Marie Laveau, Woman of Mystery

She was one of the most powerful and influential women of nineteenth century New Orleans, rumored to be a great priestess of Voodoo, as well as a practicing Catholic.  She was a healer, a midwife, possibly a hairdresser and mother of at least nine children. To this day, her ghost is said to haunt the streets of the French Quarter, and people come from all over the world to pay tribute to her at her grave.

I am speaking of course, of the famous Marie Laveau.

A great deal of myths and legends have grown up around her, everything from her holding wild orgies on the Feast of Saint John, to her keeping a magical snake called Zombi. But Marie Laveau, much like William Shakespeare, is one of those historical figures of which we know very little. In fact, we do not even have any concrete evidence that she actually was a Voodoo practitioner! Like the religion of Voodoo itself, Marie’s life is shrouded in mystery, and most of what we think we know about her has been passed down by word of mouth.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Marie Catherine Laveau Paris was born around September 10, 1801 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Her birthday is confirmed by her baptismal record. Approximately one week after her birth, Marie was baptized by a priest named Pere Antoine in Saint Louis Cathedral.   Marie’s father, Charles Laveau, was a wealthy businessman, a politician, and also a “mulatto”. (Mulatto is a rather obsolete term which means ½ black and ½ white.)

 Marie’s mother, Marguerite Darcantrel, was Charles’ Laveau’s mistress. She was also a freed slave. Marie was born in a cottage on Saint Ann Street, the home of her grandmother, known as “Miss Catherine”. It was Miss Catherine who raised Marie. The cottage would stay in Marie’s possession for all her life. The location of this house is marked as a Historical Site in the French Quarter. To this day, people bring trinkets and offerings for Marie, which they leave near the building. 

At age eighteen, Marie married a free man of color named Jaque Paris. She had two daughters with him before he died in around 1824. Following her husband’s death, Marie was ever after known as “The Widow Paris.” The two daughters probably died as well, as there are no further records of them.

Portrait of Marie Laveau, copied from the original, painted in the 1800s by artist George Catlin. This is probably the best rendition we have of her.

 Marie then apparently fell in love with a white man named Christophe Dumensnil de Glapion. She lived with Christophe, and they were together for around thirty years. As a biracial couple, it was illegal for them to marry.

Marie and Christophe had at least seven children together, according to baptismal records. (It is rumored they had as many as fifteen children, although some of these may have been grandchildren.)

Marie was a free person of color, and records show that she owned at least seven slaves in her lifetime. (It was not unusual for black people to own slaves in Louisiana. More on that later.)

An article in the New Orleans Republican published on May 14, 1871,  described Marie Laveau as a “devout and acceptable member of the Catholic communion.” We know that Marie was a practicing Catholic because of her baptismal, marriage and death records in relationship to the Church.

Marie died on June 15, 1881, in the same cottage on Saint Ann Street in which she was born.

Site of the house on Sant Ann Street today.

Medical records list the cause of death as “diarrhea” (yuck, I know) which most likely means Marie had dysentery or a similar illness. She would have been almost eighty years old, which is quite a ripe old age for a woman in those days.

Records show that politicians, lawyers, congressmen, bankers, and wealthy socialites had slush funds, which they tagged as “LAVEAU EXPENSES”, apparently intended to pay The Widow Paris for her services, whatever they may be…

 When Marie died, her obituary in The New York Times claimed: “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.”  

 New Orleans Cemetery records prove that she was interred in the “Widow Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.

And that’s it! That is all we know to be fact.

Ahhh, but the rumors! They are infinitely more interesting.

Born Free

Marie Laveau was the first child in her family to be born free – that is, a person of color born outside the bondage of slavery. Marie’s great-grandmother was believed to have been brought to New Orleans as a slave from West Africa in 1743. Marie’s grandmother, “Miss Catherine” was born a slave and was eventually bought by a free woman of color named Francoise Pomet. During her enslaved time, Catherine gave birth to Marguerite, but in future years she was able to buy their way out of slavery as well.

The phrase “free person of color” comes up often in discussions of historical New Orleans. There are many stories of slaves “buying” their way to freedom. How, exactly, was this done? Most of us think of slavery as a complete and final institution. Once born to it you were stuck, unless you wanted to risk running away, a dangerous endeavor indeed. If you were caught, you might be whipped, get your foot cut off, or just be killed altogether.

But in the colony of Louisiana, and later the Louisiana Territory, things were a little different. Louisiana had a law called “Coartacion”, under which, slaves were given the right to own property and purchase their freedom. Slaves could earn money by selling produce in the markets, working as nurses and artisans, and hiring themselves out as laborers. When they saved enough money, they were allowed to petition to their owners to buy themselves out of bondage. If you were a “good slave” — meaning you basically kept your mouth shut and were obedient — the master was legally obligated to accept your petition.

“New Orleans Free People of Color” Painting by Augustino Brunias, 1700s.

 The law of Coartacion existed only in Louisiana. It had impressive results. By the early nineteenth century, 1,490 blacks in New Orleans had acquired their freedom by cash payments. By 1810, the territory had 7,585 free persons of color, most of them living in New Orleans. Free people of color represented 44 percent of the city’s free population. In 1860, right before the Civil War, free people of color paid taxes on property valued at 15 million dollars – the equivalent of around $400 million in today’s money! Additionally, many free people of color were highly educated and had degrees from French universities.

As free people of color became rich, they eventually purchased their own slaves. This was the sneaky catch of the law of Coartacion; it was not really a way to get more people free, but rather a way to increase slavery. It was believed that the institution of slavery would be kept stronger if free blacks began buying slaves along with white people, thus giving the institution a wider scope.

 In the end it all fell apart, but nonetheless, it was not unusual for free black people to own slaves in Louisiana. Marie Laveau herself is confirmed to have owned at least seven slaves during her lifetime.

Beauty Shop

Angela Basset as Marie in American Horror Story

It was rumored Marie worked as a hairdresser, although there are no historical records to prove this. It could very well be true. Marie was confirmed to have served politicians, and prominent people. Everyone knows beauty shop gossip runs rampant. It is therefore surmised that  while working as a hairdresser, Marie serviced elite women of the community and they opened their hearts to her. Thus Marie was privy to many secrets. It was said she had a wealth of information, and was therefore able to advise all the big shots in the community, to the point where they actually had “slush finds” to pay her! (See above.)

And, of course, along with all this juicy information, Marie’s so called psychic abilities also came in handy.

At any rate, Marie’s opinion and advice were well respected. An article in The New Orleans Times Picayune, dated April 1886 (five years after her death) described Marie as “gifted with beauty and intelligence, she ruled her own race, and made captive of many of the other.”

Regardless of what anyone believed about Marie’s “magical powers”, she definitely had a certain natural charm.

