131 episodes

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.

Bone and Sickle Al Ridenour

    • History
    • 4.8 • 276 Ratings

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.

    The Dark Art of Ventriloquism

    The Dark Art of Ventriloquism

    While the dummies may be inherently creepy, they were not the source of  ventriloquism’s dark reputation in earlier times. This originates with the understanding that the voice heard, when no mouth seems to speak, belongs to a demon.

    We begin with a bit of audio mixing bits from various frightful ventriloquist films, including Devil Doll (1964), Magic (1978), and the earliest example of the sub-genre The Great Gabbo (1929).  Also adding to the mix, is a scene from the 1945 British anthology, Dead of Night, the head-and-shoulders stand-out among these, offering a truly satisfying wraparound story and use of ventriloquist and wooden colleague.

    Perhaps a third of our episode is dedicated to detailing the accounts of mysterious voices emerging from the possessed as documented in pamphlets and broadsheets of 16th- and 17th-century England. Witches are frequently involved, not as the ventriloquist themselves but as those who’ve sent these talkative demons into the bodies of  their victims.  One exception discussed is that of 16th-century case of Elizabeth Barton, also known as “The Holy Maid of Kent” or “The Nun of Kent,” in whose case, the voice happens to be divine rather than demonic.







    Several linguistic issues are discussed along the way, including the source of the word “ventriloquist” from the Latin “venter” meaning belly (or more broadly “insides,” gut, or even womb) and “loqui,” meaning, “to speak.”  While to many, the mysterious voices was understood to issue from the demoniac’s belly, other writers looked for a means of trickery employed, focusing on the Hebrew word “ov” taken from the Old Testament story of the “Witch of Endor,”in which  King Saul, seeks out a medium who can foretell the outcome of his imminent battle with the Philistines.  The future, in this story, is revealed by the spirit of the prophet Samuel, summoned from the dead.  (The Witch of Endor is also discussed in our 2018 “Ancient Necromancy” episode).



    This necromancer of Endor, is identified in many translations as “a woman who has a familiar spirit,” but in fact, the original Hebrew only describes her as a  ba’alat ov, literally meaning “mistress” or “possessor of the ov.”  The mysterious word can be used to designate a bottle or wineskin, a meaning some have used to paint the medium at Endor as a fake, employing a sort of bottle or bottle-like device acoustically to create an illusion of voice emerging from elsewhere, but the word also has a clearly supernatural meaning in other contexts, one fairly well matched by “familiar.”



    Skeptical Protestants likely engaged in their tortured interpretations of the term “ov” as a ventriloquist’s prop thanks to the Greek translation of this story with which they were already better acquainted.  Around the middle of the 3rd century BCE, when Greek was more widely spoken among the Jewish Diaspora than Hebrew, this widely circulated translation (known as the Septuagint) designated the necromancer at Endor as an engastrimythia, literally, “one who has words in his belly.



    Around the 1st century, as we hear from Plutarch, the Greek and Latin terms for “belly-speaker” were beginning to be swapped out for Pythia, Python/Pythonesse, or “one who has the spirit of Python.”  All of these refer to the ancient world’s most famous diviner, through whom a supernatural voice spoke, the Oracle (or Pythia) of Delphi.  The temple to Apollo where she served was said to be the site where that god slew the monster Python, and hence that name,”Pythia,” was applied both to the location and its resident soothsayer.



    A vapor said to rise from a cleft within the rocks at Delphi was often said to be the source of her inspirati...

    • 51 min
    The Mesmerist

    The Mesmerist

    Our understanding of hypnotism, once known as “mesmerism,”  has radically evolved over the centuries. This episode looks at where it all began, examining the  fascinating (and rather weird) story of the 18th-century German doctor, Franz Anton Mesmer, after whom “mesmerism” is named.

    We begin, with a look at the mesmerist’s sinister reputation in the 19th century, as reflected in the British writer George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Trilby.  While the book’s named for its protagonist, Trilby O’Ferrall, an Irish girl working as a model in a British artist’s colony in Paris, her nemesis is better known, namely, her vocal instructor, Svengali, an Eastern European musician whose hypnotic powers not only propel the aspiring singer to stardom  but also come to dominate and ruin her life.  We look at the novel’s forgotten popularity in its day, the phenomenon of “Trilbyana,” and the book’s cinematic adaptations,  including the 1931 film, Svengali, with John Barrymore in the title role.  Along the way, we note some surprising parallels with more prominently gothic novels and films.

