This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Superstition’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

The curse of Tutankhamen made frequent headlines

Posted in Archaeology, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News, Superstition on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Tutankhamen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Tutankhamen,  picture, image, illustration
Tutankhamen by John Millar Watt

Lord Carnarvon was laughing, his lean, lined, aristocratic face creasing with amusement at the joke. The archaeologist, Arthur Wiegall, frowned as he watched him. This was no way to act at such a solemn moment. Jokes and quips were hardly apt on the threshold of any tomb, and even less so at a time when everyone inside the antechamber might be standing on the brink of the greatest treasure ever excavated in Egypt.

Wiegall turned furiously to a journalist, standing nearby. “If he goes down in that spirit,” he muttered darkly, “I give him six weeks to live.”

Just over six weeks later, on 6th April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died. The leader of the famous expedition which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings had been bitten by a mosquito. The bite turned septic, pneumonia developed and Carnarvon succumbed.

Naturally, the death of so prominent and newsworthy a man was a matter for the headlines. For five months, ever since Carnarvon’s partner, Howard Carter, had found Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, Carnarvon’s name had been constantly in print. In its sombre way, his death was merely the latest development in a fascinating tale of buried treasure. But it was also something more sinister. Wiegall’s remark, prompted by pique, now looked very much like a doom-laden prophecy come true.

It also gave colour and conviction to the warning issued to the dying Carnarvon by Marie Corelli, the popular writer of romantic melodramas. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, newspapers publicised Miss Corelli’s prediction that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.”

This sort of thing was newsman’s gold, and there is no doubt that journalists made the most of it.

Read the rest of this article »

The search for the ‘Abominable Snowman’ is not yet over

Posted in Adventure, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Myth, Superstition on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Yeti first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

The Abominable Snowman,  picture, image, illustration
The Abominable Snowman

Only desperate men would have been wandering among the high passes of the Himalayas in winter, but Slavomir Rawicz and his handful of gaunt companions comforted themselves with the thought that the Indian frontier and freedom could not be far away. The year was 1942, and the little group of Polish officers was nearing the end of one of the epic marches of World War II. One-time prisoners of the Russians, the Poles had broken out of their prison camp and had made their way across the pitiless wastes of Mongolia until they had reached the “Roof of the World” that lay between them and their goal. Suddenly Rawicz gave a warning signal. It was unbelievable in those desolate wastes, but there were two men ahead.

Men? The escapers started wide eyed. What kind of men stood more than seven feet tall? Or tramped naked through the snow and biting wind, their huge bodies covered with coarse hair? The watchers kept silent until the weird figures moved away. Later, when they reached their destination, they recounted what they had seen.

“Those were not men,” they were told. “Those were Yeti.”

“Yeti?” Strangers to the East, the Poles had never heard the name before. Nor could they know that they may well have seen the fabled creature that some of the finest mountaineers in the world would soon be tracking in vain.

Some called the creature the Yeti. Others, the Abominable Snowman. Or Kangmi, or Bhanjakris or Rakshi. The monster had many names. But, legend apart, did it really exist?

The long quest for the Yeti has much in common with the search for Flying Saucers. A terrifying, hairy giant, whose favourite haunts are the slopes of Mount Everest, the Yeti is reputed to have been seen by scores of men, ranging from the inhabitants of remote Buddhist monasteries to British army officers. But just like the elusive Flying Saucer, it manages to avoid direct scientific observation. Yet most descriptions of the Yeti follow roughly the same pattern, even in legends that go back hundreds of years.

Read the rest of this article »

Elizabeth I preferred her magician to common roguish quacks

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Medicine, Royalty, Superstition on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Quack dentist,  picture, image, illustration
A quack might have tried to slip a worm into the sufferer’s mouth and then pull it out again, claiming that it had been the worm that caused the toothache, by Angus McBride

We have seen how the virulent plagues which devastated Europe in the Middle Ages led to an enormous increase in the number of travelling medicine-men. These “quacks” (from the Dutch “quacksalver,” who was a person who wandered the country selling salves and medicines) roamed England, shouting their wares at markets and fairs. Generally speaking, they had scant medical skill, but there is little doubt that they, at least, offered hope in an age when doctors were few.

