Category: history

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

“The Girl with No Hands” is the name of a a folk-tale motif shared by a number of gruesome fairy stories in which the the amputation of the heroine’s hands allows her to escape death, the Devil, or a repugnant suitor.

(NOTE: For details on the 2022 Bone and Sickle shirts mentioned in the show, please visit boneandsickle.com, or go directly to our Etsy shop.)

We begin our show with a religious legend differing in narrative details but sharing the amputation theme. It’s a medieval story told in Eastern Orthodox lands of the terrible cost of bad manners at a funeral, specifically that of the Virgin Mary. As a further preliminary to our stories, we also offer a quick rundown on the Aarne–Thompson–Uther system of folk-tale classification, in which “The Girl with No Hands” is identified as ATU 706.

The oldest written example of this motif is the Italian story “Biancabella,” from Le piacevoli notti (“The Pleasant Nights”), a book published in two volumes between 1550 and 1553.  The author, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, appears to have modeled his collection on Boccaccio’s Decameron as it uses a similar frame-story, Straparola’s involving characters pleasantly passing their nights (hence the title) in the telling of tales.  Among the stories Straparola included, is the first version of “Puss in Boots.”

Le piacevoli nott
Straparola ‘s “The Pleasant Nights”

I won’t spoil listeners’ pleasure in hearing Mrs. Karswell read for you the original text but will divulge that its hand-losing heroine Biancabella shares a birth kinship with a serpentine fairy; also, that her hands are sacrificed in an effort to convince her wicked stepmother that her orders to execute her step-daughter have been carried out, and that guilty parties endure in the end a fiery foretaste of hell.

Our second story is “Penta the Handless” from Il Pentamerone (or “The Tale of Tales”) was written about a century later, in 1634, by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile. This collection of stories also makes use of the framing device, having the stories told by a group of courtiers attempting to cheer a melancholy princess.  Among the 50 stories included are the first written versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

In this story, Penta’s mutilation is self-inflicted as a means of repelling the incestuous advances of her brother.  Her royal sibling has an exotic means of expelling her from the kingdom, namely, sealing her  in a tarred chest and casting her into the sea (a motif that dates back to the plays of Euripides or even the story of the infant Moses).

Pentamerone
Basile’s Il Pentamerone

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm provide a relatively late example of this narrative, one however that has provided the ATU #706 with a name:,”The Girl with No Hands.” The story is ncluded in the Grimm’s first 1812 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, i.e., “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Our Grimm segment, by the way, begins with a clip from the trailer for the 1962 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.

As an oral folk-tale, this German version dispenses with some of the detailed intrigues that mark its two Italian antecedents. Rather than a wicked in-law or brother, it’s the  Devil, who tricks a down-on-his-luck miller into doing the gruesome deed.  As is frequent in German stories collected by the Grimms, a magical forest-dwelling man also plays a role.

We also briefly discuss a few versions of the story published after Jacob & Wilhelm’s version — other German, Italian, and Hungarian tales which place blame for the amputation not on the Devil but on wicked family members.  A gruesome detail included in a few of these mirrors a similarly faux-cannibalistic scene from the Grimms’ original “Snow White.”

We return to Russian for our final story, “The Armless Maiden,” one of the nearly 600 folk tales or skazki contained in the multi-volume Russian Fairy Tales collection compiled by state ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev between 1855 and 1863.

The heroine here is an orphan happily living with her brother until the day her brother takes a bride, as she turns out to be a witch, who is less than happy sharing the household with another female —  and has a particularly brutal way of showing it.  A strange example of sort Lamarckian evolutionary magic marks this one, with the armless maiden giving birth to a child with silver arms. A particularly gruesome manner of dispatching the sorceress is also a highlight.

We end the show with a Russian musical snippet from an electronic band from Moscow, a duo making music since 2013, under the name IC3PEAK.  The song in question rather appropriately  begins with the line “I come from a Russian Horror Fairy Tale” and  further endears itself with the delightful Baba-Yaga-esque animation of its music video.

Afanasyev
1895 edition of Afanasyev’s “Russian Fairy Tales”

 

Electric Fairy Rings and the Slime from Space

Electric Fairy Rings and the Slime from Space

The folklore of fairy rings and “star jelly” is strangely connected to celestial phenomena, including lightning and shooting stars.

We begin with a description of a folkloric fairy ring and its dancing population from John Aubrey’s 1690 book Natural History of Wiltshire, following this with a few other folkloric takes on the topic.

