Category: folk tales

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-women hybrids of Greek legend and Russian folklore are uniquely ambivalent, sometimes bringing death and destruction and at others, prophetic wisdom and the joy of Paradise.

The two Greek species we treat are sirens and harpies, both at times described as having the bodies of birds and faces or upper bodies of human females.

Beginning with harpies — we hear a bit of audio from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which features a pair of stop-motion harpies created by Ray Harryhausen.  While these are more batlike than birdlike, the animator’s tendency to conflate features is actually in line with various classical tales, which tend to disagree sometimes offering winged harpies, others not, and if birdlike, not necessarily featuring the heads of women. We hear some of these descriptions  read by Mrs. Karswell.

harpy
Harpy from Joannes Jonstonus publication Historiae naturalis de avibus (1657)

As for sirens, while today they are regarded as equivalent to mermaids, originally they were bird-human hybrids.  Thanks to the siren’s connection to the sailors they would seduce, an intuitive shift from bird to fishlike portrayals seems natural, but did not occur until late antiquity or the early medieval period.  It seems likely that once this transition occurred the harpy’s image consolidated around the birdlike form no longer associated with the siren. Unlike the creature’s form, the siren’s song, which drew sailors to wreck their ships upon the rocks, has always been a defining attribute of the creature.

There’s something of a disconnect between ancient siren and harpy narratives and the creatures’ representation in visual art, with some of their traits more fixed in the latter than the former. In particular, sirens and harpies, along with other hybrids such as the griffin and sphinx, first appear in Greek culture as decorative embellishments on household items.  These monsters, as discussed, were borrowings from cultures of the East, with the human-headed Egyptian ba bird being a likely origin for our avian figures.

Funerary statue of a siren, 4th C BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The behavior of these creatures is primarily known from two ancient texts.  In the third century BC, the behavior of harpies was defined by Apollonius Rhodius’s in his epic The Argonautica, while the actions of sirens were codified in Homer’s Odyssey from the 8th century BC.

The episode from the Argonautica involves the harpies suddenly descending from the sky to torment a the prophet Phineus, repeatedly sent by Zeus to snatch away his food.

Better known is Homer’s episode describing Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the siren song as his crew sails near, their ears providently plugged with wax. What’s not as often remembered, however, is the nature of the siren’s song, which promises not sexual reward, but omniscience.

The sirens’ offer to share the knowledge of the gods, and the danger inherent in hearing their song finds a precise parallel in narratives about the Russian bird-women we discuss, namely the Alkonost, Sirin, and Gamayun, all of which are said to reside in Paradise, or the realm of the dead. They are portrayed like the harpies and sirens as having the bodies of birds and human heads or heads and breasts but with the addition of crowns or halos.

The Alkonost and Sirin are said to be sisters, inevitably appearing as a complimentary pair in art and folk-tales, with the Alkonost presiding over the daylight hours, and the Sirin the night, the Alkonost bringing joy,  the Sirin sorrow, etc.  While the Alkonost is generally made the more positive symbol, both birds, through their song, can produce dangerous results. The song of the Alkonost shares a knowledge or experience of the divine that can induce ecstatic madness or a deathlike trance state.  The same could be said for the Sirin, though in some instances it’s said to more literally said to abduct mortals into the afterlife.

"Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow" Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
“Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow” Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896

While the Sirin obviously derives its name from the Greek sirens, the Alkonost too has its origins in Greek mythology, specifically in the myth of the lovers Alcyone and Ceyx, the former lending her name (in Russian derivation) to the Alkonost.

For her effrontery of comparing their love to that of the gods, Alcyone (or sometimes both Alcyone and Ceyx) are transformed into birds, specifically kingfishers.  As a bird, Alcyone was said by Roman writers to lay her eggs during a five-day period in the winter during which the winds are calmed — a source of our word, “halycon,” meaning a calm or happy interlude.

The Alkonost likewise is said to lay its eggs in the ocean during an interval during which the seas are calm, and is therefore associated with control over the weather. Superstitions found not only in Russia but further afield in Europe associate the kingfisher and dried kingfisher bodies used as charms to predict the weather.

The Sirin and Alkonost were also assimilated into Russia’s Christian culture, sometimes shown perched upon trees in Eden or as representations of the Holy Spirit.  We hear of a particularly strange Russian tradition involving the bird-women called “Apple Savior,” involving the blessing of apples, Christ’s transfiguration in the Bible, and the singing of the Sirin and Alkonost, as well as a folktale involving the lovers Kostroma and Kupelo associated with the summer solstice and St. John’s Night.

