25.4.17

VAMP 'TILL READY

Barbara Brodman and James E. Doan. (Editors) The Supernatural Revamped: From Timeworn Legends to Twenty-First-Century Chic. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016.

Familiar words often have unusual or obscure origins. Everyone knows the meaning of the word 'revamped', to improve the form, structure or appearance of something. But what of the word 'vamp' itself? Of course I had to check an etymological dictionary to discover that in this case it means the upper front part of a shoe. That is the sort of fact which, once heard, is never forgotten and comes in useful for throwing into conversations at the pub. 

The other meaning of 'vamp' is obviously a short form of 'vampire', usually a pejorative term for a woman who uses her feminine charms to get what she wants from a man. Other synonyms for that meaning would include 'man-eater' and 'bloodsucker', quite in keeping with the chief predilection of a vampire.

There are humanoids amongst us who would no doubt say that any book about vampires, and other supernatural beings, is 'a load of cobblers' written by bloodsuckers out to get our money. It has to be said that there are a lot of rubbish publications on the subject of the supernatural in general for the mass popular market, but this is not one of those. This book, with its arresting title, is a collection of scholarly essays on the whole gamut of supernatural entities in the tradition and culture of many countries around the world. These include such diverse countries as Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico and Sweden.

Indicative of this not being a mass-market production is that it is text-heavy and has only a handful of illustrations throughout. Nonetheless the essays are all enjoyably readable without being overly serious or academic, and contain masses of useful facts and pieces of information which I found to be both edifying and entertaining.

The American editors, Barbara Brodman and James E. Doan, both Professors at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, already have two in-depth studies of the vampire in popular culture to their credit: The Universal Vampire: Origins and Evolution of a Legend, and Images of the Modern Vampire: The Hip and the Atavistic (both Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2013).

As with those earlier publications, The Supernatural Revamped is a compilation of specialist papers written by a number of different contributors. There are 17 essays in total, arranged in two parts: Part One: Ethereals and Terrestrials, and Part Two: The Undead and Still Dead. The editors' intention was to look at "other characters in our folkloric odyssey that we had ignored in favor of our emphasis on the vampire". They decided they had done vampires to death, so to speak, and needed some fresh blood for their next project. "Is there life after vampires?" was the question that they contemplated while looking out from Vlad Dracula's castle in Transylvania, where they were celebrating the success of those two volumes. With that in mind, they sent out a call for papers to discuss the significance of other members of the pantheon of supernatural creatures.

While not claiming this compilation to be an exhaustive examination of all such entities in ancient folklore, history, and modern cultural media, the editors have done a most impressive job in selecting and compiling a broad range of expert knowledge on the subject. A brief survey of the biographical notes of the contributors shows that almost all of them are PhDs, or university lecturers. This shows in the quality of the writing and the extensive cultural references throughout.




Part One includes chapters dealing with demons/daemons, and angels, fairies and sorcerers, ghosts, werewolves, witches, and vampires. The second features 'death messengers', vampires (again) and zombies. It would be hard to say certainly which class of entities is the top of the popularity stakes, but zombies must be at, or near, the top. They are so ubiquitous these days, aren't they? They can be seen all over London, particularly in places like Camden Market, and almost always appear to be young adults made up to look like walking corpses.

But what exactly are zombies? Chapter 16, 'From White Zombies to Night Zombies and Beyond', says: "Providing a consensus definition of 'zombie' is destined to be futile. For every hard and fast rule or attribute of the zombie that can be listed (e.g. an appetite for brains or flesh, the lack of free will, a reanimated corpse or possessed body of one person, etc.) there exist numerous exceptions."

The writer suggests that 'zombie' ought to be considered as a discursive label in flux, rather than a fixed definable category. It appears that the word entered the English lexicon in 1819, with an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which placed the origin of the term in West Africa. Voodoo, the religion practised by African slaves in Haiti, furthered the concept of humans without souls, the 'walking dead'. This may have been related to the soul-destroying effects of abject slavery. In any case, stories of dead corpses being reanimated have been around for centuries, for example being popular in pulp magazines of the nineteenth century.

This chapter is particularly interesting because the author, within relatively few pages, traces the whole development of the zombie in modern culture from those pulp magazines through novels and a vast genre of films right up to the present day. Two films that appeared in 2002, Resident Evil, and 28 Days Later, are credited with jump-starting the so-called 'zombie renaissance'. The timing is important because of the worldwide shock of the events of '9/11' in September 2001. Both films became more relevant "because the after-effects of war, terrorism, and natural disaster so closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema". As art follows life, so does the zombie genre reflect a sense of deep social malaise within most developed economies of the world.

The modern world of the twenty-first century allows national cultures to cross borders with ever greater ease. Chapter 10, 'An Anime Dullahan - The Irish Death Messenger Adapted in Japanese Popular Culture', provides the quirkiest example of this cultural cross-pollination. "Japan has become famous for its particular brand of animations, known as 'anime',"which have recently achieved worldwide acceptance (and) have embraced many foreign supernatural creatures. They have made them well known in Japan and are now re-exporting them successfully."

