Sep 20, 2019

Jack the Ripper: The Making of an Urban Legend, Part One

Our Fascination with the Macabre


As we approach Halloween, it seems fitting to turn our attention to the macabre, and what is more macabre than bloody murder? What is more intriguing than unsolved bloody murders?

The public's fascination with unsolved crimes, particularly unsolved murders, is well-established. Countless books, magazine articles, television shows, and movies have featured unsolved murders as their central narrative. Whether our cultural obsession is normal, whether it is because we find ourselves entranced by the dastardly deeds of others, or whether we simply cannot look away from a gruesome spectacle, we are enthralled by tales of unsolved murders. However, one tale stands far taller than any other.

Jack the Ripper


The Illustrated Police News/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

From 1888-1891, several women were murdered in ghastly fashion in and around an area of East London known as Whitechapel. The killer was never apprehended by the police, and the "Whitechapel Murders," or least several of them, are attributed to the work of one man, acting alone. We know him today as "Jack the Ripper."

Although the grisly murders attributed to Jack the Ripper happened over one hundred and thirty years ago, enthusiasm for the crimes - particularly retellings that include sensational new theories about his identity - has hardly diminished under the cloak of time. If anything, public preoccupation with Jack the Ripper remains alive and well. Legions of "Ripperologists," the moniker for amateur sleuths and "researchers" devoted to studying Jack the Ripper, have helped keep the horrific events alive in our imagination and on library bookshelves. Over the years, these arm-chair "experts," some of whom have credentials in detective work and even historical studies, have proposed an ever-increasing number of theories about Jack the Ripper's identity. Since the murders were committed, nearly fifty different people have either been suspected by the police, were tried in the court of public opinion, or were marked as the lone culprit by the pens of later authors.

"Whodunit" Theories Abound


The list of Jack the Ripper suspects includes men who were otherwise unknown and insignificant in their day. These men existed on the lowest rung of a highly stratified, class-based society we refer to today as Victorian England, where Whitechapel was the lesser side of London. Surprisingly, however, the list also implicates men of considerable renown, some of whom occupied London society's loftiest heights. One author, Philippe Jullian, suggested in 1962 that Jack the Ripper was none other than Prince Albert Victor, son of Queen Victoria.

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale
Photograph by W&D Downey, 1891
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jullian's theory achieved greater attention, not just in "Ripperology" circles but also with the general public, when another author, Dr. Thomas E.A. Stowell, wrote a magazine article in 1970 implying that Albert was Jack the Ripper and that he committed the murders after going mad from contracting syphilis.

Although Stowell's theory has been largely debunked, its dismissal has hardly dampened the zeal of later conspiracy theorists who have made even more outlandish suggestions. One thread in their "whole cloth," as it were, alleges that Albert, a sexual deviant, secretly impregnated a Catholic commoner who resided in Whitechapel. Queen Victoria (along with a regiment of loyal Freemasons) sought to silence anyone who knew about Albert's transgressions. Lo and behold, this group included some of the murdered women who were allegedly acquaintances of the Catholic woman. For conspiracy theorists, this kind of yarn has everything a good conspiracy theory needs. It picks at the long-suffering wound of Protestant versus Catholic, the unjust struggle of rich versus poor, a hierarchical government engaging in a criminal cover-up, and the involvement of a "notorious" secret society for good measure. It is also complete hogwash.

Carroll in 1855, Self-Photo, Public Domain
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Another strange theory blamed Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll, for the murders, at least four people were named as suspects who probably are fictitious persons, and there is even a "Jill the Ripper" theory suggesting the killer might have been a woman. Interestingly, the "Jill the Ripper" theory gained even greater notoriety when detective fiction writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, advanced the idea the Ripper may have been a woman. Coincidentally, Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes novel in 1887, A Study in Scarlet, just a short time before the murders began. Most of us have heard the theory that Jack the Ripper must have had medical training to kill the way he did. Interestingly, Doyle was a former physician. Perhaps, it was not Lewis Carroll, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was Jack the Ripper. Maybe he advanced the "Jill the Ripper" theory to throw the police off the scent, just like one of his storybook villains might do.


