Saturday, June 13, 2015

Great Britain Trip: Part 3 - Mysteries of London

Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.

The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.

This travelogue is broken into seven sections

Rule Britannia!

Archaeology of Empire

Mysteries of London

Time in Bath

A Green and Magical Land

Investigating Inverness

The Legend of Loch Ness

Mysteries of London

The objects in London’s museums are not simply seen as evidence of the past, or aesthetically pleasing objects to be admired. Quite a few make up the visual vocabulary of the esoteric or spooky. One of the themes I am addressing in my writing is how the nature of antiquities the practices of museums lend themselves to the mysterious and supernatural, a theme I've addressed previously.

The object above, known as the Burney Relief, has transgressed any historical or original cultural context to become our modern image of Lilith. As the first woman before Eve in Jewish lore, the woman who would not submit to Adam, Lilith has been (sometimes quite irresponsibly) cast as a demon, a succubus, a vampire, and alternatively as a symbol of female power and independence. Most scholars do not believe the relief is in fact a representation of a Babylonian lilitu demon or Lilith, but possibly a goddess, either Inanna or Ereshkigal. Yet the prior identification as Lilith, combined with the clawed feet and the owls, powerful symbols of night and mystery, makes this a Western occult icon.

Likewise, the Egyptian Eye of Horus or wadjet amulets at the top of this post, as seen in the British museum, have long been associated with magical protection. Yet with the Victorian and Edwardian fascination with Egypt as a place of ancient and Hermetic magic, this symbol too has taken on a meaning of the exotic and mysterious.

The first night I was in London, I attended a lecture at Treadwell’s book shop, near the British Museum, on this topic. Eleanor Dobson, a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham, presented some of her work on “Egyptomania’s Magical Jewels,” focusing on how archaeology, art, literature, and occultism all combined to create the notion of the magical Egyptian artifact in the works of authors such as Bram Stoker, H. Rider Haggard, Oscar Wilde, H. P. Lovecraft, and others (a talk on somewhat similar topics can be found here). I look forward to reading her dissertation in the future.

Treadwell’s was the first of a number of occult and esoteric booksellers, shops, and other establishments I visited during my journey (I warned my readers that things were going to go this way after the first couple of posts, see the rest of this blog if this surprises you). A relative newcomer on the block, it joins a long tradition of occult locations around the British Museum. The original Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn isn’t far from Treadwell’s, and there are some connections between the two (I won’t reveal what this is, you’ll have to visit to find out).

I also visited the nearby Atlantis Bookshop, another London icon of the magickal world that has been in the same location since 1922, and was integral in the history of modern occultism and Neopaganism. That such practices and places would center around archaeological institutions like the British Museum and UCL are not surprising, a topic I’ll be addressing more in my upcoming book. Though I will admit I was surprised to stumble onto the Swedenborg Hall and Library.

Visiting London’s art and archaeological museums, objects evocative of mystery and the esoteric kept catching my eye.

Some are products of modern mystical concerns. The most famous of the “crystal skulls,” the Mitchell-Hedges skull, was procured in London. I will be able to discuss this more in the future, but one of my research activities during this trip was related to it.

The second most famous of these spurious Mesoamerican objects is the British Museum skull, depicted above. Despite the self-made lore of the Mitchell-Hedges family that their skull was discovered somewhere in Mesoamerica, most commonly asserted as being from Lubantuun, both of these sculptures were profiled in the British Museum’s journal Man in 1936. In 1933 London art dealer Sydney Burney said he had obtained it from another collector. Yes, this is the same Burney that acquired the Lilith/Inanna/Ereshkigal plaque above. Mysteries upon mysteries. The Man article compared Burney’s crystal skull (now known as the Mitchell-Hedges skull) with the example on display in the British Museum. Mitchell-Hedges purchased the Burney skull after it went up for auction in 1943. More recent analysis of the British Museum skull has found evidence of industrial-era rotary tools used to shape the object, and historical research suggests these objects passed through the hands of archaeological entrepreneur and enthusiast Eugène Boban. These historical and scientific analyses are highlighted in the British Museum exhibit of the skull, located in a corner of the exhibit on Life and Death. Nonetheless they are still icons of esoteric mystery, pseudoarchaeology, and magic.

