Monday, December 31, 2012

Renfusa's Top Ten Posts of Our First Six Months

Okay, granted, it's not a true year-in-review, since we've only been around for six months, but here are our top ten most viewed posts of 2012, in descending order. What really makes me happy about this list is how many of our guest contributors feature, and feature highly. Check these out, folks, and have a Happy New Year. We'll be back in January with a run of "5 Things I Learned From..." throughout January and February, thanks to many books obtained at Christmas.

  2. Lady Elaine Fairchilde: Devil in a Red Cape
  3. Jack, Discarded
  4. A Future Path Not Taken: The Magic of the Nixie Clock
  5. The Cellular Phones of Reservoir Dogs
  6. Five things I learned from reading Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire
  7. Genius in a Bottle: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ghosts, and Genies
  8. Why I Like Faeries
  9. Vortices of Blood: The Magic of Early Mexico City
  10. Two Roman out-of-place artifacts

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 12: Manger vs. Tree

We finish up our look at Christmas with the Christmas tree. It's a perfect summation of the essential duality of Christmas traditions, of conflict between Christian and pagan, Protestant and Catholic, Northern Europe vs. South, and private vs. public.

The Christmas tree as object of veneration obviously goes back to Northern European pagan practices, either Norse or Celtic. These traditions survived the figurative axe of Saint Boniface and found themselves reborn in the years following the Protestant Reformation, in Lutheran regions of Germany. Protestants found the sturdy tannenbaum an antidote to the idolatrous Papist practice of the Christmas creche.

These early Christmas trees were found in either communal-civic or wealthy private hands. Guildhalls displayed the very first Christmas trees that are identifiable in modern terms, and throughout the rest of the early modern period, wealthy German families could afford to have a tree chopped down, moved into the house, and decorated with rich baubles.

Indeed, the private ownership of a Christmas tree was seen, right up until the middle of the 20th century, as a sign of great wealth in all the Germanic-Protestant nations where it was common. This is probably why so many civic tree-lighting ceremonies survive down to this day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 11: A Baby Boomer Christmas

Not a whole lot to add to today's Weirdmas post except to say that this Wikipedia entry on "Christmas in the post-war United States" is guaranteed to tickle your brain's nostalgia area, whether you're a Boomer, a Gen-Xer, or otherwise. A few fun facts:
  • The origin of NORAD tracking Santa's sleigh was a misprint for a department store's "call Santa" promotion.
  • "Sales of aluminum trees declined after being treated satirically in the 1965 animated Christmas television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas."
  • Corning put the glass Christmas ornament, formerly a luxury, within reach of all Americans with its specially-modified light bulb mass production process.
  • Cultural icons rolled out originally at Christmas include the Slinky, Chex Mix, the transistor radio, and the Etch-a-Sketch.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 10: Neither Bang Nor Whimper

As much as this blog loves crackpots, cultists, millenarians, and all the other assorted oddballs and flakes out there with esoteric beliefs, my fondest holiday wish for the end of the Fourth World is that no one today takes any of this too seriously, nor do their followers.

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
- When Prophecy Fails: a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world, Leon Festinger and Henry Riecken, 1956, p. 3

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 9: Scrooge as Philosophers' Stone: A Christmas Carol as Great Work

Why does arguably the most famous and most imitated Christmas story of all time involve a haunting?

We've already talked about the supernatural liminality of Christmas Eve in this series, but when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, English literature had arguably left its Gothic period behind and was in an era of socially conscious novels... of the type written by a Mr. Charles Dickens. Why this dip into the supernatural for a tale of simple Christmas cheer and generosity?

Critics believe that Dickens's story was meant to unite the disparate threads of Christmas superstition and legend as embodied in the many Anglo-Saxon traditions we've looked at in this series, with a then-modern concern for the social plight of the poor. Perhaps Victorian England, like old Scrooge, would be shocked into action by the ghosts of Christmas.

Why ghosts? Spiritualism was just at the time (the 1840s) on the rise, especially in America, and Dickens had traveled there immediately prior to writing A Christmas Carol. Some have said his visit to a prison outside Pittsburgh may have also influenced his writing of the story.

When you look at the Ghosts of Christmas, you see some clear archetypes, some with Christmas antecedents, and some decidedly without. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, is a shining light, a kind of androgynous and polymorphous will o' the wisp, but the description in Dickens evokes the girls wearing crowns of candles in the procession of the Feast of St. Lucia:
It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is probably the most famous folkloric archetype of them all: a jolly jovial giant, replete with cornucopia, he represents liberality and largesse, and comes from a tradition all the way from Jupiter himself (the horn of plenty was said to have fed him in his orphaned infancy), to St. Christopher, the giant who bore the Christ-child on his back. Of course, following the Ghost of Christmas Present's wake are the children Ignorance and Want, neither of them serene figures like the Christ-child but excellent metaphors for a lack of Christian charity.

And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, well. What more can be said of this Reaper figure other than the fact that by the end of the story, we have sort of gone through the purifying stages of alchemy in a strange order: from the white of Past, the green and red of present, to the black of future. Of course Scrooge comes out of this back to the Christmas at present, where he emulates the joviality and generosity of his rosy-red-cheeked and green-garlanded Christmas Present visitor... so perhaps the order isn't twisted after all?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 8: A Rose By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet

Let's do a quick hit on another UK Christmas tradition, this one a bit more modern: the Cadbury Roses collection of chocolates.

Having just purchased one of these tins for my goodly wife at a local British Isles-import store, I was interested in finding out how they became associated with Christmas and a little bit about their history. For instance, why are they called Roses when they are just a typical non-rosey chocolate assortment?

Well, quite simply, the candies were named for the machinery they were wrapped on. The Rose Brothers manufacturing firm didn't just made confectioners' wrapping machines, they were a supplier of gun sights and turrets in both World Wars. They were supposed to have done some "special work" on the Avro Lancasters flown by the famous Dambusters. Ironically, one of Rose's factories was located in the interwar years in Germany, taken over by the Nazis at the outset of hostilities, and then bombed into oblivion by the RAF!

My own mission now is to assign the 10 types of Roses to the 10 Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. Rosae mysticae et dulcissimae!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 7: Santa One-Eye, Santa All-Father

There are a lot of Santa Clauses out there.

I think one of the most interesting things I've discovered doing Weirdmas is that while there is a template for "gift-giving/punishment-inflicting supernatural being who commits B&E on Christmas Eve," in each Christian culture it varies wildly. At first glance, the Dutch Sinterklaas is as close to our Santa as could be imagined; an Earth-2 version, if you will, from an America where the Dutch never gave up New Amsterdam (exaggerated wink to my Changeling players). But dig a little deeper and there's depths to this figure that surprised even me.

First, let's get an unpleasant realization out of the way at the outset. Both Sinterklaas and the German Knecht Ruprecht have historically been aided by helpers in blackface. Both traditions have equivocated that this is because the servants have to go down a coal-filled chimney, but in reality the Dutch Zwarte Piet-as-Moor servant dates back only about a couple of centuries and is clearly culturally "Moorish" and a racist caricature.