The Human Touch

Marie Laveau was known as a humanitarian and healer. She is said to have cured people of yellow fever, which ran quite rampant in New Orleans during this time. She would also go to prisons and visit inmates who had been sentenced to death. She would pray with the prisoners and serve them their last meal, employing Catholic traditions, and often helping them prepare for the afterlife.

 Marie often sought pardons and commutations of sentences for some of the prisoners. She’d wield her influence among authorities (or perhaps she’d threaten them with blackmail!) and was successful in her efforts. Some rumors (unconfirmed) claimed that Marie would give poisons to the prisoners before they went to the gallows, thus saving them the pain of the hangman’s noose.

Rumors circulated that Marie sometimes preformed Voodoo rituals in the prisons. After her death, Marie’s daughter Philomène stated during an interview with a reporter from the Picayune that “only Catholic traditions would take place during these visits.” Because Voodoo took on an undeserved “bad reputation”, it is believed Marie’s daughter may have been trying to downplay her mother’s Voodoo ties in order to keep Marie “respectable” in the public’s mind.

A Catholic, and/or Voodoo altar

That Voodoo You Do

Any report about Marie Laveau would be lacking if it did not have at least a brief analysis of Voodoo – perhaps the most exploited and misunderstood religion in American history.

Voodoo is, quite simply, a religion, just like Christianity or Judaism. Originally, it was called “Vodou” which, in its original African language means “pure light.” West African slaves brought the practice of Vodou to the Americas. They mostly practiced it in secret, and masked it with more acceptable Catholic rituals, so the slave masters did not know what they were up to.

The Voodoo religion relies largely upon communication with ancestors who have gone to the Otherworld, or Afterlife. It also centers around the worship of a variety of nature gods who represent the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Voodoo has ordained priests and priestesses who are trained in elaborate rituals.

In Louisiana, everyone spoke French. The literal translation of “Old Gods” in French is “Vieux Dieux”, pronounced voo doo.

Papa Legba, one of the Old Gods

So there you have it.

To be clear, Voodoo has NOTHING to do with killing chickens, drinking blood, creating dolls to torture people, or anything Hollywood has told you. Somewhere along the line, someone realized that the “exotic practices” said to be associated with Voodoo were a great money maker. Hence the rumors began. They persist to this day.

That being said, Marie herself may have actually been theatrical, and a great marketer, helping to spread the dark, forbidden image of Voodoo. She may very well have taken the “wilder” aspects associated with Voodoo and used them for her own gain. After all, a scary Voodoo priestess is much more likely to earn respect than a mild mannered Catholic. (Debatable, when you consider the Vatican… But that’s another topic altogether.)

Some of the rumors that circulated about Marie’s Voodoo practice involved wild orgies that took place at Saint John’s Bayou on Saint John’s Eve.

Interestingly, the Catholic Feast of Saint John takes place on June 23rd. This is around the time of the summer solstice. Every good Pagan knows the summer solstice, or Beltane, is a time for great merry making, fire festivals, and worship of the god Baal, the goddess Aine, the Oak King, or whatever tradition you happen to follow. In Catholicism, Saint John the Baptist was born around this time (six months before Jesus in December, and also six months before the winter solstice.)

John was known as a wild man. He spent a lot of time out in nature, scantily clad and baptizing naked people. He ate strange things, like locusts and honey. You can see how a tribute to Saint John might get out of hand, especially when combined with those exotic Voodoo practices.

No one knows what really went on in Saint John’s Bayou, but apparently the gossip was endless.

Marie was also rumored to have a snake named Zombi. This magical snake could do all kinds of weird stuff, including curses and blessings. SO WATCH OUT.

Sealed in a Stone-Cold Tomb

Marie’s tomb is located in Saint Louis No 1 Cemetery. Just like the house on Saint Ann Street, the gravesite has attracted numerous tourists. People believe that doing elaborate rituals around Marie’s grave will bring them luck and good fortune. Some of these rituals involve bizarre things like walking backwards around the grave, spitting on it, and drawing three X’s upon the tomb.

Before Hurricane Katrina, people were rather respectful of Marie’s grave. I know this for a fact because I was there in 2005 right before the storm. See how the grave is pristine?

New Orleans Cemetery
Me on the left, with my niece Lauren at Marie’s grave.

But after the storm folks got desperate. The grave was defaced multiple times.

The grave after Katrina. Triple Xs were thought to bring luck.

In January of 2014, someone decided it would be a good idea to paint Marie’s grave pink, the color of pepto-bismol. (The man was believed to be mentally ill.) He painted the grave, which damaged its surface. It took a lot of time and money to restore it. As a result, tourists can no longer visit Saint Louis No. 1 Cemetery, unless accompanied by a formal tour guide.

Paint it pink! Marie’s defaced grave.

Even with a tour guide, it is said you should never take anything from Marie’s grave. This includes rocks, stones and shells. A tour guide once told me that someone on his tour decided to take a stone from the land around the grave as a “souvenir”. Before the end of the tour, that person was stung by a wasp! So if you ever venture around Marie’s grave, please be respectful.

Regardless of what’s true and what’s false, it can’t be denied that Marie Laveau was an interesting woman, a force of nature, and a presence that has managed to live on for over two hundred years.

Happy Birthday Marie! I believe in you.

Lollygag?

“Stop that lollygagging! We don’t have all day.”

If you’d grown up in my house, you would have heard phrases like this quite often. The word “lollygag” was as common as “Be home before dark,” or “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I think lollygag was one of my parents’ favorites. But it’s a strange word.

Think about it. If we break it apart, we get loll and gag. What the heck kind of word is this? It’s either comical, cruel, or very obscene…

For those of you who don’t know (and I’m expecting at least a few people don’t know, because the word is practically obsolete) Merriam-Webster defines Lollygag as follows:

LOLLYGAG: Intransitive verb

informalto fool around and waste time : DAWDLE

“We were slow because the girl was lollygagging, the photographer was photographing, and I was on crutches.”

— James Robison

“The first author he’d chosen was lollygagging on his manuscript, so it was my chance.”

— Neal Pollack

When I was a kid, lollygag meant slowing down the operation (assuming the operation was important) and furthermore, you weren’t slowing it down for any good reason. Oh no. You were lazy! You were avoiding work, or you simply got preoccupied with something more interesting than the task at hand.

I was actually a world champion lollygagger. As were many of my peers.

It’s pretty easy to lollygag away your time as a kid.

Painting by Arthur John Elsley

In fact, we could easily lollygag away the whole summer.

“Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,”
Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1909

 But what can be said about the etymology of this word? I was really curious, because most words come from somewhere… 

According to Word Origins, lollygag is an “Americanism” which first came in vogue around the mid 19th century. The word “loll” in northern English dialect relates to the tongue (hence lollipop) and can be used as a verb meaning “to embrace or neck.” (More on that later.) The verb loll can also mean “to droop, dangle, rest idly, or thrust out the tongue.” Shakespeare used it in his play Cymbeline, produced in 1611: 

“the Army broken,
And but the backes of Britaines seene, all flying
Through a strait Lane, the Enemy full-hearted,
Lolling the Tongue with slaught’ring: having worke
More plentifull then Tooles to doo’t:”

The first known mentioning of the actual word, spelled as “lallygag” appeared in a poem about a dead cow, featured the the Sparta Democrat, a newspaper published out of Sparta, Illinois. The poem is dated September 14, 1859:

“22 Kwarts of milck she give,
As true as Eye dew liv,
but now er 12 Kwart bag
Aint wuth a lallygag,
Poor old thyng!”

In this case, lallygag seems to be a noun, meaning “something of little value.”

 

 Lallygag appeared again in Harper’s Magazine in August 1862:

“Over the door was stretched a line of letters, reader ‘RESTERANT;’ while below the counter a label fluttered in the breeze, bearing on it, ‘1000 able-bodied men wanted immediately, to drink Swingle’s Lager Beer. Non but those having the spondulix need apply.’ It was before this place that Mr. Biggs paused and turned the flesh of the succulent lobster over with his finger. The gentleman inside addressed him:

‘Well now, bossy, what kin I do for you? Try er lobstaw, bossy?’

‘Ain’t got no money,’ said Mr. Biggs, still fingering the morsels.

‘Oh, come now, none o’ that ere lallygag,’ responded the gentleman. ‘Go in, bossy!’

Mr. Biggs raised a morsel to his lips, tasted, smacked them, and swallowed it. He gazed a moment on the dish and then turned away.”

In this excerpt lallygag seems to mean hanging around and loitering — but it is also associated with tasting the succulent piece of lobster, thus alluding to oral activity and the tongue.

The shopkeeper is telling Biggs to either stop loitering or not taste the food. 

As time went on, lollygag took on a sexy twist — probably due to this association with tongues and gagging.  It came to mean something like “to flirt, neck, snog, or otherwise engage in lovemaking.” 

According to Merriam Webster:

“You certainly didn’t want to be known as a lollygagger at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, lollygag was slang for “fooling around” (sexually, that is).”

Furthermore, it seems lollygagging got to be such a problem, it had to be addressed by the U.S. Navy! 

“Back in 1946, one Navy captain considered lollygagging enough of a problem to issue this stern warning: ‘Lovemaking and lollygagging are hereby strictly forbidden… The holding of hands, osculation and constant embracing of WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], corpsmen or civilians and sailors or any combination of male and female personnel is a violation of naval discipline…'”

Imagine that! Lollygagging might have hindered military operations.

But nowadays, if someone calls you a lollygagger, don’t get too offended — it only means a dawdler or a time waster.

At any rate, this is a word with a lot of character and I think it deserves a comeback.

The cows might agree with me!

Many thanks to the Ragtag Community for offering this prompt! 

What do you think of lollygag? Let me know in the comments below 🙂 

 

Anastasia Screamed in Vain

I stuck around Saint Petersburg

When I saw it was time for a change

Killed the Tsar and his ministers

Anastasia screamed in vain.”

Rolling Stones fans will recognize the song as “Sympathy for the Devil”, Mick Jagger’s lopsided tribute to the Prince of Darkness. The event in question was the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, an execution so horrendous that it could only have been orchestrated by Satan himself. (Or Vladimir Lenin.)

The Killing Fields

It was brutal and diabolical. Eleven people died. Some were killed by gunshot, but the more stubborn and slow-to-die teenagers (who actually seemed bulletproof) were carved up like raw chickens, stabbed until their blood-drenched bodies finally expired. Some historians call it the “most horrific” execution of the 20th century, but that would be an exaggeration, since the 20th century, like all centuries, contained an uncountable amount of horrors. The Nazis, as well as the Communists, were known to massacre families whole, whether it be in gas chambers, or by working them to death in Siberia, or by simply shooting them in the middle of their farm chores, land to be divvied up for the “common good”.

Nonetheless, the Romanovs loom large in our imagination, because they happened to be the royal family of Russia, a dynasty that had been in power for three hundred years, until the Bolshevik takeover. The family killed were: Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and their son Alexey who would have been heir to the throne. The servants killed were: Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov.

Romanov Family

Anastasia, the youngest daughter, was just seventeen years old. She was killed last. She is said to have screamed so heart-wrenchingly it was rumored for decades that the more soft-hearted guards may actually have spared her. (They didn’t, but more on that later.)

Sugar & Spice But Not Everything Nice

 Anastasíya Nikoláyevna Románova, the Grand Duchess of Russia, was born on this day, June 18, 1901. Her father was Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia and her mother was Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina and Empress Consort, aka Princess Alix of Hesse, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

It’s a pretty impressive pedigree, and you would think the Tsar’s children would have been extravagantly spoiled, but apparently the Tsarina believed in the same sparseness and discipline favored by her grandmother, the no-nonsense Victoria. The Romanov children slept on hard cots, took cold baths, and were made to do their own housework. The girls were required to produce needlework that was later sold for charity.

Anastasia doing needlework

Anastasia was a feisty and spirited child. According to her governess Margaretta Eager, Anastasia had ”the greatest personal charm of any child she had ever seen.” Her nickname was “Shvybzik” which means “merry little one” or “little mischief”. Apparently she liked the nickname, because well into her teen years, Anastasia would sign her correspondence as “Shvybzik”, rather than her real name. She was also a bit of a tomboy, known to climb trees and get in snowball fights. One observer reported that the young duchess couldn’t be bothered to remove her long white gloves while eating chocolates at the opera house. She was also fond of practical jokes.

Anastasia joking around with false teeth. Picture taken by her father.

During the first World War, the older Romanov women worked as Red Cross nurses. Anastasia and her sister Maria, both too young to for nursing, instead visited wounded soldiers at the hospital in Tsayskoye Selo. To lift the soldiers’ spirits, they played games like checkers and billiards. Some of the soldiers recalled them fondly, especially Anastasia’s contagious lough.

No matter how well-intended these charitable works from the Romanov family might have been, there was no denying the fact that Russia, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a mess. It was one of the most impoverished countries in the world. And many blamed Tsar Nicholas and the aristocracy for that mess.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Modernization and new, labor-saving inventions had not really made their way to Russia yet. Farms were in bad shape. People in the countryside had really rough lives. The harsh Russian climate made for poor crops in general, and the monarchy had failed to implement modern tools of farming. Russia was falling way behind the rest of Europe. In the cities, things were just as bad. There was massive unemployment, and those who were employed worked mostly in dangerous factories, laboring long hours for little pay.

Finally, everyone had had enough.

On Sunday, January 22, 1905, peasants stormed the Winter Palace, home of the royals, in protest. However, that rebellion was squashed by the palace armies, resulting in massive deaths. The rebellion was known as “Bloody Sunday”. Riots then broke out all over the country, but they did no good. The life of the average peasant remained the same, pretty unbearable.

