Friday 8 February 2019

'The Immortal Fly' by Karen Maitland

'Lord of the Flies'
Artist: Louis Le Breton (1818-186
As part of the research for my medieval thriller, A Gathering of Ghosts, I spent time delving into the many legends attached to holy wells all over Britain. One of the strangest tales I found was recorded in The Statistical Account of Scotland 1794 and concerns the healing well of St Michael’s, Kirkmichael, which the writer notes earlier centuries was thought to be protected by a spirit in form of an immortal fly.

“Near the kirk of this parish there is a fountain, once highly celebrated and anciently, dedicated to St Michael. Many a patient have its waters restored to health, and many more have attested the efficacy of their virtues. But, as the presiding power is sometimes capricious, and apt to desert his charge, it now lies neglected, choked with weeds, unhonoured and unfrequented. In better days, it was not so, for the winged guardian, under the semblance of a fly, was never absent from his duty. If the sober matron wished to know the issue of her husband's ailment, or the love-sick nymph that of her languishing swain, they visited the well of St Michael. Every movement of the sympathetic fly was regarded in silent awe, and as he appeared cheerful or dejected, the anxious votaries drew their presages and their breasts vibrated with correspondent emotions.”
I am still wondering how you can tell when a fly is cheerful or dejected.

But the idea of an immortal fly was not confined to the Middle Ages. Pliny in his Natural History, said that although flies often drown, they can be brought back to life by sprinkling them with ashes and warming them in the sun. Other writers claimed this proved that, like humans, they had an immortal soul, which could re-enter and reanimate the body. There is some suggestion that the ancient Egyptians thought that the souls of ancestors could return in the form of a fly, and fly amulets are frequently found in tombs.
Egyptian Fly Amulet c1550-1295 BCE. Hippo ivory
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Viking mythology, Loki, the Norse deity of air was able to transform into a fly to create mischief. And right up until the 19th century in Iceland, Scandinavian and Northern European there was a wide-spread belief in a ‘sending’ which took the form of a fly. They believed a person could send out a malicious spirit or curse in the shape of a fly against someone they wanted to harm. This fly, which could not be killed, could travel hundreds of miles in pursuit of its prey and as it approached, the victim would gradually fall into a sleep from which they’d never wake. The victims supposedly killed by these ‘sendings’, were often found in cottages with earth floors or had camped in low-lying ground, so their mysterious deaths were probably caused by marsh-gases or fumes from cess-pits.

Flies, of course, with their attraction to decaying food, excrement and corpses were widely associated with death and decay, and plague of flies descending on a person or town was regarded as a divine punishment. Saints often displayed their holiness by driving them out. In 1121, when St Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching in Foigny, a swarm of flies had the temerity to disrupt his sermon by tormenting his congregation. He excommunicated the flies. The monks entering the church the next day found the inserts all dead and in such large numbers they had to shovel them away.

Madonna and child gazing at a fly
Carlo Crivelli (c1435-1495)
Since, Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies was another name for Satan. It follows that demons were said to take the form of flies and during the 16th and 17th century witch persecutions, women were often accused of having a 'familiar' in the form of a fly, which they could send to spy on their neighbours. Since flies were so common in poor households it was almost impossible to refute. A young girl, Deborah Pacey, testifying at a witchcraft trial in Bury St. Edmunds in 1664 claimed to be tormented by evil spirits in the form of flies that forced her to swallow and regurgitate pins.

In the ancient world, the fly was admired for its courage in attacking foes vastly bigger than itself and for its persistence in returning even when repeatedly driven off. In Egypt, those who displayed such daring in the face of the enemy were rewarded with gold or silver flies. Ahmose-pen-Nekhbet c 1570-1550 BCE boasts that the Pharaoh Thutmose bestowed six such flies on him.
Egyptian String of gold flies c.1600-1070 BCE
Metropolitan Museum of Art

But even in medieval Europe, flies were sometimes thought of as heroes especially, when they were plaguing your enemies rather than you. In 1285, when attackers in Catalonia tried to desecrated the tomb of the Girona’s patron Saint, St Narcissus, a cloud of huge flies rose up from the tomb driving the marauders away. An event which is celebrated now with chocolate flies, called mosques de Girona.

Flies even once achieved celestial recognition. In the late 17th Century there was a separate constellation of stars called first Musca, the fly, and then later Musca Borealis, the northern fly, to distinguish it from the Musca constellation in the Southern hemisphere. But this group of stars is now included in the constellation of Aries.
The Constellations of Aries and Musca Borealis 
The Ram and the Northern Fly
Sidney Hall (1788-1831)

And in England, the Christmas fly, the last fly that was found in the house at the end of December, was never killed. Like a stranger coming to the door at that season, a lone fly appearing then, was said to bring a blessing to the household and it was even thought to help with the housework.
St Narcissus of Girona blessing the flies


Susan Price said...

Fascinating, as always.
I'm guessing that if a fly dances around, flittering from leaf to leaf, you could say it was feeling perky. But if it sits still in one place, it's a bit miz.

Are those really filthy looks the madonna and child are giving the fly an early form of fly-killer? -- And I must remember about the house-working flies for next year. Any insect willing to do my housework is welcome.

abigail brieson said...

Now I shall wonder of all the potential blessings and household help I've missed by the flies I've killed through the years. And those needless fruit-fly massacres in lab class - oh, the horror!

Karen Maitland said...

Oh dear, yes I remember the fruit-fly massacres. I'd forgotten about those. Something else to feel guilty about.

I love the idea of a 'dancing' fly. It somehow reminds me of those old jokes.
'Waiter what is that fly doing in my soup?
'I do believe it's the breaststroke, Madam.'

Susan Price said...

Go to Scotland, Karen. You'll meet hordes of little midges doing jigs and reels - while you do the Highland fling.