‘For the past century, an obscure mathematical principle called Zipfs law has predicted the size of mega-cities all over the world. And nobody knows why.’ (io9).
Seymour M. Hersh: ”Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack.” (LRB 8 December 2013).
‘The German president has become the first major political figure to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. According to German weekly Der Spiegel, Joachim Gauck last week informed the Kremlin of his decision, which is understood to be a response to the Russian government’s violations of human rights and harrassment of the opposition.Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who played a key part in the East German protest movement before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has declined any official visits to Russia since coming to office in March 2012 and repeatedly criticised the country’s “deficit of rule of law” and “air of imperialism”. ‘ (The Raw Story).
‘…Eriksson didn’t realise it then, but he was embarking on one of the internet’s most enduring puzzles; a scavenger hunt that has led thousands of competitors across the web, down telephone lines, out to several physical locations around the globe, and into unchartered areas of the \”darknet”. So far, the hunt has required a knowledge of number theory, philosophy and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature and the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of Mayan numerology.
It has also featured a poem, a tuneless guitar ditty, a femme fatale called \”Wind” who may, or may not, exist in real life, and a clue on a lamp post in Hawaii. Only one thing is certain: as it stands, no one is entirely sure what the challenge – known as Cicada 3301 – is all about or who is behind it. Depending on who you listen to, it’s either a mysterious secret society, a statement by a new political think tank, or an arcane recruitment drive by some quasi-military body. Which means, of course, everyone thinks it’s the CIA…’ (Telegraph.UK)
HIV Reappears in Two Patients Thought to Be Cured: ‘The two male patients seemingly cured of HIV thanks to bone marrow transplants have both begun to show signs of the virus again, according to researchers in Boston.
Dr. Timothy Henrich of Brigham and Womens hospital presented the disappointing news yesterday at an AIDS research conference in Florida, saying that both patients had resumed HIV medications after the virus reappeared. The two patients, both battling HIV for years, had received bone marrow transplants to treat Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. After the transplants, both showed undetectable levels of the HIV virus. The patients agreed to stop taking HIV medications to help researchers determine if the marrow transplant was responsible for the virus disappearing.
When both patients showed undetectable virus levels after several weeks without treatment seven weeks and 15 weeks, respectively, Henrichs team revealed this finding to the medical community. But the virus reappeared in one patient in August, and in the other in November, after eight months with no HIV detected.’ (Gizmodo)
Inspiration To World’, Dies At 95: “Nelson Mandela, who was born in a country that viewed him as a second-class citizen, died Thursday as one of the most respected statesmen in the world.” (NPR). Mournful day. Playing that parlor game, what famous person you would most like to meet, Mandela was one of the first who came to mind. Thinking about whose passing will diminish the world, and me, most, he is high on the list. Madiba is gone. Long live Madiba!.
- Nelson Mandela Resources (simonhaughton.co.uk)
- Nelson Mandela Dies at 95: Celebrities React to Death on Twitter (gossipcop.com)
- Reports: Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95 (twitchy.com)
- Nelson Mandela (creativelybecomeindifferent.wordpress.com)
‘You’re looking at the Grand Canyon completely flooded by clouds, “a once in a lifetime event,” according to park ranger Erin Whittaker. It didn’t only happen once, she says, but two times in only three days’ (Gizmodo).
‘ …“Homeland” has long since abandoned the promise of its first exciting season, when The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum hailed it as “the antidote for ‘24.’” For those who may have repressed the memory, “24” was the Fox network’s action-packed, torture-rich, frankly Islamophobic series featuring the unstoppable Jack Bauer, who saved the world at least three times in any given 24-hour period.
“Homeland” was created by two men who were heavily involved with the earlier show, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. They seemed to have scaled down the testosterone quite a bit, going so far as to hint in the Showtime series that the US drone program was at least partly responsible for the further radicalization of the Muslim world (and for Brody’s desire to kill the VP).
