Tag Archives: Atlas Obscura

Non-Lending Library

One of the hidden benefits of the coming societal collapse is the chance for the resurgence of print books. Since I’ve spent most of my life surrounding myself with volumes thick and thin, dense and light, I’ll have plenty to read between bouts of skulking out for food like a feral cat and clawing off those who follow me home, thinking that it’s edible stuff I’m stockpiling. Won’t they be surprised to learn it’s only books! My wife sent me an Atlas Obscura story the other day about book curses. The description of the life of a medieval scribe sounded oddly compelling to me—hunched all day over a writing desk, copying books by hand. Not having to worry about catching the bus before sunrise or being too tired to answer your personal email in the evening. The point of the piece, however, was the book curses.

I’ve been an avid reader since moving to a small town where the main occupation of kids my age was recreational drug use. I was one of the very few who didn’t inhale. Reading became my escape from the loneliness I felt. And I used to lend books to people who’d ask me. I quickly learned that others didn’t share the same care for books that I had. Lent books seldom made their way back to me. We were poor and there were no bookstores nearby and Amazon wasn’t even a meme in Jeff Bezos’ eye yet. Replacing books wasn’t easy. Once I lent out a book I’d already read (but you couldn’t tell it, I’d been so careful). The borrower actually did return it, but the spine was all creased and cracked so that you couldn’t even read the title anymore. I soon began to regard books like those medieval monks who put curses on them so nobody would steal them. I stopped lending them out.

The thing I’m banking on is that books will retain their barter value when society implodes. Of all possible universes only in that one will I be considered wealthy. Those who visit our little apartment inevitably comment on the number of books. What they don’t realize is that there’s a strategy involved here. Like those medieval monks, I have a suspicion that knowledge—including facts that don’t have alternatives—will one day in our dystopian future be valued above all the tweets and lies Washington seems to suggest we follow blindly. And blindness will make a great curse, now that I think about it, to protect these books from being stolen. Or “anathema-maranatha,” as my medieval mentors used to say. Or as Sarah Laskow ends her piece, “May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.” Maybe this isn’t so strange for a guy whose first academic appointment was at a school that reminds many of The Name of the Rose. (Which was the last book I lent out, for the record.)

Ode to Zibaldone

Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.

This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.

Some of my notebooks.

Some of my notebooks.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

Monks and Keys

Whoever doesn’t understand that something being free doesn’t mean people won’t buy it is pleasantly naive. I write this as someone who once worked for a publisher who routinely sold books that were reprints of material freely available online, where you could print out a PDF at very little cost. Being a bibliophile, however, I understand the sickness that makes one want to purchase a printed, bound book form of what you might otherwise get for nothing. One of the gifts under the tree that I can’t wait to explore thoroughly is the print form of Atlas Obscura. I found the website (where the contents of the book are free) through a friend and although I have little free time, a fair amount of it when it does occur, is spent on this website. The same friend recently sent me an entry I’d missed about a town in Austria that is looking to hire a professional hermit. Wait. What? Hermit for hire? This raises so many questions that it’s worth the three minutes it would take to read the post.

Perhaps oddly, the offer from Saalfelden is strangely compelling. Apparently the competition for the post is considerable. Here I sit with a laptop in front of me, happily married, a family man, and thinking about a hermitage. As my family can attest, I still display monastic tendencies even in a somewhat conventional life. The concept of self-denial was strongly instilled in me during my youth. That means that many of the things I like the most I very seldom have. I rise early and go to bed early and eat plain food in a cheerless cubicle at work. I may as well have taken a vow of silence for as little as I say on any given work day. Where is Saalfelden anyway?

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No, I don’t really have what it takes to be a monk. There is, however, much about the self-denying lifestyle that recommends itself during this era of extreme self-absorption. There is much to be commended about thinking of others before yourself. As an ideal it is to be welcomed and applauded. In application it’s tougher than it sounds. I can’t walk across Manhattan without having to assert my desire to hurry along to work over the needs of those sleeping on the streets without getting paid for it, or even those who amble along on obviously painful legs and feet. Perhaps a cave in a mountain is s spiritual retreat, but it can also be a way of hiding from the needs of the world. There is a balance here and self-serving can take many forms. Even in a cave, the needs of the world require our thoughtful attention. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be monks.

What You Eat

The future of Sleepy Hollow is uncertain. The successful FOX television program has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous scheduling over the past year and speculation abounds that the current fourth season may be its last. It has been, in my experience anyway, one of the most literate supernatural horror shows ever. Books and reading abound and an interracial team fights evil week after week. Having done some research on the first season of the program, I continue to be surprised just how detailed the homework of the writers is. My wife sent me a story from Atlas Obscura on the “sin eater.” This is a term, I readily confess, that I never heard before the introduction of Henry Parrish to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, guilty over the death of a freed African American freedom fighter, ingests poison to kill himself and severe his connection to the Headless Horseman. Abbie Mills, believing there is another way, locates the sin eater.