The botanical phenomena of fairy rings is then described that is, circular configurations of mushrooms sprouting overnight or ringlike markings of grass in fields.

Mushrooms in early fairy ring formation.

The pseudo-scientific 19th-century notion that these rings were caused by lightning strikes as espoused by Sir Walter Scott and Erasmus Darwin is then discussed with a modern parallel connecting this with flying saucer lore provided by Jacques Vallée’s  1969 book Passport to Magonia.

A more ancient connection between lightning and the fruition of mushrooms is then discussed with examples of this belief provided by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder and poet Juvenal.

A connection between lightning and the production of a strange slime occurs in a contemporary pamphlet recounting the terrors of  1638’s Great Thunderstorm of Dartmoor England.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us this lurid account believed to be the first description of ball lightning.

Rather than ball lightning, however, most accounts of heaven-sent “fireballs” from the early modern and modern era are believed to describe meteors, understood at the time as “falling” or “shooting stars.”

Folklore connects falling stars with the deposit upon the earth of a sort of slime or gelatinous substance known most commonly as “star jelly,” but a dozen or so other names from European folklore are also provided, with the sinister-sounding Welsh term “pwdre ser,” meaning, “rot from the stars” also being fairly common in more modern literature.

Some literary references to this belief are also provided, most of which contrast the beauty or hopeful wishes associated with a falling star and the loathsome heap of jelly it becomes on landing.

A few more modern theories attempting to provide a more scientific account are then provided. Most commonly these include star jelly as frogspawn, jelly fungi, or nostoc, a a single-celled organism that forms into filaments and these into colonies that look like gelatinous piles of dark green (and putrefying) grapes.

The traditional application of nostoc as a  food source and medicine are also discussed, as the source of its name in the writings of the 16th-century Swiss natural philosopher and physician Paracelscus who regarded it as something blown “blown from the nostrils of some rheumatick planet.”

Thanks to its seemingly supernatural appearance with the nocturnal dew, the alchemists assigned an elevated role to nostoc, calling it “the water of the equinoxes.”  Some illustrations of alchemists attempting to collect nostoc and touting its qualities are provided from the enigmatic Mutus Liber or “Mute Book” of 17th century France, as well as in the work of the modern alchemist Fulcanelli from his 1926 book The Mystery of the Cathedrals.  The mystery of the identity of this writer calling himself “Fulcanelli” as well as the claims of his student Eugène Canseliet, who supposedly transmuted lead into gold in 1922 are touched upon.

Charles Fort’s “Book of the Damned”

We then have a look at nostoc through the writings of Charles Fort, whose 1919 volume, The Book of the Damned, provided inspiration for all future writings on scientific anomalies, the paranormal, and (to some extent science fiction.)  Fort’s arguments about the identification of nostoc with star jelly are illustrated in his discussion of “the Amherst object,” a particularly weird lump of something-or-other said to have fallen in a field near Amherst, Massachusetts in 1819.  We also hear a sampling of his eccentric prose echoing his facetiously posited theory of the “Super Sargasso Sea,” an inter-dimensional repository responsible for occasionally teleporting things (or people) in and out of our world.

A few more choice cases of meteors associated with mysterious gelatinous substances are discussed.

We conclude with a look at the inspiration for the 1958 film The Blob, in which a meteor crashes to earth releasing the titular menace upon a small Pennsylvania town. One possible inspiration is Joseph Payne Brennan’s novella, “Slime” published in Weird Tales in 1953, five years before the film’s release.  However  there are substantial differences between the storylines, which are discussed.

More interesting (in light of our topic) is the notion that the film was inspired by true events, namely an incident documented in newspaper reports of September 26, 1950, describing something bizarre encountered by Philadelphia police  during their patrol.  It doesn’t seem likely this story played a big role in inspiring the film, and while the newspaper account attempts to categorize the phenomenon as a particularly weird sort of “flying saucer” (saucers being particularly trendy at the time), eyewitnesses describe the object as something more akin to the fairy world.  Mrs. Karswell reads the entire newspaper account.

 

The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

In pagan Germanic cultures, the seeress played an extremely important role, not only as a clairvoyant, but also often fulfilling the role of a priestess, wisewoman or witch.

We begin with a short clip from Robert Eggers’ The Northman, in which Björk plays a seeress.  Old Norse words used to describe this role include spákona, or völva (pl. völvur, völur) — the last meaning “staff bearer,” as a staff was a signifying attribute of the völva, one possibly also used as a magic wand.  Staffs discovered in graves of certain high-status women, as suggested by luxurious grave goods, suggest these individuals may have been völvur.  We hear some details regarding such discoveries in Denmark and Sweden.

wands
Wands (grave-goods) believed to belong to seeress. Danish National Museum.

