Archive for May, 2012

Veni, vidi, vampire?

May 22, 2012

An English ‘vampire’, from ‘Medieval Towns’ by Schofield and Vince, 2003 edition

The always-fascinating Magia Posthuma blog has posted a really nice update on that ‘vampire of Venice’ story from 2009. It puts the original claims in perspective and provides much-needed insight into the academic side of the ensuing controversy that most of us haven’t been privy to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with the idea that this ID6 skeleton was an Italian ‘Nachzehrer’ (or ‘shroudeater’) remains valid – because there ARE no Italian Nachzehrer! It’s a Germanic phenomenon. The fact that there’s no Italian analogue means that, at the least, the (now contested) conclusions found in ‘Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice’ (paywalled) and in the media versions that most people read should have been presented in a more tentative manner.

However, it did get me thinking about analogues to the practice of placing a stone or brick in the deceased’s mouth however, as this is more widespread than the shroud/self-devouring version of the ‘vampire’ (and strictly, I should use the more general word ‘revenant’ there).

The stone/brick-in-mouth (or under chin) apotropaic does appear outside the bounds of (modern) Germany. Folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to the practice amongst the Kashubs of Poland (who did actually cary the Nachzehrer belief with them also), and Paul Barber cites Stora’s ‘Burial Customs of the Skolt Lapps’ as describing a similar practice amongst the Laplanders.

Then there’re the skeletons of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, one of which was found with a stone inserted between the jaws of its disembodied head. The skull was also placed between the feet, which is something that Perkowksi and Barber also refer to in the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Finally, there is a lesser-known British connection. A helpful source at the Museum of London referred me a while ago to two instances. First are 11th/12th century burials at St Nicholas Shambles church in the City of London, where small stones were found in the mouths of four inhumations. These were interpreted as a substitute for the ‘ferryman’s’ coin, aka ‘soul-scot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. More were found at St Botolph’s church in Billingsgate, my MoL source reports that several 15th-17th century burials also had stones in their mouths, a few being ‘the size of cannon balls.’

Two more were found at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and another at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire. Note however that stones, big and small, are a feature of medieval graves in England, and seem to have served more than one purpose. Unlike burials elsewhere, we lack any real historical or folkloric evidence to back up the idea that these placements were aimed at keeping the dead…dead, but given the stones found in the two eye-sockets of one of the two Fillingham bodies (and bearing in mind the analogue practice observed even today of coins over eyelids), deliberate placement at least seems highly likely (more discussion here, including the connection with heavy stones perhaps used to weigh down the dead).

This doesn’t really aid the ‘Vampire of Venice’ claim any, as we still lack even support in an Italian context for the stone-in-mouth burial practice. But together with the rebuttal by the authors, it does perhaps increase our confidence that this was a deliberate effort by somebody, and by analogy, may indeed have been to prevent the return of a revenant of some kind. If so however, the shroud-eating hypothesis remains dubious, and the relevance of the term ‘vampire’ is, I suppose, a matter of definition. It certainly attracts a lot more press than ‘revenant’.

An honest miss-stake.

May 16, 2012

Here’s a quick follow-up to the article on Vampire Killing Kits in the current issue of Fortean Times. Thanks to Darth Saber of the Replica Prop Forum for pointing out this intriguing new kit that’s somehow (so far) survived Ebay’s anti-weapons policy.

We’ve seen kits containing real antique firearms sold on Ebay before, but only where the pistol itself is listed on a different site. So whether this one stays the distance is anyone’s guess.

It’s interesting because it’s far superior to most ostensibly antique kits that we see on the ‘bay, but falls short of the mark in a few key ways. Firstly, there’s the deviation from the original Blomberg label style, typeface, and wording. You can’t beat the classic, so why even try?

Secondly, there’s the bizarrely-named bottle labelled ‘Daffy’s Eliyir’ [sic];

An oblique ‘Count Duckula’ reference? Who knows?!

Finally, and most obviously, there are the glaring spelling/typo and grammar mistakes (see how  many you can spot):

I realise Blomberg is meant to be a non-native English speaker, but really.

At least he’s consistent! (NB this odd spelling appears elsewhere…)

Now, I should point out that in common with recent auction house trends, there’s no direct claim of antiquity here. It’s simply presented as a ‘Vampire Killing Slayer Kit’, leaving the bidder to make up his own mind about its age and authenticity. Note however that it uses mostly antique components and those that aren’t have been deliberately aged. Is there intent to deceive? I leave that to the reader to decide.

More Hidden Music?

May 14, 2012

My scepticism as to the ‘hidden’ music of Rosslyn Chapel is well-documented. The same people have also tried to show hidden music in planets, plants, and even the DNA of customers. Now it’s the turn of artwork by, and you can probably guess this one, Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (not, as the Daily Record states, ‘The Musician’), and you can see the inscription of interest in this hires version of it.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s actually some musical notation on that piece of paper. However, there’s no actual claim in the article that they’ve managed to decipher it. They are ‘…working on trying to find a piece of music which fits…’. And we all know where fitting the facts to the evidence leads. We also know that these guys did not find the musical notes in question. They were uncovered in 1905 after restoration work, and have been plainly visible since.

Finally, there’s the claim that the first word (but not, apparently, the second) of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ appears backwards on the same part of the painting. All sources I could find state that the text reads ‘CANT. ANG.‘, for ‘Cantum Angelicum’, a work by the supposed subject of the painting, Franchino Gaffurio. Even if that interpretation is itself highly speculative, I can’t see the letters resolving into ‘AGNUS DEI’ any way you cut it. You can just make out the letters in this zoomable version of the painting, and this Wikimedia version. I thought I’d have a bash at mirroring it myself. Here’s the original;

You can see the large capital ‘C’, and then what has traditionally been read as ‘ant’, all one discrete word. There’s then a space, and a very clear capital ‘A’ followed by the ‘n’ of ‘ang’, with a horizontal line below. You can just barely make out the lower case ‘g’ that follows it (look for the tail in faded, brown ink if you’re struggling).

Now, here’s the mirrored version;

The only way in which I can see what they’re seeing is if I ignore what is now the first bit entirely, and take the ‘A’ as the first letter of ‘Agnus’, ignore the gap and then interpret the next letter as ‘G’ by ignoring the horizontal stroke of the ‘t’, keeping the ‘n’ but calling the ‘a’ a ‘u’, and then somehow taking the reversed ‘C’ as an enormous deformed ‘s’.

See what you can see.

A Ripper of an Idea

May 8, 2012

Another day, another Jack the Ripper suspect, this time put forward by former solicitor John Morris. As ever, we’ve no more reason to believe this suggestion than any of the dozens of others that have been advanced, sometimes repeatedly, over the years. At least the name appears to be a new one, even if the idea of the Ripper being a woman certainly is not.

Be wary of definitive statements about 120-year-old cold cases;

‘There’s absolutely no doubt that the Ripper was a woman.’

It’s pretty clear that there is, I’m afraid. The list of proof reads like a textbook definition of ‘circumstantial evidence’, and are not necessarily even established facts. I’m no Ripperologist, but in 20 minutes of investigoogling found some problems with the claims made in the press piece. Firstly;

‘Three small buttons from a woman’s boot were found in blood near Catherine Eddowes’

…is true, but lacks some important context. The actual source reads;

‘Sergeant Jones picked up from the foot way by the left side of the deceased three small black buttons, such as are generally used for boots, a small metal button, a common metal thimble, and a small penny mustard tin containing two pawn-tickets.’

Note that the boot association comes from a policemans’ attempt to describe the objects in the absence of a photograph, and the fact that the buttons were found with various other objects you might expect to find in a woman’s handbag or pocket. It’s far more likely that the buttons were loose and in the victim’s possession than it is that they were somehow torn from the killer’s person.

That a Victorian journalist thought arranging items in some kind of order was a ‘feminine’ trait reveals far more about Victorian attitudes to gender (and possibly our own if we’re prepared to set store by them) than it does about our elusive killer.

Finally, I’m not sure how we can know that Mary Jane Kelly had ‘never been seen wearing’ the clothes found in her fireplace, as one witness does describe a hat and jacket, and another (contradictory) witness specifies a pelerine (cape) and skirt. Eyewitness testimony being notoriously unreliable, of course.

I should reserve judgement until someone (not sure I can face another Ripper book) has analysed the main thesis and evidence for it. But on past form, I can’t hold my breath. We will almost certainly never know who Jack the Ripper was, and it’s no coincidence that scholarly study in the area is more concerned with the social historical context of the killings than it is with the futile search for the actual killer. Personally, my money’s still on the Phantom Raspberry-Blower.

Going the Whole Nine Yards?

May 3, 2012
By this logic, firing a whole sub-machine gun magazine would be ‘giving them the whole eight inches’…
Snopes have recently updated their entry for the origin of ‘The Whole Nine Yards‘, and as they rightly point out, it’s pretty much the case that whatever you think it comes from, it doesn’t. I do have a few comments though. Firstly, there’s one other reason why the machine-gun belt explanation can’t be true that isn’t covered; that there is no standard-length belt of that measurement for any machine-gun, air or land service. Despite this and the other good reasons given by Snopes and others (notably a total lack of references for it anywhere), it remains one of the most popular explanations. Even the Smithsonian have repeated it as fact.