The 14th century had slipped away unmourned and men rejoiced in the warmth and security of the Tudor Renaissance. A revolution in medicine was beginning and the first volleys were being fired in a campaign that was to weaken – and ultimately remove – the power and influence of the quacks.

An early attempt had been made in 1423 by the Guild of Physicians to ban “all quacks and empiriks and the knavish men and women who do presume to practise some sort of Physick.” The trouble with this awe-inspiring and thunderous pronouncement was that there was no real way that it could be implemented. So, the quacks continued their work unchecked.

The Reformation, with its reappraisal of traditional religious values, brought a virtual end to the selling of holy relics – alleged to have miraculous healing powers. When exposed to the chilling light of reason, many of the revered objects were simply absurd. Typical of many was the phial – reputedly containing the blood of Christ – that had led to many wonderful cures at Hales in Gloucestershire. On examination it was found to contain nothing more than the blood of a goose, renewed at weekly intervals.

In 1542, the official surgeons had abused their privileged position to such an extent that King Henry VIII produced what became known as the “Quacks’ Charter.” It pointed out that the folk-healers and quacks often did more good and had more skill than some of the recognised doctors. Also, they served the poor better and often charged them less.

Not many people nowadays actually like going to the dentist, but try and imagine what it must have been like in Tudor times. If you went to one of the many fairs, a rogue of a tooth-drawer might well try and slip a worm into your mouth and then take it out again, claiming it had been the worm that was causing the toothache.

If that did not work, you could try another booth, where a different quack – to the accompaniment of loud music and illuminated by smoky rush lights – would tap your teeth with a small bone hammer. When he found one that did not ring true, he would simply reach in with a strong fore-finger and thumb and tug it out! Primitive, but it probably worked quite well. Infected teeth could, quite literally, lead to death. Queen Elizabeth I suffered from this and, it was alleged, her rotting and poisoned teeth probably hastened her end.

Read the rest of this article »

The growth of travelling quacks came with the upsurge of Plagues

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Religion, Superstition on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Quack Hunters,  picture, image, illustration
John Halle, a leading Elizabethan surgeon, was bad for the Quacks’ business; he had many a quack whipped out of town by Angus McBride

Medicine is now one of the most specific and delicate of the sciences. All of us owe our very existence to some aspect of the modern doctor’s skill. Yet, how many of you have ever stopped to think about how the healing art – and it used to be called an art, not a science – began? It’s a long way from the clean, polished operating-theatre of a contemporary hospital to the dim, distant ages of magic and folk-lore, when the practitioners of medicine were little better than the most primitive of jungle witch-doctors.

To give you some idea of how long medicine has been established and how methods have improved, let’s go back for half a million years – back to Neolithic Britain. It’s a hard, dark time, with small groups of men fighting for a meagre existence in a tough and brutal environment.

One member of the tribe has been ill with the ‘falling sickness’ – probably what we would call ‘epilepsy’-and has been brought to the healer. He knows that this illness is caused, as are most ailments, by a devil being trapped somewhere in the patient’s body. In this case it is in the skull. So the simple and obvious answer is to release it. Using only sharpened flints, the healer would cut away the skin and saw a small hole in the skull of his patient. Once this was done, it was assumed that the devil would flee through the hole and the patient might recover. What is quite astounding, is that archaeological evidence points to the fact that some men actually did survive this savage operation. It was a fore-runner of the modern operation called ‘trepanning’ and must have called for extraordinary fortitude from the patient, when you remember that there was no kind of anaesthetic in those days. Just a few sympathetic friends or relations to hold one down.

Medical skill progressed fast during the rise of the Greek and Roman Empires, though there was still a deal of religious mysticism connected with the art. Then came the surge of the Goths and Visigoths which plunged the civilised world into the Dark Ages.

During the Middle Ages things improved and it is during this period that we first notice the emergence of the breed of men who concern us here. The rather mysterious group of medical dealers who operate somewhat beyond the fringes of recognised and organised medicine. Men whose living is tainted with the stigma of disrepute – the “Quacks.”

Nobody seems too sure about how the word “quack” originated, but the most common and likely suggestion is that the word is an abbreviation for quacksalver. Originally it was a Dutch word, meaning a person who “quacked” or sold salves, patent medicines and cure-alls.