The writer succinctly makes the point that highly distorted versions of Western supernatural creatures are now becoming part of a globalised popular culture, in some cases supplanting the originals on which they were based. The Irish 'dullahan', a kind of headless death-messenger, first became well known in Japan as a character in video games. In the mid-1980s Japan led the world in designing innovative video games for the home and international market, which was booming. "Japanese game artists undertook extensive research to identify monsters suitable for Western role-playing settings. This led them to the headless Irish fairy, the dullahan, which seldom failed in scaring game players." In the well known and highly successful Dragon Quest series of games, dullahans underwent a complete metamorphosis from death messengers to horribly versatile monsters. They appear in dungeons to frustrate the players' missions.



For my personal taste and interest Chapter 5, 'Philosophers and Demons - Socrates, Descartes, and the Search for Certainty' is the most outstanding and memorable in this excellent collection of essays. Its author, Darren Hibbs, gives the most concise explanation of the foundations of philosophy that I have ever come across. His starting point is why philosophers should take an interest in the role of demons in religious traditions. From the particular to the general, and then back to the particular, his thesis is summarised in a series of questions. These include "What is the content/nature of reality?" and "Is anything intrinsically good or bad?"

The word demon is the modern English equivalent of an ancient Greek term that sounds similar but has a different function or meaning. It was not meant as a malicious entity trying to harm us, but rather a supernatural force of some kind that influenced our affairs for good or ill. A great example occurs in the case of Socrates. When he was falsely convicted and sentenced to death in Athens, he accepted his fate calmly by consulting his own 'demon', in this case his own inner voice of wisdom.

This concept approximates to having a dedicated guardian spirit that has an impartial viewpoint. Here is Socrates' reasoning, as recorded for posterity in Plato's Apology: "In the past the prophetic voice to which I have become accustomed has always been my constant companion, opposing me in quite trivial things if I was going to take the wrong course.....In other discussions it has often checked me in the middle of a sentence, but this time it has never opposed me in any part of this business in anything that I have said or done....I suspect that this thing that has happened to me is a blessing, and we are quite mistaken in supposing death to be an evil."

The chapter continues with an insightful consideration of Descartes' attempt to define what is real in his Meditations. Can reason alone lead us to a reliable source of belief, or ultimate truth? He formulated a sceptical hypothesis, postulating an all-powerful evil demon, that is often described as 'hyperbolic' because the hypothesis seeks to cover all possible reasons for doubt or uncertainty. In this case the demon is only an intellectual device. For Descartes, the only thing you could be absolutely certain of is that you exist, and this is only certain at the time you are thinking it. The rest could be a dream, or a matrix of reality.

Sometimes, whatever its nature, human experience of reality can be severely disturbing. The writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu suffered extremely vivid and horrifying nightmares. When these occurred his method was to get up and write down the details of the frightening dream, then later to work up a story from that material. His ghost stories are considered to be some of the finest ever written, and leave a long-lasting impression on their reader. As the writer of Chapter 3: 'The Nightmare Tales of J.S. Le Fanu' explains: "The result of working in this manner is that Le Fanu essentially psycho-analyzed himself". This in itself is a useful thought for anyone similarly afflicted by terror. Writing is a great release, and any strong emotion can be turned into creativity.

If this philosophy sounds a bit too serious, I must draw to a close with the assessment of two Swedish police officers who investigated a series of reported attacks by werewolves in 1972, as reported in Chapter 7, 'An American Werewolf in Trelleborg'. One of them told reporters what he thought of a new hippie generation: "Nowadays many people look more or less like werewolves, with their long hair and beards". The other said that people in the twentieth century were no more civilised than cavemen when you scratch the surface. 

I suspect that those two policemen were right in a general sense. As long as there are humans there will be sightings of zombies, werewolves, ghosts and the whole panoply of supernatural creatures. There will always be arguments about what is real and what is imagination. Such is the nature of the 'supernatural', now attractively revamped for a new generation.  -- Kevin Murphy.  

21.4.17

GREAT BIRDS OF FIRE

Joseph Nigg. The Phoenix; An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Herodotus, who coined the term ‘history’ with his survey of the then known world, with particular reference to the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, introduced the Phoenix in his chapter on Egypt. The word had previously been used to mean ‘date-palm’, but here it was a bird that lived in Arabia. Extraordinarily long-lived, a new one was born only once every five hundred years, just at the time that the old one died. It would inter the body of its parent in a ball of myrrh, carry it to Egypt, and deposit it at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis. Herodotus remarked that ‘I myself have never seen [it], except in pictures.’ He concluded that this tale ‘does not seem to me to be credible’.

Later authors added other details. The Roman poet Ovid versified that, after living five hundred years, it made itself a nest of bark, spices and incense, and as it expired a new Phoenix arose from its breast. Pliny the Elder gave its life cycle as 540 years, and said that one was brought to Rome in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, ‘although nobody would doubt that this Phoenix was a fabrication’. The historian Tacitus reported that some people said that the Phoenix was seen at intervals of fourteen hundred and sixty-one years, that is, a so-called Sothic years, caused by the use of a calendar of exactly three hundred and sixty-five days (no leap years), so that it took that long to coincide again with its original relationship to the physical year. Other writers gave its place of residence as India or Ethiopia, whilst Gaius Julius, Solinus, circa 200, said that it lived for 12,954 years.