When Germany attacked Russia in 1914, things get even worse. Tsar Nicholas was unprepared for war. (Tsar Nicholas was actually unprepared to rule. His father had died unexpectedly and Nicholas took over the monarchy in 1894 at age twenty-six. Not really young, but he had expected his father to be alive for a few more decades, so he had not given much thought to statecraft.)

Armies, made up largely of the peasant population, were sent to fight. They suffered from lack of everything — from bullets to fuel to food. Millions died. Revolution became inevitable.

Russian soldiers in WWI.

On March 8, 1917, with the men away at war, Russian women decided to take matters into their own hands. Thousands stormed the streets of Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in yet another protest. Their banners said things like, “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland,” and “Supplement the ration of soldiers’ families, defenders of freedom and the people’s peace.”

Female protesters in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) on 8 March 1917.
Women protesters in Petrograd, 1917

The Tsar ordered his army to shoot them – however, by this time even the palace army was fed up with their horrible conditions. In the end, Tsar Nicholas had no choice but to resign and give up his crown.

Dead Man Walking

The Romanov family was put under house arrest and moved around to several locations. At first it wasn’t so bad. They were in palaces and comfortable environments. They still had a certain degree of freedom. But as the Bolsheviks gained more power, there was less regard for the royal family. Finally, they were sent to the dreaded Siberia, in a train with covered windows where they were denied food. Their new residence was in a town called Yekaterniburg. There they lived in a five-room dwelling that was ominously called “The House of Special Purpose.”

In the meantime, things were getting worse in Petrograd. A makeshift government had been put in after Nicholas’ abdication, but the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, were not happy with it. They staged another riot in October, 1917. This time full scale civil war broke out.  On one side were the Bolsheviks – the Red Army. On the other side were the aristocracy – the White Army. Eventually the Bolsheviks, fearing the Whites might gain power and try to reinstate the Tsar, decided it was simply too risky to allow the Romanov family to remain alive.

In the wee hours of the morning of July 17, 1918, the family were awakened and told they were to be moved to another location, as more fighting had broken out in the area and it was no longer safe. They were told to gather their things and go to the basement of the house, then wait for further instruction until their transport arrived.

It was, of course, a lie.

In reality, the Romanovs were going to the basement where they would be executed.

Commandant Yakov Yurovsky, head of the secret police, told the family they must be positioned for a photograph. He brought in chairs for Tsarina Alexandra and also for son Alexey, a hemophiliac who was in bad health. He then told them he was going to get a camera.

Yakov Yurovsky

Instead of fetching a camera, Yurovsky came back with eleven guards, all armed with pistols.  But there was a problem — the assassins were not sober. Before their boss summoned them, they had been sitting in another room downing vodka. Yurovsky was furious, but the mission had to go on.

Yurovsky then informed Nicholas that he and his family had been sentenced to death.

An astonished Nicholas simply replied, “What?”

Historians are not sure whether Nicholas had figured it out. When the family were first escorted to the basement, he had said to his daughters, “We are finally getting out of here.” This could be interpreted as him knowing the execution was inevitable, and “getting out” simply meant dying. Or perhaps he was truly taken by surprise.

Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

At any rate, Nicholas was lucky. A guard shot him point blank in the chest and he died immediately. The others would have much messier deaths.

One of the assassins aimed for Alexandra, but, half drunk, he missed his aim and shot her in the side of the head.  Next, Maria was hit by a bullet in the thigh. She lay bleeding until a guard stabbed her repeatedly in the torso finally ending her life. Olga was shot in the jaw and Tatiana in the back of the head. Bullets aimed at Anastasia seemed to bounce off.

What the guards would not have realized was that the sisters, and Alexey too, had sown diamond jewelry into their underwear. (They had taken it from the Winter Palace and intended the sell it once they regained their freedom.) Diamonds, being the hardest substance in the world, now became their bullet proof clothing.

Unfortunately, this meant the guards resorted to bayonets. The Romanov siblings were eventually stabbed to death. What should have been a quick, clean execution had turned into an orgy of killing.

The last to die was Anastasia. A guard lunged at her, but, being drunk, kept missing with his bayonet. Finally, the sober Yakov Yurovsky took his gun and shot her in the head.

The entire ordeal was finished in twenty minutes. What had been a three hundred year reign of the Romanov family ended in a bath of blood and clouds of gun smoke. The drunken guards checked pulses to make sure the victims were really dead, then wrapped them in sheets and carried them to the pits where they would be buried.

Fun Facts

  • The Romanov sisters were very close. In fact, they referred to themselves collectively as “OTMA” – meaning Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.
  • Young Anastasia, ever the “little mischief” was seen sticking her tongue out at Yurovsky behind his back.
  • OTMA were reluctant to marry and suspicious of foreign princes.  When they were sent to meet Prince Carroll of Romania, a potential suitor, all four girls went to the beach and got sunburns on purpose. Having a sunburn would render them “unmarriable” in the royal circle, as only a peasant or a gypsy would stay out in the sun.
OTMA in 1913
  • Ironically, while staying in Yekaterniburg, Maria became romantically involved with a young Bolshevik guard named Ivan Skorokhodov, who smuggled in a cake for her birthday.
  • When Maria and Ivan were caught “in a compromising position” the boy was dismissed from his job and sent away to prison.
  • Apparently, many of the young Bolshevik guards found the sisters attractive. Before the assassination, three of them admitted they would not be able to kill the sisters. They, too, were sent away to prison.
  • After the Bolshevik government took over, the name “Romanov” was forbidden. The mere mention of them, or keeping their picture, would result in imprisonment or death.
  • No one ever knew the burial place of the family. This resulted in rumors that they had not really been killed, and especially that Anastasia had been allowed to remain alive. Over the years, many imposters claimed to be the lost Princess Anastasia.
Anna Anderson of Poland (left) claimed to be Anastasia (right) years after the execution.
  • The bones of the Romanov family were discovered in 1979, but they were reburied because it was illegal in the USSR to mention their name!
  • In 2007, long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the bones were dug up again. DNA tests proved that they were indeed the bones of the Romanovs, thus ending the rumors that Anastasia was still alive.
  • A monument to Tsar Nicholas and Prince Alexey was unveiled in Siberia in 2017. Monuments to Nicholas were also erected in St. Petersburg, Kursk, Kaluga, Yekaterinburg, Sochi, Sevastopol, and in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade.
  • In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Prince Alexey, and Princesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as New Martyrs for Christ.
The Sainted Romanovs

The Romanov dynasty is still highly respected around the world, and loved by the Russian people. The Bolsheviks fell. So, in the end, we could say the Romanovs gained victory over the Devil. (Or Joseph Stalin.)

Happy Birthday Anastasia! You brought love, vitality and a little mischief to your country, and you will never be forgotten.