Read the rest of this article »

Matthew Hopkins was a witch-hunting religious fanatic

Posted in Historical articles, History, Law, Religion, Superstition on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about Matthew Hopkins first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 564 published on 4 November 1972.

Matthew Hopkins,  picture, image, illustration
Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder

Not all men with a mission have been governed by worthy ideals. Many indeed have been fanatics pursuing evil aims, hounding their fellow men, seeking to destroy them for some misguided principle or cause. Such a man was Matthew Hopkins, the witch hunter, who was responsible for the deaths of more than two hundred women in three years in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire.

For his activities we have to put the blame partly upon the shoulders of Elizabeth 1. She renewed a law which was first passed in 1541 and which made witchcraft a crime. But it was not until the arrival of James I on the throne that the persecution of witches reached truly maniacal heights.

Between the arrival of James I on the throne in 1603 and the rule of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell in 1653, at least three thousand people were hanged or burned as witches. By his own efforts, aided only by an assistant and a “female searcher,” Matthew Hopkins personally sent to their deaths a very considerable portion of this appalling total. It is an achievement, which, although it cannot command respect, at least earns Hopkins a place in history, together with all those other frightful monsters of the past, whose main object in life seems to have been to kill as many of their fellow beings as possible.

Hopkins started his career harmlessly enough as a lawyer, but it was not a profession he was to follow for long. By the year 1644, the witch hunting hysteria was at its peak. Spreading like some evil disease across the land, it warped the minds of men in all walks of life. Countryman and courtier had fallen prey to it in the time of Elizabeth. Now it was the turn of the Puritans to be imbued with the same madness, but more severely than ever before.

Bringing their fanatical piety to bear on the so-called evil, they set about wiping it out with deadly efficiency.

Read the rest of this article »

Was the ‘Great Republic’ just unlucky or was she doomed?

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships, Superstition on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 554 published on 26 August 1972.

HMS Albion,  picture, image, illustration
The Disaster at the launch of the H M S "Albion" at Blackwall

It is a well established tradition that a new ship should be christened with a bottle of champagne. If this is dispensed with on that auspicious occasion, bad luck inevitably follows. This sailors’ superstition is one that must surely bring a polite smile of disbelief to the lips of most people. But perhaps they might be less sceptical if they were aware of the disasters that have followed the careers of some ships that have been launched without the customary bottle of champagne being smashed against their bows.

Take for an instance, the story of the American ship, the Great Republic, which was launched with water.

It is a story which begins on the day she was launched from the Boston shipyards on the 4th of October 1853. It was a day of which the people of that fair city felt they could be proud. The Great Republic was a mammoth ship, a veritable masterpiece of wood and iron which had been designed by Donald McKay, whose family had been established at the pinnacle of the ship building profession for three generations. Her overall length was 825 feet, she had four decks, three square rigged masts, and her mainyard, which was 120 feet long, was nearly twice the length of any other mainyard on any ship anywhere. She was supposed to have cost more than half a million dollars, and by the look of her she was worth every cent that had been spent on her.

She was due to be launched by a sea captain named Alden Gifford, who now stood on the launching platform, holding a bottle in his hand. Surprisingly, there was a distinctly unhappy expression on his face as he smashed the bottle against her bows. The reason for his unhappy expression was one which any sea-faring man could comprehend. Thanks to a violent outcry by the local temperance league, the ship had been launched with a bottle of water.

In due course the Great Republic arrived in New York, where thousands came to stare and wonder at this giant of the seas. She was, after all, one of the last of the great clippers, potentially the greatest of them all, and designed to sail around the Horn and faraway Australia. The new steamships would eventually put an end to her and all ships like her. But until that time came, she would remain a thing of beauty to be admired by all.

That beauty was not to last for long. One morning the New Yorkers awoke to the news that the Great Republic had been set alight by a nearby warehouse going up in flames. A strong wind had carried the glowing debris on to her decks and almost within minutes she had become an inferno of crackling wood and falling timbers.

The fire raged through her for three days, consuming everything in its path, until the morning of the fourth day when the decision was taken to scuttle the ship. When she was raised again, months later, the inspectors went over her and decided that she was not quite beyond repair. It was an unfortunate decision which was to cost lives.

