biweekly links 8-20-2017

I spent the eclipse with Asheville’s witches: I know Asheville mostly as the home of Biltmore House and former home of Moogfest, and while it seems an artsy, crunchy granola college town I didn’t know much about their pagan community. They seem fairly large but their interpretations of the eclipse are as varied as the pagan community itself. (Additional weird resource: Asheville Raven & Crone. No online shopping but a decent overview of their stock, plus event calendar).

Keeping secrets in sixteenth-century Istanbul: Holy Roman vs Ottoman Empires with ciphers and invisible ink! Of interest to me because Rudolf II managed his war with the Ottoman Empire so poorly that the rest of his family switched their support to his brother Matthias, thus beginning the end of Rudolfine Prague’s moment as art/occult capital of Europe.

Make America Ghostly Again: The Demon Cat of Washington D.C.: one of my favorite ghost stories ever! Said to have predicted both Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations, the cat also evidently enjoys scaring people to death (which, let’s face it, all cats would do if they could).

Orange cat sitting in cardboard box
Spice, the demon cat of my household, is bigger and scarier than her DC counterpart. She is very certain of this. Author’s own.

Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages: but did they get along with the witches’ cats? Seriously though, this myth says more about the witch-hunters than the witches. Link includes possibly NSFW medieval penis-tree imagery, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

biweekly links 6-7-2017

Witchcraft with a dash of art, and some things which may or may not be:

The hocus pocus of witchcraft: this post from the UK National Archives blog covers the basics but links over to their publication Accused: British Witches Throughout History, a nonfiction book about exactly what it says. Do check out their “We think you may also like” section if you’re into this sort of thing.

A radical new look at the greatest of Elizabethan artists: Two paintings have been newly confirmed as Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard‘s, based on the wood on which they were painted. They’re part of the Power and Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I exhibit that just opened at Waddesdon Manor. Looks like a good one to check out should you be in Buckinghamshire between now and October 29.

Portrait of Elizabethan man with beard and mustache, wearing a cap and ruff
Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I’s alleged squeeze Robert Dudley, 1576. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The spy who hoodwinked the Nazis with sorcery: file under “interesting if true”. As opposed to “Operation” Cone of Power in which British witches actually tried to repel the Nazis, Operation Mistletoe was just propaganda. Allegedly orchestrated by spy and occultist Cecil Williams, this article suggests it’s uncertain whether this fake ritual happened at all. (Tangentially, a whip ’round Google for “Napoleonic magical ritual” nets nothing about the alleged witchcraft used to repel Napoleon mentioned in the article. Still, possible inspiration for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?)

biweekly links 3-8-2017

A handful of UFO-related links as I mine my blog feeds:

Dee, Kelley, and the Gulf Breeze Six

Lest you think that soliciting and obeying dubious supernatural advice is a purely pre-Enlightenment thing, I give you the Gulf Breeze Six.

Google Map of Gulf Breeze, on the Florida panhandle near Pensacola. Beautiful beaches but beware springtime jellyfish.

The abbreviated version: in July 1990 six American soldiers working in intelligence in West Germany went AWOL on the orders an entity called “Safire” they contacted through a Ouija board. The authorities apprehended them in Gulf Breeze, Florida, interrupting their attempt to 1) inform the President about aliens, 2) kill the antichrist, and/or 3) await the Rapture (accounts vary). Incredibly they evaded punishment: after three weeks held incommunicado the military discharged them with full honors.

Of course there’s more to it than that–isn’t there always? Government experiments, UFOs, and prophecies all get tossed into the blender of weird. The blog post at the link provides a sober, comprehensive history. Check out the accompanying PDF for contemporary news clippings.

The story caught my eye because the story is so similar that of Dee and Kelley:

  • Both groups sought and followed supernatural advice, even when it put them in conflict with the authorities
  • Neither group were cults as such, being small (six soldiers plus a handful more; Dee, Kelley, and their wives) disorganized, short-lived, and lacking charismatic leaders
  • Despite wild detours from orthodoxy both groups’ beliefs were rooted solidly in Christian theology

What intrigues me most is how many modern beliefs the Gulf Breeze Six must have had to jettison to make their assumptions. Dee and Kelley obeying their “celestial teachers” makes sense in their historic context; in twentieth century America not so much*. The GB6 must have taken some serious intellectual leaps (IMHO) to obey “Safire”‘s instructions to desert.

Letting go of my modern assumptions has been one of the hardest parts of getting into my characters’ heads. Characters may question Kelley’s intentions or sanity but it wouldn’t occur to them to question the existence of supernatural entities.

Mind, I’m a hard-headed, secular-soaked atheistic sort. Believer’s mileage may vary.

What’s your take?

*I’m well aware that belief in God/gods, angels, demons, etc. persists but those beliefs compete with modern scientific method in a way they didn’t in the sixteenth century. Turns out some of the GB6 were fundamentalist Christians. Which raises the question: how did they come to play with a Ouija board? I thought those were a big no-no in those circles.

blogs of note

A few of my recurring online reads:

We Are The Mutants: cold war pop culture with an occult bent. Articles of note: 1970s EVP equipment (warms the cockles of my In Search Of-loving heart), French New Wave cinema’s influence on Hollywood sci-fi, Dungeons and Dragons as occult gateway drug – in a good way. Quality writing on subjects that only seem unrelated.

