Tag Archives: myths & legends

In the Terrible Depths – The True Origins of the Ghoul

Today, Agatha Christie plays Final Fantasy over the ruins of Babylon, watched by some bored Bedouin and an arthritic camel. And many apologies to lurchers lovers – our little donkeys will return next week. But for now it’s the final episode of Ghoul Trek, boldly going where most sites are smart enough not to go, and the last part of our scholarly investigation into the origins of the 20th century literary creature, the ghoul. If, of course, instead of ‘scholarly investigation’ you’ll settle for three rambling articles nailed together under the influence of dog hair.

final fantasy xi gallu
final fantasy xi gallu

Many years ago, when we were young and danced merrily o’er buttercup meadows, we bought a great big book, The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. It’s basically 500 pages containing most of the poetry you need for an interesting life, including hunter’s songs, anonymous lines, historical verse and cool poets. And it has a fragment called The Seven. Poetry sucks, you say – where are all the creepy monsters? Well…

In the terrible depths, the dark houses
They swell, they grow tall
They are neither female nor male
They are a silence heavy with seastorms.

The whole piece is a disturbing evocation of something unholy and dark, ‘the faces of evil’. What are these creatures? They are gallu, our ultimate goal. Not as in we want to meet them, more as in ‘Where did the concept of the ghoul come from in the first place?’


No-one wants much of a recap on the last two articles, do they? Let’s just say that H P Lovecraft and other weird horror writers messed with 17th and 18th century Gothic muddles, Islamic tales varied, Bedouins crossed a lot of sand and found lumps of Mesopotamian legend in the ruins. It’s our formula of the month:

ghoul = ghul = gallu

In Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian mythology, the gallus or gallu demons were dark and wicked beings from the underworld. Sometimes they seem to have had the attributes of gods, sometimes they were seen as the offspring of devils and human women. They were unusual in their ability to travel between the normal world and underworld, and could carry people off into eternal darkness.

In Babylonian mythology they could be held back or appeased by sacrificing animals to them, as they were known to prey on herds as well as people. The gallu was generally humanoid in appearance, occasionally animal-headed (often that of a bull), and caused nightmares, making people flee in terror and so on.

Importantly for our trail, the gallu was known to drink blood and eat human flesh. So it seems that these gallu demons are the original source of the ghul, both in etymology and some of their habits. As suggested, the most likely reason for this is that the tribes of Arabia and surrounding lands had trade links with Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and its neighbours). Through these links, they absorbed and spread the idea of the gallu, which became the ghul.

by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, July 1934
by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, July 1934

R Campbell Thompson, the Edwardian archaeologist who we’ve met here before, translated many of the original cuneiform records in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To add to your trivia banks, we feel it only fair to mention that Agatha Christie, the detective writer, knew him.

In 1931 she and her husband (who was also an archaeologist) were invited to the excavation site at Nineveh. She dedicated her story Lord Edgware Dies to “Dr. and Mrs. Campbell Thompson”. In 1937 she wrote the play Akhnaton, which fascinated us when young.


Anyway, we were talking about  Campbell Thompson. He wrote:

There are certain spirits described as “the Seven” around whom a great many poems were composed and welded into the incantations and spells. The best known is the Invocation against the Seven: —

Seven are they! Seven are they!
In the Ocean Deep seven are they!
Battening in Heaven seven are they,
Bred In the depths of Ocean.

Nor male nor female are they,
But are as the roaming windblast,
No wife have they, no son can they beget;
Knowing neither mercy nor pity,
They hearken not to prayer or supplication.

They are as horses reared among the hills…
Of these seven [the first] is the South Wind.
The second Is a dragon with mouth agape
That none can [withstand];
The third is a grim leopard
That carrieth off children…
The fourth is a terrible serpent…
The fifth is a furious beast [?]
After which no restraint…
The sixth is a rampant […]
Which against god and king.
The seventh is an evil windstorm…

These seven are the Messengers of Anu, the king:
Bearing gloom from city to city,
Tempests that furiously scour the heavens,
Dense clouds that over the sky bring gloom,
Rushing windgusts, casting darkness o’er the brightest day,
Forcing their way with baneful windstorms.
Mighty destroyers, the deluge of the Storm-God,
Stalking at the right hand of the Storm-God.

