Category: death

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.

 

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The Plague Doctor Unmasked

The figure of the masked plague doctor is an object of intense fascination but also the subject of much misinformation. This episode sorts things out while seeking particular evidence for such handsomely dressed character in the historical record.

We begin with a few clips from horror films in which plague doctors figure, including the 2008 film The Sick House in which the spirit of a plague doctor menaces an archeologist, and the 2019 film The Cleansing in which a malevolent bird-masked “Cleanser” stalks through 14th-century Wales.

As most listeners are somewhat familiar with the plague mask and its presumed function, we get that out of the way first, noting the mask’s connection to the antique belief in miasma, or disease-carrying air as the cause of the plague and other ailments. We also clear up the misunderstanding that the plague doctor is a medieval character (since he only appears in the 17th century).

His first appearance is in a German broadsheet from 1655, in which the crow-like character identified as “Dr. Beak” and lampooned (along with doctors in general) for being greedy as carrion crows.  As this image was copied and recopied for centuries, it raises the question as to whether the birdlike mask was in fact drawn from life or created strictly in the service of this original broadsheet’s metaphor.

"Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656
“Dr Schnabel/Beak of Rome, Paul Fürst, 1656

Next we look at other evidence for the character in the form of actual artifacts, including two masks exhibited in museums in Berlin and Ingolstadt, Germany.

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Mask in Berlin Museum of German History

As there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of these, we next look at evidence of plague masks associated with the island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon.  Along the way, we learn a bit more about early measures the city took against the plague (including the invention of the concept of shipping quarantines along with coinage of the word).

We also review a bit of general information about the islands in the Venetian lagoon (including others besides Poveglia) used for the clinical isolation of victims of plague, leprosy, and the mental illness.  A photo taken on Poveglia in 1899 is discussed as it may show an actual plague mask in use in the late 19th century.  We also hear some snippets from the TV Show Ghost Adventures, which popularized a number of legends associated with Poveglia, including tales of asylum torture and suicide.

1899 Photo from Poveglia
1899 Photo from Poveglia

Next, we look at the first textual evidence for this plague mask and suit, in a 1682 volume attributing its invention to Charles de Lorme, royal physician to Louis XIV and the Medici Family, among others.

While the design of the mask seems to be a first with de Lorme, we also hear of some other uses of protective plague garments are documented in France and Italy around this time.

A surprising example from Basel, Switzerland provides rare evidence of particular doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  It’s 17th century painting of the family arms of the Zwinger family of Basel, painted for the doctor and theologian Theodor Zwinger the Younger, and depicting him in a plague mask and suit.

Theodor Zwinger Family Crest
Theodor Zwinger Family Crest

We also have a look at the symbolic use of special historic plague garments, special colors worn in France and Italy for medics working with plague victims, and the symbolic and practical function of the stick or baton held by the the plague doctor in most every historical illustration.

The Great Plague of Marseille (1721 to 1722) provides us one more name of a doctor known to have worn a plague suit and mask.  His name was François Chicoyneau, and his efforts were not well received by the citizens he was assigned to serve in Marseille, as we hear.

Along the way, Mrs. Karswell provides us some contemporary accounts documenting other aspects of the Marseilles plague, the last bubonic pandemic of Europe, including novel means of disposing of plague corpses considered by the town council, a curiously relevant form of social distancing, and the basis of the legend of “Four Thieves Vinegar.”

Finally, we discuss those plague doctor masks worn in the Venetian Carnival, learning that they are a strictly modern creation not associated with the 16th-18th century commedia della’arte tradition that gives us the other masks.

We end with a strange parallel between an opera about performers in the commedia della’arte and a 1928 film starring silent horror great Lon Chaney, Sr.  Included is a bit of music used to promote the film in question, Laugh Clown, Laugh.”

Lon Chaney, Sr. "Laugh Clown, Laugh"
Lon Chaney, Sr. “Laugh Clown, Laugh”
Murdered Sweetheart Songs

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

As a special Valentine’s episode, we present collection of folk songs known as “sweetheart murder ballads.”  We begin with two newer songs dating to the 19th century, “On the Banks of the Ohio” and “Down in the Willow Garden.”  While considered American songs and first documented in Appalachia, these ballads appear to borrow elements from older European songs.

One of the most widely known murder ballads, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” like most of songs in this program, was first recorded in America in the 1920s.  We hear a snippet of that early (1927) recording by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and a longer cut narrating the murder itself from a 1969 recording by Porter Waggoner.

