Tag: horror

Villainous Victorian Women

Villainous Victorian Women

Our survey of villainous Victorian women examines six individuals associated with some of the most ghastly crimes of the era, many directed against children (and for this reason possibly a bit of a rough listen for some.)

Five of these criminals inspired murder ballads, or more specifically “execution ballads,”  single-sheet broadsheets sold at the time of the trials or executions.

The sixth woman, Mary Ann Cotton, a poisoner from the north of England, also inspired verses, in this case, however, a schoolyard rope-skipping chant of the type memorializing Lizzie Borden.  (We begin the show with a version the Borden rhyme from 1956 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents remixed by Bob’s Vids.)

Mary Ann Cotton

Cotton, Britain’s first female serial killer, was executed in 1873 for the murder of her stepson, the last of 13 offspring whose lives she’d taken, that along with three of her four husbands, who were generously insured to ensure the poisoner would profit from her evil.

Like Cotton, our next murderer also preferred arsenic as her lethal weapon. The American, Lydia Sherman, throughout the 1860s and early ’70s poisoned eight children as well as three husbands in New York and Connecticut. Dubbed “the modern Lucretia Borgia” by the press, Sherman was also the subject of an 1873 book, The Poison Fiend: The Most Startling and Sensational Series of Crimes Ever Committed in this Country.  Unlike Cotton, however, Sherman escaped the gallows, sentenced instead to end her life in prison. We begin her segment with a snippet of  the broadside “Ballad of Lydia Sherman” by the Mockingbirds.

We next look at Emma Pitt, a schoolteacher in the British village of Hampreston in Dorset, who murdered a child in 1869. While only taking the life of a single victim, her crime was regarded as particularly heinous as that victim was her own newborn baby, not only killed but mutilated by its mother.

Kate Webster

Our next murderess, the Irish servant Kate Webster was found guilty of killing her mistress Julia Thomas in 1879. While she also  committed but a single homicide, she’s remembered for the particularly grisly details shared in her trial regarding her disposition of Thomas’ body.  Webster’s trial was such a sensation that Gustav, Crown Prince of Sweden, traveled to Britain for the trial, and Madame Tussaud displayed her figure in the Chamber of Horrors for nearly six decades.

The unspeakable deeds of our next criminal are recorded in the 1843 ballad, “Mary Arnold, the Female Monster.”  The less said here about this abomination the better as it may be the most horrific account related in the history of our show.

Our final segment opens with a snippet from another ballad,  “Mrs. Dyer the Baby Farmer,” as sung by Eliza Carthy. In 1896 Amelia Dyer was executed in London for the murder of a single child, though many more deaths were suspected during her 17 years working as a “baby farmer.”

Dyer is the most notorious example of this shady practice by which mothers arranged adoption of illegitimate or unwanted children with mercenary caregivers.  The sum paid, being was a relatively low fee affordable to lower class women, was therefore not realistically expected to sustain the child for long. For this reason, infants thus abandoned, tended to be poorly fed, or outright starved, quieted with gin, or even killed, the last being the case made against Amelia Dyer.

We close with a snippet of the ballad heard earlier, in this case sung  by Derek Lamb.

Amelia Dyer
Who Put the Hell in Helloween?

Who Put the Hell in Helloween?

During the Satanic Panic, the notion of Halloween as a Satanic High Holy Day came to prominence, but the elements necessary to this mythology were set in place much earlier.

This episode focuses particularly on the early years of Wicca, some missteps in disassociating  the movement from Satanism, and early evangelical personalities spinning “ex-Satanist” yarns from this material, which is to say, we focus particularly on the 1960s Occult Revival  up to and including 1973. To set the mood for the era’s pop occultism, we hear some audio snippets by records released by witches, Louise Huebner, Gundella the Green Witch,  Barbara the Gray Witch, and Babetta, the Sexy Witch.

Barbara the Gray Witch
Back of Barbara the Gray Witch 1970 LP

We first have a quick look at Anton Lavey’s creation of The Church of Satan in 1966. While this sketched out cartoonish tropes of  the Panic narrative, Lavey’s carnival-barker style and insistence that there was no actual Satan in his school of Satanism, undermined the influence he might have among all but the most credulous and paranoid.

The real roots of the Panic lay not in Lavey’s publicity stunt, which in the wider historical context was a mere flash in the pan, but in a much older idea conceiving witchcraft and Devil worship or traffic with demons, a notion that held sway for more than seven centuries and therefore not to be quickly rooted out by modern Wiccans.

