Essays
Religion, Myth & Legend

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

When the existence of unicorns, and the curative powers of the horns ascribed to them, began to be questioned, one Danish physician pushed back through curious means — by reframing the unicorn as an aquatic creature of the northern seas. Natalie Lawrence on a fascinating convergence of established folklore, nascent science, and pharmaceutical economy. more

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

From gift-bestowing sparrows and peach-born heroes to goblin spiders and dancing phantom cats — in a series of beautifully illustrated books, the majority printed on an unusual cloth-like crepe paper, the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa introduced Japanese folk tales to the West. Christopher DeCou on how a pioneering cross-cultural endeavour gave rise to a magnificent chapter in the history of children's publishing. more

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy

Said to be spawn of the devil himself and possessed with great powers of prophetic insight, Mother Shipton was Yorkshire's answer to Nostradamus. Ed Simon looks into how, regardless of whether this prophetess witch actually existed or not, the legend of Mother Shipton has wielded great power for centuries — from the turmoil of Tudor courts, through the frictions of civil war, to the spectre of Victorian apocalypse. more

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the "ocean garden" that gripped Victorian Britain. more

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

When birds of paradise first arrived to Europe, as dried specimens with legs and wings removed, they were seen in almost mythical terms — as angelic beings forever airborne, nourished by dew and the "nectar" of sunlight. Natalie Lawrence looks at how European naturalists of the 16th and 17th centuries attempted to make sense of these entirely novel and exotic creatures from the East. more

Defining the Demonic

Defining the Demonic

Although Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal, a monumental compendium of all things diabolical, was first published in 1818 to much success, it is the fabulously illustrated final edition of 1863 which secured the book as a landmark in the study and representation of demons. Ed Simon explores the work and how at its heart lies an unlikely but pertinent synthesis of the Enlightenment and the occult. more

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

The destruction of Atlantis, cataclysmic comets, and a Manhattan tower made entirely from concrete and corpse — Carl Abbott on the life and work of a Minnesotan writer, and failed politician, with a mind primed for catastrophe. more

Rescuing England: The Rhetoric of Imperialism and the Salvation Army

Rescuing England: The Rhetoric of Imperialism and the Salvation Army

Ellen J. Stockstill on how William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, placed the ideas and language of colonialism at the very heart of his vision for improving the lives of Victorian England's poor. more

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Decoding the Morse: The History of 16th-Century Narcoleptic Walruses

Amongst the assorted curiosities described in Olaus Magnus' 1555 tome on Nordic life was the morse — a hirsute, fearsome walrus-like beast, that was said to snooze upon cliffs while hanging by its teeth. Natalie Lawrence explores the career of this chimerical wonder, shaped by both scholarly images of a fabulous North and the grisly corporeality of the trade in walrus skins, teeth, and bone. more

Woodcuts and Witches

Woodcuts and Witches

Jon Crabb on the witch craze of early modern Europe, and how the concurrent rise of the mass-produced woodcut helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone — complete with cauldron and cats — so familiar today. more

Voltaire and the Buddha

Voltaire and the Buddha

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. looks at Voltaire's early reflections on Buddhism and how, in his desire to separate the Buddha's teachings from the trappings of religion, the French Enlightenment thinker prefigured an approach now familiar in the West. more

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

Yvonne Seale on a bizarre and fanciful piece of genealogical scholarship and what it tells us about identity in late 19th-century America. more

Out of Their Love They Made It: A Visual History of Buraq

Out of Their Love They Made It: A Visual History of Buraq

Although mentioned only briefly in the Qur'an, the story of the Prophet Muhammad's night journey to heaven astride a winged horse called Buraq has long caught the imagination of artists. Yasmine Seale charts the many representations of this enigmatic steed, from early Islamic scripture to contemporary Delhi, and explores what such a figure can tell us about the nature of belief. more

Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature

Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature

Largely forgotten today in the shadow of his more famous father, the 17th-century Flemish alchemist Francis van Helmont influenced and was friends with the likes of Locke, Boyle, and Leibniz. While imprisoned by the Inquisition, in between torture sessions, he wrote his Alphabet of Nature on the idea of a universal “natural” language. Je Wilson explores. more

Divine Comedy: Lucian Versus The Gods

Divine Comedy: Lucian Versus The Gods

With the twenty-six short comic dialogues that made up Dialogues of the Gods, the 2nd-century writer Lucian of Samosata took the popular images of the Greek gods and redrew them as greedy, sex-obsessed, power-mad despots. Nicholas Jeeves, editor of a new edition for PDR Press, explores the story behind the work and its reception in the English-speaking world. more

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End

At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality. Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how in this turn to the unseen in the face of mystery there exists a parallel to quantum physics today. more

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon  and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

William Pynchon, earliest colonial ancestor of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, was a key figure in the early settlement of New England. He also wrote a book which became, at the hands of the Puritans it riled against, one of the first to be banned and burned on American soil. Daniel Crown explores. more

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

Hugh Aldersey-Williams takes a tour through Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work which sees one of the 17th-century's greatest writers stylishly debunk all manner of myths, in particular those relating to the world of animals. more

The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire

The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire

From that famed night of ghost-stories in a Lake Geneva villa in 1816, as well as Frankenstein's monster, there arose that other great figure of 19th-century gothic fiction - the vampire - a creation of Lord Byron's personal physician John Polidori. Andrew McConnell Stott explores how a fractious relationship between Polidori and his poet employer lies behind the tale, with Byron himself providing a model for the blood-sucking aristocratic figure of the legend we are familiar with today. more

Ghostwriter and Ghost: The Strange Case of Pearl Curran & Patience Worth

Ghostwriter and Ghost: The Strange Case of Pearl Curran & Patience Worth

In early 20th-century St. Louis, Pearl Curran claimed to have conjured a long-dead New England puritan named Patience Worth through a Ouija board. Although mostly unknown today, the resulting books, poems, and plays that Worth "dictated" to Curran earned great praise at the time. Ed Simon investigates the curious and nearly forgotten literary fruits of a “ghost” and her ghostwriter. more

In the Image of God: John Comenius and the First Children's Picture Book

In the Image of God: John Comenius and the First Children's Picture Book

In the mid 17th-century John Comenius published what many consider to be the first picture book dedicated to the education of young children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus - or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures, as it was rendered in English. Charles McNamara explores how, contrary to Comenius' assertions, the book can be seen to be as much about the invisible world as the visible. more

Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy

Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories of a secretive power elite seeking global domination have long held a place in the modern imagination. Mike Jay explores the idea’s beginnings in the writings of John Robison, a Scottish scientist who maintained that the French revolution was the work of a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati. more

Sir Arthur and the Fairies

Sir Arthur and the Fairies

In the spring of 1920, at the beginning of a growing fascination with spiritualism brought on by the death of his son and brother in WWI, Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case of the Cottingley Fairies. Mary Losure explores how the creator of Sherlock Holmes became convinced that the 'fairy photographs' taken by two girls from Yorkshire were real. more

Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx

Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx

More than 170 years before Jean-François Champollion had the first real success in translating Egyptian hieroglyphs, the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was convinced he had cracked it. He was very wrong. Daniel Stolzenberg looks at Kircher's Egyptian Oedipus, a book that has been called “one of the most learned monstrosities of all times.” more

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