Category: mythology

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

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

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

The Deadly Bees (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feminine Monarchie
The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler

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

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

 

 

 

Medusa and the Gorgons

Medusa and the Gorgons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Western tales of bottled spirits, imps, devils, and even ghosts are largely borrowed from the Islamic and Jewish legends of jinn captured by King Solomon.  In this episode, we explore how this is expressed in folk tales, demonological treatises, and literary borrowings.

We begin with a nod to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (and a clip from Exorcist II, The Heretic.) Here, aconnection between feared Assyrian spirits such as the jinn is mentioned. Pazuzu’s identity as a spirit of ill winds, brings us to a wind-related track from the original Exorcist soundtrack (from 1972’s oddball album Songs from a Hill.)  It’s a recording of a wind harp, or Aeolian harp.  And this brings us to the Greek god of winds, Aeolus.

Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.
Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.

Aeolus features in the Odyssey in an episode that anticipates our bottled spirit motif.  He presents Odysseus a bag of wind to speed him on his journey.  The wind spirits contained in this bag then brings us to a story about King Solomon trapping a wind demon in Arabia to aid him his construction of the Jerusalem Temple. We hear this particulsar tale from the medieval text,  The Testament of Solomon read by Mrs. Karswell.

We then look a bi from further medieval texts commenting on Solomon’s capture of demons in various vessels, and how thesee are later broken open by heedless conquerors of Jerusalem, releasing a Pandora-style plague of demons upon the world.

Our motif entered the literary world via 17th-century Spain, in Luis Velez de Guevara’s satirical novel El Diable Cojuelo, “the lame devil.”  We also hear a bit about a French adaptation, Alain-René Lesage’s 1707 novel, Le Diable Boiteux.  Both of these feature the demon Asmodeus, and referenced Asmodeus’s identity as  demon of lust, a notion taken up in various demonological treatises.

Le Diable Boiteux,
Alain-René Lesage’ss 1707 as Le Diable Boiteux, The Lame Devil

Next we look at folk tales, beginning in County Cork, Ireland, with the “Legend of  Bottle Hill,” which takes its name from a curious (and curiously inhabited) bottle obtained by one Mick Purcell on this particular Irish hill.  Both good and rather surprising bad luck follow.

From Scotland, we hear the legend of the Wizard of Reay and of his efforts to evade Satan’s over-eager efforts to claim his soul, as well as his bottle-imp story, involving a cask in the Cave of Smoo, a reputedly haunted sea cave in Sutherland.

The Wizard of Rea’s tactic for controlling the demon he finds in the cask is the same as we find in the folk tale, “The Wizards of Westman Islands,” from Iceland (in which we learn what role the sinister “Sending” plays in Icelandic folklore.)

From The Brothers Grimm, we hear “The Spirit in the Glass Bottle,” involving another bottled imp discovered in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, and of a similar tactic used to subdue his volatile nature.

Jumping ahead a bit, we look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1891 short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which likewise adapts themes from the previous folk tales, while adding further complications and convolutions.  The story has served as basis for several films, an opera, a standard  magician’s trick, and more than one radio adaptation. (We hear a bit of one from a 1974 production by CBS Radio Mystery Theater.)

Stevenson makes use of some elaborate caveats attached to his bottled spirit, conditions that will produce either good or very bad luck, involving among other things, the need to rid oneself of the infernal talisman before one’s death by selling it for less than one payed for it.  This motif is also found in German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel  Galgenmännlein (“little gallows man”), a name taken from the German word for the mandrake plant, and here we dig a bit into the grim folklore of that plant. Fouqué’s story makes use of some nice, gothic elements in its resolution, a “Black Fountain,” ravening beast, and sinister black rider, among others.

Switching gears a bit, we have a look at the topic of witch bottles. It’s a perhaps questionable how well these fit our theme, but we dig up some interesting source texts describing their original use, unseemly as it is.  And we hear of some startling, tragic accidents involved in their historical use.

Witch bottle from Padstow
Witch bottle from Padstow England, 1800s.

We close our show with a look at near contemporary instances of those who claim to capture demons and ghosts in bottles.  Apparently, bottled ghosts can be a big money maker. At least in New Zealand.

