Category: decapitation

#29 The Bloody Chamber

#29 The Bloody Chamber

Bluebeard and his bloody chamber full of murderous secrets is widely known as one of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, but it’s part of a larger family of folk tales and ballads we examine in this episode.

Our show begins with a brief summary of this tale in which a young woman is courted by the mysterious and strangely whiskered nobleman, Bluebeard.  After lavishly entertaining the woman and her family in his castle,  it’s agreed they should marry.  Soon thereafter, Bluebeard departs on a journey leaving his bride keys to all the rooms of his estate, all of which to which may use —  but one.  Curiosity, however, getting the better of her, she unlocks the forbidden door and must face Bluebeard’s murderous rage at her disobedience.

1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime
1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime

Perrault’s 1697 story, which draws upon older folk tales, is primarily known thanks to its inclusion in collections of fairy tales intended for children.  Today, however, you’re unlikely to find the gruesome yarn anthologized for younger readers.  If included at all, it may be sanitized, as it was in the 1970 children’s record from which we excerpted a clip at the show’s open.

Along with fairy tale collections and cheaply printed chapbooks, the Bluebeard story was largely preserved through theatrical representation.  We look at a number of productions from the late 18th and early 19th century that treated the story in a semi-comic or melodramatic fashion, often combining elements of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, such as Harlequin and his antics.  Wilkinson provides of some readings of the comedic dialogue as well as stage directions which often made the “bloody chamber” a lavishly designed and spooky centerpiece of the production.

Particularly important to how were think of Bluebeard today is the 1798 production Blue Beard, or Female Curiosity!, which moved the story to Turkey in order to exploit a growing fascination with the East.  This image of Bluebeard and indeed its importance in the English-language repertoire is suggested by the inclusion of the play in the 1993 Jane Campion film, The Piano, a story set during this period.  The theatrical tradition of representing Bluebeard’s wives as bloody heads severed from their bodies is demonstrated in this scene as well as many 19th-century photographs of such stagings.

1868 Harper's magazine article w/ illustrations by Winslow Homer.
1868 Harper’s magazine article w/ illustrations by Winslow Homer.

Also discussed is 1 1903 Christmas staging of Mr. Bluebeard in Chicago, famous not so much for its musical numbers (such as the song “Raving,” which we hear excerpted) but more for a landmark fire, which claimed the lives of 602 theater-goers.

While there have been dozens of films that play with the theme of women marrying men with mysteriously deceased wives, only a few have directly addressed the tale.  We very briefly discuss the 1944 Bluebeard with John Carradine, the 1972 Bluebeard with Richard Burton, and the 2009 French film, Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard), which is the most traditional of the lot.

In the next part of our show, we look at related folktales including the Grimm’s story “Fitcher’s Bird,” which features bloody chambers that must not be opened, a skull dressed as a bride, a woman rolling in honey and feathers, and a wedding that’s diverted into an execution party.  We also look at the English tale “Mr. Fox,” in which a woman spying on her bridegroom discovers his habit

The Grimms also gave us “The Robber Bridegroom,” in which a bride-to-be visits her intended’s home “out in the dark forest,” where she makes unnerving discovery similar to that in Mr. Fox (but with an added element of grisly horror thrown in).

1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime
1870s poster for Covent Garden pantomime

As a sort of musical tonic to all these tales of women and the bloody chambers they might end up in, we close the show with two traditional ballads in which the woman more satisfyingly gains the upper hand, and ends up slaying the serial killer she is to wed.  The frist of these, is a Dutch ballad  “Lord Halewijn” and the second “Lady Isobel and the Outlandish (or “Elf”) Knight.

We close with a peculiar tidbit from modern life, a weird parallel between ancient folk ballads and a true-crime oddity.

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

This time we look at the myths of British giants Gog and Magog, and a belief in biblical giants seemingly confirmed by giant bones dug from the earth.

We begin with a 1953 newsreel welcoming reconstructed figures of Gog and Magog back to the London Guildhall after the Nazi bombing of the city destroyed the originals. While Londoners may know the figures as those paraded in the Lord Mayor’s show each November, we also look at a more American perspective on Gog and Magog as figures representing nations allied with the Antichrist from the biblical book of Revelation.

A book quoted in the show.
A book quoted in the show.

Our next stop in the Bible is a verse from Genesis Chapter 6, speaking of “giants in the earth in those days,” (before the Flood).  The word “giant,” we learn, was chosen to translate the Hebrew “Nephilim.”  Our Genesis passage suggests the Nephilim are the offspring of angels mating with human women, and this notion is reinforced by apocryphal texts, such as the Book of Enoch, which dubs these fallen angels “Watchers.” We hear a snippet featuring kindly Watchers from Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film, Noah, which whitewashes the traditional understandings of the Watchers.

The word, “Nephilim,” we learn, literally means “fallen ones,” (“fallen” as in divine beings tainted by human hybridization.)  The suggestion that they are physically large comes from another Genesis story in which Moses sends spies to the land of Canaan in preparation for a Hebrew invasion and receives a report on “Nephilim” who in size compare to men as men do to grasshoppers.  We also hear some amusing stories of the biblical King Og, whose 13-foot bed is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy.

Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = "witness of the Deluge")
Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = “witness of the Deluge”)

Next follows a quick survey of the bones of prehistoric animals mistaken for the bones of biblical Nephilim (or St. Christopher, who was also believed to be a giant from the land of Canaan).  Bones of mastodons figures prominently as do the teeth of St. Christopher, though holy relics produces from beached whales and deceased hippopotami are also mentioned.  We also learn of the patron saint of hares, St. Melangell  (also somehow gifted with oversized bones) a dinosaur named after the human scrotum, and a prehistoric species of giant salamander mistaken for one of the Nephilim by 18th century naturalist Jakob Scheuchzeri, who figures into the early science fiction novel War of the Newts (represented with a snippet from a 2005 BBC radio drama). The  hoaxed 12th-century discovery of a gigantic skeleton of King Arthur at Glastonbury is also discussed.

