Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 24

  • Quiz: which animal is portrayed in the photo? The solution at the end of the article!
  • When workers broke down a brick wall inside a convent in Leicestershire, they found a couple of skeletons. However, these are anatomical preparations, the bones are numbered and in some cases still articulated with wire. How they got behind a convent wall is still a mystery.
  • In 1968 Barbara Mackle, then 20 years old, became the victim of one of the most infamous kidnappings in history. The girl was locked up in a reinforced box equipped with two tubes for air circulation, then buried in the woods as her kidnappers awaited ransom. Here you find the letter she found upon waking up in her coffin. She spent more than three days underground before she was located and brought to safety.

  • Do you see an ox or an elephant? The one above is among the oldest optical illusions in history.
  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark“: at least some critical voices seem to think so, as they protest against an animated series for children whose protagonist is a little man with a very long and prehensile penis. Given the contemporary efforts to change the macho/phallocentric mentality, this concept does not strike as very thoughtful, but others claim the cartoon is actually harmless, free from sexual references, respectful towards women and kindly goliardic. A good article (in Italian) on Il Post summarizes the scandal and the different opinions, also embedding some episodes that you can see to get an idea. (Thanks, Massimiliano!)

  • Italy is the country that boasts the largest number of mummies in the world, a unique historical and anthropological heritage (as I explained in this video). Still we are not capable of giving value to this heritage.  In May 1999, two more mummies were found in an excellent state of natural conservation and still dressed in period clothing and jewels, under the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Siena. And what happened following this exceptional discovery? “We regret the mummified bodies are once again hidden under the floor of the church; as for the ancient  clothes, the jewels, medals and coins found on them, we do not know where they are, nor if they have ever been restored”, a researcher said. Meh.
  • You are stupid. And not only are you stupid, but you are nasty. ” So said one of the letters that arrived in the editorial office of the French magazine Hara-Kiri, founded in 1960. From that moment on, the subtitle of the magazine became “A stupid and nasty newspaper”. A strange editorial case, Hara-Kiri was a satirical, incorrect and in many cases openly obscene magazine, so much so that in the course of its 29 years of activity it went through various judicial troubles (it was after one of these interdictions that the team gave birth to the collateral project Charlie Hebdo, now sadly famous for the terrorist attack of 2015). But perhaps the most distinctive elements of Hara-Kiri remain its covers: shocking, extreme, vulgar, deliberately unpleasant, designed with the intent of épater les bourgeois. Here is a collection of 45 covers that are even today an example of explosive, unhinged and unrestrained punk graphics. (Thanks Marco!)
  • By the way, in Greek mythology even obscenity had its own goddess.
  • Mariano Tomatis gave me a heads-up about a curious text, available for free online, detailing the method devised in the late nineteenth century by the Swedish physiotherapist Thure Brandt to treat numerous female genital pathologies through massages, stretching, lifting. Mariano tells me that “the curious figures employed in the book are an attempt to de-sexualize the subjects’ appearance”; too bad the result looks like a manual of esoteric rituals for aliens.

  • The representation of death often relies on euphemization or symbolic rendering, in order to avoid the “scandal” of the corpse, that is, to avoid being obscene. The approach is different for the kind photography which is aimed at social criticism, where shock is an essential element in order to convey a moral position. This is the case of the series Grief by Hungarian photographer Peter Timar, who between 1980 and 1983 documented the disrespectful and questionable treatment of bodies at the Funeral Institute in Budapest: the corpses piled on top of each other, the collapsed coffins on the floor, the bodies stretched in pairs on the autopsy tables caused a huge controversy when the Mucsamok gallery in Budapest exhibited Timar’s photographs. The exhibition was closed by the authorities a few days after it opened. You can see the Grief series at this link (warning: graphic images).
  • The hangovers of Ancient Egpyptians.
  • The effects of the torture on Guy Fawkes emerge from his writing: above, his signature (“Guido”) just after being tortured at the Tower of London; below, the same signature a week later, when he had regained his strength.

