Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

–   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from Symbols.com

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

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Thursday, the Day of Thor

August 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm (7 Wonders of the Ancient World, Ancient Greece, Astronomy, Cartography, Christianity, Linguistics, Modern World, Mythology, Paganism, Scandinavia, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , )

Irrational Geographic is so often concerned with notions ancient and arcane that, in this novel entry, I’ve decided to take an opposite approach. Today is Thursday, the 6th of August. So as to remain as temporally present and as commonplace as possible, I have decided to make an inquiry into Thursday itself. One seventh of our shared existence is spent inside of this designated period of time, so its origins, both as an entity and as a word, are of undeniable interest.

calendar

An artistic representation of the months and seasons of the modern Gregorian calendar, here juxtaposed with the ancient Hebrew calendar.

Thursday is designated the fifth day of the week according to the Gregorian calendar, which is currently the Western standard for the temporal demarcation of the year (There are, of course, other calendrical systems currently in use, including the Jewish and Hindu calendars, and that of the Nigerian Igbo with their curious four-day week). This is only the case due to the fact that Sunday is widely designated as the week’s first day, an honor bestowed upon the day, named after the year-defining sun (from the Old English word Sunnendaeg, “Day of the sun”), by Judeo-Christian calendrical tradition. Some nations including The United Kingdom, on the other hand, still consider Sunday to be the week’s seventh day, making Thursday the fourth. The Chinese word for Thursday, in fact, means fourth. The ancient Greeks and Romans would have taken issue with this, however, each designating their equivalent of Sunday as the week’s first day, associating it with supreme divinity.

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, depicted Helios, the Greek sun god, for whom the first day of the week was named.

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, depicted Helios, the Greek sun god, for whom the first day of the week was named.

Despite the fact that Thursday sits on the opposite side of the week from Sunday, its namesake is certainly a source of great historical power and significance. Its moniker originates in a culture very different than that of Sunday. Thursday takes its name from Thor, simultaneously the ancient Norse god of thunder and Germanic god of protection.

”Thor’s Battle Against the Giants” by Swedish painter Marten Eskil Winge, 1872.

”Thor’s Battle Against the Giants” by Swedish painter Marten Eskil Winge, 1872.

One of the oldest recorded deities of Scandinavian polytheistic culture, Thor (also referred to as Donor in some Germanic linguistic traditions) served as a symbol of Pagan resistance and cultural pride in the face of the monotheistic Christian encroachment upon Scandenavia beginning in the 8th century. Perhaps the fact that remnants of Thor grace our modern calendars (Thursday having taken the place of Dies Iovis, the ancient Latin “Day of Jupiter”) suggests that this resistance was never fully quelled despite the fact that, by the 12th century, Christianity had all but beaten Paganism out of the region.

A Medieval map of Scandinavia.

A Medieval map of Scandinavia.

Like the evergreen tree decorated with candles and ribbons displayed during the Christmas celebration, the prominent inclusion of Thor’s name in a predominantly Judeo-Christian calendar is an instance of the hybridization of Pagan and monotheistic traditions that has survived into modern times. While the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages may have aimed to bend the world to their will, they themselves received some cultural battle scars that are still visible today. Our word for Thursday is just such a scar, scratched approximately fifty two times across the face of every modern Western calendar.

Some Further Reading:

A look at the Igbo calendar as it relates to the notion of a spiritual cosmic order

A simple breakdown of the Hindu calendar

A tool that allows for the conversion of dates between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars

An essay that discusses the origins of the Christmas tree and its Pagan connections

A Wikipedia entry including some excellent charts comparing day nomenclature cross-culturally

A timeline of the Christian conversion of Scandinavia

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Earthquake Fish, Earthquake Weather, Earthquake Clouds, Earthquake Light

June 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm (Animals, Death, Fear, Geology, Meteorology, Modern World, Mythology, Technology, Tectonics, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , , , )

Appearing in ancient texts from many cultures across the globe, earthquakes have been a source of fear and speculation since time immemorial. With an average of 18 major temblors striking per year (mostly in the Pacific Ring of Fire), it is small wonder that this violent phenomenon has driven humans to desperate attempts at earthquake prediction. While few modern cultures accept, as some once did, that earthquakes are caused by celestial struggles or air trapped beneath the earth’s surface, many still point to early warning signs with origins in ancient mythology. The following earthquake prediction techniques are not supported by mainstream modern science, but are nonetheless widely embraced by individuals and organizations determined to gain a foothold against one of nature’s most destructive habits.

