Paul Christian set up Hidden History, in a meaningful sense, at the start of the lockdown as something to do in some very dull times. With the present and future looking a bit bleak he looked to inspiration from the past.
It is a channel dedicated to bringing history to light and to life. The channel covers anything of interest with history news and new discoveries featuring as shorter videos and longer documentary type uploads, often with a particular focus on folklore and comparative mythology.
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
The verse written by JRR Tolkien, supposedly while he was in the bath, to describe the dominion of the One Ring and the other Rings of Power has come into sharp focus recently, with the first teaser trailer for Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings TV show being revealed.
There has been some controversy over the trailer, which I am not going to add to here but, instead, I’m going to look at the real Rings of Power from history and how they directly and indirectly influenced Tolkien’s epic story.
On a general note to begin with the shape of rings holds an ethereal innate power in and of itself.
From ring-shaped settlements like the mystical isle of Avalon, thought by some to have been at Glastonbury Tor, to the concentric rings of the harbour at the mythical island of Atlantis, the shape has occupied prime positions in some of the most perplexing and intriguing mysteries of history and mythology.
There is too King Arthur’s round table and the sacred geometry of rings as demonstrated at Glastonbury Abbey’s octagon and circle-based design.
Then there are stone circles like Avebury, Stonehenge and the Rollright Stones.
An ancient pagan practice in England, called passing through and under, made use of holes in trees and stones – either natural or man-made – as a healing ritual.
Even looking through holes was a ritual for the Norse, with descriptions and art showing that the forming of a ring shape, by bending the arm and placing a hand at the hip, formed a portal which could be gazed through to see another world or a god, such as Odin.
The circular and spiritually-significant torques of the ancient Celts and arm rings of Norse warriors see the motif appear again.
Sticking with Vikings, the cyclical nature of Norse mythology, from the beginning of time to Ragnarök and then the birth of a new world sees a more abstract cosmological ring brought into being.
The Midgard serpent Jormungandr – a great snake that encircles the world was one of the chief protagonists in this mythology.
Then there are rings in their actual jewellery form.
These include Draupnir (Dripper) – a magical ring possessed by Odin that can multiply itself. Every ninth night, eight new rings ‘drip’ from Draupnir, each one of the same size and weight as the original.
And the ring called Andvaranaut, which the chaotic and mischievous god Loki stole from Andvari.
In revenge, Andvari cursed the ring to bring misery and suffering to whoever possessed it.
Loki offloaded Andvaranaut to Hreidmar, King of the Dwarves as recompense for having inadvertently killing his son Ótr.
Ótr’s brother, Fafnir, murdered Hreidmar and took the ring, turning into a dragon to guard it.
This formed the basis of the gold-obsessed Smaug in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’.
The great hero Sigurd, or Siegfried, later killed Fafnir and gave Andvaranaut to Brünnehilde.
Following a complex web of ownership echoed by Tolkien’s One Ring, Queen Grimhild of the Nibelungs then manipulated Sigurd and Brünnehilde into marrying her children, bringing the Andvaranaut curse into her family.
This tale was originally told in Volsunga Saga and later adapted by Richard Wagner into his operatic epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Ring Cycle.
One can also look to the Norse sun wheel, a transplanted version of far older Indo-European mythology, linked to the power of the cosmos and the might of the thunder god Thor.
In the sixth century Saint Kentigern, who was associated with a series of miracles, is reported to have found a powerful ring in a salmon.
The story is referenced on the seal of the City of Glasgow, of which Kentigern, also known as Mungo, is a patron.
The motif of a ring in water being swallowed by a salmon is a common one.
It is included in the Aarne-Thompson international catalogue, which records common tropes and tale types in folklore.
This means the story is found in other traditional literatures from other regions or countries, lending weight to it having a very ancient origin.
In an Irish variant Ailill casts a ring into a stream for it to be swallowed by a salmon.
A long time later the ring is discovered by the hero Fráech, son of Béḃinn, a goddess associated with birth and the sister of the river goddess Boann.
Irish and Welsh myths also describe Béḃinn as an underworld goddess.
Enchanted rings are a popular feature of European folk magic, with many objects said to be imbued with a celestial power to ward off demons or illnesses.
One such object is the Bramham Moor Ring, which was found in Yorkshire and dates from the ninth century. It bears a mysterious runic inscription that has yet to be deciphered, but is thought, by some, to be magical.
It is one of a number of Anglo-Saxon runic rings, with the Bramham Moor Ring and the Kingmoor Ring both bearing a near identical magical runic formula.
On the former, this undeciphered inscription read: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpontol”.
Despite the messages’ meaning remaining uncertain, the ærkriu portion of the inscription has been claimed by some to be a charm to staunch the flow of blood.
Remaining with the Anglo-Saxons, Old English kennings – literary devices that were extended metaphors – included references to ring-givers, which were taken to mean overlords or rulers.
In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’, King Hrothgar is described as a “guardian of ring hordes”, alluding to his wealth and power. The power, in particular, of patronage.
The giving of a ring as the bestowing of a slice of that power.
That these references appear in ‘Beowulf’ is significant as the poem was one of the main influences for Tolkien in his crafting of the Lord of the Rings.
The world he brought to life was supposed to be a lost mythology of England, both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. Stripped away by the ceaseless cycle of invasions by, ironically, the Norse, whom he used as strong influences in his writing, and later by the Norman French, who sought to diminish Englishness and its ancient traditions and impose the rigid Norman culture.
