14 December 2019

LEONARDO DECODED

François Quiviger, Leonardo da Vinci: Self, Art and Nature, Reaktion Books, 2019.

The 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death has naturally unleashed a tsunami of books about the Renaissance genius, few of which add anything new to what’s been written before. This one, though, stands out by offering a novel approach to an understanding of Leonardo’s character, the thirst for knowledge that drove him, and the way he navigated the rigid and often precarious society into which he was born - and how his art related to all this. 


In the author’s own words, his aim is to examine ‘the processes through which Leonardo used his own understanding of art, nature and society to shape his pictorial work as well as his own persona, which, seen from the distance granted by history, is as remarkable as his artistic legacy.’

As the title suggests, the book examines the interplay between Leonardo’s sense of self, his ‘immersive relationship with nature’ and his paintings. As Quiviger writes, ‘it could be said that he had two masters, Nature and Art, and it was through these that he produced images that changed the course of art history and gave new shape to the Western imagination.’

It’s a work that comes from a solidly academic perspective – François Quiviger is a Fellow of the Warburg Institute (as well as the editor of Reaktion’s Renaissance Lives series of which this volume is a part) – so unsurprisingly there’s nothing in here about codes or Da Vinci’s esoteric interests and heretical beliefs. (He does note, though, that despite Leonardo’s main output being religious images – all commissions, of course - his surviving writings ‘cast him as distinctly anti-clerical’ and make little reference to religion, displaying ‘more annoyance with monks and priests than interest in religious matters.’)

Although biographical in plan, taking us through the various phases of Leonardo’s life and discussing his output in the order in which it was produced, the book’s second chapter breaks with the chronological narrative – just after he’s established his reputation in Florence - to explore the writings on the theory and practice of painting that Leonardo composed later for his apprentices, so that Quiviger can apply these principles to his works as the story unfolds.



The author extracts from these writings an important insight for understanding Leonardo and his work: his emphasis on the reflective relationship between the artist and the work, in which – in a way reminiscent of alchemy - perfection in painting can only be achieved through the painter perfecting (or at least striving towards perfecting) himself, an effort carried out through the act of painting itself. According to Da Vinci, imperfections in the painter’s character will lead to an incorrect perception of the subject and therefore distort the finished picture. Quiviger writes that ‘this stage of self-shaping features in Leonardo’s thought as an intermediate stage between using a mirror as a guide and becoming oneself a mirror in order to reflect the world, without the deforming lenses of human quirks and defects.’ One could almost say that, to Leonardo’s mind, the painting creates the artist as much as vice versa.

It goes further, as the ultimate aim is that the artist takes himself out of the picture entirely (pun intended), Leonardo having developed ‘a style intended to obliterate the artist’s individualistic self’, with ‘painting as a means of erasing his personal self to become a mirror of nature.’ (Quiviger notes the irony that, despite this intention, Leonardo’s paintings have become the most expensive in the world precisely because they are identified with him.)

There’s plenty here to muse upon, as Leonardo is using almost spiritual language to describe the act of creating a work of art.

As well as Leonardo’s ‘individualistic self’ there was also his ‘civic self’ – the outer persona that he displayed to the world. Quiviger emphasises Leonardo’s rise through the usually rigid strata of fifteenth-century Italian society and the familiarity it gave him with all levels of that society. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and lawyer father from the Florentine bourgeoisie, whose childhood was spent among farm workers, Leonardo became part of the artisan class, which gave him entry into ‘European high society as part of the entourages of kings and rulers’: ‘It can be said of Leonardo that he began as a peasant, grew up as an artist, matured as a perfect courtier and left behind him the image of a Renaissance man.’

This is all the more remarkable given – as also emphasised by Quiviger - how at odds Leonardo was with the norms of that society, through his vegetarianism, dismissal of religion (at least of the conventional sort), disinterest in politics, and his almost-certain homosexuality. (Quiviger is more neutral than most biographers on the last, noting that ‘Leonardo left hardly any trace of his erotic inclinations and energies’ and concluding that sex and sexuality of any kind played a minor part in Leonardo’s life and work.)

A significant aspect of this social mobility for Leonardo’s civic self was learning to adapt his personality and image to the various circles in which he mixed: ‘The correspondence Leonardo left merely suggests he adopted what he deemed the most suitable stance with which to address a given interlocutor – an ability enabled by his deep and panoramic knowledge of human beings.’ Quiviger likens this ‘fashioning himself to the ideals of the time’ to his innovatory sfumato technique, which blurred the outlines of the subject of a portrait to blend them in naturally with their background.

Quiviger compares this shapeshifting ability to the ‘malleability of self’ displayed by modern icons such as David Bowie, Madonna – and even Lady GaGa (surely one of the strangest comparisons ever made to Leonardo). He also makes much of the fact that ‘Leonardo’s understanding of the world is indeed compatible with much twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought.’ Thinking about this, it’s probably why people today get him so much more than they do other artists of the past.

Quiviger makes the crucial point – so often overlooked - that Leonardo, despite the reputation given to him by history, ‘was not primarily a painter,’ which will be a surprising statement to many. Painting may have been his ‘core discipline’ but ‘not as an end in itself but rather as a means to investigate the energies, variety and abundance of nature. So many aspects of representation led him to inquire into real things – and to set painting aside for the purpose of research…’ It was the way in which he ‘accessed and questioned the world.’

The author sums it up: ‘As the first painter-aristocrat, Leonardo thought of painting and drawing as a means to acquire, represent, examine and transmit knowledge, rather than as ends in themselves or as a means to generate income.’

As the term ‘painter-aristocrat’ suggests, the author gives a much more upbeat verdict on Leonardo’s life and achievements than many modern commentators who, judging him by today’s notions of success, regard him as something of a failure both in his personal and professional life, and imagine that he must, as a consequence, have ended his days in bitterness and regret. As Quiviger points out, as well as the achievement of that rise from rustic Vinci to friend of kings, Leonardo enjoyed a comfortable life and lived out his final years in his own castle – he described it as a ‘palace’ – bestowed on him by the King of France.