  • Lee Harper is an Oxford-based artist passionate about the darkest side of history; in her works she decided to revisit those bizarre episodes that most struck her imagination, by creating detailed dioramas. “All of the pieces — says the artist’s statement — are about real people, events or customs from some point in this crazy world.” Those range from Countess Bathory’s bloodbaths to sin-eaters, from Freeman’s Lobotomobile to body snatchers. But, as if the events represented weren’t enough to make you shiver with morbid delight, Lee Harper’s grotesque miniature scenes are all played out by little skeleton actors. You can see her creations on History Bones and on her Instagram profile.

  • In this tweet, I joked about COVID-19 killing off one of the most picturesque sideshow routines. Here’s an old post (Italian only) I wrote on Melvin Burkhardt, the legendary inventor of the performance in question.
  • But COVID also took away Kim Ki-Duk, one of the major Korean directors. If many remember him for 3-Iron, Pietà or Spring Summer…, here on these pages it seems just right to remember him for his most disturbing and extreme film, The Isle (2000). One of the best Italian reviews, written by Giuseppe Zucco, called it a “powder-keg film”: a cruel and moving representation of incommunicability between human beings, which can be overcome only at the cost of hurting each other, tearing the flesh to the point of erasing oneself into the Other.

  • Sturgeons smashing doors, candles that “sulk”, rotting cats under the bed, panthers exhumed and tasted… This article (in Italian) on the larger-than-life figure of Frank Buckland is a true riot of oddities.
  • The Taus is an Indian chordophone musical instrument, originating from Punjab. Created, according to tradition, by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644), it is composed of a 20-fret neck and a body sculpted in the shape of a peacock. Real peacock feathers were often added to the instrument to complete the illusion.

Quiz solution: The animal pictured at the beginning of the post is a moth that’s been parasitized by a Cordyceps fungus. And that’s all for now!

Bonehouse and Birdhouse: Birds That Nest in Human Skulls

Guest post by Thomas J. Farrow

The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.

Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.

Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).

Though the Wereham gibbet is no longer extant, the surviving Rye gibbet shows how a skull would be retained. (Postcard. Author’s collection.)

Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).

FIG 2: Illustration of a bird’s nest in a human skull, c.1906.

Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.

Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).

FIG 3: The bird’s nest skull in St. Leonard’s, Hythe.

England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.

FIG 4: Nest skull at the Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau.

Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.

FIG 5: Nest skull in Lanrivain Ossuary, Brittany.

A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.

Ossuary in Saint-Fiacre. Source: Photos 2 Brehiz.

Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).

Fig 7: Medical moss on a human skull in the late 17th century.

While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.

As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.

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Thomas J. Farrow (mailTwitter) holds an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester, UK. A previous article on the history of charnelling in England may be found here (Farrow 2020), while a paper addressing folk medical and magical uses of skull moss and ossuary remains is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of The Enquiring Eye

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 23

Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.

  • Let’s start with a great list of videogames about death.
  • Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
    On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
    The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
    Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
    Here is the Talbots citadel:

And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:

These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.

  • But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
  • Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
  • Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
    Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
    There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.
    The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
    The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
    At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’
    (This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)

  • The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
  • The photo below, on the other hand, was taken in 1941, when a well-known occultist and a group of “young idealists” tried to kill Hitler… by throwing a voodoo curse upon him.

  • One hell of a headline.
  • In Indonesia, there is a community of riders crazy dudes who have redefined the concept of “tricked out Vespa”.  (Thanks, Cri!)

  • Old but gold:Vice interviews a menstruation fetishist.
  • The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.

  • Finally a sly, tongue-in-cheek video essay on the spiritual value of exploding heads in the movies.
  • And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
  • London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News  tells the epilogue as follows:
    On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.

  • And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
    Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
    A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.

That’s all folks, see you next time!

Homo Algus

Strange primordial figures, half human and half vegetal, emerge from the mud of the swamp… They may appear disturbing at first, but in truth they do nothing but observe us, half hidden among the vegetation. Their motionless faces, tinged with sadness, seem to spy on our movements: we are the intruders, the real danger, the offspring who have disowned their origins, we are those who have violated, spoiled and worn out nature.
These hieratic creatures, on the other hand, live with the rhythm of the tides; the wind dries and cracks their muddy skin, but does not affect their calm balance — that serenity which only belongs to those who have accepted the fluid pulsations of time.

