Tag: folk tales

Glass-Coffin Girls

Glass-Coffin Girls

The story of Snow White, as told by the Brothers Grimm, is only one of many narratives involving girls who have fallen into a deathlike state and are displayed in a glass coffins. In this episode, we examine the sordid details of the Grimm’s original 1812 version of the tale and compare it with analogous stories  dating back to the 12th century.

We begin with a review of the Grimms’ original story, many aspects of which have been subsequently muddled and obscured not only by Disney but by later alterations made by the Grimms. These include the identify of the Evil Queen, the malevolence of her intent, the purported benevolence of the Huntsman, and particularly, the nature of Snow White’s resurrection.

"Snow White Receives the Poisoned Comb" Hans Makart (1872)
“Snow White Receives the Poisoned Comb” Hans Makart (1872)

After  this, we have a look  at the immediate predecessor to the 1812 story, a children’s play of the same name by the (unrelated) German author Albert Ludwig Grimm. Though it  features dwarves who aid Snow White, a magic mirror addressed in rhyme, poisoned fruit, deception involving the heroine’s purported death, and glass coffin, it proves to be a very different story.

The next tale explored is the 1782 novella Richilde, by the German writer Johann Karl August Musäus.  Surprisingly, the title character here, Richilde, is the wicked stepmother rather than her step-daughter Bianca, whose name in Italian (i.e., “white”) might be compared to “Snow White.” Set in medieval Brabant (Belgium), this one has Bianca courted by a prince whom the jealous stepmother hopes to see married to her own daughter.  A further complication is presented by the fact that the prince here is already married.

Richilde Title Page
Richilde Title Page

We then take a look at the rarely mentioned Russian story,  “The Tale of the Old Mendicants,”  (my translation) published in the 1794 collection, An Old Song in a New Setting, or a Complete Collection of Ancient Folk Tales, Published for a lover of them, at the expense of the Moscow merchant Ivan Ivanov (my translation). In this one, the role of the Evil Queen is played by an innkeeper jealous that her guests have complimented the beauty of her daughter rather than her own. The alms-collecting monks of the title are used by the mother to deliver a poisoned shirt to the Snow White character, Olga the Beautiful.

Our next offering comes from the 1634 volume by Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile,  Il Pentamerone, or The Tale of Tales, the very first collection of fairy tales, with which the Brother Grimm were definitely familiar (and one featured in our earlier “Dark Fairy Tales” episodes, both One and Two ). The  story in question is “The Little Slave,” which combines elements of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Here, the Snow White character, Lisa, again falls into a death-like swoon and is kept within not one but seven glass coffins in a locked room. The story resolves itself with the aid of a doll, a whetstone, and a knife.

Il Pentamarone
Il Pentamarone

Our earliest story paralleling Snow White, is quite a bit older — from the 12th-century,  the Lai of Eliduc by Breton writer Marie de France. While serving a king in England, the Breton knight Eliduc  falls in love with his lord’s  daughter, Guillardun, who falls into a swoon during an ocean voyage.  Eliduc (who is not exactly innocent when it comes to Guillardun’s condition) transports the body of his love back to France and keeps it on the altar of a deserted woodland chapel.  In this case, the story resolves itself thanks to a very clever weasel.

After our more detailed  examination of these strangely paralleled stories, we take a quick look at the wide range of more recent variants that were committed to print after the Grimms published their work and at a rather ugly controversy that engulfed German town, Lohr am Main, after it claimed to be the birthplace of the Snow White Legend.

Our episode ends with Mrs. Karswell’s reading  a  particularly dark and brutal tale about seven dwarves collected by Swiss historian and folklorist Ernst Ludwig Rochholz in his 1856 volume, Swiss Legends of the Aargau.

Lohr am Main Snow White state.
Lohr am Main Snow White state.
Sorcery Schools of Spain

Sorcery Schools of Spain

For centuries, Spain was said to be the home of secret, underground sorcery schools, Toledo being the first city with this reputation and later Salamanca.  The notoriety of the latter was more enduring, and when the legend passed to Spanish colonies of the New World, the word, “Salamanca” was embraced as a generic term for any subterranean location said to be the meeting place of witches. We begin the show with a clip from the 1975 Argentine film Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf, which depicts just such a place.

A particularly early reference to this concept can be found in a romanticized 12th-century  biography of a particularly interesting character, a French pirate and mercenary  Eustace the Monk.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a passage written by an anonymous poet of  Picardy, who describes Eustace’s occult schooling in the city of Toledo.  Along with this we hear  as a passage from a 1335 Tales of Count Lucanor by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, which adds another element to the legend, that of its underground location.

Curiously, a number of Spanish cities claim as their founder the Greek demigod Hercules, but in Toledo, he’s also credited with founding this school of magic, excavating a subterranean space in which he imparts his supernatural knowledge, at first in person, and later in the form of a magically animated sculpted likeness. Another Toledan legend, was later blended into this mythology.  It’s the story in the Visigoth King Roderick, Spain’s last Christian ruler makes a discovery prophesying his defeat by the Moors in 711 CE. Along with a parchment foretelling this, Roderick exploration of this enchanted palace or tower results in the discovery of the Table of Solomon, a construction of gold, silver, and jewels also attributed with occult powers.  Legends detailing this are believed to be of Arabic origin, first recorded in the 9th century and later appearing in One Thousand and One Nights.  In later Spanish retellings, the treasure house is conflated with the Cave of Hercules, and the fall of Spain to the Moors is attributed to Roderick breaking of a spell woven by Hercules, to keep North African invaders at bay.

