Tag: folklore

Electric Fairy Rings and the Slime from Space

Electric Fairy Rings and the Slime from Space

The folklore of fairy rings and “star jelly” is strangely connected to celestial phenomena, including lightning and shooting stars.

We begin with a description of a folkloric fairy ring and its dancing population from John Aubrey’s 1690 book Natural History of Wiltshire, following this with a few other folkloric takes on the topic.

The botanical phenomena of fairy rings is then described that is, circular configurations of mushrooms sprouting overnight or ringlike markings of grass in fields.

Mushrooms in early fairy ring formation.

The pseudo-scientific 19th-century notion that these rings were caused by lightning strikes as espoused by Sir Walter Scott and Erasmus Darwin is then discussed with a modern parallel connecting this with flying saucer lore provided by Jacques Vallée’s  1969 book Passport to Magonia.

A more ancient connection between lightning and the fruition of mushrooms is then discussed with examples of this belief provided by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and poet Juvenal.

A connection between lightning and the production of a strange slime occurs in a contemporary pamphlet recounting the terrors of  1638’s Great Thunderstorm of Dartmoor England.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us this lurid account believed to be the first description of ball lightning.

Rather than ball lightning, however, most accounts of heaven-sent “fireballs” from the early modern and modern era are believed to describe meteors, understood at the time as “falling” or “shooting stars.”

Folklore connects falling stars with the deposit upon the earth of a sort of slime or gelatinous substance known most commonly as “star jelly,” but a dozen or so other names from European folklore are also provided, with the sinister-sounding Welsh term “pwdre ser,” meaning, “rot from the stars” also being fairly common in more modern literature.

Some literary references to this belief are also provided, most of which contrast the beauty or hopeful wishes associated with a falling star and the loathsome heap of jelly it becomes on landing.

A few more modern theories attempting to provide a more scientific account are then provided. Most commonly these include star jelly as frogspawn, jelly fungi, or nostoc, a a single-celled organism that forms into filaments and these into colonies that look like gelatinous piles of dark green (and putrefying) grapes.

The traditional application of nostoc as a  food source and medicine are also discussed, as the source of its name in the writings of the 16th-century Swiss natural philosopher and physician Paracelscus who regarded it as something blown “blown from the nostrils of some rheumatick planet.”

Thanks to its seemingly supernatural appearance with the nocturnal dew, the alchemists assigned an elevated role to nostoc, calling it “the water of the equinoxes.”  Some illustrations of alchemists attempting to collect nostoc and touting its qualities are provided from the enigmatic Mutus Liber or “Mute Book” of 17th century France, as well as in the work of the modern alchemist Fulcanelli from his 1926 book The Mystery of the Cathedrals.  The mystery of the identity of this writer calling himself “Fulcanelli” as well as the claims of his student Eugène Canseliet, who supposedly transmuted lead into gold in 1922 are touched upon.

Charles Fort’s “Book of the Damned”

We then have a look at nostoc through the writings of Charles Fort, whose 1919 volume, The Book of the Damned, provided inspiration for all future writings on scientific anomalies, the paranormal, and (to some extent science fiction.)  Fort’s arguments about the identification of nostoc with star jelly are illustrated in his discussion of “the Amherst object,” a particularly weird lump of something-or-other said to have fallen in a field near Amherst, Massachusetts in 1819.  We also hear a sampling of his eccentric prose echoing his facetiously posited theory of the “Super Sargasso Sea,” an inter-dimensional repository responsible for occasionally teleporting things (or people) in and out of our world.

A few more choice cases of meteors associated with mysterious gelatinous substances are discussed.

We conclude with a look at the inspiration for the 1958 film The Blob, in which a meteor crashes to earth releasing the titular menace upon a small Pennsylvania town. One possible inspiration is Joseph Payne Brennan’s novella, “Slime” published in Weird Tales in 1953, five years before the film’s release.  However  there are substantial differences between the storylines, which are discussed.

More interesting (in light of our topic) is the notion that the film was inspired by true events, namely an incident documented in newspaper reports of September 26, 1950, describing something bizarre encountered by Philadelphia police  during their patrol.  It doesn’t seem likely this story played a big role in inspiring the film, and while the newspaper account attempts to categorize the phenomenon as a particularly weird sort of “flying saucer” (saucers being particularly trendy at the time), eyewitnesses describe the object as something more akin to the fairy world.  Mrs. Karswell reads the entire newspaper account.