Whether the Phoenix is mentioned in the Bible has been a matter of contention for centuries. Job 29:18 reads, in the Authorised Version, ‘I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand.’ The word ‘sand’, as a translation of the Hebrew hol, is not as illogical as it might appear at first sight: in Genesis 22:17 Abraham is told that his future offspring will be ‘as the sand’, meaning, ‘as numerous as the grains of sand on the sea shore.’ But it seems quite inappropriate when paired with ‘nest’; some people have therefore rendered it as ‘palm tree’ or ‘Phoenix’. Another possible solution, though is that qini, ‘nest’ was a copying mistake for zoqini, ‘dotage’, which would make sense. That would mean, however, that there was a scribal error in the text of the Bible, which until recently was unthinkable.

It might have been expected that belief in the Phoenix would abate with the suppression of Paganism, but the Christians adopted it as emblematic of the resurrection of Christ, and what every one else could expect. It was the Christian poet Lactantius, circa 300, who introduced what is now thought of as the standard detail, that at its death it burst into flames, the new Phoenix arising from its ashes. It is remarkable that the story was put forward specifically as an argument to win people to the faith, implying that it was easier for many of the ancients to believe in the Phoenix than in the Christian religion.



The Middle Ages had a big fad for bestiaries. These were not so much zoological treatises as illustrated sermons that drew morals from the lifestyles of various animals. For this purpose the unicorn and the griffin were as useful as the ant and the grasshopper, so naturally the Phoenix found a place. It was stated that, just as there is only one Phoenix, so is there only one God.

In the seventeenth century scepticism set in, but initially not for the reasons one might expect. The problem came from two verses in the Book of Genesis: ‘There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female’. How, the sages of the Enlightenment asked, could the Phoenix have gone in two by two, when there was only one? Moreover, after the waters of the flood had subsided, God ordered Noah: ‘Bring forth with the every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth’. Obviously, the Phoenix could not be fruitful and multiply when there was only one, and that one reproducing only once every half millennium.

The matter came to a head with Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, which is a classic of scepticism, though some of his conclusions were quite different to those that are held today. He doubted, for instance, whether painters were right to depict Adam and Eve with navels, as God had created them fully grown. On the other hand, he rejected the widespread belief (‘common conceit’) that men have one fewer ribs than women, because Eve was created from Adam’s rib. As a physician, he had examined male and female skeletons, and knew that hey both had the same number. It is a pity that this book is currently only available in the heavily abridged version in the Penguin Major Works.

He had quite a number of arguments against the Phoenix, including: ‘there is not any ocular describer’, i.e. no-one personally claims to have seen it. Writers disagreed on important details: ‘for some affirm it liveth three hundred, some five, others six, some a thousand, others no lesse then fifteene hundred yeares; some say it liveth in Aethiopia, others in Arabia, some in Aegypt, others in India and some I thinke in Utopia’. This produced a lengthy response from one Alexander Ross, point by point, but here is just one: ‘so many Writers ... proving by the Phoenix the incarnation of Christ … their arguments would have been of small validity among the Gentiles, if they had not believed there was such a bird.’

In the long term Browne was the victor, of course, but the Phoenix (appropriately) made a comeback, both in studies of mythology, and as a general metaphor. Nigg offers the admirable definition of ‘myth’ – ‘both a fiction and a traditional story embodying its own psychological truths’’. James Legge (1815-97), who held the first chair in Chinese at Oxford University, used the word ‘Phoenix’ to translate fenghuang, a legendary oriental bird. The analogy is not too close, as there are two fenghuang, male and female, and they are not regenerated in fire, but simply live forever. Nevertheless, the association has caught on to the extent that Chinese restaurants in the West now often have names like ‘The Golden Phoenix’. (Conversely, Phoenix has become fenghuang when Harry Potter has been translated into Chinese.) The Phoenix was included in the ‘Seal of the City and County of San Francisco’, after the city had been repeatedly ravaged by fire.

There are many things that the eighteenth century rationalists supposed to have been relegated to the past, such as ghost, witchcraft, and astrology, which are nowadays once again the subject of many popular books. This has not been the case with the Phoenix, but I might mention one rather surprising example which Nigg, understandably, has overlooked. Raymond Fowler, The Andreasson Affair, describes how in 1977, whilst being hypnotically regressed to Christmas 1966, when she had undergone a period of ‘missing time’, which inevitably turned out to have been caused by an alien abduction, Betty Andreasson recalled some of the things that have become standard in such accounts, such as a medical examination by Greys, but there were also several things that one would not expect to see in an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Among these was a huge bird, surrounded by a bright light, which was replaced by a fire, which eventually reduced to a pile of grey ashes, out of which came a large grey worm. No explanation was apparent for this, which seems to have puzzled the intrepid UFO investigators. – Gareth J. Medway


18.4.17

PAYING THE PRICE

Paul Adams The Enigma of Rosalie: Harry Price’s Paranormal Mystery Revisited. White Crow Books, 2017.

On the evening of Wednesday 15th December 1937, in a house somewhere in London, that may or may not have been in Brockley or equally may or may not have been in Kensington, the then famous psychical researcher Harry Price had an experience for which the word “amazing” is far too trite. Price claimed he had been invited to attend one of a series of séances held in the house of someone in business, where the materialised spirit of a six year old child regularly appeared to her/its mother.

Price attended that night, checked the place out to his own satisfaction that there was no way a confederate could get into the room, and took part in the séance, in which a child appeared, was illuminated by two phosphorescent tablets and was checked over by Price, who confirmed that it was a real physical child complete with breath, pulse and heartbeat. Present apart from Price, were the owners of the house, their teenage daughter and a young man who seemed to be the daughter’s boyfriend. Of six year old children there was not a trace.

HARRY PRICE (1881-1948)
A number of people noted that in the days following Price seemed very shaken, as if his core beliefs had been challenged. He was later to write up the story in his book Fifty Years of Psychical Research in which he expressed his puzzlement but came to no definite conclusion. This naturally led to a great deal of controversy.

Price, to put in mildly was a sort of Marmite person, people either thought he was the best thing that had happened to psychical research in a long time, or they loathed him with a vengeance, sometimes the same people fell into both categories. Price was a man with a large ego and considerable chip on his shoulder, who desperately wanted to be considered respectable and serious. There can be little doubt that he felt slighted by the often insufferably snobbish members Society for Psychical Research, who, one suspects, treated him as the tradesman he actually was, and that made him often very quarrelsome.

This Marmite nature led to a partisan war after his death between his critics and defenders. Among the former was his one-time friend Eric Dingwall, who been the research officer in the SPR from 1922 to 1927. Dingwall, supported by a colleague Trevor Hall, was to produce a highly critical report on Price’s involvement with the notorious Borley Rectory. In their book Four Modern Ghosts Dingwall and Hall suggested that Price had just made up the Rosalie story to spice up an otherwise rather dull book.

Critics pointed out that Price did seem genuinely distressed after the alleged séance so defenders of Price set out to find more information.

The first was semi-spiritualist David Cohen, a garment-maker from Manchester who acted as Research Officer for the Manchester Psychical Research Society which met at the Milton Hall in Deansgate. Cohen’s book Harry Price and his Spirit Child Rosalie was published by the vanity publisher, Regency Press and according to Adams was at times overwrought, being rather the printed version of the sort of screaming rants that people used to deface library books with in green or red ink. Cohen was clearly an interesting character who conducted a number of investigations, which were only reported on as lectures to the society. Most his material was binned by his family after his death, which seems to be all too common in this field.

The second study was by two leading members of the Society of Psychical Research, Richard George Medhurst and Mary Rose Barrington. The former’s untimely death rather put an end to that. These enquiries which involved searching through telephone and post office directories never came to a final conclusion.

However in April 1966 Cohen received a letter which purported to be from the person who had played the role of Rosalie, claiming that the affair was a complex hoax to keep sweet a woman, from whom the man of the house had extracted funds that he was having difficulty in repaying. The reaction to this was mixed, many psychical researchers thinking that the letter was itself a hoax. Cohen however thought it was genuine as he realised that the spirit world would never allow anything as scandalous as a nude materialisation.

Paul Adams sums up all the developments from the original story onward in meticulous detail, perhaps occasionally too much so, before undertaking his own investigation, in which he was aided by the many historical documents now available online, the most important of these being the 1939 register compiled at the outbreak of the Record World War. From these he is able to track down a family called Mortimer living in Kensington, which seems to fit the bill of the family involved. In a sense it is obvious that the Rosalie story was a hoax and that the only three explanations were
1. Price made the whole thing up
2. The whole thing was a set up to trap Price into making a rash statement in support of materialisation
3. The affair was more or less as Price described it, and, as the ‘Rosalie letter’ suggested it was a very unpleasant, to put it mildly, manipulation of someone’s profound grief.
In case you think that conclusion is “closed minded”, one only as to contemplate the logistics of materialising a working replica of a six year old child; the gathering in of atoms and molecules, the need to replicate the genome, the building of the body not in months of gestation and years of growth but in seconds, requiring unimaginable sources of energy, making sure that it had a functioning heart, brain and nervous system and finally dissipating the whole thing in such a controlled fashion as not to create an explosion as to render the earth uninhabitable for millennia.



Adams thought for a time that the second option was the most probable explanation, but eventually comes down on three and concludes that the ‘Rosalie letter’ was from a genuine participant, though giving many false details. The picture that emerges is an even more unpleasant one, involving the exploitation of a maid with disabilities. I actually suspect that even more people might have been involved. Adams suggests that the grieving mother reported by Price was actually a grieving father, and suggests how a child or someone masquerading as one could have been hidden in the room.

Perhaps the final mystery is why Price did not see through the tricks. Adams suggests that he was put off his guard by the fact that this séance did not resemble those of the fake mediums he had been dealing with. I would also add that in 1939 the sight of a man, as opposed to a woman, breaking down in tears would have been both very affecting and very embarrassing for a man of Price’s background.

There added psychological factors I suspect, Price was man who yearned for respectability, he wanted to be a respected proper academic and was a pillar of his local church. The family at the centre of this story, the Mortimers were the epitome of the respectability that Price yearned for. While Price was happy to accept that the likes of Helen Duncan or foreigners or members of the lower orders could fake things, the idea that “nice respectable” people could be so wicked as to reduce a grown man to a blubbering wreck and exploit his terrible grief was morally unthinkable. Price was deep down too conventional and unimaginative to grasp the dimensions of human evil and that was how he allowed himself to be almost ensnared by the Nazis, who were capable of things infinitely worse than séance room tricks. - Peter Rogerson


16.4.17

FROM THIN AIR

Shire Chess and Eric Newsom. Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man. The Development of an Internet Mythology. Palgrave, 2016.

