27.5.16

VIRGIN TERRITORIES

Chris Maunder. Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in Twentieth entury Catholic Europe. Oxford University Press, 2016.

This book traces the development of Marian apparitions across Europe from Fatima to the end of the Cold War. Its concern is less the phenomenal experience of the apparitions but their historical and cultural context. The apparitions appear in times of rapid cultural, political and social change and can perhaps be seen as responses to and rejections of modernity.

The apparitions at Fatima for example occured not only in the context of the Great War, but also in the chaotic nature of Portuguese politics of the era, and were re-envisaged in the 1930s and 1940s to suit the politics of the time. The Belgium apparitions at Beauring and Banneux in the 1930s reflect the traumas inflicted on Belgium by the German occupation of 1914-18 and fears, which turned out to be justified, of a resurgent Germany. Those at Garabandal occurred at a time in which Spain was beginning to modernise (and at the beginning of the period in which the tourist industry will lay it open to mass European cultural influences. Those at Medjugorje (in Bosnia and not as sometimes reported, in Croatia) presage the vast ethno-religious conflict that would erupt there; and the moving statues in Ireland occurred at the point in which the Catholic Church’s hold over the country was beginning to weaken.

The majority of the visionaries were women and children (often young girls) who were low down on the social and religious hierarchy. Maunder sees this as a means by which these subaltern groups can gain access to religious status. Needless to say the Catholic Church judges the apparitions as to how far they stick to the party line.

That these visions and the movements that they project a traditionalist rather than a liberating message is of some interest. They would appear to be a form of “conservative rebellion” in which the rebels assert that they stay true to the old ways, which the wider community is deserting. Young people often see things in moral absolutes more than their elders, and one can perhaps see parallels with the attraction of forms of conservative Islam with some young people, including a number not of Muslim heritage.

There is an extensive bibliography, though I was disappointed not to see Kevin McClure‘s The evidence for visions of the Virgin Mary included as this was perhaps the first study that was neither devotional nor an anti-clerical attack. -- Peter Rogerson.

26.5.16

LANGUAGE LESSONS

Greg Bishop.   It Defies Language: Essays on UFOs and Other Weirdness.  Excluded Middle Press, 2016.

Greg Bishop was for a number of years the editor of a journal called Excluded Middle which was one of the more intelligent and literate American UFO magazines. He was also the author of the controversial book Project Beta, reviewed here:


This book is a collection of essays or blogs taken from the period roughly 2007-2012 mainly taken from a blog post called UFOMystic, and these will probably not be to the liking of 'believers' and 'skeptics' alike. They are too many and too diverse to attempt a comprehensive review of them all, but well worth reading whether you agree with Bishop or not. His conclusions basically are that there is some sort of “real” phenomena out there involving some kind of consciousness that interacts with us but there is no evidence that this has anything to do with extraterrestrials. He suggests that our encounter with this “other” is conditioned by our own memories, beliefs, perceptions and culture, that through retelling accounts are transformed often within the space of few minutes, that it is modified by the beliefs of those who investigate it, and even if (as Bishop suspects) there is an “other” behind all of this, 90% of what is experienced is self-created. Of course if you make the leap to the view that the “consciousness” behind all of this is our own, then you have reached the Magonia position. -- Peter Rogerson

22.5.16

MR SANDMAN, BRING ME A DREAM...

Gary Gilligan. Extraterrestrial Sands. Matador, 2016.

The author introduces himself as a catastrophist who believes that the Earth has been affected in the past by sudden, short-lived, violent events, which were worldwide in scope. This book is devoted to his theory that the planet Mars entered into hundreds of catastrophic close encounters with Earth. During these encounters Mars ejected vast amounts of vapourised rock into space and a lot of this fell to Earth. It was this debris that produced the sand that formed Earth's deserts.

We are told that about 6,000 or 7,000 years ago the solar system was very different from what it is today. Earth was about 40 per cent smaller and the continents formed a single landmass. There were no oceans, but "there may have been shallow small streams and lakes". Thus prehistoric people did not have to cross oceans to move around our planet. Earth had no moon in those days, and the planets Venus and Mercury did not exist. Mars had abundant life, including humans.

