Tag: folk custom

Christmas Superstitions

Christmas Superstitions

The Christmas season is rich in superstitions. The whole period from the beginning of Advent, through the day itself, and especially throughout the twelve days (and nights!) between Christmas and January 6 or Epiphany are, in a sense haunted, a time when spirits are afoot and behavior is hemmed in by restrictions upon normal activities. Recently I stumbled upon a good collection of these folk beliefs in a volume from 1903 entitled Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: (And subtitled, A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life). The book’s contents are indeed as comprehensive as that title, and from their section on Christmas, I’ll be sharing some of the more interesting examples.

The show closes with a recording of a song sung by costumed Swiss holiday figures known as Silvesterchläuse. In the hinterlands of the Canton of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, the se Silvesterchläus,  groups of men and male youths wearing huge bells and ornate costumes,  go door to door to offer seasonal blessings and sing songs like the one you will hear.

Swiss Silvesterchläuse
Swiss Silvesterchläuse
Swan-Upping and Other Curious British Customs

Swan-Upping and Other Curious British Customs

Explore some curious British Customs with us, including those of Midsummer, swan-upping, egg-hopping, St. Bartholomew’s knives, and the violent tradition of St. Michaelmas “ganging.” Our source for this episode is the 1911 volume by T. F. Thistelton Dyer, British Popular Customs Present and Past. Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. Arranged according to the Calendar
of the Year.

Spirits of the Corn

Spirits of the Corn

Spirits of the corn (grain) fields from the United Kingdom to Russia have been imagined as embodiments of the harvest and guardians of the fields, sometimes evolving into fantastically cruel fear-figures in the process.

We begin with a look at the Scottish and English ballad “John Barleycorn,” first appearing as a broadside in 1568. The suffering hero of the song, “Sir John,” allegorically endures the brutal process of being buried, harvested, threshed, and eventually turned into beer.  We hear some snippets of the song from The Watersons and Fred Jordan.

Some, like the turn-of-the-century mythologist James Frazer, imagined the ballad as an allegorical representation of ancient human sacrifice ensuring good harvest, and while that’s not generally believed now, by way of evidence, Frazer assembled an invaluable and encyclopedic catalog of now extinct agricultural folk customs in his 1890 magnum opus, The Golden Bough.

We examine a number of rituals, documented by Frazer, in which the spirit of the fields is said to take up residence in last grain to be harvested, often as an animal.  One such creature, around which a substantial mythology has been spun, is a goat-like being called the Habergeiss.  I’ve mentioned this bit of Alpine folklore previously in the context of Krampus and Perchten traditions, but here provide a more in-depth look at the many ways in which it’s been imagined.

Habergeiß at Nicholas play in Tauplitz. Photo by Wolfgang Böhm.

Also from German-speaking lands, the Bilwis, a sort of goblin or witch said to protect fields but  more often described as a nocturnal thief of grain, employs small sickles attached at its feet.  We also hear some methods of defeating this sort of mischief as described by Jacob Grimm.

Another German bit of folklore discussed is the Rye Wolf, often closely associated with a female embodiment of the grain. While more broadly referred to as the “Corn Mother,” she assumes her most fearful aspect in German rye fields, where she becomes the Rye Aunt (Roggenmuhme).

An extremely comprehensive and grisly catalog of her terrifying traits was compiled in Richard Beitl’s 1933 study, Investigations into the Mythology of the Child. We take a loving and lingering look at some of these horrific aspects and hear the Rye Aunt described in a tale from the Grimms as well as a story from 1926, told as true (even then) by the grandmother of Otto Busch, author of Thuringian Legends.

We also examine a lighter side of this figure, literally lighter, as she only appears at the hour of noon. Particularly common more in northeastern Germany and Slavic lands (Polednice in Czech, Poludnitsa in Russian) in English literature, she is usually called “Lady Midday,” or “The Noonday Witch.”  Not only does she function as a fear-figure preventing kids from running into the fields but also serves to warn workers to cease their labors at the hour the sun is hottest lest she strike them down with exhaustion, pains, or madness.

