Alicorns

“Unicorn horns are highly sought after, since possession of one is a sovereign remedy against all poisons. Alternately, a single horn can be used, by an alchemist, to manufacture 2-12 potions of healing. Unicorn horns sell for 1,500 gold pieces or more on the open market. “AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual

So I’ve been reading Odell Shepard’s The lore of the unicorn — a treatise on unicorn lore, it should be noted, rather than a treatise on unicorns, as Shepard is principally interested in what writers said about them, how they were used as symbols, and the meaning of the symbolism and legends associated with unicorns.  It’s mostly interesting but also dry — it could well have been written in the nineteenth century, and reads like something a country vicar would have compiled in his ample free time … cf. Sabine Baring-Gould.  Still, there is some great stuff, and this post harvests some of the triva from an early chapter.

Historically, in the West, unicorn horns (or alicorns – the term has also been applied, incorrectly, to horned pegasi) were highly sought after treasures.  Filings from an alicorn were valued at ten times that of gold, by weight; a whole alicorn would be worth double that.  As the narwhal tusks which were sold as alicorns can weigh ten kilograms, a whole specimen was a rare treasure to be found only in a king’s treasury or a major cathedral.  By the late 16th century, however, nearly every prince had one or part of one as protection against poisoning, which had become a widely practiced art.  Deadly diseases like plague were considered to be a kind of poisoning, so to the medieval mind, a cure for poisoning was also a cure for diseases.

The anti-poison property of an alicorn was far from unique, however. A mixture of herbs, minerals, and animal parts called “theriaca” was manufactured as a cure-all, and used both as a salve and ingested medicine, but it was very expensive due to the complexity and time taken to create it, and would be roughly as pricey as alicorn powder.  The prince on a budget had many other options when collecting talismans against poison — many of them obtained from animals that were themselves poisonous or thought to be poisonous.

Bezoar stones (concretions of indigestible matter and minerals recovered from the guts of animals) could be dipped into a drink to purify it (bon appetit!)

Cerastes horns (the prominent scales, called “horns,” of the cerastes serpent) were said to weep or sweat in the presence of poison.  They were placed on the dining table in artful arrangements to detect poison.  Legend had it that the walls of Prester John’s palace were made with a concrete including cerastes horns to prevent any poison from ever entering his demesne.  From antiquity, Western scholars held that the cerastes serpent killed its prey by burying itself so that only its poisonous horns were above ground, and passersby who stepped on the horns would die instantly.  “Horned serpents” captured the imagination of Westerners from the time of Herodotus, who described them in his History.

Snake tongues would be hung, in bunches, on the table as well, and they too would weep in the presence of poison.

Glossopetra (the “tongue stone,” actually shark tooth fossils) were used in the same manner as snake tongues, and were thought to be the petrified tongues of snakes. They were also credited with warding off the evil eye.

Toad-stones, supposedly recovered from the bodies of toads, were placed in rings to prevent poisoning.  Surviving examples of these “toadstones” are probably sting-ray teeth.

Griffin’s claw (usually ibex or buffalo horns) was fashioned into a drinking horn, which would purify any beverage of poison.

Venetian glass or crystal was thought to shatter if any poison were poured into it, and was therefore a popular material for goblets and bowls.

Ruby (also called carbuncle) and amethyst, if placed over poisoned food, would make it inedible and thus prevent a poisoning.

A severed vulture’s foot was thought to clutch in the presence of poison, so candle-holders were fashioned with a claw positioned just so that if it closed, it would snuff out the candle.  (In the Middle Ages vultures were believed to be poisonous themselves.)

Terra sigillata was a specially prepared clay from Lemnos, cakes of which were imprinted with a seal depicting Artemis; hence the name.  It was used to make amulets which warded off poison, and as an ingredient in theriaca, or as a medicine in its own right.

