Category: legends

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark Fairy Tales II: Heads in a Fountain, Bones in a Bag

Dark fairy tale elements including floating heads and bags of bones are featured in a family of tales classified under the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 480, “Kind and Unkind Girls.”  Imaginative punishments and rewards for the kind and unkind characters in question are a further interesting element.  The girls in these tales are always sisters or stepsisters, and a wicked stepmother (sometimes mother) is part of the formula.

Our first example is the English tale, “The Three Heads of the Well.”  The fairy tale bears a strange connection to an earlier 11th-century British legend featuring as its heroine the Byzantine Empress Helena, here portrayed as the daughter of the mythical “Old King Cole” of nursery rhyme fame.  Both legend and fairy tale are set to the town of Colchester in Essex, understood to be named for King Cole.

King Cole
Father of Empress Helena?

From “The Three Heads of the Well,” we learn that being polite to heads floating out of magic wells serves one well, while rude behavior is strictly punished.  A curious element of the narrative  is the request made by the floating heads that their hair be combed.

Our next tale, “Three Fairies,” comes from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, or Lo cunto de li cunti (“The Tale of Tales), a source used in our previous episode for the story “Penta the Handless.” The tale involves an encounter with fairies living in a fantastic palace hidden deep within a chasm.

Basile’s tales are particularly noteworthy for their extravagant and playful verbiage, illustrated in several lengthy passages read for us by Mrs. Karswell.

In this tale, we learn the value of diplomacy in discussing the hair and scalp conditions of fairies. A second lesson: one must be particularly wary when allowing oneself to be sealed in a barrel.

Perrault
Perrault’s 1697 Tales of Passed Times

Our next story, “The Fairies,” comes from perhaps the most famous collection of fairy tales pre-Grimm, Charles Perrault’s 1697 volume Tales of Passed Times, sometimes subtitled Tales of Mother Goose.  This French story can be found in certain English-language collections under the title “Diamonds and Toads,” referring to what falls from the mouths of its kind and unkind girls respectively — a blessing or curse depending on the girls’ charity toward fairies disguised as mortals.

The Grimms’ story, “Frau Holle” is introduced with a snippet of the “Frau Holle Lied,”  a children’s song describing the grandmotherly (and witch-like) Frau Holle shaking feathers from her featherbed to make the snow in winter, an element from the Grimm story.

As in the Perrault’s “The Fairies” the Kind Sister in “Frau Holle” is sent to fetch water, and ends up not in an enchanted chasm, but falling into an enchanted well, passage to a sort of parallel dimension in which ovens demand their bread be baked, apple trees their fruit be picked, and Frau Holle has all sorts of housework for the heroine to perform.  The girl’s unkind sister, however fails miserably when confronted with identical tasks, and we see both the rewarding and punishing side of Holle, an aspect of the story that relates it loosely to the winter mythology of the Frau Holle/Frau Perchta figure I discuss in other shows and my book as inspiration for the Krampus.

The rewards and punishments doled out in “Frau Holle” are likely borrowed from Basile’s “The Three Fairies,” as you might be able to guess from these depictions:

We introduce our next  iteration of this tale with a clip is from an English-dubbed version of the 1964 Soviet folklore film Morozko (or Father Frost) by pre-eminent Russian fairy-tale director Alexander Rou.  The film weaves its own elaborate story around the bare bones of the classic tale “Father Frost” collected by Alexander Afanasyev in the 1850s. Here, goodness is demonstrated by the Kind Girl’s willingness to endure cold, a particularly Russian virtue.

Illustration of Father Frost from a 1932 volume

Our last story is the most obscure (and gruesome): “Rattle-Rattle-Rattle and Chink-Chink-Chink” from a 1919 collection by Parker Fillmore called Czechoslovak Fairy Tales.  As with several of our stories, a key role is played by an all-knowing housepet who can speak.

We wrap up with a footnote to our first story, “The Three Heads of the Well” and its connection via an Elizabethan play, George Peele’s “The Old Wives’ Tale” to “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man (1973), all of which leads us into the bizarre folklore of an aphrodisiac charm known as “cockle bread.”

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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.

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The best known of the 18th-century Hellfire Clubs, one founded by Francis Dashwood, is largely remembered today because of the theatrical settings in which they were said to gather, namely a ruined abbey and a network of caves. The latter is represented in the 1961 period drama, The Hellfire Club, from which we hear a brief snippet (although other details and characters of the film are strictly products of the screenwriter’s imagination.)

Francis Dashwood was born into privilege, son of a Baronet, whose title and estate in Wycombe (in Buckinghamshire county, about an hour northeast of London) he inherited at the age of 15.  His various social connections  saw him appointed to various positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Postmaster General, but his  reputation in such roles was generally one of incompetence. This, however, was balanced by his peculiar genius for organizing social clubs.

We discuss two groups he founded before his “Hellfire” days, The Society of Dilettanti, and The Divan Club, both groups dedicated to exploring the culture of lands far from England: the first dedicated to the exploration of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, and the latter devoted to the lands of the Ottoman Turks.

Divan Club Dashwood
Dashwood in his Divan Club costuming. By Adrien Carpentiers.

Social groups such as these were referred to as “dining clubs,” though “drinking clubs” would likely be more accurate.  The Society of Dilettanti seems to have exhibited a particular devotion to “Venus” and “Bacchus” (polite jargon of the era for erotica and more drinking.)  The Dilettanti’s delight in forbidden themes expressed itself in certain “devilish” elements of club ritual prefiguring Dashwood’s “Hellfire” years.  In  some anecdotes about Dashwood’s travels abroad, told by Horace Walpole, we hear of some likewise impish and irreligious behavior.

