Category: fairy tales

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark fairy tale elements including floating heads and bags of bones are featured in a family of tales classified under the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 480, “Kind and Unkind Girls.”  Imaginative punishments and rewards for the kind and unkind characters in question are a further interesting element.  The girls in these tales are always sisters or stepsisters, and a wicked stepmother (sometimes mother) is part of the formula.

Our first example is the English tale, “The Three Heads of the Well.”  The fairy tale bears a strange connection to an earlier 11th-century British legend featuring as its heroine the Byzantine Empress Helena, here portrayed as the daughter of the mythical “Old King Cole” of nursery rhyme fame.  Both legend and fairy tale are set to the town of Colchester in Essex, understood to be named for King Cole.

King Cole
Father of Empress Helena?

From “The Three Heads of the Well,” we learn that being polite to heads floating out of magic wells serves one well, while rude behavior is strictly punished.  A curious element of the narrative  is the request made by the floating heads that their hair be combed.

Our next tale, “Three Fairies,” comes from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, or Lo cunto de li cunti (“The Tale of Tales), a source used in our previous episode for the story “Penta the Handless.” The tale involves an encounter with fairies living in a fantastic palace hidden deep within a chasm.

Basile’s tales are particularly noteworthy for their extravagant and playful verbiage, illustrated in several lengthy passages read for us by Mrs. Karswell.

In this tale, we learn the value of diplomacy in discussing the hair and scalp conditions of fairies. A second lesson: one must be particularly wary when allowing oneself to be sealed in a barrel.

Perrault
Perrault’s 1697 Tales of Passed Times

Our next story, “The Fairies,” comes from perhaps the most famous collection of fairy tales pre-Grimm, Charles Perrault’s 1697 volume Tales of Passed Times, sometimes subtitled Tales of Mother Goose.  This French story can be found in certain English-language collections under the title “Diamonds and Toads,” referring to what falls from the mouths of its kind and unkind girls respectively — a blessing or curse depending on the girls’ charity toward fairies disguised as mortals.

The Grimms’ story, “Frau Holle” is introduced with a snippet of the “Frau Holle Lied,”  a children’s song describing the grandmotherly (and witch-like) Frau Holle shaking feathers from her featherbed to make the snow in winter, an element from the Grimm story.

As in the Perrault’s “The Fairies” the Kind Sister in “Frau Holle” is sent to fetch water, and ends up not in an enchanted chasm, but falling into an enchanted well, passage to a sort of parallel dimension in which ovens demand their bread be baked, apple trees their fruit be picked, and Frau Holle has all sorts of housework for the heroine to perform.  The girl’s unkind sister, however fails miserably when confronted with identical tasks, and we see both the rewarding and punishing side of Holle, an aspect of the story that relates it loosely to the winter mythology of the Frau Holle/Frau Perchta figure I discuss in other shows and my book as inspiration for the Krampus.

The rewards and punishments doled out in “Frau Holle” are likely borrowed from Basile’s “The Three Fairies,” as you might be able to guess from these depictions:

We introduce our next  iteration of this tale with a clip is from an English-dubbed version of the 1964 Soviet folklore film Morozko (or Father Frost) by pre-eminent Russian fairy-tale director Alexander Rou.  The film weaves its own elaborate story around the bare bones of the classic tale “Father Frost” collected by Alexander Afanasyev in the 1850s. Here, goodness is demonstrated by the Kind Girl’s willingness to endure cold, a particularly Russian virtue.

Illustration of Father Frost from a 1932 volume

Our last story is the most obscure (and gruesome): “Rattle-Rattle-Rattle and Chink-Chink-Chink” from a 1919 collection by Parker Fillmore called Czechoslovak Fairy Tales.  As with several of our stories, a key role is played by an all-knowing housepet who can speak.

We wrap up with a footnote to our first story, “The Three Heads of the Well” and its connection via an Elizabethan play, George Peele’s “The Old Wives’ Tale” to “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man (1973), all of which leads us into the bizarre folklore of an aphrodisiac charm known as “cockle bread.”

(NOTE: For details on the 2022 Bone and Sickle shirts and merch mentioned in the show, please visit boneandsickle.com, or go directly to our Etsy shop.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

“The Girl with No Hands” is the name of a a folk-tale motif shared by a number of gruesome fairy stories in which the the amputation of the heroine’s hands allows her to escape death, the Devil, or a repugnant suitor.