Something happened in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on 31st May 2014. That something was the attempted sacrifice of a human being. The incident involved three 12 year-old girls. According to reports in the media, two of the girls enticed the third into local woodland. The two then stabbed the third nineteen times and left her for dead. This was done partly in order to ingratiate themselves with the character known as the Slender Man (also known as Slenderman) and also to save their own families from being harmed by him. 

However, the Slender Man was not only fictional, but his entire creation and subsequent history could be viewed on the internet. Very much a creature of our times, he originated on the Something Awful online forum, on 10th June 2009. The Slender Man is not just slender, he is abnormally tall and thin. Virtually faceless, he wears a black suit and tie with a white shirt, sometimes has tentacles that appear to come from his back and towers over those around him. The towering is all the easier as he is typically seen in the company of children, whom he seems to prey upon. Unlike the vampire or werewolf, his birth is traced to one particular date and he has evolved from the efforts of many internet users as they have added to his myth. 

After this creation appeared online, other people saw this and, with the creator’s blessing, added to the story using prose, photoshopped pictures and video plus audio files as well. Therefore we have a fictional internet form whose conception and progress we can follow yet has gathered enough power to, apparently, create a real threat and communicate power, at least to children who are almost teenagers.

The book itself is published by Palgrave Macmillan, an academic publisher. The authors are, as one would expect, academics themselves. This, then, is an intellectual approach to the Slender Man phenomenon, apparently written and released roughly six months after the attempted murder. It is, appropriately enough, a slender tome, though there is plenty of ground covered. As one would expect from a work of this nature, there are notes, a large bibliography and an index. Under each chapter heading are two useful sections; an abstract summarising the forthcoming chapter contents and a keywords section, presumably for those accessing the e-reader version of the book.



As has been mentioned, this is an academic tome. The writing reflects this. Therefore, it is not the easiest work to read. There appear to be two main themes; the nature of stories and their development, both in a technical multimedia age and how this parallels myth-making in the distant past, and the specific development of the created Slender Man. The authors have used the example of the Slender Man to demonstrate the evolution of folklore, comparing some websites to ancient storytelling venues. Indeed, there is a chapter entitled The Digital Campfire. Just how stories and folktales develop is looked at in great detail, at times passing over some of the narrative of the Slender Man himself. 

One of the most intriguing aspects covered is how much similarity the Slender Man himself has to those other troublers of children, the fairies. They are both liminal figures, their appearances shift and their reality is questionable. One of the particular areas of comparison to wider culture that should be familiar to Magonia readers is the Men In Black. Their garb is identical to that of the Slender Man, along with aspects of shared, uncanny behaviour. This example also demonstrates the constantly evolving nature of this phenomenon. Another fascinating concept is that of the tulpa. The thought-form created purely by the power of the mind is a familiar concept in Buddhism and, according to the authors, is true of the Slender Man, albeit in what they call a figurative sense. One of the key points is that the elaboration of the original character is virtually all done by enthusiastic amateurs. Any large-scale commercial work has not been apparent so far, so creativity has its head and the Slender Man lives in the wires and waves of the internet.

This work covers much of the Slender Man, his birth and subsequent life online. It also looks hard at how modern tales are written, and the similarity with how tales were told and evolved in our past. This is a work by scholars, and may not be for the casual inquirer into the development of internet memes or, indeed, the Slender Man story itself. Having said that, it is a worthy coverage of just how the internet is being used by us to enable the numinous corners of our consciousness. -- Trevor Pyne


13.4.17

UP THE AIRY MOUNTAIN DOWN THE RUSHY GLEN

Bob Curran. The Truth About Leprechauns. O’Brian Press, Dublin. 2017.

Varla Ventura. Fairies, Pookas and Changelings. Weiser Books, 2017.

These two titles are rather lighter ventures into the world of the strange and unexplained than we usually deal with here at Magonia, but nonetheless worthwhile for that. Bob Curran will be know to Magonia Review readers for titles like American Vampires and Inside the Dark, Twisted World of H.P. Lovecraft. With Leprechauns he lets his hair down a bit with an amusing ramble through the world of little folk in Ireland and a few adjacent territories.

We all know what a leprechaun is like, right? Big green hat, green jerkin, green breeches and probably a glass or three of something warming. Well that seems to be what it’s like at the Six Nations rugby anyway: http://tinyurl.com/mld5kq4

The little folk in Bob Curran’s book, however are a much more varied crew, and have many different names and characteristics depending on which part of Ireland they come from. There is a sort of proto-leprechaun called a ‘grogoch’, who haunts the glens of Antrim. He is a particularly unkempt creature who lives in ruins and hedgerows, and children would be scolded by their parents for ‘looking like a grogoch’ when they came back from playing out, with their clothes covered in mud and their hair full of bits of hay and straw.

