Category Archives: Cabinet of Sojourns

FROM THE LOGBOOK: THE HOUSE OF THE TEMPLARS

At the end of July, I returned to France’s heartland, Auvergne. This time, monster-hunting wasn’t on the agenda. Instead of the plains and forests of le pays du Gévaudan, I sought the planèzes, the lofty plateaux of Cantal. These lava-formed uplands, home to a large population of red-furred cattle (I was told the Salers herds outnumber humans in the region three to one) are dotted with ancient burons, makeshift huts of Haute-Auvergne shepherds.

Salers cattle grazing near the Col de Neronne. Photo by The Thinker's Garden

Salers cattle grazing near the Col de Neronne. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden

Buron near Saint-Paul-de-Salers. Photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Buron near Saint-Paul-de-Salers. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

After some time observing and enjoying the countryside around Col de Neronne, I caught wind of a curious rumour about a strange house in the Renaissance town of Salers. I was told that the house, the Maison des Templiers, had been a medieval outpost of The Knights Templar, a kind of French Alamut that was abandoned after the deposal of Grand Master Jacques de Molay in 1307. Sadly, this exciting news turned out to be hearsay.

Maison de Templiers (House of the Templars). Photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Maison des Templiers (House of the Templars). Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

Photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

Nevertheless, I did learn that the house (now a museum) dates to the fifteenth century. In 1730, it was acquired by Israel de Mossier, a commander of the world’s longest surviving chivalric order: The Knights of Malta. Mossier used the building as an official commandry and oversaw its renovation until his death in 1745. Afterwards, the property passed into the hands of Joseph Dufour, an Knights of Malta officer from Ydes.

Keystone of John the Baptist inside the house. Photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Keystone of St John the Baptist inside the house. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

Part of the apothecary's collection. Photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Part of the apothecary’s collection. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

Today, the building is a local museum and includes a nineteenth-century apothecary’s shop as well as exhibits on Cantal folklife and the history of the Knights of Malta. Even though it wasn’t the Templar stronghold I was looking for, it is unquestionably a culture vault, a time capsule sequestered behind Salers’ ramparts and turreted homes. Like the rest of region, which owes its dramatic landscapes to a prehistoric volcanic past, the House of the Templars, and its eclectic collection, are a product of six centuries of wars, migrations, and cultural exchange.

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An old house near the town centre of Salers. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

FROM THE LOGBOOK: FOLK MAGIC AND GRAIL LORE IN VALENCIA

Over the weekend, I flew to Valencia for a brief holiday. Thankfully, its palm tree-lined beaches and tapas bars lacked the Spring Break crowds, making it easier for me to transition into “beach Bacchus” mode and head to the coast for fresh Sangria and flamenco guitar.

The Custodian relaxing on Malvarrosa beach.

The Custodian relaxing on Malvarrosa beach. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

For my visit, there were two things on my agenda (three if you count the drinking bit): trying the paella, and seeing the Holy Grail. Finding a restaurant that served paella was easy, after all, the rice dish is the city’s culinary specialty. Seeing the Grail however, was more of challenge.  My attempts to catch a glimpse of the legendary relic in the medieval Cathedral of Valencia were thwarted each day by the congregating pilgrims and parishioners who had apparently arrived for the festival of Saint Vincent Ferrer

Torres de Serranos (The Towers of Serrano) photo by The Thinker's Garden.

Torres de Serranos (The Towers of Serrano). Photo by The Thinker’s Garden.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Is the church chalice the one and only cup of Christ?” The answer is yes—according to custom. Then again, according to custom, there are at least two hundred other official candidates. I for one, am of the same opinion of Henry Jones senior (played by Sean Connery) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “The quest for the grail is not about archaeology.” So, after deciding to postpone my search for the Sangreal,  I hit the books to see what else I could find about Valencia’s cultural history.

The Fortune Teller by Valentin Boulogne. Image via Web Gallery of Art.

The Fortune Teller by Valentin Boulogne. Image via Web Gallery of Art.