Walrus tusks and rhinoceros horns were also believed to have some potency in this regard, yet they were were also used to counterfeit alicorns.  Some accounts say that special chemical treatments were used to give them the characteristic spiral of a true alicorn.  (Certain antelope horns which have a twists or spirals were also imported as alicorns.)

The heyday of the alicorn was in the 14th ro 16th centuries.  Belief in their efficacy decline slowly.  In Italy and France, belief in the alicorn’s power died out in the 1500s; in England, belief lasted into the 1700s.

One possible echo of the belief in alicorns is the practice of keeping stag horns as trophies.  The medieval bestiaries reported that stags ate snakes, and/or that their horns (or the smoke emitted by their burning horns) were fatal to snakes, and for this reason stag horns were hung over doorways to keep out serpents.

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Eric Brighteyes

H. Rider Haggard — best known for his adventure tales set in Africa, like King Solomon’s Mines and She — wrote one of, if not the first, modern English sagas in the Icelandic model. (William Morris’ House of the Wolfings was published at about the same time, from I’ve read so far it also models itself on the Icelandic saga, though it is set in earlier times.)

Haggard wrote this shortly after a visit to Iceland, and he did his best to incorporate the best of the sagas — poetic descriptions of landscapes, seascapes, and battle, clever word-play and dialogue, and above all the muscular paganism of the Viking world — while leaving out the most tedious part (long catalogs of lineages and digressions about minor characters). So this is a lot more accessible than similar works like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the strong or Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s saga — both of which are excellent in their ways and worth reading too!

Haggard’s hero is a fairly typical type of saga hero: brave and honorable, strong and handsome, and doomed by tragic character flaws and choices. The story has a fairly simple set-up: two half-sisters both love the hero, and his choice between them causes the scorned sister to wreak a drawn-out, perfidious revenge.

Along the way Eric fights a berserker, makes powerful enemies who have him outlawed, and sets sail on a viking expedition where he joins the court of an English king. His fights against warriors, witchcraft, and the deadly forces of nature at land and sea, and eventually returns to Iceland to face his destiny.

ericAnd128

The pacing and action are excellent, and his slightly archaic language evoke the sagas well. The plot details all feel appropriate to the genre, but are also inventive and don’t just copy the sources. The elements of magic and mysticism are also appropriate, and reminded me of the more fantastic sagas like Grettrs Saga.

I listened to a dramatic reading of this via LibriVox, and the reader’s enthusiasm for the story made it an especially good LibriVox recording, though some of the voicing, especially for the female characters, was unintentionally funny.

So the above is what I posted to Goodreads.com for my review.  But what use is this book for D&D?

If you’re looking for ideas for use in a Vikings type campaign, there’s plenty of grist, of course, in terms of interesting places and events you could incorporate into a game, as well as names — Haggard does not fall into the all-too-common trap of using only stereotypical Norse names (Thorsson, Thorssonsson, etc.).  A number of characters are Finnish, and have distinctively non-Norse names; others just have very usual sounding names like Ospakar and Gizur — which are actually names from the Edda and so forth.  Haggard manages to pack in just about every trope you could ask for in a Viking saga: revenge killings, ‘holmgang’ duels, a wrestling match, berserkers, the Allthing, a doom-ring, chases and battles at sea, snow storms, outlawry, thralldom is inflicted, oaths are taken and broken, rune-reading, names and -nymics are bestowed, barrows robbed, a hall is nearly burnt, and on and on.  It is in fact a checklist of just about every interesting plot device you find the sagas, though in many cases Haggard uses them inventively.

The magical elements of the story are confined to a few spells/potions (a love potion, a fast-acting poison, a sleep spell, and a pact with a demon that causes a shipwreck) as well as numerous visions and foretellings (the introduction dryly notes that such things would probably be interpolations by later writers/editors of the legends), the occasional appearance of a familiar or and a magic/cursed sword.  An arresting event early on involves a severed head prophesying doom to the one who slew the owner, but for the most part magic is furtive, “off-screen,” and open to interpretation, so there is really nothing you couldn’t equally well steal for a game in a purely historical setting.

