Lore Report: “On the Line” (Episode 165)

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.

 

Lore Report: “Loyal Companion” (Episode 164)

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.

 

Lore Report: “Persistence” (Episode 163)

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.

 

Lore Report: “By Design” (Episode 162)

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.

 

Lore Report: “Shell Game” (Episode 161)

 

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.

 

Lore Report: “Sleight of Hand” (Episode 160)

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.

 

Lore Report: “Close By” (Episode 159)

Over the centuries, humans have learned to use the underground like a tool, hiding away more than just treasure. From bodies to bunkers, we’ve been putting reminders of our own failures and mistakes into the ground, hoping that out of sight can truly be out of mind. Sometimes these things are hidden far away from prying eyes and never see the light of day again. Every now and then, though, someone with a  shovel digs in just the right place, and forgotten history is uncovered, exposing a story to the world that paints a tragic and sinister picture. And of all the locations with a buried past, few can hold a candle to the dark history of one city in particular: Scotland’s very own Edinburgh.

 

The latest episode of the Lore podcast does not offer some sunny tour of Edinburgh; host Aaron Mahnke unsurprisingly highlights the underground and the otherworldly. Mahnke ventures first into the sordid, squalid underworld that arose within the stone vaults beneath the city’s bridges. He also explores Mary King’s Close, a hidden urban warren where plague victims were walled in during the mid-1640’s (in the public interest of containing contagion). Such locales–dismal in nature and marked with dark history–easily accrue a haunted reputation, and the Edinburgh underground sports no shortage of ghostly tales (Mahnke recounts one unnerving narrative that features the best who’s-hand-was-she-holding moment this side of The Haunting). Rich in interesting detail (e.g. the purpose of the plague doctor’s beaked mask) and strong in Gothic impulse (“No matter how deep we try to bury it,” Mahnke reminds listeners, “the past will always try to find a way to return”) “Close By” is an episode that Lore-lovers are sure to hold near and dear.

 

Lore Report: “A Grain of Truth” (Episode 158)

Some journeys into history are more dangerous, because while legends might offer us a window into the past, we have no control over the things we might learn. Folklore might hold a new detail that could unlock our understanding of who our ancestors really were, but it could also reveal something else–our failures, our flaws, and the less savory aspects of human nature. Folklore contains powerful stories, for sure, but it also holds something darker: the truth about who we are.

 

In Episode 158 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke serves as our storytelling tour guide of Vancouver Island in British Columbia–a place sporting more than its fair share of strange tales. Mahnke narratively explores local ghost towns (the remnants of an era of gold fever), spectral ladies in white, even a haunted castle. Most extended coverage is given to “Caddy,” an ostensible sea serpent reputed to swim in the surrounding waters of Vancouver Island, and which seemed to transmute from the mythic to the grimly physical when a bizarre carcass (pictured above) was discovered inside a whale’s stomach in 1937 (intriguingly, Caddy is also connected here in “A Grain of Truth” to a certain legendary sea creature from Scotland). The true reward of this episode, though, comes from Mahnke’s thematic concern with stepping back from the specific examples and pondering the very purpose–and ongoing power–of folklore.

 

Lore Report: “Hanging On” (Episode 157)

 

It’s the one obstacle that we seem unable to overcome. We might be able to eliminate physical pain for a while, or broken social structures that hold us down. We’ve been able to cure diseases and send humans to the moon, but we’ve never been able to put a stopper to death. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But the history books contain hints at an alternate answer, one that says  even something as  permanent and certain as death might be avoided. Death, some believe, can truly be beaten. And if the stories are true, there are some who have already succeeded.

Immortality is in the air in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke covers “our undying obsession with living forever.” The first half of “Hanging On” is devoted to a broad survey of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth–subjects with which the listener is likely familiar already (although it was interesting to learn how the myth of Sisyphus ties in). But the episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates the incredible tale of William Cragh, a 13th-Century Welsh rebel who suffered capital punishment for his crimes (he was hung–twice) but somehow managed to make a full recovery from his grim execution and live on another eighteen years. Cragh’s miraculous resurrection ranks among the wildest stories in the history of Lore, but is soon matched by the episode’s closing segment, concerning a ritual of living burial in Vermont that served as a folksy, early rural version of cryogenics.

Apropos of its topic, the episode enjoys an extended runtime (44 minutes). “Hanging On” gets off to a bit of a slow start, but rewards the listener for hanging in with some astounding folklore in its latter half.

 

Lore Report: “Skin Deep” (Episode 155); “Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

 

“Skin Deep” (Episode 155)

 

There are stories and legends we’ve told ourselves for centuries, from tribal campfires to Hollywood blockbusters. But many of the details have been worn away or buried beneath the waves of time. They were once part of the larger picture, but now they are all but forgotten. So today I want to take you on a journey into the past, to explore one of our favorite corners of folklore, and see what the shadows might be hiding. But be warned, because while the core of this legend might be familiar to most of you, there’s a darkness just beneath the surface, waiting to break free. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, there are few creatures of folklore more terrifying than the werewolf.

Aaoooooo! Episode 155 of the Lore podcast goes heavy on the lycanthropy. Host Aaron Mahnke delves well beneath the surface here, delivering all the information the listener likely never knew before about werewolves. Mahnke unpacks the various ancient beliefs as to what a werewolf actually was (which included a connection to witches). He also covers the alleged causes of the hirsute condition, the various triggers of transformation, the personal traits of a werewolf when in human form, and the proposed (and often savage) “cures” for the afflicted. If such things as wound legends, backriders, werewolf trials, and the “Hounds of God” (a pack of benevolent werewolves) are unfamiliar to you, you will have a howling good time listening to “Skin Deep.”

 

“Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

Sometimes our guesswork prevents us from seeing the truth. We think we know something, but if we are given the chance to explore the true details, we can find ourselves surprised by what we discover. The lens through which we view the world is far from clear, so let’s spend some time trying to clean it up a bit. But be warned, because sometimes what lies within is entirely unexpected.

Episode 156 of the Lore podcast presents another subject quite germane to the Halloween season: witchcraft. Host Aaron Mahnke has dealt with witches in several previous episodes, but here he aims to surprise anyone who believes that he or she has heard the whole story already. Transporting listeners to the Essex County village of Canewdon in England (whose church tower–pictured above–sports an intriguing witch legend), Mahnke focuses on the objects and measures of “countermagic.” Prime among these is the fascinating, if disgusting, concoction known as a witch bottle–containing a hardly-potable brew (e.g., pins, nails, alcohol, human hair, fingernail clippings, urine) used to lure, trap, and even destroy witches. Mahnke momentarily invokes the notorious figure of Matthew Hopkins (portrayed by Vincent Price in the folk horror classic, Witchfinder General), but devotes more attention to the white witchery of “cunning folk” such as James Murrell. For those willing to cast aside their assumptions about the subject of witchcraft, “Bottled Up” serves as a terrific listen.