The idea is fairly simple, if unorthodox. A sin eater can literally devour the sins of another. In Sleepy Hollow this comes at a considerable cost, but the article by Natalie Zarrelli demonstrates that this too reflects research on the subject. There were, it turns out, sin eaters in the early modern British Isles. Often a poor person with no other options, a sin eater would consume bread placed on the chest of the deceased, incorporating, in an almost Christ-like way, the sins of the recently passed. The dead could then be safely buried, forgiven, while for a pittance a poor soul could walk around with someone else’s sins in his or her body. Sounds like capitalism writ large, to me.

Watching Sleepy Hollow I had assumed this idea was invented for the show. Like so many details, however, it turns out that some digging had brought an obscure historical practice to the surface. Sin eating, as the article makes clear, was never sanctioned by the church. People have often worried that official religion might not deliver the salvation it so readily promised, bound up with rules and rites as it was. Here was a sacrament of the people. Bread could be visibly consumed and symbolically, or literally, sin with it. The sin eater was paid, making this a legal transaction. Although sin eating is thought to have died out, it seems that with the recent, high-level resurgence of evil-doing, perhaps it is a practice that should be recalled. In many ways Sleepy Hollow has been ahead of the times since the beginning.

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Ritual Rent

Rituals frequently outlive their purposes. Some skeptics may claim that rituals—particularly of the religious sort—really don’t mean anything at all, but in fact they do. Rituals have logical origins, or at least that seemed logical at the time. Atlas Obscura ran a piece by Sarah Laskow on “London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211.” Such a story invites commentary on many levels. One is that the items payed in rent—6 horseshoes, an axe, a knife, and 61 nails—don’t seem to be commodities her royal highness actually needs, or could even make use of. Still, it’s easy to see how this ritual rent has a logical origin. Axes, knives, nails, and shoes for six-legged horses were all quite practical in the Middle Ages, one assumes. They won’t help you get onto the internet any faster, though, so one wonders how they might be of use now.

Another question a story like this raises is that of government itself. Rulers both in monarchies and democracies have a habit of skimming off the top. It’s been some time since we’ve had a president who purchased his own loaf of bread or could even guess how much it costs the rest of us to do so. In Britain the question may be even more salient—the royal family is among the richest in the world and yet they still take an axe, a knife, horseshoes, and nails for a property that, as the article states, nobody even knows where is? I guess it’s the price we pay for feeling safe under the watchful eye of those who already have too much. The property itself may be a legal fiction, but the payment is real enough.

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

There are those who declare rituals empty, and therefore meaningless. To me that seems a hasty judgment. Our rituals reflect what we’ve historically believed. Those beliefs may have changed over the years, while the rituals continued in their own way. But they are reminders. Reminders of something once held to be significant enough to take time and resources in order to ensure the smooth running of—in the case of religious rituals—the universe itself. On the smaller scale, however, our secular rituals contribute to a system that always has favored the rich. It likely always will. You see, rituals are not easily broken. And even if all they can extract are items of little practical use, those who already have will be glad to accept even more. This is the reality behind rituals and rites.

Monstrous Intentions

Atlas Obscura is one of those websites where you could spend all day and feel like you’ve just traveled the world. Featuring less know locations, and strange spots that you might like to visit, sometimes it also has stories about monsters. Well, at least one story about monsters. A friend of mine recently shared Cara Giaimo’s story about thirteen lesser-known monsters from history. While none of these are likely to keep you up at night, they do demonstrate the endless imagination people devote to the unknown. Monsters, like religion, defy easy categorization. Is something that’s “too big” or “too small” for its type a monster? Is it a monster if it is a mix of things that don’t normally come together? Or is it merely a matter of baleful intention? What doth a monster make?

Taking a page (almost literally) from John Ashton’s Curious Creatures in Zoology, the Atlas Obscura page runs down some monsters once believed to have existed. Some of them, despite our flattened world seen only through the eyes of rationality, were actually reported to have existed. The “monster” of Ravenna, for example, was apparently a sad case of a medieval/early modern birth defect that, in the popular imagination took on monstrosity. We now know that birth defects may contain throwbacks to earlier stages of evolution, or that genetic coding may contain mutations. None of this suggests any evil intention on the part of anybody. Accidents of nature may be the saddest kind of monster of all.

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A surprising number of the monsters from Ashton’s sampler here are mixes between human and animal. Indeed, that mix is still a potent force, theologically. One of the loudest voices speaking out against evolution is the one that says people are “not animals.” Having grown up with that belief, it took a couple years of college to convince me that we fit into the greater biological scheme of things. We fear that which resembles us, but is not quite us. Perhaps part of the mystique is that we haven’t quite yet learned to be humane to one another. Being a monster may just have more to do with what one does with prejudices than it does with physical features of their bodies.