10 July 2024

CHANCE'D BE A FINE THING

Nigel Pennick. Fortuna; the Sacred and Profane Faces of Luck. Destiny Books, 2024.

'Chance' is a difficult thing to understand, 'randomness' even more so. There is the old trick question: if someone tosses a coin nine times and each time it comes up heads, what should you bet on for the tenth toss? Well any mathematician will tell you that it makes no difference what you choose as each individual toss is a 50/50 heads or tails bet.*

That's what the mathematician will tell you, but the mathematician is wrong in this case. What you are actually betting on in that situation is the likelihood of tossing a succession of ten heads. The mathematician will tell you this is 1 in 1024, so the gambler will tell you to bet on tails.

Randomness is a difficult concept to understand, and is quite subversive. Pennick notes that “the concepts of randomness and mathematical probability are absent in ancient writing that ascribe all events to the agency of divine beings”. Any attempt to foresee the future, whether predicting the fall of a dice, or the future course of history can be interpreted as undermining the will of God.

But sometimes prediction is the work of the gods. In ancient Rome that was through the offices of the goddess Fortuna, who could be consulted at a number of shrines around the Roman world, and could be propitiated to ensure that she would shine upon you. The problem with oracles and shrines is that Fortuna could be – in fact usually was – rather ambiguous in her messaging, giving predictions that could be interpreted in any number of ways. A skill still homed by today's newspaper astrologers and political commentators.

Another way that the goddess Fortuna – or 'Lady Luck' as we are more likely to call her today – can reveal our fortune to us is by the interpretation of randomly created images and numbers. This is most usually done by the throwing of dice or the spinning of a 'teetotum', a sort of spinning top with numbers or symbols on the rim.

Different ages and cultures have come up with a huge number of methods of creating theoretically random numbers or shapes. Pennick describes a method of divination from his native East Anglia which involves counting the 'eyes' in potatoes to derive random patterns which have a divinatory meaning. Other random sequences can be created by tossing stones, bones or sticks and discerning meaning in the resultant patterns. he meaning of the pattern can then be divined either by reference to oral tradition or an 'oracle book'.




As usual when it comes to activities disapproved of by the Church or civil authorities, our earliest record of such books comes from a decree banning them, The sortes apostolorum, the key to a dice-divination system fell foul of the Church Council of Vannes as early as the year 465. Nevertheless divinatory books remained popular until well into the eighteenth century. Similar books for the US 'numbers game, otherwise known as 'Policy' were being produced into the twentieth century.

Not only is 'randomness' a difficult concept to understand, it is a condition that is almost impossible to achieve. None of the methods we can use, from dice or coin-tossing, to immensely complicated random-number generators can be said to be completely random. Some computer programmes have to have non-random inputs to allow for the apparently non-random artefacts that a genuinely random sequence would contain.

Pennick looks at the subterfuges and devices that have been used by gamblers to ensure non-random results from turning of cards or throwing dice. He describes the ways that the throw of a die can be manipulated to encourage them to land showing a particular face, and the way the dice themselves can be loaded. A 'true' dice will have the little cut-out dots filled with a material of the same specific gravity as the rest of the cube, but these can be removed and replaced, and there are dozens of other ways that dice can be cut, shaved or otherwise treated to produce non-random results. Although these tricks might only give a very slight advantage to one result, over the hundreds of games that could be played with them they will have a cumulative effect.

'Loaded' dice have been discovered in archaeological sites from various cultures and although the obvious assumption is that they were used by gamblers, Pennick suggests that some may have been used by oracles at shrines to deliberately skew the reading the oracle gave to their client.

Because of the mysterious nature of randomness, which seems to suggest that there is some hidden mechanism behind it, gambling is surrounded by superstitions and rituals. 'Luck' is often seen as a personal possession and must be protected and propitiated, and might sometimes even be stolen. The goddess Fortuna was worshipped and propitiated in shrines and temples in the Classical era, but is still appealed to every time a punter taps on wood before placing a bet on the 3.30 at Catterick.

