biweekly links 1-27-2016

“Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons” by George Pendle – recent review of a ten-year old book, and damn was Jack Parsons a strange bird! Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist by day and magician by night, Parsons “treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin” – rather the same way the Renaissance natural philosophers saw no difference between science and magic. Putting on my to-read list.

In difficult times, many readers turn to historical fiction – a psychologist suggests “exploration of the sights, sounds, and events of past eras… help[s] us to imagine how to negotiate the strains of current real-life situations.” Includes reviews of some of her favorites (full disclosure: I’ve not read any of them).

John Dee: Scholar, Courtier, Magician [Video] – if you missed it on my Twitter or Facebook last week, this half hour sneak preview/interview with the curator is well worth seeing. Not only was Dee’s handwriting beautiful but he was a fair artist – check out his doodles.

XETB Plays the Music of John Dee – or music inspired by him, at any rate. Unavailable in my country due to licensing restrictions – can anyone get at it? What do you think?

A Little Bird Told Me: Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge in Occult Art Show – as ever, you can’t throw the word “occult” around without crashing into Crowley, but he’s not the dominant artist in the show. Some of the usual magic circles and talismans plus other esoteric symbolism.

Researchers confirm site of Salem witch hangings – discovered using witness accounts and modern aerial mapping, the site now overlooks a Walgreens, of all things.

weird Prague – the ghost and witch tours

Most walking tours hit the highlights: places, dates, battles. All of which is good and interesting, but I wanted a flavor of the local folklore that doesn’t make it into history books. I find ghost tours are the best way to learn about the weird history of a place, and I found two I enjoyed.

I discovered the Prague witch tour last minute and accidentally, and booked with the thought this will be either the cheesiest thing on earth or a window into contemporary pagan Prague. Definitely more beef than cheese, with servings of morbid history and a dash of ritual.

Our tour guide, Martina, was a modern pagan and a dedicated entrepreneur to boot. The witch tour is her labor of love, and she offered alternative perspectives on some of the usual sights. For example, she explained how Christian elements on the astronomical clock’s face can be interpreted as old pagan symbols to those in the know. While I don’t fully grasp the nuances of the occult “green language” (every word has seven meanings) it certainly lends another layer of history I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.

She also introduced us to the legend of 17th century executioner Jan Mydlář. Short version: the role of executioner traditionally stayed within families, but Mydlář committed a murder so grisly that they spared him the axe and gave him the job. He went on to an, er, prolific career and a friendship with the anatomist Ján Jesenský, to whom he supplied cadavers for dissection. Their friendship came to an end when Mydlář’s superiors ordered him to behead Jesenský along with 26 other Protestant leaders, thus kicking off the Thirty Years War. The execution site is still marked in the Old Town Square:

crosses of the martyrs in Old Town Square
One cross for each man. Very sobering.

Mydlář went on to drink away the loss of his best friend at a pub that still exists today. It’s somewhere behind the Old Town Hall, though for the life of me I couldn’t find it a second time:

front of the executioner's pub
The sign over the door. If you squint you can see some of the swords and other weapons hanging on the wall

The rest of the tour was a long walk through landmarks familiar and not: the surviving gothic architecture of Charles University and the “devil’s” fungus that tears the stone apart; the convent of St. Agnes, haunted by girls pressed into the nunnery against their will; the executioner’s storage and training house. Always the symbols passed through a pagan lens, revealing an enduring alternate belief system.

She even conducted a brief ritual of intent for us in a chalk-drawn circle, and I did my best to focus on my goals. The evening wound up in a local pub with excellent local spirits and a wide-ranging discussion about pagan thought. This tour is truly unlike anything else in Prague, and Martina is a delight. Highly recommended.

The underground ghost tour took us under the city hall into chambers that were at ground level hundreds of years ago but were slowly buried by later construction. Only hand-held lanterns relieve the complete dark, creating a still, close atmosphere that’s great for storytelling. Mydlář came up again as a man who tried to save his lover from the axe only to have things go disastrously wrong. Allegedly he also worked with a vampire hunter (how is there not a graphic novel somewhere about Mydlář & co? The black humor writes itself!). Our tour guide was a New Jersey native and the unfamiliar words sounded even more so in his familiar accent, but he knew his stuff and claimed to have had some experiences of his own.

Both tours claim that tourists have gone home to find wisps and ghostly “orbs” in their photos. Alas, the ghosties didn’t come out for me. Though, I did have a devil of a time uploading these images, so make of that what you will.

biweekly links 1-13-2016

Happy new year all!

Prague’s pretty libraries

The first library I remember was the small local branch in the town where I grew up. Housed in a narrow storefront, my memories are vivid despite its small size and lack of air conditioning. The high ceiling, with paint peeling off its old-fashioned tiles, made it seem huge and grand – almost like a holy place, a temple of learning.

Thus started my lifelong love of beautiful libraries, and my desire to see more of them.

Strahov Monastery’s library was among the first places I visited, and I wouldn’t have known about it had my friend Charlotte not suggested it. Big oversight on my part! The collection dates to the twelfth century and endured its share of burning and plundering over the centuries. The current theological hall dates to the seventeenth century and is mouthwateringly beautiful: the globes, the lower shelves jutting out to form benches, the gilded book covers, and of course the high, vaulted ceilings – I want it all. You can’t go in but there’s a small doorway with a big view:

theological hall at Strahov Monastery
Pretty globes all in a row!
Baroque writing desk
We all need a desk like this, right?

The philosophical hall was completed in the late eighteenth century and is a gorgeous two floor Baroque blow-out with sliding ladders:

Strahov Monastery's Philosophical Hall
Again you can only peek in, but this angle catches a lot of what makes it great. Photo by Charlotte Dries.

The collection is open to the public via a separate, modern reading room. I didn’t visit but I’m pleased that the monastery makes this treasure trove available.

About a week and much walking and blistered feet later, we went to the Klementinum, home of Prague’s National Library. Originally founded by the Jesuits in 1556, it’s possible Edward Kelley confessed to one of the priests here so this was another “setting” visit. Turns out most of the original Dominican monastery has been built over, but the existing structure houses a beautiful Baroque library. They didn’t permit photography of the room itself (do check out the site), but the attached astronomical tower had plenty to see:

Room sized camera obscura with measuring tools
In the 19th century Meridian Hall, a room-sized camera obscura, was used to determine noon with the use of human-sized quadrants.
clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower's carillon
Clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower’s carillon
Prague's skyline
Fantastic view from the top of the tower

The library shelves were curiously empty, with paper “place marks” filling multiple empty slots. Turns out many of the rarer volumes are currently being digitized through Google Books.

I’m always looking for more beautiful libraries. Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments!