28.2.15

MORE MAGONIA

Some of Magonia's more eagle-eyed readers might have noticed two small additions to our blog Home Page. Firstly the little tab just up above marked 'Feature Articles'. If you click on this you will find an index of articles which have been submitted to Magonia after the printed magazine ceased publication. Some were initially published on our old 'magonia.haaan' website, which is no longer being maintained, and they have been transferred here to ensure that they are again readily accessible. Some of the more recent pieces have been published already on this blog, but they are indexed here to enhance their visibility to readers.

I would like to point out that although this is largely a book review site, we are always very happy to receive contributions of articles on Magonian topics, such as would have been published in the old print magazine, and I hope this new link will help to give them greater prominence. Please contact us at magoniareview@gmail.com if you have any material you think might be of interest to us.

Also tucked away down the right-hand margin there is a little 'button' labelled 'More Magonia'. This links to several long pieces which were archived on our old site, but which were never published in the print magazine. I would particularly like to draw your attention to Kevin McClure's essay 'Visions of Bowmen and Angels' which examines the facts and myths behind the legend of the 'Angels of Mons', from the First World War. It is perhaps fitting to highlight this piece as we mark the centenary of that conflict.

There are a number of other pieces which will be added to 'More Magonia' in the future, but this will be an archive site, rather than for publishing new material which is the intention behind the 'Feature Articles' listing.

I hope readers find these links helpful, and continue to explore the wealth of articles and reviews which is available, completely free of charge, across Magonia Online.
 

25.2.15

TIME OUT


Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

If there are a number of propositions that the majority of physicists would hold, these would include:

There are immutable scientific laws, true for all space and time.
The universe is one of many universes in a multiverse generated by “eternal inflation”.
Mathematics exists independently of the human imagination or indeed the physical world, and in some sense the root ground of reality is mathematical.
Time is in some sense an illusion, there are many physical phenomena that are time-invariant.

In this book Brazilian philosopher and political activist Roberto Unger and cosmologist Lee Smolin collaborate to challenge these world views, arguing that there is only one universe, which had an indefinite past and will have an indefinite future; that the laws of physics evolve; that mathematics does not exist outside of the relationships between real things in the physical universe and that time is not just real, it is the central reality.
 
In constructing these theses the authors challenge huge swathes of accepted science; from general relativity to quantum mechanics, for example contra Einstein arguing that there is a universal cosmic time.
 
The largest portion of the book, more than two thirds is written by Unger. This section should be comprehensible with care and does not need, in general, specialised mathematic knowledge, but it is certainly not an easy read. It is also the section that raises some concerns. Surely the example of Marx and Engels suggests that it is not a particularly good idea for political philosophers to pontificate on science. A concern by no means alleviated by the hagiographical entry on Unger in Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Mangabeira_Unger
 
The word “cult” might come to your mind, but I couldn’t possibly comment! Personally I cannot see any reason why “unitary nature” should run itself according to anyone’s philosophical predilections. Of course it is possible to argue that certain hypotheses such as the multiverse might be scientifically valueless, if they make no specific predictions which would separate them out from alternatives.
 
Smolin in the second, smaller, section seeks to provide a more detailed scientific description of these ideas; though as the appendix shows the two authors by no means agree on everything.
 
This is, as the authors make clear, by no means a popular science book, and I would suspect that a really good background knowledge of physics and cosmology would be needed to evaluate the arguments. I imagine it will be controversial, but I rather doubt that anyone will suggest burning it. -- Peter Rogerson.
 

20.2.15

THE MAP BEHIND THE PIRI REIS MAP

By Gareth Medway
 
Piri Ibn Haji Memmed (c.1470-1554), better known as Piri Reis, was a Turkish pirate who later became an admiral (which says something about the Turkish navy of the time), and was eventually executed for treason. He compiled a detailed atlas of the Mediterranean, but is best known for his world map, drawn on gazelle skin, dated 1513. At some point this was cut in two, and only the half showing the Atlantic survives. A small part of another map created by him, from 1528, is extant. In 1988 the 1513 map was on display in the British Museum as part of an exhibition of sixteenth century Turkish culture.
 
Piri Ibn Haji Memmed
Although far from accurate, it is quite impressive for its time, showing the Caribbean islands and much of the eastern coastline of South America. Piri Reis wrote that he had compiled it from twenty earlier maps. The Brazilian mainland is decorated with drawings of animals, and a man with his face on his chest. Shakespeare makes Othello speak, whilst talking about his voyages, of “The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders”. Evidently this was a common yarn at the time. Northwest Africa is shown as fertile, with lakes and rivers, when in fact it is largely desert. Of course, an admiral need only concern himself with coastlines, and not bother about what may lie inland.

The bottom of the map shows part of the Antarctic coast. It is drawn too far to the north, and is joined up to Brazil by a squiggly line, which seems to have been his way of indicating his guess as to what lay in the lacunae between his source maps. But it is nonetheless remarkable, in that conventional history has it that Antarctica was not discovered until 1818. The map also dates from before Magellan’s first round the world voyage of 1519-1522. (Actually, though it is attributed to Magellan, in the Philippines the natives killed him, and only one of the five ships that he set out with made it back to Spain. Nevertheless, this finally proved that the earth is a globe.)