The Normans can be seen as the embodiment of power, brutally demonstrated by their construction of vast castles to subdue their new English subjects.
It has to be noted also that, despite Tolkien’s stated dislike of allegory, The Shire was a representation of a rural idyll of a lost England. This vanished land was robbed, at first by the Normans, and later by the ceaseless march of industry and the jarring modernity of the First World War.
Magic rings were also a part of medieval Jewish esoteric tradition. They are mentioned in the Talmud and Midrash.
One such example is Solomon’s magical ring, which had a number of legendary powers.
This included making him a master of animals, able to speak with beasts and giving him the ability of being all-knowing.
The ring was said to have bore a special sigil that sealed genies into bottles.
In Kabbalah the ilan, or tree of life, is represented as a series of rings, called sephiroth, connected by lines that that represent different aspects of God.
Practitioners used these images to connect with the almighty and some believed this union could help them to influence the material world.
Ouroboros, from Greek magical tradition and associated with alchemy, is represented as a snake eating its own tail.
It symbolises life, death and rebirth, with the potent symbol also linked with transmigration of the soul.
The significance of rings is present in Christian practices too.
For Catholics the sacrament of marriage is a public sign that an individual is giving themselves totally to another person.
The rings used in weddings are a visual representation of this relinquishment of self.
And the Fisherman’s Ring, part of the Pope’s official regalia, is a signet ring used to seal and authorise official Vatican documents.
A custom, that dates from at least the Medieval period, sees Catholics kissing the ring when meeting the Pope to demonstrate their devotion.
These are just some of the real rings of power from history, which Tolkien either drew on directly or would undoubtedly have been aware of when writing the Lord of the Rings.
It is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why the story is so resonant. It is almost innate in the human condition that rings, both real or conceptual, hold a spiritual power in the collective consciousness.
The enigmatic feature known as King Doniert’s Stone is two parts of an ornately-inscribed 9th century cross.
The stones occupy a site in the historically-significant St Cleer Parish, near Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall.
It is thought that the ‘King Doniert’ referred to in an inscription on the northern cross was Dungarth, the last King of Cornwall, who died in around the year 875.
In the fifth century, Christianity was first brought to Cornwall by Welsh and Irish monks.
In spreading the faith and marking its dominion they were believed to have erected wooden crosses, which later gave way to more permanent stone varieties.
The location, eastern Cornwall, of King Doniert’s Stone, could be one of these sites.
On the side of one of the stones a Latin inscription reads: “Doniert rogavit pro anima.” This translates to “Doniert has begged prayers for his soul.”
With Doniert conflated with Dungarth it is possible to ascertain what happened to the monarch. His death is recorded in the 12th-century Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales.
The entry for 875 is written in Latin and reads: “Dungarth rex Cerniu mersus est.” This translates to: “King Dungarth of Cornwall was drowned.”
It is not known whether the king’s death was an accident or as the result of a ritual execution. The Annals of Wales do not elaborate on the circumstances, but an account from Ireland points to the latter.
It says that the vassal Dungarth, or Doniert, was executed for plotting against Alfred the Great of neighbouring Wessex in which he collaborated with invading Vikings, who briefly occupied Exeter in 876.
It is theorised that, whatever the reason, the king drowned in the River Fowey, which flows close to King Doniert’s Stone.
Returning to the stone, a similar – and contemporary – object, the Pillar of Eliseg, still stands in Denbighshire, Wales.
There were close cultural ties between Wales and Cornwall, with both languages tied closely to Latin and exhibiting similarities to this day.
The Anglo-Saxons called the Welsh wealas, meaning foreigners, and they referred to the also Brythonic Cornwall, then the most significant part of the Kingdom of Dumnonia, as ‘Cornweal’ or West Wales.
Intriguingly, in the case of King Doniert’s Stone, what is visible above ground is not the only facet of the site.
In 1849 the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society excavated the area and found a hidden subterranean chamber beneath the stones. As a result Charles Spence published an account.
Part of this read: “After raising Doniert’s stone and placing it in an erect position a mass of granite no less than two tons and a half in weight the workmen were directed to dig down by the side of the other monolith.
“After reaching a depth of about eight or nine feet a hole was discovered. Here they found a cruciform vault eighteen feet in length from east to west and sixteen from north to south the width of the vault being about four feet.
“The sides were perpendicular and the roof circular and all smoothed with a tool and as level as the rough nature of the naked rock would permit.”
Mystery remains over what the purpose of the chamber was, although local miners drafted in to carry out the digging believed it to be an ancient tin mine.
Although other theories posit that it could have been a hidden place of worship. The cruciform shape would certainly appear to lend weight to this hypothesis.
In modern times there have been a number of cults in operation, with some of the most egregious examples based in the United States.
One of these is Heaven’s Gate, whose members believed in their impending transcendence to another plane of existence.
Heaven’s Gate refuses to call itself a cult, but has been referred to by others as one.
The religious organisation was founded in 1974, but gained prominence when the majority of its members committed suicide in 1997.
The movement was bound up with the UFO phenomenon, which was popular in the 1990s thanks, in some part, to the successful TV show The X Files and other elements of contemporary popular culture.
It also aligned itself strongly with the re-emergence near Earth of the Hale-Bopp comet, which passes our planet around every 2,000 years and was associated by the cult, and other theorists, with the Star of Bethlehem that heralded the birth of Jesus, according to the Nativity story.
The cult was established by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, who went by the names Ti and Do.
