Category: literature

Sorcery Schools of Spain

Sorcery Schools of Spain

For centuries, Spain was said to be the home of secret, underground sorcery schools, Toledo being the first city with this reputation and later Salamanca.  The notoriety of the latter was more enduring, and when the legend passed to Spanish colonies of the New World, the word, “Salamanca” was embraced as a generic term for any subterranean location said to be the meeting place of witches. We begin the show with a clip from the 1975 Argentine film Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf, which depicts just such a place.

A particularly early reference to this concept can be found in a romanticized 12th-century  biography of a particularly interesting character, a French pirate and mercenary  Eustace the Monk.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a passage written by an anonymous poet of  Picardy, who describes Eustace’s occult schooling in the city of Toledo.  Along with this we hear  as a passage from a 1335 Tales of Count Lucanor by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, which adds another element to the legend, that of its underground location.

Curiously, a number of Spanish cities claim as their founder the Greek demigod Hercules, but in Toledo, he’s also credited with founding this school of magic, excavating a subterranean space in which he imparts his supernatural knowledge, at first in person, and later in the form of a magically animated sculpted likeness. Another Toledan legend, was later blended into this mythology.  It’s the story in the Visigoth King Roderick, Spain’s last Christian ruler makes a discovery prophesying his defeat by the Moors in 711 CE. Along with a parchment foretelling this, Roderick exploration of this enchanted palace or tower results in the discovery of the Table of Solomon, a construction of gold, silver, and jewels also attributed with occult powers.  Legends detailing this are believed to be of Arabic origin, first recorded in the 9th century and later appearing in One Thousand and One Nights.  In later Spanish retellings, the treasure house is conflated with the Cave of Hercules, and the fall of Spain to the Moors is attributed to Roderick breaking of a spell woven by Hercules, to keep North African invaders at bay.

Tower
Roderick breaking into the tower of Hercules, 14th c manuscript.

By the 16th century, this site (now identified as an ancient Roman structure underlying Toledo’s church of San Ginés) had inspired such wild tales that Cardinal Juan Martinez Siliceo organizes a 1547 expedition into a subterranean space in hopes of putting the rumors to rest, but it hardly succeeded at that. Mrs. Karswell reads a dramatic 1625 account of that misadventure.

toledo
“Cave of Hercules” in Toledo.

While talking bronze heads and magic mirrors were being added to descriptions of the Toledo site, in the late medieval period, similar legends began to be told in Salamanca. Being the site of one of Europe’s most ancient universities in a time when scholars were not infrequently misunderstood as magicians, legends of this sort would naturally be associated with  Salamanca.  But unlike the universities of Paris, Padua, and Bologna, Salamanca’s location in Spain made it a center of Moorish learning and the study of Arabic texts filled with strange calligraphy, figures and charts readily passing for books of magic.

As Salamanca’s reputation emerged later, in an era after the witch trials had begun, instruction no longer was provided by a figure from classical mythology but from the Devil, one of his demons, or a professor or student in league with the Dark One. A favorite character filling this role was the Marqués de Villena, a scholar who’d written books on alchemy and the evil eye. Villena appears in a number of literary works of the era, both in Europe and the New World.  In the 1625 play, The Cave of Salamanca, by Mexican dramatist Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Villena figures into a scenario that became fairly standard in Salamanca stories, one involving the Devil’s payment for the lessons provided.  This would be demanded  in the form of a human soul, the victim chosen by lot among the seven students instructed at the end of a seven-years period.

In Salamanca, the underground location of this magic school is strangely associated with a Christian site, the Church of San Cyprian, a significant choice, as St. Cyprian of Antioch has strong occult associations throughout the Catholic world but especially in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions. Before Cyprian came to Christianity, this 3rd-century saint is supposed to have been a sorcerer and is sometimes referred to as “Cyprian the Magician”.  His story is mirrored in Portugal by that of Giles of Santarém, and both figures appear in Spanish and Portuguese literary works in which the saints play roles parallel to that of the Marqués de Villena, and the magic school becomes “The Cave of Cyprian.”

