Category: legends

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-women hybrids of Greek legend and Russian folklore are uniquely ambivalent, sometimes bringing death and destruction and at others, prophetic wisdom and the joy of Paradise.

The two Greek species we treat are sirens and harpies, both at times described as having the bodies of birds and faces or upper bodies of human females.

Beginning with harpies — we hear a bit of audio from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which features a pair of stop-motion harpies created by Ray Harryhausen.  While these are more batlike than birdlike, the animator’s tendency to conflate features is actually in line with various classical tales, which tend to disagree sometimes offering winged harpies, others not, and if birdlike, not necessarily featuring the heads of women. We hear some of these descriptions  read by Mrs. Karswell.

harpy
Harpy from Joannes Jonstonus publication Historiae naturalis de avibus (1657)

As for sirens, while today they are regarded as equivalent to mermaids, originally they were bird-human hybrids.  Thanks to the siren’s connection to the sailors they would seduce, an intuitive shift from bird to fishlike portrayals seems natural, but did not occur until late antiquity or the early medieval period.  It seems likely that once this transition occurred the harpy’s image consolidated around the birdlike form no longer associated with the siren. Unlike the creature’s form, the siren’s song, which drew sailors to wreck their ships upon the rocks, has always been a defining attribute of the creature.

There’s something of a disconnect between ancient siren and harpy narratives and the creatures’ representation in visual art, with some of their traits more fixed in the latter than the former. In particular, sirens and harpies, along with other hybrids such as the griffin and sphinx, first appear in Greek culture as decorative embellishments on household items.  These monsters, as discussed, were borrowings from cultures of the East, with the human-headed Egyptian ba bird being a likely origin for our avian figures.

Funerary statue of a siren, 4th C BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The behavior of these creatures is primarily known from two ancient texts.  In the third century BC, the behavior of harpies was defined by Apollonius Rhodius’s in his epic The Argonautica, while the actions of sirens were codified in Homer’s Odyssey from the 8th century BC.

The episode from the Argonautica involves the harpies suddenly descending from the sky to torment a the prophet Phineus, repeatedly sent by Zeus to snatch away his food.

Better known is Homer’s episode describing Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the siren song as his crew sails near, their ears providently plugged with wax. What’s not as often remembered, however, is the nature of the siren’s song, which promises not sexual reward, but omniscience.

The sirens’ offer to share the knowledge of the gods, and the danger inherent in hearing their song finds a precise parallel in narratives about the Russian bird-women we discuss, namely the Alkonost, Sirin, and Gamayun, all of which are said to reside in Paradise, or the realm of the dead. They are portrayed like the harpies and sirens as having the bodies of birds and human heads or heads and breasts but with the addition of crowns or halos.

The Alkonost and Sirin are said to be sisters, inevitably appearing as a complimentary pair in art and folk-tales, with the Alkonost presiding over the daylight hours, and the Sirin the night, the Alkonost bringing joy,  the Sirin sorrow, etc.  While the Alkonost is generally made the more positive symbol, both birds, through their song, can produce dangerous results. The song of the Alkonost shares a knowledge or experience of the divine that can induce ecstatic madness or a deathlike trance state.  The same could be said for the Sirin, though in some instances it’s said to more literally said to abduct mortals into the afterlife.

"Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow" Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
“Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow” Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896

While the Sirin obviously derives its name from the Greek sirens, the Alkonost too has its origins in Greek mythology, specifically in the myth of the lovers Alcyone and Ceyx, the former lending her name (in Russian derivation) to the Alkonost.

For her effrontery of comparing their love to that of the gods, Alcyone (or sometimes both Alcyone and Ceyx) are transformed into birds, specifically kingfishers.  As a bird, Alcyone was said by Roman writers to lay her eggs during a five-day period in the winter during which the winds are calmed — a source of our word, “halycon,” meaning a calm or happy interlude.

The Alkonost likewise is said to lay its eggs in the ocean during an interval during which the seas are calm, and is therefore associated with control over the weather. Superstitions found not only in Russia but further afield in Europe associate the kingfisher and dried kingfisher bodies used as charms to predict the weather.

The Sirin and Alkonost were also assimilated into Russia’s Christian culture, sometimes shown perched upon trees in Eden or as representations of the Holy Spirit.  We hear of a particularly strange Russian tradition involving the bird-women called “Apple Savior,” involving the blessing of apples, Christ’s transfiguration in the Bible, and the singing of the Sirin and Alkonost, as well as a folktale involving the lovers Kostroma and Kupelo associated with the summer solstice and St. John’s Night.