(NOTE: For details on the 2022 Bone and Sickle shirts mentioned in the show, please visit boneandsickle.com, or go directly to our Etsy shop.)

We begin our show with a religious legend differing in narrative details but sharing the amputation theme. It’s a medieval story told in Eastern Orthodox lands of the terrible cost of bad manners at a funeral, specifically that of the Virgin Mary. As a further preliminary to our stories, we also offer a quick rundown on the Aarne–Thompson–Uther system of folk-tale classification, in which “The Girl with No Hands” is identified as ATU 706.

The oldest written example of this motif is the Italian story “Biancabella,” from Le piacevoli notti (“The Pleasant Nights”), a book published in two volumes between 1550 and 1553.  The author, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, appears to have modeled his collection on Boccaccio’s Decameron as it uses a similar frame-story, Straparola’s involving characters pleasantly passing their nights (hence the title) in the telling of tales.  Among the stories Straparola included, is the first version of “Puss in Boots.”

Le piacevoli nott
Straparola ‘s “The Pleasant Nights”

I won’t spoil listeners’ pleasure in hearing Mrs. Karswell read for you the original text but will divulge that its hand-losing heroine Biancabella shares a birth kinship with a serpentine fairy; also, that her hands are sacrificed in an effort to convince her wicked stepmother that her orders to execute her step-daughter have been carried out, and that guilty parties endure in the end a fiery foretaste of hell.

Our second story is “Penta the Handless” from Il Pentamerone (or “The Tale of Tales”) was written about a century later, in 1634, by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. This collection of stories also makes use of the framing device, having the stories told by a group of courtiers attempting to cheer a melancholy princess.  Among the 50 stories included are the first written versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

In this story, Penta’s mutilation is self-inflicted as a means of repelling the incestuous advances of her brother.  Her royal sibling has an exotic means of expelling her from the kingdom, namely, sealing her  in a tarred chest and casting her into the sea (a motif that dates back to the plays of Euripides or even the story of the infant Moses).

Pentamerone
Basile’s Il Pentamerone

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm provide a relatively late example of this narrative, one however that has provided the ATU #706 with a name:,”The Girl with No Hands.” The story is ncluded in the Grimm’s first 1812 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, i.e., “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Our Grimm segment, by the way, begins with a clip from the trailer for the 1962 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.

As an oral folk-tale, this German version dispenses with some of the detailed intrigues that mark its two Italian antecedents. Rather than a wicked in-law or brother, it’s the  Devil, who tricks a down-on-his-luck miller into doing the gruesome deed.  As is frequent in German stories collected by the Grimms, a magical forest-dwelling man also plays a role.

We also briefly discuss a few versions of the story published after Jacob & Wilhelm’s version — other German, Italian, and Hungarian tales which place blame for the amputation not on the Devil but on wicked family members.  A gruesome detail included in a few of these mirrors a similarly faux-cannibalistic scene from the Grimms’ original “Snow White.”

We return to Russian for our final story, “The Armless Maiden,” one of the nearly 600 folk tales or skazki contained in the multi-volume Russian Fairy Tales collection compiled by state ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev between 1855 and 1863.

The heroine here is an orphan happily living with her brother until the day her brother takes a bride, as she turns out to be a witch, who is less than happy sharing the household with another female —  and has a particularly brutal way of showing it.  A strange example of sort Lamarckian evolutionary magic marks this one, with the armless maiden giving birth to a child with silver arms. A particularly gruesome manner of dispatching the sorceress is also a highlight.

We end the show with a Russian musical snippet from an electronic band from Moscow, a duo making music since 2013, under the name IC3PEAK.  The song in question rather appropriately  begins with the line “I come from a Russian Horror Fairy Tale” and  further endears itself with the delightful Baba-Yaga-esque animation of its music video.

Afanasyev
1895 edition of Afanasyev’s “Russian Fairy Tales”

 

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.

 

Myth and Magic of the Smith

Myth and Magic of the Smith

Folklore of the blacksmith portrays him as a semi-magical figure, a wily opponent of the Devil, a mythic creator in classical and biblical narratives, and an embodiment of occult wisdom within certain secret societies and neopagan groups.

We begin with an audio snippet from the excellent 2017 horror-fantasy Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil, a cinematic elaboration of the Basque folktale, “Patxi the Blacksmith” collected back in the 1960s by the Spanish priest and Basque ethnographer Jose Miguel Barandiaran.