 

 

The Jinn

The Jinn

They Arabic mythology of the jinn is, not surprisingly, quite different than what you might glean from Western pop culture. Films such as 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad and 1958 Ray Harryhausen classic, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which we hear sampled in our opening might have you believe these creatures function as nothing more than wish-granting slaves, but their existence needn’t be entangled with human wants and needs.

One Thousand and One Nights, or the collection sometimes titled Arabian Nights, is the original Western source when it comes to our topic of the genies or the jinn.  This begins with the word “genie,” an English rendering of the original French translation of the Arabic word, “jinn” (which can be used as both plural and singular, btw.)  These tales are told within a frame story related by Scheherazade, a woman providing a cliff-hanger night-by-night narrative intended to delay the plans of her newly wed husband, who intends to execute her after the wedding night.  (We hear a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade along the way).

After reviewing the evolution of these Arabian Nights stories from original oral forms (which were more often Persian, Indian, and Greek than Arab, actually), we have a look at some surprising misunderstandings about the story of Aladdin, which, like the stories of Sinbad, and Ali Baba, were not even part of the first collection of these tales assembled.

Jinn are a separate race, created between men and the angels. They are not immortal, and live in an invisible society organized like our own with similar social orders, marriages, and offspring (though sometimes humans are taken as marriage partners also).  They are not necessarily good or evil, choosing their own path, which may include following the Muslim faith, as the Qur’an speaks of the Prophet preaching to this race of being.  They may also follow other faiths as Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian jinn are also sometimes mentioned.

We spend some time looking at how their appearance has been described in literature, though no particularly definitive description emerges, as they are constant shapeshifters.  They may appear simply as shadows or whirlwinds, but more often seem to take human form, albeit, often that of a human hybridized with various animals features (horns are common).  Frequently, they may also simply take the form of animals, particularly dogs, and snakes. We hear some interesting anecdotes in this regard, illustrating the reverential treatment animals sometimes receive lest they reveal themselves to be dangerous jinn in disguise.

Persian jinn
Manuscript illustration of Persian jinn, source unknown.

While their theoretical home is Mount Qaf-Kuh, the sort of Mt. Olympus of Islamic mythology, jinn obviously do not confine themselves to this location and can be found nearly anywhere man ventures. Some locations, such as abandoned homes, cemeteries, and ruins are obvious, but others such as certain mosques and marketplaces also are mentioned.

More obvious than where you might encounter a jinn is when you might do so.  Their nocturnal nature is widely agreed upon, and just as certain treatments of animals is ill-advised for risk of offending the jinn, we hear of a number of actions that should not be performed by night for similar reasons.

Along the way, we learn how iron and salt may be used to repel the jinn, favorite foods of the jinn, how shooting stars relate to the jinn’s propensity to eavesdrop, and hear an interesting tale of a jinn-human marriage from Edvard Westermarck, a Finnish scholar who spent a great deal of time in Morocco.

The jinn, we learn, may be sought out for their advice, thanks to their supernatural knowledge of things seen and unseen, and can be summoned for this purpose (or to achieve other ends) by skilled magicians.  We even hear in the Qur’an of Mohammed invoking the jinn to perform a miracle on the modern site of the Mosque of the Jinn in Mecca.

charm
Jinn illustration as part of charm crafted by magician

The different types of jinn are briefly discussed, though clear taxonomies for these (or other purely folkloric beings) is always hard to pin down.  A commonly mentioned type is the ifrit, a particularly strong and cunning, and the marid, who is particularly immense.  Other creatures — which may or may not be jinn —  are the fiery samum, seductive female si’lat, and the notorious graveyard ghoul.

Decidedly evil beings like these would belong to a subclass of jinn called the shayatin (singular shaitan) related to the West’s “Satan.”  While Shaitan may be used to designate the Devil or the chief embodiment of evil in Islam, a closer match to Lucifer would be Iblis.

According to most accounts Iblis is a jinn embraced by the angels as one of their own, but then cast from heaven to become the tempter of mankind and father of seven jinn kingdoms.  In hearing a bit more about Iblis, we also have a look at how jinn fit into the Islamic creation myths: how they were created of fire, how they rebelled against God, were defeated and scattered to earth’s hidden corners. We also hear an amusing legend explaining why Iblis has one eye, and where one might go about finding a jinn egg for sale.

