Category: folklore

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken is only one of the monsters said to inhabit the storied northern seas of Scandinavia. This episode is the first of two that will examine fantastical nautical tales of these regions.

We begin with a bit of dialogue about the Kraken uttered by Davy Jones in Disney’s 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Man’s Chest.  It’s particularly appropriate to our first theme: the Kraken (and a couple Kraken-adjacent creatures) as embodiments of the apocalypse.  The first of these is probably never far from some listeners’ thoughts — Cthulhu.  The second is the Norse World Serpent (a Sea Serpent), Jörmungandr.

Lovecraft’s creation, some scholars believe, may have been inspired by an 1830 poem “The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which we hear read by Mrs. Karswell.  Of particular interest here is the way in which Tennyson associates the creature with the sort of epochal shift Lovecraft later represented in the rising of the Old Ones to claim the Earth for themselves.

Jörmungandr is a primary participant in the Norse End of the World or Ragnarök. We hear this described in a passage from the 13th-century Prose Edda.  We also hear a more “light-hearted” tale in which Thor goes fishing for the World Serpent – hilarity ensues!

Thor fishes
Thor fishes for Jörmungandr (18th century illus. fro Eddas)

The earliest accounts of sea serpents (though not necessarily the Kraken) come from the Swedish writer Olaus Magnus, a 16th-century Archbishop of Uppsala.  He not only populated his map of the northern seas, the Carta Marina (the first to represent the region) with illustrations of monsters, but described some common beliefs about the creatures in his 1555 book, History of the Northern People, from which he hear some passages focusing on sea serpents.

Hans Egede, Lutheran missionary to Greenland of Danish and Norwegian descent, provides our next account of a sighting, not secondhand lore as with Magnus, but a description of a creature he alleges to have seen himself on July 6, 1734.  The passage we hear is  from his 1745 publication, A Description of Greenland.

Detail: Carta Marina (1539)

Then we come to the definitive source for our show’s topic, the Danish-Norwegian author and Lutheran bishop, Erik Pontoppidan.  His work The Natural History of Norway, published in two volumes in 1752 and ’53 describes both serpentine monsters and the Kraken.

Regarding the former, he provides a wealth of information, from which we have extracted the more intriguing bits — sailors firing on sea serpents and serpents sinking ships, the creature’s disgusting method of attracting a meal of fish, the differences between sea serpents of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, preventative measures taken against these monsters, and an interesting use for sea serpent hide.

Where Pontoppidan turns his attention to the Kraken, the waters get murkier. It soon become clear that our current way of imagining the Kraken (formed largely by 19th-century illustrations and later media) may not apply.  In an effort to “rationalize” this monster by comparison to natural creatures, Pontoppidan calls in a number of candidates: “polypi” (squid or other cephalopods) as well as starfish, a type of sea anemone, and  even crabs.  “Krabben” (a form of crab) even turns out to be a name equivalent to “Kraken” according to Pontoppidan. We also hear what we think of as tentacles referred to as “horns” or “antennae.”

One thing that remains clear in Pontoppidan’s descriptions  (and perhaps more so in earlier accounts to be explored next time) is that the monster is very large, the largest animal of land or sea.  We hear an account from The Natural History of Norway emphasizing this as well as some others highlighting the creature’s more off-putting habits.

One reason, we learn, that Pontoppidan won’t just lock in the giant squid comparison, is that the existence of such creatures was not confirmed by those who study such things until the 1870s, roughly a century after Pontoppidan’s career.   Even in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the tentacled creature visualized so memorably in Disney’s 1954 film (from which we hear a clip) was not identified as a squid, but as an octopus (or octopi, as it’s an entire school of these that menace the Nautilus.)

After a quick look at how the giant squid worked its way into Kraken lore and public consciousness, we sirvey a few more modern accounts mirroring the legendary attacks these beasts would make on ships, the latest from 1978, and a substantially more dramatic one from World War II.  Features are some clips from a 1980 episode, “Monsters of the Deep,” from the television show Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Alecton
Crew of Alecton attempts to capture giant squid. (Illus: La vie et les mœurs des animaux, 1866)
More Bone and Sickle Shirts Coming

More Bone and Sickle Shirts Coming

As I announced in our Bees episode, we’ll be printing a second batch of Bone and Sickle shirts at the end of April.