 

The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

In pagan Germanic cultures, the seeress played an extremely important role, not only as a clairvoyant, but also often fulfilling the role of a priestess, wisewoman or witch.

We begin with a short clip from Robert Eggers’ The Northman, in which Björk plays a seeress.  Old Norse words used to describe this role include spákona, or völva (pl. völvur, völur) — the last meaning “staff bearer,” as a staff was a signifying attribute of the völva, one possibly also used as a magic wand.  Staffs discovered in graves of certain high-status women, as suggested by luxurious grave goods, suggest these individuals may have been völvur.  We hear some details regarding such discoveries in Denmark and Sweden.

wands
Wands (grave-goods) believed to belong to seeress. Danish National Museum.

Next we provide a quick overview of the Nordic magic that may have been part of the völva‘s repertoire.  Two Old Norse designations for witchcraft  are galdr and seiðr (Anglicized as seidr).  The latter has more to do with spoken or sung charms, and the latter most prominently with control of mental states but can also involve manipulation of physical realities.

We also address briefly the notion that, like the sibyls of the Classical world, the völva likely entered a trance in order to produce her utterances. Drumming is popularly associated with this, as it is central to the shamanic practice of the Sammi people on the northern and eastern fringes of Scandinavia and Lapland.

The first accounts we have of völvur come from Roman encounters with Germanic peoples on Europe’s mainland. A particularly important account we hear comes from Tacitus’ Histories, in which he describes a seeress by the name of Veleda, who guided the Bructeri tribe through their conflicts with the Romans.  We also hear about a sacred grove of the Germans, one likely described to Tacitus by a Germanic priestess by the name of Ganna during her visit to Rome.

Veleda
Illustration of Veleda and Romans from Alois Schreiber, Teutschland und die Teutschen (1823)

We also hear from the Greek historian Strabo, who in his Geographic portrays female seers of the Cimbri people, sacrificing prisoners of war, bleeding them, and telling fortunes from their entrails. Mrs. Karswell provides a lovely reading of this passage.

The earliest of our Scandinavian texts. one written anonymously probably around 960, is the Völuspá,  (literally: “the prophecy of the völva).  In the narrative the seeress in question is sought out by Odin himself, a dynamic testifying to the importance of the völva in Germanic culture.

Odin and the Völva
Odin and the Völva by Karl Gjellerups, from Det kongelige Bibliotek, 1895

A particular episode in this epic poem features a seeress by the name of Gullveig (later changed to Heidr) who is attacked by the gods in Odin’s hall, an event leading to the war between the two divine races, the Aesir and Vanir. It’s speculated that this seeress may be the narrator of the prophecies recounted in the poem.

Probably the most finely detailed account of the völva’s  activities in the real comes from the 13th-century Saga of Erik the Red.  Its description emphasizes the honor with which the seeress was treated while visiting farmsteads to relate her prophecies.  It also notes the use of galdr (singing magic) and lavishly details the special attire worn by a seeress.

Our next selected episode featuring a völva comes from the 13th-century Icelandic saga, the Saga of Örvar-Odd, a name translated usually as “Arrow-Odd”. This one  involves the seer’s prophecy of an inescapable fate involving a horse.

Our final story of a Nordic witch is from Gesta Danorum or”Deeds of the Danes,” a 12th-century chronicle of the country by Saxo Grammaticus.  It features a witch who transforms herself into a walrus at a critical moment and a body that really needs to be buried.

We close with some audio snippets from  Freyia Norling, a modern practitioner of seidr, who from her home in the Arctic Circle, hosts the intriguing YouTube Channel “A Discovery of Nordic Witches.

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.

,

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-women hybrids of Greek legend and Russian folklore are uniquely ambivalent, sometimes bringing death and destruction and at others, prophetic wisdom and the joy of Paradise.

The two Greek species we treat are sirens and harpies, both at times described as having the bodies of birds and faces or upper bodies of human females.