Whether a particular theory about Jack the Ripper's identity is based on fact or whether it resides in the world of rank speculation (or, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, as is the case of implicating Sir Arthur
Doyle, 1893, Public Domain
By Herbert Rose Barraud
Conan Doyle), all of the theories share a single commonality - each assumes the murders were committed by one person, Jack (or Jill). In fact, strong evidence exists (and has come to be accepted by reputable researchers and investigators) that not all eleven women murdered between 1888-1891 were killed by the same person's hand, whether that person was male or female. In fact, it cannot even be said with certainty that the so-called "canonical five" were killed by a single assailant, let alone the same assailant.

The Lone Murderer


So, why does the idea of Jack the Ripper as a lone murderer persist so strongly in our minds? In the next several installments, we will explore the reasons by examining the established facts underlying the murders, how the murders were investigated by the police, the role of the contemporary press in reporting on the murders, the socio-economic culture and surprisingly superstitious mindset of the Victorian era, other myths and legends of significant bearing, and the psychology of our love-hate relationship with serial killers. All of these factors have contributed, and continue to contribute, in one way or another toward the creation of an urban legend without equal in the annals of crimes that have occurred anywhere in the world.

From The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

In this urban legend, Jack the Ripper is cast as the equivalent of an Industrial Era "bogeyman." Thanks to movie portrayals such as Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog to the more recent, From Hell (2001), starring Johnny Depp, Jack tends to be imagined as cloaked from head to toe in black, wearing a top hat and long overcoat, and sometimes carrying a doctor's bag containing his tools of torment.

Jack the Ripper (1959)
Solitary and ghost-like, Jack emerges from the impenetrable fog of Old London, roaming its narrow cobblestone streets and dark alleyways. No one knows from whence he came or what derangements of the mind motivate him, but he acts with a singular purpose - he is hell-bent on killing women wandering alone in the middle of the night. Once his bloodlust is temporarily sated, Jack disappears just as quickly as he came, leaving all to wonder when will he strike next?

From From Hell (2001)
These images portray Jack the Ripper are the "archetypal serial killer" - a perfect specter of evil. Like many serial killers, he is a figure that simultaneously tantalizes and terrifies our psyche. However, not even a more prolific serial killer like Ted Bundy could ever hope to compete with the exquisite horror that is "Jack the Ripper."

However, are these images part a manufactured myth, engrained in our minds thanks to Hollywood, or do they represent reality? What about the descriptions of the murders and the victims? Were these exaggerated by over-eager reporters quick to sell newspapers? What about the apparent disdain for the area of London where these women lived? Was that simply Victorian-era classicism and "fear of the other?" How much did this fear contribute to our notions of who Jack the Ripper was as well as who his victims were? What was going on in the minds of Victorian Londoners that made these murders such a sensation? How have they withstood the passage of time? These and other questions will be tackled in the installments that follow.

Apr 20, 2019

Origins of Easter Rooted in Fertility Worship, not Ishtar

Ishtar = Easter Meme
This time of year, the Internet is full of articles discussing Easter, which is celebrated tomorrow, April 21, 2019. So many articles are written on the topic, I had initially decided to forgo weighing in myself. That is until I saw the image shown left and articles presenting its textual content as fact.  This "Ishtar = Easter" meme is so common this time of year, it's taken on Internet factoid status. Seeing it again gave me the desire to weigh in on this topic after all.

Who Was Ishtar?


The image shows a relief carving of the Mesopotamian war goddess, Ishtar, which is on display at the British Museum. Ishtar was a powerful goddess whose name was famously given to the blue gates of the ancient city of Babylon.  Layered over the image is text connecting Ishtar to Easter.

This is a neat image. Ishtar is certainly an interesting deity. War is often portrayed through male deities like Ares or Mars, so any female war goddess is worth noting and studying. Indeed, the entirety of ancient Mesopotamian religion puts ancient Greece's mythology to shame, at least in terms of the sheer number of gods and goddesses that were worshipped. Unfortunately, the image is also quite wrong.

Christian Appropriation of Pagan Worship


Ostara (Eostre)
The origins of Easter are certainly debated. However, most scholars believe the holiday has its roots in the Germanic "pagan" worship of Eostre (Ostara). Eostre was the goddess of fertility and spring, portrayed in the image to the left. The worship of Eostre was well-rooted in England as well, as the island had been colonized by Germanic tribes before 410 CE when the Romans departed from the island they called "Britannia."

When the Roman Empire later declared Christianity as its official religion, Christian leaders undertook systematic cultural appropriation of pagan religion by superimposing Christian holidays over the older beliefs. In 595 CE, Pope Gregory sent a mission of 40 monks led by Augustine to England with instructions to convert the pagans to Christianity. Augustine was told to allow the outward forms of the old, "heathen" festivals and beliefs to remain intact, but where possible, impose Christian ceremonies and philosophy on them. So, Augustine did.

This approach proved, at once, both successful and diabolical. Pagan rituals in existence long before Christianity utterly disappeared. In many instances, the cultures that fell victim to this appropriation of their beliefs were cultures based on an oral tradition, meaning they did not write down the details of their beliefs or religious practices. Thus, much of the who, what, when, where, why, and how they worshipped has been lost to us. This unfortunate result can be seen most clearly in the near complete confiscation of Celtic religious rituals, beliefs, and practices.

Easter Began as Fertility Worship


On a lesser scale, the results can also be seen with the transformation - and masculinization of Eostre worship into today's Easter. Yet, because the outward forms of Eostre worship were allowed to remain, we can still catch of glimpse of the origins of Easter, particularly in its timing and symbols.

First, the timing of Easter directly connects the holiday to fertility worship. The holiday is celebrated in the springtime when the whole world, both plants and animals, renew themselves through reproduction. The original worship of Eostre also celebrated this continuous cycle of rebirth. Modern-day Christians observe Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon of the Vernal Equinox on March 21. Because it is tied to the appearance of a particular full moon, Easter is not celebrated on the same day every year. It can be celebrated on any date between March 22 and April 25. However, it is still tied to spring and rebirth because it is tied to the Vernal Equinox, important in pagan ritual.

Second, the symbols most commonly associated with Easter clearly denote fertility worship. While the religious aspect of Easter celebrates a male deity, Jesus, rising from the dead after the Crucifixion, most people associate Easter with two, principal symbols: a rabbit and an egg. This hearkens to an older belief system. Rabbits are well-known in the animal kingdom for their superior reproductive abilities, a nod to ancient religious practices which often included reverence for animals.
The Orphic (World) Egg

Moreover, the egg is a symbol of both fertility and eternal life that has been reflected in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times, long before the coming of Christianity. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that Ra, the sun god, was hatched from a cosmic egg. The ancient Egyptians often thought of the sun as being an egg, one that was laid by Seb a celestial goose. From this egg, it was also believed the Phoenix hatched. For interesting reading on the symbology of the egg, you can find this article from Scientific American, which also rejects the "Ishtar = Easter" meme.

Easter Has Nothing to Do With Ishtar


In contrast to Eostre, Ishtar was a war goddess, at least primarily. She was also known in some parts of ancient Mesopotamia as Inanna. Far from fertility symbols like the rabbit, Ishtar's was the lion, denoting ferociousness, strength, and power. She was also closely associated with an eight-pointed "Star" of Venus at a time when ancient astronomers thought the planet Venus (which shines brightest in the night sky) was a star like the Sun. Instead of eggs featuring prominently in Ishtar worship, women worshipped Ishtar by making cakes baked in ashes.

To be fair, Ishtar was also the goddess of love and beauty. Some believe her ancient followers may have engaged in sexual rituals as part of their worship. This could denote a type of fertility worship. However, this hypothesis is much debated and requires further study. There is certainly insufficient evidence to conclude that Ishtar is the original source of our Easter holiday.

Upon careful examination, there is nothing about Ishtar, except for a slight similarity in name, that connects that goddess to Easter. And, Eostre is even closer to our modern word Easter than Ishtar. Old English is almost a direct match. In Old English, Eostre was spelled Eastre.

Memes Are Often Misleading


Despite a rather obvious connection between Eostre and Easter, the "Internet machine" pushes the "Ishtar = Easter" idea every year through images like the one above and related articles. The reasons for misinformation on this particular topic are not entirely clear. Much about the Internet cannot be fully explained or understood by regular folks. All that can be said is that this is an Internet meme, and memes are often deceptively attractive but misleading.

Example of Internet Meme from Saturday Night Live
The word "meme" comes from the ancient Greek "mimeme," meaning "imitated thing." "Meme" was coined by British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He proposed the theory that memes replicated in people's thoughts as part of cultural evolution. Internet memes are simply one subcategory of a phenomenon that cannot always be trusted as authoritative or truthful. 

