As Edgar Allan Poe dramatically describes in his famous 19th century poem, the raven has an ominous and prophetic reputation in many different cultures and mythologies, similar in some ways to that of its cousin, the crow. This has long been so; as symbols of the underworld, the Greeks associated the raven with the goddess Hecate, and Norse mythology with the god Odin. During the medieval and early modern periods, the raven was commonly cited as a witches’ familiar in various parts of Europe.
Should you go for a walk along any stretch of the Thames on a sunny afternoon round about this time of year, you’re almost guaranteed to spot some wildlife on your way. Be it fish or ducks or gulls or herons or seals or even small land mammals and, of course, a multitude of insects, the river and its banks are nigh on heaving with life these days. But that wasn’t always the case. And there have been times in the river’s history when far scarier creatures than these roamed the banks and the flood plains of the Thames…
Many of you will remember the tragic tale of the ‘Thames whale’ and the media frenzy that poor creature unintentionally provoked – but can you imagine the reaction of the press if a hippo was spotted happily swimming under London Bridge? Or if a woolly mammoth went on a rampage along the Embankment? Or if a straight-tusked elephant was seen munching its way through the flora of Docklands? Or if a woolly rhinoceros charged across Waterloo Bridge, scattering oblivious commuters in its wake?
Had they been around at the time, the red-top tabloids would have probably not even batted an eyelid at any such sights, as there is much archaeological evidence for all of these large and frankly quite scary prehistoric creatures living in and around the river area – alongside our Paleolithic ancestors, who hunted these beasts for their skins and meat.
“I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/Tap the windows, awake in dread/Pray that you’d loved me instead/I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/And I’ll haunt you, sleep in fear…” – Seth Lakeman, ‘I’ll Haunt You’
Whether you are a true believer in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night or you are a complete sceptic on the subject, Halloween has always been a good time for telling a few scary ghost stories. This time of the year has long been associated with the supernatural; nights are getting longer and colder and the boundaries between this world and the next become more and more amorphous… Or something.
I confess that, personally, I fall in between these two extremes – I come from a family which claims some psychic ability and grew up fascinated by tales of haunted houses and spooky legends. I still love ghost stories, whether fictional or ‘real’, and I’ve had quite a few strange and seemingly inexplicable experiences over the years, but I am a bit too cynical and sceptical to immediately and unquestioningly accept these as being supernatural.
However, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe – and Halloween is as good an opportunity as any to suspend that disbelief and try to scare the crap out of you all…