Category: folk customs

Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Western tales of bottled spirits, imps, devils, and even ghosts are largely borrowed from the Islamic and Jewish legends of jinn captured by King Solomon.  In this episode, we explore how this is expressed in folk tales, demonological treatises, and literary borrowings.

We begin with a nod to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (and a clip from Exorcist II, The Heretic.) Here, aconnection between feared Assyrian spirits such as the jinn is mentioned. Pazuzu’s identity as a spirit of ill winds, brings us to a wind-related track from the original Exorcist soundtrack (from 1972’s oddball album Songs from a Hill.)  It’s a recording of a wind harp, or Aeolian harp.  And this brings us to the Greek god of winds, Aeolus.

Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.
Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.

Aeolus features in the Odyssey in an episode that anticipates our bottled spirit motif.  He presents Odysseus a bag of wind to speed him on his journey.  The wind spirits contained in this bag then brings us to a story about King Solomon trapping a wind demon in Arabia to aid him his construction of the Jerusalem Temple. We hear this particulsar tale from the medieval text,  The Testament of Solomon read by Mrs. Karswell.

We then look a bi from further medieval texts commenting on Solomon’s capture of demons in various vessels, and how thesee are later broken open by heedless conquerors of Jerusalem, releasing a Pandora-style plague of demons upon the world.

Our motif entered the literary world via 17th-century Spain, in Luis Velez de Guevara’s satirical novel El Diable Cojuelo, “the lame devil.”  We also hear a bit about a French adaptation, Alain-René Lesage’s 1707 novel, Le Diable Boiteux.  Both of these feature the demon Asmodeus, and referenced Asmodeus’s identity as  demon of lust, a notion taken up in various demonological treatises.

Le Diable Boiteux,
Alain-René Lesage’ss 1707 as Le Diable Boiteux, The Lame Devil

Next we look at folk tales, beginning in County Cork, Ireland, with the “Legend of  Bottle Hill,” which takes its name from a curious (and curiously inhabited) bottle obtained by one Mick Purcell on this particular Irish hill.  Both good and rather surprising bad luck follow.

From Scotland, we hear the legend of the Wizard of Reay and of his efforts to evade Satan’s over-eager efforts to claim his soul, as well as his bottle-imp story, involving a cask in the Cave of Smoo, a reputedly haunted sea cave in Sutherland.

The Wizard of Rea’s tactic for controlling the demon he finds in the cask is the same as we find in the folk tale, “The Wizards of Westman Islands,” from Iceland (in which we learn what role the sinister “Sending” plays in Icelandic folklore.)

From The Brothers Grimm, we hear “The Spirit in the Glass Bottle,” involving another bottled imp discovered in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, and of a similar tactic used to subdue his volatile nature.

Jumping ahead a bit, we look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1891 short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which likewise adapts themes from the previous folk tales, while adding further complications and convolutions.  The story has served as basis for several films, an opera, a standard  magician’s trick, and more than one radio adaptation. (We hear a bit of one from a 1974 production by CBS Radio Mystery Theater.)

Stevenson makes use of some elaborate caveats attached to his bottled spirit, conditions that will produce either good or very bad luck, involving among other things, the need to rid oneself of the infernal talisman before one’s death by selling it for less than one payed for it.  This motif is also found in German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel  Galgenmännlein (“little gallows man”), a name taken from the German word for the mandrake plant, and here we dig a bit into the grim folklore of that plant. Fouqué’s story makes use of some nice, gothic elements in its resolution, a “Black Fountain,” ravening beast, and sinister black rider, among others.

Switching gears a bit, we have a look at the topic of witch bottles. It’s a perhaps questionable how well these fit our theme, but we dig up some interesting source texts describing their original use, unseemly as it is.  And we hear of some startling, tragic accidents involved in their historical use.

Witch bottle from Padstow
Witch bottle from Padstow England, 1800s.

We close our show with a look at near contemporary instances of those who claim to capture demons and ghosts in bottles.  Apparently, bottled ghosts can be a big money maker. At least in New Zealand.

 

 

The Jinn

The Jinn

They Arabic mythology of the jinn is, not surprisingly, quite different than what you might glean from Western pop culture. Films such as 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad and 1958 Ray Harryhausen classic, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which we hear sampled in our opening might have you believe these creatures function as nothing more than wish-granting slaves, but their existence needn’t be entangled with human wants and needs.

One Thousand and One Nights, or the collection sometimes titled Arabian Nights, is the original Western source when it comes to our topic of the genies or the jinn.  This begins with the word “genie,” an English rendering of the original French translation of the Arabic word, “jinn” (which can be used as both plural and singular, btw.)  These tales are told within a frame story related by Scheherazade, a woman providing a cliff-hanger night-by-night narrative intended to delay the plans of her newly wed husband, who intends to execute her after the wedding night.  (We hear a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade along the way).