While “Banks of the Ohio” has the murderer stabbing his love and disposing of her body in the river, “Down in the Willow Garden,” throws in some poisoning to boot. One of the versions of this song we hear excerpted is from an excellent 1956 album by the Kossoy Sisters, Bowling Green, one we’ve previously sampled in our Butcher Lore episode for which the Kossoys sang about the butchering of a giant ram (“The Darby Ram”).  We hear a snippet of the first recording of this song (also from 1927) by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter.  This early version takes as its title, the victim’s name  “Rose Conley,” an Irish family name, suggesting that the song has obscure roots in that country.

The Scottish song “The Banks of Red Roses” shares a similarity with  “Willow Garden” in its garden setting.  Both highlighting the role a beautiful but remote environment can play in a deadly seduction.  We hear a 1962 version by the Scottish singer Jean Redpath, along with snippets by other artists.

Our next song, “The Lone Green Valley” or “The Jealous Lover” takes us back to America with an early recording from 1926 by Vernon Dalhart.  Following a similar narrative to our other songs, this song was the subject of a painting by American muralist Thomas Hart Benton.  We also hear a strange bit of gossip related to Benton’s interest in folk music involving Jackson Pollack, of all people.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Ballad of the Jealous Lover"
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Ballad of the Jealous Lover”

Our next song, “Knoxville Girl,” is an American update of a British and Irish song with roots going back to around 1700.  We begin with a version by The Louvin Brothers from 1956 and work our way to earlier songs from Great Britain where the song goes by “The Oxford Girl,” or in Ireland, “The Wexford Girl,” along with other names and localities, including “Ickfield Town,” the title of a 2005 version we hear from John Kirkpatrick.  The story in these is similar to “Banks of the Ohio” and “Willow Garden,” but with a bludgeoning substituting for a stabbing.  The song also adds a scene depicting the murderer returning home after his crime to night of guilt-ridden tossing in bed surrounded by imaginary hellfire.  The killer is also confronted upon his return by his mother, who notices blood on his clothing, which the killer excuses as the result of a nosebleed.

This odd details of the nosebleed can be traced, along with other elements of the song, to a 1685 broadsheet entitled “The Bloody Miller,” which makes the killer a miller’s apprentice (while other songs employ him as a butcher’s apprentice.)  In the broadsheet, the nosebleed does not occur upon the killer’s return home, but in court as his guilty verdict is handed down, and is presented as a supernatural omen confirming his guilt.

This notion of a supernatural disclosure of the guilty killer brings us to another group of lesser known murder songs, including the 19th-century Irish ballad “The Old Oak Tree,” a particularly gory tale, which includes not only a murder but the graphically described disinterment of a corpse and a suicide.

Our next song, a 19th-century Scottish ballad “Young Benjie,” gives us a different kind of murder (being thrown into a waterfall) and has the ghost of the murdered lover appearing at her own wake to demand a very particular and gruesome form of punishment for her killer.  We hear a bit of 2012 version of the song by Rosaleen Gregory.

Our last song was popularized by a 1996 version by Nick Cave with P.J. Harvery: “Henry Lee.” Older versions of the song go by other names including “Love Henry,” “Earl Richard,” “Young Hunting,” and “The False Lady.” This one is also from Scotland of the early 19th century.  The Appalachian adaptation (the version sung by Nick Cave) omits a more detailed opening describing Henry Lee (or Richard) as an early come in from hunting as well as a more elaborate role played by the bird witness — one which involves the recovery of the victim’s body and identification of the killer by supernatural means.  There is also a final verse about the cruel justice served upon the killer. Along the way we learn of a quite peculiar superstition related to the bodies of the drowned and hear a snippet of an unusual 2008 cover of the song by Jodie Holland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of Them Witches

All of Them Witches

This Halloween we have five stories of witches from all the way back to around 1125AD to the 1960s. Some of them are actual historic personage, some seem more purely folkloric.

It’s a somewhat longer episode for which I”ll provide somewhat shorter show notes here.  So, I won’t going into the details of each story, but just give a sketch of who we’ll be talking about.  Aside from all being witches, you’ll see another common thread; four of the five kept avian familiars: roosters, blackbirds, and jackdaws.

The first a 19th-century witch who’s become a part of Connecticut folklore — Hannah Cranna.  Though there are stories of her cursing neighbors from her life, the most interesting part of her tale begins with the details of her burial details, with which she was particularly obsessed.  The segment begins with a snippet of Mark Fry’s bit of folk-psychedelia “The Witch” — only because it happens to dovetail nicely with a story of Hannah told on an urban legends web page.

