Category: antiquity

Toad Magic

Toad Magic

Toads have long been associated with magic, as witches’ familiars and as a source both of poison as folk healing.

We begin with a poison allegedly brewed from a toad by the “wise wife of Keith,” Agnes Sampson, one of the accused in Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials in 1591-2. The poison was to have been used against Scotland’s James VI before he ascended England’s throne as James I.  At the center of the trial was the accusation that Sampson and others had raised a storm to sink the ship bearing James home from Oslo with his new wife Anne of Denmark.

Macbeth and the Witches
Macbeth and the Witches (Thomas Barker, 1830)

Shakespeare seems to allude to elements from this trial in his play Macbeth, mentioning toads and frogs as elements of  the concoctions brewed by his witches in Act IV and seemingly referencing the events in an aside uttered by a witch regarding sending a storm against an enemy’s ship.  The Bard’s inclusion of “real” witchcraft in his play has long been said to be the reason for a “curse” upon productions of Macbeth. Included in our discussion is a particularly ugly (and lethal) 1848 incident in New York City attributed to this bit of lore.

A witch’s servant, or familiar, in the form of a toad is also alluded to as an offstage character in Macbeth.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of accounts from 16th and early 17th century England presenting toad familiars sent to torment the enemies of witches.  We also hear of a toad exploding in a fire, and toads sustained on the blood of their witch mistresses, as well as a sad story from Newmarket, England, involving William Harvey, physician to Charles I, and an bruitish attempt to subject an alleged toad familiar to scientific scrutiny.

A woodcut illustration from a book published in 1579 of a witch feeding her ‘familiars’.

Next we discuss the fear of toad’s venom in the Middle Ages, hearing some comments on the subject from 12th-century German mystic and theologian Hildegard von Bingen and a tale associated with the English boy-saint William of Norwich involving some prisoners and an unfortunate attempt at the use of toad poison.

Toad’s venom, according to medieval folklore, could be neutralized by the toadstone, a particular mineral also assigned powers against stomach and kidney ailments.  We hear of a peculiar method of obtaining this prized artifact and an obscure reference to the toadstone in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.

Wicker Man
Toadstone lesson from “The Wicker Man” (1973)

We also hear a clip from The Wicker Man in which a toad or frog is used in folk medicine to cure a sore throat. Superstitions about toads and their magical efficacy against various ailments continued into the 19th century, resulting in the phenomena of traveling “toad doctors” and “toad fairs.”  The use of toad bones in a midnight ritual performed by English “Toadmen” in order to gain mastery of horses to be trained is also discussed as is the discovery of miniature frog coffins, stashed in Finish churches, in a folk-magic practice similar to the British and American use of “witch bottles.”

We return to the continent and the discussion of toads’ association with witches (and heretics) as conceived by the Church in terms of service to Satan.  This topic brings us a letter written by Pope Gregory IX to bishops of the German Rhineland involving Satan as a french-kissing toad, as well as a ritual attributed to French and Italian members of the Waldesenian sect allegedly consuming a ritual beverage brewed from toad excrement.

In Spain’s Basque province of  Navarre, home to the “Cave of Witches” at Zugarramurdi, witchcraft trial testimonies demonstrate a particular emphasis on toads.  We hear of them raised by novice witches in the fields, used to poison the land, and dancing at the witches’ sabbath.

Toads are sometimes mentioned as an ingredient of the “flying ointment” believed to have induced a visionary experience transporting witches to hilltop revels. However, this effect is more likely attributed to other ingredients in historical recipes (particularly plants of the nightshade family.)

While the venom produced by toads of the Old World doesn’t seem to contain the quality and quantity of bufotoxin necessary to produce such visions, this can’t be said for certain New World species.

One of these is the Cane toad (bufo rhinella) that invasive species best known for infesting Australia, Florida and other southern states and native to South and Central America.  In the Caribbean, it’s been identified by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis as a possible ingredient in a drug administered in Haiti to transform an enemy into a zombie, (i.e., to drug the individual into a deathlike state from which he is later “resurrected.”).  Research into this subject was documented in Davis’ 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later serving loosely as inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1988 film of the same name (from which we hear a clip).

The show ends with a quick look at the role of the Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad, (bufo alvarius) as a source of psychedelic experience, particularly as its been reinvented with the last years as part of a life-changing “shamanic experience” for drug consumers already bored with ayahuasca.

Beasts of the Bestiaries

Beasts of the Bestiaries

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were books describing animals (some recognizable and others fantastic) in terms borrowed from classical texts and framed by Christian teachings.  In this episode, we examine a few of the stranger beasts and strange customs and beliefs associated with them.

Here’s a brief look at the animals we’ll be examing (“brief” because I’m rushing to get this episode out on the last day of the month).

Our first is the bonocan, a bull-like creature either from Macedonia or somewhere in Asia, depending on your source.  Its memorable trait is the very peculiar means of self-defense it employs.

