The Soul Cages

We’ve recently been rewatching Babylon 5, and came across the feature-length episode with the Soul Hunters. Soul Hunters, in J. Michael Straczynski’s universe, well-meaningly capture the souls of the dying for posterity – and in so doing, drive those souls mad. Something about that story was familiar, but tracing its path would take us from the vastness of the universe to the bottom of the sea. And in every form the story takes, one question nags: what do we owe the people around us?

“There is an old British folktale about the souls of the dead being kept under the sea in the lobster cages of a creature who is half man, half fish. Anyone who dares try to free the souls of the dead must go under the sea himself and drink with the creature. If he drinks him under the table, the souls will go free. If, on the other hand, the creature prevails, the challenger will be imprisoned forever in the cages at the bottom of the sea. You need a strong stomach to treat with this creature.” – Sting, Lyrics by Sting (2007)

On this day in 1991, Sting released The Soul Cages – a meditation on bereavement, family and birthplace, with salt in its veins and religion and folklore in its imagery. The album was a personal exorcism that followed three years of writer’s block, and a response to the death of his father. It’s scaffolded on the waning of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry, and the image of a ship recurs, representing both the hope of going out into the world to adventure, and a sealed coffin. The fourth single, the title song, directly references a folk tale that Sting was familiar with.

The boy child is locked in the fisherman’s yard
There’s a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of night stars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie

I’ve loved this album since I was eighteen. It gave me an imaginative route to dealing with my feelings about own late father and my waning faith. Also, the gloom of a declining shipyard is familiar to anyone who grew up around Belfast Lough, with the great cranes of Harland and Wolff as part of our mental landscape. In his 2013 musical The Last Ship, Sting would return to that theme with a focus on the impact on a community of its shipyard closing, but The Soul Cages is mostly about the intuitive, inner response to loss, and that last single dramatises it as a conflict with evil beneath the sea.

He’s the king of the ninth world
The twisted son of the fog bells’ toll
In each and every lobster cage, a tortured human soul

In the song, a boy seeks to reclaim his father’s soul from the sea bed, where men’s souls are the captives of “the Fisherman,” a fiend who functions more like the Devil than an old sea dog. The boy offers the Fisherman a wager, bringing him a cask of magical wine, which he says is wrung from the blood of those sailors. He challenges the Fisherman – in effect challenging the sea itself – to match him drink for drink: “If the drink leaves me standing, a soul shall go free.” But if the Fisherman is the last one standing, the boy will be caged with him forever.

A body lies open in the fisherman’s yard like
The side of a ship where the iceberg rips
One less soul in the soul cages
One last curse on the fisherman’s lips

The boy prevails and the monster is defeated, yet the prize seems so slight: one less soul in the soul cages? Why not bargain for all the dead? Why not open the rest of the cages and let the souls go? Of course, the reasons are making the lyrics fit and the rhyme scheme, and thematically the story is really about just one soul, one dead father. The last verse repeats the bridge and coda of album opener “Island of Souls”, which is the inverse of “The Soul Cages.” In its modern industrial landscape, the boy’s father is simply injured working at the shipyard. The imagery is prosaic compared to that of “The Soul Cages”:

They brought Billy’s father back home in an ambulance
Brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live

Billy dreads his life inevitably taking the same tack: miserable job, wages drunk away rather than saved, health destroyed. But in the chorus, he dreams of the ship going out into the world, of himself and his father leaving the town behind forever, to sail to the Island of Souls. Sting would also knit that idea into The Last Ship decades later. But while “The Soul Cages” is more heavily folkloric than Sting’s later project, the bridge hints at modern life in a north that, at the time he was writing it, had long been hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government:

These are the souls of the broken factories
Subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town

So, “The Soul Cages” and “Island of Souls” are the same story told from realistic and fantastical perspectives. Only in his dreams can Billy win his father’s soul back and save himself from a grim life. In reality, Sting left the city, and he finally transcended his own grief by writing about it, even though the north would eventually pull him back to write about its people and its industry in more direct terms.

