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.
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.
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.
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...
Marvelous and Rare 2
We’re doing something different this time out.
As we are celebrating Bone and Sickle’s third anniversary on April 30, we’re taking a week or two off to rejuvenate and prepare new material for year four.
To fill the gap, we’re offering listeners a sample of the short bonus episodes all our $4-and-up Patreon subscribers hear every month. If you’d like to hear more in this format, another sample episode was released to our wider audience in September 2020.
We hope you enjoy this substitution, and if you do, might consider joining us on Patreon to hear more of the same.
We’ll be back later in May with a traditional Bone and Sickle Episode. Until then, happy May Day (and Walpurgisnacht) to you all!
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.
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.
Our discussion of the sea-draug begins with a clip from...
The Kraken and Other Marvels of the Northern Seas
The Kraken is only one of the monsters said to inhabit the storied northern seas of Scandinavia. This episode is the first of two that will examine fantastical nautical tales of these regions.
We begin with a bit of dialogue about the Kraken uttered by Davy Jones in Disney’s 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Man’s Chest. It’s particularly appropriate to our first theme: the Kraken (and a couple Kraken-adjacent creatures) as embodiments of the apocalypse. The first of these is probably never far from some listeners’ thoughts — Cthulhu. The second is the Norse World Serpent (a Sea Serpent), Jörmungandr.
Lovecraft’s creation, some scholars believe, may have been inspired by an 1830 poem “The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which we hear read by Mrs. Karswell. Of particular interest here is the way in which Tennyson associates the creature with the sort of epochal shift Lovecraft later represented in the rising of the Old Ones to claim the Earth for themselves.
Jörmungandr is a primary participant in the Norse End of the World or Ragnarök. We hear this described in a passage from the 13th-century Prose Edda. We also hear a more “light-hearted” tale in which Thor goes fishing for the World Serpent – hilarity ensues!
The earliest accounts of sea serpents (though not necessarily the Kraken) come from the Swedish writer Olaus Magnus, a 16th-century Archbishop of Uppsala. He not only populated his map of the northern seas, the Carta Marina (the first to represent the region) with illustrations of monsters, but described some common beliefs about the creatures in his 1555 book, History of the Northern People, from which he hear some passages focusing on sea serpents.
Hans Egede, Lutheran missionary to Greenland of Danish and Norwegian descent, provides our next account of a sighting, not secondhand lore as with Magnus, but a description of a creature he alleges to have seen himself on July 6, 1734. The passage we hear is from his 1745 publication, A Description of Greenland.
Then we come to the definitive source for our show’s topic, the Danish-Norwegian author and Lutheran bishop, Erik Pontoppidan. His work The Natural History of Norway, published in two volumes in 1752 and ’53 describes both serpentine monsters and the Kraken.
Regarding the former, he provides a wealth of information, from which we have extracted the more intriguing bits — sailors firing on sea serpents and serpents sinking ships, the creature’s disgusting method of attracting a meal of fish, the differences between sea serpents of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, preventative measures taken against these monsters, and an interesting use for sea serpent hide.
Where Pontoppidan turns his attention to the Kraken, the waters get murkier. It soon become clear that our current way of imagining the Kraken (formed largely by 19th-century illustrations and later media) may not apply. In an effort to “rationalize” this monster by comparison to natural creatures, Pontoppidan calls in a number of candidates: “polypi” (squid or other cephalopods) as well as starfish, a type of sea anemone, and even crabs. “Krabben” (a form of crab) even turns out to be a name equivalent to “Kraken” according to Pontoppidan. We also hear what we think of as tentacles referred to as “horns” or “antennae.”
One thing that remains clear in Pontoppidan’s descriptions (and perhaps more so in earlier accounts to be explored next time) is that the monster is very large, the largest animal of land or sea. We hear an account from The Natural History of Norway emphasizing this as well as some others highlighting the creature’s more off-putting habits.
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.
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.
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.
This podcast is really interesting. Provides well-researched overviews of folklore. Definitely a fun listen!
Splendid dark folklore podcast
Very solid production, just enough of a nod to ongoing episode plot to give the show a sense of continuity and a bit of fun, this one's a joy! Thank you Al :)
I love Bone and Sickle
Every episode is a treat