Category: Middle Ages

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.

 

 

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)

 

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Western tales of bottled spirits, imps, devils, and even ghosts are largely borrowed from the Islamic and Jewish legends of jinn captured by King Solomon.  In this episode, we explore how this is expressed in folk tales, demonological treatises, and literary borrowings.

We begin with a nod to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (and a clip from Exorcist II, The Heretic.) Here, aconnection between feared Assyrian spirits such as the jinn is mentioned. Pazuzu’s identity as a spirit of ill winds, brings us to a wind-related track from the original Exorcist soundtrack (from 1972’s oddball album Songs from a Hill.)  It’s a recording of a wind harp, or Aeolian harp.  And this brings us to the Greek god of winds, Aeolus.

Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.
Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.

Aeolus features in the Odyssey in an episode that anticipates our bottled spirit motif.  He presents Odysseus a bag of wind to speed him on his journey.  The wind spirits contained in this bag then brings us to a story about King Solomon trapping a wind demon in Arabia to aid him his construction of the Jerusalem Temple. We hear this particulsar tale from the medieval text,  The Testament of Solomon read by Mrs. Karswell.

We then look a bi from further medieval texts commenting on Solomon’s capture of demons in various vessels, and how thesee are later broken open by heedless conquerors of Jerusalem, releasing a Pandora-style plague of demons upon the world.

Our motif entered the literary world via 17th-century Spain, in Luis Velez de Guevara’s satirical novel El Diable Cojuelo, “the lame devil.”  We also hear a bit about a French adaptation, Alain-René Lesage’s 1707 novel, Le Diable Boiteux.  Both of these feature the demon Asmodeus, and referenced Asmodeus’s identity as  demon of lust, a notion taken up in various demonological treatises.

Le Diable Boiteux,
Alain-René Lesage’ss 1707 as Le Diable Boiteux, The Lame Devil

Next we look at folk tales, beginning in County Cork, Ireland, with the “Legend of  Bottle Hill,” which takes its name from a curious (and curiously inhabited) bottle obtained by one Mick Purcell on this particular Irish hill.  Both good and rather surprising bad luck follow.

From Scotland, we hear the legend of the Wizard of Reay and of his efforts to evade Satan’s over-eager efforts to claim his soul, as well as his bottle-imp story, involving a cask in the Cave of Smoo, a reputedly haunted sea cave in Sutherland.

The Wizard of Rea’s tactic for controlling the demon he finds in the cask is the same as we find in the folk tale, “The Wizards of Westman Islands,” from Iceland (in which we learn what role the sinister “Sending” plays in Icelandic folklore.)

From The Brothers Grimm, we hear “The Spirit in the Glass Bottle,” involving another bottled imp discovered in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, and of a similar tactic used to subdue his volatile nature.

Jumping ahead a bit, we look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1891 short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which likewise adapts themes from the previous folk tales, while adding further complications and convolutions.  The story has served as basis for several films, an opera, a standard  magician’s trick, and more than one radio adaptation. (We hear a bit of one from a 1974 production by CBS Radio Mystery Theater.)

Stevenson makes use of some elaborate caveats attached to his bottled spirit, conditions that will produce either good or very bad luck, involving among other things, the need to rid oneself of the infernal talisman before one’s death by selling it for less than one payed for it.  This motif is also found in German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel  Galgenmännlein (“little gallows man”), a name taken from the German word for the mandrake plant, and here we dig a bit into the grim folklore of that plant. Fouqué’s story makes use of some nice, gothic elements in its resolution, a “Black Fountain,” ravening beast, and sinister black rider, among others.

Switching gears a bit, we have a look at the topic of witch bottles. It’s a perhaps questionable how well these fit our theme, but we dig up some interesting source texts describing their original use, unseemly as it is.  And we hear of some startling, tragic accidents involved in their historical use.

Witch bottle from Padstow
Witch bottle from Padstow England, 1800s.

We close our show with a look at near contemporary instances of those who claim to capture demons and ghosts in bottles.  Apparently, bottled ghosts can be a big money maker. At least in New Zealand.

 

 

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.

Holy Puppets, Medieval Robots, and More

Holy Puppets, Medieval Robots, and More

This episode looks at puppets given life through magical or mechanical means, holy puppets of the Catholic Church, medieval robots, an early automata of gothic literature, some related films, and an Alpine sex puppet that only puts up with so much.