The song of the Gamayun, like that of the Alkonost and Sirin, is a form of divine language though is less likely to be destructively overpowering and more associated with prophecy and happiness.  For this reason, the creature, is also referred to as “The Bird of Happiness” or “The Bird of Prophecy.”

The Gamayun is also often said to have no legs as it is strictly a creature of the air or heavens and never lands.  The source of this belief is actually related to a peculiar trade in preserved bird charms, as explained in detail.

The show winds down with some appearances of the Russian bird-women in 19th and 20th-century art, music, and film, including the 1897 opera Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov, a musical treatment of a folkloric  adventurer, merchant, and gusli-player from Novgorod.  We hear a bit of the opera’s most famous aria often called “The Song of India” describing the exotic land where the Bird of Happiness may be found.

Our final segment is about Sadko, a 1952 cinematic adaptation of the opera by “the Soviet Walt Disney,” Aleksandr Ptushko, a film repackaged by Roger Corman in 1963 for American screenings as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

From "Sadko" (1952)
From “Sadko” (1952)

 

 

 

 

The Dybbuk

The Dybbuk

A dybbuk is a “clinging spirit” of Jewish folklore, a ghost that can possess a human host.

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1923)

Stories of dybbuks (pl. dibbukim in Hebrew for sticklers) date to the 16th century but have never traditionally included the idea of trapping a dybbuk in a box, a trope that only dates to a 20o3 eBay ad placed by a Portland antique refinisher Kevin Mannis.  Although Mannis would later confess to having made up his listing’s backstory as a sort of creative experiment, the box has continued to be the center of an evolving mythology advanced first by its 2003 buyer, Jason Haxton. In 2016, the box was purchased by Ghost Adventure‘s TV personality Zak Bagans, for display in his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.  We open the show with some clips from a July 2020 episode in which Bagans opens the box.

The dybbuk-in-a-box trope was also furthered by the “based on a true story” 2012 horror film, The Possession, for which Mannis and Haxton served as consultants.  We hear a clip from that film as well as a clip from the ridiculous 2009 dybbuk-without-a-box film The Unborn.  The 2015 Polish film (in English and Polish) Demon is also recommended as a more traditionally European take on the dybbuk folklore, thanks in part to its incorporation of a wedding motif.

A wedding dance with Death from 1937 film.

The idea of a dybbuk appearing at a wedding is borrowed from a classic 1937 film from Poland, The Dybbuk, a cinematic adaptation of Russian ethnographer S. Ansky’s highly successful 1914 play by the same name.  Described as a sort of Romeo and Juliet meets The Exorcist, this classic of Yiddish theater was first performed in Warsaw in 1920, but was quickly was translated into dozens of languages and performed throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, popularizing this previously obscure figure of Yiddish or Ashkenazi folklore.

The story of the dybbuk begins with a 16th-century explosion of incidents in Safed (Tsfat) a mountain city in Northern Israel considered one of Judaism’s four holiest cities thanks to its role in the development of the Kabbalah and the particularly saintly occupants of its hillside cemetery.

The first and foremost figure in Safed’s association with Kabbalah is Isaac Luria, whose teachings are recorded by his student Chaim Vital in The Tree of Life, foundational text of Lurianic Kabbalism, the dominant school of Kabbalistic thought since the 16th century. Luria’s school converted Safed into a sort of spiritual hothouse, characterized by extremes of devotion, asceticism, and visionary experience — an environment that has been tied to the proliferation of dybbuk encounters recorded in 16th-century Safed.

Of these Safed accounts, we hear two lengthier narratives said to have transpired in 1571 and 1572 read by Mrs. Karswell, Without revealing too much that could spoil the stories, there are a few commonalities worth noting — the fact that dybbuks have a strange method of leaving their human host and that their hosts needn’t always be human.

We also learn the Kabbalistic explanation for the dybbuks compulsion to  take a human host.  It’s related to  the notion of gilgul, or transmigration of souls, a process which ideally moves from lower forms to higher as ordered by the principle of tikkun olam, the “repair of the world,” or rectification.

A brief story from Chaim Vital’s spiritual autobiography, Book of Visions, illustrates a phenomenon paralelling that of the dybbuk, namely, the ibbur, the spirit of a good but still to be perfected individual, who may return to earth and possess a human host to accomplish required mitzvahs.  We also hear of a strange grave rjte said to provoke encounters with these heavenly beings.

