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 cryptomundo.com 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. (http://steelthistles.blogspot.com/)
  • 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. (http://funkaoshi.com)
  • 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. (http://www.strangehistory.net)
  • 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.(http://observatory.designobserver.com/johnfoster/)
  • 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. (http://www.wondersandmarvels.com)
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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lady Elaine Fairchilde: Devil in a Red Cape

A quick Google search for the words "Lady Elaine Fairchilde frightened" returns 3,400,000 hits.

I have to say I was never afraid of her, but I always felt something was...off about Lady Elaine. Her appearance, right off the bat. In stark opposition to the other denizens of the Neighborhood of Make Believe she's pretty damn ugly. The red cheeks and nose always made me think (even at a tender and innocent age) that she was drunk ALL THE GODDAMN TIME. She was sarcastic in a show otherwise so straight you could build a house with it. The haircut was doing her no favors at all.  And the Batiuk-esque smirk and raised eyebrows, her face eternally frozen in a mocking superiority. She was, in a word, odd.

This all came about  from an off-hand comment I made on Twitter that led me down the darkened alleyway of a Neighborhood of Make Believe/Snatch mashup  But never mind that. As one does, I turned to Wikipedia to fill in my spotty memory of other characters who lived on the other side of the trolley tracks. And the entry on Lady Elaine (sub-entry, actually, nested with all the other "Regular Puppets." I bet that would have burned her biscuits) is of course fascinating.

I recalled that Lady Elaine was frequently the antagonist of the vignettes due to selfishness or stubbornness or some other character flaw. What I didn't recall was that she was apparently a fucking sociopath and that the nigh-omnipotence of the Boomerang Toomerang Zoomerang allowed her to bend reality itself to her freakish whims. Observe:
She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and regards them as weapons. In one episode she attempts to destroy all vacuum cleaners that are not in her possession. At the end of the program Mr. Rogers says to the audience "I'm glad you're old enough to talk about your problems and not just wipe things out like Lady Elaine".
Sweet merciful dumptruck! Was this episode targeted toward the preschool scions of the Olympus? Or the newly incarnate Beyonder, learning to pee in Peter Parker's apartment? What the hell kind of lesson is that, Fred?

She uses her Boomerang to turn the Neighborhood upside down or to move buildings around or cover all the paintings in the neighborhood with clay or to basically do whatever the hell she feels like.

So I began wondering what, exactly, Fred Rogers intended in creating this character? Could she be the Devil?

Let's dig for clues. Wikipedia informs me her favorite color is red (that works), as noted above she is terrified of vacuum cleaners (a trait more common in housecats than in supernatural manifestations of evil), sh plays the accordion (an instrument second only to the bagpipe in the eyes of Satan), and that she has a thing for roosters. Roosters are usually associated with the sun due to their unholy practice of screeching at the first sight of the damnable thing. But in Norse lore they're messengers from the Underworld. That's interesting at least. Not sure where to go with it.

In the end I seriously doubt that devoted Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers would have a character on his show representing Satan (although the temptation to run with a Daniel Striped Tiger/Christ analogy is powerful). Especially since at the end of every episode where Lady Elaine causes trouble with her magical powers, she puts everything back to rights again, and everyone in the Neighborhood accepts and tolerates her and knows that she's just acting out due to low self-esteem (whaaaa? I never caught that when I was a kid. As noted above, I just figured she was constantly hammered). So she's more of a mischievous god-figure, a trickster who really has a heart of gold underneath that brash exterior.

Whatever she was though, she was definitely unsettling to my five year old mind and apparently to lots of other kids out there too. It's probably a testament to the genius of Fred Rogers that he never smoothed her out, never made a new puppet without the W.C. Fields-like cheeks and Doctor Smith eyebrows, never diluted her personality with "nice." She was a bit of odd in a sea of nice and normal. And scary as she may have been, I loved her for it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Cellular Phones of Reservoir Dogs






I was watching Reservoir Dogs last night and of course one thing leaped out at me on this, my... I dunno, maybe 12th or 15th viewing? OH THOSE CELL PHONES. (Click to enlarge.)

Nice Guy Eddie (the late great Chris Penn) appears to have the Motorola DynaTAC, first introduced in 1983, which would make sense as the scion of a mob boss; he'd be a flashy early adopter. Mr. Orange/Freddy, the undercover cop played by Tim Roth also somewhat surprisingly also has a cell phone, which appears to be the much more "modern" MicroTAC, released in 1989 and known as the first "flip phone." Well, maybe second. I would imagine the L.A.P.D. would want Mr. Orange to a) be able to contact them at any time in an emergency and b) look like a hotshot drug dealer/thief with the latest tech.