The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (1903)

note the seven animal-headed demons across the top
note the seven animal-headed demons across the top

You”ll see the similarities in the above to the Rattlebag version, which was apparently freely translated by Jerome K Rothenberg in the sixties. His Technicians of the Sacred collection (1968) was described as presenting:

‘primitive’ and ancient poetries as the incantations they are, loaded with power and very full of the magic that invests all good poetry. The treatment is fascinating…the commentaries are a gold mine of responses to the material by a strong poet (the editor), and his selection of analogous writings from a broad range of contemporary poets.


Can we provide any other evidence? For more on the gallu themselves, we turn to Morris Jastrow Jr and his book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1893)

The demons were of various kinds and of various grades of power. The names of many of them, as utukku, shedu, alu, gallu, point to ‘strength’ and ‘greatness’ as their main attribute; other names, as lilu, ‘night-spirit,’ and the feminine form lilitu, are indicative of the moment chosen by them for their work; while again, names like ekimmu, the ‘seizer,’ akhkhazu, the ‘capturer,’ rabisu, ‘the one that lies in wait,’ labartu, ‘the oppressor,’ and labasu, ‘the overthrower,’ show the aim that the demons have in view. Putting these names together, we may form a general idea of the conceptions connected with the demons.

pazuzu demon, assyria
pazuzu demon, assyria

They lurk in hidden or remote places, in graves, in the shadow of ruins, on the tops of mountains, in the wilderness. Their favorite time of activity is at dead of night. They glide noiselessly like serpents, entering houses through holes and crevices. They are powerful, but their power is directed solely towards evil. They take firm hold of their victims and torture them mercilessly.

And there you have our ghul from last time, lurking in ‘hidden or remote places, in graves, in the shadow of ruins, on the tops of mountains, in the wilderness.’ We rest our case.

As an additional bit of evidence that these ideas survive far longer than you’d expect, even if they mutate a little, we’ll add a bit more of R Campbell Thompson:

But a still more striking evidence of the conservatism of Eastern tradition is shown in a Syriac charm which is worth quoting in full.

Seven accursed brothers, accursed sons!
destructive ones, sons of men of destruction!
Why do you creep along on your knees and move upon your hands?’
And they replied, ‘We go on our hands,
so that we may eat flesh, and we crawl along
upon our hands, so that we may drink blood.’

As soon as I saw it, I prevented them from devouring,
and I cursed and bound them in the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, saying,
‘May you not proceed on your way, nor finish your
journey, and may God break your teeth, and cut
the veins of your neck, and the sinews thereof, that
you approach not the sheep nor the oxen of the
person who carries [sc. these writs]! I bind you
in the name of Gabriel and Michael. I bind you
by that angel who judged the woman that combed
(the hair of) her head on the eve of Holy Sunday.

May they vanish as smoke from before the wind
for ever and ever, Amen!’

If you like to go Biblical, we add this from Luke 11:24-26:

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

And if you thought that video games weren’t educational, the most contemporary use of gallu we could find was in the game Final Fantasy XI, where the gallu are fearsome demonic beings best not met. Especially not with their special abilities of Bolt of Perdition and Crippling Rime. Fancy that. The Sumerians would have been excited to get their hands on that one.


This weekend – it’s H P Lovecraft time again. Not content with dissecting his ghouls, we have a triffid interview with Lynne Jamneck, writer and editor of the recent release Dreams from the Witch House, coverage of the brand-new Mammoth Book of Cthulhu and some carefully chosen thoughts on sex with shoggoths. Come back in a couple of days and wallow in Mythosian badness…

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Digging Deeper Than The Grave – The Ghul Part Two

Hurray, you’re back! Or you missed the first part and don’t know where you are. The story so far – H P Lovecraft got weird and creative with stories translated from the Arabic by an 18th century French guy, Galland, who wanted to intrigue his readers. Galland messed with the original stuff, made a few things up and developed the Western concept of the ghoul. But he, and William Beckford who followed the trend, were out of the letter H and so they made the goul instead. And none of these were the real ghul. Got that?

ghoul by cloister on deviant-art
ghoul by cloister on deviant-art

Today we travel further back in the Islamic Middle East, accidentally bump into M R James and head towards the Sumerians and Babylonians, with a nod to J R R Tolkien. Why would we do that? Well, because the term ghoul is from the Arabic ghūl, (from ghala, which means “to seize”, or ghal, “kill”), and is etymologically related to gallu, a type of Mesopotamian demon. And the gallu is our ultimate goal(u).

