on the fridge.
A silly story with a fish. A squire was out fishing with his friends one day on Bomere Pool when they landed a huge fish they were shocked by its size, and they then proceeded to take bets on its size, notably whether it was larger around its middle than the squires' waist. Not having a tape measure handy they decided to put the young squires' sword belt around the fish, at which point it leapt from the boat taking the belt with it. Now the fish is said to be uncatchable because if it is ever netted it will draw the sword to cut itself free. Because that's how a fish's mind and fins work.
Brown Man of the Muirs
This chap takes militant veganism up a notch. 2 young men were hunting high on the moors above Elsdon, after catching some game they sat to rest and eat in a peaceful glen. Breaking from his repast one of the lads gazed up, catching sight of a man short of stature but built broad and strong, he glared with eyes that showed nothing but ferocity. The stranger approached and asked the young man if he knew who he was (if anyone ever says "do you know who I am?" you can bet your last penny nothing reasonable or measured is going to follow). The boy had heard rumours and tales and offered up " I would guess you are the lord of the moors?", he was correct and tried to make amends by offering the lord what he had caught. Keeping with the stereotypical, tired joke of "how can you tell if someone is vegan? Don't worry they'll tell you" the Brown Man of the Muirs is greatly offended and tells the young man that he views all living things on the moors as his subjects, and subsides on whortle-berries, apples and nuts and even though he is mortal, he is far older than most could hope to live #veganflex. And I just want to point out here, I am not mocking vegans, they are right, we are wrong and the dedication they make to doing the right thing for their bodies, the environment and animals earn them at least a modicum of smugness and it should be applauded. Back to our story, the Brown Man seemingly appeased and wanting to spread the good word invites the young man to accompany him to his home to see how he lives, the man agrees and begins to follow. As he sets off and is about to cross a stream, his very much supporting cast member of a friend suggests maybe they should get home, they had been gone a long time after all. As if a spell was broken he came to, the Brown Man was gone and they set off for home, leaving him with the haunting sensation that if he had crossed that stream he would have been torn to pieces. From my experience, if a vegan invites you back to their house to show you how they live it rarely involves being torn to pieces, more often it will entail being fed a tasty crumble, sitting on an overtly patterned throw and listening to Kimya Dawson. Well, these lads didn't learn anything and continued their sport on the way home, they slipped into ill health and died within the year. Karma is indeed a bitch.
The Elder tree has many important roles in Northern European folklore, a twig in the mouth could drive out evil spirits and cure toothache, if you stand under one on Samhain in Scotland you could see the Elf King, likewise on Midsummers eve in Denmark, you should never burn it lest you bring terrible fortunes upon yourself, carrying twigs can cure rheumatism, whooping cough, warts and over 700 other ailments, it was said to be unable to be struck by lightning, it could protect livestock from evil, stop the dead from rising, witches could conjure bad weather by stirring the water with an elder branch, it was what witches rode before the prevailing image of a broomstick. As well as its many folklore beliefs the Elder has served varied purposes medicinally, as well as in the making of food and dyes for centuries, it's various parts can be both beneficial or destructive, it is truly a fascinating tree. It is probably this dichotomy of its uses that created the tales of its guardian. The Elder Mother was the guardian of the tree, or in some cases was the tree, or both simultaneously. In her most benevolent we see her as the guardian and people would have to ask her kindly for the wood often with the saying "Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree", there are tales of elder trees being cut without permission and later seeing the local witch with a bloodied bandage, rarely revenge is met out by said witch, but nether the less, damaging an Elder will bring grave consequences upon the perpetrator. These guardians are some of my favourite parts of mythology, when we discover years later that what our ancestors were using them for actually has scientific reasoning behind them, they then venerate the object and imbue it with supernatural properties and guardians. For some reason it warms my heart, maybe it's that respect and closeness to nature and the world around them that is enviable, or that there was room for science and wonder to live side by side in their day-to-day life.