Some of the sticking points here are rooted in 19th and early 20th century writings on witchcraft by the American folklorist Charles Leland and British Egyptologist Margaret Murray, and their “witch-cult” concept regarding witchcraft as an underground survival of ancient pagan religion.  Problematic here too were their identification of the deities of this religion as “Lucifer” (Leland) and “The Horned God” (Murray).

We then turn to Gerald Gardner, the British civil servant, who in his retirement got the whole Wiccan ball rolling, declaring in the early 1950s, that he had been initiated into the ancient mysteries of this witch-cult by members of a surviving Coven in the New Forest region.  In particular, we examine the way in which Gardner’s emphasis on UK traditions within Wicca, strengthened an association between Halloween and witches (despite virtually no mention of witch gatherings actually occurring on Halloween in earlier historical writings).

Sibyl Leek
Sibyl Leek and her jackdaw “Mr. Hotfoot”

We then have a brief look at Sybil Leek, first acolyte of Gardnerian Wicca in the US, and darling of 1960s journalists. (Leek was profiled in our 2019 Halloween episode, “All of Them Witches.”) As the United States was the birthplace of the modern Halloween, Leek’s insatiable engagement with the press around that time, did much to strengthen the idea of Halloween as a singularly important time for witch gatherings and ritual.  She also provides Halloween recipes!

By the 1960s, Wicca had branched into two paths, Gardnerian and Alexandrian, the latter named for the British witch Alex Sanders, who with his wife Maxine, headed a coven in London. Sanders has much to do with continued confusion between Wicca and Devil-worship thanks to his indiscriminate pursuit of media interest inclined to titillate audiences with the old diabolic model. We discuss his involvement with the British band Black Widow and their Satanic sacrifice stage-show, publicity involvement in the film Eye of the Devil (1966) , and his feature role in the documentary Legend of the Witches (1970) and mondo “documentary” Secret Rites (1971).

Sanders Secret Rites
Sanders in “Secret Rites”

Just as Wicca originated in the UK, only later to be embraced in the US. fraudulent ex-Satanist testimonies were first told in Britain. In 1970 Bristol-born Doreen Irvine began relating stories of her involvement in the occult, tales that took their final form in her  1973 publication From Witchcraft to Christ.  We hear a bit of her tale of teenage street-life, drugs, and prostitution leading to Satanism, her claims to curious supernatural abilities, and her crowning as the “Queen of the Black Witches” on the Dartmoor moor.  As well as her warnings about celebrating Halloween.

While the ex-Satanist narrative, never really caught on in the UK, it hit the big time with American Mike Warnke’s 1972 book purporting to document his experiences in Satanism, The Satan Seller.

Mike Warnke
Mike Warnke in his early days.

While Warnke’s fraudulent stories garnered him celebrity in the early days of the modern evangelical movement, by the late 1970s, he had reinvented himself as a popular Christian comedian.  He did, however, revisit the theme once the Satanic Panic got rolling, with the 1979 release of the album “A Christian Perspective on Halloween.”

We hear his Satan Seller narrative of a good Midwestern boy corrupted by drugs in a California college, eventual elevation to High Priest within global Satanic underworld, eventual self-destruction through drugs leading to a stint with the Navy, during which he’s saved. Along the way, are some bizarre details about his fingernails, strange ordinations in real-world sects, and eventual exposure and fall within the evangelical community.

Another evangelical making the rounds with ex-Satanist stories in in Warnke’s day was John Todd, who began spinning his yars tales around 1968 in Phoenix. We only briefly discuss Todd as he really hits his stride outside our timeframe, namely, in  the late ‘70s when his story of involvement in a Satanic underworld reached its greatest audience via Jack Chick comics.

We wrap up the show with a look at some early collaborators with Warnke in the the occult fear-mongering business — David Balsiger, Morris Cerrullo, and Hershel Smith (AKA “the Skin Eater) as well as their collaboration on the legendary “Witchmobile,” an “anti-occult mobile unit” that roamed the US and Canada from 1972 to 1974.

Witchmobile
Herschel Smith and the Witchmobile
The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

The Seeress: Germanic Tribes, Vikings, and Witches

In pagan Germanic cultures, the seeress played an extremely important role, not only as a clairvoyant, but also often fulfilling the role of a priestess, wisewoman or witch.

