March 16, 2012

Nicholas Flamel and the Philosopher's Stone

Nicholas Flamel
Anyone who has read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or seen the film based on it knows of Nicholas Flamel, the immortal alchemist and creator of the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical substance capable of turning base metals into pure gold and granting eternal life. Less well-known is the fact that Nicholas Flamel was a real historical figure – as was his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. This is how his legend goes.

Nicholas Flamel’s Early Life

Nicholas Flamel was born somewhere in France in 1330. From early adulthood, he earned his living as a bookseller, starting from a small stall near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie in Paris. A humble trade, but it provided him with the ability to read and write – fairly rare skills in that day and age.

Flamel’s business grew over the years, and he bought a house in the old rue de Marivaux. Copyists and illustrators did their work on the ground floor, and Flamel conducted his business from there. Somewhere along the line, he met his wife Perenelle, with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

Nicholas Flamel had acquired some knowledge of the ancient art of alchemy. He dreamed, like many others, of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone. However, it was not unlimited gold he was after. Rather, he dreamed of finding the fundamental secrets of nature through the Stone. In other words, perfect wisdom. He believed the Stone had already been found and that knowledge of it existed in the hands of unknown sages. But a small Parisian bookseller had little possibility of getting in contact with these sages.

The Book

One night, Flamel had a strange dream of an angel appearing to him. The winged and radiant being presented a book to him and spoke these words: "Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it - neither you nor any other man. But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see." Just as Flamel reached out his hands to receive the book, the dream faded and he woke up.

Flamel in his studySome time afterwards, Flamel was alone working in his shop when a stranger in desperate need of money approached him with a book to sell. Flamel immediately recognized it as the same book the angel had shown him and, without bargaining, paid two florins for it.

The book had a very old covering of worked copper, engraved with strange diagrams and characters. Its pages were unlike anything he had encountered before – instead of parchment, they were made of the bark of young trees and covered with clear writing done with an iron point. The pages were divided into three groups of seven and separated by a page containing a diagram unintelligible to Flamel. The words on the first page named the author of the book: Abraham the Jew, prince, priest, Levite, astrologer and philosopher. This was followed by threats and curses against anyone not a priest or a scribe who dared lay their eyes on it.

Due to a combination of the memory of his vision and his own intuition, Flamel felt strongly that Abraham the Jew’s book contained secrets of nature, life and death – knowledge he feared he was not qualified to understand.

Flamel was familiar with the symbols and writings of alchemists of his day. But the book eluded him. He copied some of the pages and set them out in his shop, hoping someone with knowledge of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, would be able to help him understand them. He met with nothing but the laughter and derision of skeptics.

The Journey South

For 21 years Nicholas Flamel strove to decipher the mysteries of the book. Unfortunately, no one in Paris could help him understand it, since parts of it were written in ancient Hebrew and Jews had recently been driven out of France by persecution. Flamel knew that many of them had settled in Spain. Traveling was extremely dangerous those days, however, especially for a solitary person, so Flamel donned a pilgrim’s attire and made a vow to make a pilgrimage. Pilgrims were ensured a certain measure of safety in Christian countries, and it also concealed the real purpose of his journey. Only Perenelle was aware of his true plans.

Unwilling to expose the entire manuscript to the dangers of traveling, Flamel took with him only a few carefully copied pages and set out on his quest. After fulfilling his vow of pilgrimage, Flamel wandered around Spain, trying to make connections with scholarly Jews. But they were understandably suspicious of Christians. Besides, he had to remember Perenelle waiting for him, and his shop, which was managed only by his servants. Finally he was forced to admit defeat and began his journey home.

At an inn in Leon, he met by lucky chance a French merchant who introduced him to a Maestro Canches, an old, learned Jew living in the city. He, too, was reluctant to help the French bookseller. But then Flamel mentioned the name of Abraham the Jew. It turned out Abraham was one of the greatest masters who studied the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and his book had disappeared centuries ago. Tradition said it had never been destroyed but had been passed from hand to hand, always to those who were destined to receive it. Maestro Canches had dreamed of finding it all his life.