There are also legends that the magical secrets of the pre-conversion Cyprian were preserved, and on the Iberian Peninsula particularly (but also prominently in Scandinavia) grimoires and spell books attributed to Cyprian began circulating as early as the 16th century. After a brief look at the history of these magic books, we turn our attention to the New World and their legacy there. In particular, the use of such books in Portuguese folk magic brought Cyprian the Magician to Brazil where, where he was absorbed into the syncretic religions of that country. The practice of Macumba, one of  these religions synthesizing  West and Central African beliefs with those of Catholicism, and 19th-century Spiritism, Cyprian the Magician is transmogrified into São Cipriano dos Pretos Velhos, or Saint Cyprian of the “Old Blacks” an embodiment of the departed African Ancestors.  Our show ends with a Macumba  chant dedicated to this figure and a  Spanish prayer to St. Cyprian for protection against witches, curses, and the evil eye.

A Spanish book of Cyprian magic
The Monster of Glamis

The Monster of Glamis

The Monster of Glamis was a Victorian legend involving a Scottish castle, a secret chamber, and a monstrous aristocrat hidden from the world–a perfect story for Bone and Sickle’s return to its old format, a 45-minute deep-dive into the castle’s lore, including its association with Macbeth, a legend of a cursed Earl’s card game with the Devil, as well as theories regarding the extravagant measures employed to keep the castle’s terrible secret. Along the way, we learn a bit about other secret chambers  in castles and estates of Britain, a scandal involving the Royal Family, and a connection between the Glamis legend and a popular literary trope of the day, one embraced in Gothic fiction and later in the pulps and horror films.  We even hear Lon Chaney, Jr. sing!

Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle
The Spook House

The Spook House

“The Spook House,” an 1899 short story by Ambrose Bierce is suitably spooky for the season, but not in the way you expect.It was a favorite of H. P. Lovecraft, who praised its “terrible hints of a shocking mystery.” Also, a macabre bit of poetic whimsy from A.E. Houseman, and an intruder is welcomed in Mr. Ridenour’s library.

“Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood

“Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood

Why not enjoy a reading of Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Lights” before wandering off into those summery woods — a classic work of Weird Fiction read and dramatized with sound and music from your imaginary friends at Bone and Sickle.

An Irish Ghost Story

An Irish Ghost Story

An Irish ghost story seems a good way to add a bit of Halloween spice to your St. Patrick’s Day. Our selection, which will be read by Mrs. Karswell, comes from the 1825 publication Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.  It’s the first of three volumes of stories told by the Irish antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker, one of the earliest collector of the island’s folk tales.

Croker's book
Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.
An After-Dinner Reading: Decadent Dining in the Satyricon

An After-Dinner Reading: Decadent Dining in the Satyricon

This short off-format episode is intended as a sort of fireside reading to be enjoyed by our overfull American listeners as they struggle to digest their Thanksgiving dinners.  It’s from the late 1st-century novel, Satyricon by Petronius and describes what is quite likely Western literature’s most decadent description of a feast.

A Vine on a House

A Vine on a House

A short and somewhat extra episode for the Halloween season, a presentation of the 1910 horror story by Ambrose Bierce, “A Vine on a House.” Also, some show updates.

We’ll have a full episode, “Who Put the Hell in Helloween?” closer to the end of the month.

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

“The Girl with No Hands” is the name of a a folk-tale motif shared by a number of gruesome fairy stories in which the the amputation of the heroine’s hands allows her to escape death, the Devil, or a repugnant suitor.

(NOTE: For details on the 2022 Bone and Sickle shirts mentioned in the show, please visit boneandsickle.com, or go directly to our Etsy shop.)

We begin our show with a religious legend differing in narrative details but sharing the amputation theme. It’s a medieval story told in Eastern Orthodox lands of the terrible cost of bad manners at a funeral, specifically that of the Virgin Mary. As a further preliminary to our stories, we also offer a quick rundown on the Aarne–Thompson–Uther system of folk-tale classification, in which “The Girl with No Hands” is identified as ATU 706.

The oldest written example of this motif is the Italian story “Biancabella,” from Le piacevoli notti (“The Pleasant Nights”), a book published in two volumes between 1550 and 1553.  The author, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, appears to have modeled his collection on Boccaccio’s Decameron as it uses a similar frame-story, Straparola’s involving characters pleasantly passing their nights (hence the title) in the telling of tales.  Among the stories Straparola included, is the first version of “Puss in Boots.”

Le piacevoli nott
Straparola ‘s “The Pleasant Nights”

I won’t spoil listeners’ pleasure in hearing Mrs. Karswell read for you the original text but will divulge that its hand-losing heroine Biancabella shares a birth kinship with a serpentine fairy; also, that her hands are sacrificed in an effort to convince her wicked stepmother that her orders to execute her step-daughter have been carried out, and that guilty parties endure in the end a fiery foretaste of hell.

