Category Archives: legends

Episode 9: Cave Witches



In this episode of Bone and Sickle, we’re looking at the folklore and history of witches associated with caves.  We begin with the Bell Witch, of Adams Tennessee and a quick audio montage saluting the creature, one based around the eccentric country-western song “The Bell Witch” by Merle Kilgore.  Also included are snippets of The Bell Witch, The Movie, The Bell Witch Featurette, The Bell Witch Haunting, Cursed: The Bell Witch “reality” show on A&E, and a bit of Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures scaring himself in the Bell Witch cave. Just so you know, there is also a Bell Witch ballet.  It’s a love story.

Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction
Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction

I neglected to mention the source for the original Bell Witch legend.  It is An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, published in 1894 by the newspaper editor Marvin V. Ingram.  His source was allegedly a diary kept by John Bell, the primary target of the witch’s animosity, though the existence of this diary has never been independently confirmed.

Next we visit the cave of the 16th-century seer Mother Shipton in Knaresborough, England.  Wilkinson provides a dramatic reading of an account of her birth from a 1687 volume, and we learn about the curious wishing well attached to Shipton’s Cave, a geological oddity known for “petrifying” objects hung in its waters, some of which are available through the site’s gift shop. You can read more of the prophecies attributed to Shipton here.

Our next stop in England is the cave known as Wookey Hole about 20 minutes northeast of Glastonbury.  Wilkinson reads us a poem from 1748, “The Witch of Wookey” describing how and why a witch formerly haunting the cave was turned into a stalagmite bearing her likeness.  We also learn of Leicester’s Black Annis, a monstrous hag said to occupy a cave in the Dane Hills and do terrible things to children.

Carving of Shipton at Cav
Carving of Shipton at Cave

Next we visit the town of Zugarramurdi in northeastern Spain’s Basque region, known for its “Cave of the Witches,” featured in the 2013 horror-comedy The Witches of Zugarramurdi, released to English-speaking audiences as Witching and Bitching. We learn of the world’s largest witchcraft investigation that took place in this town and something of the Basque folklore that may have given the inquisitors their idea of the Devil.  The song “Baba Biga Higa,” a Basque witches’ rhyme set to music by Mikel Laboa, is featured as well as music by the Basque folk group Kepa Junkera & Sorginak.

Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi
Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi

Then it’s off to Italy to learn about the Sibyls, seers rooted in classical mythology and associated with caves.  Our first stop is in central Italy’s Appennine mountains where the Sybils of ancient Greece and Rome was transformed into a sort of fairy, occupying an vast underworld entered through a cave on Mount Sibilla. Nearby is the town of Norcia and the Lake of (Pontius) PIlate, sites famous int he Middle Ages for witchcraft. Our story extends a bit to Germany as we learn that the Appenine legend was borrowed into German culture and associated with the minnesinger and knight Tannhauser, whose story was taken up by Richard Wagner in his opera Tannhäuser.  in the background of this segment we hear an excerpt from this opera related to the Appenine legend.

Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.
Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.

The second Sibyl, associated with a cave near Naples, is the Cumaen Sibyl featured in a story about some hard bargaining over her books of prophecy with the last king of Rome and another about the problem with wishing for eternal life.  The Cumaen Sibyl’s cave, described as an entrance to the Underworld by Virgil in his Aeneid, is also near a sinister body of water, Lake Avernus, whose mephitic atmosphere is more than a little harmful to certain mortal creatures who venture too close.  There’s also a mention of a rather obscure novel Mary Shelley attempted as a follow-up to her success with Frankenstein.  Yes, it also relates to the Cumaen Sibyl and her cave.

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800
Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800

We close the show examining the strange way the prophecies of the pagan Sibyl intertwined with church teachings, and through this weird nexus ended up echoed in the soundtracks to certain horror films.

 

 


Episode 8: Dreadful Ships



On this episode of Bone and Sickle, we look at the folklore of ghost ships, undead sailors, some nautical elements in gothic literature, a song about a ship piloted by the Devil, and other horror stories of the sea.

We begin with a little reminiscing about our last show on the Pied Piper and a story by George G. Toudouze that I’d wanted to include but didn’t have space for, “Three Skeleton Key,” It features both a ghost ship and a horde of ravenous rats like those devouring the wicked Bishop Hatto in Episode 7.  Clips from a 1956 radio dramatization featuring Vincent Price are included.

Discovery of the ghost ship Marlborough" 1913, from Supplément illustré du Petit Journal
Discovery of the ghost ship Marlborough” 1913, from Supplément illustré du Petit Journal

We then take a look at some notorious derelict ships from history, beginning with The Mary Celeste, which entered the popular imagination through a fictionalized account by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Ships adrift in the Arctic with frozen crews,  a ship cursed by malevolent spirits picked up in Zanzibar, and a ship discovered with its lifeless crew in a particularly grisly state are all discussed.

Edgar Allan Poe, in his only full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, describes a ghost ship in ghastly detail in a passage dramatically interpreted by Wilkinson.

"Pym" Illustration for Jules Verne's essay "Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres" by Frederic Dargent, 1862
“Pym” Illustration for Jules Verne’s essay “Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres” by
Frederic Dargent, 1862

In between the Edgar Allen Poe passage and my introduction to the Flying Dutchman, you heard a snippet of David Coffin and friends singing the sea shanty “Roll the Old Chariot,” which you can hear in its entirety here.

We then have a look at the lore of The Flying Dutchman, best known as the supernatural ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean films or the opera by Richard Wagner,  Wilkinson relates some eerie accounts of Dutchman sightings from surprisingly recent times.

Hartwig & Vogel's Chocolate trading cards, "The Flying Dutchman" (1906)
Hartwig & Vogel’s Chocolate trading cards, “The Flying Dutchman” (1906)

A favorite explanation for stories, in which ghost ship are said to luminesce, is the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire, a weird electrical anomaly, which we find showing up everywhere from Melville’s Moby Dick to the laboratory of Nikola Tesla.

Ghost ships are sometimes said to arrive as omens of death, or their appearance may recreate the tragic end of ship and crew.  These otherworldly aspects have been noted in mariners’ accounts and served as the basis for a few poems, including a work by Longfellow, which we’ll hear.  Along the way, we learn about the Klabautermann, a strange sea-going gnome said to haunt ships on the Baltic and North Seas.

Klabautermann from Buch Zur See, 1885.
Klabautermann from Buch Zur See, 1885.

Next, it’s a musical break featuring the 17th-century  folk ballad “House Carpenter” also sometimes called “The Daemon Lover.”  This tale of demonic jealousy or the Devil’s retribution on the high seas is hauntingly rendered by Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie, Scottish singer A.L Lloyd, and in an instrumental arrangement by Adrian McHenry, and we hear bits of all these versions.

Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has often drawn comparison to the Flying Dutchman legend.  We have a look at its undead sailors, ominous allegorical figures, and how its arctic setting may have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Gustave Doré illustration for "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1876)
Gustave Doré illustration for “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1876)

And who would’ve known, but it seems there’s a peculiar link between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.  I work it all out in the conclusion of the episode.

Claude-Joseph Vernet, "A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas" 1770.
Claude-Joseph Vernet, “A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas” 1770.

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.