Category: literature

An After-Dinner Reading: Decadent Dining in the Satyricon

An After-Dinner Reading: Decadent Dining in the Satyricon

This short off-format episode is intended as a sort of fireside reading to be enjoyed by our overfull American listeners as they struggle to digest their Thanksgiving dinners.  It’s from the late 1st-century novel, Satyricon by Petronius and describes what is quite likely Western literature’s most decadent description of a feast.

A Vine on a House

A Vine on a House

A short and somewhat extra episode for the Halloween season, a presentation of the 1910 horror story by Ambrose Bierce, “A Vine on a House.” Also, some show updates.

We’ll have a full episode, “Who Put the Hell in Helloween?” closer to the end of the month.

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

Dark Fairy Tales I: The Girl with No Hands

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

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

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

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

Le piacevoli nott
Straparola ‘s “The Pleasant Nights”

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

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

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

Pentamerone
Basile’s Il Pentamerone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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
A Christmas Ghost Story IV

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

In keeping with the old tradition of whiling away the nights of Christmas telling ghost stories, we bring you a tale published in 1912 by E.F. Benson.  Read by Mrs. Karswell, complete with sound FX and music as always.

If you’d like some additional listening of this type, we have three more recorded in previous years going back to 2018: Christmas Ghost Story III,  Christmas Ghost Story II, and Christmas Ghost Story I.

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.

 

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!

 

 

 

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.