They are the work of the French sculptor and artist Sophie Prestigiacomo.
Living near the brackish marshes that make up the Réserve Naturelle des Marais de Séné, in Brittany, one of her passions has always been to go into the swamp, walking along creaking wooden bridges, watching the landscape change with the ebb and flow of the tides that cyclically submerge part of the land.

During one of these excursions, as Sophie recounts, a fateful encounter took place: her encounter with an alga.

Having noticed that the texture of this seaweed resembled that of human skin, and that if left to dry it assumed the consistency of fabric, Sophie realized the ductility that this material could have in the artistic field.

Apart from the metal armor that keeps the desired position, Sophie Prestigiacomo’s Homo algus are sculpted solely with mud and algae. A type of ephemeral art, which natural elements continuously affect and modify. The artist occasionally does some restoration work, when the sculptures are falling apart; but their ultimate fate is to wear out completely, sooner or later.

Initially there were only two Homo algus. Intrigued and reassured by the welcome given to these first two ambassadors, other beings of algae and mud have begun to emerge from the stagnant waters, perhaps convinced that there may still be a relationship tie with this awkward primate called Man.

Thanks to the interest of the curator of the Nature Reserve, and to a crowdfunding campaign, today the swamp feature about ten sculptures.

Sophie Prestigiacomo is still in love with the marsh, and the way it transforms. She often returns to visit her creatures, which change from morning to evening, depending on the rains, winds, humidity: as vulnerable and sensitive as the ecosystem they are part of.

They just wait for someone to walk along the path, between the tidal flats and the marshes, to whisper in tune with the breeze that comes from the immense ocean: remember, human, that this landscape is yours, as you belong to it.

(Thanks, Roger!)

A Sign From Above

1954. That morning in late November the air was particularly clear and cold in the little Alabama town of Oak Grove, actually just a handful of houses scattered among the trees on the outskirts of Sylacauga.
It looked like any other morning. Yet an extraterrestrial object, not of this world, was about to violently break into that small country reality.

Ann E. Hodges, 34, was not feeling well that day. She was home alone because her husband Eugene, a utility worker, had left early. So, around lunchtime, Mrs. Hodges decided to take a little siesta on her sofa. As she slipped under the quilt, she certainly did not imagine that nap would change her life forever.
Shortly afterwards a frightful noise shook the house and a sharp, stabbing pain at her side suddenly woke her.

Around the same time, Dr. Moody Jacobs left his office to grab a bite. As he walked out, he glanced at the clear sky and realized that it was cut in two by a streak of black smoke. Was that an aircraft in trouble? As he narrowed his eyes to get a better look, the silence was pierced by a huge blast and the dark trail opened in a corolla of white smoke. If it really was an airplane, it had just exploded in flight.
Returning to his office around one o’clock, Dr. Jacobs received a distress call: apparently, Mrs. Hodges had been “hit by a comet”.
As he was getting into his car, the doctor must have thought this was some kind of joke: he knew well that the Hodges’ white house stood right in front of the Comet Drive-In Theater, whose neon sign showed a shooting star.

When the doctor arrived on the spot, Mrs. Hodges was in shock. As she was sleeping on the living room sofa, a rock the size of a coconut had broken through the ceiling and, after hitting the radio and smashing it, had bounced off hitting her in the side and on her left hand.

The news spread immediately, so much so that when Mr. Eugene Hodges returned from work he had to make his way through the crowd of gawkers assembled in front of his house.
Geologist George Swindel, who was conducting field work nearby, put forward the hypothesis that the rock was a meteorite; but as this was the Cold War era, it was better to be sure, so the police brought the stone to the Air Force Intelligence authorities. As soon as they confirmed that this was a chondrite, an unprecedented media frenzy hit the small community of Oak Grove: Ann was the first known victim of such an extraordinary event in the modern era. And consequently, Dr. Jacobs became the only physician to have treated a meteorite trauma.

Ann was sure that the stone which fell down from outer space was a divine sign: “I think God intended it for me. After all, it hit me!”
Her husband Eugene was also convinced that they could make a fortune out of that heavenly gift. Furious because the police had taken the rock for analysis, he hired a lawyer to get it back. In the meantime, he even refused a generous offer from the Smithsonian Institute, determined to make the most of their unexpected luck: he could feel it deep down, their lives were about to change.
And indeed they changed — unfortunately not for the better.