Our show wraps up with audio clips from modern instances of dybbuk possessions and banishings performed by Jerusalem Rabbis David Batzri and Menashe Amon between 1999 and 2019.

 

Ashtar, Orthon, and the Rosicrucians

Ashtar, Orthon, and the Rosicrucians

Messages delivered by the extraterrestrials Ashtar and Orthon to Contactees of the 1950s represented a sort of repackaging of 19th-century Theosophy, a philosophical descendent of the Rosicrucianism of the 1700s.

After our previous epiosde examining George King of the Aetherius Society, this episode looks at two other Georges of the Contactee movement, George van Tassel (channeler of Ashtar) and George Adamski (allegedly visited by Orthon).

We begin with a look at George van Tassel’s pre-Contactee life in Southern California during which he worked in aviation, a path that led to him taking ownership of a tiny airstrip in the nearby desert, Giant Rock Airport, named for the landmark boulder beside it.

We hear about van Tassel’s early involvement in a metaphysical group, The Brotherhood of the Cosmic Christ, and his progression into channeling messages from Space People. By 1953, he claimed to have encountered a Venusian by the name of Solganda, who welcomed him into his space craft.  We hear some amusing details revealed in interviews with the Contactee-friendly radio host Long John Nebel. (Nebel’s late-night show, Partyline, out of New York anticipated paranormal shows like Art Bell’s Coast to Coast and are well worth checking out.)

Chief among the Space People van Tassel claimed to contact was Ashtar, whose messages were largely devoted to warnings about humanity’s ill-fated dabbling with nuclear weapons.  Strangely, messages from Ashtar began to be received by other channelers even in van Tassel’s day, and he continues to be channeled in New Age circles to this day.

van tassel images
Van Tassl’s Integratron under construction and Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention.

We also hear about the Giant Rock Spacecraft conventions van Tassel hosted from 1953 to 1977, and about the Integratron, a domed construction van Tassel claimed would function as a sort of time machine or rejuvenator of the human body.  Unsurprisingly, the plans for the latter were provided by the Space People.

We next look at the first Contactee to supposedly meet a being from space, George Adamski.  His connection to Theosophy is particularly obvious and is illustrated through newspaper excerpts read by Mrs. Karswell, in which Adamski represents himself as an  esoteric teacher from Tibet or Egypt (take your pick).

While continuing to publish metaphysical pamphlets in the late ’40s, Adamski was becoming more obsessed with space, including both astronomy and astral experiences of a more cosmic nature.  He relocated to a camp owned by one of his students at the base of Mount Palomar, where he set up a telescope and was sometimes mistaken by visitors to the famous observatory on Palomar’s peak as a professional associate of the astronomers (something he actively encouraged).

After producing, the first of his UFO photos in 1947, and 1950, Adamski arranged a saucer scouting expedition with friends and students, during which he claimed to have met Orthon.  We hear Adamski himself describe this meeting to Long John Nebel and about some curious clues and photographs left in Orthon’s wake — including the much debated bell-shaped flying saucer photos published in his 1953 book, The Flying Saucers Have Landed.

Adamski
Orthon & Adamski

Even at the height of his fame, rumors swirled within the flying saucer community that Adamski was a fraud, but alongside this are slightly mitigating reports by acquaintances that he occasionally confessed as much, while pleading that it was all in support of redemptive spiritual truths.

Oddly, perhaps — this brings us to the Rosicrucians, a movement influential upon Theosophy, and one founded upon a sort of hoax, more or less confessed to by its founder, the German Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreae.

It’s believed that Andreae was behind at least the first publications mentioning Rosicrucianism, a series of anonymous pamphlets that appeared in Germany between 1614 and 1617.  In these, it was implied that a hitherto unknown body of knowledge, an amalgam of alchemy, hermeticism, Christian mysticism and Kabbalah had been gathered by the brothers of the Rosy Cross, themselves followers of a 14th century seeker named Christian Rosenkreuz, (German for “Rose Cross”).  Many Enlightenment-era scholars inspired by Rosicrucian ideals and not privy to the hoax went on to dedicate well intentioned projects dedicated to Rosicrucian ideals — all similar to Adamski’s notion of good teachings brought by imposters.

The similarity between the notion of hidden Rosicrucian adapts and the Masters of Theosophy did not go unnoticed by the movement’s leading light, Helena Blavatsky. In writing about the 1842 novel Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, she described the characterization of the Rosicrucian hero Zanoni as a perfect description of Theosophy’s hidden Masters of her.

