Category Archives: legends

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers



This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.

 

 


#17 Christmas Ghosts



Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom.  A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James.  An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all!  (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)


#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.

 

 


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.