I had wondered for years about the folk tale “The Soul Cages” was based on, and finally researched it when Remco and I were writing our own story about the sea and the dead. The northern Dutch history that inspires us is also riven with maritime tragedies, and we’d woven together the fishing disaster of Moddergat with the local belief in divination. Inevitably, I listened to The Soul Cages a lot while working on it, and decided it was finally time to trace the song’s folkloric roots. What emerged was a strange history, with unexpected layers.

“The Soul Cages” was first published in volume 2 of T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825 – 28). In Croker’s collection, “The Soul Cages” is the story of Jack Dogherty, a fisherman and beachcomber living on the coast of Co. Clare on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Jack had always wished to see a Merrow – a creature that (as in Sting’s memory of the story) is somewhat like a man, and somewhat like a fish:

“One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.”

The Merrow, whose name is Coomara, turns out to be a very friendly sort of fellow, and because this is Ireland and someone always knows one of your relations, Jack learns that the Merrow and his grandfather were old friends. Coomara invites Jack to his home under the sea for a slap-up meal, lending him a hat which lets him breathe underwater. Jack is perturbed about entering the briny depths, but finds Coomara’s home perfectly civilised, if a little rustic. Overall, the feeling of the story up to this point is that a Merrow is just another kind of person – odd-looking, but somehow still ‘one of us’.

After a long, elaborate dinner and an impressive amount of alcohol (they’re both in the habit of rescuing bottles from shipwrecks, and the cool under the sea prevents it going to their heads), the Merrow shows Jack around, inviting him to admire his various treasures, and that’s when a cultural gap emerges. Coomara has a collection of lobster pots which he proudly introduces as the Soul Cages:

“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered Jack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”

Jack is “thunderstruck” (though not enough to spurn his host’s excellent brandy), and after Coomara sends him home, he devises a plan to release the sailors’ souls. Sending his unknowing wife off on a trip to a holy well for the sake of their own souls, he invites Coomara to dinner and attempts to get him drunk. Adding tension to the story, his first try leaves the Merrow perfectly clear-headed, but luckily Jack’s wife’s journey is a multi-day affair, and Coomara doesn’t question two dinner invitations so close together.

Jack’s secret weapon is poitín – an illicit and very strong drink distilled from potatoes. Apparently his grandfather never introduced the Merrow to that one! While Coomara is insensible, Jack borrows his hat and makes his way back to the Merrow’s home on the seabed. To Jack, the souls are invisible, so as he lifts one lobster pot after another to release them, he has to content himself with “a sort of little whistle or chirp” as each soul leaves its cage. There’s a brief worry over whether he’ll be able to return to the surface without Coomara’s tail to hold onto, which is how he managed it before, but a big fish comes by and all is solved.

Here the story veers into broad comedy. Jack’s wife returns to find the Merrow passed out on her kitchen floor, and assumes her husband has “made a beast of himself with drink” until she runs into Jack outside. Her anger abates when she hears of his saving of the souls, and, rather anticlimactically, we are told that Coomara “never missed” them. Jack’s acquaintance with the Merrow continues for several years, and as Coomara continues collecting souls, every so often Jack repeats the whole procedure, until Coomara is seen no more, and Jack assumes he has died or left that part of the country. So that’s it: this creature, who has behaved monstrously without ever thinking of it that way, is a good pal until he dies or moves house.

Croker collected the stories he anthologised from a number of contacts in Ireland. He also larded them with a literary style, humour and stereotypes, which may be unfortunate given that the collection was to increase the profile of Irish folklore in the wider world. Most significantly, Croker had lost his original manuscript, and the published version is what he could reconstruct with the help of other writers, including Thomas Keightley, a pioneer in the study of folklore. However, when the second volume was published, containing “The Soul Cages”, it bore only Croker’s name. This brought criticism, as on folklore blog Writing in Margins, which calls it a ‘Fake Folktale‘.

