1.7.16

SEEING THE LIGHT

Mark Fox. Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena. Spirit and Sage, 2016.

First published in hardback with the title and subtitle reversed and at an exorbitant price in 2006, this work, now published in an affordable soft cover edition, examines anomalous experiences of light and illumination. It is based on narratives submitted to the Religious Experience Research Unit established by Sir Alister Hardy, the well-known naturalist, in 1969, originally based at Manchester College, Oxford (the successor to the Warrington Academy) but now at University of Wales, Lampeter. The material was gathered by newspaper appeals for “all who have been conscious of, and perhaps influenced by, a higher power, whether they call it God or not” to send in brief details. He was not especially interested in anomalous personal experiences, but a fair number were submitted and it is from these that this study has been compiled.

I think that the title, however, is somewhat misleading, only a small portion of the narratives describe encounters with anomalous lights of the sort one finds in UFO accounts. The main sets of data consist of lights or luminous beings that bring comfort, with transformed perceptions of the landscape, feelings of being flooded with light and love, sudden flashes of light and similar 'spiritual' phenomena

The narratives do include some accounts of near-death experiences gathered before these were made famous by Raymond Moody, and these tend to involve things like tunnels of light, the presence of luminous beings etc. and not to include features such as the 'silver cord' and other features from Spiritualist and occultist literature. To what extent that is the result of double selection is hard to say.

Clearly given the nature of the original question, many of these experiences are interpreted in a religious and often specifically Christian context, one which is not only a consequence of the original intent of the survey, but of the times and culture within which they were generated. These stories were submitted in a more religious age and are often supplied by older people narrating experiences from much earlier in their lives. Today similar narratives are likely to be given a variety of interpretations from folk spiritualism and New Age figures to benevolent UFO beings.

While Fox himself clearly sees these experiences as the breaking through of some transcendent reality into the mundane world, the less theologically inclined might note that many of these experiences seem to occur at times of great personal crises or emotional strain, as do a number of other anomalous experiences. Though aimed clearly at a theological readership, this book should be of general interest to psychical researchers and Forteans. – Peter Rogerson.

27.6.16

SENSE ON PSI

Caroline Watt. Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide. OneWorld, 2016

In a field increasingly dominated by rival certainties, many seemingly fuelled by America’s culture wars, it was a pleasant surprise to read this admirably even-handed introduction to parapsychology. Caroline Watt was a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh and at the time of writing the holder of the Perrott-Warwick Scholarship, and is also the partner of Richard Wiseman.

Inthis book she examines first of all the rise of interest in psychical research and parapsychology, then examines the claims of psychics and mediums, pointing out the roles of cold reading and selective memory. She then examines the role of spontaneous anomalous experiences in the form of out of the body and near death experiences and of ghosts and hauntings, noting there the role of individual psychology and memory. She then goes on to discuss the history and development of laboratory studies of telepathy and clairvoyance and psychokinesis.

She concludes that far from being a flaky pseudoscience, regardless of whether ESP etc. exist or not, parapsychology is not just a respectable science but one that has often been pioneering in the development of forms and control and analysis which can be extended to other disciplines, for example the science based study of medical treatments. As for the topics themselves, her position is that the evidence is intriguing but by no means proven and that as to whether these abilities are genuine or not the jury is still out.

This would be my own position and in general I find myself in agreement with almost everything in this book. The only point of dissent is her dismisal of interest in 'UFOs and Bigfoot', not perhaps of great relevance to laboratory parapsychology but of much relevance to the study of anomalous personal experiences, whatever their ultimate nature or natures. -- Peter Rogerson

23.6.16

SKINNY RIMMER, SPRING HEEL JACK AND THE BYE BYE MAN

Robert Damon Schneck. The Bye Bye Man and Other Strange-but-True Stories. Tarcher Pedigree, 2016. (Rev. Ed.)

Robert Schneck is the author of Mrs Wakeman and the Antichrist, a collection of weird and wonderful incidents from American history, including the invention and successful testing of a remarkably effective auto-decapitation device. The present book was originally published as The President’s Vampire and in this new edition contains further research on the eponymous monster.

It covers a wide scope of American history, starting with the mysterious, never quite findable, attackers of the New England township of Gloucester in Colonial times. Schneck draws out the similarities between these phantom French militiamen (or were they Native Americans, or an alliance of the two?) and later mystery attackers, such as the extraterrestrial ‘goblins’ that attacked the Sutton family of Kelly, Kentucky, who feature in the UFO canon, and the aggressive Bigfoots of Ape Canyon in the Pacific North-west, which featured in Schneck’s earlier book. And of course phantom guerilla attackers who can never quite be caught, provide the main plot device for the 1976 film, Attack on Precinct 13.

Times of change and uncertainty, such as the immediate post-Revolutionary period in America provide rich picking for fraudsters, especially of you could exploit the then-contemporary craze for treasure hunting, by convincing a group of local farmers and tradesmen that the spirits of the dead will lead you to a buried fortune. Of course this will require a down-payment in cash, although it’s not clear where the spirits are expected to spend this. If this also involved the duped individuals being scared witless in ludicrous midnight ceremonies, so much the more satisfying.

A book recently reviewed in Magonia, Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State, examines the social background to the era of The God Machine. It’s often forgotten that much of the interest in Spiritualism and psychic activity in the nineteenth century was part of a search for a scientific and logical view of the universe, rather than a retreat from it. John Murray Spear was a minister in the Universalist Church and an active campaigner for progressive social causes. He spoke in favour of women’s rights, and helped organise the ‘Underground Railway’ which provided an escape route to Canada for slaves fleeing from the southern states.

JOHN MURRAY SPEAR
Linking himself to the burgeoning Spiritualist movement, he began receiving messages instructing him in the creation of a ‘New Messiah’ a bizarre electrical construction, which when complete would lead to the inauguration of a new era of mankind on earth. He began construction of this at the town of Lynn, in Massachusetts, which itself had a strange and rather Lovecraftian history. There is no very clear description of what the new Messiah actually looked like – Spear did not have such things a circuit diagrams, for instance, the guiding spirits just seemed to make it up as they went along, aided by Spear’s total ignorance of anything technical. I am somehow reminded of Mr Hutchison’s Amazing Machine from a later era.

Well as we know by now, the gizmo did not inaugurate an era of peace and love, but although his dream collapsed, unlike some other failed prophets Spear went on to spend the rest of his life continuing to campaign for his causes, and seems to have passed on to his Maker (electrically powered or not) a reasonably contented man.

Unlike 'The President’s Vampire'. I won’t say too much about this, except to say that, like so much else, it was all got up by the meeja!

Spring Heeled Jack is something that has always fascinated us here at Magonia, and we have published a number of articles showing examples of the Leaping Wonder from more recent years than the conventional Victorian chronology. Schneck finds an example from 1951 in a housing project in Baltimore, originally built to house war-workers in local factories, but by the time of the incidents rapidly declining into poverty – the sort of fringe, liminal area which featured in many of the traditional Spring Heel Jack tales.

Poverty and urban decay also appear to be factors in the mysterious disappearance of four young African-American boys in Newark, New Jersey, in 1978, but this mystery seems to be not so much Fortean as forensic.

In Mrs Wakeman, Schneck described the panicky response of some communities in the early years of the last century to the introduction of the Ouija board, originally as a plaything but later seen as a means of contacting the ‘Dark Side’. That is certainly how the protagonists of The Bye Bye Man interpreted it. A group of three friends living in Wisconsin began playing with a board, and soon seemed to find themselves in contact with something calling itself the Bye Bye Man. A semi-coherent background to this entity began to emerge, which seemed to identify itself as the shadowy survival of a serial killer. It would be a spoiler to give too much away (this chapter is preceded with what is called in today’s academic circles a ‘trigger warning’), but the three people involved began to experience a string of very unsettling events.

Schneck compares this to the experiments conducted by a psychical research group in Canada, who consciously created a ghost-like entity called ‘Philip’, although in the case of the Wisconsin trio the Bye Bye Man was anything but consciously created. Following on from its original publication, Schneck tries to discover if there is any factual background to this story, based on clues from the communications received through the Ouija board. This leads to an exploration of some very disturbing byways of American life, and an examination of some of the ways in which the paranormal might be seen to interact with real life. The Bye Bye Man is shortly to be released as a film, based on the story.

Any book which has a character listed as John ‘Skinny’ Rimmer in its index naturally draws my attention. The attenuated Mr Rimmer was a cave explorer and striking miner from Wyoming, who whilst working on a farm in that state discovered a curious mummified body of a small, strange looking creature. Or maybe he didn’t, as John’s daughter later gave a totally different account. But the mummy seemed real enough, and Schneck tracks its movements around the US until it disappears, as mysteriously as it was found, probably in a museum in Chicago. Or maybe not. But he does provide a tentative identification of what it might have been. Mr ‘Skinny’ Rimmer was not available for comment. – John ‘Putting On a Bit of Weight These Days’ Rimmer.

19.6.16

WESTWARD HO HO HO!

Suze Gardner. The A-Z of Curious Devon. History Press, 2016.

A varied collection of strange and curious stories, hauntings, legends, lore and historical oddities from the South-West, arranged as an alphabetical gazetteer, by town and village. They range from contemporary urban legends like the ‘hairy hands’ of the B3212, to traditional folklore such as Ottery St Mary’s annual 5th November blow-out – or blow-up – currently threatened by rising insurance costs. Why anyone should think that carrying blazing 30kg barrels of tar on your shoulders through the streets of a small town should need any form of insurance, I can’t imagine.

Combe Martin’s rumbustious annual ‘Hunting the Earl of Rone’ fell victim to the Victorians abhorrence of rowdy popular festivals, but was revived in the 1970s, I suspect in a form more suited to the taste of today’s ‘health and safety’ enforcers.

There are a number of Fortean oddities included, such as the strange story of Princess Cariboo, who made a very convincing Princess of Sumatra until she was unmasked as a cobbler’s daughter from the Devon village of Witheridge. She gave her name to ‘Cariboo Syndrome’, a condition where individuals are enmeshed in a self-delusional fantasy, and are able to involve others in it.

Devon seems to have the usual quota of dodgy clergyman, like the randy curate of Lapford who attracted the righteous ire of his vicar, who denounced him loudly and publicly when the vicar’s wife started paying a little too much attention to the curate. When the curate was discovered dead the vicar was tried and found guilty of his murder, but remarkably not sentenced and later returned to his position. After his death he was buried in an obscure part of the churchyard. Naturally on stormy nights his spirit prowls the churchyard looking for a more comfortable billet.

I was disappointed to see that there was no mention of the Scorriton mystery and the notorious Arthur Bryant, but this is not really a volume for the serious Fortean’s bookshelf, but it is a useful little compendium for local people, or anybody holidaying in this beautiful part of England. – John Rimmer

16.6.16

1177 AND ALL THAT

Eric H. Cline. 1177 B.C. The Year Civilisation Collapsed. Princeton University Press, 2015 (Paperback).

History is not what it used to be. It was my least favourite subject at school. Why did I have to remember facts and dates that were utterly boring and totally irrelevant to my life? Now, in senior years and with a bit of history of my own, it is one of my favourite subjects. I find the subject not only enjoyable but also educational and highly relevant to an understanding of the complex world we live in. This very readable book is an excellent example of how fascinating and instructive history can be. The author, Eric H Cline, is Professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist and ancient historian by training and extensive experience. His scholarship is evident throughout this well-researched work with masses of data that would satisfy the most serious students and fellow academics among his readership. However, Cline has a particular gift in his writing style of being conversational with touches of quirky humour which make this book a gripping read from start to finish.

The author's main purpose here is to throw some light on the mystery of the sudden and violent collapse of civilisation within a few decades from about the year 1200 BC. In effect, this collapse marked the end of the Late Bronze Age. The catastrophe was of a scale and magnitude unprecedented in world history until that time, and the world would see nothing like it again until the collapse of the Roman Empire over 1500 years later.

Cline goes straight to the point in the first paragraph of his preface: "The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. AD 2013? Yes. But it was also the situation in 1177 BC, more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilisations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world. It was a pivotal moment in history – a turning point for the ancient world."

In other words, there are clear parallels between the ancient world and the modern world. History does repeat itself. The protagonists of the Late Bronze age, variously known to us as Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots and Egyptians all interacted with each other, by trading and cultural exchange. Thereby they created a cosmopolitan and ‘globalised’ world system. They evidently became so intertwined and interdependent that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others. So, the question we have to ask is what exactly started that collapse? The traditional answer has been, in simple terms, invasions of the ‘Sea Peoples’ as they are known to historians. Herein lies the major part of the mystery. To this day modern scholars do not know where they originated . No ancient site has yet been discovered that can be identified as their origin or place of departure. They may have come from many places and banded together for common purpose.

All that is known of the Sea Peoples comes from Egyptian records in the form of inscriptions on stone monuments. Egypt may be considered the most powerful and advanced nation of that ancient globalised world. Whereas all of the other nations and kingdoms fell or were destroyed completely, Egypt did survive these invasions, albeit in a severely weakened state. Intriguingly, the inscriptions refer to tribal groups by names that are unknown anywhere else. Also, their images on these monuments show them to be very diverse in appearance. Some wore horned helmets, others wore skullcaps, and others were bare-headed. Some had pointed beards and wore short kilts, others had no facial hair and were dressed in long garments. They came on boats, wagons, ox-carts and chariots, armed with sharp bronze swords, wooden spears with fearsome metal points, and bows and arrows. Given the entirely disparate nature of their tribal names and appearances, and the vicious manner in which they ruthlessly destroyed one city after another, the modern word ‘terrorists’ comes to mind.


An image of one of the Sea People
from the Medinet Habu Temple, Luxor.
Egypt came under two major invasions by these marauding tribes, in 1207 BC and 1177 BC. The latter date explains Professor Cline's arresting title and sub-title. While these invasions came in waves across the whole region over a period of several decades, it was the effects of the 1177 BC invasion that Cline considers to be pivotal to the entire global collapse. The Pharaoh at that time, Ramses III, claimed victory and that the enemy were "capsized and overwhelmed in their places." However, it was a Pyrrhic victory. New Kingdom Egypt was never the same again and became a second-rate power, a mere shadow of what it had once been. A modern-day analogy would be the British Empire, once the mightiest in the world but exhausted and bankrupted by fighting the two great World Wars.

With almost uncanny relevance to our modern world, that ancient world suffered a 'perfect storm' of events. The combined effects of these factors brought down its hard-won civilisation and ended what is now rightly considered to have been a golden age of world history. Cline presents detailed and forensic evidence from archaeological surveys and written records to show that climate change was a major factor in the systemic collapse of the Late Bronze Age. Severe long-lasting droughts affected a large part of the region, leading of course to famines, which goes a long way to explain the disruption of trade, internal rebellions and the mass migration of peoples. Add to that a storm of earthquakes that destroyed several of those ancient cities and you can see the 'domino effect' and the 'multiplier effect' in action.

One example of learning from history particularly appealed to me. This concerns General Allenby's military tactics that provided stupendous success in September 1918 when he was commanding the British forces in Palestine near the end of World War I. He won the battle at Megiddo and took prisoner hundreds of German and Turkish soldiers without any loss of life, except for a few of his horses. How did he achieve this master-stroke?

Allenby later admitted that he had read a translation of an account by Pharaoh Thutmose III of his campaign against the fortified city of Megiddo in 1479 BC. This was Thutmose’ first campaign and his purpose was to put down a rebellion against Egyptian rule by the Canaanite rulers of the region. After marching his men for ten days as far north as Yehem, he called a war council to decide the best route to proceed against Megiddo. There were three possible routes. The northern and southern routes were recommended by his generals as they were much wider and less susceptible to ambush. The middle way led straight to Megiddo but was extremely narrow and vulnerable to a devastating ambush. Thutmose reasoned that the Canaanites would not believe him to be so stupid as to take the central route, so he did exactly that. It took twelve hours to lead his men through the narrow pass, and they got through without a scratch. They found nobody guarding Megiddo or the temporary enemy camps surrounding it. All of the Canaanite forces were guarding both the northern and southern routes.

I once visited Megiddo. It just happened to be my 33rd birthday, when I was with a group on a two-week tour of Israel. Perhaps the birthday made it particularly memorable But also I was fully aware that I was in the place popularly known as 'Armageddon', famous for the climactic end-times prophecies found in the Bible book of Revelation. It is a stunning location on a hill overlooking the valley of Jezreel. One can easily see its strategic importance over thousands of years and why it was the site of many battles. Professor Cline is a particular expert on the site, having conducted at least ten seasons of archaeological excavations there. For those who wish to know more about his research and findings in this area I would recommend Cline's book published in 2000, "The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age". Here he details no less than 34 major battles that have been fought here, often between combatants who were foreign to the region. 

Whether another major conflict actually occurs in the location remains to be seen. The fact is that Damascus, the capital of Syria, is only approximately 90 miles to the north of Megiddo. As everyone knows, there has been a vicious civil war raging for several years in Syria which has virtually destroyed the entire country. Russia has directly intervened and other great powers are conducting operations, either directly or by proxy. For the conflict to spread further into Israel itself would signal all-out war, possibly World War Three, but the consequences of that would be too awful to contemplate. 'Armageddon' may yet happen, but it could just as well be symbolic as literal. Bible prophecy is notoriously prone to exaggerated interpretations by those with vested interests.

SEA-PEOPLES' WARSHIP
While mentioning the Bible, it is worth noting here that Cline usefully explains the known history regarding the story of the ‘Exodus’. The question of the Exodus is relevant because the Israelites emerged as one of groups making up the new world order from the chaos of the collapsed Late Bronze Age. Most secular archaeologists favour a date of ca 1250 BC for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as there is no firm evidence of their presence in the land of Canaan before that date. The difficulty is that Bible chronology would give a date of ca 1450 BC, at a time when Thutmose III was Pharaoh and, as we have seen, was in firm control of that region. Surprisingly, the Bible record does not name the Pharaoh who released the Israelites from slavery after the famous ten plagues. It is all a mystery, and Cline deals with the current scholarly thinking on the subject very well.

Cline also thoroughly analyses all the available evidence for the Trojan Wars, another favourite story from the ancient world of the Late Bronze Age. The story was written by Homer, the blind Greek poet of the eighth century BC. It tells of a voyage by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, on a diplomatic mission to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. While there, he fell in love with the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus. When Paris returned to Troy, Helen followed him, either by force - according to the Greeks, or voluntarily - according to the Trojans. Enraged, Menelaus persuaded Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks, to launch an armada of a thousand ships and fifty thousand men to Troy to get Helen back. After ten years of war the Greeks were victorious. Troy was sacked and most of its inhabitants were killed.

Helen returned home to Sparta with Menelaus. We don't know if they lived happily ever after. But did it really happen? Did the city of Troy even exist? It had disappeared without trace for many centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century AD most modern scholars believed that the Trojan War was only a myth, and that Troy had never existed. Then the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove them wrong. To everyone's surprise, he succeeded. The site of ancient Troy that he discovered had nine layers, and the difficulty was determining which one was destroyed by the Greeks. Cline puts the date for that destruction at about 1300 BC to 1250 BC. It appears that the rebuilt city was destroyed again by the Sea Peoples around 1180 BC. All of this puts the events of this period into some context.

To the lay reader it is astonishing how much information can be gleaned from ancient remains using modern scientific instruments and techniques. A good example of this is the autopsy carried out on the body of the aforementioned Ramses III in 2012, as reported in the British Medical Journal. X-ray analysis allowed researchers to see through the thick cloth surrounding the body to identify the injury that killed him. Clear evidence was found that a sharp knife had been thrust into his neck immediately under the larynx, all the way down to the cervical vertebra, cutting his trachea and all of the soft tissue in the area. Death must have been instantaneous. We know from the records that this occurred in 1155 BC, therefore many years after he had defeated the Sea Peoples in the battles of 1177 BC discussed earlier. What makes this story so fascinating, as in a 'whodunit' detective murder mystery, is that the members of the assassination conspiracy can be identified from the records. The plot was hatched by a minor queen in the royal harem who wanted her son to succeed Ramses III. There were as many as forty accused conspirators, both members of the harem and court officials, who were tried in four groups. The minor queen and her son were among those sentenced to death.

It was as recently as the year 1881 when the mummy of Ramses III was found. Next to him was the body of a young man, aged about eighteen to twenty, wrapped in an impure goatskin and not properly mummified. DNA evidence indicates that he was probably Ramses III's son. Forensic evidence, including facial contortions and throat injuries suggest that he was strangled to death.

A footnote to this tragic chain of events is that with the death of Ramses III the true glory of the Egyptian New Kingdom came to an end. There would be eight more Pharaohs during the Twentieth Dynasty before it ended in 1070 BC, but none of them achieved anything noteworthy. Indeed, it would have been remarkable had they been able to do so, given that the global economy and system of trade had collapsed.

In the Afterword section added to the paperback version, Cline admits to being very pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed, at the generally positive reception of this book. In his concluding comments he again draws attention to the similarities and parallels between that ancient world and our present day one. He warns that every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed. The fact that it happened then means that it can certainly happen again. We are more susceptible than we might like to think. At the same time, we can be grateful that we are advanced enough to know what is going on. We can take steps to change things, rather than simply passively accepting events as they occur.

When ancient history is explained and made relevant to our lives in such an entertaining way as Professor Cline has done, there is only one thing left for me to say. History has a great future. – Kevin Murphy

12.6.16

CHURCH, STATE, AND WITCHCRAFT

Alexandra Tātāran. Contemporary Life and Witchcraft: Magic, Divination and Religious Ritual in Europe. ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart. 2016.

Discussion of ‘contemporary witchcraft’ usual means Wicca or similar practices in Britain, Europe and North America, or older beliefs in South American, sub-Saharan Africa and traditional tribal societies. However, this book makes it clear that traditional European witchcraft is surviving in parts of Europe, and the author looks at contemporary witchcraft beliefs and practices in her home country of Romania.

It would be easy to assume that such beliefs must be confined to the remoter and more ‘primitive’ parts of the country, and are rapidly dying out with the spread of education and mass media. But to the contrary, witchcraft belief is not only well established in urban areas, but has been reinforced by social and political pressures in the country over the past fifty years or more.

