This is the story of a middle class woman from 1607. Her name was Anna Taylor. She was the wife of a brewer called George; she could read (as could her mother) and she might well have been a doctor. Not a ‘wise woman’ or local healer – a doctor. She made chemical medicines and astrologically charged distilled potions. She tested people’s urine to find out why they were sick, and she could tell you the progression of an illness. She also might have had magical books and attempted spells that would summon the fairies. Continue reading “Mrs. Anna Taylor — Chemical Physician, Ritual Magician and Seventeenth Century Woman”
Many of us will be familiar with the image of the Danse Macabre: scenes depicting dancing skeletons, and the living dancing with the dead. In the work of Herefordshire chronicler Walter Map he describes a knight who rescues his dead wife from a dance of the dead.
What’s less well known is that for a disquieting length of time – from the 13th to 17th centuries – the Medieval European might be able to see a live enactment of the Danse Macabre as bands of strangers, friends and neighbours dancing themselves to exhaustion, or even death. This was the dancing plague: St. Vitus’ Dance, The Dancers of St. John, Tarantism. Continue reading “The Dancing Plague in Medieval Europe”
Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival…
Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.
His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.
Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.
As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.
Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading “Tales of the Doppelgänger”
So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)
That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…
And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.
One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit. Continue reading “Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights”
Magical Rings are one of my favourite things about D&D. The idea of having something that won’t ever wear out, but gives you superpowers, is one of the coolest things I could possibly imagine. My only regret was that my group only allowed you to have one ring on each hand. I would have been the Mr. T of magical jewellery.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the greatest Neoplatonic thinkers of the 16th century (who also became a doctor, a feminist, a sceptic, and a lawyer who defended witches while humiliating witch-hunters) talked about rings:
“Rings impress their virtue upon us, inasmuch as they do affect the spirit of him that carries them with gladness or sadness, and render him courteous or terrible, bold or fearful, amiable or hateful; inasmuch as they do fortify us against sicknessm poisons, enemies, evil spirits, and all manner of hurtful things, or, at least will not suffer us to be kept under them.”
And for every wacky D&D power you can find in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can find works of magical artistry merging astrological theories with ‘Natural Magic’ and Christian mysticism.
Whether or not magic has ever really existed, people have been making magical rings for thousands of years. In what was Chaldea, a semitic nation nestled in the corner of the Babylonian Empire, archaeologists are still finding rings dedicated to the seven planetary spirits, corresponding with the planets of astrology.
Likewise, the ancient Hebrews made astrological talismans out of parchment and knotted chord, and seem to have worn them as rings – not to mention that runic rings have been found in pre-Christian Nordic burials. Continue reading “Things D&D Got Right: Magical Rings”
As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.
In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.
Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years. Continue reading “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)”
Stonehenge, a lonely set of standing stones surrounded by clusters of barrows.
The site appears to have been evolved from around 3000BC to 1600BC.
The earliest version of the site, a ditch and earthwork, might have been surrounded by a wooden palisade, possibly with stones having been brought from as far as Wales to act as grave markers.
After time some sort of cremation building was erected on the site, followed by an avenue that might have been used for rituals marking rising sun during the solstice. In fact, the idea of Stonehenge’s use for astrology is still hotly debated amongst archaeologists, even contributing to the specialised field of Archaeo-astronomy.
The first theory that Stonehenge was a computer came from before 1740 and was still being championed in 1965. William Stuckley, the first archaeologist to suggest that Stonehenge was a tool for tracking and measuring astronomical phenomena, noted that the structure has a north-east facing earthwork called ‘The Avenue’, which terminates with the sun almost rising above a stone known as ‘The Heelstone*’ on the morning of the midwinter solstice (although skeptics point out that the sun won’t rise precisely over the stone until the year 3260AD, which would be a strange thing for neolithic builders to be marking… unless it’s the year day when great Cthulu rises to eat us all). Other archaeologists, like C.A. Newham, put a lot of meaning in a set of postholes (or possibly just the cavities left by tree roots) when the monument’s car park was extended in 1966, believing that they were useful for tracking a number of solar and lunar phenomena.
Other Astro-archaeologists have raised astronomical links with the Station Stones, a vaguely rectangular arrangement of stones just outside the main part of the monument. Alexander Thom and others have argued that it’s possible to make no fewer than eight astronomically significant sight-lines using the stones, although Christopher Chippendale, in Archaeology, a magazine published by The Archaeological Institute of America, said that modern research has revealed that only three of those sight lines were astronomically relevant, and two of those lines were perpendicular.