Around 4,000 BC "a giant interloper" entered our solar system and smashed into Jupiter. As it continues, Gilligan's description of the astronomical events which he imagines gets more and more incoherent. We are told that the collision with Jupiter resulted in the birth of Venus. On Mars, the large feature known as the Valles Marineris is the scar caused by the iron core of the planet being sucked out by one of the planetary close encounters and eventually becomig the planet Mercury. Mars, we are told, was the original home of our ancestors, who somehow managed to avoid being exterminated by these violent events and managed to migrate to Earth. Readers will search in vain for any clues as to how they could possibly have managed this.

It was, of course, the vast amount of material drawn from other planets that rained down on Earth which eventually became the sand that formed the Sahara and other deserts. Gilligan has proved, to his own satisfaction, that more conventional geologists and astronomers don't have a clue, and he has the real answers to questions about the history of Earth and the solar system. However, I think that this book will probably be of greater interest to psychologists and sociologists than to experts in the physical sciences. -- John Harney.

9.5.16

CLOSING IN ON CAMELOT

Graham Phillips. The Lost Tomb of King Arthur: The Search for Camelot and the Isle of Avalon. Bear & Co., 2016.

Graham Phillips has come a long way from the heady days of 'psychic questing', The Green Stone mystery and ‘belief oriented’ investigation. Far from what I described in my review of that particular book as “[a] farrago ... offered without the slightest fragment of evidence, and no indication that any of the dramatic events described in the most purple of prose … ever actually happened outside the imaginations of the people concerned”, his latest book offers a great deal of evidence, often in such detail as to baffle anyone who does not have at least a passing acquaintance with Dark Age Welsh literature.

From the beginning Phillips makes it clear that we are not searching for the ‘King Arthur’ depicted in familiar stories from the Late Middle Ages, such as Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, which was itself derived and adapted from from earlier British sources, and later converted into Christian allegory. Rather Phillips is looking for the shadowy figure from Celtic Britain whose life and times most closely resemble those of the legendary King.

He starts by dismissing, in fairly short order, the traditional claims of some locations to be either Camelot or Arthur’s burial place. I feel that he may not be a welcome visitor to Glastonbury, for instance, particularly as he claims that the town council actually remove the references to ‘The Isle of Avalon’ from local road signs after the publication of his first book examining the Arthur legend. Tintagel and Winchester also receive the thumbs down, although civic authorities there seem to have been less responsive to his findings.

He looks one by one at the basic elements of the Arthurian story. In the chapter ‘The Swords of Power’ he points out that there are two quite separate swords in the legends, which have often become confused in the popular imagination – the sword in the stone and the sword cast into the lake as Arthur is taken to be buried. Casting swords and other offerings into a lake or river was part of pre-Christian Celtic funerary ritual, but suggests that this practice may have survived into the early Celtic Christian era, which continued a number of Pagan practices, later outlawed by Rome. The nature and location of the water into which Arthur’s sword might have been thrown is central to discovering a possible burial site.

The Round Table at Winchester - no big deal!
Other aspects of the legend are considered; Morgan, or Morgana, and her sisters are examined as Celtic goddesses later converted to Christian saints and the archaeological evidence for Phillips’s conclusions is clearly presented. Similarly, he discussed the significance of Merlin and the Bardic tradition; and the military, political and dynastic history of the British kingdoms and their gradual conquest by the Saxon influx from the east. One of the most iconic Arthurian traditions, the Round Table receives remarkably little consideration, being almost entirely an invention of later writers. Of course, these things have all been considered by other writers, and many have still concluded that Arthur was an imaginary figure made up almost entirely by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

To counter this assumption Phillips make a comprehensive study of early Welsh and Brythonic texts, genealogical records and archaeological evidence, to unearth what may be the historical reality behind the personalities and events from the Arthurian canon. Now I am not really qualified to make any sort of scholarly judgement on Phillips’s conclusions, and I doubt many other readers of this book will be either. However it is fully referenced, the sources from which he makes his deductions are open for all to see, and in the course of his research he has spoken to a number of established authorities, and discussed his line of argument with them.

I think that once one is able to discount the later accretions to the Arthurian tale, and accept that we are searching for a historical figure from an era where there is little written evidence, the argument of this book proceeds logically, and no great leaps of faith or imagination are needed to follow it, although it can be difficult at times for the Anglo-Saxon reader to make their way through the complexities of Early Welsh, which forms the basic evidence for the writer’s conclusions. A few chapters repay careful re-reading to keep up to speed.

