Tag: folk tales

Spirits of the Corn

Spirits of the Corn

Spirits of the corn (grain) fields from the United Kingdom to Russia have been imagined as embodiments of the harvest and guardians of the fields, sometimes evolving into fantastically cruel fear-figures in the process.

We begin with a look at the Scottish and English ballad “John Barleycorn,” first appearing as a broadside in 1568. The suffering hero of the song, “Sir John,” allegorically endures the brutal process of being buried, harvested, threshed, and eventually turned into beer.  We hear some snippets of the song from The Watersons and Fred Jordan.

Some, like the turn-of-the-century mythologist James Frazer, imagined the ballad as an allegorical representation of ancient human sacrifice ensuring good harvest, and while that’s not generally believed now, by way of evidence, Frazer assembled an invaluable and encyclopedic catalog of now extinct agricultural folk customs in his 1890 magnum opus, The Golden Bough.

We examine a number of rituals, documented by Frazer, in which the spirit of the fields is said to take up residence in last grain to be harvested, often as an animal.  One such creature, around which a substantial mythology has been spun, is a goat-like being called the Habergeiss.  I’ve mentioned this bit of Alpine folklore previously in the context of Krampus and Perchten traditions, but here provide a more in-depth look at the many ways in which it’s been imagined.

Habergeiß at Nicholas play in Tauplitz. Photo by Wolfgang Böhm.

Also from German-speaking lands, the Bilwis, a sort of goblin or witch said to protect fields but  more often described as a nocturnal thief of grain, employs small sickles attached at its feet.  We also hear some methods of defeating this sort of mischief as described by Jacob Grimm.

Another German bit of folklore discussed is the Rye Wolf, often closely associated with a female embodiment of the grain. While more broadly referred to as the “Corn Mother,” she assumes her most fearful aspect in German rye fields, where she becomes the Rye Aunt (Roggenmuhme).

An extremely comprehensive and grisly catalog of her terrifying traits was compiled in Richard Beitl’s 1933 study, Investigations into the Mythology of the Child. We take a loving and lingering look at some of these horrific aspects and hear the Rye Aunt described in a tale from the Grimms as well as a story from 1926, told as true (even then) by the grandmother of Otto Busch, author of Thuringian Legends.

We also examine a lighter side of this figure, literally lighter, as she only appears at the hour of noon. Particularly common more in northeastern Germany and Slavic lands (Polednice in Czech, Poludnitsa in Russian) in English literature, she is usually called “Lady Midday,” or “The Noonday Witch.”  Not only does she function as a fear-figure preventing kids from running into the fields but also serves to warn workers to cease their labors at the hour the sun is hottest lest she strike them down with exhaustion, pains, or madness.

Noonday Witch
Polednice/Noonday Witch., by Jiří Farský (1938)

A couple Czech films featuring this character are discussed —  2016’s The Noonday Witch/ Polednice and 2000’2 Wild Flowers/Kytice. The latter is based on an 1853 anthology of folkloric tales (Kytice) folkloric by Czech poet Karel Erben.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a recent translation of  “The Noonday Witch.”

The show closes with some cinematic scarecrows, primarily a smuggler disguised as a scarecrow created by Russell Thorndike for his 1915 novel, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh.  We hear some clips from adaptations of Thorndike’s work, the 1962 Hammer film (with Peter Cushing) The Night Creatures, and Disney’s 1964 production The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh starring Patrick McGoohan.

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Master of the Wolves: Transylvanian and Balkan Wolf Lore

Master of the Wolves: Transylvanian and Balkan Wolf Lore

The Master of the Wolves is a supernatural figure central to Transylvania’s (modern Romania’s) voluminous body of wolf lore, a mythology that extends more broadly into Balkan regions once occupied, like Romania, by the ancient Dacians.

We begin with a snippet from a contemporary recording of the 1857 poem “St. Andrew’s Night,” by the Romanian poet and statesman Vasile Alecsandri. The poem’s association between the undead strigoi and moroi and the Romanian St. Andrew’s Night (November 30) was explored in our Transylvanian Vampires episode last year, but there is perhaps an even deeper connection between the St. Andrew, Romania, and the wolf.

Naturally, this brings us to the topic of werewolves.  There are two wolflike monsters in Romanian folklore, the vârcolac and the pricolici, the latter being a closer match to our idea of the werewolf.

