Tag: Germanic

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.

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

Mermen and more Marvels of the Northern Seas

In this episode, we continue our survey of supernatural sailors’ lore of the North with a look at mermen, Iceland’s “evil whales,” and sea-draugs.

After a brief audio tidbit recalling our previous discussion of the  Norse World Serpent, Jörmungandr (courtesy of the TV show Vikings), we briefly reconsider the Kraken  in the context of the 13th-century Norwegian text Kongsspegelen/Speculum Regale (“King’s Mirror”).  In what is likely the earliest reference to the Kraken, the attributes described and context of the discussion suggest that at this early stage of the creature’s mythology, it may have been imagined not as a cephalopod but as a particularly large and monstrous whale.

This brings us to the topic of the “evil whales” or Illhveli of Icelandic lore, much of which is taken from Olaf Davidson’s article of 1900, “The Folk-Lore Of Icelandic Fishes.”  Particularly dangerous and even malevolent toward seamen, these beasts are also enemies of benevolent species of whale that protect man.  Their flesh is considered poisonous, and utterance of their name, we learn, can summon them and great misfortune.

The largest of these creatures (if we disregard the Kraken, which seems more to occupy a class unto itself) is the Lyngbakr or “heather-back,” often mistaken for a land-mass covered with heather or grass. The same motif occurs in tales of the Kraken or Hafgufa (not discussed in the show thanks to the thematic redundancy), but tales of the  Lyngbakr characteristically describe sailors actually landing on the heather-covered mass, mistaking it for an island, and perhaps dwelling there for days on end — until the fish takes a dip.

Carta Marina
Monster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539)

The most vicious member of the Illhveli, seems to be the Raudkembingur, or “red-crest,” named for its red color and/or the rooster-like comb it sports.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a selection of Davidson’s stories of the Raudkembingur’s attacks upon ships and rather emotional disposition.

We then hear about the Hrosshvalur or “horse-whale,” named for the neighing sound it produces. It was also sometimes called the blödku hval or “flap-whale” thanks to long eyelids or flaps that hung over its eyes. As these tended to obscure the beast’s vision, it was given to wild leaps from the sea, during which the flaps would bounce from the eyes, providing the creature a brief respite from near-blindness.

We then hear a bit more about other other Illhveli, less frequently mentioned, learn why the Narwhal was regarded as the “corpse-whale,” how the Ox-Whale proved a nuisance to herdsmen, and of a particularly strange eccentricity of the Shell-Whale.

Our discussion of mermen focuses primarily on accounts provided in Danish-Norwegian author Erik Pontoppidan’s   18th-century text The Natural History of Norway (cited frequently in our previous episode). While a mermaid or two is also mentioned, Pontoppidan treats the mermen less as a sort of fairy being inclined to abduct men to an undersea realm (as is typical further south in Europe and in Britain) and more as a sort of cryptid or naturalistic phenomenon.  We hear some descriptions of mermen allegedly caught in the Northern seas (quite different from what is typically imagined), tales of enormously oversized mermen, and of the odd uses of the fatty flesh of mermen.

The merman of the north also is uniquely gifted with the ability to tell the future, a trait referenced early on in the 14th-century Hálfssaga and preserved in the Icelandic folk-tale “Then Laughed the Merman” told by Mrs. Karswell and myself.

sea troll
“Sea Troll” by Theodor Kittelsen (1887) Sometimes identified as a Draug.

Our discussion of the sea-draug begins with a clip from the 2018 Swedish film, Draug, a horror story set in the 11th century. Draug is a word from Old Norse used throughout Scandinavia to describe a walking corpse, usually guarding its grave or an underground treasure. Its folkloric attributes have been somewhat changeable and led to the evolution (specifically in the North of Norway) of a figure known as a Havdraug or  (Sea-Draug).

These are the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, who return as physical creatures horribly transformed.  While usually dressed in the typical oilskins and gloves of sailors of the North, their heads are often said to be missing, and they are known to sail about in broken boats missing their stern or to haunt the boathouses of the region. Their presence is an evil omen, and their notorious shrieks can either foretell or indirectly cause death.

We first hear mention of sea-draugs in the 13th-century Saga of the People of Eyri in which the crew of a sunken sip show up at a Yule feast, illustrating a predilection of the sea-draug to appear around Christmas, a motif maintained in tales of sea-draugs that became popular in the 19th century.  We hear some descriptions from these and the folk-tale “The Land Draugs and the Sea Draugs”.

Our episode closes with a strange tale of another Norwegian whale of the modern era, one killed near the island of Harøya in 1951 — at which point it’s weird saga actually begins.  The story rather unexpectedly involves a brief appearance by Louis Armstrong, and we hear some bits from his 1938 hit “Jonah and the Whale.