Noonday Witch
Polednice/Noonday Witch., by Jiří Farský (1938)

A couple Czech films featuring this character are discussed —  2016’s The Noonday Witch/ Polednice and 2000’2 Wild Flowers/Kytice. The latter is based on an 1853 anthology of folkloric tales (Kytice) folkloric by Czech poet Karel Erben.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a recent translation of  “The Noonday Witch.”

The show closes with some cinematic scarecrows, primarily a smuggler disguised as a scarecrow created by Russell Thorndike for his 1915 novel, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh.  We hear some clips from adaptations of Thorndike’s work, the 1962 Hammer film (with Peter Cushing) The Night Creatures, and Disney’s 1964 production The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh starring Patrick McGoohan.

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Master of the Wolves: Transylvanian and Balkan Wolf Lore

Master of the Wolves: Transylvanian and Balkan Wolf Lore

The Master of the Wolves is a supernatural figure central to Transylvania’s (modern Romania’s) voluminous body of wolf lore, a mythology that extends more broadly into Balkan regions once occupied, like Romania, by the ancient Dacians.

We begin with a snippet from a contemporary recording of the 1857 poem “St. Andrew’s Night,” by the Romanian poet and statesman Vasile Alecsandri. The poem’s association between the undead strigoi and moroi and the Romanian St. Andrew’s Night (November 30) was explored in our Transylvanian Vampires episode last year, but there is perhaps an even deeper connection between the St. Andrew, Romania, and the wolf.

Naturally, this brings us to the topic of werewolves.  There are two wolflike monsters in Romanian folklore, the vârcolac and the pricolici, the latter being a closer match to our idea of the werewolf.

We discuss pricolici superstitions, which overlap largely with beliefs about the undead, of which the pricolici is often said to be a member.

The vârcolac, as we see, is rather different. Originally, it seems to have occupied a very limited and specific mythological niche as a creature that rises into the heavens at night to eat the moon, thereby causing an eclipse, or sometimes, the lunar phases.  Over time, the vârcolac seems to have merged with more widespread werewolf beliefs.

The animal form associated with both pricolici and the vârcolac, however, is not always strictly defined as wolf-like.  While the pricolici is sometimes said to assume the form of any number of “unholy” (but real-world) animals, the vârcolac has sometimes been compared to a dragon.

Draco
Dacian draco from Trajan’s Column

This wolf-dragon hybridization can also be found in the draco battle standard carried into by the Romanian Dacians in their wars against Rome. In its original form, the draco, consisted of a wolf head crafted of light metal, trailing a dragon-like windsock body. When in motion, a sort of whistle within the head emitted a shrieking sound that contributed to the Dacian’s fearsome reputation as warriors.

The historian Herodotus commenting on this reputation, also offered some observations on a particularly brutal Dacian rite, that of sending a “messenger” to their god Zamoxis. Mrs. Karswell provides the gory details in her reading of this account.

More modern Romanian myth-making brings together the man-god Zamolxis and the Dacian wolf, in the legend of The Great White Wolf, also read by Mrs. Karswell.  This tale of a wolf leader seems to borrow from genuinely old legends describing  St. Andrew as the “Master of the Wolves.”

Cave of St. Andrew
Romanian cave said to have been the home of St. Andrew

In this role, Andrew is said to return to earth on his night to share with the wolves what prey they are to be allotted in the coming year. The gathering of wolves from all quarters and apparition of the saint on the occasion is a sight mortals witness only with dire consequences, as we hear in another legend related by Mrs. Karswell. Nor is it a good time to be abroad with wolves racing off after their pray, especially so as they’re sometimes said to be supernaturally enabled on this night.