Non-ancient technology related observations: 1) I love the Iron Man and Thing figurines on Mr. Orange's side table (especially since the previous scene is the Marvel-loving Mr. Orange directly comparing mob boss Lawrence Tierney to The Thing). 2) Is anyone cooler than Harvey Keitel in this movie? If you went to college in the early 90s and had the Mr. White poster on your dorm room wall, you know what I mean.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

L.A. Verde: Reptoids in the City of Angels

Behind all the paranoid racist delusions, before all the crackpot theories about alternate divergent evolution, there was G. Warren Shufelt.


G. Warren Shufelt was a geophysical engineer who stated in 1934 that a series of catacombs existed underneath Los Angeles holding incalculable wealth in gold. These catacombs, he said, were built by an ancient hyperintelligent race of humans who venerated lizards. You can read the L.A. Times article here, on Strange Maps, which is a damn excellent blog and a huge personal inspiration for Renfusa.

In any event, Shufelt said he was able to scan and map these catacombs using a "radio X-ray device" (it's a shame he didn't do this investigation 15 years later, or he could have included RADAR in that list) and drilled a shaft straight down through Sunset Boulevard. More cannot be said, as the veil of history precludes us knowing whether Shufelt found the legendary gold hoards and magical tablets of the Lizard People.

Whoa. Where to even begin here. Let's talk about what was going on in the 1930s first of all. The Depression? Most definitely. Get-rich-quick schemes would not have gone amiss and with a supremely indulgent media like the L.A. Times, I can't imagine Shufelt didn't have a few desperate yokels begging to invest in the Lizard People Con. But let's delve a bit deeper into 1930s America. What else was going on in the esoteric fields that would lead to a story like this appearing in a respectable newspaper?

The concept of a Hollow Earth filled with superior (or debased) beings had been circulating in esoteric circles for centuries. For some reason (outside the scope of this post), it especially took root in America. These disparate threads of a Hollow Earth, an Ancient Race1, and Ascended Masters all found themselves woven together in the "I AM" movement of Guy and Edna Ballard.


Guy Ballard was hiking on Mt. Shasta (in California!) one day and just happened to come across the Comte de Saint-Germain. Well, isn't that a convenient coincidence. This chance meeting led to Guy and Edna regularly corresponding with the Ascended Masters and founding the "I AM" Activity which claimed up to a million adherents by the end of the 1930s (including some members of the Silver Shirts). Of course, it was around that time that Ballard died suddenly and Edna and her son were convicted of mail fraud. But still, if there was a signal cult/alternative religious movement of the Great Depression, it was "I AM."

Is Mt. Shasta a gate to an underworld full of ancient races? Well, there have been others who've claimed so, in much the same way that Ballard and Shufelt did: through invisible waves of words and images. Let's also not forget that Ballard was a mining engineer, much like our friend Shufelt. Slightly disparate threads weave and reweave and remix and coalesce, until you have someone like Richard Sharpe Shaver who creates his own personal outsider mythos from the mélange of beliefs in this particular group of tropes.

Oh, right. And even before Shaver, and the Ballards, and Shufelt, there was this dude, and this early story he wrote. And his friend, who wrote another.

Which brings us back to Shufelt's tragically misnamed "Lizard People." Not actual lizard people or Reptoids at all of course, but the name quite obviously evokes links to all that stuff above, and the later link here actually comes from UFO lore. The UFO era begins in 1947, obviously, but there's been a long tradition of people believing that aliens or ultraterrestrials dwell and abduct people from underground (see the aforementioned faerie mounds from my faerie post). Sometimes these are even direct representatives of the Reptoid group. And of course this belief was later conflated into UFO myths about secret underground military bases as well as the belief that there are multiple saucer bases here on earth, hiding in Mt. Rainier and... yes, you guessed it, Mt. Shasta.

1 Madame Blatavsky's "Third Root Race" were the Lemurians: they were black-skinned, laid eggs, and coexisted with dinosaurs. I'm not even going to begin unpacking that one.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Islands of the Magi: The Trope of the Island Science-Utopia



This blog is named after a city on Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. What is it about this unfinished, uncanny little storylet that interests me? Well, one of the biggest reasons I find New Atlantis fascinating is that I believe it is the ur-text for the idea of the Distant Scientific Utopia Island.