But gradually a real historical figure emerges from the mists, the boxes identifying it as the proto-Arthur are ticked off one by one, and ultimately we come to the topic expressed in the title of the book – Arthur’s lost tomb and the location of Camelot.

It would be too much of a spoiler to give away the location that Phillips has deduced, except to say that it is very precise, but not one that I have previously seen suggested The careful step-by-step logic of his argument certainly makes it seem a very plausible site. I'm sure this will not be the last word on the topic, and others will draw totally contradictory conclusions from similar evidence, but this is a good, solid attempt to solve one of the perennial mysteries of English history and literature, and in doing so Graham Phillips has written a fascinating historical detective story. – John Rimmer.


28.4.16

TO PHILADELPHIA AND BEYOND

by Gareth J. Medway

Jack Parsons was the only disciple of Aleister Crowley to have a crater on the far side of the Moon named after him. A rocket fuel expert, he blew himself up in his own laboratory in 1952, but his contribution to the science was remembered and commemorated. Half a century after his death, he was the subject of a biography, Strange Angel by George Pendle, and I just got around to reading it. His life is not well documented, and little is known about his early years beyond the fact that he was brought up in Los Angeles, and was interested in rocketry and science fiction from childhood onwards, so Pendle gives us potted histories of Los Angeles, rocketry, and pulp science fiction.

It is now largely forgotten that, except in Germany, few people took rockets seriously, until V2s started falling on London and Antwerp. So the Suicide Squad, as Parsons’ little team was known from their regular handling of dangerous chemicals, usually had to fund their experiments themselves. The book is of interest for several reasons, but I want to look at a single paragraph whose possible significance seems not to have been noticed by the author. During the war, Parsons was invited to join the Mañana Literary Society, a forum for science fiction authors, though his own contribution was limited to an unpublished novel. It met at the L.A. home of Robert Heinlein.

“The Mañana group did not last long. By the middle of 1943, the authors had been drafted, not for their writing or fighting skills but for their scientific pedigrees. In its dissolution the group provided one more good story. When word got out that Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp had all been sent to work at a research laboratory at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, rumors spread like wildfire among science fiction fans that they had been ordered by the Naval Research Board to create a think tank, heading a project that aimed to make their own futuristic inventions, ‘super-weapons and atom-powered space ships,’ into realities. The truth was a little more prosaic; the three had been called up by the materials laboratory in Philadelphia but in order to investigate, among other things, hydraulic valves for naval aircraft, ‘exercises in monotony,’ as de Camp called them.”

Some readers will by now already have thought of the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’, said to have taken place at the dockyard there in 1943. The Second World War was a fertile breeding ground for rumours about secret inventions, and some of them, such as the atomic bomb, turned out to be true. Others were not. R. V. Jones, in Most Secret War, tells how just before the war he belonged to a scientific team who tried to find a way to detect aircraft at night by the infra-red radiation from their engines, a project that was abandoned when radar proved to be more effective. This was to be done on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, so when a man from another department questioned him during a lunch break, he said that they were working on a project to make ships invisible. They had succeeded in making a gunboat invisible, but unfortunately its crew could still be seen.

John Keel gave another possible origin: “As near as I can put it together, during the Second World War, the leading magician in the United States, Joseph Dunninger, who was also a master showman, came up with a proposition to the U. S. Navy that he would make ships invisible. He may have been talking about some form of camouflage; but in time, Dunninger’s claim did get publicity.” Two other facts that may have contributed to the legend are that Albert Einstein was then lived in Philadelphia, and was consulted by the navy; and that the dockyard was the site of degaussing, which was designed to make ships invisible, at least to magnetic mines.



Be all that as it may, the story took a long time to get any publicity. In 1956 astronomer and archaeologist Morris K. Jessup received two letters headed ‘Carlos Miguel Allende’, giving a box number in Pennsylvania as return address, but were signed Carl M. Allen. They were inspired by Jessup’s The Case for the UFO. In his rambling missives Allen(de) claimed that in October 1943 the navy had applied Einstein’s Unified Field Theory to making a ship invisible. They succeeded, but afterwards half of the crew were found to be ‘Mad as Hatters’, while others ‘froze’, burst into flames, or faded away once more and were never seen again. On one occasion the ship was teleported to its other dock in Norfolk, Virginia, but after a few minutes returned to Philadelphia. He knew of this because: “This was also noted in the newspapers but I forget what paper I read it in or When It happened.” He also implied that he had seen it from a neighbouring ship.

