Arrg kxrrt!

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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time


There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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The trouble with religion (part 94)

In which we discuss a suitable Sunday topic


The Mother phoned up today, as she does regularly, to tell us all the latest exciting goings-on in her social circle. Her friend George, who she knew from church, has died aged 85, after a long illness. “Of course, he’d been ill for years,” she said, “and he was in great pain. By the end he was screaming. ‘Take me, Lord, take me!’ It was a blessing when he died.”

When it comes to religion, The Mother is a great fan of this sort of logic. If The Family Car Crash Of 1988 ever comes up in conversation, The Mother will no doubt say something along the lines of “You had such a narrow escape! It just proves that God was looking down on us.” Now, it’s true that I almost lost a) my life b) an eyeball;* but I’m not sure God deserves much in the way of credit. It is fair to argue, though, that the Family Car Crash Of 1988 was a Good Thing: the insurance windfall paid for a piano and a university education.

You can’t really argue, though, that taking the life of an old man after he’s had a long and painful illness, so bad he begs you to kill him, is a good way for any deity to behave. If God really wanted to bless a man who had been a devout churchgoer all his life, a churchwarden and church committee member for many years, someone who every Sunday had been up at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ devoutly believing that the said God had personally told us all to do this every week,** if He had really wanted to grant him a boon, wouldn’t he have saved him the several years of pain and suffering?*** But, no, in The Mother’s religious logic, bringing the death after George had been calling out for it loudly for a while is the kindly Godly way to behave, not letting him die after a short illness a few years ago. It leaves me thinking: just what does count as compassion, for the religious?

* Strangely, although my life was saved by a pretty narrow margin, I never realised until many many years later just how close I’d come to being killed. Instead, I concentrated on the irony that my eyeball was probably saved by my poor sight, as the thick plastic lens in front of it absorbed the impact of the shards of glass that hit me. With extra irony, the sight in my other eye is almost perfect.

** Although of course, Jesus didn’t want me for a sunbeam do it on a Sunday morning.

*** Let’s not get into the tragic story of George’s wife, either.

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Wrong

In which FP is right at something, but not in a helpful way


Well, part of last Wednesday’s post quickly came true: my “almost certainly wrong” prediction of the future did, indeed, turn out to be wrong. I was sorely tempted to claim I’d been right all along, or that I’ve got enough right that I can be considered reasonably infallible; but, nah, I got it wrong. As I did say I would. Hence, I was right. Hurrah! I should go into business as a futurologist; I’m good at it. And I’ve known people make bigger futurology U-turns.

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Strange Times

In which research fails


Sometimes, there are little things that bug me. Like: remembering the vague outline of the plot of a book I read 20 years ago, but not being able to remember enough to track it down. Or remembering something I saw on TV,* or read in a library book at some point in the distant past.

It’s something like that that’s bugging me at the moment. Regular readers might know that I occasionally enjoy talking about prophets and predictors of the future, noting people who make predictions that fail to come true, or try to rewrite their predictions retrospectively to match the actual events. Ages ago, probably approaching the 20-years scale, I read that a sometime-famous clairvoyant had predicted that a nuclear war was going to start, and that it would involve a nuclear attack on Hull. Which may one day happen, I suppose.** Unfortunately, this was a prophecy with a very specific date, and that date was in 1981.

The only hint I have to go on is that I’m fairly sure this was in a book I got from my local library of 20 years ago, and it might have been by Jenny Randles. As Jenny Randles has written several shelves’ worth of paranormal books, that’s not much help. It may well have a book about the vast number of prophecies indicating that Something Horrible Would Happen To Civilisation As We Know It around the start of this century; clearly all very very accurate ones. There’s not much to go on, though, and searching for information on prophecies about Hull hasn’t dragged anything up either. So, in trying to track this one down, I’m puzzled.

* Like an old movie where a pit pony refuses to be evacuated from a coal mine and gets blown up in an accident as a result. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks.

** Feel free to insert the compulsary joke along the lines of “at least [insert street/district here] might be improved a bit”

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Chauvinism

In which we are shocked by vintage sexism


If you get involved in some hobbies, some fields of interest, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll end up finding yourself alongside older men with unpalatable views. If you like trains, for example, you will sometimes find yourself alongside elderly trainspotters who haven’t yet worked out that there might be a link between “being single” and “not washing”. You get used to hearing them espousing rather reactionary viewpoints, such as “we should send them all back to their own countries”, and so on.