He also managed to live life on his own terms – no mean achievement in those times. As much as he shaped himself to the environments in which he moved, Leonardo was able to shape those environments to himself: ‘Alongside this multifaceted public embodiment of the human ideal of his time Leonardo lived an unusually independent life during which he successfully protected his privacy and thinking space from external disruptions.’

And as for his professional life, Quiviger concludes: ‘From the fifteenth century onwards, European artists were aspiring to be recognized as intellectuals, on an equal footing with writers, mathematicians, philosophers and astrologers. Leonardo was the first to truly make it, and probably the first artist to have become an international celebrity, eagerly sought after for his company and his work by kings and rulers, living like a philosopher-prince with his assistants, his servants and his horses.’

Not bad for an illegitimate country boy.

Self, Art and Nature is a fairly short book – 185 pages of main text – but covers the subject in greater depth than many weightier tomes. It’s admirably written, clear and concise and assuming little background knowledge of Leonardo, his times or the practice of art – Quiviger’s explanations of Leonardo’s painting techniques and style are particularly clear, especially for a non-artist like myself, and his analysis of the paintings mercifully free of the pomposity of much art history. The book is also attractively produced on high quality paper and lavishly illustrated in colour.

It serves as an ideal introduction to the great man as well as providing deeper insights into his personality and motivations than many biographies. – Clive Prince.


9 December 2019

LOST TREASURE, LOST PLOT

Daniel J Duke. Jesse James and the Lost Templar Treasure. Destiny Books, 2019.

The notorious outlaw Jesse Woodson James started his life of crime in a guerrilla band known by the name of Quantrill’s Raiders. They were affiliated to the Confederacy by virtue of a piece of legislation known as the Partisan Rangers Act. This enabled groups of people to commit various acts of violence akin to that of regular troops in the name of the Confederate States. This was where Jesse and his brother Frank started their life of violence that escalated later into bank robbery and train-robbing.

The Knights Templar were the first of the mediæval military orders. They ostensibly lived a monastic lifestyle whilst training for battle. The nature of their coming into existence, their allegedly lukewarm attitude to Christ and their bloody dissolution by the French king, Phillipe IV, seems to have made them into poster children for believers in the occult and assorted New-Agers. Their memory is amenable to having almost any outré theory pasted over their image, thereby muddying the waters for serious research into them and their practices.

The Knights of the Golden Circle was a society dedicated to the creation of a “golden circle” of states and nations where slavery was a major economic and social component. The intended states not only included some on North American soil but also Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and San Salvador. Some historians maintain that, after the end of the American Civil War, the KGC went underground and turned into a secret society.

Daniel J Duke, the author, spent his life surrounded by tales of Jesse James and treasures associated with him. To quote the author: “My hobbies include hiking, writing, genealogy, history, beekeeping, treasure hunting, researching symbols and codes, healthy cooking and good coffee.”

The book under review purports to ascertain that Jesse James faked his own death and lived out his remaining years in Texas, where he died. Jesse James is also reckoned to be the ancestor of the author, because this is what family lore has maintained. James, according to the author, was a man named James Lafayette Courtney, who also happened to be a Freemason. Associating the reformed James/Courtney with the Knights of the Golden Circle, Duke goes on to speculate that the KCG, with the aid of the likes of James/Courtney, obtained and concealed sizeable stashes of gold in order to finance their grandiose, empire-building schemes.

However, despite this, Duke maintains that James’/Courtney’s knowledge of the places where treasure was hidden was not of the KCG but those communicated to him via the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, who in turn received their knowledge from the Knights Templar. The treasures included not just gold but knowledge; Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ works, wisdom from the past and such, tucked away by the good offices of that polymath, Roger Bacon. The Kaballistic Tree of Life, church windows and the like lead to something known as The Veil, which may be placed over maps, including those of the USA, in order to find treasure concealed by the Freemasons. The author produces examples of this and explains how that notorious painting Et In Arcadia Ego by Poussin ties in with the aforementioned arcana.




Where, then, to start? The vociferous and desperate claim to kinship with a slavery-supporting outlaw, who doesn’t seem like the kind of person most people would want to give house room to? The dropping of said outlaw after a few pages as we venture into Dan Brown/Holy Blood Holy Grail territory? The sinking sound my soul made as this volume descended into sub-Henry Lincoln speculations concerning landmarks, maps and geometry?

The link between HBHG and this tome is deliberate. As a (much) younger person with a meagre historical education I took much of Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh’s fantastic tale at face value. The experience from that has, mostly, made me more sceptical when it comes to grandiose claims such as those made here. Duke invokes HBHG too, which is a large red light, considering how the book has not stood the test of time. Here we have the crunch. Many claims are made yet evidence is thin on (or, indeed, under) the ground. The Kabbalah is invoked yet is misused. I could go on. Mercifully for all concerned, I will not.

The best part of this book? The title. It may inspire some form of dramatic endeavour that will be considerably more entertaining than attempting to read it. Considering the exotic nature of combining the activities of a violent crook with Freemasons, Rosicrucians and other such societies, this is a surprisingly tough book to read. It also brings attention to the rather distasteful acts that may have been involved had there been proof, such as James hoarding gold for an organisation attempting to set up a chain of slave states. However it does have an index, such as it is, and a bibliography. Oh, and where’s any of the treasure? -- Trevor Pyne

4 December 2019

THE POETRY OF WITCHCRAFT

Nigel Pennick. Operative Witchcraft, Spellwork and Herbcraft in the British Isles. Destiny Books. 2019.

I’m not an expert on the sociology of witchcraft or folklore: still less a scholar qualified to examine how comprehensively this short book has traced the history of operative (hands-on) witchcraft in Great Britain from the late sixteenth century to the early twenty first century. I don’t practise witchcraft. Nor do I know anyone who does. However this work is probably not a technical manual for current practices but a history of when, how, why and where witchcraft appeared, disappeared and returned to be re-energised in our culture.