This is one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of variants of “Blacksmith and Devil” tales found from Russia to Appalachia, all of which involve a smith selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for some reward, then somehow tricking the Devil out of his due. Some variations of  the story collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are outlined, and Mrs. Karswell reads passages of an Irish variant from the 1896 volume, The Humor of Ireland, one which also serves as a sort of origin story for a popular seasonal custom.

While most of the blacksmiths in these tales tend to be roguish, England offers a devil-combating smith who is actually quite saintly, namely St. Dunstan, the 10-century Abbot of Glastonbury, who also found time to master the harp and the art of blacksmithing. We hear several variations of his encounter with the Devil.

St. Dunstan and the Devil

We then explore folk customs associated with St. Clement, the first-century bishop of Rome whose particular style of martyrdom led to his being embraced as patron of blacksmiths. A variety of celebrations by ironworkers on St. Clement’s Day (November 23) are discussed; we hear a snippet of a song associated with “clementing” (going door to door to collect donations for the “Old Clem Feast,”) and hear a tale told at these feasts explaining how the blacksmith was declared “King of All Trades” by King Alfred.  There’s also a bit about a pyrotechnic festivity known as “anvil firing” associated with these celebrations and a snippet of the traditional blacksmith-toasting song, “Twanky Dillo,” sung by the Wild Colonial Boys.

Moving further back into Anglo-Saxon history, we encounter the figure of Wayland the Smith, one who appears briefly as a swordsmith and armorer in Beowulf and other English narratives but whose story is most thoroughly presented in the Lay of Völund part of the Poetic Edda (“Wayland” being an adaptation of the Old Norse name “Völund.”)  We hear a brief summary of this tale, including the particularly gruesome revenge taken by the smith upon the king who takes him captive.

We also hear a bit about Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, a Neolithic long barrow or stone-chamber tomb supposedly occupied by a ghostly blacksmith.

Wayland escapes
Wayland escapes from “Myths and legends of all nations” (1914)

We then have a look at the smith god of classical mythology, Vulcan (Roman) or  Hephaestus (Greek), his physical traits and fantastic creations, which extend beyond simple smithing into the realm of magic and even the creation of the first human female, Pandora.

Another metalworker associated with mankind’s origins is Tubal-Cain, described in the book of Genesis as the first “forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.”

As a descendent of Cain (who commits mankind’s first murder) and a creator of weapons enabling more deaths, Tubal-Cain’s folkloric reputation tends to be rather black. The  apocryphal book of Enoch, presents a truly Luciferian blacksmith seemingly based on Tubal-Cain, the fallen angel Azazel, who utterly corrupts mankind before the flood of Noah.

This flood narrative also figures into the mythology of Freemasonry and the role assigned the figure of Tubal-Cain in its rituals. (I give away a few masonic secrets in this segment and can only hope I will not pay for this with my life.)

Also discussed is the Masonic-inspired Society of the Horseman’s Word whose members were said to exercise supernatural control over horses in rural areas of Scotland and England in the 19th century.  The order’s mythological founder was understood to be either Cain or Tubal-Cain, depending on the region.

A blacksmith and son of one of these Horsemen was Robert Cochrane, who in 1966, founded The Clan of Tubal Cain, a coven and spiritual path intended to rival the Gardnerian witchcraft largely defining the neopagan world of the 1960s.  We end the show with a particularly strange and tragic tale associated with this group.

 

 

 

 

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.

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

Witchcraft in Southern Italy

In southern Italy, belief in witchcraft  has a long history, much of it centering on the town of Benevento, about 30 miles east of Naples.

From a 1428 testimony by accused witch Matteuccia da Todi, we have the first mention (anywhere in Europe) of witches flying to their sabbats — their gathering spot, in this case, being Benevento.  Matteuccia was also the first to speak of  flying ointment as a means to achieve this.  We include  a musical setting by the southern Italian band Janara of the incantation that was spoken while applying the ointment.

Sermons of the Franciscan monk Bernardino of Siena seems to have introduced the idea of Benevento as a mecca for witches, mentioning a certain tree  as the center of these gatherings, one later identified as a walnut.

Raffaele Mainella walnut tree
“Walnut of Benevento” by Raffaele Mainella, 1890?