Previous to Bacon there were lots of utopias in the distant East/West, including the titular one. Prester John is always a good candidate for the original "distant sage to whom all those wise and holy flock." But there is a difference between holy wisdom and science, and that's kind of what makes Bacon's Bensalem so interesting: it's so very obviously dedicated to what we now know as science, and yet Christianity is paid lip service, with the weird story of the coming of Christianity that's detailed in this post. Doesn't the appearance of the ark of St. Bartholomew almost seem like the kind of light show that a society skilled in "all delusions and deceits of the sight, in figures, magnitudes, motions, [and] colors" would stage?

After Bacon comes the deluge. There's no reason to go into all the examples of the trope between Bacon and today, except to note that the trope was familiar enough to educated readers by even the 18th century that Jonathan Swift had no trouble effortlessly parodying it with the isle of Laputa and the city of Lagado in Gulliver's Travels, where science is turned to violent and silly purposes, respectively.

I start getting more interested in this idea of "scientists on a desert island" having sunk so deeply into the collective unconscious in the era of modern media that it's almost immediately obvious when you think about it at least a little bit (at least to someone like me) and yet there is no TVTropes page for it, there's very little on the Internet about it as an accepted archetype, and no one seems to have made the connection back to Bacon. I think in modern pop culture we can all recount the famous examples of "scientists brought to a desert island to partake in Science-with-an-exclamation-point." There's the "missing artists and scientists" subplot in Watchmen, and the DHARMA Initiative in Lost, and even Grant Morrison's hilarious Swiftian take on the trope in the Oolong Island subplot in 52.

Obviously many these modern ideas about scientists in remote locations are based on actual post-World War II scientific stations like the ones in Antarctica, and isolated islands like Tristan da Cunha, the Kerguelen Islands, and many many others. There may be a future post on these real-life science stations as well, because I think they are equally as mysterious and fascinating as the fictional ones.

What I'm saying is, I think we need more acknowledgement of this as a Thing, because it definitely is one.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

UFOs... Are Real!

I'm not going to make any excuses about this one. This blog is expressly for our contributors to explore their own little obsessions and delve deeper into the things they love, and when I was a young lad of 7 or 8, and I was weirdly obsessed with UFOs and aliens, and when UHF channels aired whatever they could dig up (a topic for an eventual BIG post, I think, pre-cable UHF television), I watched the hell out of this documentary, every single time it'd appear on Saturday or Sunday afternoons on Channel 38.


Okay, maybe "documentary" isn't quite the right term for UFOs Are Real (a.k.a. Flying Saucers Are Real). To an 8-year-old convinced he was going to get abducted by aliens, it was as real as it could get.

The late 70s and early 80s were a golden age for TV and movies about Weird subjects. In Search Of..., another mainstay of syndication in my youth, provided the basic syllabus for all the stuff I love now: from the opening credits, all together now: "Extraterrestrials, Magic & Witchcraft, Missing Persons, Myths & Monsters, Lost Civilizations, Strange Phenomena."1 I think those are my six dream Jeopardy! categories.

Stuff like this was in the mainstream in a way it wouldn't be again until the mid-90s and the ascendance of The X-Files, interestingly, just when the In Search Of... generation was hitting adulthood. And even so, In Search Of... went beyond straight aliens-all-the-time into old chestnuts like Atlantis, famous people disappearances (I can actually thank the In Search Of... Wikipedia page for allowing me to learn for the first time about Michael Rockefeller).

Back to UFOs Are Real for a minute. It really hits all the classics in the UFO hit parade: Roswell, Betty and Barney Hill, Travis Walton, Project Blue Book. For a viewer in the early 80s, this movie is basically a UFOlogy primer wrapped in faded footage and bold pronouncements. It was magical. This was pre-Communion, remember, when most of these stories were on the level of urban myth and passed around mostly verbally. Sure, Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind utilized a lot of the signal constituents of the modern UFO mythos: Flight 19, Greys, even a character based on Jacques Vallée. But that was Hollywood. This was, well, real.2

I think that's where I've gotten my predilection for hearing the real story behind the myth, the novel behind the movie, the historical facts that eventually explode into the legend. I love both, the dramatization and the primary document, but to put it another way... I've never been a film or fiction buff the way I've been a history buff. You need both, but you can't have the myth without the fact.