Our next topic is King Solomon — more the King Solomon of Talmudic and Islamic legend, than the more traditional Old Testament figure.  In a number of tales from the early Middle Ages, shared by both Jewish and Muslim cultures, Solomon’s legendary wisdom comes, in part, from his magical mastery over the jinn or demons.  This power is provided him by a ring known as The Seal of Solomon.  Using this ring, he also compels them to construct the First Temple in Jerusalem.

A side story within this Temple legend regards a magic tool that is employed in this cutting of stones for the temple, the shamir, which oddly may either be a stone that can cut jewels and other stones, or… a fantastic stone-cutting worm.  We also hear a couple legends of how one of the chief jinn obtained this ring from the king after the Temple was constructed, and the mischief and just rewards following.

Jinn possession and exorcism (“eviction”) is also discussed, as are the activities of certain Sufi brotherhoods in Morocco.  Through ecstatic dance and music, members of the Hamadsha and the Aisawa brotherhoods are said to manipulate the powers of the jinn for good, but are perhaps more notorious for their demonstrations of supernatural empowerment that once featured rites of self-mutilation and other shocking acts.

Possession by the jinn is also subject a few noteworthy horror films that may interest listeners.  A critics’ favorite is 2016’s Under the Shadow from Persian director Babak Anvari, a story examining supernatural encounters with the jinn within the historical setting of the Iranian revolution.  Horror fans, however, may be more dazzled by the visual gymnastics of Turkish director Hasan Karacadag work.  His horror films have been huge box office successes in Turkey and are marketed using the title of his breakout film, Dabbe, a reference to a figure wandering the earth in the Last Days — sometimes stylized as “D@bbe”.

Dabbe 3, 5, and Dabbe 6 have recently been made available online with English subtitles and well worth checking out if you’re interested in Eastern Folk Horror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toad Magic

Toad Magic

Toads have long been associated with magic, as witches’ familiars and as a source both of poison as folk healing.

We begin with a poison allegedly brewed from a toad by the “wise wife of Keith,” Agnes Sampson, one of the accused in Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials in 1591-2. The poison was to have been used against Scotland’s James VI before he ascended England’s throne as James I.  At the center of the trial was the accusation that Sampson and others had raised a storm to sink the ship bearing James home from Oslo with his new wife Anne of Denmark.

Macbeth and the Witches
Macbeth and the Witches (Thomas Barker, 1830)

Shakespeare seems to allude to elements from this trial in his play Macbeth, mentioning toads and frogs as elements of  the concoctions brewed by his witches in Act IV and seemingly referencing the events in an aside uttered by a witch regarding sending a storm against an enemy’s ship.  The Bard’s inclusion of “real” witchcraft in his play has long been said to be the reason for a “curse” upon productions of Macbeth. Included in our discussion is a particularly ugly (and lethal) 1848 incident in New York City attributed to this bit of lore.

A witch’s servant, or familiar, in the form of a toad is also alluded to as an offstage character in Macbeth.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of accounts from 16th and early 17th century England presenting toad familiars sent to torment the enemies of witches.  We also hear of a toad exploding in a fire, and toads sustained on the blood of their witch mistresses, as well as a sad story from Newmarket, England, involving William Harvey, physician to Charles I, and an bruitish attempt to subject an alleged toad familiar to scientific scrutiny.

A woodcut illustration from a book published in 1579 of a witch feeding her ‘familiars’.

Next we discuss the fear of toad’s venom in the Middle Ages, hearing some comments on the subject from 12th-century German mystic and theologian Hildegard von Bingen and a tale associated with the English boy-saint William of Norwich involving some prisoners and an unfortunate attempt at the use of toad poison.

Toad’s venom, according to medieval folklore, could be neutralized by the toadstone, a particular mineral also assigned powers against stomach and kidney ailments.  We hear of a peculiar method of obtaining this prized artifact and an obscure reference to the toadstone in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.

