Sunday 31 May 2009

William Shakespeare, Playwright of the Third Reich

Did you know that Shakespeare was favoured by the Nazis? Well, he was, performed even when Schiller, one of the greatest German poets and playwrights was not. Consider some of the following.

In 1934 the French government banned, in permanence, performances of Coriolanus because of its perceived negative qualities. In the international protests that followed came one from Germany, from none other than Joseph Goebbels.

Although productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany itself were subject to 'streamlining', he continued to be favoured as a great classical dramatist, especially so as almost every new German play since the late 1890s onwards was the work of left-wingers, of Jews or of 'degenerates' of one kind or another. Politically acceptable writers had simply been unable to fill the gap, or had only been able to do so with the worst kinds of agitprop. In 1935 Goebbels was to say "We can build autobhans, revive the economy, create a new army, but we...cannot manufacture new dramatists."

With Schiller suspect for his radicalism, Lessing for his humanism and even the great Goethe for his lack of patriotism, the 'Aryan' Shakespeare it had to be. Of Hamlet one critic wrote "If the courtier Laertes is drawn to Paris and the humanist Horatio seems more Roman than Danish, it is surely no accident that Hamlet's alma mater should be Wittenberg." A leading magazine declared that the crime which deprived Hamlet of his inheritance was a foreshadow of the Treaty of Versailles, and that the conduct of Gertrude was reminiscent of the spineless Weimar politicians!

Weeks after Hitler took power in 1933 an official party publication appeared entitled Shakespeare-a Germanic Writer, a counter to those who wanted to ban all foreign influences. At the Propaganda Ministry, Rainer Schlosser, given charge of German theatre by Goebbels, mused that Shakespeare was more German than English.

After the outbreak of the war the performance of Shakespeare was banned, though it was quickly lifted by Hitler in person, a favour extended to no other. Not only did the regime expropriate the Bard but it also expropriated Elizabethan England itself; a young, vigorous nation, much like the Third Reich itself, quite unlike the decadent British Empire of the present day. And why did Germany not produce its own Shakespeare? Why, the answer to that was easy: England, unlike Germany, had been free of Jews for three hundred years prior to his birth!

Clearly there were some exceptions to the official approval of Shakespeare, and the great patriotic plays, most notably Henry V were shelfed. But interestingly the reception of the The Merchant of Venice was at best lukewarm (Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was suggested as a possible alternative) because it was too ambigious and not nearly anti-semitic enough for Nazi taste. So Hamlet it was, along with Macbeth and Richard III.

Mention of that particular play allows me to finish on a note of humour; for you see the leading Nazis were not beyond scoring points against each other. In 1937 the Prussian State Theatre, under the control of Herman Göring, put on a performance of Richard. To the visible astonishment of the audience the King was depicted in Fascist style uniform with a club foot! As he shambled about the stage, malevolent, poisonous, murderous, it was all too clear to all who this was meant to be. Göring beamed!

Witchcraft and Superstition: Decline of a Tradition, Rise of a Cult

The first thing to note is that for centuries law and superstition walked hand-in-hand. That is to say, on the subject of witchcraft, there was little to distinguish offical perceptions from popular prejudice, though the well-springs of belief may have been different in both cases. The big change came in the eighteenth century, when concepts of witchcraft began to lose ground amongst the educated. The gap really begins to open up with the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1736, which repealed earlier English and Scottish statutes on the subject. From this point forward the law dictated that;

No prosecution, suit or proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any person or persons for witchcraft, sorcery, inchantment or conjuration or for charging with any such offense, in any court whatsoever in Great Britain.

The Act further made it an offence to pretend to have supernatural powers. So, from this point forward, as far as the law was concerned, witchcraft was no more than a pretence. However, while the enlightened could scoff at the subject, beliefs in the literal truth of witchcraft continued to be well-entrenched among large segments of the population, especially in rural communities. People were slow to realise, moreover, that the law was no longer on their side on this subject. Right into the late nineteenth century magistrates continued to receive requests for the arrest of suspected witches.

So, no longer able to call on the law, people took to dispensing their own forms of 'popular justice', which gave rise to a new phenomenon in law: in place of the witch trail came to trial of those accused of assaulting those whom they believed to be witches. We now have one of history's acutest ironies: that the British in the course of Empire were attempting to reform the 'heathen' practices of subject people, while at home violence against suspected witches was on the increase. James Augustus St. John, author and traveller, was moved to write " in England, in the midst of our civilization, with the light of Christianity, ready to pour into the meanest hovels, violence against witches is still prevailing in our rural districts, while belief in witches is all but universal."

In 1895 a poor, elderly woman from Long Sutton in Lincolnshire was assaulted by a farming couple for supposedly bewitching their cows pigs hens and butter. Assaults of this kind even continued into the twentieth century. In 1935 a doctor from Poole in Dorset had to treat an old woman so badly scratched that she required stitches in twenty-two wounds. In essence there was often a two-way process at work: people claimed to possess traditional forms of 'folk wisdom' as a way of making money, which could very easily turn to accusations of black magic when things went wrong, or when tensions built up within communities that, despite social and industrial progress, were often claustrophobically self-contained.

Further social changes, and the continuing decline of the older rural ways of life, saw a steady decline in these traditional beliefs, as ordinary people caught up with educated opinion. But, once again, irony played its unique part: for while witchcraft was received in the public mind with increasing scepticism, it achieved a new life among sections of the middle class, inspired by the likes of Margaret Murray, author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. This, and much of the Wiccan movement that followed on, was really quite bogus; for people were not persecuted in the past for following ancient cults, but for malice and spite, and with malice and spite, the small change of village life.

Saturday 30 May 2009

Madness and Inspiration

This is a contribution I made to a discussion on the difference between madness and inspiration, which also touches on the subject of Joan of Arc.

Yes, this is an interesting topic; I’m surprised I missed it up to now!

I suppose it would be possible to argue that such evaluations are determined by time and context; that what in the past might largely have been taken as some form of ‘possession’, divine or malign, is now more likely to be considered delusional. However, the division is not perhaps all that clear cut, in that people in the past were as aware of the nature of mental incapacity as they are today, although they would obviously not have used terms like schizophrenia. I suppose the point hangs on how meaningful a particular ‘revealed experience’ is to others, and how the person who has such an experience is able to relate to the wider community. There is one example that immediately springs to mind, that of Joan of Arc.