We begin at the end of Carolo Collodi’s  original Pinocchio story, or at least the end of the story’s first draft as serialized by the Italian children’s magazine, Giornale per i bambini in 1881.  As is our way, we examine some of the darker elements of the tale that never made it into the 1940 Disney film, (though we do hear a snippet of one particularly dark scene from that film.)

Pinocchio nearly fried in oil — from Collodi’s 1881 book.

Long before Collodi imagined his marionette, the medieval Church made use of puppets, or jointed figures, that could be manipulated to enact Christ’s Passion during Easter week.  Along with jointed shoulders allowing a figure of the Savior to be naturalistically unpinned from the cross, many of these puppets featured joints at the knees, elbows, and hips; some had rotating heads, and some fingers jointed to match each skeletal bone.  Others were rigged to bleed, roll their eyes, or even appear to speak.  We hear a report of a particularly bizarre method used to simulate tears in one figure from Germany as well as some interesting trickery resorted to by Bernese monks in the 1600s.

One of the most famous of these figures, especially because of its strangely lifelike skin, is the Christ of Burgos, Spain. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a passage mentioning a particularly gruesome legend associated with the figure from French poet and writer Théophile Gautier’s 1843 book, Wanderings in Spain.

Another famed Christ puppet was the 15th-century Rood of Grace once housed at a now ruined abbey in the town of Boxley in Kent.  A number of miraculous abilities were attributed to this figure, which was attacked (literally) by Protestant Reformers as an example of Catholic chicanery.  We hear of its unseemly end and an equally unseemly ballad by which Cromwell’s men mocked the figure in bawdy verse.

Puppet Christ
German Christ puppet, the “Miracle Man”

Spain’s particularly rich heritage of mechanically animated holy figures owes much to Muslim innovations there.  It was from here that geared devices such as astrolabes entered the West, and here that that weight-driven clocks were employed almost two centuries before their use elsewhere in Europe.  We hear a few examples of Eastern travelers tails of automated wonders (and automata) from the first century, including one describing the remarkable Palace of the Tree in Baghdad.

Such real-world (if a bit mythologized) accounts were an inspiration in the medieval West, particularly in the Anglo-Norman epic poems or Romances of the 13th century.  We hear some passages describing the mechanical marvel’s of the fairy Esclarmonde’s bedhcamber from the Romance of Escanor by d’Amiens and of a confronation between the knight Huon de Bordeaux and a pair of giant men of copper armed with flails.

Esclamonde is an interesting figure as she is sometimes said to have been tutored by Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who in medieval legends had become something of a wizard.  There are dozens of tales of Virgil crafting of metal assorted mechanical or magical wonders: flies, horses, human figures, and a serpent (or lion) which predates the legends associated with the Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth) adored by tourists in Rome (and described by Cary Grant in the clip we hear from the 1953 film Roman Holiday).  Virgil’s enchanted castle in Naples was also said to be guarded by men of copper, armed with flails — as in the Norman poem. And we hear of a strange ritual whereby the wizard was said to have attempted to cheat death, one involving a bit of butchery and grievous mistakes.

We also look at the 13th century tale known as the “Prose Lancelot” as well as Chrétien de Troyes’ telling of the Perceval legend, both from the same era and both featuring animated men or beasts of metal with which the knights must grapple.  In these cases, however, the figures are animated by demons who must also be defeated.

Often these medieval robots would be presented in scenes depicting underground treasure-houses or tombs.  We hear one such story  told in a William of Malmesbury’s chronicle Deeds of the Kings of the English, and another from the  French Romance of Eneas.

The legends of Tristan and Isolde also furnishes us a similar example in a 12th-century version by Thomas of Britain.  It features Tristan romancing a mechanical replica of his beloved Isolde, who resides in his secret “Hall of Images” along with a mechanical maidservant and mechanical dog.

Tourist Trap poster
Tourist Trap poster

The psychological morbidity of Tristan making out with a lost lover is reflected in a few bizarre horror films  from the 1970s.  We discuss 1979’s Tourist Trap and 1971’s Vincent Price vehicle, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, both of which feature automata.  We also hear a bit about the 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman,” which features a mechanical woman who becomes the object of the narrator’s crazed obsession.  You can read this delightfully dark and invenntive story in English here.

Our final lifelike puppet comes from the Alpine legend of the Sennentunschi or doll used (erotically) by the lonely herdsmen (or “Sennen”) during their long seasonal isolation on remote mountain pastures. Created out of rags, straw, and other odds and ends —  initially out of boredom and mischief —  the doll is brought to life by an irreverent “baptism,” and after serving the herdsmen enacts a gruesome revenge for the indignities it suffers at their hands.  We hear a clip from the entertaining Swiss film of 2010, Sennentunschi, and hear of an actual specimen of a Sennentunschi doll (or one assumed to serve this function, sans supernatural animation) discovered in 1978.