Before long,  I came across a few stories about the city’s seventeenth-century professional love magicians. According to scholar María Helena Sanchez Ortega, Valencian love magic was similar to that which was practised in other Spanish regions (such as Andalusia and the Canary Islands) and originated sometime in the Early Middle ages. Its adherents were business-savy but marginalised women, such as divorcees, widows, and prostitutes. Caught in an oppressive male-dominated society and knowledgeable about oral folk traditions, they sought independence and autonomy through the kind of magic that dealt with the strongest bonds between people. Male magicians also attempted to change their fortunes, but mostly put their energies into treasure-hunting fantasies, often enlisting the help of moriscos (Spaniards with Moorish or half-Moorish ancestry).

A Spanish Woman by John Singer Sargent. Image via Wikiart.

A Spanish Woman by John Singer Sargent. Image via Wikiart.org.

In her essay Sorcery and Eroticism in Love Magic, Sanchez Ortega writes that the Valencian sorceresses provided services that were both divinatory (including spells to “uncover the intentions” of a potential lover) and coercive (involving ceremonial procedures to force someone to fall in love). They made use of ordinary household objects such as beans an saucepans, but resorted to bodily fluids and pubic hair for stronger, more erotic operations. Ortega states:

“Women’s menstrual blood also contained magical powers that could  be channelled to the same ends as semen. In this case, the sorceresses  generally did not utilize this ingredient alone, but would add the brains  of an ass and pubic hairs. Once the dish containing the impotency spell  had been prepared, the man would have to eat it for the desired effect.  Laura Garrigues, for example, added a little pepper; dona Juana de la Cruz simply dried the blood and mixed it with wine; other women  spread it on a meat dish.”

The poetic cants (vocal spells) employed by other women could also involve dramatic appeals to planetary bodies and spirits–even the devil himself. These are particularly impressive, and speak to the practitioners’  theological world views. For example, the Castilian woman Juana Dientes admitted that she undressed and undid her hair before conjuring Beelzebub and Satan.

Gypsy of the Orange by Julio Romero de Torres.

Gypsy of the Orange by Julio Romero de Torres.

Despite the obvious heretical content of some cants, the worst fates that awaited prosecuted magicians were exile and whipping. With the exception of the Barcelona witch hunt of 1549 and the Zugurramurdi hunt of 1609, the Valencians, like the real and semi-legendary scholastic magicians of Toledo, Salamanca, and Seville, were curiously spared from the more severe witchcraft persecutions happening throughout Europe.

A Lady in Black (aka The Red Shawl) by William Merritt Chase. Image via Wikiart.org

A Lady in Black (aka The Red Shawl) by William Merritt Chase. Image via Wikiart.org

As I prepared to leave Valencia, I realised that it would be nice to see a magic museum or exhibition spring up in town, something like the Zugarramurdi Witch Museum in Navarre. The grail-questing and beach-bum cavorting was fun–I’ll be back for that. But, as proven by Sanchez Ortega, the city was once home to a rich culture of homegrown, amatory sorcery. It’s a fact that makes Valencia’s religious culture even more interesting, and certainly worthy of further investigation.

CARTOGRAPHER’S SELECTS: THE TAROT CHAPEL OF CHATEAU DES AVENIÈRES

Chateau des Avenières rests beside the Salève (known locally as “the Balcony of Geneva”) in the hilly town of Cruseilles, about a half hour away from the Lac d’Annecy, an alpine “Caribbean” lake. On the outside, Avenières is like any other French chateau. It has soaring turrets, a sprawling parterre, and its own elegant dining hall. Yet, in addition to these ordinary features, Avenières harbours an extraordinary secret. The castle’s interior is decorated with a series of carefully arranged frescoes of symbols and characters from the tarot’s Major Arcana.

Château des Avenières à Cruseille via Wikimedia Commons

Château des Avenières in Cruseilles via Wikimedia Commons

The series of mosaics was built in the Gothic chapel of the castle in 1917 by a Mauritian engineer and metaphysical writer named Assan Farid Dina. Dina was an associate of famed scholars and magicians René Guénon and Papus (an important member of Paris’s premier esoteric literary circle, Salon de la Rose + Croix). Since Dina routinely hosted a number of spiritual figures for soirées at his estate, author Mary K. Greer has speculated that the unique style of the chapel art could have been inspired by the ideas of visiting occultists, such as Oswald Firth. Today the castle is a luxury hotel, but the tarot “grotto” hasn’t changed a bit. We’ve reproduced a few images below with permission from Hermetism.free.fr.