Earthquake Fish

Ribbon Fish

More commonly known as the ribbonfish, these oddly shaped creatures dwell at great depths and commonly measure up to 8 feet long. Taiwanese legend points to these slender fish when attempting to predict earthquakes, claiming that these deep-sea dwellers rise to the surface in the moments before a quake strikes. Modern seismology has shown no correlation between the activities of these fish and actual earthquakes.

Earthquake Weather

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Perhaps the most prevalent folk superstition regarding earthquakes in the modern day United States, the notion of earthquake weather in Western culture dates at least as far back as Herodotus (486 BC – 425 BC). Aristotle wrote about this meteorological phenomenon as well, attributing earthquakes to subterranean winds. Warm, calm weather, he believed, would precede seismic activity. While modern seismologists dismiss this notion as foolish and unfounded, I have personally witnessed this widespread superstition in action. On one unseasonably warm afternoon in San Francisco I was warned by multiple people to be wary, for we were experiencing, they claimed, typical earthquake weather. Fortunately, that day ended without disaster.

Earthquake Clouds

clouds

Discussed by Indian scholar Daivajna Varāhamihira as early as the 6th century, peculiar cloud formations are believed by some to rapidly appear in anticipation of earthquakes. Similar observations have appeared in Chinese and European writings of antiquity. These long, slender clouds that have been likened to snakes are said to form in a matter of seconds, acting as a grim premonition to observers below. Modern seismologists are divided about the legitimacy of this prediction technique, which does, at least superficially, seem to show some semblance of legitimacy. These clouds, it is hypothesized, correspond to temperature changes along fault lines that can accompany increased seismic activity and the eruption of heated gasses. The thermodynamic mechanisms by which terrestrial temperature changes affect cloud formation, however, have still yet to be demonstrated in a way that satisfies the scientific community. Until this can be successfully done, earthquake clouds will remain relegated to the realm of superstition.

Earthquake Light

light

This beautiful luminescence was spotted in the sky over Tianshui, Gansu province about 30 minutes before the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Similar in appearance to the polar aurorae (borealis and austrialis), earthquake light is said to include a wider range of colors. Having been embraced as a harbinger of earthquakes since ancient Greece, several 20th century earthquakes have, many claim, been preceded by these beautiful lights. Minutes before an earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China in 2008, cell phone video footage of these lights was uploaded to the website Youtube.com. Skeptics contend that these lights were merely the result of sunlight refracted by atmospheric moisture. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger has attempted to explain these mysterious lights through his Tectonic Strain Theory, which links seismic activity to electromagnetic fields that can be misinterpreted by human cognition as lights or even UFOs.

While each of these prediction techniques has its fervent proponents, evidence for their reliability is not sufficient enough for them to be employed by the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program. This does little, however, to dissuade individuals from looking to ancient wisdom for comfort in the face of a violent force so overwhelmingly powerful that it effortlessly causes the world’s most developed nations to grovel before it in fear. This speaks to the common occurrence of drastic emotion overriding and even dashing to bits all the pristine knowledge of the academic ivory tower. In the face of violent death, sometimes there is only the terrified individual against an indifferent quagmire of external forces.

Some Further Reading:

A frequently updated site tracking earthquake clouds

The United States Geological Survey’s homepage for earthquake information

An article exploring many facets of earthquake clouds

A brief look at the Tectonic Strain Theory

The National Earthquake Information Center

An article proposing a scientific explanation for earthquake lights

A video depicted the earthquake lights that purportedly predicted the Sichuan quake of 2008

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Deadly Nightshade

May 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm (Aesthetics, Botany, Drugs, Health and Medicine, Murder, Mythology, Poison, The Ancient World, The Occult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

 

Deadly nightshade, alternatively known as belladonna, is an herbaceous plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. A delicate-looking, beautiful plant with a legendary potency, its role in history has stemmed primarily from the effects of chemicals naturally occurring in the plant, which include the hallucinogenic toxin scopolamine. It is also from the berries of deadly nightshade that the drug atropine, included on the World Health Organizations Essential Drugs list, is derived.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed Atropa belladonna by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed “Atropa belladonna” by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