The Master of the Wolves myth did not exclusively attach St. Andrew and his day (or night). St. Martin’s on November 11, can be the setting as in Greece and Germany.  (Germany is is also home to a folk tradition discussed,  Wolfauslassen (“Letting out the Wolves” or “Ringing in the Wolves” in which shepherds returning from the fields for the year parade through towns ringing bells to let the wolves know they are free to roam the pastures.

As well as on St. Martin’s day, the Wolf Master can also appear a bit later, on December 6 when St. Nicholas serves as the Master of the Wolves in Russia and Poland.

While generally associated with the late fall and winter when dwindling food sources makes wolves more aggressive, the Master of the Wolves could also appear in the spring, when the herds would return to pasture, and predators might require a different sort of magical wrangling.  The saint controlling wolves in these cases is almost always St. George.

While versions of this figure are found throughout eastern Europe and Russia (and certain parts of western Europe), it is in Romania where the wolf is most prominent — celebrated with no less than 35 designated “wolf holidays,”of which St. Andrew’s is only the most well-known. This season runs from October into January and its observance is marked by an arcane body of superstitious practices designed to keep the animals at bay.  These include reciting prayers, locking corrals with charmed locks, and binding scissors to keep shut the predator’s jaws, and the like. A folk figure called “St. Peter of Winter” appears at the end of his season with dire consequences for those who have neglected the requirements of the season.

Strangely, the most dreaded wolf of all during this season, is a lame wolf, who not only attacks livestock but man.  Several of Romania’s wolf holidays pay homage to this figure in their name, such as “Lame Philip,” ostensibly named for the apostle Philip, but undoubtedly rooted in older pagan tradition. In Serbia, which shares Romania’s Dacian heritage, a similar figure appears during this season as Lame Daba, a demon portrayed in the company of wolves.

A possible clue to this association between lameness and a dreadful power over human life may lie in Romania’s version of the Three Fates, the ursitoare.  The third member of this trinity, the one given the ultimate power to cut the thread of human life, is traditionally portrayed as lame.

We end the show with a look at a wonderfully bizarre 1976 Romanian-French-Russian co-production, Rock and Roll Wolf AKA Mama, a retelling of a Romanian tale also collected in Germany by the Grimms as “The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats.”  Here’s a short preview clip of the film, which you can find in its entirety with English dubbing here on YouTube.

Myth and Magic of the Smith

Myth and Magic of the Smith

Folklore of the blacksmith portrays him as a semi-magical figure, a wily opponent of the Devil, a mythic creator in classical and biblical narratives, and an embodiment of occult wisdom within certain secret societies and neopagan groups.

We begin with an audio snippet from the excellent 2017 horror-fantasy Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil, a cinematic elaboration of the Basque folktale, “Patxi the Blacksmith” collected back in the 1960s by the Spanish priest and Basque ethnographer Jose Miguel Barandiaran.

This is one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of variants of “Blacksmith and Devil” tales found from Russia to Appalachia, all of which involve a smith selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for some reward, then somehow tricking the Devil out of his due. Some variations of  the story collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are outlined, and Mrs. Karswell reads passages of an Irish variant from the 1896 volume, The Humor of Ireland, one which also serves as a sort of origin story for a popular seasonal custom.

While most of the blacksmiths in these tales tend to be roguish, England offers a devil-combating smith who is actually quite saintly, namely St. Dunstan, the 10-century Abbot of Glastonbury, who also found time to master the harp and the art of blacksmithing. We hear several variations of his encounter with the Devil.

St. Dunstan and the Devil

We then explore folk customs associated with St. Clement, the first-century bishop of Rome whose particular style of martyrdom led to his being embraced as patron of blacksmiths. A variety of celebrations by ironworkers on St. Clement’s Day (November 23) are discussed; we hear a snippet of a song associated with “clementing” (going door to door to collect donations for the “Old Clem Feast,”) and hear a tale told at these feasts explaining how the blacksmith was declared “King of All Trades” by King Alfred.  There’s also a bit about a pyrotechnic festivity known as “anvil firing” associated with these celebrations and a snippet of the traditional blacksmith-toasting song, “Twanky Dillo,” sung by the Wild Colonial Boys.