(We should point out that greydogtales articles are made up from dodgy memories, over-enthusiasm and a loft full of junk. Our old Arabian Nights was under a pile of rusty secateurs, one of our other source books has been half-eaten by our labrador, and so on. We don’t recommend entering a scholarly debate armed only with what you read here.)

As we ended Part One with The Thousand and One Nights, we’ll pick up there and give a couple of examples. In the tale The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib, Gherib, a wandering prince, encounters a powerful robber-band/family of ghul, led by Saadan, “the Ghoul of the Mountain”. The ghul here is an immensely strong creature like a man who eats the flesh of those he captures.

O Gherib,’ rejoined the hermit, ‘hadst thou ten thousand, yet shouldest thou not prevail against him, for his name is The-Ghoul-who-eats-men-we-pray-God-for-safety, and he is of the children of Ham. His father’s name was Hindi, who peopled Hind and named it, and he left this son after him, whom he called Saadan the Ghoul. Now, even in his father’s lifetime he was a cruel tyrant and an arrogant devil and had no other food than men’s flesh.

Then pricked out the Ghoul of the Mountain, with a mace on his shoulder, two hundred pounds in weight… Quoth the Ghoul, ‘Jemrcan slew him, captain of the host of King Gherib, prince of cavaliers, and I roasted and ate him, for I was anhungred.’

(Payne translation)

Saadan is converted to Islam, and becomes one of Prince Gherib’s staunchest warriors. In these post-Islamic versions of the old tales, the concept of monsters/ evil-doers embracing God is not uncommon, unlike Western stories of vampires etc.


In The Prince and the Ogress, the ogress is a ghul which leads men astray and back to her lair where she can feed on his flesh. In order to do the waylaying, some if not all ghul have the ability to appear fair in form. In this tale, the ghul appears as an attractive young woman in the wasteland – so shapeshifting can be one of their powers.

So the prince rode after the animal until it disappeared from view somewhere in the desert; and the prince was at a loss, not knowing which way to go, until he saw a young girl weeping above the track which he followed. He asked who she was and she answered: ‘I am the daughters of one of the kings of Hind… I fell from my beast without any noticing. Now I am lost and alone and very sorrowful.

(Mardrus/Mathers translation)

The female type, properly ghula, may seduce or even marry a man before consuming his flesh. In this particular case, the girl/ghul eventually turns into the ogress that she is and leads the prince into some ruins with the intention of feeding her brood (echoes of Whitehead’s story mentioned last time).

How far the shapeshifting goes is debatable. Some say that the ghul can take the form of a hyena, which is of course both a hunter and a scavenger; others that the ghul can take the form of the last person they ate. Like ghul, hyenas are considered in Arabic folklore to be treacherous beasts, and believed by some to be incarnations of jinn. We’ll mention the jinn again in a minute.


It seems likely that this hyena connection is at least partly responsible for both the notion that ghul scavenge and eat dead bodies, and the fact that later ghoul depictions such as H P Lovecraft’s include the dog-like heads. Hyenas have hugely powerful jaws, enabling them to make short work of even large bones.

Back to the plot, and the true nature of the ghul/ghula. Again from Ahmed K. Al-Rawi (The Arabic Ghoul and its Western Transformation):

Throughout different historical and religious periods, the character of the ghoul remained the same, being represented as an ugly human-like monster that dwelt in the desert and secluded locations, in order to delude travellers by lighting a fire and thus leading them astray. In some cases, this creature was said to have killed travellers.

This links to the concept of the will of the wisp common in the folk tales of so many countries – something which lures travellers from the safe path and to their doom. In many Western tales this involves people being drawn into forests or treacherous marshes – in Arabian tales the ghul performs the same role in deserts, ruined cities and mountainous terrain.

next ghul - 565km
next official ghul stop – 400km

A traditional ghul therefore, rather than being a creature which lairs under cemeteries, and which crouches in broken coffins getting an easy dinner, is more a symbolic creature covering a number of ideas:

  • the fear of getting lost in wild and lonely places
  • the danger and possible brutality of strangers
  • the horror/distaste associated with the consumption of human flesh

Given the number of times that that the ghul is a ghula, a female, we also wonder if the storytellers were saying something else as well – either that young men are thick and easily led astray, or that women are devious and not to be followed. Who knows?