Right, first of all, I should make clear just exactly how I understand schizophrenia, what I take it to be. It involves not just hearing voices but hearing voices that are most often malign, in that the sufferer is being pushed towards ends that they do not desire and actively try to resist. It involves, moreover, a fragmentation of the personality, whereby the world is, so to speak, turned upside down: that which is real appears abstract and that which is abstract appears real. In the end there is no form of external communication, merely an interior monologue.

So, look now at Joan of Arc. She heard voices, yes, according to her the voices of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret and Saint Michael. But these voices inspired her, inspired her to save France from the English. She was also filled with a sense of mission, of such strength that she, a seventeen year old girl, was able to convince the French nobility, the King himself, that she was divinely inspired, a remarkable enough achievement for a peasant girl in a feudal society. Quite simply, Joan, a witch to the English, inspired the French, so much so that, under her direction, the course of the Hundred Year’s War began to turn in their favour.

Was this the action of a schizophrenic? I rather think not. In the end it really does not matter if one happens to believe in the validity, or the source, of Joan’s visions; what matters is that they had a real historical effect. So, you might ask, was the rest of the community simply taken in by Joan’s ‘madness’, failing to recognise it for what it was? Ah, but you see, the French did recognise madness and the political effects of madness. The previous king, Charles VI, had descended into the deepest forms of madness, which came close to destroying the kingdom. Having fallen under one mad leader they were not very likely to rise under another.

Yes, Joan was inspired; yes her visions had a practical effect, though I myself am not prepared to speculate on the precise source of her inspiration, other than to say that witches can show power beyond imagination. :))

I saw Joan of Arc!

I saw Joan of Arc, yes, I did. Well, anyone can; there she is: page-boy haircut, in full armour riding through the streets of Orleans. She does so every year on 8 May, the central event of an annual festival known as the Fêtes Johanniques.

This particular day is a national holiday throughout France; but while the rest of the country may be celebrating the Liberation and the end of the Second World War in Europe, Orleans conjures up memories of an even older enemy than the Germans.

It was on 8 May 1429 that Joan, heading a French assault force, ended the English siege of the town, a key event in what came to be known as the Hundred Year’s War. The previous day she had been wounded in the attack on a fortification known as Les Tourelles. In their jubilation the English cried out that ‘The witch is dead.’ No, she was not. Joan, of course, was eventually captured and burned at the stake two years later on a charge of heresy. From witch, to heretic to saint; that was Joan’s path.

Tripping with the Lizard King

My parents have a flat in Paris, so I’ve been fortunate to have been able to visit the city on and off for some years now, getting to know it really well. One of my favourite places is the Père Lachaise Cemetery, named after the father-confessor to Louis XIV. I know, it sounds so morbid, does it not, going to a cemetery for pleasure?! But it’s an entirely fascinating place, the final home of some of the great figures in French cultural and literary life. There are also a number of notable foreigners including the beloved Oscar Wilde. But the person I want to touch on is Jim Morrison, the Lizard King himself, who died in the city in 1971.

I love the music of The Doors, I have ever since I saw Oliver Stone’s movie when I was in my mid-teens. I was particularly struck by the intensity with which the beautiful and self-destructive Jim lived out his life, burning through the atmosphere like a dying meteor. I’ve been to his grave twice now, both times on the anniversary of his death on 3 July, to place some flowers on his grave. Below his name and dates there is an inscription in Greek ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ, meaning, I think, true to his spirit. The little bust that is shown at the end of Stone's movie was stolen years ago, though I think there are plans to replace it. Both times I was there it was really busy, mostly of people of my own age and a little older, people who never knew him in life.

There is a love greater than death, and Jim will live forever.

Friday 29 May 2009

Great is Diana of the Ephesians!

I was in Ephesus in Turkey last summer, in the ruins of the old Greco-Roman city, once the centre of the cult of the many-breasted goddess Artemis or Diana. The making of votive statues of the goddess by the silversmiths was an important part of the local economy.

Then St Paul arrived. Because of his preaching the trade in these religious artefacts dropped off sharply. One of the silversmiths, a man called Demetrius, gathered his fellow craftsmen. The initial complaint was over the decline in business but they found a higher cause, blaming Paul’s preaching for a loss of respect for the goddess herself. Rumours spread through the city, until a great crowd gathered in the central amphitheatre. The story is detailed in the Book of Acts, chapter 19, verses 24 to 41:

24: For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen;
25: Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth.
26: Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands:
27: So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.
28: And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.
29: And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul's companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre.
30: And when Paul would have entered in unto the people, the disciples suffered him not.
31: And certain of the chief of Asia, which were his friends, sent unto him, desiring him that he would not adventure himself into the theatre.
32: Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.
33: And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made his defence unto the people.
34: But when they knew that he was a Jew, all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.
35: And when the townclerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?
36: Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, ye ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly.
37: For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess.
38: Wherefore if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another.
39: But if ye inquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly.
40: For we are in danger to be called in question for this day's uproar, there being no cause whereby we may give an account of this concourse.
41: And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly.

For an hour those people shouted out “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” Well, I stood in the ruins of that amphitheatre, some 2000 years later, and shouted those same words at the top of my voice, something I had longed to do, to the complete astonishment of the hordes of tourists and our Turkish guide. Great she is indeed. :-))

Ravens of the Tower

The first written reference to ravens being kept in the Tower of London dates no further back that the 1890s. If we go a little further back than that the Tower first established its place in the Gothic imagination with the publication in 1841 of The Tower of London an historical novel by Harrison Ainsworth. It included an illustration by George Cruikshank of large dark birds, possibly ravens, gathering around the scaffold erected for the execution of Lady Jane Grey. This, in turn, is likely to have been a reflection of the folk tradition that associated croaking ravens with death.

It would seem that as the popularity of the Tower began to grow the keepers decided to exploit the public's appetite for the macabre by, first, erecting a plaque in 1866 to the spot on Tower Green where the scaffold is supposed to have stood, a complete fiction, for there never was a permanent scaffold; and second, by amplifying on the raven stories.