But season three brings back “American exceptionalism” with a vengeance — a concept author Stephen Kinzer described as “the view that the United States is inherently more moral and farther-seeing than other countries and therefore may behave in ways that others should not.”
Others, of course, might disagree. By all accounts, despite government bans, millions of Iranians are actively using social media; the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has his own Twitter account, and issues fatwas via Facebook. Let’s just hope they’re not all watching “Homeland.” ‘ (Salon)
A recent study showed that more than 90% of depositions of the crucifixion show Jesus with his head turned toward the right, showing the left side of his face. The investigators speculate that artists are betraying an implicit understanding of the neuroscience of emotion — it is generally acknowledged that the left side of the face is more expressive, controlled as it is by the right cerebral hemisphere. However, there are plenty of non-neurological explanations:
‘For one thing, Mary is usually located to Jesus’ right, so maybe he is looking toward her. Or if Jesus is feeling abandoned by God, perhaps he is looking to the right, away from God (Jesus is usually described as being on God’s right-hand side). The saved are also depicted by convention on the right, so Jesus could be looking toward salvation. The number of speculations are almost endless.’ (Wired Science).
‘You’re pretty smart right? Clever, and funny too. Of course you are, just like me. But wouldn’t it be terrible if we were mistaken? Psychologists have shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we realise. This could explain why some incompetent people are so annoying, and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard.’ (Mind Hacks).
Exploding Dogs Were Used as Mobile Anti-Tank Mines During World War II (part of my sometime series, The Annals of Human Depravity).
In a tactic pioneered by the Soviets, the dogs (usually Alsatians and also called hundminen or dog mines in German) ‘were trained to carry explosives on their bodies to enemy tanks, where they would then be detonated’ by timer or remote control, with obvious consequences for the animal in question.
Fortunately for the dogs, a number of impracticalities, described in the article, limited the extent and duration of this approach, although various countries including the United States continued to train dogs as suicide bombers until the end of the 20th century and ‘insurgents attempted to use them during the Iraq War. In this case, there’s only one documented case of a bomb actually being detonated while attached to a dog though; protests rose up among Muslims who believe that animals should be killed only for food.’
- The Western Front’s dogs of war revealed (telegraph.co.uk)
- Declassified 1943 Film ‘The Use of War Dogs’ by US Military (Video) (theepochtimes.com)
‘There may well be more than 60 billion habitable planets littering the Milky Way, but it’s virtually impossible to make use of that figure. Instead, how about this picture, which shows you how many planets are within 60 light-years of Earth.
In the image, the size of the circle represents the size of the planet, while color indicates the kind of star it orbits: dusky red signifies that it’s spinning around something similar to the Sun, gray means that the star is a different size. Dark circles represent planets the same size as Earth.’ (Gizmodo)
…So why can’t we stop using it? ’In my research I have found that social software may inadvertently promote inequality rather than countering it. Metrics, like follower count or number of “likes” on a photo, facilitate this process by rendering social status into something that can be quantified, qualified, and publicized.
The process of what I call “digital instantiation” works similarly toward quantification, qualification, and publicity by rendering users’ lives in piecemeal fashion, unintentionally creating a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. Social media tools digitize formerly ephemeral pieces of information, like what one had for breakfast, making it possible to create a bigger picture of a person or community’s actions. Once “breakfast” is captured in a Foursquare check-in or Instagram photo, it can be combined, searched, or aggregated with other pieces of information to create mental models of actions, beliefs, and activities. Within this context, social surveillance, or the monitoring of friends’ and peers’ digital information, becomes normal.
While lifestreaming has plenty of social and emotional benefits, it also comes with costs. Lifestreamers must see themselves through the gaze of others, altering their behavior as needed to maintain their desired self-presentation. This constant monitoring against the backdrop of a networked audience creates anxiety and encourages jockeying for status, even as it brings forth new forms of social information.’ (Medium).