But let's go back further than even that. In medieval Dutch, Black Pete was a nickname for a devil, and subsequently these "helpers" were the ones who punished the children and gave them worthless gifts while Sinterklaas rewarded them. In fact, in some tales, the black helpers would observe children to make sure they were good all year long.

Sinterklaas, unlike Santa Claus, doesn't have a sleigh. He rides a grey steed through the sky, often with two black servants who serve as his agents in our world and observers, as his thought and memory, if you will.

Remind you of anyone?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 6: Eves of Liminality: Talking Animals on Christmas Eve

I did a good chunk of research on this one, and all I got was anecdotal evidence. The tradition of animals being able to speak on Christmas Eve was new to me when my British wife mentioned it to me a few years ago, and indeed, most sources seem to agree it originates in the British isles. But the web is full of "my mother told me this," "I remember hearing it somewhere," and other noncommittal origins for the story. The Christian overlay is that it's meant to honor the animals who themselves honored Christ in the manger, but as always seems to be the case during these investigations of weird Christmas myths: yes, there are likely pagan origins.

Probably one of the more interesting interpretations comes from this Strange Horizons post from 2006, in which it's thought that the evenings before holy days/holidays (All Hallow's Eve, Christmas Eve, and, strangely unnoted by the Strange Horizons author, Walpurgisnacht) always seem to feature some form of thinness between worlds, or speaking with the dead, some other sort of prophecy, or the "one night in the year" that Supernatural Being X is allowed to do Supernatural Activity Y. Witches on Walpurgisnacht, the unquiet dead on Halloween... but surely innocent animals could not have the same level of uncannyness or even evil?

Let's be honest; sometimes the animals are not speaking of innocent things. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, cites this story of a couple of ill-treated pets who speak and prophesy in Brittany:
Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, ‘It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.’ ‘’Twill be a good deed,’ the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbour's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.
In the words of esteemed parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman... dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 5: Choking on Aristotle

Quick hit today, on a Christmas tradition that's new to me, the Boar's Head Feast at Queen's College, Oxford. The tradition stretches back, yes, to pagan times and the triumph involved in slaying a wild boar; it also stretches forward to the present day thanks to settlers in colonial America and a continuous tradition at Oxford. But check out this purported "origin myth" meant to get rid of the boar's head's paganism and give it a nice personalized gloss for the University. Who needs pagan chieftains with spears when you have your handy copy of Aristotle:
Legend has it that a scholar was studying a book of Aristotle while walking through the forest on his way to Midnight Mass. Suddenly, he was confronted by an angry wild boar. Having no other weapon, the resourceful Oxonian rammed his metal-bound philosophy book down the throat of the charging animal, whereupon the brute choked to death. That night the boar's head, finely dressed and garnished, was borne in procession to the dining room, accompanied by carolers singing "in honor of the King of bliss."
That is the kind of Christmas legend that this blog can get behind fully.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 4: Whatever Happened to the Magi?

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

- Matthew 2:12

Come on, like I wasn't going to cover the Magi in this feature?

We all know the greatest hits of the three Wise Men: Zoroastrian priest-astrologers, or kings from three different continents (whom every nation in history, it seems, has tried to claim as their own), they offered gifts, probably symbolic of kingship, godhood and death, and then disappear from the story, careful not to tangle with the about-to-mass-infanticide King Herod. But where did they go after following their star to the Nativity of Jesus?

One popular tradition is that the three kings were martyred after later becoming Christians. This purported 4th century account, the Chronicon of Flavius Lucius Dexter, alleged to have been discovered in the 16th century and then widely transmitted in Catholic nations, was later revealed to be a contemporary forgery. Interestingly, many of these falsos cronicones, as they were called in Spain, were written at the height of the Spanish Empire as a sort of cultural valedictory, featuring many purported late antique authors from Roman Spain.

Marco Polo was supposed to have seen the tomb of the Magi, in Saveh in Persia, on his famous journey. While this would at least match the geographical origin of three supposed Zoroastrian priests, no other record has been found in the eight centuries since Marco Polo's visit of this tomb. It is interesting to note that in Saveh Marco Polo supposedly met "fire-worshipping priests," which is the sure sign of a Zoroastrian temple. Whether it is plausible for a prominent Zoroastrian temple to have still remained centuries after Persia's conversion to Islam is also doubtful; a vast majority had fled to India by the time of Marco Polo.

The convoluted tale of the "relics" of the three magi begins with their relocation to Milan from Byzantium in 344. During Frederick Barbarossa's conquest of Italy in the early 12th century, the relics were stolen and spirited to Cologne, where a great reliquary was crafted by Nicholas of Verdun. Were the bones yet another hoax meant to lend authority to a great imperial ruler? Umberto Eco thought so, and the early 12th century was a golden age of the propagation of medieval forgeries.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 3: Sol Invictus

We've spent some time in Northern Europe so far in the 12 Days of Weirdmas, but now, let's go south. South to the Roman Empire, where the late Empire's peculiar melange of Pagan, Christian, and neo-Pagan produced the popular date for what became Christ's Mass.

Two threads converge in this story. First, the popularity of new cults within the late Roman Empire generated the cult of the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, in the late 3rd century AD. This cult drew aspects from existing solar cults, including those of Apollo-Helios and of course the Syrian god Elagabalus, who lent his name to one of the cruelest Roman Emperors of the late period, who was largely believed to be original popularizer of the solar cult.

The sun, of course, would have its "rebirth" ceremony during the longest night of the year, when the days in the Northern Hemisphere would begin to grow again.

At the same time, in the 3rd century within Christian communities, some discussion was given for theological and historical purposes as to when Christ was born. Coming up with the 25th of December for Christmas and the 6th of January for Epiphany seems to have arisen in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 4th century. We know this thanks to the record left behind by the contemporary Chronography of 354, which interestingly notes both the "birthday of the Unconquered" and the "birth of Christ in Bethlehem," but also due to the detective work of late antique exegetes who noted the pregnancy of John the Baptist's mother along with the date of the Annunciation in Luke.

It's worth noting that theologians such as Origen and Arnobius found the celebration of Christ's birthday to be too similarly idolatrous to Roman and other pagan traditions of celebrating birthdays of Emperors or kings.

And thus begins the shifting of Christ's birthday to civic holiday within the Empire. For a while there was deliberate conflation of Christ with the Unconquered Sun, encouraged by both Christian and pagan adherents.

Christ as "sun" of God (obviously the pun only works in English) was a connection not unknown to the early Christians nor unknown to pagan Romans. In one of many examples of Old Testament prophecy of Christ's coming, Christian theologians could cite Malachi 4:2: "But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall." And at least a century before the Chronography of 354 there is evidence of a solar Christ, taking on the iconography of Apollo-Helios in a Roman Christian mausoleum. With the slow and final takeover of Christianity in the Roman Empire, an unconquered solar deity whose feast day was at midwinter would jibe perfectly with the Unconquered (by death) Christ whose real birthday was calculated for that same date.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 2: Put a Great Stellated Rhombicuboctahedron On Top of the Tree!

