Category: classical music

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Quite distinct from their Western equivalent, Slavic mermaids might better be described as water ghosts, as they are almost always the spirits of departed females, while their male equivalent takes the form of a water goblin or water sprite.  The Russian word for mermaid is rusalka (rusalki pl.) and male creature is a vodyanoy.  Similar words are used in other slavic languages, though the Czech water goblin is known as a vodnik.

The rusalki are found not only found in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.  And they’re honored with their own holiday, Rusalka Week, just now coming up in early June.

While they are usually active only at night, during Rusalka Week, they emerge in the daylight when they may be seen dancing, singing, or playing usually in groups.  As they lack the fish tail of Western mermaids, they may also venture into forests and fields for such activities, but while in the water, they may also  pull swimmers, fishermen or others near the water to watery deaths. We open the show with a clip from Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, a 2018 Russian horror film about a rusalka, which depicts the creature in this malevolent aspect.

Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879
Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879

Not just any woman who dies will become a rusalka.  Typically, she would have died by violence, suicide, or sudden accident, particularly drowning.  Often these deaths are related to misfortunes in love, rejection by lovers, or suicides due to unwanted pregnancies.  Because of this, the rusalka is particularly focused on capturing men with no interest in attacking adult females.  Men who fall prey to them are either believed drowned or may live with them in a sort of underwater spirit limbo in their richly appointed palaces of crystal, gold, and silver.  Occasionally, their would-be victims may overcome them by the power of the cross, or in rare cases, they may even be domesticated into mortal life (with varying success).  Mrs. Karswell reads several typical and atypical tales describing the interactions of rusalki and men, ones collected from informants in turn-of-the-century studies by Russian ethnographers

While rusalki are most interested in men, they may sometimes capture girls and boys to be kept as the children they failed to have in life. Infants may also become rusalki if they die unbaptized, and will wander the earth in that form for seven years seeking someone who might free them by performing a christening. After that, like other rusalki, they remain in that undying form until the end of the world.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s not clear the rusalki were always regarded as the ghosts of unfortunate females. Instead, they seemed to play some role in connection to fertility.  This is particularly clear in Ukraine, where the rusalki (or creatures nearly the same) are called mavka and a figure called Kostromo is both the center of early spring fertility rites and known the first female to become a mavka. “Mavka” is also the name of under which a contemporary Ukranian musiican performs songs composed, in what she calls “the language of mermaids.”  We hear a clip from one of her performances.

Rusalia Week, or Rusalia, is tied to the date of Pentecost or Whitsunday. It’s also known as “Green Christmas” or “Green Holiday” as  homes and churches are decorated in greenery, and celebrations take place in birch forests where young women and girls wear crowns woven from flowers and plants.  It takes place either 40 or 50 days after Easter, and the biggest celebrations take place on Semik (from the Russian word for “seven,”) the seventh Thursday after Easter, which is June 4 this year.  We describe some rather curious rituals around birch trees involving symbolic dolls used to represent the rusalka, and how these are understood to symbolically free the restive spirits from their existence as rusalki.

Semi Celebration, 19th cent, unknown artist

Rusalia celebrations embrace both aspects of the rusalki — their post 19th-century incarnation as dangerous ghosts, and an older pagan understanding of these beings as bringers of regenerative moisture and fertility of crops.  We also hear a few accounts describing tried and true methods for evading rusalki attacks particularly common during this period.

The rusalka folklore has been adapted into a number of Slavic productions over the years.  We hear of a rusalka in Russian novelist, poet, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s 1831 collection of stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which served as the basis of a loopy but fun Russian TV series, Gogol, from which we hear a clip.  ( A rusalka briefly appears also in Gogol’s Viy, adapted into a cult classic film of 1967, Viy Spirit of Evil, from which we hear a clip.

Rusalka folklore has been a popular subject for opera. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, which premiered in 1856 was based on a nearly finished verse drama by Alexander Pushkin.  Its tragic tale involves not only a a vengeful adult rusalka, but also a dangerous child rusalka, and a madman who believes he is a raven.

The better known Rusalka opera, which premiered in 1900, is by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.  Best known for its lovesick aria “Song to the Moon” in the first act, its story draws partly on Slavic folklore and partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to tell its equally tragic tale.  A vodnik or “water goblin” is cast as the father of the character given the name Rusalka, and the opera also features the witch Jezibaba, the Czech equivalent to Baba Yaga.