Our second witch was also very particular about her burial, but with a more clear-cut rationale: she wanted to prevent the Devil from claiming her soul (and body, it seems) upon her death. This is the so-called “Witch of Berkeley,” who story was first told by English chronicler William of Malmesbury all the way back in 1125.  It’s in his Chronicle of the Kings of England (as a sort of digression).

Our third witch, Molly Leigh, is also from England — North Staffordshire, where she died in 1746. Though she fit the witchy archetype of having both a quarrelsome personality and undesirable physiognomy, she was never tried or executed for witchcraft, despite some rumors of minor mischief, such as bewitching beers down at the pub.  Her story, like Hannah Cranna’s, focuses more on her afterlife exploits.  We play a snippet of a recent horror movie Molly Crows, which uses Leigh’s story as a springboard.

The fourth witch is our most modern: Sibyl Leek, who appeared on the scene in the 1960s during a wave of pop-culture.  While she claimed to be a descendant of Molly Leigh, her life seems to have been much more pleasant, centering primarily upon how to best position herself in the media spotlight.

Our final story is is quite an oddity.  The story of the self-confessed 17th-century witch, Major Thomas Weir, who became a fixture in legends of old Edinburgh.  This is our longest segment, and I’ll leave the rest for you to enjoy as Mrs. Karswell’s reads from our sources, ad the details as are suitably shocking.

From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
From: A compendium about demons and magic. 1766. (Wellcome LIbrary)
#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

#33 Ghosts from Purgatory

Hear how notions of Purgatory influenced medieval ghost stories, the tradition of All Souls’ Day, and a Neapolitan “cult of skulls.”

We set the scene with a clip from “The Lyke Wake Dirge,” a 14th–century British song sung or chanted as a sort of charm over the body of the deceased in the night before burial. It describes the perils confronted by the soul during its journey into the afterlife, describing a “thorny moor,” and “Bridge of Doom,” which must be traversed to arrive in a none-too-friendly Purgatory.

We take a moment to review the historical Catholic concept of Purgatory, one usually associated with fire and torment, albeit of a temporary rather than everlasting nature and geared toward the further purification of the soul bound for Heaven.

Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript
Souls in Purgatory, Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Walters Manuscript

Gregory the Great, the 6th-century pope, is one of the earliest influences on the notion of Purgatory offering as evidence a  ghost story of a wicked bishop condemmed to haunt the baths. We also hear of a grisly apparition of Gregory’s dead mother that supposedly appeared in a church where, legend has it, Gregory was saying mass.

From the 8th-century English chronicler Bede, we hear of a man named Drythelm who is granted a vision of Hell, that is “not the Hell you imagine,” (i.e., Purgatory instead) and of the Irish saint. Fursey, who was flown by an angel over purgatorial fires, where a surprising encounter with a demon provides him a curious souvenir.

St. Patrick went one better than ghost stories, at least according to legend. With a tap of his bishop’s crook, he’s said to have cracked open the earth to reveal a gateway to Purgatory itself, all in an effort to convert those stubborn pagans who wanted something a bit more concrete to validate the gospel.  A variety of medieval legends chronicle adventures through this underworld, and the site (though not the cave itself) is still open to visitors to a tiny Irish island in Loch Dergh (“the lake of the cave.”)

Though it’s not specifically Purgatory, descriptions of hellish torments identical to those that might be experienced there are particularly plentiful in the 12th-century Irish text The Vision of Tondal. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the best passages.

Detail from the Getty Tondal
Detail from the Getty Tondal

Following a snippet of a late medieval ballad from Norway, Draumkvedet* or “The Dream Poem,” which relates its own story of a visionary journey into the afterlife, we discuss the relationship between All Souls’ Day, prayers for the dead, the cult of the Anima Sola (“lonely soul” suffering in purgatory), and the strange Neapolitans “cult of skulls,” including that of “Princess Lucia,” a legendary lovesick suicide.

Next we hear some stories of frustrated demons and a graveyard full of grumbling corpses from Jacobus da Varagine,1260 compilation of saint stories,  Legende Aurea, or The Golden Legend, followed by the utterly bizarre ghost stories written on some spare pages of a manuscript collection by a 13th-century  Cisterian monk from the abbey of Byland in Yorkshire, or “The Byland Ghost Stories.”

From 14th-century France, we hear a story known in modern English as The Ghost of Guy, describing a series of ghostly visitations by a soul condemned to Purgatory —  and the surprisingly colorful reason they were necessary!

