It's a story, not a description of what I look like this morning!
Recently Mary Jane over at Blind Pig mentioned Raw Head Bloody Bones in a blog post. In her family, it was used as a threat to make children behave (as in 'if you don't be good ol' Raw Head Bloody Bones will get you!"). I knew it as a story, and she and I discussed it via email. In the course of that conversation, I turned up the following information about the story:
For one thing, the story is very old.
The blog Ghost-A-Go-Go Toons credits the story to Celtic roots. (The images of Ol' Raw Head on this blog are interesting, too).
In the book Faiths and Folklore, (first published in 1905 and still in print) author William Carew Hazlitt notes that William Butler referenced the term "Raw Head" or "Bloody bones" twice in his book Hudibras, which was written between 1660 and 1680, another indication of the possible Celtic origin of the tale. And in Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700 (published in 2001 by Oxford University Press) , Adam Fox notes that "another spectre which had been a particular terror of children at least since Reginald Scot's childhood in the 1540's was Raw-head and bloody-bone." He goes on to say that servants often used the term to frighten children, and that the creature was often said to inhabit ponds and to pull in children who got too close the water's edge.
Zora Neale Hurston collected the story in South Carolina, and credited it to African roots. You can read a fascinating interview with her here and read her version of the story. An African origin of the tale seems likely to me; the story could have traveled through African servants to the Bristish Isles. Or perhaps it was the other way around, and the servants or slaves learned the story from their British employers or owners? Another African-American version is included in Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural by Mary E. Lyons.
There is an online version of the story on the American Folklore site, attributed to Missouri, but the story is at home in the south as well, and may have been spread across the United States by early settlers.
Another version, from Alabama, is included in the collection Ghosts and Goosebumps: Ghost Stories, Tall Tales, and Superstitions from Alabama compiled by Jack Solomon and published by University of Georgia Press, 1994. In all versions, the tale is intended to frighten children into a certain behavior or action, and falls into the cautionary tale category.
The way I've heard the story (and this is a composite of several different versions from different books and storytellers) is that there is a little boy who is lazy and won't do his work. He sasses his mother, granny, etc, doesn't do what he is told, and they tell him that if he doesn't behave old raw head bloody bones will get him. Either he meets old rawhead and gets so scared that he's a changed boy, or he continues to be a brat and old rawhead carries him away.
Have you ever heard this story, or did someone say the name to you as a scare tactic? What child would not conjure up terrible images if told "old rawhead bloody bones is gonna get you!"
I think I'd be minding my manners, absolutely!