Canches was able to translate the few pages Flamel had with him. But they were not enough to reveal the secret, and Canches immediately made up his mind to accompany Flamel to Paris. But his extreme age was a problem, and Jews were not even allowed in France. Regardless, Canches vowed to rise above his physical weakness and to convert to Christianity. He had been above religions for many years, after all. And so the two men headed north.

As fate would have it, Canches’ health became worse and worse the closer they came to Paris. Finally he fell ill in Orleans and, despite Flamel’s care, died seven days later. Maestro Canches was buried in the Church of Sante-Croix, and Flamel resumed the journey alone.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Flamel reached Paris and found his shop and Perenelle as he had left them. But everything had changed. Even though Maestro Canches had only translated a few pages, Flamel was able use that knowledge to decipher the entire book. He spent three more years completing his knowledge, and at the end of this period he accomplished something alchemists had been trying to do for centuries – transmutation. Carefully following the method outlined by Abraham the Jew, he succeeded in transforming half a pound of mercury into silver, and then into pure gold. It was accomplished with the Philosopher’s Stone, which involved some strange, reddish ”projection powder”.

Historical records show that Flamel became inexplicably rich around this time. He and Perenelle built houses for the poor, founded free hospitals and made donations to churches. But he didn’t use his newfound wealth to improve his own way of life. It is said that he achieved the transmutation of his own soul, the victory of spirit over matter.

Inevitably, people became curious about how a humble bookseller could make such generous donations. Eventually rumors reached the king of France, Charles VI, who ordered an investigation into the matter. But thanks to Flamel’s cautious and reticent nature, nothing of interest was found. He never revealed his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Nicholas Flamel's tombstone engravings
The figures Flamel had carved on his tombstone.
The Death of Nicholas Flamel

Perenelle died first. Flamel spent the last years of his life writing books on alchemy and carefully settling his affairs. He designed his own tombstone, engraved with arcane alchemical symbols, before dying at the age of 88 – a very old age in the 15th century.

After Flamel’s death, rumours of his alchemical powers and discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone began to spread throughout France and the world. His house was repeatedly ransacked by greedy opportunists seeking the secrets of his riches, but nothing was ever found.

The Fate of Abraham’s Book

Flamel left his manuscripts and library to a nephew named Perrier he was very fond of. Nothing at all is known of Perrier. Some believe he inherited Abraham’s book, learned the mysteries of the Philosopher’s Stone and spent his life in the obscurity his uncle prized but wasn’t quite able to maintain.

Two centuries passed before Flamel’s legacy was heard from again. Traces of it resurfaced during the reign of Louis XIII in the 17th century. A descendant of Flamel named Dubois reportedly abandoned his ancestor’s reserve and, undoubtedly seeking fame and prestige,transformed lead balls into gold before the king himself using the projection powder. As a result of this experiment, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu demanded to know how the powder worked. But Dubois, unable to understand Flamel’s manuscripts or Abraham’s book, could tell him nothing. He was imprisoned and condemned to death for some past offences, and Richelieu seized his properties.

It is said that the cardinal gained possession of the book of Abraham the Jew and built a laboratory to exploit it. However, the knowledge contained within it proved to be an insurmountable challenge for him. The book, whose secrets had taken over 20 years of pondering for a sage like Flamel to understand, was not accessible to a politician like Richelieu. After Richelieu’s death, all traces of the book were lost, save perhaps for a few illustrations.

The Old Sage

Later in the 17th century, Louis XIV sent an archaeologist named Paul Lucas on a scientific mission to the East. According to his account, while in Broussa, Turkey, Lucas met a philosopher who spoke almost every known language and who he described as ageless. The man told him he was a part of a group of seven philosophers who belonged to no particular country and traveled the world in search of wisdom. According to him, a man could live for a thousand years if he had knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone. He went on to say that there were sages in the world who possessed such knowledge and kept it to themselves. Nicholas Flamel was one of them.