Soon afterwards, Jessup was invited to the Office of Naval Research in Washington, where they showed him a copy of his own book, The Case for the UFO, which had been mailed to them in the summer of 1955. It was full of marginal annotations in three different coloured inks, ostensibly by three different persons, but at least one and perhaps all of them seemed to be by the mysterious Allende. They purported to give the truth about flying saucers (they are piloted by beings who once lived on earth, but have evolved to permanent residence in space, only returning here to abduct the occasional human).

It was subsequently determined that he was indeed a Pennsylvania man named Carl Allen, and that he had joined the navy in July 1943.All this remained unknown to the general public until 1968, when Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour printed extracts from the letters and annotations in their New UFO Breakthrough. In 1974, Charles Berlitz included a section on it in The Bermuda Triangle, based upon what Jessup’s friend Manson Valentine had told him in an interview (Jessup himself had committed suicide in 1959). A journalist named William Moore conducted his own investigation, and was able to uncover several independent witnesses. Of course, Ufologists will be aware that off-duty and retired military personnel are often willing to proved researchers with exactly the information they were looking for, though usually demanding anonymity, and Moore is good at locating them.

Eventually he met Berlitz, and the two men had a bestseller with The Philadelphia Experiment, 1979. This, and the subsequent film, produced more witnesses, some of whom had ‘buried’ their memories for many years. Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Information has maintained that nothing happened except routine degaussing – well, that’s what they want you to think. Many writers have dismissed the case as a hoax, without giving coherent reasons. There is actually an obvious objection to it having really happened, however: if half of the crew of a destroyer had all suddenly gone insane, whilst others had mysteriously died, or disappeared entirely, then the navy would have been besieged by relatives of the men demanding an inquiry, or at least a full explanation. This did not happen, indeed, nothing is known to have been written about it for more than a decade. This is not to say that it was a hoax, exactly: Allen’s letters were so disjointed that he may well have believed what he was saying. What is impossible to say, at this distance in time, is how far it was inspired by gossip among science fiction fans.

Later, having written the above, it occurred to me that, whilst sci-fi fans may not have been able to build super-technological weapons to defeat the Nazis, there was nothing to stop them from writing about such things. Though Allen said that he could not recall the name or the date of the newspaper in which he had read about the affair, he thought he would be able to do so under hypnosis. If this had ever been tried, I suspect that he would have remembered that it had actually been a pulp science fiction magazine. This hypothesis is not easy to verify. The British Library does have microfilms of old numbers of Amazing Stories, but their holdings are not complete, and there are none from the Second World War. The editor was then Ray Palmer, who went on to edit Fate and Flying Saucers (despite having told a correspondent to Amazing Stories, in 1938, that “We do not believe in the possibility of interplanetary travel, but the subject has given many good stories”); when the Philadelphia Experiment came to be widely discussed, in the late 1960s, he would surely have recognised it as corresponding to a fictional story that he had published a quarter of a century earlier, and said so.

The British Library also has Alva Rogers’s A Requiem for Astounding, a history of Astounding Science Fiction from its foundation in 1930 up until 1960, when its name was changed to Analog. He gives a summary, if only a very brief one, of every story that they ran, and I can find nothing that matches. But there were many other such magazines, including Astonishing, Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown, Fantasy, Comet Stories, Captain Future, Dynamic Science, Unknown Worlds, and Miracle Science. Presumably copies of all of these were deposited with the Library of Congress. There may also be issues in the Special Collections of some American universities, such as the Sprague de Camp archive at the University of Texas in Austin. Perhaps someone in the United States, or planning a long vacation there, could find the time to look into this?

23.4.16

THERE’S AN OVER-EDUCATED MONSTER FROM EARTH ABOARD THIS LIGHTWEIGHT UFO…HELP!

Robbie Graham. Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies. White Crow Books, 2015.

Brenda S. Gardenour Walter. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema. McFarland, 2015.

In theory the idea of reading these two books on (a) Hollywood’s relationship with the UFO and (b) Western Culture’s relationship with mythic monsters, and their representation in horror cinema, seemed appealing. They appeared serious accounts of phenomena that are perhaps not taken seriously enough. Unfortunately they are unduly over-serious and overlong. Robbie Graham (UFO expert) did nine years of research. Whilst Brenda Walter (Monster historian) sounds like she’s devoted a lifetime to her project. I admire them for all their hard work but not for giving me a hard read. Their dogged duty to scholarship results in pages and pages of footnotes, chapter synopses and repetitive interviews.


