Category: pagan

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-Women of Greece and Russia

Bird-women hybrids of Greek legend and Russian folklore are uniquely ambivalent, sometimes bringing death and destruction and at others, prophetic wisdom and the joy of Paradise.

The two Greek species we treat are sirens and harpies, both at times described as having the bodies of birds and faces or upper bodies of human females.

Beginning with harpies — we hear a bit of audio from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which features a pair of stop-motion harpies created by Ray Harryhausen.  While these are more batlike than birdlike, the animator’s tendency to conflate features is actually in line with various classical tales, which tend to disagree sometimes offering winged harpies, others not, and if birdlike, not necessarily featuring the heads of women. We hear some of these descriptions  read by Mrs. Karswell.

harpy
Harpy from Joannes Jonstonus publication Historiae naturalis de avibus (1657)

As for sirens, while today they are regarded as equivalent to mermaids, originally they were bird-human hybrids.  Thanks to the siren’s connection to the sailors they would seduce, an intuitive shift from bird to fishlike portrayals seems natural, but did not occur until late antiquity or the early medieval period.  It seems likely that once this transition occurred the harpy’s image consolidated around the birdlike form no longer associated with the siren. Unlike the creature’s form, the siren’s song, which drew sailors to wreck their ships upon the rocks, has always been a defining attribute of the creature.

There’s something of a disconnect between ancient siren and harpy narratives and the creatures’ representation in visual art, with some of their traits more fixed in the latter than the former. In particular, sirens and harpies, along with other hybrids such as the griffin and sphinx, first appear in Greek culture as decorative embellishments on household items.  These monsters, as discussed, were borrowings from cultures of the East, with the human-headed Egyptian ba bird being a likely origin for our avian figures.

Funerary statue of a siren, 4th C BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The behavior of these creatures is primarily known from two ancient texts.  In the third century BC, the behavior of harpies was defined by Apollonius Rhodius’s in his epic The Argonautica, while the actions of sirens were codified in Homer’s Odyssey from the 8th century BC.

The episode from the Argonautica involves the harpies suddenly descending from the sky to torment a the prophet Phineus, repeatedly sent by Zeus to snatch away his food.

Better known is Homer’s episode describing Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the siren song as his crew sails near, their ears providently plugged with wax. What’s not as often remembered, however, is the nature of the siren’s song, which promises not sexual reward, but omniscience.

The sirens’ offer to share the knowledge of the gods, and the danger inherent in hearing their song finds a precise parallel in narratives about the Russian bird-women we discuss, namely the Alkonost, Sirin, and Gamayun, all of which are said to reside in Paradise, or the realm of the dead. They are portrayed like the harpies and sirens as having the bodies of birds and human heads or heads and breasts but with the addition of crowns or halos.

The Alkonost and Sirin are said to be sisters, inevitably appearing as a complimentary pair in art and folk-tales, with the Alkonost presiding over the daylight hours, and the Sirin the night, the Alkonost bringing joy,  the Sirin sorrow, etc.  While the Alkonost is generally made the more positive symbol, both birds, through their song, can produce dangerous results. The song of the Alkonost shares a knowledge or experience of the divine that can induce ecstatic madness or a deathlike trance state.  The same could be said for the Sirin, though in some instances it’s said to more literally said to abduct mortals into the afterlife.

"Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow" Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
“Sirin and Alkonost. The Birds of Joy and Sorrow” Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896

While the Sirin obviously derives its name from the Greek sirens, the Alkonost too has its origins in Greek mythology, specifically in the myth of the lovers Alcyone and Ceyx, the former lending her name (in Russian derivation) to the Alkonost.

For her effrontery of comparing their love to that of the gods, Alcyone (or sometimes both Alcyone and Ceyx) are transformed into birds, specifically kingfishers.  As a bird, Alcyone was said by Roman writers to lay her eggs during a five-day period in the winter during which the winds are calmed — a source of our word, “halycon,” meaning a calm or happy interlude.