 

#26 Lullabies and Nightmares

#26 Lullabies and Nightmares

This episode examines the terrors that come by night, not-so-soothing lullabies, prayers and charms against the nightmare.

We open with the grim Icelandic lulluby “Móðir mín í kví kví,” which tells the story of a newborn’s ghost haunting the mother who abandoned it. Another lovely, yet menacing Icelandic lullaby follows. “Bíum, bíum, Bambaló” alludes to  an unnamed horror drawing nearer and nearer.

We learn that our word “nightmare,” originally designated a nighttime visit by a supernatural creature that pinned down and menaced the sleeper, ie, the “mare,” a word that arrived in English via the Saxons, and was derived from the Germanic “mara.” Recently, we’ve seen versions of this creature popping up in a number of horror films, snippets of which appear in a montage.  These are: the 2018 film Mara and the 2011 Swedish film Marianne, both of which allude to the creature in their titles, and  2016’s Dead Awake and Before I Wake, as well as 2017’s Slumber and Don’t Sleep.  And of course we include a nod to Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that started it all.

Still from the film "Mara"
Still from the film “Mara”

Stripped of its supernatural interpretation, the sleeper’s sensation of being pinned down and experiencing the sense of a malevolent presence is recognized by medical community as “sleep paralysis.”  But researches of the last century are not the first to attempt to describe the phenomenon in physiological terms.  We hear such a physiological take on the subject from 1584, drawn from The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a somewhat skeptical book on witchcraft.

The equation of the mare and the witch in English and Germanic culture is longstanding.  The other term sometimes used by the scientific community to describe this phenomenon, “Night Hag Syndrome,” points to this, as the word “hag” is traceable to an ancient German term for witches, “Hagazussa,” which also happens to be the title of an excellent new folk-horror film from Germany.  A snippet of the dark and droney soundtrack from that film is included.

Digging in a bit more on the topic of the mare, we learn that how the creature assumed a number of nocturnal forms while appearing in the day as either a witch or an unwitting human cursed by a witch, and hear a 13th-century account of an attack by a mare from the old Norse Norse Ynglinga Saga read by Wilkinson.

Next, we listen to a bit of another lullaby, this one from Russia, “Bayu Bayushki Bayu,” which tells of wolves ready to drag the sleeping child into the forest.

Whereas the “mara” (mare) is the preferred term for this creature in Great Britain (and English-speaking countries), Scandinavia, and northern Germany, further south in Germany, we hear of the “Alp,” a largely identical creature, with an etymological tie to our English word “elf.”  The Alp exhibits a wider range of mischievous, elfin traits not common to the mare.

19th-century illustration of the nightmare, artist unknown
19th-century illustration of the nightmare, artist unknown

This same region is also haunted by the nocturnal “Drude” or “Trute,” which likewise presses and torments sleepers, but is more strongly connected to witches than elves.  The word “Drude” is often combined with other words in German to describe witchy concepts, like the “Drudenfuss,” a word for “pentagram.”  In the sometimes confusing world of folk-magic, the  five-pointed star can be used as a form of white magic to combat darker magic and for this reason was often used on infants’ cradles to repel the Drude as in the illustration here.  We also hear of a connection of the Drude to the recently released folk-horror anthology film A Field Guide to Evil.

Austrian cradle with pentagram against the Drude
Austrian cradle with pentagram against the Drude

There follows perhaps the most explicitly terrifying lullaby in tonight’s collection, the Russian song “Tili-tili-bom.”

A number of folk practices against the nightmare are described including methods of trapping the creature.  Wilkinson reads us a story from Germany’s Black Forest in which the creature is trapped in a particularly peculiar way.  Counting charms, such as those used against vampires are also discussed.

Our show ends with a discussion of traditional bedtime prayers, including “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” which we learn can be traced to prayers used in 16th-century witchcraft, ancient Jewish “devil trap bowls,” Babylonian incantations, and a rite created by the 19th-century British occult gropu, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Along the way, we also hear a traditional southern-German nighttime prayer (Abendsegen) as featured in the 1893 opera Hansel and Gretel.

Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) Eugène Thivier, 1894
Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) Eugène Thivier, 1894

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#21 A Deal with the Devil

#21 A Deal with the Devil

The legend of Faust is the archetypal deal with the Devil. This episode looks at the figure as represented in folklore, local legends, plays, puppet shows, literature, films, and opera.

A precedent for the tale seems to be the story of St. Theophilus, a cleric in 6th-century Adana (in modern Turkey) who, as legends have it, summoned the Devil to help elevate him to the status of bishop (and, yes, there is some repentence involved in this one, seeing as how he went down in Church history as a saint).  He is the subject of a 13th-century French play, The Miracle of Theophilus, which happens to be the source of a chant to summon Lucifer written in an unknown language — one, which made its way into Wiccan traditions via Gerald Gardner, and which even ended up in the lyrics of the 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls by the band Coven.  The segment starts with a snippet from this cult album.

