Lore Report: “Whistle While You Work” (Episode 120)

Note: I’ve fallen a bit behind with this feature, but it’s time for me to get back on track with my reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s acclaimed podcast…

Yes, caves and mines might hold the riches we seek, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. There might be mysteries to dust off, or superstitions to pay attention to, but they contain a powerful warning: be careful how deep you dig, because you never know what you might find.

The 120th episode of Lore strikes the mother lode of narrative ore. Mahnke focuses on the profession of mining, establishing such subterranean delving as a pre-Industrial Age endeavor. Even more surprisingly, he details how mining was a spiritual activity for ancient cultures, who revered the precious substances (e.g. red ocher) unearthed as something sacred. Given such a mindset, it is not hard to fathom that miners across the world would fill caverns and underground tunnels with guardian spirits. Once again demonstrating an impressive knowledge of global folklore, Mahnke cites mining tales of mythological figures such as the German kobolds and the Australian Mondongs.

As a lover of American Gothic, I was especially pleased when Mahnke shifted the episode’s sights to the New World. As we have learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, people carry their supernatural beliefs with them when traveling to distant lands; that proves precisely the case here, as Mahnke discusses how Cornish immigrants transported their folklore to America. Stephen King’s 1987 novel might have brought tommyknockers to pop cultural prominence as undead extraterrestrial menaces, but long before then such figures (an Americanized version of Welsh “knockers”) were regarded as the spirits of dead miners, who sometimes served as an uncanny warning system for living workers.

With mines forming recurrent sites of “unexpected disaster and horrifying death,” it is little wonder that many haunting tales of mining accidents have accrued. Mahnke regales listeners with a dark gem of a story (concerning a ghostly emergency whistle) that traces back to an incident at a Minnesotan mine in the 1920’s. Episode 120, though, is not simply geared toward fearmongering; tommyknockers are considered as protective spirits more than punitive forces, figure deserving of respect and not just dread. The closing discovery alone–that such a thing as the Pennsylvanian “Society for the Relief and Support of Displaced Tommyknockers” actually existed–makes “Whistle While You Work” quite a rewarding listen.

 

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