Tātāran suggests that during the Communist era, especially as the Ceausescu regime’s own version of Juche - internal self sufficiency – was imposed, the increasing scarcities of food and fuel and other consumer goods, along with the forced urbanisation of rural populations, led to a society where hidden links with government officials, with police, with workers on collective farms, or operators in the black market with access to hard currency, became an essential part of day to day survival. The idea that if one person had a piece of good fortune, it could only be at the expense of someone else, and that any setback in life was the result of malign action by others – the basis behind much witchcraft belief – was reinforced in everyday life.

Much of Tātāran’s research was conducted through fieldwork, largely in northern Transylvania where she interviews individuals who claimed to have been either the victim of witchcraft attacks or were influential in combating them on behalf of others. She found four main sets of circumstances which were interpreted as being witchcraft attacks: delay of marriage; unhappy marriage or problematic love relationship; inexplicable illness, ‘mal de vivre’; and what she terms ‘mana’ and ‘fertility transfer’. ‘Mana’ is largely concerned with crop failures or illnesses of animals, and with the increased urbanisation of the region was seldom mentioned during her research. The other three elements were all very much alive.

Again, contrary to the conventional view of the nature of European witchcraft survivals, these concerns were not limited to an uneducated rural class. Many of the people Tātāran spoke to were well-educated, working in responsible jobs, in offices, or as teachers and local officials. Some typical symptoms of witchcraft attacks are described in a number of interviews, which the author describes. Typical is the account of a 63-year-old woman who described how her son-in-law’s mother ensured, through witchcraft, that there was always a row or fight in her house at Christmas and Easter, giving the family a bad reputation with their neighbours. This was apparently so that the woman’s son could act as “master of the house”. The rows only stopped after the death of the suspected culprit. In another account a husband’s first wife was accused of promoting marital disharmony, even though at the time she was living in Italy and was happily re-married herself.

However, witchcraft curses can be removed, and in Romania the agency for this is mainly the Orthodox Church. Post-Communist Romania is a remarkably religious society, surveys indicate that 95% of the population believe in God; nearly three-quarters pray at least once a week, and over half attend mass at least once a month. Although there is still a tradition of lay ‘unwitchers’, this largely died out in the twentieth century; and after the fall of Communism, with no traditional remedies in place, the Church resumed the role it had in earlier centuries. A person believing themselves to be bewitched will often be referred to an Orthodox Priest by someone who themselves have a local reputation and are spoken of as “someone who knows about those things”.

The priest’s ‘unwitching’ process will include traditional religious practices such as the use of holy water, saying mass, and having the supposed victim read lengthy devotional works. The priest will sometimes ask a question on behalf of the victim and then interpret a randomly selected Biblical text to provide an answer to it. This procedure may continue for a month or more before the victim is considered ‘unwitched’.

Tātāran notes that in the other two post-Communist Orthodox societies, Russia and Bulgaria, the Church dissociates itself from this activity, and in those countries ‘unwitching’ is largely done through a range of occult, psychic and magical practitioners who publicly advertise their services – something almost unknown in Romania.

This is a book which upturns some conventional ideas on modern witchcraft, and the first hand accounts give a picture of a society in a state of transition. However, it suffers from an all too common complaint – an excess of academic jargon. The author is Romanian, the book is published in Germany, and no indication is given of a translator, so perhaps the author was writing in what is her second language and was not comfortable using a more vernacular style. Some judicial editing, and the reduction by about 99% in the use of the word ‘discourse’, would make this very interesting book a lot more readable. – John Rimmer.


9.6.16

AMAZONS: ARMED, DANGEROUS ... AND REAL

Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Until very recently in the West, the adjective ‘Amazon’ was something of an insult. If any admiration was involved in its use, it was grudging and more often than not, unconscious in a Freudian kind of way. To a typical educated Victorian, for example, to call a woman an ‘Amazon’ was to imply a rather butch, strapping harpy – possibly a whiz at sports and horse-riding and threateningly autonomous. She would also be possessed of none of the vacuous tittering modesty so prized in women of their own era. Amazons were unnatural, shocking and scarily transgressive. But that, or so went the thinking, was all right because Amazons are simply the stuff of myth and legend.

Today Amazons are thought of as strapping, muscular women who apparently lopped off one breast to facilitate their feats of archery, who captured men only to have their wicked way with them in order to procreate, being generally man-haters – and man-killers – and mostly lesbian. But that, or so the thinking still goes, is all right because Amazons are simply the stuff of myth and legend.

You will no doubt suspect where this is going… and you would be right. Most of the above are simply assumptions and half-truths. Says the American academic Adrienne Mayor in this solid tome, the Amazons were real, more widespread than we could possibly imagine – and while being indeed warriors who regularly bested men in battle, have many more surprises to yield to the researcher.

