Category Archives: Germanic

#16 The Haunted Season



Historically, Christmastime in Central Europe was a season haunted by otherworldly spirits, werewolves, ghostly huntsmen, and wandering hordes of lost souls.  This is particularly the case in the Krampus’ homeland of German-speaking Central Europe.

We open with a survey of the various frightful spirits said to be afoot this time of year.  Bavaria, particularly the Bavarian Forest turn out to be particularly rich in such things, menaced by everything from spirits of the forests (Schratzn) and marshes to entities said to reside in mills, and historic castles. Historical figures with unsavory reputations including the legendary cowherd Woidhaus-Mich, Chatelaine Maria Freiin of Castle Rammelsberg and the Bavarian outsider prophet Mühlhiasl of Apoig are said to return as evil spirits this time of year. We hear a brief clip from Werner Herzog’s 1976 production, Heart of Glass, a lovely and peculiar treatment of Mühlhiasl’s story.

Just as the Krampus appears as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas on his feast day (and its eve), we encounter other frightful creatures from German culture said to represent similarly sinister incarnations of other saints celebrated in December. From the Upper Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps, there are the moss-encrusted Bärbele (“Barbaras”), or sometimes “Wild Barbaras,” and throughout Bavaria and Austria, St. Lucy was also inverted on her day (Dec. 13) as the “Luz,” or “ugly Lucy,” an entity particularly hungry for blood and ghastly punishments. We also meet “Bloody Thomas,” a figure appearing on the eve or night of St. Thomas Day, December 21.

19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.
19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.

Next we consider a raft of superstitions associated with the Twelve Nights, or Rauhnächte, a name likely derived from the German word for “smoke” (Rauch) thanks to the use of incense during these nights to dispel evil influences.

Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.
Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.

Of all the terrors unleashed during the nights around Christmas, the most widespread in German-speaking lands were those ghostly hordes in nocturnal processions, dead souls, solemnly walking, or wildly riding, the latter usually going under the name of “Wild Hunt” or “Furious Army.” This mythologem is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even North America, where the spirits appear in cowboy legends, and made their way into the 1940s country-western ballad “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”

Wilkinson reads for us some rather dramatic (and grisly) accounts of this form of apparition from the 16th century, and we hear a variety of accounts emphasizing the weird sounds that were said to accompany the Wild Hunt.

Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano
Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano

A number of figures were presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt, in particular the Germanic god, Odin, whose presence was associated with the superstition all the way into the 1800s as we hear from a newspaper account of the period.

We close the show with some folk tales recounting a similar phenomena in Austria and Switzerland, namely tales of the “Night Folk,” or “Death Folk,” nocturnal hordes whose appearance often heralded death or misfortunes.

 

 


#15 Saint, Devil, Sugar-Bread, & Whip: KRAMPUS AND NICHOLAS



The Krampus and St. Nicholas represent a folkloric duality embodying a mode of childrearing the Germans call “sugar-bread and whip” — in English, “carrot and stick.”  In this episode, the first of three exploring the darker folklore of the season, we look at the Krampus’ origins in the old custom of Krampus and Nicholas house-visits and the older Alpine “Nicholas Plays.”

Struwwelpeter: "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.
Struwwelpeter: “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.

We begin our discussion with a consideration of the “sugar-bread and whip” literary example par excellence, Der Struwwelpeter, the 19th-century German children’s book in which “un-groomed Peter,” and other misbehaving children meet dreadful ends.  An clip from a 1955 cinematic version of the story from Germany, and a bit of The Tiger Lillies’ “junk opera,” Shockheaded Peter is included.

Hans Weiditz's "Child Eater"
Hans Weiditz’s “Child Eater”

As the Krampus is, at root, simply a bogeyman, we discuss some early (and ghastly) images of German bogeymen from Carnival broadsides, which might be considered forerunners of the Krampus.  The “Child-Eater Fountain” in Bern, Switzerland, a sculptural rendering of these same figures, is also mentioned.

A soliloquy delivered by a rhyming Krampus in an old 19th-century Alpine “Nicholas play,” introduces us to the figure. The verse is a translation from your host’s book The Krampus and The Old, Dark Christmas, as is much of the material in this episode.

Next we discuss the source of the Krampuslauf (Krampus run) tradition in the old custom of house-visits made by costumed troupes consisting of a St. Nicholas, Krampuses, angel assistants to the saint, and an odd backwoodsy character called Körbelträger (basket carrier).  Part of the visit discussed is  small test of the children’s good character consisting of a performance for St. Nicholas of a memorized poem or song.  A traditional song for this occasion is “Lasst uns froh und munter sein,” which we hear in a clip.  We also hear some background sound effects provided by an excellent video depicting traditional Krampus customs in Austria’s Gastein Valley.

Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour
Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour

We then have a look at ways in which the tradition of Nicholas plays featuring the saint mingled with local pagan folklore of the Perchten, winter spirits of the German-speaking Alps, and hear a number of historic accounts illustrating how this rowdy element worked its ways into the Nicholas customs of centuries gone by.  Various outrageous are documented from drunken Nicholases to actual deaths of performers.

The show concludes with a more in-depth look at these Nicholas plays, including some bawdy slapsticks elements hardly befitting a saint.  Wilkinson delivers a stirring rendition of the “Lucifer Sermon,” a devilish rant, traditionally concluding these plays.

LISTENER NOTE: During our intro segment, we also receive a phone message from Mark Norman of The Folklore Podcast responding to the ongoing dilemma of the phantom cat, which seems to be haunting the Bone and Sickle studio-library.  (Listeners who have not yet tuned in to the Folklore Podcast, should also watch for Mr. Ridenour upcoming appearance on the show, in which he discusses some pagan aspects of the Krampus myth not covered elsewhere.)


Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left



In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”

"The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes
“The Pied Piper Of Hamelin” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes

The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.

Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben.  The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.

Movie poster for Willard, 1972
Movie poster for Willard, 1972

We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading  village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain.  Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs.  Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.

Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284.  The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.

"Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers" Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564
“Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining —  explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance.  We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.

Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy.  Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors.   We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.

The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Episode Six: Lost Heads



As June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist approaches, the folklore of decapitation suggested itself as an appropriate theme for this episode.  We begin by way of an old English children’s rhyme and game, “Oranges and Lemons” based on melody played by the bells of St. Clemens church in London.  The rhyme ends with the couplet:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop of your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead

… which should explain our inclusion here.  We hear this melody (played by local bagpipers) during a procession in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.  In the film,the tune accompanies a mock beheading game that the director borrowed from a traditional sword dance, one particularly well preserved in the south Yorkshire town of Grenoside.

Grenoside Sword Dancers
Grenoside Sword Dancers

We then review the John the Baptist story, how Salome offers a very pleasing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to King Herod, receiving in gratitude for the performance, a reward of her choosing,  Thanks to Salome’s mother, Herodias, the reward chosen is the head of John the Baptist’s. We learn a bit more Herodias, and hear a delightful tale (or tales) of divine punishment she received as well as her late medieval association with the folklore of witchcraft.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.

Next we move on the to the discussion of cephalaphores, or saints who suffer decapitation but stubbornly refuse to die, instead traipsing about holding their severed heads.  We discuss the cephalaphores St. Denis, St. Edmund (who’s head was guarded by a remarkably tame wolf) and St. Winifred, better known for her holy well.

Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 - 1498
Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 – 1498

As it turns out, holy wells, which are particularly prominent in Wales, are also associated with severed human heads — more often than one might expect.  Some examples and a likely a explanation are offered, and we learn which holy well until recently afforded the visitor the opportunity to employ a saintly skull as a dipper.

Wouldn’t you know it but the topic of magic wells and heads somehow brings us back to The Wicker Man as we learn about a connection between a song in the film and a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama rich in songs, spells, and fairy stories.

We then return to head-chopping games, and one suggested by a mysterious green stranger who appears at King Arthur’s Christmas feast in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Also mentioned is a cinematic treatment of the tale, 1984’s Sword of the Valiant, featuring Sean Connery in an outlandish costume that almost gives his wardrobe in Zardoz a run for its money.

14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant
14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant

Even though it’s already well known, it seemed wrong to omit Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its headless horseman. Wilkinson seemed particularly eager to discuss it, so we leave that to him (with more than a little help in the sound effects department.)

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.

Scotland offers our next two stories, one which tells of a sort of headless horseman of the Highlands (and some fortune-telling butter) and the other of Mary Queen of Scots badly botched beheading.

Death Mask of Mary Stuart.
Death Mask of Mary Stuart.

Then it’s back to Wales for the story of Bran the Blessed, a mythological king, whose (not quite dead) head was quite the entertainer and ended up buried under the Tower of London once it shut up.  The execution of Anne Boleyn also gets a nod with macabre ditty from 1934 about her headless ghost.

If you find yourself horrified by the obsession with heads and head-chopping in these Celtic nations, you are not alone.  Classical writers also were appalled by decapitation fixations of the northern tribes. We hear some choice words on the subject, read by Wilkinson.  We also learn about a bizarre super-weapon employed by Celtic warriors — “brain balls” —  and how they figure into a story of a newly converted Celtic chieftain.

The Germanic tribes too had a loose head or two in their mythology.  Hear the story of Mimir, whose decapitated head Odin preserved and relied upon for counsel.

We close the show with some talk of magicians (an alchemist and a supposedly wicked pope) who created their own “brazen heads” intended to likewise offer advice or prognostication.

From "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay." 1630
From “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” 1630