Astrid Kirchherr, Photographer, Phenomenon, Friend to the Beatles

She Came in Thru the Bathroom Window

Clad in all black with a pixie haircut and a camera in tow, she was probably the coolest chick ever to walk in to the Kaiserkeller in 1960’s Hamburg. She was a German photographer, the first to do a formal shoot with the Beatles, and largely responsible for what later became their world-wide “image.” She was a practitioner of Sartre’s Existentialism, an art student, and as it turned out, a great cook. She lured Lennon, mesmerized McCartney, hypnotized Harrison, and later became engaged to then-band-member Stuart Sutcliffe.

 Astrid Kirchherr was born on this day, May 20, 1938, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father worked for the German branch of the Ford Motor Company and her mother was a homemaker. Like all European children during World War II, Astrid witnessed its atrocities. During the bombings of Hamburg, her family evacuated to the Baltic Sea, where Astrid remembered seeing dead bodies washed up on the shoreline. It was perhaps this knowledge of the frailty of life that later attracted her to Existentialism.

John Paul Sartre, John Paul & George

The Existential crowd believed in “life defined by one’s experience.” Nowadays this sounds pretty obvious, but up until around the 19th century, people believed more in Plato’s philosophy of “Essentialism”. In brief, Essentialism says that we are given “essence” at birth, a role defined for us — assigned by god, society, or institutions. Existentialism posits that we must “create our own essence”, defined by ourselves and our experiences.

In practice, being an Existentialist meant Astrid was running with the cool kids. Those that dressed in black, smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses at night. John Lennon dubbed them “The Exis”. If America had its Beatniks, Europe had its Exis. (I attribute both groups to the dire consequences of WWII and society’s questioning the meaning of life. )

According to Astrid, they were “trying to be French.” (Germany got a terrible backlash after the War. France was considered a more fashionable place.)

Klaus Voorman, Astrid and Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960

 Astrid studied fashion design and photography at Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung, a school in Hamburg. She later worked as an assistant to photographer Reinhard Wolf.  

Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, John Lennon, also an art student, was gathering his musicians. The very early Beatles consisted of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and John’s friend, fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe. Although Sutcliffe could not play an instrument, John wanted him in because of the way he looked – a cute boy with great cheekbones who could rock a leather jacket. “He looks good, that’s all that matters,” John would say.

Stuart reportedly had no interest in being in a band, but John convinced him to do it. Astrid would later say, “John Lennon could convince anybody to do anything.”

Astrid’s photo of John. Stuart in the background

When the chance came for the Beatles to play in Hamburg – a city ravaged by war and considered the seediest place in Germany, rampant with drugs and prostitution – the boys jumped at the chance. Paul’s dad and John’s Aunt Mimi were reluctant to let them go. John somehow convinced the adults that the money they would make would surely be worth the risk.

It’s Only Rock & Roll

In Hamburg, Astrid’s then-boyfriend Klaus Voorman, also an artist, was living with the Kirchherr family. The story goes that one night, Astrid and Klaus got in a fight. Klaus stormed out of the house and found himself wandering through the Reeperbahn – the city’s red light district, which was by far the sleaziest section of already sleazy Hamburg. Klaus stepped into a bar called the Kaiserkeller. There, he heard the most amazing music, being played by the most amazing band. Forgetting all about the argument, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Astrid about his discovery.

It took Klaus three days to convince Astrid to go to the Kaiserkeller. For one thing, she wasn’t eager to mix among the Reeperbahn’s prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. For another thing, she had never even heard of Rock & Roll music. It was true — the Existentialist crowd that Klaus and Astrid ran with were into jazz and classical. A sedate coffee house would have been more her style than the sweaty, beer drenched Kaiserkeller. Nonetheless, Astrid was finally persuaded.

Astrid said, “When I walked down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed at how beautiful these boys looked… It was a photographer’s dream. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic.”

L to R, John, George, Pete Best, Paul, and Stuart Sutcliffe at Kaiserkeller

Astrid went to see them every night. When she asked – in very broken English – if she could photograph them, the guys eagerly agreed. As a new band, they had never been photographed except for some amateur snapshots. Astrid had the idea to take them to a deserted fair grounds. There she used a lorry truck and open fields as the background. She produced photographs that critics still consider as some of the most sensitive ever taken of the Beatles, showing both their toughness and vulnerability.

L to R, Pete Best, George, John, Paul, Stuart

Astrid was not only their photographer, she became a great friend, too. She often brought the guys to her mother’s house and cooked for them, thus relieving them from their Kaiserkeller diet of beer and amphetamines.

He Got Hair

Down

to His Knees…

Of course, no one really had hair down to his knees, but in an age of buzz-cuts and conservative short hair, the Beatles few extra inches were considered an outrage. Astrid was partly responsible.

Having studied fashion design, Astrid was hip to innovative trends. She is credited with changing the band’s clothing and hairstyles. Leather jackets were swapped for turtlenecks and Nehru collars. Brylcream and ducktails were replaced with the mop top.

Astrid is famously attributed with styling the band’s hair. It was actually Klaus Voorman’s hair she styled first. According to Astrid, “Klaus was the most beautiful boy the world had ever seen, but he had these big, sticking out ears. I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.”

Klaus Voornan with Astrid’s haircut

Stuart saw the haircut, liked it, and asked Astrid to do his hair the same way. Months later, George followed suit. John and Paul stubbornly kept their rockabilly ‘doos, but then on a trip to Paris they were convinced to try longer hair. Tellingly, Pete Best never got the haircut. He left the band soon after. Enter new drummer Ringo, who was game. By the time they hit the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, all four Beatles were wearing the mop top as if they had invented it themselves.

You might be wondering what happened to Stuart Sutcliffe. His story is the most tragic of all.

Would You Believe in a Love at First Sight?

In a 2010 interview, Astrid said, “Maybe it sounds sentimental, but when I saw Stuart for the first time, I knew: That was my man. He was then, and still is, the love of my life.”

Astrid and Stuart

Stuart felt the same about her. He wrote of their first meeting “I could hardly take my eyes off her.” Stuart claimed he tried to talk to her during the break but much to his dismay, she had already left. Luckily, she came back the next night.

Klaus Voorman, realizing you can’t stop true love and overactive hormones, graciously backed out of his relationship with Astrid. There was apparently no jealousy. Klaus and Astrid remained good friends all the way till her death in 2020. (Klaus, a talented artist, maintained his relationship with the Beatles. He did a lot of artwork for them including the Revolver album cover, which was a masterpiece.)

After the gigs at Kaiserkeller were finished, Stuart quit the Beatles, moved in with Astrid, got engaged to her and pursued his painting. They should have lived happily ever after, a perfect couple in a perfect world.

Sadly, that was not to be.

