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Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Magic, Medicine, Nature, Plants, Superstition on Thursday, 9 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 248 published on 15 October 1966.
The Temple of Apollo where golden radishes were offered to the Greek god, by Ruggero Giovannini
Everyone knows that radishes are good to eat, but did you also know that they have the power to warn you if a witch should happen to be hiding in your chimney? We had never suspected it, until we read this sentence in an old English book: “a wild radish, uprooted with the proper incantations, has the power of revealing the whereabouts of witches.” Unfortunately, the author forgot to add “the proper incantations”. Very annoying, as we have always wanted to see a witch!
From another book, written about the same period, we learned that wearing a garland of flowering radish around one’s neck, would repel demons. Odd that the flowers should drive them away and a ripe radish tempt them out of their hiding places!
Although the radish has been cultivated for well over 4,000 years, its appearance has changed very little. Botanists do not agree on its native land. Some say China, while others insist on Western Asia as its birthplace.
They were cultivated in Egypt at the time of the earliest Pharaohs and esteemed highly because of the abundance of oil in the root. A variety of radish is cultivated today by the Egyptians for that very purpose.
Greece, however, gave radishes their highest honours. One Greek philosopher wrote an entire book about them and in their offerings to Apollo, the Greeks again demonstrated how highly the radish was regarded. It was their custom to present these gifts in the form of carvings, the metal chosen representing their ideas of the value of the plant. Turnips, for instance, were carved out of lead, beets from silver, but pure gold was chosen for the radish.
Few vegetables have had more extravagant claims made for their curative powers than this one. In fact, reading the long list, the radish seems to be able to cure almost every illness in life, the only drawback being that it was considered bad for the teeth. One physician wrote that you could handle poisonous serpents and scorpions safely, if you took the precaution of first rubbing your hands with radish juice, while another actually wrote that if you merely dipped a radish in a glass of poison, you could drink it and go happily away. We sincerely hope that none of his patients tried it.
A very charming legend about the radish has come down to us from Germany. The soul of the radish, so they said, was an evil spirit named Rubezahl, with a bad habit of taking what he wanted, regardless of other people’s rights. Rubezahl fell in love with a princess, kidnapped her and shut her away in a great tower, surrounded by miles of woods. The poor princess was very lonely and frightened and grew so thin and pale that Rubezahl worried for fear she would die. So he touched a radish with his magic wand and turned it into a cricket, first warning the princess that when the leaves of the radish began to wither, the cricket would die. The princess asked the cricket to find her lover and bring him to rescue her, so the cricket set out, chirping loudly as he hopped. Unfortunately, he could not find her lover before he died, but as he told every cricket he met and they told their friends, the story still lives. If you listen closely on a summer evening to the cricket’s song, you will hear all about the plight of the poor princess and the wicked radish, Rubezahl.
Posted in Actors, America, Bravery, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Magic, Theatre on Tuesday, 7 May 2013
This edited article about Houdini originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 245 published on 24 September 1966.
It was a typical mid-winter scene in the industrial city of Detroit. Snow lay thickly on the ground, more was falling, and the Detroit River was completely frozen over. It made a wonderful skating rink for grown-ups and children, and in that freezing temperature only a lunatic would think of breaking a hole in the ice and taking a pre-Christmas dip in the fast-flowing water.
Yet such a lunatic existed. What was even more incredible, he proposed jumping into the river, handcuffed, chained, and wearing heavy leg-irons.
The ‘lunatic’s’ name was Harry Houdini, a 32-year-old stage illusionist and escapologist, who was determined to become the most talked-about man in American show business. He had previously performed many controversial feats, but when he announced that he would leap manacled through an ice-hole, an unprecedented storm of protest broke out.
To the more sober-minded citizens of Detroit, it seemed sheer suicide. Some people asked the police to stop such wilful self-destruction. But the officers at the Police Department merely said that Mr. Houdini had borrowed two sets of their latest model handcuffs for his stunt, and they would be interested to see whether the self-styled ‘Handcuff King’ could slip them from his wrists.