Stranger still, it’s believed that Blavatsky’s notions of a sort of “higher science,” a technology that manipulates subtle spiritual energies, seems to have been directly influenced by Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel, The Coming Race and its concept of the “vril,” used by hidden survivors of a an advanced civilization comparable to Blavatsky’s Atlanteans.  A comparison to the mysterious powers channeled by van Tassel’s Integratron is naturally mentioned here.

We wrap up with a look at A.M.O.R.C. (The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis) a uniquely American Rosicrucian organization known for its flamboyant advertisements for cosmic know-how published in the backs of magazines of the 1940s and 50s. Founded in 1915, this group of media-savvy adepts also went on to produce some particularly peculiar records in the 1960s, which we hear sampled at the closing of the show.

amorc
AMORC advertisement

 

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Stories of witchcraft and folk-healers in early Pennsylvania are surprisingly plentiful. In this episode, we examine the state’s German-American tradition of Braucherei that spawned these tales. The practice came over with immigrants from Germany’s southwestern Rhineland beginning in the late 1700s and established itself among the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misunderstanding of  “Deutsch”) in the state’s southern “Dutch Country” region, eventually moving westward through Appalachia and all the way to Indiana and south into the Ozarks.

We begin with a chant supposedly chanted in the 1800s by witches gathered at Hexenkopf Rock (“witch’s head” rock), an actual site about 15-minutes outside the old steel town of Bethlehem.  The locale is central to early Braucherei and to the other name by which it goes, namely “Pow-Wow.”

It was on land adjacent to the Hexenkopf that Johann Peter Seiler, who immigrated from Germany in 1738, eventually settled and set up shop as a folk-healer, or “Braucher” (one who practices Braucherei).  As he also offered treatment to the native Algonquin, his work was equated by them to that of their medicine man or his rituals, and he was supposedly dubbed  “The Great Pow-Wow.”  This is one origin story for the odd nomenclature, though others believe the term “pow-wow” was applied by English settlers as a disparaging comparison to native rituals.  The term is still used and carries no such disparaging connotation today.  Nor does it imply a borrowing of Native American traditions into Braucherei, which is firmly rooted in Old World traditions.

While the Braucher has frequently been described by outsiders a “witch” or “witch doctor,” it’s certainly not a label accepted within the tradition, as there are no “good witches,” only bad witches, (Hexes) who practice Hexerei.  Brauchers are often sought to remove curses placed by Hexes, though occasionally practitioners have been known to slip from one side to the other.

We next look at a sampling of the magical tools and techniques employed in Braucherei, the prominence of the color red, preponderance of written charms carried by clients, and the spoken charm, the famous “Blood Verse” used to stop bleeding.

A Braucher would always consider himself to be Christian, and much use is made of religious images and verbiage, especially from Catholic traditions.  Though the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany’s Protestant regions, Braucherei has served as a sort of underground continuation of medieval Catholic practice in a Post-Reformation world.

1930s Friend
1930s edition of “Long Lost Friend” with illustrations by Charles Quinlan. Courtesy Glencairn Museum.

We then discuss the curiously titled volume The Long Lost Friend, a classic sourcebook for Braucherei, published by German immigrant, printer, and Braucher John George Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1820.  Much of it, we learn, was borrowed (sometimes verbatim) from earlier European books of magic, though applications described therein are very specific to 19th century agricultural life.  We also hear a bit about another magical sourcebook used (more in Hexerei thanks to its inclusion of destructive magic), the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses (published as a single volume).  We hear a bit about its notorious reputation, both in Braucherei and American Hooodoo.

6th book
The notorious “Sixth and Sevenths Books of Moses.” Don’t look at it too long!

The balance of our show is devoted to tales of witches and healers, gleaned mainly from newspaper archives and read by the inimitable Mrs. Karswell.

We hear of “Old Moll” of Fayette County, her fortune-telling with coffee grounds, of a legendary prophecy (curse?) laid upon some miscreants passing through town, and her appearance in connection with other local legends, as in the 1865 book,The White Rocks by A.F. Hill, a romanticized retelling of the murder of Polly Williams.

A hotbed of Braucherei, Berks County provides our remaining stories — an 1889 story in which a witch torments her victim in the form of a night hag, and the way in which a Braucher defeats her, and an 1892 story involving a baby covered in spots thanks to a visiting witch, who was eventually defeated while in the form of a cat.