Our last ghost story comes from The Adventures of Arthur, a story from northern England, probably set down in the late 14thcentury.  It tells of a particularly loathsome manifestation of Queen Guinevere’s mother that rises from within a lake with some pious advice for her daughter.

Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples
Cult of Skulls, Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples

We end with two more modern efforts to provide evidence of souls suffering in the afterlife: Rome’s very small, and very odd Museum of the Souls in Purgatory created by a particularly obsessive 19th-century priest and a classic urban legend in audio form captured from late-night airwaves of a few decades ago.

* Norwegian listeners: my apologies for any errors in pronunciation of “Draumkvedet.”

 

 

 

 

#25 Death by Mother

#25 Death by Mother

For Mother’s Day this year we examine murderous mothers and maternal instincts gone very, very wrong in folklore, legends, and ballads.

We begin with a look at the Latin American legend of La Llorona (“the weeping woman”). We begin with a snippet of the trailer from the recently released film The Curse of La Llorona and also hear a clip from a 1961 Mexican film released in the US as The Curse of the Crying Woman. We also here an alleged recording of La Llorona herself captured in one of many such user videos uploaded to YouTube.

Still from "The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961
Still from “The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961

La Llorona’s story is that of a mortal woman who drowns her two children to avenge herself on faithless husband. In the afterlife she becomes a remorseful ghost and fearsome child-snatching bugaboo. We learn that this form of the legend is relatively modern, with the name “La Llorona” earlier attaching itself to a variety of tales that ascribe rather different motives and actions to the figure. Wilkinson reads for us a few of these earlier descriptions.

Next we have a look at some possible antecedents to the figure including the Aztec Cihuateteo (deified women who die during childbirth later becoming child-snatching spirits) as well as a water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, a figure sometimes associated with drownings.  Somewhat less credibly, a connection to tales brought by 19th-century German settlers in Mexico has even been suggested, namely that of the Weisse Frau (“White Lady”) who haunts the Hohenzollern Castle of Baden-Württemberg.  She also does away with children in the context of a thwarted love relationship (in a particularly gruesome way).

Cihuateteo sculpture
Cihuateteo sculpture

Whatever the source of the Llorana legend, it is not difficult to find parallels.  Our next example is the Greek myth of Medea, who kills the children she’s had with Jason to punish him for taking a new lover. Her revenge on her rival, Princess Glauke of Corinth, is also dreadful, and dreadfully interesting in the description Euripides provides in his play.  We hear Wilkinson read this passage and also hear a snippet of dialogue and the startlingly original soundtrack from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.

"Medea" by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.
“Medea” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.

Our next segment looks at some legends and songs about unwed mothers who kill their unwanted newborns.  We hear a bit about the numerous “Cry Baby Bridges” of North America.  This modern urban legend associates certain bridges, usually in rural areas, with the ghosts of infants drowned in the rivers the bridges span.  Often, particularly in older stories, the infants are illegitimate newborns.

In the Scottish or English ballad “The Cruel Mother” (also known as “The Greenwood Side”), we encounter a mother who has murdered her illegitimate children and later meets their spirits, learning from them the fate that awaits her on the other side. We hear a mix of various renderings of this folk song including: The Owl Service,  Anna & Elizabeth, Fiona Hunter, Rubus, 10,000 Maniacs,Lothlórien, and Addie Graham. We also hear a bit from the nearly identical song “The Lady Dressed in Green” which serves as the basis of a macabre childrens’ song-game.

In the song, “The Well Below the Valley” (also known as ‘The Maid and the Palmer”) describes a meeting between a mother who has given birth to and killed a number of illegitimate babies and a mysterious holy man who visits her at the well and displays supernatural knowledge of her deeds.  The song seems to originate with the biblical story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and likewise displaying supernatural knowledge of her checkered past.  This story is also the basis of the gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” from which we hear brief snippets by The Fairfield Four and Nick Cave.  The version of “The Well Below the Valley” we hear is by Shanachie.

La Llorona’s child-snatching aspect is anticipated by the Greek myth of Lamia, a woman with whom Zeus was said to have fallen in love, who was then punished by Zeus’ wife Hera.   who either kills Lamia’s children or causes her to do so.  Thereafter Lamia becomes a monstrous creature devoted to stealing or killing the children of mothers everywhere.  We hear how this story later merges with medieval witchcraft beliefs.