The plant’s genus, Atropa, comes from the name of the Greek Fate Atropos, who was believed to wield scissors that could cut short the thread of human life. This is a reference to the severe toxicity of the plant’s berries, a handful of which, if eaten, can plunge an adult into a nightmare of confused convulsions and hallucinations, followed by a torturous death. Extract from the plant has, according to legend, been used as a poison since ancient times. Macbeth, King of Scots from 1040 – 1057, was rumored to use atropine as a sedative and poison to surreptitiously best his foes. There have also been reports of deadly nightshade being employed by torturers, who used it to disorient and weaken their unfortunate subject.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The toxic nature of the chemicals contained in deadly nightshade is such that, in small doses, parts of the plant have been historically used recreationally and spiritually to induce hallucinations, perhaps most notable by European witches and shamans in their notorious “flying ointments”. The chemicals scopolamine and atropine can, according to shamanistic lore, create the sensation of physical flight (along with a host of other hallucinations and delusions) when ingested orally or applied to the skin in ointment form. A tincture of deadly nightshade was also purportedly drunk by ancient Greeks who visited the legendary Oracle of Delphi, in order to induce prophetic visions.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

The history of deadly nightshafe, one concerned both with death and with a heightened experience of life, speaks to the dichotomous nature of this powerful plant. Even its two most common names, deadly nightshade and belladonna, associate the plant first with death and darkness, and second with feminine beauty. Perhaps these contrasting interpretations are not separated by an unbridgeable gap, but are rather two poles of one notion. It could be that the seductive nature of this plant, which can cause spiritual visions, is amplified by its potentially fatal potency. This combination of erotic and thanatopic qualities is reminiscent, appropriately enough, of the Greek Fates themselves – three women who determine the course of mortal life through enchanting song, weave the course of events into an unchangeable fabric, and finally cut the life thread short.

Some Further Reading:

Botanical.com’s entry on Deadly Nightshade

An inquiry into flying ointments

Erowid.org’s page devoted to Belladonna

Drugs.com’s entry dedicated to atropine

A large collection of information regarding the Moirai (Greek Fates)

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The Circe Order of Dog Blood

May 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm (Animals, Exclusive Societies, Fear, Murder, Mythology, The Occult, Women) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

357px-Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus by John William Waterhouse

"Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus" by John William Waterhouse, depicting the sorceress Circe from Homer's Odyssey

While wandering through the dusty back-alleys of the internet, occasionally one hears whispers of a subject so unspeakably terrifying that it is rarely addressed directly. One such topic, regarding which I have heard mention of countless times during my years as an investigator into the occult but have still found precious little information, is an organization known as the Circe Order of Dog Blood (with Circe sometimes spelled Kirke). Believed to have been active in Southern California and perhaps Ohio during the early 1970s, this alleged Satanic cult has been blamed for, or at least linked to, acts of shuddering violence.

charles-manson1

Most references to the Order are brief mentions of its possible association with famed cult leader Charles Manson, pictured above. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that Manson was involved with the Order’s administration. Some sources suggest that a woman identifying herself as Circe (a name harkening to the mythological Greek sorceress who turned men into pigs and surrounded herself with animals) was the central figure of the Order. According to author Adam Gorightly, Circe briefly owned an occult shop in Toledo, Ohio, where she actively accumulated cult members and led them in ritualized dog slaughter. Gorightly hypothesizes that Circe was and alter-ego of Mary Ann DeGrimston, ex-wife of Robert DeGrimston. DeDrimston is notorious for founding and leading of The Process Church of The Final Judgment, an early offshoot of the Church of Scientology. (Ironically enough, one of the Process’ retreat centers in Arizona transformed into the Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit organization currently dedicated to animal rescue and welfare).

Robert DeGrimston pictured alongside Mary Tyler Moore in literature promoting the Process Church of the Final Judgment

Robert DeGrimston pictured alongside Mary Tyler Moore in literature promoting the Process Church of The Final Judgment

While very little is known about the Circe Order of Dog Blood, it has become something of a scapegoat for unsolved, gruesome crimes committed during the early 1970s. Author Bill Ellis mentions rumors of “Santa Cruz dog-skinners”, who may have been one and the same as the Order, or perhaps the infamous Four Pi Movement, a secret contingency within the Process. One inside source claimed of the Four Pi Movement that:

The ceremonies involved use of a portable crematorium to dispose of the bodies, a wooden altar adorned with dragons and a wooden morgue table. There were as many as forty people in attendance at these sacrifices. The instrument of sacrifice was a set of 6 knives welded into a football shaped holder. The heart was eaten…”

Ellis goes on to link the Four Pi Movement with:

…a group called “Kirke [or Circe] Order of Dog Blood.” This group allegedly met on the full and new moons on secluded beaches outside of Los Angeles to sacrifice black animals of all sorts, cats and dogs included.”