In 1956 a Turkish naval official presented a facsimile to the U. S. Navy Hydrographic Office as a gift. Though the United States territory is not shown, it aroused interest as it was thought that it might have been based upon one made by Christopher Columbus. It was examined by a student of old maps, Captain Arlington H. Mallery, who came to a remarkable conclusion: the Antarctic coast showed features now concealed by the ice cap. Thus, it must have been mapped before the ice appeared, that is, perhaps 10,000 years ago. He consulted some other geographers, including the Jesuit fathers Rev. Daniel Lineham of the Weston Observatory of Boston College, and Rev. Francis Heyden, director of the Georgetown University Observatory. This resulted in a radio panel discussion on 26 August 1956. A transcript of this came to the attention of C. H. Hapgood, a Professor of the History of Science at Keen State College of the University of New Hampshire, who decided to do his own investigation. In December 1958 a debate on the subject was held at Georgetown University, and this was reported by the Fortean writer Ivan Sanderson in the January 1959 issue of Fantastic Universe (not seen).

Sanderson’s article was read by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, and summarised by them in The Morning of the Magicians (p.120). Some creativity had been added, however, as they related that “Father Lineham confirmed that the contours of North America, the location of the lakes and mountains of Canada, the coastal outline of the extreme north of the continent . . . were all correct.” Since the Piri Reis map does not show the North American continent at all, except for what seems to be the southernmost tip of Florida, this is hard to understand. Since they were interested in possible forgotten sciences, they then asked: “Were these copies of still earlier maps? Had they been traced from observations made on board a flying machine or space vessel of some kind? Notes taken by visitors from Beyond?”

Meanwhile, Hapgood had got his students involved with the project. They found some reasons for thinking that many mediaeval charts were based upon much older originals. Certainly, there were many copies of the map of the Mediterranean drawn by Ptolemy in the second century.

In the Thanksgiving recess of 1959 Hapgood went to the Library of Congress in Washington, whom he had asked about sixteenth and seventeenth century maps. They obligingly produced several hundred for his inspection. He discovered that Antarctica is shown on several of them, generally drawn too large. On Mercator’s 1538 world map the continent is depicted as embracing Terra del Fuego, the Magellan strait being the only gap between it and South America. The Buache chart of 1754 shows it as two large islands, separated by a ‘Mer Glacia’ (frozen sea).

One problem that he and his students addressed was that of an island on the Piri Reis map that appeared to be Cuba, but was drawn vertically rather than horizontally. They tried various projections, that is, ways of representing a spherical surface on a two-dimensional map, and settled upon a Bonne Projection, as this might give such a distortion. Hapgood reproduced, in his 1965 Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, a U. S. Air Force ‘Azimuthal Equidistant Projection centred near Cairo’, i.e. as the world might appear as viewed from a tremendous height above Cairo, and in this Cuba is vertical.

The Piri Reis map also shows a large island in the middle of the Atlantic. Its name is written in Turko-Arabic script, and is difficult to read as it occurs on a crease where the map was folded, but it may have read ‘Atland’, i.e. Atlantis. “Here, in this island, there might have developed the people who made these maps!”
 
 
Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? appeared (in German) in 1968. His third chapter, ‘The Improbable World of the Unexplained’, is a list of archaeological anomalies, many of them lifted from Pauwels and Bergier. The first was the Piri Reis map, for which he had bothered to read Hapgood, as he reproduced not only the map itself, but the Cairo projection. This he took as directly explaining the Piri Reis map: “A space-ship hovers high above Cairo and points its camera straight downwards . . . Admittedly the Turkish Admiral’s maps are not originals. They are copies of copies of copies.” (pp.30-31)

This book produced a greater volume of criticism than the text itself. On the present topic, Ronald Story (The Space-Gods Revealed, p.49) wrote that “The map is not by any means correctly drawn, and the identification of Antarctica without its ice cover is highly dubious”, but did not elaborate. A. D. Crown (in E. W. Castle & E. B. Thiering, eds., Some Trust in Chariots!!, p.28) produced an argument that it is hard to understand: “The great cape which forms the southern most point [of Brazil] on the map is Cape Sao Roque itself. Thus, despite the claim of von Däniken, Antarctica, echo soundings or no, is not shown on the map.” What he appears to have meant is that everything depicted south of Cape Sao Roque (the easternmost part of Brazil) was speculative, but even if so then it is remarkable that someone had correctly guessed the coastline of Antarctica. John Allan (The Gospel According to Science Fiction, p.12) asserted that “Antarctica is not shown, but Japan is . . . where Cuba ought to be,” without further explanation.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, others continued to enthuse. The astronomer Duncan Lunan (Man and the Stars, p.268) described Hapgood’s book as “by far the best evidence of [alien] Contact currently available.” There has been no shortage of Ancient Astronaut authors. Andrew Tomas (We Are Not the First, p.115) asserted that “The second map dated 1528 shows Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, a part of Canada, the east coast of North America to Florida.” In fact, the 1528 map is only a fragment, which shows the Caribbean but little else. In a similar vein Peter Kolosimo (Timeless Earth, p.232) said that “The only major error appeared to be that Greenland was shown in the form of three islands; but during the International Geophysical Year [1957] it was proved that this correctly represented the state of affairs over 5,000 years.” In this he was followed by W. Raymond Drake (Gods and Spacemen in the Ancient West, p.109), who refers to “. . . ice-free Greenland and three large islands, since confirmed by a French Polar Expedition”. To repeat, nothing north of Florida is shown at all, accurately or otherwise. It is hard to believe that these authors had actually looked at the map they were praising.