We learn that Arthur turns out to be connected to the Cornish folktale of that murderous scamp “Jack the Giant Killer.” Referring to an 18th-century text, we run through the grisly episodes of this story (including a long-forgotten one including a female follower of Lucifer).  Not only does the original tale see Jack inducted to Arthur’s Round Table, but it seems the Cornish story is a retelling of a similar Arthurian story of the king slaying a giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy.  A strangely mirrored version of this site, St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall also was said to be home to a giant named Corineus, a figure that seems to be related to Cormoran, the first giant killed in “Jack the Giant Killer.”

19th-century "toy theater" figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)
19th-century “toy theater” figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)

Along the way, Wilkinson provides us some richly detailed passages regarding Arthur’s encounter with the giant of Normandy from the 15th-century telling in The Alliterative Morte Arthure.

On the border between Cornwall and Devon is a site known as “Giant’s Leap,” where another mythic Corineus was said to have killed a giant in the Geoffrey of Monmouth, pseudo-history of Britain, Regum Britanniae.  Monmoth’s fable tells of Britain being founded by Brutus of Troy, sent to the island by the goddess Diana, who foretells his victory over the indigenous giants there.  The last of these giants to die (as we hear dramatized in a reading from the text by Wilkinson) is hurled from the “Giant’s Leap” by one of Brutus’ soldiers — who happens to be named Corineus.  That giant’s name in the text is Gogmagog.

The rest of our story, getting from these two names to the two figures represented at the London Guildhall and Lord Mayor’s Show is a bit complicated.  It’s best listened to in the show, where you’ll also hear how the first offspring born on Britain were the product of exiled female criminals from Troy and incubi — another bit of the fable unfolded in Monmoth’s  Regum Britanniae.

 

 

 

Episode Six: Lost Heads

Episode Six: Lost Heads

As June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist approaches, the folklore of decapitation suggested itself as an appropriate theme for this episode.  We begin by way of an old English children’s rhyme and game, “Oranges and Lemons” based on melody played by the bells of St. Clemens church in London.  The rhyme ends with the couplet:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop of your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead

… which should explain our inclusion here.  We hear this melody (played by local bagpipers) during a procession in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.  In the film,the tune accompanies a mock beheading game that the director borrowed from a traditional sword dance, one particularly well preserved in the south Yorkshire town of Grenoside.

Grenoside Sword Dancers
Grenoside Sword Dancers

We then review the John the Baptist story, how Salome offers a very pleasing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to King Herod, receiving in gratitude for the performance, a reward of her choosing,  Thanks to Salome’s mother, Herodias, the reward chosen is the head of John the Baptist’s. We learn a bit more Herodias, and hear a delightful tale (or tales) of divine punishment she received as well as her late medieval association with the folklore of witchcraft.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.

Next we move on the to the discussion of cephalaphores, or saints who suffer decapitation but stubbornly refuse to die, instead traipsing about holding their severed heads.  We discuss the cephalaphores St. Denis, St. Edmund (who’s head was guarded by a remarkably tame wolf) and St. Winifred, better known for her holy well.

Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 - 1498
Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 – 1498

As it turns out, holy wells, which are particularly prominent in Wales, are also associated with severed human heads — more often than one might expect.  Some examples and a likely a explanation are offered, and we learn which holy well until recently afforded the visitor the opportunity to employ a saintly skull as a dipper.

Wouldn’t you know it but the topic of magic wells and heads somehow brings us back to The Wicker Man as we learn about a connection between a song in the film and a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama rich in songs, spells, and fairy stories.

We then return to head-chopping games, and one suggested by a mysterious green stranger who appears at King Arthur’s Christmas feast in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Also mentioned is a cinematic treatment of the tale, 1984’s Sword of the Valiant, featuring Sean Connery in an outlandish costume that almost gives his wardrobe in Zardoz a run for its money.

14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant
14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant

Even though it’s already well known, it seemed wrong to omit Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its headless horseman. Wilkinson seemed particularly eager to discuss it, so we leave that to him (with more than a little help in the sound effects department.)

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.

Scotland offers our next two stories, one which tells of a sort of headless horseman of the Highlands (and some fortune-telling butter) and the other of Mary Queen of Scots badly botched beheading.

Death Mask of Mary Stuart.
Death Mask of Mary Stuart.

Then it’s back to Wales for the story of Bran the Blessed, a mythological king, whose (not quite dead) head was quite the entertainer and ended up buried under the Tower of London once it shut up.  The execution of Anne Boleyn also gets a nod with macabre ditty from 1934 about her headless ghost.

If you find yourself horrified by the obsession with heads and head-chopping in these Celtic nations, you are not alone.  Classical writers also were appalled by decapitation fixations of the northern tribes. We hear some choice words on the subject, read by Wilkinson.  We also learn about a bizarre super-weapon employed by Celtic warriors — “brain balls” —  and how they figure into a story of a newly converted Celtic chieftain.

The Germanic tribes too had a loose head or two in their mythology.  Hear the story of Mimir, whose decapitated head Odin preserved and relied upon for counsel.

We close the show with some talk of magicians (an alchemist and a supposedly wicked pope) who created their own “brazen heads” intended to likewise offer advice or prognostication.

From "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay." 1630
From “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” 1630