Despite their appearance they seemed to be hard-working creatures who would help with the harvest, washing potatoes, and performing other useful tasks around the farm. Unfortunately, they were also rather annoying, as being so hard-working themselves they took a dim view of anyone they thought wasn’t pulling their weight. One tale from Rathlin Island off the north coast of County Antrim tells of a busy grogoch who resented the elderly farmer he helped having a little lie-in on Sunday mornings: “When old John was lying snoring in the bed, he would hoist himself up onto the covers and creep up. Then he would batter the old man about the face until he got up and did a bit of work before going to Mass”.

It’s not surprising that Curran concludes, “unlike the standard leprechaun the grogoch was widely thought to be extremely stupid”.

Another name for leprechauns in Ulster is pecht, and Curran suggests that this indicates a connection with the word ‘Pict’, perhaps implying that they have some connection with a ‘race memory’ of small-statured Pictish settlers from Scotland, who moved to Ireland in prehistoric times. This idea was popular amongst folklorist in the early part of the last century, but now seems to have been discredited. A more likely explanation is that the leprechaun forms part of a common folk mythology which spanned northern Ireland and south eastern parts of Scotland. The later Norse invaders may also have added elements of their stories and mythologies to the folklore mix.

The author is not afraid to raise the question of Sex and the Single Leprechaun. We are led to believe that leprechauns are all male, which does lead to a rather basic question: where do little leprechauns come from, or indeed are there any little leprechauns at all? They seem to be very reluctant to talk about their sex lives, which may be because due to their appearance and habits, they have little or none. Some legends claim that they are the result of an unholy alliance between a human male and a female fairy, or sidhe. The grogoch may be involved somewhere here as well. Although the Irish grogochs maintain the all-male characteristics of the leprechaun, their Scottish counterparts are both male and female, so deep in the Celtic mists were there surreptitious crossings between the two countries, perhaps by means of the Giant’s Causeway?

There are many other puzzles of the little folk which are discussed in this volume. How old are they? Some seem to be able to remember Cromwell’s depredations in Ireland, others tell of the coming of the Norsemen, some even tell tales of pre-Celtic times. What is their religion? Although forbidden to enter sacred places by the Church, some seem keen to take Mass or be christened, other treat sacred services with disrespect, cannot abide the presence of an ordained clergyman, or attempt to prevent humans from attending church.


Although Bob Curran presents many fine old tales of Irish country-folk meeting the little individuals, these are largely from a time well before camera-phones, so it would be unfair to demand physical evidence, as we do with tales of UFOs or Bigfoot. But of course the physical evidence for those two intruders from the nebulous realms of Magonia is scarcely any better than our evidence for leprechauns (A title sadly missing from the ‘Evidence for...’ series of ASSAP paperbacks in the 1980s). I khave heard one first-hand sighting of a leprechaun by a prominent paranormal researcher and writer, and we have the first hand evidence of numerous Liverpool schoolkids in 1964, who unfortunately are not represented in this collection.

Although giving us no deep new insights into the nature of the supernatural world, this is a very entertaining compilation, and would make a fine gift for St Patrick’s Day (oops, too late for this year) or anyone with a love of all things Irish.

Leprechauns turn up again in Varla Ventura’s book, which surveys a wider range of liminal creatures to be found in the shadowy parts of deep woods. Like her previous little books on mermaids, and banshees and other ghostly creatures, it is largely an anthology of pieces from collections of folklore, and literary sources, including works by William Butler Yeats, Charles Perrault and Douglas Hyde. A nice introduction to the literary folk-tale, with a useful ‘further reading’ section.

A chapter in Ventura’s book deals with the pooka or púca, an animal spirit which attaches to an individual as a trickster figure, sometimes friendly, sometimes mischievous. This is headed with a quotation from James Stewart’s character Elwood P. Dowd in the film Harvey where he was accompanied by a pooka in the form of a giant rabbit: “Well I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I eventually won out over it”. A fine motto for any true Magonian. – John Rimmer.

10.4.17

TALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN

Ronald H. Fritze, Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy, Reaktion Books, 2016.

"Egypt from ancient times to the present has remained a perennial object of fascination, fantasy, mystery and, at times, obsession and madness. The Egypt of one’s dreams is often just that, a dream rather than the real Egypt of history. That, however, to a large extent is what Egyptomania is all about."

So Ronald Fritze, professor of history at Alabama’s Athens State University, sums up the subject of his study, in which he aims to tell the story of that fascination from antiquity to the present day.

The history takes up the book’s first, longer part, beginning with the ancient Hebrews. It’s debatable whether the treatment of Egypt in the Old Testament tales really qualifies as Egyptomania as such but, as Fritze points out, it was one of the two main sources of later conceptions – or misconceptions - about that civilisation. The other, presenting a more positive image of ‘an esoteric Egyptian civilization possessed of magical and occult secrets’, is the Hermetic texts, which became particularly influential in Renaissance Europe and created ‘a certain type of Egyptomania that exercised a powerful and enduring attraction for people already drawn to the occult and esoteric practices’.

Fritze goes on to detail the ideas about ancient Egypt that prevailed in the Greek and Roman eras, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment - an almost exclusively European story, although there’s a section on the medieval Islamic world’s concept of Egypt as ‘a land in which miracles occurred, magic was practised and lost treasures waited to be found’.