Though no tradition around a specific location for this tree has survived in Benevento, the legend has been wholeheartedly embraced by the local distillers of Strega (witch) liqueur, created in 1833 and now distributed worldwide. This seems to have been part of a 19th-century revival of interest in the legend, which saw the composition of a popular poem, “The Walnut Tree of Benevento,” which added a serpent living in the tree’s branches, and probably inspired Niccolo Paganini to compose his signature piece, Le Streghe, (The Witches) from which we hear a snippet.  (Yes, that’s a real clip about Strege liqueur and elections from the film Kitty Foyle).

What really locked down the local mythology was an essay written in 1634 by Benevento’s chielf physician, Pietro Piperno, one titled “On the Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento.”  This is the first mention of the species of tree in question.  Piperno also places the walnut at the center of a curious rite conducted by the Lombards occupying the region in the 10th century, a rite he sees as a model for the Benevento witch tales of his own day.  Mrs. Karswell also reads for us a retelling from Piperno’s text of a hunchback who stumbles upon a sabbat, only to have the hump on his back magically removed.

The discovery of a the ruins of a temple to Isis in Benevento in 1903 led to further speculation as to possible origins of the region’s witchcraft myths, but it was the Roman goddess Diana most strongly associated with southern Italy’s witches, in part because the name used there for a type of witch is janara, believed to come from the Latin dianara, a servant of Diana.

We hear snippet form a 2015 Italian horror film called Janara  (retitled in English “The Witch Behind the Door”), a bit about folk practices taken against these night-hag-esque beings, and of their activities at sabbats, which apparently includes dancing La Volta.

Then we hear a tale of “the fishwife of Palermo,” as she’s identified in 1588 trial records of the Sicilian Inquisition.  It illustrates an aspect of Italian witch mythology that seems to have absorbed elements of fairy lore, including details such as a beautiful king and queen presiding over nocturnal gatherings.

From Naples we hear the sad tale of the “Witch of Port’Alba,” who was sentenced to a peculiar fate for casting spells on her wedding day, a story involving leaping, bell-wearing witches on the slopes of Mr. Faito on Naple’s southern outskirts, and a story of a witch calming lost souls said to be screaming from the depths of Vesuvius.

Still from “Magia Lucan” by Di Gianni”

We then move beyond the witch of folklore and Inquisitions to the notion of the witch as folk-healer, something very much alive and well, as represented in the short documentaries on Souther Italian magic made in the 1950s-70s by Luigi Di Gianni in conjunction with anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, who was mentioned in our discussion of tarantella possession in our Pied Piper episode.  An example of these films would be L’Attaccatura (dialect for fattucchiera, the standard Italian for folk-healer, or literally “fixer.”  A whole playlist of the films can be found here, though unless you speak Italian (and local dialects), you’ll have to settle for YouTube’s auto-translate function.

Of great interest to those consulting folk-healers is protection from the evil eye or malocchio. The concept of fascinatura or “binding” is central to the evil eye’s workings, one which happens to be the English title of a 2020 Italian folk-horror film sampled in the discussion.

The driving force of envy said to be behind the evil eye is well illustrated in the spurned lover a the center of the 1963 film Il Demonio, from which we hear excerpts.  (In the show, I mistakenly called the film “Demonia” (feminine form), missing the point somewhat as the actual “demonic” forces portrayed might not be those belonging to the rejected female lover and town outcast/witch, but those of the male villagers around her.)

Still from "Il Demonio"
Still from “Il Demonio”

A number of magical charms and gestures prescribed against the evil eye are examined, as are the pazzarielli of Naples, flamboyantly costumed characters who deliver street blessings against the malocchio.  Their characteristic cry, “Sciò sciò ciucciuè” (sort of “shoo, bad luck”) is take up as a 1953 song by Nino Taranto, which we hear (along with a Calabrian song about the possessor of the evil eye, the jetattore)

"Sciò Sciò" Neapolitan luck-bringer figure
“Sciò Sciò” Neapolitan luck-bringer figure

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Dead Teeth: Fairies, Rats, and Worms

Dead Teeth: Fairies, Rats, and Worms

Explore the folklore of the Tooth Fairy and teeth, particularly dead teeth — those lost by children or adults, and those removed from skulls.

We open with a brief look at the Tooth Fairy as inspiration for horror films, hearing a bit about (and a montage of clips from) Darkness Falls (2003), The Tooth Fairy (2006), The Haunting of Helena (2013), and Tooth Fairy (2019).  Though none of these films were particularly successful with critics or audiences, there would seem to be some worthwhile horror inherent in the childhood ritual — psychological vulnerabilities related to the child’s trust of parents, nighttime intruders, and the death of a body part.  We also hear a bit about the SyFy Channel’s 2016 show Candle Cove (Season 1 of Channel Zero), which also featured a Tooth- Fairy-inspired monster.  We hear a creepy snippet of a secret 1970s kid show featured in Candle Cove as a tool of and deadly mind manipulation.

