Owl Blasting: A Fire Elemental in the Welsh Marches

California wildfire

2008 California wildfire

The literature of the paranormal is full of strange luminous phenomena like earthquake lights, spook lights, corpse candles, and ball lightning. I think I’m correct in asserting that all but one—ball lightning—only appear in the dark, which makes the following story the more puzzling. Once again I am quoting from a rather suspect source: The Adventures of a Modern Occultist by the mysterious Oliver Bland who brought us that thrilling occult tale, “The Blood Elemental.”

He introduces this account by describing his view of “elementals,” specifically the fire elementals. How seriously you take this exposition will depend on whether you believe such things exist.

The elementals are properly those intelligences (the word spirits conveys a wrong implication) that are termed in the old rituals the Powers of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. In magic it was held that these Powers were served by spirits, but there is reason to suppose that this view rose from the too literal interpretation of the old rituals and maltranslation of the occult “Grimoires” of the fifteenth  and sixteenth centuries.

The appearance of these elementals is rare and sporadic, usually associated with a place or an individual rather than with the sitting of a séance.

Sometimes the individual afflicted by the elemental is affected in a negative manner—that is to say, he is immune to the effect of fire or heat or has the power of inducing enormous draughts and air disturbances in confined space without knowing why.

These cases are difficult, and though a “fireproof” medium who can carry live coals in his hand may claim it to be due to the effect of a fire-elemental control, it must be remembered that in many cases autosuggestion will induce an extension of the protective ecto- or psychoplasm which is equally effective.  The South Sea and Indian fanatics who walk across red hot stones indubitably possess this self-contained power. The really genuine fire medium can hold a red-hot coal or glowing asbestos from the gas fire on the palm of the hand for two minutes. No shorter duration of time should be accepted. [!!]

I have only a secondhand instance of a pure heat elemental to relate. This was communicated to me by a very well-known mountain painter whom we will call Calvin Muir.

He had been down in the Welsh Marches where the low foothills of the mountains just change into stretches of rocky moors above the low-lying wooded valleys.

Muir was by habit and training a keen observer. He was also a Frater of the Rosicrucian Society and had a wide general knowledge of many strange aspects of occultism.

“I was staying down at Pwhyll-gor, a little hill village with a few cottages and two inns of small attractiveness,” said he. “I had been there some six weeks or so, sketching and wandering and doing a little trout fishing when the mood took me. One evening I found the taproom learnedly discussing the blight that was affecting an orchard in a nearby farm.

“According to them, half the affected trees appeared burnt or seared and there was great discussion whether lightning could strike without a concurrent storm or thunderclap.

“Others held that it was probably a mischievous trick by small boys, but one old man declared it had happened before in the same district in his father’s time and that it was due to “owl blasting.’

“This, it seemed, was a form of witchcraft or magic, but more closely related to the malevolent forces of nature than to mortal ill will. He was not communicative, but disclosed enough to make me determine to visit the farm next day.

“I found it up on the hillside in a little natural valley or gap where a few fertile acres had been reclaimed. It was a poor enough small homestead, bleak and barren, and the wretched little orchard was poor enough in all conscience without suffering supernatural violences.

“The farmer’s wife received me and made no secret of her troubles. Together we went out to view the damage, and I found two cider apple trees whose foliage and fruit had been literally burnt in an area as large as a good sized cart wheel.

“That was the queer thing about it, the close circular or rather spherical limits of the damage. It was just as if a red-hot round bite had been taken out of the thick of the tree, and left the neighbour twigs and leaves unsinged–unseared.

“They had no explanation to offer except lightning, and it was manifest they had no real belief in that. I suggested boys, but was told there was but one about the farm—-even as I made the suggestion I knew it was futile; but what would you?

“I asked when the calamity occurred, and they told me in full daytime between dawn and lunch. In the morning all had been well in the orchard—by noon two trees half ruined, and no one had seen sight of smoke or flame, nor sound.

“The suggestion of ‘owl blasting’ brought no response. They were strangers to the country, having come some ten years ago from Swansea way.

“‘It’s the hills,’ said the woman.

“‘Well,’ said I, ‘another watcher will do no harm. Can you give me a shakedown, and tomorrow I will go out with my easel and start sketching the orchard.’

“She assented without enthusiasm, and I spent that night at the farm.

“The farmer was no wiser and rather surlier than his wife, but both were manifestly oppressed with fear. Their boy alone was cheerful and unmoved.