Apart from appreciating the publicity, Houdini paid no attention to the arguments. To ready himself for the event, he trained in a bath filled with large pieces of ice and practised holding his breath until he almost fainted. Then, at Sunday lunchtime on 2nd December, 1906, he made his way to the Belle Isle Bridge in the heart of the city. He waved nonchalantly to the thousands of shivering spectators who lined the river banks, peered into the yawning hole, which had been specially cut into the ice, and jumped down through it.
As his head disappeared from sight, the crowd gasped – and waited for Houdini to reappear. Minutes passed, but there was no sign of him. After five minutes even the most optimistic of his supporters thought that he must surely be dead. When eight minutes had elapsed, the police were preparing to cut fresh holes in the surface, in the hope of recovering his body. It seemed that the Handcuff King had failed for the first time in a long and celebrated career.
Suddenly an arm was thrust through the hole, followed by Houdini’s head and shoulders. He was white-faced and struggling for breath. His aides rushed forward, hauled him from the water, and wrapped him in warm blankets. Then Houdini, miraculously free of all manacles, held his hands over his head like a champion boxer. A newspaper reporter hurried up to him, and asked how he had managed to keep alive. The escapologist grinned and said:
“It wasn’t so difficult. The current took me downstream and, when I had slipped from the handcuffs and leg-irons, I simply breathed in the air bubbles which lay between the ice and the water. Then I swam back up to the hole. It was a good trick, and I shall certainly do it again.”
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Royalty, Science on Wednesday, 9 January 2013
This edited article about John Dee originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 810 published on 23rd July 1977.
Dr John Dee
On 18th July 1527 a baby boy was born in London who was later to become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and to be known as the Queen’s Magician.
His name was John Dee and when he was 15 he was sent to Cambridge to study. He was so keen on learning that he spent only two hours a day in eating and at recreation, four in sleeping and the remaining 18 at his books.
At Cambridge he was said to have practised magic and, as a result, he left hurriedly for the Continent. He soon gained a great reputation as a scholar, following the lectures on mathematics which he gave in Belgium and France. He returned to England in 1551 when he was given a pension by Edward VI as a recognition of his great knowledge.
It was not long, however, before he was in trouble again on the question of magic. He was accused of conspiring against the life of Mary Tudor by means of witchcraft. But finally he was found not guilty and acquitted.
When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne she and Dr. Dee became firm friends. He often gave her advice on her health and, as an astrologer, he read the stars as well as his crystal ball, to warn her about future events. Her esteem for him was proved when he was taken ill in Belgium and two royal physicians were dispatched to attend him.
Dee’s great ambition was to use magic to change’ ordinary metal into gold.
At court many powerful people were jealous of Dee’s influence on the Queen. Fearing a charge of sorcery, he left England for Poland.
For six years he wandered from country to country continuing his experiments. Then he returned home once more and had an audience with the Queen at Richmond. She gave orders that he was to be allowed to continue his work without hindrance, and even used her influence to get some of his books returned to him. But it seemed his power as a wizard and prophet deserted him.
When the Queen died, he retired to his house in Mortlake where he died in poverty in 1608.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Magic on Wednesday, 12 December 2012
This edited article about Hans Christian Andersen originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 795 published on 9th April 1977.
“Once upon a time . . . ” said the old lady to the little boy seated beside her in front of the cottage fire. As she began the folk tale which she had heard when she was a girl, the boy closed his eyes in delight.
In his mind he could see the giants, the fairies and the beautiful princess of the story as though they were real people. The half-made puppet on his knee was forgotten as he travelled farther and farther into the world of imagination; for to Hans Christian Andersen this was the highlight of the day.
While he listened to his grandmother’s tales, Hans forgot that he was lonely at school, that his cobbler father was so poor that his mother had to work as a washerwoman to earn enough money to buy their food, and – worst of all – that the other boys laughed at him because he was ugly and gawky.
