Go Home, The Middle Ages: You’re Drunk

14th c., The Maastricht Hours

14th c., The Maastricht Hours


14th c.: Gorleston Psalter


The False Prophets (14th c)


Music illustrated by monkeys flinging poo at snails attacking their monkeycastle, because of course they are. (15th c, France)

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Snail Houses

Snail Houses


The Three Kings in bed: 15th c., Salzburg Missal

12th c.

12th c.

2014-04-14 15.29.24


Always Bring Your Weasel to a Basilisk Fight

A basilisk kills a man with his gaze, and is in turn killed by the stink of the weasel.

If only this man had remembered to bring his weasel when he decided to draw on a basilisk…

From Pliny’s Natural History:

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.

Now you know.

[from Bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff 6r-94v), British Museum]

Defleshing Rituals and Boiled Brains

It’s Monday morning, and we all know what that means: stories about ancient defleshing rituals and 4000-year-old brains.

Let’s start with the defleshing, since it’s a word I just don’t get to use enough any more:

Archaeologists have recently published in the International Journal of Osteoarcheology, a full report on the discovery of early Holocene burials while excavating in the Ille cave, Palawan, Philippines, where the bones of one individual bear the marks of a complex de-fleshing ritual.

Examination of the reconstructed individual showed evidence of multi-directional grooves on the left tibia and perforations on the ends of the left fibula that suggest that actions had occurred to the body that are not usually related to the post mortem processing.

For example, numerous bone surface modifications were identified within the skeletal remains including scrape marks, cut-marks and impact scars, that were all characteristic of damage caused by people in the course of processing the body.

Cut-marks occurred as single or grouped linear incisions, predominantly located at points on the bone close to ends which suggests the joints were severed. Impact scars tended to be in discrete areas where a heavy object had impacted on the bone surface.

The presence of scrape marks extending across two or more reconstructed fragments of bone fractured skeletal elements implied also that defleshing had occurred prior to the bones being smashed. The presence of striations on the surfaces also indicated that areas of bones struck were already de-fleshed. If the flesh had been present, it would have sustained the impact, protecting the bones from damage.

It is possible to reconstruct the final acts of ritual, as the skinned and de-fleshed skull, femur, tibia and arm bones were hammered and smashed with a hammerstone on a stone anvil.

The bones were then collected for cremation and subjected to a temperature that was high enough for calcination to occur – though there are variations in the burn marks which need further analysis.

The bone fragments after cremation were collected, cleaned and placed in a container or bag before the final deposition or burial.

As I wrote in my series on burial customs in ancient Israel, it was more common for cultures to either cremate or allow flesh to decompose naturally, rather than stripping flesh, which is a pretty gruesome approach to caring for the dead. It raises all kinds of questions about what these ancient peoples felt and thought about the departed.

Next up: ancient, preserved brains boiled right in the skull:

Shaken, scorched and boiled in its own juices, this 4000-year-old human brain has been through a lot.

It may look like nothing more than a bit of burnt log, but it is one of the oldest brains ever found. Its discovery, and the story now being pieced together of its owner’s last hours, offers the tantalising prospect that archaeological remains could harbour more ancient brain specimens than thought. If that’s the case, it potentially opens the way to studying the health of the brain in prehistoric times.

The skeletons were found burnt in a layer of sediment that also contained charred wooden objects. Given that the region is tectonically active, Altinoz speculates that an earthquake flattened the settlement and buried the people before fire spread through the rubble.

The flames would have consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brains in their own fluids. The resulting lack of moisture and oxygen in the environment helped prevent tissue breakdown.

The final factor in the brains’ preservation was the chemistry of the soil, which is rich in potassium, magnesium and aluminium. These elements reacted with the fatty acids from the human tissue to form a soapy substance called adipocere. Also known as corpse wax, it effectively preserved the shape of the soft brain tissue.

I ask you: do any other Catholic blogs bring you stories that let you know about corpse wax? I think not.

Don’t thank me: just imagining your shocked expressions is thanks enough.

South Korea to Build Invisible Skyscraper …

right next to an airport.

What could go wrong?

International architectural firm GDS Architects reports that it’s received a construction permit to begin building “the world’s first invisible tower.” The Tower Infinity will stand 450 meters (1,476 feet) and be situated in Cheongna, near the Incheon Airport just outside of Seoul.

Like other concepts for invisibility cloaks that have tantalized the geeky imagination, this one relies on optical illusion.

The glass-encased Tower Infinity, also called City Tower, will be fitted with a high-tech LED facade that integrates projectors and 18 strategically placed weatherproof optical cameras.