The song of the Gamayun, like that of the Alkonost and Sirin, is a form of divine language though is less likely to be destructively overpowering and more associated with prophecy and happiness.  For this reason, the creature, is also referred to as “The Bird of Happiness” or “The Bird of Prophecy.”

The Gamayun is also often said to have no legs as it is strictly a creature of the air or heavens and never lands.  The source of this belief is actually related to a peculiar trade in preserved bird charms, as explained in detail.

The show winds down with some appearances of the Russian bird-women in 19th and 20th-century art, music, and film, including the 1897 opera Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov, a musical treatment of a folkloric  adventurer, merchant, and gusli-player from Novgorod.  We hear a bit of the opera’s most famous aria often called “The Song of India” describing the exotic land where the Bird of Happiness may be found.

Our final segment is about Sadko, a 1952 cinematic adaptation of the opera by “the Soviet Walt Disney,” Aleksandr Ptushko, a film repackaged by Roger Corman in 1963 for American screenings as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

From "Sadko" (1952)
From “Sadko” (1952)

 

 

 

 

The Dybbuk

The Dybbuk

A dybbuk is a “clinging spirit” of Jewish folklore, a ghost that can possess a human host.

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1923)

Stories of dybbuks (pl. dibbukim in Hebrew for sticklers) date to the 16th century but have never traditionally included the idea of trapping a dybbuk in a box, a trope that only dates to a 20o3 eBay ad placed by a Portland antique refinisher Kevin Mannis.  Although Mannis would later confess to having made up his listing’s backstory as a sort of creative experiment, the box has continued to be the center of an evolving mythology advanced first by its 2003 buyer, Jason Haxton. In 2016, the box was purchased by Ghost Adventure‘s TV personality Zak Bagans, for display in his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.  We open the show with some clips from a July 2020 episode in which Bagans opens the box.

The dybbuk-in-a-box trope was also furthered by the “based on a true story” 2012 horror film, The Possession, for which Mannis and Haxton served as consultants.  We hear a clip from that film as well as a clip from the ridiculous 2009 dybbuk-without-a-box film The Unborn.  The 2015 Polish film (in English and Polish) Demon is also recommended as a more traditionally European take on the dybbuk folklore, thanks in part to its incorporation of a wedding motif.

A wedding dance with Death from 1937 film.

The idea of a dybbuk appearing at a wedding is borrowed from a classic 1937 film from Poland, The Dybbuk, a cinematic adaptation of Russian ethnographer S. Ansky’s highly successful 1914 play by the same name.  Described as a sort of Romeo and Juliet meets The Exorcist, this classic of Yiddish theater was first performed in Warsaw in 1920, but was quickly was translated into dozens of languages and performed throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, popularizing this previously obscure figure of Yiddish or Ashkenazi folklore.

The story of the dybbuk begins with a 16th-century explosion of incidents in Safed (Tsfat) a mountain city in Northern Israel considered one of Judaism’s four holiest cities thanks to its role in the development of the Kabbalah and the particularly saintly occupants of its hillside cemetery.

The first and foremost figure in Safed’s association with Kabbalah is Isaac Luria, whose teachings are recorded by his student Chaim Vital in The Tree of Life, foundational text of Lurianic Kabbalism, the dominant school of Kabbalistic thought since the 16th century. Luria’s school converted Safed into a sort of spiritual hothouse, characterized by extremes of devotion, asceticism, and visionary experience — an environment that has been tied to the proliferation of dybbuk encounters recorded in 16th-century Safed.

Of these Safed accounts, we hear two lengthier narratives said to have transpired in 1571 and 1572 read by Mrs. Karswell, Without revealing too much that could spoil the stories, there are a few commonalities worth noting — the fact that dybbuks have a strange method of leaving their human host and that their hosts needn’t always be human.

We also learn the Kabbalistic explanation for the dybbuks compulsion to  take a human host.  It’s related to  the notion of gilgul, or transmigration of souls, a process which ideally moves from lower forms to higher as ordered by the principle of tikkun olam, the “repair of the world,” or rectification.

A brief story from Chaim Vital’s spiritual autobiography, Book of Visions, illustrates a phenomenon paralelling that of the dybbuk, namely, the ibbur, the spirit of a good but still to be perfected individual, who may return to earth and possess a human host to accomplish required mitzvahs.  We also hear of a strange grave rjte said to provoke encounters with these heavenly beings.