“The next day I rose at cock-crow, passed through the orchard and out on to the hills to a patch of rock and heather some two hundred yards away.

“By seven o’clock I had watched in a good stretch of the farm and the orchard in which not a soul had moved. All at once, I stood with my brush poised in amazement, as there high above the trees was poised a small, blue-yellow lambent flame that seemed to drift sideways in the windless air.

“For a moment I thought it was a fire balloon, then saw my error. Without a thought I ran toward it just in time to see it settle down on to a tree whose leaves in a moment turned from green to darkening brown and burst almost immediately into crackling flame. My cries brought out the boy and the woman from the house and on their coming it vanished and we were left gazing at the damage it had done.

“I told them what I had seen, and the woman suddenly put her apron over her face and burst into tears. We sent the boy to fetch her husband, who came in a marked state of worry and agitation.

“I could not follow the quick interchange of Welsh words that ensued. The man then asked me who had told me of ‘owl blasting,’ and together we went to the village to find the old man.

“It appeared that a month or so back the farmer had used some old rocks which were part of the ring of a Cromlech to rebuild one of his stone walls. This, according to the old man, had brought down the ‘owl blasting’ upon him.

“Painstakingly they dragged the stones back to their original place, and I believe certain ceremonial was gone through at the next quarter of the moon.

“The precise things done were kept secret from me, for I was a stranger and suspect, but I gathered enough to understand that a mercenary destruction or disturbance of Druidic remains brought its own reward.

“All that I can say is that a ball of fire came out of clear sky quite slowly and destroyed part of the foliage of an apple tree under conditions precluding any human agency.”

The above is Calvin Muir’s account. To an occultist the connection between the Power of Fire and the violation of a Cromlech is convincing, but it is difficult to conceive in what manner the Powers were propitiated.

Scientific people have suggested slow-drying phosphorus solution as an explanation of an apparently supernatural occurrence. Muir, on the other hand, was positive that it was a true manifestation of a fire elemental, and that the old man who knew about “owl blasting” was not an interested or malevolent party in a peasant’s plot.

So far, no hypothesis that will serve as a rational explanation of all the facts has ever been advanced. The Adventures of a Modern Occultist. By Oliver Bland. New York. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920.

Owl blasting?

I pride myself on being pretty well up on the folklore of the evil eye, but this was completely new to me. Was it a mistranslation? A mis-hearing of the local dialect?

The phrase does not does not appear to be misheard Welsh: Evil eye is Llygad Drwg and the literal phrase owl blasting is Dylluan Tanio. [Thanks to FB follower David Thomas for this information.]

Nor (stretching a geographical point) transliterated Gaelic:

The blasting influence of an evil eye. N. pl. sùil-bheumannan. Suilbheumach, a. Having an evil eye; blasting with the eye. Suilbhire, com. A Gaelic Dictionary, Robert Archibald Armstrong, 1825

Of course owls are frequently an omen of death and of evil. And the “evil eye” is frequently said to have a “blasting” power. For example:

It was asserted that some could blast trees, kill children, and destroy animals merely by their voice… A person forlorn, sickly, or otherwise pitiable, is always “a wisht poor blid.” The phrase extended would be “illwished,” i.e. blasted or injured by the envious malignity of some person by whom the sufferer has been “overlooked,” by whom the maleficent glance has been cast. The Evil Eye: An Account of this Ancient and Widespread Superstition, Frederick Thomas Elworthy, 1895. [this passage has been footnoted with references to The West Somerset Word-book, Frederick Thomas Elworthy, 1886, pp. 365, 548, 835.]

So was this just a compound word: devil birds + blasting power of evil eye = owl blasting? Was it the phrase “eye blasting” interpreted as “owl blasting” because of an unfamiliar local accent? I am not a linguist and don’t know what kind of accent these locals might have had in the Welsh Marches.  Is there another Welsh term that might have sounded to an English speaker’s ears like “owl blasting”?

I’ve seen the phrase used on a very few other sites online—mostly ones to do with modern witch practice, although one suggested that “owl blasting” was found in rural Somerset as a term for casting the evil eye. Ruth Tongue (who I would also consider another suspect source) does not mention owl blasting in Somerset Folklore. “Muir’s” account seems to be the sole source.