Beginning with harpies — we hear a bit of audio from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which features a pair of stop-motion harpies created by Ray Harryhausen.  While these are more batlike than birdlike, the animator’s tendency to conflate features is actually in line with various classical tales, which tend to disagree sometimes offering winged harpies, others not, and if birdlike, not necessarily featuring the heads of women. We hear some of these descriptions  read by Mrs. Karswell.

harpy
Harpy from Joannes Jonstonus publication Historiae naturalis de avibus (1657)

As for sirens, while today they are regarded as equivalent to mermaids, originally they were bird-human hybrids.  Thanks to the siren’s connection to the sailors they would seduce, an intuitive shift from bird to fishlike portrayals seems natural, but did not occur until late antiquity or the early medieval period.  It seems likely that once this transition occurred the harpy’s image consolidated around the birdlike form no longer associated with the siren. Unlike the creature’s form, the siren’s song, which drew sailors to wreck their ships upon the rocks, has always been a defining attribute of the creature.

There’s something of a disconnect between ancient siren and harpy narratives and the creatures’ representation in visual art, with some of their traits more fixed in the latter than the former. In particular, sirens and harpies, along with other hybrids such as the griffin and sphinx, first appear in Greek culture as decorative embellishments on household items.  These monsters, as discussed, were borrowings from cultures of the East, with the human-headed Egyptian ba bird being a likely origin for our avian figures.

Funerary statue of a siren, 4th C BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The behavior of these creatures is primarily known from two ancient texts.  In the third century BC, the behavior of harpies was defined by Apollonius Rhodius’s in his epic The Argonautica, while the actions of sirens were codified in Homer’s Odyssey from the 8th century BC.

The episode from the Argonautica involves the harpies suddenly descending from the sky to torment a the prophet Phineus, repeatedly sent by Zeus to snatch away his food.

Better known is Homer’s episode describing Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the siren song as his crew sails near, their ears providently plugged with wax. What’s not as often remembered, however, is the nature of the siren’s song, which promises not sexual reward, but omniscience.

The sirens’ offer to share the knowledge of the gods, and the danger inherent in hearing their song finds a precise parallel in narratives about the Russian bird-women we discuss, namely the Alkonost, Sirin, and Gamayun, all of which are said to reside in Paradise, or the realm of the dead. They are portrayed like the harpies and sirens as having the bodies of birds and human heads or heads and breasts but with the addition of crowns or halos.

The Alkonost and Sirin are said to be sisters, inevitably appearing as a complimentary pair in art and folk-tales, with the Alkonost presiding over the daylight hours, and the Sirin the night, the Alkonost bringing joy,  the Sirin sorrow, etc.  While the Alkonost is generally made the more positive symbol, both birds, through their song, can produce dangerous results. The song of the Alkonost shares a knowledge or experience of the divine that can induce ecstatic madness or a deathlike trance state.  The same could be said for the Sirin, though in some instances it’s said to more literally said to abduct mortals into the afterlife.

"Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow" Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
“Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow” Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896

While the Sirin obviously derives its name from the Greek sirens, the Alkonost too has its origins in Greek mythology, specifically in the myth of the lovers Alcyone and Ceyx, the former lending her name (in Russian derivation) to the Alkonost.

For her effrontery of comparing their love to that of the gods, Alcyone (or sometimes both Alcyone and Ceyx) are transformed into birds, specifically kingfishers.  As a bird, Alcyone was said by Roman writers to lay her eggs during a five-day period in the winter during which the winds are calmed — a source of our word, “halycon,” meaning a calm or happy interlude.

The Alkonost likewise is said to lay its eggs in the ocean during an interval during which the seas are calm, and is therefore associated with control over the weather. Superstitions found not only in Russia but further afield in Europe associate the kingfisher and dried kingfisher bodies used as charms to predict the weather.

The Sirin and Alkonost were also assimilated into Russia’s Christian culture, sometimes shown perched upon trees in Eden or as representations of the Holy Spirit.  We hear of a particularly strange Russian tradition involving the bird-women called “Apple Savior,” involving the blessing of apples, Christ’s transfiguration in the Bible, and the singing of the Sirin and Alkonost, as well as a folktale involving the lovers Kostroma and Kupelo associated with the summer solstice and St. John’s Night.

The song of the Gamayun, like that of the Alkonost and Sirin, is a form of divine language though is less likely to be destructively overpowering and more associated with prophecy and happiness.  For this reason, the creature, is also referred to as “The Bird of Happiness” or “The Bird of Prophecy.”

The Gamayun is also often said to have no legs as it is strictly a creature of the air or heavens and never lands.  The source of this belief is actually related to a peculiar trade in preserved bird charms, as explained in detail.