We discuss pricolici superstitions, which overlap largely with beliefs about the undead, of which the pricolici is often said to be a member.

The vârcolac, as we see, is rather different. Originally, it seems to have occupied a very limited and specific mythological niche as a creature that rises into the heavens at night to eat the moon, thereby causing an eclipse, or sometimes, the lunar phases.  Over time, the vârcolac seems to have merged with more widespread werewolf beliefs.

The animal form associated with both pricolici and the vârcolac, however, is not always strictly defined as wolf-like.  While the pricolici is sometimes said to assume the form of any number of “unholy” (but real-world) animals, the vârcolac has sometimes been compared to a dragon.

Draco
Dacian draco from Trajan’s Column

This wolf-dragon hybridization can also be found in the draco battle standard carried into by the Romanian Dacians in their wars against Rome. In its original form, the draco, consisted of a wolf head crafted of light metal, trailing a dragon-like windsock body. When in motion, a sort of whistle within the head emitted a shrieking sound that contributed to the Dacian’s fearsome reputation as warriors.

The historian Herodotus commenting on this reputation, also offered some observations on a particularly brutal Dacian rite, that of sending a “messenger” to their god Zamoxis. Mrs. Karswell provides the gory details in her reading of this account.

More modern Romanian myth-making brings together the man-god Zamolxis and the Dacian wolf, in the legend of The Great White Wolf, also read by Mrs. Karswell.  This tale of a wolf leader seems to borrow from genuinely old legends describing  St. Andrew as the “Master of the Wolves.”

Cave of St. Andrew
Romanian cave said to have been the home of St. Andrew

In this role, Andrew is said to return to earth on his night to share with the wolves what prey they are to be allotted in the coming year. The gathering of wolves from all quarters and apparition of the saint on the occasion is a sight mortals witness only with dire consequences, as we hear in another legend related by Mrs. Karswell. Nor is it a good time to be abroad with wolves racing off after their pray, especially so as they’re sometimes said to be supernaturally enabled on this night.

The Master of the Wolves myth did not exclusively attach St. Andrew and his day (or night). St. Martin’s on November 11, can be the setting as in Greece and Germany.  (Germany is is also home to a folk tradition discussed,  Wolfauslassen (“Letting out the Wolves” or “Ringing in the Wolves” in which shepherds returning from the fields for the year parade through towns ringing bells to let the wolves know they are free to roam the pastures.

As well as on St. Martin’s day, the Wolf Master can also appear a bit later, on December 6 when St. Nicholas serves as the Master of the Wolves in Russia and Poland.

While generally associated with the late fall and winter when dwindling food sources makes wolves more aggressive, the Master of the Wolves could also appear in the spring, when the herds would return to pasture, and predators might require a different sort of magical wrangling.  The saint controlling wolves in these cases is almost always St. George.

While versions of this figure are found throughout eastern Europe and Russia (and certain parts of western Europe), it is in Romania where the wolf is most prominent — celebrated with no less than 35 designated “wolf holidays,”of which St. Andrew’s is only the most well-known. This season runs from October into January and its observance is marked by an arcane body of superstitious practices designed to keep the animals at bay.  These include reciting prayers, locking corrals with charmed locks, and binding scissors to keep shut the predator’s jaws, and the like. A folk figure called “St. Peter of Winter” appears at the end of his season with dire consequences for those who have neglected the requirements of the season.

Strangely, the most dreaded wolf of all during this season, is a lame wolf, who not only attacks livestock but man.  Several of Romania’s wolf holidays pay homage to this figure in their name, such as “Lame Philip,” ostensibly named for the apostle Philip, but undoubtedly rooted in older pagan tradition. In Serbia, which shares Romania’s Dacian heritage, a similar figure appears during this season as Lame Daba, a demon portrayed in the company of wolves.

A possible clue to this association between lameness and a dreadful power over human life may lie in Romania’s version of the Three Fates, the ursitoare.  The third member of this trinity, the one given the ultimate power to cut the thread of human life, is traditionally portrayed as lame.

We end the show with a look at a wonderfully bizarre 1976 Romanian-French-Russian co-production, Rock and Roll Wolf AKA Mama, a retelling of a Romanian tale also collected in Germany by the Grimms as “The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats.”  Here’s a short preview clip of the film, which you can find in its entirety with English dubbing here on YouTube.