(As an aside, last time we talked about the term ghoul being used in Western communities to describe an unhealthy interest in misfortune and death. More in keeping with the nature of ghul appetites, in colloquial Arabic the word may be used to describe a greedy or gluttonous individual.)

In Islamic circles the ghul was most commonly a fiendish type of jinn believed to be sired by Iblis, the equivalent of the Devil. If you didn’t know, jinn can be good or evil, and have the choice to accept a single benevolent (you hope) God or deny him, just like humans. You’ll remember that Saadan the ghul, who we mentioned above, was able to convert and become a ‘jolly good chap’. And evil jinn, in human form, as hyenas or even when somehow in possession of a human, can supposedly be driven away by reciting certain passages of the Quran – a simplified rite of exorcism.

Imam Ali Conquers Jinn, 1568
Imam Ali Conquers Jinn, 1568

We recently read a very confused article which decided that the Quran was blasphemous because King Solomon was said, therein, to have consorted with demons. This involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the jinn as a people with free will. We’re not taking religious sides here, by the way, only looking at various texts and scriptures which might explain how things fit together.

What the Quran talks about is that “the wind was made subservient to Solomon, and he could control it of his own will, and that the jinn also came under Solomon’s control. The jinn helped strengthen Solomon’s reign, building for him monuments, houses of worship, artwork, and reservoirs.” And in tales of Solomon’s ring, which some say was bejewelled, the fourth jewel gave him dominion over the jinn, and was inscribed “There is no GOD but GOD, and Muhammad is His messenger.”

Reading this reminded us of two M R James’ stories – Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book (1894) and An Episode of Cathedral History (1914). In the first story, an antiquarian finds a sepia drawing of King Solomon in his court, with a monstrous creature laid before the king:

At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate.

On the back of the drawing is found the attribution: The dispute of Solomon with a demon of the night. James goes on to write:

I have never quite understood what was Dennistoun’s view of the events I have narrated. He quoted to me once a text from Ecclesiasticus: ‘Some spirits there be that are created for vengeance, and in their fury lay on sore strokes.’ On another occasion he said: ‘Isaiah was a very sensible man; doesn’t he say something about night monsters living in the ruins of Babylon? These things are rather beyond us at present.’

Rather neat, as those ‘night monsters living in the ruins of Babylon’ will come up next time.

canon alberic's scrapbook - by rich johnson
canon alberic’s scrapbook – by rich johnson

In the second story, we have another creature of hair and horror – ‘Black it was,’ he’d say, ‘and a mass of hair, and two legs, and the light caught on its eyes.’

The widow of a former old verger, a pensioner of the Chapter of Southminster, was visited by dreams, which she retailed to her friends, of a shape that slipped out of the little door of the south transept as the dark fell in, and flitted — taking a fresh direction every night — about the Close, disappearing for a while in house after house, and finally emerging again when the night sky was paling. She could see nothing of it, she said, but that it was a moving form: only she had an impression that when it returned to the church, as it seemed to do in the end of the dream, it turned its head: and then, she could not tell why, but she thought it had red eyes. Worby remembered hearing the old lady tell this dream at a tea-party in the house of the chapter clerk. Its recurrence might, perhaps, he said, be taken as a symptom of approaching illness; at any rate before the end of September the old lady was in her grave.

The story ends with the words IBI CUBAVIT LAMIA, from a 5th century version of Isaiah , which goes:

et occurrent daemonia onocentauris et pilosus clamabit alter ad alterum ibi cubavit lamia et invenit sibi requiem

The translation is: “And demons shall meet with monsters, and one hairy one shall cry out to another; there the lamia has lain down and found rest for herself…”.

Traditions referred to many lamiae or night monsters; these were folkloric monsters similar to vampires and succubi that seduced young men and then fed on their blood. The lamia concept therefore shares much with the myth of the ghula, including a habit of dwelling in lonely and mountainous places, and feasting on men they have entrapped. In this they match the night-spirits and lilitu of Baylonian myth.


Although we’ve spent a bit of time on the Abrahamic stuff, we now have to remind ourselves that the roots of the ghul are pre-Christian and pre-Islamic. Not only are some of the stories based on polytheistic beliefs about wandering spirits, including Bedouin folklore, but we can travel much further back yet, to fabled Babylon – as we will, eventually…

(Our thanks also to Scott Connors, who nearly derailed us in the middle of writing the above by providing far more scholarly sources, including his own essay on the ghoul. We don’t seem to be at huge variance, but if you’re interested in the ghoul in late 19th and 20th century weird/supernatural literature, you might enjoy his essay in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural. Unfortunately it’s now rather expensive to get hold of.)



