The Folklore of “The Scottish Play”

macbethThe theater has been host to much folklore over the years.  There is the saying “break a leg” which means “good luck” — though you are never supposed to actually wish someone “good luck.”  There are stories of haunted sets due to deaths, of cursed parts — such as the ghost in “the Peony Lantern” which stems from a 1919 performance in which the two actresses playing Otsuyu and her maid fell sick and died within a week of each other.  However, there is one play that no one dares utter the name of. One that has supposedly been cursed for centuries. And that play is Macbeth.

 

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According to lore, to even utter the name of the play was considered horribly bad luck, therefore it was always referred to as “The Scottish Play.”  This all stems from the notion that — again, according to legend — Shakespeare used actual incantations for the witches, causing a coven to curse the play forevermore.  Another theory is that the actual incantations the witches speak during the performance is the curse itself, causing all of the misfortune that has befallen this play since its opening day.

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As we take a look at a few of the accidents that have occurred throughout the years, we have to begin in 1606 when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died the day before the play was to debut.  This forced King James I to ban the play for years in order to prevent any further incidents. However, the actresses who have played Lady Macbeth have been known to suffer the worst of it.  There are stories of the actors being strangled, breaking both of their legs, falling to their deaths off the stage, and — the worst of it all — being attacked by audience members who become completely bewitched by the play.  This leads us to 1849 when — in New York — the audience was so bespelled by the play that a riot broke out, killing over thirty people. Macbeth 4When Laurence Olivier played Macbeth, he was almost killed by a heavy weight that mysteriously dropped from backstage, and during his performance they used real swords which, unfortunately, led to one flying into the audience, hitting one of the patrons and causing him to have a heart attack.  In 1942, three actors died under unexplained circumstances, and the costume designer took their own life on opening night. The final story we have of this play’s destruction comes to us from 1953 when actor Charlton Heston was in a horrific motorcycle accident during rehearsals, leaving both of his legs badly burned for his performance. The reason? His tights had been mysteriously soaked in kerosene, leaving them highly flammable.

With every curse there comes the chance to break it.  And this one is no different. According to theater folklore, should you utter the name of the play you must immediately exit the theater, spin around three times, spit, curse, then knock on the theater door in order to be allowed back in.  So if you happen to find yourself cast in “The Scottish Play” fear not! Just whatever you do, do not say the name of the play, or you might find yourself added to the list of unexplained deaths this play has been collecting since the very beginning.

For more reading on the curse of Macbeth (sources):
https://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/the-macbeth-curse-myth-or-reality/
http://www.scotlandnow.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/7-sinister-examples-curse-macbeth-6419261
https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/about-the-play/the-scottish-play

The Myth of the Manticore

manticore 2Imagine this: you are walking through a jungle with a group of people when something moves just at the corner of your vision.  You turn to move, but it’s too late. The massive, reddish creature moves too fast for you to track as it leaps towards you, claws extended.  You have just encountered a manticore.

According to Greek myth, the manticore was a massive creature, a chimera of different parts that created the fearsome man-eater.  Generally described as having a human-like face, the creature had a red, lion’s body, the tail of a scorpion or a dragon — depending on which account you believe — and having three rows of teeth.

manticoreTo accompany it’s monstrous appearance, the manticore was allegedly fast, more swift than its massive size should allow.  It is so fast that supposedly no man can keep up with its lightning speed. To top this all off, the manticore is said to have extremely sharp claws — claws so sharp that they could cut a man into ribbons with a single swipe!  Of course, making this creature even more terrifying, some accounts describe the manticore as being winged, like a dragon. Its tail is barbed and poisonous, having the capability of shootings its stingers towards its victims.

The fearsome appearance of the manticore is sure to give anyone who encounters it nightmares.  Though according to legend, the manticore preferred to attack a group of travellers, the way to mark its coming is its call: the loud boom of a trumpet.  So beware travellers, and listen for the sound of music amongst the trees. For it might not be a person practicing their notes but rather a terrifying creature lying in wait for its next meal.