The other, more important thing has to do with their suggested real origin for the saying – a lewd ‘joke’ about a Scotsman’s penis…I mean kilt. Having discounted the idea that it arises from the kilt per se, they end the article by referring to said joke/story. As an apparently American joke, featuring a Scottish stereotype and not rooted in historical reality, it would overcome the problem of all the early written references being American in origin. It also doesn’t require that a kilt actually be a standard nine yards in length (it isn’t).

However, I have a couple of issues with this. Snopes state that the story is ‘of uncertain age’, yet the version they give is in very modern English, and must have come from somewhere traceable. Yet they give no date whatever – nor any source for the version they reproduce.

Their source would appear to be the claim here (recounted version of the story here) by US Navy Captain Richard Stratton, who remembers first hearing it in 1955, just a few years before the phrase as we know it appeared in print (1962 according to Snopes, or perhaps slightly earlier). However, aside from this, I can’t find any evidence that it’s a traditional story at all. In fact it seems to be an original song with a known writer and a copyright date of 1991 (and a performance date of 1990). Now, it’s possible that this is a version of an existing folktale of some sort as Stratton’s memories suggest, but if so it’s pretty poor form to claim words penned by ‘Traditional’ or ‘Anon’ set of words as your own. More discussion on the song/story question here. More likely is that it is based on an off-colour joke of relatively recent vintage that was current in Stratton’s day. He may well be correct in remembering both this and the contemporary use of the phrase, but have wrongly assumed that the two are related. The phrase as ‘punchline’  not only seems like an afterthought, but a total non-sequitur. At least the song version sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t specify ‘nine yards’ and isn’t itself claimed to have anything to do with the phrase. I just don’t think that this claim is any more convincing as an origin for the phrase than any of the others that Snopes list. I’m not alone.

Finally, I might actually have a contribution to make here, though it does admittedly run counter to the presumed American origin of the phrase. The U.S. is, however, a nation of immigrants with a language (and a good deal of folklore) in common, and I think the gap in written sources not insurmountable. It’s also quite possible that, as the story was preserved as an oral tradition in Scottish Gaelic, it could have made the jump straight to American English without ever passing into British English. But I’m starting to speculate here.

I came across the following during past research on this same subject. It’s a Scottish (funnily enough, though kilts don’t factor) folk-tale entitled ‘The Stupid Boy‘, collected by a Miss Dempster in 1888. Its opening subject is a nine yard length of cloth, the successful selling of all nine yards being key to the story;

‘There lived once on a time in Sutherland a widow, who had one son, and he was a very stupid boy ; so stupid that he could not be trusted out of sight, and that he had no idea how to buy or sell. One day his mother had nine yards of home-spun to sell ; and there was a market within a few miles of her, at which she wished to show it for sale ; but she could not go herself, and had no one to send but her son, and she thought a great deal how she was to prevent him doing something stupid with it, and being cheated. At last she thought that as the fair lasted three days she might send him every day with three yards, and that he could not go far wrong in getting a price for so small a quantity.’
Dempster, 1888. ‘The Folk-Lore of Sutherland-Shire’, The Folk-Lore Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1888), pp. 149-189

It would have been particularly neat had the boy’s magical revenge taken place after he’d sold the ‘whole nine yards’ rather than just six out of the nine, but you can’t have everything. I’m not suggesting this as definitive, mainly because there is such a huge gap between this story being written down (and no doubt it is far older than 1888) and the first written appearance of the saying proper. We’d expect some sort of ‘missing link’, particularly as with the latter we are talking about a different country. Nonetheless, it’s by far the earliest relevant instance of the idea, if not the actual phrase. Even if Stratton’s origin is accurate, ‘The Stupid Boy’ still pre-dates the kilt story/song as a specific reference to the idea that a total of nine yards of something is somehow significant, and is not in itself incompatible with Stratton. As with everyone else who’s ever speculated on this question, I doubt we’ll ever know if it’s actually significant, but it’s interesting if nothing else.

So, what’s the real answer to the question? It’s another ‘we don’t know’, I’m afraid. Whatever quibbles I have with the Snopes article, we certainly agree on that.

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Posted in Etymology, Military History, Modern History | 6 Comments »

Vampire Killing Kits article in Fortean Times

May 1, 2012

I hope readers won’t mind my drawing attention to this month’s issue (288) of Fortean Times, which I’m proud to say features as its cover article a synthesis of my research – and that of others – into those vampire killing kits that I’ve posted so much about. Whilst reiterating that we have no real evidence for their existence prior to the 1970s, it does try to make room for the kits as ‘invented artefacts’ of modern pop culture. Because, quite simply, many of them are lovely! It also features a detailed sidebar by the talented Darth Saber of the Replica Prop Forum, and a couple of other interesting vampire-related articles. Well worth a look, and always a stimulating read due to its policy of including different points of view, from what we might regard as somewhat uncritical, to the outright sceptical.

Posted in The Paranormal, Vampires | 3 Comments »