Next we provide a quick overview of the Nordic magic that may have been part of the völva‘s repertoire.  Two Old Norse designations for witchcraft  are galdr and seiðr (Anglicized as seidr).  The latter has more to do with spoken or sung charms, and the latter most prominently with control of mental states but can also involve manipulation of physical realities.

We also address briefly the notion that, like the sibyls of the Classical world, the völva likely entered a trance in order to produce her utterances. Drumming is popularly associated with this, as it is central to the shamanic practice of the Sammi people on the northern and eastern fringes of Scandinavia and Lapland.

The first accounts we have of völvur come from Roman encounters with Germanic peoples on Europe’s mainland. A particularly important account we hear comes from Tacitus’ Histories, in which he describes a seeress by the name of Veleda, who guided the Bructeri tribe through their conflicts with the Romans.  We also hear about a sacred grove of the Germans, one likely described to Tacitus by a Germanic priestess by the name of Ganna during her visit to Rome.

Veleda
Illustration of Veleda and Romans from Alois Schreiber, Teutschland und die Teutschen (1823)

We also hear from the Greek historian Strabo, who in his Geographic portrays female seers of the Cimbri people, sacrificing prisoners of war, bleeding them, and telling fortunes from their entrails. Mrs. Karswell provides a lovely reading of this passage.

The earliest of our Scandinavian texts. one written anonymously probably around 960, is the Völuspá,  (literally: “the prophecy of the völva).  In the narrative the seeress in question is sought out by Odin himself, a dynamic testifying to the importance of the völva in Germanic culture.

Odin and the Völva
Odin and the Völva by Karl Gjellerups, from Det kongelige Bibliotek, 1895

A particular episode in this epic poem features a seeress by the name of Gullveig (later changed to Heidr) who is attacked by the gods in Odin’s hall, an event leading to the war between the two divine races, the Aesir and Vanir. It’s speculated that this seeress may be the narrator of the prophecies recounted in the poem.

Probably the most finely detailed account of the völva’s  activities in the real comes from the 13th-century Saga of Erik the Red.  Its description emphasizes the honor with which the seeress was treated while visiting farmsteads to relate her prophecies.  It also notes the use of galdr (singing magic) and lavishly details the special attire worn by a seeress.

Our next selected episode featuring a völva comes from the 13th-century Icelandic saga, the Saga of Örvar-Odd, a name translated usually as “Arrow-Odd”. This one  involves the seer’s prophecy of an inescapable fate involving a horse.

Our final story of a Nordic witch is from Gesta Danorum or”Deeds of the Danes,” a 12th-century chronicle of the country by Saxo Grammaticus.  It features a witch who transforms herself into a walrus at a critical moment and a body that really needs to be buried.

We close with some audio snippets from  Freyia Norling, a modern practitioner of seidr, who from her home in the Arctic Circle, hosts the intriguing YouTube Channel “A Discovery of Nordic Witches.

Hellfire Clubs, Part One

Hellfire Clubs, Part One

The Hellfire Clubs of 18th-century Great Britain were gatherings of upper-class libertines dedicated to hedonism, blasphemous jests and taboo activities expressing a cultural and political opposition to the Church. They were also the subject of lurid rumor and legend.  In this episode and the next we attempt to tease out Hellfire Club fact from folklore.

We begin with a nod to the Hellfire Club of pop culture: a clip or two from a 1966 episode of the British espionage show, The Avengers,  which imagines a Hellfire Club recreated in swinging London.

As a bit of context to the discussion, we then consider 18th-century Britain’s mania for forming clubs and fraternal orders, including London’s Kit-Cat Club, Beefsteak Clubs, and the Calf’s Head Club, the last celebrating the execution of Charles I with stunts and feasts organized around a calf head representing that of beheaded monarch. We also take a moment to consider the “rake,”  (from the word “rakehell”) a distinctively 18th-century breed of aristocratic hell-raiser dedicating himself to womanizing, drinking, and gambling.  Hellfire Club members were drawn almost exclusively from this class.

Broadsheet representing London Hellfire Club ca 1721
Broadsheet representing London Hellfire Club ca 1721

History’s first Hellfire Club was founded sometime around 1720 by Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton.  His case seems to be one of the apple not falling far from the tree, as we hear of some outrageous incidents of church vandalism  in which is father, Tom Wharton, engaged.