Most folks are content to put a simple five-pointed star on top of their Christmas trees. But the Moravian Church has a tradition of putting a three-dimensional star on their trees that can feature anywhere from 26 to as many as 110 points. Where did this tradition start? Perhaps surprisingly, it's widely believed it was invented and developed as a geometry lesson.

The Moravian Star, as it is now known, was first crafted at the Niesky Moravian Boys' School and apparently spread throughout Germany, even among non-Moravians, as a popular form of the Christmas tree star, and wherever Moravian missionaries went around the world.

The typical 26-point configuration uses the sides of a figure known as a rhombicuboctahedron as bases for the points, or stellations. This doesn't have any special numerological or sacred geometrical significance to the Unity of Brethren or Moravian Church, but the star itself is of course representative of the Star of Bethlehem.

Where else has the rhombicuboctahedron appeared? Well, in the Portrait of Luca Pacioli, a late 15th century painting that depicts a mathematician, and where the rhombicuboctahedron takes on a, well, uncanny appearance.

Suspended from the darkened ceiling in front of Pacioli is a glass-sided, water-filled rhombicuboctahedron, along with a solid dodecahedron, whose mysteries we've plumbed previously here at Renfusa. Its purpose and selection in this painting is a mystery, almost as mysterious as the solid in Dürer's Melencolia I. In fact, some believe the figure on the right in the painting could be Dürer, whose devotion to and knowledge of solid geometry is obviously well-attested.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 1: Yule Lads

We get the majority of our modern Christmas traditions from Norse and Germanic culture. (This is a tendency we'll be returning to later in this series in a big way.) We can locate the origins of Santa Claus, the advent calendar, the Yule log and the Christmas tree in Northern Europe over the last two millennia. But even with most of the ancient Norse traditions being subsumed into the modern melting pot of Christmas, there are few that persist to this day untouched by the larger superculture. And one of them is Iceland's Yule Lads.

Figures of trickery and mischief run deep in the Christmas traditions of Northern Europe, especially when it comes to punishing naughty girls and boys. In the Yule Lads, we have an autochthonous Icelandic tradition that was actually forgotten for many years in the modern era and resuscitated later on in the 20th century. Probably because the idea of a supernatural creature who is the offspring of a giantess-witch who eats children and whose main idea of mischief is eating the crust off the pans left out overnight might have lost a little of its power in a more modern world.

But yes, the Yule Lads echo the bad household fairies like the boggart in that they invade the home to wreak havoc on the sanctity of its contents. And yes, they have awesome names. I can't pick a favorite between names like Bjúgnakrækir (the "Sausage-Swiper"), Gáttaþefur (the "Doorway Sniffer") and Meathook, a.k.a. Ketkrókur, who uses his long hook to sneak down the chimney to steal the family's meat.

As was stated above, the Yule Lads are the offspring of the terrifying giantess of Icelandic folklore, Grýla. Grýla is a typical witch-ogre of the Baba Yaga type, cooking and eating children with the help of her evil cat (who later joined the Lads as a Christmas-specific Yule Cat). Using Grýla to frighten children at Christmas seems to have started sometime in the 18th century, but her history is more profound than that; she appears as a figure of some fearful esteem in various Icelandic sagas and in various legendaria as a figure in animal skins on horseback who acts as a punisher of men who wrong women. It's hard to resist the interpretation that Grýla's evolution from a primal pagan force of vengeance to a mother-figure in a children's tradition was an intentional one meant to rob her of some of her power.

These days, the Yule Lads are starting to be subsumed into Global Western Christmas; some Yule Lads even wear red-and-white Santa outfits these days in Iceland. But as a resuscitated tradition, they and their ancestors in folklore reach back in time to some of Iceland's earliest settlement and strongest cultural traditions.

The 12 Days of Weirdmas: Introduction

First things first, yes, I know when the actual Twelve Days of Christmas are. I'm planning this feature so it's one post each weekday leading up to Christmas. So my inaccuracy is totally valid.

Second: Christmas is WEIRD.

When you think about it as the central modern Western holiday on the calendar, and all the myriad traditions that feed into what it is to us today, you quickly realize it's an ancient mishmash of pagan and Christian, commercial and charitable, the intimacy of family and the larger web of society, happiness and melancholy. It's downright liminal.

So for the next 12 days, I will be looking at a distinct weirdness of Christmas each day. These entries won't be nearly as discursive as most of Renfusa so far, but I guarantee you will not know anything about at least one of these weird Christmas facts.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Genius in a Bottle: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ghosts, and Genies

Slate has a new feature that might be of some interest to Renfusa-heads: it's called The Vault and it looks at strange artifacts from out of history. Today's is a test tube reputed to hold Thomas Edison's last breath. The test tube was given to Henry Ford by Edison's son. (By the way, is it any great shock that two of the most colossal assholes of America's golden age of inventing formed a mutual admiration society?) Most likely the test tube was just hanging out in the room with Edison's death bed, but check out THIS [citation needed] action from the Slate article right here:
Some writers have hypothesized that Ford believed he could preserve Edison’s soul in a test tube for future resurrection. Given Ford’s love of exacting recreations, and belief in reincarnation, this speculation almost seems plausible.
To be fair, both Edison and Ford were holders of any number of strange occult beliefs, and to be honest that part of this story doesn't really interest me. Where I want to wander is this idea of catching a last breath in a bottle and this breath somehow holding a soul or ghost.

The association of breath with spirit is baked into the meaning of the word; the association is ancient and well-attested. And the idea of the spirit escaping with the final breath is just as old: Ovid tells us of Cephalus who accidentally killed his wife Procris and then took her final breath on his lips (inspiration, it seems, for at least three Shakespeare tropes).

But when did people start trapping last breaths in bottles or at the very least faking such? Those of us who are Tim Powers fans will recognize and appreciate the trope, and probably did as soon as they saw this post was about Edison's ghost; huffing and consuming ghosts is probably one of Powers's biggest contributions to postmodern occult lore. And while it seems like trapping final breaths would be a fairly common Victorian pasttime given the era's peculiar obsession with the leavings of the dead, it seems Edison's half-scientific, half-occult relic is the primary example of this.

But here's an interesting correspondence. What sort of spirit is most often associated with being trapped in a bottle? Djinn, of course. What do djinn have to do with ghosts, or the dead? Well, when it comes to out-and-out trickery, plenty, according to medieval Islamic thinker Ibn Taymiyyah:
Ibn Taymiyyah believes that the jinn account for much of the "magic" perceived by humans, cooperating with magicians to lift items in the air unseen, delivering hidden truths to fortune tellers, and mimicking the voices of deceased humans during seances.
And so we come full circle; Edison's ghost, a phantasm conjured by Henry Ford's fond wish to keep his friend alive, is a con game as old as the fake medium. Not that Edison would've known anything about that.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Winter Storm Nyarlathotep

So the Weather Channel is doing a gimmick where they name all the Winter Storms, akin to the naming of tropical storms. It's not officially WMO-sanctioned, it's just a way for the Weather Channel to increase its presence in our lives with the help of smooth jazz over Local Weather on the 8s.