Because there was a high demand last time, and because we need to generate a bit more support for the show, shirts orders will only be available to our Patreon subscribers, though I should remind you that pledges begin at only $1/month and can be cancelled any time after your shirt order goes out (though we’d prefer you didn’t cancel right away naturally). Come for the shirt, stay for the bonus episodes, blog curiosities, soundscape & script downloads, etc — there are LOTS of reward options, and we just want to encourage listeners to come in an look around a while.

The shirt featuring our old “mascot,” that is, an image of the relics 14th-century Austrian, St. Notburga.  All shirts are on black, naturally.

The shirt’s graphic by Lauren Fairchild Art and Al Ridenour depicts the relics of Notburga as displayed in the chapel of St. Rupert, Eben, Austria.  She holds a sickle and sheaf of wheat to remind the faithful of her most famous legend:

Notburga was servant to an impious master, who  evening demanded she work late in the fields despite her request to be released to go to vespers. Throwing her sickle into the air she declared: “Let my sickle be judge between me and you.” The sickle remained floating in the air.

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

The mythology of bees has been tied for centuries to notions of the otherworld and death.  In this episode we trace some of that folklore along with examining some highly peculiar uses of honey.

Horror or sci-fi films referencing bees exploit the more mundane fears bee holds for mankind.  Our survey of these includes clips from the dreadful 2006 The Wicker Man remake, Candyman (1992), The Deadly Bees (1967), The Swarm (1978), and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). Also included are some snippets of “Not the Bees” remixes by Koolfox, CyberPunkStefan, and KCACopyright.

The Deadly Bees (1967)

Continuing on (in a sense) from our Medusa episode, there follows a good deal of Greek mythology, thanks to the significant role these creatures played in that culture’s imagination, beginning with the bee-nymphs or honey-nymphs who served as nurses to the infant Zeus.  There are a number of triads of female bee creatures in ancient Greek literature, which may or may not be the same.  Along with Zeus’ nurses, these include the Thriae, who serve as oracles, and creatures simply dubbed “The Bee Maidens” described in a Homeric “Hymn to Hermes” (who also serve as seers.)  Priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were also dubbed”bee,” and some have proposed a connection between the Delphic oracle and bees or honey, as is discussed.

Thriai
Possible representation of the Thriai, Rhodes, 7th century BC.d

A brief musical interlude follows this: “The Bee Song” by British comedian Arthur Askey.

Our next topic seems to be most prominent in ancient Greek thought but was found elsewhere and persisted into the Middle Ages, namely, the belief that bees were spontaneously generated from the carcasses of oxen.  This superstition, known as “bugonia”  (from the Greek words for “ox” and “spawn”) is discussed in passages we hear from Virgil’s volume on agricultural lore, Georgica, and from a similar 10th century book of Byzantine creation, Geoponika.  We also hear an example from the Old Testament and learn a a related and unseemly lesson about a honey-like product found in many British households. And there’s a poem by Kipling, “The Flies and the Bees” from which Mrs. Karswell reads a relevant excerpt.

Human corpses (if they happen to be a priestess of Demeter) can also generate bees, according to a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, which we hear. And there is a story of a skull filled with honeycomb from Herodotus’ Persian Wars, one somehow similar to a report from an 1832 edition of the Belfast News Letter, which is gratuitously included merely for the grotesque image it presents.

Next we look at the ancient practice of preserving human bodies in honey.  The case of Alexander the Great is described along with a number of examples from Sparta (including a honey-preserved head, which advised King Cleomenes I.  And there’s a particularly repulsive story of Mariamne, the wife of  King Herod, who was thus preserved.

We then examine more wholesome stories of bees —  their exemplary reputation for cooperation and industry, which served many writers as a model for human society.  Also wholesome are a few inlcuded Christian legends involving bees. We hear of 5th century French prelate St. Medard, whose bees punished the thief attempting to steal a hive from the saint’s apiary, and of the 6th-century Irish saint St. Gobnait, who commanded an army of bees against hostile forces threatening her community.  Also included are some pious legends of architecturally ingenious bees related in Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie from 1632.

