Bone and Sickle is a celebration of the intersection of horror, folklore, and history. Every episode offers a bounty of frightful tales, fantastic legends, and macabre historical anecdotes harvested by eccentric artist, collector, and rogue folklorist Al Ridenour. Dramatized readings of historical texts by co-host Sarah Chavez unfold within an immersive ever-shifting soundscape of original music, old folk ballads, intricately layered effects, and audio clips from horror films both classic and campy. Ridenour’s source books, though real enough, are said to be pulled from a vast private library of antiquarian tastes, part of a manor-house environment in the neighborhood of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Managing the estate with undue passion is Mrs. Karswell, whose voice can be heard in the program reading from various historical sources cited. The family misfortunes that have landed Karswell in Ridenour’s service are part of greater plan known to her through interior whisperings and private rituals of dubious validity. Under another name, Mrs. Karswell hosted a podcast called “Cabinet of Curiosities” long before Aaron Mahnke made use of the title.
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.
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.
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 mo...
A dybbuk is a “clinging spirit” of Jewish folklore, a ghost that can possess a human host.
Stories of dybbuks (pl. dibbukim in Hebrew for sticklers) date to the 16th century but have never traditionally included the idea of trapping a dybbuk in a box, a trope that only dates to a 20o3 eBay ad placed by a Portland antique refinisher Kevin Mannis. Although Mannis would later confess to having made up his listing’s backstory as a sort of creative experiment, the box has continued to be the center of an evolving mythology advanced first by its 2003 buyer, Jason Haxton. In 2016, the box was purchased by Ghost Adventure‘s TV personality Zak Bagans, for display in his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. We open the show with some clips from a July 2020 episode in which Bagans opens the box.
The dybbuk-in-a-box trope was also furthered by the “based on a true story” 2012 horror film, The Possession, for which Mannis and Haxton served as consultants. We hear a clip from that film as well as a clip from the ridiculous 2009 dybbuk-without-a-box film The Unborn. The 2015 Polish film (in English and Polish) Demon is also recommended as a more traditionally European take on the dybbuk folklore, thanks in part to its incorporation of a wedding motif.
The idea of a dybbuk appearing at a wedding is borrowed from a classic 1937 film from Poland, The Dybbuk, a cinematic adaptation of Russian ethnographer S. Ansky’s highly successful 1914 play by the same name. Described as a sort of Romeo and Juliet meets The Exorcist, this classic of Yiddish theater was first performed in Warsaw in 1920, but was quickly was translated into dozens of languages and performed throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, popularizing this previously obscure figure of Yiddish or Ashkenazi folklore.
The story of the dybbuk begins with a 16th-century explosion of incidents in Safed (Tsfat) a mountain city in Northern Israel considered one of Judaism’s four holiest cities thanks to its role in the development of the Kabbalah and the particularly saintly occupants of its hillside cemetery.
The first and foremost figure in Safed’s association with Kabbalah is Isaac Luria, whose teachings are recorded by his student Chaim Vital in The Tree of Life, foundational text of Lurianic Kabbalism, the dominant school of Kabbalistic thought since the 16th century. Luria’s school converted Safed into a sort of spiritual hothouse, characterized by extremes of devotion, asceticism, and visionary experience — an environment that has been tied to the proliferation of dybbuk encounters recorded in 16th-century Safed.
Of these Safed accounts, we hear two lengthier narratives said to have transpired in 1571 and 1572 read by Mrs. Karswell, Without revealing too much that could spoil the stories, there are a few commonalities worth noting — the fact that dybbuks have a strange method of leaving their human host and that their hosts needn’t always be human.
We also learn the Kabbalistic explanation for the dybbuks compulsion to take a human host. It’s related to the notion of gilgul, or transmigration of souls, a process which ideally moves from lower forms to higher as ordered by the principle of tikkun olam, the “repair of the world,” or rectification.
A brief story from Chaim Vital’s spiritual autobiography, Book of Visions, illustrates a phenomenon paralelling that of the dybbuk, namely, the ibbur, the spirit of a good but still to be perfected individual,
Ashtar, Orthon, and the Rosicrucians
Messages delivered by the extraterrestrials Ashtar and Orthon to Contactees of the 1950s represented a sort of repackaging of 19th-century Theosophy, a philosophical descendent of the Rosicrucianism of the 1700s.