Look at those NAMES, man! It's like a Nerd Murderers' Row. But some of them are not what they seem! To wit:

Gandolf: A character in a 1896 fantasy novel in a pseudo-medieval countryside.

Yup. No joke. Apparently Tolkien's Gandalf has a precedent in a character called Gandolf in the 1896 William Morris novel The Well at the World's End. This novel "is a multi-part 'magical journey' involving elves, dwarves and kings in a pseudo-medieval landscape which is known to have deeply influenced Tolkien," according to Wikipedia. To find out that Tolkien was a fairly blatant rip-off artist, and to find out because of a cheesy Weather Channel gimmick... oy. That's some hard truth there.

And how about this one?

Orko: The thunder god in Basque mythology.

No, not him. With such an overtly nerdy list, you'll excuse my assumption that the Weather Channel meteorologists were hardcore Masters of the Universe geeks.

I'll be interested to see which entities the Weather Channel picks next year. Remember kids, A is for Azathoth.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Tritium

Another quick hit: some secret declassified history sure to provide Halloween chills...

"There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants."

Mercury Delay Lines

When I read this line in the article, my heart literally skipped a beat: "There were tanks of mercury (Mercury Delay Lines) where data was stored as sound waves for memory."

This is one of those days I wish I didn't have to do any actual work... all I want to do is spend hours going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole reading about these 'Mercury Delay Lines' and the alchemy of early computing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Worshipful Livery Companies of the City of London

A while back I was looking at the Wikipedia entry for Sacha Baron Cohen after finding out his cousin was a fairly well-known neurobiologist. Looking at the former's educational history, I was bemused to find out his pre-university school was something called the "Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School," and of course with a name like that I had to find out what was going on there. A school... founded for the sons of haberdashers? Even for the convoluted and idiosyncratic history of English education, that seemed a reach.

Turned out I was not far off. And this is how I first learned of the Livery Companies of London.

The Livery Companies are just what they seem like at first glance; a group of medieval guilds that survive in various forms to this day. The Haberdashers (sorry, "The Master and Four Wardens of the Fraternity of the Art or Mystery of Haberdashers in the City of London," I mean come on, how can you not get sucked in by a name like that??) are one of the "Great Twelve," the first 12 of these guilds to be formed (don't be fooled by the sign above, the Haberdashers have been around 1448). These guilds were prototypical late medieval guilds, formed to support the skilled craftsmen of the City of London, and as the years went on they took on many patronages, including funding mystery plays, almshouses, and schools.

For me, what fired my imagination was the diversity of these Companies. You can chart the history of London by looking at the "order of precedence," which, while not strictly chronological, does give an idea of the vast range of occupations that have made London their home over the past six centuries. The vast majority of the Companies were founded and given their Royal Charter well after the heyday of the medieval guild, during the rise of London as a world-class city in the 17th and 18th centuries. In these Companies you see the mercantile concerns of the era reflected: the Stationers and Newspaper Makers, the Clockmakers, the Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders, the Makers of Playing Cards.

While most of the Companies only hold a ceremonial or charitable role these days, some are active in licensing their members. Most notable of these is the famous test of "the Knowledge" given to all London cabbies by the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers. The contrast between the more ancient guilds and the modern Companies is a lovely juxtaposition to ponder; it is difficult to imagine men in Elizabethan or Restoration garb as members of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (although I am sure somewhere out there someone is writing a steampunk novel where this Company exists in the Victorian era). The proposed Worshipful Company of Public Relations Practitioners seems a particularly good example of this as well. Other Companies, like the Salters and the Horners, have branched out into modern trades (industrial chemistry and plastics, respectively).

Why does this seemingly pedestrian, anachronous listing of professions fire my imagination so much? The Livery Companies just barely whisper of secret histories. Especially considering the magic woven into the streets of London, the idea of these seemingly vestigial traces of an older London having occult agendas and hidden rivalries in plain sight is absolutely right up my alley. The Companies have ancient secret headquarters, and Latin mottos, and fight for the Order of their Precedence regularly... how could the Companies not contain a secret history waiting to be uncovered‽

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vortices of Blood: The Magic of Early Mexico City

Oh, right. It's finally time to talk about Colonial Mexico City and teleportation.

About a year ago I happened upon the mysterious case of Gil Pérez. Short version: in October 1593, a palace guard in Manila in the Philippines is witness to the news that colonial governor Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas has been slain by mutineers in the Mulaccas. He falls faint against a wall, and wakes up in Mexico City, over 9000 miles away. Imprisoned as a deserter and questioned by the Inquisition, his assertion that Governor Dasmariñas was killed was proven correct by passengers of the next Manila Galleon to arrive in Mexico two months after Pérez's sudden appearance. And then, Gil Pérez disappears from history, after having returned to his post in Manila and returned, one presumes, to a normal, non-teleporting life.

Here's the thing: this isn't the only case of teleportation in the records of colonial Mexico City.

Last month I caught this story on one of my news feeds. It occurred a full half-century prior to Pérez's accidental teleportation, and gives us a very different specimen of teleporter. Father Pedro Ruiz Calderón was a roué and blackguard, a black magician, alchemist, seducer of women, a braggart and a blasphemer who, yes, also happened to be a Catholic priest. During a sojourn in Mexico City, he ran afoul of the local Inquisition and was given a surprisingly light sentence from the local "hanging" archbishop, Juan de Zumárraga. He was exiled back to Spain where he presumably continued teleporting, turning invisible, mesmerizing women and living the life of a mid-16th century alchemical charlatan who claimed to have descended to Hell and stolen the devil's spellbooks.

But Mexico City as a nexus of weird, space-warping power has a bit of a pull, doesn't it? After all, the Spanish had erected their colonial capital on the site of the Aztec Empire's own capital, a city built into an imperial seat remarkably quickly on the bones and blood of massive human sacrifice. And let's take into consideration the thorough decimation that the Aztec population around Mexico City went through immediately post-Spanish takeover, in a sacrifice much more bloody than the thousands sacrificed in the dedication of the Templo Mayor. Tenochtitlan sat on an island in Lake Texcoco, and that along with its uniquely royal/holy status made it a strikingly liminal locale. Early Spanish conquistadores called Tenochtitlan a "dream city," unsure if it was real or an illusion.

That's a lot of heavy, dark power for a genius loci to soak up. No wonder that ambitious magicians like Father Ruiz Calderón were drawn to it, and that an innocent like Gil Pérez, in the aftermath of a smaller blood sacrifice in another Spanish colony half a world away, slipped into its vortex.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I'm trying desperately to not let Renfusa become a gaming blog. Let's just say that Tuesday night's Mage game, which is now visiting this blog's titular inspiration, found itself in the hoary area where Bacon's New Atlantis may or may not be the secret identity of the Voynich Manuscript. This area has been best explored in this fantastic blog, but what I want to talk about today is what the technology of Bacon's House of Salomon might visually resemble.

