A selection of objects from the Natural Science collections linked to darker myths, legends and traditions for Halloween!
DEATH RIDES A PALE HORSE….
In the Bible’s Book of Revelations it is said that four horsemen shall ride across the land bringing with them horrors marking the end of the world. The first horseman, riding a white horse, represents either conquest or pestilence (depending on the interpretation). This initial misery is followed by War riding a fiery red horse, bringing destruction and blood to the towns and cities of man. The next to ride out is Famine on a black steed. Those surviving the previous horrors suffer starvation preparing the ground for the appearance of Death on his pale horse. Death is often depicted as a skeletal form, and his mount is also often skeletal, or undead. Death was followed by Hades – the damned released from the Underworld to reclaim the mortal realm.
The white winged vampire bat is one of three species of bat that live on a diet of blood. Though they appear to be a perfect fit as an inspiration for Vampire stories, they are only found in the New World. Despite bats being part of occult folklore due to their nocturnal habits, it wasn’t until Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 that bats became ingrained as part of vampire mythology, as one of the forms Dracula could take. Back in the real world, vampire bats can carry rabies but their saliva also carries an anticoagulant which allows blood to flow freely while they drink. This anticoagulant is now being used to treat strokes and heart disease.
CONVEYING THE DEVIL
The devil’s coach horse is a type of rove beetle. These beetles have an extended body with short wing cases. Though it is common in the UK it is nocturnal, so is not commonly seen. Its appearance was believed to indicate corruption, and has given rise to its common name Devils Coach Horse, along with other names such as Devils Coachman, Devils Footman and Coffin Cutter. It has a threat position where it opens its mandibles wide and arches its tail over its head like a scorpion. This led to a common or mistaken belief that it was placing a curse on you (and gave rise to another common name – Cock Tail Beetle). These beetles are actually harmless to humans (though they can nip) but are voracious carnivores to other invertebrates. This makes them useful to gardeners as they limit pest numbers.
THE MARK OF DEATH
There are three species of Hawk moths known as ‘Deaths Head’ due to the presence of a marking on their thorax which looks like a skull or ghoulish visage staring back at you. They also let out a mouse like squeak when threatened. These features have led to superstitious beliefs about the insect and have led to their inclusion in horror tales as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Sphinx, Stoker’s Dracula and the novel and film of The Silence of the Lambs. The skull markings and superstitious beliefs have even influenced the species names. The European species Acherontia atropos comes from Atropos – one of the three Moirai (Goddesses of fate) in Greek mythology, who chooses the manner of somebody’s death and decides when to cut the threads of life. The first of the Asian species, Acherontia lachesis, is named after her sister Lachesis who determined the length of the threads of life. The third species is known as Acherontia styx, named after the river Styx which formed the boundary between Earth and the underworld, or Hell. This final name links with the genus name (Acherontia) which comes from the belief that the River Acheron was a branch of the Styx.
THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST?
Gryphaea are a genus of extinct oysters with a shape that looks like a gnarled claw when viewed from the side. This has given rise to its common name of Devils Toenail, Whilst there is no record if anyone ever believed them to be preserved toenails of the devil, they are recorded in use in several traditional remedies including using the ground fossils to cure back pain. However, by spooky coincidence, the Booth Museum’s old fossil registers lists object number 666 as a specimen of Gryphaea (pictured)! The object register in the early 20th century was laid out in stratigraphic order, with the earliest numbers listing objects from furthest back in time whilst the highest numbers were those most recent. This makes it unlikely that a previous curator was having a bit of fun, and is purely coincidence.
Spiders are one of the most common phobias in humans. There are even studies which suggest we are born with a natural fear of spiders – possibly as a genetic disposition to avoid potentially dangerous animals. This phobia is currently being stirred up in sensational press stories regarding false widow spiders. These spiders do, very occasionally, bite humans but their bite is generally no worse than a wasp sting, except in cases of an allergic reaction. In the past decade wasps, which are naturally aggressive, have killed more people than terrorism in the UK. In comparison, spiders have killed no one. The spider pictured here appeared from behind a map at the Booth Museum and was picked up by its silk and released outside – though we recommend the glass and card method if you don’t know how to handle spiders.
JACK’S GUIDING LIGHT
We’re all used to the American tradition of carving a face into a pumpkin. However, carving vegetables such as gourds has been a tradition for thousands of years, and the practice of carving a lantern for Halloween seems to originate in Ireland, where they carved turnips or beets in honour of the legend of Stingy Jack. The tale goes that Jack was a lazy village drunkard who managed to trap the Devil (the way he does this varies). He only agrees to release him if Satan promises never to take his soul. Upon receiving this promise Jack goes on to live a sin-filled life, until he finally dies. At his death he is refused entry to Heaven for his sins. The Devil keeps his promise not to take him to hell, leaving Jack in perpetual cold, dark purgatory. When Jack complains to the Devil about this, Satan mockingly throws an ember from hell for him to use. Jack carves a turnip into a lantern to house the ember which he carries with him for eternity looking for shelter. The pictured specimen is a preserved turnip plant, minus the root, which forms part of the Crichton collection at the Booth.
Pictured is a specimen of a goat skull from the collections at the Booth. Originally goats were linked to the gods. In Norse mythology Thor road in a chariot pulled by goats. He could feast on the goats, but as long as the skeleton remained intact the goats would be reanimated unharmed the next morning. Thor allows a hungry farmer to share his meal one night, but the farmer breaks one of the goats legs. The next morning the goat is reanimated lame. As punishment Thor makes the farmer his servant. With the advance of Christianity and the subversion of pagan beliefs, goats began to be associated with Satan. A European medieval superstition was that goats whispered lewd suggestions in the ears of the saints. This may have led to depictions of the Devil with goat-like features, such as horns and a goatee. The goat has continued to be linked with Satanism in modern times, and features in modern works of fiction on the theme.
Toads have long been linked to the occult, and they appear to be a victim of the subversion of holy animals from pagan religions during the rise of Christianity. The toad was linked to Satan and features on his coat of arms. It was believed witches were marked with the shape of a toad’s foot, and witches could take the form of a toad. Furthermore it was believed toad saliva was toxic, and if a toad hopped over your foot it signified your impending death. This led to widespread persecution of toads across Europe.
The pictured specimen is that of a Suriname Toad. These South American toads are unusual in their reproductive habits. During mating the female flips fertilised eggs onto her back. These eggs sink into the skin where they develop into tadpoles. The tadpoles remain in pockets under the skin until they are fully formed toads, at which point they burst out from the mothers back.
Cats are another animal that has long been associated with the supernatural. Worshipped in Ancient Egypt, they were also important in Celtic and pagan mythology. Black cats in particular have featured as both an omen of good or evil. In England black cats were given to brides and the Scots believed that the arrival of a black cat to a home signified forthcoming prosperity. They are also considered an omen of good luck in Japan. However, in Continental Europe, black cats were seen as spies or familiars of witches. People in possession of black cats were persecuted, and there is evidence that black cats were killed in large numbers in ritualistic midsummer bonfires. This may have led to increased rat populations, and helped plagues such as the Black Death spread further and faster.
Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences