Archive for the Superstition Category

The Chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Caves, Church, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The Blavet valley in Morbihan is famous for its picturesque views and peaceful countryside. Probably its most magical location can be found near the pretty village of St Nicholas des Eaux, at the sixteenth-century chapel of St Gildas.

The magical chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The magical chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

This tiny chapel fits snuggly under a huge craggy cliff just next to the river itself. The best view of it can be found on the other side of the Blavet, from the river-side path that snakes its way from the village.

Legend has it that the chapel was built on the site of a cave inhabited by the hermit Gildas in the sixth century. The site became a place of worship, and Gildas would call the local people to prayer by hitting a ‘ringing rock’, which gave a loud, bell-like tone.

The pulpit rock outside the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The pulpit rock outside the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

Outside the building can be found a rock pulpit from which St Gildas used to deliver his sermons. Just below, a tiny spring reputed to have curative properties emerges from a crack in the rock.

The holy spring emerging from a rock below the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The holy spring emerging from a rock below the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The chapel also has some wonderfully weird carvings on its exterior, including strange faces. With its buggy eyes and chubby cheeks, this sculpture reminded me of the ancient Celtic stone heads that are found throughout Europe. And is it just me, or is that a rather impressive handlebar moustache?

A carved face on the exterior of the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

A carved face on the exterior of the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The chapel was locked on the rather drizzly day that I visited, so I didn’t get a chance to see the famous ‘ringing rock’ which is still preserved inside. Apparently much of the interior is formed from the original cave, which sounds distinctly magical. The wonderful setting of the chapel made it well worth the visit, but I slightly fell in love with this place, so I am determined to go back in the summer, when it will hopefully be open for further investigation…

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Posted in History, Museum, Oxford, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I spent a few days in Oxford last week, a beautiful town that is most definitely packed with magic. One of the most intriguing places that I visited was the Pitt Rivers Museum, situated in a suitably gothic building and home to Oxford University’s vast anthropological and archaeological collections.

The wondefully gothic exterior of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford

The wondefully gothic exterior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Originally founded in 1884 by the magnificently named Lt-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the original donation of 22,000 objects has now grown to an amazing 500,000, with many of them packed into the maze of glass cases that fills the museum today.

The packed interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The packed interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The museum collection includes weird and wonderful items from all over the world, many of them collected and donated by explorers, missionaries and scholars during the last century. I wandered round on my own, but quickly noticed lots of eyes staring at me from spooky tribal masks, ancient sculptures and cases full of colourful puppets. This Indian ‘Scare Devil’, which was believed to keep malevolent spirits at bay, sent a shiver down my spine.

A googly-eyed 'Scare Devil' from India

A googly-eyed ‘Scare Devil’ from India

There also seem to be an inordinate number of human skulls, many of them adorned in strange, magical ways. I was particularly drawn to one skull from Nigeria which had been elaborately decorated with feathers as part of local burial rites.

An elaborately decorated human skull from Nigeria in the Pitt Rivers Museum

An elaborately decorated human skull from Nigeria in the Pitt Rivers Museum

But my favourite objects were definitely the shrunken heads. Originally from the Upper Amazon region of South American, these creepy little heads had their skull and brains removed before being filled over and over again with warm sand for a period of several months, gradually shrinking them down until could be strung onto a cord which was worn round the neck during religious ceremonies.

One of the many shrunken heads in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

One of the many shrunken heads in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

There are so many incredible things in the Pitt Rivers Museum, it is the kind of place that you could spend hours wandering around. Every glass case is packed with treasures, some quite mundane, some incredible bizarre, some fairly new, others very, very ancient. Magic-seekers of all ages will love this place, although with all those skulls, shrunken heads, tribal masks and puppets, a visit here can certainly be a rather unsettling experience.

The Château de Trécesson, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Ghosts, History, House, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve just got back from another trip to France, and just like the last time I have been tracking down more of Brittany’s magical castles. During this visit I made the journey to the picturesque château of Trécesson, which lies in a quiet, wooded valley not far from the town of Campénéac on the borders of the forest of Paimpont, a region steeped in myth and legend.

The château of Trécesson

The château of Trécesson

Much of the present-day castle seems to date from the 15th century, although it is assumed that there has been a fortress on this site for much longer. Its impressive towers and strong walls of the emerge from the depths of a wide, dark moat, and past the elaborate turreted gatehouse a small chapel sits next to a pretty 18th century wing.

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

Not surprisingly given its location near Paimpont, Trécesson has its own collection of supernatural legends. One concerns a ‘white lady’, the ghost of an unfortunate past resident who was bricked up into the walls of the castle by her own brothers for daring to marry the wrong man. A ‘headless curate’ haunts the corridors, and phantom card-players have also been seen in one of its bed-chambers, apparently indifferent to the terror that their appearance induces in hapless guests.

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

Despite these creepy stories, the castle seemed like a calm and quiet place on the day that I visited. A grand avenue of trees, now long-neglected and overgrown, leads up to the front gate. Most of the year the castle is closed to visitors, with only the exterior visible from the nearby road. However, the courtyard and chapel of this still privately-owned château are apparently open to visitors during the summer months, so you can be sure I will be back there soon in search of some more Trécesson magic…

The Collection of the Magical Dr. Dee, The British Museum

Posted in History, London, Museum, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve been back to the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum again this week, but not to see the creepy little merman. This time I was more interested in the items from the collection of Elizabethan astrologer and magician Dr John Dee.

The Museum has a number of objects which once belonged to the fascinating Dr. Dee in its collection. There are two wax discs which supported his ‘table of practise’, and another larger disc which held his mystical ‘shew stone’, a highly polished obsidian ‘scrying’ mirror used for divination. A small inscribed gold disc shows images of one of Dee’s magical visions, and the crystal ball was used by his assistant Edwards Kelly to conjure up his own mysterious images.

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee's Collection

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee’s Collection

A close advisor of Elizabeth I, Dee spent much of his later life dabbling in the occult, and travelled around Europe indulging in all sorts of bizarre experiments. However, he fell out of favour after Elizabeth’s death, and ended his days in penniless obscurity in Mortlake, now in the suburbs of London.

A portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A 16th Century portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

It seems that Dr Dee was particularly keen to make contact with angels, which he attempted to do using his crystal ball and obsidian mirror. Was he successful? I guess we can only wonder. But staring into the inky black depths of that scrying mirror, maybe my eyes were playing tricks, but I thought perhaps I saw something…

The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, E.F. Benson

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Superstition, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I always think it is strange that Christmas time is now so closely linked with ghost stories. Recently it seems like the tales of M.R. James have become a festive perennial, and hardly a year goes by that they don’t appear somewhere, be it in print or on TV or radio. Much as I love James’s creepy stories, this year I fancied something a little bit different. And so it was I delved into my library and came out with a well-thumbed copy of The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson.

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

Born in 1867, Benson is perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia books, which were successfully recreated for TV in the mid 1980s. Anyone familiar with these light, comic tales of high society in rural 1920s Tilling may be surprised to find out that Benson was also a master of the supernatural yarn, with the stories in this book a world away from the curtain twitching and idle gossip of the Tillingites.

Having said that, most of his ghostly tales are set in a world long gone, an country inhabited by dapper bachelors who rent country houses for the summer and frequent polite garden parties. Benson writes about an early 20th Century England, a place of good manners and good breeding, in the human protagonists at least. The author himself believed in the supernatural, and claimed to have experienced a couple of ghostly visitations himself, including one at his charming Georgian home, Lamb’s House in Rye.

E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson

Some of the stories in this collection are rather traditional, featuring hauntings in places where terrible things have happened and spirits that need to be appeased. Vampires make an appearance too, with one of the respectable inhabitants of a village turning out to be not so respectable after all. A couple of the tales are just downright weird, particularly the one entitled And No Birds Sing; quite what that strange thing lurking in the woods was is never quite explained, which inevitably adds to the scariness of it all. How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery was apparently the author’s favourite, and in fact is a rather touching tale of contact from beyond the grave.

So next time you fancy settling down in front of a roaring fire on a dark, chilly evening, the ghost stories of E.F. Benson come highly recommended. While the characters and settings of the stories are very much of their time, the narrative thrills that they provide are never old fashioned. I guess terror is timeless!