Our show wraps up with audio clips from modern instances of dybbuk possessions and banishings performed by Jerusalem Rabbis David Batzri and Menashe Amon between 1999 and 2019.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Walled Up Alive

Walled Up Alive

Walling up a living victim, or immurement, has been used both as a punishment and for darker, magical purposes. In this episode, we detangle the history from the folklore of this grisly act.

We begin with an instance of immurement from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” (including a clip from a dramatization in 1954 radio show, Hall of Fantasy) and also get a glimpse of director Roger Corman’s freewheeling use of this element from Poe his 1962 anthology film, Tales of Terror, as well as 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Tales of Terror still
Peter Lorre walls up Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962)

Poe’s interest in immurement is typical of Gothic writers and their fascination with crypt-like spaces, often including the cells and catacombs within Catholic churches and monastic communities. Tales of immured nuns, abbots, and abbesses are particularly common, with the deed understood most typically as a punishment for unchastity but also occasionally for other outrageous deeds or teachings (including a case of dabbling in the black arts).  We have a look at some cases in which actual immured skeletons were said to have been discovered in religious communities and then consider the lore explaining their presence.  We also look at  ways in which writers like Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard blurred the line between historical and literary stories.

Walled up Nuns book
An 1895 booklet debating the topic of “Walled up Nuns & Nuns Walled In”

It’s likely that tales of nuns immured for unchastity were particularly prevalent as they echo the fate of Rome’s Vestal Virgins who failed to protect their virginity.  We hear some details of immurements, not only from ancient Rome, but also Greece as well as a particularly gruesome account read by Mrs. Karswell describing an ancient Assyrian revenge spree featuring immurement.

Cornelia the Vestal Virgin
“The Death of Cornelia, Vestal Virgin” by G. Mochetti.

Medieval accounts of immurement we look at include the Christian legend of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and one recounted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of  Count Ugolino della Gherardesca of Pisa (and his children/grandchildren, who are involved in a particularly grisly way).

Our next segment looks at punitive immurement from a cluster of legends in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.  We begin with a story from the Swedish island of Gotland, that of the Jungfrutornet (“maiden’s tower”) in the town of Visby.  The tower’s name is taken from the story of a maiden, who falls in love with a spy from Denmark, who uses her to obtain keys to the city gate in preparation for a devastating invasion.  The maiden’s punishment for betraying her town is, as you would have guessed, immurement.

We hear a similar story from Finland, which serves as the basis of the song (from which we hear a clip) Balladi Olavinlinnasta  or the ballad of Olaf’s Castle, and also a tale from a castle in Haapsalu, Estonia, said to be haunted by the maiden immured there.  Then we look at a church in the Estonian town of Põlva, where a particularly devout maiden was said to have allowed herself to be interred in a position of kneeling devotion as a sort of religious talisman forever protecting the church.

Walled in Wife
Sculpture of the walled in wife Rozafa, an Albanian version of the stonemason legend.

This notion of self-sacrificing immurement in a Christian context figures into the bizarre legend recounted of the 6th-century Irish saint Columba and his companion Odran, who allowed himself to be entombed in the foundation of a church on the Scottish island of Iona.

Our last segment looks at further stories of living humans entombed in buildings and other structures in what’s called a “foundation sacrifice.”  A cluster of tragic legends and ballads from southeastern Europe tell similar stories of women immured in structures by their husbands who work as stonemasons.  We hear these tales illustrated by a clip from the Hungarian ballad Kőműves Kelemen (“Kelemen the Stonemason”) as well as a bit of the soundtrack from the 1985 film The Legend of Suram Fortress by Sergei Parajanov  —  it’s based on a Georgian folk tale, so geographically close, though not quite one of the stonemasons-who-wall-up-their-wives genre.  But it’s a lovely film I just wanted to include.

We then move west in Europe to hear some stories of foundation sacrifices collected largely in Germany.  These include ancient sacrifices of children to the security of city walls, castles, and bridges, including a panic around a child sacrifice presumed necessary to a railroad bridge constructed near the town of Halle as late as the 1840s.

We end with a look at “church grims,” protective spirits of animals buried in church foundations (or churchyards) in Scandinavia and England, with lambs being preferred in the former and dogs in the latter — providing a connection to England’s black dog mythology.