The Feminine Monarchie
The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler

Next, the “telling of the bees” is discussed, that is, a custom whereby those who kept hives would announce the death of a family members to their bees so they might participate symbolically in the mourning process.  Also included are a number of newspaper stories of bees that seemed more than eager to participate in funerals.

We wrap up with a look at “mad honey,” a psychoactive type of honey, the effects of which are produced by a compounds called grayanotoxin found in certain plants (the rhododendron, azalea and oleander) from which bees have gathered nectar.  Caveat emptor!

 

 

 

Medusa and the Gorgons

Medusa and the Gorgons

Medusa was one of the Gorgons, creatures originally considered quite monstrous, who over the centuries came to be humanized and even regarded as beauties transformed into snake-haired villains. In this episode, we’ll dig back to the most ancient sources to examine the bare bones of the myth.

We begin with a nod or two to the pop-culture Medusa. Oddly, one of the first big-screen appearances of a Gorgon did not represent Medusa herself but a sister, whose spirit takes bodily form to terrorize a 19th-century German town.  It’s a 1964 Hammer Film featuring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing called, The Gorgon, a rare deviation from the studio’s habit of remaking Universal horror films.  We hear a bit from the film’s trailer.

However, the film that did the most to fix the character of Medusa in the minds of audiences seems to be 1981’s  The Clash of the Titans.  It follows (quite loosely) the adventures of Perseus as he battles, among other things, Medusa, and a sea monster, Kitos in the Greek stories, but oddly given the Scandinavian name “Kraken” for the film.

Clash of the Titans is best remembered as the swan song of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, a nostalgic advantage that was hard to compete with when its ill-fated 2010 sequel was produced. We discuss some variances with the classical mythology and between adaptations and hear bits from the 1981 and 2010 trailers as well as a snippet of Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2010),which offered a modern incarnation of the figure of Medusa for kids.

Bronze Gorgon
Bronze Gorgon
500-450 BC
Gorgon coin, Greece, 500-450 BC

Next we have a look at the classical mythology of the Gorgons, creatures most famous for their hair of snakes and ability to turn men to stone with their gaze.  Their appearance, we learn, was generally described in earliest texts as quite grotesque, characterized by fearsome mouths, tusks, and wings.  In art, they were typically represented by disembodied heads, explicitly heads recently severed by the hero Perseus.

Medusa, as many listeners will already know, belongs to the group of creatures called Gorgons, denoting a very very limited set of beings, only three, all sisters.  We hear a bit about their individual traits, parentage, and home in some far-off (variously defined) land, where their habitat is usually a cave.

Before examining the story of Perseus vs. Medusa, we look at an aspect to the Gorgon’s story that wasn’t part of the original narrative, but appeared toward the 1st century, an element which became particularly important in how Medusa is embraced in more recent culture, namely an explanation for her snakey hair  involving a curse laid upon her by Athena.

Next we get some background on Perseus, the strange way in which he was fathered by Zeus and a mortal woman, and the circumstances that brought him to an island where King Polydektes sends him on his quest to obtain the Gorgon’s head (note to self: avoid boastful talk).

To prepare himself for this encounter, Perseus must seek out the Graeae, or “grey ones,” a triad of crone-like sisters who know the ways of the Gorgons as they share the same parents.  Their distinguishing feature is the communal possession of only one eye which each uses in turn, something Perseus is able to turn to his advantage.

In most or many versions of the myth, Perseus is then directed onward to obtain magical tools needed against the Gorgon from the Hesperides, nymphs of the sunset.  He receives a special curved sword or sickle, a bag in which the head is to be carried, winged sandals from Hermes, and a helmet of invisibility from Hades.  Sometimes he also receives a polished shield allowing him to view the Gorgon indirectly as a reflection and thereby avoid her deadly gaze.