The show winds down with some appearances of the Russian bird-women in 19th and 20th-century art, music, and film, including the 1897 opera Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov, a musical treatment of a folkloric  adventurer, merchant, and gusli-player from Novgorod.  We hear a bit of the opera’s most famous aria often called “The Song of India” describing the exotic land where the Bird of Happiness may be found.

Our final segment is about Sadko, a 1952 cinematic adaptation of the opera by “the Soviet Walt Disney,” Aleksandr Ptushko, a film repackaged by Roger Corman in 1963 for American screenings as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

From "Sadko" (1952)
From “Sadko” (1952)

 

 

 

 

Friends from Venus, Theosophists in Space

Friends from Venus, Theosophists in Space

The esoteric teachings of Theosophy, particularly those regarding Venus, were surprisingly influential on the tales told by flying saucer Contactees of the 1950s and ’60s.

We begin with a quick review of Theosophy and its principles as defined by the Russian international adventurer Helena Blavatsky in the later decades of the 19th century. Blavatsky had worked as a spirit medium and transformed Spiritualism’s spirit guides, into what Theosophy calls its Masters of Ancient Wisdom, advanced adepts from the East secreting themselves primarily in the mountains of Tibet — beings after which the spiritually evolved “Space People” of the Contactees were patterned.  Theosophy’s myths of previous technologically advanced but morally or spiritually flawed civilizations like those of Atlantis or Lemuria also also offered a framework for Contactees who believed mankind faced a similar dilemma under the Cold War threat of annihilation.

Venus was regarded as the most significant and spiritually advanced of the planets by the Theosophists. In its guise as the “morning star,” it became a symbol of esoteric illumination and the dawning of a new illuminated era.  It also played a significant role in Theosophy’s spiritual hierarchy as a home to advanced beings including the figure of Sanat Kumara, a Master advanced to the level of deity.  Unsurprisingly, Venus was also the home-planet to the majority of Space People encountered by the Contactees.

Key players in the Contactee movement coincidentally all shared a first name: George Adamski, George van Tassel, George Hunt Williamson, and George King, the only Brit among the Americans, and the primary subject of this episode.

Before discussing King and his experiences, we take a brief side-trip to discuss another, slightly later Contactee, who provided a bit of audio used in our opening montage, a clip from a 1957 record he sold at his saucer talks called Authentic Music from Another Planet. Along with his bizarre recording of musical scores he claims to have received telepathically on Saturn, Menger is of interest for his marriage to a woman from Venus, or at least the alleged reincarnation of a past-life lover from Venus.

Menger’s book featuring the Venusian, Marla.

George King, a taxi driver from London, arrived upon the scene a few years later than our other Georges, but his teachings hew closest to Theosophical doctrines.  Some of this, no doubt, is due to the influence of his mother, who was known locally as a healer and clairvoyant.  We hear some clips from a May 21, 1959 episode of the BBC show “Lifeline,” in which he demonstrates his technique of channeling extraterrestrial intelligences, including that of a Master from Venus named Aetherius, whose name is represented in the organization King founded in 1959, The Aetherius Society.

In the interview King also discusses another extraterrestrial who came to him in the early days of his career as a Contactee for the purposes of teaching him the channeling techniques he would need.  In keeping with Theosophical bias, the earth body this teacher had taken is that of sage from India.

King also discusses his relationship with the “Master Jesus” (another resident of Venus) and a meeting between his mother and Jesus on a spacecraft, during which Jesus blessed King’s book, The Twelve Blessings, a foundational text of the Aetherius Society.

George King wearing his transmission goggles. (via Aetherius Society)
Channeled messages to date in 1975. (via The Pantagraph)

Another Theosophical principle King seems to have embraced is Blavatsky’s notion of a “higher science” using technology  to manipulate subtle, spiritual energies (something present in her descriptions of Atlantis and Lemuria).  In King’s case, this concept lies behind his invention of “prayer batteries” used to capture and then deploy where needed the spiritual energies emitted during group prayers conducted by the Society.

King also takes the Theosophical myth of Atlantis and goes it one better.  Rather than a continent being destroyed through human evil, a whole planet by the name of Maldek, he says, was destroyed in a similar manner eons before man was present on earth. The actual asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter he regards as Maldek’s ruined remains.

We close with some considerations regarding the Pentagon’s release of reports of “unexplained aerial phenomena” this spring.  Included is a clip from the 1960 song “When You See Those Flying Saucers”  by The Buchanan Brothers.

