Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Exhibit NEC001: John Dee's Speculum. (on loan from the British Museum).
The parent institution for the item, the British Museum, has images for perusal.
Dr. John Dee was many things, including court astrologer for Elizabeth I, scholar, bibliophile, possible intelligence agent, and most importantly for our purposes, translator of the Necronomicon, the "book of dead names" or the "book of the dead." Amongst the various items he used to aid his magical research was an obsidian mirror. Brought over from Mexico not long after the initial Spanish Conquest, Dee used the mirror to communicate with spirits.
All of this information comes from Sir Horace Walpole, 4th Early of Orford and credited as a major originator of the horror tale and the Gothic tradition. Walpole obtained the mirror in 1771, over 160 years after Dee had died.
If it was Dee's, the idea of using it for magic is not that far-fetched. Not only does the mirror have sorcerous associations in Europe, it was tied to supernaturals in Mesoamerica (the supposed source of the obsidian and the mirror). Most commonly associated with the dark Aztec sorcerer Tezcatlipoca, the mirror has deeper time depth than the Aztecs. The Classic Maya analog for Tezcatlipoca, K'awil, regularly has it associated with images of him, to the point that one way to write his name is mostly a hieroglyph of a mirror. Older mirrors are found in association with Olmec ritual deposits.
Dee's possible Aztec mirror was not the only prized item to come across the Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Aztec featherwork best survives from royal gifts that ended up in the curiosity cabinets and musems of Europe, and Cortes sent back a ballgame team to entertain the Spanish royal court. However, the infamous crystal skulls were likely 19th century hoaxes, and not examples of early transatlantic cultural transfer. We do not know how Dee would have acquired a prized magic mirror from a Spanish colony, so one might as well throw in suggestions of pirates and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Why not?
Monday, October 26, 2009
Exhibit AUD001: Recording about the Taos Hum
It is generally agreed that discussion and naming of the "Taos Hum," a low-frequency sound many have claimed to hear in and around Taos, New Mexico, dates to the 1980s. Since popularization of the Taos Hum, other hums have been suggested around the globe. The Taos Hum has been blamed on any number of culprits, though a persistent one ties it to Dulce and the legends of a secret military and/or extraterrestrial underground base.
But while the story of the Taos Hum may not be that old, it bears a striking resemblance to the central feature of one of H. P. Lovecraft's earliest stories, "The Transition of Juan Romero," written in 1919 though not published until the 1940s.
Specifically in the story, the secret of a mysterious lineage comes to a head after the dynamiting of a mine in the Southwestern United States, probably Arizona, in 1894. Soon afterwards, a low rumbling sound emerges from the abysses opened by the explosion. Lovecraft writes
"It was Romero’s voice, coming from the bunk above, that awakened me, a voice excited and tense with some vague expectation I could not understand:Things only get worse from there.
"Madre de Dios! - el sonido - ese sonido - oiga Vd! - lo oye Vd? - señor, THAT SOUND!"
I listened, wondering what sound he meant. The coyote, the dog, the storm, all were audible; the last named now gaining ascendancy as the wind shrieked more and more frantically. Flashes of lightning were visible through the bunk-house window. I questioned the nervous Mexican, repeating the sounds I had heard:
"El coyote - el perro - el viento?"
But Romero did not reply. Then he commenced whispering as in awe:
"El ritmo, señor - el ritmo de la tierra - THAT THROB DOWN IN THE GROUND!"And now I also heard; heard and shivered and without knowing why. Deep, deep, below me was a sound - a rhythm, just as the peon had said - which, though exceedingly faint, yet dominated even the dog, the coyote, and the increasing tempest. To seek to describe it was useless - for it was such that no description is possible. Perhaps it was like the pulsing of the engines far down in a great liner, as sensed from the deck, yet it was not so mechanical; not so devoid of the element of the life and consciousness. Of all its qualities, remoteness in the earth most impressed me."
A mechanical sound, emanating from deep underground, in the American Southwest, and as noted in the story, tied into occult traditions?
That's the Taos Hum.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Professor Ellen Van Wolde of Radboud University has created a bit of a firestorm with her new analysis of Genesis, and the press hype it has gotten. An article in the Telegraph has caused all the fuss. In essence, Professor van Wolde is arguing that the Hebrew verb bara is better interpreted not as "to create" but in this context "to separate." Meaning that rather than the god of the Abrahamic traditions creating the earth and universe, a world already existed, and this god went about separating parts of it.
The element of interest here?
Preternatural sea monsters predating the gods of Man. Yes, I believe I've heard this story before.
She concluded that God did not create, he separated: the Earth from the Heaven, the land from the sea, the sea monsters from the birds and the swarming at the ground.
"There was already water," she said.