1 I can't believe I never realized that Fringe directly ripped that opening sequence off. Not even when they hired Leonard Nimoy did I consciously realize it.

2 Another powerful childhood memory; seeing an 8-track of John Williams's Close Encounters soundtrack in a cottage up in Maine and being sure if I played it, I'd be abducted by aliens. I had most of my alien abduction nightmares while out in the country in Maine as a child.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Like Faeries


So my new favorite blog (new in that it's new to me, not new to the Internet) is called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. I forget how I came across it, but the first post I saw was an account in Scots of a woman's encounter with a Fairie-fowks Rade as a young girl. As the author of the blog post says, "as is often the way of folk accounts, [it] is strangely convincing." Convincing, eerie, umheimlich: call it what you wish. It's just the kind of "fairy tale" I love to read. Rooted in the details of the real world, a person or persons becomes temporarily unmoored from reality; forced into liminality and wonder against their will.

But let's back up a minute. Why am I so interested in a blog full of folk tales and ultraterrestrial encounters as well as 18th century and 19th century catalogs of both? Well, it's got very little to do with the political and social aspects of folklorists plundering the oral traditions of the "border peoples" and more to do with the fact that I just really like faeries.

A long time ago I took it upon myself to explain why I liked faeries so much, and, with a few edits, here is something I wrote almost 8 years ago on the subject:
Why do I like faeries? Because they have a tithe with hell, and anyone who chooses to deal with Lucifer is pretty crazy. Because they were gods who kicked out their forebears, like Zeus and the rest of his bunch. Because they kidnap us. Regularly and frequently. In fact, they still do. Because they live in the Hollow Earth. Because they hate Baby Jesus. Among other things. Because they, like the Furies, insist on being called nice things when in fact they're total bastards. Because they helped name a chemical element, and maybe even two, depending on your feeling on nymphs. Because they can sicken your cattle or fix your shoes, and probably both. Because Joan of Arc's voices were faeries, or saints, or both. Because no matter how much Spenser and the Victorians tried to clean them up and arrange them into nice categories, they're still red in tooth and claw. Because they seem to pop up in almost every culture, because we need someone to blame, right? Because they can be gossamer, and they can be vicious. And really, that's the dichotomy at the center of life, no?
One of my favorite recent treatments of faerie in pop culture was the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It got a lot of things right, but foremost I think it got the idea of faerie as a place and as a homeland for alien creatures and how men of "science" would interact with them precisely right. Obviously, Clarke was working from a lot of the same 17th/18th century primary sources as you'll see up there in Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. The intersection of the Age of Reason with the long-held superstitions in folklore and how people sought to organize and categorize these dangerous tales is a great story: a study, if you will, in liminality itself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Academia and Authenticity: Being Jack Gladney

When people ask me why I didn't end up going into academia, I sometimes say, "Because I didn't want to end up like Jack Gladney."

You'll remember the protagonist of Don DeLillo's White Noise, Jack (or "J.A.K.") Gladney, a pioneer in "Hitler Studies" at a small liberal arts college in the United States.1 Early in the book we learn that Gladney is a perhaps quintessentially American fraud:
He asked me why I'd chosen this year in particular to learn German, after so many years of slipping past the radar. I told him there was a Hitler conference scheduled for next spring at the College-on-the-Hill. Three days of lectures, workshops and panels. Hitler scholars from seventeen states and nine foreign countries. Actual Germans would be in attendance. (DeLillo 1999, 33)
I'd spent much time with Latin as a undergraduate medievalist, but not as much as would have been useful in my graduate program. As an undergrad, I'd spread out my languages as I was much more interested in literature (unfortunately, in translation). I took classes where we read original literature in all kinds of vernaculars: Middle English, Old French, Dante's Tuscan. But Latin... well, I was never quite there in Latin.

And then came graduate school, and the proviso up front that this was a Latin-based program, with an intensive Latin immersion and a Latin exam that determined further continuation in the program, to receive the Master's and move onto the Ph.D. I took the entrance exam: failed, naturally; I'd just spent a year out of school and two years away from Latin. I took the intensive Latin class. I took the end-of-year exam: failed, naturally; the four passages our grade was based on were all highly technical extracts from theological, historical, and even a gemological text, full of specialized vocabulary meant to break the back of anyone who thought they might pass on grammatical expertise alone.

