Tag: history

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)

 

 

 

 

Friends from Venus, Theosophists in Space

Friends from Venus, Theosophists in Space

The esoteric teachings of Theosophy, particularly those regarding Venus, were surprisingly influential on the tales told by flying saucer Contactees of the 1950s and ’60s.

We begin with a quick review of Theosophy and its principles as defined by the Russian international adventurer Helena Blavatsky in the later decades of the 19th century. Blavatsky had worked as a spirit medium and transformed Spiritualism’s spirit guides, into what Theosophy calls its Masters of Ancient Wisdom, advanced adepts from the East secreting themselves primarily in the mountains of Tibet — beings after which the spiritually evolved “Space People” of the Contactees were patterned.  Theosophy’s myths of previous technologically advanced but morally or spiritually flawed civilizations like those of Atlantis or Lemuria also also offered a framework for Contactees who believed mankind faced a similar dilemma under the Cold War threat of annihilation.

Venus was regarded as the most significant and spiritually advanced of the planets by the Theosophists. In its guise as the “morning star,” it became a symbol of esoteric illumination and the dawning of a new illuminated era.  It also played a significant role in Theosophy’s spiritual hierarchy as a home to advanced beings including the figure of Sanat Kumara, a Master advanced to the level of deity.  Unsurprisingly, Venus was also the home-planet to the majority of Space People encountered by the Contactees.

Key players in the Contactee movement coincidentally all shared a first name: George Adamski, George van Tassel, George Hunt Williamson, and George King, the only Brit among the Americans, and the primary subject of this episode.

Before discussing King and his experiences, we take a brief side-trip to discuss another, slightly later Contactee, who provided a bit of audio used in our opening montage, a clip from a 1957 record he sold at his saucer talks called Authentic Music from Another Planet. Along with his bizarre recording of musical scores he claims to have received telepathically on Saturn, Menger is of interest for his marriage to a woman from Venus, or at least the alleged reincarnation of a past-life lover from Venus.

Menger’s book featuring the Venusian, Marla.

George King, a taxi driver from London, arrived upon the scene a few years later than our other Georges, but his teachings hew closest to Theosophical doctrines.  Some of this, no doubt, is due to the influence of his mother, who was known locally as a healer and clairvoyant.  We hear some clips from a May 21, 1959 episode of the BBC show “Lifeline,” in which he demonstrates his technique of channeling extraterrestrial intelligences, including that of a Master from Venus named Aetherius, whose name is represented in the organization King founded in 1959, The Aetherius Society.

In the interview King also discusses another extraterrestrial who came to him in the early days of his career as a Contactee for the purposes of teaching him the channeling techniques he would need.  In keeping with Theosophical bias, the earth body this teacher had taken is that of sage from India.

King also discusses his relationship with the “Master Jesus” (another resident of Venus) and a meeting between his mother and Jesus on a spacecraft, during which Jesus blessed King’s book, The Twelve Blessings, a foundational text of the Aetherius Society.

George King wearing his transmission goggles. (via Aetherius Society)
Channeled messages to date in 1975. (via The Pantagraph)

Another Theosophical principle King seems to have embraced is Blavatsky’s notion of a “higher science” using technology  to manipulate subtle, spiritual energies (something present in her descriptions of Atlantis and Lemuria).  In King’s case, this concept lies behind his invention of “prayer batteries” used to capture and then deploy where needed the spiritual energies emitted during group prayers conducted by the Society.

King also takes the Theosophical myth of Atlantis and goes it one better.  Rather than a continent being destroyed through human evil, a whole planet by the name of Maldek, he says, was destroyed in a similar manner eons before man was present on earth. The actual asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter he regards as Maldek’s ruined remains.

We close with some considerations regarding the Pentagon’s release of reports of “unexplained aerial phenomena” this spring.  Included is a clip from the 1960 song “When You See Those Flying Saucers”  by The Buchanan Brothers.

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

Nero: Myth and Monster

Nero: Myth and Monster

Emperor Nero’s reputation for wickedness and depravity had already attained mythic status within a century of his death, making him a prototype for early Christian beliefs regarding the Antichrist.

We begin the show with a look at the role poison played in Nero’s ascent, putting him on the throne at the age of 17 in 54AD. After her marriage to Emperor Claudius, Nero’s Mother, Agrippina the Younger, appears to have recruited the notorious poisoner Locusta, to do away with the Emperor when he began to show preference for his other son Britannicus over Nero. And it was Nero himself who later recruited Locusta to do away with the troubling Britannicus.

