Beachcombed 31 January 1, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Beachcombed , trackback
Dear Reader, 1 Jan 2012
Beach takes this opportunity to wish a happy new year to all and one. December was a horrifically busy month with ill health mixed in and it is only in the last couple of days that we’ve managed to put the best responses up from this month’s emails. We particularly draw attention to Jaryd’s extraordinary image bellow drawn in response to ‘good executions’. Last night a strong dream where a lost and presumably dead rabbit returned to the family, no worse for wear. Hopefully this will be an omen for 2013. Here are the best news stories of the last month (with special thanks to Adrian) and below those the most important ten thousand words with thanks to all those who took trouble to write in.
Good Executions: KMH writes: The guillotine was originally put forward as an efficient, rather painless, and therefore humane way to die compared to such practices as being drawn and quartered, etc. One of its shortcomings, as you note, is the awkwardness of a struggling victim. They should have had the option of a lethal drug before execution occurred. I find it personally repugnant that in the French Revolution both men and women were put to death this way regardless of social and legal class.The women, in particular, had little legal standing, somewhat above chattel for their husbands. The differential legal treatment of the three estates was a foundation for European society – unfortunately it took a revolution and its aftermath to come to a more enlightened standard. Of course, revolutions and civil wars usually cast aside any pretence to decency more than other wars because familiarity breeds so much contempt. So, the worst atrocities of the future may happen down the street if civil insurrection rears its ugly head when the bread and circuses are not forthcoming. We could use a revolution in fully understanding revolutions. And Jaryd sent in this amazing illustration (his copyright) based on MdB’s last words. Amazing Jaryd! Thanks to you both!
Clipping the Church: Invisible writes in: Seeing the title, I thought you were going to talk about chipping bits off statues and corners of churches to make medicine for man and beast!Of course this reminds me of The Dancer of Colbeck/Colbek. Thanks Invisible!
Soviet Columbus: David P writes in (via Larry) ‘ I think this is a rehash of the old story that Columbus heard about America when he sailed to Bristol in the 1480s. Turns out that the Basques and the Bristol sailors were regularly traveling to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland to fish for cod by the 1470s. In the past few years it has become clear that the Basques, at least, made landfall when they had cause. Bristol tended to keep the source of its fish a secret for fear that the Hanseatic League would get involved, as had happened when they fished the North Sea and Baltic, and the Basques’ secret was safe because of their geographic and linguistic isolation.’ Thanks David and Larry
Visions of Brasil: The Count’s thoughts on Brasil: I was very interested to read about Brasil, a mythical land which has the uniquely bizarre distinction of ending up as not only a real country totally unconnected with Ireland, but also a film by Terry Gilliam totally unconnected with either Ireland or Brazil. And it’s got a nut named after it and all – I should be so lucky! What I didn’t realise is that Brasil was a totally magical land that was so close to Ireland that people could sometimes actually see it, but getting there was a bit more difficult. As you say, and as the first-hand account you quote makes clear, unless the whole thing is made up, this is most definitely a mirage. The laws of optics mean that a mirage must be at a particular angle to your eye to be visible, therefore you can never get close to it without it disappearing. That’s why the rainbow’s end is always a certain minimum distance away from you, rendering that pot of gold sadly unattainable. Which is another tale associated with Ireland – I’m starting to wonder if the Emerald Isle is peculiarly susceptible to mirages? It also occurs to me that, since a mirage is a real thing that is as visible to a camera as it is to you, it would in theory be possible to take a photo of Brasil. I say “in theory” because I’m betting no-one has seen it for quite a long time. Mirages rely on something called temperature inversion, in which air near the ground is unexpectedly cooler than the air higher up, combined with the fact that light travels faster through cool air (in case you don’t know, that constant, unalterable Speed Of Light that you’re always hearing about is the speed of light in a vacuum – it can’t go any faster, but if it’s moving through anything that isn’t a vacuum, it always goes a bit slower). The best way to create a mirage is to have very hot ground which causes the air immediately above it to get so hot that it rises more quickly than the bit of air that replaces it can heat up. That happens a lot in deserts, typically resulting in a patch of sky being projected onto the ground. Since we normally only see sky on the ground when it’s reflected on water, and since hot air shimmers, it looks almost exactly like a cool, rippling lake, to the grievous disappointment of thirsty nomads – no wonder they tended to assume that malicious djinns were doing it just to torment them! Tarmac’s even better, which is why you can see the same thing on a much smaller scale every time you drive your car on a really hot day. But the Irish countryside is not, on the face of it, ideal mirage territory. I have to assume that some combination of features meant that a certain part of the Irish coastline was at certain times of the year unusually susceptible to mirages, probably of a specific other part of Ireland not very far away, but miraculously displaced offshore. I use the past tense because this phenomenon would have to rely on an extremely delicate combination of factors which any change at all would disrupt. Planting or uprooting a wood in a crucial spot, expanding a town, or any subtle alteration in the local climate would destroy the illusion forever. However, it’s equally likely that the same thing could spontaneously occur somewhere else. Though of course nowadays we’d regard it is an interesting optical illusion, not a magic disappearing island, so legends would be unlikely to grow up about it. All the same, it’s extremely unusual, and you’d expect people to take photos of it. So any photo of an offshore mirage anywhere will give you a very good impression of what Irishmen called “Brasil”. Thanks as always to the Count!