For more reading on the manticore (sources):
https://mythology.net/mythical-creatures/manticore/
https://www.britannica.com/topic/manticore

The Folklore of Hekla

heklaImagine seeing a giant fissure open up, fire erupting into the sky as smoke and ash billow along the winds.  You might think that this explosion was nothing else but the gates of Hell opening onto the earth. Well, that is exactly what the people in Iceland thought back in 1104: our first written record of a volcanic explosion from Hekla.

hekla 3.jpgHekla is a volcano in the south of Iceland.  However, in 1104 when the volcano erupted there was quite the panic, especially from Christians who saw Hekla as one of the doorways into Hell.  Now, the volcano is known for throwing lava bombs — up to twelve tons in size! — from its fire fountains, and as they travel into the cold night air, they begin to hiss due to the cooler temperatures.  Well, when people had seen these projectiles, they believed them to be escaped spirits screaming in agony. Birds flying nearby would be accused of being souls circling the gates while others claimed that witches gathered around the crater to meet the devil and practice dark magic.

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Today, however, the volcano has become quite the tourist attraction. Hekla is still active, and people travel from all over just to see the fire fountains explode into the night.  Though you might be kept at a safe distance from the volcano, it isn’t hard to imagine why early European thought that Hekla was a gate into hell — especially when one witnesses the fire fountains erupting themselves.

 

For more reading on Hekla (sources):
http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/hekla-gateway-hell
http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/book/export/html/1015

The Folklore of Blood Stopping in the Ozarks

ozarks.jpgFolk medicine is comprised of rituals and medicines, herbs and crystals and stone.  Even as a child, my mother would prepare an herbal tea when I was sick and it would go away within the day.  And though it sounds a lot like ancient methods and miraculous magic, some people still use these techniques today.  In fact, in the Ozarks there are those who still practice a lot of these rituals today. One such practice is the stopping of the flow of blood and the people who practice it are called “blood stoppers.”

Let’s say that you sliced your palm with a knife, and there were no doctors around.  According to tradition, you would stab the knife into the ground to stop the bleeding.  However, these “power doctors” could supposedly cure illness and disease through supernatural methods.  And if they were available to help treat a wound such as that, they would burn the sole of the peron’s shoe and then rub the ash into the wound to avoid blood poisoning.

ozarks 2.jpgHowever, in order to cure something more debilitating, the power doctor would stop the “unnatural” flow of blood by reciting bible verses — usually from the Book of Ezekiel.  The belief that these people could stop the flow of blood was so powerful, that a story of a man who challenged a blood stopper traveled around in which he told the doctor to “try your luck on this beef.”  According to the story, the skeptic went hungry as he killed the cow which never bled a single drop, ruining the meat in the end. Similar stories of blood stoppers helping those in need can be found in abundance, from a woman who went into a barn and prayed for three minutes while a man bleeding to death in a wagon just stopped bleeding altogether and was saved, all the way to a man who suffered a nosebleed and placed a chip beneath to catch the blood, keeping the chip in a safe place so that it would go undisturbed and he wouldn’t get a nosebleed again.

Whether you believe in folk medicines and folk magic does not really matter as there are others who do.  As we can tell from these stories, people do believe, and they have different tales of healing that have been passed around for generations.  Whether you have been stabbed or suffer nosebleeds or something equally as bad, it is clear that a blood stopper would be able to heal you with nothing more than the power of their faith.

For more reading on blood stoppers (sources):
https://listverse.com/2015/11/17/10-folk-magic-traditions-of-the-early-modern-era/Otto Ernest Rayburn.  Midwest Folklore.  Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 213-215

The Myth of Cerberus

CerberusImagine this: you are entering the underworld through the River Styx, and as you make your way towards the gates you see a three-headed dog guarding the entrance.  He allows you to pass through, though you will never leave again. This is Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog who guards the gates of the Underworld.

Cerberus was supposedly a gigantic, three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld, stopping any shade who would try to escape.  He is described as a creature who eats raw flesh, having a mane of writhing snakes, a serpent’s tail, and lion’s claws. Some accounts claim he even has fifty heads, though some scholars believe they were counting the snakes as well.

cerberus 2One of the most famous stories regarding Cerberus was the twelfth labor of Heracles.  Heracles was charged with capturing Cerberus and bringing him back from the Underworld.  There are several versions of this story, however one of the famous ones involves Hades telling Heracles he could have Cerberus, so long as he defeated the animal using only the weapons he had carried with him.  According to this version of the myth, Heracles uses his lion-skin shield to defend against two of the heads as he chokes the third, ending with Cerberus submitting to him. Hades says Heracles still could not take the creature, and so Heracles shoots Hades with a stone-tipped arrow and he concedes.  In other accounts, the two do battle and Heracles wins.

