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!

Quiz: What Type of Ghost Are You?

“I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Halloween is almost upon us. The veils are thin and our thoughts often turn to the dearly departed, the occult, spirits and worlds unknown. Have you ever wondered what sort of ghost you would be in the afterlife? This completely unscientific, just for fun quiz will let you know!

Take the quiz here:

https://www.quotev.com/quiz/10064819/What-type-of-ghost-are-you

Let me know your results in the comments!

As for me…

Apparently I would be a Banshee.

“You are the Banshee. An Irish ghost known for crying or screaming to warn people of a death in their family.”

What’s in a Name? Mabon, Feast of Avalon and Others

Today, September 22, marks the second harvest festival in the northern hemisphere, usually called the Autumn Equinox. This is the balance between dark and light, the one day of the year when we have twelve hours each of daylight and night.

On the Wheel of the Year, this Sabbat is sometimes called Mabon. (And some folks adamantly argue that it should NOT be called Mabon.) I thought it would be fun to look at some of the names for this holiday, their origins, and help you choose one that resonates with you. So in case you don’t like Mabon, don’t worry! There are several alternatives.  

 The Mabinogian Make-Up

The name “Mabon” is not official, nor is it ancient. In fact, it has only been in the vernacular for about fifty years or so. Back in the 1970’s a writer named Aidan Keller came up with it. Apparently he found it in the Mabinogion Collection as he was searching for a myth that (sort of) corresponded to Persephone’s descent into the Underworld.

According to Keller, “It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday.”

In Celtic mythology there is also a god called “Maponus”. His name has been translated as “divine son”. Some ancient writings also address him as “Apollo Maponus” therefore identifying him with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. However, as a sun god, some folklorists argue he should have been associated with the Winter Solstice (return of the sun) rather that the Equinox. Which brings us to some other alternatives…

Mists of Avalon

The equinox is also known as the Feast of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon – also called the Isle of Apples — is the magic island of Arthurian legend. It is associated with Glastonbury, hidden beneath the mists and not visible to the human eye. King Arthur was taken there after his death. It was at Avalon that the enchantress Morgan La Fey, along with her eight sisters (Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton) healed Arthur and brought him back to life.

It is believed that Arthur will one day return again to be the future king of Great Britain.

The Isle of Avalon can definitely be associated with this time of year, as it relates to death, and all things in nature begin dying. Also, it is appropriate for its association with the apple harvest. The apple itself is a symbol of beauty, life, immortality and healing.

Did you know there is also a secret pentagram within the apple?

If you cut an apple in half, you will find five points. These represent the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether (or Spirit). They also represent the directions of East, West, North, South and Within.

Vikings

In Norse mythology, the Autumn Equinox is called Gleichentag, which means “Even Day”. The festival honors Sif, the Norse goddess of grain, for the harvest she has provided and also the god Thor, for his protection of the crops.

Sif is known as the Golden Goddess, named for her long golden hair. The Edda states that Loki, the trickster god, once deceived Sif by cutting off all her hair while she slept.

When she woke up, Sif was horrified to find herself bald. She immediately sent Loki to the Elves and he had them create a new head of hair. The new hair was magic and golden, the color of wheat. It gave Sif dominance over crops and the harvest.  

The Vikings knew winter was coming. The Even Day of light and dark was an important time to celebrate Sif’s bounty, and give thanks for all the food that had been stored for the upcoming cold season.  

Stab It With the Steely Knife…

In another Germanic/ Scandinavian tradition, the Autumn Equinox was called Haust Blot, meaning “Autumn sacrifice”. The first animal to be sacrificed was slaughtered on the equinox and eaten as a meal with the whole community.

This was a time to pray and thank the “landvaettir” – the spirits of the soils and land, for their bounty. People also prayed to the Elves and the goddess Freya, who worked along with the land spirits to keep the soil fertile.   

When people left the celebration, they lit their torches from the communal bonfire and took the flame home to light their own hearths. (This may or may not have been the inspiration of the modern day Olympic torch, but it sound pretty similar to me!)

Eastern Dreams

In Slavic tradition, the modern Autumn Equinox is called Dożynki, meaning “to reap”. It is currently celebrated in Poland and other Eastern European countries. Celebrations include dancing, feasting and parades.

Interestingly, Slavic folklore held the belief that the world was organized according to the oppositional, yet complementary cosmic duality of light and dark. This was expressed through the Belobog (“White God”) and the Chernobog (“Black God”). These deities collectively represented the  heavenly-masculine and earthly-feminine, and also the waxing and waning of light in relationship to seasons. Therefore, the equinox was an extremely important time.

 Villagers celebrated by baking a giant pancake made of wheat. It was believed that the larger the pancake, the better the harvest for next year was guaranteed to be. Grains of wheat were also woven into wreaths and decorated with flowers. The wreaths were a central part of the celebrations. They were stored over the winter and used in the spring as a gift to the land in exchange for good crops.   

There is a sketchy mythology around which deities were honored, but here are a few: Marzana, the rural goddess of winter and death (also personified as the witch Baba Yaga). Mokosh, the goddess of grain, earth, the harvest, and weaving. Uroda, the goddess of ploughed land, and Karna, the goddess of funerals.

Regardless of what we decide to call it, the Autumn Equinox is a sacred time. There are several ways you can celebrate.