Wicker Man
Toadstone lesson from “The Wicker Man” (1973)

We also hear a clip from The Wicker Man in which a toad or frog is used in folk medicine to cure a sore throat. Superstitions about toads and their magical efficacy against various ailments continued into the 19th century, resulting in the phenomena of traveling “toad doctors” and “toad fairs.”  The use of toad bones in a midnight ritual performed by English “Toadmen” in order to gain mastery of horses to be trained is also discussed as is the discovery of miniature frog coffins, stashed in Finish churches, in a folk-magic practice similar to the British and American use of “witch bottles.”

We return to the continent and the discussion of toads’ association with witches (and heretics) as conceived by the Church in terms of service to Satan.  This topic brings us a letter written by Pope Gregory IX to bishops of the German Rhineland involving Satan as a french-kissing toad, as well as a ritual attributed to French and Italian members of the Waldesenian sect allegedly consuming a ritual beverage brewed from toad excrement.

In Spain’s Basque province of  Navarre, home to the “Cave of Witches” at Zugarramurdi, witchcraft trial testimonies demonstrate a particular emphasis on toads.  We hear of them raised by novice witches in the fields, used to poison the land, and dancing at the witches’ sabbath.

Toads are sometimes mentioned as an ingredient of the “flying ointment” believed to have induced a visionary experience transporting witches to hilltop revels. However, this effect is more likely attributed to other ingredients in historical recipes (particularly plants of the nightshade family.)

While the venom produced by toads of the Old World doesn’t seem to contain the quality and quantity of bufotoxin necessary to produce such visions, this can’t be said for certain New World species.

One of these is the Cane toad (bufo rhinella) that invasive species best known for infesting Australia, Florida and other southern states and native to South and Central America.  In the Caribbean, it’s been identified by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis as a possible ingredient in a drug administered in Haiti to transform an enemy into a zombie, (i.e., to drug the individual into a deathlike state from which he is later “resurrected.”).  Research into this subject was documented in Davis’ 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later serving loosely as inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1988 film of the same name (from which we hear a clip).

The show ends with a quick look at the role of the Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad, (bufo alvarius) as a source of psychedelic experience, particularly as its been reinvented with the last years as part of a life-changing “shamanic experience” for drug consumers already bored with ayahuasca.

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Quite distinct from their Western equivalent, Slavic mermaids might better be described as water ghosts, as they are almost always the spirits of departed females, while their male equivalent takes the form of a water goblin or water sprite.  The Russian word for mermaid is rusalka (rusalki pl.) and male creature is a vodyanoy.  Similar words are used in other slavic languages, though the Czech water goblin is known as a vodnik.

The rusalki are found not only found in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.  And they’re honored with their own holiday, Rusalka Week, just now coming up in early June.

While they are usually active only at night, during Rusalka Week, they emerge in the daylight when they may be seen dancing, singing, or playing usually in groups.  As they lack the fish tail of Western mermaids, they may also venture into forests and fields for such activities, but while in the water, they may also  pull swimmers, fishermen or others near the water to watery deaths. We open the show with a clip from Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, a 2018 Russian horror film about a rusalka, which depicts the creature in this malevolent aspect.

Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879
Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879

Not just any woman who dies will become a rusalka.  Typically, she would have died by violence, suicide, or sudden accident, particularly drowning.  Often these deaths are related to misfortunes in love, rejection by lovers, or suicides due to unwanted pregnancies.  Because of this, the rusalka is particularly focused on capturing men with no interest in attacking adult females.  Men who fall prey to them are either believed drowned or may live with them in a sort of underwater spirit limbo in their richly appointed palaces of crystal, gold, and silver.  Occasionally, their would-be victims may overcome them by the power of the cross, or in rare cases, they may even be domesticated into mortal life (with varying success).  Mrs. Karswell reads several typical and atypical tales describing the interactions of rusalki and men, ones collected from informants in turn-of-the-century studies by Russian ethnographers

While rusalki are most interested in men, they may sometimes capture girls and boys to be kept as the children they failed to have in life. Infants may also become rusalki if they die unbaptized, and will wander the earth in that form for seven years seeking someone who might free them by performing a christening. After that, like other rusalki, they remain in that undying form until the end of the world.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s not clear the rusalki were always regarded as the ghosts of unfortunate females. Instead, they seemed to play some role in connection to fertility.  This is particularly clear in Ukraine, where the rusalki (or creatures nearly the same) are called mavka and a figure called Kostromo is both the center of early spring fertility rites and known the first female to become a mavka. “Mavka” is also the name of under which a contemporary Ukranian musiican performs songs composed, in what she calls “the language of mermaids.”  We hear a clip from one of her performances.

