Saturday, January 4, 2014

Colonial Pagans and Sleepy Hollow Part I

From time to time this blog has considered how modern American myths such as those surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson derive from ancient traditions originating far away from these shores. The headless horseman is one of those classic American myths that, despite being a relatively modern phenomenon, has its origins in centuries-old traditions from the Old World. One of the more well known headless horsemen from ancient mythology, for instance, is the Dullahan. Originating from Ireland, the Dullahan is generally depicted as a headless fairy. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore notes:
"... The headless horseman of Irish tradition, the dullahan was sometimes described as the driver of the death coach; elsewhere he was a phantom who rode a horse that had lost its own head. A masculine and lesser-known form of the banshee, the wailing fairy that predicted death, the dullahan carried news of impending death to anyone who saw him riding past –  though they may have seen nothing after he struck out their eyes with a flick of his whip."

Whether or not the Dullahan or another European myth such as the Wild Huntsman inspired Washington Irving's legendary short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is unknown, but he was certainly aware of aspects of this folklore at the very least. Regardless, Irving created an enduring mythos of his own that has continued to resonate in American popular culture.

While Irving's writing has always remained popular in these United States the headless horseman became a true staple in the post-WWII era with the Disney animated adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1949 (originally as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in which Sleepy Hollow was paired with an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows before being separated as its own feature in 1959). From there some version of the headless horseman would appear from time to time on television, either as an adaptation of Sleepy Hollow or as a monster-of-the-week on shows such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker ("Chopper") and Are You Afraid of the Dark? ("The Tale of the Midnight Ride"). Presently an entire series revolving around the headless horse (Sleepy Hollow) is airing of Fox.

Recluse has always been fond of this character and has for this reason always held Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) in especially high regard. Sleepy Hollow is generally considered one of the director's second-tier efforts, the good-but-not-great category, but this author believes it holds up as one of Burton's best works. What's more, it is an incredibly synchro-mystical film, rich in mythological and occult symbolism.

Whether there was intentional or a series of incredible coincidences is highly debatable. The film that eventually became Sleepy Hollow was originally envisioned as a low-budget slasher movie by makeup artist Kevin Yagher and scribe Andrew Kevin Walker. Walker has frequently collaborated with director David Fincher over the years, having first risen to prominence when Fincher turned his Se7en screenplay into a blockbuster. Yagher is well known to horror buffs due to his work on the Nightmare on Elm Street and Child's Play films as well as the TV series Tales From the Crypt. Walker also worked on Tales From the Crypt for a time, which may have been where genesis of this project originated.

Yagher (top) and Walker (bottom)
Unfortunately for Yagher and Walker, they developed the script in the early 1990s when horror was the epitome of unhipness. Thus, the script languished for years even after Se7en became a major box office and artist success in 1995. It was not until 1998 that Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing revived interest in the script, but with a diminished role for Yagher. Tim Burton was brought in as director while Yagher was bumped down to co-producer, as well as handling the makeup effects.

While Burton reportedly dug Walker's script Oscar-winning scribe Tom Stoppard was brought in to almost entirely rewrite the project. Thus, its difficult to say what camp the film's symbolism derives from, or whether its a happy accident of the various cooks. The general assumption is that Stoppard, who is most well known for co-writing Shakespeare in Love (for which he won an Oscar) made the film much "lighter", playing up the romantic and comedic elements.

Tom Stoppard
But Stoppard is also the same screenwriter who co-wrote Terry Gilliam's Brazil as well as an uncredited writer on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third installment in the synchro-mystically loaded Indiana Jones series. Burton himself clearly brought an Expressionist sensibility to the film, gleefully echoing the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s influenced by the movement throughout. There's also ample visual allusions to Hammer Films and Roger Corman's work as well.

Very early on the film ventures into a spiritual conflict playing out within its central character. In Burton's version the legendary character of Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is depicted as a constable of New York City steeped in nineteenth century rationalism (the film is set in 1799). Crane experienced a traumatic childhood ravaged by religious fanaticism, which presumably led to the character's rigid scientific world view. But upon being dispatched to Sleepy Hollow, a largely Dutch settlement in upstate New York, to investigate a series of murders Crane is confronted with a supernatural being (the headless horsemen) as well as the frankly pagan religious practices of various members of the hollow.