Moving further back into Anglo-Saxon history, we encounter the figure of Wayland the Smith, one who appears briefly as a swordsmith and armorer in Beowulf and other English narratives but whose story is most thoroughly presented in the Lay of Völund part of the Poetic Edda (“Wayland” being an adaptation of the Old Norse name “Völund.”)  We hear a brief summary of this tale, including the particularly gruesome revenge taken by the smith upon the king who takes him captive.

We also hear a bit about Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, a Neolithic long barrow or stone-chamber tomb supposedly occupied by a ghostly blacksmith.

Wayland escapes
Wayland escapes from “Myths and legends of all nations” (1914)

We then have a look at the smith god of classical mythology, Vulcan (Roman) or  Hephaestus (Greek), his physical traits and fantastic creations, which extend beyond simple smithing into the realm of magic and even the creation of the first human female, Pandora.

Another metalworker associated with mankind’s origins is Tubal-Cain, described in the book of Genesis as the first “forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.”

As a descendent of Cain (who commits mankind’s first murder) and a creator of weapons enabling more deaths, Tubal-Cain’s folkloric reputation tends to be rather black. The  apocryphal book of Enoch, presents a truly Luciferian blacksmith seemingly based on Tubal-Cain, the fallen angel Azazel, who utterly corrupts mankind before the flood of Noah.

This flood narrative also figures into the mythology of Freemasonry and the role assigned the figure of Tubal-Cain in its rituals. (I give away a few masonic secrets in this segment and can only hope I will not pay for this with my life.)

Also discussed is the Masonic-inspired Society of the Horseman’s Word whose members were said to exercise supernatural control over horses in rural areas of Scotland and England in the 19th century.  The order’s mythological founder was understood to be either Cain or Tubal-Cain, depending on the region.

A blacksmith and son of one of these Horsemen was Robert Cochrane, who in 1966, founded The Clan of Tubal Cain, a coven and spiritual path intended to rival the Gardnerian witchcraft largely defining the neopagan world of the 1960s.  We end the show with a particularly strange and tragic tale associated with this group.

 

 

 

 

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

In earlier centuries, Americans partook in many of the same dark Christmas traditions that gave birth to Europe’s Krampus.  This episode examines our untamed holiday history.

The most obvious example of this is the character of Belsnickel, (sometimes: Pelznickel, Belschnickle, Bells Nickel, etc.), who, like the Krampus, usually appeared on St. Nicholas Day, carrying a whip with which to threaten or strike naughty children. He was found particularly in German-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, but also in Appalachian West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Southern Indiana.

Belsnickel’s costume could vary widely depending upon what was available to the performer, but usually involved a long coat, hat, and almost always false whiskers — all chosen primarily to cover the actor and make him difficult to recognize. For that same reason, his face would also often blackened with soot or covered by any sort of mask available.

Belsnickel drawing
Belsnickel illustration by Ralph Dunkelberger (1959) in Berks History Center (PA)

Belsnickel often wore a fur coat or hat, a coat trimmed with fur, or a fur-lined coat turned inside out (to create a weird effect and make the garment less recognizable). The choice of fur probably had less to do with some essential attribute of the character and more to do with the season itself. Nonetheless, the name “Belsnickel,” which is a derivation of the German “Pelznickel,” has often been incorrectly interpreted as “Fur Nicholas.” In fact, the “Pelz” here derives from pelzen, meaning, “to beat.”  Pelznickel (and Belsnickel) carried in his pocket or bag, small treats, which he would scatter over the ground. Naughty children trying to grab these would feel his whip.

Like Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus of Alpine Austria and Bavaria, the whip was the Belsnickel’s essential attribute. In fact, in the 1800s, Pelznickel/Belsnickel would probably not have been that different in appearance from the Krampus as the modern image we have of that creature was only standardized as such with advent of Krampus postcards and their imagery dreamed up by city-dwelling artists, along with growth of a competitive community of mask-carvers in the early 20th century.