Rusalia Week, or Rusalia, is tied to the date of Pentecost or Whitsunday. It’s also known as “Green Christmas” or “Green Holiday” as  homes and churches are decorated in greenery, and celebrations take place in birch forests where young women and girls wear crowns woven from flowers and plants.  It takes place either 40 or 50 days after Easter, and the biggest celebrations take place on Semik (from the Russian word for “seven,”) the seventh Thursday after Easter, which is June 4 this year.  We describe some rather curious rituals around birch trees involving symbolic dolls used to represent the rusalka, and how these are understood to symbolically free the restive spirits from their existence as rusalki.

Semi Celebration, 19th cent, unknown artist

Rusalia celebrations embrace both aspects of the rusalki — their post 19th-century incarnation as dangerous ghosts, and an older pagan understanding of these beings as bringers of regenerative moisture and fertility of crops.  We also hear a few accounts describing tried and true methods for evading rusalki attacks particularly common during this period.

The rusalka folklore has been adapted into a number of Slavic productions over the years.  We hear of a rusalka in Russian novelist, poet, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s 1831 collection of stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which served as the basis of a loopy but fun Russian TV series, Gogol, from which we hear a clip.  ( A rusalka briefly appears also in Gogol’s Viy, adapted into a cult classic film of 1967, Viy Spirit of Evil, from which we hear a clip.

Rusalka folklore has been a popular subject for opera. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, which premiered in 1856 was based on a nearly finished verse drama by Alexander Pushkin.  Its tragic tale involves not only a a vengeful adult rusalka, but also a dangerous child rusalka, and a madman who believes he is a raven.

The better known Rusalka opera, which premiered in 1900, is by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.  Best known for its lovesick aria “Song to the Moon” in the first act, its story draws partly on Slavic folklore and partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to tell its equally tragic tale.  A vodnik or “water goblin” is cast as the father of the character given the name Rusalka, and the opera also features the witch Jezibaba, the Czech equivalent to Baba Yaga.

Dvořák liked to say the opera was inspired by fairy tales of popular 19th-century poet Karel Erben, namely his 1853 collection Kytice, which means “bouquet”. (The book was given a particularly sumptuous treatment int the 2000 adaptation known in English as Wild Flowers.)  While in fact the opera borrows nothing directly from Erben’s stories, Dvořák did more explicitly embrace one of Erben’s pieces in his symphonic poem known in English as “The Water Goblin.”  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the climactic scenes of this tale, which is gruesome even by Bone and Sickle standards.

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin

After a bit of further discussion of the vodnik and its Russian near-equivalent, the vodyanoy, we address the elephant in the room — the fact that the rusalki are said to tickle men to death.  I share a few comments on reference to historic tickle torture, as well as some anecdotes from the much more amusing history of death by laughter.

 

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
Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, sometimes known as “the Belly-Slitter” for the trademark punishment she’s said to inflict on disobedient or lazy children, is figure of Alpine folklore of Austria and Germany in many ways similar to the Krampus.

“Perchta” is only one spelling or name for this figure, who may also go by Pehrta, Berchte, Berta, and a myriad of other names.  A particularly good representation of the figure, a woodcut from 1750, identifies her as the “Butzen-Bercht,” with the word “Butzen” coming from a word for “bogeyman.”  This word also appears in a classic 19th-century German children’s song and game “Es Tanzt Ein Bi-Ba Butzemann,” or “A Bogeyman is Dancing,” from which we hear a clip at the show’s start.

The woodcut in question depicts a crone-like character with dripping, warty nose, who is carrying on her back a basket filled with screaming children, all girls.  She stands before the open door of a house where more girls are screaming, and is holding a dangerous looking pronged staff as well as a distaff, the stick used to hold fibers that will be spun into wool or flax on a spinning wheel.  The importance of the illustration is the way it emphasizes Perchta’s connection to spinning and to the females of the household responsible for this task.  The woodcut also features some text delightfully detailing a series of horrid threats delivered by Perchta, dramatically read by Mrs. Karswell.