Sub Saharan Caliphate: Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner writes in: The point that some of your commentators make about political vs religious expansion is probably the key, I think; even at its height or at their separate heights the Caliphate or the various North African Islamic powers didn’t have much control south of wherever the gold routes ran across the Sahara. But the Roman Empire, as has been pointed out, did also do a bit of religious export. This also seems to have gone with trade: the best example is the cult of St Thomas of Kerala in India, which seems to have arrived at some point in the fifth century but had some very old links to build on; silver denarii of Augustus and Tiberius have been found in reasonable numbers along the western coast of India (though strangely, not much from later rulers). And the missions to Abyssinia (first Christian kingdom in the world!) and elsewhere have also been pointed out. Not official expansion, of course, but then neither were the Islamic ones. Yet despite that Muslim travellers were able to travel down a more-or-less Muslim east coast of Africa in fourteenth and fifteenth century via Venices of the East like Kilwa Kisiwani (now in Tanzania). All this well before the more `traditional’ empires of Mali or Benin that the British so morally conquered. A greater paradox in this is perhaps the cultural export the Roman, or Byzantine (it’s right on the edge of the conceptual division), Empire caused unwittingly, by exiling or removing from office non-Chalcedonian Christians in the various controversies of the later Empire over the nature of Christ. The Nestorians, especially (and don’t ask me for the definition of their doctrine) moved east, so that the first Christian churches in China, already, were Nestorian ones, and so that there was a substantial group of disaffected exiles in the Persian Empire who fared rather badly in the final war of the seventh century. And then, still a different Empire, at the very end of the process we have the Pilgrim Fathers of course; Christianity apparently travelled furthest when kicked out, Islam when encouraged back…’ Thanks Jonathan!
Coins out of Time: Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner writes ‘I’ve actually got a paper coming out about this in a volume dedicated to the memory of the late and lamented Mark Blackburn. There’s an argument in it that I step gracefully around about how long Roman coins stayed in use in Northern Spain, which gets very tangly because the texts that seem to refer to them refer to `solidi’, which is in most contexts almost certainly a unit of account. (I step round it because I’m writing about the livestock value standard some scholars have argued was in use instead.) Certainly it seems unlikely that enough of the old coins still existed to make a running currency (if that’s not tautologous, given the etymology). But as to the long survival of individual specie, oh yes, absolutely; the number of third- or fourth-century Roman coins in Anglo-Saxon graves tells that tale perfectly well. One such, belonging to an old colleague of mine, can be found in this article of mine along with some reflections on Nero that may amuse you’ Thanks Jonathan!
More Kopenicks: Mike L writes in with this great urban legend from Bristol: and Tom has this from Japan in 1948 ‘mentioned in a James Bond book, I recall. A doctor’s white coat qualifies as a uniform!’ Thanks Mike and Tom!
National Symbols and Erotics: J Jarrett from A Corner writes in ‘On National Symbols and Erotics: the fifth-century Latin poem is not where it starts! The Emperor Hadrian (who knew a thing or two about erotics) had a series of coins struck depicting the subjection of various provinces of the Empire personified as women (I’m sorry, patron goddesses) somewhen during his reign, apparently 119-120. This is where the first depiction of Britannia as we know her from our 50-pences comes from, although of course that type is borrowed from Greek coins showing Athena; see the British Museum’s page here: She was not alone in the series, however, Africa, Dacia, and several others also appeared, distinguished by headgear and supporting animals, some more prostrate and entreating than others. Of course the anthropomorphic personification of virtues and essences (of persons or places) as gods or goddesses was far from new and some of the depictions of Venus are pretty damn erotic even now (almost always viewed `a tergo’, wearing little but a helmet, often at a rakish angle), but still, what would Freud have said about all these subject females being depicted at the order of a man still famous for statues of his boyfriend? When Augustus conquered Egypt, and thus Cleopatra VII, of course, his celebratory coinage only featured a crocodile…’ thanks Jonathan!!
English Ghost: Leslie writes in: The wandering, non blood drinking vampire reminds me of the Greek version of a vampire called a vrykolakis. Vrykolakis (Vrykolaki?) are reanimated corpses that wander through towns stealing life forces. They are usually described as a walking bloated corpse. Apparently a vrykolakis’s gaze was all that was needed to kill its victims. I guess it’s another way to describe the plague. The count died ‘badly’ because he died with unconfessed sin. The priest alludes to this here: “…but as he was occupied in thinking about what had happened to him, and what his wife had said, put off the wholesome advice until the morrow – that morrow which in this world he was fated never to behold! – for the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death.” Presumably, everything would have been fine had he received last rites. Thanks Leslie!!
Empire of Claus: Filip writes in ‘Here, in Poland, it is “Święty Mikołaj” (= “Saint Nicholas”) that gives children presents at Christmas (presents are opened in the evening of December 24, to be precise). Well, in _most_ parts of Poland, because in Greater Poland (in particular in Poznań, the city where I was born and where I live) and in some other regions of Poland gifts are given by “Gwiazdor” (= “Starman”). Nowadays, Gwiazdor looks more and more like Santa Claus (a red coat, white cuffs, etc.), but the correct dress code for Gwiazdors was: sheepskin coat, fur hat, face smeared with soot. A Gwiazdor (I mean, an uncle or a neighbour disguised as a Gwiazdor) would often bring his presents in person… Well, if a kid was good and passed an “exam” on prayers and traditional Christmas songs. Otherwise, a Gwiazdor would bring rods. That’s the way it was in my childhood (1980s). Gwiazdor hasn’t surrendered to Santa Claus yet and many inhabitants of Greater Poland are eager to defend the tradition. By the way, one of the pro-Gwiazdor arguments is that it doesn’t make sense for Saint Nicholas to come to children twice (6 December is celebrated in Poland as well, the gifts are more modest than at Christmas). Russians have their “Дед Мороз” (“Ded Moroz”, “Father Frost”). During the Communist regime, the authorities were trying to implant Ded Moroz in Poland (there were some anti-religious motives behind that), to no avail. If you can read Polish, you can find funny articles in the contemporary newspapers scanned by Polish digital libraries, for example take a look at this one: (see the last page). Just one sentence for you: „Dziadek Mróz” był i w Związku Radzieckim i widział szczęśliwy śmiech dzieci w kraju, gdzie żyje Stalin (“Father Frost” was in Soviet Union as well and he saw children’s happy laughter in the country where Stalin lives)’ Thanks Filip!