My credentials are literary critic, film critic and poet. I could possibly be given the loose title of cultural critic who was willing to read and review Operative Witchcraft by Nigel Pennick. I’m pleased I took it on for I found it a fascinating read. Being a poet one of the first things that attracted me to this book was the beguiling poetic language of the many spells and herbs used for good or ill in the community.

In the chapter titled “The Gamut of Witchcraft” I learnt of the 1609 masque by Ben Jonson called The Masque of Queens. This features a convention of witches whose behaviour was drawn from Jonson’s research into antique and contemporary witchcraft and demonology. Twelve witches or hags declare their preparations and then ceremoniously dance. Here is Hag no 2.

I have been gathering wolves’ hairs,
The mad dog’s foam and the adder’s ears:
The spurging of a dead-man’s eyes,
And all since evening star did rise.

After hearing all the hags, The Dame (or chief) says.

Yes, I have brought, to help our vows,
Horned poppy, cypress boughs,
The fig-tree that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the larch-tree comes,
The basilisk’s blood, and the viper’s skin:
And now our orgies let us begin.

Yet the potential malevolence of the witches is quashed, in the part of the masque, where good, in the form of twelve Masquers, the principal being Heroic Virtue, materialise causing the evil ones to disappear (Whilst writing this review I discovered an interesting video of The Masque of Queens staged two years ago in Oxford. It can be found on Youtube or the Kings College London, Shakespeare 400 Kings Blog website)

The texts of the spells, written down in witches’ handbooks, are not merely technical instructions but verse in their own right. Like this one written by the poet Robert Herrick and published in 1648)

If so a Toad be laid
In a sheep-skin newly flaid,
And that ty’d to a man ’twil sever
Him and is affections forever.

One of the strange pleasures of Operative Witchcraft are its illustrations of the Devil and photographs of witch iconography and paraphernalia - magical places, sundials, a mummified toad, peacock patterning to ward off the evil eye on pargettting at Dunmow, Essex, a toad bone in a locket, a witch ball and a mummified cat found in a barn at Newport, Essex, used as an apotropaic charm against fire.

I especially enjoyed the chapter about weird plants associated with witchcraft. Deadly Nightshade, Aconite / Monkshood, Angel’s Trumpet, White Byrony, Black Byrony, Hemlock and Mandrake are accompanied by lovely drawings. Greater Periwinkle caught my attention as it was used to ward off all kinds of sickness such as bleeding and cramps, whilst also being an aphrodisiac. However once belief in superstition and magic declined in the twentieth century and modern medicine developed then there were consequences.

“Ritual taking of herbs with cutting divining rods, which are now ignored by dowsers, official medicine dispensed with the rituals when the chemical-pharmaceutical worldview overtook the old magical one.”

It is always salutary to be reminded of the law in relation to witchcraft. That the 1735 Witchcraft Act remained on the United Kingdom statutes until 1951, when the Fraudulent Mediums Act repealed it. And the last recorded accusation of bewitchment was in England at East Dareham in 1947. Afterwards the continuation of witchcraft is now more focused on Wicca (A new religious form of pagan worship set up by Gerald Gardner.) The Witchcraft Research Association was wound up in 1967 because of schisms and arguments over Wicca. Whilst today there’s a great proliferation of Wicca sects.

Generally on the historical facts of Operative Witchcraft I can only vouch for its accuracy in relation to one of the few books I’ve read on the subject and that’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, an engrossing study written by Ronald Hutton. It appears to me that Hutton and Nigel Pennick are scholars of great authority. And it’s the research, style and tone of Operative Witchcraft that will appeal to the general reader. Before being offered the Pennick book to review I’d watched again that remarkable (1967) British film, Witchfinder General (You’ll even find one reference to Mathew Hopkins in Operative Witchcraft.)

Michael Reeve’s film may play loose with the real facts of Hopkins life but what it and Pennick’s book have in common is they are a popular and highly intelligent contribution to our understanding of witchcraft. And that’s the cultural critic inside me, summing up. -- Alan Price


30 November 2019

HOUSEHOLD INSURANCE

Brian Hoggard. Magical House Protection, the Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft. Berghahn, 2019.

I learnt a new word reading this book: apotropaic, which is defined as “having the ability to ward off evil”, from the Greek αποτρέπειν, to ward off; from απο- ‘away’ and τρέπειν ‘to turn’) This is the term used to describe objects, signs and other indicators that are left in houses, stables and other buildings to ward off malignant spells and curses that may be placed upon then by malevolent agencies.

The book divides into two parts, the first half being a description and historical analysis of objects and symbols concealed during the construction of houses and afterwards, and which have subsequently been revealed. The second half is a county by county listing of such finds which have been preserved or recorded. The second part will be of importance to academics, but is probably of less interest to the general reader, and may be partly responsible for the extremely high price of this book.

This is a pity as Brian Hoggard is a researcher who is able to write about this topic in a very accessible manner (as anyone who heard his talk to the London Fortean Society symposium on ‘The Haunted Landscape’ in November 2019 can testify), and the book is worthy of a much wider audience that the present edition is likely to receive.

We are all familiar with the practice of hanging up horse-shoes as a ‘good-luck’ token, although there is some disagreement as to whether the points of the shoe should be pointing up or down. My grandmother insisted that if the points were turned down, “the luck would all run out”.

Lots of people hang up a horseshoe, but maybe we would be less inclined to bury a dead cat under our threshold, or place a bottle full of urine and nail clippings up our chimney, or nail horses skulls underneath the floorboards? These are just some of the objects which have been used for centuries to offer some sort of ‘magical protection’ to houses and other properties.

In the past magic and witchcraft was not a topic for discussion between believers and sceptics, it was just an ordinary part of everyday life, and taking precautions to divert its power was seen as no more remarkable than taking an umbrella with you on a wet day to protect you from the rain. Equally taking magical action yourself against another person who had hurt or threatened you was just as rational a response as reporting them to the police would be now.