Dvořák liked to say the opera was inspired by fairy tales of popular 19th-century poet Karel Erben, namely his 1853 collection Kytice, which means “bouquet”. (The book was given a particularly sumptuous treatment int the 2000 adaptation known in English as Wild Flowers.)  While in fact the opera borrows nothing directly from Erben’s stories, Dvořák did more explicitly embrace one of Erben’s pieces in his symphonic poem known in English as “The Water Goblin.”  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the climactic scenes of this tale, which is gruesome even by Bone and Sickle standards.

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin

After a bit of further discussion of the vodnik and its Russian near-equivalent, the vodyanoy, we address the elephant in the room — the fact that the rusalki are said to tickle men to death.  I share a few comments on reference to historic tickle torture, as well as some anecdotes from the much more amusing history of death by laughter.

 

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

This episode explores the connection between vampires and disease, beginning in 19th-century New England with a strange graveyard ritual involving the exhumation of the bodies of Mercy Brown and family members in 1892. The gruesomely ritualistic destruction of Mercy’s body parts was spurred by a belief that those who succumbed to tuberculosis might live on in the grave and infest loved ones with the disease.

Mercy Brown's Grave
Mercy Brown’s Grave

Mercy’s case is the last and best known of cases like this beginning in the late 1700s and occurring throughout the area, particularly in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont.  Accounts of several more cases involving cursed vines growing from corpses and a shockingly macabre and bloody ritual occurring on an idyllic village green in the town of Woodstock, Vermont, are read by Mrs. Karswell. (We even hear a clip of a little tourism spot for Woodstock, though surely not in the context it was imagined when produced.)

The association of vampiric entities with times of plagues and epidemics came to New England from Europe, and might be compared to the German belief in the Nachzehrer, an undead creature known to appear in times of pestilence to spread disease. A defining attribute of the Nachzehrer is its tendency to feed upon its shroud and even its own body, a repast providing the creature the nourishment necessary to then rise and continue feasting on the living.  Another interesting term for the Nachzehrer deriving from the noises that it produced in its grave would be schmatzende Toten or “smacking dead.”  We hear a number of accounts of such creatures from German/Latin texts dating to the 1400s, including the definitive work on the topic, the 1679 volume by theologian Philippus Rohr, called in Latin, “The Masticating Dead.”

Miraculis Mortuorum
De Miraculis Mortuorum

Moving even further back to the Middle Ages, we examine some stories of plague-spreading vampires from England, including a 12th-century account from William of Newburgh, which includes the grisly destruction of a corpse swollen with blood, and an account from 1135 by Geoffrey of Burton, featuring an evil spirit in the form of a crow arising from the monster’s burning heart.  Both stories associate the vampire particularly with the spread of disease.

We also have a quick look at archeological evidence for the type of vampire rituals discussed — disordered graves identified  as “deviant burials,” or “therapeutic burials” in which bodies believed to be undead may be mutilated, staked into the grave, or — in cases like those we are focusing on — have rocks or other objects stuffed into their mouths to stop the creature from feeding on its shroud, or worse, the blood or vitality of those above the earth.

Also discussed is the use of plague imagery in German versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu, both Director F.W. Murnau 1922 version and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake.

Whether Bram Stoker may have been influenced by reports of the New England tuberculosis vampires of the 1800s is addressed, and we have a deeper look at how romantic 19th-century ideas about tuberculosis influenced not only his portrayal of vampirism, but the work of other literary artists, painters, and composers. Among the artists mentioned are Lord Byron, Alexander Dumas, Claude Monet, John Keats, and Edgar Allan Poe. We also hear some clips of musical deaths by tuberculosis from the operas La Traviata and La Boheme.

Monet's "Camille Monet on her deathbed"
Monet’s “Camille Monet on her deathbed”

We conclude the show, as we began, with another musical composition played at graveside, and a story of heart removed and preserved in cognac, that of Frédéric Chopin, another victim of “the white plague.”

 

#22 The Devil’s Due: Musicians and Marksmen

#22 The Devil’s Due: Musicians and Marksmen

In this episode we look at legends of musicians and marksmen said to have made Faustian deals with the Devil.

We begin with The Phantom of the Opera, a story which does not exactly share our theme, but was set against the backdrop of a staging of the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.  The story, written in 19111 by French journalist and writer Gaston Leroux, also has a macabre connection to Der Freischütz (“the marksmen,” for our purposes), the German legend of a marksman who enlists the Devil’s help in a test of marksmanship. This particular connection is discussed at the conclusion of our show, but is one of several historical incidents said to have inspired Leroux’s novel.  The establishment of a subterranean lake beneath the Paris opera house and an unfortunate accident with a chandelier in 1896 are discussed in this context.