Family Memories: Kiki writes: I have a piece of family oral tradition that goes back to 1813. One of my great grandmothers told me of a story that she had been told as a child by first nations traders that her family dealt with concerning the burial of Tecumseh, somewhere in South Ontario . We were told that it was a secret and I’ve managed to never blurt it out! The location does seem to be one that is now recognized as a possibility. There are two others that seem a little more far fetched but are considered absolutely true by my grandfather who I think is a tad embarrassed by one. The first is that Queen Victoria visited my ancestor who was a light house keeper at John O’Groats (that much we know is true) and was offered tea and scones. She buttered her scone with her thumb. The other is that one of my antecedents was none other than Highland Mary – mistress of Rabbie Burns. There you go – tales do go on and I will certainly pass all of those on to future generations. For the record I am 44 and come from long lines of long lived women on all sides. Thanks Kiki! EM writes, meanwhile, I am an American Southerner from the Appalachian Mountains, an eight generation Tennesseean on my dads side. My maternal grandmothers paternal grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, her name was Roda. Unfortunately, Roda died very young, only 39, and so my grandmother has no memories other, but other family members do. Recently at a family reunion, a cousin of my grandmother told my mother and myself how Roda told him as a child about her own grandparents hiding in caves to escape the Cherokee Removal, what her people called the Trail of Tears. Despite this removal to Oklahoma, there is still a large population of Cherokee still in North Carolina, where Roda was born. Cousin Les said that her grandparents had told her the story of surviving away from their farms and family, for several years, never knowing if it was safe to resume their lives. The removal was in 1838. As he is in his late 80s now, he couldn’t remember many details. One of the ironies of my family history is that my fathers people were also forced off their homelands during the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The government at least paid them a pittance for the farms that had been their livelihood. The park is bookended by the town an ancestor of mine founded (Gatlinburg, TN) and the Eastern Cherokee Capitol of Cherokee North Carolina (it isn’t a reservation, the Cherokee bought, and are still buying up land in the area.)’ The irrepressible KR writes in with these accounts taking us deep into the nineteenth century: One of my great great grandfathers was a blacksmith/businessman, and a farmer/ landowner well-respected in his community. One of his sons lived nearby, and often borrowed his tools but rarely returned them. One day the older man, needing one of his missing tools, sent a message to his wayward son. “Every tool that you ever have borrowed had better be returned by sundown, or I will come after them, and take the rent for them from your hide!” My aunt said she was told that uncle’s entire family, who lived on the next farm, worked all day at top speed to return the tools. “They said,” says aunt, “you should’a seen them all, running down hill and back all day! Uncle had a wife and seven children, all running, all day. Grandpa took the day off to sit on the porch to watch, and some of his other children did too. Uncle brought the last tool just before sunset. Grandpa said, ‘If that’s the last of ’em, then all of you come on in to eat, ’cause you surely worked up a good appetite.’ So they did. Uncle never failed to return a borrowed tool after that, but he never lived down the laughter of that day either.” “One morning GGgrandpa woke up and found his overalls had fallen off the footboard onto the floor. He slipped into his overalls, as usual, only to discover that one of his children’s pets, a cat, had pooped in them. Oh Lordy! He chased that cat around the house and right out the door in his longjohns with his pitchfork! Nearly wrecked the whole house! Woke up the household and scared the children half to death! Don’t know if he caught that cat, but I would bet that he did! He didn’t give up on anything easy.” This GGgrandpa lived from 1826 to 1906. I can’t give dates for the actual events, but it’s stories like these that have life and that last: because of laughter, they are retold. Another GG grandfather was a POW after the civil war. The story goes like this: GGgrandpa fought at Gettysburg and was wounded, and would have died there, but a man on the opposing side who had been an acquaintance before the war, recognized him, and picked him up and propped him against a tree. GGfather regained consciousness and they talked a bit. The man said, “I know you. I know your homeplace, I met your wife and I saw your children. I remember your horses.” GGfather said “I remember you, too.” Then both got tears in their eyes. The man kept him safe from bayonets until officers came to take him as a prisoner of war. After the war, GGgrandpa had to walk back home, already near starvation from his imprisonment hundreds of miles away. “The children were frightened by the skeletal figure coming up the drive to the house. They didn’t know their own daddy.” This latter story, told me by my aunt, was written in a local newspaper some years after the war. War records also confirm the tale. One more, told to me by my grandfather in the late 1950’s: “The folks had to fight some Indians to get to this land. But some were friendly. A few friendly Indians are buried ‘cross the road there, with your grandma’s folks, in the old graveyard. That’s what her granddaddy used to say.” The old private graveyard is still extant, though most of the stones, pioneer-carved, are no longer legible. This graveyard I once reverently visited is on land granted my ancestors in 1787, who moved there from another grant in another colony, whose parents had land in early Virginia and Maryland. The earliest definitive ancestor of my grandma’s birthname in the colonies came over from Wales and was born in 1695. This grandfather’s earliest known-for-sure ancestor can be traced to Maryland colony in 1700. Let’s see, 2012~1787 is 229 years, so I guess the story is about that old, or older, so far. I don’t know if my grandchildren will be interested to listen, or able to remember. They live far away, prefer computer games, and probably won’t ever visit that old graveyard themselves because my father’s generation sold that land when I was a teen. Recalling walking there myself, seeing and touching those old stones, keeps my grandfather’s words in place in my mind. What might anchor the stories mentally for future generations I cannot say. Keeping the land helps keep the memories, the ancestor stories, from being lost to future generations sometimes.’ Kate J writes in with this: On the handing down of family tales, I can add a bit. My late step-father was born in 1911. He told me often about one of his earliest, most vivid memories- the whole small town in upstate New York being awakened in the middle of the night with news of the Armistice. Church bells and fireworks in the middle of the night. He remembers dragging a tin can on a string down the main street and some older boys letting him shoot some fireworks. He also remembered seeing some of the early veterans’ parades. Many of the younger, shell shocked vets were quiet and pale but the old ones, dressed in blue uniforms were spry, cheerful and had long beards…. Now for Mum’s side. Just yesterday, she mentioned that her maternal grandfather was killed in the Boer War- I’m not sure which one, but I believe the first. I remember my grandmother(his daughter) talking about how he had fought the Zulus when he was a young man.The medals he received are in the care of another relative. Apparently the widow was an ill-tempered woman and the excuse made for her behavior was that she never recovered from her husband’s death. According to my mother, in this same grandmother’s home was a painting of my grandmother’s grandfather in full uniform, just before he went off to fight Napoleon. It was destroyed in the Blitz, along with the lovely home whose photos and painting I have in my dining room.Thanks KR, EM and Kiki. Beach should add something of his own here. He wrote above that his family didn’t come from Ireland. In fact they did on one side. He had thought they did not based on a conversation with his mother who actually said that she was surprised to learn her mother’s family hadn’t come from Ireland. She thought this because of a misunderstanding when she was younger. This kind of double confusion is probably more typical than the remarkable memories above.