The popularity of the Belsnickel tradition soon saw it spill over from its original December 5-6 celebration to all the days leading up to Christmas and later New Year.  As the tradition grew in popularity, Belsnickel was no longer represented as a solitary character but by groups of Belsnickels, whose behavior became increasingly rowdy and unwelcome. Rather than giving gifts or treats, these groups tended to ask for handouts from homes and businesses visited.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of American newspaper accounts documenting this trend.

Belsnickel appearing in groups. (photo: Museum of the Shenandoah Valley)

We also take a side-trip to South America, where the figure of Pelznickel arrived with German immigrants in the town of Guabiruba. Brazil. Unlike North America, where the Belsnickel had largely died out by the 1940s, Pelznickel events sponsored by the Sociedade dos Pelznickel continue to thrive – but with an interesting twist.  There, the Pelznickel wanders about outfitted  in moss and other tropical vegetation, accessorized with Krampus-like mask and horns.

Pelznickel Brazil
Pelznickel in Guabiruba, Brazil.

The Belsnickel gangs were not the only groups of costumed youth carousing or begging on American streets during the holiday.  Some of the earliest reports of this sort of thing come from Boston, where they were known as “Anticks” or “Fantasticals,” a name also used elsewhere.  In Philadelphia, they might be called”Belsnickels” or simply “clowns” or “shooters” (thanks to the fact that these groups tended to carry noisemakers, including guns).  In New York, these bands of noisemakers, often equipped with actual musical instruments played discordantly, were known as Callithumpians, or Callithumpian bands.

In Philadelphia, the rowdy costumed traditions of immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavian melded with those of the Germans and were eventually domesticated by civil authorities into a more manageable form, the annual Mummers’ Parade.

In New York, no such solution was found, and Mrs. Karswell reads for us dramatic newspaper account  from 1828 describing holiday chaos in that city.

Eventually a remedy to New York’s seasonal turmoil was suggested by John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, whose love for the traditions of “Old Amsterdam” suggested Holland’s patron Saint Nicholas as a distraction from the street carousing.  His re-creation of pious domestic rituals involving the saint would eventually displace holiday activity from the street to the home, and refocus festivities from rowdy unmarried men to children rewarded for good behavior.  Some peculiar twists and turns along the way are described.

st. nick
St. Nicholas material Pintard commissioned for the New York Historical Society.

NOTE: This episode consists of material originally written for the book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, but excised due to page-count.  Mr. Ridenour’s book, it should be noted, happens to make an outstanding gift for the holidays.

The book by your host
The book by your host. A most excellent gift!

 

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvanian Vampires

Transylvania’s vampire lore inspired the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if not the character of the Count, and encompasses not only undead monsters, but living beings akin to witches.  (The show is introduced with an audio snippet from Maria Tănase, premiere interpreter of Romanian folk song.)

Mrs. Karswell begins the show, reading a passage Stoker wrote for Jonathan’s Harker’s Transylvania travel journal kand its source in an 1855 essay by Emily Gerard, “Transylvania Superstitions.”  Originally from Scotland, Gerard developing an interest in the local folklore while living abroad and expand her essay in the 1888 book, The Land Beyond the Forest.  She seems to have derived a fair amount of  her vampire lore from a German scholar, Wilhelm von Schmidt, who in 1865 article contributed an article on the subject to the Austrian Review.

land beyond 1
Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While much of Gerard and von Schmidt’s information seems well sourced, the nomenclature used for vampires is incorrect. The word “nosferatu” put forward by the two folklorists and repeated by Stoker in his novel as the common Transylvanian word for “vampire” is not actually a Romanian word — but we sort out the confusion.

In Romanian, there are two words for vampiric beings, which Gerard subsumed under “nosferatu.” They are moroi and strigoi (male forms, plural moroii, strigoii). Strigoi seems to be a more expansive category and is discussed more in the folklore, but both share many traits including behaviors, preventatives, and modes of destruction. Moroii and strigoii tend to blur together along with two other entities, vârcolaci, and pricolici, which might be closer to our concept of the werewolf (something for a later show).