Take Robbie Graham’s Silver Saucer Secrets. It was never properly revealed to me why he thinks UFOs still have an enduring status in popular culture. Near the end of his nearly 300 pages, Graham gives us the most blindingly obvious of conclusions - “My position is this: Hollywood draws extensively from fact-based discourse on UFOs – a phenomenon whose existence is already rejected by consensus reality. The presentation of this UFO discourse on-screen (and particularly within the context of the sci-fi genre) serves to blur the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy.”  Before I’d read a page of Graham’s book I had basically understood this to be true.What I wanted to know was why these practices occurred and what it tells us about being human, or maybe even alien!

I wouldn't have had such a problem with Brenda Walter’s full book title, Our Old Monsters, Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema, if she’d made salient connections between those old monsters and their new incarnations. Unfortunately she relentlessly bombards you with her impressive knowledge of medieval history so as to loose her, as a film-book writer, in a plethora of huge slabs of factual information. Walter frequently uses the arresting and poetic term “the melancholic earth” to describe where the monsters roam. Yet I had little sense of how the title chapter 'The Transgressive Monster' became for me 'A Cured Embodiment' - another chapter title. I’d have loved to have known the stages through which say 'the melancholic werewolf' crossed over into a kind of public acceptance. Yet the author makes it so difficult when her language contains such sentences as “Like the witch and the vampire, the modern werewolf is a flesh canvas on which we inscribe our ever-changing constructs of abject otherness.” this having been preceded by a heading entitled 'Post-Modern Fluidity: The Transformative Power of Otherness.'

At this point I wished for more meaningful fluidity in Walter’s argument, so as to explain what she meant by those terms: followed by an in-depth exploration of the ideas that monsters engender in film culture. I yearned for an essay comparable to the lucidity of Robin Wood’s essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” but Brenda Walter just gave me historical fact after fact. This learned information was most apparent when tagged onto the book’s photographs. Take the description of an image from John Carpenter’s film, Prince of Darkness: “In an inversion of Christ’s conception and birth, Kelly (Susan Blanchard) is impregnated through the mouth and eyes by a Satanic goo and becomes an inside-out and decaying vessel for the Antichrist.”

That might be all historically true but it somehow didn't make me want to rush out to see the film. And that’s the issue here; Brenda Walter is a historian and not a film critic. She has written a solid history book that doesn't join up well with her chosen films. The virtue of Robbie Graham’s ‘flying saucer’ book is that his tone is lighter and not in-your-face academic. Yet like Walter he’s also written two separate narratives of UFO’s and cinema that don’t make for a unified whole. At least he’s more readable and humorous. Fun is not to be found with the Monsters & Co.

 If I've sounded rather harsh then don’t let that put you off buying these books. If you’re obsessive about UFO studies then you will definitely want to cover the Hollywood slant on such mysterious sightings. Whereas if you want a feminist reading of film monsters, still on the rampage, then this effort will greatly appeal. I shall wait for someone else to tackle the subjects one day with a leaner essay or compact monograph. Maybe I should pack away my scholarly stake, remove my silver bullet and watch the skies for inspiration? -- Alan Price.

18.4.16

HEART OF THE MATTER

Paul Davies and Caitlin Matthews (Editors). This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self. Moon Books, 2015.

This is an anthology of essays by thirteen authors exploring the threefold relationship between the landscape, ancestors and ourselves. Each writer gives a unique and idiosyncratic viewpoint on pagan themes of honouring the ancestors, connecting with nature and following a spiritual path or practice.

When we consider the word 'ancestors', we usually think of those unknown human antecedents from whom we have descended. Many of us, but by no means all, had a living relationship with both of our parents, and perhaps with both sets of their parents. It would be quite unusual to know personally the generations above our grandparents, but at least we might have glimpsed them through old photographs and stories. Even with a well-researched family tree, there comes a point where we simply cannot know the thousands of humans who happened to meet and interbreed in a lineage that made you and me as individuals with a unique DNA imprint. It is both science and mystery.

