The Raven – Crow or No?

February 17, 2019

Common Raven (Wikimedia Commons/R. Altenkamp)

 

My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…

This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;

‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’

In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;

‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’

This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;

‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’

All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.

And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);

Aves

  1. CORVUS.  Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
  2. Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
  3. Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
  4. Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
  5. Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
  6. Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
  7. Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
  8. Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
  9. Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
  10. Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
  11. Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2

The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinct from Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!

Reaching back further into time we find the 1555 Pierre Belon illustration that I’ve reproduced above. The caption states;

‘Corax, en Grec, Coruus en Latin, Corbeau en Francoys.’

The caption for the Crow has;

‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’

Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;

‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’

However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;

‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’

However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;

‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce

Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’

Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations,  neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;

‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’

Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;

‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’

Or…

‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat

Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft

On their high cradles, by some hidden joy

Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs

Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,

When showers are spent, their own loved nests again

And tender brood to visit.’

 

Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.

In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;

‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.

This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).

So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;

 

CORVUS. CROW.

Corvus Corax.

Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.

The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.

Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.

 

In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);

‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’

This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);

‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’

All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.

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Drilling for Nonsense.

January 19, 2019

Funny how Ridley Scott ended up remaking ‘Alien vs Predator’…

 

A colleague (who clearly thought there was something in it) recently told me of a fringe theory regarding supposed high-tech drilling and stone shaping techniques used on the sarcophagus inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I hadn’t heard this one before, but then the whole ‘Ancient Aliens’ thing has never much appealed to me (unlike Egyptian archaeology itself, which at one stage I was going to study at University). It turns out that he was talking about the work of Christopher Dunn, who is another of these intelligent, qualified people who drinks the Kool-Aid on a subject entirely outwith their own experience and expertise. Among other things (such as the pyramid itself being a power plant!) Dunn believes that the high rate of rotation noted by archaeologist Flinders Petrie (an inch of cutting in half a turn of the drill) requires that the holes must have been drilled using ultrasonic drilling – a 20th century technique. You can read his theories here and here. This kind of detail is great for alt-history types because most of us aren’t engineers, and we aren’t archaeologists either, making this kind of historical/technical explanation superficially quite plausible to the layperson (my colleague is a forensic scientist and certainly not gullible). The problem is that Dunn is not familiar with the actual equipment used, nor how it was used. It’s like an automotive engineer trying to recreate how a chariot was designed, or even an aeronautical engineer professing to understand the biomechanics and evolution of flight in ancient birds – some aspects will map across time and areas of study, but many won’t, and unlike chariots and fossil birds, the evidence for exactly this type of ancient drill system is absent. It makes no sense, in the absence of evidence, to leap to fantastical theories. It’s the old meme from Ancient Aliens; ‘I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens’. Petrie himself inferred that this required simply a heavy load on top of the drill, and that including a suitable abrasive, such a speed of cutting is far from impossible. It’s not helpful to equate these huge hand-powered drills to modern electrically-powered equivalents, and the fact that other engineers that he’s shown or told about this have been equally nonplussed means nothing. I have shown precision hand-made antique firearms with sharp corners and convoluted shapes to modern gunsmiths and makers who have ‘grown up’ using modern tools, and they have been utterly amazed, because although the end result might be similar to what they’ve done in the past, the means of getting there was totally outside their own experience. It’s essentially one big argument from incredulity.