 

 

 

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Cases of madness and even murder were associated with Hexerei, a form of witchcraft brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants.  Following up on our previous examination of the tradition of Braucherei or Pow-Wow as practiced in 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania, our current episode eplores some more disturbing cases of witchcraft beliefs surviving into the 1920s and ’30s.

Our show begins with a montage of voices extracted from the documentary Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. It was produced as a companion to an excellent book of the same name by Gerald Milnes.

By the 1890s, any public notice taken of Braucherei tended to be negative. Journalists were quick with comparisons to the Salem witchcraft mania and tended to focus on cases in which witchcraft belief led to madness.  We hear an example of this from an 1891 Pittsburgh Dispatch article describing two women driven to paranoia in the hills of Earl and Douglass townships. From the Public Weekly Opinion of Chambersburg, PA, we hear bits of an 1894 story describing the extreme (and destructive) measures taken by a George Kellar to rid his property of witches.

The first of the witchcraft-related homicides we examine comes from a March 1922 edition of the York Daily Record.  It’s the case Sallie Heagy, whose belief in witchcraft and a night-hag like entity known in Pennsylvania as “Trotterhead,” led to her shooting her husband while he slept.

We then move on to the most famous witchcraft murder in Pennsylvania, namely that of a part-time Braucher and potato farmer, Nelson Rehmeyer, who met his end in York County in 1928.  Mrs. Karswell opens this segment reading a description of the discovery of the decedent’s body taken from a Nov. 30 edition of the Hanover Evening Sun.

The murder was committed by a group of men organized by John Blymire, a third generation Braucher or Powwower, who believed himself to have been cursed by Rehmeyer.  We hear a bit of his troubled history (which included being committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he escaped) and of his accomplices, including John Curry, a younger man whom Blymire took on as a sort of magical apprentice and Wilbert Hess, whose troubles with his wife and farm, according to Blymire’s increasingly paranoic beliefs, were also tied to a curse by Rehmeyer.  We also hear of the involvement of the Braucherin Nellie Noll, sometimes called the “River Witch of Marietta,” from whom Blymire sought help in identifying Rehmeyer as the one responsible for the curse laid upon him. The commission of the crime itself is described in our show via the court testimony given by Wilbert Hess.

Rehmeyer's House in 1928
Rehmeyer’s House in 1928

The media circus generated by a witchcraft-related murder in 20th-century Pennsylvania resulted in  the press becoming obsessed with investigating any possible links to Braucherei in any Pennsylvania crime they reported on.  We hear several examples of highly speculative connections made including that of  the twenty-one-year-old woman Verna Delp, whose death by poison was erroneously connected to concoctions given her by a Braucher in 1928.   A similar connection is examined in the 1930 case of Mrs. Harry McDonald, who was found burned to death in her home, as well as the case of Norman Bechtel, whose body was discovered in 1932 in a mutilated state, bearing injuries, the press presumptively identified as “hex marks.”

Only 6 years after the Rehmeyer case, however, another murder with an undeniable connection to withcraft belief occurred in the vicinity of Pottsville (the same region as that of our Hex Cat case in Episode 69).  This was the murder on March 17, 1934 of Susan Mummey by Albert Shinsky.  Mummey was a local Braucherin, known by locals as “Old Susie,” or sometimes “The Witch of Ringtown Valley,” who had a cantankerous reputation with her neighbors.  At the age of 17, Shinksy experienced one such unpleasant encounter, which he came to regard as the origin of a seven-year curse placed upon him by Mummey — one that could only be resolved ultimately by slaying the witch with a magic bullet.  We’ll leave the lurid details of this case for you to experience as you listen, but suffice it to say, the region still seems to have had problems with Hex Cats in 1934.

Philadelphia Inquirer
From The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Mar 1934

Our show closes with a look at the Rehmeyer case explored in different media.  A highly fictionalized version of the story was produced in 1987 under the name Apprentice to Murder, this one featuring Donald Sutherland as a notably more bookish John Blymire type.  There’s also a good 2015 documentary, Hex Hollow, which features interviews with Blymire and Rehmeyer’s descendants.  Strangest of all is the manner in which this story seems to have influenced the musical psychedelia of the York County band Lenny Lionstar and The Hillbillies of The Universe.  We close with a snippet of their work.