Nevertheless, occasionally, something comes along which makes you think: I can’t believe they said that. Or, in this case: I can’t believe they printed that. I was reading a book I picked up recently in a charity shop: Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel From Old Photographs by Jeoffry Spence, a 1980s reprint of a 1970s book, and came across this delightful passage in the introduction. It starts off with saying how Edwardian railway timetables were far too complicated for women to understand, and goes on:

But even today, with so many regular-interval services and absence of complexities, there is something rather irritating to us chauvinistic males about the sight of a woman standing haughtily in the circulating area of a big station, telling us firmly what time the train goes, which platform, where to change, and even the time of arrival at the destination; it makes a bad impression on our younger children.

I’m sorry? It “makes a bad impression” for children to be allowed to see a woman advising a man? To see a woman having responsibility? To see a woman speaking firmly? Or, indeed, all of the above? Even for something written in the late 70s, that’s a bit much to see in print.

A bit of research suggests that Spence was born in 1915, so was probably in his early 60s when he wrote that. He died* in ’92, at 77 or so. Getting a bit elderly when he wrote those words, then, you could argue. But I don’t think that’s an excuse, given that feminism was already alive and well when he was growing up; and that there are plenty of people of his generation who weren’t such terrible bigots. Thirty years later, it comes across as a shockingly sexist piece of writing. The worrying thing is: I’m sure there are still men today, lurking in the backwoods and writing down the numbers of trains, who would probably still agree with him.

* Assuming I’ve found the right man, but the unusual spelling helps

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Calling Dr Jones (part four)

In which we finally finish talking about Tudor Parfitt and the Ark of the Covenant


Series of posts, on here, always seem to take me longer to write than I had planned. It’s now, ooh, at least six weeks since I wrote the first post in this series, so I really should tidy it up and finish it off. For people who aren’t regular readers: some time ago, a Jewish Studies professor called Tudor Parfitt made a documentary about the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical artefact which starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in reality has been missing for well over 2 millennia. Professor Parfitt’s theory is that, although the original ark is probably long destroyed, it passed into east Africa, into the possession of a Jewish tribe there called the Lemba, and that its replacement is a war drum now sitting in storage in an Harare museum. Feel free to go back and read what I’ve written so far, if you’re a new reader.

All that is so well and good. It may well, indeed, be true, so far as I’m concerned. However, that’s not the end of the theory. Its logic goes as follows: the ark’s descendant is a war drum; therefore, the original ark must have been a drum too. Even though all the evidence for its existance states that it wasn’t a drum, a drum it is now, so a drum it must have been. In part three, I discussed how, in some ways, this theory is typical of what I suppose you could call “primitive archaeology”: the traditional diffusionist archaeology that held sway until the 1960s. Change was seen as a hard thing to do, and the possibility of cultural change tended to get swept under the carpet.

Change happens, though, in the real world: we can see it every day. It’s hard to see it occurring in the archaeological record, though; and very hard to determine its cause. Archaeological change and historical change are very different beasts.

There is one case in the British archaeological record where archaeology and history match up, and together provide evidence for inward migration. It’s in a small area of East Yorkshire, and archaeologically it’s known as the Arras Culture. It’s distinctive because of its chariot burials, unique in Britain. The nearest parallels are with similar cemetaries in the Ile-de-France region and the surrounding area.* Some of the riding gear buried with the chariots – the bits, for example – also resemble continental riding gear more than British.**

Fast forward to the end of the Iron Age; and the Romans arrive in the area. They have historians with them, and said historians write down the names of the various British tribes that the Romans encounter. The tribe that lives in East Yorkshire? They’re called the Parisii. They’re not the only tribe of that name, though. The Romans had discovered Parisii before, in the Ile-de-France, where they even had a city named after them.*** On the face of it, then, an obvious link. One of the few clear examples of cultural change in the British archaeological record which has matching historical evidence for a migration.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Yorkshire Parisii and the French Parisii both buried people in chariots, and they used similar riding gear. But if you put a Yorkshire horse bit next to a French horse bit then, although the Yorkshire one looks suspiciously Continental in its general design, it’s still also clearly separate from the French one. Its detail design work will still be distinctively British. Overall, the Arras Culture is something of a hybrid of British and Continental Iron Age styles.