We begin with a short clip from Robert Eggers’ The Northman, in which Björk plays a seeress.  Old Norse words used to describe this role include spákona, or völva (pl. völvur, völur) — the last meaning “staff bearer,” as a staff was a signifying attribute of the völva, one possibly also used as a magic wand.  Staffs discovered in graves of certain high-status women, as suggested by luxurious grave goods, suggest these individuals may have been völvur.  We hear some details regarding such discoveries in Denmark and Sweden.

wands
Wands (grave-goods) believed to belong to seeress. Danish National Museum.

Next we provide a quick overview of the Nordic magic that may have been part of the völva‘s repertoire.  Two Old Norse designations for witchcraft  are galdr and seiðr (Anglicized as seidr).  The latter has more to do with spoken or sung charms, and the latter most prominently with control of mental states but can also involve manipulation of physical realities.

We also address briefly the notion that, like the sibyls of the Classical world, the völva likely entered a trance in order to produce her utterances. Drumming is popularly associated with this, as it is central to the shamanic practice of the Sammi people on the northern and eastern fringes of Scandinavia and Lapland.

The first accounts we have of völvur come from Roman encounters with Germanic peoples on Europe’s mainland. A particularly important account we hear comes from Tacitus’ Histories, in which he describes a seeress by the name of Veleda, who guided the Bructeri tribe through their conflicts with the Romans.  We also hear about a sacred grove of the Germans, one likely described to Tacitus by a Germanic priestess by the name of Ganna during her visit to Rome.

Veleda
Illustration of Veleda and Romans from Alois Schreiber, Teutschland und die Teutschen (1823)

We also hear from the Greek historian Strabo, who in his Geographic portrays female seers of the Cimbri people, sacrificing prisoners of war, bleeding them, and telling fortunes from their entrails. Mrs. Karswell provides a lovely reading of this passage.

The earliest of our Scandinavian texts. one written anonymously probably around 960, is the Völuspá,  (literally: “the prophecy of the völva).  In the narrative the seeress in question is sought out by Odin himself, a dynamic testifying to the importance of the völva in Germanic culture.

Odin and the Völva
Odin and the Völva by Karl Gjellerups, from Det kongelige Bibliotek, 1895

A particular episode in this epic poem features a seeress by the name of Gullveig (later changed to Heidr) who is attacked by the gods in Odin’s hall, an event leading to the war between the two divine races, the Aesir and Vanir. It’s speculated that this seeress may be the narrator of the prophecies recounted in the poem.

Probably the most finely detailed account of the völva’s  activities in the real comes from the 13th-century Saga of Erik the Red.  Its description emphasizes the honor with which the seeress was treated while visiting farmsteads to relate her prophecies.  It also notes the use of galdr (singing magic) and lavishly details the special attire worn by a seeress.

Our next selected episode featuring a völva comes from the 13th-century Icelandic saga, the Saga of Örvar-Odd, a name translated usually as “Arrow-Odd”. This one  involves the seer’s prophecy of an inescapable fate involving a horse.

Our final story of a Nordic witch is from Gesta Danorum or”Deeds of the Danes,” a 12th-century chronicle of the country by Saxo Grammaticus.  It features a witch who transforms herself into a walrus at a critical moment and a body that really needs to be buried.

We close with some audio snippets from  Freyia Norling, a modern practitioner of seidr, who from her home in the Arctic Circle, hosts the intriguing YouTube Channel “A Discovery of Nordic Witches.

The Dead Lover’s Heart

The Dead Lover’s Heart

Whether freshly removed or strangely preserved after death, the dead lover’s heart occasionally has continued to be embraced as a repository of intensely shared romantic experience. This Valentine’s Day episode explores two different narratives touching on that theme: a historical tale from the 19th-century literary culture of England and a collection of related medieval legends, literature, and song.

The first half of our episode looks at the strange circumstance surrounding the death, in 1822,  of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the postmortem keepsake inherited by his wife Mary Shelley.

Louis Fournier’s “The Funeral of Shelley,” 1889.

The second half examines two gruesome narratives taken from the 14th century, both from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, namely that of the ill-fated lovers Ghismonda & Guiscardo (First Story, Day Four) and of the tragic romantic exploits of Guilhem de Cabestaing (Ninth story, Day Four).  Incidentally, our Valentine’s Day show from last year also explores another gruesome tale from The Decameron.

De Cabestaing was an actual historical figure, a Catalan ministrel, whose fictional vida (biography) was often attached to collections of his ballads and served as Boccaccio’s inspiration.