While father and son shared anticlerical sentiments, young Philip’s rebellion against parental expectations allied him with the very Jacobites battled by his father, and resulted in a secret engagement to young girl beneath his class, as well as a stunt involving a bear cub.

Wharton’s connection to the Hellfire Club, (like what we know of the club itself) is extrapolated from rumors circulating in the popular press of the day.  We hear some examples of this, claims about “Holy Ghost Pie” blasphemy at taverns,  members serving diplomatic functions in hell, and the like.

However much the press tended to fictionalized the group, it was real enough to have drawn the ire of George I, who issued  an edict in 1721 against the formation and meeting of clubs dedicated to blasphemy.  Public opinion so strongly associated Wharton with such groups, that when the edict cae before the House of Lords (where he also served), he found it necessary to address the rumors, denying that they could apply to him, but at the same time voting against the measure.

Little mention was made of the Hellfire Club after this, and it seems Wharton redirected his interest to Freemasonry going on to become to Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England.  However, his obstreperous nature soon saw him booted from this organization. Thus inspired, he went on to found another order, the Gorgomons, one which instead of mocking the Church, ridiculed Freemasonry.  We hear a bit about that group from the text of organization a comical pamphlet illustrated by William Hogarth.

Dublin also was home to a Hellfire Club, founded in 1735 by Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, an English-born member of the gentry of Ireland.  More specifics are known in the case of this club, including core members (rakes all!) who are represented in a 1735 painting of the group meeting around a punch bowl.  The presumptive location of this scene would be The Eagle Tavern on Dublin’s Cork Hill, and the drink likely scaltheen, a milk-punch strongly associated with the club.

Dublin site
Montpelier lodge believed to have been used by Dublin club. Photo: Joe King

Because Parsons owned an old hunting lodge on Montpelier, a mountain on the outskirts of the city, it’s also commonly presumed the group gathered there.  While there’s no contemporary documentation confirming this, the romantic nature of the site all but demanded it be incorporated into the folklore. The building was in a state of partial ruin even in Parson’s day, and was constructed from stone quarried from an ancient pagan burial cairn on the hill.

We hear a few of the legends associated with Hellfire gatherings of Montpelier, including a longer tale of a devilish black cat related by Mrs. Karswell from the 1907 book, Sketches of Old Dublin.

The end of this Irish Hellfire Club seems to have had much to do with the vile reputation of a particular member, Henry Barry, 4th Baron of Santry.  We hear of the homicide charges leveled against him as well as of another murderous incident, which may be the stuff of legend.

We also hear of a sort of spiritual resurrection of Dublin’s club in 1771 under the ironic name, “The Holy Fathers.”  Despite the dark rumors swirling around this group, its founder, Buck Whaley was a popular character thanks to his larger-than-life adventures. We hear some tales of his extraordinary wagers and of the foolhardy journey that earned him the nickname, “Jerusalem Whaley.”

Though it’s not another Hellfire Club, we make a brief side trip to discuss, The Beggar’s Benison, an equally scandalous club —  and not just by 18th century standards.

Founded in 1732 in the Scottish town of Anstruther on the Firth of Forth, the Beggar’s Benison was a men’s fraternity obsessively devoted to sex, the sharing of erotic art and literature, dirty songs and toasts, and the presentation of frank lectures on sexual topics.  We hear the tale told of is legendary founding by a particularly rakish version of James V,  of the club’s rather shocking initiation rites, and of of the membership’s peculiar obsession with pubic hair.

We close with two tales detailing the ends of Philip Wharton of London’s Hellfire Club and Richard Parsons of Dublin — one tragic and the other comic.

Dublin Hellfire Club, James Worsdale, 1735

 


NOTE: Details on our Patreon raffle for the 15-disc set, All The Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium Of Folk Horror, are available at this link: https://www.boneandsickle.com/2022/03/30/patreon-raffle/


 

The Dead Lover’s Heart

The Dead Lover’s Heart

Whether freshly removed or strangely preserved after death, the dead lover’s heart occasionally has continued to be embraced as a repository of intensely shared romantic experience. This Valentine’s Day episode explores two different narratives touching on that theme: a historical tale from the 19th-century literary culture of England and a collection of related medieval legends, literature, and song.

The first half of our episode looks at the strange circumstance surrounding the death, in 1822,  of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the postmortem keepsake inherited by his wife Mary Shelley.

