Category: folk tales

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.)

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Our seasonal look at butcher lore begins with the slaughter of an immense ram as related in the centuries-old English song, “The Derby Ram” (AKA “The Darby Ram”).  In the lyric, a butcher and his boy assistant are “washed away in the blood,” giving us our episode’s title.  The song is roughly enacted in an old Christmas folk play from Derbyshire, “Old Tup” (an old local word for “ram.”)  We hear a montage of snippets of the song from The Kossoy Sisters, John Kirkpatrick, John Roberts, and Matt Williams.

A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.
A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.

While the 19th-century trend among folklorist to view mummer’s plays like this as vestiges of ancient pagan rites is no longer accepted, the notion does suggest our next topic: a Germanic emphasis on sacrifice during the month of November, which the Anglo-Saxons called Blod-monath (“month of sacrifice.”)  We look at the Scandinavian yuleblót marking the beginning of Winter and its connection to Freyr and his sister Freyja, both symbolized by boars or swine sacrificed in this rite.  Along the way, we hear Mrs. Karswell read a famous 11th-century account by the chronicler Adam of Bremen describing particularly spectacular sacrifices said to be offered in the ancient temple that once stood outside Uppsala, Sweden. We also touch upon the Anglo Saxon Modranicht or “Night of the Mothers,” which was celebrated on Christmas Eve.

Next we discuss the slaughter of swine, November’s traditional “Labor of the Month”among medieval peasantry.  Its aristocratic equivalent is the boar hunt carried out in November and December.  We have a look at the serving of boar’s head at Christmas among the nobility and  hear a snippet of the medieval Boar’s Head Carol as well as a whimsical tale told at Oxford supposedly explaining how the boar’s head custom arrived at Queen’s College.

November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500
November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500

The particular day most traditionally associated with the slaughtering of animals for the Winter (and the old day regarded as the beginning of winter) is November 11, St. Martin’s Day.  We hear of a strange St Martin’s custom associated with the slaughter of beef in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the 17th-century and of the magical use of blood from fowl slaughtered on this day in Sweden and Ireland.  Our “meaty” segment ends with a bit of the comic song “A Nice Piece of Irish Pig’s Head.”

A tradition in Lower Bavaria fixes December 21, St. Thomas Day, as the date for dispatching swine  and is associated with the appearance  a demon or ogre by the name of “Bloody Thomas.”  We hear a description of a cruel and/or amusing 19th-century prank played on children on this day.

Next we look at the legend of “St. Nicholas and the Three Schoolboys,” which has an unsettling connection to our gory theme.  A clip from a French song from the 16th century ‘”La légende de Saint Nicolas“” is included as is a story of the Alsatian bogeyman, Père Fouettard, an equivalent of the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht said to be related to this particular Nicholas legend.

From 14th century Scotland, comes the story of butcher from the town of Perth who famously turned to cannibalism. Born Andrew Christie, he is better known as “Christie Cleek,” from an old Scottish word for “hook,” an implement important in his grisly deeds.

We close the show with a look at Sawney Bean, Scottish leader of a incestuous cannibal clan believed to be a legendary reworking of the more historically based tale of Christie Cleek.

Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
#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.