Monday, April 26, 2010

The Last American Witch Hunts...

We have all heard of the history of the Salem Witch Trials, but unknown to most Americans, witch hunts took place in other regions of our country. In 1756, during a period far later than the Salem Hunts, the Spanish Inquistition conducted a little known witch hunt in the New Mexico town of Abiquiu. It is unusual in the fact that it occurred during a period in which the power of the Spanish Inquisition was starting to decline, and was largely unconcerned with trivialities such as Witchcraft.

The Abiquiu area was due a new priest, and shortly Franciscan Juan Jose Toledo arrived from Spain to fill the duties. When he arrived, he was aghast to find the local indians still practicing their native dances and traditions. He felt it to be a form of Devil Worship, and questioned how well they had been converted to Catholicism. The Priest then ordered an end to their festivals and pagan dances.

He then claimed someone, or something was attacking him magically, causing him illness and duress. These claims prompted investigation by local government officials. It was not long before the local residents and indians were accusing each other of various witchcraft related crimes. These officials decided to eliminate all cultural traces, and destroyed rock art and pictographs in the area that had been there for centuries, along with forbidding many traditional customs practiced by the locals.

Shortly after the accusations, several local women claimed to become possessed by demons. Father Toledo carried out excorisms on these women hoping to eliminate the problem. Instead, it spiraled hopelessly out of control as more claims of demon posession, and accusations of witchcraft came pouring in. Eventually, the Regional Governor, caught wind of the affair. Growing tired of the whole sordid ordeal, he sent many of those involved to face the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico City.

Several of the accused languished and died in jail. Many others faced punishments ranging from public humiliation, to flogging, but no one was executed for the crime of using witchcraft. Contrary to public opinion, it was actually very rare for an accused witch to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition. To their credit, claims of witchcraft were normally considered to be flights of fancy or mere superstition without much merit, though the Inquisition persecuted Jews and Muslims without mercy.

This was the last known case of Witch Hysteria in the continental US.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dr. Wertham and the Seduction of the Innocent

Many years ago, American morality was challenged by a great evil. This great immorality threatened to destroy and corrupt the values of an entire generation, and the generations after them. What was this evil so foul that the US government tried to abolish it in order to save our youth from it's immoral influence?

Comic books. They were scared of Comic Books.

In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a heavily skewed research paper about the corrupting influence of comic books on American youth. It was named "The Seduction of the Innocent", and in the days of pre-Rock-n-Roll America - it was earth shattering.

Dr. Wertham thought all comic books were the root of delinquency and sexual perversion. He also thought that those who produced and sold them were undermining our society. He propagated this all the way to the US Senate, where the proceedings became another McCarthy Era witch hunt, ending with many comic book producers being blacklisted as Communists, and many comic companies going bankrupt.

The industry was required to regulate itself from corrupting influences, or face abolishment entirely. They created an organiztion called the Comic Code Authority, sort of like an early form of rating system used in the movie industry. Every comic sold had to carry a stamp indicating it met the approval of this organization, called the CCA, and did not convey any content deemed morally objectionable.

Many comic enthusiasts believe that this was the death of the golden age of American comic books. Prior to this period, it was possible to find comics about everything from romance, to politics, and even graphic horror. After this code came about, all there was to be found was sanitized comic superheroes, and funny animals, like Daffy Duck. The young adult market share, who had been the primary purchasers (not children) was gone, never to return. Most of the creativity and glamour of the early comics were gone too. The genre of Horror comics, which had been very large before the code was instituted, almost disappeared completely.

The survivors of this onslaught found a new way to get around these rules. If they released their comic as a magazine, then they were not bound by the restrictions placed on comic books. This is the origin of such American classics as Mad Magazine, and other similar publications.

It is ironic that several years after this occurred, American morals were challenged and changed forever by the Rock and Roll revolution. By that time, change was unstoppable.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Meteoras - Another stop on my travel list.

In medieval Greece, the monks of the ancient Byzantine Empire found themselves under attack by pirates and other undesirables. They built the monastaries of Meteoras to counter this threat. They are a series of fortified monastaries built on the tops of mountains and rocks, some thousands of feet up with no way to reach them but rope or ladder. These monks have lived in the cracks, caves, and hollows of these rocky abodes for hundreds of years, outlasting the Empire that created them. They are still occupied to this day.

Photo by IHarsten.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mr. Peuckert's Flying Ointment

"...Folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert of Göttingen, for example, mixed an ointment made up of belladonna, henbane and Datura from a seventeenth-century formula and rubbed it on his forehead and armpits, bidding his colleagues to do likewise. They all fell into a twenty-four sleep. "We had wild dreams. Faces danced before my eyes which were at first terrible. Then I suddenly had the sensation of flying for miles through the air. The flight was repeatedly interrupted by great falls. Finally, in the last phase, an image of an orgiastic feast with grotesque sensual excess," Peuckert reported. Harner emphasises the importance of the greased broomstick or similar flying implement, which he suggests served as "an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed, a typical illusion of the witches' ride to the Sabbat."

- excerpt from The Long Trip: A Pre-history of Psychedelia by Paul Devereux.