Before diving into the details on these creatures, I provide a note on two sources used for the episode, chose as they seem better grounded than Gerard’s in Romanian language and culture.  The first is by Agnes Murgoci, a British zoologist, whose marriage brought her to Romania and into contact with Tudor Pamfile, a well known native-born folklorist, whose tales of vampires Murgoci translates in the source article: “The Vampire in Roumania,” published in the journal Folklore in 1926.  The other source is a Romanian language book from 1907: Folk Medicine, by Gr. Grigoriu-Rigo, in which I found a large and unexpected trove of regional vampire lore.

land beyond 2
Illustration from “The Land Beyond the Forest”

While living an evil life makes one more likely to become a strigoi or moroi, through no fault of their own, an individual who does not receive proper burial rites, will live on to destroy those who failed to fulfill their funereal duties — namely, his family and relations.  We have a look at some of the old burial custom, which includes and audio snippet of bocet, a form of traditional lamentation offered at funerals.

We then dig into the moroi and traits its shares with the strigoi: the tendency to attack family members, similar preventatives and modes of  destruction as well as shared methods detection of thevampire in its grave.

The strigoi in some ways is closer to the pop-culture vampire — unlike the moroi, it’s sometime explicitly said to drink blood, and garlic is a primary prophylactic. Alongside its practice of destroying loved ones, we hear of some peculiar incidents in which the strigoi also engages with its family in more neutral or even helpful (if unwanted) ways.

We then have a look at living strigoii, that is, strigoii fated to become undead after burial but in life exhibiting supernatural abilities and evil inclinations. In many cases, these beings bear comparisons to witches. Possessing the evil eye and the ability to leave the sleeping body in another form (usually a small animal) are examples of this.

Some methods of preventing a living strigoi from rising from its grave are discussed as well as means of destroying these creatures. Techniques employed against the moroi, while simlar occasionally include additional techniques, such as application of tar or quicklime to the body.  Priests’ blessings and spells by benevolent wise women can also be employed (and we hear an audio example of the latter).

The remainder of our show consists of vampire folk tales collected by Tudor Pamfile as provided via Murgoci’s translations. The first pair of stories illustrate the resemblance between living strigoii and witches. These are followed by tales of male strigoii pursuing women vaguely prefiguring the pop-culture vampire Stoker birthed.

Customs of November 29, the “Night of the Strigoi” in Romania, are then described along with its folkloric significance and relationship to St. Andrew, followed by a clip from the 2009 British comedy, Strigoi.

Though no longer common in Transylvania, in rural regions toward Romania’s Bulgarian border, belief in vampires is still part of life. We hear a bit of a Romanian news segment on a poltergeist-like vampire plaguing the largely Romani village of Sohatu followed by a 2004 case from the village Celaru, which made international news when the body of an alleged vampire was disinterred and its heart burned.
The musical closer to the show is by the horror host Zacherley.

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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)

 

 

 

 

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Cases of madness and even murder were associated with Hexerei, a form of witchcraft brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants.  Following up on our previous examination of the tradition of Braucherei or Pow-Wow as practiced in 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania, our current episode eplores some more disturbing cases of witchcraft beliefs surviving into the 1920s and ’30s.

Our show begins with a montage of voices extracted from the documentary Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. It was produced as a companion to an excellent book of the same name by Gerald Milnes.

By the 1890s, any public notice taken of Braucherei tended to be negative. Journalists were quick with comparisons to the Salem witchcraft mania and tended to focus on cases in which witchcraft belief led to madness.  We hear an example of this from an 1891 Pittsburgh Dispatch article describing two women driven to paranoia in the hills of Earl and Douglass townships. From the Public Weekly Opinion of Chambersburg, PA, we hear bits of an 1894 story describing the extreme (and destructive) measures taken by a George Kellar to rid his property of witches.