“I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead”

Stuart began to suffer severe headaches and weakness in early 1962. In February he collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Astrid’s mother had German doctors come to examine him, but they were unable to determine the cause of his illness. The condition got worse and Stuart’s health deteriorated. On April 10, 1962, Stuart collapsed in the Kirchherr’s kitchen. Astrid’s mother, in a panic, phoned Astrid at work and called an ambulance. Astrid hurried home, arriving in time to ride in the ambulance with Stuart. He died in her arms on the way to the hospital.  He was only twenty-two years old. The cause of his death was most likely a brain tumor.

Astrid went on to work as a freelance photographer. In 1964, she and her colleague Max Scheler took “behind the scenes” photographs of the Beatles during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night as an assignment for the German magazine Stern. She published numerous collections of work, including a volume of the Beatles called Hamburg Days and another called Liverpool Days and her last, When We Was Fab, published in 2007.

George, John and Stuart and Hamburg Fairgrounds

Astrid never got over Stuart. She married twice, divorced twice, and never had any children. She once said, “Many people say their prayers at night, praying to god. I say my prayers too, but I pray to Stuart.”

Spoken like a true Existentialist.

Astrid Kirchherr died of “a short but severe illness” in 2020 at age eighty-one.

I like to think she has finally been reunited with Stuart.

A Beltane Tale Podcast

Twas a time of dancing and daring and drinking of elderflower wine;
of bewitchings and hauntings and faeries and all things divine.”

With the feast of Beltane nearly upon us, I am thrilled to announce that my story “A Beltane Tale” has been featured in Housecraft – The Witching Hour’s podcast!

TUNE IN ANYWHERE YOU GET PODCASTS OR HERE:

Many thanks to the ladies of Housecraft for choosing my story, and much gratitude to producer Kate for your oh-so beautiful reading of the tale.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic fire festival, celebrated on or around May 1st. For those of you who are not familiar — fear not! The Mothers of Mayhem will take you through every aspect. (Warning: adult content. Not for kids.) This festival is all about sex and the Witchy Ladies get a bit spicy. So listen at your own risk! 🙂

Robin Hood and Maid Marian: What happens in the forest, STAYS in the forest.

Tune in anywhere you get podcasts or HERE:

Have a Blessed Beltane!

“The Maypole” 1899 by Clarence H. White

Remembering Virginia Woolf

She was an author, essayist, critic, a thought-provoking feminist and literary pioneer. She is most famous for her novels Mrs. Dolloway and To The Lighthouse. She is considered one of the most important modernist writers of the 20th century and among the first to use stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

** CAUTION! TRIGGER WARNING!!! ** The following essay contains references to suicide and sexual abuse.

Virginia Woolf died on this day. March 28, 1941, by suicide. After writing a note to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she walked to the nearby River Ouse, filled her pockets with heavy stones, then walked into the water and drowned. Her suicide note reads:

“Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

What led to the suicide? What was the terrible disease, and what caused the voices in her head? To answer these questions, I did some sleuthing into Virginia Woolf’s life.

Virginia Woolf (Adeline Virginia Stephen) was born on January 25, 1882, into an affluent household in South Kensington, London. She was the seventh child in a blended family. Her mother, Julia (Jackson Duckworth) Stephen had three children from her previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth, who had died. These children were: George (age fourteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) Stella (age thirteen at the time of Virginia’s birth) and Gerald (age twelve at the time). Her father, Leslie Stephen, had a daughter named Laura, from his previous wife Harriet Thackaray who died in childbirth. Julia and Leslie then had four children of their own: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia and Adrian. The Stephen family had many artistic and literary members, including famous Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Virginia’s great aunt.

Virginia playing cricket with Vanessa 1894
Virginia with sister Vanessa in 1894

Death, Depression and Devastation

Virginia was home schooled. She learned English Classics and Victorian Literature, Mathematics and Science. The family spent summers in Cornwall, which later became a great influence on her writing. The Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall was the inspiration for her novel To The Lighthouse.

Virginia’s childhood might seem idyllic, but there was darkness lurking in the corners. In 1895, her mother died of influenza. Julia was just thirteen years old and the death shattered her. (Virginia’s half brothers George and Gerald would have been twenty-seven and twenty-five, respectively.) She sank into a severe depression, which was to be the first of many. Just two years later, her half sister Stella (who had been a mother figure to Virginia) also died. This too was a devastating blow that really affected Virginia.

Vanessa, Stella and Virginia, circa 1897

Despite her depression and grieving, in 1897 Virginia enrolled in the Women’s Department of King’s College, London. She studied there for four years. It was there she came in contact with early reformers of the women’s right’s movement, which would later influence her writing as well.

In 1904, Virginia’s father died. She was then said to suffer a “full blown nervous breakdown” and was hospitalized. These three family deaths no doubt affected Virginia’s mental state for the rest of her life. Some historians believed she may have suffered from bi-polar disorder (although at the time psychology did not yet have a name for it.)

Bohemian Rhapsody

After the death of their father, the four Stephens siblings (now all twenty-somethings) moved to Bloomsbury, known as the “Bohemian” section of London. They lived independently of George and Gerald Duckworth. Or perhaps, more accurately, Virginia had finally escaped cruel treatment from her half-brothers… Something sinister had been going on in Virginia’s childhood home. She would hint at it later in her autobiographical writings.

Fortunately, the four siblings were wealthy and had a lot of time to paint, write, entertain, and engage in artistic pursuits. They began hosting weekly gatherings of what were considered “radical” young people. These avant-garde parties and the people attending them came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Participants included art critic Clive Bell (who Virginia’s sister Vanessa would later marry) writer Lytton Strachey, and economist John Maynard Keyes. The irreverent and sometimes bawdy gatherings encouraged Virginia to speak out and exercise her sharp wit (which was still rather frowned upon in Victorian circles.)

Some Bloomsbury members
The Bloomsbury Group, early 1900s

Through her Bloomsbury friends, Virginia became interested in radical new art forms such as Surrealism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. The artwork would later influence her writing. She claimed she wanted to write in a language that was “some kind of whole, made of shivering fragments,” and could capture “the flight of the mind.”

But what was actually going on in Virginia’s mind? What kind of flight was taking place, and why?

Left Duncan Grant - Portrait of Vanessa Bell Right Vanessa Bell - Flowers
Left, a portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1917 by Duncan Grant. Right “flowers” by Vanessa Bell

Virginia began writing critical reviews of literature for the Times Literary Supplement and other journals. She never used her real name, and instead signed her reviews as “Anonymous”. Interestingly later in her book A Room of One’s Own, she would claim “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

It was during this time that Virginia got the idea to “re-form” the standard novel. She wanted to create a “holistic” form embracing “aspects of life that were fugitive from the Victorian novel.” She attempted to write such a novel, and it would later be published as The Voyage Out, the tale of a sheltered young woman who embarks on an excursion to South America and is introduced to freedom and sexuality.

Marriage, Demons and More Death

Through the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia became acquainted with, and fell in love with, Leonard Woolf, a writer and political activist. They married in August, 1912.