    Beginning with Mesmer’s dubious scholarship at the University of Vienna, we make an attempt to untangle his concept of “animal magnetism,” describing  an invisible, dynamic fluid, comparable to the “cosmic magnetism” that guides the planets, but particular to “animals” (i.e., creatures sharing an “animus” (L) or animating spirit.

    We particularly focus on Mesmer’s experiences  while in Hungary, where in 1775  he was summoned by a Baron Horeczky de Horka, who hoped the German doctor’s new form of therapy might succeeds where treatments of his condition by others had failed. We hear of several curious incidents occurring in the castle, which were documented in detail  the family tutor and interpreter Herr Seifert, who had observed Mesmer with a skeptical fascination, expecting the man  to be a charlatan.

    We next look at Mesmer’s return to Vienna where he attempted the cure of Marie Paradies, a talented musician blind since the age of three who mingled with the musical elites of her city and was regarded with favor by the Imperial court.

    As the results here were dubious at best, we then follow Mesmer on his escape to Paris, where he becomes a faddish celebrity. Mrs. Karswell reads for us a lengthy descriptions of his “magnetic salons,” as observed by a Scottish physician, John Grieve, during a visit to Paris in 1784.  During that same year, however, Mesmer’s increasing fame drew the attention of the state, and his techniques were the subject of two Commissions called by Louis XVI.  The results were unfortunate for Mesmer but provide listeners with some tasty descriptions of the collective madness involved in those salons.

    We  then have a look at the connection between Mesmer and the Mozarts (primarily father Leopold but to some extent also his musical Wunderkind, Wolfgang,) and here we note Mozart and Mesmer’s mutual fondness for the glass harmonica — Ben Franklin’s invention consisting of a series of glass bowls of descending size mounted on a horizontal spindle, rotated by a foot treadle and played with a wetted finger. While Mesmer considered its sound to have healing “magnetic” properties, others regarded the unearthly sounds with suspicion, and so we hear a bit of lore about the  glass harmonica’s “cursed” (and even lethal) reputation during the 18th century.

    The show closes with a charming story about a canary kept by the great mesmerist until the day of his death, which is also described.

    NOTE: This episode also references the new publication, We Need to Talk About Death, a book by our very own Sarah Chavez, which is now a href="https://www.amazon.

    • 51 min
    Banshees (Encore Presentation)

    Banshees (Encore Presentation)

    Banshees are spirits of Irish folklore, who warn of impending deaths.  Originally considered fairies, their Irish name, bean sídhe, means “woman of the mounds,” those mounds (sídhe) being the ancient burial mounds believed in Ireland to be the home of fairies.

    The banshee’s wailing, which betokens imminent death of a blood relative, is probably based upon the wailing of Irish mourners called “keeners,” from the Irish word caoineadh, or “lament.”  You can hear some snippets of traditional keeners in this segment, incliuding  a 1957 field recording released by Smithsonian Folkways.

    Next we look at how the banshee’s appearance and behavior derives in part from that of Irish keeners, including some odd details having to do with petticoats.  Her origins in the fairy world also has often suggested that she may be small of stature.  We also examine some folktales involving combs lost by or stolen from banshees, and what you should or should not do should you find one.



    While the banshee is attached strictly to particular families, she is not bound to the Emerald Isle.  We hear some accounts of her following travelers to other countries, including a surprising tale involving a party aboard an Italian yacht.

    The figure, as she’s known today, receives no mention in print until the 17th century.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us what is probably the earliest account, retelling an incident experienced by Lady and Sir Richard Fanshawe, an English ambassador and his wife visiting Ireland.

    This account also introduces the notion that a banshee may not originate in the fairy world, but may also be a vengeful ghost.  We hear another tale in this mode associated with Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, a location known for its “banshee room,” a feature duplicated in Shane’s Castle, about an hour to the south.  Both of these castle banshees are sometimes called “the red sisters,” so named for the color of their hair.

    After a brief side trip to make note of figures similar to the banshee in Scotland (the caoineag) and Wales, the cyhyraeth and gwrach y rhibyn, we turn to older figures of the fairy realm regarded as banshees, but rather different from the figure born in the Early Modern Period.

    The first of these is Clíodna, who was known as the queen of the banshees of southern Ireland, particularly the province of Munster. Unlike the modern banshee, a solitary figure who does little more than wail and make those well-timed appearances, Clíodna engages in romantic affairs, including a romantic rivalry with her banshee sister Aoibhell, a matter culminating in a magical battle with both transformed into cats.

    Aoibhell also appears in an important story about Brian Boru, founder of the O’Brian Dynasty, whose army defeats an alliance of Vikings and Irish lords fought at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin in 1014. While Boru’s forces are victorious, he and his son are visited by Aoibhell, who heralds their deaths not with a wail, but music played on her harp from the fairy world.  We hear a similar story about the Irish hero and demi-god Cúchulainn encoutering Aoibhell as a death omen.

    Cúchulainn also encounters a banshee-like figure of the type folklorists call, “the Washer at the Ford,” or in Celtic regions elsewhere, like Celtic Britanny, “the Midnight Washer.”  The figures appear at lonely bodies of water washing bloody shrouds, or often armor, as they are particularly inclined to predict the deaths of soldiers and armies. We hear a particularly splendid account of one such figure from the 12th-century Triumphs of Torlough — one, which in its generous use of horrific adjectives sounds as if it were written by H.P. Lovecraft.

    • 37 min
    Glass-Coffin Girls

    Glass-Coffin Girls

    The story of Snow White, as told by the Brothers Grimm, is only one of many narratives involving girls who have fallen into a deathlike state and are displayed in a glass coffins. In this episode, we examine the sordid details of the Grimm’s original 1812 version of the tale and compare it with analogous stories  dating back to the 12th century.

    We begin with a review of the Grimms’ original story, many aspects of which have been subsequently muddled and obscured not only by Disney but by later alterations made by the Grimms. These include the identify of the Evil Queen, the malevolence of her intent, the purported benevolence of the Huntsman, and particularly, the nature of Snow White’s resurrection.

    After  this, we have a look  at the immediate predecessor to the 1812 story, a children’s play of the same name by the (unrelated) German author Albert Ludwig Grimm. Though it  features dwarves who aid Snow White, a magic mirror addressed in rhyme, poisoned fruit, deception involving the heroine’s purported death, and glass coffin, it proves to be a very different story.

    The next tale explored is the 1782 novella Richilde, by the German writer Johann Karl August Musäus.  Surprisingly, the title character here, Richilde, is the wicked stepmother rather than her step-daughter Bianca, whose name in Italian (i.e., “white”) might be compared to “Snow White.” Set in medieval Brabant (Belgium), this one has Bianca courted by a prince whom the jealous stepmother hopes to see married to her own daughter.  A further complication is presented by the fact that the prince here is already married.

    We then take a look at the rarely mentioned Russian story,  “The Tale of the Old Mendicants,”  (my translation) published in the 1794 collection, An Old Song in a New Setting, or a Complete Collection of Ancient Folk Tales, Published for a lover of them, at the expense of the Moscow merchant Ivan Ivanov (my translation). In this one, the role of the Evil Queen is played by an innkeeper jealous that her guests have complimented the beauty of her daughter rather than her own. The alms-collecting monks of the title are used by the mother to deliver a poisoned shirt to the Snow White character, Olga the Beautiful.

    Our next offering comes from the 1634 volume by Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile,  Il Pentamerone, or The Tale of Tales, the very first collection of fairy tales, with which the Brother Grimm were definitely familiar (and one featured in our earlier “Dark Fairy Tales” episodes, both One and Two ). The  story in question is “The Little Slave,” which combines elements of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Here, the Snow White character, Lisa, again falls into a death-like swoon and is kept within not one but seven glass coffins in a locked room. The story resolves itself with the aid of a doll, a whetstone, and a knife.

    Our earliest story paralleling Snow White, is quite a bit older — from the 12th-century,  the Lai of Eliduc by Breton writer Marie de France. While serving a king in England, the Breton knight Eliduc  falls in love with his lord’s  daughter, Guillardun, who falls into a swoon during an ocean voyage.  Eliduc (who is not exactly innocent when it comes to Guillardun’s condition) transports the body of his love back to France and keeps it on the altar of a deserted woodland chapel.  In this case, the story resolves itself thanks to a very clever weasel.