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane
The latter plot point is one of the most compelling aspects of the film. While conservative critics are no doubt horrified by such a depiction of early America, it is far closer to the truth than many would have you believe. Indeed, more than a few prominent figures in early America history had an interest in the occult.
"... early America was awash in occult ideas. While alchemy is generally assumed to have been a European phenomenon, casual observers may be surprised to learn that the study and practice of alchemy was alive and well in the American colonies, long before the American Revolution and that, indeed, elements of this and other occult practices – such as astrology, ceremonial magic, and Rosicrucianism  – influenced the ideas of Freemason and founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr.
"For instance, John Winthrop Jr., governor of Connecticut (1659-76), was an alchemist who owned more than 275 books on the occult, including manuscripts of the legendary Elizabethan magician John Dee, and corresponded with other occultists and Rosicrucians. Prior to his stint as governor he had been corresponding with a New London, Connecticut, merchant John (or Jonathan) Brewster on methods for developing the 'red elixir' – one of the goals of the alchemist's art. Even such a notable Puritan cleric and author as Cotton Mather  – who was an observer at the Salem, Massachusetts, Witch Trials – was interested in alchemy and esoterica and was actually a member of the Royal Society in the period when many alchemists of persons of Rosicrucian sentiments were members."
(The Secret Temple, Peter Levenda, pgs. 84-85)