"There were sea monsters. God did create some things, but not the Heaven and Earth. The usual idea of creating-out-of-nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is a big misunderstanding."
More traditional scholars would point to similarities with other Near Eastern myths, like that in the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. In this story, in a war of gods, Marduk defeats the sea monster Tiamat (as depicted in the Babylonian cylinder seal above), and uses the components of her body to create the earth. Such a similarity is not terribly surprising, given the famous similarities between the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis, and numerous Flood and Ark stories in the Near East.
Perhaps more surprising is the similarity to the story of the Mesoamerican Earth Monster. There are different versions, but amongst the Aztecs, ideas of this alternated between the sea monster/caiman Cipactli and the goddess Tlahtecutli (statue below), torn to bits by other gods and used to create the land, though like some other monsters in the sea, she is dead but alive, and likes to have blood sacrifices.
Suffice to say, the reactions to Professor van Wolde's thesis have not been warm (here, here, and here). But perhaps it is better that we not voyage far from our placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, even if some sky god wants to separate it for us.
UPDATE: These illustrations of traditional Hebrew monsters are very much on topic.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Exhibit HPL001: The Luck of Eden Hall
Much is made of H. P. Lovecraft's ardent materialist skepticism and atheism. It was a defining element for the man. Personally, one of the great "what if's" of Lovecraft's life, in my opinion, revolves around the debunking book on superstition that Lovecraft was writing for Harry Houdini, an item we will perhaps return to in the future. But while Lovecraft may have rejected the supernatural, it doesn't mean he couldn't have a bit of magical lore in his family background.
In March 1934, Lovecraft wrote a letter to one of his regular correspondents Robert Barlow, who would go on to be an anthropologist of Mesoamerica, specializing in rare Nahuatl texts and Aztec hieroglyphic writing. In this letter, Lovecraft discusses his genealogy, including ties to the Musgrave family. While Lovecraft regularly discussed his genealogy (including jokingly producing Roman and other ancestors to satisfy his historical interests), in this case he went into the specifics of an unusual item associated with the Musgrave family: The Luck of Eden Hall. As Lovecraft put it himself:
“This is the legend of Eden Hall in Cumberland, seat of the family until quite recent times. It is given erroneously in a German poem by Uhland and thence paraphrased in a verse of Longfellow’s – but the original version of the tale is as follows: A drinking-glass was stolen by a Musgrave from the fairies, who thereafter made futile attempts to recover it. In the end, the fairies pronounced the following prophecy – indicating that disaster would overtake the house of Musgrave unless the glass was kept intact:Selected Letters: 1932 – 1934. Volume IV. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner. Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin p. 392, Letter 692
‘If the glass either break or fall
Farewell to the luck of Eden Hall’
In the family there actually existed an old glass, supposed to be the one of the legend, which was guarded with the most extreme care. Upon the breaking up of the estate and the sale of Eden Hall after the World War, this glass was placed in the South Kensington Museum, London. I hope no one will smash it, since that would doubtless bring me some sort of evil through my Musgrave side!”
More extensive versions of the story note that the cup was found by one or more humans, possibly by a servant, who disturbed a group of fairies partying near a well. As the fairies fled, one of them (in at least one version, the Queen of the Fairies) uttered the curse.
The drawing at the top of the page appeared in the Halloween entry of Chamber's Book of Days (1869)
While not an actual magical fairie cup, the Luck of Eden Hall nonetheless has an impressive pedigree. In reality the cup is an ornate gilded and enameled drinking cup made in Syria in the thirteenth century. It seems to have left the Middle East not long after that date, as a custom case was made for it, likely in fourteenth-century France. While the manner in which it reached England is uncertain, returning participants in one of the later Crusades seems a possible option. It is not the only legend of a fairie cup, nor the only supposedly fairie item, ranging from elaborate luxury goods to "elfshot" interpretations for prehistoric projectile points.
It was clearly very carefully curated, only brought out of its case for special occasions, though there are family accounts of ancestors throwing it into the air as if to tempt fate. It can be traced back in the Musgrave family to at least a published mention of it in 1791.
While the Hall was demolished in 1934, the cup exists intact to this day in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The cup was loaned to the museum in 1926, and would later become a permanent part of the museum collection in 1956.
You can learn more about the Luck, as well as see recent color photographic images, at the Victoria & Albert Museum page on the Luck. A modern Musgrave discusses the legend here.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
We're still arranging the display cases and the audio guided tour devices only shriek pitiful wails, so please bear with us in these early opening days. Be sure to visit the Museum Gift Shop, where many wonderful tomes, icons, and other momentos can be purchased to commemorate your visit. And whatever you do, please refrain from entering any spaces reserved for the museum staff; everyone will be happier and saner for it.