    • 52 min
    Announcement: Audio Fixed on Previous Show

    Announcement: Audio Fixed on Previous Show

    A few listeners commented that Mrs. Karswell’s dialogue was muffled at points in “Sorcery Schools of Spain.”  That  episode is now updated with a corrected version. Thanks for letting us know.



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    • 38 sec
    Sorcery Schools of Spain

    Sorcery Schools of Spain

    For centuries, Spain was said to be the home of secret, underground sorcery schools, Toledo being the first city with this reputation and later Salamanca.  The notoriety of the latter was more enduring, and when the legend passed to Spanish colonies of the New World, the word, “Salamanca” was embraced as a generic term for any subterranean location said to be the meeting place of witches. We begin the show with a clip from the 1975 Argentine film Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf, which depicts just such a place.

    A particularly early reference to this concept can be found in a romanticized 12th-century  biography of a particularly interesting character, a French pirate and mercenary  Eustace the Monk.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a passage written by an anonymous poet of  Picardy, who describes Eustace’s occult schooling in the city of Toledo.  Along with this we hear  as a passage from a 1335 Tales of Count Lucanor by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, which adds another element to the legend, that of its underground location.

    Curiously, a number of Spanish cities claim as their founder the Greek demigod Hercules, but in Toledo, he’s also credited with founding this school of magic, excavating a subterranean space in which he imparts his supernatural knowledge, at first in person, and later in the form of a magically animated sculpted likeness. Another Toledan legend, was later blended into this mythology.  It’s the story in the Visigoth King Roderick, Spain’s last Christian ruler makes a discovery prophesying his defeat by the Moors in 711 CE. Along with a parchment foretelling this, Roderick exploration of this enchanted palace or tower results in the discovery of the Table of Solomon, a construction of gold, silver, and jewels also attributed with occult powers.  Legends detailing this are believed to be of Arabic origin, first recorded in the 9th century and later appearing in One Thousand and One Nights.  In later Spanish retellings, the treasure house is conflated with the Cave of Hercules, and the fall of Spain to the Moors is attributed to Roderick breaking of a spell woven by Hercules, to keep North African invaders at bay.

    By the 16th century, this site (now identified as an ancient Roman structure underlying Toledo’s church of San Ginés) had inspired such wild tales that Cardinal Juan Martinez Siliceo organizes a 1547 expedition into a subterranean space in hopes of putting the rumors to rest, but it hardly succeeded at that. Mrs. Karswell reads a dramatic 1625 account of that misadventure.

    While talking bronze heads and magic mirrors were being added to descriptions of the Toledo site, in the late medieval period, similar legends began to be told in Salamanca. Being the site of one of Europe’s most ancient universities in a time when scholars were not infrequently misunderstood as magicians, legends of this sort would naturally be associated with  Salamanca.  But unlike the universities of Paris, Padua, and Bologna, Salamanca’s location in Spain made it a center of Moorish learning and the study of Arabic texts filled with strange calligraphy, figures and charts readily passing for books of magic.

    As Salamanca’s reputation emerged later, in an era after the witch trials had begun, instruction no longer was provided by a figure from classical mythology but from the Devil, one of his demons, or a professor or student in league with the Dark One. A favorite character filling this role was the Marqués de Villena, a scholar who’d written books on alchemy and the evil eye. Villena appears in a number of literary works of the era, both in Europe and the New World.  In the 1625 play, The Cave of Salamanca, by Mexican dramatist Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Villena figures into a scenario that became fairly standard in Salamanca stories, one involving the Devil’s payment for the lessons ...

    • 51 min

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5
276 Ratings

276 Ratings

Iamcoolv123(909) ,

Excellent

This is by far my favorite podcast. I love it. Ridenour is a great writer and this show makes me laugh out loud sometimes. It’s super interesting and well worth the listen.

MadLove2001! ,

Just the best

This is my all time favourite podcast.
It’s creepy and educational!

drea perk vador ,

hidden gem of a podcast

So glad I found this podcast! So well researched and with excellent production. Thank you!

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