After all, life is full of surprises. But if you spend a bit of time studying history, you quickly learn that life is also full of darkness. Darkness, and an irrefutable truth: things that are too good to be true can sometimes turn out to be deadly.
Witchcraft is one of the most popular subjects of the Lore podcast, but in the latest episode host Aaron Mahnke takes a different angle of approach. Traveling back to 17th Century England and Scotland, Mahnke focuses on the witch-hunters themselves–now-notorious figures such as Matthew Hopkins and John Kincaid. Along the way, listeners learn of the unusual practices employed to identify witches, such as cruentation and pricking with a bodkin. What ultimately emerges is a portrait of remorseless hucksterism, of deadly frauds capitalizing on the rampant panic of the public. The episode is very informative, and the concluding segment’s narrative features a terrific plot twist, but “Blood Money”–which determinedly documents the deeds of historical con artists–isn’t terribly lore-ish (at least by the standards of this podcast).
But one story echoes this ancient belief in the returning hero more than any other. It’s not as famous as the rest, but it represents any entire nation oppressed under the thumb of a foreign ruler, and the hope they placed in their hero’s return. And to hear it, we’re going to need to travel to a land of limitless beauty and enduring pain: Ireland.
The latest installment of the Lore podcast is one that goes heavy on the exposition. Its first half plays like a history lesson, as narrator Aaron Mahnke traces the life story of the 16th Century Irish political figure Gerald Fitzgerald. Exiled from his homeland as a youth and pursued by his enemies (the agents of King Henry VIII), Fitzgerald developed a reputation for unlikely escapes from punishment and death. He accordingly became known as the “Wizard Earl” of Kildare (his open interest in alchemy only added to his mystique), and this Lore episode hits its stride when it delves into the story of Fitzgerald’s attempt to prove his magical powers to his wife–a demonstration that certainly puts her courage to the test. Mahnke also ties Fitzgerald into an Irish version of the “king under the mountain” legend, and recounts a tale (of the Wizard Earl’s ghostly return on horseback to Kilkea Castle every seven years) that sounds like something straight out of Gottfried August Burger or Washington Irving. For those who can get past the initial infodump, “Beyond the Pale” proves an episode rich in dark lore.
Archeologists call them “prone burials,” and the reason behind them is much less rational. These were burials driven by fear–fear that the person might come back to life. Like I said, it seems like an irrational motive, swapping out respect and reverence for supernatural fear. But if you spend any amount of time flipping through the pages of history, one thing becomes clear: they had very good reason to be afraid.
The Walking Dead stands as a modern phenomenon, but restless and ill-intentioned corpses have a rich history. The latest episode of the Lore podcast traces a representative sample, as host Aaron Mahnke invokes a wide range of cases from world folklore (China, India, Ghana, Ireland, etc.). Settling his focus on England, Mahnke shares a narrative involving the intriguingly labeled “hound priest.” The episode centers, though, on a malevolent revenant bedeviling Croglin Grange (in Cumberland County) in 1875–a tale as harrowing as any ever recounted on the podcast, and one worthy of Bram Stoker, M.R. James, or Stephen King. Replete with enlightening info (e.g. the ostensible logic behind prone burials) and gripping stories, “Deviation” is right on the mark in terms of what Lore does best.
Thankfully, history is full of stories that can enlighten us, and at the center of many are the very ingredients found inside that little hidden toolkit. They might grow right outside our door, but they’ve played a role in countless events that have shaped the course of human civilization. And along the way, they’ve become something more. All someone had to do, it seems, is pick their poison.
Episode 166 of the Lore podcast puts a special emphasis on the deadly. Starting with the hemlock cocktail forced on Socrates, host Aaron Mahnke traces an array of poisonings throughout world history. Some exotic concoctions are discussed, from the legendary Chinese gu to Sicily’s dreaded Aqua Tofana. Deaths accidental (the demise of silent-film actress Olive Thomas) and deliberate (those orchestrated by England’s first female serial killer) are recounted, but what keeps the episode from turning into just another true-crime podcast is Mahnke’s commitment to connecting the concept of poisoning to the folkloric. Brimming with interesting examples, “Toxic” is a narrative brew that Lore-lovers will have no problem swallowing.
But there’s one place in the world that straddles more than just two cultures. It also manages to walk the line between the past and the present in a powerful way, no matter how tragic or horrifying that past might be. And if you’re up for it, I’s like to take you there. Because the places where two worlds collide can also be the most frightening.
The Lore podcast tour of world folklore continues in episode 165 with a visit to the Channel Islands. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with a historical-background sketch that includes some surprising pieces of information, such as the Nazi occupation of the islands (and establishment of concentration camps there) during World War II. Throughout the episode, Mahnke posits the Channel Islands (located between Great Britain and Normandy) is a liminal space in more than a geographical sense. Focusing on the island of Guernsey, he recounts tales of fairy banquet tables, supernatural black dogs, and ghostly nocturnal screams along the beachfront. The most compelling story, though, is the concluding one, concerning a curious object known as the Rock That Sings and the deadly curse associated with it. Easily entertaining, “On the Line” is an episode that warrants prime placement in the listener’s queue.
But not every animal companion has been viewed as friendly. And if you dig through the past long enough, you’re bound to uncover a surprising fact. For one short chapter of human history, animals were seen as something more: some, it seems, were servants of the devil.
Episode 164 of the Lore podcast goes to the dogs (and cats and birds and rabbits). The topic is witches’ familiars–supernatural creatures believed to provide assistance/protection to practitioners of magic. Host Aaron Mahnke gives a fine overview of such otherworldly figures before bringing the discussion out of the realm of pure folklore and showing how (alleged) familiars have played an integral role in historical events. Mahnke details how familiars factored into the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials (somewhat surprisingly, no reference is made to the cat Salem in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), but he devotes most of the narrative focus to British examples (including a nobleman’s dog demonized by printing press propaganda during the English Civil War). A well-structured and fast-moving episode, “Loyal Companion” serves up a real treat to faithful followers of the podcast.
The written language. The light bulb. Space Travel. We people are a lot of things, but persistent is at the top of the list. But every quality has a darker side. Yes, our refusal to give up might have empowered our growth as a species, but it’s also driven us to do things that aren’t as easy to brag about. Because sometimes that persistence has turned us into monsters.
A favorite topic of the Lore podcast is picked up again in Episode 163: the witchcraft trial. Host Aaron Mahnke takes us back to the Massachusetts town of Newbury circa 1680, where a farmer named Caleb Powell (who spoke a little too freely of his knowledge of astrology) was arrested as a wizard. Powell was ultimately spared from execution or imprisonment, but then the woman whose family he supposedly bedeviled, Elizabeth Morse, was herself arrested and put on trial as a suspected witch (during the course of the story, Mahnke also delves into the countermagic practice of nailing a horseshoe above a threshold, and shares the purported origins of such superstitious endeavor). The episode’s overarching theme does feel a bit forced (as is the podcast’s wont), “persistence” here referencing the Newbury community’s commitment to persecution. One also might wish that the discussion of the Marblehead-born prophetess Moll Pitcher (whose history proves richer and more interesting than that of Powell and Morse) wasn’t just shoehorned into the concluding segment. Nevertheless, this anecdote-saturated episode (Mahnke spends little time on historical overview before jumping into the tales) requires no persistent struggle; lore-loving listeners will be eager to follow its narrative path.
Fairy tales help us dream of a better life, teaching us that brighter days lay ahead. But where there is light, there are also shadows; where there are people, there are problems. And wherever there are stories of happiness, there are also tales of the darker sides of life. Because the deeper you delve into history, the more it reveals a painful truth: not everything’s that enchanted is safe.
Episode 162 of the Lore podcast explores the locus classicus of fairy tale settings: the medieval castle. Host Aaron Mahnke guides listeners on a tour of Europe’s most storied fortresses, including Bran Castle in Romania (popularly, if inaccurately, regarded today as Dracula’s Castle) and Austria’s Moosham Castle (a site associated with both witch trails and werewolves). The episode’s title refers to Houska Castle (in the Czech Republic; pictured above), a Gothic structure strategically built atop an alleged hellmouth so as to serve as a barrier against the nocturnal spillage of demons from the underworld. Mahnke’s narrative also details the castle’s connections to Nazi occultism, but given the episode’s central positioning of Houska Castle, one wishes that Mahnke had expanded the discussion and spent some more time in this dark abode. Overall, “By Design” builds up an impressive list of tales of haunted/haunting castles, and does a fine job of connecting the world of the fairy tale with the folklore that surrounds specific historical locales throughout Europe.
Life, just like Viking graves, is often full of surprises. But one thing is certain: warriors have always lived lives of pain and suffering and death. Every battle had the potential to be their last. And when faced with all that risk and fear, those warriors found ways to cope, often through the stories they shared. And, yes, those stories from the battlefield can be frightening, and sometimes even drove people mad. But if we want to dig into them, we need to be aware of an undeniable truth: sometimes the darkest places to look for folklore are also the most dangerous.
Episode 161 of the Lore podcast furnishes another answer to the question posed in the classic Edwin Starr song: what war is really good for is the development of folklore. Host Aaron Mahnke begins by surveying the relevant figures from Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology, and then outlines the types of soldierly superstitions that have arisen throughout history (e.g., premonitions of death, use of charms, alleged assistance by ghostly figures). A significant portion of the episode is devoted to the angels said to have rallied to the cause of British forces in the World War I Battle of Mons; the narrative grows even more intriguing by its entanglement with a contemporaneous weird tale written by Arthur Machen. The concluding segment shares some positively ghoulish lore surrounding the trench-warfare notion of “No Man’s Land.” Because battlefield superstition is such a fertile topic, one wishes that Mahnke had dug up a few more stories like this, but listeners will still find “Shell Game” well worth playing.
In the worlds of literature and pop culture, magicians have typically been the hero. From Merlin to Gandalf and everyone in between, so many of our stories have leaned on the powers of the almighty sorcerer. But that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for a very long time, these magicians were feared and hated. Not because they were seen as charlatans, although that was sometimes true, and not because they were viewed as practitioners of some new and dangerous cult, since magicians had been around for thousands of years. No, they were feared for a much more simple reason: because just about everyone was convinced that their powers were real.
There’s magic in the air, and (probably not coincidentally) magi in the narrative of this Christmas-week episode of the Lore podcast. Host Aaron Mahnke covers the long and storied history of magicians, starting with their origins in ancient Zoroastrianism. He outlines the seven types of magic practiced in medieval Europe, giving special attention to the last and most controversial type: necromancy. Global in his approach, Mahnke does not just address familiar figures such as Aleister Crowley, but also invokes lesser- known magic wizzes like Abe No Seimei, the “Merlin of Japan.” The episode’s most entertaining element, though, is the extended discussion of a certain 16th Century German magician whose name has since become synonymous with ill-fated dealings with the devil.
Don’t be fooled by the title: there’s no trickery in “Sleight of Hand,” an episode that clearly presents listeners with plentiful nuggets of sorcerous lore.