Nettles was a nurse in a hospital where Applewhite was visiting a friend in 1972 and the two entered into what is believed to have been a platonic relationship. That’s certainly the account according to video recordings made by Applewhite.
The pair went on a tour where they spread the word of their alleged revelation, following a religious journey, where they absorbed every kind of spiritual text they “could get their hands on”.
They gained a number of followers, which ran into the hundreds, but their disciples dwindled when the leaders instituted a more rigid regime banning sex, alcohol and other ‘vices’ and began distancing themselves from wider society.
The hardcore that remained ended up all living together, with Applewhite the effective teacher and the followers cast as “students”. Some of these featured in videos created by Heaven’s Gate. They sported simple short hair cuts and nondescript clothing – effectively they where stereotypical cult members and lived a monk-like existence.
Nettles did not live to see this phase of the movement she co-founded, as she died of liver cancer in 1985.
The group’s doctrine featured elements of Christianity – particularly millenarianism, New Age beliefs and an obsession with extraterrestrials and the burgeoning UFO phenomenon.
The main belief the group held and the one which marked it out at the time and sealed its members’ fates was that adherents could transcend into immortal extraterrestrials by turning their backs on their human nature and the corporeal trappings of their mortal bodies.
Once their bodily shell was shed they believed they would ascend to heaven, referred to as the “Next Level” or “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”.
Nettles’ death focussed their minds further on the nature of this transcendence and led them inexorably down the road of mass suicide.
Prior to her passing they held on to the belief that a UFO would ferry them to heaven alive and intact in their fleshy human ‘containers’.
But, after her death, the group’s doctrine changed, with a greater emphasis on the soul and ethereal consciousness as being the transferable element, with the body and associated earthly mortality seen as expendable in their pursuit of the ‘Next Level’.
Thus only death would achieve the conditions necessary for transcendence. The organisation believed that, post-mortem, they would be rewarded with new “Next Level bodies” in which to continue their onward journey.
And so it was that on March 26, 1997 39 bodies of the cult members, including Applewhite, were discovered by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in Rancho Santa Fe.
The group had committed ritual suicide coinciding with the closest pass of Hale-Bopp.
Just prior to the mass suicide a fateful message was posted on the Heaven’s Gate website, which read: “Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate …our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”
The website is actually still in operation, so I contacted the administrators to see whether they would respond.
I asked a few questions to ascertain what the current status of the organisation is.
The questions and answers were as follows.
1. What is the current status of Heaven’s Gate?
The Group actually came to an end in 1997. It has not been active since then. The information is timeless.
2. Do you reject the label of ‘cult’ and, if so, what is your organisation?
Yes, even academia has told us it simply does not fit the definition.
3. What activities does Heaven’s Gate currently do?
Nothing. We joined the Group at the beginning in 1975 and they asked us to disseminate the information, care for the site and intellectual property for a while until we return to the Next Level.
Asked what they specifically meant by “return to the Next Level” They said: “Sometime in our next reincarnation on this planet Do will return and we will leave with him.”
4. What are your beliefs?
The Group’s beliefs.
5. How many members, or affiliates, do you currently have?
Mass casualties were the result of another infamous US cult case at the deadly Waco siege, in 1993.
The siege saw US federal officers, military personnel and Texas state law enforcement pitched in a tense stand-off with Branch Davidian cultists, led by the charismatic David Koresh, between February 28 and April 19, 1993.
The siege began when the finger of suspicion was pointed at Koresh and the group over fears they were stockpiling illegal weapons at their compound, at the Mount Carmel Ranch, in Axtell, Texas.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained search and arrest warrants, which they headed to the ranch to execute.
The members of the cult did not take kindly to this and a firefight ensued, with four agents and six cult members dying in the intense exchanges of gunfire.
A 51-day siege ensued with the FBI eventually launching an all out assault on the compound with tear gas used against the Branch Davidians.
Shortly afterwards a fire took hold and ripped through the building. The blaze caused the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and Koresh himself.
Subsequently both sides blamed each other for starting the fire and the aftermath of the raid saw the Federal forces massed actions called into question.
The authorities’ tactics led to anti-establishment militia groups forming and inspired one of America’s worst ever terrorist atrocities.
For one man who witnessed the chaos at the Mount Carmel Center was Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh cited the Waco siege as the main driving force behind the Oklahoma City bombing that he perpetrated on April 19, 1995.
He launched a truck bomb attack against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a US government office in Oklahoma City.
The blast destroyed various other buildings and led to the deaths of 168 people, with the death toll including 19 children under six years old. It was the deadliest act of terrorism on US soil until 9/11.
The Waco siege could also have inspired the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which took place on April 20, with theories suggesting the killing spree was timed to mark the anniversary of the FBI assault on the compound.
This could mean that the ATF suppression of the Branch Davidians not only spawned a new form of domestic terrorism, but also the recurring scourge of school shootings in the United States.
The Branch Davidians were formed in 1995, but came to prominence and infamy under Koresh’s leadership, which began in 1981.
Originally called Vernon Howell, he changed his name to David Koresh to claim a connection to the Biblical King David and Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, who was called Koresh in Hebrew.
Koresh identified with the Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation and wanted to create a new line of world leaders. He was also suspected of committing acts of child abuse, which contributed to the interest shown in his movement by the Federal authorities.
It is clear that the cult led by Koresh and the actions of the US government to suppress it had far-reaching consequences that are still being felt to this day.