Eythorpe Little Witches
Weird little witches with massive oversized heads, knock knees and amazing agility. There isn't much to say about them, there are a few accounts, they seem pretty chill, they just enjoy dancing in the moonlight (the activity, not the Toploader song that is now compulsory at any dreadful large get-together). When they weren't dancing in the moonlight, feeling warm and right, being a supernatural delight.......hold on, "dancing in the moonlight", "supernatural" WAS THAT BLOODY SONG ABOUT THE EYTHORPE LITTLE WITCHES? Probably not, anyway, when they weren't doing the aforementioned activity, they mostly enjoyed sitting on fences making faces at cattle. Delightful.
My favourite find whilst doing this round of research. People will likely not know I am mad for a seasonally baked item known as Parkin. For the uninitiated, it is a kind of dense oat, spices and treacle-based cake/gingerbread, that just like me and the dragon in this story originates from West Yorkshire. Appropriately for a dragon story, Parkin is most often baked for Bonfire night in the north of England, my lovely mother-in-law bakes me a tin of it every year, and every November I gain about 8 pounds in weight, which would be worth it if age didn't make weight gain cumulative. Anyway enough about Parkin, we'll save that for my forthcoming cookbook "baking with beasties". The story pertains to Filey Brigg which is a rocky outcrop stretching out into the North Sea, this area has been surrounded by folklore, with various tales of the devil, but more interestingly dragons. The story varies from tale to tale, but the common theme is there was a dragon that terrorised the local community and only had one weakness, like all other dragons it was greed. This dragon did not crave the usual gold, gems and hoard building, nope this dragons greed was for cake, and I think we've all been there. Locals would lure it away from the village with delicious, tasty, sticky Parkin. My lord, I want some Parkin, why's it only June. Anyway, the dragon finally met his end, with varying degrees of stickiness. Some accounts say he was simply lured to a spot and killed, some say his jaws stuck together from the parkin and he died, some say it ate so much it died, and other accounts say his mouth was sticky so he bent down to drink from the sea, seeing this the locals took their opportunity and drown it. And that was the end of the Filey Dragon, I can relate, this is probably how it's going to play out for me too.
Gog and Magog
I'm not going to get into this because it's an entire thing. Suffice to say Gog and Magog feature in various religious texts, there is also Gogmagog one of the last giants left after the Romans discovered "Albion-the land of giants", it all get's very confusing and I would bore myself and you in the attempt to unpick it all, which I quite probably couldn't if I wanted to, and I don't, so there. For the map, we have focussed on their roles as the 2 guardian giants of London, even this is contentious as some will refer to them as Corineus and Gogmagog. Like I said, blooming confusing. Anyway if you see 2 giant effigies paraded around at the lord mayors show, these are your chaps.
I do enjoy an orchard guardian or orchard sprite. they are beautifully simple creatures, they protect a particular plant from the sticky fingers of children, who may damage the plants and quite possibly themselves by eating unripe fruit or even misidentified food. There is a rich history of them in England, all with their own wonderful names such as Melsh DIck, Owd Goggie, Coltpexy, Lazy Lawrence, Nutnan, Churnmilk Peg and of course the Gooseberry Wife. Our character here hails from the Isle of Wight and takes the form of a large hairy caterpillar that will somehow "get you" if you try to steal gooseberries.
The Griffin took on a special meaning in English Heraldry, it became a Christianised symbol of divine power and the guardian of the divine. Though not English in origin, it has become synonymous with English folklore, there are a few accounts and locations associated with the Griffin in England, though not as many as you may expect. A footnote here, if you want to check whether you are neuro-divergent in any way, talking to shopkeepers about the origin countries of mythical creatures is a dead giveaway. shopkeeper - "oh that's an interesting job, I only found out the other day that a unicorn is a national symbol here in Scotland", me - "Yeah it was a symbol for the purity and power of the Scottish kings, the crown around its throat predates the England Scotland union and it is not a symbol of subjugation but represents that only a king could control the power of a unicorn", shopkeeper "oh is that so, interesting stuff", me *not reading social cues* "Yeah and they originated in the Indus valley civilisation a bit over 5000 years ago near modern-day Afghanistan", shopkeeper *blank stare*. I will learn small talk one day I promise. Hasn't the weather been awful?