Halloween Decorations, Atlanta

Posted in Ghosts, Hallowe'en, House, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I’ve often heard how much they love Halloween over in the USA, but it was only on a visit to Atlanta, Georgia last week that I discovered quite how much.

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These houses in the suburb of East Point give you an idea of the amount of effort some people go to when it comes to putting up Halloween decorations. Forget about a couple of sorry-looking pumpkin lanterns, these guys really go to town – giant cobwebs, gravestones all over the lawns, hanging corpses and much, much more.

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I know that some people bemoan the commercialisation of Halloween, and I certainly saw plenty of that on my recent trip, including everything from pumpkin flavoured lattes to the constant advertisements for the latest horror blockbuster and supermarket aisles brimming with candy and junky plastic toys. But I loved these decorated houses with all their spooky accoutrements. The work and imagination involved the putting them together is astounding.

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Strolling past these houses as the sun sets and a long dark night begins, well that is definitely a magical experience, even if I didn’t get to experience the crowds which apparently visit them on Halloween night itself.

Happy Halloween y’all!

Enter if you dare!

Enter if you dare!

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, Caroline Smailes

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I came across The Drowning of Arthur Braxton while browsing through the book reviews in The Guardian. The reader comments on there are unfailingly positive, describing the book as ‘magical’, ‘strange’ and ‘breathtakingly good’. I headed over to Amazon, and on seeing the rave reviews on there (a 100% five star rating last time I checked) I knew that I had to get hold of a copy.

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The Oracle is a run down Edwardian swimming pool in an unnamed northern town. It has been taken over by a bohemian band of new age healers, who offer water-based therapies to the eager locals, claiming that the pool lies right on top of a sacred spring. Laurel is a lonely teenager who gets a job there, and soon becomes involved in the strange, sometimes sinister goings-on. She sees things that she cannot explain, and attracts the attention of Martin Savage, one of the healers whose intentions are less than honourable. Silver, who can read palms, sees something terrible in her future, and things start to quickly unravel.

Years later, Arthur Braxton seeks refuge from the torrential rain in the now apparently empty, damp and dilapidated pool complex. Arthur is an outcast with a dysfunctional family and a band of bullies on his back. He discovers something magical inside The Oracle; a beautiful girl who swims naked in one of the pools, her sad-looking friend watching on from the side. He is instantly smitten, and on returning to the pool he finally makes contact with the strange pair. Despite the fact that the girl, named Delphina, seems unable to leave the pool, their relationship quickly develops. But The Oracle is under threat from American developers, Arthur is under threat from his persistent bullies, and the blossoming love between the boy and this water-bound beauty is under threat from the unavoidable differences between them. As the pressure grows, unbelievable truths about Delphina’s past begin to emerge, and as young love grows, Arthur and Delphina are pulled apart by circumstances beyond their control. And oustide the rain keeps on falling…

The blurb on the back of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton describes it as a ‘modern fairytale’, but if you are looking for a happy-ever-after story of handsome princes and pretty princess then look elsewhere. This book is dark, very dark, filled with swearing, sex (not all of it consensual), depression and more swearing. At times it is painfully sad, at others strangely surreal, absurdist even – if Angela Carter and Samuel Beckett had ever collaborated on a novel then it probably would have ended up something like this. As the narrative progesses, Smailes successfully racks up the tension – I read it in twenty four hours, unable to stop until I got to the dramatic climax. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton more than lives up to those great online reviews. This is modern magic at its best, and I challenge you not to love it.

The Valley of Saint-Clair, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Church, History, Landscape, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by mysearchformagic

The Chapel of Saint-Clair nestles in a quiet valley just outside the Breton village of Limerzel. This is a tranquil part of the world, one that the rapid developments of the late 20th Century have largely passed by. As a result, a visit to this valley, with its collection of fascinating ancient monuments, is rather like stepping back in time.

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path into the Valley of Saint Clair

The path towards the chapel begins in a stretch of shady trees. There is a picnic table here for any passing tourists, although this is not the kind of place that attracts lots of visitors, just the odd dog walker from the village or maybe a passing farmer on his tractor. Walk a bit further down and you will find the first curiosity on this short journey, namely the Fountain of Saint-Clair.

The fountain of St Clair

The fountain of St Clair

Large scale holy fountains like this were once common in Brittany, and a number of them survive to this day, but few are as decorative as this beautiful example. Saint Clair himself can be seen carved in polychrome relief below the elaborate canopy. The first bishop of nearby Nantes, Saint Clair was responsible for bringing Christianity to the region in the late 3rd Century. In the past, his fountain has been attributed with healing powers, particularly for those suffering from maladies of the eyes, although the mossy, leaf-filled pool which lies at the heart of the fountain doesn’t inspire much hope for modern miracle seekers.

Follow the path a bit further and you will emerge out of the trees; take a sharp right turn and you will discover the next point of interest – the Cross of Saint-Clair. Like many of the crosses which dot the landscape in this area, the carving on this monument is provincial and naive, while centuries of erosion has erased much of the fine detail. The base is dated 1818, although the obvious age of the cross itself suggests that this date relates to a later restoration rather than its original construction.

The cross of Saint Clair

The cross of Saint Clair

By now the chapel itself can be seen nearby. It is just a short walk across a babbling stream to the final destination of this magical pilgramage, a simple building which dates from the 15th/16th Century and was sympathetically restored during the 1800s. Nowadays the chapel is almost always locked, but a small grille in the door allows visitors a view into the sombre interior, its religious statues and austere furniture bathed in the golden light from the small stained glass windows.

The chapel of St Clair

The chapel of St Clair

Every year on the 15th September the locals celebrate the Pardon of Saint Clair, during which a procession makes its way from the fountain, which is temporarily festooned with colourful flowers, to the chapel. After the procession everyone indulges in a communal meal to commemorate the Saint’s day. But for the other 364 days of the year the chapel remains peaceful and largely forgotten in this secluded valley, a place which still remains a magical haven far from the noise and bustle of modern life.

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

The gloomy interior of the chapel of St Clair

Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Posted in Art, Edinburgh, Fairy Tales, Legend, Photography, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Traprain Law, East Lothian

Posted in Edinburgh, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on April 22, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Any regular visitor to East Lothian will know Traprain Law. A huge mound of volcanic rock which sits dramatically amongst the rolling hills around Haddington, it is hard to miss this imposing mass. Few however will be aware of its long history, and the many myths linked with one of South East Scotland’s most fascinating landmarks.

Traprain Law from the south

Traprain Law from the south

Archaeological investigations of Traprain Law during the last hundred years have revealed centuries of habitation, with the first signs of human involvement dating back as far as 1500 BCE. The Law seems to have been the site of a major settlement, and has long been linked with the Votadini tribe who inhabited the region during Roman times. In 1919, a team of historians discovered the famous Traprain Treasure here, an incredible hoard of silver plate dating from this era, thought by modern scholars to have been a bribe paid by the Romans to the local people to buy their cooperation.

Nowadays there are few signs of this extensive history visible to the naked eye. The day that I visited the Law was cold and windy, with dark clouds sweeping in threateningly from the west. The climb up to the summit was steep and soggy, the path often resembling a boggy mountain stream.

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The view from the top made it all worthwhile, extending for miles over the surrounding landscape. No one else was around, just me and the stubby-legged, barrel-chested little horses that now make the Law their home.

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

Traprain Law has been linked in legend with St Mungo. A story is told that his mother, Thenaw, was thrown from its precipitous cliffs by her father King Lot when he discovered that she was pregnant by Owain Mab Urien. She miraculously survived, and following a journey across the Forth to a place near the town of Culross, she gave birth to Mungo, now the patron saint of Glasgow.

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

An even more bizarre story suggests that the huge rocky outcrops known as the Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, which dominate the summit of the Law, have magical properties. Women, and perhaps men too, who want to improve their fertility are encouraged to squeeze their way through the narrow crevice between the two rocks, preferably performing this feat naked, not the most appealing prospect on a cold and drizzly afternoon.

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Lwa

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Law

In recent years the Law has also been linked with UFO sightings, with unusual lights appearing here and at nearby North Berwick Law. I didn’t spot anything untoward on my visit, although the atmosphere at the top of the great mound is certainly rather special. The Loth Stone, a huge monolith said to be the gravestone of mythical King Loth and which sits in a field not far from Traprain Law was also on my agenda, but as I began my slippery descent the heavens opened and I was forced to hot-foot it back to my car. The Loth Stone, it seems, will have to wait for now.