Agrippina’s role in Nero’s life constituted another kind of poison.  If we are to believe what the historian Tacitus describes as “rumors”  (rumors affirmed as true by the historian Suetonius), Agrippina seems to have shared her brother Caligula’s inclination toward sexual depravity. Shocking details regarding her relationship with her son are naturally provided.

However, Agrippina seems to have been more driven by lust for power (via her son) than sexual desire.  Part of her scheme to set him on the throne had been his marriage to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, who suffered greatly as a result.  We hear a bit about her shoddy treatment and arranged “suicide” as well as the rise of Nero’s second wife and former mistress Poppaea Sabina, who is (according to Suetonius) later kicked to death by the emperor.  More deaths of potential familial rivals are detailed.

Nero’s overweening Mother likewise falls afoul of her son, and we hear of some particularly bizarre and cartoonish attempts he makes on her life eventually ending with another “suicide” five years after Nero has taken the throne.

Agrippina’s alleged final words to her assassin — “Smite my womb” — expressing her regret over birthing her monstrous son, were woven into other legends amplified in the Middle Ages into a particularly strange narrative involving dissected bodies and frogs.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the relevant passage from Jacobus de Varagine’s 1275 compilation of hagiographies and related stories, The Golden Legend.

Nero & Mother
Medieval illumination showing Nero observing his mother’s dissection

Along the way, we also hear some tales of Nero’s vanity (his endless mandatory-attendance lyre concerts), excesses (pet tigers and Felliniesque parties) and further sexual aberrations (castration and marriage to his male “wife” Sporus in 67AD.)

As for the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, his musical performance celebrating the event is treated as historical fact by the majority of ancient chroniclers, but it involves neither lyre nor fiddle. The association with the fiddle is explained along the way, and we also hear a snippet of Jimmy Collie 1956 country-western song, “Nero Played His Fiddle (While Rome Burned)”  At least two sources (Suetonius and  Cassius Dio) agree that during the conflagration, Nero presented a song about the Sack of Troy, comparing that ancient city’s fate with Rome’s current plight.

While Suetonius asserts that the fire was instigated by Nero in order to clear land he desired for his pleasure palace, the  Domus Aurea  (Golden House), Tacitus records Nero blaming Rome’s Christians for the conflagration.

This particular nexus of Roman and Church history is largely responsible for the Nero’s enduring reputation in Western culture, one strengthened in modern times by the 1951 film, Quo Vadis, itself based on an 1896 Polish novel of the same name by Nobel-Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz.  We hear some snippets from the film that saved MGM studios and initiated a rash of sword-and-sandal epics of the ’50s and ’60s.

human torches
Christians prepared as torches in Henryk Siemiradzki 1876 painting “Candlesticks of Christianity”

Some particularly cruelly conceived deaths endured by Christians (and others) under Nero are discussed along with the executions of the apostles Peter and Paul and a peculiar connection between Nero and the Vatican.

Also associated with Nero is the magician Simon Magus, whose brief appearance in the biblical book of “Acts” is not particularly interesting, but whose career in apocryphal literature and medieval tradition is quite rich. We hear another interesting account from The Golden Legend describing the magician’s wonderworking feats and a sort of wizard battle between Simon Magus and St. Peter.  Also heard is a snippet the 1954 film The Silver Chalice featuring Jack Palance as the sorcerer.

After Nero’s death, the myth-making really began.  Because of the obscure circumstances of this death and burial, which we discuss, a belief circulated that he had either not died or would be resurrected (the Nero Redivivus legend).  Several imposters using his name took advantage of this, specifically three “Pseudo-Neros” gaining followers in distant lands between 4 and 20 years after his death.

Two of the Pseudo-Neros gained followers in Parthia (modern Iran), a detail found also in a  the prophecies of the Sibylline Oracles regarding a terrible End Times conqueror or Antichrist (though the latter word is never used) — and thus one positioning Nero as the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Purporting to be a record of the sayings of the Sibyl of classical antiquity, the Oracles were actually written somewhere between the 4th-6th centuries.  Books 5 and 8 are full of apocolyptic imagery laced with a few details seeming to match up with bits of Nero’s biography.  Interpreters of the biblical  book of Revelation have also provided clues connecting Nero with the Antichrist.