One who did study it was Robin Collyns (Did Spacemen Colonise the Earth?, p.94), who was struck by the presence of a lost island in the Atlantic: “Comparing the Piri Reis map with a Theosophical map of the ancient world, I was intrigued to see this same island, known in Theosophy as ‘Daitya’, a large Atlantean island, existing at precisely the same geographic location; but on the Piri Reis map, Atlantis itself seemed to have already sunk.” Brinsley Le Poer Trench (Secret of the Ages) mentioned the Piri Reis map to support his thesis that the earth is hollow and that UFOs come from the inside. Since the 1970s, Ancient Astronauts have gone out of fashion, but they have been supplanted by works on lost (advanced) civilisations, and Piri Reis is often brought in to support this, but that is a whole body of literature in itself which is too large to deal with here.

Drake (Gods and Spacemen Throughout History, p.67), typically observes that “The maps omit Atlantis, they date before the glaciation of Antarctica, perhaps between 10,000 and 8,000 BC”, and this approximate date is accepted by other writers. If Piri Reis were really able to access materials that old, it would mean that someone was making maps ten to twelve thousand years ago, which as far as we know is thousands of years before the invention of writing, or the creation of even the crudest early maps. Nevertheless, Antarctica did get onto some Renaissance charts.
 
 
In my opinion there is a straightforward, if dull, explanation. The Oronteus Finaeus world map of 1532 (above) shows Antarctica – drawn, as usual, too large – with the clear inscription Terra australis recenter inventa, sed nondum plene cognita, i.e. “The Southern Land, newly discovered, but not yet fully known.” The implication is that someone had sailed around the continent and roughly mapped it half a millennium before Dame Ellen Macarthur, and before 1513, perhaps about 1500. This was at a time when the Spanish and Portuguese had started sending ships on years-long voyages, so there should be nothing surprising about this. Thus, Antarctica was only re-discovered in 1818. Research into the archives of Spain and Portugal might uncover something about this, but it would be a monumental task, and anyway the records may be lost.

Two questions arise, if this hypothesis is correct. One is, why did some experts think that the maps showed Antarctica free of ice? Since no-one explains how they reached this conclusion, I cannot say. Secondly, how come this expedition became known to map-makers, but not to historians? I would tentatively suggest that tremendous excitement was aroused by reports of Central and South America with their large quantities of gold; whereas a landmass with nothing except snow and penguins generated no interest. – Gareth J. Medway

P.S. Would it be possible to pass a law compelling UFO authors to provide their books with indexes?
 
 

16.2.15

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, Hampton Roads Press, 2014 (first published 1978)

Robert Conner, Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics, Mandrake, 2014

These two new releases complement each other neatly, one being a reprint of a ground-breaking study and the other a survey of the work that built on it.

As Bart D. Ehrman notes in his foreword to the new edition of the late Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician, its appearance in 1978 marked a watershed in New Testament scholarship, as it introduced a new, and to many unwelcome, factor into the already problematic quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Smith not only showed that Jesus was perceived in his day primarily as a sorcerer, but also that this was because he acted like one.

Smith, an eminent history professor at Columbia University, wasn’t the first to note the parallels between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracle-working and the practices of magicians in the ancient world. Isolated examples had been recognised since the 1920s and a more academic-oriented study had been produced by John M. Hull four years before Jesus the Magician. But Smith went further, showing that the gospels don’t merely use the language of magic but accurately describe Jesus’ methods.

His argument was straightforward, being based on the observation that whichever one of three groups you choose you end up with the same picture. Those hostile to Jesus in his lifetime were, according to the gospels, motivated by a belief that he used demonic magic in his exorcisms and healings. Similarly, Christianity’s early opponents – both Jewish and pagan – denounced him as a sorcerer. Finally, and most conclusively, the gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus’ own followers saw him that way, too.

From there, Smith went on to show the spookily precise parallels – the use of identical words and actions - between descriptions of Jesus’ cures and castings out of demons and the techniques given in magical texts from the Greco-Egyptian world, as well as in accounts of pagan magicians such as Apollonius of Tyana.

The implications were game-changing. Since the gospel writers’ position was that Jesus, as Christ, used his own God-given power and/or the Holy Spirit to work his miracles, there was no reason for them to invent these parallels. They must therefore represent genuine memories of how Jesus operated. This is, of course, totally at odds with the traditional Christian image of Jesus Christ. And it is equally problematic for the fashionable sceptical view, which has gained popularity since Smith’s day, that Jesus never existed at all, the gospels being works of fiction: why would the writers create elements that contradict their basic premise?

It is extremely ironic that what makes Smith’s case so compelling is that, unlike those with a doctrinal axe to grind, he let the gospels speak for themselves: ‘We have merely read the gospels with some knowledge of ancient magical material and noticed what, in the light of that material, the gospel stories and sayings really say.’