The Alkonost likewise is said to lay its eggs in the ocean during an interval during which the seas are calm, and is therefore associated with control over the weather. Superstitions found not only in Russia but further afield in Europe associate the kingfisher and dried kingfisher bodies used as charms to predict the weather.

The Sirin and Alkonost were also assimilated into Russia’s Christian culture, sometimes shown perched upon trees in Eden or as representations of the Holy Spirit.  We hear of a particularly strange Russian tradition involving the bird-women called “Apple Savior,” involving the blessing of apples, Christ’s transfiguration in the Bible, and the singing of the Sirin and Alkonost, as well as a folktale involving the lovers Kostroma and Kupelo associated with the summer solstice and St. John’s Night.

The song of the Gamayun, like that of the Alkonost and Sirin, is a form of divine language though is less likely to be destructively overpowering and more associated with prophecy and happiness.  For this reason, the creature, is also referred to as “The Bird of Happiness” or “The Bird of Prophecy.”

The Gamayun is also often said to have no legs as it is strictly a creature of the air or heavens and never lands.  The source of this belief is actually related to a peculiar trade in preserved bird charms, as explained in detail.

The show winds down with some appearances of the Russian bird-women in 19th and 20th-century art, music, and film, including the 1897 opera Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov, a musical treatment of a folkloric  adventurer, merchant, and gusli-player from Novgorod.  We hear a bit of the opera’s most famous aria often called “The Song of India” describing the exotic land where the Bird of Happiness may be found.

Our final segment is about Sadko, a 1952 cinematic adaptation of the opera by “the Soviet Walt Disney,” Aleksandr Ptushko, a film repackaged by Roger Corman in 1963 for American screenings as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

From "Sadko" (1952)
From “Sadko” (1952)

 

 

 

 

The 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!

 

 

 

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.

 

Banshees

Banshees

Banshees are spirits of Irish folklore, who warn of impending deaths.  Originally considered fairies, their Irish name, bean sídhe, means “woman of the mounds,” those mounds (sídhe) being the ancient burial mounds believed in Ireland to be the home of fairies.

The banshee’s wailing, which betokens imminent death of a blood relative, is probably based upon the wailing of Irish mourners called “keeners,” from the Irish word caoineadh, or “lament.”  You can hear some snippets of traditional keeners in this segment, incliuding  a 1957 field recording released by Smithsonian Folkways.

Next we look at how the banshee’s appearance and behavior derives in part from that of Irish keeners, including some odd details having to do with petticoats.  Her origins in the fairy world also has often suggested that she may be small of stature.  We also examine some folktales involving combs lost by or stolen from banshees, and what you should or should not do should you find one.

While the banshee is attached strictly to particular families, she is not bound to the Emerald Isle.  We hear some accounts of her following travelers to other countries, including a surprising tale involving a party aboard an Italian yacht.

The figure, as she’s known today, receives no mention in print until the 17th century.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us what is probably the earliest account, retelling an incident experienced by Lady and Sir Richard Fanshawe, an English ambassador and his wife visiting Ireland.

This account also introduces the notion that a banshee may not originate in the fairy world, but may also be a vengeful ghost.  We hear another tale in this mode associated with Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, a location known for its “banshee room,” a feature duplicated in Shane’s Castle, about an hour to the south.  Both of these castle banshees are sometimes called “the red sisters,” so named for the color of their hair.

After a brief side trip to make note of figures similar to the banshee in Scotland (the caoineag) and Wales, the cyhyraeth and gwrach y rhibyn, we turn to older figures of the fairy realm regarded as banshees, but rather different from the figure born in the Early Modern Period.

The first of these is Clíodna, who was known as the queen of the banshees of southern Ireland, particularly the province of Munster. Unlike the modern banshee, a solitary figure who does little more than wail and make those well-timed appearances, Clíodna engages in romantic affairs, including a romantic rivalry with her banshee sister Aoibhell, a matter culminating in a magical battle with both transformed into cats.

Aoibhell also appears in an important story about Brian Boru, founder of the O’Brian Dynasty, whose army defeats an alliance of Vikings and Irish lords fought at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin in 1014. While Boru’s forces are victorious, he and his son are visited by Aoibhell, who heralds their deaths not with a wail, but music played on her harp from the fairy world.  We hear a similar story about the Irish hero and demi-god Cúchulainn encoutering Aoibhell as a death omen.

Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan' Dargent, oil,
Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan’ Dargent, oil,

Cúchulainn also encounters a banshee-like figure of the type folklorists call, “the Washer at the Ford,” or in Celtic regions elsewhere, like Celtic Britanny, “the Midnight Washer.”  The figures appear at lonely bodies of water washing bloody shrouds, or often armor, as they are particularly inclined to predict the deaths of soldiers and armies. We hear a particularly splendid account of one such figure from the 12th-century Triumphs of Torlough — one, which in its generous use of horrific adjectives sounds as if it were written by H.P. Lovecraft.

The episode ends with a quick look at a couple cinematic bamshees, including one which has earned a place in the nightmares of children encountering it in the 1950s-70s.  The two movies we hear bits of are Damned by Dawn and Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Banshee from "Darby O'Gill"
Banshee from “Darby O’Gill”

 

 

 

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.)

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Drowned in Blood: Butcher Lore

Our seasonal look at butcher lore begins with the slaughter of an immense ram as related in the centuries-old English song, “The Derby Ram” (AKA “The Darby Ram”).  In the lyric, a butcher and his boy assistant are “washed away in the blood,” giving us our episode’s title.  The song is roughly enacted in an old Christmas folk play from Derbyshire, “Old Tup” (an old local word for “ram.”)  We hear a montage of snippets of the song from The Kossoy Sisters, John Kirkpatrick, John Roberts, and Matt Williams.

A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.
A photograph of Old Tup at Handsworth, taken pre-1907.

While the 19th-century trend among folklorist to view mummer’s plays like this as vestiges of ancient pagan rites is no longer accepted, the notion does suggest our next topic: a Germanic emphasis on sacrifice during the month of November, which the Anglo-Saxons called Blod-monath (“month of sacrifice.”)  We look at the Scandinavian yuleblót marking the beginning of Winter and its connection to Freyr and his sister Freyja, both symbolized by boars or swine sacrificed in this rite.  Along the way, we hear Mrs. Karswell read a famous 11th-century account by the chronicler Adam of Bremen describing particularly spectacular sacrifices said to be offered in the ancient temple that once stood outside Uppsala, Sweden. We also touch upon the Anglo Saxon Modranicht or “Night of the Mothers,” which was celebrated on Christmas Eve.

Next we discuss the slaughter of swine, November’s traditional “Labor of the Month”among medieval peasantry.  Its aristocratic equivalent is the boar hunt carried out in November and December.  We have a look at the serving of boar’s head at Christmas among the nobility and  hear a snippet of the medieval Boar’s Head Carol as well as a whimsical tale told at Oxford supposedly explaining how the boar’s head custom arrived at Queen’s College.

November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500
November Labor of the Month from Parisian Book of Hours, c. 1490-1500

The particular day most traditionally associated with the slaughtering of animals for the Winter (and the old day regarded as the beginning of winter) is November 11, St. Martin’s Day.  We hear of a strange St Martin’s custom associated with the slaughter of beef in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the 17th-century and of the magical use of blood from fowl slaughtered on this day in Sweden and Ireland.  Our “meaty” segment ends with a bit of the comic song “A Nice Piece of Irish Pig’s Head.”

A tradition in Lower Bavaria fixes December 21, St. Thomas Day, as the date for dispatching swine  and is associated with the appearance  a demon or ogre by the name of “Bloody Thomas.”  We hear a description of a cruel and/or amusing 19th-century prank played on children on this day.

Next we look at the legend of “St. Nicholas and the Three Schoolboys,” which has an unsettling connection to our gory theme.  A clip from a French song from the 16th century ‘”La légende de Saint Nicolas“” is included as is a story of the Alsatian bogeyman, Père Fouettard, an equivalent of the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht said to be related to this particular Nicholas legend.