Newspapers and televisions stormed the couple, and Ann even appeared on Gary Moore’s TV quiz show I’ve Got A Secret, in which celebrities had to guess the guest’s “secret”.
Soon after, however, the couple found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit: in fact Ann and Eugene were renters and their landlady, Birdie Guy, claimed possession of the space stone that had fallen on her property. Mrs. Guy won in numerous appeals, and in the end the Hodges paid her $500 for the possession of the meteorite.
But the litigation had been so long that by the time the rock finally returned to their hands, the interest of the media had long since vanished. The Hodges found themselves poorer and more sour than before.
They divorced in 1964.

The meteorite ended up being used as a door stop, until Ann Hodges decided to get rid of it once and for all by donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, in Tuscaloosa, where it is still on display.
According to her husband and those who knew her, the woman never recovered emotionally from this whole ordeal; that stone fallen from the sky left far deeper scars on her than the physical ones. She died of kidney failure when she was 52-years-old, in 1972.

Perhaps that piece of rock — which had formed together with the solar system, and traveled through space for millions and millions of years before ending its trajectory in Mrs. Hodges’ living room — was truly a sign of heaven after all. A metaphor of the Unexpected breaking through our well-known everyday routine, upsetting all balances, reminding us of our own uncertainty. A symbol of how much our tiny individual stories, and our destinies, are intimately connected to the vast, boundless cosmos out there.

Or, perhaps, the divine sign meant something else.
Yes, because this is not the end of the story.

While it was passing through the atmosphere, the meteoroid had split in two.
As we have seen, the first fragment had impacted on Mrs Hodges, ruining her life. But the second fragment was found a few miles away by an African American farmer named Julius Kempis McKinney as he was driving a mule-drawn wagon with a load of firewood. The mules stopped in front of a strange stone on the edge of the road, McKinney moved the rock and continued home; but that evening, after hearing what had happened to the Hodges, he went back and collected the stone.

Unlike the Hodges, McKinney immediately sold it to the Smithsonian Institute; and although he never revealed the amount he earned, it was enough to buy his family a car and a new house.

That stone from deep space had brought luck only to a humble and poor family of black laborers, in 1954 Alabama; the same year in which the Supreme Court had declared, with a historic ruling, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

(Thanks, Cristina!)

Wunderkammer Live!

A few years ago I organized the Accademia dell’Incanto, a series of meetings with anthropologists, artists, pathologists, filmmakers and scholars of oddities – which I hosted in the wunderkammer Mirabilia in Rome.

Now that we are enduring this period of isolation, the curator of Wunderkammer Zurich, Christian D. Link, has come up with something very similar: his project is called Wunderkammer Live!, and it consists in two days of live streaming in the company of eccentric and exceptional guests.

Chris D. Link (Photo by Raisa Durandi)

The first two dates are April 18th and 19th, for a total of twelve guests (six every day, live from 4pm to 10pm European time).
The lineup is truly remarkable: in addition to myself and my friend Luca Cableri, whom you should be familiar with if you’ve seen my web series, the program features forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, Dutch taxidermist Marjolein Kramer, collector Viktor Wynd (another old acquaintance for those who follow Bizzarro Bazar), the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott, mentalist Luke Jermay, and many others.

Live streaming will take place within the Wunderkammer Live! Facebook group, so make sure you sign up; during these two weeks preceding the event you will also have the opportunity to get to know the speakers better through dedicated posts.

In this peculiar time we’re living, it is more essential than ever to keep our sense of wonder alive; Chris’ initiative is intended to inspire, entertain, amaze and share the heterogeneous knowledge of some professionals of the enchantment. And ok, I’m also among the interviewees, but personally I can’t wait to hear what the other guests will tell us.
We look forward to seeing you for a couple of out-of-the-ordinary evenings: we all need it!