And there’s one last story, much more modern, a 2018 news story from Houston Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, sometimes known as “the Belly-Slitter” for the trademark punishment she’s said to inflict on disobedient or lazy children, is figure of Alpine folklore of Austria and Germany in many ways similar to the Krampus.

“Perchta” is only one spelling or name for this figure, who may also go by Pehrta, Berchte, Berta, and a myriad of other names.  A particularly good representation of the figure, a woodcut from 1750, identifies her as the “Butzen-Bercht,” with the word “Butzen” coming from a word for “bogeyman.”  This word also appears in a classic 19th-century German children’s song and game “Es Tanzt Ein Bi-Ba Butzemann,” or “A Bogeyman is Dancing,” from which we hear a clip at the show’s start.

The woodcut in question depicts a crone-like character with dripping, warty nose, who is carrying on her back a basket filled with screaming children, all girls.  She stands before the open door of a house where more girls are screaming, and is holding a dangerous looking pronged staff as well as a distaff, the stick used to hold fibers that will be spun into wool or flax on a spinning wheel.  The importance of the illustration is the way it emphasizes Perchta’s connection to spinning and to the females of the household responsible for this task.  The woodcut also features some text delightfully detailing a series of horrid threats delivered by Perchta, dramatically read by Mrs. Karswell.

Perchta’s name it comes from her association with Epiphany or Twelfth Night, January 6, the last of the “Twelve Days” or nights of Christmas, the “Haunted Season,” we discussed last year in our episode of that name. “Perchta” is a corruption of the word giberahta in the Old High German term for Epiphany, “giberahta naht,” meaning, the “night of shining forth or manifestation.

Now there’s another name many of you will have encountered if you’re read up on Perchta: Perchten, figures very similar to the Krampus. (Perchten is plural. The singular is Percht.)

“Berchtengehen” ("Going as Perchten") from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)
“Berchtengehen” (“Going as Perchten”) from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)

While the first mention of Perchta appears around 1200, the word “Perchten” is not employed until centuries later. In 1468, there appears a reference to her retinue, but its members are not called Perchten, nor do they explicitly resemble Perchten as we think of them today. At this stage in Perchta’s mythology, the company she leads is most often understood as spirits of the departed. With time, and frequent attacks from the pulpit, Perchta’s pagan company came to be commonly feared not as ghosts but as demons, something presumably closer to the horned figures we now know.  By the 15th century, a tradition involving costumed processions or appearances of these figures had evolved. The very first illustration we have of Perchta seems to show not the figure herself, but in fact a masker impersonating “Percht with the iron nose.” It appears in South Tyrolean poet Hans Vintler’s 1411 Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”).

Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent
Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent

This beaklike nose of Perchta may be related the figure’s ancient connection to the classical strix (plural striges) which appears in both Greek and Latin texts.  The strix is bird of ill omen, often thought of as an owl, one that visited at humans at night to feed on blood and flesh.  Bird-like representations of Perchta or the Perchten appear in the Schnabelperchten (“beaked Perchten“) figures that appear in the town of Rauris, Austria.

In addtion to Perchta threatening to cut open the bellies of the disobedient, she’s sometimes said to stamp on those who offend her. In certain regions, it is the Stempe, or the Trempe (from the German words for “stamp” or “trample”) who appears to frighten the disobedient on Twelfth Night.  A medieval poem, alluding to the terrible Stempe, one quoted in Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, is read by Mrs. Karswell.

One way to avoid Perctha’s wrath was to prepare certain foods, particularly a porridge called Perchtenmilch, which would be partially consumed by the family on Twelfth Night with a portion set aside as an offering to the Perchten. Certain signs,  that the porridge had been enjoyed by the night-traveling spirits could provide omens for the coming year.  Mrs. Karswell reads an  Austrian account from 1900 detailing these.

This custom of leaving out offerings on this night was frequently condemned by the clergy in Austria and Germany, and we hear similar practice involving the Swiss “Blessed Ones” (sälïgen Lütt) derided in an 17th-century account by  Renward Cysat, a city clerk of Lucerne.

The dead who accompany Perchta and consume these offerings are in many tales called the Heimchen, the spirits of children who have not received baptism.  Several tales of Perchta and her Heimchen from Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie are recounted.

Our episode concludes examining a peculiar connection between Perchta and the beloved English and American figure of Mother Goose.

Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen
Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen

 (Material in this episode taken from my book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.)