Our second story is “Penta the Handless” from Il Pentamerone (or “The Tale of Tales”) was written about a century later, in 1634, by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. This collection of stories also makes use of the framing device, having the stories told by a group of courtiers attempting to cheer a melancholy princess.  Among the 50 stories included are the first written versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

In this story, Penta’s mutilation is self-inflicted as a means of repelling the incestuous advances of her brother.  Her royal sibling has an exotic means of expelling her from the kingdom, namely, sealing her  in a tarred chest and casting her into the sea (a motif that dates back to the plays of Euripides or even the story of the infant Moses).

Pentamerone
Basile’s Il Pentamerone

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm provide a relatively late example of this narrative, one however that has provided the ATU #706 with a name:,”The Girl with No Hands.” The story is ncluded in the Grimm’s first 1812 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, i.e., “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Our Grimm segment, by the way, begins with a clip from the trailer for the 1962 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.

As an oral folk-tale, this German version dispenses with some of the detailed intrigues that mark its two Italian antecedents. Rather than a wicked in-law or brother, it’s the  Devil, who tricks a down-on-his-luck miller into doing the gruesome deed.  As is frequent in German stories collected by the Grimms, a magical forest-dwelling man also plays a role.

We also briefly discuss a few versions of the story published after Jacob & Wilhelm’s version — other German, Italian, and Hungarian tales which place blame for the amputation not on the Devil but on wicked family members.  A gruesome detail included in a few of these mirrors a similarly faux-cannibalistic scene from the Grimms’ original “Snow White.”

We return to Russian for our final story, “The Armless Maiden,” one of the nearly 600 folk tales or skazki contained in the multi-volume Russian Fairy Tales collection compiled by state ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev between 1855 and 1863.

The heroine here is an orphan happily living with her brother until the day her brother takes a bride, as she turns out to be a witch, who is less than happy sharing the household with another female —  and has a particularly brutal way of showing it.  A strange example of sort Lamarckian evolutionary magic marks this one, with the armless maiden giving birth to a child with silver arms. A particularly gruesome manner of dispatching the sorceress is also a highlight.

We end the show with a Russian musical snippet from an electronic band from Moscow, a duo making music since 2013, under the name IC3PEAK.  The song in question rather appropriately  begins with the line “I come from a Russian Horror Fairy Tale” and  further endears itself with the delightful Baba-Yaga-esque animation of its music video.

Afanasyev
1895 edition of Afanasyev’s “Russian Fairy Tales”

 

The Dead Lover’s Heart

The Dead Lover’s Heart

Whether freshly removed or strangely preserved after death, the dead lover’s heart occasionally has continued to be embraced as a repository of intensely shared romantic experience. This Valentine’s Day episode explores two different narratives touching on that theme: a historical tale from the 19th-century literary culture of England and a collection of related medieval legends, literature, and song.

The first half of our episode looks at the strange circumstance surrounding the death, in 1822,  of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the postmortem keepsake inherited by his wife Mary Shelley.

Louis Fournier’s “The Funeral of Shelley,” 1889.

The second half examines two gruesome narratives taken from the 14th century, both from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, namely that of the ill-fated lovers Ghismonda & Guiscardo (First Story, Day Four) and of the tragic romantic exploits of Guilhem de Cabestaing (Ninth story, Day Four).  Incidentally, our Valentine’s Day show from last year also explores another gruesome tale from The Decameron.

De Cabestaing was an actual historical figure, a Catalan ministrel, whose fictional vida (biography) was often attached to collections of his ballads and served as Boccaccio’s inspiration.

We also look at the Ley of ’Ignaure, a chivalric romance written by the Burgundian French author, Renaud de Beaujeu, probably around the year 1200.  This was likely the source of Cabestaing’s vida, Boccaccio’s stories, and the English-Scottish ballad, “Lady Diamond,” from which we also hear a snippet.

"Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
“Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
A Christmas Ghost Story IV

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

In keeping with the old tradition of whiling away the nights of Christmas telling ghost stories, we bring you a tale published in 1912 by E.F. Benson.  Read by Mrs. Karswell, complete with sound FX and music as always.

If you’d like some additional listening of this type, we have three more recorded in previous years going back to 2018: Christmas Ghost Story III,  Christmas Ghost Story II, and Christmas Ghost Story I.