Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Checking out those spooky rites of spring

One question I was asked a lot after the second novel in my DS Heckenburg series - SACRIFICE - was published last year, was why, of all four seasons, I opted to set it in the spring. Surely autumn and winter, with their creeping mist and long dark nights would provide a more suitable backdrop for a tale of kidnap, torture and human sacrifice?

Well ... there's no escaping the bright sunshine and flowery meadow stuff when it comes to spring. But the truth is that, as SACRIFICE followed Heck's investigation into a series of grotesquely theatrical murders, each one seemingly designed to commemorate (or mock!) some special feast-day in the calendar, the earlier part of the year gave us a much more varied choice of occasions.

I mean okay, I cheated a little bit by commencing the horror on Christmas morning, which can hardly be classified as spring, but of course the killers got to work fast, and as the weeks rolled by, with the cops getting no nearer, the body count rose and the blood ran red among the daffodils and crocuses.

While researching all this, I was literally spoiled for choice by my range of spring options. As we're now into that time of year again, I thought it might be of interest to assess a few of these with the advantage of hindsight.

Lenten feasts like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, or special saints' days like St. Patrick's Day (March 17) and St. George's Day (April 23) are all well-known of course - being mainly of religious origin - and the history behind them doesn't really need explaining (though the killers in SACRIFICE tend to make their own distinctly irreligious interpretation of each and every feast). But that isn't the whole story.

Did you know, for example, that Valentine's Day (February 14), while ostensibly a celebration of the early Christian martyr, St. Valentine, also draws many of its traditions from the Roman feast of Lupercalia, at which time men would parade the city dressed as wolves, carrying whips and howling, seeking to drive away the evil spirits of winter; at the same time, girls and women hoping to improve their fertility would stand outdoors and demand a whipping (!!!), which most of them, I'd imagine, received. Or how about All Fools Day (April 1), which is only one of several medieval festivals of fools, though this particular date is believed to have been fixed upon due to a mistranslation of Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale, a mock epic filled with satirical fallacies (the horror potential of this oddball holiday has already been explored several times in the movies).

And then there are those lesser known spring feasts, such as Candlemas (February 2), Beltane (April 30) and Royal Oak Day (May 29). The first of these concerns itself with the presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple, but is also a Christianisation of Imbolc, a pagan Celtic celebration of the goddess, Brighid, a benign but powerful figure, who was believed to visit the homes of worshippers on this date, and had to be greeted with gifts of food, drink and bedding (or else?) - this was a popular occasion for corn dollies, divination and the like. The second of course, is the big Gaelic and Wiccan May Day festival - the blood-letting potential of which has been hugely exaggerated by horror writers and film-makers over the years (though it seems likely the maniacs in SACRIFICE had watched The Wicker Man at least once). And the third honoured the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, and featured as part of its 'fun and frolics' the tying up with nettles and pelting with rotten eggs of any person deemed to have Republican sympathies or even found without a sprig of oak leaves on his or her person.

We all know about the Ides of March (March 15) on which Julius Caesar was famously assassinated, but have you ever heard about the Ides of May (either May 13 or 15, depending which piece of fiction you are reading), when the Romans celebrated Lemuralia, a festival in which the terrifying Lemures - or 'unsettled dead' - would grant boons from beyond in return for a ritual slaying (usual of the human variety, but only if said victim was very important, like a captured prince or general).

Interesting stuff, eh? Well, if you haven't read SACRIFICE yet ... I know, sorry, this sounds so like a shameless plug for the book, but there actually is an awful lot of stuff there relevant to this kind of thing. So if you're interested in the many and varied (and sometimes quite spooky and gruesome) rites of spring, now wouldn't be a bad time to check it out ... especially with blossoms outside the window and bluebells in the woods, and mysterious energies just waiting to burst out from the rich, re-energised and blood-sodden earth.

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