Category: monsters

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)

 

 

 

 

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 Frankenstein Method

The Frankenstein Method

The method Frankenstein employed to create life is left mostly a mystery in Mary Shelley’s 1818 book. How then did the notion of stolen body parts stitched together and animated by lightning become so firmly entrenched in popular imagination?

Our episode begins with a clip from Universal’s pattern-setting 1931 production, Frankenstein, in which Henry Frankenstein rhapsodizes about building the creature’s body from the dead.  While the idea’s suggested in Shelley’s novel, the process doesn’t quite seem to match the cinematic treatment in which the creature’s fabricated from whole human  body parts stitched together.  We’ll hear some passages read by Mrs. Karswell, that seem to suggest Shelley’s Frankenstein fabricates his creature instead from component materials — tissues and whole systems built up slowly over bones obtained from the charnel house.  The creature’s large stature in films, however, matches the literary prototype — for very practical reasons, as is explained.

Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831
Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831

Next we have a look at how Shelley portrays Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create life as influenced by his study of alchemical texts (by Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus,)  Of particular interest here is the work of his Swiss countryman, Paracelsus, who in the 16th century set down directions for the creation of a homunculus, a tiny human-like being grown in a glass bottle.

These comments, in a general way, seem to have influenced an odd inclusion in the script for 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein’s partner in monster-making, Dr. Pretorius, presents his own experiments in creating homunculi (as in the clip played).

Pretorius
Pretorius and “Devil” homunculus, Bride of Frankenstein

As further evidence that Bride’s screenwriters went digging in some rather obscure texts, the film’s portrayal of the miniature king escaping his bottle to pursue a homunculus-queen in an adjacent bottle appears to be directly lifted from a legend of an Austrian freemason Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein, creating homunculi in 1755 — a legend appearing only as a footnote in an  1896 biography of Paracelsus by the Theosophist Franz Hartmann.

While none of this appears in Shelley’s novel, some scholars have attempted to locate the inspiration for her novel in the work of another alchemist: Johann Conrad Dippel, in particular because the location of his birth in 1673 is listed as Burg Frankenstein, Castle Frankenstein on a hill near the city of Darmstadt Germany.  We look at evidence for parallels in Shelley’s story and von Dippel’s career, and though the linkage appears to be fairly speculative, we end up with some good stories involving the misuse of bone oil, and a corpse dyed blue.

We next examine references to Victor Frankenstein’s interest in lightning and galvinism (early notions of electricity), and how this supplants his earlier interest in alchemy.  The connection between galvinism, 18th-century researcher Luigi Galvani, and frog legs is explained, as is Mary’s husband Percy Shelley’s hands-on dabbling in this field.

While both Percy and Mary had an interest in this evolving field, their understanding of these matters could often be of a more poetic than scientific.  In Mary’s introduction to the 1831 reissue of her novel, she references galvinism as a possible source of the creature’s animation, though the idea here is inspired by her highly idiosyncratic understanding of an experiment conducted by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles).  A reference to what seems to be living pasta is also muddled into all this.

Next we hear a a bit about Luigi Galvini’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, and his use of electricity to produce convulsions in the carcasses of oxen as well as a notorious 1803 experiment with the body of a recently executed convict from London’s Newgate Prison.  We don’t know if Shelley was aware of these experiments, but it’s certainly possble.

Even more ambitious than Aldini’s experiment was one conducted by the Scottish physician Andrew Ure in Glasgow in 1818.  Ure also worked with the body of an executed convict but with stated intention of actually reviving the deceased using electricity.  The date on this one (the same year as Shelley’s composition of the novel) makes it highly unlikely to have influenced her composition, but the grisly details seem nonetheless worth relating.

Ure
Ure’s experiment, illustr. “Les merveilles de la science” 1867

Another suggested source of inspiration for Frankenstein is the researcher Andrew Crosse, known to locals living near his isolated mansion in Somerset’s Quantock Hills as “The Thunder and Lightning Man.”  Crosse converted his home into a lab for the study of electrostatic energy produced in the atmosphere, channeling this into an immense array of homemade batteries, and releasing thunderous charges mistaken by neighbors for lightning of his own creation.