Another American-made messianic cult of personality led to a shocking mass suicide.
The Jonestown massacre saw over 900 deaths in November 1978.
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown”, was a remote settlement in the South American country of Guyana, which was established by a San Francisco-based cult.
The commune was led by Jim Jones, who fused Christianity and Marxism into an ideology opposed to US foreign and domestic policy that he derided as “fascist”.
There were multiple accusations of beatings and slave labour taking place at the encampment, along with endless recordings and announcements beamed across the site of Jones’ voice.
The broadcasts used sophisticated mind control techniques and sought to further radicalise the extremist left-wing inhabitants and instil a sense of paranoia that CIA operatives were coming to wipe them all out.
Jones ordered a number of drills to take place which simulated such a raid and it was at one of these that he and the Jonestown settlement became infamous.
The incidents, on November 18, 1978, saw a total of 918 people die at the Jonestown site, the nearby airstrip at Port Kaituma and a Temple bolthole in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown.
A total of 909 died at Jonestown from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide – an incident that spawned the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to people who blindly follow a set of beliefs without question.
This is because the deaths were largely apparently self-administered, in what Jones called an act of “revolutionary suicide”.
As he ordered the suicides Jones told his followers: “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”
He also said: “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”
Jones is believed to have shot himself as part of the mass murder-suicide.
The mass poisoning followed the murders of five others at Port Kaituma with US Congressman Leo Ryan among them.
The politician was in Guyana investigating conditions at the Jonestown site following increasing concerns over the welfare and treatment of US citizens who had settled there.
After Ryan had left Jonestown he arrived at the Kaituma airstrip at around 4.45pm and had to wait a little over 20 minutes for transport planes to take him, news reporters and Temple defectors out.
The six-seater Cessna that was transporting Ryan was taxiing to the end of the runway when cult member Larry Layton, who was on the plane, began shooting at the passengers.
Afterwards a posse of Temple members, who had escorted the group, launched a barrage of gunfire at the plane. Ryan died in a hail of bullets along with three journalists and a Temple defector. Many others were wounded in the onslaught.
The death squad hit Ryan with more than 20 bullets to the body before shooting him in the face.
The Georgetown deaths were of four cult members who were ordered to commit murder-suicide by Jones.
Even more horrifying was the fact that 304 of the victims were minors and Jones had ordered guards armed with guns and crossbows to shoot those who attempted to flee the Jonestown pavilion as Jones ordered the mass suicide.
Before enacting the dreadful killings Jones had been feted by the upper echelons of the US centre-left establishment and Civil Rights leaders and had had meetings with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter and others.
This goes to show that cult leaders such as Jones can exert powerful influence through the force of their personalities and there can be little wonder that vulnerable people, especially, are often taken in by them.
As a result of the Jonestown outrage the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a group aimed at deprogramming members of cults, was formed.
The group, which included Congressman Ryan’s daughter Patricia, became involved in a number of cases, including the David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.
Over the centuries Japan has been home to a number of cults and secret societies, such as the Ninja and the knightly Samurai caste, but it is in the modern era that more extreme organisations have been active.
These include the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara, in 1984, which gained worldwide notoriety for sarin gas attacks in the early to mid-Nineties, including on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
One could also include state-sponsored suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots in World War Two as exhibiting cultic behaviour.
Kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ and the programme consisted of pilots who flew suicide missions by deliberately crashing their aircraft into Allied shipping in the Pacific Theatre.
Around 3,800 pilots died in this way during the war, with more than 7,000 naval personnel falling victim to the attacks.
Before and during the war Japanese armed forces personnel, as well as civilians, were told that their ultimate duty was to give up their lives in defence of their deified Emperor. Fairytales aimed at children lauded the kamikaze tactics as all elements of the information apparatus were mobilised to gain recruits, who volunteered in their droves.
There was also a ritual and religious dimension to the kamikaze programme with flyers taking part in ceremonies before their fateful missions. In these they shared ceremonial cups of sake of water, read ‘death poems’ and carried prayers and other items from their families.
The code of honour surrounding kamikaze pilots was so ingrained that those who failed in their missions through mechanical failure or simply being unable to go through with the act were stigmatised for years afterwards in the way defecting cult members face ostracism from their former friends who remain within these groups.
It is clear that cults are a gratuitous example of the behaviour that groups and apparently consenting, but coerced, individuals within them, are capable of.
But it is also apparent that, given the right conditions, such as isolation, message and mind control, propaganda and real or imagined external threats, that people are indeed capable of deeds that can be considered self-defeating or heinous.
It is also evident, from the other instalments in this series, that, when these organisations form, they can exert considerable influence on local or even global events often for ill, but sometimes for good.
Cults persist to this day and they hold sway in legislatures and executives that make decisions for vast swathes of the population, rather than just their own adherents.
This series or articles and videos has shown how just some of these have shaped our world throughout history from ancient to modern times.
Groupthink is a potent weapon in exerting control, and free inquiry must be an ever-present shield against the excesses of cults, and other echo chambers, that could normalise truly disturbing acts.
This post is the final part of a series on cults, their psychology and their influence throughout history.
Not all historical cult movements were doomsday cults per se, but outlandish beliefs have led their adherents to come to grief.
One such figure was the explorer Percy Fawcett, who believed in the esoteric tenets of the Theosophy movement.
Theosophy was co-founded by the mystic Helena Blavatsky in 1875.
It fused beliefs from a number of religious and philosophical tracts including Qabbala, Sufism and Buddhism, as well as neo-Platonism and other philosophical traditions.