Read the rest of this article »

A German U-boat was haunted by a phantom officer

Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities, Superstition, World War 1 on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about U-Boat 65 first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

U-boat 65,  picture, image, illustration
The haunted U-boat

Before she had even left the dockyard U-Boat 65 had claimed five lives. Then a rating was lost overboard and a torpedo explosion killed four men and an officer. From then on the ghost of the officer haunted the German submarine, striking terror into the hearts of the crew. Superstitious tales maybe? But were they?

It began before they had even finished building her. A steel girder which was being lowered into place in her hull, suddenly slipped from its chains and crashed down on two workmen below, killing them both:

It was unfortunate and sad that two men should die, the foreman said, after the two shattered bodies had been carried away. But the work had to go on. The Fatherland needed ships. When this one was finished it would be yet another nail in the coffin of the British Imperialists who were already reeling under the hammer blows of the U-Boats, haunting the icy waters of the Atlantic. Now back to work. For the Fatherland.

With these words ringing in their ears, the workmen returned to their tasks, thinking no doubt that it was pressures like these which caused men to become careless.

The next accident could not be put down to carelessness. Just before the ship was launched, three men were sent down to the engine room to check over the equipment. Suddenly, inexplicably, they found themselves choking rapidly to death in a thick haze of poisonous fumes which seemed to come from nowhere. Gasping their lives away, the three men stumbled blindly to the door, only to find it jammed. Within minutes they were all dead. The subsequent enquiry could find no reason for the escape of the deadly fumes, nor any reason why the door should have jammed.

The U.B. 65 had already claimed five victims. She was to claim many more before her career came to an end.

Read the rest of this article »

Shakespeare reimagined Macbeth as a murderous obsessive

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland, Shakespeare, Superstition on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 529 published on 4 March 1972.

Macbeth in battle,  picture, image, illustration
Macbeth in battle by Neville Dear

Although William Shakespeare wrote a great deal about history, a historian would have to admit that the dramatist was not strong on accuracy, which in itself is the key to history. Some kings were lucky in the treatment they received from Shakespeare; others suffered cruelly.

One of those who suffered was Macbeth, King of Scotland. He was, says the Bard, an ambitious thane who one day, while crossing a moor with his friend Banquo, met three witches who told Macbeth that in due time he would become King of Scotland.

The prophecy, made over the old hags’ boiling cauldron, began to obsess Macbeth, and egged on by his even more ambitious wife, who liked the idea of becoming a Queen, he murdered King Duncan in his bed while the old King was his guest.

For a short time, says Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth then reigned over Scotland. But before long Malcolm, the son of Duncan, came against him with an army of English and Scots and slew him. The crown then passed to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

How true is this story? The answer is, hardly at all. Shakespeare, who was said to have heard it from a Scottish writer, would not have received many marks for this piece of history.

To set the record straight, we must begin with the reign of Duncan. England was still a Saxon kingdom and the future William the Conqueror was a mere boy of seven when Duncan, a handsome young man, came to the throne of Scotland in the year 1034.

At this time part of Scotland was called Moray, and it was a much bigger part than the present-day county of that name. It was ruled by a family who never stopped insisting that the crown of Scotland rightfully belonged to them. One Earl of Moray after another rebelled against the country’s successive kings, so that even the mention of the name Moray was enough to make a King of Scotland seize hold of his sword.

When Duncan reigned, the Earl of Moray was Shakespeare’s hero Macbeth. Like all his ancestors, Macbeth believed he should be king; it was, therefore, only a matter of time before he raised a rebellion against Duncan. At a battle near Elgin the King was killed and Macbeth took the crown.

What sort of a king was he? Not a great deal is known about his reign, but there is no evidence at all to suggest that he was the bloody murderer that Shakespeare made him.

Read the rest of this article »

The incredible Count Cheiro predicted the Abdication

Posted in Historical articles, History, Oddities, Superstition on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about Count Cheiro first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 524 published on 29 January 1972.