The bonacon does its business
The bonacon does its business

Next, the manticore,  a tiger-like beast from India that comes with a few extra bells and whistles like a tail that shoots quills. In the later Middle Ages it became muddled with the mantyger, a creature with a tiger’s body and man’s head.

The leucrota and the crocota were similar or identical creatures with terrifying ear-to-ear mouths equipped with a bony ridge in place of teeth.  Their tendency to dig up corpses and vocalize like humans suggests they were inspired by the hyena.

Manticore
Manticore from 13th-century English manuscript.

The basilisk is a sort of serpent, whose name comes from the Greek for “little king.”  It was small (originally) but deadly.  Not only was it venomous, but its breath, and even its glance could kill. Mrs. Karswell relates three legends of basilisks as threats to medieval towns.

Vienna’s basilisk tale involves an baker’s apprentice who must defeat the monster residing in the depths of a well in order to win the hand of his beloved.

The legendary basilisk of Warsaw was discovered haunting the cellar of a ruined building and was so fearsome only a convict facing death dared face it.  We also look at the basilisk as the heraldic symbol of Basel, a city which destroyed the basilisk that menaced it while still in the egg (in one of the strangest incidents in the history of man’s relationship with poultry).

We also look at a tale from Cumbria, England, in which a cockatrice — a creature similar to the basilisk but with the head of a rooster — menaces a church.

Our episode closes with a look at the salamander of the bestiaries, a creature produces a deadly poison that vies with that of the basilisk, and one believed to withstand fire. While the latter is purely fictitous (though believed in some places up into the 19th century), the former is based on an actual poison (salamandrine) exuded through the skin of certain species.  We’ll examine how this poison relates to a peculiar urban legend originating in Slovenia and hear some accounts of Victorian “human salamanders,” that is, sideshow performers said to be impervious to fire.

Basilisk
Basilisk from De Natura animalium,ca. 1270
#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

This time we look at the myths of British giants Gog and Magog, and a belief in biblical giants seemingly confirmed by giant bones dug from the earth.

We begin with a 1953 newsreel welcoming reconstructed figures of Gog and Magog back to the London Guildhall after the Nazi bombing of the city destroyed the originals. While Londoners may know the figures as those paraded in the Lord Mayor’s show each November, we also look at a more American perspective on Gog and Magog as figures representing nations allied with the Antichrist from the biblical book of Revelation.

A book quoted in the show.
A book quoted in the show.

Our next stop in the Bible is a verse from Genesis Chapter 6, speaking of “giants in the earth in those days,” (before the Flood).  The word “giant,” we learn, was chosen to translate the Hebrew “Nephilim.”  Our Genesis passage suggests the Nephilim are the offspring of angels mating with human women, and this notion is reinforced by apocryphal texts, such as the Book of Enoch, which dubs these fallen angels “Watchers.” We hear a snippet featuring kindly Watchers from Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film, Noah, which whitewashes the traditional understandings of the Watchers.

The word, “Nephilim,” we learn, literally means “fallen ones,” (“fallen” as in divine beings tainted by human hybridization.)  The suggestion that they are physically large comes from another Genesis story in which Moses sends spies to the land of Canaan in preparation for a Hebrew invasion and receives a report on “Nephilim” who in size compare to men as men do to grasshoppers.  We also hear some amusing stories of the biblical King Og, whose 13-foot bed is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy.

Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = "witness of the Deluge")
Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = “witness of the Deluge”)

Next follows a quick survey of the bones of prehistoric animals mistaken for the bones of biblical Nephilim (or St. Christopher, who was also believed to be a giant from the land of Canaan).  Bones of mastodons figures prominently as do the teeth of St. Christopher, though holy relics produces from beached whales and deceased hippopotami are also mentioned.  We also learn of the patron saint of hares, St. Melangell  (also somehow gifted with oversized bones) a dinosaur named after the human scrotum, and a prehistoric species of giant salamander mistaken for one of the Nephilim by 18th century naturalist Jakob Scheuchzeri, who figures into the early science fiction novel War of the Newts (represented with a snippet from a 2005 BBC radio drama). The  hoaxed 12th-century discovery of a gigantic skeleton of King Arthur at Glastonbury is also discussed.

We learn that Arthur turns out to be connected to the Cornish folktale of that murderous scamp “Jack the Giant Killer.” Referring to an 18th-century text, we run through the grisly episodes of this story (including a long-forgotten one including a female follower of Lucifer).  Not only does the original tale see Jack inducted to Arthur’s Round Table, but it seems the Cornish story is a retelling of a similar Arthurian story of the king slaying a giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy.  A strangely mirrored version of this site, St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall also was said to be home to a giant named Corineus, a figure that seems to be related to Cormoran, the first giant killed in “Jack the Giant Killer.”