From 14th century Scotland, comes the story of butcher from the town of Perth who famously turned to cannibalism. Born Andrew Christie, he is better known as “Christie Cleek,” from an old Scottish word for “hook,” an implement important in his grisly deeds.

We close the show with a look at Sawney Bean, Scottish leader of a incestuous cannibal clan believed to be a legendary reworking of the more historically based tale of Christie Cleek.

Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
Sawney Bean, 18th-century colored engraving.
#31 Baba Yaga

#31 Baba Yaga

This episode explores the Russian witch, the Baba Yaga, tales in which she appears, possible origins, and regional variations on the character.

We begin by retelling one of the skazi (folk tales) in which she’s particularly well-definined, “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a version recorded in the mid-1800s by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, Russia’s answer to the Brothers Grimm, .

Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899
Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899

Without spoiling the story, I can say that it bears some parallels to “Cinderella,” with a wicked stepmother and step-sisters grievously imposing on the young Vasilisa and sending her into an encounter with the Baba Yaga.  She is aided in the tale by a magic doll bequeathed her by her dying mother.

Like nearly all Baba Yaga stories, this tale features the witch’s famous house perched atop two immense chicken legs on which it turns to reveal it’s entrance if the proper spell is spoken.  Around the house, in this story as in most others, is a fence made of human bones and topped by skulls.

Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916
Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916

The witch herself is not much described in the text of “Vasilisa,” but in the folklore of the Eastern Slavs, she is generally imagined as an hunchbacked old crone, usually large, and with a large nose, sometimes said to be of iron, as are her teeth sometimes.  She’s also occasionally described as an ogress because of her nasty habit of eating visitors, especially children, or those who fail her when she puts them to work (what she often does with visitors).

 

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911
Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911

“Vasilisa” like nearly every other tale featuring the character, describes the witch flying through the skies in mortar, which she steers with the pestle, an instrument sometimes also used as a club or magic wand. Like western witches, she is often depicted with a cat, but the Baba Yaga may also command a pack of dogs, flock of geese or swans, or even be served by pairs of disembodied hands.

“Baba Yaga” is not quite a proper noun, i.e., her “name,” at least not quite.  It’s a class or type of character, and certain stories feature multiple Baba Yagas.  For this reason too, she may be killed off in a particular story — and often is — only to reappear as presumably different witch in another.

Though she’s most often portrayed as malevolent and dangerous, some tales make her more ambivalent, or occasionally even helpful.  We have a look at the best known examples of this, “The Frog Tzarina” (a story offering a sort of reversal on the “Frog Prince” theme) .

"Baba Yaga" book, 1915
“Baba Yaga” book, 1915

Of the tales that feature the Baba Yaga in a more menacing role, one of the better known is called “Princess Marya” or “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” and it features the witch as a character somewhat peripheral to another important character of Russian folklore, Koschei.  He’s a sorcerer, usually represented as a crowned skeletal figure and known for hiding his soul in the form of a needle within an egg within a duck.  We also hear a bit of another tale featuring a malevolent Baba Yaga, “Little Bear’s-Son,” in which the witch lives in an underworld and battles the titlular character and a trio of giants.

Our quick look at a few examples of the Baba Yaga in music and films includes a piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite Pictures at an Exhibition called “The Baba yaga” or “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”  (Here is the Baba Yaga inspired clock design by Victor Hartmann that inspired the piece.) We hear a bit from that and a snippet of “Baba Yaga,” a 1965 garage-rock number by a Minnesota band called The Pagans.  Speaking of music, our show, opened with a clip from a 1997 track “Baba Yaga” by the Australian singer, Judy Small.  Also used in this  episode are two other traditional pieces of music, “Doina Oltului” (instrumental) and “Khorovod,” an example of ancient pagan round dance music of the Slavs.

Probably the greatest modern popularizer of the figure and huge influence upon how the Baba Yaga is imagined in Russia today is work of filmmaker, Alexander Rou featuring the actor Georgy Millyar.  Beginning in 1939, with a version of “The Frog Tsarina,” and running up to 1972, the year before he died, Rou made over a dozen film inspired by Russian fairy tales.The Baba Yaga appearing in many of these was always portrayed by the cross-dressed Millyar, whose comic performances are one of many reasons to seek out Rou’s films on YouTube.