After our previous epiosde examining George King of the Aetherius Society, this episode looks at two other Georges of the Contactee movement, George van Tassel (channeler of Ashtar) and George Adamski (allegedly visited by Orthon).
We begin with a look at George van Tassel’s pre-Contactee life in Southern California during which he worked in aviation, a path that led to him taking ownership of a tiny airstrip in the nearby desert, Giant Rock Airport, named for the landmark boulder beside it.
We hear about van Tassel’s early involvement in a metaphysical group, The Brotherhood of the Cosmic Christ, and his progression into channeling messages from Space People. By 1953, he claimed to have encountered a Venusian by the name of Solganda, who welcomed him into his space craft. We hear some amusing details revealed in interviews with the Contactee-friendly radio host Long John Nebel. (Nebel’s late-night show, Partyline, out of New York anticipated paranormal shows like Art Bell’s Coast to Coast and are well worth checking out.)
Chief among the Space People van Tassel claimed to contact was Ashtar, whose messages were largely devoted to warnings about humanity’s ill-fated dabbling with nuclear weapons. Strangely, messages from Ashtar began to be received by other channelers even in van Tassel’s day, and he continues to be channeled in New Age circles to this day.
We also hear about the Giant Rock Spacecraft conventions van Tassel hosted from 1953 to 1977, and about the Integratron, a domed construction van Tassel claimed would function as a sort of time machine or rejuvenator of the human body. Unsurprisingly, the plans for the latter were provided by the Space People.
We next look at the first Contactee to supposedly meet a being from space, George Adamski. His connection to Theosophy is particularly obvious and is illustrated through newspaper excerpts read by Mrs. Karswell, in which Adamski represents himself as an esoteric teacher from Tibet or Egypt (take your pick).
While continuing to publish metaphysical pamphlets in the late ’40s, Adamski was becoming more obsessed with space, including both astronomy and astral experiences of a more cosmic nature. He relocated to a camp owned by one of his students at the base of Mount Palomar, where he set up a telescope and was sometimes mistaken by visitors to the famous observatory on Palomar’s peak as a professional associate of the astronomers (something he actively encouraged).
After producing, the first of his UFO photos in 1947, and 1950, Adamski arranged a saucer scouting expedition with friends and students, during which he claimed to have met Orthon. We hear Adamski himself describe this meeting to Long John Nebel and about some curious clues and photographs left in Orthon’s wake — including the much debated bell-shaped flying saucer photos published in his 1953 book, The Flying Saucers Have Landed.
Even at the height of his fame, rumors swirled within the flying saucer community that Adamski was a fraud, but alongside this are slightly mitigating reports by acquaintances that he occasionally confessed as much, while pleading that it was all in support of redemptive spiritual truths.
Oddly, perhaps — this brings us to the Rosicrucians, a movement influential upon Theosophy, and one founded upon a sort of hoax, more or less confessed to by its founder, the German Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreae.
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.
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.
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 pr...
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Well researched and deeply fasinating
Al Ridenour creates one of the best podcasts about the weird and horrific folklore. Absolute must listen if you are into bleeding saints, forest witches, or old rituals.
Funny, spooky, and highly researched! 10/10! 👍🏼
An excellent podcast that focuses on less mainstream folkloric topics. Each episode is highly researched, and paired with an excellent unique soundscape. Al Ridenour’s witty presentation style weaves humor into each episode, but the show can always take a turn and become especially chilling! e.g. The Dybbuk episode. The Patreon bonus episodes are amazing as well!
Podcasting at its best
While most of my podcast listening is political or politics adjacent, my first (and still favorite) podcast subscription was Bone & Sickle. The “intertwining of horror and folklore from a historical context” angle proves to be an incredibly enjoyable way to discover and understand works of art from centuries past to the current day. I’m bowled over by the depth of research invested in bringing to life topics I know little to nothing about, and the style and humor with which each episode’s subject is explored is why this is my most eagerly anticipated semi-monthly download.