Like the seasonally-repeated "Ishtar = Easter" meme, memes are not rendered true simply because they are repeated; replication is simply what they do. They are simply part of our cultural consciousness, but that does not make them accurate. Our conscious thoughts are often wrong.

If you see or read about the "Ishtar = Easter" connection this year, know that it is a mistaken meme. You can safely disregard the notion that our modern Easter holiday has anything whatsoever to do with an ancient Mesopotamian war goddess.











Feb 13, 2019

Cleopatra's Tomb Found At Last? Not So Fast, Says Dr. Zahi Hawass

Italian archaeologists have been searching for the long-lost tomb of Cleopatra for 12 years, according to Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass. They are not alone in their search. Dominican archaeologist, Kathleen Martinez, also searches for the elusive queen's burial chamber near Taposiris Magna near Alexandria. She believes that Egypt's last ruler lies entombed next to her beloved, Mark Antony. You can read more about her incredible journey here.

However, a leading Italian newspaper jumped the gun recently by announcing that Cleopatra and Mark Antony's tomb had been found, misinterpreting a speech given by Hawass in Italy, where he stated that if their tomb was found, it would be an incredible find.

Hawass is certainly correct in his assessment. In fact, one can almost understand the Italian media's jump to conclusion. Cleopatra VII remains one of the most popular, mysterious, and misunderstood figures from ancient history and certainly the most well-known female from the period. She has been the subject of many books and movies, most famous of which is Elizabeth Taylor's 1963 Hollywood-style portrayal of the Egyptian queen in the movie, Cleopatra, shown below right.


Historical writings about Cleopatra are sparse. Plutarch's biography of Mark Antony comes the closest to a narrative about the queen. Unfortunately, it was written 100 years after her death. Another source is Cassius Dio's account in Roman History. However, it was the Roman poems written after her death that vilified Cleopatra as a conniving and grasping seductress, a foreign queen who used strange means and a hyper-sexuality to ensnare and bewitch not only Mark Antony, but also Julius Ceasar before him. This characterization is highly suspect and almost certainly false to a large degree. More recent scholarship about Cleopatra reveals a highly educated, multi-lingual, charming woman (but no raving beauty), who was strategic, and certainly ruthless. Then again, she had to be. She was a queen in a king's world, after all. Perhaps, her wits attracted Caesar and Antony rather than some all-consuming sexual spell she cast on them. In fact, Cleopatra may have been an intellectual breath of fresh air for the two men who would have been accustomed to (and perhaps bored with) relatively subdued and subservient Roman female aristocracy. What they found in Cleopatra may well have been an equal, if not better, companion and confidant.

Moreover, when it comes to ancient history, the victorious in war write the histories about the defeated. The Romans were masters of using this tactic to belittle and demean the peoples they conquered. When Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian (later known as Augustus, first emperor of Rome) at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, and then she and Antony both later committed suicide (or so the story goes), the truth about Cleopatra was left to the mercy of contemporary Roman poets who had no incentive to portray her in anything other than most negative light possible to curry favor with Augustus.

Yet, despite being defeated in battle by Augustus, Cleopatra's popularity today eclipses his. Next to King Tut, she might well be the most famous person from Egyptian antiquity. If Cleopatra's tomb is discovered, it will be the most incredible find since Howard Carter discovered King Tut's tomb in 1922. We ancient history (and Cleopatra) enthusiasts can only wish archaeologists luck in their search. Let us hope they find her.

Jan 26, 2019

Mythology Trivia Challenge - Can You Name These Lesser-Known Greek Deities? No Cheating!

Questions


1.  God of Light?

2.  God of Darkness?

3.  God of Medicine?

4.  God of the North Wind?

5.  God of Opportunity, Luck?

6.  The nothingness that all else sprung from?

7.  God of the East Wind?

8.  The Evening Star?

9.  God of Sleep?

10.  God of Dreams?

11.  God of Strength, Power?

12.  God of the South Wind?

13.  God of Nature/Shepherds?

14.  The Morning Star?

15.  God of Wealth?

16.  God of Fertility?

17.  God of Death?

18.  God of Rivalry, Envy, Jealousy?

19.  God of the West Wind?

20.  BONUS QUESTION:  Who was the "Father of all Monsters" in Greek mythology?


Aether

Answers

1.  Aether

2.  Erebus

3.  Asclepius

4.  Boreas

5.  Caerus

6.  Chaos

7.  Eurus

8.  Hesperus

9.  Hypnos

10.  Morpheus



Pan & Daphnis
11.  Kratos

12.  Notus

13.  Pan

14.  Phosphorus

15.  Plutus

16.  Priapus

17.  Thanatos

18.  Zelus

19.  Zephyrus

ANSWER TO BONUS QUESTION:  

