Friday, October 31, 2014

Charles Dickens and Ghost Stories

From Anglotopia:
Just as any modern movie-goer knows that screams and laughter constantly intermingle during horror films, Dickens understood that, at their heart, ghost stories are just good plain fun. His supernatural writings exemplify “the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque”, said biographer G.K. Chesterton. And, when appropriate, Dickens was brave enough to walk the fine line between the two. For instance, in “The Lawyer and the Ghost”, a mortal makes the tongue-in-cheek argument that ghosts should haunt more pleasant places, and not just the place they were most miserable. “That’s very true,” responds the spirit, “I never thought of that before…it never struck me till now; I’ll try change of air directly.” It’s these light-hearted moments that warm us up from the usual spine-chilling monotony and remind us that, in the title words of one of Dickens’ last ghost stories, such spooky tales are always “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt.” (Read more.)


The Irish people have a colorful folklore, rich with stories of creatures from the Otherworld. In spite of the obviously pagan origins, many legends have endured to modern times. One legend is that of the banshee (bean-sidhe), a spirit which is supposed to haunt certain Irish families when a member is about to die.
According to Ireland's Eye:
The bean-sidhe (woman of the fairy) may be an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaughs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list.
Here is a more detailed description from Irish Culture and Customs:
The Bean Sidhe or Banshee makes her appearance when someone in the household is about to die. She haunts only the families of the "high Milesian race" - those whose names have an "O", "Mac" or other prefix. One exception to this rule has been granted by virtue of the Irish poets who have given her to some of the Norman-Irish families - the FitzGerald's for example. In any event, she heralds the demise of only those who are of authentic noble stock and it is with great dread when her piercing "caoine" or keening is heard. In many respects, this mysterious creature resembles traditional Irish keeners or mourners of old; as with her mortal counterparts, those who have seen her describe her as drawing a comb through her hair, similar to tearing the hair out in anguish, which the ancient mourners used to do. Incidentally, or maybe not, while the Banshee is considered benign, she supposedly has a sister force who isn't; this force is called the Lianhan Sidhe and her sole purpose is to seek the love of mortal men. Their desire for her ultimately destroys them.
The banshee, according to legend, is usually heard at night, but sometimes in the morning, and at noon. An old Irish poem refers to the appearance of the Banshee in the morning:

Hast thou heard the Banshee at morn,
Passing by the silent lake,

Or walking the fields by the orchard?

Alas! that I do not rather behold

White garlands in the hall of my fathers.
There were a few banshee stories among some of my older relatives. (I suppose being descended from the Kavanaughs and the O'Neills as well as the O'Connors made them especially worthy of hauntings!) Irish lore is full of tales of the preternatural; the banshee is definitely one of the most interesting.


Horror and Faith

On the impact of the novel and film The Exorcist. To quote:
The novel's author, William Peter Blatty (who also penned the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film), marked the 40th anniversary of the novel's appearance by writing a column for, in which he reveals that "I haven't the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying scale." Rather, Blatty, the son of devout Lebanese Catholic immigrants, reveals "'The Exorcist's Secret Message": It is "a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story—in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through."

Principalities and Powers

That is not, of course, the way that the novel and the subsequent film have been portrayed by either their fans or their detractors. Indeed, many Christians have accused Blatty of opening up readers and filmgoers to demonic influences—missing not only the point of the novel but misunderstanding Christ's own teaching regarding the principalities and powers of this world. Demons hold no sway over those who are firm in their faith; but they do, in the words of Pope Leo XIII's Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, "prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls." By denying their existence, and treating the world of spiritual warfare as a parlor game, we open ourselves to their influence and even, in extreme cases, to possession. (Read more.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Kale, Cabbage, and Matrimony

Some old Celtic customs.
For Hallowe’en...kale was used in the traditional dish, colcannon, or “white-headed cabbage” when translated from its Gaelic roots cal ceannann’.  Charms hidden in the mush of cabbage, kale and chopped onions, were thought to determine who at the table would be the next to tie the knot. If you were lucky enough to find a ring concealed in your meal, no longer would you spend your Halloween dinner single and sighing—wishing you’d find a piece of metal in your food. The other hidden object was a thimble, which meant the life of a spinster...(Read entire post.)