Louis Fournier’s “The Funeral of Shelley,” 1889.

The second half examines two gruesome narratives taken from the 14th century, both from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, namely that of the ill-fated lovers Ghismonda & Guiscardo (First Story, Day Four) and of the tragic romantic exploits of Guilhem de Cabestaing (Ninth story, Day Four).  Incidentally, our Valentine’s Day show from last year also explores another gruesome tale from The Decameron.

De Cabestaing was an actual historical figure, a Catalan ministrel, whose fictional vida (biography) was often attached to collections of his ballads and served as Boccaccio’s inspiration.

We also look at the Ley of ’Ignaure, a chivalric romance written by the Burgundian French author, Renaud de Beaujeu, probably around the year 1200.  This was likely the source of Cabestaing’s vida, Boccaccio’s stories, and the English-Scottish ballad, “Lady Diamond,” from which we also hear a snippet.

"Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
“Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
Myth and Magic of the Smith

Myth and Magic of the Smith

Folklore of the blacksmith portrays him as a semi-magical figure, a wily opponent of the Devil, a mythic creator in classical and biblical narratives, and an embodiment of occult wisdom within certain secret societies and neopagan groups.

We begin with an audio snippet from the excellent 2017 horror-fantasy Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil, a cinematic elaboration of the Basque folktale, “Patxi the Blacksmith” collected back in the 1960s by the Spanish priest and Basque ethnographer Jose Miguel Barandiaran.

This is one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of variants of “Blacksmith and Devil” tales found from Russia to Appalachia, all of which involve a smith selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for some reward, then somehow tricking the Devil out of his due. Some variations of  the story collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are outlined, and Mrs. Karswell reads passages of an Irish variant from the 1896 volume, The Humor of Ireland, one which also serves as a sort of origin story for a popular seasonal custom.

While most of the blacksmiths in these tales tend to be roguish, England offers a devil-combating smith who is actually quite saintly, namely St. Dunstan, the 10-century Abbot of Glastonbury, who also found time to master the harp and the art of blacksmithing. We hear several variations of his encounter with the Devil.

St. Dunstan and the Devil

We then explore folk customs associated with St. Clement, the first-century bishop of Rome whose particular style of martyrdom led to his being embraced as patron of blacksmiths. A variety of celebrations by ironworkers on St. Clement’s Day (November 23) are discussed; we hear a snippet of a song associated with “clementing” (going door to door to collect donations for the “Old Clem Feast,”) and hear a tale told at these feasts explaining how the blacksmith was declared “King of All Trades” by King Alfred.  There’s also a bit about a pyrotechnic festivity known as “anvil firing” associated with these celebrations and a snippet of the traditional blacksmith-toasting song, “Twanky Dillo,” sung by the Wild Colonial Boys.

Moving further back into Anglo-Saxon history, we encounter the figure of Wayland the Smith, one who appears briefly as a swordsmith and armorer in Beowulf and other English narratives but whose story is most thoroughly presented in the Lay of Völund part of the Poetic Edda (“Wayland” being an adaptation of the Old Norse name “Völund.”)  We hear a brief summary of this tale, including the particularly gruesome revenge taken by the smith upon the king who takes him captive.

We also hear a bit about Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, a Neolithic long barrow or stone-chamber tomb supposedly occupied by a ghostly blacksmith.

Wayland escapes
Wayland escapes from “Myths and legends of all nations” (1914)

We then have a look at the smith god of classical mythology, Vulcan (Roman) or  Hephaestus (Greek), his physical traits and fantastic creations, which extend beyond simple smithing into the realm of magic and even the creation of the first human female, Pandora.

Another metalworker associated with mankind’s origins is Tubal-Cain, described in the book of Genesis as the first “forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.”

As a descendent of Cain (who commits mankind’s first murder) and a creator of weapons enabling more deaths, Tubal-Cain’s folkloric reputation tends to be rather black. The  apocryphal book of Enoch, presents a truly Luciferian blacksmith seemingly based on Tubal-Cain, the fallen angel Azazel, who utterly corrupts mankind before the flood of Noah.

This flood narrative also figures into the mythology of Freemasonry and the role assigned the figure of Tubal-Cain in its rituals. (I give away a few masonic secrets in this segment and can only hope I will not pay for this with my life.)

Also discussed is the Masonic-inspired Society of the Horseman’s Word whose members were said to exercise supernatural control over horses in rural areas of Scotland and England in the 19th century.  The order’s mythological founder was understood to be either Cain or Tubal-Cain, depending on the region.