The decapitation of Medusa in the classical story is a bit uneventful as Perseus finds the Gorgon asleep and easy prey when he arrives at their cave, but on the way back to present the head to King Polydektes, he does make time to battle a sea monster, Kitos (the cinematic “Kraken”)   Mrs. Karswell reads for us a dramatic telling of this tale by Ovid.

After decapitating Medusa, Perseus makes good use of the head, which handily retains its petrifying powers.  A few accounts of encounters involving this weapon are also shared with listeners.

Stepping back from the myth itself, we have a look at the use of the Gorgon’s head as a symbol of power and intimidation in ancient Greek culture, something called the aegis when worn by mythological beings (Athena and Zeus primarily) and called a gorgoneion when employed by mortals as an apotropaic charm against evil.

We wrap up the show with a look at two completely bizarre Filipino films from the ’70s featuring, if not Medusa herself, an actress outfitted much like her (dangerously so, it seems, as live snakes were used.)  The first goes by a number of names, but most often, Devil Woman (1970), and the even stranger sequel is Bruka Queen of Evil (1973).  As they are Filipino-Hong-Kong co-productions, they feature lots of martial arts scenes, as well as a witch with human head and snake body, an army of midgets, and battles with basement-budget walking trees and bat people.

 

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The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Waxworks

Waxworks

The macabre feelings stirred by waxwork figures go far beyond their use in horror films, back to the Terror of the French Revolution, and beyond to their use as funeral effigies and in magic rites of popular Italian Catholicism and Roman-Etruscan witchcraft.

We begin with  a brief look at wax museums in horror cinema (going back to 1907).  The most famous example, 1953’s House of Wax, not only created Vincent Price as a horror actor, but pioneered the use of 3D.  It happened to be a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, coincidentally another technological pioneer thanks to the film’s use of Technicolor’s early 2-color process.  Offering a few more comments on horror films in this genre, we note some common themes: wax figures created over human remains, waxworks as uncanny, liminal presences, neither living nor dead (though being alive enough to kill you), and madness or death awaiting one who accepts the challenge to overnight in a wax museum.  All of these have historic roots reaching far beyond their cinematic iterations.

A final commonality is the presence of waxworks murderers and representations of historic villains and villainy, with a particular emphasis on the French Revolution.  Naturally, this brings us to a central figure in our story, Madame (Marie) Tussaud, whose name has become synonymous with waxworks.

Her story begins, however, not in France, but in Switzerland, where as a child she began assisting the wax modeler Philippe Curtius, whom her mother served as housekeeper.  Her move to France came when the Prince of Conti invited Curtius, his assistant and domestic to join an artistic circle he sponsored in Paris.

Through the Prince’s connections, Curtius and Tussaud entered elite circles, including the court at Versailles, this thanks to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, who sought out Tussaud as a mentor to help her create religious figurines in wax. When the Revolution broke out, Tussaud and Curtius were called upon to demonstrate anti-royalist sympathies by documenting the Revolution’s victories.  This meant crafting likenesses of heads that tumbled from the guillotine, to be carried on pikes or displayed on trophies. This could be particularly gruesome work given the empathy Tussaud had developed with contacts at the court, as we hear in a grim passage from Tussaud’s Memoirs, read by Mrs. Karswell.

Wax heads?
When Revolutionaries don’t have real heads, wax will do.

In 1804, when Tussaud accepted an invitation to display waxworks in London (and was later prevented from returning to France by the Napoleonic Wars), she brought with her Curtius’ concept of a discrete room dedicated to the infamous. His “Den of Thieves” became the “Chamber of Horrors” central to Tussaud’s fame in London and later the world.  The Victorian’s fascination with murder and executions discussed in our “Gallows” and “Gibbet” episodes was enthusiastically exploited by Tussaud, and we hear some amusing details and contemporary criticism of all this from the magazine Punch.

Tussaud was by no means to the first to display waxworks or even waxwork horrors in England. We have a look at some earlier innovators, including a “Mrs. Salmon” whose work illustrating some rather bizarre legends was shown on Fleet Street, a popular 18th/19th-century location for waxworks exhibitors once they had graduated from installing traveling displays at Fairs.