There does seem to have been an actual magician, astrologer, or alchemist by the name of Faust wandering southern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th century, though very little is known of his life other than passing references in a few letters and some town records noting that individuals by this who were banned for fraudulent or roguish activities.  We look at a few of these historic references.

Legends regarding the figure are more plentiful.  We hear of a number of supposedly dangerous grimoires attributed to Faust said to be kept at sites in Germany and also discuss a number of legendary feats of magic (including conjuring an entire castle along with a sumptuous, if unsatisfying, banquet for castle guests).  We also have a look at a number of towns offering “evidence” that they were the site where the Devil came to claim the doctor, including one town that rents a room in an ancient inn where the grim event was said to have transpired.

Frontispiece "The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus, a German astrologer and enchanter" (1838)
Frontispiece “The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus, a German astrologer and enchanter” (1838)

The meat of our show is a look at the earliest written narrative on Faust, a chapbook published anonymously in Frankfurt in 1587, The History of Doctor Johann Faustus.  We hear a dramatic, even cinematic, passage describing Faust’s summoning of the Devil in Germany’s Spessart forest (an area rich in folklore and home to the Brother’s Grimm). Also related are Faust’s whirlwind tour of of Hell, a number of comic supernatural pranks he plays, and, of course, the dramatic hour of reckoning and its grisly aftermath.

Richard Burton in his 1967 film, Doctor Faustus
Richard Burton in his 1967 film, Doctor Faustus

We next hear some snippets from one of the legend’s most prominent film treatments, the 1967 Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Doctor Faustus. Though the subject of numerous negative reviews, the film may appeal to horror fans thanks to its visual styling similar to a Hammer film of the period.  The wonderful 1926 German silent, Faust, by F.W. Murnau (director of Nosferatu) is also mentioned.

Marlowe's Faustus
Marlowe’s Faustus

The script for Richard Burton’s film was the classic of Elizabethan stage,The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  Though the story presented by Marlowe is rather similar to the chapbook version previously discussed, we hear of a few comic additions made then jump forward a bit in theater history to William Mountfort’s pointedly comic 1697 work, The Life and Death of Dr Faustus, Made into a Farce, with Harlequin and Scaramouche.  Wilkinson shares some monologues from the play spoken by two of the Seven Deadly Sins.  We also have a look at the legend’s treatment in Faust puppet shows popular in Germany and Bohemia, a tradition that proved influential on the 1994 Czech film, Faust, Jan Švankmajer’s must-watch stop-motion/live-action treatment of the story.  We hear bits of the audio from the Švankmajer film as well as a couple more Faust films, the Peter Cooke-Dudley Moore comedy Bedazzled (1967) and the nicely dreadful 2000 horror-superhero film, Faust: Love of the Damned.

From Jan Švankmajer's Faust (1994)
From Jan Švankmajer’s Faust (1994)

The show closes with a look at Faust at the opera, namely Hector Berlioz’ 1846 work,The Damnation of Faust (with a nod to Charles Gounod’s operatic take on the tale).  In particular we look at a famously disastrous staging of the Berlioz work by the Paris National Opera in 2015.

 

 

#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.

 

 

#16 The Haunted Season

#16 The Haunted Season

Historically, Christmastime in Central Europe was a season haunted by otherworldly spirits, werewolves, ghostly huntsmen, and wandering hordes of lost souls.  This is particularly the case in the Krampus’ homeland of German-speaking Central Europe.

We open with a survey of the various frightful spirits said to be afoot this time of year.  Bavaria, particularly the Bavarian Forest turn out to be particularly rich in such things, menaced by everything from spirits of the forests (Schratzn) and marshes to entities said to reside in mills, and historic castles. Historical figures with unsavory reputations including the legendary cowherd Woidhaus-Mich, Chatelaine Maria Freiin of Castle Rammelsberg and the Bavarian outsider prophet Mühlhiasl of Apoig are said to return as evil spirits this time of year. We hear a brief clip from Werner Herzog’s 1976 production, Heart of Glass, a lovely and peculiar treatment of Mühlhiasl’s story.

Just as the Krampus appears as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas on his feast day (and its eve), we encounter other frightful creatures from German culture said to represent similarly sinister incarnations of other saints celebrated in December. From the Upper Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps, there are the moss-encrusted Bärbele (“Barbaras”), or sometimes “Wild Barbaras,” and throughout Bavaria and Austria, St. Lucy was also inverted on her day (Dec. 13) as the “Luz,” or “ugly Lucy,” an entity particularly hungry for blood and ghastly punishments. We also meet “Bloody Thomas,” a figure appearing on the eve or night of St. Thomas Day, December 21.

19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.
19th-century illustration showing use of noise during the Twelve Nights.