I found myself wondering too whether Tolkien had read this novel, or if it is a case of both Haggard and Tolkien using similar sources, because many events and characters could have walked right out of Middle Earth.  (The more I read stuff like Haggard, William Morris, and the like, the less original Tolkien’s work seems to me…or rather what is distinctively Tolkien’s is less interesting than the common sources they share.)

Anyway Eric Brighteyes is well worth a look!

Published in: on July 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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The city outside the world

Was Lin Carter on a one-man mission to confirm Sturgeon’s Law?

I keep reading Lin Carter books thinking he’ll exceed my expectations and finally deliver a story really worth reading. It’s strange because he certainly had a knack as an editor for selecting excellent stuff in anthologies and recovering forgotten classics. But his original stories — despite his constant, awkward self-promotion — always seem like poor imitations.
He tried to write almost every sub-genre of sci-f and fantasy. Here, he’s imitating Edgar Rice Burroughs (or actually, he’s imitating Leigh Brackett imitating Edgar rice Burroughs!) with a third rate planetary romance. The hero, Ryker, is a brawny thief, and while the convention in this sort of thing is to leave the protagonist relatively two-dimensional, Carter manages to make pretty much everyone in the novel uninteresting. The setting of course is Mars, though Carter slightly bucks convention by having the planet colonized by Earthlings who have Columbused the planet and displaced the Martians. Ryker is a criminal, exiled to Mars and living on the borders of Earthling and Martian society until he inadvertently rescues a trio of outcasts and tries to help them flee to their home city far to the north (or perhaps outside the world entirely). We never really get an explanation of how they arrived in the city that Ryker starts off in, nor why they were so far from home, and the story becomes a series of cliffhangers and narrow escapes in the Burroughs’ tradition. Except the Martian world just feels like a pastiche of Burroughs and his imitators, and the characters almost to a one fail to be interesting, even the villains. (I think he tries to create something original here, but simply isn’t up to the job of envisioning an interesting, reasonably consistent world. Half-way through the book a footnote points the reader to another of his Martian novels, indicating his dedicated, but hamfisted world-building.)
The final chapters have some promise, right up until the horrible deus-ex-machina ending.  This is almost redeemed by some zombie vengeance, which was an unexpected twist, but page after page of boring monologue at the end makes this adventure end with a whimper.

Two out of five stars, mainly for some inventive scenes and action.   (I do begin to wonder if Carter’s books would be more enjoyable for me if I read more of his source material — I have only read a few Burroughs novels and one by Brackett.  Maybe aficionados of pulp genre fiction will find crafty homages and allusions to other works?)

Confession: I realized, as I neared finishing this book, that I actually have two copies of exactly the same edition of this.  I was looking for a small, light paperback to take on a camping trip and pulled out a second copy from my shelf.  One is in really good condition, and the one I read was more beat-up, but they are identical.  I must have picked them up at different times.  I think both are going to be donated back to the library book sale.

 

Published in: on July 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Fearsome Island

The Fearsome Island by Albert Kinross.   I listened to the LibriVox recording of this (a public domain file available for free here: https://librivox.org/the-fearsome-isl…).

I stumbled across this on archive.org, and while it was not exactly riveting, it was entertaining. The story is about a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself on an island with a trap-filled castle. He has a few companions — another sailor, a cat, a bearded hag, and a mute native — most of whom are killed by the various traps.