Whichever version of the story you believe, Cerberus was still a fearsome creature who guarded the Underworld with his three heads and lion claws.  Whether he was won, or whether he was beaten, Heracles had performed quite the feat in retrieving Cerberus from the Underworld. I mean, who else could do battle against a three-headed creature?

For more reading on Cerberus (sources):
https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/myths/cerberus/
http://www.theoi.com/Ther/KuonKerberos.html
https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Cerberus/cerberus.html

The Folklore of Vasilisa the Beautiful

vasilisaImagine going against a witch with iron teeth who rides on a mortar and pestle, lives in a house that stands on chicken legs, and eats people.  Not a very pleasant thought. However, Vasilisa the Beautiful wasn’t alone when she was forced to face the witch Baba Yaga. For Vasilisa was given a doll by her mother who helped her along the way.

The story of Vasilisa the Beautiful comes to us from Russian folklore.  A cinderella story in its own way, the girl is cast out of her home and sent to retrieve light from Baba Yaga in the woods by her stepmother.  Unbeknownst to the stepmother and stepsisters, Vasilisa was given a doll by her mother on her deathbed. So when she ventures into the woods, it’s her doll who encourages her.  As soon as Baba Yaga “saves” the girl, she is brought in and fed and told to work otherwise she would be eaten.vasilisa2

Thankfully, as the girl feeds her doll, the doll helps her through her tasks.  Unfortunately, this only enrages Baba Yaga who decides to roast her. Vasilisa then bribes the maid who is building the fire, ensures Baba Yaga sleeps soundly, and then offers gifts to the animals and tree that have been charged with attacking her should she escape.  On her way out, she grabs a skull whose eyes are glowing and brings it home, turning her stepmother and sisters to ash. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Cinderella story without a prince, and indeed she does marry one in the end. The doll living in her pocket forever.

So yes, we have a version of a Cinderella story with Vasilisa the Beautiful.  Yes, her mother does help her — not in the form of a tree but in the form of a doll.  However, I don’t remember Cindy having to fight off a cannibalistic witch. Vasilisa, on the other hand, is certainly a heroine in her own tale as she had outsmarted the witch Baba Yaga with nothing more than her wits and her doll.

For more reading on Vasilisa the Beautiful (sources):

https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/freaky-fairy-tale-ancient-folklore-vasilisa-beautiful-and-baba-yaga-009545

https://study.com/academy/lesson/vasilisa-the-beautiful-summary-characters-analysis.html

 

The Myth of the Sphinx

sphinx 2Imagine this: you are wandering in the desert when you come across these giant statues.  They have the head of a human, the body of a lion, and they tower over everything for miles.  You have just come across a sphinx.

 

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The sphinx — in ancient egypt — was a spiritual guardian that was found near tombs and temples.  Generally a male’s head, though sometimes a woman’s, the sphinx was often described as having the body of a lion and wings, wearing a pharaoh’s headdress.  Besides the great sphinx of Giza, there is also a place called Sphinx Alley in Upper Egypt in which a two-mile avenue connecting the temples of Luxor and Karnak is lined with sphinx statues.

One of the most famous of the sphinxes comes to us from the Greek play Oedipus Rex, in which a sphinx terrorizes Thebes, demanding the answer to a riddle.  The riddle, taught to her by the Muses, went: “What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” Whenever the riddle was answered incorrectly, the sphinx would devour the man until Oedipus had given her the proper answer.  Once learning it, the sphinx killed herself, thus sprouting the legend that the sphinx was an all-knowing creature of wisdom.

sphinx 3The sphinx was a creature to protect, not a monster.  However, the idea that one of them would devour you had you not answered her riddle correctly is a terrifying thought.  What if you didn’t know the answer? Well, then I guess the sphinx would make you their dinner.

 

For more information about the sphinx (sources):

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-egypt/the-sphinx

https://www.britannica.com/topic/sphinx