Hans Andersen was born on 2nd April 1805, in the town of Odense, Denmark. He was a shy boy, more at home with his beloved puppet theatre than in the company of his school fellows.
Tragedy came when he was 11 years old. His father died and his relatives decided he must follow a trade.
“Be a cobbler, like your father,” he was told. “It’s honest work.”
“But I want to be an actor,” replied Hans.
Looking at the awkward, gangling lad, the well-meaning relatives could only laugh.
Hans was determined. He managed to get an interview at a theatre, but, when the time came for his audition, he was so shy that he could not force any words past his lips.
Still believing that his future lay before the footlights, he went to Copenhagen and enrolled as a student in the dancing class of the Theatre Royal.
One day, King Frederic VI of Denmark watched the class and asked about Hans, for he looked so out of place. On hearing of the boy’s poverty, he arranged for Hans to complete his education at a grammar school.
Leaving school thankfully, Hans decided he wanted to write instead of act. In 1829, he published his first novel, “The Walking Trip”. He began travelling and writing books about his experiences, but it was not until 1835 that he wrote his first tale for children. It was called “The Tinder Box” and told of a soldier who had his every wish granted by a magical box.
Hans continued to write fables for children. He drew his inspiration from many different sources. When gas lamps replaced the old oil lights in the streets of Copenhagen, he wrote “The Old Street Lamp”.
His dedication to his craft enabled Andersen to produce such wonderful stories as “The Little Mermaid”, “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Snow Queen”, and “The Ugly Duckling”. This last one was based on his own “ugly duckling” youth.
Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Magic, Superstition on Wednesday, 12 December 2012
This edited article about witchcraft originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 795 published on 9th April 1977.
Suspected witches were given a ducking to see if they sank (innocent) or floated (guilty), by Angus McBride
“Agnes Samwell, on this day of our Lord 4th April, 1593, you stand accused of the frightful crime of witchcraft . . .”
The voice of the clerk echoed through the Huntingdon courtroom and all eyes swivelled to the prisoner, a bent old lady known as Mother Samwell.
As various witnesses gave evidence against her, the members of the grand jury shuddered in superstitious fear. In those days witches were not odd characters in fairy-tale books but – in the minds of most people – persons who had made a pact with the devil, and who could cast spells. Because of this widespread fear of witchcraft, many innocent people suffered.
The case against Mother Samwell was based on the fact that the children of a well-to-do neighbour had developed fits. Doctors could find no reason for this complaint. But their children’s parents began to wonder when one of them, coming out of a fit, pointed to the unfortunate Mother Samwell and said: “Did you ever see anyone more like a witch than she is?”
Rumours spread that Mother Samwell had bewitched the children. A friend of the family, Lady Cromwell, sent for Mother Samwell, cut off a lock of her hair and threw it into the fire – a practice which in those days was believed to be an antidote to such spells.
Unfortunately, Lady Cromwell was taken ill soon afterwards and died. Mother Samwell was blamed. She was taken before the Bishop of Lincoln. Terrified by her arrest and the dreadful things that had been said about her, the old woman broke down and confessed to the bishop that she was indeed a witch.
Mother Samwell, her husband and daughter were immediately thrown into Huntingdon jail, where the old woman withdrew her “confession”, saying that she had been frightened out of her wits and did not know what she was saying.
At the trial one witness stated that he had called Mother Samwell “an old witch” and soon afterwards his horse had died. To him it was obvious that she had bewitched the horse, out of revenge.
On such evidence Mother Samwell, her husband and daughter were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Magic, Shakespeare, Superstition on Monday, 10 December 2012
This edited article about Puck originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 793 published on 26th March 1977.
Shakespeare’s Puck by H Fox
It is midnight. In the kitchen of the old farmhouse the fire burns low.
Look carefully among the flickering shadows. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of a small, broad-shouldered figure in a brown leather coat.
