Category: murder ballads

#25 Death by Mother

#25 Death by Mother

For Mother’s Day this year we examine murderous mothers and maternal instincts gone very, very wrong in folklore, legends, and ballads.

We begin with a look at the Latin American legend of La Llorona (“the weeping woman”). We begin with a snippet of the trailer from the recently released film The Curse of La Llorona and also hear a clip from a 1961 Mexican film released in the US as The Curse of the Crying Woman. We also here an alleged recording of La Llorona herself captured in one of many such user videos uploaded to YouTube.

Still from "The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961
Still from “The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961

La Llorona’s story is that of a mortal woman who drowns her two children to avenge herself on faithless husband. In the afterlife she becomes a remorseful ghost and fearsome child-snatching bugaboo. We learn that this form of the legend is relatively modern, with the name “La Llorona” earlier attaching itself to a variety of tales that ascribe rather different motives and actions to the figure. Wilkinson reads for us a few of these earlier descriptions.

Next we have a look at some possible antecedents to the figure including the Aztec Cihuateteo (deified women who die during childbirth later becoming child-snatching spirits) as well as a water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, a figure sometimes associated with drownings.  Somewhat less credibly, a connection to tales brought by 19th-century German settlers in Mexico has even been suggested, namely that of the Weisse Frau (“White Lady”) who haunts the Hohenzollern Castle of Baden-Württemberg.  She also does away with children in the context of a thwarted love relationship (in a particularly gruesome way).

Cihuateteo sculpture
Cihuateteo sculpture

Whatever the source of the Llorana legend, it is not difficult to find parallels.  Our next example is the Greek myth of Medea, who kills the children she’s had with Jason to punish him for taking a new lover. Her revenge on her rival, Princess Glauke of Corinth, is also dreadful, and dreadfully interesting in the description Euripides provides in his play.  We hear Wilkinson read this passage and also hear a snippet of dialogue and the startlingly original soundtrack from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.

"Medea" by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.
“Medea” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 17th century.

Our next segment looks at some legends and songs about unwed mothers who kill their unwanted newborns.  We hear a bit about the numerous “Cry Baby Bridges” of North America.  This modern urban legend associates certain bridges, usually in rural areas, with the ghosts of infants drowned in the rivers the bridges span.  Often, particularly in older stories, the infants are illegitimate newborns.

In the Scottish or English ballad “The Cruel Mother” (also known as “The Greenwood Side”), we encounter a mother who has murdered her illegitimate children and later meets their spirits, learning from them the fate that awaits her on the other side. We hear a mix of various renderings of this folk song including: The Owl Service,  Anna & Elizabeth, Fiona Hunter, Rubus, 10,000 Maniacs,Lothlórien, and Addie Graham. We also hear a bit from the nearly identical song “The Lady Dressed in Green” which serves as the basis of a macabre childrens’ song-game.

In the song, “The Well Below the Valley” (also known as ‘The Maid and the Palmer”) describes a meeting between a mother who has given birth to and killed a number of illegitimate babies and a mysterious holy man who visits her at the well and displays supernatural knowledge of her deeds.  The song seems to originate with the biblical story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and likewise displaying supernatural knowledge of her checkered past.  This story is also the basis of the gospel song “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” from which we hear brief snippets by The Fairfield Four and Nick Cave.  The version of “The Well Below the Valley” we hear is by Shanachie.

La Llorona’s child-snatching aspect is anticipated by the Greek myth of Lamia, a woman with whom Zeus was said to have fallen in love, who was then punished by Zeus’ wife Hera.   who either kills Lamia’s children or causes her to do so.  Thereafter Lamia becomes a monstrous creature devoted to stealing or killing the children of mothers everywhere.  We hear how this story later merges with medieval witchcraft beliefs.

The show ends with two stories involving cannibalism and murderous mothers.  The first is that of Gudrun (or Kriemhild) from the Germanic Völsung saga upon which Wagner based his Ring Cycle (we hear a bit of Wagner here, music from The Twilight of the Gods. The second story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, involving a grisly vengeance exacted by Procne on the Thracian king Terseus, an act of vengeance for the rape of her sister Philomela. Wilkinson here again provides a dramatic reading from Ovid.

Peter Paul Rubens "Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys," 1637
Peter Paul Rubens “Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itys,” 1637

The show also includes a short bit from Henry Burr’s 1916 song “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)”

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.