Typhon.  The last son of Gaia, Typhon was considered the deadliest of all monsters in Greek mythology.  He is typically represented as a dragon-like, serpentine creature.  He was the god of monsters, storms, and volcanoes.  In the war between the Titans and the Olympians, Typhon challenged Zeus for dominion over Mount Olympus.  Zeus defeated Typhon and banished him to Tartarus.  Later, Hercules was asked to kill Typhon as one of his 12 Labors. 






Below is an artist rendering of Typhon, depicting him as a giant, winged creature with dragons for his fingers.


Typhon





Jul 14, 2018

Crows And Ravens In Mythology, Folklore & Superstition


One of the more popular articles posted on this site was the article entitled, Owls In Mythology, Folklore & Superstition.  As it turns out, many of you are big fans of owls and let's face it, as birds go, they are definitely interesting.  Considering the popularity of that article, this author thought it might be worthwhile to post another article about a different bird, or in this case, birds - crows and ravens - and to discuss their role in mythology, folklore, and superstition.

Crow or Raven - What's the Difference?


Although they come from the same family (Corvus) and look quite similar, crows and ravens are two, different birds.  Crows tend to be smaller than ravens, and ravens have a decidedly more raggedy look about them.  Both birds can vocalize in a number of different ways, but ravens tend to have a deeper sounding call than crows. 

Crows & Ravens in Culture & Literature


Even today, crows and raven can still evoke feelings of fear and trepidation in us.  They are often an iconic figure featured in our popular culture around Halloween.  They have also been written about in classic works of literature and poetry.  Perhaps, the best-known example is The Raven, a terrifying poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  Even before Poe, Shakespeare characterized the birds as harbingers of evil and doom in Macbeth and Othello

However, the characterization of crows and ravens in literature has not been universally grim.  In Aesop's fableThe Crow and the Pitcher, for example, the crow presents as a bird of both cunning and intelligence.  The crow finds himself in a deserted land, looking for something to drink.  He comes upon a pitcher of water, but his beak is too short to reach the water.  Knowing that if tipped over the pitcher, the water would spill out onto the ground, the crow devises a plan whereby he throws pebbles into the pitcher until the water level rises to the top, and he is able to drink.  In this way, Aesop presents the crow as an ingenious bird. 

The crow has also been portrayed in modern films, such as The Crow by Alex Proyas, where the crow is featured as having magical abilities, like the ability to bring a dead soul back to life.

Even the English language gives us a clue as to the beliefs associated with crows and ravens.  Collectively, a group of ravens can be referred to as a "conspiracy" of ravens.  Groups of crows are given even more evocative descriptions, such as a "murder" of crows, a "cauldron" of crows, and a "storytelling" of crows.

What is it about these birds that brings to mind such ideas?

Omens, Divine Messengers, Tricksters & Spies


For thousands of years, both birds have played a significant role in the mythology, folklore, and superstitions of many cultures.  In some cultures, they were viewed as omens of ill fortune.  In others, they were revered (or feared) as messengers from the gods or a form certain gods would take on when visiting the mortal world.  Still others viewed them as tricksters of which one should be wary.  Regardless of whether these birds were viewed positively or negatively, they feature prominently in many, ancient belief systems, systems that may continue to influence us to this day.

According to the ancient Celts, for example, the warrior goddess known as The Morrigan or The Morrighan (meaning "great queen," "terror," or "phantom queen") was said to appear in the form of either a crow or a raven or was accompanied by them, usually in groups of three.  Seeing a group of three crows or ravens signified that the goddess may be watching.  The Celts believed that The Morrigan was also present when crows and ravens collected on the battlefield to feast on the flesh of fallen warriors. 

In other Northern European cultures, particularly in Britain and Wales, crows and ravens were viewed as an evil portent, and they were often associated with witches and witchcraft. 