Millyar as the Baba Yaga
Millyar as the Baba Yaga

While the first mention of the Baba Yaga in print only appears in a 1755 book called Russian Grammar, it’s presumed the figure comes from much older mythology. In fact, while the reference in question, though vague, includes her in a list of Slavic deities.  References to the witch’s control over horsemen representing the sun in “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” for instance, have suggested a possible origin in a solar deity. More likely, given her association with bones and her menacing nature, would  be a connection with Marena,  the Eastern Slavic goddess of death and winter.  The witch’s flights in her mortar, always accompanied by terrible winds, have also suggested connections to the aerial phantoms of what’s called The Wild Hunt in Europe.  Similarly her presence in the sky has suggested a connections with the Fiery Serpent, a figure of Eastern Slavic folklore, often represented by aerial phenomena such as lightning or meteors.  All ideas to chew on.  Nothing definitive, though the strongest association would seem to be with Marena.

We close the show with two tales from our own times, in which the Baba Yaga’s namesake or likeness is responsible for some dreadful deeds.

Elevated mortuary huts, a source of the witch's hut?
Elevated mortuary huts, an inspiration for the witch’s hut?

Bone and Sickle is happy to welcome Sarah Chavez as a new voice in the show this week.

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.

 

 

#16 The Haunted Season

#16 The Haunted Season

Historically, Christmastime in Central Europe was a season haunted by otherworldly spirits, werewolves, ghostly huntsmen, and wandering hordes of lost souls.  This is particularly the case in the Krampus’ homeland of German-speaking Central Europe.

We open with a survey of the various frightful spirits said to be afoot this time of year.  Bavaria, particularly the Bavarian Forest turn out to be particularly rich in such things, menaced by everything from spirits of the forests (Schratzn) and marshes to entities said to reside in mills, and historic castles. Historical figures with unsavory reputations including the legendary cowherd Woidhaus-Mich, Chatelaine Maria Freiin of Castle Rammelsberg and the Bavarian outsider prophet Mühlhiasl of Apoig are said to return as evil spirits this time of year. We hear a brief clip from Werner Herzog’s 1976 production, Heart of Glass, a lovely and peculiar treatment of Mühlhiasl’s story.

Just as the Krampus appears as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas on his feast day (and its eve), we encounter other frightful creatures from German culture said to represent similarly sinister incarnations of other saints celebrated in December. From the Upper Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps, there are the moss-encrusted Bärbele (“Barbaras”), or sometimes “Wild Barbaras,” and throughout Bavaria and Austria, St. Lucy was also inverted on her day (Dec. 13) as the “Luz,” or “ugly Lucy,” an entity particularly hungry for blood and ghastly punishments. We also meet “Bloody Thomas,” a figure appearing on the eve or night of St. Thomas Day, December 21.

19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.
19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.

Next we consider a raft of superstitions associated with the Twelve Nights, or Rauhnächte, a name likely derived from the German word for “smoke” (Rauch) thanks to the use of incense during these nights to dispel evil influences.

Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.
Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.

Of all the terrors unleashed during the nights around Christmas, the most widespread in German-speaking lands were those ghostly hordes in nocturnal processions, dead souls, solemnly walking, or wildly riding, the latter usually going under the name of “Wild Hunt” or “Furious Army.” This mythologem is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even North America, where the spirits appear in cowboy legends, and made their way into the 1940s country-western ballad “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”

Wilkinson reads for us some rather dramatic (and grisly) accounts of this form of apparition from the 16th century, and we hear a variety of accounts emphasizing the weird sounds that were said to accompany the Wild Hunt.

Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano
Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano

A number of figures were presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt, in particular the Germanic god, Odin, whose presence was associated with the superstition all the way into the 1800s as we hear from a newspaper account of the period.

We close the show with some folk tales recounting a similar phenomena in Austria and Switzerland, namely tales of the “Night Folk,” or “Death Folk,” nocturnal hordes whose appearance often heralded death or misfortunes.