Is the New Atlantis science fiction? Well, it is clear that the scientists of Bensalem can do things undreamed of in even the modern era: perpetual motion, changing the sizes and physical properties of animals and plants, weather control, etc. The "what" of the genius of Salomon's House is richly explored, but quite left alone is the subject of "how." And from the "how" would inevitably spring, "what does this look like?" For a man who was seeking to enshrine something close to an experimental method in the courts of Europe, Bacon was frustratingly vague on how all these miracles of Bensalem became commonplace.

Even more interesting to me, from an aesthetic and storytelling sense, is what all this Bensalem tech looks like. If we just go kind of crazy and take as a given that the Voynich Manuscript is meant to be a descriptive missive from Bensalem, one rife with city plans and plans for scuba suits and pictures of women using Bacon's "baths of Adam and Eve," then we have to next ask ourselves, how would a society like this build and design their grandest, most complicated inventions?

Well, the interesting thing about our virtual tour of Salomon's House as detailed in the New Atlantis is that it begins underground. And that the fact they are able to dig deeper than any mine in the real world gives them access to "imitation of natural mines and the producing also of new artificial metals, by compositions and materials which we use and lay there for many years." So not only is Bensalemite metallurgy superior to that of Europe, the House of Salomon are essentially able to create ex nihilo (or perhaps "ex caverna" is more appropriate) completely alien and superior artificial metals. Again, with no explanation as to the "how" except an intimation that distance from the rays of the sun and moon allow this wondrous deed to happen. Remember, the pre-scientific tradition was the metals were found in the Earth's crust due to the influence of the planets (sun and moon included). So essentially what we're looking at here is some kind of "clean room" where fantastic metallurgy can be practiced.

In manufacturing, again, Bacon is frustratingly vague but we get a sense of what the ordinary run of Bensalemites gain from the pioneering work of Salomon's House: "We have also divers mechanical arts, which you have not; and stuffs made by them, as papers, linen, silks, tissues, dainty works of feathers of wonderful lustre, excellent dyes, and many others, and shops likewise as well for such as are not brought into vulgar use among us, as for those that are. For you must know, that of the things before recited, many of them are grown into use throughout the kingdom, but yet, if they did flow from our invention, we have of them also for patterns and principals." Salomon's House holds the patents, and slowly leaks out inventions that provide the greatest benefit. Everyday items are better than European ones, but similar, and they're made by machines.

It's in the crystaltech/vitritech that Bensalem begins to far surpass contemporary European technology. Like the metals mentioned above, Bensalem makes "precious stones, of all kinds, many of them of great beauty and to you unknown, crystals likewise, and glasses of divers kind." And these crystals and prisms are used in the House of Salomon's deceits of the senses: optics allow for magnification at a distance and close up. Optics was a burgeoning science in the 1620s, and Bacon makes sure that Bensalem has already perfected every use possible. Not only can they split light into the spectrum, but they can make full-fledged illusions with their prisms and lenses.

Heading back to Voynich for a second, it's interesting how evenly divided the manuscript is between the organic and the celestial. Plant life abounds in Voynich (indeed as it does in the New Atlantis), and the plants, as unrecognizable to modern eyes as they would have been to someone in the 17th century, seem to be combinations of familiar plants. The House of Salomon has gardens in which they "practise likewise all conclusions of grafting, and inoculating, as well of wild-trees as fruit-trees, which produceth many effects... [coming] earlier or later than their seasons, and to come up and bear more speedily than by their natural course they do." The plants in Voynich are huge and wild and and alien and they grow all over the pages.

Bensalem seems most like our modern world when we look at their skills in transportation and communication. It's strongly implied that the House of Salomon has taken the horse out of the equation for ground transportation ("[we have] swifter motions than any you have, either out of your muskets or any engine that you have.. [we] make them and multiply them more easily and with small force, by wheels and other means)" and that the air and underwater are also opened up to them. Also? Bensalem has the telephone. It's a tin-can telephone, granted, but it's immediately recognizable as a telephone. ("We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.") A "series of tubes" could honestly describe both the visual appearance of Bensalem and that of Voynich.

The Bensalemites: crystal mages who are skilled in near-instantaneous genetic engineering, fantastic metallurgy, and can make powerful machines and facilitate long-distance communication using clockworks and pneumatic tubes respectively. It's a catalog of crackpot alternative technologies from the 17th century all the way to the present. Taken as a whole, it's Voynichpunk.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Five things I learned from reading Elijah Wald's The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama

Warning: This entry contains sexual language and concepts. Reader discretion is advised.

1. The etymology of the term "the dozens" for traditional African-American jesting/insult games is still largely unknown. Wald spends the most time analyzing the possibility that the dozens were simply meant to be traded in groups of twelve, and he provides quite a few rhymes, mostly of sexual boasting, from the early 20th century which were counting couplets. In turn, these are believed to have come down through the 19th century minstrel tradition (in Biblical rhymes turned to comedic ends) from religious twelves leading all the way back to 17th century Latin catechisms. Another interesting possibility for the origin of the name is that it comes from shooting dice, as 12 or "boxcars" is one of the worst possible results. "Shooting" the dozens was a term used in North Carolina, and Wald cites an unrelated dozens blues couplet from 1937 that goes, "De box cars rollin', de baby's a cryin'/I played yo' mama in the slavery time." (Wald 28)

2. The dozens have always existed on the edge of acceptability in larger white culture, whether through the minstrel tradition (both black and white) or during the rise of jazz, Dixieland, and blues throughout the first third of the 20th century. "The Dirty Dozen No. 2," recorded by bluesman Speckled Red in 1930, was a "radio edit" of the original oral-tradition dirty dozens, and you can see easily where the curse words were replaced by the clean version:
The clock's on the shelf going tick, tick, tick
Your mama's out on the street doin' I don't know which (Wald 49)
You can fill in the original rhyme pretty easily there.

Red's clean version led to (no pun intended) dozens of cover and instrumental versions, which further diluted and bowdlerized the original meaning; even Count Basie had a crack at an instrumental cover rendition. But the "real" dozens still persisted in "party" records and underground dirty recordings, most of them sung by female blues artists, who had a peculiar cultural license to be absolutely filthy in some situations where men couldn't. Blueswoman Victoria Spivey, singer of the "boxcar" rhyme above, put a woman's spin on the dozens by telling all about no-good men in "From 1 to 12 (Dirty Dozen).," and Memphis Minnie's "New Dirty Dozen," which took the opportunity to throw sexual insults at a whole family, Aristocrats-style.