A blacksmith and son of one of these Horsemen was Robert Cochrane, who in 1966, founded The Clan of Tubal Cain, a coven and spiritual path intended to rival the Gardnerian witchcraft largely defining the neopagan world of the 1960s.  We end the show with a particularly strange and tragic tale associated with this group.

 

 

 

 

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

In earlier centuries, Americans partook in many of the same dark Christmas traditions that gave birth to Europe’s Krampus.  This episode examines our untamed holiday history.

The most obvious example of this is the character of Belsnickel, (sometimes: Pelznickel, Belschnickle, Bells Nickel, etc.), who, like the Krampus, usually appeared on St. Nicholas Day, carrying a whip with which to threaten or strike naughty children. He was found particularly in German-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, but also in Appalachian West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Southern Indiana.

Belsnickel’s costume could vary widely depending upon what was available to the performer, but usually involved a long coat, hat, and almost always false whiskers — all chosen primarily to cover the actor and make him difficult to recognize. For that same reason, his face would also often blackened with soot or covered by any sort of mask available.

Belsnickel drawing
Belsnickel illustration by Ralph Dunkelberger (1959) in Berks History Center (PA)

Belsnickel often wore a fur coat or hat, a coat trimmed with fur, or a fur-lined coat turned inside out (to create a weird effect and make the garment less recognizable). The choice of fur probably had less to do with some essential attribute of the character and more to do with the season itself. Nonetheless, the name “Belsnickel,” which is a derivation of the German “Pelznickel,” has often been incorrectly interpreted as “Fur Nicholas.” In fact, the “Pelz” here derives from pelzen, meaning, “to beat.”  Pelznickel (and Belsnickel) carried in his pocket or bag, small treats, which he would scatter over the ground. Naughty children trying to grab these would feel his whip.

Like Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus of Alpine Austria and Bavaria, the whip was the Belsnickel’s essential attribute. In fact, in the 1800s, Pelznickel/Belsnickel would probably not have been that different in appearance from the Krampus as the modern image we have of that creature was only standardized as such with advent of Krampus postcards and their imagery dreamed up by city-dwelling artists, along with growth of a competitive community of mask-carvers in the early 20th century.

The popularity of the Belsnickel tradition soon saw it spill over from its original December 5-6 celebration to all the days leading up to Christmas and later New Year.  As the tradition grew in popularity, Belsnickel was no longer represented as a solitary character but by groups of Belsnickels, whose behavior became increasingly rowdy and unwelcome. Rather than giving gifts or treats, these groups tended to ask for handouts from homes and businesses visited.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of American newspaper accounts documenting this trend.

Belsnickel appearing in groups. (photo: Museum of the Shenandoah Valley)

We also take a side-trip to South America, where the figure of Pelznickel arrived with German immigrants in the town of Guabiruba. Brazil. Unlike North America, where the Belsnickel had largely died out by the 1940s, Pelznickel events sponsored by the Sociedade dos Pelznickel continue to thrive – but with an interesting twist.  There, the Pelznickel wanders about outfitted  in moss and other tropical vegetation, accessorized with Krampus-like mask and horns.

Pelznickel Brazil
Pelznickel in Guabiruba, Brazil.

The Belsnickel gangs were not the only groups of costumed youth carousing or begging on American streets during the holiday.  Some of the earliest reports of this sort of thing come from Boston, where they were known as “Anticks” or “Fantasticals,” a name also used elsewhere.  In Philadelphia, they might be called”Belsnickels” or simply “clowns” or “shooters” (thanks to the fact that these groups tended to carry noisemakers, including guns).  In New York, these bands of noisemakers, often equipped with actual musical instruments played discordantly, were known as Callithumpians, or Callithumpian bands.

In Philadelphia, the rowdy costumed traditions of immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavian melded with those of the Germans and were eventually domesticated by civil authorities into a more manageable form, the annual Mummers’ Parade.

In New York, no such solution was found, and Mrs. Karswell reads for us dramatic newspaper account  from 1828 describing holiday chaos in that city.

Eventually a remedy to New York’s seasonal turmoil was suggested by John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, whose love for the traditions of “Old Amsterdam” suggested Holland’s patron Saint Nicholas as a distraction from the street carousing.  His re-creation of pious domestic rituals involving the saint would eventually displace holiday activity from the street to the home, and refocus festivities from rowdy unmarried men to children rewarded for good behavior.  Some peculiar twists and turns along the way are described.

st. nick
St. Nicholas material Pintard commissioned for the New York Historical Society.