Character from Channel Zero/Candle Cover
Character from Channel Zero/Candle Cover

Surprisingly perhaps, the Tooth Fairy known by Americans has little in way of direct historical connection to older, European customs.  It first appears in print no earlier than 1908.  We have a look at some of these earliest references, including an article with an unusual connection to a sensational murder case as well as some references to curious  also-ran fairy characters that were once used in American parenting.  (At the top of this section we hear a clip from Tom Glazer’s 1953 song, “Willie Had a Little Tooth.”)

Often suggested as an ancient precedent for Tooth-Fairy customs is the Norse and Icelandic concept of the tannfé (“tooth gift” or “tooth-fee”) mentioned all the way back in the medieval Eddas.  A quick look into the matter, however, reveals some major differences: there is no magical fairy or transformation of the lost tooth into money,  nor was the gift given on the occasion of losing a tooth, but when the child cuts his first tooth.

A more direct precedent can be found in widespread customs that have a rat or mouse taking away the child’s lost tooth or that tooth being ritualistically offered to a mouse.  The most prominent representation of this is probably in Spanish-speaking countries, where El Ratón Perez, Perez the Mouse, plays the role, but there are also rats and mice exchanging teeth in Italy, Germany, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and France, and Hungary.  In many 0f these countries, it’s not money provided in exchange for the child’s tooth but the blessing of stronger adult tooth.

We then switch gears to look at some alternative customs for the disposition of the shed milk tooth (also those lost by adults).  One particularly popular in Britain is to cast the tooth into a fire.  One reason for doing this is to prevent the tooth from being used in witchcraft spells against the person whose it.  Mrs. Karswell reads us some passages on this along with a couple on the teeth from graveyard skulls used by the merely superstitious who are not practitioners of the craft.

Not so dissimilar to witchcraft was medieval dentistry.  We hear several horrifying treatments from historic texts along with a bit on the presumptive source of dental problems in this period: the dreaded tooth worm.

18th-century carving representing tooth worm, Southern France
18th-century carving representing tooth worm, Southern France

If neither dentistry or witchcraft proved helpful there was always religion.  The saint to whom prayers would be directed here would be St. Apollonia, one of group of virgins put to death during an anti-Christian uprising in 2nd-century Alexandria.  Her connection to this concern arises from her teeth being knocked out during her martyrdom.  We also hear a passage describing the mania for carrying alleged teeth of the saint in Britain during the time of Henry VI.

St Apollonia, 17th-cent, school of Francisco de Zur
St Apollonia, 17th-cent, school of Francisco de Zur

Rounding out our exploration religion and human teeth is brief look at the discovery in Mexico City of human teeth discovered in an 18th-century life-size wooden sculpture dubbed “The Lord of Patience.”

We follow this with a look a more pragmatic use of human teeeth, namely “Waterloo Teeth,” or the teeth of fallen soldiers and others (including those obtained by grave-robbers) once used to make dentures.

Our episode closes with topic of teeth and the Final Judgement, namely, the pre-Reformation Christian teaching that held that lost teeth must be saved in order to accompany the body to its destiny after death.  A bizarre news story from 2014 considers the horrifying consequences in which this superstition is mocked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#34 The Goblins Will Get You!

#34 The Goblins Will Get You!

Goblin lore from old folk tales, literature, ancient and modern legends is our topic this time around.

We begin with the poem from which we take our episode title, James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” in which the poet remembers his childhood nanny and her “witch tales” and threats about goblins coming.

Next, we take a quick look at the word “goblin” itself, and how it relates via the goblin-like “boggart” or “boggle”  of the Northern England and Scotland to our word, “bogeyman” (hearing a snippet along the way of Henry Hall’s 1932 rendering of the song, “Hush, Hush, Hush, Here Comes The Bogeyman.”)

The word “goblin” seems to have made its way into English from Normandy.  A 12th-century tale that from that region employs a latinzed version of the word, “Gobelinus,” to name a creature that menaces the 6th-century saint Taurinus in Orderic Vitalis’s Historia Ecclesiastica.  The creature’s hapeshifting between a bear, a lion, and a buffalo is a trait we’ll see later with other goblins.  We also hear of the first English usage of the word — one which appears in a translation of the Bible, of all places.