One way of dealing with evil magic was to follow the example of a saint or other religious figure, such as the now almost forgotten Saint John Schorn. He lived in the fourteenth century and was the rector of North Marston in Buckinghamshire. Renowned for his holiness he was believed to have captured a demon in his shoe. Images of him show him holding a shoe with a demon looking out, and this is claimed to be the origin of the jack-in-the-box, known in France as diable en bôite, ‘devil in a box’.

Although never officially canonised by the Church he became what I suppose you would now call a ‘people’s saint’ and his shrine became a place of pilgrimage. Images showing him with the devil help captive in his shoe led to the idea that shoes could be used as a way of capturing other demonic forces and neutralising them. They would therefore be placed in houses at the front door or in the chimney, the two places most vulnerable to demonic spirits entering the home.

‘Witch bottles’ are often encountered when builders are renovating or demolishing old houses. Usually these are glass bottles, but there were also the so-called Bellarmine Jars, large earthenware vessels, originating in Germany and the Low Countries in the sixteenth century. Usually marked with a grotesque face supposedly representing Cardinal Bellarmine, a militant anti-Protestant figure of that era.

These bottles and jars when examined contain curious mixtures of objects and substances. Most often this is urine, in which are found fingernail clippings and iron house nails. The iron nails are usually very deliberately bent and Hoggard suggests that this was intended to ‘kill’ the nail, so that its ‘spirit’ would be able to counter the magical forces on their own level. The urine and nail clippings served to identify the individual who filled the jar, and would act as ‘bait’ for the magical forces, who being drawn to it, would then be attacked by the ‘spirit’ of the nails, and other objects in the jar.

This also seems to be the logic behind the ‘mummified’ cats that are frequently found in old houses. The cats may have been killed as a form of foundation sacrifice, and their spirits were believed to be able to kill or scare away any malevolent supernatural entity. Sometimes they are ‘posed’ as if about to pounce, sometimes with a mouse positioned as if their prey, to emphasise their function.

A ritual sacrifice before commencing building may have been the origin of the practice of concealing horses’ skulls in building. Being too big to conceal within the walls, they were usually nailed to the underside of floorboards, sometimes in large numbers in a single location. Hoggard found that in later centuries this custom was explained as being a way of improving the acoustic properties of the floor for music and dancing, but he finds in an unconvincing suggestion.

As well as physical objects, many ritual marks are found carved into old buildings, including the ‘daisy wheel’ symbol made with the points of a compass; a symbol made from two overlapping ‘V’s which reversed represented ‘M’ for the Virgin Mary; and marks like nets or grills, which may have been seen as as way of netting any evil forces.

Although the original meanings of these objects and symbols may have been forgotten over the centuries, the practices continued in one way or another into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. It is interesting that when such objects have been revealed during modern building work on an old house, the new owners are often keen to have it re-interred “for luck” when the work is finished. Clearly the need for some sort of supernatural protection is still as powerful as ever.

It would be easy to dismiss these practices as ‘superstition’, whatever that may mean. The author points out that at the time of the Reformation, the Protestant churches dismissed all ‘Roman’ practices as ‘superstition, and saw little difference between a Roman Catholic Mass and sacrificing an animal to protect a house.

In the absence of any written records of these relics and symbols, the hidden objects form what Hoggard calls the ‘archaeological record’ of magic, which provides evidence of magical practices by levels of society who are hardly represented in the written record.

In his concluding chapter he writes: “All this material is very important for developing a true understanding of what witchcraft actually meant to real people . . . . The elite view of witchcraft, represented through the judiciary and clergy was one which tended to concentrate on the heresy of witchcraft and attempted to interpret all the testimony through that lens.” These objects and symbols “were made by real people as a direct result of their beliefs in witchcraft and they tell us a good deal about the way in which magic was perceived and witchcraft was experienced.” – John Rimmer


23 November 2019

A UNIVERSE OF GHOSTS

Paul Eno, Dancing Past the Graveyard: Poltergeists, Parasites, Parallel Worlds and God. Schiffer Books 2019.

Paul Eno is a former seminary student turned paranormal investigator. He trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood at seminaries in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and Ogdensburg, New York. Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, he began studying at an Orthodox Seminary in New York City. He was already fascinated by ghosts and the afterlife, and the theological questions they raised while at the Roman Catholic seminaries. It was then he became involved with the so-called grandfather and grandmother of ghost hunting, Ed and Lorraine Warren. His interest was frowned upon by the seminary authorities, but he was mentored by Fr. John J. Nicola, a Jesuit priest and expert on exorcism, who was technical adviser on The Exorcist

The exorcist for his local diocese, Fr. Lawrence Wheeler, also took him under his wing, and he became his unofficial assistant. However, his interests resulted in his expulsion from the Orthodox seminary, and he subsequently pursued a career as a journalist on various New England papers, as well as Fate. He corresponded with Dr. Louisa Rhine, the wife of the pioneering American parapsychologist Dr. Joseph Rhine of Duke University, and has written books or contributed articles with Brad Steiger, Timothy Green Beckley and Nandor Fodor, amongst others. With his son, Ben, he has also been presenting a show on the paranormal on local radio in the Boston area.

The book describes some of the most influential or notable cases in his career as a paranormal investigator and how these resulted in his abandonment of mainstream Christianity and the development of his New Age beliefs. This begins with him helping Fr. Wheeler in the exorcism of a disturbed 17 year old girl, 'Barbara', at the local mental hospital in Ogdensburg. This in turn leads to a discussion of his views of such possessing entities. Contrary to Roman Catholic and general Christian doctrine, these are not demons, but extra-dimensional parasites, but plasma creatures from elsewhere in the multiverse. These creatures are ancient, and attach themselves to troubled individuals in order to feed on their negative emotions like hate and fear.

Further encounters with 'Gilbert', another supposed spirit in the same hospital, and 'Bob', an entity haunting the attic of two Orthodox New Yorkers, convince him that ghosts also aren't disembodied spirits either, but flesh and blood people in parallel universes. Eno establishes mental contact with Gilbert and comes to the conclusion that Gilbert is really a man waiting to meet his wife at the train station in Prescott, Ontario in a parallel world. Contacting 'Bob' the same way, he hears that he remembers a plane crash and then subsequently waking up in an Episcopalian church with no idea how he got there. In further sessions the spirit states that he hasn't flown for years, and is the vicar of the church waiting for choir practice.