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvania’s vampire lore inspired the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if not the character of the Count, and encompasses not only undead monsters, but living beings akin to witches.  (The show is introduced with an audio snippet from Maria Tănase, premiere interpreter of Romanian folk song.)

Mrs. Karswell begins the show, reading a passage Stoker wrote for Jonathan’s Harker’s Transylvania travel journal kand its source in an 1855 essay by Emily Gerard, “Transylvania Superstitions.”  Originally from Scotland, Gerard developing an interest in the local folklore while living abroad and expand her essay in the 1888 book, The Land Beyond the Forest.  She seems to have derived a fair amount of  her vampire lore from a German scholar, Wilhelm von Schmidt, who in 1865 article contributed an article on the subject to the Austrian Review.

land beyond 1
Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While much of Gerard and von Schmidt’s information seems well sourced, the nomenclature used for vampires is incorrect. The word “nosferatu” put forward by the two folklorists and repeated by Stoker in his novel as the common Transylvanian word for “vampire” is not actually a Romanian word — but we sort out the confusion.

In Romanian, there are two words for vampiric beings, which Gerard subsumed under “nosferatu.” They are moroi and strigoi (male forms, plural moroii, strigoii). Strigoi seems to be a more expansive category and is discussed more in the folklore, but both share many traits including behaviors, preventatives, and modes of destruction. Moroii and strigoii tend to blur together along with two other entities, vârcolaci, and pricolici, which might be closer to our concept of the werewolf (something for a later show).

Before diving into the details on these creatures, I provide a note on two sources used for the episode, chose as they seem better grounded than Gerard’s in Romanian language and culture.  The first is by Agnes Murgoci, a British zoologist, whose marriage brought her to Romania and into contact with Tudor Pamfile, a well known native-born folklorist, whose tales of vampires Murgoci translates in the source article: “The Vampire in Roumania,” published in the journal Folklore in 1926.  The other source is a Romanian language book from 1907: Folk Medicine, by Gr. Grigoriu-Rigo, in which I found a large and unexpected trove of regional vampire lore.

land beyond 2
Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While living an evil life makes one more likely to become a strigoi or moroi, through no fault of their own, an individual who does not receive proper burial rites, will live on to destroy those who failed to fulfill their funereal duties — namely, his family and relations.  We have a look at some of the old burial custom, which includes and audio snippet of bocet, a form of traditional lamentation offered at funerals.

We then dig into the moroi and traits its shares with the strigoi: the tendency to attack family members, similar preventatives and modes of  destruction as well as shared methods detection of thevampire in its grave.

The strigoi in some ways is closer to the pop-culture vampire — unlike the moroi, it’s sometime explicitly said to drink blood, and garlic is a primary prophylactic. Alongside its practice of destroying loved ones, we hear of some peculiar incidents in which the strigoi also engages with its family in more neutral or even helpful (if unwanted) ways.

We then have a look at living strigoii, that is, strigoii fated to become undead after burial but in life exhibiting supernatural abilities and evil inclinations. In many cases, these beings bear comparisons to witches. Possessing the evil eye and the ability to leave the sleeping body in another form (usually a small animal) are examples of this.

Some methods of preventing a living strigoi from rising from its grave are discussed as well as means of destroying these creatures. Techniques employed against the moroi, while simlar occasionally include additional techniques, such as application of tar or quicklime to the body.  Priests’ blessings and spells by benevolent wise women can also be employed (and we hear an audio example of the latter).

The remainder of our show consists of vampire folk tales collected by Tudor Pamfile as provided via Murgoci’s translations. The first pair of stories illustrate the resemblance between living strigoii and witches. These are followed by tales of male strigoii pursuing women vaguely prefiguring the pop-culture vampire Stoker birthed.

Customs of November 29, the “Night of the Strigoi” in Romania, are then described along with its folkloric significance and relationship to St. Andrew, followed by a clip from the 2009 British comedy, Strigoi.

Though no longer common in Transylvania, in rural regions toward Romania’s Bulgarian border, belief in vampires is still part of life. We hear a bit of a Romanian news segment on a poltergeist-like vampire plaguing the largely Romani village of Sohatu followed by a 2004 case from the village Celaru, which made international news when the body of an alleged vampire was disinterred and its heart burned.
The musical closer to the show is by the horror host Zacherley.

