Island of Superstition

“My Mum used to tell me so many daft fairy-tales – about this dolmen, or that rock. Every corner of the island seems to come with a silly story that no-one could ever believe.”

Yet Edith slowly does come to believe in the supernatural as the world turns dark around her. George Bazin meantime has been obsessed by such notions since he was a child, and even as an adult he struggles to throw them off. Guernsey’s myths and legends seep into Glint of Light on Broken Glass as they have been absorbed into the fabric of the island.  Indeed the ‘Glint’ inspiring the title may be no more than a figment of the imagination.

Folklore can be fascinating, or complete rot depending on your point of view. Often there is a historic truth, geographic fact or piece of wisdom buried in a story, whose origins stretch back beyond memory to a time when all stories were told orally and passed from generation to generation. A process of embellishment, borrowing, sharing and ‘Chinese whispers’ over the centuries results in the rather bizarre folk tales finally written down in Victorian times. In Guernsey they were collected by Sir Edgar McCulloch, later the Bailiff; after his death they were collated for publication by Edith Carey as The Folk Lore of Guernsey in 1903. Marie de Garis collected more stories, phrases and wise sayings in the mid-20th century, finally publishing these as Guernsey Folklore. Both books were invaluable sources when I was writing the book.

One tale is the ‘fairy suicides’, where the fairies are so disillusioned with Guernsey’s human inhabitants they drink from a magic spring to drive away all their bad memories. When this fails to have the desired effect, they commit mass suicide by making nooses from grass stalks. My favourite is probably that of the changeling, where a woman discovers her baby has been switched for that of a pouque (a Guernsey species of fairy).

I have to admit to being moved spiritually when I enter one of the passage graves such as la Varde or le Dehuis. It is so easy to see how ancient peoples needed to weave tales around such sites in order to understand them. It is also easy to see how their wise men and women felt the need to invent stories about the weather, the sea, the seasons and animals so to be able to explain the world in the days before rational science. Sailors and fishermen risked death in storms, farmers risked starvation if their crops failed  and at any moment the ships of hostile raiders could appear over the horizon, so the help of the ancient gods was needed in an isolated island community; perhaps more than in most places.

The coming of Christianity should have put paid to all this, but folklore is permeated with Christian myths, such as the driving out of the Devil by an un-named saint leaving a cloven hoofmark at the ‘Pied de Boef’. With the backing of the church and civil authorities, heresy and witchcraft was rooted out ruthlessly in the 16th & 17th centuries with over 50 people hanged or burned in Guernsey. Most notorious was the case of Catherine Cauches and her two daughters burned at the stake in 1556; one was pregnant and gave birth during the execution but the child was thrown back into the flames.

Folk-remedies sustained the rural poor before modern medicine, and ‘old wives tales’ functioned as morality stories. Averice, lust and gossip were all punished whilst virtue tended to be rewarded. White witches ‘désorcheul’raesse’ persisted into the 20th century and indeed the last witch trial was in 1914; this proves to be a salutory lesson to my characters who still believe in such things.

One of my favourite sites is the statue-menhir at the Castel, formed in the shape of a woman but now lacking all facial features and one breast. We would call her a mother-goddess. She crops up several times in the book to symbolise our link to the ancient past. Professor Colin Renfew at a recent lecture in Guernsey estimated that she might be the most ancient piece of sculpture in Britain. If she was erected in 2,500 BC she has stood watch over the island for what, 200 generations? Just think how many brides and mothers of newborn children have stopped by that stone, seeking the blessing of the mother goddess. Even now people will leave a coin on her head for luck, a daisy chain or posy of flowers especially at weddings. We may not wholeheartedly believe in the ancient gods any more, but why take the risk?

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on Friday 12th May.

He is also interviewed in the upcoming TV series ‘Supernatural Guernsey’.

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