As so often happens, I made a jokey post about folklore on Tumblr and ended up trotting down a new and exciting rabbit hole. The subject this time? A British/American folktake with many variants with the disturbingly head-on title of Rawhead and Bloody Bones.
Several years back I read a variant that I believe was Appalachian. It went something like this:
An old woman has an old hog, who she loves dearly. One day, a poacher comes and carves up the pig, leaving behind the skinned head and a pile of bloody bones. The old woman either resurrects the pig or he, by sheer force of will, resurrects himself. He goes stomping through the woods, now a bipedal nightmare monster, and collects parts of other animals for ears, tails, and so on.
I am vague on how this variant ended, but the monster was grotesque enough to lodge itself in my mind either way. After a bit of digging, I found a version close to what I’m familiar with for you to peek at. The pig-murder and the collection of others’ cast-off body parts — is listed on AmericanFolklore.net as a Missouri folktale. (Very few folklore monsters genuinely scare me, but any sort of pig/human hybrid including an intelligent, bipedal pig-skeleton will do it.)
Turns out this is variant is one of many and this story is much older than Appalachia. More intriguing, I’d pegged this story as a “don’t cross strange old women and don’t steal” sort of tale, when one reader on Tumblr remembered it as a generic Appalachian boogeyman, and another recalled anti-slavery themes. This post alludes to a variant warning against gossip, this version has a wicked stepmother/compassionate stepdaughter theme, and there’s apparently an Irish version out there featuring a monster made from otter parts.
Naturally, this sent me spinning into a research spiral, scary pig monster or no. This lead to something else interesting.
RBB (as I’ll be calling him for brevity) isn’t always part of a story, per se. Two Tumblr folks told me that they’d grown up in Appalachia and their mother (or cousins, in the other case) use Rawhead Bloody Bones as a generic boogeyman figure. A quick skim of Google Scholar results shows more boogeyman mentions than character-in-a-story mentions.
Now, “Rawhead Bloody Bones” as a generic boogeyman was new to me, so I dug up some literature and did some scattershot research.
The closest thing to an actual study on this is research cited in In Terms Used for Children’s Games: Comparing DARE’s Findings With Usage of Today’s Youth. In the article, Luanne von Schneidmesser includes a map showing the usage of “Rawhead and Bloodybones” (and variants) as a term meaning “boogeyman”, “spooky”, “bugbear”. The usage seems to stretch from Texas to Alabama, then north to Tennessee in a triangle. No Minnesotan or Northern Appalachian uses.
So, with two broad uses (generic and story) on our hands, along with several variants of the story, we’re left to wonder: what came first?
The “boogeyman” usage of Rawhead Bloody Bones goes back much further than the “story character” one. According to an intriguing article about something else entirely, the first recorded mention RBB dates to 1564 CE. We’re given this intriguing quote:
“1566 J. Rastell Thirde Bk. to Beware M. Iewel f. 9v, There is not that Discretion or Consideration, by which they may..put a difference betwene their Grandmothers tale of Bloudy bone, Raw head, Bloudelesse and Ware woulf, and the Churches Doctrine of Hell and the Deuill.”
The wording of the quote — specifically the allusion to “their Grandmothers tale” — intrigues me. Is there some old, original RBB story we’re missing or unable to recognize as the oldest?
When I started this post, I thought I was going to be comparing story elements by region or something similar. The answer, I’m beginning to think, is much simpler. In 1957, Herbert Halpert wrote about Raw Head and Bloody Bones in “Some Undeveloped Areas in American Folklore“, using the character as an example of why context is important in collecting folklore:
“Many folktale collectors have tried to find the story of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones.” I have finally concluded that this horrifying character has no story connected with him, except where he has been substituted for another figure in a scary story. “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” is merely a legendary character like the Boogieman or Booger Man, used to frighten children into obedience by the threat, “Raw Head and Bloody Bones will get you if you aren’t good.” Folktale collectors would have been saved much time if the various reports of this figure had described the way he is used.”
While this article is quite old and Herbert fails (at least here) to explain his conclusion, this theory solves several problems: the striking differences between variants, the equation in the South with “boogeyman”, the question of whether the character is Minnesotan, African American, or Appalachian. Perhaps RBB even started out as a story before becoming a boogeyman, then wormed his way back into stories.
Out of curiosity, I decided to do a bit of my own research. First step was polling my family in south Alabama as they assembled for my grandmother’s birthday. The only person who had heard the phrase “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” in any capacity was my uncle, who only knew of it from fantasy novels.
So I turned to the internet. I asked folks on Tumblr and the Facebook group for a cryptid-focused podcast to answer a brief questionnaire (which you can see here). The results are nothing conclusive, but it is an interesting look into who’s familiar with the character and how they heard of it.
Notable highlights from the questionnaire results:
- More people think of RBB as a character in a story than a generic boogeyman figure.
- Alternate names included “Red Bloody Bones”, “Rawhead Rex”, “Rawhead and Bloody Bones”, “Ol’ Rawhead”, “Rawhide [and] Bloody Bones”, and simply “Boogyman”.
- Many folks, like myself, had heard of the story from a short story or folktale collection.
- Respondees who’d heard the story from family and friends came from the St. Louis area, Missouri, and Atlanta, GA.
- Curiously, no one reported familiarity with the “compassionate stepdaughter” (see Anderson and Fugate) variant among these responses. (The plot of this version is similar to “The Kind and the Unkind Girls” and reminds me of the start of Kate Crackernuts, a favorite Scottish tale of mine.)
- There’s also an allusion to an Irish tale involving a monster made of otter parts. I’ve had little luck Googling this — if you know what I’m talking about, could you comment or get in touch? Is this any relation to the king otter? I’m so intrigued by this!
The Missouri version collected in the questionnaire was a treat to read because RBB got dragged into a legend tripping tradition, Molly Crenshaw. According to this respondee, older students would send younger ones out into the woods to look for Molly Crenshaw’s graves then scare them with a costumed RBB figure.
If you’d like to read that variant or see the other responses the questionnaire will remain open for the time being, so feel free to pop in there and add your feedback. I’ll likely come back to this, as I expect I’ll stumble across something relevant while deep in some other research rabbit hole.
If you’ve got questions, sources you’d like to add, variants you’d like to share, or anything else to contribute, I’ll be sure to check in the comments below.
CITED + BIBLIOGRAPHY
Halpert, Herbert. “Some Undeveloped Areas in American Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 70, no. 278, 1957, pp. 299–305. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/537803.
Anderson, Glen Muncy; Fugate, Jane Muncy. “Two Versions of “Rawhead and Bloodybones” from the Farmer-Muncy Family”. Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 38, no. 1/2, Special Double Issue: Perspectives on the Jack Tales and Other North American Märchen (Jan. – Aug., 2001), pp. 55-67
von Schneidemesser, Luanne. “Terms used for children’s games: Comparing DARE’s findings with usage of today’s youth”. Focus on the USA, ed. Edgar W. Schneider, pp. 63-80.