We close our show with a look at the haunted history of Nero’s grave in Rome as well as a more recent myth that’s evolved around the supremely exotic execution and torture of the poisoner Locusta.

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.

 

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

Bees: Gods, Death, and Honey

The mythology of bees has been tied for centuries to notions of the otherworld and death.  In this episode we trace some of that folklore along with examining some highly peculiar uses of honey.

Horror or sci-fi films referencing bees exploit the more mundane fears bee holds for mankind.  Our survey of these includes clips from the dreadful 2006 The Wicker Man remake, Candyman (1992), The Deadly Bees (1967), The Swarm (1978), and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). Also included are some snippets of “Not the Bees” remixes by Koolfox, CyberPunkStefan, and KCACopyright.

The Deadly Bees (1967)

Continuing on (in a sense) from our Medusa episode, there follows a good deal of Greek mythology, thanks to the significant role these creatures played in that culture’s imagination, beginning with the bee-nymphs or honey-nymphs who served as nurses to the infant Zeus.  There are a number of triads of female bee creatures in ancient Greek literature, which may or may not be the same.  Along with Zeus’ nurses, these include the Thriae, who serve as oracles, and creatures simply dubbed “The Bee Maidens” described in a Homeric “Hymn to Hermes” (who also serve as seers.)  Priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were also dubbed”bee,” and some have proposed a connection between the Delphic oracle and bees or honey, as is discussed.

Thriai
Possible representation of the Thriai, Rhodes, 7th century BC.d

A brief musical interlude follows this: “The Bee Song” by British comedian Arthur Askey.

Our next topic seems to be most prominent in ancient Greek thought but was found elsewhere and persisted into the Middle Ages, namely, the belief that bees were spontaneously generated from the carcasses of oxen.  This superstition, known as “bugonia”  (from the Greek words for “ox” and “spawn”) is discussed in passages we hear from Virgil’s volume on agricultural lore, Georgica, and from a similar 10th century book of Byzantine creation, Geoponika.  We also hear an example from the Old Testament and learn a a related and unseemly lesson about a honey-like product found in many British households. And there’s a poem by Kipling, “The Flies and the Bees” from which Mrs. Karswell reads a relevant excerpt.

Human corpses (if they happen to be a priestess of Demeter) can also generate bees, according to a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, which we hear. And there is a story of a skull filled with honeycomb from Herodotus’ Persian Wars, one somehow similar to a report from an 1832 edition of the Belfast News Letter, which is gratuitously included merely for the grotesque image it presents.

Next we look at the ancient practice of preserving human bodies in honey.  The case of Alexander the Great is described along with a number of examples from Sparta (including a honey-preserved head, which advised King Cleomenes I.  And there’s a particularly repulsive story of Mariamne, the wife of  King Herod, who was thus preserved.

We then examine more wholesome stories of bees —  their exemplary reputation for cooperation and industry, which served many writers as a model for human society.  Also wholesome are a few inlcuded Christian legends involving bees. We hear of 5th century French prelate St. Medard, whose bees punished the thief attempting to steal a hive from the saint’s apiary, and of the 6th-century Irish saint St. Gobnait, who commanded an army of bees against hostile forces threatening her community.  Also included are some pious legends of architecturally ingenious bees related in Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie from 1632.

The Feminine Monarchie
The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler

Next, the “telling of the bees” is discussed, that is, a custom whereby those who kept hives would announce the death of a family members to their bees so they might participate symbolically in the mourning process.  Also included are a number of newspaper stories of bees that seemed more than eager to participate in funerals.

We wrap up with a look at “mad honey,” a psychoactive type of honey, the effects of which are produced by a compounds called grayanotoxin found in certain plants (the rhododendron, azalea and oleander) from which bees have gathered nectar.  Caveat emptor!

 

 

 

The Lover’s Head

The Lover’s Head

The motif of lovers retaining the head of a decapitated partner is surprisingly widespread. In this — our romantic Valentine’s Day episode  — we have a look at old ballads, literature, fairy tales, legends, and even a few historical anecdotes in which such things occur.