Ponte Vecchio as Love Goddess: James C writes in: The custom of love padlocks spread far and wide indeed. I’ve seen it in all the countries I’ve travelled to so far. Possibly the farthest it’s come is a remote island of Enoshima in Japan, where on the top of the hill in the middle of the island there is a “love bell” surrounded by a fence with thousands of padlocks. There’s a local legend about a romance between goddess Benten and a dragon which gives some credence to the power of love infusing the island. PJ is also oriental in outlook: So odd: not a half hour before reading your post, I was reading this article: http://bit.ly/RpOjBZ It seems the Italians got their ritual from a sacred mountain in China, Mount Hua. Couples scale this incredibly scary trail to attach their lock and throw the key off the mountain to symbolize eternal love and commitment. Ricardo, meanwhile, has a methodological approach to this: I first seen those in the bridge in front of the Arsenal, in Venice. I would guess bridges and meeting points between two margins, for symbols, for instance. It would be interesting, and also a test to the “power of the web” to ask readers to check their padlocked bridges near by and try to ID the padlocks. What is the oldest? Where can it be found? And, generally, I would also bet that padlocked bridges have names scripted on them. either using markers or engraved. Usually these came with dates… if you get my drift. Thanks James, Ricardo and PJ!
Man Who Didn’t Disappear: Bobskinn writes in I was interested to read your recent blog on disappearances and how fictional stories can become reported as fact. You mentioned Ambrose Bierce, and his story “The difficulty of crossing a field” which can be found here: and “Charles Ashmore’s Trail” (Here: ) As you may know, these stories appears to be origin of a number of similar tales of disappearances that have been reported as factual occurrences in periodicals, books and on the net. Often the character who vanished is an David Lang, Oliver Lerch or Larch, or a David or Oliver Thomas (in a version translocated to Wales). For a blog about this, with a useful additional summary by one reader in the comments, see here. Wikipedia also mentions the case, giving the Ambrose Bierce connection, here:. Chris S also writes in over David Lang with a great link: Thanks Chris and Bobskinn!
European on Baffin Island: The Count writes: I am intrigued by your latest post concerning a possible Inuit representation of a Christian who made it to Canada long before any such thing officially happened. On the one hand, it’s always dodgy to take ancient artworks at face value. For example, there are at least two small Ancient Egyptian sculptures – possibly toys – that represent either a c. 1950 jet fighter or a stylized bird. All things considered, the latter possibility is infinitely more likely. Similarly, if a sculpture made by people who have a tradition of sculpting things as accurately as the sculptor is able seems to represent a certain thing that’s less improbable than a piece of technological hardware from the exact time that the gee-whiz article was written, I think we have to accept that the sculptor was very probably portraying what he saw. This figurine is to some degree stylized – it doesn’t have a face. This could represent either an attempt to portray an alien concept such as a steel helm completely hiding the wearer’s features, or the fact that this particular Inuit sculptor was lousy at doing faces. But the fact remains that it is to some degree stylized. And a stylized sculpture of a pregnant woman could not possibly include the specific detail of a split robe without also including a massively swollen belly and huge breasts, unless it was the worst sculpture ever made of anything ever. This is a superb example of skeptics trying too hard to demolish something they find improbable. This figure looks exactly like a European Christian, complete with a cross on his chest. It is by no means impossible that a European Christian might have been in that area at that time, and it’s generally accepted that the VIkings, many of whom were Christians, had arrived thereabouts some time earlier. So why not just accept that this was an accurate Inuit portrayal of a real person? On a related note, nobody has ever figured out exactly who Quetzalcoatl was, but the Incas described him as a human being with skin paler than theirs, and the to them incredibly strange feature of facial hair, who was plugging some religion about an all-powerful God who started out as a human being, went away, and would return at some future date. I am not the first person to notice that this sounds a lot like a version of Christianity delivered by an exceptionally far-flung missionary whose message got a little muddled in translation, with ultimately tragic consequences. Thanks Count!
Lazarus Plants: Lots of great emails here which will appear in other later posts. For now though here is one piece of advice from Norm: ‘A good place to look for old cultivators are parks. They tend to be carved out of old homesteads and farms.I enjoy looking for “mature” examples of things that have gone wild. The old bulb plants in the spring can reveal an interesting lot.’ Thanks, Norm!
Death of the Doctor: AB writes in: ‘The resurrection attempt to me at least seems explicable by the emerging medical investigative tendencies at the time. Some medical student or/and his mister hearing of the forthcoming execution probably approached friends of the Rev offering to make the attempt. There’s also a hint about the Rev’s behaviour suggesting to me they may’ve attempted to narcoticise him into some sort of pre-execution state of extreme physical relaxation so he’d perhaps either struggle less thereby doing less damage to himself by struggling or maybe in the hope of making him seem more dead than he actually was.’ Thanks AB!!