Our ‘fun’ ending, which shows you what sort of fun you get at our house, is about something we fell over when putting together the final part of this article (to follow soon). Poking about in Mesopotamian myths, we came across the Lugale tale, also known as Ninurta’s Exploits. It’s an epic telling of how the warrior-god Ninurta wages war against one of his enemies, to wit Asag, who is described as:

a warrior who knows no fear — the Asag, a child who sucked the power of milk without ever staying with a wet-nurse, a foster-child, O my master — knowing no father, a murderer from the mountains

And we couldn’t help thinking, hmm, Tolkien was a well-read cove. Is it possible that this was the root of his monstrous orc Azog the defiler, a ‘murderer from the mountains’? That was the fellow who took over Moria or Khazad-Dum and slew the dwarf-king Thror. There are a few similarities, but it may be us getting carried away. We usually do.


Asag, you see, was a gallu. Remember, ghoul = ghul = gallu.


In the third and absolutely, definitely, no-question-about-it final part of our ghul feature some time next week, we go full Mesopotamian…



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Ghoul versus Ghul – A Myth Returns

“Hampton pointed to the grave, which had been torn open as if by a wild animal of hellish strength. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘The monster itself!’ And there amidst the rotting remains crouched a thing of nightmares, gibbering as it gnawed on a decaying human thigh-bone. I nodded. ‘Very nice. That’s not a proper ghoul, though. You, dear Hampton, have been reading too much Lovecraft.’ I took his arm. ‘Fancy a pint?’ And as we walked away, I thought that perhaps I heard a Meep of disappointment from within the grave.”

Five go Mad in Arkham (J Linseed Grant)

c. sam wood

We’re actually here to find the ghul of Middle-Eastern myth, not the dog-headed, corpse-crunching ghoul that it became in the pages of Weird Tales. We’re doing it in two parts, because there’s a lot to work through. Today we’re hunting backwards, from the 1930s to the 1730s (a few years earlier, actually, but it didn’t sound as good).

H P Lovecraft went askew. Or, if you want to put it a nicer way, he drew on the confused works of European translators and earlier authors, and developed his own particular take on the whole concept of the ghoul. So it’s fine, we can still be chums, but how did it all come about?

Nowadays, a ghoulish manner is ascribed to those who have an unhealthy pre-occupation with death and disaster. Those who gather around accidents and car crashes are described as ghoulish. This use of the word ghoul was fairly well established by the start of the 20th century – an unpleasant mentality rather than a creature of horror. Galsworthy, for example, wrote in his 1918 collection Five Tales:

“But then he was such a worthless vagabond, a ghoul who had robbed a dead body.”

Seeking inspiration away from the Gothic vampires and werewolves, Lovecraft developed his own species of ghoul. His story Pickman’s Model (1926) is a good example. In the story, the narrator is introduced to various works by a gifted artist, Richard Upton Pickman. The narrator is fascinated but appalled. Pickman’s art is grotesque, and so, it seems at first, is his imagination.

pickman's model, by delano and pugh (lovecraft anthology 2)
pickman’s model, by delano and pugh (lovecraft anthology 2)

Listen—can you fancy a squatting circle of nameless dog-like things in a churchyard teaching a small child how to feed like themselves? The price of a changeling, I suppose—you know the old myth about how the weird people leave their spawn in cradles in exchange for the human babes they steal. Pickman was shewing what happens to those stolen babes—how they grow up—and then I began to see a hideous relationship in the faces of the human and non-human figures. He was, in all his gradations of morbidity between the frankly non-human and the degradedly human, establishing a sardonic linkage and evolution. The dog-things were developed from mortals!

These are the ghouls with which most readers of weird fiction are acquainted. Dog-headed creatures who live in groups or packs, and who burrow beneath graveyards, feasting on the remains of the dead. They’re HPL’s ghouls, but they’re not the ghoul or ghul of ancient folklore.


If you want to step closer to the real ghul in fiction of the same period, you can do worse than turn to Henry S Whitehead, one of Lovecraft’s friends. He was one of the few who came close to the true nature of the ghul, in his story The Chadbourne Episode, published seven years after Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model.