The Tower from Within by George Younghusband, published in 1919, was the first to describe the ravens in detail. By this time the Yeomen Warders were in the practice of telling visitors that the raven used to gather at the site of the scaffold to pick at the severed heads. The earliest written reference to the legend that Britain will fall if the ravens leave the Tower dates to a letter published in the magazine Country Life in February 1955, which probably means this 'ancient' story was invented sometime during the Second World War.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Oranges and Lemons

London, the old London, the London of the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans and the Tudors was largely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, with the exception of some Medieval landmarks, most notably Westminster Abbey and the Tower. It was Charles II, draped in the toga of Nero, who began the reconstruction of the city, and Christopher Wren who gave it shape. Saint Paul’s Cathedral is, of course, Wren’s greatest achievement. But there are other London churches worth noting, including some also by Wren. So, using an old nursery rhyme as my introduction, let me walk you around a few. The nursery rhyme I have in mind is “Oranges and Lemons.”;

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

St Clement Danes

Also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St Clement Danes is in Westminster close to the Royal Courts of Justice. Far more modest than St. Paul’s, it’s a lovely little church, one of my favourites.

Saint Martin’s Orgar

Not much of the old Saint Martin’s survived the Fire. It had to wait until the nineteenth century for full restoration, but was subsequently demolished, apart from the tower, which was rebuilt as the campanile to Saint Clement’s Eastcheap.

Saint Sepulchure-without-Newgate

The ‘without’ here simply means that Saint Sepulchure, originally built in Saxon times, stood outside the old city walls. It is located adjacent to the central criminal court, known as the Old Bailey, named after a castle that once stood on the site. The church was dedicated to St Edmund, England’s martyr king. The old church was almost completely destroyed in 1666 and not fully restored until the late nineteenth century in the Victorian gothic style. Captain John Smith, he who was rescued by Pocahontas, was buried at Saint Sepulchure in the 1630s. The bell of the rhyme was rung to mark executions at Newgate.

Saint Leonard’s, Shoreditch

Saint Leonard’s, another Saxon foundation, escaped the Fire, though it was extensively rebuilt in the 1740s after the partial collapse of the old tower earlier that century. Designed by George Dance, it’s very much in the Palladian style favoured by Sir Christopher Wren, with a high steeple mirroring that of his own foundation of Saint Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.

Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney

One of the oldest surviving churches in the city, Saint Dunstan dates back a thousand years. The present building dates largely to the fifteenth century.

Saint Mary-le-Bow

This is the church that everyone knows, the church of the Cockneys! It is also the church whose chimes are reputed to have summoned Dick Whittington to turn back to London. The ‘Bow Bells’ were also used to signal curfews. The original Saxon foundation was destroyed in 1666 and the new building, with its soaring 223-foot steeple, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Goya's Black Art

I have a fascination for paintings and graphics depicting witches or the theme of witchcraft in general. Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer have both dealt with the subject, but the one who intrigues me most is Francisco Goya, who depicts witches and the Sabbath as part of his so-called Black Paintings series, completed in the latter part of his career, and intended for his eyes only. Spain was only just emerging from the trauma of the French invasion and the Wars of Napoleon, and Goya himself from a period of depression and mental illness. He had earlier in his career depicted the Devil and the Sabbath, but in an altogether lighter, almost comic fashion. There is nothing light about El aquelarre.


Recessional is a fine poem, a hymn to the noon-day of British Imperialism, but far from being a jingoistic clarion; it shows a deep sense of unease.

A lot of the introspection can be explained by contemporary events. France was, once again, proving troublesome, as the Fashoda Incident was to demonstrate, and Germany and Italy, Europe's adolescent nations, were disturbing the old imperial calm. More than that, the British manufacturing, the very thing upon which the Empire was built, was facing ever fiercer competition from both Germany and the United States. The problem here was that much of the traditional industrial base was increasingly obsolete, with a marked failure to modernise and reinvest. Only 'invisible' exports served to carry the economy into surplus.

Going beyond the area of economics there were any number of challenges to the old order. Trade unions were growing in strength and militancy; women were beginning to question political orthodoxy; and Irish nationalism was a problem that simply refused to go away. Kipling's poem, which was widely popular, might be said to have spoken to all of these anxieties, particularly over the possible decline of British Naval power; that the bonfires of celebration might well be temporary and over-optimistic-On dune and headland sinks the fire. It's as if a Roman poet were writing at the time of Marcus Aurelius, warning what lay just over the horizon;

If, drunk with sight of power,
We loose wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Of lesser breeds without the Law-
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Least we forget-lest we forget!

Kipling's sense of foreboding was also expressed in a letter to his cousin;

Seeing what manner of armed barbarians we are surrounded with, we're about the only power with a glimmer of civilization in us...This is no ideal world but a nest of burglars, alas; and we must protect ourselves against being burgled. All the same, we have no need to shout and yell and ramp about strength because that is a waste of power, and because other nations can do the advertising better than we can. The big smash is coming one of these days, sure enough, but I think we shall pull through, not without credit.

We did pull through, not without credit, as Kipling predicted, but only in such a way that all the pomp of yesterday would indeed be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

The Divine Oscar

When I was fourteen I visited the grave of Oscar Wilde in Pere Duchesne for the first time. It was 30 November, 2000, the hundredth anniversary of his death. I’d seen some of his plays performed by that time and fallen in love with his short stories, from an early acquaintance with The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant. My reading has continued ever since.

It was really remarkable experience, being there, seeing the Epstein memorial covered in lipstick kisses, almost impossible to remove! There were so many people, including one extraordinary group dressed all in Edwardian costume.

The love for a true poet and artist never dies, and you are not staring at the stars, Oscar; you are among them, like a constellation.

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper

The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden

· Paperback: 544 pages

· Publisher: Robinson Publishing; 2Rev Ed edition (21 Feb 2002)

· Language English

· ISBN-10: 1841193976

· ISBN-13: 978-1841193977

Is there anything new to say about Jack the Ripper and the infamous 1888 Whitechapel Murders? Well, yes, there is, and Philip Sugden has said it. Most Ripper books suffer from two principle weaknesses: first, they set out to make a case for a favoured and predetermined suspect, and second, they exist in a close, almost incestuous relationship one with the other. That is to say that they are secondary works based on secondary works, which means that when errors appear they are rarely questioned, repeated to the point where fiction becomes fact and legend truth.

Sugden is having none of this. He is an historian with the instincts of an historian. He is also, it might be said, a superb detective, sifting through the evidence in a careful and forensic manner. He takes nothing for granted, plowing through the mythology perpetuated by others and taking the source material as his point of departure. He sifts carefully through contemporary police reports and other primary documents, building up his case piece by piece. His arguments proceed on this basis and are mustered with considerable care.