This is Puck, the most famous of all the “little people”. He sweeps the floor, polishes the pewter on the dresser, shakes-out the mats in the yard and tidies away the chairs.
By the doorstep is an earthenware bowl of cream. Puck does not like being rewarded with obvious presents. He prefers food left out where he can steal it easily.
Three quick gulps, the cream is gone and, wiping his lips on the back of his hand, he disappears into the night.
The overworked maidservant who left the bowl out will be grateful in the morning.
Not so her lazy neighbour who has gone to bed without attempting to finish her tasks. As she lies asleep in her attic, she hears a shuffling at the door. Horrified, she sees a huge black hound standing there, growling fiercely.
But she knows it is not really a dog. “Please don’t hurt me, sir,” she stammers. “I won’t do it again, truly I won’t!” And she hides her head under the bedclothes in terror.
The hound snarls again and its shape begins to change into that of a hog (sometimes it takes on the form of a headless bear). But soon it turns back into a little man, laughing fit to burst.
“A small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared little person,” is how Rudyard Kipling describes him in “Puck of Pook’s Hill”.
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Posted in Literature, Magic on Tuesday, 26 June 2012
This edited article about Hansel and Gretel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 740 published on 20 March 1976.
It was night time and Hansel and Gretel were hopelessly lost in the forest.
A disastrous famine had struck the land and the children’s stepmother had suggested to their father that, to save themselves from starving, they should abandon Hansel and Gretel. At length, he reluctantly agreed to do as she said.
The parents and the two children set off into the forest where their father, a woodcutter, lit a fire before going off with his wife pretending to search for wood.
When night came the pair had not returned but Hansel, who had overheard their plan, was not too alarmed. He had left a trail of breadcrumbs behind him as they had walked through the forest that morning and was confident that he could follow it home by moonlight. But alas, every crumb had been eaten by the birds.
The children wandered for three days, penetrating deeper into the forest, until they came across a beautiful house made of food. Immediately they set to work eating the delicious rooftop.
Suddenly an old witch appeared in the doorway and beckoned them in. Once inside she imprisoned Hansel in a cage and set about feeding him up so that she could eat him. Gretel was made to work.
When the witch was ready for her feast, she prepared the huge oven. Then she told Gretel to get inside to test the temperature. Gretel pretended not to understand. The angry witch pushed her aside and climbed in herself.
Quickly Gretel jumped outside and slammed the iron door, leaving the horrid witch to her doom.
Gretel then freed her brother. As they were preparing to leave, they saw a chest of jewels so they filled their pockets with the treasure.
They then ran through the forest until they found a familiar path home. Their father rejoiced at their return. Their stepmother had died and he was filled with sadness that he had left his children to die.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine, Science on Saturday, 5 May 2012
This edited article about alchemy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 700 published on 14 June 1975.
The Neapolitan Count Caetano dazzled Frederick I of Prussia with his alchemical fireworks which appeared to produce gold
Of all the non-events of the Middle Ages, none was so nonsensical as the practice of alchemy. At a time when simple, illiterate craftsmen were creating the astounding glory of medieval cathedrals, their so-called betters were wasting time trying to change base metals (or anything else that came to hand) into silver and, particularly, gold.
However, we can hardly blame our ancestors, as the “art” of alchemy dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and the great Greek philosopher Aristotle had not helped matters by pronouncing that everything was made up of earth, water, air and fire. Change the mixture of these in a metal, alchemists believed, and another metal could be made, even gold. The mythical substance they sought was the Philosopher’s Stone, and it was not merely gold that would spring from it. Optimists believed that the way would be wide open to curing all illnesses and, best of all, to discover the secret of eternal life.
The first person to challenge all the nonsense publicly was an unlikeable but able Swiss doctor called Paracelcus, an alchemist himself, who, early in the 16th century, publicly burnt earlier “learned” writings and told his fellow gold-seekers to get on with the more important job of improving medicine.