- Social Software is Enabling the Old “to-do” List to Make a Comeback (billives.typepad.com)
- 7 Social Media Pet Peeves That Drive Me Batty (thisbrunettelovescoffee.wordpress.com)
- Geolocating platform, sounds scary. (emagenativ.wordpress.com)
‘During the 1990s, a previously little-known concept rapidly became the hottest term in international relations. “Humanitarian intervention”—at its simplest, the use of military force to protect human rights—established itself in the political lexicon following a series of brutal conflicts in Africa and the Balkans.
As with most political concepts, humanitarian intervention became voguish thanks to circumstances. The Soviet Union had collapsed. We hadn’t fully grasped the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. With the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and the relative success of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, even the Middle East seemed uncommonly stable.
Most important, there was an acute awareness in Western countries that our impressive military strength hadn’t deterred some of the worst slaughters of the 20th century. For around 14 weeks in 1994, Rwanda was the site of the most rapacious extermination since the Holocaust, with more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered by machete-wielding Hutu extremists. Between 1992 and 1995, the war in Bosnia spawned countless atrocities, such as the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica. To many—especially American Jews—it seemed that these failures showed the hollowness of oft-repeated promises of “never again.”
Humanitarian intervention was the response to these failures. When the United States and the United Kingdom led a “coalition of the willing” to stop the Serb onslaught in Kosovo in 1999—supported by an ideologically broad coalition of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives—it wasn’t to pursue a strategic interest but to arrest yet another episode of ethnic cleansing on European soil. Similarly, when the British intervened in Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2000, the sole purpose was to prevent drug-addled paramilitaries controlled by a psychopath named Foday Sankoh from hacking off the limbs of young children.
The images of those wars—the long columns of refugees, the mass graves, the flowers and candy and cheers that greeted the liberating foreign armies—all seem very distant now. The combined experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have persuaded many Westerners that any kind of military action, even when it’s undertaken in the defense of basic human rights, is just plain wrong—morally, politically, and strategically.
Thus do we come to the debacle in Syria. Once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons against his own people, Western policymakers were confronted with a textbook case for humanitarian intervention. In a different context, they might have acted. But there was little domestic backing, even from those who had spoken strongly in the 1990s of “never again.” This lack of support was one critical reason America and its allies caved under Russian pressure, calling off planned air strikes in favor of a dubious diplomatic process guided by Moscow.
Was humanitarian intervention just a passing fad, or can it be resuscitated? Can we ever reach agreement among both liberals and conservatives that military action in defense of human rights is sometimes justified, or are we fated to remain polarized, to the detriment of those under the boot of tyrannical regimes?’ (Slate)
Helium is wasted in floating parade balloons: ‘Back in September, before the U.S. government shut down for a few days, Congress approved a bill that would prevent the National Helium Reserve from shutting down. This might sound minor, but as Miriam Krule and Noam Prywes explained in 2012, we’re quickly running out of helium—a valuable, and nearly impossible to recreate, natural resource. More than just funny voices and balloons, helium is necessary for MRIs, deep-sea diving, and aerospace engineering. So, before you sit down to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade, take a minute to read their piece…’ (Salon).
“Brian the dog elevated the show’s humor to actual social commentary. Killing him off was a huge mistake…” — Kevin Wong (Salon.com).
- If diabetes causes Alzheimer’s, we can beat it (newscientist.com)
- Alzheimer’s, dementia linked to eating habits (voxxi.com)
- 3 Alternative Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease (fool.com)
- Lipoic acid helps cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease (foodconsumer.org)
- High blood-sugar makes Alzheimer’s more deadly (indiavision.com)
- Meat Products Could Raise Diabetes Risk (healthgallery.wordpress.com)
William Saletan: ‘…[P]eople who suspect conspiracies aren’t really sceptics. Like the rest of us, they\’re selective doubters. They favour a world view, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It\’s about the omnipotence of elites.
Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor. But it’s not the kind of distrust that cultivates critical thinking…’ (Slate, via New Scientist).
