Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween and Pagans

Yet again, people with good intentions are out on the walking mall trying to save the souls of Halloween celebrants. And once again I have to laugh.

Because Wiccans don't celebrate Halloween.

Wiccans and pagans in the Celtic tradition celebrate Samhain (most commonly pronounced Sow (ow as in ouch) - inn). This ancient holiday is considered New Year's Eve on their wheel of the year.

It is also considered a time when the veil between this world and the next, the Otherworld, is thinnest, so spirits of the departed can cross over and come home. You're not going to be traipsing around the neighborhood when you're expecting company. You eat a silent, reverent meal, thinking of the departed, and leave goodies - foods they liked - outside for them.

Enter the Christian era.

Samhain (which is properly November 1st, but the Celts counted their days as beginning the night before, so November 1st actually starts the night of October 31st) shares its holiday with All Saints' Day.

Just like it sounds, All Saints' Day is a feast day to remember saints and martyrs. These are "hallowed" (blessed) people. So this feast day was also called All Hallows' Day. The night before it would then logically be All Hallows' Eve, eventually to become Halloween.

I have heard it said that people came to believe because All Hallows' Day was a saintly day, the angry/jealous forces of darkness walked abroad the night before - which is how Halloween got its spooky/dangerous vibe.

In any case, over time, an evening that had been about welcoming your dearly departed became an evening to be feared.

In the modern age, this mostly took the form of children playing "tricks." A night of vandalism that you could blame on the forces of evil.

The Turner Classic Movies TV channel periodically runs a short, black & white film about Halloween customs that was made in like the 1950s, and it attributes the "trick or treat"-begging-for-candy-around-the-neighborhood tradition to a deliberate movement in small towns. The town leaders wanted to organize children into doing something positive (or at least parentally-accompanied) on Halloween rather than being purely destructive - a movement which caught on across the country. Whether you believe that old film or not, Halloween today is generally celebrated as a sugar-feast day where children collect all the candy they can.

Unless you live in Salem, Massachusetts.

In Salem, Halloween is much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Only without the beads. And it lasts for a month.

You'll find adults wearing costumes more often than children. And all month long, not just on Halloween.

There are street musicians, street dancers, street vendors...the air smells of grilled sausages and fried dough and roasted peanuts.

You can get kitschy witch stuff or you can meet actual, self-proclaimed witches.

You can also visit the Memorial to the victims of the Salem Witch Trials - who are probably spinning in their graves (if we knew where their graves were) about all this. Sometimes we forget that these people were so NOT witches that they would not say they were even to save their lives.

But let's return to the street party.

On Halloween itself, people of all ages in all sorts of costumes join the scrum that is downtown. 100,000 people are generally expected, especially when Halloween lands on a Saturday. Add that to the 40,000 townies and you can barely move on the sidewalk.

Yet a jovial, friendly atmosphere is maintained. Everyone smiles at each other. Strangers compliment other strangers' costumes. For that large a number of people, it's very Woodstock. Peace and love.

The only sour note you will find are the few people - probably from miles and miles away - who come every year with bullhorns that scream and garishly large placards that proclaim how we are all going to Hell. Because we're downtown dressed in costumes for Halloween - and that must mean we're godless pagans and Wiccans.

I always laugh when I see them because what they don't understand is, in this veritable sea of humanity, there are NO PAGANS.

Nope. NO WICCANS. This group has come all the way out here to literally preach to the converted.

How do I know? Because for pagans and Wiccans, this is still Samhain. A serious holiday of reflection. Where one cooks for the dearly departed and stays home quietly and thinks about them.

They aren't the hedonistic partiers. It's the rest of us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Historical Truth

In the professional world of historians, there is some debate over the presence of truth in history. (For those of you who are students of history, this concept will come as no surprise.)

The idea is, other than dates of events, all else is filtered through the person relating the fact. We are all prisoners of our own time periods. How we tell a story reflects who we are and when we live, and thus is a snapshot of us - and should be used by historians to study us, not the "facts" in the story we're trying to tell.

This concept is used to good effect in A Sentimental Murder by John Brewer. Instead of looking for the objective truth of what happened in this historical true crime murder mystery (which is essentially unknowable), he looks at how the telling of the murder changed over the centuries depending on who was doing the telling, why they told the story, and when they were telling it.

It's really quite fascinating, if you're into that sort of thing, and I recommend it.

Monday, October 26, 2009


"He is what you might call a "chick chaser." That, I believe, is the term for old guys who choose 'em very youthful. Old girls who like young men are called "veal hunters." Thus the English language is enriched every day." - Damon Runyon, 23 January 1927

And thus proving there have been cougars, and nicknames for them, for a long time now. I definitely prefer the term cougar, though, don't you?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Witch Hunt

A group of females start identifying witches in their village. A fearful mob seizes the accused and tortures them. There are underlying suspicions that the accused women may have been targeted for their land and money.

Salem in 1692?

Or India in 2009?


"Five women were paraded naked, beaten and forced to eat human excrement by villagers after being branded as witches in India's Jharkhand state.

Police say that people in Pattharghatia believe that certain women in their village are possessed by a "holy spirit" that can identify those who practise witchcraft.

"These women recently identified five women from the same village as being witches who practised witchcraft and brought miseries to the area," a police official said.

Experts say superstitious beliefs are behind some of these attacks, but there are occasions when people - especially widows - are targeted for their land and property."

To read the rest of this BBC article: Click Here

Friday, October 23, 2009

Emigrants' death voyage recalled

This photo and the quotes below are from BBC News

This is an interesting little corner of Highland emigration history. I've read about the emigration to Canada and the US, but I had not read of this. St. Kilda is a small, remote island, the westernmost of the Outer Hebrides. Today it is no longer inhabited by anyone.

""The deaths of 18 islanders on a voyage to Australia was a factor in ending large-scale emigration from the Highlands," historian Eric Richards, professor of history at Flinders University in Adelaide, has said. ...

""The 36 who went represented a third of the population of St Kilda. On the course of their journey to Australia half of them were to die not from smallpox, or influenza but measles.""

"The St Kildans were so badly affected by measles because their remote island life meant they had not previously been exposed and built up any immunity to it.

The survivors, many of them orphaned children, were quarantined on arrival in Port Phillip. Prof Richards said the authorities were also frustrated that most only spoke Gaelic and no English."

For the rest of this article: Click Here

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New Designs

I have a brand new website and blog design - as you can see. :)

Whoo-hoo! I'm so excited! Check out the website here:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Prince Albert's Prince Albert

From the Archives:

Yes, we're back to piercing again.

This is sort of a tangent off of my Victorian Breast Piercing Research - it's male piercing. If you don't know what a Prince Albert piercing is ... try Wikipedia.

You will find many websites - and even books - declaring that this type of body piercing was so named because Prince Albert (married to Queen Victoria) wore one. You will find them saying that these circular piercings were also known as "dressing rings" and that they were used to secure oneself to the left or the right leg.

Dude. Seriously?

I mean, think about it, what would it be tied to? Your thigh? And it would have to be a slip-knot because, really, just think if the string got caught on something.... [rrriipp] That's painful just contemplating it.

And we haven't even addressed the fact that, in the real world, if you need to be tied down to your thigh, then perhaps you're having one of those episodes the Cialis commercials warn about and you should be proceeding to a hospital at once.

The British Victorian period may have been more risqué, but in the US, you couldn't actually say the word leg because it was too inflammatory - you had to say limb. Cereal was invented because, the belief was, giving a man steak and eggs for breakfast was just asking for him to be aroused all day. The same for Graham crackers - non-arousing steak substitute.

In that climate, how could a gentleman possibly face his needs-to-be-protected lady wife with a piercing amidst his unmentionables and expect remain considered a gentleman?

Another thing: according to The Piercing Bible by Elayne Angel (p. 156), the healing time for a Prince Albert is "4 to 8 weeks or longer". Now, in a time when infection could not be reliably controlled, who is going to pierce themselves anywhere - let alone somewhere that delicate?

Are you beginning to smell a hoax?

In her book, Angel confirms my suspicions that Prince Albert did not have a Prince Albert, as does Matthew Sweet in Inventing the Victorians.

So why do so many people think he did? Where did this "dressing ring" thing get started?

According to Angel, these stories were made up by a man who called himself Doug Malloy (real name Richard Simonton). He is considered the father of modern piercing culture in the US.

He also made bags of money franchising Muzak. Not three words you'd expect to find in the same sentence are they, "body piercing" and "Muzak"? Go figure.

(Muzak, by the way, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Feb 10 2009).

I can hear you asking, why? Not why the Muzak bankruptcy, but why would someone make something like that up?

Apparently, the answer is: Because it makes a great story.

If you are promoting a new fad, it helps with promotion to have that fad possess a fun historical background. It gives it roots. Validity.

And stories are the bedrock of culture. It doesn't matter how unrealistic a tale is, as long as it makes a great story. Think of all the urban legends you've heard.

This seems to be why the Prince Albert story has legs - why it has spread so far for so long.

We humans love to tell each other a good story.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More on Victorian Nipple Piercing

From the Archive:

Okay, I've found another book that mentions the "bosom ring" - it says that Victorian English women would go to France to get their nipples pierced.

This book is from the same era (1970s) as the other book that referenced Victorian nipple-piercing. It does not contain any direct quote from a first-hand source, but it does footnote where this bit of info came from:

a GERMAN text from 1912.

And even that is not a primary source - it is referencing ANOTHER GERMAN article.

So I have yet to find a primary source document!

Wouldn't it be funny - since this seems to stem from a German article about English and French women - if this were all a bit of pre-war propaganda on the part of the German press?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Victorian Nipple Piercing

From the Archives:

That got your attention, right?

I've been off doing research for a Victorian short story I'm writing. I luuvvvv doing research. This is one of the books I read.
Tell me what you think:

A history of make-up by Maggie Angeloglou

My review
rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this book - it was interesting as well as helpful for research. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars was because some of the more ... controversial? ... statements had no citations to back them up.