Another witch in the form of a cat was the famous “Hex Cat” that haunted the farm of the Thomas family in Tumbling Run Valley in 1911.  This one made national news, with reportage appearing as far away as Hawaii.  It also generated a moderate frenzy of commercial exploitation.  I’ll leave the details of the case for you to enjoy as you listen.

Stay tuned for our next episode further exploring Braucherei, including some shocking criminal cases in which the tradition played a role.

I should also mention that we had some audio cameos in this show.  A number of our subscribers on Patreon joined in as witches in the chant at the Hexenkopf.  Thank you to: Allison Lovecraft, Victoria Howard, Angelica, Bridget Case, Jenny Matisiak, Molly Van Overhill, Alice Price, and Anne Luben!

(Long Lost Friend images courtesy the Glencairn Museum’s excellent 2017 exhibition on Braucherei)

 

 

 

 

 

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

In this episode, we continue our survey of supernatural sailors’ lore of the North with a look at mermen, Iceland’s “evil whales,” and sea-draugs.

After a brief audio tidbit recalling our previous discussion of the  Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr (courtesy of the TV show Vikings), we briefly reconsider the Kraken  in the context of the 13th-century Norwegian text Kongsspegelen/Speculum Regale (“King’s Mirror”).  In what is likely the earliest reference to the Kraken, the attributes described and context of the discussion suggest that at this early stage of the creature’s mythology, it may have been imagined not as a cephalopod but as a particularly large and monstrous whale.

This brings us to the topic of the “evil whales” or Illhveli of Icelandic lore, much of which is taken from Olaf Davidson’s article of 1900, “The Folk-Lore Of Icelandic Fishes.”  Particularly dangerous and even malevolent toward seamen, these beasts are also enemies of benevolent species of whale that protect man.  Their flesh is considered poisonous, and utterance of their name, we learn, can summon them and great misfortune.

The largest of these creatures (if we disregard the Kraken, which seems more to occupy a class unto itself) is the Lyngbakr or “heather-back,” often mistaken for a land-mass covered with heather or grass. The same motif occurs in tales of the Kraken or Hafgufa (not discussed in the show thanks to the thematic redundancy), but tales of the  Lyngbakr characteristically describe sailors actually landing on the heather-covered mass, mistaking it for an island, and perhaps dwelling there for days on end — until the fish takes a dip.

Carta Marina
Monster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539)

The most vicious member of the Illhveli, seems to be the Raudkembingur, or “red-crest,” named for its red color and/or the rooster-like comb it sports.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a selection of Davidson’s stories of the Raudkembingur’s attacks upon ships and rather emotional disposition.

We then hear about the Hrosshvalur or “horse-whale,” named for the neighing sound it produces. It was also sometimes called the blödku hval or “flap-whale” thanks to long eyelids or flaps that hung over its eyes. As these tended to obscure the beast’s vision, it was given to wild leaps from the sea, during which the flaps would bounce from the eyes, providing the creature a brief respite from near-blindness.

We then hear a bit more about other other Illhveli, less frequently mentioned, learn why the Narwhal was regarded as the “corpse-whale,” how the Ox-Whale proved a nuisance to herdsmen, and of a particularly strange eccentricity of the Shell-Whale.

Our discussion of mermen focuses primarily on accounts provided in Danish-Norwegian author Erik Pontoppidan’s   18th-century text The Natural History of Norway (cited frequently in our previous episode). While a mermaid or two is also mentioned, Pontoppidan treats the mermen less as a sort of fairy being inclined to abduct men to an undersea realm (as is typical further south in Europe and in Britain) and more as a sort of cryptid or naturalistic phenomenon.  We hear some descriptions of mermen allegedly caught in the Northern seas (quite different from what is typically imagined), tales of enormously oversized mermen, and of the odd uses of the fatty flesh of mermen.

The merman of the north also is uniquely gifted with the ability to tell the future, a trait referenced early on in the 14th-century Hálfssaga and preserved in the Icelandic folk-tale “Then Laughed the Merman” told by Mrs. Karswell and myself.

sea troll
“Sea Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen (1887) Sometimes identified as a Draug.

Our discussion of the sea-draug begins with a clip from the 2018 Swedish film, Draug, a horror story set in the 11th century. Draug is a word from Old Norse used throughout Scandinavia to describe a walking corpse, usually guarding its grave or an underground treasure. Its folkloric attributes have been somewhat changeable and led to the evolution (specifically in the North of Norway) of a figure known as a Havdraug or  (Sea-Draug).