A pivotal event was Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, which both opened that land up to hands-on historical scholarship and led to Egyptomania’s first manifestation as a mass cultural phenomenon, resulting in nineteenth-century ‘mummymania’ and the Egyptian revival in art and architecture. Fritze rounds off part one with an examination of the next surge of popular enthusiasm for things Egyptian, the ‘Tutmania’ that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

While the book covers many areas of Magonian interest, the most directly relevant material is in its second part, ‘Varieties of Modern Egyptomania’. (The division between the two parts is somewhat arbitrary, with some overlap – and repetition – between them.)

The chapter ‘Occult Egyptomania’ examines the use of Egyptian themes and symbols by esoteric organisations such as Freemasonry, Theosophy and ‘Egyptianized Rosicrucian societies’ including the Golden Dawn and AMORC. It also looks at Edgar Cayce and his trance ‘readings’ about ancient Egypt, most famously concerning the putative Hall of Records. It’s a fairly comprehensive review of ancient Egypt’s place in Western esoteric traditions, but does have a significant omission in the absence of a discussion of Crowley’s Age of Horus.

In ‘Egyptomania on the Fringe of History’ Fritze sets out the history of alternative theories about the origins and nature of ancient Egypt, from the ‘pyramidology’ of the nineteenth century to subsequent ‘hyper-diffusionist’ theories of Egypt as the origin of all civilisation, and/or heir of a lost super-civilisation such as Atlantis, as well as those invoking ancient aliens. Naturally this includes the ‘Alternative Egyptology’ boom, centred on the writings of John Anthony West, Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock and hung on Cayce’s prophecies, in the lead-up to the Millennium.

Fritze devotes a particularly fascinating chapter to the one category of fringe theory that - presumably because the racial sensibilities involved mute criticism - has almost made it into the mainstream, even being on the curriculum in some US school districts. This is the ‘Nile Valley School’ of Afrocentrism which, borrowing heavily from hyper-diffusionist theories, maintains that the ancient Egypt civilisation was not only founded by black Africans but also, in its most extreme form, that it was the origin of all others, most significantly that of Greece. As a result, large sections of the African-American community now accept as fact that figures such as Ramesses the Great and even Cleopatra were black.

Unsurprisingly for someone in his academic position (especially whose previous books include Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions), Fritze is scathing about the ‘the morass of misinformation that constitutes the cultic milieu of alternative religions and fringe scholarship’. However, unlike many academic critics, Fritze has clearly studied the alternative literature in depth, and his criticisms of the excesses of the alternative camp are properly argued rather than airily dismissive - as well as hard to disagree with. (He’s surprisingly restrained, though, about Lynn Picknett’s and my The Stargate Conspiracy.) He also brings out the three-way symbiosis between the alternative theories, esoteric beliefs and fictional treatments of ancient Egypt.

Again unsurprisingly, Fritze’s own reading of history is unequivocally mainstream and conservative. So, for him, the Giza pyramids were tombs pure and simple, Cagliostro (who introduced Egyptian symbolism into Freemasonry in the eighteenth century) is ‘the great charlatan’ and ‘persuasive confidence man’, and the Hermetic books, while perhaps incorporating traces of ancient Egyptian religious thinking, were primarily inspired by Plato’s philosophy – all positions which have their challengers even within academia.




That said, Fritze succeeds admirably in his objective of telling the story of Egyptomania through the ages. It’s apparent that he is caught in the grip of that mania himself, and one senses a certain tension between his passion for the lore and magic of ancient Egypt and his historian’s persona. On the one hand he observes that Egyptomania is characterised by ‘false legends and misunderstood facts’ and often thrives on ignorance, writing that ‘interest often evolved into fascination, the lack of knowledge about ancient Egypt led to speculation, speculation led to fantasy’, but on the other he clearly enjoys that fantasy.

This is especially apparent when the fantasy is expressly presented as such and so can be enjoyed guilt-free: the chapters on Egyptian-themed fiction see Fritze in full-on fanboy mode, with detailed synopses and analyses of novels, short stories and movies. Although he declares that his survey isn’t comprehensive, it’s hard to imagine a more thorough job; he seems to have read every story ever written, and watched every TV series and movie ever made (Carry on Cleo included), that’s made even the vaguest use of an Egyptian theme.

Fritze’s enthusiasm is infectious, making Egyptomania an enjoyable read, laced with an often sardonic humour and full of fascinating and fun snippets, such as the serious consideration given, during the heyday of Tutmania, to naming the London Underground’s then new Northern Line extension, which passes through Tooting and Camden Town stations, the Tootandcamden Line. (Is it too late to reconsider? I feel a petition to Sadiq Khan coming on…)

Egyptomania displays an impressive command of not only the scholarly but also the popular and fringe literature – Fritze’s references take up nearly 50 of the book’s 450 pages - as well as the gargantuan amount of fiction. The result is both entertaining and informative. -- Clive Prince


6.4.17

BOOKS NOTED

Antony Milne. UFO Critters: UFOs, Science and Extraterrestrials Empiricus Books, 2016.

Argues that some UFOs might be living creatures, perhaps made of plasma , rather than mechanical devices. Much of this argument is derived from the work of Trevor James Constable, though others such as Ivan T Sanderson have proposed similar ideas. As is usual in such books the author rambles on into irrelevant side issues and adopts a tone of general contrarianism bordering on the cranky.