Keightley republished “Soul Cages” in The Fairy Mythology (1828), and in a later edition would admit that it was not a piece of folklore collected in the field, but a story of his own devising, based on the German tale “Der Wassermann und der Bauer” (“The Waterman and the Peasant“), no. 52 in the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm. The story’s provenance has been viewed as Keightley hoaxing the other folklorists, but in an 1829 letter to Wilhelm Grimm, Keightley claimed that it had been Croker’s idea to cobble the story together, and that Croker made changes after it left Keightley’s hands.

Keightly’s confession is further complicated by his claim to have afterwards found sources in Ireland, in Cork and Wicklow, who knew the story as Keightley himself had written it, except that the souls were in upturned flowerpots, rather than lobster pots. It’s also possible that in the intervening years, book distribution and people’s memories of the story being read to them in childhood, by way of Grimm even, could have reintroduced it to the oral tradition.

And what of its cultural afterlife? The literary critic Richard Pine has argued that it’s the basis for Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which involves a fisherman, a mermaid, and a detached and wandering soul, though to my mind the resemblance is slight when looking at the story as a whole. Going back to Newcastle, by 1851, the North East of England had the fourth largest Irish population in England and Wales combined, so if the story was being told by Irish people, it might eventually have found its way to Sting through their descendants. Given the Deutsche Sagen route of dissemination, a version of “The Soul Cages” must appear in any number of books.

Whatever the truth of its origins, reading it now, we might ask: what’s the moral of this story? Should we keep inviting our own Watermen and Merrows to our tables, and simply accept that it’s our responsibility, every now and then, to go and release the souls that they just keep on capturing? Or should we tell the Watermen to stop their activities once and for all, and leave other souls at peace?

(aba)

The Call of Midwinter

You’ll hear it from miles away, the Midwinter Horn. It’s a large, bent, wooden horn, played from Advent till Epiphany in the Groninger area of Westerwolde, huddled against the German border, with its Eighty Year War fortification of Bourtange. It’s a mournful sound, and you’d think it’s lowed over the heather for centuries, since Saxon times. While the area indeed has Saxon roots, the tradition has no known history in Groningen; only in 2005 did it blow over from the southward provinces of Drenthe and Twente. It is very popular there too – there are several Midwinter horn groups, courses in making a horn, and classes and exams. It’s great to see so much interest in this very old custom, especially since at certain point it was moribund.

It’s interesting to see how it’s been written about in the regional newspaper, the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden. In 1926, in the folklore column, we read:
A previous year I was in a noisy Belgian environment of popping Champagne corks, amidst a celebrating audience in paper hats and half-dressed in ‘evening dress’, witnessing such a ‘reveillon de grand-gala’, and celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst a wild bunch, culminating in the cacophony of a raging jazz band. But in the land of Twente the old year still dies under the mysterious notes of the lamenting Midwinter horn and the blessed clock ringing of so many towers in Twente. (Nv/hN, 6 March 1926)

1933 shows us a photograph of a farmer and his wife (but note that the woman’s horn is made of welded metal instead of metal-banded wood):
An old custom, of which the origin and meaning are lost in the darkness of centuries, the blowing of the home-made Midwinter horn. This custom still exists in Twente, and especially in Ootmarsum. Preferably, the Midwinter horn is blown over a well, which will amplify the note so much that the heavy sound can be heard hours further. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1933)

And from the 1935 Christmas picture spread (see the smoked meat hanging from the rafters!):
The Midwinter horn is taken from the wall in the “Los Hoes” in Ootmarsum. The blowing of the Midwinter horn still happens in Twente in the dark days before Christmas. (Nv/hN, 21 Dec 1935)

This from the 1953 New Year’s Eve picture spread. Standards appear to have slipped – no solemn and mournful tooting over a well; it’s a band of youngsters now, with easier to make metal horns:
Through the somber wood the sound of the Midwinter horns sounds. In Twente this old custom is still kept in honour in the dark days between Christmas and New Year. (Nv/hN, 29 Dec 1953)

