Snopes: War Games

Snopes reports on an interesting load of old (as in period) nonsense from the Second World War. It’s a particularly desperate bit of numerology, complete with fudged Christian overtones (‘Il Duce’ instead of ‘Mussolini’, just to contrive the name ‘Christ’?). Can’t blame ’em I suppose, with Western civilisation at stake, but I like to think that I would look for a more rational means to look forward to the end of a conflict. I wonder what the Email forwards of World War 3 might look like?



Two Fingers Redux

“This calls for a delicate blend of psychology and extreme violence.”

Having sorted out my comments, a steady trickle has started to come in, most recently a comment from Hettie Judah that is the inspiration for this post. Hettie wondered if I’d come across any earlier reference to the use of the two fingered ‘salute’ than the Mitchell & Kenyon film; an earlier commenter had pointed out that this pre-dated my original 1970s assumption (remember, ‘assumption’ makes an ass etc).

Well, I hadn’t. But thanks to the wonder of Google Books (again), I’ve just turned up this gem:

‘The earliest record of the insult-V we have been able to find comes from the sixteenth- century writings of Francois Rabelais, in the following passage: Panurge is carrying on a gestural ‘duel’. He makes an explicit copulation sign and then… “stretched out the forefinger, and middle finger or medical of his right hand, holding them asunder as much as he could, and thrusting them towards Thaumast.”‘

Desmond Morris, Gestures: their origins and distribution, (London:Jonathan Cape, 1979), p.228.

I daresay that’s about as early as we’ll get. Even if not, it further puts the lie to the flawed suggestion that the sign originated with English archers, since this earlier form of what is clearly the same gesture is pushed toward the target in a sexually suggestive manner, not displayed to him in today’s upright method. This doesn’t preclude archers using it in this way, but the fact remains that we just don’t have any evidence of archers using any form of the gesture. Just the threat of finger-cutting. As ever, if someone can find a reference, I’ll be pleased to see it – but if Anne Curry, Juliet Barker, and the other medieval scholars out there can’t find it, I doubt it can be found – unless a whole new source comes to light.

In any case, thanks to Desmond Morris for answering this one over thirty years ago!

‘Arrant humbug’

Your argument is invalid, sir!

As Keith from Bad Archaeology has very kindly linked to this blog in his latest post on dowsing (well worth a look by the way), I thought I’d post some period material gleaned in my recent trawling of the Scientific American archive that shows that whilst dowsing may be ancient, scepticism of it as a technique is by no means recent. The first is from 1856, and somewhat circumspect (though you can read between the lines):

‘Foreign Scientific Notes.

THE DIVINING ROD-The London Mining Journal states that the Rev. A Suckling, recently delivered a lecture at the St. Helliers, Jersey, on the history, antiquity, and correct principles of the ‘dowsing’ rod, for the discovery of minerals, metals, and springs of water below the surface of the earth. Mr. Suckling stated that he was convinced there existed a certain, though inexplicable, affinity between the effects of operations with the divining rod and what, in our present modern designation, is termed “mesmerism;” that he refers them to one and the same source. It was then attempted to be shown that mesmerism was known to the ancient Egyptians, and that many anecdotes and passages of Scripture show that it was well understood among the entire population of Asia. To this principle is ascribed the application of Naaman, captain of the host of Syria, to obtain a cure f or his leprosy, and the interview of Saul with the Witch of Endor. In the course of the lecture it was stated that many of the wells in the island had been discovered by himself and others, endowed with the peculiar power which was said to appertain only to certain persons.'[1]

Just a year on however, and thinly-veiled eyebrow-raising is replaced by outright scepticism in this scathing comment;

‘The􀁫Divining Rod a Deception.

The editor of the Saint Croix Union, published at Stillwater, Minn., says :- “The divining rod is an arrant humbug, and those using it, pretending that there is in the rod a mysterious and unaccountable virtue, are also humbugs. We know what we say, and intend it, too. Not only will a twig of a sweet apple tree point downwards in our hands, but a bifurcated twig of almost any tree will. We can take a twig of a willow, or an oak, or hickory, or anything, and hold it in our hands aud make it turn forty ways for Sunday. It isn’t a stream of water beneath us that does it, either, for we can make it point to a heap of ashes, or rock as hard as a nether millstone. It makes no difference. We don’t deny that water has been frequently found exactly beneath the spot indicated by the divining rod ; this has happened in our case more than once, but it is just as true also that, in numberless other cases that have come under our observation, men have dug long-dug deep-and spent stacks of money by digging where these aforesaid mysterious rods have pointed, and found no water.'[2]

Although they haven’t quite put their fingers on the mechanism behind dowsing, others soon would, and by 1890s SciAm was recognising it in the oujia board;

G. A. S. says: I will be very glad to have you 􀁪enlighten me as to the cause which makes the little table move and answer questions when using the game called “Ouija, or talking board.”[3]

A. The hands. Hands off, no go.

You can almost hear the author saying ‘Next!’…



[1] Foreign Scientific Notes, Scientific American 11, 202-202 (8 March 1856) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican03081856-202

[2] The Divining Rod a Deception, Scientific American 12, 344-344 (4 July 1857) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican07041857-344a

[3] Notes and Queries, Scientific American 66, 74-75 (30 January 1892) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican01301892-74a


Bigfoot BS

A ‘yeti’ finger in the Hunterian museum collection turns out to be genetically human. No surprise there. The chap who collected it claims that it used to be the real thing and got replaced by the chap who donated it to the Hunterian. An alternative explanation is that the donor knew damn well (or at least suspected) that it was a human finger, and so saw no harm in replacing it with the real thing. In any case, another lesson that unless it’s been properly researched (which many museums simply don’t have the time or resources to do),  just being in a museum collection isn’t enough to authenticate an object.