His conclusion was that ‘behind the present Jesus of the gospels there lurked, in Christian tradition, an earlier Jesus whose practices were much closer to those of Jesus the magician.’ Going further, he argues that the evidence shows that Jesus really was a magician. Perhaps most controversially, he argued that gospel terms that assumed a defining meaning in Christianity, such as ‘Son of God,’ actually derive from magical rites (the term customarily being used of a magician who invoked the power of a god).

Such challenges to Christian sensibilities still create nervousness in presenting Smith’s case. Even the strapline of this edition is ‘A renowned historian reveals how Jesus was viewed by people of his time’ – ducking the awkward issue that this was how Jesus presented himself to those people.

Jesus the Magician is a book that not just should, but must be read by anyone with even the vaguest interest in the historical Jesus, and this new edition is therefore very welcome. It is a genuine classic, a model of clear writing and exposition which is both satisfyingly scholarly and accessible to the general reader.

What is missing from Ehrman’s introduction is an examination of how Smith’s work has fared since its publication. Robert Conner’s Magic in Christianity – which is dedicated to Smith’s memory – provides just that.

Conner shows that, since Jesus the Magician broke the dam, there has been a flood of academic research that has amassed a huge weight of evidence not only for Jesus employing standard magical techniques and formulas but also that early generations of his followers did so, too. He presents a survey and summary of that material - acknowledging that there is little original investigation in his book – in order to show just how overwhelming the case now is and to assess what it tells us about Christian origins, and indeed Christianity in general. In fact, he could be accused of overkill, as he is so keen to show just how much evidence there is that he sometimes labours his point.

However, despite the wealth of evidence, the subject remains a no-go area for many because of what Conner describes as ‘the double barrier of theological commitment on one hand and a materialist approach to religious praxis on the other’: believers just don’t want to go there, while non-believers think that since magic isn’t real then it isn’t relevant. Of course, the ancient world’s universal belief in magic and the supernatural is absolutely essential context to an understanding of contemporary perceptions of Jesus and the first Christian communities, whether or not that belief has any foundation. (Conner, unlike Smith, thinks that magic does sometimes work, on a similar principle to the placebo.)

The cover copy describes Conner as an ‘independent scholar’ – his professional life seems to be in healthcare - although he has clearly mastered the subject, particularly the linguistic aspects; understanding what Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew terms meant in the context of the time is vital to this research. He’s written two previous books on the subject, Jesus the Sorcerer (2006) and Magic in the New Testament (2010).

In order to drive home the extent of scholarly support for the theory, Conner largely uses the scholars’ words themselves, with extensive quotes from academic books and papers to which he provides a commentary, written lucidly with often punchy turns of phrase. His introduction in particular is a superb 14-page summary of the current position of ‘Jesus the magician’ research with a background discussion of the relationship of religion and magic, from which he adopts the definitions that religion is ‘magic for the masses’ and magic ‘religion for the individual’.

Following Smith, Conner argues that, while scholars concentrate on Jesus’ teachings, in his day it was his ability to work wonders that defined him: ‘There is no Jesus apart from miracles; they are by far the best-attested feature of his life and the basis for his fame… Had Jesus and his earliest followers no fame for performing miracles, it is doubtful there would be any such religion as Christianity or that the world would recall Jesus’ existence.’

Conner’s conclusion is that ‘the evidence indicates that Jesus of Nazareth fits a well-known type: the apocalyptic preacher who authenticated his message by charismatic performances, performances that were understood as miracles by his followers but as magic by other Jews and pagans.’ As for which, it is ‘embarrassingly easy’ to show that Jesus used specific magical methods in his cures and exorcisms.

The only major difference between Conner and Morton Smith – one with very far-reaching implications – concerns the sources of those methods.

Smith found the closest parallels with magical texts from the Greco-Egyptian world and in accounts of pagan miracle workers such as Apollonius, which introduces a whole new complication into an already thorny subject, since of course Jesus is seen, near-universally, as Jewish. (Although, as Smith pointed out, he is only presumed to be, and 'The presumption is not certain.')"
 
Jesus turning water into wine using a magic wand.
From the Templar Museum at Domme.
Conner acknowledges those parallels but prefers to see Jesus’ wonder-working primarily in a Jewish context (which certainly makes life easier). He explains the pagan elements in terms of borrowings between Jewish and Hellenistic magicians and our more complete knowledge of pagan magic through the good fortune of Egypt’s climate, which is perfect for the preservation of papyri, among which are a large number devoted to magical systems. He attempts to show that the little we do know of Jewish magic – from the Old Testament, fragmentary archaeological evidence, and the one surviving collection of Hebrew magical spells, the Sepher Ha-Razim (3rd century AD but undoubtedly based on much older traditions) – reveals similar parallels to Jesus’ exorcisms and cures. However, on Smith’s evidence, the similarities do seem closer to the pagan texts, and incorporate elements that are hard to square with Judaism. 