But one of the shibboleths of the movement was a belief in ancient lost cities.
Percy Fawcett got lost in dense jungle looking for one of these so-called civilisations in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 1925.
The theoretical city was known as ‘Z’ and the hunt for this site most likely led to the deaths of Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend, who all disappeared in the jungle, never to be seen again.
However, the mystery persists and, in March 2004, The Observer newspaper reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett’s private papers, believed that he had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on the principles of Theosophy and the worship of his son Jack.
The fate of Fawcett’s party remains unknown to this day.
Well-heeled men at the heart and height of the British Empire were often involved in cultist activities in the 1800s, with London often a focal point of strange and potentially murderous rites.
Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with a host of other leading literary lights, were rumoured members of, or had connections to, a secret society offshoot of the Freemasons, which formed in 1887.
The organisation, called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was a magical order, concerned with metaphysics, alchemy, the paranormal, geomancy and occultism.
The Order’s first permanent meeting place – the Isis-Urania Temple, in Kensington, London – opened in the spring of 1888, just months before the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel Murders began.
The murders have been suggested to have been ritualised killings inspired by a Masonic conspiracy by some writers in recent years.
The killings could also have been part of an artworld conspiracy, with the post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert being suggested as being Jack the Ripper by some authors.
My own book ‘The Inevitable Jack the Ripper’ dives more deeply into this suggestion.
The current site of the Isis-Urania Temple Is now an average cafe, close to the Olympia exhibition centre, which belies nothing of its otherwordly past.
Ultimately a schism emerged in the Order, with one faction gravitating around the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.
What this illustrates is that this was very much the era of the secret society, of conspirators and cults.
It was an age where the wealthy and influential formed clubs and even pseudo-religious orders and carried out strange rites.
Slightly earlier an organisation existed called the Hellfire Club, which held lavish and depraved rituals in a man-made cave complex in the Chiltern Hills of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Members used prostitutes they referred to as “nuns” and dined on fine foods in large banquets held in the inner sanctum of the cavernous chalk construction.
The organisation was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer and included members such as ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ artist William Hogarth, John Wilkes, John Montague and others.
The gatherings were said to have involved immoral acts and rumoured to have involve Satanic black masses.
The club motto was: “Fais ce que tu voudrais”, which translates to “do what thou wilt”.
The motto was later adopted by the aforementioned Aleister Crowley.
Dashwood’s club meetings often also included strange rituals, pornographic materials, and excessive drinking.
During its active period, up until the early 1760s, the club was known by a number of names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Order of Knights of West Wvcombe and The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe.
It was later dubbed the Hellfire Club and the caves are still there as a rather odd tourist attraction called the Hellfire Caves.
I visited the site in 2014 and was struck by the absurdity of the place. It had a certain magical quality, but also raised questions about the nature and intentions of those who gathered there, in ultra-secret conclaves.
The caves feature a number of mannequins, including one of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who was rumoured to be a member of the club.
The suggestion that Franklin, a prominent Freemason who helped to launch the American Revolution, was present raises the prospect that this effective cult could have sparked what would become one of the most significant geopolitical developments in history – the foundation of the United States.
The popular BBC crime drama ‘Baptiste’ is a slick example of layered and intriguing screenwriting and storytelling.
But I couldn’t help but notice a severe sleight on a pagan-influenced celebration in the latest series, which is set in Hungary and largely in the beautiful city of Budapest.
But the series delves into the murky world of far right extremism as the titular character searches for the British Ambassador’s missing sons.
It would be fair to say that Budapest, which is a jewel of a city, is not shown in its best light in this production.
And, for some reason, the series’s antagonist is portrayed on threatening viral videos wearing a Busó mask.
This relates to the pagan-influenced Central European and, in particular, Hungarian, Busojaras festival.
I feel this association is nothing short of libellous on the Busojaras tradition, although it does make for an interesting story.
But what was and is Busojaras?
The folk celebration, which is also observed in parts of Serbia and Croatia, is an annual event and is part of the traditions of the south Slavic Šokci people in Mohacs, Hungary and involves dressing up in fearsome hairy horned beast costumes, in February, in the run-up to Ash Wednesday.
There is more than one theory about the origin of the practice. One dates back to the time of the occupation of the area by Ottoman Turkish forces (in the abortive 1687 campaign, rather than the more successful earlier invasion by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1526).
As the Sultan’s troops approached, the locals were said to have abandoned the town and fled to woodland and swamp areas.
According to legend they were encamped one night by a fire, when an elderly man approached and entreated them: “Don’t be afraid, your lives will soon turn to good and you’ll return to your homes. Until that time, prepare for the battle, carve various weapons and scary masks for yourselves, and wait for a stormy night when a masked knight will come to you.”
The mysterious messenger then disappeared, but the townsfolk followed his orders. Later, on a stormy night the promised knight arrived and, as instructed, the refugees donned their costumes, took up their arms and returned to Mohacs in a loud reconquest of the town.
Alarmed by the incursion it was the Ottomans’ turn to flee in terror, believing they were under attack by demons.
Another, earlier, version of the story holds that the Busós, as the costumed host became known, were attempting to shoo away winter itself, rather than the Turkish invaders.
The latter, more primal, version of the story has similarities with other Slavic traditions, such as the Balkan Koledari’s Koleduvane dance, which is still enacted in Bulgaria in December and involves energetic dancing, loud chanting and the playing of instruments, by costumed participants, to scare away supernatural winter entities like werewolves, ghosts and vampires and, more generally, winter itself.