The columnist, poet & satirist Kees Stip writes the following in 1970. It does show resistance to the reawakening interest in folk tradition, which at that time was seen as the domain of ‘hippies and dropouts’ and nostalgists, while for another part of the older generation (Stip was born in 1913) it was just old junk, to be consigned to the scrap heap. It’s also significant that Stip assigns the custom a distinct ‘Germanic’ identity, while the War was still fresh in memory. He writes, snidely:
* Who still has a shred of Germanism in his soul, can have his soul blown through in Twente. Over the whole area the sound of the Midwinter horn will sound again. I think it’s pretty, but pretty nauseating, just like Wagner. The soundscape reminds me of the rutting cries of an old elk which has fallen in the well, tries to climb up and falls down again. In reality it’s only water in the well, with a farmer blowing above it.
* Farmer or elk, blowing the Midwinter horn is an art requiring a lot of skill. Only the most skilful it is given to add to the basic notes not only the terts and the kwint but also the sekst. For farmers this may not mean much, but for elks it probably is one of the most stimulating forms of sexual entertainment.
* Our heathen forefathers blew the Midwinter horns to chase away evil spirits. Nobody knows whether this is true, but as an extinct heathen you’re depend on the Christians to interpret your deeds. The Christians themselves interpret their still uncured Midwinter blowing ailment as the heralding of the glad tidings. You’d get that news tooted through the phone like that. For me, Midwinter horns mean that it can’t be summer soon enough. (Nv/hN, 22 Dec 1970)

An article from fifteen years later is more enthusiastic. It paints the picture: “Outside it’s foggy and already dark since four-thirty. Suddenly, as if from a different world, come the somber, mournful and mystical sounds you’ll never have heard and will never forget.” It seems to me that the writer has been rummaging in the paper’s cuttings, picking up some of the phrasing. As the tradition’s origin, the heralding of Christ’s birth is mentioned, and the banning of the Catholic mass in the 17th and 18th century; apparently German priests would sneak over the border to hold secret masses in farmers’ sheds, and the Midwinter horn would be used to sound the alarm if they were disturbed. The writer is most convinced by a pre-historic origin, and the chasing away of dark powers, and gives some useful facts on its history and construction:
While in Switzerland and, for example, Hungary, similar horns are used to call the cattle, the use of the Midwinter horn in Twenthe looks most like the “hyrdelurs” played in Sweden and Norway during Midsummer nights. Cave drawings in the south of Sweden from 1800 BC suggest that these horns are older than Methuselah. The Midwinter horn would only have decorated a wall here and there if a few folklorists hadn’t reinvigorated the old custom about 30 years ago. From that time onwards, the mysterious sounds can be heard again over the stubble of the corn fields. Twenthe even has a few craftsmen again who can make the real Midwinter horn. They use a one-and-half meter long birch or alder branch which is drilled in at the thin end for the mouthpiece (in Twente dialect, “de happe”). Then the wood is sawn through lengthwise, are both halves hollowed out with a chisel, glued together and wound round with rattan. (Nv/hN, 20 Dec 1985)

The website of the Ootmarsum Midwinter horn blowers (founded 1992) also regales its history, from pagan origins to Christian instrument for the heralding of Christ and as alarm mechanism. On its modern history and usage:
The tradition of the Midwinter horn blowing was near dying in Twente. Luckily, the custom was restored in the fifties by Toon Borghuis from Oldenzaal. The horns on which we play now are made of wood. From the early 20th century come the tin horns, a product from the village smith. These instruments are a thorn in the ‘ear’ of the fan. Restoring the tradition didn’t go without a hitch. There were two groups who fought for the oldest honour and practices. There are farmers, who think that the ‘oalde roop’, the one simple note of the horn, are the real tradition which needs to be preserved. Others, the melody-blowers, can get a seven-note sound from the horn.
Around 1970 there were already more than 300 blowers who, between St Andrews and the Sunday after Epiphany, produce the mysterious sounds and now the tradition is alive and well! Practiced players can now produce at least four notes from their instrument, and star players can blow a series of seven or eight notes. The melodies are set and there are two common riffs. Many players feel it should stay at that; no ‘Happy Birthday’ and other songs on the Midwinter horns.
What is important for all groups in Twente is that the tradition should not be overshadowed by making it a carnaval. It should remain a solemn occasion. It’s folklore, but a continuation of an stately occurrence. It is also out of the question that more than one horn is blown at the same time. This is against tradition. The sound of one horn has to echo over the land; through this simple means from their own farm, the farmers would notify each other of the days getting longer, and the coming of the Messiah. (Midwinterhoornblazen.nl)