The Victorian prose is a little rough, and the narrator is somewhat repetitive, but the idea for the story is pretty original.  Spoilers under the ‘more’ button:

(more…)

Published in: on June 20, 2014 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Flagellants and dancers

As part of project I’m working on, I recently read Sidney Heath’s Pilgrim life in the middle ages (1911 ; link is to archive.org copy). One chapter that I really got some inspiration from was “Flagellants and dancers.”  I haven’t had the time to really delve further into these topics, but I thought Heath’s discussion was pretty interesting.  Flagellants are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python & the Holy Grail (a more serious depiction of them features briefly in both The Seventh Seal and  Black Death) or played Warhammer Fantasy Battles.  The “Dancers” mentioned here don’t quite match the modern interpretation of the phenomenon (St. Vitus’ Dance/St. Anthony’s Fire, i.e. ergot poisoning) I’ve always read about.  So I wonder if there might not have been two distinct things going (religiously ecstatic dancers as described below and ergot-poisoned people running amok) which were conflated and swept together in one explanation.  I guess you’d have to look at the source material.  Anyway, since this is a very short and very vivid chapter from the book, I’m posting it in its entirety below.

Chapter IV: FLAGELLANTS AND DANCERS

One of the most extraordinary features of the Middle Ages, and the direct outcome of pilgrimages, were the wandering bands of penitents. These companies were numbered by hundreds, and each of them possessed some individual characteristic. Some were composed of the poor only, others were limited to men, while one or two were made up entirely of children. Occasionally a brotherhood would arise with membership extended mainly to those who held peculiar opinions. The great majority, however, were free to all Christians without distinction of age, sex, rank, or opinion, though each of them had some particular form of discipline for their adherents.

Thus every now and then these bands of people would journey from shrine to shrine, praying and mortifying as they went, and gathering recruits along the way. After exciting interest for a short time the larger number of these associations would dissolve as suddenly as they had appeared ; a few survived for years, while one or two underwent periodical revivals down to comparatively recent times.

The most persistent of these bands of fanatics were the dancers, the palmers, and the flagellants.

The dancers made their first appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1373, when they were composed of a 96 Flagellants and Dancers ragged set of wanderers who made begging and vagrancy a profession. They had a secret system of initiation, at which it was said, as with most of these secret initiations, they practised all kinds of abominations. Wandering about in bands of thirty, or forty, their apparent poverty, their earnestness, and their frantic fanaticism gave them an extraordinary hold on the multitude.

Wherever they went their singular reputation caused large crowds to assemble to watch their performances, and thousands who went as sightseers became infected with the mania, which came to be regarded in the nature of a contagious disease that was even more dreaded than the plague.

Everywhere the dancers became the centre of a writhing mass of humanity making violent motions of worship, offering prayers in the form of convulsive shrieks, and acting as though they would take heaven itself by storm. Their hysterical ravings were regarded as prophetic. It was quite in vain that the axe beheaded hundreds of these maniacs, or that the gibbets broke down with the weight of their bodies.

The flagellants were unquestionably the strangest of all these itinerants of faith as they were the most tenacious of existence. Wherever the shrieks and groans of the gloomy flagellants alarmed the ears, those in the vicinity fled and hid themselves, for the penitential torrent of blood and tears absorbed all with whom it came in contact. There was no escape for any, rich and poor alike ; resistance was vain, remonstrance unheeded. Under the penalty of having the flesh flogged from their bones those who happened to cross their path were forced to become flagellants until they were released at the first celebrated shrine.

It was in 1260, about the time when the enthusiasm for the Crusades was flagging, that public associations began to spring up in Italy for the purpose of discipline. Multitudes of people, of all ranks and ages, practised this mortification of the flesh along the open streets in the hope of obtaining Divine mercy for their sins.

Perugia is said to have been the first scene of this madness, and a hermit named Rainier the instigator. The custom, after practically dying out, was revived in all its fury during the fourteenth century, and for ten years the flagellants perambulated and agitated Europe. This revival is said to have had its origin during a plague in Germany in 1349, when from the first the Teutonic knights met it with fierce opposition. In 135 1 these warriors assembled and set upon a body of flagellants, massacred thousands of them on the spot, and compelled the remainder to be re-baptized.