Remembering the Bubonic Plague

Will it help us fight ebola? From the Daily Mail:
Bubonic plague is one of the most devastating diseases in history, having killed around 100million people during the 'Black Death' in the 14th century. Drawings and paintings from the outbreak, which wiped out about a third of the European population, depict town criers saying 'bring out your dead' while dragging trailers piled with infected corpses.

It is caused by a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis, which uses the flea as a host and is usually transmitted to humans via rats. The disease causes grotesque symptoms such as gangrene and the appearance of large swellings on the groin, armpits or neck, known as 'buboes'. It kills up to two thirds of sufferers within just four days if it is not treated, although if antibiotics are administered within 24 hours of infection patients are highly likely to survive.

After the Black Death arrived in 1347 plague became a common phenomenon in Europe, with outbreaks recurring regularly until the 18th century. Bubonic plague has almost completely vanished from the rich world, with 90 per cent of all cases now found in Africa.

However, there have been a few non-fatal cases in the U.S. in recent years, while in August 2013 a 15-year-old boy died in Kyrgyzstan after eating a groundhog infected with the disease. Three months later, an outbreak in a Madagascan killed at least 20 people in a week. A year before 60 people died as a result of the infection, more than in any other country in the world.

Outbreaks in China have been rare in recent years, and most have happened in remote rural areas of the west. China's state broadcaster said there were 12 diagnosed cases and three deaths in the province of Qinghai in 2009, and one in Sichuan in 2012. In the United States between five and 15 people die every year as a result, mostly in western states. (Read more.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The War on Halloween

From Scott Richert:
Of course, as I've shown in Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?, Halloween—that is, the vigil or eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day, was first celebrated in the eighth century A.D., approximately 400 years after the Celts had abandoned druidism for Christianity. And the pumpkin, which is native to North American, was not imported to the British Isles until over a millennium after the conversion of the Celts to Christianity. Indeed, as David Emery, the Expert at About Urban Legends points out in Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?, both the name and the custom of the jack-o'-lantern date from the 17th century, and it was commonly associated with Catholic beliefs and practices:
For Catholic children it was customary to carry jack-o'-lanterns door-to-door to represent the souls of the dead while begging for soul cakes on Hallowmas ( All Saints Day, Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).
Irish Catholic immigrants to North America celebrated Halloween by carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating, and, just as their Puritan ancestors had in England, Protestants of English descent in the American Northeast banned the celebration of Halloween (and of Christmas) not out of concerns over witchcraft and the "Devil's Night," but explicitly in opposition to Catholic practice. By the late 19th century, those bans had been dropped, and both Halloween and Christmas had been adopted by Protestant Christians of all stripes in the United States, but by the late 1980's Jack Chick had succeeded in reviving the earlier anti-Catholic attack on Halloween.

Happy Birthday, Satan

Chick's anti-Halloween tracts helped spread another idea that is ridiculous on its face: that Halloween is Satan's birthday. Satan, of course, is Lucifer, the leader of the angels who rebelled against God and was cast out of Heaven by Saint Michael the Archangel and the other angels who remained loyal to their Creator (Revelation 12:7-10). As such, he has no "birthday"—a fact that Chick actually admits in one of his tracts, though he attributes the casting of Lucifer and his demons out of Heaven to Jesus Christ, not Saint Michael, as the account in Revelation does. Yet that same tract, Boo! (1991), while getting the story at least partially right, shows Satan, wearing a jack-o'-lantern as a head, rejoicing that a bunch of high-school students are "coming to celebrate my birthday," before he mows 19 of them down with a chainsaw. The sheriff who is unable to stop Satan's bloody rampage finally gives up, praying, "May the saints preserve 'em"—a subtle yet potent anti-Catholic reference.