In his Foreword, Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University, suggests that modern Western society has largely abandoned interest in, and veneration of, our ancestors. Modern rationalism has tended to replace religion as a modus operandi of organising our societies and deciding our priorities. Yet he claims that "something curious is happening in the world....something to do with ancestors". Religion has not died but seems to be morphing into other forms of spirituality.

In keeping with that Foreword, Paul Davies in his Introduction makes the point that by virtue of our DNA and spirit we are "the ancestors reborn". As a Quaker, Druid, absolute pacifist and holder of degrees related to Archaeology and Anthropology, Davies is known for his work in bringing the subject of ancestors into the public domain. In particular he was instrumental, with others, in a campaign to have ancient human remains from various sacred sites reburied with appropriate ritual. This aroused local and national interest, further stimulating interest in the ancestors and "a sense of self as part of the spirit of the place".

"Time and the Grave" by Emma Restall Orr is a thoughtful and poetic essay on the questions of life and death. This is a deeply felt consideration of questions such as "what happens to us when we die?" She points out the great diversity of beliefs and possibilities, whether they be religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific, and the resulting dilemma for agnostics. Some may be quite willing to accept death as oblivion, while others may persist in fear and denial. Yet there is still grief at the death of a loved one, and an in-built emotional urge to dispose of the physical remains with respect and honour. All of this is strong food for thought. However, she does not claim to know the answer as she concludes this fine essay: "What happens to this thinking I, this centre of me, will actually remain a mystery to me until, perhaps, the day I die. Whatever happens, I will be thankful for the presence of the ancestors, asserting the importance of that gratitude and the need for true respect".

"Tribes of Spirit: Animals as Ancestors" by Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass) is a personal account of the writer's discovery of his guardian Wolf spirit. His revelation came during a sweat lodge on a Druid camp in England. Such ceremonies and initiations are usually considered to be of Native American tradition, but there seems to be some evidence that they were also used in Bronze Age Britain. From that initiation 20 years before, Greywolf had increasingly intense encounters with his Wolf-spirit. He eventually realised that he had found his true self or essence, for he says: "I am Wolf. Wolf is me." He considers the real possibility of having wolf ancestry. As a Druid, he acknowledges ancestors of "blood and spirit". Therefore kinship may be of both types. Not surprisingly, he likes to wear pelts, drumming, chanting and howling at the moon.

"Ancestors and Place, Seidr and Other Ways of Knowing" by Jenny Blain takes us to the Nordic countries and the practice of Seidr. This is defined as a way of gaining knowledge and insight, and then making desired changes in physical circumstances or in human relationships. The author describes herself as a practising Heathen and first developed Seidr work while in Nova Scotia while she was researching Nordic sagas. "At the centre of Heathenry is the concept of the world tree, Yggdrasil....and the pool of Wyrd at its foot, tended by three women, the Norns, who craft or create fate or Wyrd for individuals or communities." 

Wyrd is not considered as fixed fate, but rather a combination of obligations and potential for change as people create their own lives. In this philosophy ancestors are important, not only in a physical sense but also in a spiritual and cultural sense. 'Oracular Seidr' usually involved a seeress holding a staff and sitting on a raised platform before the people. Singing and chanting would bring about a shift in consciousness and access to 'entities', ancestors or spirits, that could provide the required knowledge. Healing, protection, or exorcisms might be performed. Yet in some cases quite mundane but useful knowledge might be imparted. One seeress reported that she was instructed by departed great-aunts who gave her instructions on cooking and questioned what she was doing.

Now we come to "Wights, Ancestors, Hawks and Other Significant Others: A Heathen-Archaeologist-Falconer in Place" (sic). This rather unlikely title belongs to an author by the name of Robert J. Wallis. Mr Wallis may be a lovely man to know, I am quite sure, but getting to know him would appear to be quite a difficult challenge, nigh on impossible if you get off on the wrong foot with him. 