The cams will snap real-time pictures of the area directly behind the building, digitally stitch the images into a panorama, and project them back onto the building’s reflective surface. That will create the illusion that viewers are looking straight through the structure to the other side, making it appear to blend into the skyline at certain times of day.

Of course, a building capable of displaying images like this is also capable of displaying anything: art, nature photos, and other things of beauty. There’s something almost juvenile in the idea that their first thought was: “Let’s make it invisible because … that’s cool!”

A Snail With a Translucent Shell

A new species of snail discovered deep in a Croatian cave has a translucent shell:

Zospeum tholussum – belongs to a genus of minute air-breathing land snails that cannot see to find their way around and are considered to be true eutroglobionts that only live in dark, underground caves.

The fragile snail has a beautifully shaped dome-like translucent shell.

Scientists from Goethe University, Frankfurt and the Biospeleological Society in Croatia, found just one living specimen during the expedition, the findings of which were published in the journal Subterranean Biology.

The animal was found at the remarkable depth of 980 metres, in an unnamed chamber full of rocks and sand with a small stream running through it.

In other weird nature news, Blobfish was just voted the ugliest animal.

Dungeons and Dragons and Demons and Dopes

So last week I shared a little video on Facebook, adding some mocking comments. Here it is:

Oh Pat. PatPatPatPatPat. What are we going to do with you, you crazy knucklehead, you!?

I decided, at the time, not to post it here because it gives Pat Robertson a kind of credibility and importance he’s never had. No one cares what Pat Robertson says aside from the droning callers who dial in wondering if their used clothing might be possessed by demons, and liberals and atheists who like to pretend all Christians are dopes like Pat.

Look, this video is just Pat performing a central part of his job description: Offering Meaningless Opinions and Lies On a Subject About Which is Completely Ignorant. (He not only lies about it “literally” destroying people’s lives, but makes a confusing leap from videogames with magic to the D&D hysteria of the 1980s.) In other words, it’s a Dog Bites Man story of amusement to my gamer friends and me, but few others. No one really still believes any of that bunkum about the dangers of D&D.

Or so I thought. Turns out some people really still believe that Dungeons & Dragons is Satan’s Very Own Playground, complete with a set of Swings of Damnation and a Slide Into Eternal Hellfire.

Okay then.

I was informed that it was no different from a Ouija board in terms of summoning spirits and demons. I even had one fabulist spinning outright lies about an overzealous bunch of “D&D LARPers” committing a series of grisly homicides inspired by the game.

Yeah, okay: so that never actually happened, but do go on. I sense that an early Tom Hanks movie is about to break out in the middle of your story, and I love me some Rona Jaffe.

Also: “D&D” and “LARPs” are two different things. It’s technically possible to have a D&D LARP, I guess, but it’s not something people really do.

I asked for a single example of D&D leading to actual real-life homicide. My interlocutor let his Google fingers do some walkin’ and replied, minutes later, with a link to the Lieth Von Stein murder. I didn’t even need to follow the link, because I knew the case already. Chris Pritchard murdered his stepfather for a $2 million dollar fortune. A murder-for-money story was too tame for notorious liar, hack, and Sarah Palin stalker Joe McGinness, so he spun the murder into a “young men obsessed with D&D story” for his ridiculous book, Cruel Doubt, which was later made into a ridiculous TV movie: the final stage in turning Legend into Fact.

It must have been irresistible for ole Joe: Pritchard and his D&D group had mapped the same steam tunnels allegedly tied to “the disappearance” of James Egbert: the seedbed of all “obsessed D&Der goes wacko” legends. (It, too, was a media-generated hoax.)

See, the thing is this: “Murders by people who also play D&D” is akin to “Murders by people who also eat pizza.” Correlation is not causation.

For example, a few years ago the game industry was rocked by the murder of a Microsoft Games employee by her jealous husband, who then killed himself. The husband worked for Wizards of the Coast on the D&D line, but the case had nothing to do with games other than proximity. It was about a decaying marriage, accusations of infidelity, and domestic violence.

In the minds the anti-D&D folk, however, either the murderer had rolled badly on a D20 and had no choice but murder-suicide because the game told him to, or it was simply a gateway through which demons poured to possess him.

That’s not how D&D works. The idea of role-playing games confuses people because it doesn’t follow any familiar game form. The “game” aspect, in fact, is secondary. RPGs are group storytelling. A DM (Dungeon Master) creates a story for a series of player encounters. He begins with simple scene setting: “Your group is in the tavern, relaxing after your long journey. A frightened young woman approaches your table and begs for you to help find her family, who disappeared into the Dark Forest. What do you do?” Then you’re off and running: talking to people, fighting, gaining treasure, leveling up, getting new skills, and so on.