The other virtue of this book, at least so far as I am concerned, is that the author manages to humanise the victims, people who in most other accounts are depicted in lurid detail or merely as passing shadows. He makes one sympathise even with these poor and wretched girls. Above all he brings to life a London of long ago and the desperation of so many lives in the impoverished east-end of the city.

Altogether it is a thorough, well-written and exhaustive account of the murders and the circumstances surrounding the murders rather than just another piece of vacuous speculation. Those coming to the subject for the first time will obtain no better guide. Even seasoned ‘Ripperologists’ are likely to uncover one or two surprises.

In the end there is no definite conclusion because the evidence will simply not allow such closure. It is a mystery that will remain a mystery but one can only hope that Sugden’s magisterial work will help arrest the wilder flights of fancy. If you like good history, if you like a good detective story or if you simply like a good read this book is most definitely for you.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

The Story of the Story of O

What can I say about The Story of O other than it is a tour de force, in my view one of the best novels, certainly the best erotic novel, ever written, all the more remarkable because the author was woman.

Anne Desclos, who went by the pen-name of Pauline Réage, has the most incredible style; tight, angular, and translucent; every word seems to count. I read the novel as a dark existential fairy-tale, one in which the subject achieves the purer form of freedom, or self-liberation, in a process of becoming an object for the pleasure of others.

It’s about desire, yes, and cruelty in desire; but it’s about so much more. I had to read it three times before I fully absorbed all of the complex subtleties that Desclos explores, all of the nuances of meaning, the contrasts of light and dark. It’s not a book for everyone, and some people-failing to read below the surface-are likely to find it highly unsettling.

O has an interesting history, written, in essence, to prove a point. Jean Paulhan, Desclos’ lover, admired the work of the Marquis de Sade, telling her that no woman could write the kind of texts in which he specialised. Taking up the challenge Desclos created a work that is better, and far better, than anything ever written by that verbose and flowery aristocrat. :))

Hitler and the Occult

It maddens me when I see references, in both fiction and fact, to Adolf Hitler's supposed interest in occult forces. He did not have an astrologer, as some have alleged.. In fact he was altogether contemptuous of the practice, and astrologers were among one of the many groups persecuted during the Third Reich.

There were, however, some among the leadership prepared to take the practice seriously, either for political ends or out of simple superstition. Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were most notable amongst the latter. The man who came closest to being the 'court' astrologer was Karl Ernst Krafft, who was arrested in May 1941 following Hess's flight to Scotland, when Hitler, in his fury, ordered a fresh purge of occultists and astrologers of all kinds. Goebbels joked at this time that it was odd that not one amongst the group was able to predict what was about to happen to them!

Power and Potency: the Cerne Abbas Giant

It’s possible to see, most effectively from the air, a great English giant, a giant who threatens, on the one hand, and-how shall I say?-promises on the other! He is to be found carved in the chalk near Cerne Abbas in Dorset, and is this known simply as the Cerne Abbas Giant or the Rude Man. He’s huge, in more ways than one! Standing one hundred and eighty feet tall, his club alone is one hundred and twenty feet. No, the other thing is forty feet in length. :-))

He looks ancient, he may be ancient, but there is no record of his existence prior to the seventeenth century. The speculation is, and I do stress that this is speculation, that he represents the figure of Hercules and was cut to lampoon Oliver Cromwell, the one-time dictator of England, sometimes mocked by his royalist enemies as the ‘English Hercules.’

We simply don’t know for certain how and why the dear-old giant arose, clubbed and prepared. I personally favour an ancient origin, and Iron Age earthworks have been found in the location. It may indeed be Hercules, most often depicted in classical art carrying a club; that his presence in Dorset may indicate that the Romans brought the cult of the demigod to the area, possibly linked, in the way these things happened, with a local Celtic deity. The fact that the earliest written record goes no further back than 1694 may simply indicate that he was lost and overgrown for centuries, only to be rediscovered by accident. Still, as I say, there is no definitive conclusion to the matter.

Whatever his origins the Giant became, for obvious reasons, the site of a local fertility cult. Women, hoping to conceive, took to spending the night with the Giant! The Victorians, prudish as ever, covered his manly pride, which was also reduced at different times to more seemly lengths. He now stands unadorned and in his full glory. Childless couples, so it is claimed, still come to do the, ahem, the wild thing on the grass inside his penis!

The Burning Secret

The Burning Secret and Other Stories

By Stephan Zweig

Introduced by John Fowles

Penguin Books, 1989 reprint

In a way there is no point reviewing this particular anthology, insofar as a review is intended to encourage people to buy a book, because it has been out of print for twenty years. Even so, the individual stories, which include The Royal Game, Amok, The Burning Secret, Fear and Letter from an Unknown Woman will clearly be available in other anthologies, so some purpose will be served, even if it is only to interest people in the work of Stefan Zweig.

I intend this also as a companion to my review of The Post Office Girl, his posthumous novel, my first introduction to the work of this wonderful writer. I read somewhere that his mastery of the short story format was as good as that of Maupassant and Chekhov; so, with that endorsement sounding in my head, I rescued this particular collection from the bowels of my college library!

The theme that unites these stories is that of obsession; the obsession of a man with chess, a game that rescued him from madness, and then brought him back to its frontiers; the obsession of a doctor with a woman he had deeply wronged and then gave his life in an attempt to preserve her honour, and her secret, even though she herself is beyond caring; the obsession of a child with the secrets and duplicities of the adult world; the obsession of a woman with fear, a fear that threatens to destroy her world; and finally the obsession of a girl with a man she has loved through the various stages of her life, a man who barely acknowledges her existence.

This is just a sampler; I just want to give people a flavour of what to expect and, in the fashion of Ariadne, offer a thread through the labyrinth. There is no purpose to be served by retelling the stories blow by blow. Let me just focus on two: Fear and Letter from an Unknown Woman, the first which I loved and the second I hated.

Fear tells a story of a woman, Irene Wagner, caught in the midst of deception. Full of apprehension in the face of possible discovery, she is intercepted early one morning leaving her lover’s apartment by an unknown and unpleasant woman, who accosts her and accuses her of stealing the man in question from her.