The actual academic literature on the subject (which Dunn has not contributed to, incidentally) is well represented by these two articles, neither of which tackle the ‘Ancient Aliens’ (or time-travel, or whatever fanciful) explanation implied by Dunn, but rather look at the methods available at the time and the microscopic evidence left by whatever method was actually used. Tl;dr is that whilst we don’t know precisely how the Ancient Egyptians did their stone drilling, it involved a hand-powered drill (probably tubular and using a copper bit) and an abrasive compound/slurry. This, not ultrasonic equipment, which by the way, they had no means of powering, designing, or building (and isn’t represented in any artwork, texts, or archaeological find, is how these holes were drilled and what left the characteristic parallel lines. Nothing about the lines being close together necessitates any unreasonably high rate of rotation, and fragments of corundum abrasive in similar drill holes offers direct counter evidence to the ultrasonic claim. As to the precision corners evident in things like stone sarcophagi, I have never understood why this is somehow evidence of super-advanced technology. As this page shows, the Ancient Egyptians had tools with which to judge angles and the cheap labour, artisanal skills, and time necessary to cut angles and radii by hand with simple tools. Again, instead of marvelling at such accomplishments and putting them down to aliens, time travel, parallel dimensions or whatever, we should focus on trying to recreate the ingenuity that was able to pull off such feats. It’s funny – when it comes to outstanding past technology we look for some supernatural explanation, but with other human endeavours like great art, we don’t. This *is*sometimes done in fiction – super creative people in ‘A Discovery of Witches’ are revealed to be ‘daemons’; a totally different species. Strangely, I find that almost as disappointing as this ancient aliens BS.

 

Spanish Civil War Bollocks

December 16, 2018

No, not this Spanish Civil War bollocks. Although this is very likely also bollocks…

 

I recently came across an odd claim in the comments section for a YouTube video (yes, yes, I know) on the subject of the Second World War. Having investigated, the commenter was referring to this story as reported in a 2012 thesis entitled ‘Desertion, Control and Collective Action in Civil Wars’ (p.165-6);

 

When asked to explain to an American journalist how he had blown up a tank, another militiaman replied, “echando cojones al asunto”—applying courage (literally testicles) to the matter, according to the Left Republican leader Régulo Martínez who set up their interview. Martínez relates, “A week later, I was shown a copy of an American paper in which I read that Madrid militiamen had invented a new anti-tank device called ‘echando cojones al asunto.’”

 

The furthest back that I could trace this was a 1979 oral history book by Ronald Fraser, which relates the story in the original Spanish (i.e….un periódico americano en el que se decía que los milicianos de Madrid habían inventado un nuevo dispositivo antitanques llamado “echando cojones al asunto”…).

 

So this may well be a period claim and not something concocted later, although oral history is often unreliable due to the passage of time. However, as the claim relates to an actual US print newspaper, if it’s true then we should be able to locate something in online newspaper archives. Disappointingly (I did rather want this one to be true!) yet unsurprisingly, none of the available archives yielded any result. In fact I couldn’t find a single English language reference. When you think about it though, the very claim itself strains credulity. Why would a foreign journalist who did not speak Spanish simply repeat a phrase in that language for his readers without asking what it meant? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spanish knows what ‘cojones’ means, and the US was at that time not without its connections to Spain and the Spanish language. It’s also a rather convenient meme/informal propaganda piece that says to fellow Spaniards that ‘the outside world knows nothing of our troubles and isn’t helping’. Bottom line – there’s no evidence for this one and it’s likely to be a piece of Spanish wartime lore. Shame really!

On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

November 12, 2018

This reminds me, I must re-watch ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’…

One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:

 

‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’

-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).

 

This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.

Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).

So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:

 

‘Quoth he, “I doubt there’s something in’t, Ye’re no’ a hare.

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

And says, “Have at ye now, auld lucky ;

Although ye were the de’il’s ain chucky,

Or yet himsell, If it but touch of you a nucky,

It will you fell.”’

 

The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.

My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:

 

‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.

 

More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,

Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;

 

‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’

 

Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).

However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):

 

‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’

 

The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.

My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it. 

I Don’t Like Mondays

April 20, 2018

Yay! Murder!

