Category: seduction

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 Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

As a special Valentine’s episode, we present collection of folk songs known as “sweetheart murder ballads.”  We begin with two newer songs dating to the 19th century, “On the Banks of the Ohio” and “Down in the Willow Garden.”  While considered American songs and first documented in Appalachia, these ballads appear to borrow elements from older European songs.

One of the most widely known murder ballads, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” like most of songs in this program, was first recorded in America in the 1920s.  We hear a snippet of that early (1927) recording by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and a longer cut narrating the murder itself from a 1969 recording by Porter Waggoner.

While “Banks of the Ohio” has the murderer stabbing his love and disposing of her body in the river, “Down in the Willow Garden,” throws in some poisoning to boot. One of the versions of this song we hear excerpted is from an excellent 1956 album by the Kossoy Sisters, Bowling Green, one we’ve previously sampled in our Butcher Lore episode for which the Kossoys sang about the butchering of a giant ram (“The Darby Ram”).  We hear a snippet of the first recording of this song (also from 1927) by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter.  This early version takes as its title, the victim’s name  “Rose Conley,” an Irish family name, suggesting that the song has obscure roots in that country.

The Scottish song “The Banks of Red Roses” shares a similarity with  “Willow Garden” in its garden setting.  Both highlighting the role a beautiful but remote environment can play in a deadly seduction.  We hear a 1962 version by the Scottish singer Jean Redpath, along with snippets by other artists.

Our next song, “The Lone Green Valley” or “The Jealous Lover” takes us back to America with an early recording from 1926 by Vernon Dalhart.  Following a similar narrative to our other songs, this song was the subject of a painting by American muralist Thomas Hart Benton.  We also hear a strange bit of gossip related to Benton’s interest in folk music involving Jackson Pollack, of all people.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Ballad of the Jealous Lover"
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Ballad of the Jealous Lover”

Our next song, “Knoxville Girl,” is an American update of a British and Irish song with roots going back to around 1700.  We begin with a version by The Louvin Brothers from 1956 and work our way to earlier songs from Great Britain where the song goes by “The Oxford Girl,” or in Ireland, “The Wexford Girl,” along with other names and localities, including “Ickfield Town,” the title of a 2005 version we hear from John Kirkpatrick.  The story in these is similar to “Banks of the Ohio” and “Willow Garden,” but with a bludgeoning substituting for a stabbing.  The song also adds a scene depicting the murderer returning home after his crime to night of guilt-ridden tossing in bed surrounded by imaginary hellfire.  The killer is also confronted upon his return by his mother, who notices blood on his clothing, which the killer excuses as the result of a nosebleed.

This odd details of the nosebleed can be traced, along with other elements of the song, to a 1685 broadsheet entitled “The Bloody Miller,” which makes the killer a miller’s apprentice (while other songs employ him as a butcher’s apprentice.)  In the broadsheet, the nosebleed does not occur upon the killer’s return home, but in court as his guilty verdict is handed down, and is presented as a supernatural omen confirming his guilt.

This notion of a supernatural disclosure of the guilty killer brings us to another group of lesser known murder songs, including the 19th-century Irish ballad “The Old Oak Tree,” a particularly gory tale, which includes not only a murder but the graphically described disinterment of a corpse and a suicide.

Our next song, a 19th-century Scottish ballad “Young Benjie,” gives us a different kind of murder (being thrown into a waterfall) and has the ghost of the murdered lover appearing at her own wake to demand a very particular and gruesome form of punishment for her killer.  We hear a bit of 2012 version of the song by Rosaleen Gregory.