NOTE: This episode consists of material originally written for the book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, but excised due to page-count.  Mr. Ridenour’s book, it should be noted, happens to make an outstanding gift for the holidays.

The book by your host
The book by your host. A most excellent gift!

 

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvania’s vampire lore inspired the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if not the character of the Count, and encompasses not only undead monsters, but living beings akin to witches.  (The show is introduced with an audio snippet from Maria Tănase, premiere interpreter of Romanian folk song.)

Mrs. Karswell begins the show, reading a passage Stoker wrote for Jonathan’s Harker’s Transylvania travel journal kand its source in an 1855 essay by Emily Gerard, “Transylvania Superstitions.”  Originally from Scotland, Gerard developing an interest in the local folklore while living abroad and expand her essay in the 1888 book, The Land Beyond the Forest.  She seems to have derived a fair amount of  her vampire lore from a German scholar, Wilhelm von Schmidt, who in 1865 article contributed an article on the subject to the Austrian Review.

land beyond 1
Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While much of Gerard and von Schmidt’s information seems well sourced, the nomenclature used for vampires is incorrect. The word “nosferatu” put forward by the two folklorists and repeated by Stoker in his novel as the common Transylvanian word for “vampire” is not actually a Romanian word — but we sort out the confusion.

In Romanian, there are two words for vampiric beings, which Gerard subsumed under “nosferatu.” They are moroi and strigoi (male forms, plural moroii, strigoii). Strigoi seems to be a more expansive category and is discussed more in the folklore, but both share many traits including behaviors, preventatives, and modes of destruction. Moroii and strigoii tend to blur together along with two other entities, vârcolaci, and pricolici, which might be closer to our concept of the werewolf (something for a later show).

Before diving into the details on these creatures, I provide a note on two sources used for the episode, chose as they seem better grounded than Gerard’s in Romanian language and culture.  The first is by Agnes Murgoci, a British zoologist, whose marriage brought her to Romania and into contact with Tudor Pamfile, a well known native-born folklorist, whose tales of vampires Murgoci translates in the source article: “The Vampire in Roumania,” published in the journal Folklore in 1926.  The other source is a Romanian language book from 1907: Folk Medicine, by Gr. Grigoriu-Rigo, in which I found a large and unexpected trove of regional vampire lore.

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Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While living an evil life makes one more likely to become a strigoi or moroi, through no fault of their own, an individual who does not receive proper burial rites, will live on to destroy those who failed to fulfill their funereal duties — namely, his family and relations.  We have a look at some of the old burial custom, which includes and audio snippet of bocet, a form of traditional lamentation offered at funerals.

We then dig into the moroi and traits its shares with the strigoi: the tendency to attack family members, similar preventatives and modes of  destruction as well as shared methods detection of thevampire in its grave.

The strigoi in some ways is closer to the pop-culture vampire — unlike the moroi, it’s sometime explicitly said to drink blood, and garlic is a primary prophylactic. Alongside its practice of destroying loved ones, we hear of some peculiar incidents in which the strigoi also engages with its family in more neutral or even helpful (if unwanted) ways.

We then have a look at living strigoii, that is, strigoii fated to become undead after burial but in life exhibiting supernatural abilities and evil inclinations. In many cases, these beings bear comparisons to witches. Possessing the evil eye and the ability to leave the sleeping body in another form (usually a small animal) are examples of this.

Some methods of preventing a living strigoi from rising from its grave are discussed as well as means of destroying these creatures. Techniques employed against the moroi, while simlar occasionally include additional techniques, such as application of tar or quicklime to the body.  Priests’ blessings and spells by benevolent wise women can also be employed (and we hear an audio example of the latter).

The remainder of our show consists of vampire folk tales collected by Tudor Pamfile as provided via Murgoci’s translations. The first pair of stories illustrate the resemblance between living strigoii and witches. These are followed by tales of male strigoii pursuing women vaguely prefiguring the pop-culture vampire Stoker birthed.

Customs of November 29, the “Night of the Strigoi” in Romania, are then described along with its folkloric significance and relationship to St. Andrew, followed by a clip from the 2009 British comedy, Strigoi.

Though no longer common in Transylvania, in rural regions toward Romania’s Bulgarian border, belief in vampires is still part of life. We hear a bit of a Romanian news segment on a poltergeist-like vampire plaguing the largely Romani village of Sohatu followed by a 2004 case from the village Celaru, which made international news when the body of an alleged vampire was disinterred and its heart burned.
The musical closer to the show is by the horror host Zacherley.