There is a happy ending to this silly story, for along the way a lot of useful knowledge had been gathered incidentally by the alchemists, who were accidentally the fathers of modern chemistry. Using simple trial and error, they learnt much about metals, helped improve ways of smelting iron, found new alloys, which helped bell-founders, clockmakers and others, and the makers of cannon and machinery used in corn mills.
Even alchemist-doctors sometimes found a good remedy, and it is true to say that the borderline between medieval alchemy, chemistry and medicine is hard to define. Which does not alter the fact that alchemy itself was a load of ancient and medieval, British and foreign, rubbish.
Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Legend, Magic, Mystery, Superstition on Wednesday, 4 April 2012
This edited article about Mother Shipton originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 682 published on 8 February 1975.
As a child when Mother Shipton was insulted at school she flung her detractors up in the air by means of an invisible force
When insulted by her school-friends, young Ursula Southill was said to demonstrate her anger by tossing them up into the air by means of an invisible force. Later in life she became famous for her uncanny powers of fortune-telling and amazed people with the accuracy of her predictions.
Three hundred and fifty years before the invention of radio, a little old lady in the town of Knaresborough in Yorkshire had forecast that “Around the world thoughts will fly in the twinkling of an eye.” She also predicted the age of the motor car: “Carriages without horses will go, And accidents fill the world with woe.”
Some of the predictions of this amazing lady, who was known as Mother Shipton, are quite remarkable.
She is said to have foretold, among other things, the invention of iron ships, submarines, aeroplanes, and the coming of the two world wars. And yet, in spite of the fact that her sayings are well-known, details about the woman herself and of her life in Knaresborough are extremely scanty. Some people doubt that she ever existed.
It is said that she was born Ursula Southill, Southiel or Sonthiel in July 1488 and that she died in 1561. Her mother, Agatha Southill, was reputed to be a witch and her father was the Devil.
Ursula was the ugliest child that anyone had ever seen. When her schoolfriends teased her about this, she is supposed to have been able to toss them into the air by an invisible force. When she was 24 years of age she married Tobias Shipton, a builder, and as Mother Shipton she became famous all over the country for the accuracy of her fortune-telling. People came from far and wide to seek her knowledge and advice.
It was not until eighty years after her death, however, that her powers of prediction became really well-known. In 1641 a pamphlet, “The Prophecie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry VIII”, was published anonymously in London and purported to be a record of her predictions, most of which had by that time already been fulfilled. Four years later W. Lilly, an astrologer, quoted some of her forecasts in his “Collection of Ancient and Moderne Prophesies” and stated that sixteen of them had come true. In 1667 Richard Head, a writer of dubious veracity, published “The Life and Death of Mother Shipton”. From then on the legend just grew and grew, each subsequent writer adding a little more to the story, and so did the number of predictions that she was supposed to have made!
Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Magic, Oddities, Theatre on Monday, 2 April 2012
This edited article about magic originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 681 published on 1 February 1975.
There was a riot at the New Theatre after an elaborate hoax, by C L Doughty
People read the advertisement in the London newspapers with a certain amount of disbelief but resolved to attend the theatre for what promised to be the show of a lifetime. The notice in the paper on that day in January, 1749 promised that “At the New Theatre in the Haymarket on Monday next, the 16th inst., to be seen a person who performs the several most surprising things following: Namely, first he takes a common walking cane from any of the spectators and thereupon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection.
“Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine. This bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators and sings in it. During his stay in the bottle any person may handle it and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.”
Flamboyant advertising and bombastic claims were the stock in trade of the 18th century conjurer and one had to read between the lines to get at the truth. But, imagine! A man who could actually climb into an ordinary wine bottle! It was obviously a sight not to be missed. And when the people heard that this amazing man had performed his fantastic feats before the crowned heads of Africa, Asia, and Europe they immediately decided that they, too must witness this unique spectacle for themselves.
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