Tag Archives: macabre

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children



Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14
Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.

 


#13: Ancient Necromancy



Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


Episode 1: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 1



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Episode One of BONE & SICKLE is the first half of a two-parter about May Eve, Beltane, or as the Germans call it, Walpurgisnacht (“Walpurgis night“)  the night of St. Walburga, that and oh so much more!

Nearing the Borgo Pass. Tod Browning's Dracula.
Nearing the Borgo Pass. Tod Browning’s Dracula.
Advising against the journey. from Tod Browning's Dracula
Advising against the journey. from Tod Browning’s Dracula

It’s also about St. George’s Eve, and the conflation of the two in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and another kind of confusion in Lugosi’s 1931 film of the same name.

Along the way, we meet eccentric English churchman and scholar of folklore and occult, Montague Summers, who provides some interesting nuts and bolts on protecting oneself from evil spirits afoot on Saints George’s of Walburga’s nights.  (Sprigs of various herbs placed around doors and windows are a start.) We also learn of what appears to be a strange and little remarked upon money-making hobby Bram Stoker devised for Count Dracula, one referencing actual Romanian superstitions of the 1800s, all of which Stoker had studied up on before embarking on his novel.  (Do any readers of the novel remember the mysterious “blue flame” incident (something like a will-o’-the-wisp)?

Eccentric scholar Montague Summers
Eccentric scholar Montague Summers

We also discover what was apparently an early, discarded chapter from the novel Dracula, one rich in references to these earlier landmark works of the gothic genre, these being, Joseph Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Gottfried August Bürger’s 1844 poem Lenore, from which Stoker borrowed the epigraph, “The Dead travel fast” — both of which we’ll explore a bit.  Am\nd there’s even a little nod to Walpurgis night.

Illustration from Carmilla
Illustration from Carmilla
Lenora
Lenora