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Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost trains and real-life railway terrors intermingle in this episode’s exploration of old train-wreck ballads, nervous and funereally obsessed Victorians, urban legends involving train deaths, and more.

Mrs. Karswell begins our show reading an imaginitive description of a phantom train written by George A. Sala for an 1855 edition of the magazine, Household Words, published by Charles Dickens (whose railroad connections we’ll be discussing).

Next we hear a bit of Vernon Dahhart’s 1927 ballad, “The Wreck of the Royal Palm,” describing an accident that had happened near Rockmart, Georgia the previous year. Other folk songs including gruesome railroad deaths are then explored. These include “In the Pines,” “The Wreck of the Old ‘97,” and “Wreck on the C&O,” including snippets from versions recorded by Lead Belly, Vernon Dalhart, and Ernest Stoneman respectively (with a reiteration of a line from “C&O,” by The Kossoy Sisters.) ** FOR MUSIC DETAILS SEE BELOW.

We next hear a bit about an obsession with dangerous trains expressing itself on London’s stages in theater productions of the mid-to-late 1800s.  One manifestation was the “sensation dramas” of the day, which presented trains and train wrecks on stage via highly developed stagecraft.  Another trend involving characters imperiled on railroad tracks was launched by the 1867 play, Under the Gaslight.  The 1923 play Ghost Train is also discussed.

Our attention turns back to Charles Dickens as we hear a vivid passage describing the death of the nemesis of his novel Dombey and Son, published as a serial between 1846 and 1848; it is literature’s first death by train.  Mention is also made of his classic ghost story, “The Signalman” from 1865.

Dickens’ ambivalent, and somewhat fearful, attitude toward the railroads seems to be rooted in the railways’ effect on the traditional patterns of life in Britain’s towns and villages, but also has roots in personal experience, namely as a passenger in the 1865 Staplehurst Disaster.  A train wreck that not only affected his literary themes, but his personal wellbeing for years to come.

We then switch gears to examine a few localized legends from American involving trains.  The first is the Maco Ghost Light encountered near the tiny North Carolina town of Maco Station and said to represent the lantern of an undead (and decapitated) railway worker. We also look at a legend from Texas, that of the San Antonia Ghost Tracks, in which aa alleged accident involving a school bus and train spawned reports of supernatural occurrences.

Another North Carolina legend examined involves an 1891 train accident on Bostian Bridge near the town of Statesville.  The ghost stories associated with the site recount appearances of the the doomed train on the anniversary of its accident.  The first of these is said to have happened on the 50th anniversary in 1941, but an even more terrifying encounter from 2010, on the 119th anniversary, is also discussed.

Beginning in 1872, seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, supernatural tales stories began to be told of the train that carried the dead president’s body through 12 cities in which he lay in state.  We hear just one of the stories published in The Albany Evening Times.

We then examine the musical phenomenon of songs that portray phantom trains as conveyances to the afterlife, in particular the gospel trope of Death as a Train that may arrive to unexpectedly whisk you off to the Great Beyond, thereby reminding listeners of the need to get right with God. An elaboration of this theme involves the Hell Train, driven by the Devil himself, one which takes those who refuse to make the afore-mentioned spiritual preparations. Included here are songs or song-sermons recorded by The Clinch Mountain Clan, The Carter Family, Rev. J. M. Gates, Rev. H.R. Tomlin, Rev. A.W. Nix, Chuck Berry, and Gin Gillette.

The episode ends with a look at the not terribly successful embalming of Abraham Lincoln prior to his his funeral tour, punctuated by a snippet from “In the Pines” AKA “The Longest Train” by Dead Men’s Hollow.

** NOTE: a streaming library of the numerous songs featured in this episode, along with some additional songs of similar themes, is available to those who join our Patreon as supporters before December 1.

 

Marvelous and Rare III

Marvelous and Rare III

Duties in the library unfortunately prevent us from presenting a regular episode at this time, but to fill the gap, we’re offering listeners a taste of the short bonus “Marvelous & Rare” episodes all our $4-and-up Patreon subscribers hear every month (sort of antiquarian version of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not).

If you’d like to hear more in this format, another sample was released to regular listeners in  September 2020 and there are around a dozen more available to those who join us on Patreon.

We’ll be back in October with a longer, traditional Bone and Sickle Episode (as well as a Halloween show).