‘The kind of boredom you experience most often may be linked to your personality, say researchers.’ (National Geographic)
‘This exceedingly rare triple system, seen when the universe was only 800 million years old [which is cosmic terms is the equivalent to the first 3.8 years of our lives], provides important insights into the earliest stages of galaxy formation during a period known as ‘cosmic dawn,’ when the universe was first bathed in starlight.’ (Gizmodo).
‘When the Queen of Denmark opted to commission the first royal family portrait in almost 125 years, she turned to Thomas Kluge, a largely self-taught Danish portrait painter whose inspirations are said to include Rembrandt and Caravaggio. After four years of work, Kluge\’s finished painting is finally here: an inexplicably creepy portrait that reimagines the royal family as a clan of sadists, transvestites, and malevolent pigmen whose abominable ruttings have brought into the world a brood of Damien-like progeny.’ (Co.Design via Boing Boing)
‘Pilots flying Boeing’s massive 747 Dreamlifter accidentally landed at the wrong airport yesterday, and have been stuck there overnight. The modified jumbo jets hopscotch the world picking up sections of the 787 Dreamliner and flying them to the company’s factories in Everett, Washington and North Charleston, South Carolina. But last night instead of landing at McConnell Air Force Base where the nose sections are made by Spirit Aerosystems, they landed several miles away at Jabara airport. No big deal? Big deal: The runway at Jabara is only 6,101 feet long, a bit shorter than the 747′s normal takeoff requirements…’ (Wired.com).
’150 is “the approximate number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” 150 is often referred to as the Dunbar number.
Ten years ago, Robin Dunbar studied the sending of Christmas cards in England. He used the count to measure meaningful social connections. The number sent averaged 153.5, precisely what Dunbar expected. He and other researchers kept finding groupings of 150; self-governing communes, offices of Gore-Tex, etc. Dunbar postulates that this is simply the brain’s limit. Sure, there are outliers, but most people top out at 150 relationships…
“Fundamentally, once you go beyond this number of people you can keep in your head, you begin to filter yourself, you change what you share and how much, you put on your public face.” …
Dunbar plotted the size of the neocortex of each type of primate with the size group that it lived in. The bigger the neocortex, the larger the group. To predict human group size, Dunbar supplanted the ratio of the human neocortex into the group. The result? 147.8, roughly 150…
Dunbar says within the 150, there are other interesting numbers. Three to five are our closest friends. The death of any of our 12-15 closest would devastate us….’ (dirjournal.com).
..but scientists killed it (Telegraph.UK)
…Follow Me Here dawned the second week of November, 1999. How long have you been following?
Despite inarguably vast stress levels, multiple measures since the mid-’90s have shown that African Americans are psychologically healthier than Caucasian Americans. The phenomenon is formally described as the “race paradox in mental health”.
And it is not simply a matter of lower rates of diagnosis or detection. More credible speculations have pointed to more supportive family relationships or what are called “fictive kin” relationships, the unofficial family structures that develop in communities not dominated by standard nuclear family structures.
But, in an investigation published last week, Dawne Mouzon, a Rutgers sociologist, dispensed with much of the received wisdom, writing that “neither the quality nor quality of family relationships can explain the race paradox in mental health.” Instead, “it is plausible that African Americans possess other resilience mechanisms (e.g., other social relationships, different types of coping strategies) that I was unable to consider here.” (The Last Word On Nothing).
‘It’s a question that’s perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: Where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That’s just the way the universe works.’ (Wired Science).
‘What are the World’s Most Irreplaceable Places? Here are 6 From a Big New List. A new study highlights some of the world’s most critical places essential for species survival.’ (National Geographic)
‘It’s hard to think of a critter that inspires as much hyperbolic hysteria as the brown recluse spider. They’re pretty much universally hated. If you believe the tales, these small arachnids are biting people all day, every day, producing massive, stinking flesh-craters that require months of intensive care and perhaps a prosthetic appendage. Sometimes, it seems these spiders have nothing better to do than hunker down in dark corners throughout North America, waiting for tender human skin to present itself.