Conner also argues that the kind of wonder-working displayed by Jesus was expected of traditional Jewish prophets (the other mould into which, the gospels tell us, the people tried to fit Jesus). However, Smith devotes an appendix to comparing Jesus to the prophets – to specifically address the question ‘is the data we have taken as evidence for the opinion that he was a magician actually evidence of his role as a prophet?’ – and concludes that ‘The textual evidence for the notion is weak.’ His point-by-point analysis of what Jesus, the prophets and pagan magicians were reported as having done shows many more similarities with the latter, and some (most compellingly the Eucharist ritual) which can’t be accommodated in Jewish thinking.

Moving on to the formation of the Christian religion, Conner shows how magical ideas and practices – not theology - shaped the new cult based on a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. He observes that Paul ‘built his following, not on the message of Jesus, which he scarcely mentions, but on practices of spirit possession, specifically possession by Jesus’ spirit.’ He demonstrates that Paul’s Epistles – particularly Ephesians – employ many terms that also appear in the magical papyri.

Miracles, exorcisms and ‘possessed’ behaviour such as speaking in tongues were what characterised the new sect and, as with Jesus, ‘Christian rite and wonder working shared the presumptions, processes and procedures of Jewish and pagan magic.’ Also as with Jesus, it was one of the reasons for the hostility of outsiders, particularly those in authority. Their perception was that Christians, through their emphasis on possession by the spirit of an executed criminal and their obsession with death and the relics (i.e. body parts) of martyrs, were practising some very dark arts indeed: ‘The relationship between miracles and martyrs brought Christianity much closer to the attitude of necromantic sorcery than to anything in normative pagan religious belief.’

Conner goes on to trace the process by which this magic-based cult developed into an organised and powerful Church that, out of expediency, labelled the magical parts heresy and suppressed them, along with the material that revealed Jesus to be a magician - ‘how Jesus’ apocalyptic message, which was central to his preaching, came to be explained away and then quietly abandoned, how magical details of Jesus’ charismatic performance were excised from the gospels and how spirit possession, once central to what became orthodox Christianity, was allowed to wither and disappear.’ It was, Connor argues, the sects condemned as heretical that maintained the religion’s original practices.

Being outside academia, Conner can go further than those within in his assessment of the meaning of it all, particularly for today’s Churches. For him – and it is hard to disagree – knowing that Jesus was, essentially, a sorcerer undermines the whole foundation of what followed and what continues today. He writes that the evidence put together in his book ‘entirely dispenses with the pleasant pretext that the life of Jesus was truly relevant then or now.’

He also aims some withering invective at New Testament scholarship for being too unwilling to challenge, or upset, believers (‘apologetic scholarship is inevitably dishonest scholarship that does violence to the evidence and… the field of “Jesus Studies” is so riddled with special pleading that it barely qualifies as an academic discipline.’) He particularly blasts Bible colleges as ‘in most cases an interminable Sunday school for overachievers.’

For all the good things in Magic in Christianity, though, it’s hard to see who the book is aimed at, as it falls between two stools. It’s presented as a scholarly work, although sadly Conner’s lack of academic status (and his broadsides at the profession) probably means that it won’t find a home among that audience. On the other hand, it doesn’t work as a popular account either. In his conclusion, Conner laments the public’s ignorance about what scholars have discovered about the New Testament – blaming the scholars themselves – but his book doesn’t fill that gap; he acknowledges wistfully that few members of the public are likely to read it. It’s too detailed, with too many quotations and a lot of Greek, plus a smattering of Coptic and Hebrew, necessary for Conner’s argument but, like equations in a popular science book, off-putting to the general reader.

The value of Magic in Christianity is as a sourcebook, as it gives a comprehensive survey of the academic work on the subject of early Christian magic, brought together by Conner’s erudite commentary, heavily referenced and with a bibliography that runs to some 500 entries. Unfortunately its usefulness for research is let down by the extremely poor index. (Still, that’s better than Jesus the Magician, which doesn’t have one at all. Shame on you, Hampton Roads Press!)
 
Others will be put off by the book’s production, which is very slipshod. The design and typesetting are horrible, giving it the look of a self-published book, although it isn’t. The chapter numbering is erratic (8, 10, 11, 12, 16) and some sections appear misplaced. The organisation of material is a little haphazard too, with sometimes confusing meanderings between topics, or sudden shifts in subject. All these faults could have been fixed by a half-decent editor; indeed, the book looks as if it hasn’t been edited at all.

The ‘Jesus magus’ theory radically changes our image of Jesus and brings us closer to understanding the man behind (or should that be beneath?) the halo. But while answering some of the most fundamental questions, perhaps inevitably it raises more, particularly about the prevalence of pagan material in Jesus’ magic.

Leaving aside the Christian image of the redeeming Son of God (which, even if correct, couldn’t have had any bearing on the way he was understood by those around him), Jesus is depicted in a number of contrasting ways in the gospels – wandering exorcist and wonder-worker, religious teacher, prophet, end-times preacher and messianic pretender. The ‘magician’ theory helps reconcile some of these – for example, apocalyptic preachers were expected to work wonders and cast out demons – but not all. And while some can be rejected as later embellishments, as Smith does with the claims of Jesus as prophet, awkward fits remain.