The game is as good or bad as the DM makes it. They can weave elaborate stories, and the players then shape the way those stories unfold. At critical decision points, players use various skills, usually combat-related, which require dice rolls for results. The game continues until a quest is completed. The end.

And that, folks, is that. People don’t attempt to actually summon demons. (D&D doesn’t even have real “demons.”) Characters may, in fact, be evil, and they may choose to perform evil or immoral actions in the context of the game. But the player is not is the character. That’s why it’s called a “character.”

Unlike a Ouija board, players are not directly attempting to contact spirits. Every RPG player plays not as himself, but as a dwarf, elf, fighter, magician, or whathavethee. It’s play, like cops and robbers for adults, or like a fantasy novel you and your friends create in real time. It’s no more demonic than Harry Potter.

Of course, there are many who are opposed to fantasy fiction (particularly Harry Potter), believing no Christian should enjoy it because they make magic and the occult seem alluring. That’s an entirely different debate, and one that I respect so little I’m not going to bother engaging it. Magic, fantasy, dragons, myth, and even the occult have been fit topics for fiction since we’ve been spinning tales in caves, and Christianity didn’t change that. In fact, it re-energized it.

Is it possible for gamers to go too far? To become entranced by the occult? To take it too seriously and lose perspective on their lives?
Anything’s possible, I guess, but the fault is being placed on the wrong side of the ledger. There can be bad gaming groups, because there are bad people. (See also: Fall of Man, Original Sin, etc.) It’s not only possible, but demonstrably provable, that Catcher in the Rye has inspired more than one murderer. Is that the fault of the book?

Of course not. Catcher in the Rye is just a really bad book by a wildly overrated writer. Its negative effect on certain disturbed psyches is not the fault of the book, but of the psyches. Charles Manson thought The Beatles “White Album” ordered the Helter Skelter murders. As comedian Sam Kinison observed, “He would have gotten the same message out of The Monkees.”

I’ve written about play and games for a couple decades: everything from ancient board games and playing cards up to RPGs and high-tech interactive entertainment. Play is woven deeply into the human experience. Ancient game boards have been found carved into roofing tiles discovered in Egyptian ruins and cut into rock in Ethiopia.

Play is an exercise of the intellect and the imagination. It is fundamentally social, and few games are more social than RPGs like D&D: a non-competitive exercise in communal storytelling in a collective battle against evil. Christian parents have nothing to fear from role-playing games. Kids aren’t summoning demons and searching out eldritch tomes to learn dark spells for their games. I take the threat from demons seriously, and believe that possession and oppression are real. I just don’t believe it has anything at all to do with a game.

My aspie son found a home and a community in the local D&D club, and even a position of leadership when he founded his own. He now writes elaborate tales before each session, and is highly respected in the group for his vivid imagination and storytelling abilities. For kids who tend to be misfits and out of the mainstream–for those who aren’t athletic or traditionally social, who don’t share the musical or materialistic obsessions of their peers–an RPG club can be a godsend. After my son started a D&D group at his school, they began to incorporate it into socialization lessons for ASD students because it taught important skills.

Even RPG hysteria can be good. After all, it gave us the best gaming comic in history, and the entire career of Tom Hanks:


Our Weird and Wonderful World

Magnetic Putty Time Lapse would be an excellent name for a rock band:

Posted by Scott Lawson, who has this to say:

Magnetic putty time lapse as it absorbs a rare-earth magnet. Taken over 1.5 hours at 3fps, played back at 24fps. The magnetic putty will eventually arrange itself so that the outer surface is as evenly distributed around the magnet as possible.

Ferromagnetic particles in the putty are strongly attracted to the magnet and very slowly engulf the surface of the magnet. The magnet shown in the picture is a strong neodymium iron boron magnet. It’s a very powerful magnet for its size and could erase magnetic stripes found in credit cards and damage electronics!

The putty looks and feels like regular silly putty, but the difference lies in the fact that it has been infused with millions of micron-sized ferrous particles (most often iron oxide powder). The magnetic putty is not actually magnetic by itself, since the infused particles are made of iron powder.

The presence of the strong neodymium iron boron magnet (the silver cube in the video) magnetizes the ferromagnetic particles in the putty. When this happens, the ferrous particles align with each other and this alignment generates north and south magnetic poles, making the putty into a temporary magnet. Once magnetized, the putty will remain magnetized even after the rare-earth magnet has been removed from the putty. This effect persists for a few hours until thermal agitation shakes the particles and they lose their alignment.

H/T: iO9