Archive | February, 2012

City of the Dead

29 Feb

The evocative word necropolis is of Greek origin and literally means ‘city of the dead’, of which arguably the most famous is Scotland’s Glasgow Necropolis – a Victorian graveyard situated on a low but very prominent hill to the east of St. Mungo’s Cathedral. Fifty thousand souls have been buried there and not only is it a Scottish national landmark, it may also be the largest Masonic site in Europe. The graveyard was established by the Merchants’ House of Glasgow, an organization of powerful businessmen looking after the town’s interests. According to the theory, most of these men were Masons, and they chocked the site full of symbols, one of which (and perhaps the one that shows up the most frequently) is the Royal Arch, the emblem of the fourth degree of Freemasonry. It was the Necropolis that once prompted one of Glasgow’s favourite sons, the comedian Billy Connolly, to say ‘Glasgow’s a bit like Nashville, Tennessee: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead’.

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The Real Sleepy Hollow

25 Feb

Born in New York in 1783, Washington Irving was the son of a wealthy British merchant who had sided with the rebels in the Revolutionary War. It was following a visit to his fatherland, during which he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, that Irving (encouraged by Scott) wrote The Sketch Book, essays and tales under the pseudonym ‘Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.’, first published in 1820. This book, which is among the earliest examples of American fiction still read today, made Irving a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. It contained  sketches of English life, essays on American subjects and American adaptations of German folk tales, including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Before and after its publication, however, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which follows a tradition of folk tales and poems involving a supernatural wild chase, (including Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter and the legend of The Wild Hunt) acquired something of a life of its own.

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The Missing Link

21 Feb

Stories about Bigfoot have been in circulation for centuries. The Salish First Nations tribe of British Columbia called the creature ‘Sasquatch’, meaning ‘wild man of the woods’. In northern California the Huppa tribe called them ‘Oh-mah-ah’, while in the Cascades they are known as ‘Seeahtiks’. The notion of colonies of monsters living quietly in the modern USA and Canada admittedly sounds absurd; but this is partly because few people grasp the sheer size of the North American coniferous forests – thousands of square miles of totally uninhabited woodland, some still unexplored, where it would be possible to hide a herd of dinosaurs. Who knows what big surprise might be waiting if you go down to the woods one day?

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The Michelangelo Code

17 Feb

I suspect that most of you, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, will have heard of the Da Vinci Code. Less well known but just as interesting is the theory that Da Vinci’s fellow genius Michelangelo threaded a similar ‘code’ through his artistic works. This code presupposes that Michelangelo’s most famous creation, the Sistine Chapel, is actually the site of the greatest subversive act in art history. This theory hinges on the placement of the prophet Zechariah, who is seemingly in an unimportant position, from the entrance that tourists use to enter the chapel. However, if you enter the place as the Pope does, the first image you would see is Zechariah, and this has caused conspiracy theorists and art critics all over the world to rethink the chapel’s decoration from that vantage point. What was the message Michelangelo might have been trying to send to his employer, the second della Rovere pope, Julius II? What made Zechariah so important?

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The Strange Case of Ambrose Bierce

13 Feb

The American writer Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) was a highly accomplished man who was famous for many things. He was a skilled short story writer who could turn his talent to virtually any genre, although his ghostly tales are the ones which have won him the most acclaim. As a literary critic he was feared and respected in equal measure, since his commentaries (though always fair) could be uncompromisingly blunt. Bierce pioneered a distinctive, much-imitated style of writing, which often embraced an abrupt beginning, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, the theme of war and impossible events. Yet for all of these laudable achievements, to this day what Bierce is best known for is the fact that in 1913, while on a visit to Mexico to gain a first-hand perspective on that country’s ongoing revolution, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace. No satisfactory explanation has ever been put forward for this mysterious event, which was strangely prefigured in Bierce’s short stories, and the writer’s body has never been found.

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Black Dogs and Demonic Hounds

9 Feb

Tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds are prevalent throughout the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles, from tales of Black Shuck in East Anglia to stories of Barghest in North Yorkshire. These terrifying beasts have even made their way into English Literature in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil, and its appearance is usually regarded as a portent of death. It is often associated with electrical storms and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways. The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern, as it has numerous precedents in a wide range of European myths. For example, there is the shape-shifting pooka of Celtic folklore, which was said to have a predilection for taking on the guise of a spectral hound when it appeared in animal form. It is notable that throughout European mythology black dogs seem to have an almost universal association with death: the Welsh Cŵn Annwn were the hounds of the underworld; the Norse Garmr was the blood-stained watchdog that guarded the gates of Hell; and the Greek Cerberus was the three-headed hound that  prevented those who crossed the river Styx from ever escaping. It is possible that the black dog, which similarly tended to have ominous connotations in British folklore, is a survival of these beliefs although it should be noted that there are some mythical hounds in Britain that are said to behave rather more benevolently, such as the Gurt Dog in Somerset.

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Unstoppable: Juggernaut

5 Feb

I thought I’d turn away from the classics to more modern fare in this post, specifically the advance copy of Adam Baker’s Juggernaut that I recently managed to get my hands on. You may have already come across Baker’s debut novel Outpost, which told a tale of humans struggling to survive as the world collapsed around them as the result of a plague that turned most people into zombie-like creatures. That book was set in the present day in a cold climate, whilst in this novel Baker goes a bit further south, to the remote deserts of north Iraq, and back a few years, to 2005. In many ways Juggernaut is a ‘prequel’ of sorts to Outpost. It starts out as a thriller/war story, with a bunch of mercenaries on the hunt for gold in the desert. But, in a similar vein to Aliens, Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later, these ‘professionals’ soon come upon a situation out of their very worst nightmares. They discover that they aren’t the only occupants of the desert valley and that the ancient citadel that they are looking for houses not only Saddam’s fabled treasure but also an army of enemies that quite literally won’t stay dead…

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The Superstitions of the Vikings

1 Feb

The Vikings came out of the frozen lands of northern Europe – Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden – seeking wealth and conflict. Theirs was a society of rugged and enduring men and women, who revered bloody-handed gods and valued courage and action above all other virtues. For two hundred years, they traded and pillaged across the coasts of England, France and other European countries, demanding tribute, sacking towns and monasteries but also engaging in settlement and commerce. Like giants they strode across history, their axe-wielding beserkers and canny explorers performing feats of bravery and prowess. The golden age of the Viking was between 850 and 1050 AD, when men of iron, free men, strong and proud, would take to the sea when the ice had left the fjords. Those who faltered went down to Hel’s hall, so said the Norse myths, but those who found success were destined to take a place in Valhalla to fight beside the gods at Ragnarok – the final battle at the end of the world. Whilst the days of terrible gods and seafaring warriors are now gone, a few still remember the old ways and the superstitions of the Vikings remain alive among their Scandinavian descendants. As it says in the Havamal, or Book of Viking Wisdom, ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die, but fame is everlasting’.

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