Though there are strands of truth in the hype, on the whole, it’s bunk.’ (Wired Science).
No, they don’t “protect our freedoms”: ‘We need not thank the troops for every breath we take. When we do, we reduce our entire existence as free people to something that only exists at the whim of the U.S. military, and suffocate critical thought about the military and what it’s actually doing in the world.’ — Justin Doolittle (Salon).
‘The Florida senator is keynoting a fundraiser for a notorious anti-LGBT rights group.’ (Salon).
‘YOLO is a myth.’ — SMBC (BuzzFeed).
Shocked astronomers discover strange new type of space object: ’The object in these photographs captured by Hubble is not a comet. It’s something that no astronomer has ever seen before, according to NASA: An asteroid with six comet-like tails that isn’t moving like a comet and it’s not made of ice. It’s just hanging up there, rotating like a crazy space spider…’ (Gizmodo).
“It could be the brightest comet in decades, or even centuries, and it\’s coming to visit for the holidays. It might also fizzle out.” (CNET).
The chances of accidentally insulting someone is greater when you travel internationally, thanks to differing customs and ideas of etiquette. Even common hand gestures can signal the wrong thing.
Mental Floss has gathered five hand signals that don’t mean what you might think, depending on the country you’re in. A thumbs up, for example, doesn’t mean “good job” in parts of Latin America, West Africa, Iran, and Sardinia—it’s more like giving someone the finger. Likewise, the peace sign is not so peaceful in the UK, depending on how your palm is turned, and the okay sign does not mean “okay” in the Middle East, Turkey, Germany, or Brazil.
Before you travel to a foreign country, it’s best to review the etiquette and customs, including when it comes to eating. Or, in case of doubt, just to avoid making hand gestures all together.’ (Lifehacker).
‘Watertown, New York is the last place you\’d expect to find a creepy, supernatural mystery. After all, they\’re mostly known as the birthplace of the safety pin and those air fresheners for your car that are shaped like trees – both safe, friendly things. But now, it seems that they’re finally ready to admit that they\’re becoming more well known for their local park’s nasty habit of eating people.
Last week, the city officials erected a sign in the park warning locals of the \”vortex\”. As it turns out, the Mayor himself felt compelled to acknowledge the rumors after digging up some recently declassified information linking Watertown to the infamous Area 51 base in Nevada.’ (Roadtrippers).
‘More than 7,000 Americans named John Smith have gone missing. Smith is unchallenged as the most numerous surname in the U.S., some 28 percent ahead of second-place Johnson, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and WhitePages.com. And, based on the most recent available data from these sources, John heads the list of the most frequent first names. And yet, John Smith doesn’t even rank in the top 10 combinations of first and last name in the country. What happened? Where did all the John Smiths go?’ (Slate)
‘The U.S. is facing a shortage of a drug widely used for lethal injections. With few options, states are turning to new drugs and compounding pharmacies, rather than overseas companies.
The move is raising safety concerns, and in some cases delaying executions. Other executions are proceeding, however, and advocates are asking whether the use of new drugs violates the inmates’ Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment…’ (NPR)
‘…[T]ime is an emergent phenomenon that comes about because of the nature of entanglement. And it exists only for observers inside the universe. Any god-like observer outside sees a static, unchanging universe…’ (The Physics arXiv Blog — Medium).
‘It is not just a Starbucks’ coffee that you get when you walk through the café doors; it is a Starbucks’ experience. It was after careful psychological research that the company first decided to have white cups with green writing, “tall” lattes, natural materials, and round tables…’ (Whittaker Associates)
Thanks to William Gibson. (The Rockpot).