Our last song was popularized by a 1996 version by Nick Cave with P.J. Harvery: “Henry Lee.” Older versions of the song go by other names including “Love Henry,” “Earl Richard,” “Young Hunting,” and “The False Lady.” This one is also from Scotland of the early 19th century.  The Appalachian adaptation (the version sung by Nick Cave) omits a more detailed opening describing Henry Lee (or Richard) as an early come in from hunting as well as a more elaborate role played by the bird witness — one which involves the recovery of the victim’s body and identification of the killer by supernatural means.  There is also a final verse about the cruel justice served upon the killer. Along the way we learn of a quite peculiar superstition related to the bodies of the drowned and hear a snippet of an unusual 2008 cover of the song by Jodie Holland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#27 Lilith and the Breeding of Demons

#27 Lilith and the Breeding of Demons

Our episode continues from our last with more terrors of the night, the incubi, sucubi, and the most notorious succubus, Lilith — and the breeding of demons

"Burney Relief" formerly thought to represent Lilith.
“Burney Relief” formerly thought to represent Lilith.

We begin with a quick nod to the shoddy treatment the topic of the incubus has received in films, as represented by the 1981 misfire, Incubus.  From there, we jump to the Middle Ages, clarifying with a quick quote from Claxton’s Chronicle, the role of the succubus as seducer of men, and the incubus as threat to females.  A few words from St. Augustine make clear a connection with other pagan figures with lecherous reputations, and a quote from King Jame’s Daemonologie offers a more innovative notion that the incubus and succubus are two faces of the same demon.  Each fulfills what Augustine sees as the purpose of the paired demons — the succubus to collect the male’s semen and the incubus to convey this to the human female.

The offspring of these demonic/human pairings (with infants nursed by the succubi) are called “cambions” by the demonic-obsessed imagination clerics, but in secular folklore are virtually “changelings.”  We hear of some legendary cambions, including Merlin, the hero Hagen of the Völsung saga, and Alexander the Great (the last in a tale related by Wilkinson).

Amulet protecting infants from Lilith.
Amulet protecting infants from Lilith.

There follows another nod to the cinema’s sleazy representation of the succubi and Lilith (films linked below).  From there, we make a brief survey of Lilith in high culture, in Michelangelo’s “Temptation” mural depicting her in the Garden of Eden on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, her brief appearance at the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust, and the outrageous portrayal of Lilith and Satan in the “un-performable” Decadent play of 1891, Lilith, by Remy de Gourmont.

Michelangelo's "Temptation" with Lilith as Serpent
Michelangelo’s “Temptation” with Lilith as Serpent

Our look at the more ancient history of the figure begins with an Old Testament reference to Lilith as a denizen of an enemy kingdom reduced to a haunted desert wasteland by Yahweh in the book of Isaiah.  The Hebrews, we learn, borrowed the figure of the child-snatching, murderous, Lilith from the Babylonians/Akkadian storm and wind spirits known as the lilitu.  An individualized and somewhat elevated specimen of this class seems to be the demi-goddess Lamashtu, whom we hear fearfully described in Wilkinson’s reading of an ancient hymn to this destroyer who shares many traits with the Hebrew Lilith.  We also learn of a Lamashtu’s second-hand connection to the 1973 film The Exorcist.

After a quick look at Lilith’s later appearance in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we medieval Jewish legends. including The Alphabet of Ben Sirach, which first cast Lilith as Adam’s first wife, the Midrash Abkir, which described Lilith’s rape of Adam and their breeding of demons, and finally references to Lilith’s marriage to the demonic archangel Samael, in The Zohar and Treatise on the Left Emanation, a powerful pairing sometimes referred to darkly as “the other god.”  We also find out about other legends with placed Lilith in a harem of wives belonging to Samael, including the demonesses Agrat bat Mahlat and Isheth Zenunim.  Wilkinson provides us with a final, dramatic narrative  from The Zohar describing the seduction and damnation of a foolish man at the hands of Lilith.

The show closes with an examination of the 1966 film, Incubus, starring William Shatner (before he was Captain Kirk). We learn about the curious decision to shoot the film in the artificial language of Esperanto and the alleged “curse” that haunted the production.

Clips from films used in the episode but not mentioned above include: Serpent’s Lair, Succubus: Hell Bent, But Deliver Us from Evil, Lilith, Lilith’s Awakening, Evil Angel, and The Chosen.