This is not a book for the mainstream, which is presumably why no television series seems to have been made on this subject, though it cries out for one. This is resolutely an academic work, and perhaps a little daunting therefore for the general reader who might tend to glaze over when faced with endless ancient Greek names. But Mayor writes well, and not without dry humour, and although hardly given to the sensational, the sheer depth and breadth of her research and discoveries carry you along. You won’t devour this in a sitting, just as you wouldn’t eat a whole gooey gateau at once, but each slice of book is appetising enough to keep you coming back for more.

Amazons, it transpires, is a generic term for warrior women of the ancient world, mainly from the central Asian Steppes – very broadly the Scythian people. Every child, male and female, was taught from an early age to ride – without stirrup, and often even without saddle – and to hunt and even fight while doing so. As nomads, this made perfect sense. With the whole community almost continually on the move, everyone had to be mobile and adept at survival skills, often involving dazzling displays of top-flight archery from horseback, and usually at great speed.


In such communities, however, it wasn’t just the harsh practicalities of life that ensured the women could ride and hunt like the men. From the earliest times, it appears, many of these communities practised gender equality to a remarkable degree, enabling women to be acknowledged leaders, even in battle. To outsiders such as the ancient Greeks, this was so astonishing – especially given that their own women were kept in cloistered wimpy weakness – that they could only assume the women had actively conquered the men. True, there are many tales of Amazon women engaging in sword fights with men, in order to gauge which one was best suited as sexual partner, but also underlying their culture was a belief that men and women could enjoy a relationship based on true partnership – in bed and in battle.

Although this subject is one that is littered from the onset with our assumptions, in the face of all this new data, they crumble rapidly. For example, Mayor goes into great detail – characteristically – about the whole question of whether Amazons actually did amputate one breast to facilitate using a bow and arrows on horseback. Not only didn’t they, after all, it would have been a foolish and futile exercise – not to mention painful and unsightly – but Mayor points out that it would, in practice, also have actually hindered their archery skills, citing modern female mounted archers’ experience as extra evidence.

One of the major assumptions that has undermined our understanding of these warrior women comes from archaeology. When, in the era before technology enabled archaeologists to use DNA to determine the sex of human remains, it was customary for remains found buried with battle swords, elaborate and costly armour and impressive equine companions to be automatically labelled as those of wealthy and powerful male leaders. But surprisingly – even shockingly – more recently many such graves have been found to contain the corpses of women: clearly warrior queens of great distinction. That isn’t all. The remains of many female warriors – not just obviously aristocratic, but also more modest-ranking individuals – bear the marks of extreme violence, indicating in many cases full-on, face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes the wounds had healed, suggesting the woman had been involved in earlier battles and survived, living to fight another day.

From Greek and other legends we know that the Amazon women were renown for their beauty, and – however grudgingly or even perhaps salaciously – for their strength and intelligence. The Greeks, certainly, were fascinated by them, at least judging by a relatively huge amount of surviving pottery and sculpture that depicts them. Often, it is true, they are shown being vanquished by a Greek hero.


The male conqueror is usually shown naked, apart from his helmet, in the heroic tradition, while the woman is clothed, though often revealing one naked breast. As a barbarian woman the Amazon was both exotic and erotic, especially as she wore leather trousers and was covered in elaborate tattoos… (One legendary female warrior was called Queen Dynamis – a superhero if ever there was one! Marvel please take note.) Amazon porn, soft or more hardcore, was obviously quite a thing with the Greeks.

Sometimes, however, the pottery depicts the Amazon conquering the man, and occasionally a more ambiguous scenario, which might be taken to allude to the gender equality practised in the so-called ‘lands of women’. In all cases, what is evident is the absolute fascination these very real women exerted on the rather staid and conventional Greek minds. Greek women often used hand mirrors and other cosmetic objects that were decorated with Amazon themes. This might suggest that those poor downtrodden wives and daughters secretly longed for the unimaginable freedoms of the wild, autonomous and exotic Amazons, who demanded that men prove themselves – in all ways possible - before becoming their partners.

What might surprise modern readers is the remarkable lack of reported lesbianism among the Amazons. After all, tough women are often likely to be gay. Sometimes, it must be said, Mayor seems to almost tie herself in knots to deny any hint of Amazon-on-Amazon action, but in the end, to be fair, she is trying to be as evidence-led as possible, and it seems that evidence is mostly not there. There are only one or two lesbian love stories among the warrior women that have come down to us. Even the Greek men who salivated over their Amazon porn seem to have stuck to the hetero version.