English Wine: A characteristically entertaining piece from the Count: ‘It’s pretty well established that the British, and indeed the global climate in Roman times was a little bit warmer than it is today, though of course global warming is pushing it back there again. Britain, certainly the Southern half of it, was as good for growing grapes as France is now. Consider also the fact that the Vikings established settlements in Greenland because it seemed feasible at the time, and then literally froze to death a few centuries later. We are technically still in the last Ice Age (defined as any era when the EArth has permanent polar ice-caps, which isn’t the normal condition for this planet), and statistically we will very probably experience massive global cooling cooling within a few hundred years. Unless of course it’s offset by the global warming which, ironically, is merely re-establishing the status quo a wee bit early. There is a theory – it’s ages since I read it, so I can’t give you a reference, but I’m pretty sure it’s not some load of crankery – that the entire success of the Roman Empire hinged upon the warmer climate enabling the territories they controlled to produce enough grain to feed their armies.By the way, since the Romans controlled Italy and France, generally reckoned to be the world’s best wine-growing regions, before they invaded England, when it came to wine, they presumably knew what they were talking about. So when they claimed that it was feasible to produce rather good wine in England (or even Scotland, if we’re talking about the bottom half which they actually occupied), one has to assume that it was a prosaic statement of fact. If you doubt me, check out the current population of Greenland, a country two-thirds the size of India. This represents the total number of people who consider it possible to survive there in reasonable comfort, equipped with every technological way of keeping warm that modern science can provide. And then consider that the Vikings seriously attempted over a period of centuries to treat this as a normal country, and then suddenly gave up because, for reasons they couldn’t possibly understand, no human being without access to electric heating could possibly live there any more. Again, it’s been a long time so I can’t give you a reference, but I remember reading that the very last Greenland Viking settlement, which was very well preserved on account of the cold, featured a gaggle of corpses buried in the usual ceremonial way, plus one guy frozen solid in the permafrost with no frills because there was literally nobody left in the whole country to bury him! This being said, I shall have to try Scottish wine. After all, I live here, so it’s the least I can do. I am no wine snob – I find some Jewish vintages perfectly acceptable, having initially drunk them just because they were on the shelf and I wondered what Jewish wine tasted like. Though I have to disagree with the Japanese view that, if you haven’t discovered grapes yet, rice is a perfectly acceptable substitute. I think the Romans were being extremely prosaic, and if an area fulfills the basic requirement of being warm enough for grapes to ripen, there’s no reason why the local wine shouldn’t be excellent. Then again, local expertise fluctuates wildly. Consider beer. Ancient Egyptian beer, despite being a hugely popular beverage in an ancient and highly advanced civilization, was universally priced much lower than beer made in any other country. It was also described as being so lumpy that you had to drink it through a straw. And Egyptian tomb art exists of elegant upper-class people explicitly throwing up because they tried to drink too much of the filthy stuff. Clearly several different factors apply. But it would be unsafe to decry Roman wine just because it was brewed in the UK. Though it’s probably wise to politely decline traditional Egyptian beer. Especially if it’s lumpy.’ Thanks Count!
Oldest Still Used Clothes: KR writes: In thinking of oldest still used clothes, bridal dresses came to mind. I found this article where a bride wears a 127 year old bridal dress at her wedding. Perhaps it will still be worn in future as well. Not exactly medieval, but about as old as the wool shirt worn in 1943 but made by the great-grandmother of the man who loaned it to the soldier, perhaps?’ Thanks KR !
Rogue Waves: Lots of emails on this all alleging rogue waves (see below for some samples). Two small counter points. The word ‘hedge’ and the description suggests that the ship is surrounded by these great waves. The danger is not illusory as a storm is on the way. However, having said this the following make for persuasive reading. Lehmansterms writes: Although the optical illusion, “mirage sea” is certainly a possibility and I can see where it may have terrified early mariners who did not have any way to understand the phenomena they were observing, I think this passsage is important in this story: “…In a few cases only have the men been known to escape who were upon the seas when such a thing occurred…” I wonder whether this mention of all but a few of those mariners observing it presumably perishing might not indicate that a real and deadly phenomenon was being described. What this brings to mind for me is the so-called “Rogue Wave”. Long thought to be the province of mariners’ tall tales, a convenient excuse for the loss of a vessel or crewmembers in reports from unwary sailors – or the result of a double ration of rum – it is becoming clear to modern oceanographic science that waves can be multiplied in size by a frequency/harmonic effect that stacks one small wave upon another until 100′ (or taller) waves can occasionally be generated. Many ships have not returned after seeing this phenomenon – and presumably only a very few of their occupants might have escaped and survived to relate the story of the occurrence. Long regarded rather like the reports from those who swear they see UFO’s – ie: with ridicule – the rogue wave was considered to fall into that “Here be Sarpents” category of map marginalia. In the new age in which virtually everyone has immediate access to live video recording, some reports of ships encountering preternaturally large waves out of an otherwise clear sea are now being accompanied by live video of singular 100+’ waves breaking over the bows of a superfreighters or cruise ships which barely survived the encounter. I wonder if a conflation – whether actually coinciding or merely being confused – of the undeniably true mirage phenomenon and the equally true occurrence of actual rogue waves might not be the root cause of these reports. Mirages by themselves can hardly be to blame for fatalities on the sea. Unless the first passage suffers from terrible exaggeration, it certainly sounds as though the phenomenon which described is to blame for actual disappearances of ships and mariners. Nathaniel writes in: The possibility of the ‘sea hedge’ being a rogue wave immediately leaped to mind: These waves were reported by mariners for centuries and caused serious damage to the ships they didn’t sink. One account of such a wave said it looked “higher than the moon”. But their existence was pretty much denied by science until recently, since they didn’t fit any accepted theories of wave formation. If even that much anecdotal evidence can be discounted it makes you wonder how much else science is overlooking.’ Next up is the Count: I think you’re on the wrong track with the optical illusion theory. While it’s perfectly true that tsunamis are irrelevant in mid-ocean, only becoming a problem when they hit land, other rare types of wave exist which are completely different in both cause and dynamics. However, it was only within the last couple of decades, mainly due to one such wave hitting a North Sea oil rig on January 1st 1995, that mainstream science was entirely convinced that they weren’t just tall stories. As the references below will show you, these thankfully infrequent waves are terrifyingly gigantic, and can be a major problem even to huge modern ships – if you’re in a Norse longship, your only recourse is prayer! You will observe that these modern reports are almost perfect matches for the ones you quote, so in this case it’s reasonable to assume that the few survivors gave an accurate account of a bloody great wall of water that smashed their boat. Besides, would those big manly Vikings have been that terrified of something which initially looked fearsome but never did any actual damage? And they do state specifically that “sea hedges” are physical phenomena which literally destroy your boat and kill you. Attempts to turn this into hysteria based on an optical illusion are simply skeptics trying too hard to explain away something they consider unlikely in a ludicrously torturous fashion, in the same way that the notorious “swamp gas” explanation for certain early UFO sightings was so convoluted that it became less likely than the bizarre theories it was trying to discount. Here’s a piece on rogue waves. And here’s a laboratory recreation of a sea hedge, which demonstrates how dangerous even a tiny little one can be if you’re a pirate made of Lego: So there you are – sea hedges are a real thing that can cause seafarers all kinds of grief! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… Note the interesting fact that the version of this phenomenon found in lakes sometimes comes in threes. If you know anything about the physics of waves (or indeed any physics at all, since waves are pretty basic physics), it may already have occurred to you that Loch Ness, with its peculiarly simple and regular shape – basically it’s a very big ditch – would be an exceptionally favorable environment for the spontaneous creation of triple lumps of water that that look a lot like a huge animal with three humps… Rebis writes in: the optical illusion sounds believable, but optical illusions don’t kill people, as the account mentions. A tsunami at sea is only a large swell which rises when it enters shallow water. Another possibility is a rogue wave. These can reach heights of well over 100 feet. These giant rogue waves can even form in the great lakes in north america. See wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald. A rogue wave snapped the 711 foot long Edmond Fitzgerald in half sinking it immediately. Another ship ten miles away was not effected. These lackers would tie up for the winter where I grew up. I once had a tour of one, you have no idea how absolutely huge they are. That it is possible to instantly sink a ship that big is a testament of the power and reputation of rogue waves.’ Then Ralph writes with a personal Rogue Wave story: ‘In October 1965, I was aboard the USS Essex(CVS-9) in the Atlantic well off the east coast of the U.S. We were on our way to be the primary recovery ship for one of the Apollo missions. The capsule was to splash down in the Atlantic, and our aircraft were to pinpoint it, a helicopter was to lower a swimmer into the water, who would attach a collar to the space capsule, and capsule and crew were to be retrieved by the ship. We never got there. On a perfectly clear day, with calm seas, we were struck by a rogue wave of sufficient height that it damaged the number 2 elevator of the ship so badly it could not be raised back up to deck level. Of necessity, we returned to homeport for repairs, and the backup ship did the recovery. I remember this very well. As a result of this mishap, I was home for the birth of my eldest son.’ Thanks to all those who wrote in on this theme!!
Lamps Going Out: From MR a comment that adds substantially to our knowledge: As Grey waited for the reply to the British Ultimatum (delivered by Goshen in Berlin at 7.00 pm), I was told that Grey was looking across the park toward 9 Carlton House Terrance ( the German Ambassador’s Residence at the time), actually NW if you look from the Foreign Secretary’s Office. There used to be a mantle gas lamp at the foot of the Duke of York’s steps, just below the rear of No 9, and I was told as a boy that this was the lamp stand in particular that inspired Grey’s remark’. Sunset in London on August 3rd occurs at 8.44 pm GMT. Assuming the lamplighters worked as they did when I was a boy the lamp would have been lit about 8.30 p,m., just before sunset. So Grey made the remark to Spender having not heard from Goshen. (Goshen’s telegram from Berlin to London, informing London that the ultimatum had been rejected immediately, was sent from Berlin but not delivered in London — suggesting interdiction of the cable traffic by Germany). Grey would therefore assume that he was at war with Germany, however that the participation of the UK would be limited to the naval commitment he had given to the French on August 2nd. As of August Britain had no extant plan for the embarkation of any force to France.’ Thanks MR!!!