Eno believes that everyone has a counterpart in the different parallel worlds, separated from ours by interdimensional branes. These worlds may be our past or future, but the people in them are flesh and blood. When we die, our consciousness passes into one of these other versions of ourselves. Contact with these parallel worlds produces ghost experiences, though the people in these worlds also perceive us as ghosts. We are subconsciously connected to all the other versions of ourselves throughout the multiverse in a relationship he describes as 'superlife'. We are also all connected with each other. A man, who underwent open heart surgery, describes how he found himself in one of the nurses attending the operation, then the surgeon and a passerby in the corridor outside. 'Meg' tells him how she finds herself transported into the bodies of other people and even animals when she sits on a particular chair in the room she and her husband use as their home theatre. One of these animals was a creature flying through the sky in a parallel world.

Some hauntings are the result of tragedy in a particular place. These may be in the past, but could also be in a parallel world or even the future. At the same time, events in the past may be the cause of poltergeist activity in the present as the objects being moved are also being moved at the same time in a different brane containing our past. Called in to investigate poltergeist activity in a school, he and a terrified principal witness a moving chair and other activity and the sound of thumps on the blackboard. He puts this down to the extra-dimensional presence of a female teacher, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1922. The lady was devoted to the school and her job, and so Eno interprets the poltergeist activity as a result of this lady's actions in the classroom while still alive in 1920 or thereabouts, just beyond the divide between our universe and the other.

Eno follows Jacques Vallee and John Keel in believing that ghosts and demons are part of the same phenomenon that produces UFOs. Several of the people he meets, such as 'Barbara', have seen UFOs and little grey aliens around their bed at night. There are also areas around the world that are particularly rich in paranormal activity. These include Point Pleasant and the Mothman in the Ohio river valley, and Rendlesham Forest and its UFO encounter in Britain. Walking through Exmoor in Devon, he sees a vision of a fur clad, cloaked figure in Wistman's Wood, which he believes could have been a druid or a figure from a remote, far future. He notes that many of these areas are near military bases, and wonders if the army isn't actually researching the phenomena there in order to weaponise it.


As for the Almighty, Eno believes in a trinity, but one of Father, Mother and Son, corresponding to the high gods and their consorts found amongst ancient peoples like the Bushmen, Aboriginal Australians and, so he believes, the ancient Sumerians. He also cites the fact that the Holy Spirit in the Bible is feminine, Chokma in Hebrew, and Sophia in ancient Greek. The problem of evil is explained by the parasites impersonating the different gods throughout history in order to create wars and the suffering on which they feed. But there will be an end to this. God also represents the fundamental unity of all things. The different parallel worlds are already beginning to come together and merge. This will continue until they have all become one, as considered in Buddhism and the Baha'i faith, and the Omega Point and Cosmic Christ in the theology of Teilhard de Chardin.

Eno believes that ghosts are really physical beings as a way of getting round the old problem of how immaterial spirits can be seen, wear clothes and affect matter. And there are personal reasons for his interest in the question of the afterlife and the existence of heaven and hell. His father committed suicide when Eno was a child. Eno found him in his car, but ran into the house. He wonders if he could have saved his father by opening the door, or whether his father would have pulled him in with him. Following his older brother into the priesthood, Eno was troubled by the church's teaching on suicide and punishment in the afterlife. Roman Catholic theology stated that his father would have to spend a long time in purgatory as a punishment for taking his own life. He naturally wonders why that should be, as his father was a gentle, loving man, and was clearly deeply tormented, not evil. 

The demon he encounters possessing 'Barbara' also claims to have been culpable for his father's death. Eno found little in the Roman Catholic church at the time which could help him. Even the editor of the Catholic Encyclopedia could not provide the answers he needed. At the same time, the Vatican II conferences initiated by Pope John XXIII had created uncertainty and confusion in the Church. The Pope had wanted to open windows so that fresh air could be let in. But this also resulted in the questioning of fundamental Roman Catholic doctrines and practices.

Eno's search for answers was hampered by the extremely limited resources available at that time in the early '70s. Ghost hunting was still very much in its infancy, a fringe activity pursued by a small number of people that aroused far more disapproval than interest. He criticises the Roman Catholic theology of the afterlife as static. At the time, ghosts were seen as exclusively demons. He, on the other hand, believed that some could be souls in purgatory. Historically, that was how the Roman Catholic church approached some hauntings, in contrast to the Protestant denominations, which did believe they were demons; see Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic. And the questions that puzzled him are extremely difficult. Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with questions like the existence of the soul and how an immaterial mind relates to its material body for centuries, even millennia.

There are also problems with his proposed solution involving the multiverse. Despite wide interest, it's still very much conjecture, not settled science. It may also be impossible to travel to such parallel universes or prove they exist. There are also major questions about the possibility that parallel universes may be able to meet or overlap. If this were possible, it might explain the time slips some people have experienced. This is when people have witnessed, or believed they've witnessed, a scene from the past played out in front of them. Some have even believed that the people they saw also saw them, very much like some of the encounters Eno describes and investigates. But scientists have also suggested that if two universes actually bumped into each other, the result would be devastation on a truly cosmic scale. A few years ago astronomers were investigating some of the immense voids that exist in intergalactic space as evidence of these collisions. So far, the voids examined have proved entirely natural.

Some of his other ideas also remind me of Science Fiction. Other people, who have encountered what they believe to be malign supernatural entities, have also said that they felt that the creatures were feeding off their negative emotions, like Eno's parasites. It's an idea explored in the ITV SF series, Sapphire and Steel. In the second story of the series, the two time agents were investigating a disused railway station.