For example, Conner dismisses the messianic material – specifically the elements of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that fulfil Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah – as later invention. However, those parts of the gospels contain evidence that Jesus contrived his actions to fit the prophecies, which makes no sense for a made-up story. Clearly, there’s still something missing from the picture.

Nevertheless, the work of Smith and the other academics, brought together and elucidated by Conner, provides a quantum leap in our understanding of Jesus the man.  | Clive Prince |


13.2.15

25 YEARS AGO: MAGONIA 35

This issue of Magonia was a response to the previous issue and continued the American theme. It contained two important articles from American contributors. This was at a time when we began to comment on the way in which UFO research in Britain and Europe was taking a very different path to the research being conducted across the Atlantic. While we felt that European ufology was looking beyond the nuts-and-bolts approach to embrace the broader psychological, sociological and cultural aspects of the phenomena, American ufology was turning back from the ‘New Ufology’ approach of writers like John Keel and Jerome Clark (in his earlier incarnation) to a literalist interpretation of the abduction phenomena and an obsessive raking over of once-dead topics like Roswell and so-called ‘crash-retrievals’.

Dennis Stillings was editor of Artifex, a journal which covered a wide range of topics from ufology to alchemy, and which included papers by people such as Hilary Evans, Michael Grosso, and George Hansen. You can access its on-line archive HERE.

In his piece ‘The American Way, a Cock-and-Bullard Story' Stillings criticised the article by Eddie Bullard in the previous Magonia in which Bullard argued that the American concentration of the abduction phenomenon was justified in terms of the perceived physical reality of that phenomenon. Stillings demonstrates that the characteristics which Bullard suggested pointed towards the objective reality of the phenomenon were largely misleadingly reported by the abduction researchers to fit into their already rigid viewpoint. Rather than demonstrating reality they seemed to confirm that the treatment of abduction reports by what Stillings calls ‘WKA’ (Well-Known-Abductionists) was moving into becoming a quasi-religion with the abductionists turning into cult leaders.

He concludes his article with the comment “I certainly would like to see the American Way return to action: Truth, not uncritical fantasy; Justice - for the abductees; and the return of the empirical, pragmatic American ufological brain, the real victim of Abduction. There are signs that this is happening.” If there were such signs then, unfortunately they soon faded away and American abductology continued its descent into unreason.

Martin Kottmeyer also critiqued contemporary American ufology, especially the claim by David Jacobs that the imagery described in UFO accounts had no precedent before 1947, and Thomas Bullard’s proposition that the Betty and Barney Hill account showed no evidence of being derived from previous cultural sources: that it was “entirely unpredisposed”.

In this piece and in a number of subsequent articles in Magonia and elsewhere Kottmeyer demonstrates beyond argument that this is not so. In his Magonia article he draws upon a wealth of imagery from science fiction, comic strips, and films that demonstrates clearly that much of this visual and literary imagery was well established in popular culture long before it became apparent in UFO and abduction accounts.

Perhaps most importantly, and with specific reference to the Hill case, he shows that a number of the major features of the Hills’ accounts had already appeared in a science fiction film, Invaders from Mars, and from a film in the TV Outer Limits series called 'The Bellero Shield', which had been broadcast just a few days before Barney Hill gave a description of his abductors’ eyes which corresponded exactly with the eyes of the figures in that episode.

The theme of the diverging of US and European ufology is also taken up in Peter Rogerson’s ‘Northern Echoes’ column where he reinforces Stillings’ argument that abduction researchers have tidied-up and homogenised their witness accounts before publishing them; and a letter from Hilary Evans highlights another of the differences between the two ufological trends, that the European sceptics have by and large come up through the grassroots of ufology, getting out and researching individual cases before coming to their sceptical positions, whereas the American ‘skeptics’ have in the main come into ufology from outside, with little or no experience of actual UFO investigation. There are of course exceptions on both side, and I would single out Allan Hendry as an American sceptic who came to his sceptical conclusions through the hard slog of case investigation.

Stillings’ and Kottmeyer’s articles are important, and well worth reading even after twenty-five years, perhaps even more so now, as ufology in general seems to have regressed spectacularly in the interim.
 
 

11.2.15

SWITCHED ON PEOPLE

Louis Proud. Strange Electromagnetic Dimensions. New Page Books, 2014.
 
Electricity has been generated and harnessed in bulk by humankind very, very recently in our history. For most of our recorded time on Earth, it has not been something with which we have had to contend. As a consequence of currently using it in every aspect of our lives, our homes, workplaces and leisure buildings are wired up to conduct this energy, as well as the transport that moves us from one to the other. We are therefore surrounded with this invisible flow of force around and through us. However, having satisfied ourselves that most possible side effects are not a threat to our health, there is the distinct possibility that some alternative responses are having unlooked-for influences upon us.
 
This book is about how electricity affects us, and generally the influences covered are not what most of us would associate with having power running through the walls. Indeed, they are things that most of us will not generally think about at all, let alone as the result of the force that runs the TV or the lights. The author explains how he has long been fascinated by electromagnetic (EM) energy and covers how the natural kind (including lightning) affects many different fauna, and especially how it affects homo sapiens. He then moves on to folk who have uncomfortable relationships with artificially-generated EM, as electromagnetism is abbreviated early on, such as street lights going out to those who actually interfere with the operation of powered gadgets. There are people who are struck by lightning and those who receive a shock from an item plugged into the mains. Towards the end we come across those who seem to influence, or who may be influenced by, the paranormal world. Some are in the centre of poltergeist phenomena whilst others seem to take more control. Uri Geller, for one, is re-examined, and to some extent rehabilitated, as to his paranormal feats.
 