"The Juggler" or "The Magician"

“The Juggler” or “The Magician”

"The Fool"

“The Fool”

"The House of God" aka "The Tower"

“The House of God” aka “The Tower”

Temperance

“Temperance”

"The Hermit"

“The Hermit”

"Death"

“Death”

"The Hanged Man"

“The Hanged Man”

For more images, visit Hermetism.free.fr.

CARTOGRAPHER’S SELECTS: ORACLES AROUND THE WORLD

Ruins of the Tholos at Delphi via Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the Tholos at Delphi via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient oracles counselled royalty and commoners alike. According to tradition, the oracle at Delphi told Socrates that he was the wisest man alive. In Egypt, the oracle of Amun lauded Alexander the Great as the “Son of Zeus”. Soon after, the Macedonian ruler captured Babylon and led his troops into India as the god Dionysios (another legendary son of Zeus) had done before him. King Saul, the fabled King of Israel, also sought advice from an oracular figure known ominously as the “Witch of Endor”. She summoned the prophet Samuel who prophesied Saul’s downfall. The next day, the Israelite king perished in battle.

Saul and the Witch of Endor by Matthias Stom via Wikimedia Commons

Saul and the Witch of Endor by Matthias Stom via Wikimedia Commons

Some of history’s most interesting oracles however, are also the least well-known. The following list is a survey of real and semi-legendary men and women in Europe and Africa who were supposedly mouthpieces of the gods.

1. The Apennine Oracle (Sibillini Mountains, Italy)

The mountainous area around Norcia has had a reputation as a type of Shangri-La since the Middle Ages. In his fantasy tale, Il Guerrino Moschino (published in 1391) the romancer Andrea da Barbarino wrote of a hero’s adventure’s with a pagan temptress and oracle who lived in the Grotta della Sibilla (Cave of the Sybil) in the Sibillini Mountains.  Barbarino’s book was hit and probably helped spread the rumors about Norcia’s mystique.

The city of Castelluccio in Norcia

The city of Castelluccio in Norcia via Wikimedia Commons

In 1420, a French explorer named Antoine de la Sale travelled to the region. Mapping his journey, la Sale hiked across the Sibillini range until he came to a mysterious cave outside the village of Montemonaco. Apparently his fears got the best of him, as he was unable to go any further than the mouth of the cave. His assistants however, told him that the cavern’s tunnels seemed to lead into the bowels of hell. La Sale, who has been called “a precursor of a Rider Haggard hero or an Indiana Jones”, recorded his incredible experience in his work La Salade. 

Mount Vettore in Norcia via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Vettore in Norcia via Wikimedia Commons

Other Italians thought that the region was the dwelling place of councils of highly trained witches and wizards. In a letter to his brother, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) writes:

“But it came into my mind during the conversation, that in Umbria, in the old Duchy, not far from the town of Norcia, there is a cave beneath a steep rock, in which water flows. There, as I remember to have heard, are witches, demons, and nightly shades, and he that has the courage can see and speak to ghosts, and learn magical arts. I have not seen it, nor taken any trouble to see it, for that which is learned with sin is better not learned at all.”

Norcia’s link to esoteric knowledge is also expressed by the sixteenth-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini in his autobiography:

“As we were in the habit of meeting daily, the necromancer kept urging me to join in his adventure. Accordingly, I asked him how long it would take, and where we should have to go. To this he answered that we might get through with it in less than a month, and that the most suitable locality for the purpose was the hill country of Norcia; a master of his in the art had indeed consecrated such a book quite close to Rome, at a place called the Badia di Farfa; but he had met with some difficulties there, which would not occur in the mountains of Norcia; the peasants also of that district are people to be trusted, and have some practice in these matters, so that at a pinch they are able to render valuable assistance.”

2. The Gaulish Oracles (Île de Sein, France)

Île de Sein, is a Breton island off the coast of France.  Greek and Roman authors believed that it was the homeland of nine women who could control the weather and foresee the future. Here’s what the first-century historian Pomponius Mela says:

“In the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They call the priestesses Gallizenae and think that because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and the winds by their magic charms, that they turn into whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among other peoples, that they know and predict the future, but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers and then only to those traveling to consult them.”