3. Wald spends time seeing how white audiences reacted to the uncensored dozens. One particularly amusing story occurred during World War II (Wald cites several stories of white officers and soldiers reacting with shock or bafflement to the dozens during both World Wars) where a white seaman, Tom Wicker, was put in charge of a boxcar full of black sailors and reacted to an invitation to "suck my black dick" from one of the black soldiers by trading jests:
"Why, your buddy there told me you didn't even have one." A fragment of an old joke flickered in [Wicker's] memory. "Said a hog bit it off."
"Shee-it." The tall black sailor grinned. The other blacks laughed, all of them this time, some obviously in relief, some in derision of the tall boy as he thought up his reply. "You git home, man, you ask your girl friend, see if I ain't broke it off in her pussy." The blacks howled with laughter.
"After mine," Wicker said, hoping for the best, "I reckon she wouldn't even feel that little old biddy toothpick of yours."
There was more laughter and backslapping, and even the other white boys grinned, rather painfully.
In addition, Wald speaks of white immigrant dozens traditions in major cities in America in the middle part of the 20th century, picked up on the streets from African-American peers in cases of cultural mimicry.

4. What is the purpose of the dozens? Wald argues for a number of possible social benefits to the ritual, (echoing parallel African verbal traditions that foster social cohesion), but is also not afraid to tackle the negative aspects of the dozens. While the dozens may have served to defuse physical violence and provide a coming-of-age ritual for African-American youth, the actual insults, say many African-American philosophers and cultural critics, foster negative images of blackness, womanhood, and other possible indicators of cultural self-loathing.

The African origins of the dozens are well-attested, and its ritual and cultural significance proven out time and time again. A near-liturgical series of mother-based anatomical insults are said to help solidify and strengthen the ties between the Dogon and Bozo peoples of West Africa, who held belief in common origins that had weakened over time through a difference in religion (animism vs. Islam, respectively) and taboos that prevent sexual intermingling.

Even with the African origins of the modern dozens solidly proven, Wald can't help but find similar traditions around the globe, in as disparate cultures as Elizabethan England and the Manus society of New Guinea.

5. Wald claims the Dozens are "rap's mama" in the title of the book, and while no one could certainly draw a direct lineage from the cultural phenomenon to hip-hop, the idea of verbal duel supplanting physical is a strong tradition throughout rap's history and pre-history. Wald traces the proto-origins of rap to several threads in the 1970s and previous: comedy albums from Rudy Ray Moore and musical descendants of Speckled Red like Jimmy Castor's "Leroy" series. Mama jokes in rap come to their apex through 2 Live Crew's raunchy, Foxx/Moore-inspired albums and exist as a connecting thread through gangsta rap's violent and sexual boasts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reading the Future and the Past in a Teacup

A while back on my gaming blog I posted that getting no results for a Google search for "secret history of tea" was one of the saddest Google results I had ever seen. Obviously, as is common in the ways of these things, there are now 5.

But let's back up. My wife manages a tea shop (shameless plug shameless plug). She has been on a vintage tea cup buying spree lately, and this weekend she brought home a piece that drew me like a moth to flame, or like an Englishman to a cuppa.

To quote from the description of the cup on the website, "The interior of the cup is decorated with the signs of the planets, and common symbols seen in Tasseography (telling fortunes using tea leaves). The saucer is decorated with the signs of the zodiac."

That's just awesome, is it not? Let's break this down, though, because tasseography is super interesting and we need to cover it in detail before looking at this specific cup.

All things considered, Western tasseography is pretty recent because Europe didn't start drinking coffee and tea until the mid-17th century. Using the random configurations of the remnants of a cup of coffee or tea finds its origins in other "random spill" style divinations, mostly done by spilling molten wax or metal into a vessel of cool water and reading the resulting shapes. Of course, this all goes back much further to the rather bloody affair of haruspicy which stands as the forefather of all shape-reading-based methods of western divination.

Surely, much like the ancient human past-times of idly finding shapes in the clouds or the stars, some early Western tea-drinker noticed an evocative shape at the bottom his or her new-fangled cup of tea or coffee and decided it might be a sign. And to be honest, looking for literal shapes in a cup of coffee or tea feels a bit mundane, as are the standard explanations for the shapes provided by "A Highland Seer" in the 1920 book Tea-Cup Reading, and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves. Literality and homeyness and familiarity are the order of the day: HORSE-SHOE means luck, SNAKE means misfortune and treachery.

Which is what makes the cup in the photo above so awesome. Because all of a sudden, folk magic is supplemented with the Hermetic astrological tradition. Cups like these were actually fairly common in 20th century Britain. Sure, suggestions for common shapes are traced all around the inside of the cup, but at the bottom of the cup are the seven planets, so now you can place your HORSE-SHOE in Venus and say you'll be lucky in love, or your SNAKE in Mercury and say that you'll be betrayed in travel or in communication. The signs of the zodiac on the saucer? Well, one doesn't usually spill one's leaves into the saucer but perhaps a drop of tea hits one or more signs? All of a sudden you have three sets of magical data to interpret and interpolate, all interrelated.

What do I want now, after researching all this? I'm greedy. I want a teacup with the 36 decans on the inside.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

And if the elevator tries 2 bring u down

It's probably best not to ask what rabbit hole I fell into that led me to this clip of Prince talking about how we're all being exposed to mind controlling chemtrails from jets to make us angry and fighty all the time...

... but it's when he says "when I found out there were eight presidents before George Washington," THAT's the point that made me sit up and pay attention.

He was speaking, of course, of the eight men to hold the title of President of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, but the idea of a line of Secret Presidents predating Washington that THEY don't want you to know about was just impossible for me not to Renfuse about it.

The Presidents That Time Forgot. Lost in the great cataclysm of 178N-178Y (notation developed to indicate the later years of the conflict that retroactively ceased to exist), these men sacrificed their lives and their  legacy to keep the dark mysteries of the Secret Masters hidden forever.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kennedy Fractals

Every 3-6 months or so I'll dive deeply back into the Kennedy assassination. It'll usually start with a re-read of Don DeLillo's Libra, and then either branch off into a rewatch of Oliver Stone's JFK, the British documentary The Men Who Killed Kennedy, or a re-read of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. This time I decided to go a different route. I asked Amazon to provide me with a good primer on the assassination. Having already bought and been disappointed in Four Days in November/Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugilosi I decided I needed something a little more... well, conspiratorial.

And wow, did Jim Marrs's Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy fit the bill1. An extensive catalog of all extant JFK assassination conspiracy theories available at the time of publication (1989), it's an excellent concordance to all the other JFK conspiracy media I mentioned above.

There's so much I didn't know in this book that there was no way that a "Five Things" post would be sufficient. But I want to focus in on one of them in particular, and that is the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Did you know that the House of Representatives in 1979 concluded that John F. Kennedy was probably slain as the result of conspiracy? I didn't. Sure, I may have faintly remembered the afterword to Stone's JFK where this was mentioned, but to read it in Marrs's book was a revelation. To realize that the entirety of the Warren Commission report was admitted by the selfsame government 15 years later to have been utterly worthless was shocking.

Marrs attributes the willingness and political clout of Congress after Watergate to delve deep into government secrecy to getting this far, but admits there were still huge obstructions. Committee heads suspected nearly everyone hired by the Committee of being a plant for the CIA: paranoia and secrecy ran rampant, hampering the Committee's ability to conduct its investigation.