His essay begins thus: "'What do you do?' a question I dislike, as if my working life in a university defines me. 'Are you married?' and the subsequent, 'Do you have kids?' presume a heteronormative frame and a requirement to procreate when perhaps unusually, Claire and I have lived happily together for half of our lives and children are still not top of the list. 'What are your hobbies?' suggests work and play are separate, leisure activities, a distraction or escape, when as a falconer my relationship with a hawk, a significant other and companion species, requires daily commitment, involves emotional investment, is a research subject (Wallis 2014) and bleeds into my 'spirituality' (a term that's a poor fit for what I'm getting at). Worse yet, 'What do you believe?' - the wrong question for a non-believing heathen animist whose Gods are ancestors, ancestors sometimes animals, plants occasionally allies, and allies wights. I fit in, but not quite. I'm an archaeologist, but I don't dig holes. I identify as a heathen animist (in understated lower case) but not Asatru, Odinist or Shaman. I recognise my grandmother Gladys, Gyr-falki, Woden, the plant Mugwort, the builders of Bush Barrow, yew trees and the hare Freyja caught a few days ago, within my loose approach to 'ancestors'. I'm a hedge-sitter, an out-sitter, and the ancestors are all around me and within me, part of my identity although I would not necessarily say that mine is an 'ancestral heart'. Let me attempt to explain, by starting here, in this place, just now."

I suspect that after such an eccentric and irritating introduction many readers will not wish to stay on for the attempted 'explanation'. Enough already. Quite why Mr Wallis is so tetchy at being asked what he does and then tell us in such excruciatingly pompous style what he does is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Actually, it's not such a bad essay, with some nice poetic touches to the prose, if you manage to get past that introduction.

Moving swiftly on to what may be considered the keynote essay, Caitlin Matthews, co-editor of this anthology, is on solid ground with "Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space". As a seasoned writer of over 60 books Matthews has a concise readable style that draws you in, as in a conversation, with human warmth. She opens with a comparison of human life to a pilgrimage. The longed-for place is where we are in communion with all that is and has been. It is always within us, and is always within reach, but somehow we keep losing it. Modernist culture defines ancestors as the bloodline from which we descended, but the ancient wisdom is that we are truly related to everything in existence.

Matthews draws on her family history to illustrate our need for family and a place of belonging. I was touched by her description of her mother's life-long sense of loss for being adopted and raised separately from her parents and brothers and sisters. So much of society's ills can be traced back directly to the breakdown of the extended family and a link with the land. Her essay is filled with practical techniques for healing these painful rifts that lie within our souls, or, to use her phrase "restoring the ancestral communion". That is how we can finally "come home".

"Memory at Sites of Non-Place: A Eulogy" by Camelia Elias starts with the author's reflections on her thoughts when asked to submit her contribution to this anthology. For some unknown reason she comes up with the word "symmetry" and spends most of her essay trying to fit her concepts into that single theme. It doesn't work for me, but there are many useful points of information nonetheless. One of these concerns Colin Murray, a great Celtic scholar and founder of a Druid order who ended his life at the age of 44 by ingesting yew leaves. He had apparently made a pact with trees shortly after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. "In other words, trees had become mediators between life and death." It seems like a tragic waste of a young life with much unrealised potential. There is no explanation given for his motives. For that reason I have some difficulty with the author's statement: "From the standpoint of storytelling, Murray's life and death strike me as fascinating, precisely as it ties in with the man's sense of symmetry and what he was trying to achieve...." However, I do fully agree with her later observation: "What we call the Ancient Heart has to do with the ineffability of the mystery that always stares us in the face."


"Tuning into the Landscape" by Sarah Hollingham is a delightfully light piece, filled with the simple joys of finding stillness within and tuning in to nature. As a Quaker, the author attends meetings where participants sit in silence until the spirit moves them to speak. She transfers this practice to solitary meditations in a natural setting such as woodland. As an exercise, using a technique called 'soundmapping', she describes the great insights provided by simply listening to all of the sounds around us. At first you may find that your mind is full of inner chatter.

By paying attention simply to everything you are hearing, and mapping it, you can attain much greater inner peace and harmony. Using a pen and paper, you can write a word or draw an image of each sound around you, with yourself as a circle in the middle and the location of sounds in front, above, behind, and either side. Some sounds, such as traffic noise, may seem to clash, but they still belong to the 'here and now'. There is no need to block any sound, as many do these days with headphones and earphones. Wherever we are it pays benefits to be mindful of what is happening around us. Finally, the author reminds us of the joy and pleasure of taking off our shoes and feeling the grass and earth under our feet. This is simple and direct communing with Nature.

"How Genetics Unravels the Role of the Landscape in the Relationship Between Ancestors and Present" by Luzie U Wingen looks in great detail into the subject of genetics and DNA. It is a most useful and necessary addition to any anthology concerning ancestry. Technology has advanced so far as to allow genetic signatures to be analysed and compared. These show differences between geographical areas, but still confirm a common ancestry for all of humanity.