By contrast, in Norse mythology, Odin, the chief god in the Norse pantheon, is often portrayed with a raven or a pair of them.  In the Eddas, a collection of Icelandic literary works from which much Norse mythology is derived, this pair of ravens are named Huginn and Muinnin.  At daybreak, Odin sends the pair into the mortal world to observe what was going on.  They would then return and whisper to Odin everything they had learned.  They were Odin's spies.  At the same time, Huginn and Muinnin symbolized Odin's mind and thoughts, and thus, they were associated with the ability to foresee the future.

One-eyed Odin with Huginn and Muinnin
The association of crows and ravens with the ability to foresee the future is common in the superstitions of both the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Both cultures considered crows and raven significant due, in part, to the fact that they practiced augury.  Augury is a method of divination (telling the future) that uses birds.  In the Greco-Roman world, soothsayers called "augers" would attempt to predict future events based on the color of birds or their flight. Crows and ravens were significant both for their ominous black feathers as well as their behavior and flight patterns.  It was believed that if a crow or raven flew in from the east or south, for example, it was an omen of good fortune. 

Ravens and crows also appear often in the native cultures of North America.  In addition to being portrayed as tricksters, the birds' intelligence is often a prominent feature in their characterization.  In one Native American story, the raven is described a shape-shifter who stole a box of light held by the chief of Heaven and flew away with it.  The raven dropped the box, and light broke into many pieces, creating the stars, the moon, and the sun.  Other native cultures tell stories about the raven making the world more a more formidable place for mankind to give itself amusement. 

Still, other native cultures appear to have revered, if not worshipped, ravens.  In the Alaskan tradition, for example, killing a raven was believed to bring upon a person great harm.  In the American southwest, Native American tribes who engaged in the "Ghost Dance" religion to regenerate the earth decorated themselves with crow feathers, painted crows on their clothes and sang to the crows.

Ravens in Religion


Interestingly, ravens have been treated somewhat ambiguously in the Christian tradition.  In the Book of Genesis, after the flood waters receded, the raven is the first bird Noah sends out to find land.  At the same time, Genesis describes the raven is described as "unclean."  (Gen. 7:8.)  In the Book of Kings, by contrast, ravens are portrayed as kindly, feeding hermits in hard times.  (Kings 17:6.)  

Ravens have also been described as teachers, referencing again the birds' intelligence.  The Hebrew Talmud, for example, says that ravens taught man how to deal with death.  Similarly, a raven teaches Adam and Eve how to bury Able after he was murdered by Cain because they had never buried a body before.

Conclusion


This discussion barely scratches the surface of the many portrayals of crows and ravens in mythology, folklore, and superstition.  Whether they are viewed as intelligent, cunning, evil, or divine, these birds are a prominent symbol in many belief systems throughout the world, beliefs which continue to influence our modern culture.  Perhaps, Poe left us with the most enduring vision of these birds when he concluded The Raven with:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my sould from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted - nevermore!


Aug 12, 2017

Myths And Superstitions About Solar Eclipses


On August 21, 2017, much of North America will witness a relatively rare phenomenon:  a solar eclipse.  The last time North America saw a solar eclipse was in 1979.  After this year, North America will not see one again until 2023.  However, this year's eclipse is special because it will cross the U.S. from coast to coast.  The last time that happened was in 1918.

As one might expect, eclipses, both solar and lunar, have been the subject of much myth and superstition.  To ancient peoples, the sun was a constant, predictable force in their daily lives.  Many (if not most) ancient cultures worshipped the sun or had a god devoted to the sun.  When solar eclipses occurred, they struggled to explain what was happening.  In most (though not all) instances, solar eclipses were viewed as a bad omen, a time of great turmoil and disturbance.  For example, the ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it marked the beginning of disasters.

Many cultures sought to explain solar eclipses by reference to mythical animals devouring the sun. In Vietnam, for example, people believed that a giant frog devoured the sun; the Vikings believed it was wolves.  Some Native American cultures believed it was a giant bear.  In ancient China, a celestial dragon was responsible for eating the sun.  In fact, the oldest known word for an eclipse comes from China - chih or shih - which means "to eat."

Perhaps, the most unusual myth about solar eclipses involves the Hindu demon Rahu.  Rahu disguises himself as a god so that he can taste a nectar that grants immortality.  The sun and the moon spy Rahu and tell Vishnu.  Vishnu cuts off Rahu's head, and it goes flying across the sky, consuming the sun and the moon.