George Musser. Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon that Reimagines Space and Time, and What It Means for Black Holes, The Big Bang and Theories Of Everything. Scientific American, 2016.

An examination of quantum entanglement and non-locality and how it challenges our notions of space and time. Musser traces the development of the topic and the many controversies it raises. It is interesting to see that at the highest level physics begins to look like politics, with researchers with differing views talking past or over each rather than engaging in genuine conversation. The book avoids maths and formulae but this is not a light read as it deals with very challenging concepts at the edge of intelligibility even for the experts, and perhaps suggests that human beings may never be able to understand the unitary natural world at its deepest level(s)

Michael J Murphy. On Wildman: Tracking Bigfoot Through History. Camonica Books, 2016.

A thought provoking analysis of the pervasive myth of the Wildman , seen as a liminal creature between human civilization and wild nature. Murphy uses Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and Jung’ s idea of the archetype. In many ways this echoes the themes I speculated on here :
http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/taken-to-limits-part-1.html
Murphy then traces the role of the Wildman in pre-modern cultures, with extended coverage of the role of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and of Grendel in Beowulf, as well as treatments of the role of the Wildman in classic Greece, Rome and the Renaissance. The booklet is rather less convincing when Murphy argues that these stories are based on real biological creatures, which have somehow survived up the modern day but for which no biological evidence is ever forthcoming. More likely is that the “factual” bases of such stories are travellers’ tales of great apes and the activities of ordinary human beings who either fled or exiled to the wilderness as outlaws and outcasts. However the “real” Wildman is a product of the human imagination.

Carlo Rovelli. Reality Is Not What We Think It Is: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Allen Lane, 2016.

Rovelli outlines loop quantum gravity. A possible theory unifying relativity and quantum mechanics, which does away with infinity, many worlds, the multiverse and space. There are advanced mathematics in the footnotes but not the text, which however is not for the fainthearted. How this will explain non-locality (see Musser above) is not gone into.

Karen Stollznow (ed) Would You Believe It: Mysterious Tales from The People You Would Least Expect. The Editor, 2017

A selection of ostensible paranormal experiences told by a number of self-proclaimed skeptics, including tales of ghosts, out of the body experiences, mysterious coincidence, intuitions, UFO sightings, missing time, encounters with Bigfoot and just general weirdness. The majority of the contributors come up with “rational explanations”, but others seem genuinely puzzled by their experiences. The contributors are mainly American, but there are contributions from Susan Blackmore (the tale of the OBE told for the umpteenth time), Chris French and Hayley Stevens from the UK.

David Weatherley and Russ Allsion. Haunted Toys. Leprechaun Productions, 2017.

If you didn’t think you kid have enough problems with the internet, mobile phones and social media bringing unpleasant influences into your home, this book introduces the worry that your kid’s doll or toy may be haunted by a previous owner or bring you bad luck. It perhaps something of a relief that this already slim book had to be padded out with accounts of spooky teenage rituals and that the actual “haunted toys”, mainly dolls, come with stories, aimed at making them more saleable, or from the usual self-proclaimed psychics, mediums and paranormal researchers.

All notes by Peter Rogerson

31.3.17

HOPE OVER EXPERIENCE

John C.  Hagan. (editor) The Science of Near-Death Experiences. University of Missouri Press, 2017.

With a title like this, and publication by a university press, one might think that this book would present some new neurological research and insights into NDE’s. This is not the case, as the contents of this book are a series of op-ed pieces from the journal Missouri Medicine, of which Dr Hagan, an ophthalmologist, is the editor.

The papers include an introduction by Raymond Moody, an overview by Bruce Greyson, an essay by Dean Radin putting the experiences in the context of parapsychology, Pim van Lommel reporting on his research in the Netherlands, a study of veridical perception in NDEs, NDE’s in children, a brief section on 'distressing NDEs' and a number of personal testimonies. All but one of the thirteen papers are by promoters of paranormal (or should I say supernaturalist) interpretations of the experience, with only one paper, by Kevin Nelson, looking at possible non-paranormal interpretations. 

The papers add little to the already voluminous literature on the subject. They may serve some purpose in bringing the experiences, however interpreted, to the attention of clinicians, but one would think that after more than forty years since the publication of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life few people, physician or otherwise, would be unaware of them.

The general theme of the majority of the papers is that NDE’s provide evidence of supernatural realms that will overturn secular science and 'materialism'. I suspect that this is our old friend the wedge again, a suspicion not allayed by the fact that editor Hagan is an associate of a right wing think tank called the The Fund for American Studies, and believes that children in America are being indoctrinated into the far left in kindergartens: https://tfas.org/news/featured-supporter-john-c-hagan-m-d/

Of course science has to be secular, as that is the only way that scientists with very different cultural, religious and ideological backgrounds can find common communication. Science balkanised into Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Jewish, Reform Jewish, Sunni, Shia, Druze, Bahia, Sikh, Hindu, Mormon and countless other faith sciences would be impossible. It is often overlooked that Descartes did not introduce his form of dualism as an alternative to materialism, but rather by sectioning off the soul and handing it to the Pope, he sought avoid unplesantnesses like being burned at the stake while espousing a philosophy far more radically materialist than any held by any scientist today, one which treated animals as mere machines and allowed for the vivisection of live animals. -- Peter Rogerson

MAGONIA RECOMMENDS