Count Cheiro, picture, image, illustration
Count Louis Harmon was known by the nickname Cheiro and used his powers of palmistry to predict many future events by Richard Hook

Sixty-four years old Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener had many things on his mind on that day in 1915 when the enemy guns were pounding Dunkirk. His stern face, its black, drooping moustache giving it a sterner look, was furrowed in concentration as he considered his burdens of responsibility. To him had been given command of Britain’s armies during the First World War.

Suddenly he was disturbed as his old friend and comrade, Commander Balincourt, burst in on him. With a grave and anxious face, he reported the death of a friend of theirs.

“It needs only one stray shell to burst near you, Horatio,” pleaded Balincourt, “and then where shall we be? You must move your headquarters away from here at once!”

“Leave me in peace, will you?” replied Kitchener. “I have no fear of such a fate. I have been told that I shall die at sea.”

The following year, on 5th June, 1916, H.M.S. Hampshire ploughed its way through heaving icy seas towards Russia on a secret mission. Aboard was a very important passenger. To this day, no one is sure what happened, but the Hampshire went down forever under that bleak North Sea. And with it went its very important passenger – Lord Kitchener.

The prophecy had come true.

Fourteen years before, in June, 1902, there was consternation in London. The coronation of King Edward VII had been postponed because of his desperate illness, and doctors were even worrying for his life. Queen Alexandra, however, remained calm and reassuring. On a sudden inspiration, she decided to send for the man who would convince the king that his end was not near.

Shortly afterwards a coach drove through the palace gates, a tall, handsome man descended and was shown into the royal bedchamber where the pale king lay.

“Your Majesty,” the visitor said with a gentle smile, “why do you worry? Have I not told you already that death will not claim you until your sixty-ninth year? You have many years to live yet.”

Within a few days King Edward VII had recovered, and thousands cheered and hailed his coronation on 9th August of that year.

Another prophecy had come true.

Read the rest of this article »

The seers that foresaw the fates of Scotland’s kings

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland, Superstition on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 523 published on 22 January 1972.

Culloden, picture, image, illustration
The son of a shepherdess who legend tells knelt and wept for the blood that would later be spillled at Culloden, by Richard Hook

Scotland has seen so many prophets and prophecies in its time that one is tempted to say that the country lies under thick clouds of uncanniness – and if Scotsmen can be said to be dour, as some would have us believe, it may be because their seers have always had a particular talent for predicting gloom and doom.

Scottish kings in particular before the union of the crown with England, must have feared the often cowled old men or women who tapped on their shoulders and told them the end was nigh.

Alexander III was confronted by one on his wedding day in November, 1284, and advised to enjoy the company of his bride while he might, for his death was not far away. In March, 1285, on his way to join his wife he was thrown from his horse over a cliff.

“An ye pass this water, ye shall never return again alive!” called an old Highland woman to James I as he waited in 1436 to cross the Forth on his way to a Christmas in Perth. He received two more warnings, paid no heed, and was assassinated in his chambers in February, 1437.

Perhaps his son, James II, should have listened attentively to prophecies after that, particularly to an ancient prediction that a dead king would take Roxburgh from the English. On 3rd August, 1460, James was laying siege to Roxburgh, then in English hands, when a heavy siege gun blew up in his face and killed him. Shortly afterwards Roxburgh was taken.

Then, too, if James IV – one of Scotland’s finest kings – had listened to a bald-headed old man dressed in blue who approached him at Linlithgow, one of Scotland’s greatest disasters might have been avoided. Warned of his death and defeat if he went into battle, James shrugged off the prophecy and died on Flodden Field in 1513, with over ten thousand of his men.

With the gifts of prediction apparently so commonplace in the country, it would not be surprising if no prophet had achieved any lasting fame, but a few Scottish seers are talked about in hushed, respectful voices even today.

Outside Scotland possibly the best known was Thomas the Rhymer, born a serf sometime in the 13th century, who foresaw much of his country’s future, delivering his pronouncements in heavy, ponderous lines which were inevitably accurate.

However, one suspects that Thomas was the one who found the most widespread fame because few people outside Scotland could even pronounce, let alone remember, the name of the country’s most outstanding prophet – Coinneach Odhar Fiossaiche, who was supposed to have been born on the Isle of Lewis sometime in the first half of the 17th century.

Read the rest of this article »