"Ancestors (Anck-est-ors)" by David Loxley is a robust, no-nonsense essay that reappraises common words and language in the light of deeper knowledge and insight. As might be expected from the Chief of the Druid Order since 1981, he speaks with some authority. From his first paragraph he makes it clear that objects and words may represent a dead past. We may think of ancestors as dead and gone, and these things as their relics. Can we break through the wall between life and death? Letting go of our beliefs may be difficult but necessary to see the larger picture. He speaks about religious beliefs and fixed histories giving birth to all kinds of stupidity, conflict and disease. "Healing, vision and understanding are born out of the present tense." He links the word 'ancestor' with the Egyptian word 'ankh' meaning 'life'. This is to remind us that we are the ones who pass between birth and death. "The true purpose of who and what we are is to shine like the sun." "Now is the reality, now is a sun; the future and past do not really exist." The most obvious opportunity to experience passing between life and death comes every day in the form of sleep, in which we become virtually nothing and nobody. Loxley gives several practical suggestions for spiritual development and meditations to "assist communication with the ancestors, immortals or our own internal light". This is no wishy-washy New Age amusement or pastime. It is serious work. In conclusion "When an idea's time has come the people will see the need. When we ask a question the answer will also appear. Create the conditions and we will get the results. When we are ready the ancestors will answer the call."

The final essay is 'The Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection' by Penny Billington. She emphasises the growing urge to re-connect with the earth and nature in all its forms. Pilgrimages to sacred places, festivals and gatherings at ancient mythical locations such as Glastonbury and Stonehenge are signs of an awakening that is gathering pace. Druidry is particularly strong in Britain and has a lineage that goes back to the mists of pre-history. Julius Caesar wrote a detailed account about Druids' beliefs and practices when he was in Gaul (France) between 59 and 51 BC, asserting that they came from Britain and were already an ancient order possessing arcane knowledge.

An Afterword written by Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, provides a fitting conclusion to this anthology. He poses the question "What is Nature?" and determines that in some parts of the world it means a genuine wilderness where humans occasionally intrude, whereas in Britain today it generally means the 'countryside'. Our landscape has been progressively tamed and adapted to our benefit. This leads into a series of searching questions about humanity's place in 'nature'. There are no simple answers, but a growing sense of crisis in our precious world is making us think even more deeply about our personal place and purpose in all of this. -- Kevin Murphy.

15.4.16

POLTERGEISTS INTERNATIONAL

Patrick J Gallagher. (Editor and compiler) The Guyra Ghost: Original Newspaper Accounts of Australia’s Most Prominent Poltergeist Case. CreateSpace, 2015.

I have shown in Magonia how useful local newspapers are as sources of Fortean stories and this little book provides an extensive example of how the Australian press dealt with a “poltergeist” case back in 1921. It centred around the home of a working class family in a small New South Wales town and involved mainly stones being hurled at the property from sources which evaded detection even when crowds of people ringed the house.

Everything from spirits to the local kids (larrikins) and even exploding rocks was blamed, until a scapegoat was found in the family’s twelve-year-old daughter, whose confession to faking a small segment of the stone throwing was used to close down the story. There seems little doubt that the girl was disturbed in some way and was the centre of the outbreak, which began when she complained that she had been pestered by a strange man who followed her and thrown stones at her. Later the girl claimed to be in communication with the spirit of her dead sister. All of this looks like a classic case of attention seeking.

British readers will be interested to note that the Australian press carried quite a few stories of a poltergeist case in Hornsey, North London, at the same time. This book should be of interest to Forteans, folklorists and anyone interested in how stories mutate through press coverage.

Darren Ritson and Michael J Hallowell. Contagion: In the Shadow of the South Shields Poltergeist The Limbury Press, 2014.

Written in 2009 but only published five years later, the authors present another poltergeist case, this time from Jarrow and describe some of their own paranormal experiences and introduce the idea of contagion (ironically having some similarities with Richard Dawkins' and Susan Blackmore’s notion of memes) and that polts are part of some vast hive like entity. One learns that the outwardly normal house in which the polt is alleged to have manifested seems to have the layout of a fairground haunted house, that the couple at the centre had filled the house with horror film memorabilia and that the male in the household had the delightful hobby of writing to serial killers for memorabilia. A little girl was being raised in that house! -- Reviews by Peter Rogerson.

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