How does this fit in with Tudor Parfitt’s Ark of the Covenant theories? Well, archaeologists have tried to explain the Arras Culture in various ways other than straightforward migration. For example, a British tribe might have been trying to adopt Continental styles and fashions.**** Or, it might reflect a limited migration: a small number of leaders move, bringing their technology with them; but the craftsmen and engineers doing the actual work are British and use the same styles as their ancestors did. And, curiously, this is exactly what the Lemba say happened to them. A small number of priests came down from the north, bringing with them Jewish traditions, laws, and their holy war drum.

It’s entirely possible that this happened. There aren’t many other ways to explain the Lemba’s existence, after all. However, we do know that the priests from the north didn’t bring all the Jewish traditions with them. The Hebrew language, for one thing: the Lemba speak a Bantu language. Just like in Yorkshire, the new leaders brought with them the outline of a culture but not the detail. They brought with them an idea of the Ark, if not the Ark itself, as a holy object through which God could speak and smite, to be carried into battle in front of the tribe. But the concept of the Ark as a reliquary didn’t survive. In the Lemba culture, it became a drum, the literal and thunderous voice of God.

Professor Parfitt is forced to admit that the Harare drum is definitely not the Biblical Ark, because, being wood, it’s straightforward to date. He wants to stick with the idea, though, that the Harare drum is as close to the real Ark as we can get now. It may well be the closest surviving object to the Ark we have, yes. But that doesn’t mean that the Ark was always a drum. Cultural change happens, details of culture get left behind, and things change and adapt. The Lemba’s religion isn’t Judaism as the rest of the world practises it: it is Judaism filtered and absorbed through a small group of priests and the African tribe they evangelised. There’s no reason why we should follow their lead and say that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, when the rest of Judaism***** says it was a reliquary. Tudor Parfitt’s theory may be partly right, but it is also very flawed, because of his inability to consider how the Lemba culture developed, and how cultures can adapt and change.

* Confusingly, the “Arras Culture” name is nothing to do with France at all; it refers to a place in Yorkshire.

** Specifically: the number of joints in the bit mouthpiece.

*** It’s still there today, apparently.

**** Even today, I can see why, if you came from Hull you might want to imagine you were from Paris instead.

***** Not to mention Christianity, and Islam.

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Misogynistic Stereotype Killers

In which Mario Reading is quiet, so we criticise Horne & Corden instead


Quick update on yesterday’s post: as those of you with your own blogs will know, if you link from one blog to another, your blog will send a thing called a “pingback” or a “trackback” to the other one, and the owner of the other blog can choose to display it as a comment.

Yesterday I linked to the blog of Nostradamus-interpreter Mario Reading, when writing about his prediction that George W Bush would be assassinated in 2006, and his later claim that this prediction was right all along. Mario* saw the pingback, followed it back here, and (presumably) read my post about him. Unfortunately, he decided not to display the pingback on his blog, and so far hasn’t responded to what I pointed out: that his claim of correctness fundamentally contradicts the prediction he’s claiming is correct. I’m disappointed. Mario, if you’re reading,** if you want to respond to what I’ve said, then whatever you want to say, I promise I’ll publish it here. I won’t just delete it, like some people would. That’s a fair offer.

Moving on, comedy of a more intentional kind.*** We couldn’t avoid noticing posters around the place for the new British comedy film**** Lesbian Vampire Killers, starring Mathew Horne and James Corden; and, thinking: oh my holy pantheon. Someone would really produce a film with a premise like that? I mean, I’m not surprised someone – probably a 14-year-old boy – would write a film with a title like that, but, produce it? Agree to appear in it?

Well, fortunately, you don’t have to listen to me ramble on about how awful, ugly, and misogynistic we thought it sounded when we haven’t even seen it,***** because the excellent not-quite-worksafe blogger Bitchy Jones has written a similarly-kneejerk castigation of its low concepts. You only need to look at the URL of that to realise that she’s not-quite-worksafe; and she has done a far better critique of it than I’d manage. There are comments, too, from people who have actually seen it. If you also thought: “what, that’s a real film?” go and read.

Talking of Horne and Corden, I feel like I can’t get away from the buggers at the moment, because every time I switch the telly to the BBC, there’s a trail for their new sketch show; well, unless it’s BBC4. Being a sketch-show trail, it shows sketches. Sketches without jokes in. Their writing strategy seems to go something like this:

1: comedy set-up, relying on recognisable situation (eg. the movie “Ghost”
2: err …
3: … that’s it

No joke. No punchline. What’s the point of that, then? Is this some new zen-comedy, are there catchphrases that I haven’t noticed yet, were the trailers wrecked in the editing, or is it just lazy writing? Answers on a postcard, I guess. The trailers certainly don’t inspire me to watch it.