We also look at the Ley of ’Ignaure, a chivalric romance written by the Burgundian French author, Renaud de Beaujeu, probably around the year 1200.  This was likely the source of Cabestaing’s vida, Boccaccio’s stories, and the English-Scottish ballad, “Lady Diamond,” from which we also hear a snippet.

"Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
“Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
A Christmas Ghost Story IV

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

In keeping with the old tradition of whiling away the nights of Christmas telling ghost stories, we bring you a tale published in 1912 by E.F. Benson.  Read by Mrs. Karswell, complete with sound FX and music as always.

If you’d like some additional listening of this type, we have three more recorded in previous years going back to 2018: Christmas Ghost Story III,  Christmas Ghost Story II, and Christmas Ghost Story I.

Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost Trains & Railway Terrors

Ghost trains and real-life railway terrors intermingle in this episode’s exploration of old train-wreck ballads, nervous and funereally obsessed Victorians, urban legends involving train deaths, and more.

Mrs. Karswell begins our show reading an imaginitive description of a phantom train written by George A. Sala for an 1855 edition of the magazine, Household Words, published by Charles Dickens (whose railroad connections we’ll be discussing).

Next we hear a bit of Vernon Dahhart’s 1927 ballad, “The Wreck of the Royal Palm,” describing an accident that had happened near Rockmart, Georgia the previous year. Other folk songs including gruesome railroad deaths are then explored. These include “In the Pines,” “The Wreck of the Old ‘97,” and “Wreck on the C&O,” including snippets from versions recorded by Lead Belly, Vernon Dalhart, and Ernest Stoneman respectively (with a reiteration of a line from “C&O,” by The Kossoy Sisters.) ** FOR MUSIC DETAILS SEE BELOW.

We next hear a bit about an obsession with dangerous trains expressing itself on London’s stages in theater productions of the mid-to-late 1800s.  One manifestation was the “sensation dramas” of the day, which presented trains and train wrecks on stage via highly developed stagecraft.  Another trend involving characters imperiled on railroad tracks was launched by the 1867 play, Under the Gaslight.  The 1923 play Ghost Train is also discussed.

Our attention turns back to Charles Dickens as we hear a vivid passage describing the death of the nemesis of his novel Dombey and Son, published as a serial between 1846 and 1848; it is literature’s first death by train.  Mention is also made of his classic ghost story, “The Signalman” from 1865.

Dickens’ ambivalent, and somewhat fearful, attitude toward the railroads seems to be rooted in the railways’ effect on the traditional patterns of life in Britain’s towns and villages, but also has roots in personal experience, namely as a passenger in the 1865 Staplehurst Disaster.  A train wreck that not only affected his literary themes, but his personal wellbeing for years to come.

We then switch gears to examine a few localized legends from American involving trains.  The first is the Maco Ghost Light encountered near the tiny North Carolina town of Maco Station and said to represent the lantern of an undead (and decapitated) railway worker. We also look at a legend from Texas, that of the San Antonia Ghost Tracks, in which aa alleged accident involving a school bus and train spawned reports of supernatural occurrences.

Another North Carolina legend examined involves an 1891 train accident on Bostian Bridge near the town of Statesville.  The ghost stories associated with the site recount appearances of the the doomed train on the anniversary of its accident.  The first of these is said to have happened on the 50th anniversary in 1941, but an even more terrifying encounter from 2010, on the 119th anniversary, is also discussed.

Beginning in 1872, seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, supernatural tales stories began to be told of the train that carried the dead president’s body through 12 cities in which he lay in state.  We hear just one of the stories published in The Albany Evening Times.

We then examine the musical phenomenon of songs that portray phantom trains as conveyances to the afterlife, in particular the gospel trope of Death as a Train that may arrive to unexpectedly whisk you off to the Great Beyond, thereby reminding listeners of the need to get right with God. An elaboration of this theme involves the Hell Train, driven by the Devil himself, one which takes those who refuse to make the afore-mentioned spiritual preparations. Included here are songs or song-sermons recorded by The Clinch Mountain Clan, The Carter Family, Rev. J. M. Gates, Rev. H.R. Tomlin, Rev. A.W. Nix, Chuck Berry, and Gin Gillette.

The episode ends with a look at the not terribly successful embalming of Abraham Lincoln prior to his his funeral tour, punctuated by a snippet from “In the Pines” AKA “The Longest Train” by Dead Men’s Hollow.

** NOTE: a streaming library of the numerous songs featured in this episode, along with some additional songs of similar themes, is available to those who join our Patreon as supporters before December 1.

 

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.

 

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.