Tag Archives: Germanic

#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



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



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