Some scientists have suggested that plasma creatures could exist in parallel worlds with very different physical laws. The British-New Zealand biologist Michael J. Denton considers this highly improbably, however. In his Nature's Design he points out that no-one has put forward detailed descriptions of how such creatures could exist and his book is intended to show that no other forms of life except those following established terrestrial biology is possible under the known physical laws. This is itself controversial, as he was one of the influences behind the Intelligent Design movement with his 1980s book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and this succeeding book is based upon Christian apologetic works published in the 1920s.

Like the New Age generally, Eno is receptive to indigenous cultures' spirituality. He also has a First Nation medicine stick, which he sometimes uses, and his friends and co-workers include Shane Sirois, a Blackfoot shaman. On the more sceptical side, his team also includes a photographic expert, Eric Baillargeon, whom he describes as the only one more sceptical than he was. Eno also uses science in his research. He believes that ghost encounters and contact with parallel worlds occur in waterlogged, clay soil, and so has a hydrologist on his team. He is aware of Vic Tandy's experience with infrasound at Coventry University, and believes some ghost experiences may be down to this. 

He also accepts that some orbs may be just the products of cameras picking up dust motes, flying insects and so on, but also thinks that some may also be real spirit entities. The book is filled with photographs he's taken of some of the mysterious things he's seen. These include orbs, weird streaks of light or something else around people. There is even what looks like a face peering from an empty window, though this may also be an instance of the mind seeing something that isn't there.

There are also problems with confirming some of the information he himself supposedly receives through his own psychic powers. Eno believes he has psychic gifts, and it is through psychic contact that he hears 'Gilbert' and 'Bob', as well as a number of other extra-dimensional entities, for example. He is also critical of the belief that ghosts haunt particular locations because they're the scenes of their death. He himself, however, believes that certain places are haunted because something terrible has happened there, either in the past, the future or in a parallel universe. Of the last two possibilities, one is difficult and the other impossible to confirm. And as purely subjective experiences they have no more objective validity than the pronouncements of some of the mediums that feature in the book.

As for the presence of army bases near flap areas, this might partly be due to the fact that military bases and other sensitive installations are commonly situated in sparsely populated areas. The UFO encounter in Rendlesham Forest may also have been no such thing. Magonia suggested that it could have been a deliberate hoax designed to identify those with loose lips among the squaddies. Other theories include the possibility that it was devised by the military to divert attention away from the fact that one of the bases was carrying cruise nuclear missiles, in contravention of existing law. And some of the UFO and entity encounters look like simple cases of sleep paralysis and hypnogogia. He also warns of the dangers in exorcism, and the mental and physical harm, even death that can result. This is reassuringly responsible, as people have died through brutal treatment at the hands of those, who genuinely believed that they were liberating them from evil spirits.

This is at heart the story of one man's journey from orthodox Roman Catholicism to the New Age in search of answers about the afterlife. Eno is clearly deeply spiritual. Despite leaving the church, he still maintains a rule of prayer and encourages those, whose homes he investigates to pray as well. He has developed an original perspective on psychic phenomena, which however runs against the laws of physics as they are presently understood. That does not mean that he's wrong and that evidence to support some of his views on the multiverse won't be found in the future. But he also shows how some people are looking to science for answers to essentially religious questions, and hope for a worldview that combines both in a positive and satisfying whole. And even if his cosmological views are wrong, he is still right to stress a positive attitude, happiness and love for one's fellow creatures. -- David Sivier


18 November 2019

JUST LIKE THAT . . .

Gustav Kuhn. Experiencing the Impossible - The Science of Magic. MIT Press, 2019.

This is a superb title for a book that examines such a fascinating subject. Magic performed for entertainment works when it appears that something impossible has just happened before our very eyes, even at close range. We are delighted and baffled at the same time. Somehow we know that our senses have been deceived but have no idea how it was done. With no immediate rational explanation, we are left wondering: was it an illusion or could there really be a supernatural power at work?

Dr Gustav Kuhn, the author of this engrossing book, has the distinction of being Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, president of the Science of Magic Association and also a member of the Magic Circle. As a seasoned lifelong performer of entertainment magic he has valuable insider knowledge and understanding of how most magic tricks are accomplished. Drawing on his own experience, and the latest psychological and neurological research, he advances a scientific theory of how we are so comprehensively deceived. Some of the data comes from the MAGIC (Mind Attention and General Illusory Cognition) lab at Goldsmiths. There they have cutting-edge eye-tracking technologies to investigate how magicians misdirect our attention.

Dealing first with the important question 'What is Magic?', Dr Kuhn describes how he first became interested in magic. When he was thirteen, his school friend made an egg appear from behind his ear. As he puts it: "Deep inside my brain - the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to be precise - there was a serious conflict between what I thought was possible and what I had just experienced." Apparently, research shows, "only 40 percent of us really want to know how a trick is done". knowing how it is done can be a "bit of a letdown". One may lose the sense of wonder. Nevertheless, he discovered that he was one of the 40 percent who really wanted to know.

This alone is an interesting fact, that young Gustav's life was changed by that egg trick. He began to question how it was done. He had no reason to question the authenticity of the egg. It looked perfectly real, yet there was no way his friend could have hidden a hard-shelled egg in his hand without being noticed. On further investigation, he found that the egg was made of sponge covered in white fabric. His friend had squashed it into a fraction of its size in his hand, concealing it with a technique called 'palming', "one of the most powerful methods in the magician's toolkit". Gustav and his friend started to study magic tricks together, attending magic conventions, and so on.

From his own experience he can say that it takes thousands of hours of "practicing sleight of hand and choreographing magic routines" to become a professional magician. But defining exactly what magic is may be a lot more complicated than simply explaining how a trick was accomplished. It certainly involves psychological and philosophical questions, such as the nature of perception and consciousness itself. "Any demonstration that appears to contradict our current understanding of science is generally considered to be magic. Indeed, the current Oxford Dictionary defines 'magic' as 'the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces."

Readers of Magonia Review will have their own thoughts on this, but for 'real magic' I would put the emphasis in this definition on 'influencing', as opposed to 'controlling'. An appropriate term for the effects of some workings may be 'paranormal phenomena', but such things are rarely, if ever, done for entertainment and would rather be carried out discreetly, as part of a process with a purpose.