This may sound as if it is quite a fanciful work, where one of the more notable contentions is that some UFO activity may be attributed to EM, either naturally occurring or artificial. The thing is that this is a book positively packed with scientific references; one thing that the author cannot be accused of is not enough research! The reader is pointed from this study to that, making one realise that there is much indeed about the energy that lives around us that is not talked about in public. It throws large quantities of light onto how we are being affected by what is around us and that we take for granted.
 
On a more prosaic note, the book is not overly technical, has a reasonable index and a comprehensive bibliography.
 
On a personal level, this was quite the eye-opener. Humanity has the capability to use natural EM currents in the same way that other animals do. We can navigate with it, it actually does matter which way our bed points when we sleep and we should not have lights on at night when trying to sleep, especially blue ones. If I were to recommend a readership for this, I would have to say just about anyone who has an interest in the world around us and our place in it. -- Trevor Pyne.


8.2.15

INTO THE GRAVEYARD TOGETHER

Chris Woodyard (Editor), The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. Kestrel Publications.

Chris Woodyard (Editor), The Victorian Book of the Dead. Kestrel Publications.

‘Soon it will be dusk. I have the dark lantern, the shovel, the hook, the sack. Let us go into the graveyard together.’ So declares Chris Woodyard, the selector and editor of the ghostly – nay, ‘ghastly’ – tales presented in The Ghost Wore Black. Should one have the nerve to accompany him, then clearly he’s the perfect companion and leader.

This book is a delight on many levels, mainly for the Fortean, for the author is unashamedly a fan of that ultimate collector of the anomalous, the great Charles Fort. True Forteans – thin on the ground though they are – may express wonder and indeed opinions, as long as no hard-and-fast conclusion is reached. Certainly, explanations are regarded as antithetical to an intimate knowledge of the world of the weird. (Fort wrote: ‘there was never an explanation that did not in itself require an explanation.’)
 
Woodyard does his best to be a good Fortean, presenting the cases culled from the ‘morgues’ (somewhat appropriately) of newspaper archives from perhaps a century ago, with some carefully-worded notes that, while they might offer some rational explanation for individual cases, remain resolutely Fortean and never dismiss stories just because they’re anecdotal. Indeed, one of the main points of this highly readable anthology is that it is anecdotal. We all love ghost stories, after all, but few of us are equally enamoured of the dry statistics and even drier evaluations of the more sceptical parapsychologists of today. Mercifully they are conspicuous by their absence in these pages.

One of the joys of these old newspaper stories is simply the wording of some of the original headlines. A random selection includes: ‘MAY BE SAME OLD GHOST’; ‘OWL HOOTED: SISTER DIED’; ‘SPOOK BEES IN A GROVE’; ‘A DOG IN A BARN DIES AND TURNS TO STONE’; ‘IMPERSONATOR OR WIZARD APPEARS AGAIN IN MEXICO’; ‘VERY LIKE A WHALE’; ‘GIRL’S SPIRIT IN A PARTRIDGE: Bird’s Queer Action Excites Awe in All’ and ‘GHOST OF A NUN WAS HIS STRANGE PASSENGER’. These are the cream of a crop that includes more predictable ghosty headlines, such as: ‘PURSUED BY A DEMON’; ‘HIS BONY FINGER’ and ‘KILLED BY A SPECTER’, though the stories themselves are still worth perusing. Some, however, are perhaps self-evidently not worth it, if one is looking for a Halloweenesque thrill or two, such as one entitled: ‘THE BLACK GHOST A DISAPPOINTMENT: A Boy on Stilts, with a Sheet, Was Impersonating the Powers of Darkness’. Or maybe it’s worth a quick peek anyway…

Woodyard is an old hand at ghost stories, having selected and edited – and, indeed, commented upon – many books’-worth along similar lines. Concentrating mainly on American stories, his selection is rich and strange, and his comments admirably knowledgeable, pithy and perhaps oddly for such a subject, light in tone without being glib.

He deals even-handedly with both the sensational and the disappointing, and – excellent value for other Forteans – does a sound job of tying individual cases to local tradition or other contexts.

One particular Woman in Black that he singles out was allegedly a ‘vampire’. She featured in a newspaper report from Tyrone, Pennsylvania in 1903, though the article was vague and the tone fashionably sneery. It begins: ‘Tyrone is having the “woman in black” scare just now. This lady has a habit of wandering from town to town, frightening inoffensive men… she is thought to be a vampire…’ The writer then goes on to define the term, apparently drawing heavily from Bram Stoker’s classic novel – but does this make the story itself more or less believable? Woodyard wisely sticks to his Fortean guns. Basically, it was whatever it was, but some bits have a sociological interest: he points out that it was unusual at that time and place for ‘vampire’ to be defined as the undead. He says: ‘It is surprising to find only one Woman in Black described as a vampire. While the concept would have been understood by Eastern Europeans and New Englanders, to the general public, the term usually had the connotation of ‘homewrecker’ or ‘seducer’. A vampire – male or female – lured spouses away from their unhappy homes.’