Next we consider a raft of superstitions associated with the Twelve Nights, or Rauhnächte, a name likely derived from the German word for “smoke” (Rauch) thanks to the use of incense during these nights to dispel evil influences.

Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.
Telling fortunes during the Twelve Nights with melted lead.

Of all the terrors unleashed during the nights around Christmas, the most widespread in German-speaking lands were those ghostly hordes in nocturnal processions, dead souls, solemnly walking, or wildly riding, the latter usually going under the name of “Wild Hunt” or “Furious Army.” This mythologem is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even North America, where the spirits appear in cowboy legends, and made their way into the 1940s country-western ballad “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”

Wilkinson reads for us some rather dramatic (and grisly) accounts of this form of apparition from the 16th century, and we hear a variety of accounts emphasizing the weird sounds that were said to accompany the Wild Hunt.

Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano
Wild Hunt, 1520s Agostino Veneziano

A number of figures were presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt, in particular the Germanic god, Odin, whose presence was associated with the superstition all the way into the 1800s as we hear from a newspaper account of the period.

We close the show with some folk tales recounting a similar phenomena in Austria and Switzerland, namely tales of the “Night Folk,” or “Death Folk,” nocturnal hordes whose appearance often heralded death or misfortunes.

 

 

Episode Six: Lost Heads

Episode Six: Lost Heads

As June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist approaches, the folklore of decapitation suggested itself as an appropriate theme for this episode.  We begin by way of an old English children’s rhyme and game, “Oranges and Lemons” based on melody played by the bells of St. Clemens church in London.  The rhyme ends with the couplet:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop of your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead

… which should explain our inclusion here.  We hear this melody (played by local bagpipers) during a procession in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.  In the film,the tune accompanies a mock beheading game that the director borrowed from a traditional sword dance, one particularly well preserved in the south Yorkshire town of Grenoside.

Grenoside Sword Dancers
Grenoside Sword Dancers

We then review the John the Baptist story, how Salome offers a very pleasing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to King Herod, receiving in gratitude for the performance, a reward of her choosing,  Thanks to Salome’s mother, Herodias, the reward chosen is the head of John the Baptist’s. We learn a bit more Herodias, and hear a delightful tale (or tales) of divine punishment she received as well as her late medieval association with the folklore of witchcraft.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.

Next we move on the to the discussion of cephalaphores, or saints who suffer decapitation but stubbornly refuse to die, instead traipsing about holding their severed heads.  We discuss the cephalaphores St. Denis, St. Edmund (who’s head was guarded by a remarkably tame wolf) and St. Winifred, better known for her holy well.

Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 - 1498
Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 – 1498

As it turns out, holy wells, which are particularly prominent in Wales, are also associated with severed human heads — more often than one might expect.  Some examples and a likely a explanation are offered, and we learn which holy well until recently afforded the visitor the opportunity to employ a saintly skull as a dipper.

Wouldn’t you know it but the topic of magic wells and heads somehow brings us back to The Wicker Man as we learn about a connection between a song in the film and a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama rich in songs, spells, and fairy stories.

We then return to head-chopping games, and one suggested by a mysterious green stranger who appears at King Arthur’s Christmas feast in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Also mentioned is a cinematic treatment of the tale, 1984’s Sword of the Valiant, featuring Sean Connery in an outlandish costume that almost gives his wardrobe in Zardoz a run for its money.

14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant
14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant

Even though it’s already well known, it seemed wrong to omit Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its headless horseman. Wilkinson seemed particularly eager to discuss it, so we leave that to him (with more than a little help in the sound effects department.)

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.

Scotland offers our next two stories, one which tells of a sort of headless horseman of the Highlands (and some fortune-telling butter) and the other of Mary Queen of Scots badly botched beheading.

Death Mask of Mary Stuart.
Death Mask of Mary Stuart.

Then it’s back to Wales for the story of Bran the Blessed, a mythological king, whose (not quite dead) head was quite the entertainer and ended up buried under the Tower of London once it shut up.  The execution of Anne Boleyn also gets a nod with macabre ditty from 1934 about her headless ghost.

If you find yourself horrified by the obsession with heads and head-chopping in these Celtic nations, you are not alone.  Classical writers also were appalled by decapitation fixations of the northern tribes. We hear some choice words on the subject, read by Wilkinson.  We also learn about a bizarre super-weapon employed by Celtic warriors — “brain balls” —  and how they figure into a story of a newly converted Celtic chieftain.

The Germanic tribes too had a loose head or two in their mythology.  Hear the story of Mimir, whose decapitated head Odin preserved and relied upon for counsel.

We close the show with some talk of magicians (an alchemist and a supposedly wicked pope) who created their own “brazen heads” intended to likewise offer advice or prognostication.

From "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay." 1630
From “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” 1630