Other notes on the House Select Committee: everyone talks about the rash of suicides, car crashes, drug overdoses, heart attacks, sudden bouts of cancer, and deaths by karate chop in the immediate aftermath of the JFK killing, but no one talks about the second wave of deaths in the late '70s around the Committee's activities. Probable CIA asset George de Mohrenschildt and mob boss Sam Giancana both died of gunshot wounds before they were set to testify (before separate House committees) as did William C. Sullivan of the FBI and Dallas radio host Lou Staples.

There's also the Dallas Police radio recording, another piece of assassination lore I'd never heard of before reading Marrs's book and the key piece of evidence that led the Committee to conclude a conspiracy killed the President. Amazing that in this day and age of advanced computer technology, according to Wikipedia, "digital restoration of the Dictabelt seemed a more distant prospect, with both funding and final approval for the project unlikely to be secured in the near future."

Finally, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald gets a thorough look in Marrs's book. Marrs leans toward the theory that Oswald was military intelligence from the get-go, and that he was trained very early to come across as a misfit, loner, and potential Communist asset within the U.S. Marine Corps and its base at Atsugi. Marrs even entertains the far-out theory that the Oswald who returned from Russia was a Soviet spy and that this spy's body was swapped out for the "real" Oswald post-burial. Oswald's obvious tendency to "double" or "triple" in the months prior to the assassination, working for extreme right-winger Guy Banister while handing out leaflets for Fair Play for Cuba, does lend credence to the "long time intelligence agent" theory, in any event.

The Kennedy assassination truly is like a fractal; it's fully of smaller more minute details seemingly onto infinity. There's no end to the spirals one can spin down.

1 Let's be honest, though: Marrs is a crackpot. He hits the early '90s conspiracy trifecta: JFK, UFOs, and remote viewing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Future Path Not Taken: The Magic of the Nixie Clock

I'm not technically-minded. I was never big into those 200-in-1 kits you got at Radio Shack. I was more into Transformers than Legos. My choice of toys marked me as a humanities geek from an early age. At the same time, I have a great love of technology-qua-technology. Especially forgotten or vintage technology. A couple of years ago someone I know linked to a YouTube video of an antique 1960s modem that still worked, and I fell in love:

So a couple of weeks ago I had occasion to go up to my company's internal IT department to request a new security key. Lo and behold the cubes are filled with all kinds of geek ephemera, and most notably, the dude I got my key from had a Nixie clock in his cube. I stared. And I probably looked like a dork in the process.

The Nixie tube is a perfect example of thoroughly obsolete technology that only exists today for aesthetic reasons. The Nixie had a very short shelf life; basically the 1960s. Once LEDs and LCDs were available for cheaper and smaller uses in calculators and watches, the Nixie was a dinosaur. So the Nixie display speaks of a very specific time and place: the last generation of computers before the microchip, the apotheosis of the vacuum tube.

About the best example of this I could give you is the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Heywood Floyd and the other investigators are headed to the TMA-1 site on the Moon and their shuttle has a very prominent Nixie numerical display.

Sure, it dates the movie. But this sort of analog display also co-exists in a universe with flatscreen tablet computers and advanced AIs. It's a much cooler, better, more unexpected mashup of styles than steampunk. It's basically vacuumpunk.

Yeah, this kind of intentionally-archaic tech is pretty much my bread and butter. A few weeks ago I posted an image collage from Lost and the Swan Station is a great example of that 70s high-tech retro I love. There's definitely another post on this in the works, specifically about 2001 and how it kicked off a decade of gleaming white futuristic surfaces that eventually got grungier and grimier. But with that in mind, one last image from an iconic science fiction movie, where it's gleaming monochrome surfaces vs. cobbled-together space junk to get you thinking about this.

Luke's targeting computer's numerics... awfully reminiscent of a Nixie display, no?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hexagon Transmissions: Boards of Canada and Nostalgia

Q: Why did the educational TV films from the National Film Board of Canada, that you named yourself after, have such a big impact on you and your music if you'd only been exposed to them for a year?

A: We saw them in both Canada and Scotland. The films were on television in the UK for years... Back then television was a really big deal for us because we were so bored. We weren't old enough to go to the cinema and we were in a town where there was absolutely bugger all to do. So we just went out and vandalized property. [Laughs] Or sneak in video nasties from the local video store. Or got our friends together to make films. We had our crappy early-80s bikes and went out with my dad's super-8 camera making films.1

"If it doesn't affect me emotionally it doesn't interest me. I think a lot of it is trying to capture a nostalgic feeling buried somewhere in our minds. We are nostalgic people trying to get back moments from our pasts."

"Music for commercials, documentary soundtracks and children's TV themes. The spaces in between the music you're supposed to listen to. That's where our interest lies. These melodies might only last a second at the end of a TV programme but they are quietly more important to the public psyche than most pop music."2

Q: What's the fascination with children's voices? Is it to do with a nostalgia for childhood?

A: It's something that has a peculiar effect in music, it ought not to be there, especially in atonal, synthetic music. It's completely out of place, and yet in that context that you can really feel the sadness of a child's voice. Being a kid is such a transitory, fleeting part of your lifespan. If you have siblings, then if you think about it, you'll have known them as adults for a lot longer than you ever knew them as children. It's like a little kid lost, gone.3

I hereby nominate Boards of Canada as official house band of Renfusa.

1 Pitchfork, "The Downtempo Duo," Heiko Hoffman, September 26, 2005
2 Jockey Slut magazine, "Board Clever," Richard Hector-Jones, Vol. 2 No. 13 (April/May 1998) 
3 NME, "The Most Mysterious & Revered Men in Electronica," John Mulvey, February 23, 2002

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Green Children

This post originally appeared on my gaming blog, but it really fits much better here.

"Then (I say) the earth and they be planets alike, moved about the sun, the common centre of the world alike, and it may be those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence."
- The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, 1621
A few months ago, cross-surfing through my various Forteana blogs, I came across this entry (great blog, by the way, you should add it) on a medieval legend I'd never heard of before: the Green Children of Woolpit. The Wikipedia entry is startlingly detailed, and pretty much gives you all the historical context and occult fodder one could ask for, so I won't repeat it all here. Go read it, it's a rip-snorter. Instead let's take a closer look at the Green Children, and decide where indeed they came from.
Woolpit Suffolk.   Wlpit 10th cent., Wlfpeta 1086 (DB). ‘Pit for trapping wolves’. OE wulf-pytt.
A Dictionary of British Place Names, ed. A. D. Mills, Harvard University Library
The village ostensibly got its name from a pit used to trap wolves, and this is where the two children appeared. Meat and offal was put into the pit to attract the wolves, and then they would fall through the branches laid on top and be easily dispatched. Two children, wandering from the wilderness, attracted to a trap set for wolves? Obviously a pair of feral children brings to mind the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Tales of children raised in the wilderness by beasts are as old as civilization. But just as Romulus and Remus reached maturity as shepherds, the two Green Children came to Woolpit suddenly while "herding their father's cattle." Both pairs of siblings were liminal, aliens due to their upbringing but still on the edge of civilization due to their respective professions. The sister was later believed to have taken the Christian name Agnes; of course medieval wordplay conflated Agnes with agnus (lamb).
"Homines de terra Sancti Martini, qui scilicet in terra nativitatis nostre praecipuse venerationi habetur.'' Consequenter interrogati, ubinam esset terra illa, et quomodo exinde bue advenissent; "utrumque," inquiunt, "nescimus."
"Sed sol," inquiunt, "apud nostrates non oritur: cujus radiis terra nostra minime illustratur, illius claritatis modulo contenta, quae apud vos solem vel orientem praecedit vel sequitur occidentem."
Historia rerum anglicarum, William of Newburgh
The siblings, said the sister after her brother had died (a few days after being baptized!) came from a place called "St. Martin's Land," where "the sun never rises." The sister asserted they did not know how they came here, but that they had followed some lost cattle into a cave and emerged after hearing the sound of the village bells. Ralph of Coggeshall's account states in their homeland, "everything is green." Their green color was said to fade after time in Woolpit, but the first thing they were able to eat were "green beans."