Tower
Roderick breaking into the tower of Hercules, 14th c manuscript.

By the 16th century, this site (now identified as an ancient Roman structure underlying Toledo’s church of San Ginés) had inspired such wild tales that Cardinal Juan Martinez Siliceo organizes a 1547 expedition into a subterranean space in hopes of putting the rumors to rest, but it hardly succeeded at that. Mrs. Karswell reads a dramatic 1625 account of that misadventure.

toledo
“Cave of Hercules” in Toledo.

While talking bronze heads and magic mirrors were being added to descriptions of the Toledo site, in the late medieval period, similar legends began to be told in Salamanca. Being the site of one of Europe’s most ancient universities in a time when scholars were not infrequently misunderstood as magicians, legends of this sort would naturally be associated with  Salamanca.  But unlike the universities of Paris, Padua, and Bologna, Salamanca’s location in Spain made it a center of Moorish learning and the study of Arabic texts filled with strange calligraphy, figures and charts readily passing for books of magic.

As Salamanca’s reputation emerged later, in an era after the witch trials had begun, instruction no longer was provided by a figure from classical mythology but from the Devil, one of his demons, or a professor or student in league with the Dark One. A favorite character filling this role was the Marqués de Villena, a scholar who’d written books on alchemy and the evil eye. Villena appears in a number of literary works of the era, both in Europe and the New World.  In the 1625 play, The Cave of Salamanca, by Mexican dramatist Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Villena figures into a scenario that became fairly standard in Salamanca stories, one involving the Devil’s payment for the lessons provided.  This would be demanded  in the form of a human soul, the victim chosen by lot among the seven students instructed at the end of a seven-years period.

In Salamanca, the underground location of this magic school is strangely associated with a Christian site, the Church of San Cyprian, a significant choice, as St. Cyprian of Antioch has strong occult associations throughout the Catholic world but especially in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions. Before Cyprian came to Christianity, this 3rd-century saint is supposed to have been a sorcerer and is sometimes referred to as “Cyprian the Magician”.  His story is mirrored in Portugal by that of Giles of Santarém, and both figures appear in Spanish and Portuguese literary works in which the saints play roles parallel to that of the Marqués de Villena, and the magic school becomes “The Cave of Cyprian.”

There are also legends that the magical secrets of the pre-conversion Cyprian were preserved, and on the Iberian Peninsula particularly (but also prominently in Scandinavia) grimoires and spell books attributed to Cyprian began circulating as early as the 16th century. After a brief look at the history of these magic books, we turn our attention to the New World and their legacy there. In particular, the use of such books in Portuguese folk magic brought Cyprian the Magician to Brazil where, where he was absorbed into the syncretic religions of that country. The practice of Macumba, one of  these religions synthesizing  West and Central African beliefs with those of Catholicism, and 19th-century Spiritism, Cyprian the Magician is transmogrified into São Cipriano dos Pretos Velhos, or Saint Cyprian of the “Old Blacks” an embodiment of the departed African Ancestors.  Our show ends with a Macumba  chant dedicated to this figure and a  Spanish prayer to St. Cyprian for protection against witches, curses, and the evil eye.

A Spanish book of Cyprian magic
Six Witches

Six Witches

Six historical witchcraft cases as related in the 1880 volume by James Grant, The Mysteries of All Nations, Rise and Progress of Superstition, Laws Against and Trials of Witches, Ancient and Modern Delusions Together with Strange Customs, Fables, and Tales.

Mr. Ridenour and Mrs. Karswell also share listener comments on the Halloween season as well as a remix of a seasonal viral video.

 

Russian Vampire Tales

Russian Vampire Tales

The folklore of Russian vampires describes a creature slightly different than what we’re accustomed.  In tonight’s show we share a number of traditional tales from the 1873 volume Russian Folk-Tales by W. R. S. Ralston, a leading light of the Imperial Geographical Society of Russia and author of The Songs of the Russian People.

Animal Ghosts

Animal Ghosts

Tales of animal ghosts are usually relegated to the periphery of ghost story collections, but in this episode, we showcase this class of apparition. Our stories were collected in a volume from 1915 called Human Animals by Frank Hamel.  It covers werewolves, animal transformations through witchcraft, possession by totemic animal spirits, and the phantom animals that haunt lonely roads, ancestral homes, and the storytellers’ imaginations.

 

Strange Births and Monsters

Strange Births and Monsters

For centuries, strange births, often sounding like mythological monsters, were regarded as portents of ill omen. We hear a number of these fantastical accounts, including a description of the birth of the”Monster of Ravenna” believed to foreshadow not only the defeat of Louis XII’s forces during the 1512 Battle of Ravenna but also taken later as a sign of God’s wrath and religious turmoil roiling up in the Reformation.

The accounts related are compiled in the 1820 volume, edited by R.S. Kirby, and entitled Kirby’s wonderful and eccentric museum; or, Magazine of remarkable characters. Including all the curiosities of nature and art, from the remotest period to the present time, drawn from every authentic source.

The Monster of Ravenna
The Monster of Ravenna
An Irish Ghost Story

An Irish Ghost Story

An Irish ghost story seems a good way to add a bit of Halloween spice to your St. Patrick’s Day. Our selection, which will be read by Mrs. Karswell, comes from the 1825 publication Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.  It’s the first of three volumes of stories told by the Irish antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker, one of the earliest collector of the island’s folk tales.

Croker's book
Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.
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.

,

 

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.

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.

,