Next show: Monday, July 23. (We’re going 3 weeks instead of 2 this time because July has 5 Mondays.) The topic: “DREADFUL SHIPS,” including ghost ships, ships piloted by the Devil, and more!
In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”
The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.
Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben. The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.
We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain. Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs. Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.
Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284. The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.
A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining — explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance. We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.
Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy. Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors. We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.
The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.
Midsummer pagan celebration scene from Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev about the Russian icon painter. Entire scene with haunting Ovchinnikov score in the clip.
As June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist approaches, the folklore of decapitation suggested itself as an appropriate theme for this episode. We begin by way of an old English children’s rhyme and game, “Oranges and Lemons” based on melody played by the bells of St. Clemens church in London. The rhyme ends with the couplet:
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop of your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead
… which should explain our inclusion here. We hear this melody (played by local bagpipers) during a procession in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man. In the film,the tune accompanies a mock beheading game that the director borrowed from a traditional sword dance, one particularly well preserved in the south Yorkshire town of Grenoside.
We then review the John the Baptist story, how Salome offers a very pleasing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to King Herod, receiving in gratitude for the performance, a reward of her choosing, Thanks to Salome’s mother, Herodias, the reward chosen is the head of John the Baptist’s. We learn a bit more Herodias, and hear a delightful tale (or tales) of divine punishment she received as well as her late medieval association with the folklore of witchcraft.
Next we move on the to the discussion of cephalaphores, or saints who suffer decapitation but stubbornly refuse to die, instead traipsing about holding their severed heads. We discuss the cephalaphores St. Denis, St. Edmund (who’s head was guarded by a remarkably tame wolf) and St. Winifred, better known for her holy well.
As it turns out, holy wells, which are particularly prominent in Wales, are also associated with severed human heads — more often than one might expect. Some examples and a likely a explanation are offered, and we learn which holy well until recently afforded the visitor the opportunity to employ a saintly skull as a dipper.
Wouldn’t you know it but the topic of magic wells and heads somehow brings us back to The Wicker Man as we learn about a connection between a song in the film and a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama rich in songs, spells, and fairy stories.
We then return to head-chopping games, and one suggested by a mysterious green stranger who appears at King Arthur’s Christmas feast in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Also mentioned is a cinematic treatment of the tale, 1984’s Sword of the Valiant, featuring Sean Connery in an outlandish costume that almost gives his wardrobe in Zardoz a run for its money.
Even though it’s already well known, it seemed wrong to omit Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its headless horseman. Wilkinson seemed particularly eager to discuss it, so we leave that to him (with more than a little help in the sound effects department.)
Scotland offers our next two stories, one which tells of a sort of headless horseman of the Highlands (and some fortune-telling butter) and the other of Mary Queen of Scots badly botched beheading.
Then it’s back to Wales for the story of Bran the Blessed, a mythological king, whose (not quite dead) head was quite the entertainer and ended up buried under the Tower of London once it shut up. The execution of Anne Boleyn also gets a nod with macabre ditty from 1934 about her headless ghost.
If you find yourself horrified by the obsession with heads and head-chopping in these Celtic nations, you are not alone. Classical writers also were appalled by decapitation fixations of the northern tribes. We hear some choice words on the subject, read by Wilkinson. We also learn about a bizarre super-weapon employed by Celtic warriors — “brain balls” — and how they figure into a story of a newly converted Celtic chieftain.
The Germanic tribes too had a loose head or two in their mythology. Hear the story of Mimir, whose decapitated head Odin preserved and relied upon for counsel.
We close the show with some talk of magicians (an alchemist and a supposedly wicked pope) who created their own “brazen heads” intended to likewise offer advice or prognostication.
Episodes 6-7 are in the works. Stay tuned!
Folklore of the decapitated. Celtic head-hunting. Magic heads.
“It is 100 Years Since Our Children Left”
A historical mystery. Dancing to death. A wicked bishop.
We follow our previous episode on the god Pan with a second this week, delving even deeper into the creative and bizarre ways the figure has been embraced after his much publicized “death.”
Our first several minutes are devoted to literary explorations of Pan in the decades around World War I. Naturally we examine only writers providing the more fantastic or horrific examples, including the creator of the high fantasy genre Anglo-Irish writer Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron Dunsany (aka Lord Dunsany). In The Blessings of Pan, he imagines ancient rites to Pan resurrected in the England of his day. If you like what you hear, you might want to have listen to another one of his stories narrated by Vincent Price here.
Wilkinson also provides us a reading from “The Music on the Hill,” by writer Hector Munro, who wrote under the name “Saki”. There is a spoiler in the reading, but it’s pleasingly grisly. We make up for the spoilage by providing you this additional unsettling, darkly comic (to us) story by Saki, one in which a defiant young boy decides to provoke his caretaker by creating a religion around his ferret, whom he names “Sredni Vashtar.” As it turns out, the ferret proves to be a dreadfully vindictive god.
But I digress.
As it turns out, the idea of a return to pagan Pan worship in the Christian era written about by Dunsany and others, may be more than simply a matter of fiction. Our next segment deals with such a case. In 18th-century England, in the town of Painswick, England, a member of the gentry, one Benjamin Hyett, was known to have built “an Arcadian retreat” featuring a building known as “Pan’s Lodge.” You can have a look here at a contemporaneous painting of the lodge grounds and Hyett’s statue (one of two — the other met a curious fate).
Hyett eventually brought the entire community around to join in these rites to Pan. The story grows more complex and curious as these rites are resurrected roughly a century later by a priest who, as we learn, had some intriguing notions about their meaning and origin. Entangled within this story are other local oddities of Painswick culture, including a dish known as “Puppy Dog Pie,” and a practice known as “clipping the church” or “church clipping,” in which members of the congregation join hands and perambulate their place of worship.