Fear now grows by steady leaps. The woman discovers where she lives, a comfortable home with a husband and children, a comfortable bourgeois Viennese existence, with servants, governesses and wealth. Blackmail follows, the demands increasing time by time. Irene turns to her former lover for help, only to discover how worthless and shallow he is. Her husband, her children are her true moral centre. She brings herself to the threshold of telling her husband, but is fearful of the severity of his judgement. In the end the only alternative, the only way of breaking this vicious self-enforcing trap, would seem to be suicide, and it is this which Irene prepares for. But she does not kill herself, nor does she confess. The dénouement took me completely by surprise, no easy thing, as I usually discover patterns of resolution well in advance of the final curtain!

Letter from an Unknown Woman, later turned into a film, is, so I am told, Zweig’s most famous story. As I said, I hated it, not because the author has lost any of his narrative power-he has not-but because I hated the theme, I hated the mood. Fowler warns in his introduction that “An intelligent modern woman may well find the heroine’s endless self-denial hideously improbable.” This intelligent modern woman did find it hideously improbable!

Anyway, it takes the form of a posthumous letter of a woman to a man she has loved, largely from a distance, since she was a girl, a man who does not even know her name. From the briefest of physical contacts, quickly forgotten by her lover, she has a son, a son he never knew existed, a son who predeceased the protagonist, the occasion for the composition of her letter. For all her depth of feeling, for all of her obsessive passion I found the object of her love repellent, an example of the worst forms of narcissistic egoism, the kind of man who only looks for reflections of himself in the pool of life. If you love, love well, love what is worth loving. Having said that Zweig is a new discovery for me, and when I fall in love I do not do so by half measures.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Night Witches

Flying witches have long been part of popular consciousness. In The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe Brian Levack points out two roots to this belief. The first, traceable to classical times, was that women could transform themselves at night into screech owls or strigae, who would devour infants. These night witches are to be found across time and across cultures, from Germany in pre-Roman times to modern Africa.

The second belief was that women went out on a night hunt with the Diana, goddess of the chase the moon and the night, often identified with Hecate, goddess of magic and the underworld. In Medieval Germany Diana often takes on the additional guise as Holda or Percheta, who could be both nurturing and terrifying. It was Holda who was held to lead a ‘furious horde’ of those who died prematurely through the night sky.

Belief in these night witches was so widespread that it even made its way into the Canon Episcopi, a set of instructions written in the tenth century by Regino of Prum that eventually became part of canon law. The Canon specifically singles out;

…some wicked women, perverted by the devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons…believe and profess themselves in the hours of night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth an to obey her commands as their mistress and to be summoned on her service on certain nights.

And so it went on. In the Second World War the Russian female pilots, who flew over the German defences in the dark, were so effective in unsettling the enemy that they were known as, yes, you guessed it, Night Witches!

England and Saint George

Traces of the cult of Saint George can be dated right back to Anglo-Saxon times. He appears as early as the ninth century in rituals at Durham, and in a tenth century martyrology. There is evidence, moreover, of pre-Conquest foundations dedicated to St. George: at Fordingham in Dorset, at Thetford, Southwark and Doncaster. So he was already familiar to the English well before the Crusades, though it is not until the reign of Edward III that emerges as the most important national saint, replacing Edward the Confessor. It is probably more accurate to say that the cult was identified specifically with the monarchy, rather than England as a whole. Edward I was the first king to display St. George's banner alongside those of Edmund the Martyr and St. Edward.

By the reign of Edward III he had definitely emerged as a 'god of battles', in much the same fashion as Saintiago Matamoros in Spain. In 1351 it was written "The English upon Saint George, as being their special patron, especially in war."

In this regard he was certainly more appealing than the unwarlike Confessor or St. Edmund, who had been defeated and subsequently killed by the Danes. But with the succession of Richard II George once again slipped down the ranks. Richard had little of his grandfather's warlike ambitions, and returned to the veneration of the two native saints.

George was called back to national prominence during the Wars of the Roses, when his name was invoked by both sides in the contest. It was also at this time that his cult spread across the nation at large. Almost a hundred wall paintings featuring the saint date from the fifteenth century, almost always showing him in combat with the dragon. He also survives in pilgrim badges. His secular importance was finally confirmed by the English Reformation; for he alone survived the suppression of the cult of saints, which not even the Virgin herself had been able to do.

Courage in the Face of Death: Examples from Literature

Lev Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich leaps to mind. Also Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro. This theme might also encompass those who face execution, or are already on their way to the gallows, like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. But the saddest account of a man facing death heroically and with great resolution is depicted in the The Last of the Just, a novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart, which deserves to be much better known in the Anglo-Saxon world. The last few pages left me completely numb: no easy thing, I assure you.

Monday 25 May 2009

Waving the Flag for Hungary

It’s inevitable that right wing nationalism will wax strong in the current climate, fostered not just be economic problems but a general resentment against the bureaucratic absurdities of that monstrous monolith, the European Union, as well as more local resentments.

Anyway, I like to keep my eyes open for any new developments. I read a report at the weekend on Dr Krisztina Morvai, who is standing in the forthcoming European elections for the far-right Jobbik movement in Hungary. I’d never heard of Jobbik prior to this, but it seems to me to carry strong overtones of the Arrow Cross, the Fascist movement that controlled Hungary in the dying stages of the Second World War. Jobbik even has its own paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard. Oh, sorry, they are not paramilitaries at all; they are merely a collection of guys and girls in traditional Hungarian costume, at least they are according to Balzco Zoltan, the vice-president of Jobbik. Would you like to see the Hungarian national costume? Well, here it is. :-))

My Numeric Vibration

This is it, worked out with the most amazing insight and industry by a wonderful friend of mine!

Anastasia... I will begin with the year - 1986 - Year of the Tiger - Yang (masculine)
Ever and always the huntress you are. Hungry for anything that pleases you, you pursue relentlessly until you have your "kill".


The Equation of You:

This is going to be a tad lengthy, so I will leave off the mathematics of it all... Shall we begin?

Full name expression = 9
Generally 9s possess a soft heart and a pleasant personality. However the opposite is equally true and of equal importance to be mindful of. Your pet peeve is people who do not finish what they start (among other favorite pet peeves of yours... and that is most likely an extensive list for you). You enjoy expressing yourself freely and prefer no constraints where that is concerned. You enjoy helping others, provided it is respected and appreciated... and reciprocated as well.