 

I suppose it had to happen eventually. Next step – real-life ‘Battle Royale’ or ‘The Running Man’. What am I on about? Well, British television (specifically, Channel 4) has seen fit to base a Friday night primetime family gameshow on a mass murder. Not directly of course; the producers likely haven’t a clue that the Boomtown Rats song that they chose for their title and theme song was written about convicted murderer Brenda Spencer. Spencer killed two people and wounded nine more, including a number of school children, in a (once) famous spree killing with a .22 bolt-action rifle back in 1979 – the first ever US school shooting. Given the attention afforded school and other spree killings in the world’s media right now, you’d think the creators and commissioners would be a little more aware. Even if you don’t realise that Spencer’s only justification for her violence was ‘I just don’t like Mondays’, it’s throughout the bloody lyrics (abridged below);

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s going to make them stay at home

Tell me why

I don’t like Mondays

I want to shoot

The whole day down.

All the playing’s stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while
And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die
And then the bullhorn crackles
And the captain tackles
With the problems and the how’s and why’s
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die, die

I mean, don’t these people even know about Wikipedia (I see some wag has already edited the entry to include the new gameshow)? Surely someone, at some meeting, pointed out the possible inappropriateness of the title and song? Apparently not. Or maybe they did, and they just figured that 1979 is ancient history for the target audience, so who cares? Either way, we live in a hyper-sensitive age when TV programmes can be pulled from the schedule if they feature gun violence if a shooting happens to have occurred recently, and yet this makes it to air. What’s next – win the holiday of a lifetime on a Native American Indian reservation in ‘Run to the Hills’, hosted by Davina McCall? Stay classy Channel 4…

 

Don’t Lose Your Head

March 31, 2018

“When your head is chopped off, your brain can think for about 2 to 3 minutes.” -‘Severance’ (2006)

 

I’ve been meaning to write this one up for years. Do severed heads retain any conscious awareness prior to brain-death? After more research, on and off over years, than I’ve done for any other article, I still can’t be truly definitive. The balance of the evidence suggests some level of consciousness for a few seconds, which inevitably raises for many the horrifying possibility that for a couple of seconds at least, you would be fully aware of the traumatic amputation of your entire body, and perhaps even be able to see it. Nice.

 

Consciousness is one thing, but whether you would be fully cognizant of what was happening to you is harder to prove. Anyone that’s experienced a faint or other sudden loss of blood pressure knows that things get pretty unreal (especially when almost inevitably coupled with your head tumbling to the floor and hitting things on the way down). You’ll be instantly dizzy, your vision will quickly narrow and get fuzzy as you black out, likely much quicker than the typical faint. I am as certain as I can be that despite technically retaining the capacity for conscious thought, actual decapitation is VERY likely to take the shape of a few seconds of dim, dizzy awareness that something is wrong (especially if you knew the killing blow was coming), but almost certainly not long enough to actually process what’s happened to you. One major issue is that the historical ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal and almost entirely unreliable. What we read about in old experiments with criminals, or even watch in modern ‘gore’ video clips is just brain death – nerves activating and the brain stem continuing autonomous function, trying to get oxygen where none is available. As one Reddit commenter below points out, you’d need to have someone on an EEG and cut their head off to be sure of what’s really going on. I have decided not to reprise the various historical (hysterical?) accounts of ‘living’ heads – not very scientific ‘experiments’ by Galvani, Aldini, Wendt, Seguret, Laborde, Lignieres, Lelut and Beaurieux (the celebrated 1905 case of the criminal Languille). For these, see chapter 8 of Frances Larson’s great book ‘Severed’. As Larson says, these efforts (many of which were inspired by arguments that the French guillotine was not as humane as it appeared) proved nothing either way and today can be readily explained as involuntary action. The same applies to the present-day ‘gore’ videos that can be found online. For those so inclined, and with an appropriately huge GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING, here are three showing clear movement of eyes, mouth, and/or other facial muscles. We need to separate the technical persistence of consciousness from the observable effects. A head may be experiencing terrible pain and existential horror (although I doubt this, see below), but its face may or may not be moving at the time – there may well be no connection and chances are that the movement is involuntary as Davey suggested.

