Day Shift – 22/09/2009 – 02:10 PM
Presenter: Carol Duncan
Interviewee: Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, Newcastle University Newcastle University
Archivist Gionni Di Gravio discusses an interesting research enquiry into an artistic trance figure by the late notorious Australian artist Rosaleen Norton, and its interesting connections to the ancient mythology of the Wendic/Sorbian Community of the Hunter Region.
Back in 2001 I responded to an enquiry by a University scholar to see what I could find out about a werplon. What is a werplon you may ask? It is a monstrous creature from the trance imagination of Australian artist and famous ‘Witch of King’s Cross’ Rosaleen Norton. It appears in her controversial book entitled ‘The Art of Rosaleen Norton’ which first appeared in 1952. I have brought in the University’s copy which is the 1982 edition. Much of her trance art relate to mythological figures that are reasonably well known, such as Pan for instance. The Werplon, however proved more elusive.
On the evening of 22 September 2001 I went looking…
Email: 23/09/2001 12:01 AM
I went looking for Werplon tonight. Couldn’t find anything anywhere on it. Then the thought appeared to divide the word into ‘Wer’ and ‘Plon’, and I hit pay dirt.
Apparently a “Plon” is a very obscure Slavic demon of sorts, with the “wer” prefix denoting a male form of this being, much in the same vein as a were-wolf (or man-wolf). So our being is a wer-plon.
Here is the excerpt that comes from article by V.J. Mansikka entitled ‘Demons and Spirits (Slavonic)’ pp.622a – 630b in Volume 4 of James Hastings (Editor) Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908 – 1926 (on p.628a):
“The Polish skrzatek is a winged creature which supplies corn, and, when flying about in the vicinity of homes, steals children. His Wendic counterpart is the plon, a dragon in the form of a fiery sphere; a common saying about a rich man is: ‘He has a plon‘. The plon may assume various shapes, and the proper place to confer with him is the cross-roads.”
Three days later I came across a number of other references on this goblin from Jan Machal’s Slavic Mythology in The Mythology of All Races (Edited by L. H. Gray) New York: Cooper Square, 1964 Vol 3 pp.244 – 246:
“Another designation of the family genius was Skritek (Hobgoblin) a term which was derived from the German Schrat or Schratt. This goblin who appeared in the shape of a small boy, usually lived behind the oven or in the stable, favouring the household and sharing the joys and sorrows of the family; and he liked to do some work in the house, such as weaving on the loom, sweeping the floor, or tending the flocks. In order to court his favour the household set aside a portion of their meals for his consumption, especially on Thursdays and at Christmas dinner, when three bits from every dish were assigned to him. If they failed to do this, he was angry and stormed about, worrying people, damaging the flocks, and doing all sorts of harm to the master of the house. His memory still lives in popular tradition, and he was represented by a wooden statue, with arms crossed on its breast and wearing a crown upon its head. The image stood, as a rule, on a chiffonier in a corner behind the table; and in any absence of the family the Skritek was placed on a chiffonier or on a table to guard the house. The Slovaks call this spirit Skrata or Skriatek and conceive him as a drenched chicken; while in Poland he is known as Skrzatek, Skrzat, or Skrzot, and is represented as a bird (again most frequently a drenched chicken) dragging its wings and tail behind it. He often transforms himself into a small bird emitting sparks from its body, and he may be bred from an egg of a peculiar shape carried for a certain length of time beneath one’s arm pit. He haunts the corn-loft and steals corn; in bad weather he also visits human dwellings; and those who give him shelter under their roofs will profit by his presence, for he brings the householder grain and will make them rich. The Slovenians in Styria likewise believe that the Skrat (Skratec) brings money and corn. He assumes different shapes, looking now like a young lad, and now like and old man or woman, or he can transform himself into a cat, dog, goose, etc.: but since he is covered in hair, he takes great pains to hide his body. He likes to dwell in mountains and dense forests, and does not allow people to shout there; by day he perches on a beech-tree and takes his rest in dark caves; at night he haunts villages and smithies, where he forges and hammers until the dawn. This goblin may be hired for one’s services or bred from an egg of a black hen; but to gain his assistance it is necessary to promise him one’s own self, as well as one’s wife and children, and such an agreement must be signed in one’s own blood. In return for all this the Skrat will bring whatsoever a may may wish, placing these things on the window-sill, although when he carries money, he comes in the shape of a fiery broom, flying down the chimney. Since millet gruel is his favourite dish, it must be placed on the window-sill whenever he brings anything.”
I was intrigued by the references to this being a Wendic mythological being. So, I did a search on the University’s Library Catalogue, Newcat, and what came up were all these books on the Wendic folk tales and history mostly written/co-authored by a local gentleman Hans Deiter von Senff. A local connection!
From these books I soon learned the first Sorb settlers were originally brought out to the Hunter Region as shepherds by the Australian Agricultural Company in 1826. (We hold some of the early papers of the AACo. in the Region, the majority are at the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra).
The Wendic settlers to the Hunter Region mostly came from Saxony, along with their herds of Saxon Merinos to settle on the Company’s holdings in the Port Stephens – Stroud district. So I was completely delighted that I had found someone who could probably shed some further light on the Werplon.
