Category: fairy tales

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.

#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.

 

 

 

#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers

#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers

This episode examines the Lambton Worm, a dragon legend that inspired works by Bram Stoker and Ken Russel as well as well as the curious role of milk plays that story and in superstitions surrounding witchcraft.

The show begins with Wilkinson and Ridenour reviewing a phone message from Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast, then proceed to briefly examine the 1989 Ken Russel Film The Lair of the White Worm, mentioning along the way his other film Gothic, which would be of interest to listeners.

Publicity image from the film
Publicity image from the film

Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, upon which the Russel film is loosely based, is sadly far from his best work, written late in his life during a time of ill health. The story revolves around an aristocrat, Lady Arabella March, suspected of harboring an ancient, monstrous creature within a well hidden on her estate.  While the novel is a bit of a muddle, it does contain some intriguing descriptive passages that Wilkinson reads for us.

A snippet of a song from Russel’s film, presented as a folk song telling the story of the local worm legend is played and revealed to be a slightly revised version of an actual 1867 ballad about the Lambton Worm of Northeast England.  The legend tells how John Lambton of Lambton Hall hooked a weird and highly inedible creature while fishing, discards the beast, and lives to regret it. Without giving too much away, the story also involves a bloody battle with a dragon, a witch, a curse, and a lot of milk.

From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell
From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell

The legend and song (which is written in the local Sunderland dialect) have become part of the identity of residents of County Durham and towns along the river Wear. In 2014, an entertaining symphonic retelling of the legend was presented in Durham Cathedral by The Durham University Brass Band, and we use a clip or two in the show. Most other clips are from one of two folk-play-style pub performances of the story by The Jeffreys and Hexham Morris.

We also look at a connection between the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm legend.

The peculiar fondness of dragons for milk is next examined, beginning with a number of other dragon legends from England, some medieval tales briefly mentioned, and even an American newspaper from the 1930s.

Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft

We then turn our attention to the “beastly sucklers” of the title.  These include various animals into which witches transformed themselves or created in order to steal milk (sucking it from livestock by night).  They are mlk-hares, the troll-cat, the troll-ball, and the Icelandic tilberi.

The show ends with a quick look at a couple other dragon ballads that also include witches, including the particularly strange “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” in which a king’s daughter is transformed into a mackerel then obstinately refuses to be transformed back.

 

 

 

 

#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.