The root of the word, “goblin,” and German and Old French cognates, points to a connection with caves, or hollows in rocks, which takes us to the a certain species of goblin in Cornwall particularly, which is said to reside underground, specifically in mines. In England, these are known as “knockers” for the sounds they’re said to make with the tiny miners’ hammers, a words that evolved into “tommyknocker” for the spirits haunting American mines in the 19th century. We hear some examples of its playful and sometimes malicious interactions with miners, and of a particularly gruesome death attributed to these beings in Colorado.

Our next section looks at several legendary goblins that made their way into the poems and folklore studies of Sir Walter Scott. The first example, appearing in the poem “Marmion,” involves “Goblin Hall,” a name given to Yester Castle in East Lothian, which was said to have been built by a sorcerer assisted by goblins.  We also hear an additional tale associated with the magician featuring a magic fruit he’s said to have given his daughter.  Taking a bite of the “Coulston pear” proves very, very unlucky.

Ruins of "Goblin Hall," Yester Castle
Ruins of “Goblin Hall,” Yester Castle

Scott also mentions a “Goblin Cave,” in his 1810 poem, “The Lady of the Lake.” Near Loch Lomond, it was not only the legendary home of goblis but also served as a location for a scene in Scott’s poem and as unlikely inspiration for a well known Catholic hymn composed by Schubert.

Scott’s 1805  poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” adapts a local legend of a goblin named Gilpin Horner. It also features an undead warlock based on the historic scholar Michael Scott, who came to be regarded in the popular imagination as a sort of Dr. Faustus charcter.  Mrs. Karswell reads a bit of the poem, in which the goblin meets a spectacularly melodramatic end.

Our last stop in Scotland is the imposing Hermitage Castle near the English border, which like the “Goblin Hall,” was said to have built by goblins under the direction of the magician “Bad Lord Soulis” (as he’s known in legend).  In the legend and ballad Scott collected, Soulis is supposed to have carried out bloody occult rites in Hermitage Castle with the assistance of his goblin familiar Robin Redcap.  Redcaps are a particularly malevolent form of goblin known in Scotland for dipping their caps in human blood, which serves as dye.  We hear of Soulis’ particularly grisly mode of death and learn of another interesting Scottish figure, the prophet Thomas the Rhymer, along the way.

"Bad Lord Souls" from The Book of British Ballads, Samuel Carter Hall, 1849
“Bad Lord Souls” from The Book of British Ballads, Samuel Carter Hall, 1849

We then hear some similar tales from Germany involving goblins serving people of power.  The ruined Castle Hardenstein in North Rhine-Westphalia, was where King Neveling kept court and the home of the goblin Goldemar, whose tale features a grotesque act of revenge.  Similarly, we hear of the goblin Hödekin, servant of the Bishop of Hildesheim, who exacts a similarly grotesque revenge on an individual a bit too eager to lift the goblin’s  cloak of invisibility.

Hobgoblins, we learn, are a species of goblin attached to a particular home or farm.  They are generally helpful but can be mischievous or even cruel.  A surefire way of getting rid of a troublesome hobgoblin is explained.

Next is a look at the 17th-century pamphlet representing a famous hobgoblin, namely Robin Good-Fellow, his Mad Prankes and Merry Jests.  The book seems to have been inspired by the even more famous hobgoblin, Puck, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We hear a passage from the Bard which seems to reach back to that 12th-century goblin, Gobelinus, and his shapeshifting ways.

We end the show with a nod to modern “goblins,” the first being the “Kentucky Goblins,” the name given to some alleged extraterrestrial visitors said to have lain siege in 1955 to the Sutton family farmhouse near Kelly Kentucky.  This was a landmark event in UFO mythology, giving birth to the phrase “little green men,” a phrase  featured in countless jokes and songs, like George Morgan’s 1961 “Little Green Men,” which we hear a bit of.  The event is commemorated annually in Kelly, Kentucky with The Kelly Little Green Men Days.  We hear some clips from a promo for that. Introducing our “modern” segment was also a clip from Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 song,”The Wobblin’ Goblin.”

The show ends with a clip of a 2019 “goblin” sighting ludicrously analyzed by the journalists of Inside Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

#31 Baba Yaga

#31 Baba Yaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millyar as the Baba Yaga
Millyar as the Baba Yaga

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

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

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

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