‘So much of social-network analysis confirms what we already know. Relationships that last are ones in which the other person widens our world? Well, yes. Still, it’s kind of nice to have it confirmed with lots of data and algorithms. “We hadn’t had this view of it before,” Mr. Kleinberg observed.’ (NYTimes)
‘The two-sentence horror story has become something of a genre — a super-popular Reddit thread this summer spawned numerous compilations. In honor of Halloween, Salon asked 12 novelists to try their hand at the form. Below are their ghostly, bloody, watery and surprisingly pet-focused forays into darkness.’ (Salon.com).
‘Sunday morning at 6:45AM, folks on the east coast will have a chance to see a very rare hybrid solar eclipse. The last one occurred 150 years ago, and the next one won\’t come until the year 2172, so make sure you set your alarm.
Let\’s talk terminology. An annular eclipse is the \”ring of fire\” type, where a small ring of sunlight shines around the moon. A total eclipse is where the moon blocks the sun completely. The hybrid eclipse has both phases: a ring is briefly visible, then the moon blocks out the sun completely, then (sometimes) the ring reappears. They\’re exceedingly rare — fewer than five percent of eclipses are hybrids.’ (Gizmodo).
‘When humans see a dog wagging its tail, we pretty much equate that with a happy dog. It turns out that a dogs tail may be much more expressive than we realize. Research has shown that happy dogs tend to wag more to the right, while anxious dogs go more to the left. A new study published in the journal Current Biology delves into the question of whether other dogs read this response.’ (CNET).
- Oh, the Horror: are these scariest characters of all time this Halloween? (glasgow.stv.tv)
- Hidden Haunts: 10 Scariest Movies You May Have Never Seen (entertainment.time.com)
- Scariest Movies of All Time! (wordofthemouth.wordpress.com)
- What is the scariest film music? (telegraph.co.uk)
- Best horror movies ever! (lifecable.wordpress.com)
- Hannibal Lecter voted scariest horror film character of all time (mirror.co.uk)
- Get Into The Halloween Spirit With The Best Horror Films Ever Made (makeuseof.com)
- The Scariest Movies Of All Time – Brian’s Blog [VIDEO] (k99.com)
- Open Thread: What’s The Scariest Movie Ever? (crooksandliars.com)
- The 100 Scariest Movie Moments (Part I) (theyearofhalloween.com)
‘The myth of the bloodsucking vampire has stalked humans from ancient Mesopotamia to 18th-century Eastern Europe, but it has differed in the terrifying details. So, how did we arrive at the popular image we know, love and fear today? And what truly makes a vampire…a vampire?’ (YouTube).
- Vampires – Folklore, Fantasy, and Fact (arunbabyveranakunnel.wordpress.com)
- True Blood: Sucking the Magic Out of Vampires (neuwritesd.org)
- Vampires – Folklore, Fantasy, and Fact (howtogeek.com)
- Myths and Legends: Vampires (daliennation.wordpress.com)
- Vampire Graves Unearthed (costaricantimes.com)
- Exhuming the Vampire (whitedragonmagazine.wordpress.com)
- 3. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black (bookishmatters.com)
- Halloween Chaos Countdown: Vampires in Nature (bizarrocentral.com)
- Guest Blogger: Holly Black, author of “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” (kindlepost.com)
- Just for Halloween: Vampires: Immortal Prisoners (reginajeffers.wordpress.com)
A reprise of my traditional Hallowe’en post of past years:
It is that time of year again. What has become a time of disinhibited hijinx and mayhem, and a growing marketing bonanza for the kitsch-manufacturers and -importers, has primeval origins as the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The harvest is over, summer ends and winter begins, the Old God dies and returns to the L of the Dead to await his rebirth at Yule, and the land is cast into darkness. The veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes frayed and thin, and dispossessed dead mingle with the living, perhaps seeking a body to possess for the next year as their only chance to remain connected with the living, who hope to scare them away with ghoulish costumes and behavior, escape their menace by masquerading as one of them, or placate them with offerings of food, in hopes that they will go away before the new year comes. For those prepared, a journey to the other side could be made at this time.