In addition, although I’ve searched (admittedly rather haphazardly, with my only clues being that the pseudonymous “Calvin Muir” was a well-known mountain painter and Rosicrucian) I haven’t uncovered the real identity—if there is such a thing—of the supposed witness.  And Pwhyll-gor or Pwyllgor is not showing up on my Welsh maps. [The word apparently means “committee” in modern Welsh.] Was the location disguised also?  Obviously there are multiple problems with this story’s value as a true narrative of events.

For these reasons I would be inclined to write this off as a third-hand tale from an imaginative author, except that it has certain parallels to some spook light sightings and also to a few modern UFO tales where scorch marks are found on grass, trees, or other vegetation and witnesses sometimes report “sunburn.” Wales is well-known for mysterious lights over its hills as well as phenomena such as the “stars” that accompanied the religious revival preached by Mrs Mary Jones at Egryn in 1904-1905 or the “fiery exhalations” of Merionethshire. But again, these are night-time phenomena.

The description of this particular “fire elemental” as a single smallish flame drifting on the wind also suggests the notion of “corpse candles,” which are a drifting flame, an omen of death seen wafting along “corpse roads,” following the same path along which the soon-to-be-corpse will be carried to the grave. They also a feature of phantom funerals. In Scotland they are sometimes known as “elf candles;” in Wales they are also known as “Fetch Lights.”

Here are two examples from The Face in the Window:

He saw a corpse candle moving before him along the road. It burned with a red flame, from which it was clear that it was not a woman who was doomed (a woman’s candle is white), and the candle was small, indicating that a child was to die, for the size of corpse candles varies with the age of those whose death they foretell. –The Welsh Fairy Book, W. Jenkyn Thomas, 1907-

And an excerpt from a longer story in the same book about a persistent spook light in Stark County, Ohio:

At one time we had an old apple tree which had blown down. One evening my son, Milton, came home late. He put up his horse and then came to the house. As he stepped into the door we saw that he was the color of death and whispered breathlessly, “Oh, ma, come here!” My wife stepped to the door and there, playing about that old tree, were what seemed to be thousands of lights. They were about the size of candle flames and seemed to be of all colors of the rainbow. After a time they resolved themselves into balls of fire and rolled away down the orchard path… In telling the story, Mr. Breitenstein said: “Folks may laugh if they will, but it is no laughing matter with us who live here and see it.  What it is I do not know, but what I tell you I have seen, and this is gospel truth.” Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 8 August 1902: p. 1-2 The Stark County Democrat [Canton, OH] 12 August 1902: p. 8

More mystery lights at night.  Adding to the anomalistic nature of this Welsh sighting, the blasting of the Evil Eye does not usually take a visible physical form–or perhaps this was just a rare witness to said blasting.

If we assume that this incident really took place as stated, what could it have been?  Revenge by the ghostly builders of the “Druidic remains”? An incendiary poltergeist produced by the boy or the woman? A “genuine” fire elemental? The noon-day devil? A burning-bush message from God? Plasma formations? The day “lite” version of that chase scene from Night of the Demon?

I have no brilliant insights to offer; I’m completely in the dark….

Below I reiterate the question from “The Blood Elemental” post about the identity of author “Oliver Bland.” If you have any idea if he was or was not Captain Pollard, or if you know who “Calvin Muir” was, if you have experienced anything similar, or can illuminate the linguistic origins of “owl blasting,” please get in touch at Chriswoodard8 AT gmail.com.

A note about the author of this piece, Oliver Bland.  Despite TAOAMO being widely reviewed and Bland being quoted in the press as an “author, thinker, famous seeker after knowledge, who made a study of the subconscious workings of the brain,” I can find nothing personal about the author, either in my reference books or online.
I’ve seen a note in a dictionary of pseudonyms suggesting that Oliver Bland was a pen name for H[ugh].B[ertie].C[ampbell]. Pollard, who was a British journalist, intelligence officer, and firearms expert. In TAOAMO, Bland writes: “In 1913 a well-known student of occult matters announced this theory of Protective Vibrations.” He footnotes this statement with “Capt. Hugh Pollard was the author of this theory. His monograph was never printed, but typescripts of his sensational lecture before the members of the now defunct Odic Club were circulated to certain interested parties. He tells me that he had previously spent an interesting night at a haunted house. He was in the company of Mr. Eliott O’Donnell and obtained a puzzling and unsatisfactory flashlight photograph of the manifestation that occurred on that occasion.”
Is this reference Bland/Pollard’s little joke?
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.
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