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!

the inevitable post

Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.

page of medieval manuscript showing red and blue flowers and strange script
A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In an early draft of the novel I had Edward Kelley stumble across this strange tome in Mortlake’s library, but I ended up cutting that scene because Dee likely never owned it. Bursting further myths, he didn’t create it either – it’s carbon dated to the early 15th century, well over a hundred years before Dee’s time. Nonetheless as a mathematician and steganographer he certainly would have found it interesting. Hell, I find it interesting and I’m just an ordinary schlub.

The manuscript got its popular name from Wilfred Voynich, the bookseller who purchased it in 1912. Before that it passed through many hands and it’s origin is unclear. It currently resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and is available for viewing by appointment only (though they did loan it for an exhibit in DC, see below).

It has a bit of everything, from apparent star charts to plants to segmented pipes or containers to swimming naked ladies. And of course, lots of indecipherable text (available as a TrueType font, if you’re so inclined).

As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. CipherMysteries.com provides a rundown of the most popular theories, which include everything from blatant hoaxing to alien tech. Certainly it seems to have elements of astrology, herbals, and possibly alchemical recipe books (all those pipes), but doesn’t resemble any of these exclusively.

Decryption obsesses many – even the NSA (PDF) took a crack at it. In 2014 Stephan Bax at the University of Bedfordshire in England deciphered ten words for plants and an astrological sign. Just last week Gordon Rugg of the University of Keele declared it a hoax; other parties disagree.

I was fortunate enough to see the real deal when it was on display in the Folger Library’s Decoding the Renaissance exhibit. Somehow I thought the fuel for so much speculation would be bigger – it’s about the size of a modern hardcover novel. The vellum shows few erasures, so someone understood the strange text well enough to write it with few mistakes. The colors are still vivid even after ~600 years, but the illustrations seem hasty and awkward, particularly the human figures.

My own take is… I don’t know what to think. I’m no cryptographer so I’m not competent to judge the plausibility of the various theories (though I’m pretty sure aliens didn’t write it). If it’s a hoax it’s a good one to fascinate so many for so long. If it’s a code I have to wonder what the author(s) were hiding. In any case, someone went to a lot of time and trouble to create it. Again, the real story is about people and their motives and perceptions.

Current research and the upcoming publication of 898 “clone” manuscripts going for $8000 each (and a Yale University Press edition priced for us ordinary mortals) should keep the Voynich Manuscript in the news (well, the news I read) and send researchers down the rabbit hole for years to come. Me, I’ll just peruse Yale’s scans and consider the fiction fodder.