We begin with the English murder ballad, “In Bruton Town,” also known as “The Bramble Briar,” “The Jealous Brothers,” or “The Constant Farmer’s Son.”  It might seem a strange inclusion at first as there is actually no decapitated lover in the song, but it’s widely recognized by scholars as having derived from a 14th-century story identical in all other elements of the narrative.  Though no heads are removed, there is a murder, namely that of a suitor courting the sister of two brothers who find his social status unacceptable (as well as the fact that he is slipping into their sister’s bedroom along the way). There is also a visitation by the ghost of the dead lover, in which he reveals the location of his corpse, with whom the woman lives for three days in the woods before being forced home by hunger — all of which may remind some listeners to the lover’s ghost in “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” discussed in our Undead Lovers episode.  The segment begins with a snippet from a version of the song given a enthusiastically gothic treatment by The Transmutations.  The a cappella version is by A.L. Lloyd.

The probable source story  for the ballad is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a tale told to entertain her fellow travelers by Filomena, one of the refugees fleeing plague-stricken Florence in the novel’s frame story.  She describes the tragic romance of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. As in our ballad, Lorenzo is an unworthy suitor engaging in secret rendezvous with Lisabetta, whose brothers are similarly protective of her and their sister and family status. Lorenzo meets his end when invited by the brothers to join them on an excursion out beyond the city.  He later appears in a dream to reveal the location of his corpse.

Maestro di Jean Mansel
Illustration for tale of Lisabetta of Messina from The Decameron by Maestro di Jean Mansel (1430-1450)

As she grieves over her lover’s body, Lisabetta recognizes that she is physically unable to transport it back for burial, and so does the next best thing, removing the head with a handy razor.  The rest of the story relates how the head is hidden in pot planted with basil, the discovery of which causes the brothers to flee from justice. Mrs. Karswell reads for us all the grisly details Boccaccio provides.

Roughly three centuries later, we find a lover’s remains planted in a pot in Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone or “The Tale of Tales,” perhaps the earliest compilation of European fairy tales. The story, “The Myrtle,” presents a fairy who lives in a sprig of mirtle kept by a prince who nightly makes love to her as when she assumes a human form. When she is murdered by jealous rivals, the prince’s servant mops up her bloody remains and dumps them in the pot where they regenerate through the mirtle. The understandably annoyed fairy sees to it that her would-be assassins meet a fitting fate.

We then take a quick look at other writers who picked up Boccaccio’s tale, including the 16th-century German playwright Hans Sachs and 19th-century English poet John Keats (“Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”). The derivation of the folk ballad may have come through an English version of Sach’s play, but there’s no documentation to prove this.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868.

Another interesting iteration of the story comes from Denmark, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen — from his 1872 story “The Rose-Elf,” or “The Elf of the Rose.”  This one tells much the same tale, but presents it through the eyes of an invisibly small elf who occupies a rose, and later a leaf in the tree under which the murderer buries the lover’s body. While the elf may have been inserted in an effort to position the tale as one for children, the story is grim even by Andersen standards.

We then examine a couple historical cases of loved one’s heads kept as postmortem mementos, among these, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh kept after his beheading by his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton and that of Thomas More kept not by his wife but his daughter, Margaret Roper.

Next up, a few tales of the preserved heads of lovers serving as objects of terror and disgust rather than romantic attachment.  The first is that of Arthur and Gorlagon, one probably composed in 14th-century Wales.  It’s a truly weird narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested it was composed as a joke or parody.

Without giving too much away, the story (which we hear at length) is perhaps best described an Arthurian Shaggy Dog story, a werewolf story actually, one that meanders in the classic shaggy-dog mode and likewise can’t be expected to deliver the anticipated payoff, though it does provide us the preserved head of a deceased lover.

A similar tale with an embalmed head employed as an ever-present, shaming reminder of a wife’s infidelity is found in The Palace of Pleasure a collection of stories by John Painter published in several volumes first appearing in 1566. This one features a pleasingly gothic scene of a black-clad woman with shaven head employing some rather gruesome tableware.

We wrap up with the tale of Willem Mons, an unfortunate lover of Catherine the Great who lost his head (though Catherine hung on to it) and the 2016 story of Davie Dauzat of Bellmont, Texas, who decided the family freezer would be a good place to retain the head of the wife he decapitated. The closing song snippet is by Arrogant Worms.

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Terrible Tales for Terrible Tots

Books of cautionary stories for children were a popular Christmas gift in Victorian times. These tales of misbehaving children and the tragic consequences of their deeds, like the Krampus myth, served as not-so subtle reminders of parental expectations.