Mayor’s sweep is extensive: she reveals that while perhaps not Amazons in the strictest geographical sense, female warriors were a feature of life in ancient India, Persia, Egypt, Libya, Nubia and China – indeed, Disney’s Mulan is based on a real-life Chinese heroine.

Apparently, the presence of Amazons in – mainly ancient – history is immense, though until very recently often dismissed. And Amazon-connected details are routinely overlooked. For example, Mayor suggests strongly that so-called 'nonsense’ inscriptions that accompany images of warriors in Scythian-style attire on a number of Greek vases might actually be attempts to reproduce actual barbarian language. After all, they seem to be the equivalent of speech bubbles lurking about these Amazonian warriors. As Mayor says: ‘A non-speaker trying to render the sounds with Greek letters would produce bizarre-looking letter strings, like those classified as “nonsense” by modern vase experts. Once again, as with burials of warriors automatically assumed to be male, conventional academia proves to be Amazon-blind.

When we’re told baldly that ‘Romans expected barbarian women to behave like free men’, therein lies a world of assumption, insult and grudging admiration – some might say rather like the attitude of even modern patriarchies to educated, autonomous women today. Witness the atrocious attitude to female soldiers in recent decades in the UK.

But Mayor is no strident feminist, cherry-picking the facts to suit her agenda. She is first and foremost an academic researcher, providing many pages of notes and references for those who care to follow up her own work for themselves. Even so, we are left very much with the sense of an immense history – almost a secret history, still – of a different sort of woman-kind.

Sadly, today’s descendants of the original Amazons, although still working with their menfolk as herders, hunters and nomads in the Eastern Asia steppes, seem to reserve their traditional triumphs for magnificent displays of horsewomanship – for the benefit of tourists.

Perhaps one might say that the spirit of the Amazon lives on, not in her original lands, but in today’s law firms, parliaments and universities. Even so, even the most successful woman might pause to remember that the Amazons were not about besting men just to make a point, but about achieving a workable balance and equality. – Lynn Picknett.





7.6.16

HIDDEN AMONG US

S. D. Tucker. The Hidden Folk: Are Poltergeists and Fairies Just the Same Thing? Fortean Words, 2016.

Albert S. Rosales. Humanoid Encounters: The Others Among Us,  2010-2015. Triangulum Publishing, 2016.

If you asked most people they would argue that belief in fairies is a dead superstition and that the stories told of them were purely cultural inventions and not memories of actual experiences. These two books challenge that view, one explicitly, the other implicitly. Magonia readers will be familiar with the connections between fairy lore and UFO stories, an issue raised back in the very early years of MUFOB, and one popularised by Jacques Vallee in Passport to Magonia.

Now SD Tucker has explored the similarities between this folklore and tales of poltergeists, noting the many similarities, in particular the tricks that were often attributed to fairies bare many similarities to those attributed to poltergeists. Both are held responsible for the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of household objects, strange noises, the bombardment of buildings by stones, doing household chores, smashing up the house, leaving mysterious gifts or ominous wounds, the levitation and teleportation of people or cattle, the knotting of horses’ manes, etc. They can both manifest as protean shape changing apparitions, which might be attributed to ghosts, aliens, cryptoid animals and similar manifestations, as time and culture incline.

Tucker explores these common themes through a detailed examination of both traditional folklore and modern reports, weaving an interesting case, in a book enlivened by many fascinating illustrations. There are extensive notes; however an index would have been helpful.

Rosales collection of the more recent 21st century UFO stories reminds us that many of these accounts come right out of the traditional lore, ranging from a 90cm tall dwarf seen in the middle of the road and a lady in green beckoning the witness; to a thing with goats feet and a 60cm tall 'child' in a sort of satin track-suit running at an impossible pace,  as well as beings appearing in balls of light. Indeed what we see in this collection, mainly taken from unedited internet sources, is that the technological gloss is now almost wholly removed from such narratives.

Tucker argues that it is not so much that fairies were poltergeists, but rather both, and indeed a whole range of 'Fortean' phenomena are cultural glosses applied to some indeterminate anomalous phenomena or personal experiences.

As I have argued if you report encountering something dressed in a silver suit, the account goes to UFOlogists, if it’s reported as hairy it goes to a cryptozoologist, if dressed in historical costume it goes to a psychical researcher, it might also go to priest or an exorcist. A white luminosity might be interpreted as an alien, a ghost, a fairy, a boggart or an encounter with the Virgin Mary, or marsh gas or ball lighting. Very probably it is not any of these. -- Peter Rogerson



MAGONIA RECOMMENDS