  • Do some baking. It is a great time to bake an apple pie, bread or cookies. Maybe even try your hand at a giant pancake!
  • Go for a walk. The lovely colors of fall are just beginning and it is a great time to appreciate them.
  • Do some fall cleaning. It is said that the dark goddesses of autumn love a clean house! Welcome them, and prepare your home for hibernation.
  • Plant bulbs. They will have all winter to germinate, and give you something to look forward to when they bloom in spring.
  • Sip a hot tasty beverage such as apple cider, tea or hot chocolate as you take in the first chills and contemplate autumn.
  • Light a candle for your favorite deity. Use candles scented with apple, cinnamon, chestnut, or something rich and spicy to remind you of the harvest.

However you choose to celebrate, and whatever you choose to call it, have a blessed and happy Autumn Equinox!

Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

agatha-christie-young

She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Appreciating Black Cats

 

Cat, Domestic, Black, Animal, Pet, Cute, Cat Eyes, Eyes

“This was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”
― Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat

Have you hugged your black cat today? If not, you should. Today, August 17, is National Black Cat Appreciation Day!

And why (you may ask) do we need an appreciation day for black cats?

Well, they deserve it!  Look at the bad rap they have gotten over the ages. Lots of superstition has grown around them and left a dent in the collective consciousness. Some people are afraid of them to this day. People may, for example, avoid getting in the way of a black cat, believing them to be bad luck if they cross your path.

Black cats, however, were not always considered bad. In fact, in some cultures they were quite revered.

Spirits of Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians loved and worshiped black cats. This love came from a belief that black cats were associated with the gods. The Egyptian goddess Bast was known as the “cat goddess” and used black cats as symbols to represent her. She was often depicted as a goddess with a human body and the head of a cat.

Early Egyptians also prized cats because of  their great ability to eliminate rats, mice, and other unhealthy pests.  Having a cat meant a cleaner house, cleaner food, and all around better health. The Egyptians took their love of black cats seriously.  Killing a black cat in Ancient Egypt was a capital offense and the murderer would be put to death! (Sounds like a good law to me. Maybe we should bring it back..)

Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife, but they also believed their cats would come with them. When the Egyptian family cat died, he would be mummified and buried within the family tomb. The family would also take time to mourn his death.

Ah but this veneration of the black cat would not last! Egyptian civilization fell and so did the status of the beloved kitties. By the Middle Ages, our feline friends were acquiring their evil reputation. Many myths and legends contributed to this.

Black Magic Woman

One story that circulated around Europe told of a black cat running into the house of a witch. According to this legend, a father and son were walking across the road when they noticed the cat. Apparently, the two were not animal lovers, because they began pelting stones at the cat. Scared and defenseless, the kitty ran into a house that — according to the local gossips — was the home of a woman who did spell casting.

I’d say the cat was pretty smart, running away from two attackers.

According to the legend, the next day the father and son encountered the woman who lived in the house, and she was limping. Thus it was assumed that the witch had shape shifted to a black cat and received an injury from the rocks that were thrown at her.

The story spread and the long association of black cats and witchcraft became ingrained in folklore. Black cats were believed to be witches in disguise, witches’ pets, or even demons sent by witches to spy on humans.

This folklore actually took on a legal ramifications when the Catholic Church took issue with cats!

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX drew up a decree to condemn black cats as evil, satanic creatures. This led to a widespread extermination of black cats. They were killed in droves, drowned, burnt, fed poison and hung.

A Plague Upon Their Houses

Exterminating black cats was a really dumb thing to do, as later realized, because cats were a major force in killing off diseased rats that brought in the Black Plague. The great outbreak of the Black Death in the 14th century may have been in part due to this mass extermination of back cats. The Pope would have done much better to just leave the kitties to their work of killing vermin!

Because they were considered to be witches’ familiars, black cats  were often burned at the stake or hung, along with an accused witch. This practice remained in effect between the 13th-17th centuries when witch hunts were rampant.

Luckily, as witches, women and animals earned more rights, these superstitions faded as well. Most witchcraft laws were repealed by the 20th century, and animal rights groups have come to the rescue of cats.

To this day, black cats remain associated with Halloween, which can be a particular time of cruelty for them.  For this reason, many shelters prohibit the adoption of black cats in the month of October. (Please note, they are available all other months and make excellent pets!)

Lucky Charms

Black cats are known to be among the most affectionate and entertaining of felines. Besides that, there are plenty of good superstitions about black cats.

  • In England a black cat on a ship was considered lucky. Many sailors believed that a black cat could ensure a safe voyage and keep the ship from storms.

  • Pirates believed black cats could portend the future of their ship. For example, if the cat walked on and stayed on the ship, it meant good luck. But if the cat walked on and then off again, this was a bad sign that the ship would sink. (Hopefully the pirates baited the kitties with some tasty treats, like fresh fish, to make them stay!)

  • Wives of fishermen often kept black cats, as they were considered good luck charms to help the fishermen make a safe return home.
  • In Japan, black cats were symbols of financial fortune and prosperity.
  • In Scotland it was believed that women who owned black cats would have lots of male suitors.

So, you see, these clever felines really do deserve a day all to themselves, to help their human friends realize how great they are.

Jasper says, “Have a lovely Black Cat Appreciation Day! And be kind to a black cat.”

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