He leads us through reports about a huge number of ghosts, banshees, apparitions, bloody handprints, angels of death and fiery devils, and most of us who love a good tale are very grateful to him for it. But whether we’re quite so grateful for the details in his second book being reviewed here – The Victorian Book of the Dead, is another matter entirely…

While tales of ghosts and ghoulies might reasonably be categorised as good clean fun, the facts of physical death are – hopefully to most people – considerably less so. In a culture where our deceased loved ones are immediately swept away to be sanitised by professionals and where most people have the good sense to die when decently old, the whole business of viewing corpses rarely happens and is often seen as bad taste, to put it mildly. (And if at least one major British court case is anything to go by, children who were forced, in previous decades, to see dead bodies were unequivocally victims of child abuse.)

The New York City Morgue Viewing Room
Harper's Weekly, 1866.
The Victorians, on the other hand, were surrounded by death – of babies, children and adults from a host of infections and diseases that are no longer life-threatening in the twenty-first century. Not only that, but their lifestyle, even their fashions, brought about terrible accidents, as in the epidemic of appalling deaths from fire caused by crinolines swooshing too close to open fires.

Death was also all around them in another sense. It was the done thing for corpses to lie on show in open coffins for many days, even at the height of summer. In any case, the poor who were crammed together in one room were compelled to share their living quarters with their dead until the parish officers took them away to a pauper’s funeral.

Woodyard explains this background context while presenting reports of exploding and runaway coffins, premature burials, weird murders (including one by a parrot), fashions in mourning attire and so on while being careful to point out that some were undoubtedly exaggerated and some little more than urban myths. But one aspect of the Victorians’ bizarre romance with death is certainly true, and to some of us – not normally squeamish – its after-image has caused some uncomfortable moments before sleep comes.

This is the apparently curious – some today would say ‘sick’ – practice of taking photographs of the dead. Perhaps fine so far (if they must, they must), but this wasn’t a case of nicely laid out dead people in bed or in their coffins. These loved ones were dressed, spruced up and set upright as if alive. Sometimes their eyelids were painted to look like open eyes. Worse by far to modern sensibilities is the fact that many of these corpses were included in family groups – everyone else, including young children, being very much alive. Some little ones even have their arms round their dead sibling, partly at least to keep him or her vertical. They all stare in that unnerving Victorian fashion at the camera, one of them more sightlessly, and much more unnervingly, than the others.

The rationale, heartbreaking in itself, is that in those days when death came early and suddenly many families had not had either the opportunity or the funds to secure photographs of their family members in life. When death came they had one last chance to get an image they could keep. (One can imagine the desperate running around friends and family to cobble together the photographer’s fee.) Some photographers specialised in such pictures.

(Woodyard gives details of web sites where many more examples of this can be seen. Some of us tend to wish he hadn’t.)

This book is indeed, as it claims, an anthology of ‘long-lost tales of the morbid, mournful and macabre from the Victorian era’. An excellent job of research, true, but definitely not for the faint-hearted! – Lynn Picknett.


6.2.15

THE MYSTERY OF EILEAN MOR

Keith McCloskey. The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. The History Press, 2014.

The discovery on Boxing Day 1900 that the three lighthouse keepers on the Eilean Mor lighthouse in the Flannan Islands, part of the Outer Hebrides 20 miles (32 km) west of Lewis, were missing has become one of the classic unsolved mysteries, Britain’s version of the Mary Celeste.
 
This is the first full length book treatment of this mystery and McCloskey places it within the context of the history of the lighthouse service and the life of the light's keepers; an often lonely and claustrophobic life. He reproduces much of the available official documentation and explores the various theories that have been invoked to explain the disappearances of these men; the principle keeper James Ducat and his second assistant Thomas Marshall and the occasional keeper Donald MacArthur. The second in command William Ross was off ill, which McCloskey suggests may have some bearing on what happened. Another lucky man was third man Joseph Moore who had been on leave. It was he who was to discover the loss of the men.
 
McCloskey also examines some of the folklore that has accumulated around this story; such as that when Moore landed he encountered three giant birds “like seamen sitting bold upright” that took off and dived into the ocean without making a splash, or the mysterious log, which seems to have been an invention of either some American hack writer in the 1920s, or more probably Vincent Gaddis of Bermuda Triangle fame. It is clear that McCloskey really has not had the time to go through much of the prior literature to work out a full time line for the development of the story and its mutations.
 
A rather more puzzling omission is any reference to or acknowledgement of Mike Dash’s detailed study of the case in Fortean Studies 4, now readily available on the internet HERE
 
Despite that caveat this is a worthwhile account of a famous mystery, to which the author provides two alternative rational explanations. -- Peter Rogerson.

[Editor's note: At the age of about six or seven I remember being thrillingly terrified as my grandmother recited William Wilfred Gibson's poem 'Flannan Isle'  by flickering gaslight in her kitchen. Even now reading the fifth verse sends a shiver down my spine! -- J.R.]
 


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