Because they tended to be viewed as disruptive events, predicting solar eclipses became an important skill to ancient people.  Existing records show that the Chinese and Babylonians were able to predict solar eclipses as early as 2500 BCE.

Even today, some cultures continue to view solar eclipses as a dangerous time.  Some believe that solar eclipses are dangerous for pregnant women and unborn children, so pregnant women are encouraged to stay indoors during a solar eclipse.







Jan 16, 2017

Are You Triskaidekaphobic? The Enduring Belief In "Unlucky" Friday The 13th


This past Friday was Friday the 13th, a day that casts fear and dread in the hearts of some 17 to 21 million people just in the United States.  Some people are so fearful of this day that they develop a phobia about it - triskaidekaphobia.  People who suffer from triskaidekaphobia may refuse to transact any business on Friday the 13th, go to work, or even venture out of their homes on Friday the 13th because of the belief that it is such an unlucky day.  Where does such a profound fear originate?  Why does it endure even in our modern age?  How does it manifest itself in the world around us?


Beginnings of a Belief in the Unlucky Day



Many theories attempt to explain the origin of the belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day.  One theory suggests that the belief is rooted in the Bible.  For instance, it is well known that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, making that day particularly ominous among the weekdays.  In addition, Judas, Jesus' betrayer, has traditionally been considered the 13th guest at the Last Supper.  Some biblical scholars also believe Eve tempted Adam on a Friday, and that Cain slew Abel on Friday the 13th. The 13th Psalm in the Bible also concerns wickedness and corruption.

However, others suggest an even older origin.  The ancient Romans cursed the number 13 due to their belief that witches gathered in covens of 12 members; the 13th member of their group was the Devil. So did the ancient Persians who believed that chaos would reign in the 13,000th year.

Moreover, according to Norse legend, the Viking gods hosted a huge feast at which 12 gods attended. Loki, the trickster god, showed up uninvited as the 13th guest and tricked one of the other gods (the blind god Hoor) into killing Balder the Beautiful (the god of joy and gladness) with a mistletoe-tipped spear. As the story goes, when Balder was slain the Earth fell into darkness and mourning.  A very unlucky day, indeed.

More modern explanations include the killing of the Knights Templar, which occurred on Friday the 13th in the year 1307.  It certainly was an unlucky day for them.

Numerology Weighs In


In addition to historical references supporting the belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, numerologists also believe that 13 is an unlucky number.  12 is viewed as a "complete" number because there are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 disciples of Jesus, 12 tribes of Israel.  You get the picture.  13 is viewed as being outside of this "completeness," and therefore, an unlucky number.

For the numerologists out there, you may have noticed that this year's Friday the 13th was even more unique than in year's past.  Consider the fact the calendar date was 1/13/17.  1+1+3+1+7=13. Spooky, right?

Other superstitions echo this belief in the unlucky nature of 13.  For instance, there is an old superstition that, if you have 13 letters in your name, you are cursed.  Sounds silly, right?  But consider this - Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy, and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names.  Adolf Hitler was born Adolfus Hitler...13 yet again.

An Enduring Belief


Whatever its origins, the belief that Friday the 13th is an especially unlucky day endures in spite of our modernity, and the belief manifests itself in the world around us.  Because so many people refuse to transact any kind of business on Friday the 13th, U.S. businesses lose almost $1 billion - that's with a "b" - every Friday the 13th.  80 percent of all high-rise buildings in the U.S. do not have a 13th floor.  Hotels and hospitals frequently do not have a Room 13.  Many airports do not have a Gate 13.

So is there anything to all of this uproar over Friday the 13th. Probably not.  It is a conflation of beliefs in the unluckiness of Friday and the unluckiness of the number 13.  Put together, the two are a powerful combination for those who are superstitious or have a tendency to believe that fate is a matter of luck rather than free will or determination.  For instance, many consider Dan Marino, quarterback for the Miami Dolphins to be one of the best quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl.  Guess what his jersey number was...13.

For those who suffer from triskaidekaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th is all too real, and it can be crippling. Those folks are breathing a sigh of relief that we are past Friday the 13th...for now.  Only one more to go this year - Friday, October 13, 2017.  Good luck!