German Vampire: KR writes with this consideration, There is a third possibility. The young mothers might have visited one another and may have discussed the strange midwife. I can imagine something like this: “Did you think old Euphrosina was strange?” “Well, now that you mention it, I vaguely recall her telling me, right after my child came, to press down.” “Press down? What did she mean?” “I don’t know, I think I heard her say it whilst I was sleeping. The pain in my side, it was terrible! Why couldn’t she just let me sleep!” “Now that you have said that, I remember the same thing.” “Why would she talk to us whilst we were sleeping, unless she were a witch?” “Maybe not a witch, maybe a vampire! When I awoke, there was a bit of blood on my neck! I felt very weak and strange. My husband said I was very very pale, as if I had no blood left in me! She must have drunk my blood! She wanted to push on my belly! She said she must push on me, even get on top of me! Such pain! I cannot tell you!” “Oh, this is terrible! My boy who she said was born dead, she said his head was too big. She said she had to press his head to get him out! But really, she just wanted to kill my son! She is evil! Yes she is a vampire!” “Oh, Magdalena! This is terrible! Your poor baby! You poor dear! And she bit your neck? She pressed on me! She whispered evil things to us when we slept, in our weakest moment! We must tell someone!” But, Beach, a good midwife would definitely be asking a newly-delivered mother to press down, otherwise the afterbirth might remain inside, causing hemorrhage and death. If a midwife could not be certain the placenta was expelled completely, she would need to do some heavy-duty massaging of the abdomen, especially if the new mother was weak and groggy and unable or unwilling to “press down!” Most of this story can be explained: There’s a half-conscious exhausted-from-long-labour young new mother, to whom all this is very strange, including the idea of some old midwife pressing and massaging, when she is in a semi-conscious “sleep.” In the Hornung case, the baby’s head was probably too large for the birth canal, the birthing stopped progressing, and if she had not “pressed the head” both mother and baby would have died. There was probably serious bleeding, which might explain a remnant of blood on the neck, or most anywhere, for that matter. In the unconscious or semi-conscious “sleeping” state of Mrs Hornung, if the midwife was not tall, maybe getting up on top of her patient to attempt to massage out that stubborn placenta when her patient couldn’t give any further effort to “press down” saved the girl’s life. Again, if the girl was getting too cold, from shock, the warmth of the old midwife’s body might have been part of a Herculean effort to warm her, keep her blood circulating. No, she would NOT have any reason to bite a patient’s neck! But if she were a neck-biting blood-sucking vampire, why just bite one mother’s neck and not the other’s? And why just press the baby’s head, why didn’t she suck out it’s blood? Nope. Sounds as if poor Euphrosina was actually a darn good midwife! Another example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Thanks KR! Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes in: As for EE the vampire midwife, some midwives also had bonesetting skills and would have known from experience about rubbing backs for pain relief in labor/afterwards. Perhaps an early form of chiropractic treatment? I’m told that Japanese/Far Eastern masseuses (and not the ones in Miss Siam’s Happy Fingertips Spa) sometimes walk on their patients’ backs. That someone pressing down on the women while they sleep night be the Old Hag–a form of sleep paralysis. The neck biting, well, that’s a different matter. Bedbugs or Sapphic? “Press down, Maggie”? I guess if you were a lesbian in 17th century Germany, being a midwife would give you plausible, intimate access to the objects of your desire. But you probably have seen too many Hammer horror films… The killing of Magdalena Hornung’s baby by pressing the skull reminded me of a story told to me by a woman who asked that the town not be identified for reasons that will be obvious. “In the late 1880s my grandmother, when first married, lived in a small village in Ross County [Ohio] . The house where she was living had a staircase closed off with a door at the top. Every night she’d hear a noise—exactly at 9:00—like chains going down that stairway, then out the back door, and ending behind the outhouse. “One time when my grandfather was traveling, she and her twin nephews decided they would see what was going on. The three of them opened the door leading into the closed stairway. They saw something like a ball of fire, which traveled down the stairs and vanished out behind the outhouse. “Grandmother was so upset by seeing this, when Grandfather got home, she told him all about it. It turned out he had heard the weird noise too. My grandfather and some other men dug up the area behind the outdoor toilet. They found bones—the bones of many little babies. And each baby had a hatpin stuck in its skull. “There had been a single woman who lived in the house by herself. She was very heavyset, and she had those babies and didn’t know what to do with them. [or was she a baby farmer?] But what Grandmother wondered was, why chains? This was the noise that they were hearing. She couldn’t understand it. But once they dug up the bodies, and reburied them properly, they never heard the sound again.” Thanks Chris and KR!
Music in the Woods: Aldous Huxley writes in: ‘Moyer and Campbell had an idea of tradition and archetypes that is appealing, but I also think they neglect the other part of the story. Instead of going into my rant of “why I distrust archetypes” my impression on the series is that Moyer seems taken by the view of the timeless, peaceful, organized society with everything in its place and certainty for all. However, that certainty can also be seen as being purchased by means of stultifying tradition and habit, societal roles mandated by tradition, and lives led without innovation, all backed by physical and societal sanctions. These societies traditionally were the ones where expressing new thoughts, developing new techniques, or trying to change the view on community beliefs could be met with varying levels of sanction, from hazing to expulsion to even stoning or burning at the stake. All for the possible danger such innovations could pose to the established mores, norms, and community power structure. Remember that “traditional” societies are the ones where actions not mandated tend to be forbidden: this includes not just the hunter-gatherer tribe on the savannah and the subsistence farming community in a small jungle clearing, it also includes, in a way, the small town – usually heavily agricultural with a religious tradition – where the teens all scream inside that, “everyone is so stupid, there is no future and you can’t do anything here, arrgh.” And they run off to Bogota or Cincinnati or Boise (because it is cosmopolitan) and they lose not only those maddening constraints, but also access to the roles in a smaller community that the constraints were shaping them to fill. The constraints and the roles are two sides of the same coin, the shaping of human lives to fit into their society. As you point out, just aptitude is not enough. Shamans, unless they have good endowments or a trust fund, have to earn their supper just the same as any other worker must. This means they not only have to have deep thoughts about what it all means, but they must also show added value, in that the deep thoughts have to help someone. So they have to be couched in terms the community understands. So the deep thoughts tend to be traditional as well, and so they are also hedged in with those societal norms, which are learned and understood deeply, and are….like the ones that the kids move to Des Moines or Montevideo to get away from. My conclusion is that if you decide to reject the socialization that makes you a suitable shaman in your traditional society, you also choose to not be a shaman. But not everyone can be a shaman in a traditional society, some people get to be ragpickers or swineherds instead, and may find benefit to moving to Jacksonville to become a UPS driver or a forklift operator. My concern is that Moyer provided a subtext that it would be a good thing to keep shamans “down on the farm” for the good of society and for the good of the shamans themselves, but that also means you are also keeping the swineherds and ragpickers in their station of life for the benefit of society and the shamans as well. Since I suspect I would make a better swineherd than a shaman, I would be against that plan if only because swineherds don’t have as good a benefit package and for all the music in the woods they have a boring life. A side note at the risk of making an ad hominem attack, Moyer was involved deeply in the creation of the series of legislative acts that became known as LBJ’s Great Society. This was a sweeping range of legislation to innovate new approaches for America ’s perceived problems of race, poverty, equality; problems that were not felt to be adequately addressed by traditional solutions like mores, norms and social pressure. Since I found the series so compelling it bothered me to think that Moyers had spent the last part of his varied career extolling what he had worked so diligently in the first part to circumvent.’ Thanks Aldous!