This episode consists mainly of readings by your host and Mrs. Karswell of these grim (and amusing) stories intended to be enjoyed along with a hot cup of cocoa, eggnog or the more dangerous adult concoctions of the season.

We begin with an example from Jane & Ann Taylor’s 1800 publication Original Poems for Infant Minds.  The Taylor sisters’ 1806 sequel to the book, Rhymes for the Nursery, happened to include a poem called “The Star,” providing the lyric to the “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” which we hear interpreted from a 2019 album called, naturally, Possessed Children: Creepy Nursery Rhymes.

From Taylor’s “Original Poems for Infant Minds”

We also hear a poem about a lad who embraces a hot poker as a toy, one from Elizabeth Turner’s 1807 collection The Daisy or, Cautionary Stories in Verse, adapted to Ideas of Children from Four to Eight Years Old 

Then we turn to the mother of all cautionary tales for children, known to many simply as “that scary German children’s book,” but actually titled Der Struwwelpeter, Merry Tales and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks. Written in 1854 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Der Struwwelpeter (“un-groomed Peter”) pairs charmingly awkward drawings executed by the writer himself with tales of children who play with matches, refuse to eat, suck their thumbs, torment animals, or commit other childish misdemeanors meet ghastly fates. 

Created for Hoffmann’s three-year old son as a Christmas gift, Der Struwwelpeter’s opening page identifies the book as one specifically to be given at Christmas, to well-behaved children exclusively. 

Struwwelpeter opening page

We hear a clip of this introductory poem set to music by the British punk-cabaret artists The Tiger Lillies, as part of their 1998 opera Shockheaded Peter.

Der Struwwelpeter went on to inspire all manner of imitations in Germany, England, and particularly in America.  We hear a few examples of these including one from the most famous volume inspired by this book, Max and Moritz, A Tale of Seven Boyish Pranks, written and illustrated in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch. 

 Our last author in this genre, one whose intent was actually to exaggerate and parody the pedantic tone of the Victorians was Hilaire Belloc, a friend of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.  His first book of this type, whimsically illustrated by his friend Basil T. Blackwood, was The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), followed a year later by More Beasts (for Worse Children). Longer, more dreadful stories appear in the verses of his 1907 book, Cautionary Tales for Children, Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years, from which we hear a number of fine examples.  Edward Gorey recognized a kindred spirit in the collection illustrating a version published posthumously in 2002.

Gorey illustration
Gorey illustration for Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales”

 

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

The Frankenstein Method

The Frankenstein Method

The method Frankenstein employed to create life is left mostly a mystery in Mary Shelley’s 1818 book. How then did the notion of stolen body parts stitched together and animated by lightning become so firmly entrenched in popular imagination?

Our episode begins with a clip from Universal’s pattern-setting 1931 production, Frankenstein, in which Henry Frankenstein rhapsodizes about building the creature’s body from the dead.  While the idea’s suggested in Shelley’s novel, the process doesn’t quite seem to match the cinematic treatment in which the creature’s fabricated from whole human  body parts stitched together.  We’ll hear some passages read by Mrs. Karswell, that seem to suggest Shelley’s Frankenstein fabricates his creature instead from component materials — tissues and whole systems built up slowly over bones obtained from the charnel house.  The creature’s large stature in films, however, matches the literary prototype — for very practical reasons, as is explained.

Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831
Frontispiece, Frankenstein, 1831

Next we have a look at how Shelley portrays Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create life as influenced by his study of alchemical texts (by Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus,)  Of particular interest here is the work of his Swiss countryman, Paracelsus, who in the 16th century set down directions for the creation of a homunculus, a tiny human-like being grown in a glass bottle.

These comments, in a general way, seem to have influenced an odd inclusion in the script for 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein’s partner in monster-making, Dr. Pretorius, presents his own experiments in creating homunculi (as in the clip played).

Pretorius
Pretorius and “Devil” homunculus, Bride of Frankenstein

As further evidence that Bride’s screenwriters went digging in some rather obscure texts, the film’s portrayal of the miniature king escaping his bottle to pursue a homunculus-queen in an adjacent bottle appears to be directly lifted from a legend of an Austrian freemason Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein, creating homunculi in 1755 — a legend appearing only as a footnote in an  1896 biography of Paracelsus by the Theosophist Franz Hartmann.