* or, whoever moderates his blog for him, if he doesn’t do it himself

** fighting my pun-instinct is really really hard here, you know

*** The blog title is about this bit, by the way, and completely unrelated to Mr. R.

**** words which, already, are not a promising start

***** See, at least Mario Reading gets criticised on the grounds that I’ve read his books and his blog and can spot the flaws in them, and not just on me thinking it sounds like it might be wrong.

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The Future Of Things

In which we return to Mario Reading and his inability to admit to his mistakes


Flicking through my viewing figures and my search keywords, I spotted one that caught my eye:

Is it true that nostradamus predicts that George W Bush is going to get assassinated?

Well, no. No, I have to say, it isn’t. It has been claimed that he did, though, by a writer called Mario Reading. As I do try hard to maintain this blog’s position as the top source for Mario Reading information on the internet, I thought I’d better mention it. Mr Reading’s prediction is based on this quatrain by Nostradamus:

The successor will avenge his handsome brother
He will take over the realm under cover of vengeance
The obstacle slain, his dead blood seethes
Britain and France will hold together for a long time

This is Reading’s own translation. He interpreted it as: a powerful world leader, whose main international ally is the British government, undergoes an assassination attempt; and this will lead to Britain aligning itself more with the EU. Oh, and, all this will take place in ’06.* He stepped carefully around the issue of naming the leader in print:

One of many possible targets, of course, might be US President George W Bush

but this is after mentioning that “under cover” in the quatrain, souz umbre in the original, probably means something like “under a bush”. Not to mention, Reading was rather less guarded when, as part of the pre-publication publicity, he went on the telly and said specifically that it was George W Bush that he meant.

Needless to say, none of this has come true, as you might have noticed, and the time for Reading’s prophecy to apply is well past. Nevertheless, he’s since declared that his prophecy did indeed come true! He wrote on his blog that:

I’m very sad to say that the predicted assassination did indeed take place, with the murder, on the 27th December 2007, of Benazir Bhutto. … The prophecy was further vindicated by the fact that both of Benazir Bhutto’s brothers had also died under unnatural circumstances, and that their brother-in-law, Benazir Bhutto’s husband, was elected President of Pakistan. … I rest my case.

Hang on a minute there, Mario! Yes, I know, “handsome brother” might be a mistranslation of “brother-in-law” – but in your prophecy there, it’s the brother who’s been attacked. Benazir Bhutto may well have been assassinated, but she definitely was no man’s brother. Having said, back in 2005, that you thought George W Bush was going to get attacked, it’s a bit misleading of you to go back and say “aah, someone else was assassinated, see, I was right all along”. Particularly as that someone else doesn’t at all fit the prediction you wrote.

I’ve been meaning, for a while, to write a full and proper critique of Reading’s book; something which is only going to get easier over the years as fewer of his prophecies come true. I’ve had more important things to write about,** but I’m getting round to it. Once I have, I’m tempted to go on to Peter Le Mesurier, who, in the mid-90s, predicted, using Nostradamus and astrology,** that an Islamic army would have invaded Europe from North Africa by now.*** He’s still writing books, and his website is actually pretty useful, despite not acknowledging his past predictive failure. But, on the other hand, there is a whole world of future-predictors to debunk out there. All I can ever do is scratch the surface.

* Reading has his own dating scheme which links the year to the number of the prophecy; according to that, the prophecy applies to a year ending in 06, although he goes on to link it, because of his interpretation, to the vaguer period “2006-2008″.

** which does make sense in a way, as Nostradamus was basically an astrologer himself. Le Mesurier sets the dates of his predictions by looking at repeating astrological cycles.

*** This is why, as I wrote a while back, the work of people like Reading and Le Mesurier really needs a Ron Howard voiceover, to say things like “It hasn’t”.

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Voiceover

In which we make better documentaries


We sat down last night to watch one of the Christmas present DVDs: Arrested Development Season 3. It got me thinking, after yesterday’s post, about pseudo-archaeological documentaries.