Perchta’s name it comes from her association with Epiphany or Twelfth Night, January 6, the last of the “Twelve Days” or nights of Christmas, the “Haunted Season,” we discussed last year in our episode of that name. “Perchta” is a corruption of the word giberahta in the Old High German term for Epiphany, “giberahta naht,” meaning, the “night of shining forth or manifestation.

Now there’s another name many of you will have encountered if you’re read up on Perchta: Perchten, figures very similar to the Krampus. (Perchten is plural. The singular is Percht.)

“Berchtengehen” ("Going as Perchten") from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)
“Berchtengehen” (“Going as Perchten”) from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)

While the first mention of Perchta appears around 1200, the word “Perchten” is not employed until centuries later. In 1468, there appears a reference to her retinue, but its members are not called Perchten, nor do they explicitly resemble Perchten as we think of them today. At this stage in Perchta’s mythology, the company she leads is most often understood as spirits of the departed. With time, and frequent attacks from the pulpit, Perchta’s pagan company came to be commonly feared not as ghosts but as demons, something presumably closer to the horned figures we now know.  By the 15th century, a tradition involving costumed processions or appearances of these figures had evolved. The very first illustration we have of Perchta seems to show not the figure herself, but in fact a masker impersonating “Percht with the iron nose.” It appears in South Tyrolean poet Hans Vintler’s 1411 Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”).

Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent
Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent

This beaklike nose of Perchta may be related the figure’s ancient connection to the classical strix (plural striges) which appears in both Greek and Latin texts.  The strix is bird of ill omen, often thought of as an owl, one that visited at humans at night to feed on blood and flesh.  Bird-like representations of Perchta or the Perchten appear in the Schnabelperchten (“beaked Perchten“) figures that appear in the town of Rauris, Austria.

In addtion to Perchta threatening to cut open the bellies of the disobedient, she’s sometimes said to stamp on those who offend her. In certain regions, it is the Stempe, or the Trempe (from the German words for “stamp” or “trample”) who appears to frighten the disobedient on Twelfth Night.  A medieval poem, alluding to the terrible Stempe, one quoted in Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, is read by Mrs. Karswell.

One way to avoid Perctha’s wrath was to prepare certain foods, particularly a porridge called Perchtenmilch, which would be partially consumed by the family on Twelfth Night with a portion set aside as an offering to the Perchten. Certain signs,  that the porridge had been enjoyed by the night-traveling spirits could provide omens for the coming year.  Mrs. Karswell reads an  Austrian account from 1900 detailing these.

This custom of leaving out offerings on this night was frequently condemned by the clergy in Austria and Germany, and we hear similar practice involving the Swiss “Blessed Ones” (sälïgen Lütt) derided in an 17th-century account by  Renward Cysat, a city clerk of Lucerne.

The dead who accompany Perchta and consume these offerings are in many tales called the Heimchen, the spirits of children who have not received baptism.  Several tales of Perchta and her Heimchen from Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie are recounted.

Our episode concludes examining a peculiar connection between Perchta and the beloved English and American figure of Mother Goose.

Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen
Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen

 (Material in this episode taken from my book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.)

#34 The Goblins Will Get You!

#34 The Goblins Will Get You!

Goblin lore from old folk tales, literature, ancient and modern legends is our topic this time around.

We begin with the poem from which we take our episode title, James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” in which the poet remembers his childhood nanny and her “witch tales” and threats about goblins coming.

Next, we take a quick look at the word “goblin” itself, and how it relates via the goblin-like “boggart” or “boggle”  of the Northern England and Scotland to our word, “bogeyman” (hearing a snippet along the way of Henry Hall’s 1932 rendering of the song, “Hush, Hush, Hush, Here Comes The Bogeyman.”)

The word “goblin” seems to have made its way into English from Normandy.  A 12th-century tale that from that region employs a latinzed version of the word, “Gobelinus,” to name a creature that menaces the 6th-century saint Taurinus in Orderic Vitalis’s Historia Ecclesiastica.  The creature’s hapeshifting between a bear, a lion, and a buffalo is a trait we’ll see later with other goblins.  We also hear of the first English usage of the word — one which appears in a translation of the Bible, of all places.

