Tag: Classical Mythology

#25 Death by Mother

#25 Death by Mother

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

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

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

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

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

Cihuateteo sculpture
Cihuateteo sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.

 

 

#13: Ancient Necromancy

#13: Ancient Necromancy

Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
Episode 5: The Great God Pan

Episode 5: The Great God Pan

 

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.

Lord Dunsany wrote The Blessings of Pan in 1928.
Lord Dunsany wrote The Blessings of Pan in 1928.

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).

The statue at Hyett's "Pan's Lodge in Painswick. Background: contemporary painting of grounds.
The statue from “Pan’s Lodge in Painswick. Background: contemporary painting of grounds.

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.

Clipping the church. Painting by W. W. Wheatley in 1848
Clipping the church. Painting by W. W. Wheatley in 1848

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.

Detail: Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei. 1635.
Detail: Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei. 1635.

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.

Detail: More details Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf. Hendrik Goltzius. 1589.
Detail: Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf. Hendrik Goltzius. 1589.

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.

Early Findhorn meditation circle and book by ROC.
Early Findhorn meditation circle and book by ROC.

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.

Episode 4: Crowley in Neverland

Episode 4: Crowley in Neverland

 

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?

 

Detail of "Spring Evening" by Arnold Böcklin, 1879.
Detail of “Spring Evening” by Arnold Böcklin, 1879.

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.

Aleister Crowley as Baphomet. 1918
Aleister Crowley as Baphomet. 1918

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.

Modern “Priest of Pan.” Photo courtesy of Lewis Sun Journal.

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.

First edition cover of Wind in the Willows.

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.

1911 edition of “Peter and Wendy”
1906 edition of “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens”

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.

Haunted bridge near Louisville, KY. Photo: SFGate.

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.