One of the most interesting, and macabre, factors of the uses of Stonehenge as an astronomical tool relates to the Aubrey Holes, compacted chalk pits discovered by the 17th century antiquarian John Aubray, who found that there were bodies buried in the pits; a New Zealand-based researcher has also found that the holes – with knowledge of the moon’s movements and how lunar phases affect the sea – can be used to predict tides in the English Channel with uncanny accuracy. Were the dead some sort of sacrifices to the gods of Astronomy, or to the moon?
Samuel Pepys was a civil servant living in London during some extremely important times: he witnessed the Restoration and the Great Fire of London. He saw the Enlightenment take hold, lived through the Great Plague of 1665, and the second Dutch War where the English burned the island town of Terschelling. He knew important people like King Charles II and the Earl of Sandwich. What people know less about was his fascination with the paranormal…
He Collected Spells (And Stories Of Them Being Performed)
Despite being a man of the Enlightenment, Pepys was partial to a few of the magico-medical charms that were popular at the time. The end of his diary of 1664 contains a few, including a charm for ‘stanch of the blood,’ one for the pricking of a thorn, one for ‘the clap’ and one for what he only calls ‘the burning’ (considering how much of a philanderer Pepys was this might also be something against VD.) He also kept a lucky rabbit’s foot to ward off the colic, which he didn’t entirely believe in but found pretty effective nonetheless. Pepys even remembered the collector Elias Ashmole telling him about rains of frogs and insects in 1661, saying that they fell out of the sky fully formed.
There have always been people who led the way in science and thinking: Issac Newton led the way by thinking up the theory of gravity that we still use (until someone discovers that it’s all just magnets buried by aliens.) Plato and Newton both put forward pretty accurate theories about the Earth’s core, and Aristachus of Samos put forward a fairly accurate picture of the Solar System about three hundred years before the Crucifixion.
On the other hand, the world has changed: in the modern day politicians still want to screw you, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re doing it because it’s necessary, because they’re keeping you safe, or because if they don’t communism will take over. They’re less likely to say, “The universe works this way and therefore I should be in charge because… umm… God.”
In the days where that was more common there was one type of person who always eventually fell under suspicion: people who asked questions. What kinds of people tend to ask questions? Philosophers, Magicians and Scientists. That might sound like three very different groups, but for most of human history they were one and the same. The problem is that when someone in charge stands to lose out from people knowing too much, the people who know too much fall under suspicion.
John Stow, the protestant historian who would later write his incredibly important Survey of London in 1603, wrote about the incident in his additions to Holinshead’s Chronicles:
“On Sundaie the fourth of August, Tempest in Suffolke between the houres of nine and ten of the clocke in the forenone, whilest the minister was reading the second lesson in the parish church of Bliborough, a towne in Suffolke, a strange and terrible tempest of lightening and thunder strake through the wall of the sale church into the ground almost a yard deepe, draue downe all the people on that side aoue twentie persons, then rernting the wall up to the vesutre, cleft the doore, and returning to the steeple, rent the timer, brake the chimes, and fled towards Bongie, a towne six miles off. The People that were stricken downe were found groueling more than halfe an houre after, whereof one man more than fortie yeares and a boie of fifteen yeares old were found starke dead: the others were scorched. The same or the like flash of lightening and cracks of thunder rent the parish church of Bongie, nine miles from Norwich, wroong in sunder the wiers and wheels of the clocks, slue two men which sat in the belfreie, when the other were at the procession or suffrages, and scorched an other which hardlie escaped.”
However, the local Rector, Abraham Fleming, had a darker tale to tell. Fleming was a schoolmaster and a scholar, in addition to being the Rector of the parish church of St. Pancras Bungay, wrote a tale of warning about man’s debauchery, atheism and fornication. In a pamphlet called A Strange and Terrible Wunder, published in 1577, he said the events of August 4th were…
A spectacle no doubt of Gods iudgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled…
He told a tale of the villagers gathering for morning mass while a storm of terrible force battered the village, of rain ‘with no less force than abundance’ lashing his parishioners with violent force. Thunder and lightning crashed over the village, ‘rare and vehement’, so that the people of Bungay were huddling frightened and confused in the church.
As they sat shivering with fear, listening to Fleming’s sermon about sin and death, and the dangers of Sodomy (he’s very concerned about sodomy, he mentions it twice in the preface to the Strange and Terrible Wunder whereas every other sin only gets mentioned once) when thunder and lightning started crashing and flashing around the church itself.The air darkened suddenly, so that even with the candles lit the fearful locals could barely see each other when… Continue reading “Black Shuck, Revenant Roadkill?”