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Secrets of the Pow-wow

12 Feb

Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the tradition is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. Although the name was taken from the Algonquian term for shamans, Pow-wow relates directly to the European culture from which the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came. While immigrants from the Netherlands did make their homes in Philadelphia, the term Pennsylvania Dutch actually refers to immigrants from the Rhine region in Germany (the name being a corruption of the word ‘Deutsch’). These peoples fled religious persecution at home and settled in and around Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th century. The moniker has expanded in modern times to include a broader variety of immigrants from the Germanic region in Europe, especially those who cling tightly to their traditional religious perspectives, as it is a magical tradition that combines Catholic prayers with intonations or inscriptions of mystical words, folk rituals, and recipes to create cures for various ailments and illnesses. While modern Pennsylvania Dutch most often profess little to no belief or practice of the culture’s ancient magic, the traditions have not been entirely lost, and it is still possible to find devotees of the old ways in the city to this day.

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The Secret History of Sherlock Holmes

18 Oct

While Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, is known for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise and his use of forensic science to solve difficult cases, rather less is known about his early life and family. This is in part due to the nature of Doyle’s stories, which purposely focus on the investigation rather than the detective and eschew details about Holmes himself, often using the framing device of his colleague Doctor Watson’s narration. Although this is highly effective as a narrative device, it raises as many questions as it answers when it comes to Sherlock the man, as opposed to Holmes the master investigator. Where was he born and educated, did he have any family apart from his brother Mycroft, what happened to him after he finally retired from detective work? etc. Whilst Doyle’s stories allude only distantly to these issues, the many fans of Sherlock Holmes have, somewhat appropriately, through careful detective work of their own, managed to come up with a number of theories, explanations and answers in what is usually described as ‘The Great Game’: a concerted attempt to resolve anomalies and clarify details about Holmes and Watson from the Conan Doyle canon. You may be surprised to hear that, as a result of this exercise, evidence has been found in Doyle’s own work that, among other things, Holmes and Mycroft have another elder brother and even a younger sister!

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Morag, the Monster of Loch Morar

19 Sep

It is notable how many of Scotland’s lochs have monster traditions and sightings: Loch Ness, Loch Lhinne, Loch Lochy, and Loch Arkaig to name just a few. Morar is a freshwater lake in the highlands of Scotland, in relation to which – in common with the neighbouring Loch Ness – occasional reports of a large unidentified creature (dubbed Morag, the monster of Loch Morar) in its waters have been made. The loch, although not as large a mass of water as Loch Ness, is a thousand feet deep in places, and is much more remote and inaccessible to eyewitnesses. Its resident monster, who in general appearance resembles the classic pictures of Nessie as a prehistoric plesiosaur, has allegedly been spotted just as often as Scotland’s most famous loch-based monster. While, up until a couple of years ago, Morag had been quiet for more than two decades without even the hint of a recorded sighting, there are now signs that Scotland’s second most famous Loch monster is making something of a comeback.

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The Stone of Destiny

16 Nov

This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.

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The Green Ray

6 Apr

The ‘green flash’ or the ‘green ray’ is a term applied to rare optical phenomena that sometimes occur either right after sunset or right before sunrise. The latter term was made famous in the 19th century by the publication of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi/romance novel of the same name. Basically, when the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. Sometimes (rarely) the green flash can resemble a green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point. This spooky optical phenomenon has played on people’s imaginations over the centuries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the visionary Verne appropriated it for his famous tale. In Le Rayon Vert (to give the book its original French title) Verne’s heroes are trying to observe the green ray in Scotland. After numerous attempts prove unsuccessful due to clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails hiding the sun, the phenomenon eventually becomes visible but the hero and heroine, finding love in each other’s eyes, end up not paying any attention to the horizon. Whilst the plot sounds fairly risible, the idea of the green ray itself has proved to be an intriguing one to this day, even inspiring a recent film which has in many ways become as famous as Verne’s novel.

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The Frozen Head Legend

1 Dec

Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.

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Riddle of the Singing Sands

22 Sep

Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.

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Megalodon, Terror of the Deep

24 Aug

Megalodon, an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 1.5 million years ago, is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. If you have a thing about sharks, then I’d suggest that you don’t read any further – Megalodon really is the stuff of nightmares. This prehistoric marine predator may have grown to a length of up to 100 feet and, with teeth the size of Olympic javelins, it possessed by far the most powerful bite of any creature that ever lived. Today, it is generally accepted that Megalodon’s descendant, the Great White Shark, is nature’s ultimate hunter. To put things into perspective, then, imagine a creature capable of swallowing a Great White whole in a single bite! With such fearsome natural weaponry at its disposal, it is hardly surprising to hear that, back in the Cenozoic Era Megalodon wasn’t too picky about its diet and in fact ate pretty much whatever it wanted. If imagining a shark the size of a battleship makes you shudder, then you might find the thought that Megalodon is now extinct fairly reassuring. Until, that is, you hear about the persistent, bloodcurdling reports that this super-shark still exists and continues to hunt at the depths of the oceans of the 21st century. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

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Immortal Beloved

14 Jul

Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, a household name even for non-musicians. He was a virtuoso pianist and composed 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. What he is lesser known for, perhaps, is the Unsterbliche Geliebte (German for ‘Immortal Beloved’) – the mysterious addressee of a love letter which he wrote on 6–7 July 1812 in Teplitz. The apparently unsent letter, written in pencil and consisting of three parts, was found in the composer’s estate after his death. At the time even an exact dating of the letter and identification of the addressee was speculative, since Beethoven did not specify a year or a location. It was only in the 1950s that an analysis of the paper’s watermark yielded the year, and by extension the place. To this day, however, scholars have been divided on the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. This intriguing musical mystery inspired a Hollywood adaptation, 1994’s Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, which focuses on the efforts of the great composer’s biographer Anton Schindler to ascertain the identity of the intended recipient of the famous letter. While the film, and the many theories put forward in the years both before and since, have identified some likely candidates, a definitive solution to this particular mystery remains somewhat elusive.

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The Strange Life of John Ruskin

2 Jun

John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and prominent social thinker – was also, by all accounts, a very odd man. Probably the most infamous aspect of his personal life was the strange annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray and the subsequent rumours that this gave rise to concerning his sexuality.  He has variously been described as a prude, asexual, homosexual and even, like his contemporary and fellow Oxford man Lewis Carroll, showing an unhealthy interest in children. None of these allegations, it must be stressed, has ever been made out, which is hardly surprising given that Ruskin was an intensely private man. For this reason it is also very difficult to determine whether there is any truth in the suggestions that Ruskin received messages from a supposed former lover, Rose La Touche, even after her death and that he once encountered the Devil himself at Brantwood. With the forthcoming release of the feature film Effie, based on Ruskin’s bizarre ‘marriage’, now seems as good a time as any to examine the strange life of John Ruskin.

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