Week after week, most of iTunes’ most popular podcasts remain the same: Serial, This American Life, Fresh Air, Radiolab. And then there’s Myths and Legends.
Call it The Little Podcast That Could: Written, produced, and performed by literature and history buff Jason Weiser in Syracuse, N.Y., this indie show about classic folklore is quickly becoming, well, a thing of legend.
“It’s like, there are these medium-defining podcasts, and then there’s my little one,” Weiser says of his show, which consistently lands in iTunes’ top 10 and has received a five-star rating. “Honestly, it’s really unbelievable to me that it’s heard by so many people.”
Initially recorded in his car with a $40 microphone, Myths and Legends traces tales to their surprising origins. Once it started picking up speed, Weiser was able to get enough support through Patreon and memberships to afford better equipment and, thankfully, record indoors.
Weiser says he hasn’t scratched the surface of all the tales he wants to spotlight (“I haven’t even touched Robin Hood!”), and in April he’ll launch a second podcast devoted to Shakespearean stories. In the meantime, below are a few myths and legends Weiser finds particularly entertaining—and somewhat shocking:
“He’s kind of like the original Voldemort,” Weiser says of this character from Russian folklore. “Parts are completely ridiculous and parts are really kind of tragic: He has his soul trapped inside an egg, inside a chicken, inside a rabbit, inside a chest buried under a tree on a magical island. He can live forever … but it’s a human story, because he’s extremely lonely. And he kidnaps princesses, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t hurt them; it’s just for company.”
2. THE PIG-FACED WOMEN (EPISODE 12)
“It sounds bad, but people actually thought in the 1600s through the 1800s that women in England, France, and the Netherlands were hiding in the upper echelons of society and were cursed with the heads of pigs—like, literally having the heads of pigs,” Weiser says. “It was this huge craze for years; people were stopping carriages of rich ladies and peeking in to see if they were hiding pig-faced ladies. At carnivals, people would get bears drunk and shave them and put them in dresses and be like, ‘Come see the pig-faced ladies!’ I’m really surprised by these stories, but I’m also surprised by how much of an impact some of them have had in society.”
Weiser’s show encompasses folklore from all over the world, and he’s particularly fond of the episodes he has devoted to Japanese tales. “They’re really well-told little stories that surprised me; they were funny but kind of scary, too,” he says. (For example, it’s safe to say few listeners have heard the ancient tale about the boy who liked to draw cats—but once they do, it’s hard to forget.)
4. Şüräle, AKA THE GUY WHO TICKLES PEOPLE TO DEATH (EPISODE 13A)
“He’s a strange, wooly man with long fingers,” Weiser says of this creature from Turkic folklore. “You’ll run into him in the forest and he’ll challenge you to a tickle fight. … [He’s] a great example of just how bizarre and interesting mythology can be.”
5. MULAN (EPISODE 4)
Several episodes of Myths and Legends trace Disney-fied characters to their very different origins. “The whole movie is built around her not revealing herself, and the modern adaptations are so inspirational,” Weiser says. “But the original was actually a lot darker. One [adaptation in] a 16th century play is more chiding the men of the audience, like, ‘If a woman can do this … what’s your excuse?’ That was kind of depressing, because Mulan is essentially a really powerful and uplifting story. But it has been different things to different cultures.”
6. SLEEPING BEAUTY (MEMBERS-ONLY EPISODE)
“I don’t know the Disney story that well, but I’m sure this isn’t in there,” Weiser says, warning me he’s about to get really grim. “In one of the early Sleeping Beauty stories, Prince Charming comes in, finds her asleep, and actually rapes her. She wakes up when she has babies.” He adds, “And the prince is actually married himself. His wife finds out and wants to have Sleeping Beauty burned at the stake," Weiser sighs. “It’s such a dark tale.”