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Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

In this episode, we continue our survey of supernatural sailors’ lore of the North with a look at mermen, Iceland’s “evil whales,” and sea-draugs.

After a brief audio tidbit recalling our previous discussion of the  Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr (courtesy of the TV show Vikings), we briefly reconsider the Kraken  in the context of the 13th-century Norwegian text Kongsspegelen/Speculum Regale (“King’s Mirror”).  In what is likely the earliest reference to the Kraken, the attributes described and context of the discussion suggest that at this early stage of the creature’s mythology, it may have been imagined not as a cephalopod but as a particularly large and monstrous whale.

This brings us to the topic of the “evil whales” or Illhveli of Icelandic lore, much of which is taken from Olaf Davidson’s article of 1900, “The Folk-Lore Of Icelandic Fishes.”  Particularly dangerous and even malevolent toward seamen, these beasts are also enemies of benevolent species of whale that protect man.  Their flesh is considered poisonous, and utterance of their name, we learn, can summon them and great misfortune.

The largest of these creatures (if we disregard the Kraken, which seems more to occupy a class unto itself) is the Lyngbakr or “heather-back,” often mistaken for a land-mass covered with heather or grass. The same motif occurs in tales of the Kraken or Hafgufa (not discussed in the show thanks to the thematic redundancy), but tales of the  Lyngbakr characteristically describe sailors actually landing on the heather-covered mass, mistaking it for an island, and perhaps dwelling there for days on end — until the fish takes a dip.

Carta Marina
Monster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539)

The most vicious member of the Illhveli, seems to be the Raudkembingur, or “red-crest,” named for its red color and/or the rooster-like comb it sports.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a selection of Davidson’s stories of the Raudkembingur’s attacks upon ships and rather emotional disposition.

We then hear about the Hrosshvalur or “horse-whale,” named for the neighing sound it produces. It was also sometimes called the blödku hval or “flap-whale” thanks to long eyelids or flaps that hung over its eyes. As these tended to obscure the beast’s vision, it was given to wild leaps from the sea, during which the flaps would bounce from the eyes, providing the creature a brief respite from near-blindness.

We then hear a bit more about other other Illhveli, less frequently mentioned, learn why the Narwhal was regarded as the “corpse-whale,” how the Ox-Whale proved a nuisance to herdsmen, and of a particularly strange eccentricity of the Shell-Whale.

Our discussion of mermen focuses primarily on accounts provided in Danish-Norwegian author Erik Pontoppidan’s   18th-century text The Natural History of Norway (cited frequently in our previous episode). While a mermaid or two is also mentioned, Pontoppidan treats the mermen less as a sort of fairy being inclined to abduct men to an undersea realm (as is typical further south in Europe and in Britain) and more as a sort of cryptid or naturalistic phenomenon.  We hear some descriptions of mermen allegedly caught in the Northern seas (quite different from what is typically imagined), tales of enormously oversized mermen, and of the odd uses of the fatty flesh of mermen.

The merman of the north also is uniquely gifted with the ability to tell the future, a trait referenced early on in the 14th-century Hálfssaga and preserved in the Icelandic folk-tale “Then Laughed the Merman” told by Mrs. Karswell and myself.

sea troll
“Sea Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen (1887) Sometimes identified as a Draug.

Our discussion of the sea-draug begins with a clip from the 2018 Swedish film, Draug, a horror story set in the 11th century. Draug is a word from Old Norse used throughout Scandinavia to describe a walking corpse, usually guarding its grave or an underground treasure. Its folkloric attributes have been somewhat changeable and led to the evolution (specifically in the North of Norway) of a figure known as a Havdraug or  (Sea-Draug).

These are the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, who return as physical creatures horribly transformed.  While usually dressed in the typical oilskins and gloves of sailors of the North, their heads are often said to be missing, and they are known to sail about in broken boats missing their stern or to haunt the boathouses of the region. Their presence is an evil omen, and their notorious shrieks can either foretell or indirectly cause death.

We first hear mention of sea-draugs in the 13th-century Saga of the People of Eyri in which the crew of a sunken sip show up at a Yule feast, illustrating a predilection of the sea-draug to appear around Christmas, a motif maintained in tales of sea-draugs that became popular in the 19th century.  We hear some descriptions from these and the folk-tale “The Land Draugs and the Sea Draugs”.