The book is well illustrated, with many items from the author's own collection, and fully referenced, quoting material from historic and contemporary sources. It is an intriguing glimpse into a subject we may take for granted but which introduces an unsettling element into daily life. We may not believe in the goddess Fortuna, but we have all at some time, invoked her favour.
  • John Rimmer


* Unless, as rumour had it, you were using a Belgian 2-euro coin with the head of King Albert II, but that's another story altogether.



6 July 2024

A HOLE IN THE THEORY?

Brian J. Allan. The Hole in the Sky, Flying Disk Press, 2024.

This presents a heady brew of UFOs, the Philadelphia and Rendlesham incidents, Rosslyn chapel, dowsing, leys, magic, fairies, angels, mediumship, shamanism, drug-induced trances, coincidences, the Bermuda Triangle, Skinwalker Ranch, poltergeists, Biblical codes. It’s the whole paranormal nine yards plus, that could easily fill any hole in the sky.
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24 June 2024

LOOSING TRACK OF TIME

Tim R.
 Swartz and Sean Casteel (editors.). Weird Time, Zontar Press, 2024.

UFO and time-slip accounts have many similarities. Witnesses often enter a mist and/or feel that their environment has become silent and still. They feel disorientated and are puzzled by what they experience - the 'Oz Factor'. Such events seem to occur in localised ‘hot spots’ such as Liverpool's Bold Street, and certain people often have repeat experiences. 

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18 June 2024

HOOKED BY THE QUEEN

The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson) 1949. ViaVision Imprint. Blu Ray

The Queen of Spades has been described as a horror fantasy, supernatural drama and ghost story. It has elements of all three. My preference, and elaboration, would be an early 19th century ghost story grounded in a much stylised Russian realism. 
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7 June 2024

BLOOD, SOIL AND MORRIS DANCING

Matthew Cheeseman and Carina Hart (Editors). Folklore and Nation in Britain and Ireland. Routledge, 2023.

The manner in which the collecting, study and publishing of folklore has influenced the understanding of national origins and identities has become a matter of concern to many in the field, who fear that the subject has been exploited for nationalist and political ends. 
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26 May 2024

VERY HIGH STRANGENESS

Rev. Alyson Dunlop Shanes. Mystic Visions: Spontaneous Supernatural Visions, Flying Disk Press, 2024.

There is no denying that Rev. Shanes has had a very active life filled with experiences and encounters with angels, demons, aliens and the paranormal. She grew up in a family that had supernatural experiences; at age four she started doing yoga exercises and at fourteen she communicated with a guardian spirit she called Norman using a Ouija board. At about the same time she was given a copy of The Exorcist by her grandfather who probably did not realise it was not age appropriate.
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18 May 2024

LINING UP IN RENNES

Simon M. Miles, The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes, Ignotum Press, 2022.

This is really a book for aficionados of the Rennes-le-ChΓ’teau mystery and the multitude of others that spin out of it. Fortunately I am one, but I’ll try to rein myself in. That’s despite my excitement, as The Map and the Manuscript is a genuine gamechanger. 
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11 May 2024

WONDERS IN WINNIPEG

Serena Keshavjee (Editor). The Art of Ectoplasm; Encounters with Winnipeg's Ghost Photographs. University of Manitoba Press, 2023.

Of all the phenomena of Spiritualism and mediumship, ectoplasm seems to me to be the most implausible, even ridiculous. The photographs recording the phenomenon are surely faked, and any supposed physical evidence is never really evidence of anything. And what has it got to do with the University of Manitoba?
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23 April 2024

THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

Lochlainn Seabrook, Mysterious Invaders: Twelve Famous 20th-Century Scientists Confront the UFO Phenomenon, Sea Raven Press, 2024.

On 29 July 1968, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics, held a symposium on UFOs. It was instigated by Congressman and NICAP member J. Edward Roush, and he introduced the session by saying this was to be an assessment of the UFO problem by six experts, to enable better judgements about future avenues of research.
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18 April 2024

PASSING ON

Judith Flanders, Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain, Picador, 2024.


‘Don’t be so morbid!’ is usually the reaction to any spontaneous discussion of death and dying in the 21st century. For example, bringing up the subject of funerals arrangements while in good health is thought of as the province of those guilt-inducing TV advertisements for funeral plans, themselves usually shown on channels dedicated to old stuff for wrinklies. 
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