Shortly after, Virginia began to have bouts of severe depression. She was plagued with irrational fears, and worried that she was a “failure as a writer and a woman.” She also believed her sister Vanessa hated her and that Leonard did not love her. These obsessions provoked a suicide attempt in September 1913.

What followed was an extremely productive period. The Woolfs bought their own printing press and published books, including the works of T.S. Elliot and Sigmund Freud, from their basement. Between 1924 and 1940, Virginia wrote her most popular novels including To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dolloway, and Orlando.

Yet her demons were never far behind. During the thirty years of her marriage, Virginia continued to see a variety of doctors and mental health professionals for her illnesses. Reportedly, she made several more suicide attempts during this time. She suffered from hallucinations, as well as periods of both mania and depression.

Virginia tried various psychiatric treatments, but nothing worked. One of these treatments even involved pulling several of her teeth out — it was believed at the time that mental illness was associated with dental infection! It must have been a living hell. In her diaries and letters, Woolf provided a vivid picture of her symptoms and how she tried to reconcile them.  “But it is always a question whether I wish to avoid these glooms… These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters… One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth.”  

For Virginia, writing was actually a therapy that helped her cope with her mental illness.  “The only way I keep afloat… is by working… Directly (when) I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual, I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.

What was this horrible “truth” she kept referring to?

Sinking under water was Woolf’s metaphor for both the effects of depression and psychosis— but also for finding truth. Ironically, it was through drowning that she ultimately ended her own life.

Surrealist photography, Siegert Collection

Was There More to the Story?

More recent biographers have pointed out that Virginia’s mental illnesses may have been caused by childhood sexual abuse. Her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, states that Virginia’s nervous breakdowns and recurring depressive periods were a result of this abuse. Allegedly, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were continually molested by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth.

Is it true?

It is entirely plausible.

In her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and “22 Hyde Park Gate”, Virginia tells of George’s nighttime prowling, and even describes him as her first lover. She states: “The old ladies of Kensington and Belgravia never knew that George Duckworth was not only father and mother, brother and sister to those poor Stephen girls; he was their lover also.”

In the veiled world of Victorian sensibilities, Woolf may have not had the courage to write about the abuse specifically.

Biographers have pointed out that when Stella died in 1897, there was no no one left to control George’s torment of his young sisters. This would explain Virginia’s severe depression and breakdown after the deaths of Stella and her mother.

According to Virginia Woolf’s History of Sexual Victimization: A Case Study in Light of Current Research by Lucia C. A. Williams, Department of Psychology, Federal University of São Carlos, São Carlos, Brazil:

Virginia Woolf was “an incest survivor” (DeSalvo, 1990: p. 1). She was sexually abused by her two older half brothers George and Gerald Duckworth, according to her own testimony. DeSalvo (1989) characterizes the abuse reported by Woolf as being “extremely traumatic”, and identifies variables which may be categorized in this case study as the following risk factors: 1) “she was abused when young” (p. 8); 2) the abuse had long duration (it started when Woolf was about six or seven, and only stopped when she was 24); 3) “it probably involved many incidents” (p. 8); 4) the abuse was perpetrated by close trusted members of the family, that is, it was incestuous in nature; 5) there was more than one perpetrator; and 6) “another member of the family was also abused” (p. 8), referring to Woolf’s sister Vanessa.

You can read the report for yourself HERE https://file.scirp.org/pdf/PSYCH_2014081809564684.pdf

It does seem highly unlikely that Virginia Woolf would use such terms to describe her brother if incest had not taken place. And it certainly would explain her mental illness. I also wonder why more hasn’t been written about this.

What we know for sure is Virginia Woolf was an accomplished writer, a trail blazer, a woman of many talents and a literary innovator. We honor her on this day, the anniversary of her tragic death.

I will leave you with this telling quote:

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.

— Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Wings & Fire, Our New Horror Anthology, Hits Number One!

Wings & Fire: A horror anthology with 23 stories from 15 authors (The Box Under The Bed Book 5) by [Dan Alatorre, Roberta Eaton Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Allison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Heather Kindt, Susan Lamb, Geoff LePard, Marjorie Mallon, Adele Marie Park, Alana Turner, Betty Valentine, Christine Valentor]

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you may know that I write for the BOX UNDER THE BED horror series. We have, to date, released five books, all of which I am very proud. Our latest release, WINGS & FIRE came out on December 31. I am ecstatic to announce that this week, our book hit the Number 1 slot on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” page!!

WINGS & FIRE features 24 all-new, creepy, scary stories by 16 authors. (Two by me!) Other contributors include best-selling authors Dan Alatorre, Roberta Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Alison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Geoff LePard, and more!

“From the creators of the #1 bestselling horror anthology THE BOX UNDER THE BED and its #1 bestselling sequels DARK VISIONS, NIGHTMARELAND and SPELLBOUND comes WINGS & FIRE, a horror anthology with 24 stories from 16 authors.”

Two high school girls discover an old book with strange powers that causes strange things to happen. As they learn more, they realize the book may be a link to a mystical world and the people who “reside” there.

What follows is a trip into eerie places full of madness and murder, where readers encounter all things horrifying, hellish and haunting. Expect blood drinking, strange spells, love obsessions with the dead, battles of good vs. evil, and some dark, inexplicable events of real life history.

If you like my blog, you will love my horror stories! Copies available on Amazon.

And for those that can’t get enough of the macabre, please check out our previous release, SPELLBOUND, full of all-new, weird and wonderful witchy tales…

Happy Birthday Charles Perrault!

He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.

Primed For Politics

Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.

He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.

Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.

Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.

Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.

Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.

Dangerous Liaisons

In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.

Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem,  Le Siècle de Louis le Grand  (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.

Father of Fairy Tales

Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).

Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.

Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.

Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.

Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.

Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats

One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)

Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”

In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)  

Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.

In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)

Happily Ever After

Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.

Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!

Who Says Reindeer Can’t Fly?

Image

To be fair, I think this animal might be a moose. (But I like to think it is a flying reindeer.)

Pic found on twitter, I have no idea of its origin. It may be photoshopped, but it sure looks real to me! Someone claimed that the moose, deer and other animals of the region have learned to take “flying leaps” over the road so they will not be hit by cars. Sounds plausible.

Better safe than sorry.

Have a magical Christmas and a fantastic Holiday Season 🙂

Winter Solstice: The Mystery of Newgrange

Imagine an ancient monument, built 1000 years before the Egyptian Pyramids and a few hundred years before Stonehenge, by prehistoric peoples who had not yet invented paper or measuring tools.

Imagine further, that this monument was engineered with such precision that the light of the sun can only enter its inner chamber on one specific day of the year — that is, the Winter Solstice.

Strange but true. This is the phenomenon of Newgrange.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today, December 21, marks the longest night and also the return of the Sun in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently, our ancestors knew the patterns of the sun very well, and had them in mind when they built this fantastic structure.