The Triumph of Chick's Anti-Catholic War on Halloween

By the turn of the millennium, Jack Chick had made great strides in his attack on Halloween, and not just among his fellow fundamentalist Christians. Many mainstream Christians, including a sizable number of Catholics who had themselves happily and innocently celebrated Halloween when they were young, decided not to let their children take part in trick-or-treating and other Halloween festivities. The common reasons given came straight out of the Jack Chick tracts that many of them had received in their own youth: the supposed Celtic and Babylonian pagan roots of Halloween; the ridiculous claim that Halloween is Satan's birthday; the possible dangers to the physical and spiritual health of their children, if they are allowed to accept candy from the neighbors that they see everyday. (These have been supplemented in recent years by the claim that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned Catholics against celebrating Halloween—an urban legend that I've debunked in Did Pope Benedict XVI Condemn Halloween?) (Read more.)

Female Nazi Guards

Their mugshots are the "banality of evil" personified. "These black and white portraits of the female prison camp guards which were taken after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp, while they were at Celle awaiting trial in 1945." (Read more.) Share

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon

A post from On the Tudor Trail:
Mary Tudor was an unusual princess in an age that cared little for the personal feelings of royalty, male or female. As a child, she was betrothed to the younger Charles in 1507, a betrothal firmly anchored in politics.  The negotiations waffled on for years: They should marry now. No, they should wait. The terms aren’t good. Perhaps this isn’t the best match we could get. Perhaps we should discuss this further.  The result was that Mary wasn’t married off early as her older sister Margaret had been. She remained in England and had free reign at her brother’s court.

She shone brightly there.  As her brother’s preferred dance partner in court frivolities, she came to the attention of virtually all the ambassadors to the English court whose collective description of her was middling tall, blonde, stunningly gorgeous, and unbelievably charming.

Mary was not unduly unhappy at the dissolution of her betrothal, but neither was she interested in marrying the elderly king of France. Apparently she was won over when her brother promised her that after Louis’s death, she could marry as she pleased.

But the marriage to Louis was short-lived, lasting only about ten weeks.  In poor health even before the marriage, he died on January 1, 1515.  His new widow’s immediate concern was to avoid being married off by either the new French king, Francis I, or her brother.  Both were eager to use her as a pawn in the chessboard of European politics.  Tudor that she was, Mary played them off against each other.  To Henry she merely promised she would not let Francis choose a husband for her.  To Francis, she was a bit more forthcoming, admitting that the man she was in love with — the only man she would ever marry — was Henry’s close friend, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.

Francis was disappointed, but somewhat mollified by the thought that Henry was going to be equally thwarted.  As for Henry, he very conveniently sent Charles over to negotiate the return of the dowry and escort the widow home.  It’s hard to know for certain what Charles and Mary had planned beforehand, but they secretly married almost immediately in Paris.  I’ve always thought they decided it would be easier to obtain forgiveness than permission, and presenting Henry with a fait accompli would take away any temptation on his part to try to change Mary’s mind about another royal marriage. (Read more.)
From Nancy Bilyeau:
 A 19th century historian wrote of Henry VIII and Charles Brandon:

"The two men were of the same towering height but Charles was, perhaps, the more powerful... both were exceedingly fair and had the same golden curly hair, the same steel gray eyes planted on either side of an aquiline nose.... owing to the brilliance of their complexions, they were universally considered extremely handsome."
This was the man Princess Mary fell in love with at the same time her brother was arranging her marriage to the King of France. There is no hint of impropriety between them at the English court; she was scrupulously chaperoned. Brandon did not escort her to France. So why did Henry VIII send his friend, infamous for his treatment of women, to escort a vulnerable Mary back to England after King Louis died? He is supposed to have made Brandon promise not to marry her in France. Brandon was always a loyal friend to Henry VIII...yet he did marry her. The French royal jewels that the couple smuggled out of the country and gave to Henry VIII--including the Mirror of Naples--mollified him. (Read more.)