So overall the whole experience was disheartening. That's leaving aside the looming courses in paleography that I'd gotten a glimpse of in my first-year course on Beneventan script. I'm bad with shapes and spatial relations and the idea of having to read original documents in their original indecipherable scripts gave me the fantods. Hell, even using primary sources printed in Fraktur was hair-raising.

Academia, it seems to me these days more than ever, rewards specialization. And that's in the humanities, the social sciences, the hard sciences, wherever you look. Polymaths are hard to come by; the way that graduate programs are structured these days rewards and guides a deep and narrow specialization. Undergrads have the freedom to roam (when they don't feel forced to by core curricula requirements) and as an undergrad, I did: I took classes about both ancient and modern subjects in both history and literature, well outside my medieval bailiwick. These classes made me better-rounded, gave me important context for the Middle Ages from both sides chronologically.

These days as a failed academic I get to be a polymath; that's what this blog is about, really. There's no reward, and no job that comes from it, and I get to read stuff in translation if I want (but I will say, having "read it in the original!" drilled into you for years really makes you want to try, however hard it is) but I get to roam again. And personally, that's very rewarding. And! I don't have to be a fraud waiting for the other shoe to drop and for people to discover I can't read Latin without a dictionary.
I welcomed them in the starkly modern chapel. I spoke in German, from notes, for five minutes. I talked mainly about Hitler's mother, brother and dog. His dog's name was Wolf. This word is the same in English and German. Most of the words I used in my address were the same or nearly the same in both languages. I'd spent days with the dictionary, compiling lists of such words. My remarks were necessarily disjointed and odd. (DeLillo 1999, 261)
1 A lot of people talk about White Noise as being the perfect takedown of life in an atomized, media-saturated and -narcotized Reagan-era America, but it's also a biting, hilarious satire of academia in the 1980s and, indeed, academia in general. I put Jack Gladney right up there with Pangloss as great parodies of "esteemed" academics.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Wisdom in the East: Training Montages of Legendary Sages

Presented without (much) commentary, and many thanks to Renfusa contributor John O'Brien for discovering the Pythagoras/Manly P. Hall end of this:

The teachings of Pythagoras indicate that he was thoroughly conversant with the precepts of Oriental and Occidental esotericism. He traveled among the Jews and was instructed by the Rabbins concerning the secret traditions of Moses, the lawgiver of Israel. Later the School of the Essenes was conducted chiefly for the purpose of interpreting the Pythagorean symbols. Pythagoras was initiated into the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chaldean Mysteries. Although it is believed by some that he was a disciple of Zoroaster, it is doubtful whether his instructor of that name was the God-man now revered by the Parsees. While accounts of his travels differ, historians agree that he visited many countries and studied at the feet of many masters.

- The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, 1928

[Y]et our Brother C.R. did not return, but shipped himself over, and went to Damasco, minding from thence to go to Jerusalem; but by reason of the feebleness of his body he remained still there, and by his skill in Physick he obtained much favour with the Turks: In the mean time he became by chance acquainted with the Wise men of Damasco in Arabia, and beheld what great Wonders they wrought, and how Nature was discovered unto them... [he] made a bargain with the Arabians, that they should carry him for a certain sum of money to Damasco... there the Wise received him (as he himself witnessseth) not as a stranger, but as one whom they had long expected, they called him by his name, and shewed him other secrets out of his Cloyster, whereat he could not but mightily wonder... After three years he returned again with good consent, shipped himself over Sinus Arabicus into Egypt, where he remained not long, but only took better notice there of the Plants and Creatures; he sailed over the whole Mediterranean Sea for to come unto Fez, where the Arabians had directed him.

- Fama Fraternitatis, 1615

Okay, granted, this may be a case of Manly Hall doing a bit of the ol' "fitting the ancient legend to fit the (then) modern esoteric/Rosicrucian legend," but the stories of Pythagoras traveling to the East for wisdom really do date from the ancient sources. And yeah, sure, wisdom resides in the East, it's a long-standing trope, and Pythagoras isn't the only ancient figure of legend said to travel to Egypt, Asia Minor, or even India to gather knowledge.1 I just find it interesting that it's possible the author of the Rosicrucian manifestos, whoever he or they might have been, decided to very explicitly utilize this very specific trope to lend Christian Rosenkreuz an air of authority inspired by the ancients.

1 Let's also be fair: I am far from the first person to point out the Hermes Trismigestus/Pythagoras/Dionsyus/Jesus parallels.