Interestingly, scepticism about the phenomenon of ‘lucid decapitation’ is as old as the claims themselves. As this article by James Elwick relates, Edward Rigby’s 1836 paper on the subject was;

 

‘“…immediately mocked in a rival medical journal’s editorial entitled “The Philosophy of Decapitation.”’

 

It proved so persistent however that in 1858, James George Davey actively sought to debunk these purely observational efforts with experiments of his own, published in his book ‘The Ganglionic Nervous System’. Depressingly, Davey carried out these tests on kittens, reaching the conclusion that;

 

‘…when the head is cut off, its irritability remains, as appears by the motion of the ears when pricked or touched with a hot wire ; and, as the extremities are also irritable, it will not be said that consciousness and sensation exist in two separated portions of the same body. Nor can it be admitted that sensibility and consciousness may remain in the head after separation ; for, if mere compression of the carotid arteries abolishes sensation and thought by interrupting the circulation in the brain, how much more must the superior violence of decapitation have this effect?’

 

This should have been an end of it, but the gothic horror of the living severed head was just too titillating. Despite other criticisms (notable French doctor and philosopher Cabanis, who was convinced that loss of consciousness was instant), for nearly 200 years now the popular media has recycled these claims as a way to send a shiver up the consumer’s collective spine (while they still have one). As ever, the internet has both promulgated these tales and offered the best means to debunk them. The main problem is separating the basic facts from the context. Davey understood the importance of this, but modern popular science outlets seem not to, reporting the facts on how long the brain is technically ‘conscious’ without qualification of just how aware one might be during the experience. Damninteresting.com has a good writeup that concludes that we don’t really know, but emphasises the horrific possibilities;

 

‘…there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments.’

 

In fairness they only say ‘surreal’, which is certainly likely. But could one really be meaningfully aware of what’s happening? How Stuff Works (quoting a figure from New Scientist) also admits the paucity of the evidence but is slightly contradictory;

 

‘…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.”’

 

The figures on loss of consciousness are supported by (indeed, may even derive from) data from testing on rodents. Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist again, 13 October 2007) and Livescience reported respectively:

 

‘Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.’ (New Scientist)

 

‘In 2011, Dutch scientists hooked an EEG (electroencephalography) machine to the brains of mice fated to decapitation. The results showed continued electrical activity in the severed brains, remaining at frequencies indicating conscious activity for nearly four seconds. Studies in other small mammals suggest even longer periods.’ (Livescience)

Digging down to the actual research level, this study by Rijn & Coenen showed that consciousness fades within 3/4s and may last up to 17s. Brain death comes around 1m. On the face of it, these figures are pretty terrifying. Even two seconds of full awareness would be truly horrifying – 17 doesn’t bear thinking about it. However, the human brain’s oxygen requirements for anything like full function are far greater than any rodent. Again, I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’d be genuinely ‘with it’ during those seconds. To summarise, we have lots of anecdotal evidence for facial movement after decapitation that doesn’t really help answer the question, and a lot of scientific evidence for ‘consciousness’ (tending toward 2-4 seconds) that doesn’t usefully convey what the real-life experience would be like. Short of an EEG and a willing victim, the provisional conclusion has to be that, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your head, yes you might technically still be conscious, but you’re really not going to know anything about it before (to paraphrase Ghostbusters II) your ‘head dies’.