The Busós’ masks are also similar in appearance to the Bavarian and Austrian myth of Krampus.
Belief in the demonic horned anthropomorphised goat character is also a tradition in Hungary and some other Central European countries.
The terrifying creature is said to punish children who have misbehaved in the period before Christmas.
He is a companion and dark mirror of St Nicholas who, it is said, rewards well-behaved children.
However terrifying these folk costumes may appear, they do not deserve to be associated with modern-day extremist politics. They are part of a rich Central European heritage.
I have visited a number of sacred springs and wells up and down the length and breadth of England.
These ancient water sources all hold fascinating myths and legends about their origin, their usage or the apparent properties of the waters they carry forth.
Some of these springs and wells have stories connecting them to the earliest human civilisation, some are attested to be sites of miraculous incidents and others are alleged to hold fabulous treasures.
I’ve featured some of these in posts before; including the Chalice Well and connected Red Spring of Glastonbury and the neighbouring White Spring, which have been in use since the Neolithic.
The Chalice Well alleged to be the hiding place of the Holy Grail.
This location is also associated with the mystical underworld in Celtic mythology.
There is also another sacred well in Glastonbury that is associated with miracles.
St Joseph’s Well and Crypt, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey is fed by a spring in the natural rock.
In medieval times it was enclosed within a well-house and approached by a stairway, the lowest steps still visible beneath the modern iron stairs.
The Norman round-headed arch over the well recess is probably a reused window from the Lady Chapel east wall, which was removed in the late 13th century.
The cult of St Joseph of Arimathea was very important at Glastonbury and the crypt became a popular destination for pilgrims.
Miracles and cures were recorded at the well in the early 16th century, when victims of lameness, the plague and childhood diseases were brought back to health.
I have also done a previous post on Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for the ancient city of Bath, where the compound Romano-British goddess Sulis Minerva was worshipped in ritual bathing ceremonies.
The site in Bath, just like the Chalice Well and surrounding area in Glastonbury have moved from places of Celtic pagan devotion to Christian worship or mythology.
This is evidenced by the fact that Bath Abbey sits almost directly atop the ancient Roman bath complex.
Another example of a pagan well and spring being syncretised into Christian legend is in the beautiful spa town of Buxton, in Derbyshire, at the other end of the country.
The naturally warm waters have been viewed as sacred since the Roman occupation.
At that point the settlement around the spring was known as Aquae Arnemetiae means ‘Waters of Arnemetia’.
Arnemetiae was the Romano-British goddess of sacred groves, with the name Arnemetia deriving from the Celtic for “beside the sacred grove”, so it was more of a description than a name as such.
By the 1520s the sacred spring was dedicated to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and was being associated with healing.
A 16th century act of parliament ruled that a free supply of the spring water must be provided for the town’s residents.
I have availed myself of this free water, drinking directly from a lion-headed spout.
And the water is readily available in almost every supermarket in the UK, under the Buxton brand, which began bottling and selling it in the 19th century.
The bottles reveal that the water is high in calcium and magnesium and that it is “mineralised on its journey up through a mile of British rock”.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about the site in his De Mirabilibus Pecci: Being The Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire of 1636.
He wrote: “The Sun burnt clouds but glimmer to the fight,
when at famed Buxton’s hot bath we alight
unto St. Ann the Fountain sacred is:
With waters hot and cold its sources rise,
And in its Sulphur-veins there’s medicine lies.
This cures the palsied members of the old,
and cherishes the nerves grown stiff and cold.”
In the 1970s a hoard of 232 Roman coins was found in the main spring, spanning 300 years of the Roman occupation of Britain.
These probable votive offerings are likely to have been thrown into the water to curry favour with the goddess.
The tradition of throwing coins in so-called wishing wells for luck persists to this day.
But not all sacred wells and springs are so revered or maintained today.
One such site, at St Albans, in the south east of England, is hidden away in a modern housing estate.
The story of the site has a gruesome legend and a fanciful link with the mythical King Arthur.
The well is intrinsically linked with the man for whom the city is named – St Alban.
The chroniclers Gildas and Bede wrote about Alban’s martyrdom under the Roman ruler Diocletian, although later writers claimed others may have had the dubious honour.
The story of Alban’s conversion to Christianity involves his sheltering of a fugitive priest, who was later called St Amphibalus.
St Amphibalus taught Alban the tenets of the faith and baptised him.
Alban provides clothing to the runaway priest and helped him to escape with Alban taking the rap instead.
Alban was taken to be executed up what is now Holywell Hill, in St Albans.
There are a couple of legends around the execution itself and its genesis of the sacred spring.
One states that Alban was desperate for a drink so fell to his knees and prayed. Then a spring appeared to quench his thirst.
Another tale states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, the former name of St Albans, he snubbed a pagan sacrifice, and was executed.
His severed head rolled down the hill, from close to the site of the current Cathedral and Abbey Church to the bottom of the hill.
At the spot where Alban’s rolling head cane to a final stop a spring gushed forth.
It is likely that the spring actually had a pre-Christian pagan usage, but the stories have stuck and pilgrims would venture to the location.
St Alban was also adopted at the Abbey and a shrine was installed.
But the spring was also a part of Arthurian legend with Uther Pendragon, father of the mythical King Arthur, said to have had his combat injuries healed by the supposedly sacred waters.
