Tag Archives: Germany

#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.

 

 


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left



In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”

"The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes
“The Pied Piper Of Hamelin” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes

The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.

Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben.  The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.

Movie poster for Willard, 1972
Movie poster for Willard, 1972

We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading  village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain.  Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs.  Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.

Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284.  The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.

"Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers" Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564
“Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining —  explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance.  We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.

Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy.  Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors.   We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.

The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Episode 2: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 2



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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