Fash masel redux

March 24, 2018

I’ve had some very good comments in response to my previous post about the use of ‘fash masel’ by Bram Stoker in ‘Dracula’, and I’ve come to realise that they have a point. I think I got carried away in addressing the claim that it is somehow ONLY a Doric phrase, and overlooked the plausibility of the claim that Stoker would have got it from Scots rather than Yorkshire folk. This is reasonable. HOWEVER, he must also have known that it was current in Yorkshire dialect, or he wouldn’t have used it, so the implication that it is exclusively Scottish is still misleading. I also realised that one of my links was a duplicate. What I intended to link to under ‘Yorkshire dialect’ was this entry for ‘fash’ in ‘The English Dialect Dictionary’ (under ‘Cum’;

‘n.Yks. Ah’ve no need ti fash mesel’

Now, there is a spelling variance here ‘masel’ is favoured in Scots/Doric and ‘mesel’ is the preferred rendering for northern English, er, English. However, there is no standard spelling for dialect beyond what scholars choose to put in books – it reflects the pronunciation of the word. ‘Masel’ and ‘mesel’ are the same compound word. So, Stoker using ‘masel’, coupled with his history with Doric (he did write two whole books in the dialect) and the lack of the phrase in his notes (where he did record more specific Yorkshire words and phrases) makes it quite plausible that he took ‘fash masel’ from the Doric. But once again, this is also a Yorkshire thing, and is being put in the mouth of a fictional Yorkshireman based upon a real Yorkshireman, and was written whilst Stoker was staying in Yorkshire. To say that it’s a Doric phrase is like saying, for example, that an author of a novel set in Elizabethan England is using a Scots word when they have a character say ‘murther’. Yes, today it’s a Scots word. But for centuries it was also an English one. I do admit that the evidence for it being in common usage is limited, but I suspect that’s due to the attention afforded written Scots in the 19th century.

Kiss of the ‘Vampire’?

February 10, 2018

Surprisingly, I had never heard of Hungarian serial killer and alleged ‘vampire’ Béla Kiss until I watched a recent episode of ‘The Great War’ on YouTube. It’ s fantastic series, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, I was immediately sceptical of the suggestion that Kiss had ‘drained’ his victims of blood and was a ‘vampire’. This is frequently claimed by vampire universalists; people who like to lump absolutely everything they can under the vampire umbrella, regardless of cultural or historical context. The connection between vampires and serial killers is often made, but is entirely spurious other than in handful of cases where killers actually do drink the blood of their victims. Even this doesn’t make them ‘vampires’ per se. More ‘wannabes’ really. Anyway, back to Kiss. I had a good dig about, and the claim of blood-draining/drinking seems to originate with Monaco and Burt’s ‘The Dracula Syndrome’ (1993). Kiss appears on page 156;

‘…what intrigued investigators more were a series of sharp wounds on the necks of each victim — each of whom had been drained of her blood. Other, more fortunate women began to come forward to identify Kiss as their evil, vampire attacker.’

Unless readers can find any earlier claim, I’m calling this one BS – a cheap attempt to make Kiss seem more, well, ‘evil’ and ‘vampire’ than just a plain old nasty murdering f*ck-head. In fact, the whole book appears to be part of the ‘true crime’ movement to romanticise serial killers as somehow other-worldly beings. Which is not to say that the story of a First World War killer that disappeared isn’t interesting; you should definitely check out ‘The Great War’ video on Kiss and the rest of the channel for that matter.

 

I wouldn’t fash masel’ about the facts

January 26, 2018

George Malpas as seaman Swales in the excellent 1977 BBC version of Dracula

 

[Edit – I was a little hasty in discounting this entirely. Clarification here.]