Balance Digit = 3
Artistic and/or musical expressions are highlighted with a 3. Where balance is concerned, this applies to how you interact with others on a day to day basis. In a nutshell, you just want to be heard. You always have something to offer in the way of a verbal reply to just about anything. This most likely found you in the hot water many a time.

Soul Urge = 10
You prefer to be first in all things that you do. You pull ahead of others around with ease. You prefer to be perceived by others as a Leader, not a follower.

Quiet Self = 8
You desire a perpetual state of self sufficiency to an extreme... most likely a strong desire to be self employed, or at least at the very top of it all. You do not take direction well as you prefer to give it. Punctual, pragmatic, practical and a perfectionist... you practically demand the same of others.

Path of Life = 6
You value your partnerships highly and have many connections. You prefer it all revolve around you as you direct. Your home is most likely neat and organized, with everything having it's place (and you are usually the first to notice when things are out of place).

Underlying Path = 2
Learn that you are not the center, even though it is a position you prefer, it is we who revolve around Life, not the reverse.


The Full Equation Inclusion Perspective:

1.) there are 11 of these (1s) present, indicative of a dramatically elevated self esteem as well as a strong set of desires and ambitions, likes and dislikes. Not being the most patient person, you tend towards pushing the slow pokes out of your way if they obstruct your goal. You have a talent for both the written as well as the spoken word.

2.) There are 6 of these present. You play well with others... especially if they take your direction well. You will cooperate if you have a common goal which provides gains for the group as whole. Your focus on solidarity sometimes gets in the way of this. (This is where the statement "does not play well with others" suits you).You are an adept arbitrator, and others seek your counsel for this reason.

3.) There are 5 of these present. You love to speak and to sing. Anything vocal, you love. Also you possess a propensity for music and art. You believe in rapid expansion as you lack the patience for most of the waiting involved with acquisition.

4.) There are 2 of these present. You prefer play over work, any day and any time. However, where work is concerned, you can tend towards overtaxing yourself to meet an objective. You have no fear of hard work, you simply prefer to delegate the responsibility to others. You are a very physical person, preferring activities that require movement as opposed to stagnation.

5.) There are 8 of these present. You love traveling and seeing as well as experiencing new things constantly. You have never been a controlled substance.... although many do try, and fail miserably at this. You strike against control with great force... unless you have something to gain by it. You take advice, but with salt. You prefer to think for yourself, having no fondness for being ordered about.

6.) There are 3 of these present. You are self-responsible... but wants come first for you always. You are a creature of desire, and that is your dominant priority.

7.) There are 2 of these present. You tend to overtax physical and mental energies. You tend towards the basic self-abuses... moderation would indeed be the wise choice in all things. You are knowledgeable and wise beyond your years, but prefer to use that only where it draws the most benefit for you (the phrase "do not waste my time on your stupidity" fits here for you).

8.) There are 2 of these present. You have voracious spending appetites. You love to shop and to buy beautiful things for yourself as well as for others. You flavor everything with your own personal touch in that regard. You should learn the art of frugality, as it is the simple pleasures in life that are truly priceless. You are ambitious, and will always find what you seek, knocking down those in your way if necessary. You prefer to be on top of everything you do... and this includes men (did I say that out loud? LOL)

9.) There are 3 of these present. You tend to bottle things, but only long enough to allow just enough pressure to create the explosions you love so much. You frustrate easily and you tend to let that out relatively soon (refer to the prior statement regarding explosions). You have a compassionate heart, but you prefer your graces to be earned, giving nothing away freely to those who would abuse it.


Your Dominant Ruling Passions order of strength of vibration:
1.) Self above others... to an extreme
5.) Personal freedoms to do as you please, when you please, with whom you please (or are pleased by... out loud again grr).
2.) Associations with others you value, respect, and work well with. Everyone else just gets in your way unless they have something useful, constructive, or otherwise beneficial to offer.


Reality Digit (what you are here to learn in this life):

6.) Responsible on a greater scale, domesticity, partnerships (personal and professional).

Underlying Reality ...what lies beneath:
2.) Learn to "play well with others", and learn to trust your intuition within those associations.

Responsibility and Association go hand in hand. Make a note of the fact that your Path and Underlying Path match Identically your Reality and Underlying Reality... is someone trying to tell you something?

I do hope you found this analysis Useful and Accurate.

Chola Art

A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition if bronzes from the Chola Empire held at the Royal Academy in London. It was quite a revelation. Before that I hadn’t given too much thought to Indian sacred art, particularly the sensual quality that many of these images display, forms, if you like, of sacred sexuality.

Anyway, the Cholas were a Tamil dynasty who flourished in southern India between the ninth and thirteenth centuries AD. Soldiers turned builders, they created massive temple complexes which were then furnished with devotional images cast in bronze, including one of Shiva dancing in a ring of fire, as much an emblem of India today as the Taj Mahal. Shiva in the form of Nataraja-the Lord of Dance-became the most important symbol of the Chola dynasty itself, with one twelfth century ruler devoting a whole year’s revenues to the embellishment of the god’s shrine at Chidambaram in central Tamil Nadu.

The interesting contrast between this form of Hindu art and the Christian sculptures of the same period is the emphasis the former places on bodily beauty. It’s not just beauty of form but the teasing sensuality which appears to be such an important part of the Indian bronzes. It can be seen in the perfection of Shiva’s form in the ring of fire and in the image of Krishna standing on the head of the serpent Kaliya.

These divine works of art were specifically intended to allow the observer to focus on a higher level of being. They were created in the wake of a form of devotional Hinduism known as bhakti, growing in importance across southern India since the seventh century. Under this form of belief devotion was expressed in a whole variety of ways, in poetry, in song and in the contemplation and praise of the beauty of scared icons, images of bodily perfection. And perfect they are. I simply can’t wait to see them again, and in their original, and sacred, settings.

My Elemental

I’m Cancer, a water sign, so I would have assumed that my elemental would have been a nymph or an ondine, but it’s not, oh, no, it’s not. I seem to be possessed by a spirit of fire, a salamander. I burn up in every sense, intellectually, emotionally and sexually. I simply can’t rest or stay still. There is sometimes water enough to quench the passion, but mostly it just burns free and unrestrained.