Will-Erich Peuckert was an unusual man. He lived in Germany during the rise of Adolph Hitler, rising to fame for his books on the lore of European superstitions, magic, and long forgotten folk knowledge. Not very well known in America, he is something of a legend across the big pond. He biggest claim to fame is the extreme detail he paid to the subject matter he dwelled upon.

His literary work and his personality were intertwined to a point not normally seen in the literary world. He knew his subject matter so well, it is said it was almost as if he were writing about himself. His true specialty was the little known realm of herbs and ancient magical formulas. So much so, that he famously tried a few out upon himself, as most notably the ancient Witches' Flying Ointment. Supposedly, he was one of the first to propose the idea that early witches used a psychedelic concoction on their broomstick for the famed flights to the Devil's Sabbat mentioned in the histories of the old European witch trials.

Alas, Mr. Peuckert had a rough time with the Nazis. He wrote books denouncing Nazism, and cleverly masqueraded them within literary works seemingly about other subjects. His books were eventually banned and subjected to burning by the ruling Nazi order. His vast collection of over 35,000 historical and rare manuscripts were destroyed, a loss of staggering proportions to the understanding of ancient history and customs. He ended up fleeing Germany in 1945, with his wife and young son.

His troubles were not over by a long shot. He lost his wife and son, both in separate accidents, and eventually lost his ability to read and write too. In the end, he could only use one finger on his aged and useless hands. A sad end for such a literary, political, and historical genius.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Rise of Conspiracy Culture

This is probably going to anger a few of you out there...

A strange thing is taking place in modern American culture. What used to be considered opposing fringe beliefs are now becoming one mainstream subculture. Grand theories of UFO's, Illuminati conspiracies, and Apocalyptic Christian visions of our doom are are combining into a giant stew brought on by the rise of our information society. Nothing appears to be too outlandish, or beyond belief, no matter how unusual or wild it sounds.

The Perfect Media to Spread the Meme

A culture has developed, seeking to profit from the linking of all these theories into one great Conspiracy Subculture. Whether these myths and legends are propagated for political reasons, or simply to sell the latest book, conspiracies are for sale. It is sold to the masses who yearn for something unusual or different, or who need to believe in something other than the little slice of the world they have been given. The public loves gossip, and that is exactly what much of it is.

There are real conspiracies in this world, that is true, but most of these are overshadowed by the craziness. For example, much is made of shadowy organizations like the "Illuminati", shaping our world, but very little thought is put into the real organizations or corporations who, in the name of profit, have designed the very world and lifestyle most of us live. It is easy to talk about a conspiracy to make us all slaves, when by some accounts, we already fit the definition. Nor does this wild conspiracy talk threaten the existing industrial/economic structure, which is the true law of the land, politics simply being the entertainment division.

The rise of this culture has culminated in a strange mixing of these beliefs into something that almost resembles a pseudo religion, which is starting to be ingrained in mainstream culture. You are more likely to find someone that believes in a UFO conspiracy, a Magic Bullet, or a Satanic plot to enslave us all, than someone who does not these days. Part of this observed effect is the passing on of these wild theories from one generation to the next, and amplifying it with the instant media culture found on the Internet. Our mass media culture starves for sensationalistic and unusual content. The Internet, 24 hour news, and Radio Talk shows are the perfect media to spread these viral views, as no opposing viewpoints are normally presented. A general lack of skepticism prevails according to which cultural filter the media is directed from.

Undermining Science and Education

This subculture has the potential to undermine true efforts to understand what is truly going on in our world. It is quickly reaching the point where true scientific knowledge is being lumped into this new subculture. This can be seen with the ongoing arguments against evolution vs Christian Creationists, or with subjects such as climate change. We are seeing right wing fears of Secret Societies and Apocalypse, blending with belief the paranormal, and the end result is a degradation of true education and scientific knowledge.

Anyone or anything that does not fit the accepted norm has the potential to be lumped into this fringe; in this case, healthy skepticism appears to be the casualty. Viral Ideas and Memes are at play in our culture beyond what has ever been seen before in human culture, all amplified by the continual evolution of our information technology and media.

Don't get me wrong, If you are into this sort of thing I hold nothing against you. I like a good conspiracy or UFO story as much as anyone else, but we are quickly reaching reaching some sort of tipping point and it is starting to affect our cultural history and collective beliefs. How this will affect the world 50 years from now is anyone's guess. (unless you are a 2012'er in which case you probably believe we will all be dead anyway).

Some of the content of this blog smacks of this conspiracy culture, but I try to ground it in somewhat of a scientific background. It is mostly just creepy, dark, or strange. I avoid the truly outlandish or unproveable stuff.

Maybe it is all just a big conspiracy to discredit all of us freaks and mutants...

Does the US Military Have a Shuttle Replacement?

With the recent changes announced by our president, many in this country are worried about the future of America's involvement in space. Unknown to much of the public, the US Military has a space program that is alive and well. While NASA re-organizes and concentrates on the CEV, the military has silently developed it's own line of space vehicles. These vehicles differ wildly from the traditional shuttle, being mostly unmanned, and for the most part, sort of mysterious. No experts in the aerospace field can currently agree on what they are truly intended to do or what function they are to perform.

According to PhysOrg, one is due to be launched in late April...