With Christianity, perhaps because with calendar reform it was no longer the last day of the year, All Hallows’ Eve became decathected, a day for innocent masquerading and fun, taking its name Hallowe’en as a contraction and corruption of All Hallows’ Eve.
All Saints’ Day may have originated in its modern form with the 8th century Pope Gregory III. Hallowe’en customs reputedly came to the New World with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. The prominence of trick-or-treating has a slightly different origin, however.
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.
Jack-o’-lanterns were reportedly originally turnips; the Irish began using pumpkins after they immigrated to North AMerica, given how plentiful they were here.
The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
Folk traditions that were in the past associated wtih All Hallows’ Eve took much of their power, as with the New Year’s customs about which I write here every Dec. 31st, from the magic of boundary states, transition and liminality.
The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards
The Witches’ Sabbath aspect of Hallowe’en seems to result from Germanic influence, and fusion with the notion of Walpurgisnacht. (Familiar with the magnificent musical evocation of this, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain?) Although probably not yet in a position to shape mainstream American Hallowe’en traditions, Mexican Dia de los Muertos observances have started to contribute some delightful and whimsical iconography to our encounter with the eerie and unearthly as well.
What was Hallowe’en like forty or fifty years ago in the U.S. when, bastardized as it has become with respect to its pagan origins, it retained a much more traditional flair? For my purposes, suffice it to say that it was before the era of the pay-per-view ’spooky-world’ type haunted attractions and its Martha Stewart yuppification with, as this irreverent Salon article from several years ago [via walker] puts it, monogrammed jack-o’-lanterns and the like. Related, a 1984 essay by Richard Seltzer, frequently referenced in other sources, entitled “Why Bother to Save Hallowe’en?”, argues as I do that reverence for Hallowe’en is good for the soul.
That would be anathema to certain segments of society, however. Hallowe’en certainly inspires a backlash by fundamentalists who consider it a blasphemous abomination. ‘Amateur scholar’ Isaac Bonewits details academically the Hallowe’en errors and lies he feels contribute to its being reviled. Some of the panic over Hallowe’en is akin to the hysteria, fortunately now debunked, over the supposed epidemic of ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ that swept the Western world in the ’90’s.
The horror film has become inextricably linked to Hallowe’en tradition, although the holiday itself did not figure in the movies until John Carpenter took the slasher genre singlehandedly by storm. Googling “scariest films”, you will, grimly, reap a mother lode of opinions about how to pierce the veil to journey to the netherworld and reconnect with that magical, eerie creepiness in the dark (if not the over-the-top blood and gore that has largely replaced the subtlety of earlier horror films).
In any case: trick or treat!
- Tricks, Treats and Traditions – Some Useful Tips for Hallowe’en (southeasttourguides.co.uk)
- Weighing In on Hallowe’en (4mothers1blog.wordpress.com)
- Preparing for All Hallow’s Eve (sporeflections.wordpress.com)
- OCTOBER FINALE! Hallowe’en! (pm27.wordpress.com)
- Tricksey Treats (jasperlocalfood.wordpress.com)
- Hallowe’en Night divination game. (jenniferlinton.com)
- Hallowe’en Weekend (sporeflections.wordpress.com)
- All Hallows’ Eve (ramblingratz.wordpress.com)
- About Samhain or ‘All Hallows’ (bethtrissel.wordpress.com)
- Halloween: A Brief History (lakeside.com)
- 13 Facts You Never Knew About Halloween (businessinsider.com)
- A Tarot Circle Game/Encounter for Samhain (jameswells.wordpress.com)
- Hallowe’en; The Do’s And The Don’ts (jackcollier7.com)
- Get ye gone, ye evil spirits (annabelfrage.wordpress.com)
- ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ – Resources for Hallowe’en (davidbradshawenglish.org)
- Hallowe’en! (thepiepatch.wordpress.com)