Tag Archives: folk custom

#15 Saint, Devil, Sugar-Bread, & Whip: KRAMPUS AND NICHOLAS



The Krampus and St. Nicholas represent a folkloric duality embodying a mode of childrearing the Germans call “sugar-bread and whip” — in English, “carrot and stick.”  In this episode, the first of three exploring the darker folklore of the season, we look at the Krampus’ origins in the old custom of Krampus and Nicholas house-visits and the older Alpine “Nicholas Plays.”

Struwwelpeter: "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.
Struwwelpeter: “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.

We begin our discussion with a consideration of the “sugar-bread and whip” literary example par excellence, Der Struwwelpeter, the 19th-century German children’s book in which “un-groomed Peter,” and other misbehaving children meet dreadful ends.  An clip from a 1955 cinematic version of the story from Germany, and a bit of The Tiger Lillies’ “junk opera,” Shockheaded Peter is included.

Hans Weiditz's "Child Eater"
Hans Weiditz’s “Child Eater”

As the Krampus is, at root, simply a bogeyman, we discuss some early (and ghastly) images of German bogeymen from Carnival broadsides, which might be considered forerunners of the Krampus.  The “Child-Eater Fountain” in Bern, Switzerland, a sculptural rendering of these same figures, is also mentioned.

A soliloquy delivered by a rhyming Krampus in an old 19th-century Alpine “Nicholas play,” introduces us to the figure. The verse is a translation from your host’s book The Krampus and The Old, Dark Christmas, as is much of the material in this episode.

Next we discuss the source of the Krampuslauf (Krampus run) tradition in the old custom of house-visits made by costumed troupes consisting of a St. Nicholas, Krampuses, angel assistants to the saint, and an odd backwoodsy character called Körbelträger (basket carrier).  Part of the visit discussed is  small test of the children’s good character consisting of a performance for St. Nicholas of a memorized poem or song.  A traditional song for this occasion is “Lasst uns froh und munter sein,” which we hear in a clip.  We also hear some background sound effects provided by an excellent video depicting traditional Krampus customs in Austria’s Gastein Valley.

Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour
Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour

We then have a look at ways in which the tradition of Nicholas plays featuring the saint mingled with local pagan folklore of the Perchten, winter spirits of the German-speaking Alps, and hear a number of historic accounts illustrating how this rowdy element worked its ways into the Nicholas customs of centuries gone by.  Various outrageous are documented from drunken Nicholases to actual deaths of performers.

The show concludes with a more in-depth look at these Nicholas plays, including some bawdy slapsticks elements hardly befitting a saint.  Wilkinson delivers a stirring rendition of the “Lucifer Sermon,” a devilish rant, traditionally concluding these plays.

LISTENER NOTE: During our intro segment, we also receive a phone message from Mark Norman of The Folklore Podcast responding to the ongoing dilemma of the phantom cat, which seems to be haunting the Bone and Sickle studio-library.  (Listeners who have not yet tuned in to the Folklore Podcast, should also watch for Mr. Ridenour upcoming appearance on the show, in which he discusses some pagan aspects of the Krampus myth not covered elsewhere.)


#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children



Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14
Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.

 


Episode 2: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 2



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In our second episode on the grim folklore of Walpurgisnacht — that is May Eve or April 30, St. Walburga’s day — we meet Walburga, the saint whose name was attached to what was likely a pre-existing pagan holiday.

St. Walpurga with a vial of her holy bone-drippings.
St. Walpurga with a vial of her holy bone-drippings.

While the saint’s bones for centuries have been said to be the source of a miraculously curative oil, namesake children dedicated to her have a significantly less holy reputation, with Walburga Oesterreich being a particularly notorious example known for her involvement in a bizarre murder we’ll briefly discuss.

More practices associated with Walpurgisnacht are provided by the highly influential, if a bit outdated, armchair anthropologist Sir James Frazer, of Golden Bough.   The association between this day dedicated to the obscure German saint and witchcraft becomes clear as we examine the many prophylactics against evil spirits afoot on the occasion. Listen close so you know what to do with the black and red spotted hemlock!  Keep that bonfire stoked…

“So far as the light of the bonfire reaches, so far will a blessing rest on the fields.”

Frazer's The Golden Bough, 1936.
Frazer’s The Golden Bough, 1936.