A Site for Sore Eyes

Newgrange is a Neolithic tomb, located in Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland. It consists of a large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones. Grass grows on top of it. Some historians have suggested it resembles a womb. The mound measures 76 meters (249 feet) across and 12 meters (39 feet) high. It covers 4,500 square meters (1.1 acres) of ground. Within the mound is a chambered passage, that stretches for 19 meters (60 feet), about a third of the way into the center. At the end of the passage are three small chambers and a larger central chamber with an arched roof.

It is huge! To get some perspective, take a look at this photo, with tourists.

The stones used for its construction were not just any old stones. Rather, they came from places far off, and it seems a great deal of thought and effort went into the choice of them. Some boulders were brought from the Wicklow Mountains — approximately 70 miles (113.9 km) south of the site. Others were brought from the Slieve Croob Mountains — 67 miles (107 km) to the north. Still others were brought from the Mourne Mountains, 59 miles (94 km) away. Whoever built the monument would have needed to locate and choose the specific rocks, then move them from the far off mountains, most likely via the Irish Sea, and then transport them inland to Bru na Boinne. Not an easy task.

And these boulders were not lightweight!

According to Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, who began excavation of Newgrange in 1962, “there are 97 kerb stones, none weighing less than a ton, and some weighing considerably more”. The whole of Newgrange contains “about 200,000 tons of stone” total. Gigantic boulders were placed at the entranceways and at the curbs. Interestingly, they were carved and decorated with spirals and various art, which are interpreted as ancient Druidic symbols.

The House of the Rising Sun

The innermost burial chamber of Newgrange was engineered so that no light can reach it, except on Winter Solstice. On that day alone, a single sunbeam penetrates the passageway thru a special “roof box”, constructed specifically for this event. It was Professor O’Kelly who discovered this in 1967.

Back in the 1960’s, the phenomenon of the Winter Solstice at Newgrange was not widely known. In fact, it had been reduced to gossip by some of the locals.

During the early excavation, these locals would tell Professor O’Kelly of a tradition, that the rising sun, at some “unspecified time”, would light up the triple spiral stone in the end recess of the chamber. No one had actually witnessed this, but it continued to be a strong legend, and one that greatly interested the Professor. In 1967 he decided to find out for himself if it was true.

The Professor reasoned that, due to a southeast orientation of the sun at Winter Solstice, and the positioning of the sun in relation to a special “roof portal” in the monument, the “unspecified time” of light just might be on this day.

Some minutes before sunrise on the 21st of December, 1967, Professor O’Kelly stood alone in the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange, wondering what would happen. To his amazement, minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily brighter and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage. O’ Kelly wrote of this beam “lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six meters above the floor – were all clearly illuminated”.

Needless to say, the Professor was in awe. According to ancient legends, Dagda, the sun god, had actually built the tomb.

Upon witnessing the beautiful passing of the sunbeams, O’Kelly began to wonder if this was true. He stood rigid and transfixed. Professor O’Kelly continued his excavation and observations. At Winter Solstice, 1969, he wrote:

“Between the bright sky and the long glittering silver ribbon of the Boyne the land looks black and featureless. Great flocks of starlings are flying across the sky from their night time roosts to their day time feeding places. The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can even see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back in to the back of the end chamber.”

History and Mystery

The whole phenomenon is really amazing, when you consider the circumstances. As I stated before, Newgrange was built in 3200 BCE. It predates the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. They were not writing on paper, they were not planning things architecturally. As far as we know, they had no telescopes of space rockets. If you look at the size and precision of the monument, you will see that even today, with U-haul trucks and modern tools, it would be hard to build! Plus they would need to have a sophisticated understanding of the earth’s movement, which, even today, is difficult for NASA!

So this begs the question: Who built Newgrange?

I don’t believe for one minute that ordinary humans built this thing, not to mention rubes running around in loincloths who had no way to measure the galaxy. (Doesn’t it seem seriously IMPOSSIBLE?)

So who?

Were they some sort of alien race? Were they gods, goddesses, or the faeries? Were they super-humans? (Even the Bible speaks of giants, and men who lived to be hundreds of years old.) And if so, what happened to our human race? Was it somehow diminished?

Well, the history of Newgrange has always remained strong within Irish mythology. The place is steeped in magic and legend. The Tuatha de Danaan (tribe of the goddess Dana), were said to have built it. This ancient faerie race had supernatural powers, and we assume they’d have little trouble moving 200,000 tons of stone down from mountains.

Newgrange is believed to be a burial site, and indeed, human bones have been discovered within it. But it was not an ordinary mausoleum. It is thought to be the tomb of the chieftains and Irish kings, the great Dagda Mor, his son Oengus of the Brugh, and the great god Lugh of the long arm, father of the hero Cuchulain. One myth claims that Cuchulainn was conceived at Newgrange, when Lugh astro-traveled and “visited” the maiden Dechtine in a dream while she slept there.

(The god Lugh was quite a character. It would not surprise me if he had a hand in the construction. He was very powerful and popular. For more about Lugh, read https://witchlike.wordpress.com/category/lugh/)

Newgrange was imbued with magical properties. It was said the site could produce endless quantities of food and drink, especially ale and pork. One legend states that two pigs would come forth from the chambers, one living and the other already dressed, cooked, and ready to be eaten.

Suppression and Repression

You might be wondering, as I did, why it took so long to excavate this monument. The thing was built some 5200 years ago, yet they waited until the 20th century to explore it.

It seems the site was forgotten and nearly abandoned through suppression, repression, and prejudice. Irish language, literature and mythology were nearly lost under English rule. The Norman Invasion of 1169 CE brought the English to Ireland, and their control over the people became increasingly oppressive. The great mound of Newgrange, along with other ancient monuments, stone circles, myths, legends and Irish culture in general, were neglected. The people of Ireland suffered greatly, and in fact, did not begin to liberate themselves until the 20th century, with the rise of the Irish Republic.

However, in 1699, a Welsh scholar by the name of Edward Lhwyd was making a tour of Ireland. He heard of the tomb and became interested. Other scholars followed. Throughout the 18th century the site was visited by a number of explorers who speculated about its origin and purposes. In 1882 the monument was taken under care of the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the Ancient Monuments Protection Act and conservation efforts were initiated.

Professor O’Kelly’s work began in 1962 and lasted until 1973. In 1993, Newgrange was designated a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. Before Covid, people could visit Newgrange through the Bru na Boinne Visitor’s Center. It attracted approximately 200,000 tourists each year. Because so many folks wanted to see the Solstice sunrise, a lottery was held. Each year they had thousands of applicants.

Fortunately (for us, anyway) because Covid prevented anyone from attending Winter Solstice this year, the stewards decided to give the world a live stream! If you are curious about the miracle of Newgrange, watch below. And if you have any ideas about who built Newgrange, let me know in the comments!