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.

why I do the weird stuff

No, not that weird stuff!

I mean my biweekly link dumps of witches, occultists, strange/obscure history, and academic papers. Why do I post these (apart from their vague relevance to the work in progress)?

Well, I was a strange child. And I had help.

I grew up on an irregular diet of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” and the occasional surprise “In Search Of” when it aired at odd times on TBS. Also one side of my family nurtured an interest in UFOs, ghosts, cryptozoology, and other Forteana/paranormalia: I remember reading my grandmother’s back issues of Fate Magazine from around age 8, and books got passed around through the mail and at holiday get togethers.

I think the cryptozoology thing grew out of the usual childhood fascination with dinosaurs. My interest was intense enough that by elementary school I was making papier-mâché Loch Ness monsters and a faked plaster cast of a Bigfoot footprint for school projects.

I can’t remember my teachers’ reactions.

shelf of books with titles about UFOs, poltergeists, hidden animals, conspiracies
A “shelfie” of my weird collection. The old Fate mags have long since worn out and been thrown away.

Various family members expressed everything from skeptical interest to full on belief – dinner table conversation could go on for hours. As a child I was fairly uncritical about it all; as a teenager I became more skeptical but sought out anything that made my eyebrows jump – conspiracy theories, alien abduction, prank religions – for the sheer WTFery, if nothing else. I can’t remember how many times I checked High Weirdness by Mail out of the library (oh hey, now there’s an online version!).

And yes, in the 1990s I was a dedicated X-Phile. So many of the stories were already familiar, and the writers did a wonderful job with the source material!

As an adult I’m more detached but my interest remains, though I’ve grown so hard-headed it’s difficult to believe in anything I can’t hit with a hammer, so to speak. At the same time I recognize that subjective experience is relevant to the experiencer, objectively provable or not. In the end it’s not about aliens or ghosts or witches, but about people and how they integrate the unexplained into their lives.

Still, my inner curious child still aches to know: what really happened? What did they really see/experience/find? Through writing fiction I can speculate with the luxury of  not having to prove anything, and I have the freedom to make up answers.

I could (maybe I will) do a whole separate post about growing up as a history buff. Suffice it to say I’m not terribly surprised that two lifelong interests collided to have me writing about Elizabethan magicians ~30 years later.

What about you? Do you have any childhood obsessions that still inform your creative pursuits today? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

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.