Dragons of the Alps

Article by guestblogger Giovanni Savelli

In a mountain landscape which is getting increasingly civilized, anthropized and crowded by tourists, it is difficult to find the bizarre. Monsters have left for some faraway, inaccessible places. A teratological migration that concerned the Alps, even before other liminal areas such as the Carpathians or the mountain of northern Norway, where maybe some small group of trolls still barely survives escaping the expansion of human settlements.

Yet for centuries, until the mid-1700s, the most impressive and grandiose mountain range in Europe was a natural object better observed from a distance. People looked at the peaks only through binoculars or by means of some other natural observations which did not imply any dangerous approach to the observed object. The modern passion for heights, and the even more recent determination to set foot on the highest peaks in the world, did not interest travelers or naturalists back then at all. In the midst of civilized Europe, the Alps and its highest mountains were regarded with a slight indifference by explorers and with total distrust on the part of those who were forced to live with the reality of those landscapes.

A troublesome and uncomfortable reality for those who dwelled in the Chamonix valleys or the nearby village of Courmayeur during the Little Ice Age, when ice tongues became more intrusive and insidious.
The very toponymy of those places confirms this perception of danger and fear, as it makes use of names that are anything but reassuring, Maudit or Dolant, to indicate places which instilled a sense of suspicion, if not sheer terror.

Etching by H. G. Willink – Wilderwurm Gletscher (1892)

As Elisabetta Dall’Ò points out (in I draghi delle Alpi. Cambiamenti climatici, Antropocene e immaginari di ghiaccio), the reason is to be found in the progressive growth of ice tongues near Alpine villages, which began the 15th century with often fatal consequences for the inhabitants. The detachment of gigantic blocks of ice caused frequent obstructions of watercourses with in turn resulted in terrible floodings. The  glaciers’ progressive extension subtracted fertile soil to agriculture and pastures to cattle farms. It is in this ecological and socio-economic context that the legends about dragons and monsters first began to emerge. A folklore that has its roots in the etymology of the word “dragon”, which is associated with water: both in its liquid and solid form. The dragons of the Alps haunted the local imagination, fierce beasts capable of destroying entire villages in one night. The glaciers descending into the valley turned into threatening and unpredictable dragon tongues. And unpredictable they were, both for the superstitious inhabitants of the villages and for scientists or naturalists who, until the end of the 17th century, had been careful not to set foot on the cold alpine moors. Exploring exotic, remote islands was thought to be more interesting — and meteorologically more welcoming.

We mentioned the relationship between dragons and water, and across the Alps we find the term dragonàre with the meaning (in the Napoleonic era) of flooding, or the word dracare as a synonym for a heavy snowfall. The history of dragons in the Alps, however, goes back even further in time, since the foothills regions often mention the presence of dragons in their founding myths. It was a dragon that threatened the town of Augusta Taurinorum (the ancient Turin), until a red bull defeated it. Another dragon infested the Loo area (in the Aosta Valley region) and was once again put to flight by a young bull.

But let’s go back to the properly alpine dragons, which is the topic we are interested in. Just like it interested many 18th-century naturalists and scholars who collected several accounts of dragon sightings. Edward Topsell, an English cleric who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries, provided a brief classification in his work The History of Serpents. In the section dedicated to dragons we find that:

There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks.

Topsell’s scientific “consultant” was one Conrad Gessner, a native of the Alpine region; born in Zurich in 1516, he was the author of some of the drawings that appeared in the book. It seems unlikely that Topsell actually believed in the existence of these creatures, but what matters is his bizarre and detailed description of (real) animals alongside monsters and naturalistic oddities.

The fact that Edward Topsell himself had never set foot in the Alps makes his account not particularly unreliable; other naturalists and explorers, such as Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, could boast a much greater familiarity with the Alpine landscape. Scheuchzer was born and raised in Switzerland, he was a member of the Royal Society and undertook his first scientific journeys in the Alps starting from 1693. Not immune from huge mistakes, such as interpreting fossils as remains of the Universal Flood, he was nonetheless a careful and curious explorer who during his research collected some terrible and picturesque tales about the dragons inhabiting the Alps at the time.
In his 1723 expedition account (Itinera for Helvetiae alpinas regiones) we find a series of curious and intriguing representations of mountain dragons, bearing striking similarities with the dracological classification present in Topsell’s work. Scheuchzer wrote about the two most common dragons of the Alpine arc, according to the collected evidence: the Tatzelwurm and the Lindworm.

Unless you are an expert in dragons, it might be useful to summarise the morphology of the different dragon species we encountered so far:

  • Tatzelwurm: body of a snake, long tail, two or four legs;
  • Lindworm: dragon-serpent with two legs and no wings;
  • Iaculo: body of a snake and two wings;
  • Viverna: body of a snake with two wings and two legs;
  • Anfittero: winged dragon, no legs;

According to collected oral evidence, the first two species seem to be the most common in the Alps; the other three can be found in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, in the books of George R. R. Martin, and the dragon which infested the hills around Bologna is mentioned in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum historiae libri duo, published in 1604. If you have never heard of Aldrovandi, it is worth taking a look at Dario Carere’s article about him, here on Bizzarro Bazar. If you want to see the famous Bologna dragon as Aldrovandi described it, follow this link (the creature in question is on page 404).

And since Ulisse Aldrovandi was certainly fond of monstrous and bizarre figures, in his Serpentum and Draconum historiae he provided a series of four drawings of winged dragons, both bipedal and legless.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a typical 17th-century scholar, combining scientific curiosity with a wider interest in all things bizarre, monstrous and amazing. A disposition which was not shared by Swiss naturalist and scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure who, in fact, in his numerous explorations of the Alpine mountains, found no evidence of drangons. In the second half of the 18th century the alpine folklore regarding dragons underwent a slow and inexorable impoverishment. Where monstruous and fearsome dragon tongues were once ready to swallow entire villages, de Saussure’s scientific curiosity only meets natural objects and phenomena that must be understood, studied and explained.
This was the same scientific curiosity which led to the first tourist incursions in one of the largest and most fearsome “dragons” in the Alps: the Chamonix glacier. We can trace the discovery of the Mer de Glace to the summer of 1741, as a party of reckless British mountaineers undertook an adventurous climb and came in view of a glacier which until a few years before was populated by dragons and demons.

This marked the beginning of glaciological tourism which, in the decades to come, would make the French resort of Chamonix famous among mountain enthusiasts. Chased away by crowds of tourists and mountaineers, the dragons of the Alps were forced into retreat, as they witnessed from a distance the rising of hotels, cable cars and accommodation facilities. Of course, their territory was still scary, arousing awe and wonder in those who came to see those mountains. Mary Shelley set a scene of Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace, which she visited in the company of her husband in 1816. But it was a fascination akin to the one which can still be felt by riding the Mont Blanc cable car, looking down on the breath-taking view of the glacier from a suspended cabin. Quite different, that is, from the fear of the unpredictable, the terror of what cannot be explained or controlled.
Within a century, the Alpine territory changed so radically that today it is difficult to believe those places were once populated by dragons and demons. It is natural to associate the withdrawal of dragons with the current conditions alpine glaciers are facing. Natural, of course, but also necessary: because envisaging a snowless Mont Blanc can help understand where the fearsome dragons of the Alps have gone. This is how folklore, legends and traditions are linked to ecology; when a landscape is transformed, the representation that its inhabitants make of it changes accordingly.
The dragons have disappeared from the Alps; and not just them.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 21

“My vanitas painting has more skulls than yours!” (Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor, high def)

  • Mariano Tomatis tells the amazing story of Doña Pedegache, a Portuguese 18-century mentalist woman; and, as usual, his writing proves to be surprising and touching.
  • Since we’re in Portugal, we might as well take a tour of the Capela dos Ossos with this nice post by Cat Irving.
  • August 21, 1945: physicist Harry Daghlian was stacking a nice pile of tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium sphere when a brick slipped from his hand and brought the core into supercritical condition. Daghlian died 25 days later.
    May 21, 1946: physicist Louis Slotin was working on a plutonium sphere — but not just any sphere: the very same that had killed Daghlian. To separate the two halves, he had the bad idea of using a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped, the top fell off. Slotin died 9 days later.
    From that moment on, the poor plutonium sphere no longer enjoyed a good reputation, and it also earned an unflattering nickname.

  • But nuclear history is full of incredible incidents. There is one aspect regarding the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is not often talked about: human experiments on unsuspecting subjects. Take for instance Albert Stevens, who survived the highest dose of radiation ever accumulated in a human’s body when, without his knowledge or consent, scientists injected him with 131 kBq of plutonium.
  • Everybody speaks ill of poor HAL, but perhaps it is time to reevaluate the guy. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the infamous supercomputer kills some astronauts, and gets eventually killed itself. Now that artificial intelligence is a reality, we’d better start asking ourselves some questions about the ethics of murder by machines, but also of the murder of machines.
  • A brief history of children sent through the mail.

  • The always excellent Lindsey Fitzharris (author of The Butchering Art) delights us with some anecdotes about beauty hacks from the past. For example, a method that was used to make 18th-century wigs look attractive by spreading them with lard. Attractive, that is, for fleas and lice.
  • A geologist discovered an ancient cave, but he immediately noticed that it was not a natural cavity. Someone or something must have bored it. And what were those huge scratch marks, produced by gigantic claws, on the walls…? When reality surpasses Lovecraft: here are the underground tunnels excavated by the mysterious prehistoric megafauna.
  • Take a look at the picture below. It’s entitled Franz de Paula Graf von Hartig and his wife Eleanore ad Caritas Romana, and it’s a 1797 painting by Barbara Krafft. When you are done laughing and/or feeling uncomfortable, check out the meaning of that “Caritas Romana in the title, and enjoy other examples of young girls breastfeeding old geezers.

  • Paranormeow activity.
  • The next time you need to remodel your bathroom, I suggest you take inspiration from these 18th-century toilets for bibliophiles.
  • There are those who spend hours scrolling through the photos of influencers. I would spend days watching the Russian poet, body-builder and futurist Vladimir Goldschmidt hypnotizing a chicken.

  • Idea for an action film / comedy drama.
    Title: White Trip.
    Concept: think The Revenant meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
    Plot: Finnish soldier Aimo Koivunen, during the Second World War, is ski patrolling a mountain area when his unit is suddenly caught under Soviet fire. Aimo begins to escape from the ambush, but after skiing for a long time he feels exhausted; the enemies are still on his tail, and they are getting closer and closer. So he decides to take one of the methamphetamine tablets that the commander has entrusted him with; but, partly because of the big gloves he’s wearing, and partly because he has to keep skiing to save himself, he can’t take the tablet out of the package. To hell with it, he thinks, and swallows the whole jar of pills. Suddenly he starts skiing again with renewed, exceptional energy, but after a while everything becomes blurred, and Aimo passes out: he wakes up alone, lost in the snow and separated from his patrol, without any food and in full overdose delusion. He keeps on skiing frantically, and avoids some more Soviet soldiers. At one point he manages to catch a bird which, in his hallucination, appears to him like a wonderful crispy chicken skewer; he swallows it raw, feathers and everything. Then he runs into a land mine that blows him up in the air. Although badly injured, he continues to ski. After covering 250 miles and spending a week in the open, bleeding and now reduced to skin and bones, he finally manages to return to the Finnish front. When they take him to the infirmary, his heart rate is still twice the average. As soon as he sees the doctor Aimo says: “Hello dear, you don’t happen to have some chamomile tea? I feel a bit nervous and your antennae look ridiculous.”
    Based on a true story. (Thanks, David!)
  • Philosophical thought of the day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the soul is a kind of black chasm, a bottomless crater:

  • Welcome to the scariest church in the world. (Thanks, Serena!)
  • Simon Sellars (author of Applied Ballardianism), tells us about the dazzling beauty of Google Earth — which doesn’t so much reside in panoramas or virtual tours, but rather in 3D glitches, rendering errors, misaligned joints that reveal the collage behind 360 views, thus creating altered and distorted perceptions. The map may not be the territory, but it is a territory of the mind.
  • I like to imagine that when the human species has long since become extinct, alien archaeologists coming to Earth to study mankind will find this video as the only remaining clue:

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 6

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 6 – THE ANIMALS OF THE EARTH

The well-known detail: A friend of yours posts alarming news on Facebook: due to overpopulation, the number of the living would now have exceeded that of the dead. It honestly seems an exaggeration, and yet you are curious: how many people have lived and died in the whole history of humanity?