While none of this appears in Shelley’s novel, some scholars have attempted to locate the inspiration for her novel in the work of another alchemist: Johann Conrad Dippel, in particular because the location of his birth in 1673 is listed as Burg Frankenstein, Castle Frankenstein on a hill near the city of Darmstadt Germany.  We look at evidence for parallels in Shelley’s story and von Dippel’s career, and though the linkage appears to be fairly speculative, we end up with some good stories involving the misuse of bone oil, and a corpse dyed blue.

We next examine references to Victor Frankenstein’s interest in lightning and galvinism (early notions of electricity), and how this supplants his earlier interest in alchemy.  The connection between galvinism, 18th-century researcher Luigi Galvani, and frog legs is explained, as is Mary’s husband Percy Shelley’s hands-on dabbling in this field.

While both Percy and Mary had an interest in this evolving field, their understanding of these matters could often be of a more poetic than scientific.  In Mary’s introduction to the 1831 reissue of her novel, she references galvinism as a possible source of the creature’s animation, though the idea here is inspired by her highly idiosyncratic understanding of an experiment conducted by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles).  A reference to what seems to be living pasta is also muddled into all this.

Next we hear a a bit about Luigi Galvini’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, and his use of electricity to produce convulsions in the carcasses of oxen as well as a notorious 1803 experiment with the body of a recently executed convict from London’s Newgate Prison.  We don’t know if Shelley was aware of these experiments, but it’s certainly possble.

Even more ambitious than Aldini’s experiment was one conducted by the Scottish physician Andrew Ure in Glasgow in 1818.  Ure also worked with the body of an executed convict but with stated intention of actually reviving the deceased using electricity.  The date on this one (the same year as Shelley’s composition of the novel) makes it highly unlikely to have influenced her composition, but the grisly details seem nonetheless worth relating.

Ure
Ure’s experiment, illustr. “Les merveilles de la science” 1867

Another suggested source of inspiration for Frankenstein is the researcher Andrew Crosse, known to locals living near his isolated mansion in Somerset’s Quantock Hills as “The Thunder and Lightning Man.”  Crosse converted his home into a lab for the study of electrostatic energy produced in the atmosphere, channeling this into an immense array of homemade batteries, and releasing thunderous charges mistaken by neighbors for lightning of his own creation.

While the case for any of these serving as direct inspiration to Shelley is rather tentative, it’s actually the more familiar figure of Benjamin Franklin whom the author mentions in her novel. In a passage removed from the 1831 publication, Franklin’s kite experiment is referenced, making him the only contemporary electrical researcher mentioned in the text.  An article about Franklin is also a likely source for the reference to Prometheus in the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus.

The Frankenstein of Universal films and beyond has its roots in theater.  For many years Shelley’s novel was actually better known from theatrical adaptations, which began appearing not long after the book’s publication. The first was 1823’s, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which Shelley herself attended with a mix of irritation and delight. It’s in this play that the character of the  laboratory assistant first appears, here as “Fritz” (as in the 1931 film) and later acquiring the name “Igor.”  Only three years later, The Man and the Monster; or, the Fate of Frankenstein appeared giving audiences the first direct representation of the monster’s animation.

Presumption
T.P. Cook as creature in “Presumption”

There is still no electricity involved in all of this by the time the first cinematic adaptation appears in 1910 — Edison Studio’s 13-minute production called simply Frankenstein. Here we see Victor Frankenstein brewing up his creation in a vat, pouring in flashing chemicals.

The 1927 play Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre by Peggy Webling, served as the basis for Universal’s 1931 film, but even here, there is no electricity animating the creature, a feat accomplished instead by Frankenstein administering the alchemist’s “Elixir of Life.”  In 1931, this play was itself reworked into another theatrical adaptation by writers of the studio’s Dracula, John Balderston and Garrett Fort.  It’s only here that electrical apparatus is employed, an aspect director James Whale whole-heartedly embraced based on his fondness for the mad scientist’s lab in the 1927 film Metropolis.

We finish this novel-to-film progression with a quick look at elements of Shelley’s novel brought to the fore in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and the creator of the props that populated the film’s laboratory, Kenneth Strickfaden.

Then there’s a few bizarre footnotes on Ben Franklin from recent history. Very strange indeed!