So I rang Mr Senff on the 29 September 2001 and spoke to his daughter, who said he would really love to speak to me about Wendic folklore. We eventually spoke and after correcting me on the pronunciation of the word ‘Plon’ as sounding more like ‘Ploone’, he visited us on the following Monday. Here is my diary/email notes for the day:
2/10/2001 1:45 PM
Today I was visited by Mr Hans-Deiter Von Senff who kindly brought in a number of books for inclusion into the rare books section, as well as his personal copy of Wilibald von Schulenburg’s Wendisches Volkstum in Sage, Brauch und Sitte (Wendic Ethnicity in Legend, Tradition and Custom) . 3rd Edition [Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag Bautzen, 1993]. This book is a modern reprinting of a very rare work on the culture of the Wendic peoples, reproduced from the only surviving copy (1934) to have escaped the Nazi destruction.
He made a running translation for me as we sat here this morning. The section on the shape-shifting Plon is from pages 74 – 78 [Translation by H.D. von Senff]:
The Plon has seven heads. When the dragon flies all shall say “Plon, Plon” and throw something at him. [ref. from the town of Schleife/Stepo]
When the dragon has money, he is much brighter. When he has grain he is blue. He eats thick porridge with syrup and sugar.
He normally sits on the rooves of houses and only picks food from the houses of those who have the dragon, the others he does not. [ref. Grob-Schulzendorf]
In order that the dragon brings money, the woman must give him a black pullet to eat. [ref. Heiligensee.]
The dragon flies at night down the chimney and brings riches. [ref: Pyritz]
The dragon flies [ref: Grunfier bei Fiehne]
They saw the dragon flying, he flew fiery red through the air. [ref: Landsberg a.d.W.]
The Plon as Suckling Pig
Shepherds watched a Plon, with the appearance of a suckling pig fall from the sky and land among the sheep. [ref: Burg bei Burghammer.]
The Pear Tree
A man once saw a light in a pear tree. The light then divided itself into 15 parts and danced amongst the branches of the tree. It fell to the ground where it became one again.
The Plon of Schleife
In the year 1817, in the evening around 11-12 midnight, the old Madra (which means blue) saw a Plon flying over the village of Schleife. The Plon was as big as a chook and the whole village was illuminated by the light. Someone shouted Plon! plon! and it then began to shrink and disappeared.
The Plon as a Tree Trunk
A man named Hanko, was on a journey from Halbendorf to Schleife. At midnight, when he was a thousand steps from the village he heard a noise like a rope hitting something, there was big light and then Hanko said: You condemned (or damned) dragon, what do I owe you? As soon as he said it, there was a glowing tree trunk across the road and he was so frightened that his hair rose like a mountain and it lifted the cap off his head. Then the glowing tree trunk lifted into the air and grew smaller and smaller and became like a little round ball and disappeared as a little dot in the air.
The Plon as Protector
In Grausten there was rich pub owner who had a Plon. In his garden there was boy who tended the cows. He wanted to pick some plums and so climbed the tree. Below him he saw a Plon, the appearance of a black lump. The Plon notified the publican and the boy had to run away.
The Hungry Plon
The Plon had given a farmer much money. The farmer now wished to get rid of the Plon. In order to do so, the farmer hung on a beam in his granary a stocking, with the bottom cut off. He told the Plon to fill the stocking or else the Plon would get nothing to eat. The Plon, unable to fill the stocking, starved. All the money in the farmer’s house that had been given to him by the Plon turned to horse dung, except the money which the farmer had lent to other people.
A maid amazed her dinner guests one night when she produced a meal of pears and dumplings very quickly. She had gone to the Plon and asked it to vomit out the meal.
A maid refused to eat what had been vomited out by the colourful calf. Upon two sticks the dragon sat near the chimney and shat upon the head of the maid. She was unable to remove the blue from her skin after the incident. The saying to this day is that if you look black and blue, you have been shat upon by a Plon.
The Evil Dragon
A reluctant maid had to feed a dragon, so she gave him hot food, because she was any that she had to feed the calf, that had to sit in a barrel, wide open and with beady eyes. The thick hot porridge went down the throat of the dragon, and it became very angry and told the owner what the maid had done. So, the woman had to cure the throat of the dragon with sweet milk.
After he provided his information, I filled him in on the background detail to the enquiry, and how we didn’t really know whether the “Werplon” was a figment of Rosaleen Norton’s artistic trance imagination or a ‘real’ mythical creature.
He told me that it was certainly a mythical being, but a very rare one. He told me that when I initially rang and mentioned the Plon, he thought “Oh my God”, because to be able to refer to such a creature means that you have obtained information from very scarce sources. It is not common knowledge.
Whether Rosaleen Norton was versed in such obscure mythology is difficult to know, as a practicing witch, we can probably be safe to assume that through her trance art she tapped into something akin to Jung’s collective subconscious, and out poured this creature.
Artists, as well as dreamers, do sometimes tap into archetypes that are not part of their personal experience, that come from strange places in the human mind. This is one of those strange places.
The translations above are probably the first time this material has ever been rendered into the English language. The text he was reading from was mostly in German, however the statements made by the witnesses was recorded in the original Sorbian language (along with German translation), which he was also able to read for me.
Such are the wonderful gifts of knowledge and expertise that are present in our Hunter Region. I wish to sincerely thank Mr Hans-Deiter Von Senff for his generosity and help in this research. It was a real privilege to learn, through this research, a little more about the interesting cultures that make up the Australian Nation. To hear such an ancient tongue, and to be able to listen to it rendered in English is something I am very honoured to experience. We certainly have to count our blessings for living in such a wonderful place.
Gionni Di Gravio