The background: This is a rather controversial empirical calculation (1)An excellent study on the history of the calculation of the dead, and its socio-political implications, is How Many People Have Lived on Earth?, by Oded Carmeli, Haaretz, 11 October 2018., which might easily be interpreted for political purposes (or distorted—if necessary—to make more or less plausible predictions about the future of humanity). Furthermore, there are intrinsic methodological problems: the further one goes back in time, the more difficult it is to estimate the effective population size, population growth and life expectancy, not to mention the remotest prehistory in which the same concept of homo sapiens seems to vanish.
If we want a reference number anyway, we can refer to a study by the Population Reference Bureau published in 2018, according to which the number of living human beings (7 and a half billion at the time of the estimate) would constitute about 6.9% of the people born throughout history. The total number of human beings ever appeared on the Planet would therefore be 108.6 billion, of which 101 billion are already dead. The afterlife, it must be said, seems to be quite crowded and its ranks grow with every passing second. (2)If you want to know the data updated in real time, go and check worldometers.info.

But these figures fade if we think of how many animals and plants there are in the world.
Our planet has a radius of 6371 km; the portion that allows life, starting from the air (the lower layers of the atmosphere), passing through the surface and reaching the subsoil, is just 20 km high.
So the biosphere turns out to be just a very thin layer that covers the Earth, yet it houses an inconceivable number of living creatures.

It is estimated that the living species are approximately 8.7 million, of which 370,000 are plants, 23,000 fish, 8700 birds, 6300 reptiles, 4500 mammals, 3000 amphibians, 900,000 insects and 500,000 belong to other taxonomic groups.
We’ve managed to discover and catalogue only a small part of all these species: 86% of land creatures and 91% of marine creatures are still unknown. And many of these will be forever, because climate change is accelerating the process of extinction: many species are disappearing in this very moment, without our having ever noticed their existence.


If the sheer number of species is impressive, the figures become even more inconceivable if we consider the number of specimens for each species.
Let’s focus on animals, for example: how many are there? Once again, we cannot know for sure, but considering insects might give us a rough idea. Ants are about 10,000 quadrillion (that is, million billion). Based on this figure, some scientists estimate that the total number of insects amounts to 10 quintillion, or 10 billion billion.
These are just the insects, to which we must add all other animals—from eagles to squids, from men to reptiles—plants, fungi, protozoa, chromista, bacteria…

The numbers go beyond understanding and we are only ever considering living creatures.
Now try and imagine how many plants and animals have died from the moment life appeared on Earth… if you can.

The Sixth Lesson: Dismantling fake news on overpopulation is easy, but it opens up a dizzying amount of numbers. The biosphere in which we live is at the same time a ‘thanatosphere’: it almost takes your breath away to contemplate the immeasurable quantity of death that supports the swarm of life and melts with it. On the other hand, none of the creatures that have inhabited the planet in the past million years has ever really gone away, they are all still in circulation. This life is already an afterlife.

 


This post is part of the series ILLUSTRATI GENESIS:
Day 1 & 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
– Day 6 (this article)

Note

1 An excellent study on the history of the calculation of the dead, and its socio-political implications, is How Many People Have Lived on Earth?, by Oded Carmeli, Haaretz, 11 October 2018.
2 If you want to know the data updated in real time, go and check worldometers.info.

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 20

Monday morning according to Gustave Doré.

First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.

  • On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
  • On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
    [BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
  • I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.

Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!

  • In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.
  • The Halloween special which caused the death of a young boy, pushing the BBC to pretend it never even aired: a nice video tells its story. (Thanks Johnny!)
  • Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.

  • Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
  • In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
  • I sometimes think back to a little book I had as a kid, Idées Noires by Franquin. Here is an example of the Belgian cartoonist‘s very dark humor.

“The law is clear: everyone who kills another person will have his head cut off.”

  • An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.
  • Greta Thunberg becomes a pretext to clarify what autism and Asperger’s syndrome really are (article in Italian).
  • In England, back in the days, whenever someone died in the family the first thing to do was tell the bees.
  • To conclude, I leave you with a picture of a beautiful Egyptian mummified phallus (circa 664-332 a.C.). See you next time!