15 November 2020

CRAFTY FOLK

Mark Norman. Telling the Bees and Other Customs; the Folklore of Rural Crafts. History Press, 2020.


Mark Norman’s book looks at some of the traditional stories and folklore surrounding five of the oldest crafts; spinning and weaving; beekeeping, metalworking, brewing and breadmaking. These activities are so basic and essential to life that their practitioners have seemed to have been gifted with magical powers, and the crafts themselves have been introduced to humanity by the gods themselves. 

The title is taken from the popular belief that bees should be kept informed of any deaths in their keeper’s family. Beekeeping seems particularly rich in custom and superstition, with keepers singing to bees in order to increase production of honey, and the belief that the bees themselves sing to mark Christmas. The Biblical story of Sampson declares that bees grew from the corpse of a slain lion, leading to the line “out of the strong, something sweet”, a claim which can be seen today on every tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup! 

Many of the stories and legends surrounding these crafts seem to have been derived from the supposed character of the craft workers and the nature of the processes they commanded. This is especially true of the blacksmith, who with his forge and his control of its fire, seems more connected to the world of the supernatural. The legends around him often involve his conflicts with the devil, the Devil usually coming off worse, often being dispatched with red hot tongs pulling his nose. The story of St Dunstan is a Christianised version of this pagan legend. 




The baker on the other hand, although an essential part of rural life, often comes over in legend and superstition as rather a slippery character, forever adulterating the flour or short changing farmers who bring their grain to be milled. Bread itself is the ‘staff of life’ and has a semi-religious nature in most cultures. A custom in many rural Christian areas was never to cut bread with a knife, as Christ only ever broke bread with his hands - ‘breaking-bread’ still being a synonym for sharing a meal. 

The chapter on beer and brewing is careful to point out the many health benefits of beer. A Mr Deacon of Stanmore Common reported in Folklore magazine (December 1956) that his great grandmother, born in 1815, attributed her fine complexion to drinking beer for breakfast, claiming that Englishwomen’s complexions started to deteriorate when they began drinking tea. Beer was served to pupils at Christ's Hospital School in London in the ninetieth century, and in Belgium schoolchildren were offered a low-strength beer as part of their school dinners until the 1960s.

Customs, beliefs, practices and superstitions are buried deep within the most ordinary parts of our daily life, and link cultures in all ages and across the world. In this book Mark Norman presents a collection of stories that are amusing, intriguing and tell us a great deal about the history of rural life and beliefs. The book is nicely presented and would make a good Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in folklore and rural life. -- Richard Samuels.

1 November 2020

SPIRIT LEVELS

Lisa Morton. Calling the Spirits; a History of Séances. Reaktion Books, 2020.


The desire to communicate with the dead has been a human obsession for millennia. Lisa Morton demonstrates this by beginning her review of the séance phenomenon, not as one might expect in the nineteenth century with the Fox sisters and the birth of Spiritualism, but by going back to examine the actions and beliefs of ‘necromancers’ from earlier millennia. 
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13 October 2020

THE TROUBLED WORLD OF ISAAC NEWTON

Toni Mount. The World of Isaac Newton. Amberley, 2020.


One of Isaac Newton’s lesser-know achievements must be acquiring one of the largest library fines in British history. A book he borrowed from Trinity College Library before 1667, found in Newton’s personal library in 1943 and returned to the College. At the time it was borrowed there was a fine of 2s.6d. (12½p.) per week for books returned later than two weeks. By my calculations that is an overdue charge of almost £1800, not allowing for any inflation in over 275 years! 
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12 October 2020

TALES FROM THE SEA

Regular follower of Magonia review will know that from time to time we like to feature new issues of postage stamps depicting topics of Magonian interest - ghosts, legends, folklore, historical mysteries, etc. The Channel Island of Jersey has issued a second set of stamps on a folklore theme, this set illustrating 'Tales from the Sea'. The first set is described HERE.
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5 October 2020

CRICKETS AND CONSPIRACIES

Robert W. Baloh and Robert E. Bartholomew. Havana Syndrome - Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. Springer, 2020.


American diplomatic staff and American tourists in Havana, Cuba suffered from a spate of sonic attacks starting in late 2016. The situation was so bad that it helped derail a 2-year initiative to restore amicable relations between the two countries and led to the expulsion of several Cuban diplomats based in Washington. 
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28 September 2020

SEEING THE LIGHT

Matt Wingett. Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light. Life is Amazing Publishers, 2020. 

People frequently comment, when discussing Conan Doyle’s belief in the supernatural, how could someone who created the ultra-logical character of Sherlock Holmes also defend such a clearly fraudulent phenomenon as the Cottingley fairies. This book goes a good way to answer that question, but leaves us at a vital moment and with many questions.
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23 September 2020

AREA 51 AND COUNTING

Timothy Green Beckley and Sean Casteel (Eds.) 
Timothy Green Beckley’s AREA 51: Warning Keep Out! Inner Light/Global Communications, 2019. 
Timothy Green Beckley and Sean Casteel (Eds.) Alien Strongholds on Earth. Inner Light/Global Communications, 2019.

 It is only in the past few years that the US Government has admitted the existence of Area 51, yet it has always been a magnet for those who believe the US Government knows a lot more about UFOs than it is prepared to admit. 
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17 September 2020

PICTURING MONSTERS

Heather Frigiola. Monsters and Mythical Creatures from Around the World. Red Feather, 2019. 

This is not really a book for the serious cryptozoologist, but it would certainly make a fine present for someone with an interest in the strange fauna that inhabit the Fortean regions of human myth and imagination. It is clearly intended as a ‘gift book’, with its antiqued pages and bright illustrations, but none the worse for that. 
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14 September 2020

SEEING SEA SERPENTS ON THE SEA SHORE

David Goudsward. Sun, Sand, and Sea Serpents. Anomalist Books, 2020.

I have to admit that cryptozoology is not my favourite aspect of Forteana. Too much of the published literature is either intrepid explorers hacking their way through jungles in search of some cryptid which they never seem to find, or just ‘interesting-if-true’ trawls through the journals of earlier travellers, or the seldom-explored reaches of newspaper files. But this book is quite different.
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10 September 2020

NOT COMING IN FROM THE COLD

Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt. Foreword  by Joseph G. Buckman. Roswell. The Ultimate Cold Case. New Page Books. 2020.

This is an attempt to finally get to the true nature of the Roswell case by putting forward eyewitness testimony and to reveal how the authorities used fair means and foul to keep it secret. They start with putting forward what they think really happened at Roswell during  that fateful Summer of 1947, when flying saucers were the latest craze to sweep the USA and beyond.
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