In the reign of Richard II, the chronicler John Brompton claimed that Pendragon had been saved after a battle with Saxons.
He wrote: “Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven.”
And the Benedictine nuns of a nearby nunnery were said to have revered the water, dipping bread into the well, lending it the name Sopwell.
This comes from the Old English word ‘soppian’, which means dipping bread in liquid.
The word has an even older root, which alludes to the sop used by the legendary Aeneas, in Greek mythology, to appease the devil dog guardian of Hades, Cerberus.
The grounds on which Sopwell Nunnery existed are today occupied by the ruin of a great Tudor-era house, which replaced the former religious site after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
The well was long abandoned and thought lost, although the name of Holywell Hill kept its ghost alive.
But it was preserved thanks to the work of local campaigners as development threatened its existence in the 1980s.
Thankfully the developer was sympathetic to its storied history and restored it.
It now stands in a small, but largely unknown, walled garden.
The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille.
The water table can still sometimes be seen, especially after heavy rain adding to the water from the River Ver.
It is not just in Britain, or Europe, where wells are considered to be sacred and mystical gateways to the realm of the gods.
I have also explored the cenotes in Mexico, which were believed by the Maya to be the route to the underworld and the home of the water deity Chaac.
Sacrifices are believed to have taken place at these sinkholes, surrounded by dense jungle, and human remains have been discovered beneath the crystal clear waters.
My book ‘The Little Book of Mermaids’ looks further at the religious and folkloric significance of water and the alleged creatures that dwelt within it.
And the Anglo-Saxons, prior to their conversion to Christianity, also held wells to be places of mystery and divinity.
A poem, written down in the 14th century, but consisting entirely of Old English words read: “At a sprynge wel under a thorn
“Ther was bote of bale, a lytel here aforn:
“Ther beside stant a mayde
“Fulle of love y-bounde.
“Ho-so wol seche truwe love
“Yn hyr hyt schal be founde.”
This approximately translates to: “At the source of a spring under a hawthorn tree there was a cure for sorrow a little while ago. Beside them stands a maid full of love, held fast by love. Whoever wants to seek for true love will find it in her.”
Water is and was obviously of essential importance to people now and in the past, but this relationship goes far beyond just a biological necessity.
There is clearly something deeply ingrained in the human psyche about the places where water bursts forth from the ground.
It can come as no surprise that our ancestors deified it and associated it with their gods.
Even with my modern and fairly sceptical head on there is tranquility and spiritual potency to these wonderful places.
Our common fairy or folk tales could be thousands of years older than previously thought and even date back to the dawn of civilisation.
That is the finding of a new paper called ‘Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales’
Famed fairy tale compilers like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and others brought a number of apparently parochial folk stories to a far wider audience a couple of centuries ago.
It was assumed these largely oral tales were medieval relics, just a few hundred years old at the time they were committed to literature, but new evidence suggests they could stretch back deep into our prehistory.
The research, published recently in the journal Royal Society Open Science, could mean that these often fantastical and frivolous stories are actually some of our oldest foundational myths.
I say ‘frivolous’ because of the outlandish nature of some of the tales, but the morals and messages, conveyed via the power of storytelling, are anything but.
They represent important tropes like the hero’s journey and establish key social mores and standards.
These would obviously be an important plank in the creation and maintenance of a burgeoning new society, based on shared value systems.
So what evidence is there of a Neolithic or early Bronze Age folk tale tradition?
The research suggests that the stories of Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk could be 4,000 or even 5,000 years old.
Borrowing from techniques often employed by biologists, the conclusion was reached using a process called phylogenetic analysis, which researchers used to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture.
They used a series of cataloguing processes called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, that deconstructs the stories and pigeonholes them into groups like ‘the obstinate wife learns to obey’ and ‘partnership between man and ogre’ to plot their origin.
The team of researchers tracked the presence of tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations back through language trees.
They discovered the provenance of 76 tales and as they tracked backwards they found that stories had built on top of each other like layers of sediment and embellishment.
Some tales were based on older ones, with more than a quarter having ancient roots, some to the time when humans were building barrows, stone circles and other megalithic structures.
The story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, where a boy trades the prized family cow for a handful of beans that sprout into a huge beanstalk, which transports him to a far off land in the clouds inhabited by a giant, is actually 5,000 years old.
It emerged at a time of a split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages.
And a tale called ‘The Smith and the Devil’ appears to be more than 6,000 years old.
Although some have disputed the conclusions, the findings could lend weight to Wilhelm Grimm’s hypothesis that all Indo-European cultures shared common tales.
This one will examine legends associated with Glastonbury Abbey, but will also take in the Tor and the area in general.
The main legend most people associate with the Abbey is that it is the burial place a very famous royal couple, who may or may not have existed.
I speak, of course, of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.
The area has been associated with Arthurian mythology ever since the alleged discovery of two coffins labelled as belonging to Arthur and his queen in 1191.
Although, as I stated previously, this ‘discovery’ could have been a con to try to entice pilgrims – and their cash – to the Abbey.
However, there are other Arthurian links. These include the original name of Glastonbury Tor – Ynys yr Afalon – meaning The Isle of Avalon, in the original Brythonic language of the area.
The 12th and 13th century chronicler Gerald of Wales believed it was the Avalon referred to in Arthurian legend.
But there is another, even more startling, legend associated with the site.
That of the alleged visit of Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury.