John Winthrop (top) and Cotton Mather (bottom)
There was even in an attempt in early New England to establish a colony featuring distinctly pagan practices.
"...  A strange case that has rarely made it to the general histories of America is that of Thomas Morton, and his infamous Maypole at what is now Quincy, Massachusetts (not far from Salem). It was May Day, 1637 (and the year before the first recorded witchcraft case in New England). Thomas Morton decided that they should celebrate the day after 'old English custome: prepared to set up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob; & therefore brewed a barrel of excellent beer, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day.. A goodly pine tree of 80 feet long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed one, somewhat neare unto the top of it...'
"Morton also had the assistance of the Native Americans of the vicinity, who were more than happy to join in the celebration, even though it was intended to commemorate the renaming of the area from Pasonagessit to Mary Mount . But, as Morton continues:
The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists:  that lived at New Plymouth. They termed it an Idoll; yea they called it the Calf of Horeb:  and stood at defiance with the place, naming it Mount Dagon...
"(Shades of H.P. Lovecraft!), But that wasn't the end of the story.
"Apparently, the English were taking slaves and indentured servants from Massachusetts to Virginia and selling or renting them off. Morton, in the absence of the traders, then appealed to the remaining Native Americans, slaves and servants that they should band together and resist the efforts to expatriate them, as it were. The Maypole was the first official attempt at organizing not only a pagan festival but an armed resistance to the English officials in charge of the slave trade. In addition to welcoming Native Americans – especially those of the female persuasion – to the feast, and 'consorting' with them and having all sorts of drunken revels, Morton trained them in the use of firearms. When an English lieutenant arrived to take charge of the rapidly deteriorating situation, he was thrown out of the settlement and evidently had to beat a retreat for England.
"Morton's experiment began to attract a lot of attention from the English authorities, as can be imagined. No less a figure than Captain Miles Standish himself – and a force comprised of eight men from 'Pascataway, Namkeake, Winismett, Weesagascusett, Natasco, and other places where any English were seated' – was sent on orders of the Governor to put down the uprising, but Standish's army was met with a force of arms by Morton's merry men.
"The resistance did not last long, however (William Bradford says that they were too drunk to effectively resist)and eventually Morton was captured and put in irons and sent to England... but he avoided any prosecution by the Crown and instead took the time off to compose a New English Dictionary. (He was, after all, a friend of dramatist Ben Jonson.) Another worthy, one John Endecott, was installed in Quincy in his place, a no-nonsense sort who had the Maypole struck and the locals chastised."
(Sinister Forces Book I, Peter Levenda, pgs. 14-15)
Morton's Maypole
Then there were of course the frequent reports of witchcraft being practiced throughout the colonies. The Salem Witch Trials, famously depicted in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, is of course the most well-known and notorious such case.
"Essentially, the story is that a few young girls in Salem were being told ghost stories by a black slave, Tituba, who had been brought to Salem from her native Barbados. The stories, full of sorcery and spells, enticed the girls and they began either to practice these forms of folk magic or to focus on them so intensively that they started to exhibit drastic personality changes. This, in turn, both terrified the villagers and instigated similar behavior in other girls to the point that witchcraft was suspected. The girls, brought to trial, started naming names as those responsible for 'bewitching' them, and eventually dozens of people were accused of witchcraft and many were executed.
"The year was 1692.
"Recent scholarship, however, has shown that Tituba was not an African slave, but a Native American, a member of the Arawak people who had been brought out of Venezuela to Barbados, where she was bought by Samuel Parris, the tradesmen and future minister who figures so prominently in Salem history. In a close reading of the trial transcripts and of the records made by observers at the scene reveals that what was taking place in Salem in 1692 was not purely the result of overactive imaginations and what psychiatry used to like to call 'hysteria'... Instead, some of the accounts of demonic possession ring strangely true, accompanied as they are with reports of paranormal phenomenon, intense rage, and blasphemy, etc. When I say 'strangely true,' I hasten to clarify that the states are virtually identical in every respect to those accounts of modern day possession, as reported by Catholic and Protestant clergyman in Europe and the United States. Many have insisted that there was no witchcraft at Salem, but the evidence readily available proves otherwise.
"The other assumption that is often made is that the Salem witch trials with the first and last in the United States. Nothing could be more wrong. American has been home to accusations of witchcraft since the earliest Colonial days, as well as to alchemists, astrologers and occultists of all types. In fact, the situation was becoming so serious that in the late seventeenth century the clergymen of Massachusetts were issuing warnings to their flocks about the dangerous attraction of occultism in the Colony.
"Yet, the history of European-style occult practices in the American colonies began earlier than that. There are records of witchcraft accusations and trials all over the East Coast and particularly in New England in the mid-seventeenth century on. In a book published by Scribner's  in 1914 – Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706 by George Lincoln Burr, ed. – we read of Elizabeth Garlick  of Easthampton, Long Island (than a Dutch colony, although settled by English), who was 'indicted for witchcraft and sent to Connecticut for trial' in the year 1658. Another two cases – those of Ralph Hall and his wife, and of Katherine Harrison – cropped up in 1665. The accused were acquitted of the charges, except that in the case of Ralph Hall's wife, Mary, the court did find 'some suspitions [sic] by the Evidence, of what the woman is Charged with, but nothing considerable of value to take away her life.' The couple were accused of having used witchcraft to cause the death of a George Wood and the infant child of one Ann Rogers. This occurred at what is now City Island, in the borough of the Bronx in New York City.
"Indeed, a look at the record for witchcraft cases in New England in the seventeenth century (which is the earliest of which we have documentation) shows that accusations, indictments, prosecutions, and even executions were taking place since 1638 and extended through 1697. The earliest execution for which records can be found is of Alice Young, executed in Windsor, Connecticut. In 1647, followed by those of Elizabeth Kendall of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Margaret Jones of Charlestown, Massachusetts (the latter person executed in 1648). All in all, we can find a total of 132 persons accused of witchcraft in New England alone in the seventeenth century, not counting those at Salem. Of these 132 persons, four actually confessed, twenty were convicted, and fourteen were executed. Again, this is in addition to the nineteen who were executed at Salem. The accused were overwhelmingly female, more than 100 of the 132."
(ibid, pgs. 13-14) 

Thus, the fairy tale-like world Sleepy Hollow crafts for itself is not without historical precedent. Indeed, the bulk of the women given extended screen time in the film are practitioners of witchcraft on some level or another. The men are not so adept, though they try: the hapless magistrate Samuel Philipse (Richard Griffiths), for instance, carries about an ankh, which he describes as his "talisman" to Crane. The drunken magistrate possessing an ankh is not without irony in light of certain associations linked to it:
"Gods, kings and Isis (almost invariably) are depicted holding the ankh to show that they command the powers of life and death, and that they are immortal. The dead also carry it at the time their souls are weighed ... or when they are aboard the boat of the Sun God, as a sign th O they seek the same immortality from the gods. Furthermore the ankh  symbolized the spring from which flow divine virtues and the elixir of immortality. Therefore to hold the ankh was to drink from that well. It was sometimes held upside down by the loop – especially in funeral rites when it suggested the shape of a key and in reality, was the key which opened the  gateway of the tomb in the fields of Alau, the realm of eternity. Sometimes the ankh is placed on the forehead, between the eyes, and then it symbolizes the duty of the adept to keep secret the mystery into which he has been initiated – it is the key which locks these secrets away from the uninitiated. Blessed by the supreme vision, endowed with clairvoyance to pierce the veal of the beyond, he cannot attempt to reveal the mystery without losing it forever."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 27-28)