These are the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, who return as physical creatures horribly transformed.  While usually dressed in the typical oilskins and gloves of sailors of the North, their heads are often said to be missing, and they are known to sail about in broken boats missing their stern or to haunt the boathouses of the region. Their presence is an evil omen, and their notorious shrieks can either foretell or indirectly cause death.

We first hear mention of sea-draugs in the 13th-century Saga of the People of Eyri in which the crew of a sunken sip show up at a Yule feast, illustrating a predilection of the sea-draug to appear around Christmas, a motif maintained in tales of sea-draugs that became popular in the 19th century.  We hear some descriptions from these and the folk-tale “The Land Draugs and the Sea Draugs”.

Our episode closes with a strange tale of another Norwegian whale of the modern era, one killed near the island of Harøya in 1951 — at which point it’s weird saga actually begins.  The story rather unexpectedly involves a brief appearance by Louis Armstrong, and we hear some bits from his 1938 hit “Jonah and the Whale.

 

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas

The Kraken is only one of the monsters said to inhabit the storied northern seas of Scandinavia. This episode is the first of two that will examine fantastical nautical tales of these regions.

We begin with a bit of dialogue about the Kraken uttered by Davy Jones in Disney’s 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Man’s Chest.  It’s particularly appropriate to our first theme: the Kraken (and a couple Kraken-adjacent creatures) as embodiments of the apocalypse.  The first of these is probably never far from some listeners’ thoughts — Cthulhu.  The second is the Norse World Serpent (a Sea Serpent), Jörmungandr.

Lovecraft’s creation, some scholars believe, may have been inspired by an 1830 poem “The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which we hear read by Mrs. Karswell.  Of particular interest here is the way in which Tennyson associates the creature with the sort of epochal shift Lovecraft later represented in the rising of the Old Ones to claim the Earth for themselves.

Jörmungandr is a primary participant in the Norse End of the World or Ragnarök. We hear this described in a passage from the 13th-century Prose Edda.  We also hear a more “light-hearted” tale in which Thor goes fishing for the World Serpent – hilarity ensues!

Thor fishes
Thor fishes for Jörmungandr (18th century illus. fro Eddas)

The earliest accounts of sea serpents (though not necessarily the Kraken) come from the Swedish writer Olaus Magnus, a 16th-century Archbishop of Uppsala.  He not only populated his map of the northern seas, the Carta Marina (the first to represent the region) with illustrations of monsters, but described some common beliefs about the creatures in his 1555 book, History of the Northern People, from which he hear some passages focusing on sea serpents.

Hans Egede, Lutheran missionary to Greenland of Danish and Norwegian descent, provides our next account of a sighting, not secondhand lore as with Magnus, but a description of a creature he alleges to have seen himself on July 6, 1734.  The passage we hear is  from his 1745 publication, A Description of Greenland.

Detail: Carta Marina (1539)

Then we come to the definitive source for our show’s topic, the Danish-Norwegian author and Lutheran bishop, Erik Pontoppidan.  His work The Natural History of Norway, published in two volumes in 1752 and ’53 describes both serpentine monsters and the Kraken.

Regarding the former, he provides a wealth of information, from which we have extracted the more intriguing bits — sailors firing on sea serpents and serpents sinking ships, the creature’s disgusting method of attracting a meal of fish, the differences between sea serpents of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, preventative measures taken against these monsters, and an interesting use for sea serpent hide.

Where Pontoppidan turns his attention to the Kraken, the waters get murkier. It soon become clear that our current way of imagining the Kraken (formed largely by 19th-century illustrations and later media) may not apply.  In an effort to “rationalize” this monster by comparison to natural creatures, Pontoppidan calls in a number of candidates: “polypi” (squid or other cephalopods) as well as starfish, a type of sea anemone, and  even crabs.  “Krabben” (a form of crab) even turns out to be a name equivalent to “Kraken” according to Pontoppidan. We also hear what we think of as tentacles referred to as “horns” or “antennae.”

One thing that remains clear in Pontoppidan’s descriptions  (and perhaps more so in earlier accounts to be explored next time) is that the monster is very large, the largest animal of land or sea.  We hear an account from The Natural History of Norway emphasizing this as well as some others highlighting the creature’s more off-putting habits.