Joseph, who was Jesus Christ’s great uncle, could have been a metal trader and if that was the case he would have a professional interest in Britain as it was well-known for its abundance of tin – an essential component in making bronze.
Joseph was also alleged to have been the bearer of the cup, used at the Last Supper, that caught drops of Christ’s blood at the crucifixion – the mythical Holy Grail.
The grounds of Glastonbury Abbey also contains the Glastonbury Thorn – a tree that flowers twice a year around Christmas and Easter. This tree is said to be a descendant of the original thorn that was destroyed by fire by po-faced Puritans during the English Civil War.
The current thorn was said to have been grown from sprigs of the original, carefully and secretly guarded by protectors.
The original tree is said to have spontaneously sprouted on Wearyall Hill, from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea after his journey to Glastonbury.
But the concept of Joseph’s presence in Glastonbury remains controversial.
The thorn was first mentioned in a pamphlet published by Richard Pynson in 1520 called Lyfe of Joseph of Armathie, which was almost certainly commissioned by Glastonbury Abbey, lending weight to the notion that it may have been a yarn to bring in the lucrative pilgrimage trade. A custom persists, which probably dates from the 17th century, where a budded branch of the Glastonbury thorn is sent to the sovereign each year at Christmas.
However, there is an even more outlandish claim; that Jesus Christ himself visited Glastonbury.
The legend is recalled in William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’, which is best-known today as a stirring hymn.
It features the lyrics: “And did those feet in ancient time.
“Walk upon England’s mountains green?
“And was the holy Lamb of God
“On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”
The legend goes that an infant Jesus was brought along by Joseph of Arimathea, possibly on one of his metal trading expeditions from the Middle East.
It is also rumoured that Joseph is buried somewhere in the Abbey and helped to establish the first church in the British Isles at the site.
A holy spring at part of the site is also called St Joseph’s Well and is renowned for healing properties. It remains a place of pilgrimage to this day.
The expansive ruined Abbey is a wonderful place and I visited in bright early summer sunshine which made for a stunning experience. The dramatic structures, set amongst sprawling gardens; some cultivated, some overgrown, is something to behold.
And, despite my natural scepticism, it is difficult not to get swept up in the weight of history, myth, folklore and legend associated with this iconic location.
So, is King Arthur buried here? Is Joseph of Arimathea buried here? Did Joseph ever visit? Did Jesus ever ‘walk upon England’s mountains green’?
These are currently unanswerable questions, but they are still well worth asking.
The magic of a quest for the Holy Grail is in the looking, not necessarily in the finding. The search is an end in itself.
James Blackman Snook, also known as Robert, was the last man to be executed for highway robbery at the scene of his crime in England.
The execution took place on 11 March 1802, where Snook, who was born in Berkshire in August 1761, was hanged.
The ‘Robert’ moniker is thought to derive from a corruption of the word ‘robber’.
The details of Snook’s fateful crime are that on the evening of Sunday 10 May 1801 he held up a post boy called John Stevens, who was carrying several bags of mail from Tring to Hemel Hempstead.
At the secluded site in Boxmoor Snook struck, threatening Stevens and making off with banknotes, promissory notes and letters to the value of around £80.
The robber discarded the unwanted letters and leather bags they were stored in, leaving them strewn across the moor.
On 11 March 1802 the London Chronicle revealed that a saddle, with a broken strap, was also dumped by Snook – a fatal error as it would transpire.
The saddle was used to identify the robber.
The day after the theft, Postmaster and High Constable John Page initiated investigations into the crime, it was then that several people came forward and stated they remembered seeing a man at the Kings Arms fixing a broken girth-strap on his saddle.
It was believed that the culprit worked at the Kings Arms as an ostler, and would thus have some knowledge of the post boy’s route.
The culprit was identified as James Snook, who was already a wanted man after a number of robberies between Bath and Salisbury.
He was also indicted for horse thefts at the Old Bailey in 1799, but was acquitted as evidence was too flimsy to gain a conviction.
A reward of £200 for Snook capture was offered, in addition to a Parliamentary fixed rate of £100 for the apprehension of highwaymen.
This hefty sum meant Snook’s days at large were numbered.
He was subsequently captured in Marlborough Forest on 8 December 1801, by post boy William Salt, who apprehended Snook with help from his passengers.
Stevens was unable to positively identify Snook as it was dark when he was robbed, but a banknote that had previously been in the highwayman’s possession was said to have been from the stolen haul.
Thus the crime was pinned in Snook.
After first being held as Newgate Prison, he was later transferred to Hertford Gaol on 4 March 1802 whilst awaiting trial.
Five days later, the trial took place and he was found guilty.
Highway robbery would ordinarily carry a sentence of transportation to a penal colony, however it was successfully argued that Snook’s crime was “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”, that he was sentenced to be hanged.
The execution took place two days after the sentencing, on public ground nearest to the scene of the crime, as the law required.
It is believed that thousands of people flocked to see the hanging.
One tale of that fateful day recounts how Snook, en route to the gallows, is said to have told ghouls who went to see him die: “It’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there.”
Snook’s final resting place is somewhere on the moor, believed to be close to a marker, placed at the site in 1904, which stands there to this day.
Hertfordshire was also said to have been visited by another highwayman, the infamous Dick Turpin.
Turpin was said to have frequented pubs in the county during his 1730s reign of terror, including the Eight Bells in Hatfield.
A story tells how the Essex Gang outlaw was said to have mounted a daring escape by jumping out of a window at the Eight Bells onto his horse – the legendary Black Bess.