WDM27980 The Storm Spirits, 1900; by Morgan, Evelyn De (1855-1919); oil on canvas; 117.5x172. cm; © The De Morgan Centre, London; English, out of copyright

The Storm Spirits by Evelyn De Morgan via The De Morgan Centre

His account is similar to one found in Strabo’s Geography:

“They say that in the ocean, not far from the coast, there is a small island lying opposite to the outlet of the river Loire, inhabited by Samnite women who are Bacchantes, and conciliate and appease that god by mysteries and sacrifices. No man is permitted to land on the island; and when the women desire to have intercourse with the other sex, they cross the sea, and afterwards return again. They have a custom of once a year unroofing the whole of the temple, and roofing it again the same day before sun-set, each one bringing some of the materials. If any one lets her burden fall, she is torn in pieces by the others, and her limbs carried round the temple with wild shouts, which they never cease until their rage is exhausted. [They say] it always happens that some one drops her burden, and is thus sacrificed.”

3. The Boeotian Oracle (Livadeia, Greece)

Livadeia and Herkyna river from the cave of Trophonius via Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library

Livadeia and Herkyna river from the cave of Trophonius via Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library

In the Ancient Greco-Roman world, the phrase “to descend into the cave of Trophonios” meant to be scared silly. Trophonios was a hero who was worshiped as god after his death. His oracle was based in a cave in Livadeia. People who wanted to ask the god questions would have to go through a series complicated rites and purifications before the god could speak to them. A full account of the oracular process is detailed by the 2nd century AD geographer Pausanias:

“…when a man comes to Trophonios, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. After going down he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height one span. The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding barley-cakes kneaded with honey, thrusts his feet into the hold and himself follows, trying hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and most rapid river will catch a man in its eddy and carry him under. After this those who have entered the shrine learns the future, not in one and the same way in all cases, but by sight sometimes and at other times by hearing.”

The experience was supposed to be so horrific that inquirers often lost the ability to speak for a short period of time.

4. The Nubian Oracle (Aswan, Egypt)

Philae via Wikimedia Commons

Philae via Wikimedia Commons

A temple dedicated to Isis once rested on an island in the middle of the Nile called Philae. Sacred to both Nubians and Egyptians, Philae was thought to be one of the burial places of the god Osiris. During the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I, the site became the focus of devotional cults that focused on the goddesses Hathor and Isis. Oracles may have been given through a statue of Isis, whose movements were interpreted by special priests. The religious complex functioned as a place of worship until 540 AD–well after the rise of Christianity. After the construction of the Aswan dam in the 20th century, the sanctuary was taken down, transported to Aggikia Island, and reassembled.

5. The Rhineland Oracle (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany)

The Wise Woman by Helen Stratton

The Wise Woman by Helen Stratton

Veleda was a prophetess and political leader who lived in a tower on the banks of the Lippe river during the 1st century AD. Like the famous oracle of Delphi, she was held in high regard by her people, the Bructeri. Her counsel was instrumental to her tribe’s early successes against Roman expansion in the region of Germania. What sets Veleda apart from other oracles is the fact that she was treated like a living goddess. The Roman historian Tacitus writes:

“…for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity.”

Tacitus also notes that no one was “allowed to approach or address” her. All correspondence between her and the public was mediated by her relatives who acted as her spokespeople. Despite the seer’s diplomatic efforts, Veleda was captured by General Rutilicus Gallicus after the Batavian revolt in 77AD. Her life may have been spared because of her popularity. The sorceress was banished from her homeland and sent to Rome to work as as a temple servant.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Do you have any more to add? Let us know below!

FROM THE LOGBOOK: THE BEAST OF GÉVAUDAN

Auvergne is France’s heartland, a region of volcanoes, crater lakes, and Templar castles. At times it seems like a tiny Middle Earth set with its own Hobbiton-like caves and big-sky landscapes. The region has also been a breadbasket of the French people for centuries. Its farmlands nurture the production of Saint-Nectaire cheese, once a favourite of Bourbon royals and a key component of cuisine at the palace of Versailles.