One reason, we learn, that Pontoppidan won’t just lock in the giant squid comparison, is that the existence of such creatures was not confirmed by those who study such things until the 1870s, roughly a century after Pontoppidan’s career.   Even in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the tentacled creature visualized so memorably in Disney’s 1954 film (from which we hear a clip) was not identified as a squid, but as an octopus (or octopi, as it’s an entire school of these that menace the Nautilus.)

After a quick look at how the giant squid worked its way into Kraken lore and public consciousness, we sirvey a few more modern accounts mirroring the legendary attacks these beasts would make on ships, the latest from 1978, and a substantially more dramatic one from World War II.  Features are some clips from a 1980 episode, “Monsters of the Deep,” from the television show Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Alecton
Crew of Alecton attempts to capture giant squid. (Illus: La vie et les mœurs des animaux, 1866)
Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

The mythology of bees has been tied for centuries to notions of the otherworld and death.  In this episode we trace some of that folklore along with examining some highly peculiar uses of honey.

Horror or sci-fi films referencing bees exploit the more mundane fears bee holds for mankind.  Our survey of these includes clips from the dreadful 2006 The Wicker Man remake, Candyman (1992), The Deadly Bees (1967), The Swarm (1978), and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). Also included are some snippets of “Not the Bees” remixes by Koolfox, CyberPunkStefan, and KCACopyright.

The Deadly Bees (1967)

Continuing on (in a sense) from our Medusa episode, there follows a good deal of Greek mythology, thanks to the significant role these creatures played in that culture’s imagination, beginning with the bee-nymphs or honey-nymphs who served as nurses to the infant Zeus.  There are a number of triads of female bee creatures in ancient Greek literature, which may or may not be the same.  Along with Zeus’ nurses, these include the Thriae, who serve as oracles, and creatures simply dubbed “The Bee Maidens” described in a Homeric “Hymn to Hermes” (who also serve as seers.)  Priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were also dubbed”bee,” and some have proposed a connection between the Delphic oracle and bees or honey, as is discussed.

Thriai
Possible representation of the Thriai, Rhodes, 7th century BC.d

A brief musical interlude follows this: “The Bee Song” by British comedian Arthur Askey.

Our next topic seems to be most prominent in ancient Greek thought but was found elsewhere and persisted into the Middle Ages, namely, the belief that bees were spontaneously generated from the carcasses of oxen.  This superstition, known as “bugonia”  (from the Greek words for “ox” and “spawn”) is discussed in passages we hear from Virgil’s volume on agricultural lore, Georgica, and from a similar 10th century book of Byzantine creation, Geoponika.  We also hear an example from the Old Testament and learn a a related and unseemly lesson about a honey-like product found in many British households. And there’s a poem by Kipling, “The Flies and the Bees” from which Mrs. Karswell reads a relevant excerpt.

Human corpses (if they happen to be a priestess of Demeter) can also generate bees, according to a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, which we hear. And there is a story of a skull filled with honeycomb from Herodotus’ Persian Wars, one somehow similar to a report from an 1832 edition of the Belfast News Letter, which is gratuitously included merely for the grotesque image it presents.

Next we look at the ancient practice of preserving human bodies in honey.  The case of Alexander the Great is described along with a number of examples from Sparta (including a honey-preserved head, which advised King Cleomenes I.  And there’s a particularly repulsive story of Mariamne, the wife of  King Herod, who was thus preserved.

We then examine more wholesome stories of bees —  their exemplary reputation for cooperation and industry, which served many writers as a model for human society.  Also wholesome are a few inlcuded Christian legends involving bees. We hear of 5th century French prelate St. Medard, whose bees punished the thief attempting to steal a hive from the saint’s apiary, and of the 6th-century Irish saint St. Gobnait, who commanded an army of bees against hostile forces threatening her community.  Also included are some pious legends of architecturally ingenious bees related in Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie from 1632.

The Feminine Monarchie
The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler

Next, the “telling of the bees” is discussed, that is, a custom whereby those who kept hives would announce the death of a family members to their bees so they might participate symbolically in the mourning process.  Also included are a number of newspaper stories of bees that seemed more than eager to participate in funerals.

We wrap up with a look at “mad honey,” a psychoactive type of honey, the effects of which are produced by a compounds called grayanotoxin found in certain plants (the rhododendron, azalea and oleander) from which bees have gathered nectar.  Caveat emptor!