After reviewing the evolution of these Arabian Nights stories from original oral forms (which were more often Persian, Indian, and Greek than Arab, actually), we have a look at some surprising misunderstandings about the story of Aladdin, which, like the stories of Sinbad, and Ali Baba, were not even part of the first collection of these tales assembled.

Jinn are a separate race, created between men and the angels. They are not immortal, and live in an invisible society organized like our own with similar social orders, marriages, and offspring (though sometimes humans are taken as marriage partners also).  They are not necessarily good or evil, choosing their own path, which may include following the Muslim faith, as the Qur’an speaks of the Prophet preaching to this race of being.  They may also follow other faiths as Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian jinn are also sometimes mentioned.

We spend some time looking at how their appearance has been described in literature, though no particularly definitive description emerges, as they are constant shapeshifters.  They may appear simply as shadows or whirlwinds, but more often seem to take human form, albeit, often that of a human hybridized with various animals features (horns are common).  Frequently, they may also simply take the form of animals, particularly dogs, and snakes. We hear some interesting anecdotes in this regard, illustrating the reverential treatment animals sometimes receive lest they reveal themselves to be dangerous jinn in disguise.

Persian jinn
Manuscript illustration of Persian jinn, source unknown.

While their theoretical home is Mount Qaf-Kuh, the sort of Mt. Olympus of Islamic mythology, jinn obviously do not confine themselves to this location and can be found nearly anywhere man ventures. Some locations, such as abandoned homes, cemeteries, and ruins are obvious, but others such as certain mosques and marketplaces also are mentioned.

More obvious than where you might encounter a jinn is when you might do so.  Their nocturnal nature is widely agreed upon, and just as certain treatments of animals is ill-advised for risk of offending the jinn, we hear of a number of actions that should not be performed by night for similar reasons.

Along the way, we learn how iron and salt may be used to repel the jinn, favorite foods of the jinn, how shooting stars relate to the jinn’s propensity to eavesdrop, and hear an interesting tale of a jinn-human marriage from Edvard Westermarck, a Finnish scholar who spent a great deal of time in Morocco.

The jinn, we learn, may be sought out for their advice, thanks to their supernatural knowledge of things seen and unseen, and can be summoned for this purpose (or to achieve other ends) by skilled magicians.  We even hear in the Qur’an of Mohammed invoking the jinn to perform a miracle on the modern site of the Mosque of the Jinn in Mecca.

charm
Jinn illustration as part of charm crafted by magician

The different types of jinn are briefly discussed, though clear taxonomies for these (or other purely folkloric beings) is always hard to pin down.  A commonly mentioned type is the ifrit, a particularly strong and cunning, and the marid, who is particularly immense.  Other creatures — which may or may not be jinn —  are the fiery samum, seductive female si’lat, and the notorious graveyard ghoul.

Decidedly evil beings like these would belong to a subclass of jinn called the shayatin (singular shaitan) related to the West’s “Satan.”  While Shaitan may be used to designate the Devil or the chief embodiment of evil in Islam, a closer match to Lucifer would be Iblis.

According to most accounts Iblis is a jinn embraced by the angels as one of their own, but then cast from heaven to become the tempter of mankind and father of seven jinn kingdoms.  In hearing a bit more about Iblis, we also have a look at how jinn fit into the Islamic creation myths: how they were created of fire, how they rebelled against God, were defeated and scattered to earth’s hidden corners. We also hear an amusing legend explaining why Iblis has one eye, and where one might go about finding a jinn egg for sale.

Our next topic is King Solomon — more the King Solomon of Talmudic and Islamic legend, than the more traditional Old Testament figure.  In a number of tales from the early Middle Ages, shared by both Jewish and Muslim cultures, Solomon’s legendary wisdom comes, in part, from his magical mastery over the jinn or demons.  This power is provided him by a ring known as The Seal of Solomon.  Using this ring, he also compels them to construct the First Temple in Jerusalem.

A side story within this Temple legend regards a magic tool that is employed in this cutting of stones for the temple, the shamir, which oddly may either be a stone that can cut jewels and other stones, or… a fantastic stone-cutting worm.  We also hear a couple legends of how one of the chief jinn obtained this ring from the king after the Temple was constructed, and the mischief and just rewards following.

Jinn possession and exorcism (“eviction”) is also discussed, as are the activities of certain Sufi brotherhoods in Morocco.  Through ecstatic dance and music, members of the Hamadsha and the Aisawa brotherhoods are said to manipulate the powers of the jinn for good, but are perhaps more notorious for their demonstrations of supernatural empowerment that once featured rites of self-mutilation and other shocking acts.