Our episode closes with a strange tale of another Norwegian whale of the modern era, one killed near the island of Harøya in 1951 — at which point it’s weird saga actually begins.  The story rather unexpectedly involves a brief appearance by Louis Armstrong, and we hear some bits from his 1938 hit “Jonah and the Whale.

 

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)

 

Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

Banshees

Banshees

Banshees are spirits of Irish folklore, who warn of impending deaths.  Originally considered fairies, their Irish name, bean sídhe, means “woman of the mounds,” those mounds (sídhe) being the ancient burial mounds believed in Ireland to be the home of fairies.

The banshee’s wailing, which betokens imminent death of a blood relative, is probably based upon the wailing of Irish mourners called “keeners,” from the Irish word caoineadh, or “lament.”  You can hear some snippets of traditional keeners in this segment, incliuding  a 1957 field recording released by Smithsonian Folkways.

Next we look at how the banshee’s appearance and behavior derives in part from that of Irish keeners, including some odd details having to do with petticoats.  Her origins in the fairy world also has often suggested that she may be small of stature.  We also examine some folktales involving combs lost by or stolen from banshees, and what you should or should not do should you find one.

While the banshee is attached strictly to particular families, she is not bound to the Emerald Isle.  We hear some accounts of her following travelers to other countries, including a surprising tale involving a party aboard an Italian yacht.

The figure, as she’s known today, receives no mention in print until the 17th century.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us what is probably the earliest account, retelling an incident experienced by Lady and Sir Richard Fanshawe, an English ambassador and his wife visiting Ireland.

This account also introduces the notion that a banshee may not originate in the fairy world, but may also be a vengeful ghost.  We hear another tale in this mode associated with Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, a location known for its “banshee room,” a feature duplicated in Shane’s Castle, about an hour to the south.  Both of these castle banshees are sometimes called “the red sisters,” so named for the color of their hair.

After a brief side trip to make note of figures similar to the banshee in Scotland (the caoineag) and Wales, the cyhyraeth and gwrach y rhibyn, we turn to older figures of the fairy realm regarded as banshees, but rather different from the figure born in the Early Modern Period.

The first of these is Clíodna, who was known as the queen of the banshees of southern Ireland, particularly the province of Munster. Unlike the modern banshee, a solitary figure who does little more than wail and make those well-timed appearances, Clíodna engages in romantic affairs, including a romantic rivalry with her banshee sister Aoibhell, a matter culminating in a magical battle with both transformed into cats.

Aoibhell also appears in an important story about Brian Boru, founder of the O’Brian Dynasty, whose army defeats an alliance of Vikings and Irish lords fought at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin in 1014. While Boru’s forces are victorious, he and his son are visited by Aoibhell, who heralds their deaths not with a wail, but music played on her harp from the fairy world.  We hear a similar story about the Irish hero and demi-god Cúchulainn encoutering Aoibhell as a death omen.

Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan' Dargent, oil,
Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan’ Dargent, oil,

Cúchulainn also encounters a banshee-like figure of the type folklorists call, “the Washer at the Ford,” or in Celtic regions elsewhere, like Celtic Britanny, “the Midnight Washer.”  The figures appear at lonely bodies of water washing bloody shrouds, or often armor, as they are particularly inclined to predict the deaths of soldiers and armies. We hear a particularly splendid account of one such figure from the 12th-century Triumphs of Torlough — one, which in its generous use of horrific adjectives sounds as if it were written by H.P. Lovecraft.

The episode ends with a quick look at a couple cinematic bamshees, including one which has earned a place in the nightmares of children encountering it in the 1950s-70s.  The two movies we hear bits of are Damned by Dawn and Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Banshee from "Darby O'Gill"
Banshee from “Darby O’Gill”

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#31 Baba Yaga

#31 Baba Yaga

This episode explores the Russian witch, the Baba Yaga, tales in which she appears, possible origins, and regional variations on the character.

We begin by retelling one of the skazi (folk tales) in which she’s particularly well-definined, “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a version recorded in the mid-1800s by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, Russia’s answer to the Brothers Grimm, .

Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899
Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899

Without spoiling the story, I can say that it bears some parallels to “Cinderella,” with a wicked stepmother and step-sisters grievously imposing on the young Vasilisa and sending her into an encounter with the Baba Yaga.  She is aided in the tale by a magic doll bequeathed her by her dying mother.