 

 

 

Medusa and the Gorgons

Medusa and the Gorgons

Medusa was one of the Gorgons, creatures originally considered quite monstrous, who over the centuries came to be humanized and even regarded as beauties transformed into snake-haired villains. In this episode, we’ll dig back to the most ancient sources to examine the bare bones of the myth.

We begin with a nod or two to the pop-culture Medusa. Oddly, one of the first big-screen appearances of a Gorgon did not represent Medusa herself but a sister, whose spirit takes bodily form to terrorize a 19th-century German town.  It’s a 1964 Hammer Film featuring both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing called, The Gorgon, a rare deviation from the studio’s habit of remaking Universal horror films.  We hear a bit from the film’s trailer.

However, the film that did the most to fix the character of Medusa in the minds of audiences seems to be 1981’s  The Clash of the Titans.  It follows (quite loosely) the adventures of Perseus as he battles, among other things, Medusa, and a sea monster, Kitos in the Greek stories, but oddly given the Scandinavian name “Kraken” for the film.

Clash of the Titans is best remembered as the swan song of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, a nostalgic advantage that was hard to compete with when its ill-fated 2010 sequel was produced. We discuss some variances with the classical mythology and between adaptations and hear bits from the 1981 and 2010 trailers as well as a snippet of Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2010),which offered a modern incarnation of the figure of Medusa for kids.

Bronze Gorgon
Bronze Gorgon
500-450 BC
Gorgon coin, Greece, 500-450 BC

Next we have a look at the classical mythology of the Gorgons, creatures most famous for their hair of snakes and ability to turn men to stone with their gaze.  Their appearance, we learn, was generally described in earliest texts as quite grotesque, characterized by fearsome mouths, tusks, and wings.  In art, they were typically represented by disembodied heads, explicitly heads recently severed by the hero Perseus.

Medusa, as many listeners will already know, belongs to the group of creatures called Gorgons, denoting a very very limited set of beings, only three, all sisters.  We hear a bit about their individual traits, parentage, and home in some far-off (variously defined) land, where their habitat is usually a cave.

Before examining the story of Perseus vs. Medusa, we look at an aspect to the Gorgon’s story that wasn’t part of the original narrative, but appeared toward the 1st century, an element which became particularly important in how Medusa is embraced in more recent culture, namely an explanation for her snakey hair  involving a curse laid upon her by Athena.

Next we get some background on Perseus, the strange way in which he was fathered by Zeus and a mortal woman, and the circumstances that brought him to an island where King Polydektes sends him on his quest to obtain the Gorgon’s head (note to self: avoid boastful talk).

To prepare himself for this encounter, Perseus must seek out the Graeae, or “grey ones,” a triad of crone-like sisters who know the ways of the Gorgons as they share the same parents.  Their distinguishing feature is the communal possession of only one eye which each uses in turn, something Perseus is able to turn to his advantage.

In most or many versions of the myth, Perseus is then directed onward to obtain magical tools needed against the Gorgon from the Hesperides, nymphs of the sunset.  He receives a special curved sword or sickle, a bag in which the head is to be carried, winged sandals from Hermes, and a helmet of invisibility from Hades.  Sometimes he also receives a polished shield allowing him to view the Gorgon indirectly as a reflection and thereby avoid her deadly gaze.

The decapitation of Medusa in the classical story is a bit uneventful as Perseus finds the Gorgon asleep and easy prey when he arrives at their cave, but on the way back to present the head to King Polydektes, he does make time to battle a sea monster, Kitos (the cinematic “Kraken”)   Mrs. Karswell reads for us a dramatic telling of this tale by Ovid.

After decapitating Medusa, Perseus makes good use of the head, which handily retains its petrifying powers.  A few accounts of encounters involving this weapon are also shared with listeners.

Stepping back from the myth itself, we have a look at the use of the Gorgon’s head as a symbol of power and intimidation in ancient Greek culture, something called the aegis when worn by mythological beings (Athena and Zeus primarily) and called a gorgoneion when employed by mortals as an apotropaic charm against evil.

We wrap up the show with a look at two completely bizarre Filipino films from the ’70s featuring, if not Medusa herself, an actress outfitted much like her (dangerously so, it seems, as live snakes were used.)  The first goes by a number of names, but most often, Devil Woman (1970), and the even stranger sequel is Bruka Queen of Evil (1973).  As they are Filipino-Hong-Kong co-productions, they feature lots of martial arts scenes, as well as a witch with human head and snake body, an army of midgets, and battles with basement-budget walking trees and bat people.

 

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The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)