Possession by the jinn is also subject a few noteworthy horror films that may interest listeners.  A critics’ favorite is 2016’s Under the Shadow from Persian director Babak Anvari, a story examining supernatural encounters with the jinn within the historical setting of the Iranian revolution.  Horror fans, however, may be more dazzled by the visual gymnastics of Turkish director Hasan Karacadag work.  His horror films have been huge box office successes in Turkey and are marketed using the title of his breakout film, Dabbe, a reference to a figure wandering the earth in the Last Days — sometimes stylized as “D@bbe”.

Dabbe 3, 5, and Dabbe 6 have recently been made available online with English subtitles and well worth checking out if you’re interested in Eastern Folk Horror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toad Magic

Toad Magic

Toads have long been associated with magic, as witches’ familiars and as a source both of poison as folk healing.

We begin with a poison allegedly brewed from a toad by the “wise wife of Keith,” Agnes Sampson, one of the accused in Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials in 1591-2. The poison was to have been used against Scotland’s James VI before he ascended England’s throne as James I.  At the center of the trial was the accusation that Sampson and others had raised a storm to sink the ship bearing James home from Oslo with his new wife Anne of Denmark.

Macbeth and the Witches
Macbeth and the Witches (Thomas Barker, 1830)

Shakespeare seems to allude to elements from this trial in his play Macbeth, mentioning toads and frogs as elements of  the concoctions brewed by his witches in Act IV and seemingly referencing the events in an aside uttered by a witch regarding sending a storm against an enemy’s ship.  The Bard’s inclusion of “real” witchcraft in his play has long been said to be the reason for a “curse” upon productions of Macbeth. Included in our discussion is a particularly ugly (and lethal) 1848 incident in New York City attributed to this bit of lore.

A witch’s servant, or familiar, in the form of a toad is also alluded to as an offstage character in Macbeth.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of accounts from 16th and early 17th century England presenting toad familiars sent to torment the enemies of witches.  We also hear of a toad exploding in a fire, and toads sustained on the blood of their witch mistresses, as well as a sad story from Newmarket, England, involving William Harvey, physician to Charles I, and an bruitish attempt to subject an alleged toad familiar to scientific scrutiny.

A woodcut illustration from a book published in 1579 of a witch feeding her ‘familiars’.

Next we discuss the fear of toad’s venom in the Middle Ages, hearing some comments on the subject from 12th-century German mystic and theologian Hildegard von Bingen and a tale associated with the English boy-saint William of Norwich involving some prisoners and an unfortunate attempt at the use of toad poison.

Toad’s venom, according to medieval folklore, could be neutralized by the toadstone, a particular mineral also assigned powers against stomach and kidney ailments.  We hear of a peculiar method of obtaining this prized artifact and an obscure reference to the toadstone in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.

Wicker Man
Toadstone lesson from “The Wicker Man” (1973)

We also hear a clip from The Wicker Man in which a toad or frog is used in folk medicine to cure a sore throat. Superstitions about toads and their magical efficacy against various ailments continued into the 19th century, resulting in the phenomena of traveling “toad doctors” and “toad fairs.”  The use of toad bones in a midnight ritual performed by English “Toadmen” in order to gain mastery of horses to be trained is also discussed as is the discovery of miniature frog coffins, stashed in Finish churches, in a folk-magic practice similar to the British and American use of “witch bottles.”

We return to the continent and the discussion of toads’ association with witches (and heretics) as conceived by the Church in terms of service to Satan.  This topic brings us a letter written by Pope Gregory IX to bishops of the German Rhineland involving Satan as a french-kissing toad, as well as a ritual attributed to French and Italian members of the Waldesenian sect allegedly consuming a ritual beverage brewed from toad excrement.

In Spain’s Basque province of  Navarre, home to the “Cave of Witches” at Zugarramurdi, witchcraft trial testimonies demonstrate a particular emphasis on toads.  We hear of them raised by novice witches in the fields, used to poison the land, and dancing at the witches’ sabbath.

Toads are sometimes mentioned as an ingredient of the “flying ointment” believed to have induced a visionary experience transporting witches to hilltop revels. However, this effect is more likely attributed to other ingredients in historical recipes (particularly plants of the nightshade family.)

While the venom produced by toads of the Old World doesn’t seem to contain the quality and quantity of bufotoxin necessary to produce such visions, this can’t be said for certain New World species.

One of these is the Cane toad (bufo rhinella) that invasive species best known for infesting Australia, Florida and other southern states and native to South and Central America.  In the Caribbean, it’s been identified by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis as a possible ingredient in a drug administered in Haiti to transform an enemy into a zombie, (i.e., to drug the individual into a deathlike state from which he is later “resurrected.”).  Research into this subject was documented in Davis’ 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later serving loosely as inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1988 film of the same name (from which we hear a clip).

The show ends with a quick look at the role of the Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad, (bufo alvarius) as a source of psychedelic experience, particularly as its been reinvented with the last years as part of a life-changing “shamanic experience” for drug consumers already bored with ayahuasca.

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.