Of course this brings to mind vegetation spirits, dryads, and all manner of fae, but what of the caves and the twilit land they came from? Fairies who dwell underground are part and parcel of fae lore, but how could a vegetable spirit survive in a land without sunlight? Perhaps they were not vegetable, but fungal?

The flipside of them being fairies is, of course, that they were extraterrestrial, or indeed ultraterrestrial in the manner of a Jacques Vallée. Modern UFO lore speaks of Greys who create bodies from vegetable matter; might the Green Children have been the first of a wave of alien-human hybrids, their DNA patched with plant matter?
There were no railroads and few roads outside the region, so the community remained small and isolated. The Fugates married other Fugate cousins and families who lived nearby, with names like Combs, Smith, Ritchie and Stacy.
Benjy's father, Alva Stacy showed Trost his family tree and remarked, "If you'll notice -- I'm kin to myself," according to Trost. 
- "Fugates of Kentucky: Skin Bluer than Lake Louise," Good Morning America, February 22, 2012
For a more mundane explanation, we could turn to stories of diseases and genetic disorders. It's long been theorized that legends of vampirism could be explained away by the disease porphyria. Methemoglobinemia, seen above in the case of the so-called "Blue Fugates," is a recessive genetic disorder that leads to blue skin. The recessive trait is exacerbated by inbreeding. Could the Green Children have been isolated far away from civilization, the product of generations of inbreeding that led to an as-yet-unknown genetic disorder? In fact, there is an anemia known as hypochromic anemia, which produces what was historically known as "the green sickness."
You can have no idea of the number of venerable saws, significant signs, old wives' sooths, gipsies' warnings, and general fiddle‑faddle that has been thrown up by this in the village, lately. We have become a folklorist's treasure‑chest. Did you know that in our circumstances it is dangerous to pass under a lych‑gate on a Friday? Practically suicide to wear green? Very unwise indeed to eat seed‑cake? Are you aware that if a dropped knife, or needle, sticks point down in the floor it will be a boy? No? I thought you might not be. But never mind. I am assembling a bouquet of these cauliflowers of human wisdom in the hope that they may keep my publishers quiet.' 
- The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham
Alien children coming upon an isolated village obviously evokes some of the more powerful tropes in post-war British science fiction (most specifically John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned but also the late 1970s' Quatermass serial and the recent Torchwood series Children of Earth). Has the folkloric idea of the alien interloper taking the form of a preternatural child been a powerful one in English history? I'll leave that question as an open one for others to explore.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

If you meet Sasquatch on the road

So, picture this: you're driving down a country road in Montana at night when suddenly a large bipedal hairy thing appears in the road! You slam on the brakes but your car strikes the creature, sending it flying. You've just made (and possibly killed) the greatest cryptozoological find of the 21st century!

Or maybe it's just a drunk guy in a furry camo suit trying to get on "Finding Bigfoot" or something. You, kind reader, just got Squatched!

swiped from because I'm too lazy to photoshop it myself, but it should really be Paul

This is certainly not the first Bigfoot hoax someone tried to perpetrate. Notable prior hoaxes include the Patterson film (the granddaddy of all Sasquatch sightings), the 2008 "I've got a Bigfoot in a freezer" hoax, and every single other Bigfoot sighting, ever.

This may be the first cryptozoohoax, and possibly the first Forteana-based hoax  that led to a death however (excluding Oak Island, I'm talking about the people actually pulling off the hoax here). I can't think of any others and some very shoddy and rudimentary research doesn't turn any up.

There are three tragic lessons to be drawn from this unfortunate incident. 1) If you think standing by the side of the road at night wearing a dark outfit designed to keep you from being seen sounds like a great idea, you may want to check yourself before you wreck yourself. 2) Sales of ghillie suits are about to go through the roof. 3) Bigfoots aren't real.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Metapost: Some blogs you should check out

Just a quick note on the most recent five new blogs I've added to my Google Reader:
  • Seven Miles of Steel Thistles
    • I'm Katherine Langrish, the author of several fantasy novels for children and young adults... I started 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles' - with some trepidation - in November 2009.  The name comes from a phrase in an Western Irish fairytale called 'The King Who had Twelve Sons'... In 'Steel Thistles' I indulge my love of fairytales, folklore, fantasy, myths, legends, and children's literature.  I'm very glad I started it - I've had a lot of fun, met some lovely people, and learned a lot. (
  • A Funkaoshi Production 
    • My name is Ramanan Sivaranjan. I live in Toronto, and write about the city often. I attended school at the University of Waterloo, where I completed a degree in Computer Science and Mathematics (Combinatorics & Optimization if Math is too vague for you). I now work as a software developer. I watch lots of movies, attend lots of concerts, and surf on the internet a bit too much. This site is reflection of these habits. (
  • Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog
    • Dr Beachcombing lives part of his time in the village of Little Snoring in an undisclosed English county (not Norfolk…) and the rest of his time in an undisclosed village in Tuscany.  He likes villages. He is particularly curious about the strange and the unexpected in records of the past: exceptions that prove or disprove rules. He increasingly suspects that there are no rules, but that’s another story... Over the years he has put together several bulging filing cabinets full of these strange and unexpected details. (
  • Accidental Mysteries at The Design Observer Group Blog
    • Accidental Mysteries is an online curiosity shop of extraordinary things, mined from the depths of the online world and brought to you each week by John Foster, a writer, designer and longtime collector of self-taught art and vernacular photography.(
  • Wonders & Marvels 
    • Wonders & Marvels began humbly as a website related to an undergraduate course on the “History of Medicine: From Aristotle to the Enlightment,” taught by Holly Tucker in fall 2008 at Vanderbilt University... Wonders & Marvels is now a place for specialists and non-specialists to revel in the stories of the past. (
Most of these blogs were discovered through a new Twitter friend of mine, @fiona_lang, and they've all enriched my daily news reading inestimably.