The first of the witchcraft-related homicides we examine comes from a March 1922 edition of the York Daily Record.  It’s the case Sallie Heagy, whose belief in witchcraft and a night-hag like entity known in Pennsylvania as “Trotterhead,” led to her shooting her husband while he slept.

We then move on to the most famous witchcraft murder in Pennsylvania, namely that of a part-time Braucher and potato farmer, Nelson Rehmeyer, who met his end in York County in 1928.  Mrs. Karswell opens this segment reading a description of the discovery of the decedent’s body taken from a Nov. 30 edition of the Hanover Evening Sun.

The murder was committed by a group of men organized by John Blymire, a third generation Braucher or Powwower, who believed himself to have been cursed by Rehmeyer.  We hear a bit of his troubled history (which included being committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he escaped) and of his accomplices, including John Curry, a younger man whom Blymire took on as a sort of magical apprentice and Wilbert Hess, whose troubles with his wife and farm, according to Blymire’s increasingly paranoic beliefs, were also tied to a curse by Rehmeyer.  We also hear of the involvement of the Braucherin Nellie Noll, sometimes called the “River Witch of Marietta,” from whom Blymire sought help in identifying Rehmeyer as the one responsible for the curse laid upon him. The commission of the crime itself is described in our show via the court testimony given by Wilbert Hess.

Rehmeyer's House in 1928
Rehmeyer’s House in 1928

The media circus generated by a witchcraft-related murder in 20th-century Pennsylvania resulted in  the press becoming obsessed with investigating any possible links to Braucherei in any Pennsylvania crime they reported on.  We hear several examples of highly speculative connections made including that of  the twenty-one-year-old woman Verna Delp, whose death by poison was erroneously connected to concoctions given her by a Braucher in 1928.   A similar connection is examined in the 1930 case of Mrs. Harry McDonald, who was found burned to death in her home, as well as the case of Norman Bechtel, whose body was discovered in 1932 in a mutilated state, bearing injuries, the press presumptively identified as “hex marks.”

Only 6 years after the Rehmeyer case, however, another murder with an undeniable connection to withcraft belief occurred in the vicinity of Pottsville (the same region as that of our Hex Cat case in Episode 69).  This was the murder on March 17, 1934 of Susan Mummey by Albert Shinsky.  Mummey was a local Braucherin, known by locals as “Old Susie,” or sometimes “The Witch of Ringtown Valley,” who had a cantankerous reputation with her neighbors.  At the age of 17, Shinksy experienced one such unpleasant encounter, which he came to regard as the origin of a seven-year curse placed upon him by Mummey — one that could only be resolved ultimately by slaying the witch with a magic bullet.  We’ll leave the lurid details of this case for you to experience as you listen, but suffice it to say, the region still seems to have had problems with Hex Cats in 1934.

Philadelphia Inquirer
From The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Mar 1934

Our show closes with a look at the Rehmeyer case explored in different media.  A highly fictionalized version of the story was produced in 1987 under the name Apprentice to Murder, this one featuring Donald Sutherland as a notably more bookish John Blymire type.  There’s also a good 2015 documentary, Hex Hollow, which features interviews with Blymire and Rehmeyer’s descendants.  Strangest of all is the manner in which this story seems to have influenced the musical psychedelia of the York County band Lenny Lionstar and The Hillbillies of The Universe.  We close with a snippet of their work.

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Stories of witchcraft and folk-healers in early Pennsylvania are surprisingly plentiful. In this episode, we examine the state’s German-American tradition of Braucherei that spawned these tales. The practice came over with immigrants from Germany’s southwestern Rhineland beginning in the late 1700s and established itself among the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misunderstanding of  “Deutsch”) in the state’s southern “Dutch Country” region, eventually moving westward through Appalachia and all the way to Indiana and south into the Ozarks.