The show ends with two stories involving cannibalism and murderous mothers.  The first is that of Gudrun (or Kriemhild) from the Germanic Völsung saga upon which Wagner based his Ring Cycle (we hear a bit of Wagner here, music from The Twilight of the Gods. The second story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, involving a grisly vengeance exacted by Procne on the Thracian king Terseus, an act of vengeance for the rape of her sister Philomela. Wilkinson here again provides a dramatic reading from Ovid.

Peter Paul Rubens "Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys," 1637
Peter Paul Rubens “Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys,” 1637

The show also includes a short bit from Henry Burr’s 1916 song “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)”

#17 Christmas Ghosts

#17 Christmas Ghosts

Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom.  A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James.  An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all!  (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.

 

Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left

Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left

In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”

"The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes
“The Pied Piper Of Hamelin” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes

The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.

Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben.  The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.

Movie poster for Willard, 1972
Movie poster for Willard, 1972

We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading  village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain.  Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs.  Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.

Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284.  The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.

"Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers" Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564
“Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining —  explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance.  We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.

Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy.  Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors.   We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.

The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 3: Loudly Sing Cuckoo!

Episode 3: Loudly Sing Cuckoo!

After two episodes meandering about in the nocturnal folklore of Walpurgisnacht witches sabbaths, we’re inviting our Bone and Sickle friends out in the daylight for a celebrate the arrival of Spring.  Not to worry, there’s still human sacrifice in the air, as we begin the show looking at that pre-emininent example of the folk-horor genre, and what’s been called “cinema’s greatest pagan horror musical,” Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man.

In a curious counterpoint to the ghastly deed unfolding in the film’s final scene, the villagers of Summerisle sing a rather cheery song associated with Beltane, or the coming of summer, for which Beltane, in the Celtic calendar, is the first day.

The 13th-century song, “Sumer is a-cumin in” in modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting.

Again with the farting goats!  Listeners to our Walpurgisnacht episode will remember, the farting goats and witches from Goethe’s description of the witches’ sabbath on the Brocken in Faust.  Perhaps farting goats will become a theme for this show.  Please forgive the short, stinky side trip into this digression where we note the real world dangers associated with the issue as well as a popular YouTube video on the theme.

Also, speaking of things for which we might apologize, listeners should be warned that there is some unpleasantness regarding Wilkinson the Butler and his new spring suit at the beginning of this episode.  You may want to skip past all that if such things offend.

Finally we do come round to our actual topic, the cuckoo in folklore, and Wilkinson is kind enough to read us some quite interesting superstitions associated with the bird’s arrival in spring from an edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine published in London in 1852.

And then a lovely folk song about the cuckoo with some some tragic themes and variations.

A curious line in the song about the cuckoo “sucking eggs,” is explained in epic detail as Wilkinson narrates an an extremely grotesque episode from the bird’s natural life cycle, reading from On Nature’s Trail: A Wonder-book of the Wild written in 1912.

Then the odd association between cuckoos and certain themes in Science Fiction is briefly addressed.

"Village of the Damned" poster, based on "The Midwich Cuckoos"
“Village of the Damned” poster, based on “The Midwich Cuckoos”

We follow the cuckoo into an even stranger and mostly forgotten associations between cuckoos and cuckoldry, losing ourselves further in the notion of the cuckold as one “wearing the horns,”  and at long last arriving at a truly ghastly farmyard rationale behind the “horns” expression.

The painting below illustrates the “horns” symbolism rudely applied within a group of Italian commedia dell’arte performers.  Further illustrations below (17th-century England and 19th-century France respectively) rerpresent other satiric commentary.

Francois Bunel, “Actors of the Commedia dell'Arte" (1580)
Francois Bunel, “Actors of the Commedia dell’Arte” (1580)
Illustration of cuckold from 17th-century satiric broadside.
Illustration of cuckold from 17th-century satiric broadside.
A French satirical print depicting an "order" of cuckolds wearing horns.
A French satirical print depicting an “order” of cuckolds wearing horns.

Naturally, the subject of cuckoo clocks must also receive brief mention, but we find our way to our native “horror” habitat back through the notion of the cuckoo clock as a species of “automata clocks,” and thereby other more morbid examples, such as this stellar piece used in Werner Herzog’s 1973 film, Nosferatu.

A few grisly tales associated with public “death clocks” receive dramatic treatment including this fellow from the Czech town of Havličkův Brod and the grim folklore surrounding him.

We close the show out with the warning, “Carpe Diem” as expressed (with a nod to the cuckoo) by the avant-folk band, The Fugs in 1966.Become a Patron!