Like nearly all Baba Yaga stories, this tale features the witch’s famous house perched atop two immense chicken legs on which it turns to reveal it’s entrance if the proper spell is spoken.  Around the house, in this story as in most others, is a fence made of human bones and topped by skulls.

Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916
Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916

The witch herself is not much described in the text of “Vasilisa,” but in the folklore of the Eastern Slavs, she is generally imagined as an hunchbacked old crone, usually large, and with a large nose, sometimes said to be of iron, as are her teeth sometimes.  She’s also occasionally described as an ogress because of her nasty habit of eating visitors, especially children, or those who fail her when she puts them to work (what she often does with visitors).

 

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911
Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911

“Vasilisa” like nearly every other tale featuring the character, describes the witch flying through the skies in mortar, which she steers with the pestle, an instrument sometimes also used as a club or magic wand. Like western witches, she is often depicted with a cat, but the Baba Yaga may also command a pack of dogs, flock of geese or swans, or even be served by pairs of disembodied hands.

“Baba Yaga” is not quite a proper noun, i.e., her “name,” at least not quite.  It’s a class or type of character, and certain stories feature multiple Baba Yagas.  For this reason too, she may be killed off in a particular story — and often is — only to reappear as presumably different witch in another.

Though she’s most often portrayed as malevolent and dangerous, some tales make her more ambivalent, or occasionally even helpful.  We have a look at the best known examples of this, “The Frog Tzarina” (a story offering a sort of reversal on the “Frog Prince” theme) .

"Baba Yaga" book, 1915
“Baba Yaga” book, 1915

Of the tales that feature the Baba Yaga in a more menacing role, one of the better known is called “Princess Marya” or “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” and it features the witch as a character somewhat peripheral to another important character of Russian folklore, Koschei.  He’s a sorcerer, usually represented as a crowned skeletal figure and known for hiding his soul in the form of a needle within an egg within a duck.  We also hear a bit of another tale featuring a malevolent Baba Yaga, “Little Bear’s-Son,” in which the witch lives in an underworld and battles the titlular character and a trio of giants.

Our quick look at a few examples of the Baba Yaga in music and films includes a piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite Pictures at an Exhibition called “The Baba yaga” or “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”  (Here is the Baba Yaga inspired clock design by Victor Hartmann that inspired the piece.) We hear a bit from that and a snippet of “Baba Yaga,” a 1965 garage-rock number by a Minnesota band called The Pagans.  Speaking of music, our show, opened with a clip from a 1997 track “Baba Yaga” by the Australian singer, Judy Small.  Also used in this  episode are two other traditional pieces of music, “Doina Oltului” (instrumental) and “Khorovod,” an example of ancient pagan round dance music of the Slavs.

Probably the greatest modern popularizer of the figure and huge influence upon how the Baba Yaga is imagined in Russia today is work of filmmaker, Alexander Rou featuring the actor Georgy Millyar.  Beginning in 1939, with a version of “The Frog Tsarina,” and running up to 1972, the year before he died, Rou made over a dozen film inspired by Russian fairy tales.The Baba Yaga appearing in many of these was always portrayed by the cross-dressed Millyar, whose comic performances are one of many reasons to seek out Rou’s films on YouTube.

Millyar as the Baba Yaga
Millyar as the Baba Yaga

While the first mention of the Baba Yaga in print only appears in a 1755 book called Russian Grammar, it’s presumed the figure comes from much older mythology. In fact, while the reference in question, though vague, includes her in a list of Slavic deities.  References to the witch’s control over horsemen representing the sun in “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” for instance, have suggested a possible origin in a solar deity. More likely, given her association with bones and her menacing nature, would  be a connection with Marena,  the Eastern Slavic goddess of death and winter.  The witch’s flights in her mortar, always accompanied by terrible winds, have also suggested connections to the aerial phantoms of what’s called The Wild Hunt in Europe.  Similarly her presence in the sky has suggested a connections with the Fiery Serpent, a figure of Eastern Slavic folklore, often represented by aerial phenomena such as lightning or meteors.  All ideas to chew on.  Nothing definitive, though the strongest association would seem to be with Marena.

We close the show with two tales from our own times, in which the Baba Yaga’s namesake or likeness is responsible for some dreadful deeds.

Elevated mortuary huts, a source of the witch's hut?
Elevated mortuary huts, an inspiration for the witch’s hut?

Bone and Sickle is happy to welcome Sarah Chavez as a new voice in the show this week.