The crystal ball aspect of these skulls likely accounts for some of their enduring appeal, and indeed they supposedly provide mystical experiences to those who gaze into them. The British Museum has even more influential scrying stones in its public exhibits. The image above is a collection of the magical working tools of John Dee, court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, important bibliophile, rumored spy for England, and seeker of the Philosopher’s Stone. Dee partnered with seer Edward Kelley, who would stare for hours into the mirrors and crystal balls owned by Dee in order to contact spirits. These alchemical and occult experiments led Dee to believe he was contacting angels in their language of Enochian. Eventually Dee and Kelley followed their pursuits to the Continent, leaving a mob to destroy Dee’s wonderfully named estate at Mortlake, which held one of the world’s largest libraries at the time.

One object stands out, however. The large black mirror, described in its older label above as a “black stone,” is in fact a Mesoamerican obsidian mirror. Mirrors were important magical objects in Mesoamerica as in Europe. Mirroring (so to speak) Dee’s dual role as court advisor and magician, one of the most important gods in Mesoamerica was a god of sorcery and royalty who went by names such as Tezcatlipoca or K’awiil and was the Smoking Mirror. His forehead or foot was depicted as a mirror issuing smoke (his foot was also sometimes a snake, also a symbol equally spooky and royal around the world). Maya nobility who had passed into the otherworld at death were likewise depicted with a smoking mirror in their forehead. Kelley and Dee’s use of a Mesoamerican mirror to contact otherworldly spirits in what some would likely call necromancy, isn’t all that far off the original intended use of such objects. 

Alongside Dee’s ritual tools, the British Museum displays a number of other magical charms and amulets. My favorite is a prehistoric stone projectile point mounted as “elf shot.” The elves and other spirits of medieval and modern Europe are not the aristocratic and attractive creatures of Victorian literature or modern fantasy as much as they were tricky and dangerous entities at times sharing more in common with demons than Santa’s helpers or noble warriors of Rivendell. Elves were tied up in fears of witchcraft, and those who had become inexplicably ill were sometimes believed to have been “elf-shot” or “blasted,” pierced by arrows fired from the wood by elves. Fans of Middle-Earth will recognize Tolkien’s adaptation of this concept in “Morgul” weapons that poison those struck by them, unless they are cured with elf magic. Curers would incorporate elf-shot into remedies for this condition, objects we today recognize as ancient stone tools or fossils, a practice documented in early modern witch trial testimony. Echinoderm star stones have long been attractive as magical objects, though the display in the Museum shows a “tongue-stone,” a fossil shark tooth, and this was one of several such exhibits I saw in London’s museums.

Belief in magically dangerous or cursed objects is not relegated to past eras. As noted in its caption

this amethyst from the “Vault” in the geological collection of the Natural History Museum was bound (a very sorcerous word) in the ring of an astrologer because its owner, a scientist, was concerned about it being cursed.

Even holy objects can take on a sinister cast in the appropriate light. The above is a silver reliquary from 13th century Belgium designed to house the hand of a saint. It is indeed beautiful but yes, those are glass windows allowing one to peer inside to see the decaying hand. Not creepy in the slightest.

With all of this in mind, I decided in the latter part of one day to take a more touristy excursion into another famous aspect of London’s image: the fog-shrouded home of Victorian mystery. At the same time, these places also challenge the differences between fiction, legend, and historical fact and reconstruction in interesting ways of relevance to my work.

The window above is, as you should have guessed, on Baker Street. The problem of course is that there was no apartment of 221B Baker Street, and certainly not one rented by either Mr. Sherlock Holmes or Dr. John Watson, as they did not exist. But they are some of London’s most famous residents, their legacy only continuing to grow in the 21st century. If you don’t believe me, ask some of the people who were in line in front and behind me when I visited Baker Street

Sherlock Holmes is not only the most influential literary character in how we think about concepts of mystery, detection, and logic, he is also the first character to truly challenge the boundaries of fiction and fact in the modern era. As discussed in the video below by Michael Saler, author of the book As If, many readers of Holmes’ adventures didn’t realize, or didn’t want to believe, that Holmes wasn’t real, suspecting that Arthur Conan Doyle was simply the pen name or agent for John Watson.