Magistrate Philipse is indeed carrying the ankh at the time of his death, so perhaps it aided his chances at immortality. The association of the ankh with locks and initiation is also interesting for Magistrate Philipse is indeed initiated into a secret cabal, even if it is rather inept. As his first confrontation with the supernatural, Magistrate Philipse's death also serves as a kind of initiation for the Crane character, whose life is based upon sense and reason.

As for the women, the most notable witches are Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci) and her stepmother, Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson). Katrina is of course the film's white witch, as her flowing blond hair and white garments indicate. Lady Van Tassel, meanwhile, is not merely a wicked witch, but also an evil stepmother.

Christina Ricci as Katrina Van Tassel
The evil stepmother is of course one of the most common archetypes found in fairy tales, appearing most famously in Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. In the case of Snow White, the famed mythologist Robert Graves detected elements of the Death goddess in the wicked stepmother character.
"In the Snow White story a jealous stepmother, the elder aspect of the goddess, tries to murder the young princes. First she is taken off into the woods to be killed, but the huntsman brings back the lung and liver of a young wild boar instead; and so, according to one account, a doe was substituted for Iphigenia at Aulis.Then the stepmother, who darkens her face to show that she is the Death-goddess, uses a constrictive girdle, a poisoned comb and, finally, a poisoned apple; and Snow White is laid as if dead in a glass coffin on top of the wooded hills; but presently is rescued by the prince. The seven dwarfs, her attendants, workers in precious metals who save her from the first attempts on her life and recall the Telchins, stand perhaps for the seven sacred trees of the grove, or the seven heavenly bodies. The glass coffin is the familiar glass-castle where heroes go to be entertained by the Goddess of Life-in-Death, and the comb, glass, girdle and apple which figure in the story are her well-known properties; the owl, raven and dove, who mourn for her, are her sacred birds..."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 421)
A somewhat similar dynamic plays out between Katrina and Lady Van Tassel over the course of Sleepy Hollow, with Katrina standing in as the Maiden aspect of the Threefold Goddess while Lady Van Tassel is the homicidal Crone (while her sister is in fact a literal Crone). Crane is the Wandering Prince, who must confront all three aspects of the goddess (with his actual mother standing in as the metaphorical mother persona). In the next installment I shall begin to break down the plot line in earnest with an emphasis on several of the themes discussed in this installment. Stay tuned.


  1. "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" is a short story based on the historic event by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in his 'Twice Told Tales' in 1836. This suggests 19th-century Americans would have been somewhat aware of the nation's Pagan past.

    The tale that forms that basis of "Snow White" didn't originally have a "wicked stepmother" character. In Norse mythology it was Freya, the goddess of love, war, and death and commander of the Valkyries, who offered her domestic services to seven mountain-dwelling dwarves - miners, just like in the Disney cartoon - in exchange for the Necklace of the Brisings, an exquisite piece of jewelry sometimes identified with Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between worlds.

  2. Erin-

    Hawthorne most definitely, As another reader pointed out in the second installment of this series, John Hathorne, Nathaniel's grandfather, had been one of the judges involved in the Salem Witch Trails. Hawthorne changed the spelling of his last name so as not to be linked to his relation.

    That's an excellent catch on "Snow White." I was totally unaware of Freya's connection to it.


  3. I am a lifelong resident of Quincy, and was taught in childhood a simpler version of the Merrie Mount story. The area is still called Merrymount, and for many decades belonged to the presidential Adams family before it was bequeathed to the City of Quincy. It was used as a baseball field for ages before a recent rediscovery of the Adams documents show it was meant to be transformed into a formal garden. This is now in process.

    Long story short, one of the oldest and most powerful New England families took pains to ensure a patch of land in the middle of the city was never built upon, and a public green space where many a parade and celebration has taken place.