The flagellants propagated the extravagant doctrine that flagellation was of equal virtue with the Sacraments ; that by its administration all sins were forgiven, that the old law of Christ was soon to be abolished, and that a new law enjoining the baptism of blood administered by flogging was to be substituted in its place. They were not supported by the heads of the Church, and Pope Clement VII issued a bull against them, with the result that many of their leaders were taken and burned at the stake. The custom, however, continued to crop up at intervals. At the beginning of the fifteenth century flagellants are again mentioned in Lower Saxony. They rejected every branch of external worship, and entertained some wild notions respecting the evil spirit.

The infection, as in the former outbreaks, spread with great rapidity, and was only suppressed by the Kings of Poland and Bohemia expelling all flagellants from their territories.

As enthusiasm for these various sects began to decline active measures for their total abolition were adopted by the Council of Constance (1414-18), but a remnant of them continued in existence until the close of the century. Lastly came the palmers, a class of foreign pilgrims whose real history and condition are but little known. Their designation is thought to have been derived from the palms, branches of which they brought home from Palestine as evidence of their pilgrimage. The distinction between them and ordinary pilgrims was that the pilgrim had some home or dwelling-place, but the palmer had none. The pilgrim travelled to some specific shrine or holy place, but the palmer to all. The pilgrim journeyed at his own charges, but the palmer professed poverty and went upon alms. The pilgrim might give over his profession and return home, but the palmer must persist till he obtained his palm by death. The profession of the palmer was originally voluntary, and arose from that rivalry of fanaticism so prevalent during the earlier years of the Middle Ages. During the tenth and eleventh centuries men| were sometimes ordered to become palmers — to give up wife, family, home, and country — as a penance for their sins. 

Flagellants — a 15th century woodcut; image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Published in: on June 5, 2014 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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The book of miracles

I get marketing email from some publishers and mostly ignore it but once in a while something pretty amazing comes up.  Taschen — a publisher of art books — recently put out a facsimile of a 1550 book describing  and depicting wonders and visions, simply called “The book of miracles.”

The illustrations in the book are pretty awesome.  (The link above leads to their catalog page with a dozen more images.)

The Book of Miracles

Published in: on May 22, 2014 at 9:21 am  Comments (2)  
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St. Edmund and his miraculous severed head

So I recently finished reading an older book about pilgrimages in Great Britain: The Pilgrims’ Way: Shrines and Saints in Britain and Ireland by John Eric Adair.  It’s a fairly comprehensive guide to the major shrines (churches, chapels, wells, and ruins) of Great Britain, with some of the lore about them and their saints, and lots of photos of the places.

My favorite anecdote has to be St. Edmund of East Anglia. After King Edward was martyred by vikings in a St. Sebastian-style beating followed by archery practice, they tossed his severed head into the woods to deny him a decent burial. However, some loyal Saxons went searching for it and heard it calling out “here, here” so they could find it. It was being guarded against woodland scavengers by a wolf, who tamely followed them back to the church where the head was buried with the rest of his remains.  Wolves would later adorn decorations in his shrine, as a sort of saintly mascot.

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef017d40aa281a970c-500wi

After he was canonized and the the body was “translated” to a proper shrine in 903 AD (Wikipedia dates his translation to 1095, but then again the article jumps around regard dates), the head was found to be miraculously re-attached! King Sweyn, who doubted the sainthood of Edmund, was killed by a blast from the relics, and later a Danish noble named Osgoth was driven insane for expressing doubts about the story, so Edmund had his revenge from beyond the grave. The shrine would be visited sailors hoping for good wings and by ladies hoping for fertility, who would perform the “Oblation of the White Bull” to ensure pregnancy.  The oblation is not quite as kinky as it sounds; it mostly involves petting a white bull and then taking an offering to the shrine.  It’s probably just another pagan survival.

Published in: on May 10, 2014 at 12:04 am  Comments (1)  
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St. Pancratius of Wil, death knight

St. Pancratius of Wil, death knight.  Click to embiggen!

St. Pancratius of Wil. Click to embiggen!