The root of the word, “goblin,” and German and Old French cognates, points to a connection with caves, or hollows in rocks, which takes us to the a certain species of goblin in Cornwall particularly, which is said to reside underground, specifically in mines. In England, these are known as “knockers” for the sounds they’re said to make with the tiny miners’ hammers, a words that evolved into “tommyknocker” for the spirits haunting American mines in the 19th century. We hear some examples of its playful and sometimes malicious interactions with miners, and of a particularly gruesome death attributed to these beings in Colorado.

Our next section looks at several legendary goblins that made their way into the poems and folklore studies of Sir Walter Scott. The first example, appearing in the poem “Marmion,” involves “Goblin Hall,” a name given to Yester Castle in East Lothian, which was said to have been built by a sorcerer assisted by goblins.  We also hear an additional tale associated with the magician featuring a magic fruit he’s said to have given his daughter.  Taking a bite of the “Coulston pear” proves very, very unlucky.

Ruins of "Goblin Hall," Yester Castle
Ruins of “Goblin Hall,” Yester Castle

Scott also mentions a “Goblin Cave,” in his 1810 poem, “The Lady of the Lake.” Near Loch Lomond, it was not only the legendary home of goblis but also served as a location for a scene in Scott’s poem and as unlikely inspiration for a well known Catholic hymn composed by Schubert.

Scott’s 1805  poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” adapts a local legend of a goblin named Gilpin Horner. It also features an undead warlock based on the historic scholar Michael Scott, who came to be regarded in the popular imagination as a sort of Dr. Faustus charcter.  Mrs. Karswell reads a bit of the poem, in which the goblin meets a spectacularly melodramatic end.

Our last stop in Scotland is the imposing Hermitage Castle near the English border, which like the “Goblin Hall,” was said to have built by goblins under the direction of the magician “Bad Lord Soulis” (as he’s known in legend).  In the legend and ballad Scott collected, Soulis is supposed to have carried out bloody occult rites in Hermitage Castle with the assistance of his goblin familiar Robin Redcap.  Redcaps are a particularly malevolent form of goblin known in Scotland for dipping their caps in human blood, which serves as dye.  We hear of Soulis’ particularly grisly mode of death and learn of another interesting Scottish figure, the prophet Thomas the Rhymer, along the way.

"Bad Lord Souls" from The Book of British Ballads, Samuel Carter Hall, 1849
“Bad Lord Souls” from The Book of British Ballads, Samuel Carter Hall, 1849

We then hear some similar tales from Germany involving goblins serving people of power.  The ruined Castle Hardenstein in North Rhine-Westphalia, was where King Neveling kept court and the home of the goblin Goldemar, whose tale features a grotesque act of revenge.  Similarly, we hear of the goblin Hödekin, servant of the Bishop of Hildesheim, who exacts a similarly grotesque revenge on an individual a bit too eager to lift the goblin’s  cloak of invisibility.

Hobgoblins, we learn, are a species of goblin attached to a particular home or farm.  They are generally helpful but can be mischievous or even cruel.  A surefire way of getting rid of a troublesome hobgoblin is explained.

Next is a look at the 17th-century pamphlet representing a famous hobgoblin, namely Robin Good-Fellow, his Mad Prankes and Merry Jests.  The book seems to have been inspired by the even more famous hobgoblin, Puck, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We hear a passage from the Bard which seems to reach back to that 12th-century goblin, Gobelinus, and his shapeshifting ways.

We end the show with a nod to modern “goblins,” the first being the “Kentucky Goblins,” the name given to some alleged extraterrestrial visitors said to have lain siege in 1955 to the Sutton family farmhouse near Kelly Kentucky.  This was a landmark event in UFO mythology, giving birth to the phrase “little green men,” a phrase  featured in countless jokes and songs, like George Morgan’s 1961 “Little Green Men,” which we hear a bit of.  The event is commemorated annually in Kelly, Kentucky with The Kelly Little Green Men Days.  We hear some clips from a promo for that. Introducing our “modern” segment was also a clip from Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 song,”The Wobblin’ Goblin.”