Countryside near Clermont-Ferrand, photo by The Thinker's Garden

Countryside near Clermont-Ferrand, photo by The Thinker’s Garden

But Auvergne hasn’t always been so idyllic. Like Middle Earth, fearsome creatures once roamed the land. For hundreds of years, Auvergne, like many parts of France, was home to wolves. Rarely seen in daylight, they stalked and attacked their prey under the cover of the night, enraging farmers and shepherds. When they weren’t molesting cattle, they were devouring sheep. If they weren’t devouring sheep, they were gobbling up chickens. When the chickens were gone sometimes—only sometimes—they went for children.

Sculpture of the Beast of Gévaudan outside of Saugues, France. Photo by The Thinker's Garden

Sculpture of the Beast of Gévaudan outside of Saugues, France. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden

From 1764 to 1767 however, one wolf reportedly went too far. His first killing was a young girl in the mountains of Gévaudan. This marked the beginning of France’s lengthy struggle with an unidentified monster. Over the next year, the Beast of Gévaudan killed over eighty people and continued to evade capture, managing to survive provincial marksmen and King Louis XV’s personal wolf-hunters. As terror spread across the land, church officials preached that the wolf was supernatural, a hellhound unleashed to punish the unrighteous.

Wolf eating woman via Wikipedia Commons

Wolf eating woman via Wikipedia Commons

With paranoia at an all time high, the people of Gévaudan were relieved when François Antoine, one of the king’s trusted riflemen, shot and killed a wolf that weighed sixty kilograms in the autumn of 1765. In Paris the sharpshooter was given a triumphal welcome and the body of the wolf was paraded around the palace of Versailles. Sadly, the celebrations were short-lived.

In December of the same year, the Beast continued its rampage, injuring two more children. In 1767, the mystery came to an apparent conclusion when Jean Chastel, a local farmer tracked and shot the beast in the forest of Mont Mouchet. Like the story of David and Goliath, the story of Chastel’s killing then became a staple of folkore, with some claiming that the farmer—chosen by god—had used silver bullets.

The Beast of Gévaudan via Wikipedia Commons

The Beast of Gévaudan via Wikipedia Commons

Even though Chastel’s slaying signified the end of its proverbial reign, the identity of the Beast was never confirmed. Shortly after viewing the carcass, Louis XV had it disposed and all evidence was lost to history. Over the years, a number of questions arose to challenge the traditional record, mostly hinging on the fact that Chastel succeeded when all professional hunters could not. Many of the alternate explanations generally fall into four categories: 1) The Beast was a group of wolves that lost their fear of humans; 2) the Beast was either supernatural or a type of cryptid; 3) the Beast was trained and owned by Chastel; or 4) the Beast was a serial killer.

Jean Richard (left) and Blandine Gires (right). Photo by The Thinker's Garden

Jean Richard (left) and Blandine Gires (right). Photo by The Thinker’s Garden

To come to a better understanding of the tale, we visited the Musée fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan (The Fantastic Museum of the Beast of Gévaudan), in Sagues, France, a hamlet that was once the heart of the Gévaudan region. The museum was co-founded by Jean Richard and his friend, artist Lucien Gires in 1999. When we asked Blandine (Gires’ daughter) about the theories of the beast’s identity, she smiled and pointed to a poster on the wall which depicted—in comic book format—the thirteen most popular theories. The layout consisted of Fortean twists to the classic story, such as the inclusion of UFOs, werewolves, and escaped madmen. Blandine also noted that the museum was built to present the Chastel-centred view, bringing the tale to life with four floors of walkthrough sets and costumed animatronics.

Scene from inside the Gévaudan museum. Photo by The Thinker's Garden

Scene from inside the Gévaudan museum. Photo by The Thinker’s Garden

Our question to Jean Richard was in regard to the return of wild wolves to France. Richard wasn’t at all worried about the resurgence of the animals. He nonchalantly explained that the majority of the wolves dwell in Mercantour in the south of France. But Richard’s opinion isn’t shared by everyone in France.

There are only about three hundred wolves in France, but the predators have already run into problems with the law. According the BBC, France spends twelve million euros a year on “wolf attack prevention and compensation”. Mass killings of sheep were reported in the late 2000s, and in 2014 the canids were spotted within forty miles of Paris. Still, with a wild population that low, it’s doubtful that the wolves will ever pose a serious threat to humans. However, the events of the Gévaudan carnage will continue to be memorialised by Richard’s museum as a living nightmare vanquished by a rural Saint George.

Further Reading

Monsters of The Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay Smith,

Harvard University Press.