Charles Dickens gives us a taste of the life of traveling waxworks exhibitors in his 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which features and impresario named Mrs. Jarel clearly inspired by Tussaud.  We hear a passage from that and several more from an obscure 1896 non-fiction work containing a trove of information on the waxwork business in 19th-century England: Joe Smith and his Waxworks.  In particular, we hear more about the public’s hunger for murderers and how that is best accommodated.

Old Curiosity Shop
Mrs. Jarel schooling her waxworks apprentice in The Old Curiosity Shop

Our association of waxworks with the macabre also would seem to have to do with their historical use as funeral effigies. We have a look at the practice (dating to 1377) of crafting wax and wood stand-ins for England’s royal funerals and how their post-funeral display in the crypts of Westminster Cathedral by the 1800s had evolved into what might be considered England’s oldest wax museum. Along the way, we hear a strange anecdote of these wax monarchs showing up in the Piccadilly tube station and of similar effigies in France being treated like living humans in quite surprising ways.

Another forerunner of the wax museum can be found in Italian Catholicism, in particular, with the creation of votive offerings left at shrines to represent prayers that have been answered. A common form of these, representing relief from medical afflictions, are small wax models of the afflicted body part miraculously healed.  But wax arms, hearts, feet, and hands are only the beginning.  Full figures — wood and paper mâché bodies with wax heads and hands, and dressed in the wardrobe of the person commissioning the figure — once populated certain churches.

We discuss a few examples of this including the Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation (the Annunziata) in Florence and The Shrine of Our Lady of Grace (Le Grazie) near the town of Mantua in Lombardy. The first no longer exhibits these figures but was described by a 16th century Dutch visitor as resembling “a field of cadavers.”  The second also features the taxidermied remains of a crocodile suspended over the sanctuary.

Le Grazie
Votive in Le Grazie: spared from execution! .

Scholars, including the art historian Aby Warburg, have commented on the similarity between these votive wax figures an figurines used in sympathetic magic. Illustrative of this: in Florence, when political tides changed, the removal of a disfavored person from the Annunziata would be referred to as a “killing.”

Connections with Etruscan magic, the source of magical practice and witchcraft belief in ancient Rome is also discussed in this context.  As are the Romans’ use of wax funeral masks representing the ancestors and a wax effigy created for the funeral for Julius Caesar, one which was partially mechanized and sported realistic wounds from his assassination. Perfect for a Chamber of Horrors!

We wrap up the show with a bit of later history on Madame Tussauds, a talking parrot, and a strange birthday party celebrated in 1969 by Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

 

 

A Christmas Ghost Story

A Christmas Ghost Story

Four our third year, we embrace the old tradition of seasonal ghost-storytelling. This year Mrs. Karswell reads for us a tale written by Edmund Gill Swain, from his 1912 collection Stoneground Ghost Tales (“Stoneground” here being the name of a particularly haunted but fictional English village.)

Swain was a Cambridge colleague of M.R. James, the master of the modern ghost story and proponent of Christmas as a time for telling ghostly tales.  We heard a story of his in our 2018 Christmas episode, and a supernatural story written by Dickens’ (not the one you’re thinking) in our 2019 show, should you want to check those out too.

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

Seasonal Listening

Seasonal Listening

For new Patrons who may not have heard these or for those of you who just want some seasonal listening to revisit, check out the shows below. (And another episode with a Christmas season tie-in is coming this weekend along with another ghost story episode later in December.)

 

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

In southern Italy, belief in witchcraft  has a long history, much of it centering on the town of Benevento, about 30 miles east of Naples.

From a 1428 testimony by accused witch Matteuccia da Todi, we have the first mention (anywhere in Europe) of witches flying to their sabbats — their gathering spot, in this case, being Benevento.  Matteuccia was also the first to speak of  flying ointment as a means to achieve this.  We include  a musical setting by the southern Italian band Janara of the incantation that was spoken while applying the ointment.

Sermons of the Franciscan monk Bernardino of Siena seems to have introduced the idea of Benevento as a mecca for witches, mentioning a certain tree  as the center of these gatherings, one later identified as a walnut.