The man even told Lucas how Flamel had gained Abraham’s book. Abraham the Jew had been a member of the group before being betrayed and murdered by a rabbi for his book and papers. The murderer was sentenced to death not long before the persecution of Jews in France began, and the book was sold to Flamel by a Jew unaware of its value and in a hurry to get out of Paris.

Even more amazingly, the man stated that both Flamel and his wife were alive. They had supposedly faked their deaths and moved to India, where they still lived.

True or not, Nicholas Flamel’s legend certainly excites the imagination. The thought of him still being alive somewhere in the world along with other ancient sages is an intriguing one.

March 15, 2012

Dog Deaths on Overtoun Bridge

Overtoun Bridge
The Overtoun Bridge, an arch bridge located near Milton, Scotland, over the Overtoun Burn, has a reputation for strange phenomena. In Celtic mythology, Overtoun is known as ”the thin place” – a location in which heaven and earth are reputed to be close. In 1994, a 32-year-old local man named Kevin Moy unexpectedly threw his baby son to his death from the bridge before attempting and failing to end his own life the same way. When questioned by the authorities, Moy said he was sure he was the anti-Christ and that his son was Satan.

There is another mystery related to the Overtoun Bridge: since the 1950s, at least 50 dogs have leapt to their deaths from it. Horrified dog owners have reported walking their pet over the bridge, when suddenly, without warning, the dog would jump over the edge to the rocky bottom 50 feet below. Even more confoundingly, all the deaths have happened at virtually the same spot, and some surviving dogs are known to have jumped again. Furthermore, most deceased dogs have been long-nosed breeds, and most deaths have occurred on clear, sunny days.

A number of explanations for the Overtoun Bridge mystery have been proposed. Some have suggested that the dogs are deliberately committing suicide, maybe due to picking up on depressed feelings from their owners or the bridge itself. Others still believe that something only the dogs can sense is spooking them to leap to their deaths.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, RSPB researcher David Sexton determined that there are three main species in the area: mice, squirrels and minks. Canine psychologist David Sands then conducted an experiment to see which of these scents dogs find the most attractive. Out of ten dogs, seven went directly for the mink scent.

Minks have been breeding rapidly in Britain since the 1950s, which lines up nicely with the first reported dog deaths. It may be that the dogs are simply driven wild by the scent of minks and, not knowing of the lethal drop, jump over the wall in pursuit. This even explains why the incidents have involved long-nosed breeds on clear, dry days.

But there is still one thing the scent theory fails to explain. Why do dogs jump from one specific point? Shouldn’t they be able to smell the minks anywhere on the bridge? Until this question is answered, the explanation put forward falls short of being satisfying.

Image: Lairich Rig

March 12, 2012

Aokigahara - The Forest of Death

Aokigahara, or the Sea of Trees, may at first glance seem like a typical forest bordering the famous Mount Fuji. The inside, however, is a completely different story. Described in Wataru Tsurumui’s book The Manual of Suicides as ”the perfect place to die”, Aokigahara has become the world’s second most popular place to commit suicide, right after the Golden Gate Bridge. Over 500 people have already made their last journey into the woods, with 78 bodies discovered in 2002 alone. The problem has reached such magnitudes that the police have mounted signs in the woods urging visitors to reconsider and to think of their families.

Aokigahara has long been associated with death. Ubasute, the custom of carrying an elderly or infirm relative to a remote location to die, may have been practiced there until the 1800s. Unsurprisingly, the forest is regarded as the most haunted location in Japan, a place where the restless spirits of those who have died in its depths are doomed to howl their suffering forever. It is said that the trees themselves are filled with malevolent energy, seeking to trap unwary wanderers.