This dragon low-key terrorised the area of Shervage Woods, and by this I mean it hadn't eaten people, keeping its diet to strictly sheep and ponies, which I believe is the dragon equivalent of veganism. Still, it was a big ruddy dragon and people were pretty apprehensive to go check on the whortleberries which the villagers enjoyed so much, and would make wonderful tarts for the upcoming village festival. At this point it's starting to sound like an episode of the smurfs, it gets a little unsmurfey before getting back to a cartoonish ending. The villagers sent some men up to see what was happening and maybe sort the dragon out, well obviously they didn't come back, the first ones never do. Andway a woodcutter turned up at the village looking for work, traditionally woodcutters have a good track record with dealing with beasts in woods. So an old lady suggested he might have luck fetching the wood from Shervage Woods and whilst he was there would he be so kind as to check the whortleberries. Shady shady lady. Anyway, the woodcutter went up to the woods and did what his name implied he would do. Tired and hungry he sat to rest on a log to have his lunch, and here's where it gets back to cartoony, it turns out the log was the dragon, when it started to move the woodcutter jumped up and swung his axe down splitting the dragon in 2. Much like a headless chicken, the dragon didn't immediately die, but interestingly the 2 parts ran in 2 separate directions to neighbouring towns before finally dropping dead. The villagers made whortleberry tarts and had their festivities; all was fine in the smurfdom.
The Hagg worms of Arnside are a bit different to your usual worms/serpents of English folklore. They are described as huge, hairy flying serpents with mouths large enough to swallow the largest birds, so pretty much your dad at Nando's. There's not much to say about them, there are a few accounts, all with the same description but no particularly interesting tall tales, which is a shame given their unique appearance.
What on earth is that thing that looks like a killer whale stuck in a tree I hear you ask. Well, that's pretty much it. It was a demon that lived up a tree and emitted terrible wheezing sounds, so far so killer whale. However, it was known to chase and terrify locals, how on earth this was done I have no idea. But anyway there's nothing else to the tale except to say it was banished by a clergyman, but my word what a weird tale.
also known as a Hikey sprite, a lesser-known one of the wee folk, the hyter sprite seems to be gaining a bit more attention of lat. Unlike the usual child snatchers, these are known to be helpful to children, rescuing them when they are lost in the woods and even returning livestock to their rightful owners. This is probably why we hear so little of them, I'm pretty sure helping children will get you excommunicated from the fairy community. Interestingly there do seem to be as many tales surfacing about them acting as you would expect and stealing children too, so you never know they may well ingratiate themselves back into their community after all.
I enjoy the tales of the English river haggs, they always have colourful descriptions and names. Jenny Greenteeth goes by a few names and is probably one of the best known alongside her county Durham counterpart Peg Powler. They are both utilised to warn of duckweed that can cover a pond like a matt, creating a dangerous situation for walkers. Jenny is from the global tradition of not having honest conversations with your kids, or any belief that even if you did they'd pay it the blindest bit of attention. "Be careful down by the ponds, there's duckweed and you could fall in and get into danger" seems to be less effective than "don't you be going up there or Jenny will get you!".
The Knucker makes a comeback. Yes, it was on the initial map but Sussex is rife with the damn things, the place is practically a Swiss cheese of knuckerholes. The knucker is a water-based dragon that lives slightly inland, you hear less of them these days, but the rents in Brighton and Sussex as a whole are getting outrageous, I suspect gentrification may have pushed them out.
The Lambton worm, another must include or the internet will lose its mind. I'm itching to tell you about the other dragon myths of the area or Wade and Bess, but these will have to find a different outlet. The Lambton Worm is one of Englands' most famous dragon stories so I won't recant it here, it follows familiar motifs of finding a cute little beast, it gets bigger and has to go the way of Old Yeller.