David Halperin: religious studies prof and former UFO investigator, Halperin balances critical thinking and compassion. His series on the 1966 UFO incident in Westhall, Australia illustrates the unreliability of eyewitness accounts without ridiculing the witnesses, and his two-parter on “The Supernatural” presents a spin on Whitley Strieber’s famous “abduction” experiences that’s neither credulous nor dismissive.

Startling photo-realistic painting of grey alien with huge, slanted, ink black eyes and a Mona Lisa smile
The famous “Communion” cover, from the book’s Goodreads page. Included because 30 years on it still startles the crap out of me and I wanted to share the joy.

Halperin’s post on “The Supernatural” led me to Strieber’s co-author Jeffrey J. Kripal, another scholar of philosophy and religion. He emphasizes “robust and even conversation between the sciences and the humanities”, which I am ALL about. His book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna seems to have enraged and enlightened in equal measure, so surely he’s doing something right. $DEITY knows when I’ll have time to read his books, but this two-part interview on the Where Did The Road Go?  podcast serves as a useful primer on Kripal’s work and perspective.

biweekly links 12-28-2016

I’m writing this last link dump of the year just after learning of the deaths of both Carrie Fisher and George Michael. Both too young, both last-minute additions to the seemingly endless list of prominent people lost in 2016. Puts me in a melancholy frame of mind.

Photo of George R. R. Martin with text: I think I'll call this one 2016 - and it's going to be my best book yet
A dose of black humor. Courtesy MemeGenerator.

biweekly links 11-30-2016

Busy week, so here’s a selection from the past two weeks of my Google Alerts:

Second Salem: The Real-Life Prosecution & Paranoia That Inspired J. K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beasts’: the latest edition to the Harry Potter ‘verse is built around an alternate history in which the 17th century Salem witch trials left a long shadow tainting American muggle/”no maj” and wizard relations well into the 1920s. Opinions?

The Magick of Dion Fortune – With Paul Clark (re-broadcast): Fortune is another new-to-me name from the early years of the Golden Dawn, and writer of occult fiction. This seems to be fairly standard fare from the also new-to-me Hermetic Hour podcast.

Arrival – reviewed by a UFO expert: the expert in question is Nick Pope, former head of the UFO desk (yes, there was [is?] such a thing) in the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Some interesting observations about how the plot of the movie intersects with government (lack of) contingency plans for alien contact and the portrayal of the military. I saw this a few weeks ago and it’s a slow mover but riveting. The aliens are truly alien and the story stays with you long after the credits roll.

how to talk about weird things (really, HOW?)

Despite my lifelong interest in the strange and unusual it took me a relatively long time to realize just how strange that is to (some) other people.

Growing up in a family where such inquiry was commonplace and getting the requisite pat on the head for my childhood faked Bigfoot plaster casts etc. it wasn’t until college that I started getting blank silence, laughter, even hostility. So I learned to shut up if I didn’t want to get into long-winded explanations of why I wasn’t a conspiracy theorist, UFO cultist, or what have you.

Alternative religion historian Mitch Horowitz’s discusses the hazards of discussing the occult in the media and many apply to discussing in company as well: the unknown is acceptable as long as you’re flip about it but any hint of serious interest gets conflated with blind belief, and hence, ridicule. This scares off intelligent inquirers and the truly off-the-wall rush in with their pet theories, perpetuating the association with crackpots.

Angry alien says to fellow aliens:
The acceptable face of  the weird. Don’t get me wrong, I find stuff like this funny too. Via.

Which is a damn shame because underneath the silliness and hysteria are some genuine questions like what really happened? and why do they keep on happening? and how do experiencers integrate their experiences into their daily lives?

Though I’m in the business of speculating I try to be aware that I am doing just that – speculating. I’m no scientist (or trained in rigorous scientific method) so I can’t make authoritative statements about the objective reality of strange phenomena. Nor can I discount or ridicule other people’s experiences – I don’t walk in their shoes.

But I can say: it’s ok to engage the weird. It can be done without sacrificing critical thought, though it is difficult. Investigate without assumptions and be ready to accept that you don’t know and may never know. Most of all, anyone who insists they’ve got The Answer(TM) doesn’t.

biweekly links 11-2-2016

Happy (belated) Halloween/Samhain/All Hallows/etc! I can’t top the biggest early modern European news of the last 2 weeks (Christopher Marlowe Officially Credited As Co-Author Of 3 Shakespeare Plays) but I’ll try:

Woodcut of
A sea-bishop from Johann Zahn’s 1696 work Specula physico-mathematico-historica notabilium ac mirabilium sciendorum (that’s a mouthful). By Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/library/libr0081.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

biweekly links 10-19-2016

Vampires and alchemy and murder-investigating witches, oh my!