As if the deathly and paranormal associations weren’t enough to unnerve a visitor, Aokigahara’s density and lack of wildlife make it eerily dark and quiet. What’s more, large underground iron deposits render compasses all but useless – there may well be some truth to the stories of travelers being lost in its depths.

Even in this haunted forest, forest workers have their jobs to do. It’s not very unusual for them come across a partially decomposed corpse hanging from a branch. When this happens, the body is brought to the station and placed into a room with two beds: one for the body, and one for a worker to sleep in. You see, leaving the body alone would unsettle its lonely spirit, causing it to scream through the whole night and move the corpse to the general sleeping quarters. In true Japanese fashion, the unlucky fellow to receive this task is determined through Jan Ken Pon, which English-speakers call rock, paper, scissors.

Image: mtzn

March 10, 2012

Jörmungandr, the World Serpent

Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungandr
In Norse mythology, the serpent Jörmungandr was the son of Loki, a god of mischief, and the giantess Angrboda. He was once a resident of Asgard, home of the Æsir, the Norse pantheon. However, he was banished by the king of the gods, Odin, to the great sea that surrounds the mortal world of Midgard. Odin had hoped that Jörmungandr would be destroyed by the ocean’s relentless waves, but instead the serpent began to consume it. The next time he was sighted, he had grown so large he could encircle the entire planet and bite his own tail. Consequently, he became known as the Midgard Serpent or the World Serpent.

Jörmungandr battled the Æsir many times, and Thor in particular came to be his hated enemy. The two would clash a total of three times.

Thor encountered the World Serpent for the first time while traveling in Jotunheim, the land of the giants. The king of the giants, Utgarda-Loki, asked Thor to prove his strength by lifting the king’s cat. Absolutely confident in his ability to perform such a simple task, Thor accepted the challenge. To his consternation, however, he couldn’t budge the cat. Even after bringing his full immortal strength to bear, he was forced to admit defeat having only managed to lift one of the cat’s paws off the ground. Confronted by the humiliated and enraged Thor, Utgarda-Loki confessed that the creature Thor had managed to partially lift was in fact Jörmungandr, disguised by magic.

The second ecounter occurred when Thor went fishing with the giant Hymir. Ignoring Hymir’s warnings, Thor  rowed out into the open sea and cast his line, using the head of an ox as bait. Sure enough, Jörmungandr latched on. After a brief struggle, Thor managed to raise him above the waters and prepared to slay the great snake. He was evidently still miffed about the cat incident. Fearing the World Serpent, Hymir finally intervened and cut the line before Thor’s blow could connect, and Jörmungandr sank back into the depths.

Thor fighting Jörmungandr during RagnarökThe third and final meeting between Thor and Jörmungandr is fated to occur at the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök, where the Æsir and their enemies will clash for the final time. Thor succeeds in killing Jömungandr with his legendary warhammer Mjölnir, but not before being sprayed by the serpent’s venom. He manages to take nine staggering steps before succumbing to the poison and falling to the ground, dead.

Bloop - Sounds of a Creature of the Deep?

Bloop profileIn the 1960s, the US Navy set up an array of underwater microphones around the world to track Soviet submarines. Most of the sounds detected emanate from obvious sources like ships, whales and earthquakes, while some of the more baffling ones can be explained by underwater volcanic activity, ocean currents and the like. However, some signals remain a mystery. Perhaps the most prominent one of those is Bloop.

In the summer of 1997, the Equatorial Pacific Ocean autonomous hydrophone array recorded an extremely powerful ultra-low frequency sound that ”rises rapidly in frequency over about one minute and was of sufficient amplitude to be heard on multiple sensors, at a range of over 5,000 km”. In addition, the nature of the noise made scientists almost certain it came from a living being. The problem was that it was far too powerful to have been made by any creature known on Earth. You can listen to Bloop on NOAA’s website.