The show ends with a clip of a 2019 “goblin” sighting ludicrously analyzed by the journalists of Inside Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

#28 Gog, Magog, and the Bones of Giants

This time we look at the myths of British giants Gog and Magog, and a belief in biblical giants seemingly confirmed by giant bones dug from the earth.

We begin with a 1953 newsreel welcoming reconstructed figures of Gog and Magog back to the London Guildhall after the Nazi bombing of the city destroyed the originals. While Londoners may know the figures as those paraded in the Lord Mayor’s show each November, we also look at a more American perspective on Gog and Magog as figures representing nations allied with the Antichrist from the biblical book of Revelation.

A book quoted in the show.
A book quoted in the show.

Our next stop in the Bible is a verse from Genesis Chapter 6, speaking of “giants in the earth in those days,” (before the Flood).  The word “giant,” we learn, was chosen to translate the Hebrew “Nephilim.”  Our Genesis passage suggests the Nephilim are the offspring of angels mating with human women, and this notion is reinforced by apocryphal texts, such as the Book of Enoch, which dubs these fallen angels “Watchers.” We hear a snippet featuring kindly Watchers from Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film, Noah, which whitewashes the traditional understandings of the Watchers.

The word, “Nephilim,” we learn, literally means “fallen ones,” (“fallen” as in divine beings tainted by human hybridization.)  The suggestion that they are physically large comes from another Genesis story in which Moses sends spies to the land of Canaan in preparation for a Hebrew invasion and receives a report on “Nephilim” who in size compare to men as men do to grasshoppers.  We also hear some amusing stories of the biblical King Og, whose 13-foot bed is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy.

Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = "witness of the Deluge")
Fossilized giant salamander (Homo diluvii testis = “witness of the Deluge”)

Next follows a quick survey of the bones of prehistoric animals mistaken for the bones of biblical Nephilim (or St. Christopher, who was also believed to be a giant from the land of Canaan).  Bones of mastodons figures prominently as do the teeth of St. Christopher, though holy relics produces from beached whales and deceased hippopotami are also mentioned.  We also learn of the patron saint of hares, St. Melangell  (also somehow gifted with oversized bones) a dinosaur named after the human scrotum, and a prehistoric species of giant salamander mistaken for one of the Nephilim by 18th century naturalist Jakob Scheuchzeri, who figures into the early science fiction novel War of the Newts (represented with a snippet from a 2005 BBC radio drama). The  hoaxed 12th-century discovery of a gigantic skeleton of King Arthur at Glastonbury is also discussed.

We learn that Arthur turns out to be connected to the Cornish folktale of that murderous scamp “Jack the Giant Killer.” Referring to an 18th-century text, we run through the grisly episodes of this story (including a long-forgotten one including a female follower of Lucifer).  Not only does the original tale see Jack inducted to Arthur’s Round Table, but it seems the Cornish story is a retelling of a similar Arthurian story of the king slaying a giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy.  A strangely mirrored version of this site, St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall also was said to be home to a giant named Corineus, a figure that seems to be related to Cormoran, the first giant killed in “Jack the Giant Killer.”

19th-century "toy theater" figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)
19th-century “toy theater” figures for Jack the Giant Killer (probably as elaborated in a pantomime)

Along the way, Wilkinson provides us some richly detailed passages regarding Arthur’s encounter with the giant of Normandy from the 15th-century telling in The Alliterative Morte Arthure.

On the border between Cornwall and Devon is a site known as “Giant’s Leap,” where another mythic Corineus was said to have killed a giant in the Geoffrey of Monmouth, pseudo-history of Britain, Regum Britanniae.  Monmoth’s fable tells of Britain being founded by Brutus of Troy, sent to the island by the goddess Diana, who foretells his victory over the indigenous giants there.  The last of these giants to die (as we hear dramatized in a reading from the text by Wilkinson) is hurled from the “Giant’s Leap” by one of Brutus’ soldiers — who happens to be named Corineus.  That giant’s name in the text is Gogmagog.

The rest of our story, getting from these two names to the two figures represented at the London Guildhall and Lord Mayor’s Show is a bit complicated.  It’s best listened to in the show, where you’ll also hear how the first offspring born on Britain were the product of exiled female criminals from Troy and incubi — another bit of the fable unfolded in Monmoth’s  Regum Britanniae.