And indeed, Doyle took great pains to ground Holmes in reality. He modeled the character after one of his medical school instructors, and spent considerable detail in describing Holmes’ mannerisms and his abode on Baker Street.

This is what has allowed for a detailed “reconstruction” of 221B, filled with a combination of objects described as being in the residence, and iconic objects from the more famous Holmes cases.

(all the stories are in public domain, so you don’t need me to explain the “V.R.” or the slipper)

In creating Holmes, Conan Doyle wanted to create a detective that showed how he worked out his solutions.

While most remembered for his brutal use of logic, Holmes was also a pioneer in forensic science, and much of 221B housed scientific equipment and reference works more fitting to the scientist than the beat cop or the later noir private investigator.

In Holmes we see the 20th century dream of science applied to everyday problems through the symbol of crime solving (I teach about this using Corinna Kruse’s article “Producing Absolute Truth: CSI Science as Wishful Thinking”).

Perhaps then it is no real surprise that the most famous of all of Holmes’ stories is not only supernatural in overtone, but also involves archaeology, as seen above in Watson’s journal entry during his time investigating the Baskerville affair.

Having whet my appetite on symbolism of mystery and the interplay of legend, fiction, and belief, I decided to round things out and take one of the several Jack the Ripper tours offered each night in the Whitechapel district of London. Note: the tour advertised above was not the one I took.

As I had experienced when I organized my own haunted and hidden history tour of the French Quarter for Tulane’s Anthropology Department, paranormal and dark tourism sites can be quite competitive. There were at least three different tours on offer that evening. Ours was distinguished by our guide not wearing any attempt at period costuming. As can be seen above, the guide of another tour wore a bowler, while yet another was led by a man in a full top hat and wool(?) great coat get up, matching the legendary image of the Ripper.

In the image above, located in front of Christ Church Spitalfields our guide tells us about the both the scene of one of the Ripper murders, and the history of the Ten Bells tavern both as part of the 1888 murders and as Ripper tourism site in subsequent decades. The Ten Bells is now a fashionable bar with a restaurant above it in a gentrified neighborhood.

Christ Church Spitalfields has become an icon of Ripperology in no small part due to the occult angle the case has taken since the 1970s. In these conspiracy theories, the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor become geomantic sites for Hermetic, Masonic, or other ritual practices that eventually involve the royal family and other well-to-dos (amazing I’ve never heard an explicit mention of the Reptilians in discussion of Jack the Ripper).

These theories were clearly on the minds of my fellow tourists. The guide had a prepared section of his lesson plan on the topic, but was pre-empted by audience questions on the subject.

I’m not going to lie: while I don’t believe these theories, it was Alan Moore’s masterful use of them in the graphic novel From Hell that ultimately pushed me to go on a Ripper tour. I strongly recommend the book, and am re-reading for the first time in almost fifteen years, now that I’ve visited Whitechapel. The epilogue alone is worth the price of admission.

You may have noticed that the pictures are fairly well-lit. This was partly due to the hour (the tour began at 7 PM, as did the others more or less), but the season didn’t help. As I would find out in Scotland, the northern latitude dramatically impacts the time of sunset in the summer.

More to the point, the legend overshadows the grisly reality. Our tour guide was quite good and on point with both the reality and the legend. He kept pointing out how our image of the legend, the mysterious gentleman doctor, the fog (there was no significant fog on the nights of the murders, btw) cannot match either the reality of 1888 or the reality of today. Some of the buildings are gone, the streets are of course cleaned up (the Ripper murders brought dramatic attention to the social conditions in the worst slums of Victorian London), and the skyscrapers of 21st century capital loom taller than any top hat. As a friend of mine put it, I had been served up a bit of my own skeptical and historically contextual medicine.

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