By contrast, the art, or science, of the stage magician, the 'conjurer', is to perform something that definitely gives the impression of a mystical power at work. He has to be in total control of proceedings and is actually, in effect, a master of deception. The paraphernalia of cloak, top hat and magic wand are examples of traditional accoutrements of the performer and are very much part of the show. Creating the right atmosphere is important for the observing audience to be receptive to the various techniques of trickery that make illusions so convincing.

As Dr Kuhn points out, being fooled is usually an unpleasant experience, such as being tricked into buying a 'lemon' from a used-car salesman. So why do we feel delight when a magician makes a real lemon appear from beneath a cup? The answer can only be that magic and deception tap into different psychological mechanisms. "At the very least, this difference shows that magic is a distinct experience." He goes on to examine the moral question of lying and deceit in our daily lives. We may say lying is wrong, but "there are lots of situations in which we actually prefer living with a lie rather than the truth". One example is that most extra-marital affairs go undiscovered, although it is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of married people have engaged in such relations. The lack of motivation to uncover the truth is known as the 'Ostrich Effect', for obvious reasons.




Harry Houdini famously attacked anyone claiming to have spiritual powers, but he himself was not above making himself appear almost superhuman. He was the world's most famous escapologist, creating the illusion that he could escape from anywhere, yet it was all based on trickery. While he was expert at picking a lock, every aspect of the escape was meticulously planned, including the bribing of insiders. Another revelation is that although the escape itself might take only a few seconds, he would wait several minutes, often reading a magazine to pass the time. Then he would spray himself with water to emerge looking properly sweaty and exhausted.

When speaking of spiritual powers, one's thoughts may turn to religious leaders and teachers, in particular Indian gurus whose followers claim they possess supernatural powers. One prominent figure was Sai Baba, who appeared to manifest sacred ash and gold jewellery directly from his hand. There is no direct comment on such claims in this book, but it may be assumed that any accomplished stage magician could reproduce such apparent wonders. Even so, it would not be wise to assume that every miraculous manifestation is fraud and trickery.

Supplicants to the ancient temples of Egypt and Greece may have been convinced that they were seeing real magic in front of the altar. For example, a priest might light a fire on the altar, after which a set of heavy stone doors would open. These illusions would provide 'proof' of a priest's supernatural powers. In fact, the true power behind the phenomenon was a hydraulic system using an expansion tank and counterweights. Dr Kuhn's book provides a helpful diagram, based on the description of Heron of Alexandria (ca. 10- 70 CE). This system is what today might be called 'special effects'. In theatre, and then the modern film industry, some techniques of stage magic were employed for special effects. 'Pepper's Ghost' is a famous example.

After reading this book, even though no actual inner secrets are revealed, you may find yourself seeing things differently. This is certainly not a 'how to' book on creating illusions for entertainment, but rather explains the processes at work in our own perceptive and cognitive apparatus. Here we learn details of how sight can be deceived by use of the 'blind spot' in our retinas, the effects of blinking, our susceptibility to misdirection, and many more techniques that are entirely psychological.

One of the main conclusions to come from Dr Kuhn's research is how our eyes may see without noticing, meaning that there is some kind of lapse in attention. Many of us have had the slightly bewildering experience of looking for something only to find eventually that is was right in front of our eyes. We might even insist, or speculate, that something paranormal had happened. Did the item dematerialise for a while? Or maybe a mischievous entity removed the item temporarily to confuse us? If our own minds can play such tricks on us, then it is obvious that a conjurer can exploit this inherent potential weakness in human perception and awareness. The author insists that 'misdirection', in various forms, is the main technique used to accomplish illusions and magic tricks on stage. 'Forcing' and 'illusion' are other techniques that are frequently mentioned.

Sometimes, though, even a seasoned performer can be amazed and confused by another magician's performance: "For magicians, the defining feature of an illusion is simply its scale." The author was blown away by a stage illusion by David Copperfield where his body was sawn in half by a circular saw. His body was in full view and the table was far too thin to hide a second person. For Kuhn, this really seemed to be 'impossible' no matter how hard he looked. This caused him to look even deeper at his own perceptions to see how the mind can be so thoroughly tricked into seeing 'something impossible'.

Hypnotic or subliminal suggestions may sometimes play a part. A good example of this appears in the chapter 'Mind Control and the Magician's Force', which for me had the most interesting material concerning the questions of free will and suggestibility. In the late 1990s Derren Brown pioneered a new type of magic that is often called 'mentalism', a kind of mind control. In one such televised performance he had a volunteer browsing through Hamley's toy store to choose one of nearly a quarter of a million toys. To her absolute amazement, Brown had predicted her exact choice, a giraffe. He then he went on to apparently explain how he did it, using subconscious priming with gestures and words whispered near to her ear.

At the end of the chapter, having thoroughly discussed all the ramifications of free will and whether it is an illusion, one is still left wondering. Referring back to Derren Brown's performance, he says "there must be more to the illusion than meets the eye. While many other forcing techniques undermine our sense of free will, Brown's unconscious persuasion is implausible if not impossible." Thus, as a scientist, Kuhn says that "unconscious persuasion is a pseudo-explanation", and that he has "no intention of revealing how his trick is done, nor the right to do so."

Magicians in general, and members of the Magic Circle in particular, are bound by rules of confidentiality. All we can assume, therefore, is that there is a practical solution and we have to work it out for ourselves. At the very least, Gustav Kuhn's thought-provoking book provides abundant clues as to how magic succeeds in giving the illusion of 'impossibility' right under our gaze.

This, then, is the mysterious nature of magic, awareness and perception. There is no final answer to anything. Psychologists still don't know how exactly the brain works nor can explain consciousness itself. Physicists don't understand how gravity works, nor what dark matter and dark energy are. The 'Big Bang Theory' says that the entire visible Universe exploded from a single point over 14 billion years ago. That may be the greatest magic trick of all. Maybe the Universe itself is conscious and magical. If we ask 'God' how he did it, he might quote Tommy Cooper and say 'Just like that!'. -- Kevin Murphy


13 November 2019

IT'S ODD UP NORTH

David Paul. Illustrated Tales of Lancashire. Amberley 2019.
David Paul. Illustrated Tales of Cheshire. Amberley, 2019.