The deep, open ocean remains, for all intents and purposes, completely unexplored. It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that vast, undiscovered creatures could exist down there. Maybe that’s what Bloop is – sounds of a creature of the deep.

March 8, 2012

Mongolian Death Worm

Mongolian Death Worm
Natives of the Gobi desert have long told tales of the olgoi-khorkhoi, a bright red worm 2 to 5 feet in length resembling a cow’s intestine. The Mongolians fear the creature to the point that merely hearing its name is considered bad luck, which makes gathering information on it difficult.

The first English mention of the worm, also imaginatively called the Mongolian Death Worm, can be found in Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1926 book On the Trail of Ancient Man. The Mongolian Prime Minister  Damdinbazar described it to him in 1922:

"It is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head nor leg and it is so poisonous that merely to touch it means instant death. It lives in the most desolate parts of the Gobi Desert…"

After the fall of Communism, the Czech author Ivan Mackerle and his colleagues made friends with a couple of Mongolian nomads who, after a few bottles of vodka, were willing to tell everything they knew about the worm. The nomads said that the worm spits acid that turns all it touches yellow and corroded and that it can instantly kill a person from a distance via electric discharges. They went on to tell a story about a young boy who was followed home by the worm and, upon touching it, died immediately. His parents found the body and saw a trail in the sand leading away. Knowing what had taken their son’s life, they went off to kill the worm. They never returned.

Many expeditions have been mounted to find the olgoi-khorkhoi. Every one of them came up empty-handed. Its existence remains disputed.

Image: Pieter0024 (at Wikipedia)

March 7, 2012

Black Eyed Kids

Black Eyed Kids
Imagine doing whatever it is you do late at night, just before getting ready for bed, when suddenly you hear a knock at the front door. Wary and wondering who it could be at such an hour, you crack the door open and look outside.

What you see is two or three kids, likely boys, in their early teens or slightly younger – it’s difficult to tell for sure. Their appearances are perfectly nondescript and unremarkable in every way. However, looking at them, you immediately feel that there is something wrong about them, something inhuman that you can’t quite put your finger on.

One of the kids asks very politely to be let in, maybe to use the bathroom, or the phone, or to have a glass of water. You can’t help but notice that the way he talks seems much too mature and confident for a kid that age. Despite your hesitation, you feel a strange urge to do as the boy tells you. Noticing your increasing apprehension, he becomes more and more insistent, all but demanding to be let in.

Then you get a look at his eyes. They are pitch black, no sign of irises or pupils. As soon as you realize this, a wave of paralyzing terror hits you. Your instincts are screaming you are about to die. You manage to compose yourself enough to slam the door shut, but the fear and panic stay with you for hours afterwards.

If you’ve experienced something like this, you may have encountered a phenomenon known as Black Eyed Kids.

The first report of Black Eyed Kids (or BEKs for short) seems to have been posted on an online newsgroup on January 16, 1998 by a man named Brian Bethel (read the original story). Since then similar accounts have shown up on message boards, newsgroups and the like, telling of kids with black eyes asking to be let into houses, cars, even tents. These stories share the same characteristics: the kids’ insistence and need to be allowed inside, and the fear their presence evokes. See here for more accounts.

What do they want? No one knows. There are no reports on what happens if you let them in. However, I think it is safe to say it’s nothing good.

What are the Black Eyed Kids? Again, who knows. No one has stuck around long enough to learn of their origins. Anything from vampires to demons and aliens has been suggested. It could very well all be a hoax, a chilling tale that inspired countless others to try their own hand at horror writing. The accounts certainly appear to have elements typical to urban legends. Nevertheless, if I hear knocking at my door at 11 p.m. tonight, I won’t be answering.

Oh, one more thing. Some reports indicate that BEKs may be more likely to target people who have been made aware of them. So should you find a pair of kids with coal back eyes at your doorstep tonight, do be so kind as to try and keep your body and soul intact long enough to let us know!

Image: luv life