The face was covered with an equal bristle-like growth, unshaven for a month by the appearance. Above the tight-shut, menacing mouth which divided a pair of square, iron-like broad jaws, the facial hairs were merged or blended in what seemed from my viewpoint a kind of vague smear, as though the hair were there heavily matted. From this sinister figure there then emerged a thick gutteral, repressed voice…“Come – come he-ar. Come – I will show you what you look for.”

Whitehead’s ghouls have a Persian origin in the story, and take livestock and children, drawing them close to befuddle and then consume them. This is more promising stuff, but where are Lovecraft and Whitehead getting their basics?

Hanging out in the early twentieth century and wondering about writing a series of blasphemous supernatural tales, writers wanted source material to get the juices flowing. When it came to ghouls, there weren’t many sources.

They might have glanced at archaeologist R Campbell Thompson’s 1903 work The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, nattily subtitled:



We say they might (Thompson returns next time), but it’s more likely that they turned to other works. There were passing mentions of ghouls or gouls in literature during the 19th century – a reference to gouls by Byron in 1813; the fact that in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Wild Swans (1838), the princess heroine has to get round ghouls chomping on a corpse in a cemetery when trying to save her brothers; a mention by Poe… odds and sods, basically.

Most influential were the various translations of One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights (kitāb ʾalf layla wa-layla). The first European version of Arabian Nights was a translation by Antoine Galland at the beginning of the 18th century. Galland took his inspiration mainly from an Arabic text from Syria and produced Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français.

Trivia note: Two of the best known stories, “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” are not from the original Arabic sources. They appeared first in Galland’s translation, and he said he got them directly from an old storyteller.

Unabridged and unexpurgated translations followed in the Victorian period – John Payne’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (1882), and then Sir Richard Francis Burton’s version (1885) – nicked mostly from Payne but with extra ‘erotica’. Both these were offered by private subscription because of their racy nature (by the standards of the times).

A number of the French and English translations had stories of ghouls, but in many cases the characteristics were exaggerated from the Arabic. For example, the pre-occupation with feasting on corpses dug from graves is most likely an invention of Galland and his successors, made to increase the Eek! Factor for Western audiences. Ahmed K. Al-Rawi, writing in the journal Folklore (2009), goes so far as to say that this idea does not feature in any of the original Arabic sources concerning the ghul.

illustration for vathek, by westall
illustration for vathek, by westall (v&a gallery)

Writers like Lovecraft, Whitehead and Clark Ashton Smith were all familiar with the Arabian Nights. They would also have known of the classic novel Vathek by William Beckford, from 1786. Beckford, influenced by the Galland translation, wrote Vathek as a piece of Arabian Gothic, cannily hitting two markets at once – the growing Gothic movement and a contemporary fascination with oriental matters.

“Do you then perform the office of a Goul? ‘Tis true you have dug up the dead, yet hope not to make her your prey…”

So everything stems from Galland and his translation. In Part Two, we’ll roll up our sleeves and go into Arabic and Babylonian myth to extract the true ghul, its origins and the reason why seven is a very powerful number…


In the meantime, if you want a version of A Thousand and One Nights which captures more of the flavour of the original material, you could do worse than have a look at this, described as “very readable” and “strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to taste the authentic flavour of those tales”. It’s a 1990 translation by Husain Haddawy, based on the 1984 Arabic version of Muhsin Mahdi.

81CFzdsPAfLarabian nights

This should have been a mid-week medley, by the way, but we got over-excited and did something else instead. Ghuls are fun, so join us next time…

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Tolkien at Easter: A Warning from History

Today on greydogtales – why hobbits suck, Wayland’s Smithy, some proper Anglo-Saxon folklore and how to aethelfrith without losing your appetite. Fantasy for those who like mythology and history; mythology and history for those who like fantasy. Or something like that. Hang in there.

People ask me if I write fantasy. They do this with a vague sense of hope, trying to deflect me from another fascinating lecture on either lurchers or Edwardian psychiatry. It’s interesting, I reply, that Freud began corresponding with Jung concerning his patients’ fantasies in 1906…

not a ring-wraith, honestly
not a ring-wraith, honestly

“No, we meant magic swords, elves, dragons, that sort of thing! Fun stuff!” they shriek. And as it happens, today we celebrate an exciting anniversary, Aethelfrith Day. So this is a good time to talk about fantasy.