In 1752, Dashwood turned his attention to his most famous creation. Actually, he never called it “The Hellfire Club”; instead it was referred to (among other names) as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe — a mocking reference to the Catholic saint of Assisi.  Dashwood had several portraits painted portraying him as a questionable monk, including this one by William Hogarth:

William Hogarth’s portrait of Dashwood as St. Francis.

(The image in the episode collage likewise represents Dashwood as St. Francis, this one from his Dilettanti years.)

After an abortive start holding meetings on his estate, Dashwood moved the group to the George and Vulture Inn in London, then in 1751, after leasing an old abbey 10 miles south of his estate in Medmenham, he relocated gatherings there, at which point, the group became known as  the Monks of Medmenham.

To supervise restoration of the abbey, Dashwood hired Nicholas Revett, a pivotal figure in the revival of classical Greek architecture in England, a movement, Dashwood embraced with uniquely idiosyncratic abandon.

We hear of a number of eccentrically pagan additions Revett added to Dashwood’s estate, and Mrs. Karswell reads a contemporary report on the dedication of a Temple of Bacchus on the grounds, complete with costumed fawns and satyrs. We also hear about the curious interest he took in Wycombe’s Church of St. Lawrence, hiring Revett to complete a restoration modeled on a pagan temple in Syria.  He also had an enormous golden ball added to the church steeple, one reputedly large enough to accommodate Dashwood and several Hellfire cronies, who would gather there to drink.

The Golden Ball added by Dashwood to St Lawrence Church.

As for rumors of sexual escapades attached to the club, we explore some clues provided a 1779 volume surveying London’s brothels entitled Nocturnal Revels.  While some of this may just be salacious rumor, the libertine law of Dashwood’s “order” was literally set in stone, carved over the entrance: Fais ce que tu voudras, (“Do what you will”.)

The phrase is borrowed from 16th century French satirist François Rabelais, himself a former monk who satirized the Church and society at large, in his series of connected novels Gargantua and Pantagruel.  In the former, Rabelais imagined a libertine monastery with the phrase inscribed over its entrance, an idea borrowed by Aleister Crowley in his imagining of an Abbey of Thelema (his religious system built around the concept of the will or thelema in Greek.)

While Dashwood’s primarily playful attitude clearly distinguished him from Crowley and other serious occultists, there were rumors of secret rituals practiced by an inner circle of the monks, as we hear in another description provided by Horace Walpole.

The inner circle of Dashwood’s group, known as “the Superiors,” was restricted to 12 members plus Dashwood, the number being either an irreverent reference to Jesus and his twelve disciples or the number in a witches’ coven.  The general membership  included a alarming number of elite figures, a half dozen or so Members of Parliament, prominent writers, poets, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Frederick Prince of Wales, the eldest (estranged) son of George II.  We also hear of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement with Dashwood.

Two particular members are discussed in a bit more detail: John Wilkes and John Montagu, whose personal feud spelled the end of the club and involved a particularly outrageous stunt said to have been perpetrated by Wilkes.

Wilkes was a radical politician whose published remarks on a speech by George III resulted in charges of libel and him briefly fleeing the country as an outlaw — an incident which endangered the Monks by his association.  His nemesis was John Montagu, better known as the Earl of Sandwich (and here we provide the origin story of that particular culinary innovation.)

At some point around 1750, Wilkes published obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man,”  called “An Essay on Woman,” one which targeted Montagu’s well known mistress Fanny Murray as its subject.  In revenge, Sandwich chose to read before Parliament particularly obscene passages from Wilkes’ satire, resulting in further charges against his rival.  Wilkes reciprocated by publishing further exposes of the group, generating further controversy ultimately leading Dashwood to close the abbey headquarters in March of 1776.

While there were serious political differences between Sandwich and Wilkes, the real cause of their hostility, so goes the story, lies in an absurd stunt referred to as “The Affair of the Baboon,” a detailed account of which Mrs. Karswell provides from an 18th century source.

Though there are no historical records documenting this, a strong tradition holds that after ending meetings at the abbey, Dashwood moved gatherings into a network of manmade caves on his estate (tunnels excavated for chalk).

This tradition is documented as early as 1796, when a diarist (Mrs. Philip Powys)  describes a visit to the caves, noting a hook for a chandelier, likely to have been the “Rosicrucian” chandelier, Dashwood elsewhere described. She also mentions an underground pool supposedly known by the Medmenham monks, as “The River Styx,” a large central chamber that became “The Banqueting Hall” and other small rooms nicknamed “Monks’ Cells.” A gothic facade fronts the caves.

Hellfire Caves Entrance

Throughout the 19th century, local legends of occult doings in the caves grew evermore fantastic, as we hear in a few quotes read by Mrs. Karswell. By 1951, a descendent of Francis Dashwood, Sir Francis John Vernon Hereward Dashwood, who had inherited the family’s West Wycombe properties, struck upon the idea of transforming the caves into a tourist attraction, advertising the tunnels as “The Hellfire Caves.”  Though ultimately successful, we hear some contemporary newspaper accounts voicing concerns by local residents and clerics about evil forces awakened from within the caves through these activities.

Our episode ends with a ghost story told of Francis Dashwood’s best friend and fellow Monk, Paul Whitehead, something involving removing Whitehead’s heart.

 

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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

 


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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

land beyond 2
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.

 

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.