These organizations, including the Process and the Manson Family, are allegedly linked through this ritual of drinking animal blood. The Circe Order of Dog Blood, however, may have had the distinction of performing human sacrifice as well. According to Gorightly:

This mysterious ‘Circe’ also brought property adjacent to a location reported as being a site where satanic rituals involving human sacrifice were performed. In 1985, law enforcement officials dug up the site, discovering ritualistic paraphernalia, although no evidence of murder was uncovered. Shortly before the police raid, the occult shop in Toledo closed and ‘Circe’ disappeared.

And here, it seems, is where the trail dies. When it comes to scholarly discussion of Circe and her infamous Order, apparently speculation is the best one will find. Whether a sinister cadre that incinerated humans, skinned dogs, and drank blood, or just a suspicious organization with the misfortune of rubbing shoulders with the criminals involved in the Four Pi Movement and the Manson Family, the Circe Order of Dog Blood represents the horrifying fact that humans are capable of cooperating to commit acts of nearly unthinkable ruthlessness under the guise of religious ritual.

Some Further Reading:

A link to text from the book Raising the Devil by Bill Ellis, from which some of the above citations were taken

A blog with useful information about the mysterious Kirke

A site containing extensive writing about the Process Church of the Final Judgment

An article on Serial Killer Central about the Four Pi Movement

A 2008 article about a family dog in Springfield, MO that disappeared, only to be found with its skin and heart removed

An article exploring the Circe of Greek mythology

Here is an image that I couldn’t fit into this article, but I would like to share nonetheless. It shows a letter from Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard concerning the DeGrimstons:

sp-declare-grimston-grimsto

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The Haunting Specter of Phobos

May 21, 2009 at 4:15 pm (Aesthetics, Astronomy, Cartography, Fear, Mythology) (, , , , , , , )

phobos_vik1_big

The planet Mars is orbited by two irregularly shaped moons, neither larger that 15 kilometers across. The smaller of the two, named Phobos after the Greek god of terror, measures only about 11 kilometers across and is closer to its primary planet than any other moon in our solar system. It is so close to the surface of Mars, in fact, that it orbits the planet twice daily. What has led astronomers, writers, and science fiction enthusiasts to so much speculation regarding Phobos is its peculiar size and shape, making it look like a sinister extra terrestrial skull drifting through the void of space.

Here is a series of photos showing Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen form the surface of Mars by the NASA rover Opportunity

This series of photos shows Phobos passing in front of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars by the NASA rover Opportunity

Discovered in 1877, Phobos has long stood out amongst non-planetary astronomical bodies due, in addition to its odd shape, to the non-reflective quality of its surface. This has led astronomers to speculate that it may have originally been an interstellar asteroid that was caught in Mars’ gravitational orbit. The porous nature of its composition suggests that Phobos’ mass is startlingly low, an observation which led to a widely-held theory, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, that Phobos is nothing more than a hollow metal shell, perhaps serving as a Martian space station. This reasoning has been called into serious question by more recent observations.

phobos-google-earth

When studying Phobos from afar, much attention has been paid to its series of odd and quite large craters. Several of these are named after characters from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, which hypothesized that Mars has two moons many years before this was discovered to be the truth. The largest crater, dubbed Stickney after the wife of the astronomer who first identified Phobos, measures 9 kilometers across.

Stickney Crater taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Stickney Crater as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

What makes Phobos an object of particular interest, however, is not its curiously porous composition. Phobos stands out in the night sky because of the undefinably ghastly quality of its appearance. Whether imagined as the rotted skull of an immense species long extinct, a ghostly bit of refuse from a distant, wicked solar system, or a malicious eye socket gazing at us from a mere 35 million miles away, Phobos is aptly named. It seems fitting, then, that Phobos itself is not long for this world. Due to its low orbit, Phobos is expected to, in about 11 million years, crash into the surface of Mars, crushing this celestial wraith into bits of dust.

Some Further Reading:

Some interesting facts about Phobos

A succinct list of facts about Phobos, complete with various maps and images

An article about Phobos, the Greek god of horror

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