Very similar to the will o the wisp though having more form and playing a more active role in drowning you.
also known as the black rock mermaid or the lease mermaid, but I prefer "Mersey Mermaid" because I enjoy a nice bit of alliteration and it conjures images of a mermaid with scouse brow and rollers in. Sorry, there will be no more terrible stereotypes of Liverpudlians. The Mersey mermaid is a strange tale, in that the mermaid both saves and brings about the demise of the sailor. In a nutshell, there is a sailor lost at sea all his shipmates are dead and his ship is buffeting around at sea, when a mermaid comes aboard, and seeing his salvation he asks her to save him, apparently speaking first gives him some power over her and she agrees on the condition he is to meet her again when he is safe and recovered, the sailor agrees and is handed a jack sparrowesque magical compass and the violent weather subsides. When home and returned to health he keeps his work and the 2 meet, this time she speaks first, regaining the power, somehow. With the power on her side, she sings in that hypnotic, alluring way that mermaids want to do, and takes back the compass, places a ring on his finger and leaves saying she will see him again soon. He then dies 5 days later, and that's kind of where it ends. It is a strange story for a mermaid myth, it doesn't fit with the majority of mermaid tales which usually entail wrecking ships/endangering sailors or enticing some posh lusty lord into stuffing his life up. The main theory seems to be this tale relates to power, potentially tieing to British naval power at the time, but I'm not so sure. To me the Mersey Mermaid seems to be functioning as a psychopomp, a harbinger of the sailors' death, maybe he was due to die on that boat, but gaining the leverage was permitted to return ashore, on that second meeting she would not make the same mistake, she regains her power and seals his fate with a ring. Who knows for sure, not I, it is a curious one and still garners affection from the locals with sculptures being installed in recent years.
Let's get this out the way first it was a Wyvern, not a dragon, common mistake, we'll move past it and accept that the name that has stuck is the Mordiford Dragon. Anyway, it is a lovely tale of a child's love for their pet, except this pet could wipe out herds of livestock and found human flesh scrumptious, so probably still friendlier than the average chihuahua. The tale goes that little Maud had always wanted a pet of her very own, whilst playing in the woods one morning she found a little creature playing amongst some flowers with a little snout and translucent wings, cute. She picks it up and takes it home and takes it home to show her folks, her parents realised immediately what it was and demanded she take it back, which seems pretty relaxed parenting, if my child came in cuddling an Adder I don't think my response would be as nonchalant as "no you can't keep it, just go pop it back where you found it". `maud took the dragon back to the woods and put it somewhere safe and out of the way, each day she would return to it secretly with milk and they would spend their days playing together. As usually happens time makes fools of us all and the dragon (wyvern) grew larger and stronger, milk no longer satisfied and it took to killing livestock, the farmers tried to stop it but if there was something even more appealing than pigs, cows and sheep it was the other other white meat. Maud begged the beast to stop, but no matter how hard you try you can't convince something to starve itself, and its rampages continued, everything was fair game except its only friend and love Maud. The locals did what they usually do in these tails and enlisted some noble to slay it, which he did, leaving Maud to tearfully mourn the loss of her beloved pet. Still probably safer than the chihuahua.
At Cockern Tor we get a beasties 2 for 1, in the form of Old Cockern and the Wisht Hounds. There is very little information out there about Old Cockern, suffice to say that he is some form of the guardian spirit of Dartmoor and is described as "the gurt old spirit of the moors, Old Crockern himself, grey as granite, and his eyebrows hanging down over his glimmering eyes like sedge, and his eyes as deep as peat water pools" other descriptions have him riding on a skeletal horse also, just to make sure he's ominous enough. Accompanying Old Cockern we have the Wisht hounds, similar to other black dogs - they are black, have saucer-like fiery eyes, yellow fangs and are occasionally prone to sparking or combusting. The Wisht Hounds are certainly not good boys, believed to have various purposes, from quarrying lost travellers over cliffs and chomping them up a bit, to reiving the souls of unbaptised babies. Old Cockern can often get mixed up in the many Dartmoor hunter myths, as well as being linked to wild hunt stories making it hard to pick out an individual story with certainty, but there are certainly some grizzly tales of dark hunts on Dartmoor should you wish to read further.