Somehow we then arrive at the topic of Lupercalia, the Roman festival involving priests dressed in nothing chasing the Roman woman through the streets with whips. Oddly enough this topic brings us back to Arcadia, home of Pan.
Lupercalia brings us to some interesting myths and tales related to the Arcadian festival Lykaia and King Lycaon, whom Zeus transformed into a wolf (history’s first werewolf, some would say.) Find out what loathsome act drove Zeus to take this action as Wilkinson provides another excellent reading from Ovid.
A bit more ancient Greek werewolf lore, a ghastly story about Pan and his ill-fated pursuit of the nymph Echo, and we end up — of all places — on Summerisle, that is, talking again about The Wicker Man, as we are wont to do. Somehow, the Wicker Man leads us back to Pan. You’l have to just trust me on this.
Benjamin Hyett, was not alone in resurrecting the notion of Pan worship. We find religious devotion to Pan and other pagan nature spirits (as well as inexplicably thriving vegetables) at Northern Scotland’s Findhorn Community. Some clips from a 1973 BBC show make clear their roots in the hippy culture of the era, giving us a bit of background before we meet Findhorn’s primary acolyte of Pan, Robert Ogilvie Crombie (aka ROC). His encounters with Pan in 1970s Edinburgh bring up an interesting point about the difficulties of directly encountering Pan. And naturally, this brings us to our next and final topic.
Arthur Machen’s 1890 horror novel, The Great God Pan was highly influential not only to Lovecraft, but other writers in his circle, and in general on the genre variously identified as “weird fiction” or “cosmic horror.” Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, and Arthur C. Clarke have all praised the story. Stephen King has called it “one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.”
Once again Wilkinson provides a couple readings of wonderfully morbid passages from the book complete with the usual Bone and Sickle audio ambiance.
We go out with the song “The Great God Pan” from the soundtrack to Mondo Hollywood, a 1967 a documentary in the “mondo” style presenting a mix of LA celebrities and countercultural oddballs, heavy on the oddballs.
Just finished next Monday’s episode (6/4) in which we continue the discussion of Pan — along the way covering a bit about the origin of werewolf mythology, a classic horror novel in the Lovecraftian mode, a 1970s nature spirit cult, possible Pan worship in 18th-century England, and a fellow known to talk to Pan in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Garden. And MORE Wilkinson airtime!
The devilish appearance of the Greek god Pan has fascinated artists, occultists, and others straying from the path for centuries. This episode begins with some tales of Pan in his natural habitat of Arcadia, how the Greeks, and later Romans, saw him, and some of his central myths — what tragedy resulted in the creation of panpipes and what did that naughty “happy to see me” phallus signify? And his much publicized death during the reign of Tiberius Caesar; what did that mean to the evolving Christian world?
Like Mark Twain, said of his own demise, reports of Pan’s death seem greatly exaggerated.
The Romantics embraced Pan as a symbol of a lost but harmonious pastoral past, while figures in the 19th-century Occult Revival began to celebrate him in a different way, one based, on similarities between Pan and the iconography of the Christian Devil. Tracing the figure of Satan directly back to Pan, however, presents difficulties — including technical difficulties in this episode. We apologize for any disruptions and are working to ensure that our production process in future offers more robust resistance to demonic influence.
The culture of the Victorian and Edwardian era was particularly obsessed with Pan. A particularly sinister example of this would be found in Aleister Crowley, who declared his “Hymn to Pan” the “most powerful enchantment ever written.” We learn its dark origins, a scandal it caused at the Great Beast’s funeral, and even have a listen to a snippet — a rare and dramatic recording made in 1987 during aThelemic ceremony in which Pan is invoked using Crowley’s text.
Also discussed is Pan’s role in Wicca and his relationship/rivalry with Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter, as well as the influence individuals like the writer Margaret Murray and Wicca’s grandaddy Gerald Gardner exercised on this.
We lighten up a bit with the story of the eccentric “Priest of Pan” from the town of Millinocket, Maine, and how he made the news in 2016.
On the other side of Edwardian culture there were writers like J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows) who exhibited a more benign fascination with the the pagan god. But even here, we trace some dark roots.
We’ll also learn something of H.P. Lovecraft’s childhood devotion to Pan and other Greek gods. Somehow Lovecraft seems to hover around the fringes of this episode, and particularly the next.
Finally we arrive in Neverland with a brief exploration of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, learning something of the troubled life of the author who gave birth to the character.
We end the show with something creepy, some news reporters talking about a haunted bridge in Kentucky. Yes, it has something to do with Pan. A bit.
A NOTE ON MUSIC: The music you hear beneath the narration on “Bone and Sickle” consists almost entirely of original compositions. In this and the following episode, however, you may hear a percussion loop sampled from — LVDI SCÆNICI (“Ludi Scaenici” or “stage games”), an interesting Italian group recreating the music of ancient Rome. Listeners may enjoy checking out more of their work, such as this video of one of their performances.
An interesting visitor! Pan? Satan? Meet him in the next episode of “Bone and Sickle” uploading Monday, 5/21. (Painting by Jakob Jordaens, 1620)
May 21: “Crowley in Neverland”
June 4: “The Great God Pan”
June 18: “Lost Heads”
Normally, episodes come out every 2 weeks on Mondays. The first episode was officially scheduled for April 30, which might have you looking for a May 14 release, but because we gave you three shows all at once, the first is May 21. We’ll post more upcoming show topics as we get them cleared for takeoff.