Folklore Snippets: The Shellycoat, a Sprite with a Sense of Style

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In the latest episode of the Jack Hansard series, Ang and Jack run into a river-dwelling creature going by the name of Shellycoat. The reason such sprites are given this name should be immediately clear: they wear a rattling coat of shells over their body.

Now, I admit I had some trouble tracking down solid information on Shelly. My first search turned up several sites which all carried the same basic description mimicked by Wikipedia. I don’t wish to become part of the same annoying cycle, but the basic impression is simply: the Shellycoat is Scottish; lives in lakes, rivers and streams; and, like almost every other folkloric creature, has a mischievous nature.

The one solid lead I had was the knowledge that Shelly is mentioned in Jacob Grimm’s (yep, of the famous Brothers Grimm) Deutsche Mythologie. After a rather frustrating time trying to pinpoint the correct volume and page number (vol 2, p.512 in this translation), it turned out to say very little. According to Grimm the Shellycoat is a type of goblin, and he confirms that it is a Scottish creature. He then likens it to a dwarfish thing who wears a bell-coat (which elsewhere I’ve seen called a ‘Schellenrock’ or ‘bell-coat’). The bells worn on the hats and coats of fools are apparently a reference to this ‘shrewd and merry’ goblin.

A more colourful view of the Shellycoat is provided by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (3rd ed), v1, which gives us an idea of the pranks Shelly like to play. Supposedly, he once led two travellers astray by calling out “Lost! Lost!” from the River Ettrick. The travellers followed this sound all night, assuming it to be a drowning person. They followed it all the way to the river’s source, only for the voice to head back down the river, back the way they had come. When they gave up their rescue effort, the Shellycoat revealed himself with laughter and applause, thoroughly amused with his own deception.

So Shelly may be a joker, but he seems to be fairly harmless, unlike a whole host of other water-dwellers whose sole intention was to lure travellers into the waves to drown.

It’s a bit funny that the most distinctive feature of the Shellycoat – y’know, his shelly coat – doesn’t seem to have much of a story to it. Does Shelly collect the shells himself? Does he wear them because they’re pretty or because they rattle in a musical way – like the bells the Schellenrock loves? Is it an actual garment like a coat, or more like a blanket-covering? I’m inclined to imagine the latter: picture this mass of shells creeping along the banks of a river, clinking and clacking as it moves. But it could be a more humanoid goblin like Grimm suggests; it might even help you around the home if you’re polite – so long as you don’t mind occasionally being tricked into a long walk down the river for no reason whatsoever.

Folklore Snippets: Sweet Dreams

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Episode 2 of the Jack Hansard short story series can be found here. This week, Hansard gets into the dream-making business with a stash of captive dreams he doesn’t quite know how to handle. I’m a big fan of giving abstract concepts physical manifestations. In Episode 1 we saw the result of Hansard’s endeavours selling inspiration as a valuable commodity; now he deals with dreams as real as living creatures and meets a character out of folklore – the Sandman. This Sandman is no mythic entity, however. In Hansard’s reality, ‘Sandman’ is just the title given to a speciality tradesman of dreams.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to be writing in this blog. It’s a sideline to the short story gig – comments and musings rather than hard-hitting articles about the state of the world today. I can’t say that sounds overly interesting though, so I’ve decided to try something mildly structured. Hansard’s (mis)adventures commonly encounter things drawn from myth and folklore, so with each episode I’ll pick out a related topic and give you a very brief overview. Ya’know just the interesting bits. So to go with Episode 2, here’s a quick look-see at some of the stories behind the Sandman.

I think the folkloric Sandman is probably the most well-known character (in Europe, at least) associated with dreams. He is said to sprinkle dust or sand into children’s eyes to make them sleep and dream; if you wake with that gritty gunk in your eyes then you know he’s visited. Hans Christian Anderson’s 1841 tale Ole Lukøje paints the Sandman as a benevolent figure whose innocent desire is to tell children stories while they sleep. After sending them to sleep with his sand, he places one of two umbrellas over the child’s head: one with pretty pictures to bring on nice dreams for the good boys and girls; one with no pictures to deny any dreams to the naughty.

Near the end of this tale Ole Lukøje identifies himself as being called the ‘god of dreams’ by the Greeks and Romans. This god of dreams was Morpheus, who appears in Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses. Ovid tells us he is the son of Somnus (Hypnos is the Greek equivalent), the god of sleep. From Greek mythology, Hypnos is the brother of Death (‘Thanatos’); in Hans Christian Andersan’s story, Ole Lukøje tells us his brother is Death – perhaps he mixed up the two ancient deities, but the whole thing does suggest that maybe the modern Sandman has his roots in Greco-Roman tradition.

Hans wasn’t the first to write about the Sandman. In 1817 E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote Der Sandmann, a grim short story where the protagonist associates the character of the Sandman with a sinister figure from his childhood. In this story we are given a wholly opposite view of the Sandman and his intentions:

‘He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.’ (Translation by John Oxenford.)

Yikes. Gruesome.

The Sandman still pops up in modern culture, and isn’t confined to the realm of children’s stories. The first thing that springs to my mind when I hear the word ‘Sandman’ is the Metallica song, Enter Sandman. In 2012 the animated Dreamworks film Rise of the Guardians featured the Sandman as a powerful and benevolent protector of children. Anyone familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman or the world of comic books is likely to have heard of the dark fantasy graphic novel series also named after the character (highly recommended).

I love seeing the different ways bits of old folklore have been re-invented to find new places in our modern world. To see old ideas turned on their head or given a new definition entirely: this is the way we own our past and continue traditions, allowing them to evolve along with our culture.

Hope you enjoyed this little info snippet. Episode 3 will be online on Wednesday 11th February. Thanks for reading!

(Edited 11/02/15 to include ‘Folklore Snippets’ series title.)