19th-century "toy theater" figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)
19th-century “toy theater” figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)

Along the way, Wilkinson provides us some richly detailed passages regarding Arthur’s encounter with the giant of Normandy from the 15th-century telling in The Alliterative Morte Arthure.

On the border between Cornwall and Devon is a site known as “Giant’s Leap,” where another mythic Corineus was said to have killed a giant in the Geoffrey of Monmouth, pseudo-history of Britain, Regum Britanniae.  Monmoth’s fable tells of Britain being founded by Brutus of Troy, sent to the island by the goddess Diana, who foretells his victory over the indigenous giants there.  The last of these giants to die (as we hear dramatized in a reading from the text by Wilkinson) is hurled from the “Giant’s Leap” by one of Brutus’ soldiers — who happens to be named Corineus.  That giant’s name in the text is Gogmagog.

The rest of our story, getting from these two names to the two figures represented at the London Guildhall and Lord Mayor’s Show is a bit complicated.  It’s best listened to in the show, where you’ll also hear how the first offspring born on Britain were the product of exiled female criminals from Troy and incubi — another bit of the fable unfolded in Monmoth’s  Regum Britanniae.

 

 

 

#27 Lilith and the Breeding of Demons

#27 Lilith and the Breeding of Demons

Our episode continues from our last with more terrors of the night, the incubi, sucubi, and the most notorious succubus, Lilith — and the breeding of demons

"Burney Relief" formerly thought to represent Lilith.
“Burney Relief” formerly thought to represent Lilith.

We begin with a quick nod to the shoddy treatment the topic of the incubus has received in films, as represented by the 1981 misfire, Incubus.  From there, we jump to the Middle Ages, clarifying with a quick quote from Claxton’s Chronicle, the role of the succubus as seducer of men, and the incubus as threat to females.  A few words from St. Augustine make clear a connection with other pagan figures with lecherous reputations, and a quote from King Jame’s Daemonologie offers a more innovative notion that the incubus and succubus are two faces of the same demon.  Each fulfills what Augustine sees as the purpose of the paired demons — the succubus to collect the male’s semen and the incubus to convey this to the human female.

The offspring of these demonic/human pairings (with infants nursed by the succubi) are called “cambions” by the demonic-obsessed imagination clerics, but in secular folklore are virtually “changelings.”  We hear of some legendary cambions, including Merlin, the hero Hagen of the Völsung saga, and Alexander the Great (the last in a tale related by Wilkinson).

Amulet protecting infants from Lilith.
Amulet protecting infants from Lilith.

There follows another nod to the cinema’s sleazy representation of the succubi and Lilith (films linked below).  From there, we make a brief survey of Lilith in high culture, in Michelangelo’s “Temptation” mural depicting her in the Garden of Eden on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, her brief appearance at the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust, and the outrageous portrayal of Lilith and Satan in the “un-performable” Decadent play of 1891, Lilith, by Remy de Gourmont.

Michelangelo's "Temptation" with Lilith as Serpent
Michelangelo’s “Temptation” with Lilith as Serpent

Our look at the more ancient history of the figure begins with an Old Testament reference to Lilith as a denizen of an enemy kingdom reduced to a haunted desert wasteland by Yahweh in the book of Isaiah.  The Hebrews, we learn, borrowed the figure of the child-snatching, murderous, Lilith from the Babylonians/Akkadian storm and wind spirits known as the lilitu.  An individualized and somewhat elevated specimen of this class seems to be the demi-goddess Lamashtu, whom we hear fearfully described in Wilkinson’s reading of an ancient hymn to this destroyer who shares many traits with the Hebrew Lilith.  We also learn of a Lamashtu’s second-hand connection to the 1973 film The Exorcist.

After a quick look at Lilith’s later appearance in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we medieval Jewish legends. including The Alphabet of Ben Sirach, which first cast Lilith as Adam’s first wife, the Midrash Abkir, which described Lilith’s rape of Adam and their breeding of demons, and finally references to Lilith’s marriage to the demonic archangel Samael, in The Zohar and Treatise on the Left Emanation, a powerful pairing sometimes referred to darkly as “the other god.”  We also find out about other legends with placed Lilith in a harem of wives belonging to Samael, including the demonesses Agrat bat Mahlat and Isheth Zenunim.  Wilkinson provides us with a final, dramatic narrative  from The Zohar describing the seduction and damnation of a foolish man at the hands of Lilith.

The show closes with an examination of the 1966 film, Incubus, starring William Shatner (before he was Captain Kirk). We learn about the curious decision to shoot the film in the artificial language of Esperanto and the alleged “curse” that haunted the production.

Clips from films used in the episode but not mentioned above include: Serpent’s Lair, Succubus: Hell Bent, But Deliver Us from Evil, Lilith, Lilith’s Awakening, Evil Angel, and The Chosen.

 

 

 

#13: Ancient Necromancy

#13: Ancient Necromancy

Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)