1925 Phantom poster showing underground lake
1925 Phantom poster showing underground lake

Next, we hear some clips from Brian DePalma’s 1974 rock-opera-horror-comedy Phantom of the Paradise, a retelling of the Phantom story within the setting of the fictional Paradise rock club. Conveniently enough, DePalma’s film inserts not one but two Faustian pacts with the Devil into its storyline and provides an intro to the topic of the trope of rock musicians making deals with the devil.

After a nod to the overt introduction of Satanic themes into rock-and-roll by the band Coven in their 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls (discussed in our last episode), we flash through a few other examples of the trend in the 1960s to arrive at the legend of Robert Johnson’s alleged deal with the Devil at “the crossroads.”

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

This bit of folklore, which seems to have been spun out of traditional Vodoun and European notions of the magical significance of crossroads, did not attach itself to Robert Johnson until long after the musicians death, and was in fact, first attached to another blues musician by the name “Johnson” (Tommy) long after the death of the latter.  We hear brief snatches of Robert Johnson’s songs “Cross Road Blues ” and “Me and the Devil Blues,” said to have inspired the connection of this legend to R. Johnson.

Because of lightweight portability making it ideal for providing music at taverns and secular gatherings, the violin was historically a favorite instrument of the Devil. Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini reinforced the notion in his story of a dream in which the Devil had become his servant and provided him his Violin Sonata in G minor, better known as the “Devil’s Trill Sonata.”  Wilkinson relates his account of the dream, and we hear a bit of the piece.

"Tartini's Dream," by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1824)
“Tartini’s Dream,” by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1824)

At least until the advent of rock and roll, the diabolical musician par excellence, however, was violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840). Rumors that dogged his career included that of a pact with the Devil, the manifestation of the Devil onstage during his performances, lightning bolts flying from his bow, and that the soul of a women he murdered resided within the strings of his instrument.

Paganini’s diabolical mystique owed much to his unprecedented virtuosity and theatricality on stage, libertine lifestyle, and unusual appearance, which German poet Heinrich Heine described “a corpse risen from the grave, a vampire with a violin.”  As for his libertine lifestyle, we hear a bit from a film particularly dwelling on this —  Klaus Kinski’s Paganini (1990) directed by and starring the notorious German actor, whose identification with the role appears to have been somewhat pathological.

(Forged) daguerreotype of Paganini (1900)
(Forged) daguerreotype of Paganini (1900)

The macabre postmortem odyssey of Paganini’s body after being denied burial in consecrated ground by the bishop of Nice is discussed at some length.  In the background of our Paganini segment, we hear a bit of his Caprice No. 5 played by Sumina Studer.

We then turn to the Freischütz, the German legend of of the Devil providing a huntsmen a number of magic bullets, the majority which are charmed to hit whatever the shooter wishes, while a small fraction remain exclusively under the Devil’s control. While it’s mostly known in its literary or operatic form, I provide some evidence of the story as a matter of actual folk belief, namely a confession made in a Bohemian court by an ambitious hunter charged with visiting the crossroads(!) where he attempted the ritual to create these charmed bullets in 1710.

Freischütz set design (source unknown)
Freischütz set design (source unknown)

With the aid of Wilkinson’s dramatic reading, we retell the literary version of the tale from Johann Apel’s 1811 collection of (mainly) traditional ghost and horror stories called The Book of Ghosts. An interesting connection between this volume and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also discussed.

Next we discuss Der Freischütz, an 1821 opera by German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber.  It’s a bit cheerier take on the story than Apel’s but does include a sublimely gothic scene in which the magic bullets are cast.  We hear a bit about the staging of that scene (moved from the crossroads to a haunted gorge, “Wolf’s Glen”).  Behind that description, we hear a chorus of “owls” from the that scene in von Weber’s opera. Our Freischütz discussion also opens with a bit of the overture.

"Wolfs Glen" set design for 1822 production of Der_Freischütz
“Wolfs Glen” set design for 1822 production of Der_Freischütz

We also hear some bits from the 1990 avant-garde retelling of the Freischütz legend by Tom Waits and William Burroughs —  The Black Rider.

The episode ends with the story of how a human skeleton ended up onstage in an 1841 production of Der Freischütz.  It’s a tragic tale of an unhappy romance that likely inspired Gaston Leroux to have his Phantom buried beneath the opera house in order to be near to his beloved Christine Daaé after death.