I just picked up a copy of Heavenly Bodies: cult treasures & spectacular saints from the catacombs.  It’s a book with tons of photos of bejeweled and bedazzled relics from across Europe.  Some are reclining or posed like St. Pancratius above (& he’s pretty conservative, just being in fancy armor); others are just lying in jumbled ruins but heaped with gems and gold.   A lot of them have rather disturbing facial features added to the skulls in wax, as well as life-like glass eyes, and others are veiled in gauze, giving them a doll-like aspect.

This St. Pancratius was, apparently, originally buried in Roman legionary armor, but when his relics were translated (moved from a tomb or crypt to a shrine or altar), he was decked out in the latest parade armor.  I couldn’t easily find any more on him — there are two other early martyrs but neither is in Switzerland, as this one is.  More on the book here ; even more photos here.

Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 9:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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Sword of Rhiannon

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Cover image from Goodreads, I think.  I have this same edition and actually the aspect ratio of the image is a little off — this image is a little squashed along the Y axis.  The serpentman is actually more slender and tall on the cover, making the image more unsettling.

The book is a one-off adventure, as far as I know — the central character does not reappear in Brackett’s other books set on Mars, though the same world is explored in some of her other books under the name “Skaith”.  As you may have guessed from the location on Mars, this book was written as an homage to the E.R. Burroughs “Carson of Venus” and “John Carter of Mars” books, and like them it is a very light but enjoyable adventure yarn, full of cliffhangers, occasional swashbuckling, and card-board thin characters (especially the protagonist).  I think that for Burroughs, the undefined protagonists are meant to allow almost any reader to identify with them. Maybe Brackett intends the same thing. Either way, it is fun, with a lot of plot twists and action, very concisely written and never boring.

As a “planetary romance,” the story blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy.  It takes place on Mars, involves time travel, and features aliens with psychic powers, so by modern standards it is more in the fantasy camp, but this is all presented as rational and scientific — the time travel and psychic phenomena is apparently just beyond the scientific understanding of the hero.

The villains of the book — serpent men and their human minions — remind me more of Howard than Burroughs.  Brackett packs a lot into this very short novel, and it is worth a look.

Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 2:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Strange cousins from the East

Some of our strange cousins in Oriental lands, according to the anonymous book De Rebus In Oriente Mirabilibus (Marvels of the East or Wonders of the East).  This is a 4th or 5th century anonymous work which has survived in three manuscript versions, the most well-known being a copy that was copies with a number of works in a manuscript identified as the “Cotton MS Vitellius A XV“.  (Cotton as it was in the collection of a Sir Robert Cotton, MS being an abbreviation of manuscript … I’m not sure about all he details of naming conventions for ms. in the British Library though.)

Some of the familiar “monstrous races” seen in Medieval art and romances are here, but given different descriptions than usual.  For example, the dog-headed men or cynocephs of Pliny are described as having the dog face we expect, but they also have a horse’s mane and boar tusks, and can breathe fire.  They are called Cinocefali or Conopenae.  (Speculation that cynocephs are a garbled account of baboons seem to be confirmed by the mane and tusks, anyway.)  The usual blemyes, sciapods, and so forth are cataloged.

Other monstrous races are, as far as I know, unique to this book:

  • Near the Nile, there are 15′ tall giants with white skin, two faces, long noses, and red knees.  They sail to India to give birth to their children, which are three-colored, lion-headed, twenty-footed monstrosities.
  • Near the river Brixontes, there are 20′ tall, man-eating giants.  Their skin is black and their legs alone are 12′ long.
  • There are also 13′ tall women with white skin, boar tusks, ox-tails, and hair to their feet — which are the feet of camels.
  • Also, there are bearded women who wear horse-hides, and hunt with trained tigers, leopards, & other wild beasts.  They are normal-sized but still rather fearsome.

More info, and pictures, here.

Published in: on March 26, 2014 at 8:35 am  Comments (2)  
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