For example:
Did you know Victorian women engaged in nipple piercing?
There is a quote which backs this up, saying how pleasurable it is, from what is described as a primary source magazine, but the name of said magazine is not given (nor the date of the issue).

Maybe it's just me, but for something that shocking, I would have at least given the name and date of the source material - in a footnote if nothing else.

It is difficult to believe that a middle-class, Victorian lady (who was, I believe, the target audience for such magazines) would do such a thing, or that a publisher would encourage her so to do.

Maybe a Victorian prostitute would, but why would a Victorian prostitute be writing in to a magazine?

I would love to get my hands on whatever the primary source material was. If anyone has ever come across references to nipple-piercing during Victorian times, please let me know.

It would be fun to use in a story, but I'm afraid the reader would throw the book against the wall, shouting No Way!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Can Kittens Read Kindle?

So I'm reading my Kindle in bed and my Maine Coon kitten is curled up next to me. I get up for something, probably another cup of coffee, and leave the Kindle lying on the blanket.

I return to see my kitten staring at Edgar Allan Poe's face.

Each time the Kindle goes into rest mode, it randomly chooses a portrait of a famous author to display. This time it was Poe.

So she's staring at him. Then she reaches out a front paw and pats his face. Then she pats the white keyboard a couple times. Then she pats his face again.

Clearly she can see him. But why does she care?

As it turns out, this kitten is Daddy's Girl and he's been away on a trip. She misses him, which is why she's with me (normally I don't get the time of day from her). He sort of looks like Poe - dark hair, moustache. Is that why she's drawn to it?

Not only was the kitten patting the Kindle adorable, but I think I've found a whole new market for pet products. You know how there are DVDs that you can leave on for your cat to watch? There's got to be some way to produce an e-picture-book for them. :)

Or maybe we'll find out, now that they don't have to worry about holding the book and turning the pages, that cats have known how to read all along. ;)

Photo above from CatSpotting

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Origin of The Big Apple

Ever wonder why New York City is called The Big Apple?

According to Landis MacKellar's book The Double Indemnity Murder, famous evangelist Billy Sunday, pictured here preaching, once said, "If America is the Garden of Eden, then New York is a big, rotten apple."

This quote most likely was proclaimed before his 10-week stint in New York City in 1917, because at the end of that campaign he complimented New Yorkers, saying, "They seemed to want to hear about God. I think New Yorkers are keener than country folk; they are more used to seeing and hearing new things; they catch on quicker."

And New York, apparently cool with Original Sin, turned that initial condemnation into a beloved nickname.

You can understand how such a nickname would appeal during the Roaring Twenties. :)

It became part of a major tourist advertising campaign in the 1970s, and that's probably why we're familiar with it today. I'm betting those ad men didn't know where the nickname came from, though.

Monday, October 12, 2009

FTC Regulates Amateur Bloggers

I snagged this great image from Janet Reid's blog.

If you have a blog and you comment about things you like on it, better read her post here - because the FTC could come after you if you don't disclose your connection to the product.

Yes, it is a brand new two scoops of crazy from a bureaucracy that should have better things to do with its time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bizarre Bazaar

This weekend is the Salem Bizarre Bazaar!

From the Salem Chamber of Commerce:
"Fun for all ages, this street festival has something for everyone. Crafts, jewelry, paintings, stained glass, and other unique items will be featured along the Essex Pedestrian Mall. Street performers, face painters, and musicians will entertain all."

Visit Salem's Official Haunted Happenings blog for more images!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Scent of a Coffee

From the archives:

I was watching 1947's Born to Kill tonight and was amused to find a little bit of business about coffee toward the beginning of this film noir.

The private detective (who is the closest we're going to get to a hero in this flick) hears a delivery man comment about how the coffee in the cafe "sure smells good" and "isn't it a shame it never tastes as good as it smells." Our detective takes this comment and goes on to wax philosophical about how life is like that - better in theory than in fact.

I was somewhat surprised that their coffee didn't taste as good as it smelled.
What kind of sub-par coffee were the customers settling for?

Then I remembered that this movie was made back when people boiled the heck out of their coffee. If you let the percolator just run and run, you continually re-boiled the coffee grounds, and you ended up with a very bitter drink. Hence, the coffee smells better than it tastes.

Of course, they could also be talking about instant coffee, this being only a few years after World War II. But I'm betting it was the percolator.

With all our gourmet brands and specialty drinks, we forget how lucky we are just to have a cup of joe that tastes as good as it smells.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lovecraft on Cats

"[The cat] is for the man who appreciates beauty as the one living force in a blind and purposeless universe...who seeks a proud and beautiful equal in the peerage of individualism...

The cat is for him who does things not for empty duty but for power, pleasure, splendour, romance, and glamour - for the harpist who sings alone in the night of old battles, or the warrior who goes out to fight such battles for beauty, glory, fame, and the splendour of a land athwart which no shadow of weakness falls."

- H.P. Lovecraft, Something About Cats, 1937