Sennentunschi puppet, from Rätischen Museum, Chur, Switzerland.
Sennentunschi puppet, from Rätischen Museum, Chur, Switzerland.

There’s a parallel in the Sennentunschi story to the Czech legend of a childless couple adopting a log, which comes to life, which served as the basis for the 2000 film, Little Otik, by stop-motion master director Jan Švankmajer (We hear a clip from this too).

The show closes with a look at an unlikely connection between our topic and Alvin Schwartz’s  juvenile folklore classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and a tragic tail connected to the 1940 production of Pinocchio featuring the artist formerly known as Ukulele Ike,

Dead Teeth: Fairies, Rats, and Worms

Dead Teeth: Fairies, Rats, and Worms

Explore the folklore of the Tooth Fairy and teeth, particularly dead teeth — those lost by children or adults, and those removed from skulls.

We open with a brief look at the Tooth Fairy as inspiration for horror films, hearing a bit about (and a montage of clips from) Darkness Falls (2003), The Tooth Fairy (2006), The Haunting of Helena (2013), and Tooth Fairy (2019).  Though none of these films were particularly successful with critics or audiences, there would seem to be some worthwhile horror inherent in the childhood ritual — psychological vulnerabilities related to the child’s trust of parents, nighttime intruders, and the death of a body part.  We also hear a bit about the SyFy Channel’s 2016 show Candle Cove (Season 1 of Channel Zero), which also featured a Tooth- Fairy-inspired monster.  We hear a creepy snippet of a secret 1970s kid show featured in Candle Cove as a tool of and deadly mind manipulation.

Character from Channel Zero/Candle Cover
Character from Channel Zero/Candle Cover

Surprisingly perhaps, the Tooth Fairy known by Americans has little in way of direct historical connection to older, European customs.  It first appears in print no earlier than 1908.  We have a look at some of these earliest references, including an article with an unusual connection to a sensational murder case as well as some references to curious  also-ran fairy characters that were once used in American parenting.  (At the top of this section we hear a clip from Tom Glazer’s 1953 song, “Willie Had a Little Tooth.”)

Often suggested as an ancient precedent for Tooth-Fairy customs is the Norse and Icelandic concept of the tannfé (“tooth gift” or “tooth-fee”) mentioned all the way back in the medieval Eddas.  A quick look into the matter, however, reveals some major differences: there is no magical fairy or transformation of the lost tooth into money,  nor was the gift given on the occasion of losing a tooth, but when the child cuts his first tooth.

A more direct precedent can be found in widespread customs that have a rat or mouse taking away the child’s lost tooth or that tooth being ritualistically offered to a mouse.  The most prominent representation of this is probably in Spanish-speaking countries, where El Ratón Perez, Perez the Mouse, plays the role, but there are also rats and mice exchanging teeth in Italy, Germany, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and France, and Hungary.  In many 0f these countries, it’s not money provided in exchange for the child’s tooth but the blessing of stronger adult tooth.

We then switch gears to look at some alternative customs for the disposition of the shed milk tooth (also those lost by adults).  One particularly popular in Britain is to cast the tooth into a fire.  One reason for doing this is to prevent the tooth from being used in witchcraft spells against the person whose it.  Mrs. Karswell reads us some passages on this along with a couple on the teeth from graveyard skulls used by the merely superstitious who are not practitioners of the craft.

Not so dissimilar to witchcraft was medieval dentistry.  We hear several horrifying treatments from historic texts along with a bit on the presumptive source of dental problems in this period: the dreaded tooth worm.

18th-century carving representing tooth worm, Southern France
18th-century carving representing tooth worm, Southern France

If neither dentistry or witchcraft proved helpful there was always religion.  The saint to whom prayers would be directed here would be St. Apollonia, one of group of virgins put to death during an anti-Christian uprising in 2nd-century Alexandria.  Her connection to this concern arises from her teeth being knocked out during her martyrdom.  We also hear a passage describing the mania for carrying alleged teeth of the saint in Britain during the time of Henry VI.

St Apollonia, 17th-cent, school of Francisco de Zur
St Apollonia, 17th-cent, school of Francisco de Zur

Rounding out our exploration religion and human teeth is brief look at the discovery in Mexico City of human teeth discovered in an 18th-century life-size wooden sculpture dubbed “The Lord of Patience.”