Saasveld, 10 miles further down the road, has its own group (est. 1970) and website. They’ve got more about the history and correct usage. Their outreach activities are still going on, this year for the 66th time:
In the early fifties of the last century the blowing of the Midwinter horn was resuscitated by some famous men from Twente, like the musician Toon Borghuis, Dr Bernink, the architect Jan Jans, beer brewer and folklorist Meijlink and Hendrik Racer Palthe from Everloo. In Saasveld, from 1952 onwards, there was a movement from the folklore group Saterslo to get more attention for the dying tradition of the Midwinter horn. Gerard Hesselink Jr (Holtkamp) with some other villagers, took up the gauntlet, and in 1954 the first organised activities happened. These existed of going round the hospitals and old people’s homes, together with the theatre group Enscheder Spöllers, the “De Krekkel” dancers and taking part in contests. (…)
The neighbourhoods of Saasveld have from the start had an eye for the preserving of tradition in the right but contemporary way. For this, the basis is the trinity of period, horn and call. The period Advent to Ephiphany is for blowing, the horn (wet or dry) is to be made of native wood (such as alder, birch, willow) with a mouthpiece of elder. The call is depending on place or even family (not sheet music).
The past sixty years we have, together with the former group
Kemissie veur ‘t Mirreweensterhoornbloazen and the later foundation from Twente, taken action several times to preserve the tradition in the right way. Tin horns and horns made of slats, plastic mouthpieces and the nailing down of the right call have been discussed. In this context it is notable that the neighbourhood of Saasveld as one of the few is mostly blowing on the wet horn. (midwinterhoornblazerssaasveld.nl)

Early Saasveld blower Hendrik Weghorts with wife and sister

This Commission for the Mirreweenster Horn Blowing organised its first competition on boxing day 1953. Notably, this was done on the tin horns, which were more durable and were easier to blow on. Toon Borghuis did say: “Op ‘n deur mu’t te we’j weer noar ‘t haolt.”“Eventually, we need to go back to wood.” As the goal for the competition he’d stated: “it needs to be a flowing, easy melody; the call from one farmer to the other. That’s the real Midwinter horn blowing, as it can be heard in Advent’s time in the east of Twente, when at hours’ distance it is passed on from one farm to the other.” This competition followed the first organised blowing, on the 18th December 1949. That evening, at 7pm Bernard Boomkamp from Hertme stood with his horn at the well of his Vrielinks farm. The sound was then carried from farm to farm through the area. Around 10:30pm the sound was answered from Losser and Denekamp.

From a folklore thing from a corner of the country, the Midwinter horn became a tourist favourite, and in 1985 the tourist board already organised demonstrations throughout the region. Then, in 1987:
H.G. Lich is in his daily life director of the tourist board in Exloo. Last summer he got a letter from the Spanish organisers of the festival of international customs in Malaga. “If I knew someone who practiced a real Dutch tradition. Then I thought of F. Tenniglo. He is Dutch champion Midwinter horn blower and the only person still making the instrument. I phoned him, told him about the festival and that I had already entered his name. ‘Nothing will come of it,’ he told me. But two weeks later he got a message.”
The Spanish were interested in the Midwinter horn blower from Twente and wrote that a plane ticket was ready for him. Tenniglo then understood what he had signed up for and got cold feet. “I’m happy to come, but not on my own,” he demanded. Lich also had to come.
The tourist board director was keen, but couldn’t play an instrument and also was not a craftsman. “So we got the farmers’ horn of Exloo from the cupboard. You only have to signal with it. Everyone can do that.” However, Lich is not bringing the original. He has put a small whistle in a replica to make it easier to blow on. “They’ll never notice,” the apprentice tooter knows. “The real farmers’ horn remains in the Bebinghehoes in Exloo. We’re afraid it’d get stolen in Spain, or damaged.” (Nv/hN, 12 Dec 1987)