Category Archives: Folklore Thursday

Tattooed Ladies: Between Myth & Truth, from Burma to Barbie, the Feminist Evolution of ‘Monster Beauty’

By Romany Reagan

Everyone knows: tattoos are for convicts, prostitutes, and drunken sailors. Any woman who dares get one is destined to live fast and die young. Harlots of the saucest degree. Her only job prospects are the circus sideshow or a biker’s Old Lady.

Or so we think…

Tattooed women have meant many things over the past several hundred years that have nothing to do these stereotypes: an emblem of the aristocracy, an unlikely international impulse towards sisterhood, and a mark of feminism. 

But before I dive into what the tattoo is, let’s explore what it is not. Debunking myths is, to me, one of the most thrilling aspects of historical research.  So here we go…

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21st-Century Victoriana: Our love letter to the dark

By Romany Reagan

We humans would rather have something a bit flawed but true than gloss-plastic perfection. On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be so—with ‘reality’ TV shows illustrating a life that’s nothing like reality and Instagram influencers filtered into poreless automatonica—but there is an undercurrent backlash to this that I see all around us. Our collective psyche is seeking to balance itself: enter Victoriana.

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Witch Bottles & Hidden Curses: Objects of Protection; Objects of Vengeance 

By Romany Reagan

Written accounts of witchcraft, witch trials, cunning folk, and folk magic were largely recorded by the Church, with all the prejudices associated with a highly biased account. Given these practices were handed down generation to generation through oral histories as a form of intangible heritage, a one-sided narrative has traditionally developed as our record. Luckily for researchers, instructions for creating witch bottles were written down, and the most common dark magic finds are written curses secreted in walls. Stepping away from the ‘official’ texts to these scraps and personal finds can help us learn from another perspective about these practices, offering a fascinating look at the fears—and sometimes wrathful vengeances—secreted away in hearths and walls by our ancestors.

The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) in November 2019, ‘Witch Bottles & Worn Shoes: Home Protection Folklore Practices’.

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London’s Buried Rivers: The Hackney Brook in Stoke Newington & Other Ghosts from London Below

By Romany Reagan

The 13 rivers and brooks of London still flow. Once they passed through fields and valleys, and now they run along pipes and sewers. But they have survived through the human world. They are buried, but they are not forgotten. (Ackroyd, 2011, 38) 

The vision of London’s rivers flowing in the open air is of a time long past. These rivers today flow in darkness. They are as hidden from our view as the past from which they came. It’s this ability that they hold to be of the past—yet also, undeniably, here and now—that positions the river as a conceptual access point to conceive of the temporal shifts within hidden layers of place. 

This post is an excerpt from my PhD thesis Abney Rambles : Performing Heritage as an Audio Walking Practice in Abney Park Cemetery

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Lord of the Dead, Fairy Cavalcade, Psychopomp: The Mysterious Origins of the Wild Hunt & Its Many Faces in Popular Culture

By Romany Reagan

They both turned to stare as the clouds directly above them parted. A shadow grew in the air, darkening as it neared them: the figure of a man, massive and bound in armour, bareback on a red-eyed, foaming brindle horse—black and gray, like the storm clouds overhead. The horse came to a neighing, pawing stop at the foot of the Institute steps. The man looked up at them. His eyes were two different colours, blue and black. His face was terrifyingly familiar. It was Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord and leader of the Wild Hunt. And he did not look pleased.

Lord of Shadows, The Dark Artifices, Cassandra Clare 

Wild Hunt. It crosses our path at scarily unpredictable intervals, often through the sky and nearly always at night. It is very numinous and also doom-laden. Otherwise, no one knows quite what to make of it.

— Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Numinous & Doom-Laden

I have a guilty secret. At least, that’s what I’m supposed to say before such an admission: I love young adult fantasy novels. Someone with a PhD isn’t supposed to admit that, but what does ‘supposed to’ even mean? According to whom? One of the joys of getting a PhD—I kid you not—was feeling I could finally proclaim my love of pop novels and no one could make fun of me! But then you get this degree and you feel you have to Uphold the Code, or something… 

Well, no more. Hello world, my name is Romany Reagan and I love young adult fantasy novels. I’ve been known to take a break from my high-brow bookshelf to devour Cassandra Clare’s six-book Mortal Instruments AND Dark Artifices series in a go. I even loved all four Twilight books. I know, it’s madness. It’s like having an industrial goth fiancé who likes Dire Straits. 

But I’m not the only one. These books are international best-selling series, so there must be something they’re doing right. Some sort of cultural zeitgeist they capture or inner thrill they ignite in many people. 

In this post I focus my academic eye on analysing one aspect of the pop novel trope—the repurposing of the Wild Hunt myth for new generations. This piece investigates the evolution of the Wild Hunt myth (which features prominently in Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Dark Artifices series, led by Gwyn ap Nudd) from its mysterious multiple origins and how it has evolved over time to stay with us, re-emerging with new relevance in pop novels and video games.

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Blackthorn: Dark Mother of the Woods, Crone of the Triple Goddess, Witch Wood

By Romany Reagan

‘The blackthorn full of spines—but how the child delights in its fruit.’ 

— ‘Cad Goddeu’, 14th-century Welsh poem 

The blackthorn tree fascinates because of its inherent duality. On one hand, a folkloric symbol for strength, overcoming adversity, purification, and protection, it is also considered a trickster, bad luck if crossed, and easily used as a weapon in the wrong hands. Blackthorn has, perhaps, the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore. 

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Pirates, Smugglers, Treason & a Fake King: The Scandalous History of Lundy Island

By Romany Reagan

Pirates, smugglers, treason, and a fake king—Lundy Island has seen it all. Something about this enticingly close, yet seductively remote, little island has attracted ne’er-do-wells for over 1,000 years…

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Ice & Fire: How a Folk Demonology in the ‘Little Ice Age’ Led to the Witch Hunts of the 16th & 17th Centuries

By Romany Reagan

The forests are stripped of their leaves, the earth lies frozen, the rivers are frozen with the cold. And fog and rain, together with the excess of endless nights, have robbed the earth of its joy. 

–Matthäus Merian, 1622 

The time period now commonly agreed—by historians and climate scientists alike—to be the ‘Little Ice Age’ lasted from between 1300 and 1850 A.D. The cooling was only slight (ranging from 2-5°C, depending on the region), but it was enough to slam Europe, and much of the Northern Hemisphere, into a climate event that saw unprecedented storms, unseasonal frosts, and ruined crops. “This decrease was large enough to leave Iceland completely surrounded by ice and to freeze the Thames in England and the canals in Holland routinely—both otherwise unheard-of events.” (Oster 218) 

While there was a general cooling over the course of this 500-year period, there were two cold snaps in the 16th and 17th centuries that further strained hardship to the breaking point. Here I have gathered the research of economists, meteorologists, and historians to tell the story of the Little Ice Age and how people offered up their neighbours for slaughter in the hopes of a summer that would never come.

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The Language of Flowers: Breaking into the Boys Club of Botany & the Flowery Dress as a Feminist Act

By Romany Reagan

Now considered a cloying cliché to be rejected by the modern feminist, the fascination with flowers and, in turn, a desire for a flowery aesthetic, was not initially about dainty innocence but instead showed evidence of a scientific mind. What follows here is what I’ve discovered about the connection between flowers and women. 

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Clockwork Sky: Astrology in Early Modern & Victorian England

By Romany Reagan 

Comets, importing change of times and states,

Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.

— William Shakespeare, (Henry VI, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 1)

Seeking answers in the heavens has a history as old as humankind itself. Every culture across our planet shares a heritage of calculating and making sense of the wondrous universe that surrounds us by studying the clockwork of the night sky. This is England’s story.

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