As everyone knows, it is one thousand four hundred years ago to the day since King Aethelfrith died*. He was slain, in fact, fighting King Raedwald of East Anglia in 616CE. But he had already managed to lay the foundations of the Kingdom of Northumbria by uniting the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Hurray!

northumbria in 802ce

A lot of my family come from around York in old Deira, the city from which Edwin, Aethelfrith’s successor, ruled Northumbria for a while. Edwin converted to Roman Christianity at York. Regarding this event, the church historian Bede (672 – 735) quotes a famous simile about a sparrow flying in and out of a hall, which ends with:

“…This life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

OK, said Edwin. I’ll buy that. I’m not fond of birdwatching, but I would like to know what happens when I finally put down the binoculars. It’s politically-motivated, deeply-suspect Roman Christianity for me!

We’ll stick with Bede for a moment, because it’s also Easter Month, or Eosturmonath, as they called it in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk based in County Durham, and wrote On the Reckoning of Time, in which he says that during Eosturmonath, which is effectively our April, the pagan English celebrated Eostre the Goddess and held feasts in her honour. At the time Bede was writing this (about 723), the custom was dying out and being replaced by a Christian celebration, the Paschal Month, which focussed on Jesus.

oestre, johannes gehrts, 1884
eostre/ostara, johannes gehrts, 1884

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up on a coast with a lot of this sort of history (see whale-road, widow-maker). As a teenager I took Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People out of the library – that and Tom Swift and His Giant Robot.

Bede’s plot is weak, but the names in there are great, and not long after that I read J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I still say that hobbits are best considered in relation to pie-filling (see later), but when I got to the Riders of Rohan, and the genealogy of Theoden King, I was deeply hooked.

LOTR The Two Towers 546

The names, the names… I wanted to write this sort of thing. There were villages around us which might have come straight out of Bede and/or Tolkien. There’s even an Eastrington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a village which was around when the Domesday Book was assembled, and which may get its name from Eostre. I was getting an Anglo-Saxon rush.

In The Two Towers, there is a song with the line “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?” Tolkien sourced this from the Old English poem The Wanderer:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?

The Wanderer is a great read for fantasy fans, by the way. Check out the Exeter Book online, the largest collection of Old English literature still in existence, given to the library of Exeter Cathedral in 1072.

the exeter book
the exeter book

You can listen to The Wanderer in Old English here, just to get the rhythm and sound of the original words:

Side-note: If you want to go deep-Tolkien, the old chap probably got Theoden’s death from the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451, when the Romans and the Visigoths allied to face Attila the Hun. During an indecisive battle (or a victory for the forces of the West, if you like to see it that way), the Visigoth King Theodoric was killed. As Theoden fell at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, so did Theodoric get thrown off his horse and crushed at the Catalaunian Fields (according to a 6th century Roman guy called Jordanes, anyway).

The Exeter Book also contain reference to another figure of Anglo-Saxon and Northern mythology, Weland, known as Wayland, Weyland etc, the smith/god. Heavy-duty Weland stuff is for another time, except to say that he was a key figure in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which we also talked about a while ago.

gehrts, 1883
gehrts, 1883

Some will know of Wayland’s Smithy, the megalithic burial mound in the south of England which was probably adopted by the Anglo-Saxons as a sacred place.

wayland’s smithy, 1930

This is Weland in the Old English poem Deor:

Weland, the strong man, had experience of persecution; he suffered a lot. Sorrow and longing were his companions, along with exile in the cold winter; he experience misfortunes after Nithad laid constraints upon him, supple bonds of sinew on a better man.

That went away, this also may.

In Beadohild’s mind her brothers’ death was not as grieving as her own situation, when she realized she was pregnant; she couldn’t fathom the outcome.

That went away, this also may.

Many of us have heard that the Geat’s love for Maethild passed all bounds, that his love robbed him of his sleep.

That went away, this also may.

For thirty years, Theodric ruled the stronghold of the Maerings; which has become common knowledge.

That went away, this also may.

We have learned of Eormanric’s ferocious disposition; a cruel man, he held dominion in the kingdom of the Goths. Many men sat, full of sorrow, anticipating trouble and constantly praying for the fall of his country.

That went away, this also may.

If a man sits in despair, deprived of joy, with gloomy thoughts in his heart; it seems to him that there is no end to his suffering. Then he should remember that the wise Lord follows different courses throughout the earth; to many he grants glory, certainty, yet, misery to some. I will say this about myself, once I was a minstrel of the Heodeningas, my Lord’s favorite. My name was Deor. For many years I had an excellent office and a gracious Lord, until now Heorrenda, a skillful man, has inherited the land once given to me by the protector of warriors.