We begin with a chant supposedly chanted in the 1800s by witches gathered at Hexenkopf Rock (“witch’s head” rock), an actual site about 15-minutes outside the old steel town of Bethlehem.  The locale is central to early Braucherei and to the other name by which it goes, namely “Pow-Wow.”

It was on land adjacent to the Hexenkopf that Johann Peter Seiler, who immigrated from Germany in 1738, eventually settled and set up shop as a folk-healer, or “Braucher” (one who practices Braucherei).  As he also offered treatment to the native Algonquin, his work was equated by them to that of their medicine man or his rituals, and he was supposedly dubbed  “The Great Pow-Wow.”  This is one origin story for the odd nomenclature, though others believe the term “pow-wow” was applied by English settlers as a disparaging comparison to native rituals.  The term is still used and carries no such disparaging connotation today.  Nor does it imply a borrowing of Native American traditions into Braucherei, which is firmly rooted in Old World traditions.

While the Braucher has frequently been described by outsiders a “witch” or “witch doctor,” it’s certainly not a label accepted within the tradition, as there are no “good witches,” only bad witches, (Hexes) who practice Hexerei.  Brauchers are often sought to remove curses placed by Hexes, though occasionally practitioners have been known to slip from one side to the other.

We next look at a sampling of the magical tools and techniques employed in Braucherei, the prominence of the color red, preponderance of written charms carried by clients, and the spoken charm, the famous “Blood Verse” used to stop bleeding.

A Braucher would always consider himself to be Christian, and much use is made of religious images and verbiage, especially from Catholic traditions.  Though the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany’s Protestant regions, Braucherei has served as a sort of underground continuation of medieval Catholic practice in a Post-Reformation world.

1930s Friend
1930s edition of “Long Lost Friend” with illustrations by Charles Quinlan. Courtesy Glencairn Museum.

We then discuss the curiously titled volume The Long Lost Friend, a classic sourcebook for Braucherei, published by German immigrant, printer, and Braucher John George Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1820.  Much of it, we learn, was borrowed (sometimes verbatim) from earlier European books of magic, though applications described therein are very specific to 19th century agricultural life.  We also hear a bit about another magical sourcebook used (more in Hexerei thanks to its inclusion of destructive magic), the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses (published as a single volume).  We hear a bit about its notorious reputation, both in Braucherei and American Hooodoo.

6th book
The notorious “Sixth and Sevenths Books of Moses.” Don’t look at it too long!

The balance of our show is devoted to tales of witches and healers, gleaned mainly from newspaper archives and read by the inimitable Mrs. Karswell.

We hear of “Old Moll” of Fayette County, her fortune-telling with coffee grounds, of a legendary prophecy (curse?) laid upon some miscreants passing through town, and her appearance in connection with other local legends, as in the 1865 book,The White Rocks by A.F. Hill, a romanticized retelling of the murder of Polly Williams.

A hotbed of Braucherei, Berks County provides our remaining stories — an 1889 story in which a witch torments her victim in the form of a night hag, and the way in which a Braucher defeats her, and an 1892 story involving a baby covered in spots thanks to a visiting witch, who was eventually defeated while in the form of a cat.

Another witch in the form of a cat was the famous “Hex Cat” that haunted the farm of the Thomas family in Tumbling Run Valley in 1911.  This one made national news, with reportage appearing as far away as Hawaii.  It also generated a moderate frenzy of commercial exploitation.  I’ll leave the details of the case for you to enjoy as you listen.

Stay tuned for our next episode further exploring Braucherei, including some shocking criminal cases in which the tradition played a role.

I should also mention that we had some audio cameos in this show.  A number of our subscribers on Patreon joined in as witches in the chant at the Hexenkopf.  Thank you to: Allison Lovecraft, Victoria Howard, Angelica, Bridget Case, Jenny Matisiak, Molly Van Overhill, Alice Price, and Anne Luben!

(Long Lost Friend images courtesy the Glencairn Museum’s excellent 2017 exhibition on Braucherei)