These two books are from a series by Amberley Press, recounting traditional tales of the counties of England. I have chosen Lancashire and Cheshire as they are the counties where I grew up and heard many of these stories as a child. I was particularly drawn to the tale of the 'Childe of Hale'. Hale is a small village, just outside the boundary of the city of Liverpool, in an area annexed by Cheshire and incorporated into the borough of Halton, although the story is told, correctly in the Lancashire volume of this collection.

I was very tall as a boy (and still am for that matter) and people would say to my mother “he's going to be like the Childe of Hale when he grows up”. Well fortunately I wasn't, because the Childe was reputed to be nine foot three inches (2.8 meters) tall, which even as an adult leaves me a long way behind.

His name was John Middleton, and he was appointed as a bodyguard to the Sheriff of Lancaster, and on being invited to the Court by James I, was challenged by the king's champion, who came off much worse in the ensuing match. John was dispatched back to Merseyside, with a substantial pay-off. He spent the rest of his life rather sadly as a local 'character' and his grave can still be seen in the village churchyard with an inscription recording his alleged height. The picture shows a statue of him in Hale village, by Dana Gorvin

Half a mile from Hale, and just inside the modern boundary of Liverpool, lies a beautiful Tudor mansion, Speke Hall. Nowadays the main disturbances in this otherwise tranquil spot are the planes arriving and taking off at John Lennon Airport (“Above Us Just the Sky” is its slogan), but historically the Hall has also been troubled by a classic 'White Lady' ghost, reputedly the wife of a former owner, a notorious rake, who bankrupted his family, resulting in his wife throwing herself and their baby son into the moat and drowning. Rather spoiling the story, the son is actually recorded as living into his sixties!

The moat now, incidentally, is an attractive grassed feature around the Hall, much enjoyed by visiting children who take delight in rolling down it.

As well as the classic genre of ghosts stories, other tales in this collection and the companion volume for Cheshire, include traditional accounts of meetings with supernatural beings, elves, fairies and the north-west's own species of hobgoblin, the boggart, who could be either a frightening spectre or a cheeky trickster, and is immortalised in the name of the Manchester neighbourhood Boggart Hole Clough.

There are also historical accounts which have entered the folklore of the area, like the 'Cotton Famine' when workers and mill-owners such as William Boardman of the Farington Mill near Leyland, boycotted cotton imports from the slave states during the American civil war. Although this meant many faced destitution, and the mills bankruptcy, they continued their boycott, with Boardman paying what wages he could, even though there was little available work, and cancelling rent arrears to the tenants of their tied cottages.

In Stalybridge, Cheshire, the cotton famine turned nasty, as arguments over the distribution of charitable food tokens escalated into a pitched battle in the streets, with buildings looted and torched, and which was only put down by the arrival of a troop of Hussars from Manchester,

Much of north Cheshire is built on the remains of a salt lake, and salt mining was a major local industry; one mine is still in production. We learn that in the nineteenth century, although many women were employed in salt mines in Worcestershire, there were none in Cheshire, as in order to work effectively a state of semi-nudity was required. Although this sort of thing might be acceptable in Worcestershire it was certainly not tolerated in Cheshire!

Those of us who know the areas will always wish that their own favourites tales were included, and I would love to have seen the story of the Butter Boggart of Old Lostock getting a mention. You can read Peter Rogerson's investigation HERE.

Most of the accounts in both these volumes are of the “once a long time ago” sort of provenance, and although a short bibliography is given, it would have been helpful to know a little more about the source of some of the stories, if the reader wanted to take their interest a little further. One innovation in the books is that the author gives the modern post-code for the location of each tale, allowing it to be viewed on Google maps.

Of course, these are not scholarly works and do not need copious footnotes and references; they are to be enjoyed for the bizarre and entertaining nature of their stories, and the attractive colour photographs and old prints that accompany them. They would certainly make welcome Christmas presents for any Lancastrian or Cestrian with an interest in the strange tales and curious history of their county. – John Rimmer

11 November 2019

SEARCHING FOR WONDER

Patrick Curry. Enchantment - Wonder in Modern Life.  Floris Books 2019.

As Patrick Curry argues eloquently in his thoughtful examination of the human condition in these challenging modern times, "enchantment is an experience of wonder". This is no mere academic exercise, although he is surprisingly erudite in his choice of texts, writers and cultural icons to illustrate his thoughts on this vital feature of being fully human. Nor is this a fluffy 'New Age' extended essay on how much better this world would be if we were all nice to each other. Much of the material is philosophical or poetic in nature, drawn from inspirational writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Max Weber, and W.H. Auden. Although mainly positive in tone, Curry does not hold back from stating things as they are. He is passionately scathing in denunciation of elements in the present world that seek to enslave the human race as little more than robots.

Almost anything can enchant, given the right circumstances, but experience shows that "some contexts for enchantment are more common than others". Times spent with good friends, special meals, falling in love, or being moved to tingles by a piece of music are examples how almost all of us can rise above mundane existence and feel really alive. Variations include awe, amazement and astonishment. Often these moments provide treasured memories for the rest of our lives, maybe tinged with a trace of sadness or poignancy. They may be hard to define yet what they have in common are their ephemerality. Nothing lasts forever. So, if we can't expect to remain forever in enchantment, how can we fill our lives with more wonder?

All things considered, it is a matter of being open to life and open to others too. One may experience wonder alone, but even then there would be an urge to share it with another. Life has more meaning when we share. The trouble with that thought, as we all seem to find, is that often we have periods when life feels meaningless. In his introduction, Curry admits to having had a fear, bordering on terror, that enchantment is lacking from life. Writing this book was his way of addressing this fear without necessarily analysing it away: "What matters is to work with what you're given, and give something back." -- Kevin Murphy