That went away, this also may.

wayland's smithy, max koch, 1902
wayland’s smithy, max koch, 1902

Anyway, I have written fantasy since finding Bede and Tolkien, but I like it skewed. I was Grimdark years before Grimdark was even though of, except that I prefer complex personal struggles over ultraviolence and pitched battles.

I like swords which are named ‘False Hope’ and have no power whatsoever, and rings whose main use is for barter when some bastard steals your coinage. Apart from the unusual octagonal copper rings of my most amoral mercenary, Nemors of the Last Blessing, and they’re not really magical either (weird – I just realised that I wrote about Nemours in my very first blog entry ever, in the year of the blue heron).

I’ve never written about a dragon in my life. I’ve never submitted any fantasy stories either, because I’ve rarely finished any of them to my satisfaction. The only one with which I was happy, Gafolmearc, I lost during a house move, like a number of other ‘only one copy’ stories of mine. This was in the days when you had to remember to put the carbon paper in the typewriter.

(Carbon paper? Typewriter? These, my dear children, were devices used by writers in ancient days to ensure that even more could go wrong with their careers than nowadays.)

reprintcartI do still have most of The Strength of the Skies, one of my Anglo-Saxon fantasies. Might even do something with it one day. Until then, here’s a snippet:

Listen now! Those who have passed are uneasy. They shuffle and turn in their mounds, and spearheads rattle between their ribs. There is a voice above them which says remember, but they only wish to sleep.

A doomsayer has come, and her chants are part of the wind which stirs the barrows. Her scarlet cloak has a wild bird’s will, cracking and flapping in the snare of her broach. As she climbs the mound of Crooked Gydda, she leans into the rain and bares a thin knife. With each name she utters, with each struggling step, she cuts at the tight skin of one arm. Bright blood spatters the earth, name on name.

This is why she is here: to speak doom with her flesh, from the scars of years long gone to the open wounds of the Now.

And this is what she will say: Beornred, last of the Eorls of his line… Beornred, gift-giver, swift-striker… is dead.

As she sings out across the headland, her blood beads like new-pressed wine.

“…son of Aecghild, daughter of Aecglif, who harrowed Mathun and left ten hand of skulls at its gate…”

Eadric shudders and tugs his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. The mutterings of the Wyrd are in the woman’s voice, patterns of a doom which the living should not hear. And he is cold. The sky above the headland is a leaden bowl, filled with rain and wind-whipped spray, and his grey hair is plastered to his scalp. Mathunness at winter’s end is too exposed for his rusting mail threadbare clothes, and his chest tells him so.

Too old, too old, it moans.

“This is tomorrow’s wind, my friend,” says his companion, “But I do not think that you are tomorrow’s man.”

So much for that. To finish with Aethelfrith, why do we have a photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet on here? Because King Raedwald of East Anglia (remember him?), who fought Aethelfrith, is the most likely person to have been buried at Sutton Hoo, in the intact burial-ship they found there. It was Raedwald who installed Edwin as King in Northumbria – yes, Edwin who… you know the rest.

the best use for a hobbit
the best use for a hobbit

Speaking as one who watches The Lord of the Rings extended DVDs by skipping most of the bits where halflings fall over, drop palantirs and so on, I will end with that hobbit pie recipe in full.


One plump hobbit
One turnip, a couple of potatoes, one small onion
Half a pound of bacon
Handful of fresh thyme and sage; pepper
Flaky pastry to cover


Throw the turnip really hard and stun the hobbit
Gently saute the onion, bacon and potatoes
Add herbs and pepper
Cover with pastry and cook for 45 minutes
Eat with fresh crusty bread

When the hobbit regains consciousness, tell him that the pie’s all gone, and then laugh at his stricken expression. Gosh, you didn’t think I was going to suggest actually eating one of those hairy little horrors, did you? You’d be picking fur and toes out of your teeth for days…

oestre/ostara. jan fibbinger
eostre/ostara. jan fibiger

*I lied about the exact timing of Aethelfrith Day, incidentally – it might have been a Friday – but not about the rest.

Next time on greydogtales: A feature that makes more sense – our super interview with fantasy and horror author Joshua M Reynolds.


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