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Stories of witchcraft and folk-healers in early Pennsylvania are surprisingly plentiful. In this episode, we examine the state’s German-American tradition of Braucherei that spawned these tales. The practice came over with immigrants from Germany’s southwestern Rhineland beginning in the late 1700s and established itself among the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misunderstanding of  “Deutsch”) in the state’s southern “Dutch Country” region, eventually moving westward through Appalachia and all the way to Indiana and south into the Ozarks.

We begin with a chant supposedly chanted in the 1800s by witches gathered at Hexenkopf Rock (“witch’s head” rock), an actual site about 15-minutes outside the old steel town of Bethlehem.  The locale is central to early Braucherei and to the other name by which it goes, namely “Pow-Wow.”

It was on land adjacent to the Hexenkopf that Johann Peter Seiler, who immigrated from Germany in 1738, eventually settled and set up shop as a folk-healer, or “Braucher” (one who practices Braucherei).  As he also offered treatment to the native Algonquin, his work was equated by them to that of their medicine man or his rituals, and he was supposedly dubbed  “The Great Pow-Wow.”  This is one origin story for the odd nomenclature, though others believe the term “pow-wow” was applied by English settlers as a disparaging comparison to native rituals.  The term is still used and carries no such disparaging connotation today.  Nor does it imply a borrowing of Native American traditions into Braucherei, which is firmly rooted in Old World traditions.

While the Braucher has frequently been described by outsiders a “witch” or “witch doctor,” it’s certainly not a label accepted within the tradition, as there are no “good witches,” only bad witches, (Hexes) who practice Hexerei.  Brauchers are often sought to remove curses placed by Hexes, though occasionally practitioners have been known to slip from one side to the other.

We next look at a sampling of the magical tools and techniques employed in Braucherei, the prominence of the color red, preponderance of written charms carried by clients, and the spoken charm, the famous “Blood Verse” used to stop bleeding.

A Braucher would always consider himself to be Christian, and much use is made of religious images and verbiage, especially from Catholic traditions.  Though the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany’s Protestant regions, Braucherei has served as a sort of underground continuation of medieval Catholic practice in a Post-Reformation world.

1930s Friend
1930s edition of “Long Lost Friend” with illustrations by Charles Quinlan. Courtesy Glencairn Museum.

We then discuss the curiously titled volume The Long Lost Friend, a classic sourcebook for Braucherei, published by German immigrant, printer, and Braucher John George Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1820.  Much of it, we learn, was borrowed (sometimes verbatim) from earlier European books of magic, though applications described therein are very specific to 19th century agricultural life.  We also hear a bit about another magical sourcebook used (more in Hexerei thanks to its inclusion of destructive magic), the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses (published as a single volume).  We hear a bit about its notorious reputation, both in Braucherei and American Hooodoo.

6th book
The notorious “Sixth and Sevenths Books of Moses.” Don’t look at it too long!

The balance of our show is devoted to tales of witches and healers, gleaned mainly from newspaper archives and read by the inimitable Mrs. Karswell.

We hear of “Old Moll” of Fayette County, her fortune-telling with coffee grounds, of a legendary prophecy (curse?) laid upon some miscreants passing through town, and her appearance in connection with other local legends, as in the 1865 book,The White Rocks by A.F. Hill, a romanticized retelling of the murder of Polly Williams.

A hotbed of Braucherei, Berks County provides our remaining stories — an 1889 story in which a witch torments her victim in the form of a night hag, and the way in which a Braucher defeats her, and an 1892 story involving a baby covered in spots thanks to a visiting witch, who was eventually defeated while in the form of a cat.

Another witch in the form of a cat was the famous “Hex Cat” that haunted the farm of the Thomas family in Tumbling Run Valley in 1911.  This one made national news, with reportage appearing as far away as Hawaii.  It also generated a moderate frenzy of commercial exploitation.  I’ll leave the details of the case for you to enjoy as you listen.

Stay tuned for our next episode further exploring Braucherei, including some shocking criminal cases in which the tradition played a role.

I should also mention that we had some audio cameos in this show.  A number of our subscribers on Patreon joined in as witches in the chant at the Hexenkopf.  Thank you to: Allison Lovecraft, Victoria Howard, Angelica, Bridget Case, Jenny Matisiak, Molly Van Overhill, Alice Price, and Anne Luben!

(Long Lost Friend images courtesy the Glencairn Museum’s excellent 2017 exhibition on Braucherei)

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

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

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

The Deadly Bees (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feminine Monarchie
The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler

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

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

 

 

 

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.