We follow this with a look a more pragmatic use of human teeeth, namely “Waterloo Teeth,” or the teeth of fallen soldiers and others (including those obtained by grave-robbers) once used to make dentures.

Our episode closes with topic of teeth and the Final Judgement, namely, the pre-Reformation Christian teaching that held that lost teeth must be saved in order to accompany the body to its destiny after death.  A bizarre news story from 2014 considers the horrifying consequences in which this superstition is mocked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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
Walled Up Alive

Walled Up Alive

Walling up a living victim, or immurement, has been used both as a punishment and for darker, magical purposes. In this episode, we detangle the history from the folklore of this grisly act.

We begin with an instance of immurement from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” (including a clip from a dramatization in 1954 radio show, Hall of Fantasy) and also get a glimpse of director Roger Corman’s freewheeling use of this element from Poe his 1962 anthology film, Tales of Terror, as well as 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Tales of Terror still
Peter Lorre walls up Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962)

Poe’s interest in immurement is typical of Gothic writers and their fascination with crypt-like spaces, often including the cells and catacombs within Catholic churches and monastic communities. Tales of immured nuns, abbots, and abbesses are particularly common, with the deed understood most typically as a punishment for unchastity but also occasionally for other outrageous deeds or teachings (including a case of dabbling in the black arts).  We have a look at some cases in which actual immured skeletons were said to have been discovered in religious communities and then consider the lore explaining their presence.  We also look at  ways in which writers like Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard blurred the line between historical and literary stories.

Walled up Nuns book
An 1895 booklet debating the topic of “Walled up Nuns & Nuns Walled In”

It’s likely that tales of nuns immured for unchastity were particularly prevalent as they echo the fate of Rome’s Vestal Virgins who failed to protect their virginity.  We hear some details of immurements, not only from ancient Rome, but also Greece as well as a particularly gruesome account read by Mrs. Karswell describing an ancient Assyrian revenge spree featuring immurement.

Cornelia the Vestal Virgin
“The Death of Cornelia, Vestal Virgin” by G. Mochetti.

Medieval accounts of immurement we look at include the Christian legend of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and one recounted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of  Count Ugolino della Gherardesca of Pisa (and his children/grandchildren, who are involved in a particularly grisly way).

Our next segment looks at punitive immurement from a cluster of legends in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.  We begin with a story from the Swedish island of Gotland, that of the Jungfrutornet (“maiden’s tower”) in the town of Visby.  The tower’s name is taken from the story of a maiden, who falls in love with a spy from Denmark, who uses her to obtain keys to the city gate in preparation for a devastating invasion.  The maiden’s punishment for betraying her town is, as you would have guessed, immurement.

We hear a similar story from Finland, which serves as the basis of the song (from which we hear a clip) Balladi Olavinlinnasta  or the ballad of Olaf’s Castle, and also a tale from a castle in Haapsalu, Estonia, said to be haunted by the maiden immured there.  Then we look at a church in the Estonian town of Põlva, where a particularly devout maiden was said to have allowed herself to be interred in a position of kneeling devotion as a sort of religious talisman forever protecting the church.

Walled in Wife
Sculpture of the walled in wife Rozafa, an Albanian version of the stonemason legend.

This notion of self-sacrificing immurement in a Christian context figures into the bizarre legend recounted of the 6th-century Irish saint Columba and his companion Odran, who allowed himself to be entombed in the foundation of a church on the Scottish island of Iona.

Our last segment looks at further stories of living humans entombed in buildings and other structures in what’s called a “foundation sacrifice.”  A cluster of tragic legends and ballads from southeastern Europe tell similar stories of women immured in structures by their husbands who work as stonemasons.  We hear these tales illustrated by a clip from the Hungarian ballad Kőműves Kelemen (“Kelemen the Stonemason”) as well as a bit of the soundtrack from the 1985 film The Legend of Suram Fortress by Sergei Parajanov  —  it’s based on a Georgian folk tale, so geographically close, though not quite one of the stonemasons-who-wall-up-their-wives genre.  But it’s a lovely film I just wanted to include.

We then move west in Europe to hear some stories of foundation sacrifices collected largely in Germany.  These include ancient sacrifices of children to the security of city walls, castles, and bridges, including a panic around a child sacrifice presumed necessary to a railroad bridge constructed near the town of Halle as late as the 1840s.

We end with a look at “church grims,” protective spirits of animals buried in church foundations (or churchyards) in Scandinavia and England, with lambs being preferred in the former and dogs in the latter — providing a connection to England’s black dog mythology.