Raffaele Mainella walnut tree
“Walnut of Benevento” by Raffaele Mainella, 1890?

Though no tradition around a specific location for this tree has survived in Benevento, the legend has been wholeheartedly embraced by the local distillers of Strega (witch) liqueur, created in 1833 and now distributed worldwide. This seems to have been part of a 19th-century revival of interest in the legend, which saw the composition of a popular poem, “The Walnut Tree of Benevento,” which added a serpent living in the tree’s branches, and probably inspired Niccolo Paganini to compose his signature piece, Le Streghe, (The Witches) from which we hear a snippet.  (Yes, that’s a real clip about Strege liqueur and elections from the film Kitty Foyle).

What really locked down the local mythology was an essay written in 1634 by Benevento’s chielf physician, Pietro Piperno, one titled “On the Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento.”  This is the first mention of the species of tree in question.  Piperno also places the walnut at the center of a curious rite conducted by the Lombards occupying the region in the 10th century, a rite he sees as a model for the Benevento witch tales of his own day.  Mrs. Karswell also reads for us a retelling from Piperno’s text of a hunchback who stumbles upon a sabbat, only to have the hump on his back magically removed.

The discovery of a the ruins of a temple to Isis in Benevento in 1903 led to further speculation as to possible origins of the region’s witchcraft myths, but it was the Roman goddess Diana most strongly associated with southern Italy’s witches, in part because the name used there for a type of witch is janara, believed to come from the Latin dianara, a servant of Diana.

We hear snippet form a 2015 Italian horror film called Janara  (retitled in English “The Witch Behind the Door”), a bit about folk practices taken against these night-hag-esque beings, and of their activities at sabbats, which apparently includes dancing La Volta.

Then we hear a tale of “the fishwife of Palermo,” as she’s identified in 1588 trial records of the Sicilian Inquisition.  It illustrates an aspect of Italian witch mythology that seems to have absorbed elements of fairy lore, including details such as a beautiful king and queen presiding over nocturnal gatherings.

From Naples we hear the sad tale of the “Witch of Port’Alba,” who was sentenced to a peculiar fate for casting spells on her wedding day, a story involving leaping, bell-wearing witches on the slopes of Mr. Faito on Naple’s southern outskirts, and a story of a witch calming lost souls said to be screaming from the depths of Vesuvius.

Still from “Magia Lucan” by Di Gianni”

We then move beyond the witch of folklore and Inquisitions to the notion of the witch as folk-healer, something very much alive and well, as represented in the short documentaries on Souther Italian magic made in the 1950s-70s by Luigi Di Gianni in conjunction with anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, who was mentioned in our discussion of tarantella possession in our Pied Piper episode.  An example of these films would be L’Attaccatura (dialect for fattucchiera, the standard Italian for folk-healer, or literally “fixer.”  A whole playlist of the films can be found here, though unless you speak Italian (and local dialects), you’ll have to settle for YouTube’s auto-translate function.

Of great interest to those consulting folk-healers is protection from the evil eye or malocchio. The concept of fascinatura or “binding” is central to the evil eye’s workings, one which happens to be the English title of a 2020 Italian folk-horror film sampled in the discussion.

The driving force of envy said to be behind the evil eye is well illustrated in the spurned lover a the center of the 1963 film Il Demonio, from which we hear excerpts.  (In the show, I mistakenly called the film “Demonia” (feminine form), missing the point somewhat as the actual “demonic” forces portrayed might not be those belonging to the rejected female lover and town outcast/witch, but those of the male villagers around her.)

Still from "Il Demonio"
Still from “Il Demonio”

A number of magical charms and gestures prescribed against the evil eye are examined, as are the pazzarielli of Naples, flamboyantly costumed characters who deliver street blessings against the malocchio.  Their characteristic cry, “Sciò sciò ciucciuè” (sort of “shoo, bad luck”) is take up as a 1953 song by Nino Taranto, which we hear (along with a Calabrian song about the possessor of the evil eye, the jetattore)

"Sciò Sciò" Neapolitan luck-bringer figure
“Sciò Sciò” Neapolitan luck-bringer figure