You know those people who are just relentlessly the worst, well the Penhill giant makes them look lovely. His story is quite long so I won't be able to sum it up here, though it is worth a read. He is essentially a descendent of Thor who terrorises the locals, kills their herds for giggles, is a bit of a sex pest, smashes women with clubs, abuses then kills his dog and beats his workers. He is given a warning by a hermit, which he ignores and the entire thing resolves with the ghosts of his past returning to see him dead including his dog who is more than happy to oblige in seeing him over the edge of a cliff.
A Cornish icon. A member of the fair folk, though more mischievous than malevolent, they wear the green and natural colours traditional of the trooping fairies. They are equally likely to help you with the housework as they are to lead you onto a wild moor leaving you lost. They are the wildcard of folklore creatures.
Well, it's pretty straightforward, a cockatrice that appeared in Cumbria as a church was being pulled down and was defeated by a valiant hero who stabbed it through the heart with a Rowan branch killing it. Rowan being wood with supernatural ties in English folklore, and stabbing things through the heart being a non-magical, non-location-based way to kill, well pretty much anything. Except..... there is some disagreement about whether it was an "actual" Cockatrice, there are reports that it was just a bat. And I know what you're thinking "well some bats are pretty big, after a few day drinks in the park and a bit of sunstroke, we could all make that mistake", and I would remind you that the biggest UK bat is the Noctule and is barely a palm-full. Suddenly our hero looks a bit less heroic and more like a very disturbed individual playing a horrifying game of cricket on a building site.
John de Stratford was surveying his land when he noticed a large pair of antlers sticking out from the ground. He bent down and tugged at them, they resisted but after some effort, they yielded followed by a giant head with yellow saucer-like eyes, he kept pulling and eventually, a beast emerged. The beast was a giant red lion with huge antlers, it charged him and he jumped on its back, it bucked and ran around his estate 3 times before it was subdued and pledged its service to John.
Thanet Sea Monster
One of your stereotypical English sea serpents, very little to report here.
A bog spirit that controls the mist, waters and weather of the fens in Lincolnshire. Setting the blueprint for extinction rebellion Tiddy Mun defended the local environment and was so affronted by the draining of the fens by the dutch that he released a pestilence across the region, eventually he was appeased when the villages willed the dyke by carrying buckets of water one by one. He was a fair bog spirit and was known to help people too if the fens flooded the villagers could call out to him and if they heard the sound of a Peewit the water would have receded by the morning.
Veasta has morphed over the 5 plus centuries of its sightings, the later ones are a more predictable eel-like sea serpent but with a sea horse's head, the earlier sightings are far more interesting. Said to be a giant cockerel with some fish-like qualities that rose from the depths, stood on the surface of the water and crowed 3 times before submerging. It's a beautifully surreal sea monster which tends to be very repetitive and makes me think of it being the aquatic equivalent of a cockatrice, in the same way, that sea serpents could be seen to be sea dragons or wyverns.
We reach the end of our list, and if you've stuck with it this far fair play to you, it feels like the longest entry we've done to date. To tie things up we have Yallery Brown. A young boy heard a whining sound from under a rock, he stooped to investigate it and found a tiny man with mustard skin and a generally brown visage. Delighted the imp said his name was Yallery Brown and like a genie with the appearance of a manky potato he would grant the boy a wish, being a lazy lad he asked for help with his daily chores, in full fantasia style the mops and brooms danced around tidying the house. The boy thanked Yallery Brown but the imp flew into a rage saying he must never be thanked or dire consequences would follow, if ever he needed him all he had to do was call his name. Time went on and rumour spread that the young boy was a warlock, or in league with something, evil most likely. Concerned the boy summoned Yallery B and thanked him for the wish but said he probably best stop helping lest he gets strapped to a ducking stool or pyre. The boy had committed that folklore sin of not listening, and having apologised again must face the consequence. Yallery cursed the boy with bad luck, failure and ill fortune for the rest of his days and disappeared, never to be seen again.