Then we jump into real nexus of that association between witchcraft and Walpurgisnacht, that is, the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which not only established the night as a notorious witches’ sabbath, but also did much to localize to Germany’s Blocksberg (or Brocken) mountain.  A Cliff Notes encapsulation of the witches sabbath scene is rather flippantly re-enacted for your audio enjoyment, wherein you will hear this oft quoted passage from Goethe:

Now, to the Brocken, the witches ride;
The stubble is gold, the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Master Urian will come to preside.
So over the valleys, our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Theatrical poster for Faust. Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich
Theatrical poster for Faust. Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich
At the witches' sabbath. Eugène DELACROIX -plate 15 from Faust, 1828
At the witches’ sabbath. Eugène DELACROIX -plate 15 from Faust, 1828

We discuss the mythology of witches and mountains a bit more generally, surveying a few other German mountains upon which or within which lost souls and dabblers in witchcraft are said to play or reside.  Then we get into some details on the Blocksberg relationship to witches, and the 1688 book which spread the reputation of the Blocksberg  and inspired Goethe. Herein we are provided with many useful specifics such as the manner of transport the witches use to reach the mountain.  Among the methods catalogued: flying with the assistance magic salves or on brooms, shovels, or pitchforks.  Or on flying animals: goats, calves, wolves, Cats and dogs are listed.  I don’t think it says how the animals can fly.

Along the way, we learn how specific features of the landscape on and around the Brocken have developed their own mythologies and associations.  Such tales have always drawn the curious, and Walpurgisnacht tourism associated with this mountain, and indeed the whole legend-rich Harz mountain region wherein the Brocken lies, has grown over the centuries, as attested to by artifacts like the postcards collected below.

Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.

While the ominous reputation of the mountain may have lost something in our present day, modern celebrations of Walpurgisnacht are nothing if not enthusiastic… (Below, the “gone viral” video mentioned in the episode.)

Then there’s the Brocken Specter, a weird optical phenomenon that takes its name from the mountain.  It appears in low-hanging clouds or mist as a huge, looming, elongated shadowy encircled by a rainbow halo and is caused by the sun behind human figure projecting a shadow on the clouds when atmospheric conditions.  More than all my babbling in the podcast, videos like the one below may convey some of its eerie effect…

Last but not least we have a look at paranormal researcher and prankster/publicity hound Harry Price and his shenanigans atop the Blocksberg in 1932.  A photo from his highly theatrical reenactment of “The Blocksberg Tryst,” a 15th-century Walpurgisnacht ritual supposedly once conducted on the mountain with miraculous results below…

Harry Price's Brocken experiment
Harry Price’s Brocken experiment

NOTE: My apologies to all listeners for an uncorrected mispronunciation in Episode 2, namely the hard “G” in the name of the talking Mongoose “Gef” investigated by paranormalist Harry Price.  Apparently, the animal informed witnesses that his name was “Jeff,” but was not very good at spelling when called upon to spell it out.  You can find more on Gef from our friends at The Folklore Podcast.

Contemporary press coverage of the "talking" mongoose.
Contemporary press coverage of the “talking” mongoose.

Episode 1: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 1



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Episode One of BONE & SICKLE is the first half of a two-parter about May Eve, Beltane, or as the Germans call it, Walpurgisnacht (“Walpurgis night“)  the night of St. Walburga, that and oh so much more!

Nearing the Borgo Pass. Tod Browning's Dracula.
Nearing the Borgo Pass. Tod Browning’s Dracula.
Advising against the journey. from Tod Browning's Dracula
Advising against the journey. from Tod Browning’s Dracula

It’s also about St. George’s Eve, and the conflation of the two in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and another kind of confusion in Lugosi’s 1931 film of the same name.

Along the way, we meet eccentric English churchman and scholar of folklore and occult, Montague Summers, who provides some interesting nuts and bolts on protecting oneself from evil spirits afoot on Saints George’s of Walburga’s nights.  (Sprigs of various herbs placed around doors and windows are a start.) We also learn of what appears to be a strange and little remarked upon money-making hobby Bram Stoker devised for Count Dracula, one referencing actual Romanian superstitions of the 1800s, all of which Stoker had studied up on before embarking on his novel.  (Do any readers of the novel remember the mysterious “blue flame” incident (something like a will-o’-the-wisp)?

Eccentric scholar Montague Summers
Eccentric scholar Montague Summers

We also discover what was apparently an early, discarded chapter from the novel Dracula, one rich in references to these earlier landmark works of the gothic genre, these being, Joseph Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Gottfried August Bürger’s 1844 poem Lenore, from which Stoker borrowed the epigraph, “The Dead travel fast” — both of which we’ll explore a bit.  Am\nd there’s even a little nod to Walpurgis night.

Illustration from Carmilla
Illustration from Carmilla
Lenora
Lenora