While the case for any of these serving as direct inspiration to Shelley is rather tentative, it’s actually the more familiar figure of Benjamin Franklin whom the author mentions in her novel. In a passage removed from the 1831 publication, Franklin’s kite experiment is referenced, making him the only contemporary electrical researcher mentioned in the text.  An article about Franklin is also a likely source for the reference to Prometheus in the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus.

The Frankenstein of Universal films and beyond has its roots in theater.  For many years Shelley’s novel was actually better known from theatrical adaptations, which began appearing not long after the book’s publication. The first was 1823’s, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which Shelley herself attended with a mix of irritation and delight. It’s in this play that the character of the  laboratory assistant first appears, here as “Fritz” (as in the 1931 film) and later acquiring the name “Igor.”  Only three years later, The Man and the Monster; or, the Fate of Frankenstein appeared giving audiences the first direct representation of the monster’s animation.

Presumption
T.P. Cook as creature in “Presumption”

There is still no electricity involved in all of this by the time the first cinematic adaptation appears in 1910 — Edison Studio’s 13-minute production called simply Frankenstein. Here we see Victor Frankenstein brewing up his creation in a vat, pouring in flashing chemicals.

The 1927 play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre by Peggy Webling, served as the basis for Universal’s 1931 film, but even here, there is no electricity animating the creature, a feat accomplished instead by Frankenstein administering the alchemist’s “Elixir of Life.”  In 1931, this play was itself reworked into another theatrical adaptation by writers of the studio’s Dracula, John Balderston and Garrett Fort.  It’s only here that electrical apparatus is employed, an aspect director James Whale whole-heartedly embraced based on his fondness for the mad scientist’s lab in the 1927 film Metropolis.

We finish this novel-to-film progression with a quick look at elements of Shelley’s novel brought to the fore in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and the creator of the props that populated the film’s laboratory, Kenneth Strickfaden.

Then there’s a few bizarre footnotes on Ben Franklin from recent history. Very strange indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beasts of the Bestiaries

Beasts of the Bestiaries

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were books describing animals (some recognizable and others fantastic) in terms borrowed from classical texts and framed by Christian teachings.  In this episode, we examine a few of the stranger beasts and strange customs and beliefs associated with them.

Here’s a brief look at the animals we’ll be examing (“brief” because I’m rushing to get this episode out on the last day of the month).

Our first is the bonocan, a bull-like creature either from Macedonia or somewhere in Asia, depending on your source.  Its memorable trait is the very peculiar means of self-defense it employs.

The bonacon does its business
The bonacon does its business

Next, the manticore,  a tiger-like beast from India that comes with a few extra bells and whistles like a tail that shoots quills. In the later Middle Ages it became muddled with the mantyger, a creature with a tiger’s body and man’s head.

The leucrota and the crocota were similar or identical creatures with terrifying ear-to-ear mouths equipped with a bony ridge in place of teeth.  Their tendency to dig up corpses and vocalize like humans suggests they were inspired by the hyena.

Manticore
Manticore from 13th-century English manuscript.

The basilisk is a sort of serpent, whose name comes from the Greek for “little king.”  It was small (originally) but deadly.  Not only was it venomous, but its breath, and even its glance could kill. Mrs. Karswell relates three legends of basilisks as threats to medieval towns.

Vienna’s basilisk tale involves an baker’s apprentice who must defeat the monster residing in the depths of a well in order to win the hand of his beloved.

The legendary basilisk of Warsaw was discovered haunting the cellar of a ruined building and was so fearsome only a convict facing death dared face it.  We also look at the basilisk as the heraldic symbol of Basel, a city which destroyed the basilisk that menaced it while still in the egg (in one of the strangest incidents in the history of man’s relationship with poultry).

We also look at a tale from Cumbria, England, in which a cockatrice — a creature similar to the basilisk but with the head of a rooster — menaces a church.

Our episode closes with a look at the salamander of the bestiaries, a creature produces a deadly poison that vies with that of the basilisk, and one believed to withstand fire. While the latter is purely fictitous (though believed in some places up into the 19th century), the former is based on an actual poison (salamandrine) exuded through the skin of certain species.  We’ll examine how this poison relates to a peculiar urban legend originating in Slovenia and hear some accounts of Victorian “human salamanders,” that is, sideshow performers said to be impervious to fire.

Basilisk
Basilisk from De Natura animalium,ca. 1270