I don’t mean Professor Parfitt’s documentary described yesterday, so much as the far wilder theories produced by, say, Graham Hancock, or the many who have followed on from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. You know the sort: the sort who will tell you, straight-faced, that the Bavarian Illuminati knew the secrets of the Knights Templar, who had found ancient Jewish documents containing the mystical secrets of Egypt and the bloodline of Jesus, whose descendants formed the Priory of Sion, founded the Freemasons, who preserve the secret that Atlantis was in Antartica, and who hope to return to the French throne as predicted by Nostradamus. And that you would already know all this, if it wasn’t being kept secret by a global conspiracy involving the Pope, the British royal family, and the Bilderberg group. That sort of documentary. The sort which is bound, somewhere, to contain the line: “if the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the history books.”

Anyway, if you didn’t watch Arrested Development – and not many people did – one of its constant features was a narrator’s voiceover, performed by Ron Howard.* A rather sarcastic narrator’s voiceover, pointing out every moment where the characters lie or make a mistake.** And that’s exactly what all those documentaries need.

Presenter: If the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the history books.

Ron Howard: But they’re not.

A thousandfold improvement, I think you have to agree.

* who has lately been directing a movie based on a Dan Brown book, so will know exactly what I’m talking about.

** which is rather frequently.

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Calling Dr Jones (part one)

In which we go in search of lost relics


In our attempt to make sure we didn’t do anything too romantic on Saturday, we stayed in and watched an archaeology documentary on the telly. Or, at least, it said it was an archaeology documentary. It quickly veered off towards pseudoarchaeology, and stayed there.

The documentary in question was The Quest For The Lost Ark by Tudor Parfitt – a repeat, although neither of us had previously caught it. The titular ark in question was the Mosaic Ark Of The Covenant, as described in the Bible: built according to God’s instructions while the Jews were wandering lost in the desert, then later installed in the inner sanctum of Solomon’s Temple. It went missing, though; Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple was destroyed, and nobody knows where the Ark now is* – or, indeed, if it survived at all.

Professor Parfitt’s theory was, essentially, that the Ark of the Covenant can’t have been the chest described, in remarkably detailed fashion,** in the Bible. This is because he has found its descendant: an African war drum, currently in storage in an Harare museum. This drum and the Ark were both used something like a military standard was in later times, borne at the head of armies; except that unlike a standard, both the artifacts had unearthly powers. It was the Ark, for example, which brought down God’s destruction of the walls of Jericho, after it had been paraded around the city.

Some backtracking might be needed here, to explain the professor’s argument. This wasn’t any random African war drum. Rather, it belonged to a tribe called the Lemba, who, despite living in Zimbabwe, maintain that they are a lost tribe of Israel, having been led south by seven priests, back in the mists of time. They do, indeed, have religious practices that are similar to Judaism in some ways; more to the point, study of their Y-chromosome has apparently found that a large number of men from their priestly clan are probably descended from a small group of Kohanim.*** That wouldn’t really be that significant if they were a Semitic people; but, they’re not.

The Lemba’s traditional belief is that, as they were led south by this small group of priests, they took with them a holy war drum. Remade over the years, the descendant of this artefact is the drum now in Harare. It is, indisputably, a drum. So, says Professor Parfitt, if this 14th-century drum is modelled on the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, and not the box described in the Bible**** – even if it definitely did exist, as described in the Bible. Hum. I can spot a bit of a logical gap here.

Putting on my archaeological hat,***** there’s nothing at all to say that the Lemba drum in Harare wasn’t inspired, in its use and construction, by the original Ark – or by traditions of the Ark, which is slightly different. That is, of course, if the drum in Harare is the genuine article, evidence for which wasn’t really discussed: Parfitt skipped over that bit in something of a hurry. However, you can’t then justify a logical leap to say that it is modelled directly on the original, so the original can’t be as described. There are sound archaeological reasons why the Ark of the Covenant is unlikely to have looked like the drum Parfitt found in Harare; and, for that matter, why the drum might have become a drum later. I’ll come to that, in the next part of this post.

Part Two of this post follows, here »

* although you might know the apocryphal story about the Nazis and an American treasure hunter…

** at least he’s not as bad as those of the von Däniken school – I forget if it was von D himself or an acolyte – who stated baldly that if you build the ark according to the biblical plan, you get a radio receiver with a high-voltage battery. Unsurprisingly, they have not managed to replicate said item.

*** The Jewish priestly clan, if you didn’t know and didn’t want to follow the link.

**** It does get two contradictory descriptions, but in both it’s a reliquary, a chest for relics.

***** (it’s a bit dusty)

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