And there’s one last story, much more modern, a 2018 news story from Houston Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, sometimes known as “the Belly-Slitter” for the trademark punishment she’s said to inflict on disobedient or lazy children, is figure of Alpine folklore of Austria and Germany in many ways similar to the Krampus.

“Perchta” is only one spelling or name for this figure, who may also go by Pehrta, Berchte, Berta, and a myriad of other names.  A particularly good representation of the figure, a woodcut from 1750, identifies her as the “Butzen-Bercht,” with the word “Butzen” coming from a word for “bogeyman.”  This word also appears in a classic 19th-century German children’s song and game “Es Tanzt Ein Bi-Ba Butzemann,” or “A Bogeyman is Dancing,” from which we hear a clip at the show’s start.

The woodcut in question depicts a crone-like character with dripping, warty nose, who is carrying on her back a basket filled with screaming children, all girls.  She stands before the open door of a house where more girls are screaming, and is holding a dangerous looking pronged staff as well as a distaff, the stick used to hold fibers that will be spun into wool or flax on a spinning wheel.  The importance of the illustration is the way it emphasizes Perchta’s connection to spinning and to the females of the household responsible for this task.  The woodcut also features some text delightfully detailing a series of horrid threats delivered by Perchta, dramatically read by Mrs. Karswell.

Perchta’s name it comes from her association with Epiphany or Twelfth Night, January 6, the last of the “Twelve Days” or nights of Christmas, the “Haunted Season,” we discussed last year in our episode of that name. “Perchta” is a corruption of the word giberahta in the Old High German term for Epiphany, “giberahta naht,” meaning, the “night of shining forth or manifestation.

Now there’s another name many of you will have encountered if you’re read up on Perchta: Perchten, figures very similar to the Krampus. (Perchten is plural. The singular is Percht.)

“Berchtengehen” ("Going as Perchten") from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)
“Berchtengehen” (“Going as Perchten”) from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)

While the first mention of Perchta appears around 1200, the word “Perchten” is not employed until centuries later. In 1468, there appears a reference to her retinue, but its members are not called Perchten, nor do they explicitly resemble Perchten as we think of them today. At this stage in Perchta’s mythology, the company she leads is most often understood as spirits of the departed. With time, and frequent attacks from the pulpit, Perchta’s pagan company came to be commonly feared not as ghosts but as demons, something presumably closer to the horned figures we now know.  By the 15th century, a tradition involving costumed processions or appearances of these figures had evolved. The very first illustration we have of Perchta seems to show not the figure herself, but in fact a masker impersonating “Percht with the iron nose.” It appears in South Tyrolean poet Hans Vintler’s 1411 Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”).

Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent
Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent

This beaklike nose of Perchta may be related the figure’s ancient connection to the classical strix (plural striges) which appears in both Greek and Latin texts.  The strix is bird of ill omen, often thought of as an owl, one that visited at humans at night to feed on blood and flesh.  Bird-like representations of Perchta or the Perchten appear in the Schnabelperchten (“beaked Perchten“) figures that appear in the town of Rauris, Austria.

In addtion to Perchta threatening to cut open the bellies of the disobedient, she’s sometimes said to stamp on those who offend her. In certain regions, it is the Stempe, or the Trempe (from the German words for “stamp” or “trample”) who appears to frighten the disobedient on Twelfth Night.  A medieval poem, alluding to the terrible Stempe, one quoted in Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, is read by Mrs. Karswell.

One way to avoid Perctha’s wrath was to prepare certain foods, particularly a porridge called Perchtenmilch, which would be partially consumed by the family on Twelfth Night with a portion set aside as an offering to the Perchten. Certain signs,  that the porridge had been enjoyed by the night-traveling spirits could provide omens for the coming year.  Mrs. Karswell reads an  Austrian account from 1900 detailing these.

This custom of leaving out offerings on this night was frequently condemned by the clergy in Austria and Germany, and we hear similar practice involving the Swiss “Blessed Ones” (sälïgen Lütt) derided in an 17th-century account by  Renward Cysat, a city clerk of Lucerne.

The dead who accompany Perchta and consume these offerings are in many tales called the Heimchen, the spirits of children who have not received baptism.  Several tales of Perchta and her Heimchen from Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie are recounted.

Our episode concludes examining a peculiar connection between Perchta and the beloved English and American figure of Mother Goose.

Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen
Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen

 (Material in this episode taken from my book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.)