The Tudor guide to colonising the world: in case “Bluff King Hal”‘s old digs aren’t big enough for you, read about Richard Hakluyt’s sixteenth century travel guides of the New World. Mind, he never actually left Europe, so take with a grain of salt.
A Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony In… Renaissance Rome?: same-sex marriage isn’t a new phenomenon, though the context was different and the risks substantially greater. Traditional marriage has always been challenged and what constitutes “traditional” is constantly in flux.
Witchcraft Before Wicca: Three Important Magickal Books: a lengthy and detailed article about the origin and content of Scot’s “Discoverie Of Witches”, “The Key of Solomon” and Leyland’s “Aradia, Or the Gospel of the Witches”. Contains footnotes for those inclined to inquire further.
Bad Witch Workout Is Where Squats and Spells Go Hand in Hand – while some parts I don’t get (makeup while working out??) the bit about “so many exercise classes…feel alienating if you’re a weirdo or a goth or a punk-rock kid or a riot girl or a feminist” does sound familiar. Workouts for the weird with a dose of spirituality can’t be a bad thing.
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:
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:
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.
In lieu of a proper blog post (I was sick last week) I’m sharing links related to the book:
A Portrait of the Artist as a (Wild) Young Man: My Life with Berti Spranger, a novel by Eva Jana Siroka – Rudolf II didn’t just support alchemists like Dee and Kelley but promoted art and artists as well. Spranger was one of his favorites; evidently he liked the artist’s mythical nudes so much he kept him a near prisoner, but Spranger still managed to get in a lot of trouble. The eccentric characters of Rudolfine Prague are so ripe for fictionalization it’s sad they aren’t played with more often (or are they? Please leave book recommendations in the comments!)
James VI and Witches, both Friend and Foe – James I hated and feared witchcraft – Dee wrote him a long, desperate letter in 1604 attempting to clear his reputation for conjuring – but paradoxically allowed known witches into his inner circle, to the extent of having one help in his wife’s birthing chamber. Illustrative of the gray area witchcraft occupied in Elizabethan/Jacobean England; high status practitioners of useful magic got a pass.
A magical walk in the footsteps of the Pendle witches – this second of a two-part series discusses Alice Nutter, one of the wealthier of the twelve accused. Nutter appears in fictional form in Jeannette Winterson’s “The Daylight Gate” where she’s presented as an associate of Dee’s and Kelley’s. Hey, it’s fiction, so why not?