Saints and Sinners

Saints are fairly remote figures now but not so in the Middle-Ages, oh no. They were a living and immediate presence, who often intervened in human affairs to serve the ends of justice and grace. Miracle stories reveal their intervention in the judicial system of the day, when they came to the aid of the weak and the defenceless, all those who lacked some strong earthly protector. The stories, of course, were clearly created as a form of compensation, a reassurance to the weak and defenceless in a world dominated by the strong and powerful. Justice, true justice, really only prevails in the imagination…and in Hollywood.

Burke and Orwell

This is the bicentenary of the death of Thomas Paine, a political writer I have no particular respect for, despite the modish enthusiasm, I thought I would add a piece on the two I admire most: Edmund Burke and George Orwell.

Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Reflections on the Revolution in France might be read as prophecies and warnings. Orwell's chief concern is with the globalisation of totalitarianism. Edmund Burke, writing in 1790, warned that the upheavals in France would only lead to further political destruction, terror and dictatorship.

Both men also expressed views that were not wholly welcome in their own political and intellectual milieus; in the case of Burke, the radical Whigs of Charles James Fox; and in the case of Orwell, the circle most associated with the left-wing demimonde. Their critiques were thus all the more trenchant because they were made from within the citadel, so to speak, not from the perspective of the establishment.

Orwell and Burks also shared a distrust of their fellow intellectuals. Orwell expressed his contempt of a certain kind of 'Bloomsbury highbrow' in The Lion and the Unicorn, his wartime essay on socialism and patriotism, just as Burke disliked Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the 'literary cabal', as he put it, of the French philosophes. On the fate of Marie Antoinette he wrote "But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators, has succeeded."

Both Burke and Orwell, two of the greatest political writers in the English language, were, in essence, defending human values threatened with destruction by waves of violence and intolerance. Both stand against the notion that cruel means justify abstract ends. I'm reminded, in particular, of Burke's warning in Letters to a Noble Lord to those aristocrats of his day who embraced radical chic-"...these philosophers consider men in their experiments no more than they do mice in an air pump."

But it is in his riposte to Rousseau, the grandfather of Fascism and Communism, that he is at his greatest: "Society is indeed a contract...but becomes a partnership...between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." You will find an echo of this in Orwell’s defence of patriotism as "…the bridge between the future and the past."

Sunday 24 May 2009

Sex and Race

Another answer, this time on race mixing.

Hey, X, I’m not quite sure what you are looking for here. I suppose the whole thing leaves me ever so slightly puzzled. First off, I have no idea if cheetahs and gazelles ‘like’ each other or not, which hardly seems an appropriate verb in that particular context. I imagine the prevailing emotion of the gazelle towards the cheetah is one of fear. The cheetah, I suppose, is quite indifferent towards the gazelle, except insofar as it exists as an object of consumption. But, at root, in the great natural scheme of things, the one needs the other; for without the gazelle the cheetah would not exist. The cheetah kills the gazelle, yes, but those that it kills are the weaker and the older, making the overall species stronger in the process.

Sorry, that’s a major digression, but I’m sure you get the point. How and why you then use the example of these animals to draw a human parallel is the thing that puzzles me most. People may have different skin colours, but that does not make them different species. Do you know H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine? Well, we are not yet Eloi and Morlok; not yet herbivores and carnivores; one group does not exist as the hunted and the other the hunter. If we did the dominant relationship would one be the one I described above, that between the gazelle and the cheetah.

I have a white skin but I am not in any respect different from a person with a black skin (being English I do not use expressions like African-American!). So, not being different species-and the emphasis here is on race, not species-, white people and black people can have sex, and, yes, they can have children if they wish; they have been for centuries past, a simple fact you must surely be aware of, you are aware of, insofar as you have relatives of a different race. Oh, and speaking personally, I would far rather have sex with a black guy than a Nazi, a different species from me! And if you want to know if this is all theory on my part, no, it’s not.

Two Cheers for the Telegraph, or the Ducks say Fuck!

I think The Telegraph has done a splendid job in exposing the sheer carnality of our beloved Members of Parliament despite what the absurd and muddle-headed Archbishop of Canterbury says. I read today in The Sunday Telegraph that Derek Conway, one of the most venal of the lot, claimed for office expenses on his family home in Northumberland, some three hundred miles away from his constituency! And, oh, yes, Sir Peter Viggers, who claimed £1,600 for a floating house for his duck pond, says that the ducks have shunned the blasted thing, which is now in storage. In other words, the ducks said fuck! He should hear what people on the street are saying; so should they all.

The Baron and the Devil

I touched on the career of Gilles de Rais in my blog on The Damned but I thought I would say a little more about a man whose crimes are at least the equal of Erzebet Bathory, and in some ways much more demonic. Although it is not always recognised it is true, almost banally so, that each and everyone of us is capable of great good and just as capable of great evil. There are so many things, so many circumstances, which might open the one road or the other; the circumstances of our personal lives and the circumstances of history.

So, Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, to give him his full title, was a fifteenth century French nobleman, a soldier in the long wars with England and a companion of Joan of Arc, that most militant of saints. He was also one of the most prolific child murderers in the history of France and the world; the worst kind of pedophile before that term had ever been devised.

Like Erzebet Bathory, he was part of a world almost now beyond our comprehension; a world where people could and did exist as objects in the purest sense, objects that could be disposed of at will, if one had the right background and connections. Gilles’ world was one of privilege and wealth, the world of the great feudal nobility. His grandfather, Jean de Craon, was one of the richest men in the country. Gilles inherited his wealth, but he also inherited something else, the belief that he was above all law and moral restraint.

Gilles military career came to an end in the early 1430s, not long after the death of his grandfather. He now had a taste for two things the luxury that his wealth allowed…and blood.

What we know of the years that followed comes from the 1440 trial records, when Gilles was indicted on multiple charges, including murder, heresy and sodomy. It is important to remember that the Gilles confession and that of Henriet Griart and Etienne Corrillaut, also known as Poitou, his co-accused, was obtained under threat of torture, though torture was never actually applied. More tellingly, corroborative testimony was given by parents whose children had entered the nobleman’s castle never to be seen again.

The first abduction, rape and murder, that of an unnamed twelve-year-old boy, came sometime in the course of 1432. Thereafter the number of victims began to escalate. As with the example of Erzebet, it is difficult to establish a precise figure, though it is generally reckoned to be between 80 and 200, with some estimates taking the figure as high as 600 and above. Various methods were used to kill the victims, mostly young boys. Gilles was also in the habit of raping these boys as they died. He also enjoyed necrophilia.

The details are fairly grotesque, too grotesque to dwell on at any length. Suffice to say that organs and intestines were removed for the simple pleasure this gave. Those who died were cremated in the castle, the ashes being deposited in the moat or cesspit.

Reports of the vanishing children began to circulate around the neighbouring villages. Some of the stories handed down over time clearly have a fanciful quality. Gilles is said to have employed agents to entice the children into his domain, including an old woman known as Perrine Martin, better known as La Meffraye or The Terror.

It’s hardly surprising, though, that people began to attribute a supernatural quality to events seemingly beyond explanation or control. We know that Gilles himself had an interest in alchemy, becoming all the more urgent over time as his spendthrift ways steadily reduced his fortune to almost nothing. Anxious to obtain that ever elusive secret, the ability to turn base metal into gold, he descended into the deepest recesses of magical practice, not averse to employing the services of alchemists who claimed to have the ability to summon Satan himself, including one Jean de la Riviere, who pocketed the Baron’s payment for the service and then promptly disappeared!

Even so, Gilles was not discouraged by this setback. He wanted power as well as wealth. Having a demon to do his bidding would, in his estimation achieve both of these ends. He got a kind of demon, alright, just not the kind he expected. In May 1439 Francois Prelati arrived at his court, full of stories of the kind of benefits the Baron could enjoy once the necessary ceremony had been carried out.

On Midsummer’s Eve of that same year, when it was believed that spiritual forces were particularly strong, Prelati began his incantations in the castle of Tiffagues, observed by Gilles, warned that, whatever happened, he must not make the sign of the cross. Prelati, of course, was just another trickster, subtle enough to convince the credulous nobleman, continually calling for the presence of a demon he called ‘Barron’, who, even after two hours, remained obstinate in his absence.

Prelati suggested the use of stronger magic, including the sacrifice of a child’s eyes, heart and sex organs, a request that was granted. ‘Barron’, or some other demon, suitably impressed, appeared at subsequent rites, but only, alas, in the presence of Prelati himself, who insisted that Gilles and the rest of hi entourage remained outside the chamber where he performed his magic. These fraudulent spectacles went on intermittently for a year, up to the point of Gilles arrest, leaving him not one coin richer or one measure more powerful.

While this was going on the campaign of debauchery and murder continued on its independent course. As in Hungary, the fearful local peasants counted for nothing. But Gilles, running out of money and influence, was to take one step to far. The rape and murder of peasant children was one thing, an attack on the church quite another. In 1440 the Baron kidnapped a priest in a dispute over property. The Bishop of Nantes became involved in the subsequent investigation and Gilles lost the support of the Jean, Duke of Brittany, his one time protector. It was now that the details of his crimes became public.

In July 1440 the Bishop published an account of his preliminary investigations;

Milord Gilles de Rais, knight, lord, baron, our subject and under our jurisdiction, with certain accomplices, did cut the throats of, kill and heinously massacre many young and innocent boys, that he did practice with these children unnatural lust and the vice of sodomy, often calls up or causes others to practice the dreadful invocation of demons, did sacrifice to make pacts with the latter and did perpetrate other enormous crimes within the limits of our jurisdiction…

Gilles was arrested at Machecoul together with some of his accomplices and brought to Nantes. Now the full inquest began. In October he was finally indicted on thirty-four charges of murder, sodomy and heresy. At first hostile and abusive towards the court, Gilles finally admitted to the charges, except the summoning of demons, offering to swear on the Bible to prove his innocence. But the prosecutor was sufficiently convinced by the testimony of Prelati and others in the Baron’s entourage. Gilles and his co-accused were finally hanged on 26 October. Beforehand he had made a tearful plea for forgiveness.

Like Erzebet Bathory, Gilles de Rais has had modern defenders, notably Aleister Crowley and Margaret Murray, author of The Witch Cult in Modern Europe. Demonstrating a more than usual level of absurdity, Murray speculated that the Baron was a witch, celebrating the ancient fertility cults around the goddess Diana. It was suggested, moreover, that he was the victim of a conspiracy by the church, determined to lay claim to his lands, also without foundation as these reverted to the Duke of Brittany.

The fact is, despite the threat of torture, the process against Gilles is replete with detail, detail wholly unnecessary to secure a conviction, minute detail of most perverse forms of child abuse, mutilation and murder. Although the accusations of demonology seem doubtful, these were probably added in an attempt to make sense of the horror and carnage involved. It’s worth contrasting the details of the trial, of the accusations arising, with that of Jacques De Molay, Grand Master of the Templers, who was tried and convicted of heresy the previous century. The indictment against de Molay is artificial and unconvincing, almost formulaic, one might say. That against Gilles de Rais, again like that against Erzebet Bathory, convinces not in the grand sweep but in the weight of detail. He was a Catholic who descended into the deepest forms of perversity. It’s as simple and as direct as that.

Sex and Prejudice

This is an answer I gave to a discussion on the nature of sexuality and prejudice.

Essentially we are talking about on the nature of prejudice and the circumstances in which particular prejudices arose. Take the example of male homosexuality. In ancient Greece it wasn’t just ‘normal’ to be homosexual in many cases it was actively encouraged, particularly in the military. In the city state of Thebes pairs of homosexual lovers were hand-picked to join an elite formation known as the Sacred Band. The thinking here was that the disgrace and shame would be all the greater for a soldier who abandoned his lover in battle. The inspiration for this came from Plato himself, who wrote;

For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Although the Romans were more ambivalent the real prejudice against homosexuality and all forms of ‘non-procreative’ sex comes with the rise of Christianity. Even with the decline in Christian belief the prejudice remains, sustained by irrational feelings; sustained, one also suspects, by fears and insecurities about self-identity. I suspect that some of the greatest homophobes are themselves latent homosexuals!

I certainly don’t agree that heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gays out of a general disgust over the practice of anal intercourse. I can assure you that a lot of straight guys are only too keen on the idea when it comes to girls, both giving and-ahem-receiving! Prejudice is just that-prejudice, an irrational fear of that which is different based, for the most part, on no particular experience.

Transexuality, I suppose, falls into the same trap as homosexuality, though, speaking personally, as a self-professed bisexual I have never at any time come across any prejudice whatsoever. Just the contrary; I know guys who would only be too happy to see me get it on with another girl. :-))