Like most readers of ‘Dracula’, I had no idea what the old sailor was talking about when he advised Mina ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’. I later realised it was intended as Yorkshire dialect; a way of saying ‘I wouldn’t fuss myself about them’ i.e. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them’. Yet, according to some, most notably Bram Stoker’s author descendant Dacre, this was a piece of Doric dialect that Bram Stoker picked up whilst staying in Scotland. This despite the fact that the scene is set, and was written, in the coastal town of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I was a little taken aback at first, thinking perhaps that I had it wrong, but sure enough, whereas ‘fash masel’ features in Doric, it’s also well-documented Yorkshire dialect. In fact many words and phrases that are said or implied to be uniquely Scottish are also found across broad swathes of northern England, which is unsurprising to those familiar with the history of the two countries and their shared language. Still other Scots words are also archaic English words, which always gives me pause for thought when the debate over the status of Scots arises. That is, whether Scots is a dialect of English or a distinct language. The whole thing is massively political, and really, it shouldn’t matter. English is just as much a Scottish language as it is an English or British one. Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that Bram Stoker was not silly enough to put Doric in the mouth of a Yorkshireman. He may have first heard it in Scotland, but he must also have known that it was in wider usage. I don’t blame Dacre Stoker, as a North American, for not realising this, but I think it’s worth correcting this error.

Now, as for the claim in the same Scottish Sun article that Slains Castle ‘matches the floorplan of’ Dracula’s castle, that deserves its own post…

Helsinki Syndrome

December 25, 2017

The redoubtable Harvey Johnson. I miss satire in my action movies.

 

Every year at Christmas I enjoy a viewing of Die Hard (1988), usually as the wife decorates the tree, but this year we had a staff screening at work. Such a good film. Anyway, every time I see it I notice another detail, and this time it was the odd phrase ‘Helsinki syndrome’. Everyone knows that the psychological phenomenon of hostages identifying with and even sympathising with their captors is called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘ after a specific bank robbery that took place in that Swedish city in 1973. I naturally wondered whether ‘Helsinki syndrome’ was a silly mistake, a continuation of an existing mistake (as in, the movie reflecting popular misconception), or part of the movie’s poking fun at the media (the news anchor shows his ignorance by immediately trying to clarify for the audience that Helsinki is in Sweden, only to be corrected by the expert guest). I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an existing misconception that the writers were referencing, unlike the infamous ceramic ‘Glock 7’ of Die Hard 2 (which was based on an existing media scare; one for another post). The movie seems to have started a meme of sorts, to the point where some people today actually think that ‘Helsinki syndrome’ is a real thing. There is no mention that I can find of it prior to the film. ‘Helsinki’ was definitely in the original script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. As to why the writers didn’t just call it Stockholm syndrome and have the presenter mistakenly say that Stockholm was in Finland, I can’t be sure. It may just have been deliberately changed to distance the movie from real-life events, just as Hans Gruber’s ‘Volksfrei movement’ never really existed but had parallels in groups like the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Gang. Viewers in the know would realise what was being referenced and would find the ensuing gag extra funny. For those not familiar with the real-life syndrome, the movie explains it and we can all laugh at the daft anchorman together. However, there may be a more specific origin. I did find one reference to Helsinki syndrome as a political comment in The Nation magazine (vol.241, 1985, p.8) made in reference to this hijacking;

‘Most feared of all Scandinavian disorders is Helsinki Syndrome, in which positively charged particles of information afflict the victim’s central ideological system, causing him to question America’s absolute moral superiority in the cold war. Specialists in the field refer to victims of the syndrome as being “‘Finlandized,” thus beyond recuperation.’

It seems plausible, given the amount of satire present in Die Hard, that the writers were referencing this wry comment, which is using its suggestion that Helsinki Syndrome is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome to satirise US foreign policy and, I believe, Allyn B. Conwell. This incident produced two radically opposed views from the hostages; Conwell, who responded with hatred for his captors, and Peter W. Hill, who defended them in the press. Hence whereas sympathy for terrorists would be medicalised as effectively a mental illness (which is the popular understanding of Stockholm Syndrome, implying that the sufferer’s aberrant views can be disregarded), the magazine is suggesting that such people might label any critic of the US government as having a case of ‘Helsinki Syndrome’. It does fit, although I have no direct evidence for this one. I did once manage to get in touch with de Souza about another piece of Die Hard trivia, so perhaps I could find out if anyone is sufficiently interested. Anyway, just in case there is any doubt, there is no such thing as Helsinki Syndrome.