Summoned by Bells: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes in with this extraordinary list. ‘There are many inventive ways to die of a church bell: caught up in a rope and hung, crushed by a falling bell, felled by a rogue clapper, and, if you believe the legends (see The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers), killed by the vibrations while trapped in a bell chamber. Here are a few tales from the belfry. TOLLS BELL, NEARLY HANGS Bellefontaine. O., Jan. 20.—Harry Warner, janitor at St. Boniface church, Piqua, while pulling the bell, suddenly found himself hanging above the floor. A noose in the bell rope had caught him about the neck and he narrowly escaped death. Massillon [OH] Evening Independent 20 January 1914: p. 3 KILLED BY A BELL CLAPPER Sexton of Okemah, Ok., Church Struck on Head by 10-Pound Metal. Okemah, Ok., April 23, Oliver Derby was killed here last night while he was ringing the bell of the Methodist Church. The 10-pound iron clapper became detached from the bell and crashed through the ceiling, striking him on the head. Kansas City [MO] Star 24 April 1915: p. 1 BELL FALLS IN CHURCH, BRITISH RECTOR KILLED Blanford, England. The Rector of Okeford Firtz-Paine, a village near here, the Reverend William Mortimer, was killed by a bell in his church. The half-ton bell hit him when it crashed to the floor. If a bell falls down from the belfry and is hitting someone on the head and he dies, the parish pays fine for three marks. Aldre Vastgotalagen. The Elder Law of the West Goths. OWL TOLLS CHURCH BELL. Big Bird Gives Bloomfield , N.J. , Combined Fire and Ghost Scare. The bell in the tower of the little Methodist church at Bloomfield, N.J., used as a fire tocsin, boomed alarm after alarm across the quiet country early on a recent morning. Scores of residents turned out, many of the men with buckets and axes, to help the local department face the dreaded fires. But no red glares showed in the sky, and they found the church locked, just as Sexton Harry Van Ness left it Sunday night. “A ghost, by heck!” whispered Van Ness. “No livin’ man’s tollin’ that bell!” He refused to enter the tower. The bell kept on tolling more fire alarms. There was a call for volunteers. Brave Giles Van Riper stepped from the ranks and unlocked the door. “Who’s ringin’ that bell?” demanded Van Riper. “Declar’ yourself before I come after you!” “Who-oo-oo!” came the mocking answer, in a tone like a siren in a fog. Backed up by a score, Van Riper climbed aloft. Ding dong, ding dong, continued the bell. Then there was a flash of white into Van Riper’s face, and something cut across his flesh like the bony fingers of a skeleton. He and the valiant twenty piled down the steps in a panic. Outside they waited until dawn, when the spirit should go back into its hiding place. Just as the sun rose the last peal sounded. Cautiously they reascended the steps, and there—dead as a morgue full of doornails—they found a great white owl. One of its talons had caught fast in the bell rope when it flew into the tower after a pigeon. The owl’s struggles to escape caused the bell to ring. It died of exhaustion. The Logansport [IN] Pharos 28 August 1907: p. 7 A GHOST RINGS THE BELL The Woman in White Who Is Startling an Arkansas Community. In the village of Lincolntown, which is settled principally by negroes, and which lies eight or nine miles south of this place, there is a little church, surrounding which is a mystery that is greatly perplexing and worrying the community. Every night there is to be seen in the belfry of the edifice a woman in white, who rings the bell three times in the most solemn fashion and who then disappears. How the woman gets there is what is puzzling the good people of Lincolntown, for the only approach to the belfry is a stairway to which entrance is gained by a single door, and not only is this door guarded every night since the commencement of the mysterious tolling, but the staircase is watched by 200 or 300 eyes, and at dark the belfry itself is searched and is found to be entirely empty. Besides, the belfry is only large enough to hold the bell itself, and when that is in motion there is no footing for a person. The rope that is ordinarily employed in ringing the bell hangs all the time in plain view of the crowd and is perfectly motionless. The woman is also distinctly visible, but whether white or black it is impossible to tell. Even if the figure itself was a figment of the imagination, the ringing of the bell is not, as that is to be unmistakably heard for a quarter of a mile. The negroes are much excited over the matter and say that it is a portent of ill to the race. As to the identity of the ghost, it is generally believed that it is the restless spirit of a woman named Jonelle Lambkin, who, on account of some misdemeanour charged against her, was put out of the church here in spite of her continued reiteration of her innocence. Jonelle died about two months ago, alleging with her dying breath that she was a wrongfully accused woman and that the community would ultimately receive proof of this. Arkadelphia (Ark.) Dispatch. Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 15 December 1893: p. 4 And this luridly unlikely tale Pastor Tied to Clapper By Bellringer and Killed Rome, Sept. 21. Bound to the clapper and crushed to death in the biggest bell of the famous Malalbergo chimes, the parson of the church from which the notes sounded paid horribly this week for wrecking the home of the bellringer, who compassed his punishment. The murderer, still chuckling over his victim’s fearful ending, awaits trial in prison. His wife has gone made with horror. Against the pastor there is but one witness—the ringer of the chimes. Going to the church loft to sound the bells for the usual service he surprised his wife and the pastor, he says, in one another’s arms. The pastor stumbled and before he could recover himself the bellringer had seized and tied him hand and foot to the clapper of the principal bell and began to sound the chimes furiously. The murdered man’s blood, streaming upon them from the bell tower conveyed the first news of the tragedy to the congregation. Hurrying up the ladder to the loft they found the pastor with nearly every bone in his body broken and the ringer still madly crashing the bells. [syndicated in several papers on various dates in September, 1907]. Thanks Chris!